Monday, 2 August 2004

Three animations

Listening to:

Beethoven, string quartet in E flat major, op. 127. Played by the Kodaly Quartet, on Naxos.

Some recent movies:

Spirited away

This is a Japanese movie by Hayao Miyazaki. It’s a children’s film: the plot is mainly about a young girl who has to rescue her parents when they are turned into pigs, and there is not a great deal of nuance in the moral themes that are presented (greed and pollution are bad). To an adult Spirited away’s appeal comes from the absolutely amazing vividness of its images. There’s a relatively straightforward beauty in much of the film, but there are also images that are astounding because they are so surreal, and so appealing. Nor is this simply cuteness, which might quickly pall. Rather, the film presents images like the mysterious, translucent figure whose face is a little like a Noh mask; the multi-armed tender of a furnace, whose pieces of coal run around on little legs of their own; the witch who runs a bath-house catering to various deities and who dotes on her huge and spoilt baby; and a train journey across an empty and strangely beautiful world dominated by an endless ocean.

It got the 2002 Oscar for “Best Animated Feature Film”, and it definitely deserved it.

The triplets of Belleville

This was one of the nominees for the 2003 Oscar, and I’m not sure it deserved to be beaten by Finding Nemo either. This one is mainly in French, but doesn’t even bother with subtitles (unlike Spirited away), because there is very little dialogue. The plot is transparent and easy to follow at a purely visual level. It features a feisty grandmother who has to rescue her cyclist grandson, who has been kidnapped by gangsters to play rather an awful role in a nefarious gambling operation. The grandmother has a dog sidekick, and links up with the triplets of the title when she arrives in Belleville (a thinly disguised New York).

This animation features some pretty cool imagery, and is also quite humorous. The incidental depiction of the people of Belleville (i.e., Americans) as fat and stupid seems unnecessary bigotry, but the film is otherwise full of a charming zaniness if not absolute mouth-dropping weirdness in a few places. Without dialogue, The triplets of Belleville is more simplistic than Spirited away, but probably prompted more laughs. It also has a great title song (sung by the triplets), and some effective snatches of Mozart too. The climax is a little overlong, but it’s still an appealing film. As the film starts you even get to see some mysterious equations. (It turns out they’re Einstein’s.)

Shrek 2

I saw this recently, and went in expecting great things. I’d enjoyed the first installment, and had read a variety of gushing reviews. Sadly I was a little disappointed: it seemed pretty patchy. It took too long to get going (why did they do the donkey as child in the back-seat joke to death so comprehensively?), and the early scenes of marital discord felt like they were from some other movie, one that was taking itself far too seriously. (The animation of the facial expressions in these scenes really didn’t seem up to it.) Being patchy did mean that there were lots of good bits. I particularly liked most of what Puss-in-boots had to say and do, and laughed lots when Pinocchio got to rescue Shrek, exploiting his puppet-nature, and doing it all to some wonderfully apt music. There were lots of “nudge-nudge-wink-wink” references to a variety of other films (including the rescue scene above); some were amusing, others seemed to just be showing off.

Patchy, but very entertaining.

Tuesday, 17 August 2004

Working in stereo

Listening to:

Louis Armstrong meets Oscar Peterson.

I’ve just had a second display linked up to my computer, so that I’m now working with a logical screen that is twice as wide as it used to be. (xdpyinfo thinks my screen has logical dimensions 2560x1024 pixels.) It’s pretty strange to be typing this on the second display, which I have off to the right, and at a slight angle. I think I’ll keep one of the screens straightahead of me, and that this will be the primary work display. But another option would be to have them in a straight line in front of me, and with the little gap between them to be straight ahead of my eyes.


Hmm, I don’t know about it this way ’round either. I guess I’ll just have to try to do some extensive work and see what my eye-brain-hand-mouse-keyboard system makes of it.

It’s definitely cool though.

Sunday, 29 August 2004

The waning of the Middle Ages

Listening to:

Handel, Concerto grosso in G major, op. 3, no. 3. Played by the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, led by Neville Marriner.


Windows XP Service Pack 2. The little green progress bar is only halfway across the “Preparing to download” space. Goodness knows how long the actual download will take.

Just read:

J. Huizinga, The waning of the Middle Ages.

This is a famous cultural history, first published in the 1920s. It conveys a vivid impression of life in the late Middle Ages, focussing on France and the Netherlands, and describing that period’s art, literature, religion and general beliefs. The first chapter is The violent tenor of life and begins:

To the world when it was half a thousand years younger, the outlines of all things seemed more clearly marked than to us. The constrast between suffering and joy, between adversity and happiness, appeared more striking. All the experience had yet to the minds of men the directness and absoluteness of the pleasure and pain of child-life.

Huizinga describes an incredibly foreign world, one that comes across as dominated by hysteria and delusions. An important part of Huizinga’s thesis is that the Middle Ages didn’t just imperceptibly meld into the Renaissance. Rather, the Middle Ages had its own distinct way of doing things, and of thinking about things. Huizinga describes these patterns of thought and behaviour in rich detail.

For example, a simple characterisation of late medieval art and literature is that it is dominated by sterile allegory. Medieval thought became increasingly detached from the real world, and instead consumed itself in the invention of increasingly baroque symbolism. Nothing was worthy of examination in itself, but had to instead be related to other symbols. Intellectual activity built ever more complicated towers of inter-relationships without ever really considering the true nature of the world: everything was subsumed into symbolism.

Huizinga is interesting on the survival of painting as opposed to literature from this period. It turns out that there’s lots of awful medieval writing still extant, and very few paintings. Moreover, many of the paintings are actually quite appealing. Was there some sort of disconnect between the two fields? Probably not. The histories indicate that the painters we know about were just as willing to do (presumably artistically uninteresting) costume design and scene painting for regal festivities and events. We just don't have so many examples of their bad stuff. It’s easy to see how texts might survive with little effort on the part of their owners. Paintings, on the other hand, are much more likely to be subject to pruning by owners, both at the time of creation, and subsequently. Thus, the paintings that we have from the medieval period may be totally unrepresentative, and provide rather more insight into the attitudes of later periods.

Huizinga also discusses chivalry, love and religion over a number of chapters. For example, he characterises chivalry as a myth the medieval world told itself to make sense of a political and historical situation that it couldn’t otherwise understand. All of these topics are fascinating, and Huizinga’s book does a great job of describing an alien world.

Now reading:

Charles Darwin, The voyage of the Beagle.

Tuesday, 31 August 2004

Michael’s mobile at last

Listening to:

Louis Armstrong, Put ’em down blues.

I acquired a mobile phone over the weekend. I’m now able to annoy people by loudly saying “Yes, I’m on the train.” Of course, people will be particularly annoyed by this because there are no trains in Canberra, making the claim a shocking lie. (Claiming there are no trains in Canberra is a slight exaggeration itself, but not much of one: there is a service to Sydney, but there are no more than two a day.)

I have a Samsung X100, and think it’s pretty cute. I can see it’s not quite the be-all and end-all of phones. For example, I don’t think there’s any way to get it to synchronise its phonebook with external sources of information. There are much fancier models out there, but this one was cheap.

Number available on request.