Thursday, 17 October 2019

Joker: Echoes of Ideas Reverberate from Blunt Tools


Off to the cinema to see the disappointingly bland Joker, a film that sets up a fight between The Joker and a little person but then pulls its punches and has The Joker let the little person go, which is a shame because I really wanted to see The Joker fight a little person. Who would win? The Joker is a criminal mastermind but the little person is a hard target. Who would win?

Because I'm a globetrotting man of the world I saw the film at the AMC Pacific Place in Hong Kong, because this week I'm in Hong Kong, and I wondered what it was like to see a film in Hong Kong, and Joker was on, and that's why. The other films were Gemini Man, which looks terrible, Maleficent 2: Mistress of Evil, which has masses of posters in Hong Kong's MTR underground railway network but doesn't actually open until today, something about a shark, something about climbing.


Joker is a Cat IIB film, one step down from the no-holds-barred Cat III of Sex and Zen and Naked Killer infamy. Cat I is "suitable for all ages", Cat IIa is "not suitable for children", Cat IIb is "not suitable for young persons or children", and Cat III is "persons aged 18 or above only", e.g. visible pubic hair and graphic violence. Unlike Japan the Hong Kong censors don't have a problem with pubic hair.


And neither do I! I don't have a problem with pubic hair. I mean, it's embarrassing when you find pubic hairs on plates and tables etc, but I've never found it offensive in the same way that bogies or pant stains are offensive. Pubic hair isn't dirty, it's just embarrassing. That is what I think of pubic hair. For the record Joker does not have any pubic hair, e.g. the film does not have any pubic hair. The character probably does, or at least the version of The Joker in Joker probably does, because he's not the kind of person who shaves.


There was one trailer, for Terminator: Dark Fate, plus an advert for a recording of a live performance of All About Eve starring the lovely Gillian Anderson. The AMC's showing of Joker had Cantonese subtitles, which is fine if you imagine that the characters are hallucinating in Cantonese.

What is the AMC Pacific Place? It's a branch of the AMC cinema chain inside the Pacific Place shopping mall just outside Admiralty MTR in downtown Hong Kong island, sandwiched between the Peak Tram to the west and Wan Chai to the East. As with a lot of places in Hong Kong the air conditioning was on an overkill setting, but this suited the film fine. It was a midday screening and the theatre was about half-full.

Hong Kong is a little bit disappointing for cinemas. It has lots, but they're almost entirely mid-large multiplex types on account of the real estate prices and overcrowding. There's no room for quirky little cinemas along the lines of the Curzon Soho or The Gate in Notting Hill. The nearest equivalent is perhaps the Hong Kong Film Archive, but instead of showing John Woo marathons it has a much more conservative, highbrow programme that majors in vintage opera adaptations and black and white dramas from the 1950s.

The view left from the entrance, towards the Bank of China tower.

Joker is a bit like those superhero comics where Superman fights Muhammed Ali, or Superman fights Jackie Chan, or Batman fights Jackie Chan, or Superman fights Mike Tyson, or Superman fights Batman, etc, and for it to work Superman has to be stripped of his powers by aliens because otherwise he would win easily, and because he doesn't really dislike Jackie Chan or Batman or Mike Tyson etc the pair of them agree to stage the fight, and then they punch out the aliens who are holding them captive and escape. It's just a big tease. You want to see Superman fighting Muhammed Ali, but he never does. It's a cop-out.

Joker cops out as well, but it doesn't even cop out properly. The Joker doesn't fight the little person or team up with him or anything. The little person's character has a name, by the way, but I didn't catch it. Gary? Was it Gary? The Joker doesn't team up with the little person, he just lets him go. It was a tremendous disappointment.


What is Joker? It tells the story of how top comic book villain The Joker became The Joker. In real life The Joker is a highly-strung, mentally-ill man called Arthur Fleck, who works as a clown, but he's a terrible clown so he gets fired. Fleck is a nobody, a bum, a fuck-up, although he dreams of a career as a stand-up comedian and has visions of being on television and being a somebody and being respected and being hugged by Robert De Niro, who is a talk show host.

In theory I should identify with Arthur Fleck. He wants to be loved and respected by Robert De Niro, and isn't that what we all want? To be loved and respected by Robert De Niro. It's what I want, and we're not so different, you and I.

But imagine if Robert De Niro pretended to respect you but secretly despised you. Imagine if Robert De Niro mocked you on live television. You'd get mad, wouldn't you? You'd get angry. You'd want to make Robert De Niro shut up. And I mean although Fleck doesn't become The Joker until the end of the film, he's a wiry guy, so you'd expect him to beat the little person easily, but the little person looks pretty fit, and he's had a hard life, because the film is set in the very early 1980s, when it was still just about acceptable to call little people midgets or dwarves.


He's had a hard life, but so has Arthur Fleck, because he's an adoptee. Furthermore he was raised by a single mother, so it's no wonder he turned out bad. The odds were stacked against him from the start.

The thing about Joker is that it's thin. It's inconsequential. It has the form of a shocking, uncompromising character drama, but it pulls its punches. It's never truly offensive, unlike for example the preceding paragraph. It's essentially a watered-down mixture of Taxi Driver and Network, with a bit of Peter Sellers' Being There, but those films were much better. Much better. They weren't just stories, they had themes. They were about something. They were made in a decade when Hollywood films tried to be about something, tried to say something about the human condition. And because those films were made in the 1970s they could be offensive, dirty in an old-school way.

They still have elements that are shocking today. Remember when Travis Bickle starts ranting about junkies, punks, buggers, queens, and how sometimes he has to wash come off the back seat? The film doesn't punish him for calling people buggers and queens. The other characters in the film are disconcerted by his intensity, but the film just observes him.

Remember when Martin Scorsese (playing a taxi passenger) says that he's going to ram a .44 Magnum up a woman's front bottom and blow it to shreds? It wasn't clear if he was drunk, or if he meant it, but the film doesn't reprimand him. Taxi Driver observes its characters without passing judgement. Furthermore they're interesting characters, in a distinctive environment, and the script is good, and the storyline is interesting. It's not much to ask.

Joker is essentially two different films at once. There's a melodrama about how Arthur Fleck discovers his past, but that feels like a first draft of another film. He is led to believe that he is related to wealthy businessman and political candidate Thomas Wayne. Without wishing to spoil the plot, it's hard to tell if he is, because parts of Joker take place inside Fleck's head. They're waking dreams that he has. He imagines that he's dating a lady who lives down the hall, but it's obviously a fantasy. The film eventually feels the need to make Fleck's delusional state obvious, but it's not necessary; I'm not especially intelligent but I got the gist of it straightaway. Fleck obviously doesn't get any pussy.

The cinema is behind that black building off to the right.

Remember how Travis Bickle was simultaneously sympathetic and also deeply unappealing? A self-righteous twelve-year-old boy stuck in a young man's body, with a child's view of the world? Joker has many problems, but one of the most important is that Fleck is mentally ill. Not like Hannibal Lector - he's not an evil genius - and not like Howard Beale from Network, who was going through a mental breakdown but was lucid and coherent. Instead Fleck is barely functional. Throughout the film he rarely manages to string together more than two sentences.

He is more sinned against than sinning, but he isn't sympathetic, because his life doesn't seem to be all that bad, but at the same time he's not especially unappealing either. He doesn't torture cats or carve smiles into people's faces. He just lives at home with his mother. He's a little bit like Chance from Being There, but whereas that film was carefully constructed to illustrate a theme, Joker just dumps a half-formed character into a pastiche of the mean New York of the 1970s and 1980s. At times Joker feels like one of those BBC Plays for Today, in the sense that if you took away a couple of violent scenes it would be a drama about a mentally ill man failing to cope with the loss of his medication. Have you seen Scum? It's a British television movie from the early 1980s, directed by Alan Clark, infamous for its brutality and graphic violence. It was sensationalist but it got under my skin, whereas Joker has some nice cinematography but in a few weeks I'm not going to remember it, and I have no desire to ever watch it again.

Up the page I mentioned Being There. It's a classic film that tends to be overlooked nowadays. I have the impression it's thought of as a one-joke film with a blank slate for a main character, and furthermore the film's theme - that "what's inside doesn't matter" - was explored in more vivid fashion later in the 1980s by Bret Easton Ellis. Being There is about a mentally ill man played by Peter Sellers who works as a gardener in a grand house in a big city. I can't remember if it's Washington or New York. He's a empty vessel; he grew up watching television and has no internal life. He just has catchphrases, but in his favour he dresses well and is a white anglo-saxon man in an environment where political power is held by other anglo-saxon men. There's a famous series of photographs of Adolf Hitler preparing for one of his speeches. He swings his fists and punches the air for emphasis, because he knew that it didn't matter what you said, so long as you said it convincingly. In Being There Sellers' character manages to fool his audience accidentally, without trying; the audience sees a well-dressed, well-spoken man, and fools itself. By saying as little as possible and looking intelligent Sellers' character goes a long way.


I have a sense that Joker aspired to this kind of thing. Arthur Fleck practices his stage manner with video tapes of a chat show playing in the background, and is shown to be capable of imitating the superficial polish of an experienced chat show guest. The idea of The Joker as an imitation of a supervillain is fascinating, and a different and much better film could have done something with it, but Joker does very little with the idea. It's essentially a throwaway explanation for a key plot point, and as with the abortive fight against the little person it disappointed me. Joker seems to want to avoid dealing with anything or expressing a coherent opinion. Arthur Fleck is neither sympathetic nor unsympathetic; perhaps because the film-makers didn't want to portray a murdering sociopath as a hero he does nothing that anyone would want to copy, but conversely as the main character he doesn't do anything particularly bad - he mostly has things happen to him, or he reacts to imminent danger - and although his behaviour is occasionally cringe-worthy he doesn't come across as vile or unappealing. The people he kills are either unsympathetic or non-entities.

I mean, yes, technically Fleck stabs a man in the neck for no reason at all, but it comes out of nowhere and may or may not have been a dream sequence. It doesn't resonate emotionally, which is a general criticism I have of the film. Besides, haven't we all wanted to stab someone in the neck? I've spent twelve hours of my life on a flight from Heathrow to Hong Kong, I'm not going to criticise anyone for behaviour that might seem extreme in a different context. It's all about context. Society is contextual.


Two different films at once. Three different films. There's the melodrama, but that's rubbish. Even if Arthur Fleck is the illegitimate son of Thomas Wayne, so what? It doesn't go anyway, it's just a detail. There's a variation of the poor-vs-rich theme running through Dark Knight Rises, but if anything Joker gives the idea less thought than the earlier film. In Dark Knight Rises it's obvious that the villainous Bane doesn't give a shit about the poor, he's just a fascist using them for his own personal aggrandisement, but Joker doesn't even have that depth. The film has come in for a certain amount of criticism for suggesting that the upper classes should not have a monopoly on the use of force, but all of that happens in the background. One of Fleck's crimes triggers off a wave of anti-yuppie sentiment, but it didn't resonate emotionally because it happens offscreen. Fleck himself lives in a bubble and appeals to be unaware of the riots and demonstrations going on in the background (furthermore the film doesn't show them until the very end, so they don't feel real).

Three films. Joker is in theory also a standard comic book film. It's an origin story of The Joker, who is the most famous adversary of masked vigilante Batman. In the Batman stories - whether in films or cartoons or comics or whatever - The Joker masterminds a series a brilliant crimes, and then Batman catches him and puts him in Arkham Asylum, but he escapes and the cycle continues. Depending on the writer and the decade and the publication The Joker is either a fundamentally harmless bank robber who uses motorised teeth as a distraction and knocks people out with smile gas, or alternatively he's a depraved child murderer who mutilates his victims, or he exists between those two poles. The key thing is that he's competent. He's not superhuman, or even particularly strong, so he has to be smart. He's ruthless and good with a knife, and he has a devilish charisma that inspires people to follow him.

Arthur Fleck on the other hand isn't competent, or charismatic. He's not even on the lucky-idiot level of someone like Ted Bundy. He makes no attempt to cover up his early killings, and the only murder he pre-plans is ludicrous and leaves him with no escape route. Again, yet again, a film about a Bundy-like serial killer who slips through the cracks accidentally might have worked - it was essentially how American Psycho's Patrick Bateman got away with his crimes - albeit that it's hard to imagine a man in clown makeup avoiding police attention for very long, so perhaps I shouldn't criticise the film in that respect. I mention how the Joker's final crime is ridiculous. The film generally takes place in the same gritty world as The Wire or Goodfellas or one of those gangster films, but towards the end Joker's air of verisimilitude breaks down. I don't want to spoil things, but the ease with which Fleck delivers the punchline of his final joke stretches credibility. As a villain Fleck comes across as completely inept. Again, again there is one point in the film where Fleck seems to do something clever - he hides in a train full of people wearing clown masks - but it's over in a flash and it's just an accident.

Perhaps the idea is that Arthur Fleck doesn't become a criminal mastermind until he has spent several years after the events of Joker inside Arkham Asylum, learning his trade, but the film doesn't show that he's capable of learning from experience or that he has any hidden talents, so if that's the idea it's far too ephemeral. Of note the film seems to take place in a version of the Batman universe, but the timeline is such that it's unlikely this Joker would ever co-exist with Batman. Fleck appears to be in his late forties, but Bruce Wayne is a little boy; perhaps the idea is that The Joker eventually becomes a white collar criminal mastermind rather than a direct physical threat to Batman.

Ultimately the problem with Joker is that the film didn't engage me. Arthur Fleck is a pathetic figure who doesn't have a coherent philosophy. As a crook he would be useless, and yet the film implies that this is just the beginning of his story. The mass movement he inspires takes place offscreen. The melodrama involving his parentage is a dead end. A late revelation that Fleck is partially responsible for a key element of the Batman mythos made me think "so what". Given his mental problems it's hard to blame him for his actions, and the film's nod to social satire is clumsy. Fleck goes off the rails when his medications are cut by the government, but he's already a deranged lunatic at the beginning of the film so yet again Joker goes out of its way to avoid saying anything.

On a purely visceral, Death Wish level a couple of the kills are pretty good. Fleck stabs a guy in the neck and then smashes his head against a wall leaving blood everywhere. It's fantastic, but it's not enough to redeem the rest of the film. There are three laughs, two of which are guilty laughs, plus a couple of good shots. Ultimately the film feels like a great big nothing, a lot of pretend angst masking a boring story. It's a revival of the kind of New-York-Welcome-to-Fear-City films that came out in the 1970s, but this New York doesn't even appear particularly sordid (and bear in mind that I've just spent a week in Kowloon, which has more poverty than New York in the 1970s but a far smaller crime rate).

Despite being a film for grown-ups Joker is surprisingly prudish in the modern style. There's almost no swearing; no nudity; no perversion; the people who are mean to the little person are shown to be assholes; the yuppies that Fleck kills don't do anything particularly bad. There are no prostitutes and Fleck doesn't go to a strip club. He doesn't sadistically torture anyone or strip the flesh off their face or anything.

Couldn't they at least have made him a clown butcher? Butcher by day, clown by night, or vice-versa? I would pay to see that film. Butcher Clown, the script writes itself. Shoot it on the shittest 35mm off-cuts available, mono soundtrack, dub it to videotape, then dub that tape to a second tape so that all the neon blues and reds go fuzzy, then get voiceover people to loop the dialogue, have it released to VHS on a label you've never heard of, bingo. Couldn't they at least have had one scene where Fleck holds a person at gunpoint, wearing clown makeup, while shouting "DO I LOOK LIKE A FUCKING CLOWN TO YOU? IS THIS A JOKE?", only it's so brutal that you dare not laugh? This is another one of those films where I spent the second half wondering if I could have written a better script myself.

Would Joker have been better if it had been made in the 1970s, when you could use the N-word and say the F-for-homosexual word and have a white hero threaten to blow a black man's head clean off and it was supposed to be awesome? When you could have main characters who were unappealing assholes, but they weren't punished for it? It would essentially be Dirty Harry, but told from the point of view of the Scorpio killer, and there would be no Dirty Harry. Imagine if the film had been made in the 1970s with Jack Nicholson - sweary Jack Nicholson of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and The Last Detail and The Shining. Or Dennis Hopper. Or Dustin Hoffman. Or Gene Hackman. Alas the moment has passed.

Anything else? The film also has an overt reference to Bob Monkhouse. Arthur Fleck tries his hand at stand up comedy. It doesn't go well but to his credit he manages two decent jokes. The second one is a Bob Monkhouse joke. I realise the joke is old as the hills, but some comedians become so associated with certain jokes that they own the joke, and Bob Monkhouse owns that joke. Wherever you are, Bob, I thought of you.

Oh yes, the performances. Joe-a-quim Phoenix is Arthur Fleck. He has a bunch of mannerisms and isn't afraid to be embarrassing, but as mentioned earlier I felt nothing for the character so his performance was wasted. He's like Forrest Gump without the charisma, a nobody. A mostly passive moron whose revenge against the people who wronged him feels arbitrary and unsatisfying. I wanted to cheer him on as he stabbed and tortured fat businessmen and policemen and pimps and yuppies and the media and so on, but the film doesn't want anything to do with that sort of thing in case it inspires copycats.


None of the other actors stood out. Robert De Niro has an extended cameo as a talk show host, but throughout the film he puts on a performance as a talk show host, so it's hard to evaluate his actual performance. Does that make sense? We never see the character that De Niro plays when he's off screen so he's just a broad parody of a talk show host. At one point an interview he conducts goes off the rails. A different film might have had something to say about the contrast between the squeaky-clean, reassuring world of light entertainment and the actual world of brutal violence and sudden death. An obvious theme, and perhaps to its credit the film skirts around it; De Niro's character obviously senses that he has a scoop on live television, but instead of panicking he tries to dig out the story. It's one of the few parts of Joker that feels genuinely smart - Johnny Carson or Michael Parkinson would have done the same thing, in the same situation - but also frustrating because it's just one smart element amongst a sea of blandness. Echoes of ideas. That's what Joker feels like. Imitations of ideas. Echoes of ideas. Sound divorced from the original movement.

Technical stuff? The music is pretty good. Literal. Wonky cellos and strings as if to suggest that Arthur Fleck is unhinged. The cinematography is standard mid-2010s digital, with everything shot at f/1.4 and the colours are pastel and there's lens flare. It uses "the film look", which ironically doesn't look like film, so on a visual level it has very little in common with Dog Day Afternoon or Serpico or Wolfen or The Warriors etc. It uses a modern trick whereby some scenes start off with camera rock steady, and then it cuts to the exact same shot but suddenly its hand-held and wobbly. There's probably a name for it. Selective stabilisation. Stabilisation ramping. I don't know. Ask David Mullen on Cinematographers.net, he probably knows. Someone is bound to point out in the comments that it was actually shot with film, in which case my argument is that the film has been scanned into Adobe Premiere or whatever (I think the film's credits name the editing software) and tinkered with.

Ordinarily I review films on opening night, without seeing any trailers or reading any other reviews; I haven't seen any trailers or read any other reviews of Joker because the only writer I rate is myself, but I am aware that the film has been a surprising commercial success. My hunch is that word of mouth will hurt it, but perhaps in future the fact that a relatively low-key character drama made a fortune will inspire Hollywood to spend money on better films than Joker. We can all but dream.

Monday, 7 October 2019

Polish SR-4 MRE


A while back I had a look at a Polish MRE. It was meaty, beany, it had some tasty sweets. The toilet roll was of a pleasing consistency and I respected the spoon, so let's try another one, a different one. Today we're going to have a look at a Polish SR-4 individual food ration, with a main meal of Hungarian Goulash, or gulasz węgierski, which comes from the Polish word for Hungary, which is Węgry, which is apparently derived from the Slavonic for "people from the Urals".

You might be fascinated to learn that the Polish word for "hungry" is "głodny", so if the nation of Hungary was affected by a terrible famine the headlines in Poland would be WEGRY GŁODNY. How do you say "hungry hippos" in Polish? You can't, because there are no hippos in Poland and they don't have a word for them yet. Here's what the packet looks like:


Based on the contents of the meal I doubt that any hippos would be hungry in Poland, because there's a lot of food, although it's an odd mixture:


Counterclockwise from top-left there's a cold tea drink, a tin of smoked szprots, a cereal bar, some SU-1 hardtack rusk "panzer crackers", some honey, more crackers, and the main meal. As with all Polish MREs it's an old-school meat-heavy meal, although if you're vegan I suppose you could sprinkle the salt and pepper over the crackers and return the honey to the nearest bee's nest, and apologise for taking it. Good luck.

For the first step I put the main meal into the flameless ration heater, with a dash of water. I actually bought two of these meals. I ate one at home and ate the second at the Goodwood Revival, because why not?


At the Goodwood Revival

I mention that the composition of the meal is odd. The sprats are just sprats. Not sprat paste, but sprats. I have to assume that Polish soldiers are issued masses of deodorant. The tin is awkward to open without getting smoked sprat juice on everything, and I wasn't sure how you're supposed to prepare the sprats. Put them on the crackers? Add them to the main meal? Eat them from the tin?


Luckily I had some rice in the fridge, so I dumped the sprats onto that and heated it all up in the microwave. The end result was almost a meal in itself:


From that angle it looks as if a bunch of cockroaches have descended on the rice, but they haven't, it's just sprats. How did they taste? Not bad. The sprats had a very mild smokey flavour and they weren't as whiffy as I expected. There was a tiny bit of crunch from the bones. I have to admit I don't normally eat sprats; I find that most seafood tastes the same. I mean no offence to the world's fish population and I surmise that fish probably think the same of us.

Let's try out the crackers:



Cassandra Peterson is 68. Imagine that. Elvira wasn't very popular in Britain - neither her TV show nor Mistress of the Dark had much traction - but she was a popular poster. A generation of British men roughly my age have fond memories of going to sleep with a smile on their face while Cassandra Peterson's chest beamed down at them.

Why am I thinking of Cassandra Peterson? Something about the act of pushing things into a pot of honey brought up that memory. As always the SU-1 crackers are hard enough to defect bullets - you really have to break them first, otherwise they'll break your teeth - with a distinctive, slightly minty aftertaste that apparently comes from the caraway seeds. Aniseed, that's it, they taste like aniseed, but it's very mild. The nektarowy had crystallised slightly but was otherwise just fine. It's honey.

What else? The tea granules smelled like pee, and immediately made me think of a concrete underpass smelling of pee. I had a distinctive vision of central London. However when added to water and stirred the tea tasted fine, which raises the question of whether diluted pee also tastes fine. I'm not going to try.



It even looks like pee. In the picture just above you can see the oat bar, which is held together with edible paper, a nice touch. You can write ASHLEY LOVES HELENA on it, and then eat it before anybody else sees. It's a lot less likely to get you in trouble with the police than actually posting messages through Helena Bonham-Carter's front door. I was going through a bad patch at the time, but that's no excuse. It's over now.


There are two boiled sweets. One of them is a generic citrus-flavoured vitamin C sweet with a soft centre. The other, pictured above, tastes of coffee. It tastes like a coffee-flavoured Quality Street, but lasts a lot longer. I like it! There was also some chewing gum with xylitol, which I saved until last. What's the main meal like?


It was really good. Not just as a novelty but legitimately, as food. It's not visually appealing, but there was a tonne of meat, and it tasted fantastic. The sauce was thick, the vegetables might as well have not been there, but the meat was terrific.

The only downside was a lack of spice, but that might be a cultural thing. British food was very bland a long time ago, but over the last century we've embraced spicy Chinese and Indian cuisine, whereas Poland presumably has not. As with the last Polish MRE I ate it feels odd to eat a bunch of meat without something like potatoes or chips to go with it. The main meal would be monumentally good smashed over a plate of chips. It would be an excellent late night post-pub snack.

So, that's menu SR-4. I can take or leave the sprats, the tea was pleasant but bland, the sweets and oat bar were nice but not really any different from commercial boiled sweets, but the main meal was very good - better than anything I've had from a can. I would buy it and eat it if it was commercially available, which raises the question of whether any local Polish supermarkets stock it.

Also, I learned a few words of Polish. Masa is weight, sól is salt, odrzutu zamka półswobodnego z rolkami is roller-delayed blowback lock. Now all I need to do is learn several hundred other words, and grammar, and a new alphabet, and I will be able to look the people of Poland in the mouth.

Wednesday, 2 October 2019

Feltre


Every time I stay in Venice I like to visit somewhere I've never been before, so that I might add another brick to the mass of LEGO® pieces that exist inside my head. When I have enough bricks I will be able to build an impregnable fortress inside my mind, with livestock and a well, and then I'll never have to interact with the world again.

So this year I popped along to Burger King®. It's just across the bridge from the train station. A few years ago there was a Burger King® in the middle of Venice, but it closed, and the new Burger King® was always packed so I avoided it.


"But", I hear you say, "when you go abroad you should eat what the locals eat", to which my reply is that Italians love fast food just as much as we do, and when they don't eat fast food they tend to cook at home, because they're a lot like us. The reality is that your view of the continent is an idealised imitation of someone else's dream. For the record I can confirm that Venice's Crispy Chicken® is much like Crispy Chicken® anywhere else.

I only visited Burger King® once, however, firstly because I didn't want to spoil the thrill of discovery and secondly because Venice now has a KFC®. It's hidden away in a newly-built shopping mall adjoining the train station. Venice's KFC® is just a few feet away from huge crowds of people, but it's quiet because it's out of the way. For the record I can confirm etc.



But what to do during the rest of the day? Feltre is an anonymous but very attractive small town in the foothills of the Dolomites. It's about two hours from Venice by train. There's a Lidl right next to the train station if you want to stock up on food. Why Feltre? It has a Wikivoyage page and if nuclear war broke out it would probably survive quite well given that it's surrounded by hills. The mountains mean that Feltre has some fascinating cloud formations.

The suburbs. As an Englishman I'm used to suburbs that look like grim hellscapes, but Feltre isn't like that. The building in the bottom-left is a hospital. It's a big building with patients, but that's not important right now.


I went during a weekday and there were very few people about. Most photographs of the place on the internet show empty streets and deserted squares, which probably suits the locals fine. The whole town is built around a castle on a hill, and you have to do a bit of uphill walking to get there.






The rest of this post is mostly sarcastic, but Italy does suffer from a widespread small-town malaise; Feltre has a train station, but a lot of remote towns in the hills don't, and despite being picturesque they're difficult commutes, and traditional agriculture no longer pays the bills, so the young people move out and no-one moves in.
Feltre seems prosperous - everything was spotless and in good repair, despite the empty streets - so perhaps it's the Italian equivalent of those little villages in Somerset that are full of second homes.


There's a certain amount of "be careful what you wish for" with Feltre. Venice is packed with people, which is frustrating, but there's a lot to do. Feltre on the other hand doesn't have crowds, but there's nothing to do unless you're one of those creepy people who likes to sit down and read a book, or perhaps you enjoy peace and quiet or something like that.

So, as I sat on a bench in sunny Feltre reading Michael Collins' Carrying the Fire and munching on a croissant that had a sausage rammed through the middle, I remember thinking "what went wrong with my life". Later on I saw a first-generation Saab 900 Turbo, a rare sight now in the UK:


As a kid I thought they looked awkward - the back end is an angular Austin Allegro, the front looks like a duck's snout - but in 2019, as a grown-up, I think it looks awesome, especially in jet black. My hunch is that the cold, thin air in the Italian mountains is relatively benign on car bodywork but the steep gradients probably murder gearboxes, but then again the Saab 900 was famously robust so hopefully this one will survive for years to come.



I also saw a train. I learn from the internet that the Trenino Express Dolomiti cost the town €90,000 and links Feltre with Pedavina. Tickets are €3, it runs on Tuesday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, and it has a capacity of forty people, so if you have a calculator and you know the timetable and average passenger load and the cost of the driver's wages plus fuel and maintenance you could probably work out how long it will take to pay for itself.





Sadly the castle was closed. I learned from Carrying that Fire that at a temperature of 21c / 70f I would be able to sit on a bench for eleven days before dying of dehydration. People tend to measure out their retirement in terms of money, but you could measure it in water as well. Running the maths through my calculator, if I had 1,700 litres of water right now I could probably survive until the end of my days. How much would it cost? A one litre bottle of San Pellegrino is £1, so 1,700 litres of water would cost me £1,700.

And, I mean, if I consolidate my credit cards and borrow some money I could have £1,700 right now. Assuming I never do any exercise I can, right now, buy all the water I will need for the rest of my life. What about food? All I have to do is sleep with my mouth open and enough insects will crawl inside to keep me sustained. The big problem, of course, is shelter. That's a lot more expensive than water. If shelter wasn't a problem I could retire right now.




And that's Feltre. The last train leaves for Venice at 20:13, so I didn't get a chance to evaluate the nightlife. Feltre has been around since at least Roman times, when it was called Feltria. What does Feltria mean? I have no idea. Something to do with felt-making? Who knows. Its most recent brush with fame was in 1943, when Adolf Hitler of Germany visited Benito Mussolini of Italy to have a chat about the impending victory of fascism, but although they met at Feltre's train station the actual conference took place at Villa Gaggia, which is twelve miles north-east.

In 2003 the city was twinned with Newbury, I assume because someone in Newbury's council wanted an excuse to use public money to fund a trip to Feltre. I can't think of any other reason. I imagine if you found a list of Newbury's council members circa 2002-ish and went through what remains of their social media presence around that time you could probably pinpoint the individual council member who was responsible - perhaps AI could do that for you - but what would be the point?

Wednesday, 18 September 2019

Olympus 9mm f/8.0 Fisheye Body Cap Lens


Birds do it, bees do it - even educated fleas do it. Let's do it! Let's have a look at the Olympus 9mm f/8.0 Fisheye Body Cap Lens. It's a novelty lens sold by Olympus for the Micro Four Thirds system. It doubles as a fisheye lens and as a lens cap body cap. It's not a lens cap, is it? It has a lens cap. It's a body cap. It's a lens that doubles as a body cap.

As a body cap it's so-so, but as a fisheye lens it's surprisingly good, especially given that it costs less than a hundred English pounds. It looks like this:



Now, I get no kick from champagne - mere alcohol doesn't thrill me at all - but what I do enjoy is stretching out fisheye images with software. The end result is a very wide field of view albeit with blurry edges. Here are some images taken with a fisheye lens that have been stretched out with software:




Ultrawide images do something to me, something that simply mystifies me. I think it's because I grew up with 3D video games, and I'm used to vanishing point perspective and blocky shapes.

The images above were all shot with a Canon 5D, a heavy full-frame SLR using a full-frame fisheye lens, but what if there was a lighter, smaller option? Such as for example the Olympus 9mm fisheye body cap? What if it existed, which it does?


Some of the ceilings of the Doge's Palace, taken with this lens, using the E-PL1's right-angle viewfinder.

Furthermore I've long been curious about the Micro Four Thirds system, and used examples of the early twelve megapixel bodies have come down in price, so here we are. The Micro Four Thirds system has a limited number of ultrawide lenses, and so the 9mm fisheye body cap can be used as a left-field choice if you want pocket-sized ultrawide coverage in that format.

It has to be said that if you crop off off the outer 20% of the image the fisheye effect is greatly diminished. You end up with something that's still very wide and more than large enough for Instagram. If you use the camera's JPG engine to crop the images square, eliminating the left and right sides entirely, landscapes barely look fisheye at all:



The 9mm fisheye is sold as a novelty. It's not listed in the "lens" section of the company's website, instead it's buried away in the "accessories" section. The optical elements are made out of glass rather than plastic, and the image quality is legitimately, genuinely good - not fuzzy like a Holga. for example. In fact the lens is surprisingly delightful, delicious, delectable, skip a few, de-lovely.




Mechanically it's really simple. The aperture is fixed at f/8 and it only has three focusing positions, of which infinity and the middle position are essentially the same. If you push the focus lever past infinity a sliding cap covers the tiny front element. The overall arrangement reminds me a bit of the old Olympus XA, with its sliding cover and pushy-pully rangefinder lever.

EXIF? No, but given that it's always 9mm and always f/8 that's not a big loss. In-body image stabilisation? Only if you enable it manually, and I didn't bother.


The Teatro Olimpico in Vincenza, which has an early example of forced perspective.

In olden days the idea of composing at f/8 was looked on as something shocking, but with a gain-boosted electronic viewfinder it's relatively simple. With electronic viewfinders you could say that anything goes, although sadly the E-PL1 doesn't have an electronic spirit level.



Cole Porter didn't write any songs about computerised perspective correction, but if he had done so this paragraph would have some lyrics from one of those songs. The pictures below illustrate three options open to the fisheye photographer. The first image hasn't been corrected at all. As you can see it has the bulged look of fisheye images.


In the following image the distortion has been corrected, which cuts off some of the left and right sides but still leaves a very wide field of view.


The final image has been corrected for perspective as well, so that it looks a bit like Doom, but without hellslime or imps etc:


The results aren't pretty up-close, but very few things are pretty up-close.

Shot from a train coming home from Feltre, north-east Italy. The 9mm fisheye would probably be very good for action sports videos - BASE jumping, paragliding and stuff like that.

In my experience fisheye lenses tend to be extremely sharp in the middle. There's something deep in the heart of them, that's really a part of them, that goes over my head but probably has something to do with a relatively simple lens construction and a total lack of geometric correction, and also massive depth of field.

The four images below demonstrate central sharpness, which is very good. They've been stretched, but not sharpened, and there's no noise reduction. The original files are 12mp. The E-PL1 has a 12mp sensor that was ubiquitous during the early years of Micro Four Thirds.





With a bit of sharpening they would really take off. In the middle of the last picture is the MS Sirena, which first set sail in 1999 and allows 800 people to tick Dubrovnik and Venice off their bucket list. In the photograph above it's just about to sail past San Giorgio Maggiore to parts east.

On a complete tangent, if you're at the top of San Giorgio Maggiore's bell tower and a cruise liner sails by, and you're carrying a Canon 300mm f/4 IS, it looks like this:








You and I babe / we'll be riding high, babe / every care is gone / from this moment on

Isn't it great that the liner has a huge television screen? That way the passengers will always have something to look at. But I digress.





How does the Olympus 9mm compare with full-frame fisheye lenses? In terms of wideness it's on a par with a full-frame 15-16mm fisheye, such as the popular Zenitar. As with all the fisheye lenses I have used the big issue is colour fringing at the edges of the image, both purple and multi-coloured. This can be fixed with software, preferably before you stretch out the image (otherwise you stretch out the colour fringing as well and it becomes massive), although purple fringing is harder and involves fiddling with the hue and saturation controls. Beyond that, the only thing full-frame lenses really gain is speed - most of them open up to f/2.8 or so. It's easy to handhold fisheye images and if you're a perfectionist you'll be using a tripod with a spirit level, so speed isn't a huge advantage.

The other big issue with fisheye images is dynamic range. If you're outdoors the image will have a lot of sky, and you can't use graduated filters because fisheye lenses bulge out. You could in theory use filters with the Olympus 9mm, but it doesn't have a filter thread. I imagine it wouldn't be hard to Jerry-build one, although given the tiny front element I surmise that a graduated filter would need a very sharp dividing line. I could be wrong.


This raises the question of whether I could use this lens plus a Micro Four Thirds body as a dedicated fisheye camera, to which the answer is probably yes, although the E-PL1 is behind the curve. It's almost a decade old. ISO 1600 is grainy albeit that colour noise is low, and frustratingly the E-PL1 doesn't have any kind of remote shutter release and only brackets by a stop each way. I'll write more about the E-PL1 at some point.


In summary the 9mm fisheye body cap is surprisingly good. It's a lot better than the conceptually similar 3.2mm fisheye for the Pentax Q system, optically not quite as good as the Samyang 7.5mm f/3.5, but a lot cheaper. And it's a body cap as well! The mind boggles.