Saturday, 21 May 2016

Unitor 28mm f/2.8: Everyone's Dreaming of All They've Got to Live For

"Smelly tongues looked just as they felt". So sang The Residents on their classic debut album Meet the Residents, which was released in 1974 to general critical indifference and poor sales.

Sometimes I think about The Residents. The band fills me with a profound melancholy. When I was young it seemed that there was an axis of strangeness, consisting of The Residents, Negativland, the Evolution Control Committee, the Church of the Subgenius etc etc, with Frank Zappa as their elderly patron saint, and on the fringes there were Stereolab and the Pizzicato Five and St Etienne - bands who briefly found a way to translate weirdness into record sales.

It was an age of videotape mash-up montages of televangelists and Gulf War footage, and multimedia CD-ROM projects that poked fun at the New World Order of George Bush - the George Bush - and also Pat Robertson and Rush Limbaugh and lots of other names that mean nothing nowadays. just as your world will mean nothing in a few years.

The axis of strangeness made the world less boring. There was no chance of it overwhelming the industrial might of the allied powers, but as a kid I assumed that it had been around forever and would continue to thrive in the modern world.

Dilworth is a strange and lovely man

Dragons do not grow old, but the same is not true of little boys, and as time went on the axis faded. The individual components of the axis still exist but they are obscurities whose time has passed. In retrospect they seemed more important than they really were at the time because they appealed to music writers, but that generation of cultural commentators has also grown old and retired. The new writers of the purple internet have a different set of idols.

Part of The Residents' mystique was that they were wilfully obscure, and even today they refuse to give out the real names of present and past members. The problem is that no-one cares any more. The Residents no longer have control over their own obscurity.

In the 1990s I imagined that The Residents earned enough money to get by, but over time members left and died, and as I write these words the band is just a sick old man sitting alone in a room with a cheap plastic mask, doing video podcasts. When he dies or gives up there will be no-one left behind the curtain to operate the machinery of Oz. There will be no Residents revival; kids will not seek out vinyl copies of Whatever Happened to Vileness Fats. Meanwhile the Church of the Subgenius left behind a videotape and some books, and not much else. As with The Residents they wanted to be famous for their obscurity, but now they are just obscure.

Think of all the other bands that were on Factory Records. Not Section 25 and Quando Quango - you've heard of them - but Minny Pops and Crawling Chaos. They are not forgotten in the way that Vashti Bunyan is forgotten; they are genuinely forgotten, and today we're going to have a look at the Unitor 28mm f/2.8, an utterly awful lens of no distinction. It's an M42 lens from a long time ago.

The Machinery of Oz would have been a good title for this blog post, shorter and more relevant than the one I eventually chose. There's something about Sarah Cracknell's voice on "Mario's Cafe", though. She has trouble hitting the notes but her voice has charm. That was the idea. She was an ordinary person pretending to be a pop star, just like us. She wasn't an inhuman monster like Whitney Houston. The song itself is warm and evokes an image, although of course it's a sham - there is a real Mario's Cafe, but Bob Stanley had never visited it when he wrote the song. He picked the name because it sounded good.

It's an art form. It's not supposed to be real. Juke box music. You're a fool if you base your life on a lie. I have visited cafes. They are illusions. Real people go to McDonald's, and perhaps in fifty years there will be folk songs about McDonald's. The only people who visit cafes are media types who are acting out a role. Bob Stanley wrote the song in 1991, and even then he was attracted more by the idea of eating in an authentic greasy spoon than by the food; for this writer in 1997, post-Britpop, the act of visiting a cafe was an adventure, not an organic part of everyday life.

I imagine there were features in The Face in the 1980s about cafes. George Orwell probably wrote about them in the 1940s. Rewind to the 1600s and you'll find noblemen visiting cafes for the novelty of visiting a cafe. Did they have fried bread in the 1600s? Yes, apparently so, at least in North America. I bet they didn't have squeezy tomato ketchup bottles. Plastic hadn't been invented yet.

The furry subculture has its roots in human self-consciousness. Unlike other animals we are aware of ourselves as actors on a stage, and some people are unsatisfied with what they have.
And perhaps it is also an echo of Alvin Toffler's concept of Future Shock. As we hurtle into the video age some people want to insulate themselves from the outside world, literally insulate themselves with layers of fur.
I make a point of writing these blog posts in the nude, so that no-one can accuse me of being terrified of The Future; my body is ready.

When was it released? The lens, I was talking about a lens. When was the lens released? I have no idea; it's one of those OEM lenses that was made in Japan and then imported by the rest of the world under a variety of different names. Late 1960s, early 1970s. I have found copies with Vivitar and Carenar badges. Twelve million years ago I got one free with a Fujica ST701 film SLR, and shot some film with it; even with my ordinary film scanner the poor quality of the lens was apparent, but how does it perform on a digital SLR?

There is Brasil. Thank you, Boris Johnson. London will miss you.

Not very well. In its defence, it's possible that something is broken inside the lens, but judging by the very few samples I have seen on the internet it really is very bad. On the positive side it's physically solid and well-made. It's big - so big that my ST701 won't sit flat on a table - heavy, made of metal, the focus is smooth and the aperture blades still work. In fact it's surprisingly attractive, especially the distinctive blue lens coating, but like so many things that are attractive on the outside it is rotten and empty on the inside.

I shot the following on a Canon 5D MkII with an M42 adapter. The lens focuses to infinity without hitting the mirror. Close focus is quite far, at about eighteen inches from the front of the lens. Wide open the lens has strong vignetting. It almost seems like mechanical vignetting, and as per the images elsewhere in this post the lens vignettes even with a slimline polarising filter:

The weather is depressing, even for England. The lens makes everything look depressing. Earlier on I took some photographs of a kitten playing with Cyndi Lauper's debut album She's So Unusual, and the lens made even this upbeat scene feel sick and wrong. Alas I cannot share those pictures with you. In the middle it's soft at f/2.8, sharp-er at f/8 but nothing to write home about:

I used Photoshop's "auto contrast" but no other editing. It's not a contrast lens.

Performance in the corner is suboptimal:

Does it have a use? No. Any modern zoom lens outperforms it. The frustrating thing is that it doesn't even work as a special effect lens, because the corner softness doesn't look attractive, it just looks murky and depressing. Some lenses are soft around the edges but sharp in the middle in a way that draws you in, but the Unitor is just muddy. Indistinct. There weren't many good wide angle options for the M42 system, and the Unitor 28mm f/2.8 is not one of them. It is however a good paperweight and could be used by the military as a simple hand grenade training aid. Perhaps.

Tuesday, 17 May 2016


In the comments people say
that there's no place for tanks today
in crowded city streets
dual-warhead RPGs and TOWs defeat
the dazzle and the Kontakt ERA

The footage is in full HD, ten-eighty-p,
and you can see the tank man's torn-off leg
and splintered shin as he attempts
to crawl, and as he tries I urge him on
as if I could project myself
beyond the glass, into the past

What's done is done, and he is done
he stops and does not move on
the past is like a waking dream
you cannot intervene,
the missile hits, the tank ignites
the chopper spins and augers in
the bullets find their mark;
the bodies look like piles of clothes.

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Vivitar 28-85mm f/2.8-3.8: Waves of Fear

"I know where I must be", shouted Lou Reed, "I must be in hell". Back in 1982 critics hailed The Blue Mask as Lou Reed's comeback from a long period of aimless meandering, but nowadays it tends to be overshadowed by his other comeback record, 1989's New York. After Blue Mask Lou Reed released three anonymous, undistinguished albums that essentially squandered all the critical goodwill he had earned. None of them were a disaster on a par with Dirty Work or Press to Play, or Landing on Water or Never Let Me Down, instead they were just anonymous, Lou Reed-by-the-numbers.

Wikipedia's entry on New Sensations is illustrative. "New Sensations is the thirteenth solo album by Lou Reed", it says, and that's all it says, because that's the entire article. Wikipedia isn't generally known for the quality of its writing, but I agree with its assessment of New Sensations.

In theory the 1980s should have been Lou Reed's for the taking. Lots of legacy artists coined it with lucrative tours, and the Velvet Underground suddenly became hip. But on the whole, when I think of Lou Reed in the 1980s I think of this famous commercial for Honda scooters, which is a tremendous example of its art but ultimately did nothing for Lou Reed or Honda:

"Waves of Fear" is the high point of The Blue Mask. Here's a written description of Robert Quine's fantastic guitar solo: eww-weee-eww-weee / aaa-aaa-yeee-eee! aaa-aaa-aa-aa-aa-AAAAAAaaaaaAAAAA wwweeeeee! etc it's skronk, baby. It sounds like animals in the forest fed through a guitar amplifier, today we're going to have a look at the Vivitar 28-85mm f/2.8-3.8 MC Auto Variable Focusing zoom lens. It dates from the early 1980s, perhaps the late 1970s. Manual focus, available for all the popular lens mounts of the day.

It's a big lens. The purple multicoating was common to other lenses sold by Vivitar. As was the fashion back then it has a complicated, multi-coloured load of numbers and lines that indicate something or other.

Mine is for the Olympus OM system. Most of the pictures in this post were taken ages ago with an Olympus OM-1, but I've also used it on a Canon 5D MkII with an adapter. It's a big heavy metal lens with a one-touch mechanism. You push it forwards to zoom in, pull back to zoom out, twist it to focus, and as you focus it zooms a little bit and the control ring moves quite a lot. It's awkward.

My example has zoom creep, so if I point it up or down it zooms of its own accord. It's loose, like an old person's sphincter. Imagine trying to have sex, but just as you're getting interested you start leaking faecal matter involuntarily. That's why old people are so angry and crotchety all the time, and also why they smell so bad. They no longer have control of their bodily functions. Who has control? As a baby you do not have control of your own body; as an adult, you gain a measure of control; as an old person you gradually lose control again, and then your body turns on you and kills you. Such is the course of human life. People fight to gain control - over the world, over their tribe, over their families, and over their bodies - and they fail, always.

In common with Vivitar's other lenses the 28-85mm wasn't actually built by Vivitar. The company imported Japanese OEM designs and sold them under the Vivitar name, although in the 1970s it took a more active role by issuing specifications for its posh Series 1 range. The 28-85mm was never sold as a Series 1 lens, although it feels Series 1-ish. It was originally built by Kiron, and there is a Kiron-branded version with a slightly different body. The same soul in a different body. The theme of gaining and losing control over oneself is a theme running through the work of David Cronenberg and Stanley Kubrick; Kubrick's films are full of powerful men who believe themselves to be in control of their destinies, but are in fact entirely at the mercy of fate, whereas Cronenberg's films concentrate on the visceral nitty-gritty of physical degradation and death. Photography itself is all about control. Control of exposure, of the development process, of the collective cultural heritage of humanity, of future generations' perception of our present. Control, and the failure of control.

The official Series 1 general-purpose zoom was a 28-90mm f/3.8 model made by Komine. It was sold alongside the 28-85mm for a time. An advert in the Feb 1983 issue of Popular Photography gives a price of $109 for the 28-85mm, vs $139 for the 28-90mm. I learn from the New York Times that $109 in 1983 would have bought four and a half smoked rainbow trout from Murray's Sturgeon Shop, giving the 28-85mm a trout index of 4.5. In comparison, a Nikon F3 body had a trout index of 14.3, and the average new car in the United States in 1983 had a trout index of 416.

Making a comparison with modern prices is hard, because Murray's now lists smoked trout per fish (at $17.95) rather than per pound, and the shop sells ordinary trout rather than rainbow trout, but assuming that two prepared ordinary trout equals 1lb of fish meat, and given that the average cost of a new car in the United States was roughly $33,000 last year, I conclude that the trout index for a new car in the United States is now 926. That's better, isn't it? It means that trout is much more affordable. So the economy is actually doing very well. Zerohedge is full of rubbish. Thank God they re-elected Reagan. Ben Elton and all those agit-prop people from the 1980s were liars.

The 28-85mm focuses closely at 28mm and backs off as it zooms in, with a noticeable jump in the minimum focus distance in the last 10mm or so. Optically it's better than I expected, with the caveat that it's very large and heavy. It's sharp in the middle at all apertures at 28mm, decent in the corners once stopped down; at 85mm it has a soft glow wide open but sharpens across the frame stopped down; wide open at 28mm it has a tonne of vignetting. It benefits from a contrast and saturation boost. For all of the images in this post I was either contra-sun or standing in shade, so I can't judge the flare. I've tried shining a light into the lens from the corner of the image, and although there were flare spots it didn't seem particularly flare-prone, which is odd given the large front element. Perhaps the multi-coating is unusually effective.

The spec is unusually advanced for the period. Most first-party general-purpose zoom lenses started at 35mm, f/3.5 or so. I have the impression that third-party manufacturers were more interested in zoom lenses than first-party manufacturers, perhaps because it was an unexploited niche and zoom lenses felt a bit cheap and dirty.

Let's have a look, using a Canon 5D MkII full-frame digital SLR. Here's the vignetting at 28mm. There's a lot:

At 28mm it's basically sharp in the middle wide open, slightly sharper at f/8, but in general there's nothing wrong with the performance in the centre. NB for all of these images I have applied Photoshop's auto contrast, but I haven't added sharpening:

On an APS-C camera it would be a 44-135mm, an odd range that borders on usefulness. In the APS-C corner it has noticeable but correctable CA, and decent sharpness (again at f/2.8 then f/8).

Alas there was nothing interesting in the full-frame corner except some brickwork. As before there is a lot of vignetting wide open and the performance stopped down is okay:

The lens peaks at the middle of the range. At 50mm-ish it's basically sharp in the middle at all apertures, sharp all over at f/8 (again, wide-open and f/8).

At 85mm there's a soft glow wide open, although there is detail underneath the glow. Stopped down to f/8 it's actually very good.

At f/8 the corners up nicely. The CA is mostly replaced with light purple fringing on high-contrast edges, not visible in this sample:

And that's that. Does the lens make sense nowadays? Not really. I imagine the kit lens you got with your digital SLR is sharper, and although it might not be faster it does have image stabilisation. The problem is that unlike old prime lenses, old zoom lenses tend to be very large and heavy, and for video work the 28-85mm's zoom creep is awkward. It would be completely unbalanced on a mirrorless camera, for example.

I originally bought it as a general-purpose zoom for my Olympus OM-1 film camera, and in that context it makes a lot more sense. But then again a 28mm prime and some footwork would have been almost as useful. The lens is however surprisingly good for a nigh-on forty-year-old third-party zoom.

Saturday, 7 May 2016

Florence Foster Jenkins

Meryl Streep is a talentless old bag who surrounds herself with sycophants, idiots, and paid-for yes men. The syphilis she contracted at an early age has addled her brain. She has been celibate for decades.... the new film Florence Foster Jenkins, a historical comedy-drama starring Streep as Florence Foster Jenkins, a famously terrible popular singer of the early twentieth century. At a young age Jenkins aspired to be a pianist, but the syphilis she contracted from her first husband ruined her physical coordination so instead she turned to singing. As a singer she was uniquely awful, but she lived in a bubble where she never had to face up to her incompetence, and by middle-age she was irreparably damaged.

Aren't we all, eh? By middle-age we are all irreparably damaged. My only constant friend has been the bottle. The bottle has never let me down. It doesn't care if I don't shave or if my socks don't match. The tutors Jenkins hired were happy to take the money and go through the motions of helping her, even though she was a lost cause. After years of obscurity she came to the attention of the wider public very late in life. A recording of her voice made its way to the radio, and in 1944 she was given the chance to play New York's Carnegie Hall. The concert sold out.

Everybody in the audience knew she was awful but no-one wanted to spoil the joke, and thus the postmodern age was born. History books say that postmodernism began in the 1970s but they're wrong. It began in 1944 with Florence Foster Jenkins. While the civilised world was engaged in a genocidal world war, Jenkins demolished the foundations of Western art. It took a few years for the building to topple, but eventually it did, and it is but a short step from Jenkins to the likes of Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons.

Alas Jenkins was unable to capitalise on her fame, because two days after the concert she suffered a heart attack; a month later she died. She was 76 and had not been expected to live that long. Like The Shaggs and Wesley Willis she is remembered as a pure spirit in an impure world. What if she was right, and we are wrong? History portrays her as a guileless naif who meant no harm rather than a vain, conniving witch, and because of this people remember her fondly today.

Florence, Italy

But what about the film? Is it any good? It's slight. The comedy is mannered and low-key, the drama is perfunctory, and on the whole it comes across as the kind of filler that would have entertained audiences in the 1940s. The film's big drama sequence involves one character's attempt to buy up and destroy every copy of the New York Post, which is the kind of plot element that belongs in an old television sitcom. The film has no bad language, no nudity, and its vision of New York in 1944 is antiseptically clean.

It was actually shot in the United Kingdom, a cost-saving measure that almost works; sadly Jenkins visuals have neither the grit of Taxi Driver or the polished fakery of One From the Heart. The film is instead just bland. On a visual level Jenkins is a technically accomplished television movie. It will not be nominated for any technical awards. Streep has won several Oscars but probably won't win anything for Jenkins. The film isn't weighty enough to work as Oscar bait.

I can see how a serious, substantial film about Florence Foster Jenkins might go down. It would be three hours long, in black and white, and it would be relentlessly bleak and downbeat. Jenkins was a lonely, disabled old woman who was exploited by everybody around her. She had personal charm but no-one in the film seems to genuinely love her. Jenkins inherited a lot of money from her father, and I imagine that throughout her life she never once met someone who cared about her as a person. But isn't that true of everybody? It has certainly been my experience. Alcohol doesn't come to me because I love it, it comes to me because I pay for it. Jenkins had a choice between living in a fantasy world, or confronting the reality of her own impending ill-health and death, with only fakers and conmen for company. In that respect a film of Jenkins' life might resemble Terry Gilliam's Brazil, and that mental image is more interesting than Florence Foster Jenkins. At times the film seems to be willing to go down this route - we have glimpses of how Foster perceives herself - but it pulls back almost immediately.

The film also stars Hugh Grant. He is a failed actor more famous for the company he keeps than for his own accomplishments. In real life, as in his films, Hugh Grant always been overshadowed by women; he plays his role as someone who understands he is trapped in a gilded cage, but is prepared to put up with this because why the hell not. He has the air of a man who believes he will be Edward VIII one day. Does he really love Jenkins? His mask only slips on one occasion, but even then it just reveals another mask. Grant is superb in a certain type of role and is perfectly cast in the film. It's a shame that he is never given better material to work with.

Florence again - Olympus XA, Kodak Portra 160

The third leading role is played by Simon Helberg. He is an inexperienced, shy, but talented pianist. His character arc illustrates the film's biggest flaw; he begins as an inexperienced, shy, but talented pianist and remains so throughout the film. He has a mass of tics and is essentially the comic relief, but he doesn't change. None of the characters change. The film is simply a linear, uncomplicated portrayal of Jenkins' last few months on Earth, with no more ambition than that. There is a brief suggestion that Helberg's character might find love, and the film continually implies that he is a player of the pink oboe, but this goes nowhere. John Sessions pops up in a tiny role as a fat doctor. Whereas Meryl Streep wears a fat suit, John Sessions took the method approach to the problem of playing an overweight person. I admire his dedication.

The only other actor who stands out is Nina Arianda, who plays a blonde dame with classy gams. She's a massive stereotype but plays the role with gusto, and also her character looks fun to hang out with and I wish she had been in the film more. Rebecca Ferguson has the thankless role of Grant's girlfriend, who drinks heavily but comes across as a square and boring, which is odd because none of the alcoholics I have met were square and boring, at least not while drinking. I never knew what they were like when they were sober. They didn't like themselves when they were sober. That's why they drank. Sadly, some of them didn't like themselves when they were drunk, at which point where do you go? What is left when you realise that your dreams were shallow and stupid; when you realise that dreams are just flashes in the brain when you unconscious? Just flashes in a piece of meat.

The more I think about Jenkins the less it impresses me. The dramatic moments feel fake. At one point Jenkins is mocked by the audience, but an unexpected ally emerges who silences the critics; it felt fake. As if the filmmakers expected us to stand up and cheer as in the finale of Crocodile Dundee, but they didn't want to get their hands dirty with cheap Hollywood sentiment. Jenkins is a British film, and like all British films it has an air of sneering, unearned superiority about it, an unwillingness to descend to the emotional manipulation of Hollywood films, a sense that it deserves respect not because of its actions but simply because it is the member of an exclusive club, or the seventh earl of somewhere-or-other. This might be justified if Jenkins was unadulterated cinematic greatness, but instead it is empty and bland, like The Mission or The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill or Hear My Song or any number of boring empty failed British attempts to create prestige drama.

The glimpses we have of Jenkins' mental delusions of grandeur are hamfistedly unsubtle. And one thing bothered me. The film's villain is a reporter for the New York Post. The film is full of mentally weak people who are willing to be bribed into silence; the reporter is the only honest, incorruptible music lover in the entire film. He refuses to be bribed into silence, and yet he is portrayed as the villain. Grant's character attempts to intimidate his editor into having the review spiked, and the film doesn't have a problem with this. Imagine a version of All the President's Men in which Woodward and Bernstein are portrayed as a pair of humourless killjoys, and Nixon is a harmless old man whose fantasies made a lot of people happy, or at the very least entertained a lot of people.

Not Florence

That would actually be an interesting film. Of course, I'm exaggerating for dramatic effect, but a smarter and more interesting film of Jenkins' life would have dealt with this. Jenkins' life was a slow-building tragedy about a sad old woman who was exploited by everybody around her, until eventually the pillar of lies they built fell apart and killed her. Her singing was awful and her self-delusion was funny, but her life was not a comedy. Imagine a film of Wesley Willis' life that glossed over the abuse he suffered as a child and his paranoid schizophrenia. Even Rain Man dealt more frankly with the tragic aspects of its main characters lives than Jenkins.

The film suggests that the pursuit of a dream is worth dying for, but Jenkins' dream was a delusion; the dream she chased was the product of mental illness, and again this is a more interesting take on the material than Florence Foster Jenkins. I can't tell if writer Nicholas Martin or director Stephen Frears thought of all this and decided that it wouldn't fit in a crowd-pleasing historical drama. Martin is a television writer and Frears is a prolific, anonymous director mostly of historical dramas, who occasionally finds himself as the credited director on films that win awards. I assume they were hired because they could bring the material in on time and budget as cheaply as possible.

The film has one or two decent lines, neither of which I can remember, and one good shot that makes use of the cinema screen (Nina Arianda's character appears in a hallway while some drama goes on in the foreground), but apart from that the script and cinematography are anonymous. For a film set in 1940's New York none of the dialogue feels particularly of the period, but then again real-life 1944 probably didn't sound like the films of that era.

I'm waffling now. The drink has started to write my words for me go away. Florence Foster Jenkins is a perfunctory, dull film with solid performances from a couple of actors who can phone in this kind of thing. There's no reason to see it at the cinema. I went because this weekend it is summer in the United Kingdom, the end.