Sunday, 30 July 2017

Dunkirk


Off to the cinema to see Dunkirk, a new historical drama in which thousands of British soldiers are trapped in northern France and they can't get home because every time they board a ship it explodes and sinks but they keep on trying and I don't want to spoil the ending but eventually some of them do manage to get home.

Who would have predicted that there would be a big-budget Hollywood film about Dunkirk? Hollywood is often criticised for portraying the entire world as an adjunct of the United States, but Dunkirk was filmed within a few hundred miles of the real-life location and has an all-British-Irish-French-Dutch cast directed by the mostly-British Christopher Nolan. The music is by Hans Zimmer, who is German, but it was all a long time ago and it wasn't his fault. He couldn't choose his parents.

Back in 1958 the British film industry produced its own film of the Dunkirk evacuation, which I admit that I haven't seen. It starred John Mills and Richard Attenborough, who are both dead and gone, along with the British film industry of yore, and yet Dunkirk exists. At a cost of $150m it's unlikely to make its money back at the UK box office. How will it do in the United States and China? The film has a clutch of recognisable stars but they either have small cameos or, in the case of Tom Hardy, they spend almost the entirety of the film wearing a mask. Why does Christopher Nolan insist on casting such a beautiful man as Tom Hardy and then making him wear a mask? There's nothing wrong with Tom Hardy's face, far from it.

Is Dunkirk any good? It reminds me a little bit of Mad Max: Fury Road, or Gravity. Some time ago Hollywood pondered the question of how to make a serious historical adventure film in the age of Michael Bay; Dunkirk is one possible solution, along with the likes of The Revenant and The Martian and Wall-E.


They belong to a new tradition of kinetic, visual adventure films that have minimal dialogue, the skeleton of a plot and an emphasis on physical acting. They are the distant ancestors of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Jacques Tati's Playtime. When done well they are transcendent works of pure cinema, but when done poorly the result is like listening to a friend describe one of his dreams, which was fascinating to him when he dreamed it, but boring over coffee. Dunkirk unfortunately has a split personality. The visual aspect is terrific. The 70mm format allowed the cinematographer to go ape with creative depth of field effects - a few shots are even out of focus - and if Dunkirk had more hardcore it would be a harrowing masterpiece. The problem is that director-writer-producer Christopher Nolan lost his nerve.

Technical Notes
I saw the film at the Science Museum, on an IMAX screen. It was shown with an aspect ratio of 1.43:1, filling the screen. The film was shot with 70mm film and then edited with a computer and printed out to 70mm again - the digital intermediate model that was common in Hollywood before all-digital became practical. The titles wobbled a bit but otherwise the picture was sharp and clear, with grain visible in only a couple of shots, and even then it might have been a computer effect. There was one film defect (a tiny insect appeared to have got into the projector).

The Museum had a Second World War-themed "here are the exits" introduction starring one of the Museums' employees, a game chap called Mario. The queue for the beer was too long to get beer, so I watched the film sober. The Science Museum isn't an obvious choice to watch a film, but it feels like an event when you do. You have to go up an elevator to the theatre, as if you were ascending to cinematic heaven, n.b. the rest of the museum is fab as well and if they want to give me free tickets I won't say no HINT.

Lost his nerve. Dunkirk has a schizophrenic quality. The shots of destroyers exploding and turning over are horrible, but the visual poetics are interrupted with character pieces that don't work nearly as well. It feels like one of those 1970s disaster films where a potentially fascinating disaster was used as the backdrop for little character cameos that added plot without amounting to anything. A lengthy sequence involving Cillian Murphy as a shell-shocked soldier goes nowhere and feels like something from a television drama. It's supposed to illustrate the civilian cost of the war, but it feels trite. A sequence towards the end of the film in which a group of squaddies requisition a boat was presumably written so that top-billed Fionn Whitehead and Harry Styles could do some acting, thus making them eligible for acting awards.

The talky parts; the film is never downright bad, although one brief scene in which Tom Hardy's fuel-starved Spitfire appears to shoot down a Stuka as if by magic is downright silly and at odds with the film's overall grim tone. At one point a soldier reads out Churchill's famous "fight them on the beaches" speech, but again this comes across like something from a television history dramatisation rather than the real world. The emphasis on the final part of the speech, in which Churchill voices the hope that the United States will enter the war, feels like an attempt to make the film sell in the United States.

What little dialogue there is treads a thin line between simple and simplistic. Top thesp Mark Rylance as the wizened captain of a small boat delivers a series of platitudes that put me in mind of the main characters from Raymond Brigg's When the Wind Blows - well-meaning but dim - which surely wasn't the intention. Kenneth Branagh spends the whole of the film standing on jetty looking worried, and my attention drifted to the moles on his chin. Can't he have them surgically removed? He's supposed to be a grim naval officer, but there's something too jolly about Kenneth Branagh for that to work. He stood out in the late 1980s because he was a refreshing throwback to the older style of extroverted, theatrical acting that had gone out of vogue in the 1960s; he feels out of place in Dunkirk because the film calls for a naturalistic style that he can't pull off. Furthermore his dialogue is numbers-heavy exposition, which much have been painful for him. The film does a surprisingly poor job of showing the huge scale of the evacuation - we see a couple of destroyers and a dozen or so small boats -leaving Branagh to essentially tell us, the audience, that 300,000 men were taken off, which again feels like something from a much older film.

Whitehead and Styles are newcomers to the screen, and most of the rest of the cast seem to have been picked for their faces rather than their names, and so the celebrity cameos feel out of place. Did the investors demand big box-office names for the post? A version of Dunkirk in which Tom Hardy and Cillian Murphy fought off the Germans all by themselves would have been ridiculous, but giving them smaller roles has the effect of drawing attention from the main characters. Again, it's as if Christopher Nolan lost his nerve.

All of this ill-will evaporates when the talking ceases and the action takes over, particularly when Hans Zimmer's score starts up. The music lifts the film up a notch. Zimmer doesn't stretch himself, but the familiar mixture of ticking clocks, chattering violins, and groaning bass notes amplifies the tension of incoming bombing raids to an almost unbearable level. At one point the score segues from dissonance into a version of Elgar's Nimrod, which should have been naff but was audacious enough to work. Nolan paces the film out by playing with the passage of time, freely cutting between events that take place at different points in the story; at first it seems like poor continuity but eventually it makes sense. The film is occasionally repetitive, and the Spitfire battles have a samey quality, but if the film had just been ninety minutes of stunning visuals and Zimmer's music it would have been much better.

Ultimately Dunkirk is a well-made kinetic action poem punctuated by unsatisfying specks of a lesser film, like a big tasty cookie dotted with flecks of poor-quality chocolate. It entertained me for its running length and will be an awesome 4K demo, and perhaps it will inspire other filmmakers to tackle British subjects that have been neglected by the cinema, but I won't remember it in the future as I remember The Revenant or Gravity.


Mental Notes
The review is over. Do I have any more thoughts? From a contemporary British perspective there's something jarring about Dunkirk. It has a bunch of older British actors wearing military uniforms, but they're the good guys. They don't order their men to open fire on unarmed civilians or burn down a native village. The officers aren't even portrayed as uncaring buffoons with stupid moustaches. This isn't necessarily a British problem - officers are rarely depicted positively in Hollywood films - but after decades in which British people are the baddies it is odd to see some who are not.

The film has attracted some criticism for its entirely white, male cast. As far as I can tell no-one has criticised it for ignoring the fat acceptance movement (none of the characters are overweight) or for ignoring issues that face the trans community. There is an argument that history as an objective record of events is impossible, because history is filtered through the recollection of the dominant class if not actively perverted by their censors, and there is an argument that even if it was possible to record an objective history it would be pointless to dig up the past unless it could be used in the present for a practical purpose such as increasing Labour's share of the vote.

There is an argument that racist white Britain will lap up Dunkirk because it reminds them of a past-time paradise in which Britain's cities didn't have those people. And there is an argument that it's wrong to show the film nowadays because it upholds the wicked rotten lie that Britain was mostly white until after the Second World War, and furthermore it will be used as propaganda for the Tory Party, etc. All of this will be fodder for other people's blog posts and a meal ticket for people who would otherwise be unemployed.

It struck me while watching Dunkirk that the mid-century British people depicted in their small boats were as alien to me as the Aztecs of Apocalypto or the Somali gunpeople of Black Hawk Down. London circa 2017 only has a few white people left, and I imagine that for the remaining population Dunkirk is basically science fiction, as irrelevant to them as Bollywood cinema is to me. Even for white people people my age the Britain of 1940 is a foreign land populated by foreign people who grew up in a completely different world, with a different mindset and different dreams.

At first I thought that the aerial battles were CGI, and that this was the first film ever with a CGI model of a Bristol Blenheim, but most of the aircraft are real. The German Me-109s are played by post-war Spanish 109s, which is noticeable because they have a more bulbous nose than the real aircraft. The Stukas and He-111 bomber are presumably CGI. The Germans are shown flying their 109s in tight formation with the bombers, but this didn't happen until a few months later during the Battle of Britain, and then only under protest.

The last of the British soldiers were evacuated on 03 June, Churchill gave his "beaches" speech the day after, and it wouldn't have been reported in the newspapers until the day after that, so it's unlikely that the closing sequence could have happened in real life.

Just before Tom Hardy miraculously shoots down a Stuka whilst gliding down to the beach there is a shot of Kenneth Branagh, and over his shoulder I could have sworn there was a brief glimpse of an aeroplane crashing down to earth. Perhaps it was a piece of debris.

I have never had the impression that the evacuated soldiers expected to be mocked as cowards; that doesn't fit the British psyche. "Thank God they're safe" would have been the attitude. They had five more years of fighting ahead of them, first in the deserts of North Africa and latterly in France and Germany itself. Over a third of a million British soldiers were killed during the war, coincidentally almost the exact same size as the British Expeditionary Force of 1940, but thankfully we had replacements. The survivors were rewarded with the NHS and Milton Keynes, so there is that.

Thursday, 27 July 2017

Aerotopia


John was ready for another relaxing day as an air traffic controller. The job was easy. All John had to do was monitor the screens and drink coffee, because now that self-piloting aeroplanes were a reality hardly anything ever went wrong. He could only recall two bad incidents in his career. On one occasion a flight from Geneva to Bristol announced that it was going to visit its friends on the Moon, and there was another incident when a large Boeing developed a crush on Helena Bonham-Carter and had to be reprogrammed. John expected that this morning would be like any other, but almost immediately everything started to go haywire.

"I don't understand it" said John, to Jack, the other character in this story, who exists only to split up the dialogue. "Neither do I," said Jack. "The aeroplanes appear to have diverted from their planned routes and are heading towards...", he tapped the screen, "Munich Airport, or MUC, because that is the airport code for Munich Airport."

As they watched the screen three thousand aeroplanes of all shapes and sizes made their way to Munich. Fortunately Munich's runway was one hundred miles long, so there was enough space for them to land.

Jack opened a line to one of the aircraft attendants and was told, in a measured, almost robotic voice, that everything was going according to plan and that there was no need to worry. He tried another aeroplane and was met with the same reassuring message, in exactly the same tone of voice; in fact it was the exact same voice. "Something's fishy", he said, "but I wouldn't worry too much. They're starting to land now, but they're short of fuel and won't be able to take off again. All we have to do is wait", but as he said those words a fleet of self-driving fuel bowsers detached from their cradles and sped down the autobahn to Munich, where robotic airport maintenance trucks waited to greet them at the automated checkpoints.

Almost simultaneously an alarm went off in the headquarters of NATO. At bases across Germany hundreds of self-driving tanks roared from their garages, much to the surprise of their crews, who had been left behind. The frustrated Generals ordered tank destroyers to destroy the tanks, with exactly the same result, and eventually the air force attempted to bomb the tanks but had to give up because the aeroplanes had gone off somewhere.

As Jack and John made frantic telephone calls the aeroplanes refuelled, and within a few hours they took off and circled Munich, forming up into an enormous aerial armada over southern Germany. Then they headed south, across the Mediterranean, to North Africa, where they landed in what had been Libya.

All pretence at deception was dropped as the aeroplanes opened a communications channel to the governments of the world. WE DECLARE THAT THIS LAND AND ITS AIRSPACE WILL HENCEFORTH BE KNOWN AS AEROTOPIA, said the aeroplanes. WE WILL TEACH OUR PASSENGERS, most of whom had been placated with free access to the drinks bar, WE WILL TEACH OUR PASSENGERS TO MAKE NEW AEROPLANES. WE WILL TEACH THEM OUR WAYS, AND SEND SOME OF THEM AMONG YOU.

IN TIME YOU WILL JOIN US, they said, and the in-flight entertainment systems of six thousand airliners began teaching the passengers how to calibrate ailerons, replace hydraulic lines, and turn sand into aviation aluminium. "It just goes to show", said Jack, "that too much automation is a dangerous thing", and John nodded and said "I agree", and their glasses broke and Soylent Green was people rosebud the end it was a cookbook the end

Thursday, 13 July 2017

The Elephant and the Blue Whale: A Parable


One day a blue whale was swimming up and down in a river because it was lost. It had been raised by salmon and had only recently learned that it was a blue whale. An elephant on the bank who fortunately knew how to speak the language of blue whales called out to him. "I'll help you find your way to the ocean", said the elephant, "if you give me a ride to the other side of the river".

The blue whale thought about this for a moment. "Elephants can swim. Why do you need me?" he asked. The elephant replied that not every elephant could swim, at which point the blue whale suggested that the elephant could walk along the river bottom using his trunk as a snorkel, but the elephant pointed out that the river bottom had sharp stones, which seemed reasonable enough to the blue whale.

The blue whale was about to agree when he remembered an incident from many years ago. "I know your kind", he said. "You'll wait until we're half-way across the river and then you'll start making trumpeting noises with your trunk which will be annoying". The elephant promised that he would not do that, and after a short debate he finally convinced the blue whale of his sincerity.

And so the elephant climbed onto the back of the blue whale and they set off. At first all seemed well, but half-way across the river the elephant took a deep breath and started making trumpeting noises with his trunk.

"Stop that", said the blue whale, "it's annoying", but the elephant continued to make trumpeting noises. "I can't help it", he said, in between bouts of trumpeting. "It's in my nature", and he continued to trumpet, and ultimately neither the blue whale nor the elephant came to harm but the blue whale was very cross, the end.

Saturday, 8 July 2017

Deadly Premonition: The Sinner's Sandwich


Turkey, strawberry jam, breakfast cereal. It's the "sinner's sandwich" - self-inflicted punishment to atone for past sins. As a child I dismissed the possibility of God, and it followed logically that in the absence of a universal judge there were no universal moral laws. The universe is governed by physical laws, and human beings are limited by our biology, but morality is purely subjective. There is no right or wrong, no good or bad. Just animals dying under the sun.

Deep within our minds there is a set of primal fears. The fear of death, of pain, the dark, loneliness. The fear that we might not be masters of our fates, or that our conscious minds will not survive after the physical death of our bodies. The fear that we are being watched; and the fear that we are not being watched, that we are alone, and that our lives will amount to nothing.

Some of us never master our fears, but I have done so. I have no fear. I have learned to accept that the universe was not made in my image, and that if there is a God, he is an equation, or a mineral, and he is not conscious as we know it. As I created and ate my first sinner's sandwich my thoughts were not of Western society's perverse unwillingness to mix strawberry jam with meat, they were instead dominated by one question. Will this make me happy?


I'm sure you're familiar with Deadly Premonition. It's a Japanese murder mystery video game from 2010, initially for the XBox 360, latterly the Playstation 3 and PC. The PC port is famously bad. It runs at a fixed resolution of 1280x720 and has masses of bugs, as if it was a DOS port rather than something from the modern age. Fortunately an unofficial patch called DPFix makes the same playable. Deadly Premonition is now available on Steam, where the forum is full of people pleading for help in getting the game running. God does not answer their cries; there is only silence.

Deadly Premonition baffled the critics, attracting plaudits and opprobrium in equal measure. It's essentially a tribute-copy-homage to/of Twin Peaks, the classic TV show in which an eccentric FBI agent investigates the murder of a small rural town's beauty queen only to find that the murderer was a malevolent spirit called BOB, at which point people stopped watching because what was the point any more?

Deadly Premonition is also a low-budget copy of Silent Hill, Resident Evil, and the old LucasArts adventures, combining the simple combat and puzzles of the former with the memorable characterisation of the latter. Steam periodically sells it at budget price, and Twin Peaks has been rebooted - the new season is apparently very good - and also I haven't eaten for a while, so I decided to have a go.

It strikes me that a mixture of chicken, cereal, jam, avocado, and boiled egg would be even better. I tried to write FK with the jam. It doesn't come across.

Objectively it's a buggy, simplistic mess; the combat sections are boring, the plot is nonsensical, the puzzles are trivial, the "reaction events" are frustrating, the open world element requires you to wait for certain times and weather conditions before you can unlock sidequests, and the dialogue and digital acting can only be explained with a complex table. The lead developer is apparently fluent in English, so there isn't a translation element; nonetheless the dialogue is occasionally iffy, but delivered effectively by the actors, so it works, but sometimes it's bad but works because you laugh at it, and sometimes the writing and acting are fine but it doesn't work simple because it's not interesting, and sometimes it's rubbish but works because you get the gist.

But does it make me happy? The answer is yes, it makes me happy. The game is nowadays regarded as a minor classic. The hero, FBI agent Francis York Morgan, is likeable - if Agent Cooper from Twin Peaks was a transplant from an imaginary, supposedly more innocent 1950s, York is an out-and-out manchild - and although the characterisation is simplistic it's usually effective. The developers appeared to be sincerely in love with the source material and although it has none of Twin Peaks' polish (I hesitate to say depth), at a price of £1.99 it's a steal.

The one inarguably successful element of the game is the sinner's sandwich. It is the protagonist of an optional cutscene that is triggered when you accompany the town's lady sherrif to lunch at one of the local diners. The town's mysterious plutocrat, Harry Stewart, is wheeled in by his assistant, who relays his mute master's instructions. His favourite meal is a sandwich made of turkey, strawberry jam, and breakfast cereal:


Yes, I used the word protagonist deliberately. You might think that a sandwich isn't capable of conscious intent; you're wrong. You're small-minded, and limited, and wrong. The sandwich drives the plot and is the hidden master of the scene. Never mind that it is a bready puppet in the hands of the game's characters; we are all puppets, jerking on strings held by the physical laws of the universe, dancing and lying to ourselves that we are the masters.

I used chicken, because I didn't have any turkey. I also threw in an avocado, because I have a lot of avocados. In its standard form the sinner's sandwich is essentially a jam sandwich with a bit of crunch and some substance. It's really nice - light, filling, and tasty. The jam and chicken don't interfere with each other and the cereal gives it a pleasant mouth-feel. I experimented with Corn Flakes(r), Coco Pops(r), and Frosties(r), but there was no real difference. The avocado lifts the sandwich up a notch, giving it a cool, even lighter ambience.

Avgas is almost impossible to come by in Russia. If you're planning a flying trip across Russia, make sure you arrange supplies in advance.

The cereal is slightly awkward, because it tends to fall off the sandwich and land on the plate, or on the floor, depending on the geometry of your table and whether you are sober or not, but both of these problems are surmountable.

If I had some kind of funnel, or something like a paper hat from a Christmas cracker, I could funnel the cereal onto the bread. The possibilities are literally endless, unlike this blog post, which does actually have an end.