Monday, 17 November 2014

Roger Ebert: Life Itself

Off to the cinema, to see Life Itself, a documentary about top late film critic Roger Ebert. Roger Ebert loved the movies, and now there is a movie about him. He was never a major public figure here in the UK. I knew of him because the Internet Movie Database used to list his name at the top of their reviews. It was a distinctive name. For a long time he was unconsciously engaged in a war with top late German politician Friedrich Ebert for domination of Google’s search results for “ebert”.

Whereas Friedrich Ebert had no firm political convictions and became President of Germany at a terrible time, dying of appendicitis ten years later, having achieved nothing of substance, Roger Ebert loved films and had the good fortunate to become America's top film critic during a fortuitous period in cinema history. Life Itself shows us some of his early work as a student newspaper editor, and I'm sure that if Germany had offered him the Presidency in the 1980s (say) he would have done a good job. But that's enough of Friedrich Ebert and Germany. Begone, Friedrich Ebert. I will not write of you again.

Life Itself is directed by Steve James, who also directed the classic documentary Hoop Dreams. If you look up Hoop Dreams on the IMDB, Roger Ebert is listed at the top of the reviews (twice - he loved it); the same is true of The Godfather, Five Easy Pieces, The Princess Diaries 2, and of course Gamera: Guardian of the Universe, which is about a giant prehistoric turtle who can fly. He is the friend of all mankind, and enjoys nothing more than fighting gigantic evil bats. Ebert’s review is warm and funny, and he clearly enjoyed the film. This is one of the reasons why his writing appealed to me. He seemed to genuinely enjoy films. He didn’t sneer, and conversely he didn’t seem over-awed by highbrow art films, and even when the film was forgettable he always had something interesting to say.

In fact his reviews made me feel incredibly jealous, because they seemed effortless. This is something that Life Itself unfortunately doesn’t get across. For a film about a man who made his living writing about the movies, it has surprisingly little of his writing. I learned that he could knock out a review in thirty minutes, and that writers once used paper notepads, and that they dictated reviews down the telephone(!), all of which made me feel pampered and inadequate, but what inspired Ebert to write? What did he like to read? Hmm?

Nonetheless I can understand why the writing takes a back seat. During the section on Siskel And Ebert At the Movies we see some of... sorry, Siskel And Ebert AND the Movies, we see some of Ebert’s early television work, and because he was simply reading his newspaper reviews out loud the results were stilted and awkward. Prose that works on the page generally doesn’t work on the screen, and so the film rarely quotes at length from his writing. I’m not sure how Steve James could have surmounted this problem. Ebert doesn’t talk about writing in the film and we never learn where his ideas came from, or who inspired him. It feels wrong to rag on Life Itself for this, because it’s clearly supposed to be a celebration of his life rather than a penetrating examination of Ebert's motivations, but I was drawn to Ebert by the pieces on his website rather than his television appearances, and that part of his life feels missing.

But it would have been easy to turn the film into a crass run-through of his most famous quips, and to the director's credit Life Itself doesn't go down this route (there's nothing about how Ebert "hated, hated, hated" North, for example). At one point we see one of Ebert's friends reciting the last page of The Great Gatsby from memory, but it doesn't work. Firstly because it's hard to savour words if they're being delivered in real-time - each new line overwrites the last, so that you only remember the last line, albeit that Gatsby has a cracking final line - and secondly because there isn't time to adapt to the style. "Something commensurate to his capacity for wonder" feels fussy unless you’re attuned to Fitzgerald's writing. Without preparation it just sounds fussy.

Also, the last page has the word "breast" on it. Why were authors so enamoured of the word "breast" in those days? Characters were forever clutching things to their breasts; great passions erupted within their breasts; even when the characters were men, who don’t have breasts. Next paragraph.

Siskel And Ebert A... And the Movies was never shown on television here in the UK. Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert belong to a great sweep of American television stars who were massive in their home country but obscure in Britain. Johnny Carson, David Letterman, Tina Fey and ninety per cent of the post-1981 Saturday Night Live cast are essentially names and faces that don’t mean anything. Ultimately it was the internet that made Roger Ebert mean something to me. Toiling away in an office with a computer I could surreptitiously read about American Splendor, Nine Lives, Undertow, films that were unlikely to go on wide release over here, or that wouldn’t be released for many months. This being the 2000s I could always have downloaded them, but I would never have cared about them without Roger Ebert.

Our equivalent was Barry Norman, who presented Film Night on the BBC until 1998. He was a familiar figure but I really can’t tell if he was any good as a film critic; he didn’t transition to the internet, and in any case I always felt that he was doing it as a job rather than because it was his life’s calling. Roger Ebert didn’t just review films for a newspaper, he organised film festivals, he gave talks on films, he even wrote a film once. It wasn’t a very good film, but it was great trash.

He also wrote the screenplay for Who Killed Bambi?, a movie starring The Sex Pistols as themselves. Sadly the film was never completed. The screenplay features a scene in which Steve Jones makes love with a groupie called Soo Catwoman while Paul Cook accompanies them on drums. There's another scene in which Sid Viscous berates Johnny Rotten for singing out of tune. I'm not sure if Ebert really "got" The Sex Pistols, but by God I wish that film had been made.

Life Itself shows Ebert interacting with his fans and generally communicating with the world via his MacBook. Ebert’s punchy, straightforward style transitioned well to the internet. I'm part of the first generation of people who grew up with the internet; I remember the pre-internet age of printed newspapers and magazines, but I can’t feel it. On the whole the internet has been a great boon for writers, but it has a terrible problem whereby there is not much diversity. Let’s ignore creed and colour and gender and nationality; the voice of the internet is young, almost uniformly young, so uniformly young that it doesn’t realise there are older voices. Roger Ebert had a wealth of experience and gave the impression that he had been around the block, and that he had nothing to prove; but whereas so many people would use this experience to moan about how the modern world is rubbish and that young people are stupid and shallow and nothing is as good as it was, he came across as a kindly uncle who still loved new films. Life Itself shows a man who was obnoxiously arrogant when he was young, but by the 2000s he had mellowed.

The film puts this down to the love of a good woman, his indomitable wife Chaz, who he met relatively late in life while they were both at Alcoholics Anonymous. And presumably the AA helped as well. Some people are happy drunks, Roger Ebert appeared to be a happy-then-angry drunk. He always looked to me like a perpetually-disappointed cat, but during the internet period his claws only came out occasionally, notably in his review of Deuce Bigalow: European Gigalo ("Speaking in my official capacity as a Pulitzer Prize winner, Mr. Schneider, your movie sucks") and his rebuttal to Vincent Gallo following his disappointment with The Brown Bunny. When he laid into a film it was entertaining, and perhaps because he had made a film himself it never came across as simple abuse.

Roger Ebert got the internet; he was one of us. He had no inherent bias against action films and sci-fi, indeed he resembled a typical sci-fi nerd, except that he was a Pulitzer-Prize-winning serious writer who hob-nobbed with blonde ladies at Cannes, and had Martin Scorsese’s mobile phone number in his mobile phone. Scorsese appears in Life Itself as one of the few Hollywood talking heads, along with Errol Morris and, very briefly, Werner Herzog, who is in the film because every documentary has to have Werner Herzog in it at some point. Despite coming across as a friend to all nerds Ebert was not however an ingratiating sycophant. Famously he engaged in a lengthy online argument on the artistic validity of computer games - his position was that they would never be "art" - and he attracted a great deal of flack for it. I agreed with the surface of his thesis*, but I felt that his reasoning was flawed and ultimately it struck me that, yes, for one moment he was an old man moaning that modern life is rubbish.

* A computer game of sufficient artistic merit to be presented as "high art" would no longer be a game; any more than Grayson Perry's pottery sculptures are presented as pots, or any painting is presented as an exercise in craftsmanship. Nobody cars how Joan Miro held his brushes. And although the likes of Vib-Ribbon, Shadow of the Colossus, Journey etc are visually stunning, nay breathtaking, or in the case of Vib-Ribbon intriguing, the same is true of a Boris Vallejo painting or Marilyn Lange's May 1974 Playboy centrefold. The effect wears off, and then it's just a pretty picture. Is there an emotion, a concept, an idea that only a computer game can get across? Is it possible for such a resource-heavy medium to foster a distinctive vision? I digress.

I saw Life Itself at the Curzon, Soho. Part of the appeal of the Curzon is interacting with the bar staff as you order drinks, because the bar staff are effortlessly hip, and for a moment you can imagine that you are effortlessly hip as well. Part of the appeal is sitting in the window with an opened MacBook, with the Apple logo blazing onto Shaftesbury Avenue, listening to people mock the new Sainsbury’s Christmas ad. It uses the 1914 Christmas Truce in order to sell cut-price chocolate. And part of the appeal is striding onto Shaftesbury Avenue at the end of the film. This being the Curzon you wait until the credits finish. As I casually strode onto the pavement I deliberately ignored the passers-by, the little people. I remember thinking how much I hated the little people and their small, tiny minds...

... and then a voice appeared in my head. It was Roger Ebert's voice, delivered via a speech synthesiser. "You learned nothing from this film", it said. "You are not the one." Life Itself points out that Roger Ebert was a populist. He was the best sort of populist. A Beatles-style populist. He loved films and wanted other people to love them as well. From a British perspective he struck me as the film world’s version of John Peel, if John Peel had tried hard to be a mainstream Radio One DJ. It's difficult to compare a radio DJ with a film critic, because their markets are fundamentally different (and John Peel was a unique case). Roger Ebert was fully aware that if he devoted himself solely to the study of obscure but excellent Japanese cop dramas he would no longer have an audience, and in those days if you weren’t on television or in a national newspaper... well, you could create a fanzine, but Roger Ebert wanted to be famous.

Consider the list a few paragraphs above - Nine Lives, Undertow, and add that that Crash (the 2004 Best Picture winner, although Life Itself shows Ebert reviewing the 1996 David Cronenberg film) and Lost in Translation and Juno. It's fashionable to sneer at these films nowadays, especially Crash, and I wonder if this is why Life Itself shows Ebert reviewing the Cronenberg movie. My recollection is that it was fashionable to sneer at Juno even when it was new. Yes, he liked Garden State as well.

Ebert is occasionally derided in hipster circles as a middlebrow, shallow man, akin to the sentimental painter Thomas Kinkade. I never had a handle on his tastes - I was drawn to the craft of his writing - but in my opinion Roger Ebert always made a good case for his choices, even if his choices have not aged well. I can accept a Roger Ebert who was sometimes barking up the wrong tree; I cannot accept an oleaginous cipher who is always correct. If Ebert had tried to tailor his opinions to match the prevailing winds there would have been no point to him. Most of the aforementioned films appear in his Best of 200X lists, not because he felt pressured to include them, or because he wanted to win the respect of fashionable people, but because he thought they had something good about them. Does this mean that his opinion was worthless? I believe he was right far more often than he was wrong.

Right and wrong are loaded words. During one clip of Siskel And Ebert, Roger argues forcefully that opinions are subjective, which is true. In theory a film is neither right nor wrong, good nor bad, it is simply a mass of cuts and edits and noises until someone views it; but, dammit, Deep Star Six is a pile of cack and John Carpenter’s The Thing is fantastic and anybody who thinks otherwise is wrong. Their opinion is theirs alone.

Life Itself generally doesn't try to place Ebert within the context of other film critics. Pauline Kael is mentioned, and there's a suggestion that Ebert was not interested in being Chicago's Pauline Kael. This mostly went over my head. Pauline Kael died when I was young, but her heyday had been the late 1960s and 1970s, at which point I had not yet been born. I have read some of Pauline Kael's writing and it didn't stand out at all. The opinions seemed arbitrary, she appeared to hold French directors in awe - France is much less mysterious and otherworldly if you're British - and there were no funny bits.

I keep saying that Life Itself isn't about this or that, why not describe the film? It's a documentary about Roger Ebert, interspersing scenes of his day-to-day life in the early 2010s with talking head reminisces of his life, plus photo montages set to readings from his autobiography. The format never really gets inside his head, and it's a shame that Ebert didn't make the film himself. The paradox is that although I would feel uneasy about such a film - what kind of man makes a documentary about himself? - I would pay money to watch it. Steve James famously didn't win an Academy Award for Hoop Dreams, in fact the film wasn't even nominated for Best Documentary despite near-universal praise (Roger Ebert wrote that "it gives us the impression of having touched life itself", which would be a good title for a film). This was a major scandal at the time. Neither Hoop Dreams nor Steve James appear in Life Itself, which has a transparent style and... I was going to write "feels as if they were on a tight deadline", but that goes without saying. They were on a tight deadline. Schedule. They had a tight schedule. I shouldn’t say deadline.

His day-to-day life. In the 2000s, early 2010s I assumed that Ebert wasn't all that ill, or rather I accepted that he was gravely ill but I couldn't feel how bad it was. And I assumed he had written a stockpile of reviews in advance, because his writing never faltered. In reality there was no stockpile. He was thoroughly professional; his writing never faltered. Looking back, it seems that all throughout the time I was reading his reviews he was ill. He was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2002, and although it was treated successfully I imagine that the fear never went away. In Ebert's case the cancer came back, and it eventually took away his jaw, and with it the power of speech and the ability to eat and drink. On the bright side, he could still write. If Roger Ebert had been the world's greatest trumpet player he would have had to retire. There is no bright side beyond that.

Life Itself shows Ebert struggling to get back on his feet after a nasty hip fracture. It's painful to watch. The fracture was the result of the metastatic cancer that killed him. He was 70 when he died. He had almost died once before, but good fortune gave us a short while to remind us of what we were about to lose. We never got to hear his opinion on The Hobbit

At least he lived a life. Hollywood raised its game in the 1970s and film criticism became, for a short while, big business. Film critics were respected, and on a commercial level Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide was a regular best-seller. If Roger Ebert had been born a few years earlier he would probably have spent his career as an editor or sports journalist (I can picture him as a sports journalist), and you or I would not remember him. Over the last twenty years the internet has broadened the pool old of writing talent, which has had the inevitable effect of making individual voices less dominant, which is perfectly natural; the days when a mass audience pored over Movie Guide are gone. It's easy to be nostalgic about the past. Here in the UK our Leonard Maltin was Leslie Halliwell, who wrote an annual Film Guide. Halliwell was famously dismissive of popular films from the modern era, which in his case mean anything post-1966. If Roger Ebert represented a positive vision of old people, a good argument in favour of keeping them around, Leslie Halliwell embodied all the negative stereotypes of old age. He was a dominant voice in British film writing for several years, and he was wrong. Time has been especially cruel to him. Not only is his work forgotten, his medium - film directories - has died off, replaced by the internet. And he has been doubly forgotten, because the internet is American, and although I have heard of Roger Ebert, who in America has heard of Leslie Halliwell?

Will Ebert be remembered in the future? It's a difficult question, the answer largely tied up with the fate of the films themselves. He seems to have reviewed every major film and tonnes of minor ones released in North America between the 1960s and 2012, so as a resource for 4K re-releases and promotional websites of the future he is invaluable. Ebert is an unusual case in that his reviews were often entertaining even if the film was dire. Especially if the film was dire. His review of the forgettable, forgotten 1996 gangster film Mad Dog Time has a timeless quality, not just for the quip about it being less interesting than watching a blank screen, but for the observation that it was "like waiting for a bus in a city where you're not sure they have a bus line". I wish I had thought of that line.

If you imagine bad films as rabbits, Roger Ebert will be their General Woundwort. And when there is a good film he will be their Frith. Yes, over time his website will be shut down and nobody will care what he had to say about Prizzi's Honor and The Great Muppet Caper, but the same is true of everybody, every film critic, the vast majority of writers. Ebert earned a crust, was married to a woman he loved (and who loved him), got to hang out with Russ Meyer, presumably got to see a lot of very large breasts, that's enough. It's a shame he couldn't have died older and less painfully, but two out of three is better than none.

When Douglas Adams died he left behind h2g2, an online encyclopedia published by the BBC. But h2g2 never amounted to much, and along with a clutch of similarly ambitious but ultimately unpopular digital initiatives the BBC abandoned it in the 2010s. After John Peel died there were several John Peel Days, and the Glastonbury Festival has a stage named after him, but I suspect that over time we will all drift apart. It happens to everybody. Ebert's television appearances diminished greatly post-2006 and At the Movies was cancelled in 2011, but his writing was sufficiently good and modern that it doesn't feel fusty and staid, whereas (again) I can't see Pauline Kael's work appealing to new generations. Her books are still in print, and people still buy them, but I suspect this is because she is among the set texts of university courses rather than because she has a great popular following.

Kael and Ebert belong to an era that will probably never exist again. During the 20th Century entire countries, whole cultures were united by shared mass media; television programmes, books, albums sold in the millions, and there was a mainstream canon that most people shared. Roger Ebert was part of that canon, but now culture is fragmented and even the greatest stars of the age have album sales and viewing figures that would have been very poor in the 1970s. If Ebert's work appeals to an ever-smaller niche, the same is, again, true of everybody.

The film taught me a bit about Gene Siskel. He died in 1999 and is even more obscure in the UK than Roger Ebert; it seems that he was a regular guest at the Playboy club during the pre-silicone era, and indeed the funniest moment in Life Itself is the word “boobs”. They were frenemies, working for rival Chicago newspapers, and the film has some priceless behind-the-scenes footage in which they lay into each other like an old married couple. Albeit that Ebert generally lays into Siskel, and putting on my amateur psychologist hat I wonder if this was a result of Ebert being depressed. Siskel and Ebert were driven by a lust for fame, money, glory and - yes - boobs, and we’re supposed to tut-tut at that kind of thing nowadays, and it would have been easy for them to come across as coke-addled monsters, and perhaps if I had known them in the 1970s I would have hated their guts, but with distance and time they now come across as charismatic men who meant no-one any harm. Mammals are naturally obsessed with boobs, there are solid biological reasons for that, and both Ebert and Siskel were mammals, and so I am.

Life Itself points out that Ebert was accustomed to loss. His father died when he was young, Siskel died long before he should have, Ebert himself realised during the 1970s that he was going to die if he didn't stop drinking. He went dry in 1979. Throughout the film his weight goes up and down, and although the film strongly implies that he suffered from depression for a long time it has to be borne in mind that his job consisted of sitting in a chair, writing (or sitting in a chair, talking). He enjoyed food enough to write a book about it, The Pot and How to Use It, and I have the impression that Christmas at the Eberts was a jolly affair.

Nineteen Seventy-Four

I feel at a disadvantage writing about Roger Ebert. He wasn't part my culture when I was young, and he won his Pulitzer Prize in 1975, a year before I was born. He apparently won it for the totality of his criticism during 1974, work I have not read. Fifteen years ago, if I wanted to read Roger Ebert's reviews from 1974, I would have been out of luck. Now I just have to Google ""roger ebert" 1974" and then abandon that and use the advanced search to restrict Google to the domain with "1974" and... well, let's have a read.

(reads) Chinatown, Young Frankenstein, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Great Gatsby, Death Wish, The Godfather Part II. Blazing Saddles, that can’t be right. But no, Mel Brooks was on a roll in 1974. The year belongs to the pre-Star Wars era and thus the distant past, and some of those films are better than others, but I can see how a writer might relish them; Roger Ebert must have relished the chance to get stuck into Death Wish. For the record he grudgingly respected Chain Saw Massacre ("in its own way the movie is some kind of weird, off-the-wall achievement"), he was impressed with Death Wish on a purely technical level, although the review feels more of a plot summary than a proper critique, but having said that in 1974 it was presumably just another thriller.

Reading his reviews of The Sugarland Express and The Parallax View I'm struck by the limits of film criticism. In theory those two films have not changed in the years since, but the context around them has grown, and criticism is really all about placing something within a context. Ebert's piece on The Parallax View is straightforward and surprisingly short - just shy of 500 words - because of course he was writing for a newspaper and had limited space. Over time, films like Parallax and Get Carter (which he liked) have grown, and it's to Ebert's credit that he was willing to go back and re-evaluate them for his website many years later. I briefly worked as a computer game reviewer - not a critic, a reviewer - but it seemed futile, pointless. How can I evaluate something without the benefit of time? Sometimes passion fades, and sometimes it grows, and it's the passion that grows that matters most. It has substance in a trivial world.

He loved Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, was greatly disappointed with The Great Gatsby, loved Chinatown, loved Amarcord etc. I was originally going to quote from those reviews but they're straightforward and to-the-point, perhaps because he was writing about serious films that he wanted to treat with the respect they deserved. He seems to have had trouble ending his reviews, and with the exception of The Conversation they generally stop dead. Overall Roger Ebert circa 1974 seems reverent and a bit staid, but context etc. Perhaps he loosened up over time. Then again, his review of Zardoz is unmistakably him:

    "Sean Connery wanders through all this with a slightly bemused expression on his face.  He begins as a barbarian given to distrust and childish impulses, but after he gathers all knowledge to himself (the movie is full of phrases like "gathers all knowledge to himself"), he turns into a sort of body-building Einstein who sees into the centre of the Vortex, deciphers the wisdom of the crystal, stimulates the Apathetics, makes love with a good-looking Immortal dame (she regains the knack), and finally turns into a fossil while the soundtrack milks Beethoven's 7th for all it's worth."

I have seen Zardoz. It is one of those films. Ebert's review is spot-on and encapsulates most of the film's appeal. Sean Connery really does have a slightly bemused expression on his face. Murder on the Orient Express begins in medias res, something which is quintessentially Ebert:

    "There is a cry of alarm, some muffled French, a coming and going in the corridor.  Hercule Poirot, adjusting the devices that keep his hair slicked down and his mustache curled up, pauses for a moment in his train compartment."

At which point I’m hooked. The description of Poirot as a man scurrying about like a paranoid crab is another neat turn of phrase. Crabs are paranoid, aren't they? Everything wants to kill them or rip their legs out. That's why they developed pincers and tough shells, and yet they still die, in their millions, every year. Ebert opens his review of Lacombe, Lucien in much the same way. The same year he gave The Godfather, Part II three out of four stars; revisiting his decision in 2008 he concluded that he would not change a word of his review, arguing that although the first two Godfather films were collectively a masterpiece, II was less effective than I taken in isolation, which is what he had to do in 1974. But if crabs actually are killed in their millions, surely they aren't paranoid. Right? They're justifiably anxious.

NB. Ebert's website mixes contemporary reviews with retrospectives written in the 2000s. However I'm not sure where the contemporary reviews come from; some of them describe the film in retrospect, and so they might be drawn from material that was written later. But perhaps films were released in a more leisurely fashion in 1974, and it took months for them to reach Chicago. I just don't know.

Somewhere back there I was writing about Life Itself and not crabs. It's a simple, straightforward film that showed me something of Roger Ebert. Goodbye Roger Ebert. A full exploration of his life and times would be sixteen hours long and would place Ebert within the context of his times; it would be Easy Riders, Raging Bulls as a miniseries, and it will never be made.

I was lucky to catch Ebert's work during his final years, and he was a terrific writer. Now it's our turn. It's up to us and our younger siblings and children, and the gleams in our eyes. There comes a horrible time in a man's life when he realises that his heroes are all dead, or old, or sick. They ran up the beach and now it's your turn, your generation’s turn. And you look left and you look right and it looks hopeless, because you're a bunch of kids cowering in the shadows of giants. Giants who slew dragons in an age of fire.

But the giants were kids once, and you only see the shadow, not the man who cast it, and the dragons and the fire are shadows as well. I learned from Life Itself that when the pain got bad Roger Ebert wanted to die; but the pain never dulled his writing, because he had a soul of steel. His last piece, A Leave of Presence, begins by thanking us, and promises great things to come on the digital front. He thanked us. A day later he was dead. Someone else will have to go back, forty years from now, and make us want to watch The Tree of Life and Beasts of the Southern Wild one more time. And Gamera.

In his writing I only saw the shadow. Now the man is gone. The shadow remains.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Agfacolor 80S: Baby Got an Atom Bomb

Old film is like a box of chocolates. A cheap, thoughtless, perfunctory gift that nobody ever asks for. A box of chocolates way beyond its sell-by date. Does chocolate go off? Well, apparently it does, but slowly because chocolate doesn't have very much water in it.

Film however does go off, thus the subject of this post. I took my Yashica Mat off to Como, and because I like to live dangerously I also took along part of a borgasmord of random film plucked from history thus:

eBay throws up occasional fascinating batches of junk from the past. Motor cars, handle bars, bicycles for two. Less so now, because eBay is increasingly aimed at small businesses rather than ordinary people.

The black and white film was fine. Black and white film ages well. I didn't take the Fuji 400. The mysterious "VCS 120" - a black and white film - also worked. The Kodak Ektachrome 200 was very faint. I haven't tried the Fujicolor. The subject of this post is the Agfacolor 80S, which must have been left on top of a television for ten years. Or something.

It has a bizarre, disgusting grain pattern, which has the effect of making the JPG files enormous:

At least, I assume it's a grain pattern. It could be maggots, or perhaps the film became very dry and cracked. Static electricity? I hate to think it was maggots. Establishing consistent colour balance with such unpromising raw material is tricky and in the end I didn't bother. Presumably light slowly seeped into the edges of the roll, tainting it.

Imagine a baby's crib just crawling with maggots. And as you look harder you see that there's a baby in there, his arms flailing at the sunshine as the maggots suffocate him. When they conduct the post-mortem they will dump a bag of maggots out of its lungs, it will be horrible. Eight of the twelve shots could be salvaged, and I have no idea how to replicate the effect, short of perhaps shining a torch into the edge of some print film. Which is an idea, though. The effect looks like an instagram filter, which is unfortunate because... well, people will assume I cheated my way to unique brilliance, instead of fluking my way.

Monday, 10 November 2014

Milan, Cold and Hard

Ilford HP400

Off to Milan, coincidentally the same week as Milan Fashion Week, which takes place in Milan. It involves fashion and it takes place in Milan over the course of a week. Start again.

Off to Milan, with my Yashica Mat. Milan is hard, angular, and polished, and in that respect it's a mirror of the fashion world and those who sail in it. I used black and white because it was an overcast, dull day. Not once did Cara Delevingne invite me to a party while I was there. Perhaps she was too busy.

The history of Apple Computer is long and convoluted; the company is nowadays a giant, but its decision to omit Computer from its name in 2007 had a melancholic aspect to it. Melancholic because Apple's computer-computers circa the mid-2000s were solid machines running an excellent operating system, it's just that times had changed and Apple had changed and perhaps it was better that way.

It's fascinating to ponder Apple purely as a computer company, but of course iPhones and iPads are computers just as much as the iMac and Mac Pro. I mention Apple because an Apple product will appear in the next post, the very first post on this blog to mention Apple products in a substantive way.

The irony is that after a few years of a stagnating computer line the recent 5K iMac is a strikingly cromulent piece of equipment that appeals even to die-hard PC users, counterbalanced slightly by the cut-down new Mac Mini, which has its memory stick soldered in place. In the late 1980s and 1990s Apple's insistence on The Apple Way or Nothing was generally seen as a bad thing, but IBM was just as autocratic, and IBM exited the PC business in stages during the first half of the 2000s. In that respect Apple won that particular fight, not so much because Apple and IBM had different strategies, but because they had different targets, which they approached in different ways.

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Asus Eee 701: They Travelled by Train

An Asus Eee 701, with an orange for scale

You're supposed to use a banana, but I don't have any bananas at the moment so I've decided to use an orange instead. There were other things I could have used, but oranges are a global constant and I've always liked the colour. Orange (the colour) is dynamic, futuristic, and at the same time retro, because it was very popular in the 1970s. Oranges (the fruits) were also very popular in the 1970s, according to this article at the University of Florida, or at least orange juice was popular; by the 1970s over 90% of Florida's orange crop was being used to make orange juice concentrate, breathe in. The oranges themselves were vessels for their juice, just as our bodies are vessels for our souls.

Vessels, and prisons. Orange juice concentrate was developed in the 1940s as a wartime measure, and obviously it must have done the trick because we won. It became extremely popular in the 1950s; Americans drank ever-increasing amounts of it, up until the 2000s, at which point it started to fall out of favour. How come? A mixture of rising prices, competition from smoothies, the decline of the American breakfast, a general shift from acidic, sugary drinks towards bottled water, the list is quite literally finite.

Do you remember smoothies? When people write history books of the 2000s, the rise and fall of smoothies will fill up one chapter. It will be the story of how Innocent sold millions of gallons of liquefied banana and orange at a premium price, because the company had a halo - even though smoothies were no good for you or for the environment or anything - and then the brand was sold to McDonalds or Coke or one of those big companies, because it was just a cynical money-grabbing exercise all along. Who would have thought that a fruit juice company would be driven entirely by money?

Now, this is my blog, and I can write what I want, so subsequent paragraphs will be interspersed with poems that use ORANGE as if it was an acronym, and later on I will use other fruits. It pleases me to write the word "fruits". I enjoy writing that word, and saying it out loud, perhaps because I have to make a kissing-shape with my lips when I say it. Fruits.

Ocelot, retreat!
And no
gummy eatmurder

For people of my generation orange juice is inextricably linked with the 1983 comedy Trading Places, in which orange juice futures played a pivotal role. Almost as pivotal as Jamie Lee Curtis' breasts, which left a very strong impression on boys who grew up in the 1980s. I've written about netbooks before, but not specifically about the original Asus Eee 701, the machine that started the netbook craze. Having dug mine out of storage I decided to tinker with it. At this point the camera pans along and we see John Cleese at a desk, and he says "and now for something completely different", and the "it's" guy appears and then the music.

There isn't a Kindle App for Linux, but Amazon's cloud reader service works with Firefox running on Puppy Linux. The machine's tiny screen isn't really cut out for long reading sessions, though.

And now we're in an office. John Cleese sits behind a desk. Michael Palin walks in. My Eee originally came with Windows XP. Over time I replaced this with the short-lived Netbook Edition of Ubuntu, and then a stripped-down installation of lightweight Linux distribution Lubuntu. But this almost filled up the on-board SSD, and after seven years I worry about the SSD's durability. So I decided to install Puppy Linux, viz the images above and below. Specifically Slacko Puppy 5.7. It leaves almost three-quarters of the 701's 4gb SSD empty, even with Firefox and a smattering of applications.

Oiled, raw asses
naked garmonbozia*


* pain and sorrow

I've always felt sorry for Puppy Linux. On the whole Linux is not a sexy operating system for sex people, and Puppy Linux is the least sexy. It consistently works on even the most unpromising hardware, and in the present case it recognises the Eee's function controls - brightness, volume etc - plus it seamlessly uses a second monitor, it even controls the Eee's fan. And yet Puppy is always overlooked and spurned as the poor person's Linux, the council house Linux, the public transport Linux. NHS spectacles Linux.

An Eee sitting on top of an Asus TF101 tablet, which has a similar footprint but a much larger, higher-resolution screen (1280x800 vs 800x480). The TF101 was sold as the Eee Pad Tablet, and is technically the Eee 701's distant successor, although they are conceptually very different machines.

The 701 was launched here in the UK in late 2007, with reviews appearing in October and November of that year. It was trailed with a price of £150 or so but actually launched at £220-ish, depending on spec. In 2007 the typical laptop cost anything from £550-1,200 and up, depending on spec and accessories, with anything higher than that generally not worth the extra money. Laptops from that period were carry-able, desktop-able, train-table-able, Starbucks-able, but not generally restaurant-able or walk-able or stand-up-able. For truly portable computing your choices were Blackberries and Symbian Nokias, which didn't necessarily have wi-fi, or Apple's new iPhone, which did have wi-fi but was very expensive, and of course none of these options had a proper keyboard and x86 compatibility. They weren't proper computers.

We know now that the iPhone was the future, and that it and its ilk would eliminate Netbooks, but it wasn't such a clear-cut thing at the time. For a short while the press tried to spin the iPhone as a flop, mocking Steve Jobs' goal of selling ten million of the things in its first year. Since then Apple has sold almost half a billion iPhones, and historians of the future will write of the mobile phone revolution in terms of the pre- and post-iPhone eras. Every mobile phone platform released before 2007 will be dismissed just as we dismiss silent films or pre-hip hop popular music today. There was pop music before Jay-Z's The Blueprint, but history will not recall it. Nobody kissed and nobody touched.

It's amusing to look back at coverage of the iPhone. I've done this before - it was a blog craze a while back - but it never ceases to put a smile on my face. The expert analysts are no more knowledgeable than you or I. They deflect attention from their shortcomings and spin their fluke triumphs, but in general they are just space-fillers. According to one of Engadget's "noted analysts" it wasn't actually a smartphone and would flop because it didn't have 3g and you couldn't change the battery. According to this clown it was going to fail because it was too functional, too hard to use, and "users will detest the touch screen interface due to its lack of tactile feedback". It was "nothing more than a luxury bauble that will appeal to a few gadget freaks" according to Matthew Lynn, a man who has a girl's name. According to Todd Sullivan, who is called Todd - his profile bigs him up as a big swinging dick, a ten-bagger, a mover and shaker - "the introduction of the iPhone will be the first miscue for the company and send its shares, priced for perfection, tumbling".

In a way he was semi-right; Apple's share price rose in the early iPhone era, but fell again over the next year. Nonetheless if you had bought $1,000 of Apple shares on the day of the iPhone's launch and sold them at the five-year mark you would have made a profit of about (mashes buttons on calculator) about $3,800, is that right? Does that look right? And you would forever regret not buying more shares in Apple. You would look at your $3,800 - that would have been about £2,300 - and you would think "is this it? five years and... the one time in my life I hit a goldmine on the stock market, the one time I will ever hit a goldmine, and all I have is $3,800?". Is that what it feels to be a Master of the Universe? For the rest of your life you'll sit there and think about all the people in the world who would commit murder for $3,800, trying to make your rotten empty triumph seem impressive. For a brief moment you were Warren Buffett. A pathetic, low-rent Warren Buffett. A fairground Caesar. There is nothing more melancholic than a brief glimpse of heaven.

The average price of a laptop had been steadily heading downwards for several years by the time the Eee came about, and the state of tech in the Core II Duo era was such that even a cheap laptop was competent enough to be your only computer, provided you didn't want to play the latest games. 2007 wasn't so far away. Wi-fi was well established although public wi-fi was by no means ubiquitous. It's hard to remember now, but we were supposed to have widespread free public wi-fi fourteen years ago, but for various reasons it didn't happen, and the dream of having an uninterrupted internet connection wherever you go has still not happened.

Oliver Reed -
angry noises;
grotesque energy

That BBC report I have just linked mentions The Cloud, which "wants to go large and install wi-fi terminals in thousands of pubs", comma, "but analysts disagree whether such ambitious roll-out plans will deliver the broad wi-fi coverage needed to attract customers in larger numbers", and that was in 2003. Circa 2014 The Cloud still exists - not to be confused with the cloud, which is something else - but it is still only one wi-fi solution of many, and it isn't much use in the outdoors or on a train. It depresses me that wi-fi coverage is still so poor on trains. Trains have ample power and are restricted to a small number of captive routes. And it's 2014, fourteen years into the future.

Automatic pea-pod;
lesbian ecstasy

The average British man and woman in 2003 had not heard of wi-fi and had no use for it. As with so many technologies I surmise that the average British man and woman of today still doesn't know that there is such a thing as wi-fi. These people, these happy people just turn on their tablet and it works. It takes an enormous level of transparency before a technological gadget can penetrate the mainstream.

An Eee 701 (top), on top of a TF101 and an Asus Eee 1005HA (bottom). Some versions of the 701 had a 56.6k modem, mine is blanked off. The 701 was also available in black.

By 2007 mobile computing and mobile internet had reached a general level of competence that has only improved incrementally. Which led to a problem whereby the computing market began to stagnate; people no longer needed to buy a new computer every couple of years. In this respect the Eee benefited from fortuitous timing. People were looking for something to fill in the gap between their laptop and their smartphone. Furthermore the Eee was released just as people were becoming sick of the profligacy of the age. It rode on the publicity surrounding the One Laptop Per Child's $100 Laptop, and although it was devised as a miniature productivity machine it worked brilliantly as a smartphone complement. Especially if you wanted to read and reply to emails whilst on the move using wifi or a 3G dongle, and you weren't fussed about nasty old unhygenic voice communication. It was cheap but surprisingly well-made, and it was cute rather than naff, almost classless. I can't recall ever seeing an advert for one. News of it spread by word of mouth and reviews, because there was pent-up desire for it.

Its success, and that of the Netbook as a whole, was a rare burst of sunshine in the computing market, and over the next couple of years there was a Netbook glut, as everybody tried to get their Netbook into the shops. Amazon and eBay added Netbook sections to their listings, which they presumably un-added a few years later. Last year there was a generic Android tablet glut, no doubt in a few years there will be a glut of something else. It's hard to see what will come next; the idea of a computer that is just a flat screen has been around since science fiction of the 1940s. Sci-fi anticipated that we would eventually have computers built into our heads, but that is decades away.

Bastard, asshole, nonce,
asshole, nonce

Although, if you think about it, we already have computers in our heads. Our brains. They are computers. They use solid state storage and have limited read/write capacity before they wear out. They probably do not support wi-fi, although some people claim otherwise. Brains run much cooler than electronic computers and do not need fans. They have a number of I/O ports. Brains.

Historically the basic concept of the Eee was devised by Asus CEO Jonney Shih, essentially as a brand-building exercise. Until the Eee, Asus was mostly famous for its motherboards and components; now it is the third or fourth-largest tablet manufacturer depending on whose statistics you believe, behind Apple, Samsung and Lenovo. The Eee's packaging was executed by Jerry Shen - for which he seems to have been promoted to CEO - with a case drafted by chief designer Jimmy Chu, who based it heavily on his earlier Asus U1F subnotebook, scaled down by 75%. It was originally to have used the new Intel Atom, but the Atom was delayed, and so in the end the Eee used a 900mhz Celeron underclocked to 650mhz. The wi-fi module and sound chip were stock, the screen an 800x480 panel borrowed from an in-car satnav unit.

The original Eee 701 had more or less the same connection options as a full-sized laptop, and compared to a modern tablet it's surprisingly well-equipped, with three USB ports, an SD card reader, Ethernet, and VGA out. The 701 drives external monitors to at least 1440x900, and with three USB sockets you can in theory use it as a headless PC with USB keyboard and mouse, with one USB socket free.

Puppy Linux on a 701, running at 1440x900 on an external monitor. It is often opined that we are due for another massive economic crash, and I wonder which giants will fall first; Tesco seems to be doing poorly, Virgin will surely lose money from the space tourism business. Will Britain have any businesses at all, five years from now?

In 2007 the Eee seemed very fresh and new. It came as standard with either 2gb or 4gb of SSD storage, at a time when SSDs were just starting to become feasible as desktop drive replacements. 4gb was tiny even then, and perhaps the Eee's most forward-thinking element was the decision to generally ignore onboard storage. In that respect it was a close ancestor of the Chromebook concept. The Eee post-dated YouTube by two years, predated Dropbox by a year, and as a cloud-orientated machine it was on the cutting edge, which hurt it a little bit because the cloudy infrastructure we take for granted today was in its infancy back then.

The £220-ish price point was just cheap enough to make it an impulse purchase. There had been small laptops before, and cheap internet appliances, but there had been no small, cheap laptops - or cheap, small internet appliances that were x86 compatible. The Celeron's x86-ness meant that the Eee was a proper laptop rather than a big smartphone, but the use of a Celeron rather than an Atom is also the Eee's Achilles heel. The machine runs hot, and despite having no moving parts except for a small fan, the stock battery only lasts a couple of hours. This was irritating even at the time. Extended replacement batteries are still available on eBay, but they're bulky. Nowadays Asus would have used an ARM chip running a version of Android, but Android didn't exist in 2007. It was a very different world back then. The Eee would have been fundamentally different if it had been designed today.

God respects
and praises
elephants, foxes, rabbits -
universe is true

Originally the Eee came with a version of Mandriva Linux, a Linux flavour of which I know little. Within eighteen months Linux was banished from netbooks and replaced by XP, but that's another story. In 2007 XP was supposedly on the way out. Microsoft wanted to abandon it in favour of Vista. But the netbook became one of the few growth segments of the PC market, and Vista turned out not to be the marketing triumph Microsoft expected. Its high system requirements would have been a poor fit for netbooks, and so Microsoft was driven by pragmatism to keep XP in production. In fact official support for XP didn't end until early 2014, and so in a way the 701 and its Netbook brethren essentially brought XP back from the dead and doubled its lifespan.

The keyboard is faster than an on-screen keyboard, but still awkward - the return, backspace, and right shift keys are very small. One legacy of the Eee's Linux heritage is the lack of a Windows key. The tiny trackpad has scroll regions. It is surprisingly difficult to photograph a computer such that the case and screen are evenly lit - you have to turn the screen brightness down or use fill-flash.

For a year or so after launch they were very hard to come by in the UK. Asus had been surprised by the demand, and stocks sold out as soon as they arrived, especially the more desirable 4gb model. There was also a 2gb model which nobody wanted. I was initially skeptical of the 701, but in the end I was won over by it, although looking back the slightly later, Atom-powered 901 was the apotheosis of the concept. The 901 filled the Eee's lid with a 9", 1024x600 screen, which could display contemporary webpages at full width.

Later Netbooks fell into the trap of being too bulky for comfort but not powerful enough for general use, and furthermore 12" laptops had fallen in price to match them. Nowadays my "netbook" is actually a used ThinkPad X61, which is just about the perfect form factor and much more powerful than any Netbook.

Men, and narwhals
go - oh!

My Eee tends to go through long periods of disuse with occasional resurrections. As of 2014 it has survived surprisingly well. Nothing about the machine is fundamentally obsolete. It doesn't have USB 3.0, and the wi-fi doesn't support 802.11n, but the Eee probably wouldn't benefit from it anyway. Seven years later the hinge is still strong, nay stiff. Take that, Titanium G4 PowerBook. The case has no large gouges, the keys are still present. It's made of thick white plastic and feels a bit like a durable toddler's toy. The internals are very simple and the 701 didn't have any notorious design faults. As a news reader / email terminal it's functional. The screen and limited battery life are still the major limitations, just as they were in 2007, and whereas I can leave my tablet in standby for days and activate it with a swipe, I have to turn the 701 on and off, which takes precious seconds. The SSD has essentially the same performance as a Compact Flash card, e.g. it's not much faster than a 5400rpm hard drive. The SSD apparently consisted of four 1gb cells, and I have no idea if the Eee was smart enough to spread data evenly over the cells; and my hunch is that if one cell fails, the machine becomes a brick. The SSD is soldered to the motherboard. The later 701SD had an 8gb SSD, and later models used conventional hard drives.

Netbooks are no longer manufactured; the Chromebook concept essentially continues the idea of a small computer with non-local storage, tablets do the job of checking email and the internet, and I suppose Windows Surface covers the x86-in-a-small-package base. x86 compatibility isn't the draw it was in 2007, because for every human need there is now an app. In my earlier piece on the Netbook I argued that the concept was badly hit by the lack of a Netbook infrastructure, and that x86 compatibility turned out to be a dead end. It did nothing to encourage developers to produce software specifically for the Netbook concept, and so Netbooks ended up running applications developed for larger, more capable computers, which made Netbooks look bad. Now that Office is a cloud service the need for x86 compatibility is slowly fading, and perhaps one day the infamous Windows-Intel duopoly will simply evaporate, and people will forget why they hated it.

Is there a direct modern equivalent of the 701? Chromebooks tend to be laptop-sized; they tick all the 701's boxes except for the tiny form factor. The 701 is so small that it can easily be held one-handed and carried rather like a paperback book. Modern tablets are roughly the same size, but I would be wary of carrying a tablet with its keyboard dock connected. The 701 is two inches narrower and an inch shallower than the smallest MacBook Air, and slightly lighter, although much less capable. Bearing in mind my hypothesis above, I conclude that there isn't a modern equivalent of the 701, because there doesn't need to be one. In 2007 the Eee made sense; in 2014 the concept belongs to a bygone age. The Eee opened up the floodgates and was, in the end, swept away.

Captive! Held inside
prison ships