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Thursday, 11 September 2014

Some thoughts on The Book of Eli (2010)

"It was a dark and stormy night."

So begins Edward Bulwer-Lytton's novel Paul Clifford... and hundreds of stories which mock it. Bulwer-Lytton, a popular and prolific nineteenth-century writer, was also a politician, which may account for another of his other coinages - "the pen is mightier than the sword." This second slogan is etched onto the western window of the Library of Congress' South Corridor, from which the United States Capitol can be seen.

I like the first line, which has a fine and strong directness to it, but dislike the second. To me it seems either banal or untrue, and dangerously naive. There's a shallowness to it, and a disregard for history and human experience. Yet I don't doubt that moral writing can have a transformative effect. The Book of Eli spins upon a variety of implausible conceits, chief among them Denzel Washington's possession of an ethical rulebook, with which he manages to defeat bands of gangsters in post-apocalyptic California.

I'm troubled by the film's theocratic paternalism, its soft-hearted ideology, and its attempts to normalize the supernatural. At the end I felt conned twice over. But its genre-bending loopiness belies its charm. The book ends up in a library on Alcatraz Island.

(Incidentally, Alcatraz Federal Prison had a library, and a notable one. Every new inmate was given a library card and copy of the catalogue. A Federal Bureau of Prisons booklet, published in 1960, noted that "these men read more serious literature than does the ordinary person in the community. Philosophers such as Kant, Schopenhauer, and Hegel, etc. are especially popular." The library was the chaplain's responsibility (for more on librarian chaplains, see this earlier post), and he made sure that all references to sex, crime, and violence were excised from the collection. There's brief library scene in the 1979 Clint Eastwood film, Escape from Alcatraz.)

Friday, 8 November 2013

Some thoughts on Oblivion (2013)

Thomas Babington Macaulay, historian and Liberal imperialist, was a trustee of the British Museum and a founder of the London Library. He is one of the nineteen men of letters whose names adorn the windows of the Museum's Round Reading Room, and until the legend of Karl Marx and the winds of change dissolved his reputation, was the library's most noted quotidian reader.

Historically and architecturally, the Round Reading Room vies with the Library of Congress as the most significant building in modern library history, but it is little filmed. By contrast, the New York Public Library's filmography gets longer by the year. Tom Cruise drops through its replicated ceiling in search of a wayward robot in the inept sci-fi thriller Oblivion. He escapes with a copy of Macaulay's Lays of Ancient Rome, most famous for its narrative ballad about about Publius Horatius Cocles, a hero of the early Republic, who faced down the entire Clusian army to save Rome's troops.

Cruise recites the poem in an incongruent Elysian valley he finds among the ruins, snow, and dust of our demolished planet: ' can man die better / than facing fearful odds, / for the ashes of his fathers / and the temples of his Gods.' Through the twists and turns of the increasingly ridiculous plot, the poem provides a mantra for Cruise, and a hint at how the story will develop.

Horatius did not die. Wounded and bleeding, he cut off the enemy and escaped, and when he returned to Rome was paraded through the streets by a singing crowd. For the sake of the human race, it's a good thing that Cruise found such rousing poetry in the Rose Main Reading Room, and not Of Mice and Men or Tess of the D'Urbervilles. But the film might have been much less ponderous, and much more fun, if he had picked up a copy of Biggles.

Monday, 22 July 2013

I'm a doctor, Jim, not a librarian!

A library, with spaceships
Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) 

What's it about?
Kirk and Spock battle a genetically-modified Rip van Winkle, a Starfleet conspiracy, and their own sublimated homoerotic desire.

What's it got to do with libraries?
The Library of Alexandria probably wasn't burned down by a mob of intemperate Christians, the original Library of Congress probably wasn't the direct target of British pyromania during the War of 1812, and the recent panic about iconoclasm by Islamist radicals in Timbuktu led to much worrying, but few charred manuscripts. Though many libraries have been victims of war, I can't think of one destroyed by a deliberate act of terrorism. Librarians like to say that knowledge is power, and that our institutions have deep cultural significance. If that were really true, surely more libraries would get blown up by those whose values are antithetical to our own?

A bomb in an archive sets up the action in the latest Start Trek film. Science fiction has often been a vehicle for investigations of knowledge and power, but not here. The pyrotechnics merely push the plot towards more explosions. Star Trek Into Darkness provides a sequence of interstellar detonations separated by little more than winks, nods, buddy hugs and gratuitous shots of Alice Eve's bosom.

In film, libraries often disguise something else (see my posts on the British Museum, Batman and The Librarian for examples). The Kelvin Memorial Library hides a subterranean weapons-development facility, a two-mile cave full of spaceships directly underneath London that, somehow, only a privileged few know about. Whenever you stop to think about the plot, little in Star Trek Into Darkness makes much sense. The suicide-bombing is carried out by a Starfleet officer to thank a villain who saved the life of his child. Only the anti-intellectualist Quarterback Kirk realizes that it's odd that someone would want to blow up what is nominally a library.

Is it any good?
The destroyed archive is named for the USS Kelvin, the ship on which Kirk was born, shortly before his father died in battle. Relieved of his command, stripped of his rank, Kirk is reborn as a captain in this act of terrorism, which will lead directly to the death of his surrogate father. The heavy layers of psychoanalytic convolution, plot circumlocution, and self-referentiality stopped me from enjoying the spectacle here. The neat shades of grey written for Benedict Cumberbatch are too simplistic to accommodate the actor's abilities. Triangulated between the comic book, the blockbusteringly nonsensical and the postmodernist reinvention, Star Trek Into Darkness falls into a black hole of its own making. Its already feels time for someone to reinvent Star Trek, again.

J.J. Abrams
Written by
Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof
Daniel Mindel

Maryann Brandon, Mary Jo Markey

Cast includes Zachary Quinto, Chris Pine, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Benedict Cumberbatch, Anton Yelchin, Bruce Greenwood, Peter Weller, Alice Eve

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Saturday, 1 June 2013

Some thoughts on Take Shelter (2011)

There's a predictable inevitability to Take Shelter, a film about the slow unraveling of a good man's life. He has a job, a family, a truck and a best friend, but he's plagued by prophetic visions of an apocalyptic storm. If this makes Take Shelter sound dull, hackneyed, and crushingly banal, it overlooks the fact great films don't need explosions, chases, sex scenes and heavy weaponry. They're often about ordinary people facing something extraordinary.

The performances are compelling. Michael Shannon is magnificent as the troubled working class hero, his physical solidity and mental trauma filling the screen with the presence of a sleeping lion. Also remarkable is the film's everyday approach to madness, which in cinema is usually either a given (most horror movies), or its development is purely exterior (The Shining). Take Shelter examines what it would be like for a good man to worry about the collapse of his mental health. It wonders what a hard-working family man might say and do if he thought he could no longer provide for his loved ones.

Shannon borrows books on mental illness from the local library to figure out what might be happening to him. This is in keeping with his character, whose hands are made for building, not Googling, and removes him from the family home in order to set up a confrontation. It's nice to be shown that you can still find solid, readable medical literature in libraries, despite the many shelves heaving with chick-lit and tales of military daring-do. 

In a film which dramatizes potential, Take Shelter shows an actor (Shannon) and a director (Jeff Nichols) emerging as movie people with a great future. Last year's Mud, with Matthew McConaughey, pulled them further into the limelight. A big-budget sci-fi project, with echoes of John Carpenter's early work, is next on the cards. I look forward to it.

SGU Stargate Universe ("Epilogue", 2011)

Nearly every sci-fi series with a spaceship has had an episode like this: for ill-defined reasons the ship is drawn to a mysterious planet. Something dangerous, usually involving unstable seismology or meteorology, means that landing is inadvisable, but senior crew-members descend anyway. A significant discovery is made about the origin or future of mankind. The key to this knowledge is almost within reach, but escape becomes critical as a cataclysm unfolds. All are saved but the knowledge is lost forever. The episode ends with someone looking out at the stars and saying 'there are some things we're just not meant to know.'

Though the short-lived Stargate Universe owed much to the reboot of Battlestar Galactica, it didn't suffer from the latter's metaphorical overkill. In one of many potential-for-development stories introduced in the second series in an attempt to save the programme from imminent cancellation, the crew of the Destiny come across a planet they had settled 2,000 years before.

The planet contains evidence of the lost civilization they founded, but is empty of humans, and gashed by flowing lava. The intrepid marines and scientists discover a subterranean library containing ebooks written by their future/past selves. Reassuringly, libraries are still libraries, even in the future/past. The reader spaces are located on a gantry that mimics the railings of a Victorian library. And the library is underground, bringing to mind the notorious bookstacks of the New York Public Library, the British Library and Oxford's Bodleian. 

Just as the crew are on the cusp of discovering the secret of the temporal puzzle, gangways fall and ladder-securing bolts shudder and shake. The captain pulls them all away as the planet is torn apart. The series was cancelled. We never were given the key to the puzzle. Obviously there are some things we're just not meant to know.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Some thoughts on Belle (2013)

The Bodleian Library, aka London, ca. 1762
I've always argued that the depiction of libraries on film is more cinematically complex than most librarians acknowledge. But whether metaphors, visual shortcuts or locations for unexpected drama, libraries in movies are usually filmed as libraries. Examples in which they stand, physically, for something else are rare, but they do exist.

Interior scenes of the reinstated Irish parliament were shot in Trinity College's 1937 Reading Room for Michael Collins. And on the frequent occasions when the Bodleian in Oxford has been filmed, it has rarely ended up as a library on-screen. The court bounded by the Schools Quadrangle, Sheldonian Theatre and Clarendon Building (pictured above) has been anonymized by its ubiquity. In Tinker Tailor Solider Spy, in X-Men: First Class, throughout Inspector Morse and Brideshead Revisited, actors and actresses walk across this quad, going about their business, going anywhere but the library. The surrounding seventeenth- and eighteenth-century buildings in Headington stone could be almost anywhere in Oxford. Perhaps the Library authorities are more welcoming to filmmakers than the Colleges - today a website encourages enquiries. 

The Headington quarry also supplied the limestone with which Eton College and Windsor Castle were clad. Indeed, Hollywood seems to imagine the entirety of England to be hewn from it. Harry Potter's Hogwarts library is, in fact, the Bodleian's Duke Humfrey's Library, its infirmary the Library's Divinity School. The Divinity School also featured as the lobby to the House of Commons in The Madness of King George. Nearly all of the Bodleian's buildings, and many surrounding streets, stood in for early-modern London in Terrence Malick's overlooked The New World.

So it is with Belle, an eighteenth-century period drama due to be released later this year. Belle is the only film I've witnessed being filmed outside a library. All day long horses and carriages trundled up and down Catte Street, a filmic simulacrum of London in the 1760s. What are we to make of the illusion? Perhaps it simply adds another layer of complexity. Location scouts and cinematographers are able to look beyond traditional associations and reimagine libraries, usually successfully, as alternative architectural spaces. Once again, it seems, librarians could learn something from filmmakers.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Some thoughts about Looper (2012)

Paradoxes are arguments that produce logical inconsistency. They're a good way of demolishing bad thinking, but some paradoxes remain problematic even when the smartest heads try to resolve them. After 2,500 years, philosophers are still trying to figure out how the sentence 'this statement is a lie' can be neither true nor false. Mathematicians puzzle over a number of internally consistent logical puzzles that yet appear to be self-contradictory. 

For fans of literature and film, the most entertaining and familiar brain-twister is the grandfather paradox. Imagine I travel back in time and kill my paternal grandfather as a child. Thus my father would never have been born, thus I would never have been born. But then I wouldn't be able to travel back in time to commit the murder. My grandfather lives, fathering my father, who then fathers me, enabling me to travel back in time to kill my grandfather... 

Contemporary physics has answers to this paradox, among them the wonderfully-named Novikov self-consistency principle, the Huggins displacement theory, and Brane cosmology. Time-travel films generally attempt to respect these scientific responses and aim at internal consistency, or neglect considerations of consistency altogether. 

Looper tries to do both things at once. Altering the past changes the future if it's convenient for the plot. What appears to be a clever, idiosyncratic and original ending, in which the film's hero works out a way of breaking the endless repetition of two destructive life-cycles, actually turns out to undermine the entire story by preventing the possibility of it ever having taken place. 

To be fair, Bruce Willis warns us half-way through: 'I don't want to talk about time travel because if we start talking about it then we're going to be here all day talking about it, making diagrams with straws.' Fans of the brief-library-visit-as-harbinger-of-trouble scene will also have noticed Willis' impossibly convenient break-in to an unconvingly futuristic public library. Unfamiliar with thirty-year-old IT, he still manages to look up private medical records, cross-reference the individuals using some kind of residency database, and print off giant maps of their present location, before escaping undetected into the Kansas night. In the highly-surveilled future it's impossible to do anything without the powers-that-be noticing, unless a convulted way needs to be found of ensuring that the characters are brought together for the final gunfight. Call it the paradox paradox genre - a film that uses paradoxes to simultaneously drive and demolish the plot.