Saturday, January 03, 2004


I have a piece on why things would perhaps be better if McDonald's ran the post office over at Samizdata.
Shakespeare Adaptations

When you are making a movie, there is almost nothing as important as getting the music right. Because they are such a familiar medium, it is very easy to forget that we have to learn the grammar of movies before we can properly appreciate them. People who have never seen a movie before find watching a modern Hollywood production like watching an opera or a ballet for the first time for those who do not regularly watch opera and ballet. (This sensation is more common for opera and ballet, because relatively few people do watch them regularly). If you have never watched a movie before, you can be impressed by the artistry and the technique, but it doesn't necessarily work as a whole. (Also, watch Bollywood movies for instance. The grammar is different. It takes a few movies to get the hang of. Or at least the Bollywood conventions stand out for a few movies before you get the hang of them. (And that is an industry that looks at and copies Hollywood a lot. Coming to movies cold is much harder).

And, in movies, a lot of this grammar is in the soundtrack as well as the visuals. An enormous amount is told to the audience in terms of audio and musical cues. And in terms of getting the emotional message across, the music is the central issue, I think.

Which is why these comments by Tex on the 2000 modernised adaptation of Hamlet are interesting to me. (I have mentioned this film briefly in a different context before, and at more length in this Samizdata comment).

Basically, though, the film didn't really work for me. The obvious comparison is with Baz Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet, which for me did work. I think the criticisms of Romeo and Juliet are fair. The transposition to a modern setting is messy (although this is partly alleviated by the fact that the modern setting is a fantasy modern setting - it isn't a real place or time), and the acting is highly variable. (I think the acting is better in Hamlet although the interest is more in the supporting performances. In particular Bill Murray's Polonius is one of a series of excellent and really interesting performances in his recent career - Wes Anderson's Rushmore, which is incidentally far better than his subsequent The Royal Tenenbaums in terms of Murray's performance and the whole film - Hamlet and now Lost in Translation). However, Romeo and Juliet did work emotionally for me, and I think the chief reason for this is the music, which is in my mind one of the most brilliant popular music soundtracks I have ever heard. As far as the Almereyda Hamlet was concerned, the music was disjointed and uninteresting, and this is I think a huge reason why the film doesn't work nearly as well as the other.

As for Tex's comment that the modernised setting translates better for Hamlet than Romeo and Juliet, I agree to a degree. In fact, I agree until the fencing match at the end. This is in the play, and is untranslateable to a modern setting, so it is left as is in the film. So these modern corporate types agree to settle a corporate struggle through a fencing match with poisoned swords. It didn't work for me. Perhaps you could make a modernised Hamlet with a sporting setting. (Hamlet and Claudius fight for power in the international Olympic Committee. That's it). Or perhaps the fencing match would have worked with better music. I don't know, but I had a serious suspension of disbelief problem by the end of the movie. I never got this in Romeo and Juliet.

Friday, January 02, 2004

More on Tate

Brian Micklethwait has some follow up thoughts on Tate Modern. He reiterates an earlier point of his.

Thinking about it some more, I think what we may be witnessing here is the divergence along two separate paths of, on the one hand, "art" (i.e. paintings, sculptures, stupid objects), and on the other hand the process of attracting people to, and entertaining people in, what are still called "art" galleries.

This is a trend I thoroughly approve of, because on the whole I think that "art" these days is too big for its boots, and depends far more than it realises on the fact that people simply like going to art galleries, regardless of what's in them, simply because they are nice places where you can hear what any person you go with is saying and have a nice cup of coffee and a bun and buy an amusing biro. Discos without the bloody disco music, you might say, and with less disastrous drugs.

If this is so, then the Tate Gallery actually does this kind of thing better than most. Although I have reservations about the art, Tate Modern is tremendously successful as a place to go for a Sunday afternoon: quite entertaining temporary displays such as this "Weather Project", an interesting building, good cafes with nice views of London, and a shop selling books and CDs and stuff. But I don't think it is just Tate Modern, so much as the Tate Gallery in general. They are quite big on the idea of the "branch galleries", and as well as the two museums in London they have additional museums in Liverpool and in St Ives, Cornwall. As it happens, I have been to all four museums. In the cases of Liverpool and St Ives, I happened to be in those parts of the country for other reasons and I dropped into the museums because they were there, I suppose. The Liverpool one was pleasant enough and in a new waterfront development, but there was little art worth mentioning, at least not compared to what I can find in London. (When I went there was a special exhibition of "The Art of the Supermarket", which didn't look worth spending money on so I didn't go in). In the case of St Ives, I didn't even get to see the art, as the museum was closed for a "rehang" at the time. However, at the door I was told that the cafe and gift shop were open if I wanted to go in, so I went and had a latte and a piece of cake and sat and read a book for an hour or so and looked out the window at the view of the beach. Very pleasant. The building was nice. Somehow the art was largely irrelevant.

The Tate people also put out a magazine, which you can find for sale in bookshops and newsagents. This is the sort of thick paper, nicely printed glossy lifestyle magazine that looks nice on your coffee table. So they do the "galleries as entertainment and lifestyle" thing very well, even if they probably wouldn't put it that way if you asked them.

However, there is presently a "Turner and Venice" exhibition at Tate Britain which I should go to before it closes, and that one really is about the art. So it is possible to mix things. But this brings us back to British Art, which is where the Tate collection is strong. I am not as negative on Modern Art as Brian is. I just don't think there are any good collections of it in Britain, and relatively few in Europe. The best ones are in the US.

But the Tate Gallery is essentially a state owned institution, which makes it hard to expand outside the UK. The New York based Guggenheim has of course not been restricted in this way (although they have been happy to take public money too), and now has museums in New York, Las Vegas, Bilbao, Venice, and Berlin. I visited Bilbao last summer, and although I liked the building, I didn't have quite as fun an experience as I have done at Tate Modern or Tate St Ives. The reason for this is relatively simple. It wasn't the art. Like with the Tate, the best art is in the oldest museums and not the newer branch museums. The art wasn't great, but I expected this. (A nice young lady from Liverpool I was chatting with in the museum said that the one in Venice had the same problem. Like most nice young ladies, she had a boyfriend with her, sadly).

Like many galleries, this one includes a posh restaurant as well as a cafeteria. The posh restaurant had a lunchtime special of three courses and wine for about €13. As it would cost about €50 to eat there a la carte, I decided to go with this. The food was good and the decor nice, but I was rushed through it. I felt like I had about 20 minutes for my meal. Now, if I had paid more money I would not have been rushed, and similarly if I had gone to the self-service cafeteria I would not have been rushed. I do understand why they did this: in order to provide good value for money but also make a profit they had to serve lots of people. But somehow, it made the visit to the museum less fun. If they had charged €20 for the lunchtime special, I probably wouldn't have eaten there, but this would have actually been good as it would have meant that I would have likely eaten at the cafeteria where I would not have been rushed and this would have actually been more enjoyable. People who were willing to pay €20; would have had more time and would have got a better experience, so I think that in this case higher prices would have been better all round.

So, my gut feeling from this is still that the Tate people know what they are doing better than the Guggenheim people. And all of this has little to do with the art.

Thursday, January 01, 2004

Happy New Year, Everybody

I am very deliberately going to answer the same questions I answered 12 months ago, even though some of them are perhaps not quite the same questions I would ask of myself twelve months later. If I think of any new questions, I will put them at the end. Looking back from January 1, I am struck by how much better were the parties I attended this year.

Countries I visited in 2003
United Kingdom, France (three times), Spain, Germany, Australia, Japan, Belgium.

Countries I visited in 2003 that I had not visited before
None, although I almost went to Denmark and Sweden

Greatest product I discovered while travelling to one of these countries
No such countries.

Greatest product I discovered in a country I had visited before
Authentic bouillabaisse in Marseilles

Total number of countries visisted in my life
33 (Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, China, USA, Canada, UK, France, Netherlands, Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Austria, Kenya, Tanzania, Portugal, Spain, Monaco, Italy, Japan, Ireland, Thailand, Nepal, Macau, Finland, Estonia, South Africa, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Belgium, Turkey).

Number of these countries that no longer exist
3 (Czechoslovakia, Macau and Hong Kong, although you can argue both that Hong Kong and Macau are still countries or that they never were).

Best theatrical production I saw this year
I didn't see a single theatre production on stage this year. (Pathetic. Must do better).

Movies I most enjoyed in 2003
Spirited Away, The Return of the King, Matchstick Men. (It has been a truly awful year for movies).

Most over the top (and very Japanese) movie I saw this year
Spirited Away . (Not actually over the top, but Japanese at least. Must see more over the top Japanese movies in 2004).

Books that I most enjoyed reading in 2003
Engines of Creation by K Eric Drexler (which I should have read a decade ago), Beyond a Boundary by CLR James (ditto).

Musical acts that I would have liked to have seen, and that I could have seen in London in 2002 if I had bought tickets in time, but didn't
Saint Etienne.

Favourite television program of 2003
For the last time, Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Most stunning place I visited in 2003
The Basque coast between Bilbao and Donostia/San Sebastian, with Marseilles being a close second. (Tokyo is always stunning, too)

Place I visited where I felt most like stout Cortez, when with eagle eyes, he spied the Pacific, and all his men looked at each other, wild with surmise, silent upon a peak in Darien
The observation deck around Basilique Notre Dame de la Garde in Marseilles, looking out over the Mediterranean.

Great bridges I walked over in 2003
The year wasn't actually a great one for me and bridges. The trip to Sweden and Denmark was intended as a principally bridge related trip, but it got called off at the last moment. I also had some thought of going to see the Akashi-Kaikyo bridge that connects Kobe to Shikoku, but I was unable to manage the stopover in Osaka that would have been necessary for this. I suppose that the Pont de Gard counts as a "great bridge", although it is actually an aqueduct. This is another of those "Must do better" situations. (I really need to see the Iron Bridge in Shropshire).

Great Bridges I travelled over in vehicles in 2003
Isambard Brunel's Saltash Bridge at Plymouth.

Great Bridges I saw, but did not travel over in 2003
None immediately come to mind.

Great tunnels I travelled through in 2003
The Channel Tunnel.
The Rotherhithe Tunnel.
(These were listed last year, but I did go through both of them again this year on multiple occasions. Possibly I need to go to Switzerland to do better in this category. If I had made the trip to Denmark, this would have give me something extra in this category, too).

Other places I visited in 2003 that are of interest to the hacker tourist
The Museum of Undersea Telegraphy in Porthcurno, Cornwall. I think the Pont de Gard probably qualifies here, too.

Places that are of interest to Jane Austen fans that I visited in 2003
I didn't really do any Jane Austeny things this year. (I still haven't managed to get to Lyme Regis where Louisa Musgrove fell over in Persuasion).

Most upsetting event of the year.
Terrorist attacks on both Turks and British in Istanbul.

Rawest emotional reaction of the year
My reaction to the anti-Bush demonstrations in London a month or two back.

Moments in 2003 that most reminded me how Australian I still am
Watching the World Cup cricket final in a crowd of Australians in a bar in Shepherd's Bush. Watching the World Cup rugby semi-final in a faux Irish pub full of Australians and New Zealanders in Shibuya, Tokyo. Being quite annoyed by the extent to which the Australian sportsmanship was disparaged by the English press during the rugby World Cup. Sitting in a bar in Belgium with a couple of random Sydneysiders and drinking beer for the evening.

Most time consuming but rewarding activity I took up in 2003.
Digital photography. (Not nearly as time consuming as blogging, which was the answer last year).

And, we have one new question.

Most surreal literary/travel experience in 2003.

Sitting in a cafe in Avignon in Provence, reading Kim Stanley Robinson's Blue Mars, a scece of which was set in the exact place I was sitting, but 125 years in the future.

May 2004 be as interesting.


Most unexpected thing that happened to me in 2003

Becoming a world famous hobbit
What I learned yesterday, and this morning.

If it is December 31, and you are going to a new years party that evening, it is a bad idea to go to the pub to fill in some time earlier in the afternoon.

Tuesday, December 30, 2003

Part of my afternoon yesterday

In the comments of the previous post, Cecile Dubois was kind enough to ask me what I was doing to celebrate my birthday. As I answered there, the answer was basically that I met up with a friend and pottered around the South Bank of the Thames and then part of the City of London. My friend wanted to visit the Tate Modern art gallery, because she had heard that the present display in the turbine room was worth going to see.

Traditionally, the Tate Gallery has been the second art gallery you go to after the National Gallery. It's traditional specialties were both British art and modern art. In practice, modern art was not held in high regard in Britain for much of the last century, and although the Tate's collection of British art was (and is) marvellous, the modern art collection was at best patchy. However, it was decided a few years ago that London needed a big museum devoted to modern art, and with some lottery money the Tate got new premises on South Bank. The existing building at Millbank near Pimlico became Tate Britain, and the new museum became Tate Modern. (The Tate Museum has in recent years also been opening branches in other parts of the UK: one in Liverpool and one in St Ives in Cornwall). The really interesting thing about it was the building chosen for redevelopment was the Bankside Power Station - a disused (coal fired) power station on the South Bank of the Thames, just across the river from St Paul's Cathedral. This was and is a rather brutal structure, but it has the advantage for a modern art museum of being utterly enormous, although I can only find a tiny photo. (Photo © London Tourist Board).

It also has the advantage of being extremely central. The south bank of the Thames was once held in disrepute, so the power station was built just a few hundred yards from St Paul's Cathedral. To connect the two once the power station was converted into an art gallery, a footbridge was all that was needed. So they built one. (The footbridge has another story that I have written about before).

The front section of the building consists of half a dozen different levels filled with modern museum galleries, and the other associated things that go with them in a modern museum, including several restaurants, cafeterias, cafes and bars. If Brian Micklethwait is right that the major purpose of modern art museums is to provide places where middle class intellectually minded people people can look at a couple of paintings and sit down in a nice cafe and have a cup of coffee while they feel cultured, this museum functions very well. (In fact the locations of the relative facilities have been rearranged since it opened. I don't think this was admitted, but the take away cafeteria, which was initially placed on the top floor with the best view, was simply too popular. People would buy a sandwich or a cup of coffee and then sit at tables, on the floor, next to the window, or almost anywhere where they could watch one of the best views in London, and it was always extremely crowded. I think you now have to pay more money to eat with the best view).

But the back of the building is one enormous empty space, the turbine room. This must be the largest single room in any art gallery anywhere. In particular, the ceiling is vastly higher than it would be in any purpose built gallery. The main way of entering the gallery is through this room, and it can also be seen through glass windows from the back of each of the more conventional gallery levels.

However, the size of this room is good, because modern art can at times require large spaces, and there is a lot that can be done with them. When I visited the Bilbao Guggenheim earlier this year, the brochure they handed out that talked about the architecture mentioned this a lot. The Bilbao Guggenheim has one very big gallery on the ground floor that stretches under a nearby bridge and has a high section on the other side of the bridge, but nothing on the scale of the turbine room at Tate Modern.

The curators of the museum have changed the content of the turbine room a few times since the museum opened. Often these have been such things as giant spider like sculptures with ladders and observation decks that can be climbed. At the moment, however, the turbine room is devoted to something called "The Weather Project" by Olafur Eliasson. I will not bother with the discussion of its symbolic importance on the accompanying brochure, but essentially a large artificial sun has been installed on the wall. This has been done with a very monochromatic yellow light, so that everything in the room appears this one shade of yellow. The room is also partially filled with artificial fog, and the ceiling has been replaced with a giant mirror. There is a section at the far end from the entrance where people can sit on the floor and with the reflection on the ceiling it has the look of people sitting on a beach.

I am not sure what this symbolises, but it is certainly the sort of exhibition you walk into and say "cool". It probably doesn't require any more than five minutes of your time, but those five minutes are a pretty cool five minutes. It also demonstates the effect that weather and climate and light has on mood. You walk in from the grey English winter, and it is something different.

Make a point of looking at the reflections on the ceiling at the top of the photo.

So how old do you think I look?

It's interesting that different digital cameras behave quite differently in an optical sense in low light.

What I find interesting is that art light this is not possible without modern cheap technology. The fog machine, the large monochromatic light source, the very large mirror on the ceiling. Just a few years ago, these things were extremely expensive to create if they could be created at all. They are now cheap and easy, and the effects that can be achieved are quite spectacular. I am not sure whether it is art, however, or whether it would be better described as theatre - certainly effects departments in theatres do an awful lot of this kind of things these days too - or perhaps whether it simply belongs in the Science museum. Certainly when creating large artificial environments, these sorts of issues are considered in great detail by people who would not consider themselves artists. (Yes, Virginia Postrel has written about this kind of thing, too).

This is not the first time I have had this kind of feeling. When I visited the Saatchi Gallery with the same friend earlier this year, the best item in the whole museum consisted almost entirely of a tank of sump oil, and rather than being art in any meaningful sense it was more a demonstration of the very interesting reflective properties of high density liquids. The fact is that the surface of this oil scatters a negligible amount of light, the surface itself is not visible, it is close to impossible to realise that what you are seeing reflected in the oil is actually a reflection of the ceiling, because it does not look like a reflection. Again, it might better belong in the Science museum.

Or perhaps it is fine where it is. If a demonstration was ever needed that there is no hard line between art and science, I suppose this is it. The strongest argument for putting this Weather Project in Tate Modern is simply that they had a room big enough for it, although the obvious industrial qualities of the building help, too. If any of my readers are in London, I recommend going and having a look. (It is free). You can walk into Tate Modern, look at the turbine room for five minues, say "cool" and then head for the cafe. To be quite honest the art in the permanent collection at Tate Modern is a little lacking. (This may be simply the consequences of Tate Modern being a new museum. After 100 years of bequests it may have a very fine collection. For now though, it is a long way from being the Museum of Modern Art, or even the Pompidou Centre). What the curators of Tate Modern do have is a very unusual and extraordinary building and it is clear that they are learning how to use it effectively.

Today is my 35th birthday. How did that happen?

Monday, December 29, 2003


I have an overview of the three Boxing Day cricket matches around the world over at ubersportingpundit. (Quick summary: Pakistan beat New Zealand to win the series 1-0. South Africa beat the West Indies to go 2-0 up with two to play. Australia beat India to level the series at 1-1 with just the Sydney test to go). Also, I have had an epiphany about the rules of Mornington Crescent over at Transport Blog.

Sunday, December 28, 2003


I have link to a silly bouncing ball simulation over at Samizdata. (Yes, I am really clutching at straws today. Time to go and get a beer, I think).

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