Thursday, May 23, 2019

The Cold Blue (2019) tonight

My oldest expressed interest in seeing The Cold Blue tonight instead of waiting for it on HBO, and who was I to say no? So we're excited about going tonight for the movie and the extra "making of" short. Plus I'm happy to see the score is provided by Richard Thompson. A good article on the movie can be found at Popular Mechanics. I'll add a note after seeing it.

I've taken the whole family to see two extraordinary documentaries in the theater this year: They Shall Not Grow Old and Apollo 11. I don't know if this is a trend or just fortuitous timing on these projects, but I do hope this style of documentary catches on. As director Erik Nelson puts it about these movies, “All three of us were consciously thinking of theatrical big screens as a time-travel machine to immerse the viewer in the motion and events."

From the Fathom Events website:
The Cold Blue is a tribute to the men who won the ultimate victory - 75 years ago. Extraordinary, never before seen color footage shot by one of the world's greatest directors, William Wyler, puts you 30,000 feet over Nazi Germany, battling killer flak, enemy fighters and 60 below degree temperatures. All the odds were stacked against returning home alive - and men literally died to bring this harrowing footage into theaters today. Now, you can fly alongside the last surviving heroes who flew, who fought, who won - the men who just might have saved the world.

Multiple Academy Award® winning director William Wyler went to Europe in 1943 to document the Air War in progress. Wyler flew actual combat missions with B-17's - and one of his three cinematographers was killed during filming. Incredibly, all of the raw color footage Wyler shot for The Memphis Belle was recently discovered deep in the vaults of the National Archives, and a new film has been constructed out of the material.



Update: Definitely catch the movie when it's available on HBO. Director Erik Nelson has woven Wyler's footage to provide both an overview of the Eighth Air Force and specifics of their daily life and of their missions. Nine of the surviving veterans of the Eighth provide narration and interviews. The movie is a tremendous accomplishment that I highly recommend.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Alexandra Popoff's "Five Best Books on Russia and the Soviet Union"

In the Books section of each weekend edition of The Wall Street Journal is a list of "five best books" on a particular topic. I've found some good leads on books I'd like to read every now and then from this feature.

This past weekend edition had a list from Alexandra Popoff, former Moscow journalist and author of Vasily Grossman and the Soviet Century (which I just started and is great...more to come on it) on books about Russia and the Soviet Union. It's quite the task to narrow down such a list to just five. The list can be found here, but since it's behind the WSJ paywall I'll list the books here in case you're interested in adding more books to your To Be Read pile. Notes on the books are mine, while direct quotes are from the article.

Red Famine by Anne Applebaum (2017)
Having read this, Gulag, and Iron Curtain, I think it's apparent I like Applebaum's work. While I might favor Gulag over Red Famine, both are brutal indictments of the Soviet system. One of the strengths of Red Famine is not just laying out the deliberate effort to eliminate as many Ukrainians as possible, but in detailing the effort to cover up Stalin's policy and its rippling effects.

The Foresaken by Tim Tzouliadis (2018)
While I'm familiar with this book on Americans trapped in the Soviet Union and sent to gulags, I have not had a chance to read it yet. A "must acquire" for my TBR pile.

Nothing is True and Everything is Possible by Peter Pomerantsev (2014)
A wild ride through Putin's Russia where nothing is...well, you can read the title. The book follows a specific story of an individual caught between competing Kremlin factions. I don't think I could wish that scenario on anyone.

A Century of Violence in Soviet Russia by Alexander N. Yakovlev, translated by Anthony Austin (2002)
What Yakovlev has been through and the access he's had to classified Soviet documents, you can bet this book is a strong "testimony against the regime he devotedly served."

An Armenian Sketchbook by Vasily Grossman, translated by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler (2013)
Grossman deserves to be included, but which work? Life and Fate is one of my favorite novels. These notes on his Armenian travels, right after Life and Fate was seized by the KGB, provide an uncensored view of unofficial Soviet policy in action.



Again, how can you narrow this to just five? It's an impossible task to please everyone with such a short list. And while I might want to see Bulgakov, Solzhenitsyn, Platonov, Babel, or Nadezhda Mandelstam (among others) on the list, I don't think any of their works are going to be read less because of exclusion. Since I currently have a few books I'm reading or lined up related to the topic, I'll make a note of them.

I mentioned Popoff's excellent book on Grossman, which I hope to focus more on soon. It's a history on more than just the writer. Then there's Grossman's Stalingrad which is coming out next month. Needless to say I'm excited to see that being released.

I'll mention Zuleikha by Guzel Yakhina, translated by Lisa C. Hayden. Set in the early 1930s, this recent novel follows a Tartar kulak woman exiled to Siberia. I hope to comment on this soon, especially since Lisa seems to shy away from much self-promotion on her wonderful Lizok's Bookshelf blog.

And a book I'll be getting later this week, Judgment in Moscow: Soviet Crimes and Western Complicity by Vladimir Bukovsky, covers Western dupes carrying out Soviet policy (only 700 pages?). From Anne Applebaum's blurb: "Judgment in Moscow provides the written Nuremberg trial the Soviets never got when the USSR fell."

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

The Voynich Manuscript, deciphered? (see update for more doubt)


Picture source from Old Maps, Expeditions, and Explorations blog
(See the link for more background on the manuscript from Gordon Rugg)

The Voynich manuscript has been in the news off and on over the past few years. From Wikipedia:
The Voynich manuscript is an illustrated codex hand-written in an unknown writing system. The vellum on which it is written has been carbon-dated to the early 15th century (1404–1438), and it may have been composed in Northern Italy during the Italian Renaissance. The manuscript is named after Wilfrid Voynich, a Polish-Samogitian book dealer who purchased it in 1912.
Yale University Press released a beautiful facsimile edition in 2016. If you get a chance to look through the book, please do. It's a thing of beauty, and the accompanying essays go into detail about what was known about the manuscript at the time.

There have been recent claims on deciphering the manuscript, one here declaring it a guide to woman's health, but most claims have been debunked or withdrawn. Now comes the article The Language and Writing System of MS408 (Voynich) Explained, providing a detailed explanation of the language and writing system used in the manuscript and details of the story. From the article:
It was written by an entirely unknown and ordinary figure from the past, and without any deliberate code but a language and writing system that were in normal and everyday use for their time and place, yet the linguistic and historic information it holds are of unparalleled importance. So it turns out that the manuscript is remarkable after all, but in academic ways rather than sensationalistic and fantastical ways.

Translations reveal that the manuscript is a compendium of information on herbal remedies, therapeutic bathing and astrological readings concerning matters of the female mind, of the body, of reproduction, of parenting and of the heart in accordance with the Catholic and Roman pagan religious beliefs of Mediterranean Europeans during the late Medieval period (Cheshire, G. 2017. “Linguistic Missing Links.", Cheshire, G. 2017b. “Linguistically Dating and Locating Manuscript MS408.”). More specifically, the manuscript was compiled by a Dominican nun as a source of reference for the female royal court to which her monastery was affiliated.

Within the manuscript there is a foldout pictorial map that provides the necessary information to date and locate the origin of the manuscript. It tells the adventurous, and rather inspiring, story of a rescue mission, by ship, to save the victims of a volcanic eruption in the Tyrrhenian Sea that began on the evening of the 4 February 1444 (Wilson, J. 1810. A History of Mountains: Geographical and Mineralogical. Vol. III. London: Riddell of London.; Ward, P. 1974. The Aeolian Islands. Cambridge: Oleander Press.).

The manuscript originates from Castello Aragonese, an island castle and citadel off Ischia, and was compiled for Maria of Castile, Queen of Aragon, (1401–58) who led the rescue mission as regent during the absence of her husband, King Alfonso V of Aragon (1396–1458) who was otherwise occupied, having only recently conquered and then taken control of Naples in February 1443. Incidentally, Maria was great-aunt to Catherine of Aragon (1485–1536), first wife of King Henry VIII (1491–1547) and mother of Queen Mary Tudor (1516–58).

The island of Ischia is historically famous for its hot volcanic spas, which exist to this day. The manuscript has many images of naked women bathing in them, both recreationally and therapeutically. There are also images of Queen Maria and her court conducting trade negotiations whilst bathing. Clearly the spa lifestyle was highly regarded as a form of physical cleansing and spiritual communion, as well as a general means of relaxation and leisure.
The article contains a lot of detail on the language and writing system used in the manuscript, which helps explain why earlier attempts to decipher it ran into problems. The article contains many illustrations from the manuscript and an explanation of their meaning or significance.

The last part of the article discusses a memoir "written by Loise De Rosa (1385–1475), who lived and worked in the court of Naples. It is titled De Regno di Napoli (The Kingdom of Naples)," written in a similar style and using similar letterforms, and helps explain why the Voynich manuscript "is so dominated by female issues, activities and adventures and why so few images of men appear." As with quite a bit of literature, sexual frustration comes into play.

Even if the Voynich manuscript doesn't fascinate you, I highly recommend the article for the "detective" aspect of deciphering a text that has baffled experts for years.

Article citation: Gerard Cheshire (2019) The Language and Writing System of MS408 (Voynich) Explained, Romance Studies, DOI: 10.1080/02639904.2019.1599566.

Update (2019 May 16): OK, maybe not. See this article at Ars Technica for some skeptical responses (to put it nicely) to Cheshire's claim.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Karl Ove Knausgård on Literary Freedom

I've only read a few things by Karl Ove Knausgård, and it's been hit or miss on what I like and what hasn't connected. One thing I did enjoy is his recent conversation with Tyler Cowen, which I saw linked at Marginal Revolution. The wide-ranging interview
starts with a discussion of mimesis and ends with an explanation of why we live in the world of Munch’s The Scream. Along the way there is much more, including what he learned from reading Ingmar Bergman’s workbooks, the worst thing about living in London, how having children increased his productivity, whether he sees himself in a pietistic tradition, thoughts on Bible stories, angels, Knut Hamsun, Elena Ferrante, the best short story (“Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”), the best poet (Paul Celan), the best movie (Scenes from a Marriage), and what his punctual arrival says about his attachment to bourgeois values.

The podcast and transcript can be found here. I recommend it, even if (like me) you're not sure how much you like Knausgård's work. An excerpt:

COWEN: Arnold Weinstein has a book on Nordic culture, and he argues that the sacrifice of the child is a recurring theme. It’s in Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. It’s in a number of Ibsen plays, Bergman movies. Has that influenced you? Or are you a rejection of that? Are you like Edvard Munch, but with children, and that’s the big difference between you and Munch, the painter?

I told you we ask different questions.

KNAUSGÅRD: Yeah, yeah. You just said different. You didn’t say difficult.

Yeah, because there was a lot of grouping together. Here you had Kierkegaard and the sacrifice of Isaac and the biblical story, which basically is a story about faith, and what it is to believe in God, and what it demands to believe in God — the completely irrational level it takes to believe in God. The leap out in the unknown which you have to take.

It’s an interesting thing going on in that essay, which is a wonderful essay about Abraham sacrificing Isaac. It’s that it also has some small parts about breastfeeding in between, which is incredibly strange, and I’ve been thinking a lot about that. What is that?

But it’s moving away from something. It’s going from a mother into society, and the leap of religion is going from a society into the unknown, into the things we don’t really know about, the things we don’t have language for.

There is another very interesting Norwegian poet — no, not Norwegian, but Nordic poet — called Inger Christensen. She wrote a collection of essays which is really brilliant, and she talks about those kind of border areas. It’s a matter of language — what we can express and what we not can express. In science, those are the string theories. That’s the things we don’t know. That’s the unknown.

And the border is the language. We don’t have language for it. We can’t really. She also said that — like a letter in a book cannot read what’s around it, cannot read the book — we are the same in the world. We cannot read the world. We’re part of it.

But that was Kierkegaard. Yeah, I find it hard to connect Kierkegaard in regard of children, sacrifice of children. And Bergman? Bergman is completely different somehow.

If you're interested in Knausgård's writing, you'll probably enjoy this article at boundary2.org (a site I'm not familiar with) by Martin Hägglund from his forthcoming book This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom. An excerpt:

The appeal of Knausgaard’s writing, then, is not that it forces you to see his life with your eyes. Rather, his writing enables you to see your life with his eyes—with the level of attention he bestows on a life. Thereby, you can come to recognize the myriad ways in which you are indeed alive, even when you seem dead to yourself or lost in the mundane events of everyday existence. As you take care of the tasks at hand, what you see bears the weight of your love and your evasions, the history of who you have been and may turn out to be. Evenings that no one else can remember live in you, when the snow touched your face or the rain caught you unprepared, when you were all alone and yet marked by all the others that have made you who you are. There are things you cannot leave behind or wish you could retrieve. And there is hope you cannot extinguish—whether buried or insistent, broken or confident, the one never excluding the other.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Opening day: The Catcher Was a Spy (2018) and The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg (1998)

It's been a while since I've fallen out of love with baseball, but I still enjoy a good baseball movie. Here are a couple of films I've watched recently that I can highly recommend.

Picture source

The first is The Catcher Was a Spy, based on the 1994 biography The Catcher Was a Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg by David Dawidoff. I was already familiar with the story about Moe Berg, a middling major league catcher who played important roles for the U.S. war effort during World War II. The first incident came when Berg was included with an all-star baseball team visiting Japan and playing goodwill games with Japanese baseball teams. He was included because he was able to quickly learn languages, plus he had visited Japan two years earlier (a fact not included in the movie). Having contacted MovieTone News before the team left, he carried a movie camera with which he was able to film parts of Tokyo Bay and other important industrial and military sites in Japan. Several years later (after Pearl Harbor) he made the films available to the U.S. military.

Berg gained a government position during the war and eventually applied and worked for the Office of Strategic Services. The movie focuses on this part of his life, especially the mission he was given to attend a lecture by Werner Heisenberg in Switzerland. He was to evaluate if Germany was close to achieving an atomic bomb or if he thought Heisenberg would help them build them. Berg was given the green light to assassinate Heisenberg if he thought it necessary to stop the German's project. The irony in the mission plays with the Heisenberg uncertainty principle—regarding the status of the German atomic bomb project, can Berg successfully measure/evaluate both the position (where they are at) and velocity or momentum (will Heisenberg help them succeed soon)? Paul Rudd captures the complexity of Berg and the remaining cast provides strong support. Fortunately the movie skips his later life, which isn't a pretty picture in Dawidoff's book.

This interview with director Ben Lewin at the Sloan Science & Film site gives some background on how he became involved in the film and how some of the actors prepared for their roles.

Official trailer for The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg

The Detroit Tigers had an AA farm team where I grew up, the Montgomery Rebels of the Southern League. I got to see such players as Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker on their way up to the majors, as well as some rising stars on other teams such as Vida Blue. I became a minor fan of the Tigers, and even though his career was over I appreciated Hank Greenberg's accomplishments. If you're not familiar with this all-star, Aviva Kempner's documentary The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg is a great place to start. Anchoring first base for the team during the 1930's (later moved to the outfield), Greenberg was an all-star hitter and one of the greatest sluggers to play the game. He also became one of the first major Jewish sports stars. Detroit, at this time, was a hotbed of anti-semitism but Greenberg displayed class and courage, realizing he was in the spotlight and would be judged harsher because of it. Greenberg also became a friend to Jackie Robinson during his rookie year and supported him during the struggles Robinson faced.

Kempner has become an accomplished documentarian, and in this, her first release, she pieces together interviews from sports figures, family members, celebrities, and fans to provide an engaging story arc of his life and career. Greenberg's Jewishness is the central focus of the story, but his accomplishments transcend trying to pigeonhole him with any identity. From the film's website:

“Hammering Hank” Greenberg’s career spanned the years when our country faced the enormous challenges of the Great Depression and World War II. He played first base and outfield for the Detroit Tigers from 1933 to 1946 and for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1947. Known as a self-made star and notorious for his hours of daily practice, Greenberg was recognized by sportswriters as “one of the greatest power hitters.”

In 1938, he achieved tremendous fame when he fell two homeruns short of matching Babe Ruth’s record of sixty home runs in a single season. He was chosen Most Valuable Player in 1935 as a first baseman and again in 1940 as a left fielder. He batted in more than one hundred runs per season seven times in his career. His lifetime batting average was .313 and his career home run total was 331. In 1956 he received baseball’s highest honor when he was voted into the Hall of Fame.

The highlights of his inspirational career constantly made the national headlines and captured the imagination not only of sportswriters but also of his loyal fans. His l938 attempt to beat Babe Ruth’s home run record was followed closely in the press and by baseball fans all over America. In May 1941, Greenberg again made headline news as the first star ballplayer to enlist in the Armed Services. In June 1945, he was the first ballplayer to attempt a comeback after so long an absence from the sport. He did so successfully by hitting a home run in the first game he played upon his return. In l947, Greenberg set another benchmark when he became the first major league baseball player to earn more than $100,000 per year.

It turns out there is a tie-in between the two movies: Aviva Kempner is making a documentary about Berg currently titled The Spy Behind Home Plate that is scheduled for release later this year. Have fun with these or other baseball movies as the season starts.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Graham Parker And The Rumour: This Is Live



I feel like I need to apologize for blog silence lately. I'll pass on the enjoyable find I stumbled across today on Shout Factory TV: Graham Parker And The Rumour: This Is Live. "Filmed for a scene in Judd Apatow’s 2012 motion picture This Is 40, Graham Parker & The Rumour: This Is Live presents the complete concert for the very first time." More on the concert can be found at Pop Matters. While not totally disagreeing with the author, I've found Parker's energy in the last decade isn't the same as it was in the '70s and '80s, but it's there nonetheless (although probably not translating to the screen in the same manner).

One of these days I'll need to write about the fun music scenes I've been fortunate to see, especially the re-birth of Deep Ellum in Dallas during the mid-1980s. I look at my boys now and can't imagine dropping them off at the '70s concerts my parents ferried me to when I was 14. I want to thank my parents for what they did, while wondering at the same time what the hell were they thinking?

Anyway, for those so inclined, enjoy.

Saturday, February 02, 2019

Legend of the Holy Drinker currently on Amazon Prime

I just noticed that Legend of the Holy Drinker, based on Joseph Roth's novella, is available to view for free on Amazon Prime. I loved Roth's story and found this movie version with Rutger Hauer very well done.

In one of his letters, Joseph Roth wrote, "There are miracles in my life, poor little miracles, but miracles just the same—only fair for a poor little believer like myself," which sounds like it could be be a prefiguration and a partial summary for the novella. If you're looking for a change of pace (and it does go at a slow pace), I highly recommend taking advantage of the free viewing.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou


Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou
Alfred A. Knopf, 2018
Hardcover, 352 pages

Bad Blood, the true story of the rise and collapse of a medical device start-up in Silicon Valley that blew through $900 million dollars on a product that never worked, was on many "Best Of" book lists for 2018, and for good reason. Told by John Carreyrou, The Wall Street Journal investigative reporter who broke the story of the company's fraud, has the makings of a great fictional thriller...except it really happened. To quote Bill Gates, “This book has everything: elaborate scams, corporate intrigue, magazine cover stories, ruined family relationships and the demise of a company once valued at nearly $10 billion.” And it has more, including high-profile investors used to give the company legitimacy, dysfunctional people running a dysfunctional company, and scorched-earth tactics to block bad press.
The first two-thirds of the book covers the story of the meteoric growth of the start-up company Theranos and its young and charismatic CEO Elizabeth Holmes. Modeling herself after Steve Jobs, Homes sold a dream of quick, accurate blood tests from only a few drops of blood from the fingertip. She wrapped the dream in moving anecdotes, tapping into the desire to significantly improve health care.

There were many problems with her dream, though. Theranos didn't have any breakthrough technology. They were simply trying to miniaturize existing technology, significantly compromising analyses and results. Skirting normal clinical rigor, Holmes tried to bring the product (such as it existed) to market without proper regulatory oversight. Bringing in the shady and arrogant Sunny Balwani as president and COO of the company was a guarantee for disaster. Bullying anyone inside or outside the company that didn't believe in the smoke and mirrors provided by the company couldn't help, either.
The biggest problem of all was the dysfunctional corporate culture in which it [the product] was being developed. Elizabeth and Sunny regarded anyone who raised a concern or an objection as a cynic and a naysayer. Employees who persisted in doing so were usually marginalized or fired, while sycophants were promoted. (164)

Despite bringing in impressive talent, the company had to engage in deceptive practices at every step in order to give the appearance of progress on their blood-test machines. It was a case of everyone wanting to believe in something so much they became blind to what was actually going on. "Elizabeth told the gathered employees that she was building a religion. If there were any among them who didn't believe, they should leave. Sunny put it more bluntly: anyone not prepared to show complete devotion and unmitigated loyalty to the company should 'get the fuck out.'" (173) Having overpromised on results, Holmes had to cut corners and deceive when it was time to deliver.

The last third of the book details how the cracks in the Theranos story eventually brought in Carreyrou and his arduous task in bringing the deceptions to light. It took enormous courage displayed by a handful of people, at great personal and monetary cost, to reveal the danger of the company's product. If the story was fiction, it would almost read as a clichéd take on personal greed, revenge, evil intent, etc. from a thriller. What provides the force felt when reading the book, though, is knowing this actually happened. Regardless of any good intentions when starting the company, it quickly devolved into a nightmarish tale for many people.

Carreyrou does a good job of describing the problems faced in trying to provide tests from a few drops of blood that Theranos touted their device could provide. No wonder many in the industry doubted the veracity of their claims, but obviously it wasn't enough to deter investors, who were kept as marginalized in the overall picture as were the company's employees. Many notable people who should have known better end up looking worse for their part in corporate misgovernance.

Some of my experiences add to my enthusiasm for the book. One factor is that I work in Silicon Valley, so startup anecdotes are commonplace. It's amazing how small the valley can be at times. Another factor is that I worked in the medical device field for over a decade and experienced a concern for clinical results and regulatory compliance that was blithely ignored by Holmes and Theranos management. Also, having worked for startups in several phases of development, I understand that credulity provides a huge factor in funding and other aspects of these companies, but at some point reality has to be faced. Those people that decided to blow the whistle on a fraud of this magnitude despite the firepower Theranos could line up against them have my respect. It's difficult enough at times to leave employment at a company, whether it crosses ethical lines (sometimes blurred, sometimes clear) or not, but to knowingly set yourself up as a target for people that have the power and the motive to destroy you deserves special credit. Very highly recommended.

Update (2019 May 11):I just watched The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley and wanted to recommend it, too. To me, the movie complements the book well, with the added benefit of seeing and hearing the people involved in the company and stories. The book goes into more detail on the science behind blood analysis and how tests are done, which I think is an important part of understanding the overall story of Theranos. Carreyou's book also has more depth on how his story finally made it into print, highlighting additional people key in revealing the fraud. Even with those caveats, The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley is a very good introduction to this remarkable story.

Link:
Author Q&A at the publisher's site

Q: What does the Theranos saga say about Silicon Valley?
A: It tells us that, while there’s real innovation taking place in Silicon Valley, there’s also a huge amount of hubris and pretending going on there. The staggering amount of money that has poured into the Valley’s startup ecosystem over the past decade has given rise to arrogance, excess and outright fraud. Moreover, these companies are staying private much longer than they used to, which makes it harder to pierce their veils of secrecy and expose their problems. As a capitalistic society, we tend to lionize tech entrepreneurs. This tale is a reminder that the reality is often more complicated and less glossy than the myths we’re fed by Silicon Valley’s PR machine.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

They Shall Not Grow Old (2018)


On the centenary of the end of First World War, Academy Award-winner Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings trilogy) presents the World Premiere of an extraordinary new work showing the Great War as you have never seen it. This unique film brings into high definition the human face of the First World War as part of a special London Film Festival presentation alongside a live Q&A with director Peter Jackson hosted by Mark Kermode.

Using state of the art technology to restore original archival footage which is more than a 100-years old, Jackson brings to life the people who can best tell this story: the men who were there. Driven by a personal interest in the First World War, Jackson set out to bring to life the day-to-day experience of its soldiers. After months immersed in the BBC and Imperial War Museums’ archives, narratives and strategies on how to tell this story began to emerge for Jackson. Using the voices of the men involved, the film explores the reality of war on the front line; their attitudes to the conflict; how they ate; slept and formed friendships, as well what their lives were like away from the trenches during their periods of downtime.

Jackson and his team have used cutting edge techniques to make the images of a hundred years ago appear as if they were shot yesterday. The transformation from black and white footage to colourised footage can be seen throughout the film revealing never before seen details. Reaching into the mists of time, Jackson aims to give these men voices, investigate the hopes and fears of the veterans, the humility and humanity that represented a generation changed forever by a global war.
(Synopsis from the official movie website)
I went to see this movie last night wondering if it would live up to the hype it has received, and for the most part I'd have to say it did. There is a wealth of information and reviews about the movie available online so I won't go into great detail here, but if you're interested check out some of the links in this post. A quick online search will turn up much more.

The half-hour documentary that follows the movie provides information on the task that Jackson faced and details the challenges his team had to address. They had 100 hours of film footage from the time of the war, much of it copies instead of original shots, and 600 hours of audio interviews with World War I veterans from the 1960s and '70s. Clips from these interviews "narrate" the movie, and it's interesting to hear the participants' perspectives of what we're seeing on the screen.

Jackson lays out his thoughts on the approach he chose. While noting the importance of the participation of British subjects and other countries as well as women on the homefront and the war theater, he wanted a specific concentration: “I didn’t want to do a little bit of everything. I just wanted to focus on one topic and do it properly: the experience of an average soldier infantryman on the Western Front.” This narrowed focus makes for an effective storyline. We see and hear about enlistment and training in Britain, arrival on the continent, life in the trenches, experiences on leave, what it was like to go "over the top," engagement with German POWs, and the bittersweet return home. It leaves you wanting more, but that is exactly Jackson's goal—for us to find out more about those who experienced the war, especially participants in our own families.

Since most of the family and acquaintances I knew that had been in a war would rarely (if ever) talk about it, I'm always interested to hear other participants' experiences, not just what happened but also how they tell it. In the early parts of the movie, the men relay lively tales of signing up and training. As the movie progresses, the tone changes. It's not exactly somber, but more matter-of-fact. The most moving moment for me was a veteran recalling shooting an ally to put him out of his misery after he had an arm and leg blown off. As the veteran's voice cracks, it's easy to imagine him living with that moment in the years since the war.

There were a few more things I'll note, but these are more of a personal taste. Or lack thereof. I'm not a fan of the 3D feature. While it adds some nice touches, it seems to me that the quality suffers from it. I guess I'm reminded too much of my old ViewMaster discs. I would have loved to have seen more of the corrected and enhanced black-and-white footage as well. Colorization techniques have improved, but I wouldn't honestly say it appeared "as if they were shot yesterday." What it did, though, was give an additional appreciation for what it was like beyond any realistic recent movie recreation.

If you get a chance to see the movie, I highly recommend it. For now you'll have to be on the lookout for additional screenings and check the Fathom Events site for locations. Hopefully this will soon be released for home viewing, but it is definitely a great experience on a big screen.

Links

Saturday, January 19, 2019

The horrible washing sawing of Big Sur


Big Sur, California
Highway 1, just north of Garrapata Creek Bridge: 12 January 2019

So that when later I heard people say “Oh Big Sur must be beautiful!” I gulp to wonder why it has the reputation of being beautiful above and beyond its fearfulness, its Blakean groaning roughrock Creation throes, those vistas when you drive the coast highway on a sunny day opening up the eye for miles of horrible washing sawing.
Jack Kerouac—Big Sur (1962)
Big Sur is one of my favorite getaways. I got the chance for a solo trip last weekend and the toll taken by the elements on the area over the past couple of years limited what I had hoped to do. I drove down early Saturday morning before the crowds of tourists wind their way down Highway 1 and was able to hike some of the few open trails in the area. Many were closed from a combination of the Soberanes Fire of a couple of years ago and rain from last spring and this winter, a combination of a timeless, elemental flux.

Since so many of the trails and beaches I wanted to visit were closed, I decided to stop at a pullout in Garrapatas State Park and walk out to one of the vista points. I noticed on the way south earlier that morning that the state had improved many of the coastal access points and I wanted to take advantage of the development. As I walked across the highway and down the narrow trail toward the cliffs, a guy came running up to me and said, "My friend has just fallen. If you see anything in the water, please let us know." I didn't have time to respond before he was off, so I continued heading out toward the coast. The surf is captured in the above video, 12-15 foot waves with an occasional 20-footer. While there (for about 45 minutes), many rangers, firemen, lifeguards, and other rescue people showed up on the scene and positioned themselves to locate the fallen friend. Seeing the personnel go through the rescue drills was just as dispiriting as the individual event, realizing they had done this dozens of times before and had a protocol they instinctively followed in order to spot a body in the water. There are many articles online about the event, but I'll just link this one.

There are a few literary works that capture the area for me, my favorite being some of Robinson Jeffers' poems. Last week's encounter, however, reminded me more of Jack Kerouac in Big Sur. I've never really connected with Kerouac, but if I had to pick one work I liked the best it would be this short novel. If you haven't read it, Big Sur follows Kerouac a few years after On the Road had been published (and fourteen years after the events in the book) as he's trying to handle the fame of his book as well as his inability to control himself, especially with alcohol. Kerouac's mental deterioration coincides with his visits to Lawrence Ferlinghetti's cabin in Big Sur. His isolation, exacerbated by the insignificance he feels in comparison to nature's power brings on a mental and physical breakdown. The poem he wrote while in Big Sur, "Sea: Sounds of the Pacific Ocean at Big Sur," does little for me except for the parts echoing the parts of the novel comparing man's transience to nature's permanence, part of the many tensions in the book such as image vs. reality and beauty vs. hazard.

There are parts of the novel that I have recalled when visiting the area, though, and last Saturday was one of those moments. The simultaneously exhibited beauty and fearfulness of the area had never been on clearer display.



View north of Big Sur coastline, 12 January 2019
Just south of Bixby Creek Bridge