Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Information Graphics

Information Graphics
Cubism & Abstract Art
Digital Nostalgia
Carte Figurative
Information Graphics, written by Sandra Rendgen and edited by Julius Wiedemann, is a survey of data visualisation, published last month by Taschen. This folio-sized volume has hundreds of full-page, colour illustrations. It also includes the poster Infographia, designed with typical clarity by Nigel Holmes, illustrating the taxonomy and concise history of information graphics.

The book begins with essays that present an overview of the development of information design. This section contains an impressive range of historical illustrations, in chronological order, creating a comprehensive visual history of maps, charts, and diagrams. Fascinating examples from the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the Age of Enlightenment are included, and there are no significant omissions.

Historical highlights include Alfred H Barr's Cubism & Abstract Art (which was updated by Daniel Feral last year), the amusing Periodic Table Of Swearing by Modern Toss, and Eugene Pick's epic timeline of civilisation, Tableau De L'Histoire Universelle. [Time magazine produced a similar timeline recently, just a few weeks before Information Graphics was published.] Joseph Minard's representation of Napoleon's Russian campaign, described by Edward R Tufte (in The Visual Display Of Quantitative Information) as "the best statistical graphic ever drawn," is also included.

Providing a wide survey of contemporary information graphics, the book includes over 400 illustrated examples, ranging from art to journalism. The featured graphics are divided into four brightly colour-coded categories: cartography, chronology, taxonomy, and hierarchy.

The selection of contemporary infographics includes ambitious visualisations of the internet (Web Trend Map, by Information Architects) and warfare (Everyone Ever In The World, by Peter Crnokrak). My favourite is the Digital Nostalgia series (by Paul Butt), which traces the evolution of consumer technology formats.

I Am Spartacus!

I Am Spartacus!
Kirk Douglas, who starred in Spartacus and produced the film, has written a memoir titled I Am Spartacus!: Making A Film, Breaking The Blacklist. The book expands on the account Douglas previously gave in his autobiography The Ragman's Son.

"Egos clashed like swords" during the making of the film, according to Douglas: "Stanley Kubrick vs. Dalton Trumbo. Charles Laughton vs. Laurence Olivier. Kubrick vs. his cinematographer, Russell Metty". And, of course, Douglas versus Kubrick: "Stanley looked a little intimidated. I hadn't wanted to do this in front of the entire crew, but perhaps it was a good thing".

Though directed by Kubrick, Spartacus was conceived as a Kirk Douglas production. It's notable as one of the few historical epics without an overtly religious theme, though its real significance was that it gave a screen credit to Dalton Trumbo. Trumbo was one of the 'Hollywood Ten', blacklisted as Communists after they were investigated by Joseph McCarthy's House Un-American Activities Committee.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Barack Obama: The Story

Barack Obama: The Story
Barack Obama: The Story, by David Maraniss, is a biography of Obama's heritage and youth, covering roughly the same period as Obama's autobiography Dreams From My Father. It was published in the UK with a different subtitle: The Making Of The Man.

The book is over 600 pages long, and involved research trips to Kenya and Indonesia. It's hard to imagine a more thorough account of Obama's formative years. The level of background detail is sometimes excessive, with the first 200 pages devoted to Obama's parents and grandparents. Obama is not even born until page 165, and he starts university at the book's midpoint.

Maraniss characterises the young Obama as a man struggling with his sense of identity, growing up as a mixed-race child and viewed as an Oreo (black on the outside; white on the inside) by some of his college peers. Embracing his black identity became more of a conscious calculation that a natural progression: Maraniss quotes one friend's description of Obama as "the most deliberate person I ever met in terms of constructing his own identity".

The narrative of Obama's memoir Dreams From My Father was central to this identity-construction. In his introduction (which Obama read before publication), Maraniss says that Obama's book "falls into the realm of literature": it presents autobiographical events, though each account is selected "to advance a theme, another thread in his musings about race". In his book, Obama admitted that "some of the characters that appear are composites of people I've known, and some events appear out of precise chronology", though Maraniss reveals the full extent of this artistic licence.

Genevieve Cook, a former girlfriend of Obama's, is one of Maraniss's most revealing sources, and Maraniss quotes extensively from her diary. Genevieve dismisses several of the anecdotes in Obama's book, and Maraniss later discussed the discrepancies with Obama himself: "Obama acknowledged that the scene did not happen with Genevieve. "It is an incident that happened," he said. But not with her". (Obama gave Maraniss an interview at the White House, as he had done for Bob Woodward's Obama's Wars and Ron Suskind's Confidence Men.)

Alongside the issue of racial identity, Maraniss portrays cool detachment as Obama's defining characteristic. He quotes one of Obama's former colleagues describing "that calm, rational, let's think this through demeanor, let's find a common ground. He's had that all along and that's helped shape him. Sometimes I wish he would pound his fists on the table".

Monday, 18 June 2012

Italian Film Festival 2012

Italian Film Festival 2012
A Fistful Of Dollars
For A Few Dollars More
The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly
Once Upon A Time In The West
The Italian Film Festival opens next month at SF World (CentralWorld, Bangkok). Last year's Festival featured a Mario Monicelli tribute; this year's event includes a retrospective of Sergio Leone's classic 'spaghetti westerns', which will be screened in their Italian-language versions. The Festival runs from 3rd-7th July, and screenings are free.

A Fistful Of Dollars, the film that launched the spaghetti western sub-genre, will be screened on 4th July, followed by its sequel, A Few Dollars More. The last and greatest film in the trilogy, The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly (shown previously at Lido's Festival Of Classic Movies), will be screened on 7th July, in 35mm. The epic Once Upon A Time In The West will be shown on 5th July, also in 35mm.

A Fistful Of Dollars may not have the epic scope of The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly, though it contains some of the most famous sequences in Italian cinema. Clint Eastwood's tense opening confrontation ("Get three coffins ready..."), and his climactic duel ("Aim for the heart, Ramon...") have both become iconic. The film was an unofficial remake of Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo, and would later inspire Takashi Miike's Sukiyaki Western Django. Leone was also influenced by the classical Hollywood westerns, notably Shane, that his film subverts.

Sunday, 10 June 2012


[Please note: this review contains plot spoilers. Also, Prometheus is showing in 2D, 4DX, and IMAX DMR formats in addition to its original 3D version.]

Prometheus, filmed in 3D, is Ridley Scott's much-anticipated prequel to his science-fiction/horror classic Alien. A few years after Alien, Scott directed Blade Runner, a masterpiece of neo-noir futurism, and Prometheus marks Scott's long-awaited return to science-fiction, more than thirty years later. (Evil Dead director Sam Raimi made a similar return to his genre roots with his recent horror film Drag Me To Hell.) Alien spawned a long-running franchise; the three sequels were all made by outstanding directors (James Cameron, David Fincher, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet), though Scott was not associated with any of them.

Prometheus opens with a title sequence clearly inspired by Alien, as the letters of the title are formed slowly from a series of straight lines. Also, the opening shot resembles the first image of Stanley Kubrick's 2001, and, like 2001 (and Terrence Malick's Tree Of Life), Prometheus explores the origin and evolution of life. In a prologue sequence, we see a muscular man drink a strange black liquid and plunge into a waterfall. His body begins to disintegrate, and his DNA fuses with the water to create life on Earth. Only much later is it revealed that he was an alien from a distant solar system.

As in Alien, a group of astronauts exploring a seemingly barren moon encounters a hostile alien species. The Prometheus expedition was instigated by a scientist, played by Noomi Rapace, who discovers a star map in pre-historic cave paintings. The voyage to this constellation is funded by an elderly industrialist, played by Guy Pearce, and supervised by his assistant, played by Charlize Theron. Potential narrative flaw: the aliens created microbial life on Earth, though that happened long before the paintings, so why were people still aware of their extra-terrestrial origins after millions of years of evolution?

Noomi Rapace (an actress of considerable versatility) plays a character who initially seems similar to Jodie Foster in Contact. In a tense and claustrophobic set-piece that updates the famous chest-bursting scene from Alien, Rapace performs a Caesarean section to abort an alien foetus. (This sequence should inspire an update of Barbara Creed's book The Monstrous-Feminine.) Rapace's character subsequently develops into a heroic precursor to Sigourney Weaver's role in Alien. Charlize Theron gives a performance as icy and authoritarian as her role in Snow White & The Huntsman. Guy Pearce (outstanding in Memento and LA Confidential) is barely recognisable wearing thick old-age prosthetics; presumably, other sequences showing him as a younger man were cut from the final version.

The most impressive performance is that of Michael Fassbender (who starred in the recent film Shame). He plays an android called David, who watches Lawrence Of Arabia and imitates Peter O'Toole. His character's name is presumably a reference to the android child in Steven Spielberg's AI (a project originated by Kubrick). His voice is as calm yet inscrutable as that of the computer, HAL, in Kubrick's 2001, and like HAL, David is not entirely trustworthy. Like the equally devious android in Alien, David is ultimately decapitated and reanimated. Of course, he is also a replicant, like the principal characters in Blade Runner.

Prometheus is surprisingly intense and violent: it may be a science-fiction blockbuster, though it's aimed at adults. It's reassuring that such an expensive event-movie hasn't been sanitised to appeal to a wider audience. However, presumably due to its much larger budget, the film lacks the gritty feel of Alien (and John Carpenter's Dark Star). Also unlike Alien, Prometheus has a constant air of grandiosity, with vast spaceships and landscapes, and philosophising characters. This could have been pretentious, though it's arguably justified by the stunning production design and cinematography.

Less defensible are the various unexplained character motivations. We are led to believe that Guy Pearce's character died before the voyage, though he later turns up on the spaceship in an insignificant plot twist. More intriguingly, David the android deliberately infects one of the astronauts with alien DNA, though we have no real idea why. The film's ending is its only serious weakness, with a CGI alien spacecraft risibly squishing Charlize Theron, and the final sequence merely provides the set-up for a potential sequel.

Saturday, 9 June 2012

The Battle For The Arab Spring

The Arab Spring
The Battle For The Arab Spring: Revolution, Counter-Revolution, & The Making Of A New Era is the first comprehensive account of last year's Arab Spring movement. The writers, Lin Noueihed and Alex Warren, systematically cover the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, the civil war in Libya, and the continuing oppression in Syria, providing a complete survey of the events across the Middle East. They also consider the broader conditions that fermented the uprisings, especially the empowerment created by satellite broadcasting, cellular networks, and social media. Finally, they analyse the potential repercussions of the paradigm shift in Arabian politics and society.

The Arab Spring also influenced citizens of other authoritarian regimes, such as China (where artists called for a Jasmine Revolution) and Russia (where demonstrators marched against Vladimir Putin's return to the presidency). (Thailand's 2010 massacre, in the year before the Arab Spring, was another example of a government using the military to suppress pro-democracy protesters.)

The Wonderful Parisian Cinematographe

The Wonderful Parisian Cinematographe
Tomorrow, the Thai Film Archive (at Salaya, near Bangkok) will celebrate the 115th anniversary of the development of Thai cinema. The event, titled The Wonderful Parisian Cinematographe, will recreate the first Thai film screening, which took place in 1897. There will be a hand-cranked 35mm projection of the ten films first presented by the Lumiere brothers in Paris in 1895.

Friday, 8 June 2012

The Spectator

The Spectator
The Spectator magazine has been fined £3,000 after it published a column by Rod Liddle that was deemed prejudicial to the trial of Gary Dobson and David Norris. The magazine was also ordered to pay £2,000 in compensation to the family of Stephen Lawrence.

The article, published on 19th November last year, claimed that Dobson and Norris would not receive a fair trial. (The two defendants were accused, and subsequently convicted, of the murder of Stephen Lawrence.) At the trial, the judge ordered the jury not to read The Spectator, and referred the magazine to the attorney general.

Liddle's article began: "I wonder what would happen if I wrote an article for this magazine saying that Gary Dobson and David Norris had nothing to do with the stabbing to death of the black youngster Stephen Lawrence 18 years ago? And that they are entirely innocent? The two are in court at this moment charged with the murder of Lawrence, and therefore I would be in contempt of court".

Five men, including Dobson and Norris, were arrested on suspicion of murdering Lawrence, though the charges were later dropped. Famously, the Daily Mail named the five men and labelled them "MURDERERS" in a banner headline on 14th February 1997: "The Mail accuses these men of killing. If we are wrong, let them sue us". (None of the men sued.)

In Flat Earth News, Nick Davies subsequently claimed that the Mail's coverage was based on a personal connection: "the dead boy's father, Neville Lawrence... had done some plastering" for the newspaper's editor, Paul Dacre. The Mail's decision to identify the suspects echoed that of the ITV programme Who Bombed Birmingham? (28th March 1990), which argued that the 'Birmingham six' were innocent and named the real bombers.


Thursday, 7 June 2012

No Expenses Spared

No Expenses Spared
No Expenses Spared, by Robert Winnett and Gordon Rayner, provides an account of the recent UK parliamentary expenses scandal. Winnett and Rayner are the two journalists who initially exposed the story, with a series of scoops in the Daily Telegraph.

A complete database of MP's expenses claims and payments was leaked to the Telegraph in May 2009, and the details were front-page news every day for several weeks. This gradual revelation (or serialisation) of the leaked expenses ensured that the story dominated the news agenda for most of the year.

The most serious breaches of parliamentary rules involved MPs making false claims for mortgages, and these resulted in criminal prosecutions. However, the scandal came to be epitomised by the absurdly anachronistic claims made by privileged and out-of-touch Conservative politicians: Douglas Hogg submitted a £2,000 moat-cleaning bill, and Peter Viggers claimed more than £1,000 for an ornamental duck house.

The repercussions of the scandal included, for the first time in over 300 years, the resignation of the Speaker of the House of Commons. Several cabinet ministers also resigned: Jacqui Smith was humiliated as her expenses included charges for porn films viewed by her husband (an individual story broken by the Sunday Express, before the Telegraph's investigation), and Hazel Blears was forced to quit after Prime Minister Gordon Brown refused to support her. The scandal was one of a series of public-relations crises affecting Brown's government, and when James Purnell resigned from the cabinet he also called for Brown's resignation.

No Expenses Spared is essentially a diary of the scandal's daily developments, from the perspectives of journalists in the Telegraph's newsroom. The background to the leak, and the initial frenzy as the story broke, are covered in minute detail, though the later ramifications (including the various ministerial resignations) are summarised in a single chapter. There is no index.

Page One

Page One
Page One: Inside The New York Times & The Future Of Journalism, edited by David Folkenflik, is a collection of essays to complement Andrew Rossi's documentary Page One: Inside The New York Times. Rossi writes the book's first chapter, describing the background to his film.

There are also contributions from several senior New York Times journalists, including media correspondent David Carr. Scott Shane writes about the newspaper's uneasy collaboration with WikiLeaks and the sensitivities of publishing leaked US embassy cables.

For the 'born digital' generation, printed newspapers such as the New York Times are largely an anachronism. Consumers increasingly read on screen rather than on paper, preferring instant Twitter updates instead of detailed newspaper analysis. Also, readers expect that online content should be free, and online advertising is less lucrative than traditional print advertising, so newspaper profits (and print circulations) are in sharp decline.

Page One addresses and advocates this digital transformation, arguing that recent reports of the death of journalism are greatly exaggerated. Emily Bell and Alan Rusbridger suggest that firewalls and 'freemium' models simply drive potential visitors to free alternatives. (Two UK newspapers, The Guardian and the Daily Mail, have successfully penetrated the American market by generating free content for their respective websites, though how to make a profit is another matter.) Jim Bankoff challenges former editor Bill Keller's concerns about news aggregators, though I'm not fully convinced.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Batman Begins

Batman Begins
Batman Begins is the first of Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy. (It was followed by The Dark Knight and the forthcoming The Dark Knight Rises.) Batman and Batman Returns portrayed Gotham City through Tim Burton's Gothic vision, though Nolan's Gotham is closer to the urban decay of Blade Runner.

Nolan's best films, Memento and Inception, both have unconventional narrative structures, though after some early flashbacks Batman Begins is essentially a linear action movie. The flashbacks are part of a drawn-out origin story, with Nolan apparently using his first Batman film to establish the character in preparation for The Dark Knight.

Though Batman has no super powers (like Iron Man and The Red Eagle), he does benefit from gadgets supplied by Lucius Fox, who has the same function as James Bond's Q. (He also has Wayne Tower, like Iron Man's Stark Tower, though Wayne's playboy persona is a facade whereas Stark's isn't.) Michael Caine, as Alfred the butler, gives the first of several performances in Nolan's films (the others being The Prestige, Inception, and the Batman sequels).

Friday, 1 June 2012

International Buddhist Film Festival 2012

International Buddhist Film Festival 2012
The 2012 International Buddhist Film Festival will take place in Bangkok later this month. The Festival, organised by Buddhaleela Bangkok, opens at SF World (CentralWorld) on 7th June and runs for three days.

There will be two screenings of Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Morakot, as part of the Thai Short Film Panorama event on 8th and 9th June. (Morakot was previously shown at Tomyam Pladib, Save The Film, and Indy Spirit Project.)

The MDNA Tour

The MDNA Tour
Madonna's MDNA Tour opened last night, and will continue until the end of the year. The show features tracks from her latest album, MDNA, though it also includes older singles such as Express Yourself (incorporating a cover version of Lady Gaga's Born This Way) and Open Your Heart. It's her first world tour since Sticky & Sweet. There are four themed acts: 'transgression', 'prophecy', 'masculine/feminine' (featuring costumes by Jean Paul Gaultier), and 'redemption'.

The full set list is: Girl Gone Wild, Revolver, Gang Bang, Papa Don't Preach, Hung Up, I Don't Give A, Best Friend, Express Yourself, Give Me All Your Luvin', Turn Up The Radio, Open Your Heart, Masterpiece, Justify My Love, Vogue, Candy Shop, Human Nature, Like A Virgin, Nobody Knows Me, I'm Addicted, I'm A Sinner, Like A Prayer, and Celebration.