29 December 2013

The Story Of Design

The Story Of Design, by Charlotte and Peter Fiell, is billed as "the first ever comprehensive account of the fascinating, multi-stranded story of design, from its earliest beginnings right up to the present day." It does indeed provide an overview of the entire history of design, from Paleolithic tools to the iPhone. (Christopher Dresser, "the father of industrial design", acts as a bridge between pre-modern and modern design.)

The Story Of Design's approach is similar to that of David Raizman's History Of Modern Design, though the Fiells' book is especially significant as its scope also extends to pre-industrial design. Like Raizman, the Fiells focus largely on American, European, and Japanese design, whereas the recent History Of Design (which begins in 1400) is more global in its coverage.

The Fiells previously co-wrote two A-Z design books for Taschen: Design Of The 20th Century and Industrial Design A-Z. The Story Of Design, with 500 pages and hundreds of large illustrations, is an excellent general introduction to design history. It has footnotes, though there's no bibliography.

16 December 2013

The Platter Cartoons

The Platter Cartoons
Sepp Blatter, the head of FIFA, has obtained an injunction in Switzerland against Ole Andersen's book The Platter Cartoons. Blatter claimed that the book, which features a caricature of him called Platter, would damage his reputation. The court, in Zurich, granted a worldwide ban, and the cartoonist faces a fine of 10,000 francs if the book is published.


14 December 2013

Ten Great Films

Ten Great Films
Ten Great Films, by Stanley Kauffmann, is a short collection of essays on ten classics of world cinema. The book was published last year, and Kauffmann died earlier this year.

The Ten Great Films are as follows:

1. Battleship Potemkin
2. Way Down East
3. The Gold Rush
4. Grand Illusion
5. Rashomon
6. L'Avventura
7. Persona
8. 8½
9. Tokyo Story
10. Some Like It Hot

Two of Kauffmann's choices (Battleship Potemkin and Rashomon) are also on my Ten Essential Films list. (Note that Some Like It Hot is the 1959 Billy Wilder film, not the 1939 film of the same name.)

13 December 2013

Hatching Twitter

Hatching Twitter
Hatching Twitter, by New York Times columnist Nick Bilton, tells the story of Twitter's first seven years. It follows another book about a major internet company, The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos & The Age Of Amazon by Brad Stone. Bilton has interviewed the company's founders - Evan Williams (who also founded Blogger), Jack Dorsey, Biz Stone, and Noah Glass - and current CEO Dick Costolo, though their quotes are not attributed and there's no index.

When describing key moments in the Twitter narrative, Bilton sets the scene by describing the weather, the locations, and even the clothes worn by the protagonists. At times, this feels too much like American Psycho, with Jack Dorsey as Patrick Bateman: "He slipped on his dark Earnest Sewn jeans, tucked in his crisp white Dior shirt, then rubbed gel into his hands and scuffed his hair to perfection." Such atmospherics aren't necessary, as the story itself has plenty of drama, with constant boardroom tensions between Twitter's co-founders.

Hatching Twitter's original subtitle was A True Story Of Money, Power, Friendship, & Betrayal. For the paperback edition, the subtitle was changed to How A Fledgling Start-Up Became A Multibillion-Dollar Business & Accidentally Changed The World.

The Hobbit
The Desolation Of Smaug (Atmos)

The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug
The Desolation Of Smaug is the sequel to An Unexpected Journey, and the second in Peter Jackson's trilogy of films adapted from JRR Tolkien's The Hobbit. Jackson also directed the Lord Of The Rings trilogy (I, II, III), also based on novels by Tolkien.

Like An Unexpected Journey, The Desolation Of Smaug was filmed in 3D and HFR at 48fps. Whereas the first film began with a lengthy establishing sequence in Hobbiton, The Desolation Of Smaug is a more action-packed adventure, climaxing with Bilbo's confrontation of the dragon Smaug. There's also a brief appearance by Stephen Fry, who plays the Master of Laketown.

I saw the film in its Dolby Atmos version. Atmos can accommodate 128 distinct audio tracks, with sixty-four individual speakers positioned around the cinema (including in the ceiling). The effect, first used for Pixar's Brave last year, is designed to envelop the audience with sound from all directions. (Bangkok currently has two Atmos cinemas: screen 12 at SF World and screen 6 at Paragon Cineplex.)

The Desolation Of Smaug is screening in a bewildering array of different formats. The original format is HFR 3D (although the HFR version seemingly has a more limited release than that of the first Hobbit film), and it's also screening in 2D, 3D, 4DX, IMAX DMX, IMAX DMX 3D, and HFR IMAX DMX 3D versions.

12 December 2013

Visual Project: Picasso

Visual Project: Picasso
Le Mystere Picasso
Picasso: Magic, Sex, & Death
TCDC in Bangkok is currently screening a mini season of Picasso documentaries, as part of its Visual Project series. (The series also featured three Woody Allen films in February.) The documentaries include Le Mystere Picasso (directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot) and Picasso: Magic, Sex, & Death (a Channel 4 programme directed by Christopher Bruce, written and presented by John Richardson).

Clouzot also directed the classic thriller Les Diaboliques. Richardson curated the Picasso: The Mediterranean Years exhibition, and his written extensively about Picasso's life and work. The Picasso documentaries will be shown at TCDC every day this month.

11 December 2013

People's Democratic Reform Committee

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has announced that she will dissolve parliament, and has scheduled a general election for 2nd February next year. After her announcement, the opposition Democrat Party resigned en masse: all of their MPs quit parliament simultaneously, in a dramatic rejection of the democratic process.

Yingluck was responding to pressure from Suthep Thaugsuban, a former Democrat MP who has been leading street protests in Bangkok for the past month. A fortnight ago, Suthep invaded and occupied the Finance Ministry, in an attempt to destabilise the government. Four people were killed in clashes between students supporting Suthep and UDD members on their way to a pro-government rally. Police have used tear gas and rubber bullets against protesters who were attempting to break into various government buildings, though a temporary truce was called to mark the King's birthday on 5th December.

Suthep was formerly a Democrat MP, though he resigned in order to take his protest onto the streets. There's a bitter irony here, because when Suthep was Deputy Prime Minister in 2010, he and former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva ordered the army to use live ammunition against UDD protesters. (Abhisit and Suthep have both been charged with murder following the 2010 military massacre.) In fact, in 2010 Suthep said: "if they violate the laws, such as blocking roads and intruding into government offices, we will have to disperse the protesters." Now the tables have turned, and Suthep is leading his own protesters, using precisely the tactics that he condemned in 2010.

The protest started last month, when the government passed a bill that would have granted an amnesty to anyone charged with political offences since the 2006 coup. The amnesty, a blatant attempt to facilitate Thaksin Shinawatra's return to Thailand, was deeply unpopular with the public. (Thaksin has been living in self-imposed exile in Dubai since he was charged with corruption in 2008.)

Opposition to the amnesty briefly united both sides of Thailand's political divide. The red-shirts opposed it because it would have absolved Abhisit and Suthep of their responsibility for the 2010 massacre. The yellow-shirts were against it because it would have annulled Thaksin's corruption charge. Suthep began campaigning against the amnesty, and up to 100,000 people gathered at Democracy Monument to support him. (Democracy Monument was also the scene of a red-shirt protest in March 2010.)

Yingluck caved in to public opinion and did indeed drop the amnesty bill. It was also unanimously rejected by the Senate. However, Suthep did not stop his protest; in fact, he stepped up his campaign and called for the complete eradication of "the Thaksin regime". He has since led thousands of protesters in occupying several government ministries in Bangkok. Last Monday, his supporters marched to the offices of Thailand's terrestrial TV stations. Intimidated by the protesters, most channels broadcast a live speech by Suthep, in which he called for a national strike. (He made a similar appeal last month, though that was unsuccessful.)

The government's proposal to amend the constitution is another reason for the current protests. Under the 1997 constitution, widely regarded as Thailand's most democratic charter, the Senate became fully elected for the first time. However, after the coup, the new the 2007 constitution reverted to a partially appointed Senate. Yingluck had sought to amend article 117 of the constitution, and thus restore the fully elected Senate, however the Constitutional Court ruled that any such amendment was unlawful.

The Constitutional Court has a history of politically-motivated judgements. In 2006, it dissolved Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai party though exonerated the Democrats of all charges. In 2008, it ordered Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej to resign for the heinous crime of hosting a TV cookery show. Later that year, it dissolved the People Power Party in what has been called a judicial coup.

Suthep's goals, and his deadlines for achieving them, are both highly fluid. He sets a new deadline every few days, and when it passes he simply postpones it. He initially gave the government until 11th November to cancel the amnesty bill. (They didn't.) Then he declared that 1st December would be "Victory Day". (It wasn't.) He then issued a two-day deadline, for Yingluck to resign before 3rd December. (She didn't.) Then he announced that yesterday would be the "final battle" after which he would surrender to the police. (It wasn't, and he didn't.) At the weekend, he gave Yingluck another deadline of twenty-four hours to resign. (She didn't.) And he gave the police twelve hours to stop guarding Government House. (They didn't.)

Emboldened after the amnesty bill was cancelled, he has now demanded not only the resignation of the Prime Minister and the dissolution of parliament, but the establishment of an entirely new political system. He has formed a People's Democratic Reform Committee to govern the country instead of an elected parliament. He has also called for a royally-appointed prime minister, though the King has previously and unequivocally ruled this out. The PDRC's name is therefore somewhat ironic, as it is clearly undemocratic. (The People's Democratic Reform Committee sounds familiar: the organisers of the 2006 coup called themselves the Council for Democratic Reform...)

Suthep's concept of an appointed government is similar to the People's Alliance for Democracy's "new politics" policy, which called for a 70% appointed parliament and a royally-appointed prime minister. (The PAD is another undemocratic group with an ironic name.) Suthep's protest tactics (occupying ministries) also resemble the PAD's invasions of Government House and Suvarnabhumi airport in 2008. A warrant has been issued for Suthep's arrest, though there has been no attempt to detain him. Even if convicted, he is unlikely to face jail: the PAD leaders have still not been prosecuted, some five years after their brazen takeover of Suvarnabhumi.

Like the PAD, Suthep is doing his best to provoke the army into staging another coup, though army chief Prayut Chan-o-cha has so far managed to resist his natural impulses. Abuse of power was used as a justification for the 2006 coup against Thaksin, though corruption is endemic throughout Thai politics. In another irony, Suthep is campaigning against the corrupt Thaksin regime, yet Suthep also has a reputation for corruption: he illegally distributed farmland as Agriculture Minister in 1995, and he was disqualified as an MP in 2009 after violating the constitution.

In resigning as an MP and organising disruptive protests, Suthep has shown that he prefers mob rule to parliamentary democracy. (PDRC protesters carry whistles instead of the hand-clappers used in previous demonstrations, though in other respects they are following the PAD playbook.) Suthep and the PDRC represent only a minority of the electorate, as they consist largely of middle-class Bangkokians. They are vastly out-numbered by Thailand's rural poor, most of whom are pro-Thaksin.

Thaksin and his proxies have won every election since 2001. If a new election were called today, it's very likely that Yingluck would win again; that's why Suthep wants to replace elections with an appointed council. The Democrats have lost five elections in a row, but instead of reforming their party to make it more electable, they prefer to blame the democratic system itself. Unable to accept Thaksin's popularity with the electorate, his opponents consistently resort to undemocratic alternatives. Hopefully the election will go ahead as scheduled next year, though if the Democrats boycott it (as they did in 2006) they may trigger another judicial or military intervention.

10 December 2013

Censor Must Die

Censor Must Die
Ing K's documentary Censor Must Die will be screened at the Thai Film Archive in Salaya tomorrow. The film follows Ing and Manit Sriwanichpoom as they appeal against the ban imposed on Shakespeare Must Die, their adaptation of Macbeth.

Censor Must Die was premiered at the Freedom On Film seminar in June. Since then, it's been screened at Silpakorn University's Nakhon Pathom campus in August and at the members-only Friese-Greene Club in Bangkok last month.

07 December 2013

The Big Screen

The Big Screen
There are many histories of the cinema (and I've read plenty of them), though few are as passionate or as thoughtful as The Big Screen: The Story Of The Movies. David Thomson calls it "a love letter to a lost love, I suppose. It has the semblance of being a history, but it might be some kind of novel". Thomson's elegant prose style, and the presence of his narrative voice, certainly feel novelistic, in contrast to conventional, dry reference books on the same subject.

I'm quite a late convert to the works of David Thomson. I've honestly never understood the acclaim for his Biographical Dictionary Of Film, though I really admire The Moment Of Psycho, Have You Seen...?, Moments That Made The Movies, and The Big Screen. (In the UK, the book's subtitle has been extended to The Story Of The Movies & What They Did To Us.)

The Big Screen is a history of film as art and entertainment, though it's also a history of 'the movies' as an experience, as images viewed on a screen. This extends to the small screen, and the portable screens that we now use to consume digital media: from "Muybridge to Facebook". It's selective rather than all-encompassing, though its celebration of classical Hollywood filmmaking is as escapist as cinema itself.

06 December 2013


Makers: The Next Industrial Revolution is Chris Anderson's guide to the 'next big thing' in technology: 3D printing, otherwise known as additive manufacturing. Anderson is a former editor of Wired, and now runs companies that design and manufacture drones (another potential 'next big thing').

Like his first book The Long Tale, Makers began as a Wired magazine article; in this case, it was In The Next Industrial Revolution, Atoms Are The New Bits (published in 2010). The shift from physical atoms to digital bits has been Anderson's central thesis for more than a decade, forming the basis of each of his books, though it was first developed by his Wired colleague Nicholas Negroponte.

Like The New Digital Age, Makers is a techno-utopian book, envisioning a "Third Industrial Revolution" in which 3D printing will allow each of us to design and create consumer products in our own homes. (Peter Marsh also discusses this possibility, in his book The New Industrial Revolution.) Makers develops Anderson's 'long tail' concept and applies it to physical products: "The Internet democratized publishing, broadcasting, and communications, and the consequence was... the Long Tail of bits. Now the same is happening to manufacturing - the Long Tail of things."

Difficult Men

Difficult Men
Difficult Men, by Brett Martin, is an account of the recent open-ended drama series about morally ambiguous male protagonists on American cable television. Martin interviews the creators of The Sopranos (David Chase), The Wire (David Simon and Ed Burns), Six Feet Under (Alan Ball), Deadwood (David Milch), and others, celebrating what he describes as the "Third Golden Age" of American television.

Whereas Hollywood focused on franchises, remakes, and superheroes, HBO and other cable channels produced sophisticated, character-based, and adult-oriented dramas. Significantly, Martin Scorsese directed the pilot episode of Boadwalk Empire for HBO, an example of creative crossover from film to television.

The touchstone for this trend was The Sopranos, the HBO series inspired by GoodFellas, and its success helped make cable TV drama "the signature American art form of the first decade of the twenty-first century". Difficult Men's subtitle is Behind The Scenes Of A Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos & The Wire To Mad Men & Breaking Bad. For the UK edition, the subtitle was reversed.

05 December 2013

The New Digital Age

The New Digital Age
The New Digital Age: Reshaping The Future Of People, Nations, & Business was written jointly by Eric Schmidt (former Google CEO) and Jared Cohen (director of Google Ideas), which explains why it has blurbs by Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Henry Kissinger, and Walter Isaacson. Schmidt and Cohen first collaborated in 2010, co-writing an essay (The Digital Disruption) for the journal Foreign Affairs.

Our Future Selves, the first chapter of The New Digital Age, describes a future world in which our lifestyles are enhanced by developments in personal technology such as self-driving cars (a Google X project) and other conveniences. The remainder of the book focuses on geo-political issues: "in order to understand the future of politics, business, diplomacy and other important sectors, one must understand how technology is driving major changes in those areas."

Unsurprisingly, as the authors are both Google executives, this is a techno-utopian vision: "The case for optimism lies not in sci-fi gadgets or holograms but in the check that technology and connectivity bring against abuses, suffering and destruction in our world... Anyone passionate about economic prosperity, human rights, social justice, education or self-determination should consider how connectivity can help us reach these goals and even move beyond them."

The book's main theme is the vast potential of the internet to affect global change: "We believe that modern technology platforms, such as Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple, are even more powerful than most people realize, and our future world will be profoundly altered by their adoption and successfulness in societies everywhere." As such, it's an update of the "atoms to bits" argument proposed by Nicholas Negroponte in Being Digital. (Tim Wu's The Master Switch is a more cautionary analysis of the digital age.)

Play It Again

Play It Again
Play It Again: An Amateur Against The Impossible is Alan Rusbridger's journal, from August 2010 to December 2011, of his attempt at learning to play Chopin's Ballade #1 on the piano. The book's title, of course, is a famous misquote from Casablanca: Ilsa says, "Play it, Sam. Play As Time Goes By"; Rick says, "If she can stand it, I can. Play it". Other examples include Woody Allen's film Play It Again, Sam (and the headline Play It Again, Siam!).

Rusbridger is the editor of The Guardian, and his account of his piano lessons is interspersed with his reactions to the major news events of the period, including the investigation by Nick Davies (author of Flat Earth News) into News International's phone-hacking. Here's his reaction to Rupert Murdoch's decision to close the News Of The World: "It's a hold-the-front-page, stop-the-presses, stop-the-clocks, stop-everything scoop. The history of newspapers has just been rewritten."

The eighteen months that he covers also include his negotiations with Julian Assange on the publication of the WikiLeaks cables (also discussed in Page One, to which Rusbridger contributed). Phone-hacking and WikiLeaks (and this year's Edward Snowden story) are some of The Guardian's biggest-ever scoops, and I'd rather read about Rusbridger the editor than Rusbridger the pianist. At the end of one chapter, he writes: "But enough piano talk for now. Tomorrow we publish the biggest leak of state secrets in history", and I couldn't agree more.

03 December 2013

The Worldwide History Of Beads

The Worldwide History Of Beads
Lois Sherr Dubin's book The History Of Beads has been expanded and updated with a new title, The Worldwide History Of Beads: Ancient, Ethnic, Contemporary. Based on new research, this second edition dates the history of beads to circa 100,000 years BC, indicating that the human capacity for symbolism and decoration originated more than 50,000 years before the first examples of figurative art (the Chauvet cave and the Venus of Hohle Fels). The book is published in America with the alternative title The History Of Beads: From 100,000 BC To The Present.

02 December 2013

History Of Design

History Of Design
History Of Design: Decorative Arts & Material Culture 1400-2000, edited by Pat Kirkham and Susan Weber, is an international history of the decorative arts, organised chronologically and geographically, with individual chapters on each continent. The book itself is superbly designed, and illustrated with more than 700 large and carefully-selected photographs.

The scope of the book is unprecedented: it's a definitive global survey of the decorative arts. The co-editors both explain that it was intended as the first comprehensive history: Kirkham laments the "lack of a broadly based "textbook" or "survey book" on the model of those in other educational fields", and Weber cites "Janson's History of Art" as an inspiration. Given its worldwide coverage, John Fleming and Hugh Honour's A World History Of Art might be an even better comparison.

Fleming and Honour's Dictionary Of Decorative Arts is equally extensive, though it hasn't been updated since 1989, and it has an encyclopedic structure rather than a chronological narrative. David Raizman's History Of Modern Design is slightly less comprehensive: it covers America, Europe, and Japan from the 18th century onwards. Judith Miller's Decorative Arts is a buyer's guide rather than a historical survey. Owen Jones's The Grammar Of Ornament and Stuart Durant's Ornament cover the history of, respectively, pre- and post-industrial ornamentation. Decorative Arts, Taschen's reprint of Carl Becker's Kunstewerke & Gerathschaften, illustrates decorative objects from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

History Of Design is the most wide-ranging survey in its field, though there are other histories of individual disciplines within the applied arts. These include 5,000 Years Of Glass and 7,000 Years Of Jewellery by Hugh Tait, 5,000 Years Of Textiles by Jennifer Harris, 5,000 Years Of Tiles by Hans van Lemmen, Tiles: A General History by Anne Berendsen, 10,000 Years Of Pottery by Emmanuel Cooper, The Book Of Pottery & Porcelain by Warren E Cox, Porcelain and Glass by Edward Dillon, A History Of Tapestry by WG Thomson, Tapestry by Barty Phillips, A History Of Interior Design by John Pile, World Furniture by Helena Hayward, The Papered Wall by Lesley Hoskins, Jewellery by H Clifford Smith, The Worldwide History Of Beads by Lois Sherr Dubin, A History Of Industrial Design by Edward Lucie-Smith, and A History Of Graphic Design by Philip B Meggs.

The Vagina
A Literary & Cultural History

The Vagina
The Vagina: A Literary & Cultural History, by Emma LE Rees, is a study of cultural representations of the vagina in literature, the visual arts, and the media. Coincidentally, Naomi Wolf wrote a book on the same subject earlier this year (Vagina), though Rees began researching and writing The Vagina several years before Wolf.

Just as this year saw two cultural histories of the vagina, by Rees and Wolf, a decade ago there were two other vagina books published almost simultaneously: Catherine Blackledge's The Story Of V and Jelto Drenth's The Origin Of The World. Rees's book is superior to all three previous works; its scope incorporates linguistics, mythology, feminist theory, art, literature, and popular culture.

Rees observes that the vagina and the c-word exist in a paradoxical state of "covert visibility". They are familiar, yet unseen. Their cultural representations often take the form of thinly-veiled allusions, indirect references that the audience understands without making them explicitly visible. The euphemistic phrase 'the c-word' itself depends upon such collective understanding: its true meaning is hidden in plain sight. Rees calls it "the don't-see word", and argues that "if we make the c-word seen, might we fundamentally reclaim the right to talk about the significant issues it currently eclipses?"

Rees (like Marina Warner in Phantasmagoria and other books) draws on a wide range of cultural reference points, from mythology and folklore to pornography and sitcoms. Her background is in Shakespeare studies, although she makes no distinction between literature and popular culture. Consequently, her book is the first truly comprehensive cultural history of the vagina.

01 December 2013

5,000 Years Of Tiles

5,000 Years Of Tiles
5,000 Years Of Tiles, by Hans van Lemmen, is a history of decorative ceramic tiles from their origins in Ancient Greece onwards. As van Lemmen writes in his introduction, the book "traces the rich legacy of tiles from pre-history to the present day, revealing how tiles have evolved both in terms of production and as an artistic medium". It supersedes Anne Berendsen's Tiles: A General History as the most comprehensive history of tiles.

The book is part of the British Museum's series on decorative arts, including 5,000 Years Of Glass and 7,000 Years of Jewellery by Hugh Tait, 5,000 Years Of Textiles by Jennifer Harris, and 10,000 Years Of Pottery by Emmanuel Cooper. Its illustrations are largely, though not exclusively, taken from the Museum's collection.

Vagina: A New Biography

Vagina: A New Biography, by Naomi Wolf, is a history of attitudes towards the vagina in ancient and modern culture. It follows Catherine Blackledge's The Story Of V and Jelto Drenth's The Origin Of The World, and was published shortly before Emma Rees's The Vagina: A Literary & Cultural History.

While Blackledge and Drenth were more scientific in their analysis, and Rees takes a more cultural approach, Wolf's book is broadly spiritual. Of the book's four main sections, two are echoes of 1970s consciousness-raising ("Does the Vagina Have a Consciousness?" and "The Goddess Array"). These chapters are largely anecdotal and feel pseudo-scientific.

At times, Wolf sometimes seems almost self-parodic. She attends a dinner party at which the host serves vagina-shaped pasta nicknamed "cuntini", and this minor incident has dire consequences: "after the "cuntini" party, I could not type a word of the book - not even research notes - for six months, and I had never before suffered from writer's block". If Wolf was so traumatised by cunt-shaped pasta, perhaps she's not the ideal author of a book called Vagina?

23 November 2013

Dark Side Of The Rainbow

Dark Side Of The Rainbow
This Wednesday, Bangkok's Jam Cafe will host screenings of two classic films set to the music of Pink Floyd. The event, Dark Side Of The Rainbow, will begin with an extract from Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (the final 'Jupiter & Beyond The Infinite' sequence), accompanied by Pink Floyd's track Echoes. This will be followed by a screening of The Wizard Of Oz, accompanied by the Pink Floyd album The Dark Side Of The Moon.

Both films were screened recently in Thailand. 2001 was shown at the Thai Film Archive last month, and The Wizard Of Oz was shown at the Bangkok Community Theatre in September.

20 November 2013

Double Down

Double Down
Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, who covered the 2008 US presidential election in Game Change, have written a sequel, Double Down: Game Change 2012, about President Obama's re-election last year. Its UK subtitle is The Explosive Inside Account Of The 2012 Presidential Election.

2008 was an extraordinary contest, thanks to the rivalry between Obama and Hillary Clinton, the ridiculous Sarah Palin, and Obama's historic victory. 2012, when Obama defeated the bland Mitt Romney, was a more pedestrian election, though Double Down is still a fascinating account.

Halperin and Heilemann are both heavyweight political journalists, perhaps the only contemporary writers who can match Bob Woodward's level of access and influence. (Woodward's latest books are Obama's Wars and The Price Of Politics; he tends to focus on policies, whereas Halperin and Heilemann emphasise the personalities involved.)

Just as Game Change did in 2010, the revelations in Double Down have been making headlines, especially the book's claim that Obama's campaign team seriously considered replacing Joe Biden as Vice President with Hillary Clinton. The authors explain that "Biden didn't credit the speculation for a minute", though Clinton's own reaction is not included; presumably, she was one of the few key players who refused to be interviewed. Halperin and Heilemann spoke to practically everyone else, including Obama, Biden, Romney, and Bill Clinton (all on 'deep background', i.e. unattributed), though Hillary is conspicuous by her absence.

Double Down notes Obama's reaction to a previous book about his administration: he apparently complained that Ron Suskind's Confidence Men was "largely a piece of fiction". The anecdote is certainly credible, as Double Down's sources are second to none, though it also feels like schadenfreude from the authors towards one of their fellow political writers.

Halperin and Heilemann themselves became part of the narrative when Obama's election strategy was leaked to them: "two authors writing a book on the 2012 campaign knew all about the extraordinary session six weeks earlier; they had the whole roster of Obama's regrets in copious detail. "How could someone do this to me?" Obama asked". This leads to one of the book's most dramatic moments, with Obama storming out of a discussion with his most senior advisers, exasperated at the leak yet meeting another author that same afternoon: "At 2:55pm he had a meeting in the Oval Office. The meeting was with David Maraniss. For a fucking book interview". (The book was Barack Obama: The Story.)

Double Down is at its most captivating when analysing Obama's relationship with Bill Clinton, which develops from wary tolerance to mutual admiration. The book also provides a fascinating behind-the-scenes account of Obama's intense preparations for the presidential debates.

The midsection, with chapters devoted to the various Republican nominee contenders (Chris Christie, Jon Huntsman, Newt Gingrich, et al.), is less interesting, because Romney was clearly Obama's only serious rival. The other contenders were insignificant even in 2012, and should be only minor footnotes today.

15 November 2013


S. Ship Of Theseus
Ship Of Theseus
S. is the new novel from JJ Abrams (director of Super 8 and Star Trek) and Doug Dorst. According to the blurb, it was 'conceived' by Abrams and written by Dorst, which presumably means that Abrams initiated the project though Dorst actually wrote the text.

The novel's title refers to its central character, S, a stranger known only by a single letter, like 'K' in Franz Kafka's The Trial. The title, and Abrams and Dorst's names, appear only on the book's slipcase; the book itself has an alternate title, author, and publisher.

The book inside the slipcase is Ship Of Theseus, written by VM Straka and translated by FX Caldiera. Ship Of Theseus was published by Winged Shoes Press in 1949, and it looks, feels, and even smells like a sixty-year-old book. It bears a 1949 copyright notice ("Printed in the United States of America"), the pages have yellowed with age, the spine has a Dewey Decimal sticker, and there are library stamps on the endpapers.

Ship Of Theseus is, of course, entirely fictitious, as are its author and translator and even its publisher. In reality, it's a novel written by Dorst, printed in China in 2013 though designed to look like a 1949 library book. When removed from its modern slipcase, Ship Of Theseus really is an incredibly convincing simulation of a 1949 hardback.

Aside from the prose text, almost every page of Ship Of Theseus contains extensive marginalia. Two students, Eric and Jennifer, have carried out a personal correspondence in the margins of the book. They use a variety of pens, with each pair of colours representing a different dialogue between them, and their handwritten notes are rendered as convincingly as the rest of the book.

In addition, there are twenty-nine pieces of ephemera inserted between the book's pages. These include several handwritten letters, picture postcards, photographs, newspaper clippings, photocopied documents, a volvelle, and even a napkin. Each of these items is reproduced as authentically as the book itself, and the attention to detail is remarkable.

Therefore, S. presents a multitude of inter-connected narratives: the text of Ship Of Theseus by Straka, the footnotes by Caldiera, the numerous threads of Eric and Jennifer's marginalia, and the supplemental material in the ephemera. Eric and Jennifer search for clues to the identity of the mysterious Straka, speculating that Caldiera and Straka may be the same person. An elusive author, a book within a book, and the mystique of old library books were also central to Carlos Ruiz Zafon's The Shadow Of The Wind.

Book publishing is currently migrating to tablets and e-readers, so it's encouraging that S. is a defiantly physical, printed object. It fetishises old-fashioned books, and Abrams and Dorst have created a perfect simulacrum of one. Publishers like Taschen specialise in elaborate collector's editions (such as Napoleon), and Visual Editions publishes novels in increasingly experimental formats (such as a reprint of Tristram Shandy), though S. is a unique and extraordinary example of innovation in book design.

14 November 2013

After The Music Stopped

After The Music Stopped
After The Music Stopped: The Financial Crisis, The Response, & The Work Ahead, by Alan S Blinder, is the first book to fully explore the causes and consequences of the global economic meltdown that began in 2008. The collapse of America's subprime mortgage market triggered the most damaging financial crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s, and was followed by economic collapses across the Eurozone from which Greece and Spain are still recovering. (Interestingly, the 2008 collapse is known in Thailand as the 'hamburger crisis', just as Thailand's own 1997 economic meltdown was called the 'tom yam kung crisis'.)

After The Music Stops begins with an intimidating three-page list of financial acronyms, though Blinder's accessible writing style - frequent rhetorical questions, subheadings, and conversational asides - guides the reader through the economic complexities. For example: "Now, take a deep breath... this is where we move from issues that were moderately controversial - leaving bipartisan agreement at least conceivable, to issues that were supercontroversial". (This is in contrast to the dry prose of Gordon Brown's Beyond The Crash.)

The text may be accessible, though its analysis is far from superficial, and After The Music Stopped is probably the most authoritative account of the financial crisis to date. As Blinder writes in his preface: "a comprehensive history of this episode has yet to be written. A number of fine books, mostly by journalists, have examined pieces of the puzzle, sometimes in excruciating detail... My purpose, instead, is to give the big picture".

10 November 2013

Legendary Movies (2nd edition)

Legendary Movies
Paolo d'Agostini has written a second edition of his book Legendary Movies. The new edition, published last month, has been expanded to include a handful of films released since 2008, when the first edition was published. It also features a new, lenticular cover. 

The new films include The King's Speech, Avatar, and The Artist. Legendary Movies was translated from an original Italian text, though the extra chapters in the updated edition have been translated quite clumsily, with lines like "These simple plots, for those who desire them, do not weigh on those who settle for a romantic comedy-drama approach".

The Legendary Movies are as follows:
  • Cabiria
  • The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari
  • Nosferatu
  • Battleship Potemkin
  • Metropolis
  • The Blue Angel
  • Frankenstein
  • Grand Hotel
  • King Kong
  • It Happened One Night
  • Modern Times
  • Grand Illusion
  • The Wizard Of Oz
  • Ninotchka
  • Stagecoach
  • Gone With The Wind
  • Citizen Kane
  • Casablanca
  • Arsenic & Old Lace
  • Rome: Open City
  • Gilda
  • It's A Wonderful Life
  • Bicycle Thieves
  • The Asphalt Jungle
  • Sunset Boulevard
  • Singin' In The Rain
  • High Noon
  • Don Camillo
  • The Wild One
  • Roman Holiday
  • From Here To Eternity
  • A Star Is Born
  • On The Waterfront
  • Sabrina
  • Seven Samurai
  • Rear Window
  • Rebel Without A Cause
  • & God Created Woman
  • The Ten Commandments
  • The Seventh Seal
  • The Bridge On The River Kwai
  • The Great War
  • Ben-Hur: A Tale Of The Christ
  • Some Like It Hot
  • A Summer Place
  • La Dolce Vita
  • Breathless
  • Two Women
  • Psycho
  • The Magnificent Seven
  • Breakfast At Tiffany's
  • West Side Story
  • Lolita
  • Jules & Jim
  • Lawrence Of Arabia
  • The Pink Panther

  • The Leopard
  • A Fistful Of Dollars
  • Goldfinger
  • Mary Poppins
  • Dr Zhivago
  • A Man & A Woman
  • Guess Who's Coming To Dinner
  • The Dirty Dozen
  • Belle De Jour
  • The Graduate
  • In The Heat Of The Night
  • Romeo & Juliet
  • Planet Of The Apes
  • Bullitt
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey
  • Rosemary's Baby
  • Easy Rider
  • Midnight Cowboy
  • Love Story
  • M*A*S*H
  • Dirty Harry
  • A Clockwork Orange
  • Cabaret
  • The Godfather
  • The Sting
  • American Graffiti
  • The Exorcist
  • Jaws
  • One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest
  • Nashville
  • Taxi Driver
  • Rocky
  • In The Realm Of The Senses
  • Saturday Night Fever
  • Star Wars IV: A New Hope
  • Close Encounters Of The Third Kind
  • The Deer Hunter
  • Grease
  • Apocalypse Now
  • Manhattan
  • Alien
  • The Blues Brothers
  • The Shining
  • American Gigolo
  • The Party
  • Raiders Of The Lost Ark
  • Escape From New York
  • First Blood
  • ET: The Extra-Terrestrial
  • Blade Runner
  • Once Upon A Time In America
  • A Nightmare On Elm Street
  • Back To The Future
  • Top Gun
  • 9½ Weeks
  • Wings Of Desire
  • The Last Emperor
  • Rain Man
  • Nikita
  • Pretty Woman
  • Edward Scissorhands
  • Raise The Red Lantern
  • The Silence Of The Lambs
  • Thelma & Louise
  • Basic Instinct
  • Batman Returns
  • Schindler's List
  • Forrest Gump
  • Pulp Fiction
  • Seven
  • Mission: Impossible
  • Life Is Beautiful
  • Titanic
  • The Matrix
  • Gladiator
  • The Lord Of The Rings I-III
  • Amelie
  • Talk To Her
  • Kill Bill I-II
  • The Last Samurai
  • Million Dollar Baby
  • The Bourne Identity/Supremacy/Ultimatum
  • Pirates Of The Caribbean I-III
  • Slumdog Millionaire
  • The Twilight Saga I-V
  • Avatar
  • The King's Speech
  • The Artist
Note that Ben-Hur, Frankenstein, and The Ten Commandments are all sound films and not their earlier silent versions. Some Like It Hot is the 1959 classic, not the obscure 1939 comedy. Also, Titanic is the 1997 James Cameron version and Romeo & Juliet is the 1968 Franco Zeffirelli version.

09 November 2013

Bangkok Theatre Festival 2013

Bangkok Theatre Festival 2013
The Bangkok Theatre Festival 2013 opened on 2nd November, and will close on 17th November. The Festival includes a revival of San-Dan-Ka, at BACC on 13th and 14th November. San-Dan-Ka, a butoh dance performance inspired by the controversial paintings of Anupong Chantorn, was first performed in 2009, at the Democrazy Theatre Studio in Bangkok.

Anupong's paintings depict monks with beaks, as if they were scavenging crows. One of his works caused controversy when it was shown as part of the 53rd National Exhibition in 2007, and he exhibited a similar piece at the 2nd Bangkok Triennale in 2009. His 2010 solo exhibition Hope In The Dark was even more provocative, with portraits of nude monks painted on saffron robes.

Cinema Diverse

Cinema Diverse
Cinema Diverse
Synecdoche, New York
The Good, The Bad, & The Weird
Cinema Diverse: Director's Choice, an annual season of free film screenings introduced by acclaimed Thai directors, began at BACC today with Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York introduced by Kongdej Jaturanrasmee. Synecdoche, New York will be shown again next week as part of this year's World Film Festival of Bangkok.

Nonzee Nimibutr (director of Nang Nak) will introduce The Good, The Bad, & The Weird, along with the film's director, Kim Jee-Woon, on 17th May 2014; the festival runs until 19th July 2014. Last year's Cinema Diverse season included a screening of Tears Of The Black Tiger introduced by its director, Wisit Sasanatieng.

02 November 2013

Currency Crisis

Currency Crisis
Fighting Fish, Money
Currency Crisis, a group exhibition featuring interpretations on the theme of money, opened today at Whitespace Gallery's new venue in Bangkok. (Whitespace relocated from Siam to Silom earlier this year.) Each of the participating artists, from Thailand and elsewhere in South-East Asia, subverts money in some way, both physically and symbolically, either by drawing on banknotes, reducing them to powder, or sawing coins in half. The exhibition, a comment on the global economic crash and the commodification of contemporary art, will close on 29th December.

The show includes a new painting by Pornprasert Yamazaki, a distorted portrait of King Taksin, titled Butterfly. Beneath the picture is an installation of fighting fish in a row of fifty individual jars, separated by crisp twenty-baht banknotes. Butterfly represents the fish's eye-view of Taksin as depicted on the banknotes, refracted through the jars. Like the works from his solo exhibition Suicide Mind, Butterfly was painted using Pornprasert's own blood.

Previously, Kosit Juntaratip used blood in his performance art, and Kristian von Hornsleth collected Thai blood samples for his Deep Storage Art Project. Manit Sriwanichpoom soaked autopsy photographs in blood for his series Died On 6th October 1976. UDD protesters painted a banner in blood at Democracy Monument in 2010.

Private Eye

Private Eye
The Attourney General has announced that Private Eye will not face charges over its current issue (dated 1st November) with its cover portraying Rebekah Brooks as a witch. Brooks, a former editor of The Sun and the News Of The World, is currently on trial for phone-hacking. Metropolitan Police had asked news vendors near the Old Bailey in London to remove copies of the magazine from sale, as it was potentially in contempt of court.

23 October 2013

Gravity (4DX)

Gravity, directed by Alfonso Cuaron, stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as two astronauts who are left stranded after satellite debris destroys their space shuttle, the Explorer. To survive, they must reach nearby space stations (the International Space Station and the Chinese Tiangong station) before their oxygen supply is depleted. Cuaron previously directed Y Tu Mama Tambien, one of the key films of the Mexican Nueva Ola (New Wave) movement.

Gravity relies extensively on photo-realistic CGI, not only for the backgrounds and spacecraft, but even for the astronauts' spacesuits. In some sequences, the actors' faces are the only non-CG elements in the frame; a minor character, who appears in the first scene, is entirely CG, blurring the boundaries between live action and digital animation.

Cuaron's Children Of Men was acclaimed for its long takes, and Gravity begins with a seventeen-minute sequence without a visible edit. In both films, however, these shots consist of multiple takes connected by seamless digital transitions, creating the illusion of a single take. (Touch Of Evil famously begins with an extended single take; Timecode and Russian Ark were both filmed as a continuous, unedited digital shot.)

Gravity occasionally resembles Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, and it features some direct tributes to that film, including a floating pen suspended in zero gravity. The ending was presumably inspired by another science-fiction classic, as Sandra Bullock's character has the same determination as Ripley from Alien. There is also a reference to Wall-E, with a fire extinguisher being used as a propulsion device.

I saw Gravity in 4DX, which combines 3D projection with motion-controlled seats, wind effects, smoke, scents, and water vapour sprayed into the audience. The process was developed in South Korea, and was first used for Eric Brevig's 3D remake of Journey To The Center Of The Earth. Gravity has also been released in 3D, 2D, and IMAX DMR 3D.

4DX is a gimmick, applying 4D effects from theme-park attractions to feature-length Hollywood films. Other cinematic gimmicks include Cinerama, Sensurround, Smell-O-Vision, Aroma-Rama, Aroma-Scope, Odorama, Emergo, Percepto, and Illusion-O - the last three all developed by William Castle.

Spanish Week 2013

Spanish Week 2013
Una Pistola En Cada Mano
Spanish Week 2013 began in Bangkok on 14th October and finished on 20th October. The event included a film festival at SF World (CentralWorld), with free screenings of new Spanish films.

I saw Una Pistola En Cada Mano, directed by Cesc Gay, on 19th October. It's structured as a series of vignettes featuring a group of middle-aged (and all heterosexual) men going through various relationship problems including impotence, infidelity, and divorce. It's being marketed as a comedy, though its dysfunctional relationships are pretty depressing.

22 October 2013


2001: A Space Odyssey
This Saturday, Kubrick's masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey will be screened at the Thai Film Archive at Salaya. The screening is part of ดูหนังกับโดม, a season of films introduced by the Archive's founder, Dome Sukwong.

16 October 2013

Moments That Made The Movies

Moments That Made The Movies
In his new book Moments That Made The Movies, David Thomson analyses seventy classic film scenes. Each essay is accompanied by several gorgeous photographs (frame enlargements, rather than publicity stills). For film lovers, of course, this is a wonderfully evocative book. The obvious classics (Psycho, Casablanca, Citizen Kane, The Searchers, etc.) are all included, along with a few esoteric choices. As Thomson explains in his introduction: "There are surprises, offbeat choices, perhaps even capricious or provocative selections, as well as plenty of films that you might have guessed would be included - though not always with the moments you anticipated".

Thomson previously wrote A Biographical Dictionary Of Film, Have You Seen...?, The Moment Of Psycho, and The Big Screen. He was the screenwriter for the documentary Gone With The Wind: The Making Of A Legend, and a contributor to 39 Steps To The Genius Of Hitchcock. He wrote a short History Of The Movies In Four Parts for the Wall Street Journal last year, and he also writes regularly for GQ magazine.

15 October 2013

The Art Of Movie Storyboards

The Art Of Movie Storyboards
The Art Of Movie Storyboards: Visualising The Action Of The World's Greatest Films, by Fionnuala Halligan, is a collection of storyboard excerpts from around forty films. It was published in America as Movie Storyboards: The Art Of Visualizing Screenplays.

The book showcases the work of pre-visualisation artists in the film-production process. Some of the greatest production designers (such as Saul Bass and William Cameron Menzies) are included, and plenty of classic films (including Psycho, Gone With The Wind, The Big Sleep, Apocalypse Now, and Raging Bull) are represented.

Most of the storyboards were not produced by the directors themselves, though there are a few notable exceptions, including Martin Scorsese's drawings for Raging Bull and Akira Kurosawa's preparatory paintings for Ran. (There is some overlap with Karl French's book Art By Film Directors.) Scorsese's rough sketches and Kurosawa's exquisite artworks represent two opposite approaches to storyboarding, and Scorsese's is the more conventional method: storyboards are not generally intended as works of art, they function instead as blueprints for the director and cinematographer.

The book reproduces storyboard frames, though corresponding stills from the films themselves are not included, so there's no way of comparing them directly. Also, some of the films Halligan selects, especially those in the final chapter, are very far from classics.

International New York Times

International New York Times
Today, the International New York Times published its first issue, following the rebranding of the International Herald Tribune by its owner, The New York Times. Today's newspaper includes a letter from publisher Arthur Sulzberger who explains that "we are creating a single, unified global media brand". The International New York Times is now part of a triumvirate of international newspapers, alongside The Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times.

Blue Jasmine

Blue Jasmine
Discussion of Woody Allen's films generally boils down to two questions. Why won't he make more of his "early, funny" comedies? (An issue he dealt with in Stardust Memories.) And, after plenty of near-misses, when will he make a true return to form? His latest film, Blue Jasmine, isn't a comedy (despite co-starring comedian Louis CK), though it's the closest he's come to a return to form in almost two decades.

In the 1970s, Allen's "early, funny" films (Sleeper, Love & Death), full of one-liners and slapstick, were followed by romantic comedies with fully-developed characters (the masterpieces Annie Hall and Manhattan). In the 1980s and 1990s, he balanced comedy with observations about life and relationships (Zelig, The Purple Rose Of Cairo, Hannah & Her Sisters, Crimes & Misdemeanors, Husbands & Wives, Mighty Aphrodite), with occasional returns to broad farce (Broadway Danny Rose, Manhattan Murder Mystery).

Then, after Deconstructing Harry in 1997 (his last great work), Allen's films began a sharp decline in quality (The Curse Of The Jade Scorpion, and other flops). Unable to secure funding in America, he made a series of touristy films in Europe (Match Point, Scoop, You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Midnight In Paris, To Rome With Love), though he returned to New York for Whatever Works.

Allen had an unexpected commercial hit with Midnight In Paris, and Match Point was a critical success in America, though he hasn't made anything approaching a classic for almost twenty years. That is, until now, because Blue Jasmine is arguably his best film since Deconstructing Harry. The ensemble cast is consistently excellent (as in many of Allen's films), though Cate Blanchette gives an extraordinary, unselfconscious central performance as Jasmine, an unstable New York socialite whose rich husband was convicted of fraud. Alec Baldwin (the highlight of To Rome With Love) is perfectly cast as the charming fraudster, whose downfall is modelled on that of Bernie Madoff.

With Blue Jasmine, Allen is clearly paying homage to A Streetcar Named Desire. Like Streetcar's Blanche DuBois, Jasmine is a delusional, tragic figure forced to move in with her working-class sister. (Jasmine's sister, Ginger, lives in a supposedly run-down - though actually spacious and rather nice - apartment in San Francisco. Jasmine's fish-out-of-water experience is juxtaposed with flashbacks to her previous New York life.) She forms a new relationship, though her boyfriend eventually discovers her past, as Blanche's boyfriend Mitch does in Streetcar. Ginger's fiance and ex-husband are both echoes of Streetcar's brutish Stanley Kowalski, though they're more sympathetic characters than Stanley. (Ginger mocks her ex's "Polish jokes", just as Blanche dismissed Stanley as a "Polack".) There's no sexual tension between them and Jasmine, though the antagonism, claustrophobia, and class conflict are familiar from Streetcar.

14 October 2013

11th World Film(s) Festival of Bangkok

11th World Film Festival of Bangkok
Stranger By The Lake
Synecdoche, New York
The 11th World Film Festival of Bangkok takes place next month at the SF World cinema (CentralWorld). It will open on 15th November, and will run until 24th November. (Oddly, the Festival's poster calls it the World Films [sic] Festival.)

Nontawat Numbenchapol's controversial Thai documentary Boundary will be screened on 17th and 18th November. Charlie Kaufman's directorial debut Synecdoche, New York will be shown on 16th November. (Kaufman wrote the screenplays for Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, and Being John Malkovich.)

Alain Guiraudie's Stranger By The Lake, one of the most explicit gay dramas ever made, has also been selected, and will be shown on 21st and 22nd November. Filmed entirely on location, it features a man who witnesses a murder yet falls in love with the killer. The central character makes increasingly reckless decisions; his friend, a lonely bi-curious older man, is the only sympathetic character. The final reel increases the suspense, and veers towards Cruising-style excess, before ending abruptly.

The Festival is organised by Kriengsak Silakong, who I interviewed last year. (The 6th, 7th, and 8th Festivals were held at Paragon Cineplex; the 5th, 9th, and 10th took place at Esplanade Cineplex.)

Unfortunately, one film has been withdrawn from the Festival. The Thai Film Board denied permission to show To Singapore, With Love, directed by Tan Pin Pin, as the director did not apply for a permit before filming the documentary in Thailand. It seems that a film is withdrawn from a Thai film festival almost every year: Persepolis was banned from the 2007 Bangkok International Film Festival, This Area Is Under Quarantine was banned from the 7th World Film Festival, and Insects In The Backyard was banned after its screening at the 8th World Film Festival.