Sunday, 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.

Monday, 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.


Saturday, 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.)

Friday, 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.

Thursday, 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.

Wednesday, 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.

Tuesday, 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.

Saturday, 7 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.

Friday, 6 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.

Thursday, 5 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.

Tuesday, 3 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.

Monday, 2 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.

Sunday, 1 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?