Saturday, July 12, 2003

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, or I don't do normally do comics and cartoons, for some reason

There is a lot of overlap between science fiction fans, movie fans, and fans of comics / graphic novels. Oddly though, comics are a medium that I can't properly appreciate. I like the purely written medium (in the form of both fiction and non-fiction) and I love the visual medium of movies. However, mixtures of written and visual I tend not to get at all. If I attempt to read a graphic novel, I simply read the words, and pay no attention to the pictures, which is (obviously) not a way to appreciate them. I don't read comic strips in newspapers. I don't even pay attention to political cartoons in newspapers. If a fiction book I am reading contains illustrations, I am unlikely to even look at them. I don't know why this is. Some of it is perhaps just the way my mind works. Some of it is simply that the grammar of comics is something I have simply never taught myself, whereas I know those of the other media intimately. Comic fandom is something I am very comfortable with (I come a branch of geekdom that speaks a different dialect, but there is still mutual intelligibility).

There have been a lot of movies adapted from comic books and graphic novels in recent years. While I have a familiarity with some of the characters in some of the films (particularly those that have had television incarnations when I was a child (such as Superman, Spiderman, Batman, the Hulk, and the like) but many of the others I have heard of but I know nothing of the characters and mythology. The X-Men are largely new to me when I watch the movies, for instance. (In this particular instance, both comics fans and non-comics fans such as myself tend to think that the movies are terrific, particularly the second one).

This weekend the movie of Alan Moore's graphic novel The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen has been released at American cinemas. The first I actually knew of this graphic novel was when, several years ago, I noticed that the film was listed as being in development on a list of such things that I follow. The summary of the plot told me that the story features a number of larger than life characters from 19th century fiction essentially working together: Mina Murray from Dracula, Allan Quartermain from King Solomon's Mines, Griffin from The Invisible Man, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde from, well, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Captain Nemo from 20000 Leagues Under the Sea, and a variety of other famous characters in smaller parts. This was sort of a superhero comic based set in the 19th century. I thought that the central conceit was delightful, and even did a little research about the graphic novel. I discovered that it was very highly regarded, and fans considered the story, the writing, and the illustrations to be utterly wonderful, particularly due to great faithfulness to the original characters.

Still, though, I didn't read it, because I don't read that kind of thing. I thought I would wait for the film and see if it was any good. But I found the idea of throwing the great characters of Victorian genre literature together, and seeing how they interact, to be a wondeful idea. I heard that Sean Connery had been cast as Quartermain, which was fine. The character of Dorian Gray had been added, which seemed in the right spirit, so no trouble. The character of Tom Sawyer had been added, presumably to appeal to an American audience. This seemed a little problematic, due to the fact that the character was historically anachronstic (Tom Sawyerwas set too early) and somewhat out of the spirit of the other characters. (He is not larger than life in the same way).

Futher information told me that the script had been written so as to make Quartermain the central character. In the graphic novel, Mina Murray was the central character. One of the laws of Hollywood is that when a big star gets cast in a film, the script of that film will get warped so that his character dominates the film, and becomes a straightforward heroic character. (Quartermain in the graphic novel was apparently very morally complicated). Also, Hollywood still shies away from female stars in big budget action movies. Television is full of female action heros. (Three cheers for Joss Whedon). And though the movies are starting to change and we have the odd Lara Croft, there is still a way to go. The role of Mina Murray is played in the film by Australian actress Peta Wilson. She is right for the part, but isn't a star, at least not amongst people who do not watch relatively low buget cable television adaptations of Luc Besson movies in the middle of the night. Therefore, there was no way of letting her carry a film ahead of Sean Connery. If you were going to cast a star in the part, it is a bit hard to think who you would choose. There is a certain hardness of character necessary that doesn't really go with female stardom. Winona Ryder played the part in the last movie adaptation of Dracula, and would probably make a good fist of it, but her star isn't really shining at the moment. It's either cast someone against type, or cast someone who isn't really a star, and they decided not to do that.

Anyway, there were still reasons to be hopeful. Nothing had been announced that would inherently spoil it. A couple of months ago, I saw a trailer. This did not look like good news. This just appeared to be a trailer for an action movie starring Sean Connery, and didn't make it clear who he was playing, or who any of the other characters were. If the plot had been blanded down to the extent that they had just turned into generic characters in boring Hollywood movie, this was bad. Still, trailers are put together by people in marketing departments who often haven't seen the film, so even that wasn't a killer.

Until, this week the film was released. It's apparently a mess. The standard pattern of "Hollywood buys some property because it has some unique quality. Hollywood puts it in development. Talentless guys in suits chip away with it to turn it into a bland Hollywood movie, and the first thing they do is remove the unique quality because that doesn't fit their pigeonholes for the project" appears to have been applied. Such a shame.

A real shame. Because the idea of Mina Murray, the invisible man, Allan Quartermain, Sherlock Holmes, and a whole variety of other characters (who could be in future movies) all running around together in the same movie is just delightful. I would love to see it done well. Now, anyone else who tries it is going to be at best accused of copying the idea and at word sued because the idea (although not the original characters) belongs to 20th Century Fox. This is a real shame.

Of course, what this all means is that I should read a few graphic novels so that the grammar of the medium is burned into my neural pathways, and so that I can properly appreciate the original graphic novel. I now must really do that.

Update: Interestingly enough, the LA Times has an article on the production. It was clearly one that Hollywood euphemistically calls "troubled", and there were fights between the star and the director, serious studio interference, a director who wasn't there in the editing room and refused to show up at the premiere, and the like. The LA Times is read by most of Hollywood, and it does have a tendency to give the industry a soft ride. Therefore one must read between the lines a little. Most troubling is this

"But as brilliant as the graphic novel is, it is not a movie," said the film's screenwriter, James Dale Robinson, who also is a top comic book author. "And unfortunately, the reading level of the world has declined, so [introducing the literary characters] was something that had to be dealt with head-on."

Translation: We have such contempt for our audience that we don't believe they had heard of the great characters of 19th century literature. (Personally, I think the precise opposite, and that today's audience is one of the most literate ever. But that might just be me).

Hoping to position the movie as a classy, Indiana Jones-style adventure, Fox didn't hesitate to sink most of its cast budget into Connery's salary.

Again, we don't see much interest in character. Which is a shame, because this sort of thing should be all about character.

Interestingly, though, we also see that Monica Bellucci was originally cast but dropped out due to "exhaustion". (I wonder what that actually means). I think that's a blessing, as she would be completely wrong for Mina Murray. Peta Wilson is at least right for the part.
Wine producers

Those of us who pay attention to the world of wine occasionally find ourselves looking at tables of the largest wine producing countries in the world. This one, for instance. One thing that we often notice is the very high place that Argentina takes on the table. The country is the fifth largest producer in the world, and yet most people have never tasted an Argentinian wine, and know nothing whatsoever about Argentian wines. (Books on the subject often note that Argentinan wines are mostly consumed domestically, and leave it at that). On the other hand, Chilean wine is very readily avaliable in Britain, and I believe it is even more readily avaliable in the United States. However, Chile is not even listed in the top ten producing countries given in the table.

However, it is an ill wind that blows nobody any good, as I discovered yesterday reading this article in Slate on Argentinian wines. Thus, one consequence of the recent dramatic devaluation of the Argentinian peso is that Argentinian winemakers can get much better prices in domestic currency terms for wine exports, and as a consequence wine exports are way up. (The article also mentions that Argentina's large Spanish/Italian middle class is responsible for there traditionally being a large domestic market in Argentina).

The other interesting thing mentioned is the grape variety. Apparently the best Argentine wines are made from the Malbec grape, and come from the Mendoza region. Malbec is a blending grape in France and Australia, and is particularly blended with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc in Bordeaux or Bordeaux blend wines. A varietal Malbec is not something that Australian or French winemakers would tend to do. (Chile tends to concentrate on Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, too, probably because these are popular in the export markets).

Interestingly enough, when I was in Sainsbury's this afternoon, I found a cheap Argentinian Malbec from the Mendoza region. So, it so happens that I am about to test the Slate article myself. It's a 1992, so very young. A cabernet or even a merlot that age would likely still be very closed. Let's see. Moderate in colour. Not especially dark, but not a summer wine either. Not much of a nose at all. On tasting it, it lacks the concentration of a cabernet, and doesn't have the blackcurrenty quality of a cabernet either. Fruity, but lacking the spiciness of a syrah. Goes down the throat nicely, and a very pleasant aftertaste. This would be lovely with a nice steak. (I'm about to have it with a spicy pizza). The wine is maybe a bit unremarkable, but is obviously well made. Not a huge amount of complexity, no potential for ageing, but few people would ever complain about it.

That said, it only cost four pounds. One isn't generally going to get a wine with a lot of complexity for that price. For comparison, I now need to taste an Argentinian Malbec around the ten pound level. Maybe Oddbins would have one of those.

Hopefully, though, the exports will continue. Another wine country to explore the products of is always a fine thing.

Update: Having drunk a bit more of it, it seems to have opened up still further. I think I would add "jammy" to the previous comments. It's going down pretty well, on the whole.

I have a couple of pieces at ubersportingpundit, including a cricket round up that includes preview of today's Natwest Trophy final, as well as a piece speculating on just why the Washington Cricket League have banned machetes.

Update: I updated the post on the Natwest Trophy final as the game went on, and that will do for a match report on that game. Suffice to say that England thrashed South Africa.

Friday, July 11, 2003


While walking out of the door of Croydon public library this afternoon, I saw a fairly ordinary, Anglo looking middle aged guy wearing a T-shirt saying "Mujahadeen. Warriors of Allah". Nothing registered for a moment, but after a couple of seconds what it said registered in my mind, and I realised I was slightly bothered. However, I then noticed that he was talking to a woman wearing a hajeeb, and that the T-shirt was likely intended entirely unironically. Actually, to think about it further I am not sure how this could be intended ironically. I am just used to almost everything printed on T-shirts to be not entirely serious.

This is another one of those moments when I wish that the star spangled banner was a little easier to sing.

I am delighted that Cali and Beth love one another so much. However, they need to read the Blogger instructions, so that that can each post under their own name. Even the nearly as soppy Murrays figured this out eventually.
Fine things about south London

Yesterday, I went out to lunch with another blogger (as one does, unless one comes from Adelaide). As he is a north London chap, I suggested going to Tooting in south London, which is a very diverse neighbourhood. Some areas tend to be enclaves of particular ethnic groups, but for some reason south of the Thames is less like this than north of the river. South of the river you tend to get whites, Carribean blacks, African blacks, Indians, and Pakistanis all mixed together. Just north of Croydon, where I live, is more black than Asian, but Tooting is the other way round. The area is full of Indian supermarkets, places selling DVDs and VHS tapes of Bollywood movies, shops selling discount household good, little hole in the wall shops run by Indian gentlemen who will fix your mobile phone for you, and lots of places to obtain various interesting types of food.

We ended up in a Pakistani restaurant named Lahore Karahi. Not a particularly fancy or expensive place, but a restaurant where local and other people regularly go to get a curry, often to take away. While there are clearly regional culinary variations in the Indian subcontinent, there clearly isn't a dramatic culinary change as you cross the border, so it is hard to say what makes this a "Pakistani" restaurant rather than an Indian one. However, the food was superb. Absolutely first rate. I had a mutton starter and a prawn curry with rice as a main. Both were just delicious. People who have not lived in Britain do not always appreciate the extent to which British people love their curries, and subcontinental food in Britain is usually of high quality. But this was something special. This is the advantage of going to cosmipolitan neighbourhoods.

One thing on the menu was the name of a dish I had never heard of, followed by "Sunday breakfast only". I am almost tempted to go back at breakfast time on Sunday to find out precisely what it is that Pakistanis eat for breakfast on Sundays, and find that the words on the menu in fact mean "large plate of bacon and eggs" in Urdu.

Wednesday, July 09, 2003

Twelve Monkeys

On monday night I was flicking through the digital TV channels, and I ran into a broadcast of Terry Gilliam's film Twelve Monkeys on BBC4. This is a favourite film of mine for a variety of reasons. I like Gilliam's visual style and the quality of the art direction. I like the score, with its interesting mixture of strings and an accordian. I quite like the acting. Bruce Willis is good playing slightly against type (something that he has done a fair bit in his career, to his credit). I love Madeleine Stowe as the psychiatrist who initially believes that Willis' character is insane and who becomes steadily more intense and stressed as the movie goes along and she realises that he is indeed a visitor from future and that the world is indeed about to end. (Of the actors in the film, Brad Pitt was the one who received an Oscar nomination, but his is the least interesting performance. He just hams it up, basically). I like the run down Philadelphia locations that we see both in the present and the future.

Mostly, though, the mood of the film is interesting. It is full of a sense that the world is a wonderful and extraordinary place, but also a messy place, and that somehow we are spiraling towards a (possibly terrible) destiny that we cannot control. This mood comes from the various things I have described above, but more than that it comes from the intriguing way the screenplay was constructed by screenwriter David Peoples (who also wrote Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven and was one of two screenwriters who gave us Blade Runner.).

Most Hollywood films, particularly science fiction films, are these days a mass of overfamiliar and uncredited cliches that have been ripped off and merged together, usually not very intelligently. Twelve Monkeys on the other hand has been constructed by taking source material from two or three extremely famous places, grafting it together, and making it explicitly clear exactly what the source material was. The largest of these sources is Chris Marker's French new wave short La Jetée, which is responsible for the overall plot of the film. Man time travels back from a post apocalyptic world to attempt to learn or do something to help the future. The man who does this is haunted by a memory from his childhood before the apocalypse, in which he saw a man being murdered in an airport. Upon going back to the time and place of the memory, we find out that it was his future self he saw as a child.

I will have to confess that I have never actually seen La Jetée, so I cannot really talk about the film's mood. However, it only contains enough plot for about 30 minutes, which was the length of the original short. In order to make their film more long and complex, Gilliam and Peoples have added a Hitchcockian dimension. In particular the film is a reworking of Vertigo. This is more about mood than plot. 12 Monkeys copies the earlier film in being about a damaged character with a fixation on particular images and memories of the past that may or may not be real, and about desperately attempting to somehow freeze time and cling to those fragments of the past before everything collapses, and the question of whether this effort leads to or results from insanity. 12 Monkeys is once again is very explicit about what is its source material. The film contains similar shots, similar costumes, and towards the end the separation between the two films breaks down almost completely. Willis and Stowe actually spend some time in a theatre showing Vertigo, and then the film sort of flows into a recration of perhaps the most famous scene from Vertigo, with the same lighting, the same rotating camera, and accompanied by the actual music from Vertigo. I do wonder how much of the Vertigo theme was Peoples and how much was Gilliam. Gilliam's films have an ability to look at things from unexpected directions, and the flow into Vertigo feels like him, certainly in terms of the lighting and music.

I am not sure I have done as good a job of describing the Vertigo references as well as I might have. These are as much about mood as about plot, making them in some ways hard to describe. They are, however, very obvious, if you know the earlier film. (Virginia Vitzthum of Salon made a good stab at discussing them here).

But, however, there is a third source that to me seems fairly obvious. One thing that has changed between La Jetée and 12 Monkeys is the nature of the apocalypse from beyond which the central character is sent back in time. In 12 Monkeys it has been changed from nuclear to biological. A deadly virus has been released somehow, and has spread throughout the world and killed much of the human population. At the end of the film we discover that the virus was released deliberately by a socially awkward scientist who believes that mankind is a sickness destroying the natural environment of the earth, and that mankind must be destroyed to save the earth. The scientist is consequently seen checking in at an airport with a lengthy itinerary of destinations, to head off on a long zig-zagging journey around the world to release the virus in as many locations as possible.

Now, this plot is quite familiar to people who are well read in rather literary 1970s science fiction.

One of the finest writers to ever write in the science fiction genre wrote under the name James Tiptree Jr. Tiptree wrote fiction that is in some ways extraordinary dark, but in others very humanistic. Humanity and the world is extraordinary and amazing, but at the same time humans (and the sexes) find it impossible to genuinely connect with one another. Tiptree's stories tended to be about people connecting or at least trying to connect across the void, and about the few moments or great wonder and beauty they would sometimes find as they slowly continued on the spiral towards death. There is something extraordinarily beautiful about the way Tiptree's writing tells us we are all doomed, but that there is somehow something poetic that can briefly passed through on the way to that doom.

One of Tiptree's more famous stories is called The last flight of Dr. Ain, which chronicles the zigzagging journey around the world of a socially awkward but brilliant geneticist, who is appalled at what humanity has done to the world. The story chronicles his journey as he travels around the world to release a deadly virus in as many places as possible so the destruction of humanity will be as effective as possible and the earth will be saved. Twelve Monkeys captures the character and the plot (and the mood, not just of this one story but of Tiptree's writing in general), and it fits with La Jetée and Vertigo in a way that is somehow perfect.

It was revealed in 1976 that James Tiptree Jr. was in fact Alice Sheldon, a sixtysomething woman who had seen a great deal of the world as a child, and who had been both a CIA agent and a clinical psychologist in the decades to 1970. She killed herself in 1987, the downwards spiral having apparently become too much for her. Which is a terrible shame, as she wrote some extraordinary fiction.

I have never heard David Peoples of Terry Gilliam admit that Tiptree was an influence for Twelve Monkeys but I feel it must have been. The correspondence is too close, and the mood has been copied too well. (Interestingly enough, a Usenet search reveals that there are other people who have seen the same thing. The world of film criticism seems to have missed it entirely, however). There is nothing wrong with this: it is simply intelligent use of source material. And for someone who loves Tiptree's work (which is scandalously hard to find given its quality) it is actually a pleasant thing to see. And the way in which the quirky sensibilities of Gilliam and Peoples were able see the similarities between apparently disparate material has resulted in a quite extraordinary film. I have seen it a few times since it was released in 1995, and to me it seems better every time.
The British Papers

The Evening Standard today has a big bold headline on the front page. "Bottled Water is two years old", explaining that bottled water bought in shops may be as much as two years old.

It must have been a really slow day for news.

Tuesday, July 08, 2003

A dream come true

That's right. I'm an Adorable Little Rodent
More Evil

Ken Parish wonders why there are so many libertarians in the blogosphere, and explains why he is not one. As I am one of the "libertarians" he mentioned in the post, I felt the need to defend myself. Therefore, if you scroll through the comments, you will here find my political philosophy summed up in about three paragraphs.

As pointed out by James Russell in the comments, my blog appears to have been causing popup windows to pop up. It seems that the company that was providing the "You appear to be reading this blog from....." line at the top of the page was responsible. Therefore, this company has been excommunicated from my blog. If anyone has further problems, let me know.
I also know how to spell "truly"

What Is Your Animal Personality?

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Monday, July 07, 2003

A milestone

I have just had my first experience of being completely fucked over by the new version of blogger, and I have just lost a post. That is a shame. Until now it has been much more reliable and bug free than the old blogger.

Update: It happened again, when rewriting the same post. This time an old bug that I thought had been fixed resurfaced. And to think I had faith in Google's ability to fix things.
The natural order reasserts itself.

Firstly, blogging has been a little light. I started writing a follow up piece on the Terminator 3 review I quoted, discussing (mainly) the differences between the sensibilities of traditional written science fiction and Hollywood science fiction. However, after writing a thousand words or so, I accidentally deleted it. For once, it was not Blogger's fault, byt my screw up entirely. I have one or two criticisms of Microsoft Windows, because errors of the kind that I made should be recoverable but are not. However, the fault was mainly mine. I might rewrite the article later, and I also might not.

Anyway, in the ongoing one day cricket series in England, Zimbabwe were last week playing a lot better in the one day series than they did in the test series against England. Many of us were hoping that they could pull off another win or two and hopefully make the final.

This was always a tall order, as became apparent over the weekend. Zimbabwe South Africa in Cardiff on Saturday and England in Bristol on Sunday, and they suffered two heavy defeats and there is now no way they can make the final. On Saturday, Zimbabwe could only manage 8/174 off their 50 overs, and South Africa breezed past this with the loss of only one wicket and with more than 15 overs to spare. South African star of the series so far Jacques Kallis did not even need to bat. Gibbs was the star with 93 not out.

Sunday was even worse for the Zimbabweans. They batted first and were bowled out for only 92. That was about that really, although Zimbabwean captain Heath Streak bowled well, and reduced England to 4/25. (He personally ended up with 4/21 off 9 overs. However, it only required a vaguely decent innings from someone for England to get the pathetically puny target. As it was Flintoff scored 47 not out with seven fours and two sixes and that was that. England finished with 4/95 off 17.5 overs to easily win the match. I suppose it is possible to make some comment about Streak being the only good bowler in the Zimbabwean side. This is true, but it didn't matter. You can't defend a target of 93 successfully.

There are still two preliminary matches to go in this series. South Africa play England in Birmingham tomorrow, and Zimbabwe in Southampton on Thursday. Whatever the result of these games, England play South Africa in the final at Lord's on Sunday.

Sunday, July 06, 2003

The modern world.

You go to a party, and when you are leaving you cannot find your host because he is busy posting photographs of the party to the internet.

(Brian Micklethwait, David Farrer (back), Patrick Crozier (front), Michael Jennings)

Update: Yes Mum, that's right. I no longer have a left arm. I am sorry it had to be revealed to you this way.

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