Monday, December 29, 2014

Frozen (2013)

      Frozen (2013)[D: Chris Buck & Jennifer Lee. Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Jonathan Groff] Anna and Elsa are sisters, but Elsa’s magical powers almost kill Anna, and her fear of doing worse damage leads her to withdraw from the world. When she is to be crowned, Elsa causes a permanent winter. Panic-stricken, she flees to the mountains where she builds palace of ice. Anna must find her and persuade her to return to lift the cold spell, which she does. A cad of a Prince Charming who wants the throne for himself alone, and Kristoff, a nice-guy reindeer-owning ice-man, provide the romantic and political complications. Some nice wise trolls who love romance increase the necessary comic touches. In the end, Anna sacrifices herself, which cures Elsa of her bad magic, but Anna revives, and she and Kristoff pair up.
     That’s more or less the plot, do we get a good movie out of it? Yes and no. It’s competently animated and nicely voiced, but doesn’t exactly grab you and immerse you in its world. It provides a nice 100-odd minutes of entertainment, but that’s all. How would I improve it? I’d cut back on the special-effects style of magic, and take a closer look at the dark side. The central trope, the sister bond, is worth more subtle treatment. As it is, the movie works for tweens and younger audiences, but doesn’t give their parents and other older relatives much to chew on. **½

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Simon Schama. A History of Britain: On the Edge of the World (2000)

    Simon Schama. A History of Britain: On the Edge of the World (2000) This is not “companion volume” to the TV series that Schama did, although it was written at the same time as the scripts. I saw th series, and much of the language is the same, but much of what was shown on screen is here described. Schama, wisely I think, focusses on the story, not the pictures. All the same, page references to the illustrations and placement of the pictures next to the text they illustrate would be welcome.
     And that’s about the only cavil I have.
     Schama here takes us from the earliest times when “Britain” makes some kind of sense as a label, through Roman occupation, to Elizabeth’s reign, a time when the effects of the civil and religious wars played themselves out into a kind of resolution. During that time, family feuds caused crises of loyalty and nearly destroyed civil order, then Henry VIII’s need for a male heir created a bloody compound of religion and politics. Elizabeth’s reign brought a resolution of the religious conflict, and the focus began to shift to the relationship between Crown and People, a focus that caused another round of conflicts, which have taken several centuries to resolve. That resolution we are pleased to call “democracy”, and for the time being at least, that’s a cluster of values and institutions that doesn’t so much guarantee stability as a somewhat less bloody means of mending quarrels. But the path to that state is the subject of the next book in Schama’s series.
     Schama is one of the great synthesisers, he can consolidate a vast mass of detail into a coherent narrative. History’s narratives are necessarily tendentious, the trick is to use a theme or collection of motifs to organise the material without turning it into propaganda. Schama does this better than most, I think, because he reminds us that he’s constructed his story from extant documents, whose preservation is partly a matter of policy, and partly pure accident. By telling the story in terms of individuals, he shows both that individual decisions do affect the flow of history, and also that those decisions are contingent on and constrained by circumstances.
     For example, Elizabeth would not have had to face the decision to kill a fellow Prince if Mary, Queen of Scots, hadn’t been such a flibbertigibbet, less concerned with her duties than her “liberty”, which she seems to have thought of as licence to do as she pleased. It was this flaw in her character that led her to marry Darnley and to flaunting her Catholicism, both of which annoyed the Scots Lords, and gave Bothwell the excuse he wanted to aim at the crown. A sorry mess of crimes and failed hard choices followed. Mary was imprisoned in all but name, and became the focus of Catholic anti-Elizabethan plots. Elizabeth really did have to neutralise the threat, but she was unwilling to make hard choices herself, and so left the removal of Mary up to Walsingham, who had no compunction about arranging entrapment and a show trial. Elizabeth dithered about signing the warrant for Mary’s execution, but did so in the end, and regretted bitterly having to do it.
     Throughout the book, Schama shows us how people did or not do what they had to do, how they usually did the best they could according to their values and philosophies, and how character inevitably shifts the choices one way rather than another.
    History, someone said, is just one damn thing after another. Yes, but we can at least in principle if not in practice trace the causes of what’s happened, however difficult prediction would have been. We rarely have sufficient data to allow more than a more or less likely explication. But whenever they can, people choose the path that seems to give them most control by seeming to lead them where they want to go. Nobody likes to be faced with  choices none of which allow at least the illusion of control. Understanding how the choices looked to the people who made them helps us understand why things were done, and so helps us make sense of the past. Schama does this very well. I’m looking forward to reading the next volume. Recommended as one of the best popular histories available. ****

Monday, December 22, 2014

Michael J. Fox. Always Looking Up (2009)

     Michael J. Fox. Always Looking Up (2009) I heard Fox speak at an Ontario Hospital Association Health Achieve convention in 2011. He was impressive, clearly affected by his Parkinson’s disease, yet coping well. I don’t know what his current condition is, but since we haven’t heard much about him in the last year or so, I surmise that the Parkinson’s has progressed beyond the effectiveness of the drugs and other measures Fox has used to keep it in check.
     Fox came across as a man who has come to terms with his life, and is using his talents and his treasure to live that life as well as he can. His courage, his good humour, his awareness of the effects of his twitching and blank-outs and other symptoms of Parkinson’s, combined to make us believe that no matter how bad things seem, there are ways to live a full and satisfying life. He calls himself an incurable optimist. He knows that the odds of finding a cure in time to prevent the last ravages of the disease are remote, but he supports research anyhow. He’s set up a foundation to support Parkinson’s research and related activities. This has become his work.
     Parkinson’s is one of those degenerative diseases that we don’t like to think about. It makes us avert our eyes, it whispers “This is all you are: a bundle of flesh and bone and skin and a few curious organs, any one of which can break down and rob you not only of your well-being but of your self. You won’t ever be the same again.”
Fox has tried to remain the same. His optimism, as he calls it, has sustained him. He knows the value of family, of friends, of hope. He knows that he must work hard to maintain something like a normal life, but his very existence reminds us that “normal” is a comforting illusion. Objectively, it’s merely the collection of average traits. Psychologically, it’s the notion that we are what we are supposed to be. But who of us is?
     I started reading this book to remind me of the impression that Fox made in his presentation. It does that very well. I didn’t read it all, I don’t need to know all the details of Fox’s life as told here. I like his work in TV, and I like the person he was in 2011 and in this book even more. His style is personal, you think you’re listening to him talk to you. He says many wise things incidentally, such as “...investing time in the political process is an expression of hope”. The cynic might say it’s a forlorn hope, but not Fox. He’s not ideological, he’s pragmatic, an attitude that sustains one’s political hopes despite the crazies who appropriate political dialogue.
    There’s a lot of information online about him and the Foundation. ***

Friday, December 19, 2014

Christmas with Stephen Leacock (1988)

     Christmas with Stephen Leacock (1988) No editor listed. A collection of occasional pieces, many of them apparently commissioned, and four unpublished ones. Of these “Hoodoo McFiggin’s Christmas” is the best known, but all exhibit Leacock’s superficial bonhomie overlaying a deep current of rage and despair. A “kindly mischievous ghost”, as the curator of the Leacock Memorial Home calls him, he was not. Leacock liked Christmas, but he was also angry at the yearly hypocrisy of pretending to care for one’s fellow human beings while following the dictates of custom and courtesy. He deeply wished that the angels’ message should be heard as an exhortation, not as a sentimental announcement annually repeated in a Christmas pageant. Worth reading, if you can find the book. ***

Saturday, December 06, 2014

Howard Engel. Mr. Doyle & Dr. Bell (1997)

     Howard Engel. Mr. Doyle & Dr. Bell (1997) Doyle is a student of Dr Bell’s. Alan Lambert’s brother comes to see Dr. Bell with a request to save  Alan from the gallows. The trial is clearly a miscarriage of justice, but without new and compelling evidence to point to the perpetrator, Lambert will be hanged. Engel tells a story with a satisfying number of twists and turns, and a satisfyingly plausible plot involving embezzlement and Edinburgh’s highest and mightiest. Along the way, he gives us a good insight into the differences between Scottish and English law, and shows how Bell was a plausible model for Sherlock Holmes.
     Engel also manages to write in a good pastiche of Doyle’s style, which makes the pleasure of reading this above-average mystery all the greater. **½

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Douglas Hofstadter. I Am a Strange Loop (2007)

    Douglas Hofstadter. I Am a Strange Loop (2007) I’m a fan of Doug Hofstadter. I like his ability to make the most abstract and mind-bending propositions, and then bring them into one’s understanding by using a metaphor or every-day detail or experience. He loves puns, and repeatedly uses the insight-generating power of accidental similarities and equivalences. He knows that we all makes sense of the world differently because we have had different lives, so the more points of entry, the more points of view, the more points of the argument, the more likely it is that the reader will be able to share his thinking.
    Here, Hofstadter returns to the puzzle that has focussed his life: What is consciousness? He now asks it as, What is a person? Here’s how I interpret his exploration of this puzzle.
    The title supplies the short answer: A person is a strange loop. To explain that concept, he starts with feedback, first as an unwanted side effect of outputs looping back as inputs, as when a microphone screeches in the middle of the gym. He escalates that to the feedback loop we experience in a hall of mirrors, or when a video camera videos its own output on a screen. More complex is the feedback loop we use when we control home heating with a thermostat.
    More complex still are the biological feedback loops that maintain bodily function. These loops intersect in many ways; they form a feedback web. To describe life is to describe feedback loops and webs.
    But there’s more: animal life includes feedback loops within the nervous system. We focus on something we see because we want more data. The visual centre has sent its outputs to other parts of the brain which in turn send their outputs to still other parts, and one of those parts triggers the “turn your head and look more closely” action.
In short, we are perception machines. All living things perceive their environment in the sense that they respond to those features of it that their sensors monitor. That environment includes their own internal states. These are the feedback loops that enable living things to maintain their life processes over time.
    Humans, and many other animals, not only perceive their environment, they perceive themselves. That is, they are aware of their bodies in space, and that perception becomes part of the feedback web that results in actions. Some animals perceive at another level: they perceive themselves. They know that they are not the chair that they are sitting on, nor the human who is sitting on the chair. But this self-awareness is limited: a cat does not know that what it sees in the mirror is itself, not another cat.
    Finally, some animals are able to perceive themselves perceiving themselves. This is the strange loop of Hofstadter’s title. The famous mirror test demonstrating that chimpanzees have a self-image shows what he means. Humans have an even more complex capability: we perceive ourselves perceiving ourselves perceiving ourselves. This recursion constitutes what Hofstadter thinks of as a person. In fact, there seems to be only a practical limit to how far this recursion can go. Our brains are huge and complex, but there is a limit to the amount of information included in any one moment of awareness. At the conscious level, the recursion is expressed in symbols, primarily via language, but also via all the other mediums we use to articulate our awareness and understanding of ourselves, each other, and the world around us.
    That’s Hofstadter’s thesis as briefly as I can explain it. To me, it’s the most compelling account of consciousness, of a person, that I’ve read. It has the virtue of being testable. Hofstadter himself supplies the basic test. He reminds us of animal behaviours that suggest awareness, and more importantly, of the observation that a human grows in awareness of its surroundings, its body, and of its self. Babies are born barely able to respond to external stimuli. By around 5 or 6 years of age, a human has a well-developed self: “I” means not only the body, it includes desires and impulses, abilities and skills, the recognition of the things in its environment,  memories of yesterday and the day before, and expectations of the future.
    Most characteristically, the self is the way those awarenesses are expressed,  translated into stories, songs, pictures, and so on. The child is a person because it knows itself, it has constructed a narrative of itself as an agent in the past, present, and future. And as dementia destroys the brain, it also destroys the person. The narrative that constitutes the self diminishes bit by bit, and we observe the terrifying reality that a body can be empty, a shell with no self inhabiting it.
    The extension of the self into time and space, into memories and ideas, into symbolic representations, is uniquely human. To paraphrase Hofstadter, a dog will remember that a table scrap is delicious and therefore worth begging for, but it doesn’t reminisce with other dogs about The Best Table Scraps I Ever Ate.
    Hofstadter includes a couple of chapters on how Goedel’s theorem shows how complex the strange loop really is. He argues that Goedel’s theorem is about how self-reference in a symbol system, and how that enables self-reference in general, and more specifically the kind of self-perception that makes a person. You can skip this part of the book.
    His motivation for this extended meditation on the self was the death of his wife. Like many people who have lost a most-beloved one, he had the uncanny feeling that she was still in some sense present, within himself, in his memories of her, in which he re-enacted how she would have responded to a new piece of music, to a new book, to a walk in a well-loved wood. In a sense, her personality was stored within him, and trying to puzzle that out led him back to the central question of his life. I don’t think you should skip those parts of the book.
    I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Recommended. ****

Monday, December 01, 2014

In Search of Beethoven (2009)

     In Search of Beethoven (2009) 3-part version of the bio-documentary, with lots of talking heads, photos and engravings of places and people, and performance snippets by many of the best interpreters of Beethoven. Well done, with much information new to people like me, who like classical music but haven’t learned much about the composers.
     Beethoven was a much more complicated man than the stereotypical bust suggests. He knew he was a pretty good composer, and felt he was competing with Haydn and Mozart, “our three great composers” according to contemporary music critics. Mozart was near the end of his life and Haydn was dead. Beethoven also had strong opinions, and believed that human beings were capable of much more than the slummy world of politics and commerce and social striving. He was furious when his hero Napoleon revealed himself to be just another power-grubbing arriviste, and erased Napoleon’s name from the dedication on the score of the Eroica so angrily that he left holes in the paper.
     We hear enough music to understand why so many people think of Beethoven as the greatest composer ever, and also why other prefer to give that prize to Mozart or Bach. There’s no question, I think, that Beethoven showed what music could be in ways that no one else ever did. His last compositions sound like late 19th or early 20th century works, with their broken chords, their fractured rhythms, and their searching and inconclusive melodic lines.
     One of the last comments was that Beethoven had so little lasting influence on later composers because no one could exceed him. There’s some truth to that, I think. “Serious” composers nowadays have to a large extent been reduced to experiments with new tonalities and abstract structures. Popular music has become the truly innovative source of new sound. Considering that well into the 19th century what we think of as classical music was actually contemporary pop, this is not surprising. Music endlessly reinvents itself. We rediscover old music in every generation, every generation recognises great work from all eras and every generation adopts and adapts the work of the old masters. This documentary demonstrated why Beethoven will last. The details of his personal life, and how his beliefs and feelings informed his music is interesting for anyone, but especially for the Beethoven fan. But in the end, the work itself is what matters. I don’t think that how it affects the listener depends on knowledge of biography.
     I think that Beethoven’s violin concerto in D Major is the most sublime piece of music ever written. Among my favourite versions are those by Itzhak Perlman, Yehudi Menuhin, and David Oistrakh.
     Good documentary. I wouldn’t have minded a longer version with more music. ***

Murder on the Home Front (2013)

     Murder on the Home Front (2013) [D: Geoffrey Sax. Patrick Kennedy, Tamzin Merchant] Several murders of prostitutes almost lead to major miscarriage of justice, on grounds of National Security. MI5 protects the actual perp because he’s a code breaker. The fall guy ends up interned on the Isle of Man. Dr Collins, the new young forensic pathologist at first antagonises the police because he’s aware of current methods, unlike his boss, the previous pathologist. He hires Molly Cooper,  a reporter eager to participate in order to get ideas for detective stories, to be his assistant because she doesn’t flinch when he asks her to help out on the first autopsy.
     The false leads, three more murders, and the machinations of MI5 nicely complicate the plot, and as a murder puzzle this movie is above average. As a story about the effects of crime on people and their relationships, it’s merely average: Collins and Cooper are clearly attracted to each other, but either he’s too bashful or too aware of how romance might compromise their professional relationship. As an evocation of wartime London, the movie’s quite good. The director wanted a claustrophobic effect, of being hemmed in and navigating through a perilous labyrinth. This not only set the ambience of hidden dangers and treachery, it also made it easier to give us the flavour wartime grunge. As an exploration of the necessary evils of war the movie fails. It presents the ethical dilemma, but solves it rather too neatly. Maybe it was solved that neatly in real life.
      We enjoyed this movie. Above average. **½

Rupture: living with a broken brain (2012)

     Rupture: living with a broken brain (2012) Maryam d’Abo and her husband made this documentary intending it to be the story of her recovery. There’s some of that, but mostly it’s interviews with other people who have suffered strokes. Very well done, not your average medical doc, this movie tries to express the emotional impact of stroke on both the sufferer and the family and friends. It succeeds, because it doesn’t try to be literal. It focusses on the tiny minority (about 3-5% of all stroke victims) who recover a reasonable facsimile of their former more or less normal life. But all of them report that their sense of self, the world, and the people around them has changed. Life has become more purposeful, but not more planned. The purpose is joy; plans often prevent that. Worth watching more than once. ***