Review 2010: The Opinion Engine: 25/31: "Home" and the farthest you've ever been from it (suggested by Kat Herzog)

RAF Bruggen

Travel One of the reason I’m probably such a fan of international cinema because I’m much less travelled than you might expect. Despite having seen much of the north of England and bits of the south, I’ve only been abroad twice (three times if you include Ireland) and only then for about two weeks altogether. Stick a compass in Liverpool and draw a circle, though Paris seems far away, the absolute farthest is Bruggan in Germany were my uncle was stationed before he retired from the RAF and were I spent a week at his base in the mid-80s.

In writing about the trip, we come up against the somewhat fractured nature of my memory. At the age of thirty-six, I still feel as though I should be able to remember more about myself at the age of nine than mere images, the odd smell. But as I type, all I have are pieces of something, disjointed echoes of what my subconscious has decided are the most important incidents, dumping the rest to history. A sign that I’m getting old, but I’d be interested to know if the memory of other people's childhood equally dimmed.

Having reached Dover by train then coach we discovered our overnight Townsend Torenson ferry to Zebrugger (yes, that route) had been cancelled and so spent the night sleeping on the floor of a Sealink France ferry to Dunkirk, my head resting underneath my Mother’s shoulder. The smell was horrible, a mix of booze and cigarettes, and I wasn’t old enough to know that this wasn’t just how ferrys smelt but something brought (and bought) on them. I was fascinated by the concept of Duty Free even though I didn’t really understand what it was.

I dozed through most of the rest of the journey to Bruggen, though I must have woken up briefly during disembarkation because I saw another set of passengers waiting to board the ferry who at the time I thought were refugees. I have an image from waking up early to see a classic landscape of fields full of tulips and windmills and of guards checking passports, which was the moment when the driver realised that he was taking us to the wrong destination, having reached one too many international borders.

Even at that young age I was fascinated by the continental differences. Visiting the NAFI supermarket in Reindalen was much the same as attending a Lidl now, familiar products, different company labels. Everyone seemed to drink Fanta Orange, far more than at home and chocolate treats were in the form of Milka in the violet-coloured packaging. There was also the sense of scale, giant supermarkets having not reached Speke in Liverpool yet, a couple of years even before the Asda in Hunts Cross opened.

Everything else is very vague. One day we took a bus into Elmpt in Holland, where I was excited to buy a Disney comic translated into Dutch at a department store, skipping over the Spiderman because it hadn’t been reprinted in the UK yet (even then I was avoiding spoilers). On another I was taken swimming at the base, which was oddly deserted. And there was a call home at an isolated phone box (my Dad didn’t travel due to work) when we discovered that we’d missed that last episode of the tv version of Fame.

None of which will get me an invite onto Radio 4’s Excess Baggage, no swapping tall tales with Sandy Toksvig. Mum says that when we reached London, because we had some time to wait, she took me on a promised visit to Hamleys but she couldn’t afford the left luggage and presents and so she nearly killed herself carrying our bags too and from the toy store. I feel guilty that I don’t remember that act of kindness either. Which rather suggests that in 2011, I do need to get out and travel more, finances permitting and luckily I already have a road map now.

Review 2010: The Opinion Engine: 24/31: "Tidings of comfort and joy" (suggested by Kat Herzog)

Music One of the reasons Christmas is considered a children’s holiday is because so much of the build-up to the day, the markers, are only really part of the school calendar. There’s the nativity and Christmas sales and carol concerts and because I was part of the school choir, it’s the carol concerts which really put me in the festive mood. Thirty or forty of us scrummed together in the alter area of the school chapel entertaining parents by candle light, listening to see if, as our music teacher suggested, all of our efforts to create volume were really just being absorbed by the "women in big coats".

The selection of carols changed from year to year. There’d be the classics, O Come All Ye Faithful and Good Kings Wensleslas, O Little Town of Bethlehem and Silent Night and I still have the descant parts for them all ringing in my ears. As with our other efforts, such as singing at Liverpool Cathedral, we’d rehearse for weeks beforehand and though I couldn’t read music (still can’t), I just about managed parrot fashion, miming when necessary usually when as Eric Morecombe would say, I was in danger of giving all the right notes but not necessarily in the right order. I suspect my choir mates were very tolerant.

In my memory, the choir had a definite audio punch and were certainly loud enough that the big coats didn’t matter much. But subtle. These were classical arrangements and the music teacher was obviously keen to stretch us with his selection always drifting beyond the mainstream. Torches was a particular rarety, (“Torches, Run with Torches, All The Way To Bethlehem”) with its proto-polyphony in which the base parts create an aural landscape for the trebles to play in creating the illusion of a crowd truly running towards the nativity, a kind of upmarket Row Row Your Boat.

So used did I become to singing some of these arrangements, that I still find it impossible to let them go even if they don’t quite match the version everyone else knows and not just when I’m fighting against nature in an attempt to get to the high notes in the aforementioned descant parts. Thank goodness we didn’t ever try Allegri's Miserere with its haunting top C, presumably because it’s not really a Christmas tune and also because we lacked the rehearsal time or anyone in the choir capable of reaching that top C.

God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen is prime example of the variation between the average choir and what’s happening inside my brain, especially since in recent years even professional choirs have been replacing “Ye” with “You” which is just wrong, not least because it sounds wrong, ignoring the assonance of the “e” sound in the line. My memory of singing the final three key lines, “O Tidings of Comfort and Joy / Comfort and Joy / O Tidings of Comfort and Joy” is that we sang and I do sing, a kind of syncopated beat that stresses the “and”.

Needless to say these were magic evenings. If I’ve one regret it’s that I didn’t continue singing, at least not like this. I did flirt with joining a choir when I reached university, even attended a few performances, and though the person who was encouraging me knew I couldn’t read music, I wasn’t confident enough yet not to care about feeling like a bit of a fraud next to these smart people with their clean suits and good voices so I joined the college theatre instead. Anyone want to join me in murdering “O Come! O Come! O Come! All Ye Faithful!” (cough, cough, cough)? Perhaps not.

Review 2010: The Opinion Engine: 23/31: What events will define 2010 for a) you, b) the UK, and c) the world? (suggested by Ben Skinner)

paranoias 009

Life If twenty-ten has proved anything, it is that not every year does have a defining moment at least on a personal level. If you’d asked this question in 2006 I would have offered graduating from my MA or last year, well last year was all about Shakespeare pilgrimages and standing on the fourth plinth. Apart from finally watching The Wire, Veronica Mars and all of Woody Allen’s films in order, decorating the living room, visiting acres of the Biennial, winning that big screen tv and giving the recent talk at the social media cafĂ© and generally keeping myself busy, there have been no matches or hatches, nothing specifically which I could say left me a changed person, redefined me.

For the other sixty-odd million people in the UK, the defining event will be the general election and the ensuing cuts, oh the ensuing cuts. Even taking into account that many of the measures aren’t due to implemented for a couple of years, the palpable sense of fear which has permeated society either because of the announcements themselves or the opposition reinterpretation. It will effect all of us to some measure, but it’s also replete with known unknowns, the sense that we, none of us can really be comfortable with our routines. Even in applying for new jobs, a seed of doubt has crept in, not just about whether this new position being applied for will exist in six months, but whether even the company or organisation will too.

Suggesting the news whirlwind that’s defined by the name of a single organisation – Wikileaks – was the defining moment for the world seems too easy. Isn’t it, after all, just reminding us of what we already know? That there are two different total information streams, the truth and the version handed down to us? If nothing else, it’s made us all decide where we stand on the issue, if it’s important that much of society continues to exist in a state of ignorance as to the decisions being taken on their behalf or, as I’ve decided, if the decisions are valid, full of merit and not for want of another word, embarrassing in a humanitarian sense, they wouldn’t need to be hidden and wouldn’t need to be leaked in the way they have through the publication of diplomatic memos.

In other words, despite the sense of renewal a new decade brings, we’re essentially continuing the general sense of paranoia which has otherwise defined this century so far. Paranoid about finances, paranoia about safety. Of course some of this paranoia is artificial, the product of propagandists, but some of it is very real for us rationalists because we can’t control the irrational because obviously you can’t have a rational argument with them. Instead of Christmas cards this year, I bought my parents some small, hand carved soap stone angels. Guardian angels. Even as I handed my money over at the stall in the festive market in Manchester, I wanted to imbue them with spiritual or mystical powers, for them literally to keep my parents safe because we don’t really know what’s to come.

Review 2010: The Opinion Engine: 22/31: Heat (suggested by @linkmachinego)

Scene Unseen

"I say what I mean, and I do what I say."

Film At twenty-two minutes and twelve seconds into Michael Mann’s Heat, there’s one of the most interesting cuts in the film. We’ve just witnessed an argument between Val Kilmer and Ashley Judd’s husband and wife over the inconsistency of their life and how, because of his gambling and well, being a crook, she’s left looking after their child. Angrily, Kilmer speeds away from their house through the suburbs at speed and then the cut happens – to the interior of Al Pacino’s car, as his cop character, Vincent takes a call from his department with disappointing news of an evidential dead end.

This disorientating cut is curious because it breaks most of the rules of classic Hollywood continuity editing in which an establishing shot leads to the subject of the scene. Mann’s motive seems to be to fix the idea in the viewer’s head that Kilmer and Pacino are one in the same person, although not in the literal way that some directors, Lynch for example, might suggest that Kilmer has somehow transmogrified into Pacino. This is reinforced in the next shot which is another tracking shot of a car, this time Pacino is heading along the freeway at a similar speed to Kilmer, though with perhaps less anger.

The next scene has Pacino ferreting through the kitchen area of his apartment. He selects a cold chicken leg and bottle of Jack Daniels and as he settles at the kitchen table, his wife Justine, played by Diana Venora with a Audrey Hepburn hairstyle (see above), hammers down the stairs and the two have a passive/aggressive discussion about yes, Pacino’s inconsistency, his lateness in coming home, the inconsistency of their life and how, because of his being a detective, she’s left looking after their child (well, his step child). Their exchange lacks the anger of Kilmer and Judd’s and ends with a measure of understanding, if frustration.

In the next few scenes, we’re shown the genesis of one of these relationships as Robert De Nero’s robber baron bonds with Amy Brenneman over books in a bar, and though it’s a fairly typical meet cute, there’s a discordant note, not just in the music but in the fact that the whole thing is built on a lie; De Nero offers a false name and occupation and as the scenes continue onto the balcony of her apartment and into her bedroom, for all the tenderness of the mood, there is an ever present sense of dread as we know that even though some of his barriers are down, the central lie within their relationship will see its end..

In the midst of what’s ostensibly a heist picture, Mann’s showing us the progression of a bad relationship in reverse; the destruction of Kilmer and Judd’s coupling, the acrimony of Pacino and Venora and the tender beginnings of De Nero and Brenneman. Which demonstrates the brilliance of Heat. Despite selecting this section because of today’s date, basically at random, I’ve stumbled upon three scenes that exemplify Mann’s big theme, that in his cops and robbers world no one can have a “normal life” and that unlike the citizens the cops protect and the bodies which impede the robbers, some of whom they’re married to, there’s no such thing as a work life balance and relationships rarely work.

Read LinkMachineGo here.

Review 2010: The Opinion Engine: 21/31: My Year In Magazines.

Magazines Some magazines you buy simply because they're consistently good and that's the case with BBC Music and SFX Magazine. For different reasons. The former continues to suggest some of my listening habits and has simply been very consistent across the year not having changed much editorially since its inception (and I should know). A couple of months back they collated fifty of their composer biographies in a special, the essential works sections of which are a useful way of dipping into an ouvre -- though I'm still unconvinced by Messian. SFX retains its sense of fun and history and its chameleon-like ability to shift its tone depending upon which area of the genre is in the ascendency. This month Primevil is on the cover and there's a definite sense of shifting back towards British sci-fi because of the many genre cancellations in the US. The Spoiler Zone also still proves invaluable for sniffing whether a series is worth being patient with though it does feel too late now to be starting on Smallville and Supernatural.

My love and hate relationship with Empire continued through 2010. To an extent it's become rather redundant in the face of the web but there’s no denying that it still retains a certain standard in relation to set access and has some excellent archival features, the twisty turny interviews with the masters of horror (Landis, Carpenter and Dante) especially entertaining. My problem lately has been with its unwillingness to engage or criticise the film industry in ways which it so effortlessly did in the past, really questioning how the more commercial end of the market is changing. Their argument is that they need to sell magazines and that putting Harry Potter on the cover rather than Jennifer Lawrence from Winter’s Bone adds several thousand sales; I’d counter that by suggest if Empire really cared about film, it would be publicising some of the smaller releases as well as joining the Potter marketing machine.

In other words, do for commercial cinema what Sight and Sound does for everything else. Last month they put director Apichatpong Weerasethakul on the cover and inside had a page long review of the late Arthur Penn’s comedy Penn & Teller Get Killed. Which is astonishing. Having also refocused itself in recent years to cover international cinema and smaller releases in even greater detail, S&S will become vitally important as governmental changes are brought to its publisher, the BFI, with editor Nick James and columnist Nick Roddick well placed to comment on what it means for production in this country. S&S also supports the BFI Southbank’s seasons and these articles have proved invaluable as I’ve followed their curatorial choices through Lovefilm. The undoubted highlight though has been their coverage of Metropolis's restoration, the process and the effects its had on how view the narrative and Lang's intentions.

The Christmas Radio Times was late to visit the north again this year but that only went to increase the sense of anticipation. Though other listings magazines are available, there’s something particularly authoritative about the most expensive, especially in its eagerness to highlight the digital stations ahead of the soaps and more populist fare. Mad Men even appeared on the cover for the new series launch on BBC Four. One major disappointment has been the redesign of the listings which have pushed some of the non-primetime, and so more interesting, elements of the schedule literally to the margins and so it's easier to miss some good bit of old Hollywood on daytime tv. Given the title of the magazine makes it the journal of record and the popularity of the medium, the squeezing of the radio coverage too is an area for concern; much as I enjoy Eddie Mair’s column it does leave even less room for publicising content across the channels.

Doctor Who Magazine has gone from strength to strength in 2010 due to the decision by the latest editor, Tom Spilsbury, to take a more wide-ranging approach to the franchise and being just as likely to run material on the classic series as the new (in keeping of the approach of the series under Moffat which has been replete with back references). That’s resulted in some superb retrospective interviews with the likes of Sylvester McCoy and Tom Baker that have still, somehow, after all these issues managed to find something new to talk about, especially the extent to which their public and private faces differ. The year’s triumph was a soap special that appropriated the design of Inside Soap Magazine and featured a wonderful piece by (until recently resident reviewer) Graham Kibble-White and Chris Hughes from the website TV Cream.

Around The Globe is DWM for Shakespeare fans. Almost. Published seasonally by the Shakespeare Globe Trust, the bulk of the magazine contains background articles supporting the theatre’s latest season with academics writing accessibly about their thematic or historical details, with a review section at the back highlighting important new publications. It’s well worth the £12 per year subscription as it stands, but what I’d really like and in my dreams would really like to edit, is a proper glossy news stand magazine dedicated to the bard, with features on new productions across tv, films and theatre (this month’s cover would be Patrick Stewart in Macbeth), news about the plays and his historical world, a massive review section for books, dvds and cds and depending on the cost, a cover mount containing some old audio production. You’d buy it wouldn’t you?

Review 2010: The Opinion Engine: 20/31: The most beautiful thing you've ever seen. (suggested by Kat Herzog)

M45 widefield 15.10.10

Science When I was much younger, my Dad was a scout leader and one night he took me to one of his meetings. I don’t remember anything about the meeting itself but afterwards we stood outside, three of us, we were waiting for one of the scouts to be picked up by his parents, and in the idle moment for reasons I again can’t remember, Dad pointed to the night sky and began to identify the constellations.

The original Clash of the Titans had not long been released, I think, and so perhaps it was because I’d asked one of my hundreds of questions. But I still have a vivid memory of his finger tracing the line of Orion’s belt, of trying to find the North Star, of listing the exotic names which were gifted to the various clusters. Pegasus. Perseus. The Plough. Oh.

It was and still is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. Remember this would have been on a clear night in early eighties, still a time when the flood light that is the millennial city hadn’t get blanketed the sky with luminosity and so even the smudgiest of star groups, such as the Pleiades or Seven Sisters would still have been visible.

Not even the Liverpool Planetarium feature in which the lights in the room are dimmed as far as health and safety will allow and the dome is filled with stars as way of showing what the sky would have looked like before the invention of electric lighting can really capture that version of the sky I have locked in my memory, overwhelming to the younger version of me.

Astronomers often talk of similar experiences as the catalyst for entering their profession but at the time, the night sky was just one small part of geography lessons at school which concentrated on the planets rather than the stars beyond. My natural tendency has been towards the arts which is probably why I remember the visual experience so vividly.

I don’t look towards the sky at night much now. There’s little point. Even from within Sefton Park, only the brightest stars are perceptible. We city dwellers have now lost the ability to see the biggest, most frightening and most spectacular free light show, one that draws together science and history and art. Perhaps I should go and find my cottage so that I can see it again.

Review 2010: The Opinion Engine: 19/31: So, Stuart, please be very specific in describing how good a writer you consider yourself to be, highlighting both your strengths and weaknesses, plus any stylistic devices you feel you regularly use (i.e. I rely too much on ellipses and sub-clauses within a sentence... like this one) (suggested by Graham Kibble-White)

Fog in Sefton Park

About My inability to write is matched only by my inability to accept praise for my writing. Without wallowing in self pity, there’s been quite enough of that already this month, my reach has rarely matched my ambition, my ideas rarely reaching what might be their full potential. Though I generally obfuscate when asked why I’m still writing this blog after nearly ten years, the truth I’ve probably been hiding is that it’s because I continue to be under the delusion that at some point I’ll be able to write the perfect blog post, an act of Platonic perfection with all the hallmarks of God’s final message to his creation. Since I’m not God and a negligible writer expect me to be still posting here in another ten years.

If I do have a strength, it’s my ability to fill a blank page and work through seven paragraphs on a given topic even when I’m not really in the mood. That’s why I keep setting myself these challenges, on filmographies and television series, art festivals and these annual reviews, to keep my brain working, to let the words pour out of me and hope they make some sense. The best part of any piece is the moment before I type, looking for the killer first line, hoping against hope it will set the tone for what is to come. Sometimes it will take hours, days even, and sometimes as on this occasion it popped into my head while I cleaning my teeth. I grinned just long enough for the toothpaste to dribble out of my mouth onto my t-shirt.

My weakness is an inability to plan ahead. My writing tends to be fairly shapeless because too often, after pouring myself into that first paragraph, I’m spent, knowing that there’s still many more sentences to come and because I’m such a slow writer, hours and hours spend working through about seven paragraphs or a thousand words, I actually become quite angry with it before the end. Time and again I’ll reach the fourth paragraph and scream in frustration because nothing before it makes any practical sense or even flows from idea to idea. Even one of my best pieces of writing, my MA Dissertation, which I spent an entire summer writing, got lost somewhere in the second chapter before making a break for freedom in the third.

Which is why so much of my writing tends to be so self-conscious, referring to its own construction or making jokes at the expense of itself, because I’ve never quite developed the knack of structuring an argument properly. Most often, there’s a concertina effect in which paragraphs can be added and subtracted from the middle without doing much to the overall structure of the piece when the best writing I’ve seen is intricate enough that the sense is destroyed by the loss of a single line. This also has the effect of making some of my writing far longer than it needs to be because my internal copy editor retired many years ago due to overwork. I believe she’s living in Southend now in the guest house set up by her friend, my vocabulary, which absconded in 2005.

But my main problem, other than not being able to find a better way to begin this paragraph than with “but my main problem”, is that I spend too much time comparing myself with other writers, and not being able to calculate how they seem to make their work apparently so effortless, with such wit. Every now and then I’ll see a Deborah Orr in The Guardian beginning a paragraph with “Oddly enough though” and realise that sometimes there isn’t a better way but in the main I’m astonished by how William Goldman is able to find ten different ways of saying the same thing or Charlie Brooker manages to be funny and thoughtful at the same time. My only comfort is that my favourite writer of all, or at least the writer I steal from the most, Douglas Adams, had an equally tortured approach.

My litany of stylistic quirks (which does also include ellipses and sub-clauses) features the deliberate repetition of words in a sentence designed to draw attention to themselves because they’re the deliberate repetition of words in a sentence designed to draw attention to themselves, inveterate use of prop words like probably, actually, though, even, usually, often, because, essentially, generally, seem, nevertheless, but and true, oh and like, and using the phrase “oh and” a lot. I’m alliterative and also apply allusion, anaphora and antithesis whenever possible but generally misuse onomatopoeia and parenthesis. I seem also to employ synecdoche correctly, but most often it's an act of desperation so that I’m not repeating the same word twice in the sentence or even paragraph which I was taught against at school.

Whenever I put finger to keyboard, I’m fighting against two enemies, reader expectation and myself. The former I can’t do much about. After clicking the post button, there's always a moment when I simply want to run far away, which is quickly followed by about half an hour of reading through the piece again and noticing all the painful typos and poor structuring (this piece used to have eight paragraphs but I couldn't find a way of padding out a bit about me not having a recognisably personal style). I’ll probably do this same with this (oh). There’s also the younger version of me, which could be the person writing last month, last year or ten years ago, the one who, whenever I get lost in the archives of this blog, I admire deeply, who I’m constantly surprised by. Over and over I’ll ask, why can’t I write as well as that any more? What happened to that person? Then I correct some of the typos and resume the struggle.

Graham Kibble-White is one of the writers on