Friday 15 February 2013

Top 100 disaster movies: Titanic

Titanic (1997)

It's difficult to believe that Titanic is nearly 16 years old and therefore legally able to have sexual intercourse in the United Kingdom. Come the big day, I suspect that Titanic will most likely choose itself as its partner. It had that way about it, parping its own funnel. But then, films did that more back then. I think it would be hard to describe to someone too young to have been there exactly the kind of feverish hype that surrounded Titanic's release. Back then, we all thought it was real and screamed when things came towards the screen, of course. But I remember that I went to see it some time in the spring of 1998 in Brighton and the cinema was standing room only, something I have never experienced before or since. By the end of the seventeen hour long film, people who had sat right down at the front were walking out of the screening in the shape of swastikas, having done irreparable damage to their spines.

At the time I was obviously rather taken up with the hype of the whole film because I thought it was wonderful. I realise now of course that I had been played by the Hollywood system to a large degree. However, it would be wrong  - an understandable backlash against corporate propagandising of my malleable 18-year old brain - to claim that Titanic is not a film without quality. It's perhaps not our generation's Citizen Kane but then again, no ocean liners sink in Citizen Kane so its probably best to declare a score-draw on that front.

It's a hard film to watch again. This is not so much due to the poignancy of the story or the strength of the memories of my fallow youth, and more to do with the fact that it's really long. I would estimate that it must be at least six hours, although having just checked on Wikipedia I have discovered that the actual running time is 3 hours 14 minutes. And Leonardo Di Caprio is only dead for about fifteen of them.

Harsh again. My distaste for Leonardo Di Caprio is again forged by those times, in the heady days of the end of the last century, when he was being sold as our generation's Valentino. Di Caprio has gone on to be a very impressive, likable and versatile film actor, a lot of whose work I have enjoyed. And yet, upon seeing his name in the credits I still get the twitch. Titanic's psychological impact on me runs deep. As DEEP AS THE ATLANTIC OCEAN? Probably not.

Kate Winslet in Titanic: standing next to a peculiarly inaccurate mirror

My problem with Titanic is that, like many movies of the disaster genre, it is basically a tired old romantic potboiler, given a gravitas it perhaps hasn't earned by the inevitability of the lovers' demise. As if someone had made a porno based on John and Jackie Kennedy's last trip to Texas (which, incidentally, would probably be a better film). Titanic, of course, also dips deep into the old upstairs-downstairs class-based shenanigans so beloved by insane British people.

Treasure hunters (oceanographic explorers? well-equipped aquatic thieves?) find a safe in the ruins of the RMS Titanic. When it is opened, they find a jewel as big as your fist and a nudey charcoal sketch of a lady. It turns out that its subject is still alive, aged 208 and living in the United States. She is flown out to the explorer's ship where she tells the story of her trip on the doomed liner. It's a story of high-society, arranged marriages and ludicrous amounts of privilege. But nevertheless, they can all be shot through by shagging an Irish ragamuffin, on the boat as a third-class passenger having won his ticket in a dockside poker game and in the right place at the right time to prevent Little Miss Snooty from jumping to her death in a fit of wealthy pique.

And there you go. There's the trouble. The story of the fateful maiden voyage of RMS Titanic will be told for as long as there are humans to tell it. It is poignant enough, and tragic enough, without having to go all macro and examine just one or two sets of relationships. As far as the film goes, it tells the nuts and bolts story well: the special effects which were at the time completely groundbreaking in terms of their scope and their cost still hold up well and it remains very much the landmark for any future films of this kind. Quite whether the films that come after it need to so slavishly follow the generic tradition of doomed love is another matter, but of course they will and another part of us will die inside.

I think a better ending would have been that they discovered that Rose's amour from that night had not perished in the Atlantic as she had thought but was later saved by a passing boat. And yes, we've found him and brought him out to the ship. He's 206 years old but he can still get a hardon, it's Jack. A round of applause and a jokey reference to the fact he's off to ride her sideways would have made the wheelbarrow-load of Academy Awards seem so much more richly deserved.

I give Titanic SIX out of ten disaster points.

Thursday 14 February 2013

Top 100 Disaster Movies: By Dawn's Early Light

By Dawn's Early Light (1990)

If I were to make a nuclear war film, I would call it Zugzwang. This is because I am more intellectual than you. In the game of chess (oh yes, I'm going there), there will occasionally be times where one player cannot possibly do anything but harm their position but are nevertheless compelled to make a move. Having to make a move although it will be ultimately disadvantageous to you seems to me to be the defining quality of any nuclear conflict.

During the breakup of the Soviet Union, a rogue group of separatists have gotten hold of a nuclear missile and with some malice, launched it from a NATO base in Turkey towards the Ukrainian city of Donetsk. This sets all the Soviet-era nuclear response protocols - some of them completely automated, mind you - into action, meaning that there is an immediate and unstoppable retaliatory response on targets in the United States. The American President, who for some reason is Martin Landau, thought that the world was well and truly past all of this shit and is forced into taking countermeasures when an atomic bomb explodes in Washington.

During his subsequent flight out of the danger area, another bomb explodes too close to the helicopter, causing it to crash and blinding the President. With the commander-in-chief presumed dead, the American military assume control of the situation, cunningly finding the country's most old-fashioned and hawkish gun-totin', red-hatin' elected representative to assume political control and give full legitimacy to Rip Torn's view that the best thing to do now would be to bomb the entire USSR out of physical existence.

The President, found in a wood and taken to a rescue centre, must now desperately try and resume control of the situation by telephone alone, before everything is lost. Ultimately he manages to win over a hard-bitten military commander, played by James Earl Jones, whose airborn military control centre is flown into Air Force One before any really big buttons can be pressed.

James Earl Jones in By Dawn's Early Light: a definite candidate for any no fly lists.

I thought a lot about my wretched history of dismal defeats on the chessboard as I watched By Dawn's Early Light. It is a chilling reminder of the kind of counter-intuitive moves born out of nothing more than political and military expediency that have to be taken in extremis, as well as a critique of the dangers of intransigence. But mainly, I thought about how James Earl Jones was also on the B52 bomber that sneaks through Soviet defences to drop its payload in the film Doctor Strangelove. What with that, this and Darth Vader, it's a wonder that anyone allows the man to leave the ground at all, so bleak are the consequences of his being at altitude.

By Dawn's Early Light is an arresting watch and one which is still relevant over twenty years later. I give it SEVEN out of ten disaster points.

Thursday 7 February 2013

Blue-arsed monkey

Hello. Updates have been sporadic of frequency and patchy of quality of late, which is largely because I have been visited by a particularly vicious black dog. I know, boo-fucking-hoo. Anyway, here's something to just keep this place ticking over. It's the only thing I drew yesterday afternoon that didn't end up in the bin, and so comes with that guarantee of satisfaction at least.

Tuesday 5 February 2013

The busy world of assassination pictures

I want to share three of my all-time favourite pictures with you. I think they are magnificent, not only because of the exceptional technique and draughtsmanship they exhibit but also for what they represent and the significance of the event that each depicts.

The assassination of Abraham Lincoln, 14th April 1865
The assassination of James Garfield, 2nd July 1881
The assassination of William McKinley, 6th September 1901

They are remarkable things, aren't they? Each powerful in its own right, pregnant with the drama of one of those rare occasions where history definitively changed over the course of a moment. Sadly, aside from the picture of the shooting of William McKinley (by which point the United States was averaging a Presidential assassination just under every 20 years, a poor batting average by anybody's standards) which is by T. Dart-Walker, I do not know the identities of the other two artists. Such was the way of it in the days when photography was a luxurious plaything.

The sharp-brained among you will, of course, realise that there's something incomplete about this series. Because to the best of my knowledge, there is no such image of the fourth Presidential assassination in the United States, that of John Kennedy on 22nd November 1963. By then, celluloid had assumed its primacy over the pencil or the engraving, a position which it shows little sign of relinquishing any time soon.

What we are left with instead, of course, is the silent 8mm cinefilm taken by Abraham Zapruder in Dallas that day. There's always a witness to history, argued the Naudet brothers, who inadvertently captured the initial aeroplane strike in New York City on 11th September 2001. Zapruder is perhaps the most famous example of this truism. But oddly, a moving record of the event has proved so much more equivocal than any of these three artist's impressions. Perhaps it is by virtue of the nature of the shooting, by long-distance sniper rather than by the up-close-and-personal approach favoured by John Wilkes Booth, Charles Guiteau or Leon Czolgosz. But common sense states that the more data is available, the easier it should be to draw conclusions from it. The Zapruder film has, in the past fifty years, been used as sure proof of almost every theory, conceivable or otherwise, relating to the Kennedy assassination. It's a peculiar state of affairs.

But it was more from the point of view of completism, however, than in the spirit of providing any definitive proof, that I decided that I needed to finish the set. So today I am proud to unveil the first ever artistic impression of those terrible events in Dallas half a century ago this November. Will it stand the test of time in the same way as the others? Only history can tell.

The assassination of John Kennedy, 22nd November 1963. (Click for bigger)

Sunday 3 February 2013

In order to decide the best one at something inexplicable to me

There have been 32 Super Bowls during my lifetime and I have watched none of them. The first one was on January 25th 1981 and was called Super Bowl XV. This made me feel old until I remembered that America is particularly historically deprived. It turns out that the first Super Bowl did not happen until 1967, which is almost 1968. Super Bowl XV was held five days after the inauguration of Ronald Reagan as the 40th President of the United States, an event so unlikely I still can't believe it happened. Five days, too, after the release of the American hostages in Iran. The patriotic fervour obviously had a positive effect on the Oakland Raiders, who beat the Philadelphia Eagles 27-10. Both teams celebrated by not getting to another Super Bowl until the mid-2000s. Neither have won it since. Losers.

This is an American Football. It is the wrong shape,
but not for playing American Football with

Today's Super Bowl is called Super Bowl XLVII, which is Super Bowl 47 in normal. It is between the Baltimore Ravens, who are from Baltimore and the San Francisco 49ers who are from San Francisco and are also a sexual position. Five days ago North Korea launched a rocket for no particularly good reason and Ronald Reagan continued to be deceased, as he has been every day consecutively since June 5th 2004.

The American hostages returning from Iran: that's doing it a bit brown

But the most seismic event about Super Bowl XLVII is that I am going to watch it and finally find out what all the fuss is about. I hope that Beyoncé doesn't mime the half-time show. Or else they'll set OJ Simpson on her. And so tonight on my blog you will be able to join me as I try and understand what the hell is going on. Will one of the teams do it? Or will there be a penalty shoot-out? This will also be my first ever game of American Football, so everything is up for grabs. Will American Football turn out to be better or worse than Rugby League? This is a rhetorical question. No sport is worse than Rugby League.


23.17 I have just emerged from what can only be described as a tactical disco nap and now I am READY TO GO.

23.19 What the hell is going on?

23.20 Apropos of nothing, this is day three of my 28-day vegetarian food-only diet. The food is nice but I am farting like a horse. Like a HORSE.

23.23 Perhaps this is why soccer has taken such a long time to get a foothold in the United States: the FA Cup final doesn't feature enough emotionally exploitative jingoistic singalongs.

23.24 Presumably some sort of sporting event is going to break out at any moment.

23.26 There is a spirited discussion of the talents of Baltimore's Ray Lewis which represents perhaps the most glowing assessment of any sportsman's ability I have heard in cases where they could easily be replaced by a side of beef, or an oak dresser.

23.30 OK, consider this the one-off, catch-all post regarding the way American sport serves television, whereas European sport is served by television. There. I said it.

23.32 Heavens, someone just kicked a ball. Now they're going to start beating up on each other.

23.33 They're going to have to replay the first down because of an illegal formation. Apparently. This is going to be a long night.

23.35 San Francisco are the red ones, right? This is an important tactical choice.

23.38 DRAMA. The Baltimore quarterback (Bauterback) just chucked the ball miles up the field. This could prove significant.

23.40 Offside. Will we sports fans ever be free?

23.41 TOUCHDOWN! Oh my word. It's my first ever touchdown. What an event. As the US networks celebrate with a hearty 20-minute commercial break, I get to reflect on Baltimore's quarterback and dashing number 5 shirt Joe Flacco who is chucking the ball about with some gusto. This time a man who is the biggest man I have ever seen caught it on some grass which is for some reason blue. Then the kicking man converted it, just like in a good old-fashioned rugger. It is Baltimore 7-0 San Francisco.

23.44 I could really go for some football now. That touchdown has got the blood running to my shoulder. How ironic that it should also have triggered a full-on infomercial marathon. The trouble with watching the Super Bowl on the BBC is that you can't possibly expect to have the same experience as viewers in the US. Advertisers invest so heavily in their Super Bowl commercials that they are almost a part of the game.

23.47 Football has started again. San Francisco provide an immediate piece of excitement with one of their players getting hold of the ball and legging it a full nineteen yards before he is flattened by a defender the size of a tree.

23.49 This game is beginning to remind me a lot of proper football, in that there is clearly a level of tactical nous and refinement at work here, but it is taking place at a level that goes right over my head. What I'm seeing on the field is total chaos. It's almost reassuring.

23.51 One innovation I would like to see in European sport is the way there are two completely different teams for if you're attacking or if you're defending. But on the flip-side, it would be deeply amusing to me to see all of the reedy sophisticated Pythagorian ball-players to also have to do all the defending, or the colossal lunatic fatties have to try and extrapolate a 45-yard pass to a moving target.

23.54 Field goal! San Francisco bum up a chance for a touchdown when their big fat player drops it in the end zone, but make up for it thanks to the piston-like boot of Jimmy Kickpuncher. Now in commercials. I am rapidly discovering that for the true gridiron purist, the worst thing that could possibly happen is that either side score. Because it means no more football for 5-10 minutes. Ho-hum. Baltimore 7-3 San Francisco.

00.01 The most significant thing in the build up to this match is that the teams are coached by two brothers. If only their parents had taught them the importance of sharing, none of this would be happening.

00.04 The Baltimore number 82 has preposterous hair. He reminds me a little of The Predator, who would almost certainly be a good American Football player.

00.06 I keep thinking about Charlie Brown.

00.07 According to the BBC studio analyst, football often looks like a game of chess. Which poses a series of questions.

00.08 If he'd said Twister, I'd be more inclined to believe him.

00.09 We're back under way! The startling innovation here is that they take shorter commercial breaks for the end of a quarter than they do for either team scoring. The equivalent in football would be to take a 20 minute break every time a player scored a goal. Which is how Aston Villa defend. #satire

00.11 I've not heard anyone say "23! 48! 72! Hike! Hike! Hut Hut Hut!" yet. I feel television has misled me.

00.12 These gentlemen are enormous. San Francisco's number 23 just tried to skilfully feint to turn his man and get away up the wing. His reward was to be clattered by a defender the size of a bison and drop the ball. So possession reverts to the other team. I think Isambard Kingdom Brunel would have enjoyed American Football.

00.15 A series of slow-motion replays are celebrating this tackle with glowing praise. In any other sport he would be subject to the most harsh criticism. But which is the right reaction? I think all sports should adopt one player who is allowed to defend in the fashion of Baltimore's monolithic number 91 shirt. But having loads of them on either team does seem a bit like overkill.

00.18 It's still Baltimore 7-3 San Francisco, which is making advertisers nervous.

00.19 Quarterbacks must have arms like pistons. I've been trying to figure out how far I reckon I could throw an American Football. It is not far. And that's without 2500lbs of gristle running at me at 10 mph.

00.21 TOUCHDOWN! The line of scrimmage was only two yards from the end zone, but the Ravens quarterback didn't let this fact dissuade him from making some plays and flinging the pigskin right into this shit. It was converted, too. Baltimore 14-3 San Francisco.

00.24 I wish I could see the commercials. I reckon I would enjoy the commercials more than a British Olympic rower explaining the completely inexplicable, i.e. why he supports the San Francisco 49ers. We're back under way, making everyone question why some gridiron players have a towel hanging out the back of their trousers like a tail. In a sport where the likelihood of a helmeted assailant grabbing hold of you is reasonably high.

00.30 This is where my total lack of understanding of the sport is a major handicap. A fight broke out, necessitating official intervention. But it looked so much like the regular gameplay I'm not sure how they called it.

00.33 Idea: combination All-American Aport. The meat of the game is like gridiron, but on either goalpost there is a basketball hoop for opportunistic 2- and 3-point shots. And one player at a time is allowed to wield a baseball bat.

00.35 Baltimoreterback Joe Flacco is so good at chucking the ball miles that he's gone all the way over the end zone several times. This time, The Predator was under it, legs going away like pistons, but to no avail. It's all Baltimore at the moment, as long as I have correctly assumed that they're the ones in white shirts.

00.37 Watching some replays of an interception. The slow-motion replay is very important here, as it shows off details that you might miss in real time. Notably, that once one player has grabbed hold of another to tackle them, everyone else just dives on, regardless of what team they play for. Or if they're even playing at all. There's an Irish grandmother, half-cut on Guinness, still perched atop the scrimmage hitting someone with her umbrella.

00.42 San Francisco have a Defensive Safety called Darcel McBath. And we can only thank god for that.

00.45 Two minutes to half time. Which means it will be half time in about 15 minutes.

00.48 Mother futchdown! Joe Flacco passes the ball about as far as you can get it without employing FedEx and an optimistic receiver called Jacoby Jones who is standing in Ecuador suddenly finds himself with a ball dropping out of the sky into his lap. He recovers from this shock, picks himself up off the floor and hares it over the line. It was very exciting stuff. Let's all chug a beer! Half time in an hour! Baltimore 21-3 San Francisco. It's difficult to see San Francisco coming back here, because they are dreadful.

00.55 Predictably, San Francisco have now moved into their most meaningful spell of attacking dominance of the match so far. I love quarterbacks. In fact, David Beckham used to play for England like a quarterback, delivering finely weighted long-distance passes whilst the rest of his gristle-headed teammates ran around aimlessly.

00.58 San Francisco kick their second field goal to go into half time trailing 6 to 21. It's go time for Beyoncé. What controversy will the half time show bring this year? Men everywhere hope it's in the Janet Jackson way.

01.01 Of course, the awesome organisation, integration and choreography of American sports makes things like the Super Bowl half time show possible. It's hard to imagine the kind of abject chaos that would reign if someone decided to try a similar thing during the FA Cup final. Electrocutions. Nail gun accidents. Trades Union outrages.

01.13 Woman wearing a bin bag dances to Beyoncé records. Wait a minute! It IS Beyoncé.

01.20 Do you reckon Jay-Z is a considerate lover?

01.22 Stars In Their Eyes having finished, we're just minutes away from some more I Can't Believe It's Not Rugger.

01.32 LUDICROUS TOUCHDOWN Well I never. San Francisco kick off the second half, it's caught by Baltimore's Jacoby Jones and he just runs the entire length of the field for a touchdown. This, it seems, is a fairly rare occurence. As one might imagine it to be, considering the amount of steaming huge psychos wearing armour between the two end zones. It's Baltimore 28-6 San Francisco, whose no doubt in-depth half time team talk obviously did the trick. Maybe their players were all busy dancing back-up for Beyoncé?

01.38 Half of the lights have just gone out in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. I'm not entirely sure whether or not this is supposed to have happened.

01.39 When they're not playing this Super Bowl, they are showing clips of old Super Bowls. It's like a Super Bowl assault on the senses. Meanwhile, it turns out that half the lights were not meant to go out. Candles are coming out.

01.42 I'm giving them until 2 to sort the lights out or else I'm going to bed. I was bewildered enough when everything was running smoothly.

01.44 What sports are there to play professionally for short-arsed scrawny Americans?

01.58 I'm tired.

02.01 The galling thing I have just realised is that there's not really much of a difference between a twenty-minute power outage and what happens when someone scores a touchdown, in terms of being a television viewer.

02.06 None of this would happen if they played this game outside and at a reasonable hour.

02.08 I am really questioning whether or not my going to bed now would represent a failure on my part or a failure on somebody else's. And, as it's past 2 a.m., whether or not I really care either way any more.

02.10 I think that, in situations like this, they should just resort to a 10 minute paintball contest.

02.12 This is still better than Rugby League.

02.15 Wacko Flacco *weeps*

02.21 Power failure.

08.01 Ah, that's better. Rumours of Far-Eastern betting syndicates be damned, as the power outage proved to be no help to the forlorn San Francisco 49ers were beaten 34-31 by the invincible (admittedly I have a very limited data set) Baltimore Ravens.

So, what do I think? Well, for a start, the need to sort their floodlights out. But beyond that, I find the stop-start nature took a little bit of getting used to. I would just start to get into the whole thing, feel a surge of excitement as one of the teams scored and think that this might well prove to be the sport for me. But then would come a break for commercials so drawn-out that by the time play restarted I would have forgotten the rules.

I didn't find the whole experience displeasing at all. In fact, I think that I could get into the whole idea. I reckon American Football viewed as a highlights package would prove to be a ceaseless thrill ride. Perhaps that's the best way for me to engage with it, though. I am a little old man and like to be in bed early, so the insurmountable obstacle in my watching future Super Bowls live will always be the time difference. Come the day I am in America on the big day, or they play the match in Swansea, I'll be straight there with a ten-quart skein of pilsner and a hat with clapping foam hands on.

Friday 1 February 2013

Dietary recklessness

For the month of February I have decided to try and go vegetarian. Or rather, to eat no meat. I am unable to quite pinpoint what led me to make this monumental decision, although I can remember the circumstances of the day that I made it. I was flipping through the channels trying to avoid watching the commercial breaks (note to advertisers: advertising doesn't work) when I happened upon Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall making a delicious quiche with onions, cheese, greens and samphire.

I wanted to get on the outside of that. Quite why my brain took the immediate leap to trying to eat vegetarian for a month, I am not sure. However, I am a firm believer in listening to what your body tells you to do, figuring that it knows best. Perhaps there's 10lb of undigested red meat packed into my colon, desperately trying to get out. Perhaps all of that bullshit wasn't bullshit all along (it is).

Nevertheless, I am excited about it. For now, at least. I haven't eaten anything yet and I've barely even thought about steaks at all. I really enjoy cooking (plus I am awesome at it) and I think that it will make me a more creative cook. Having to think a little bit harder about meals will throw up new challenges and, hopefully, new solutions. I have only one rule: no "fake" meat. No veggie burgers, no veggie sausages, no vegetarian mince in a vegetarian lasagne. I want to see what I can do with vegetables and pulses and cheese and flour and eggs and you really don't need me to list all constituent vegetarian food types.

I have never been vegetarian before, unlike a lot of the people I know. I am very interested to see what effects it has on all manner of things, not least upon the volume and regularity of my farts. Will I crack? I hope not. Will my body thank me? I hope so. I will be trying to document some of the exciting things that happen throughout the month, even if it's just a slow descent into insanity or a series of numbers corresponding to increments on the Bristol Stool Scale.

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