Monday, 23 November 2015

comic con

We had an enjoyable family day out to Comic Con in Birmingham yesterday (Saturday 21st - actually two days ago, it will appear, since I've posted this after midnight on Sunday night) - a convention relating to screen/print/game science fiction and fantasy in print, a particular feature of which is many people dressed up as sf/f characters (cosplay).

It is, I think, partly and successfully designed to be a safe and friendly environment in which people can feel free to be themselves: it's fascinating to see so many people being themselves by being someone else.

I was pleased to see so many women behind the comic artist stalls in particular (and in general the male/female ratio of attendees was unstereotypically even), but female cosplay, 'empowering' or not, is still heavily 'Hi, I'm Skimpy and these are my friends Cleavage and Skintight.'

(These things strike me because, like Polonius, I have a daughter.)

My favourite costume of the day was just a girl in student black wearing a sign saying 'free shrugs'. The steampunk - basically modified Victorian - looked good as a retro fashion people might actually wear in real life with a little moderation.

We had no idea who most of the people dressed up were meant to be, but that didn't matter a lot.

Probably our favourite bit of the day was playing a game in the games area, which was a very good idea for an area - about eight tables with games set up on them and a team of demonstrators, so you could go and learn (or just play) one of the games by playing it with someone. We played Colt Express with Clara, and enjoyed it, sufficiently that I bought a copy later from one of the stalls. The games area was provided by a company which sold/distributed games: they didn't have a selling stand, which was impressively altruistic, but nor did they even have flyers or business cards, so I can't even remember what they were called, which seems to be taking it a bit too far. (Perhaps they only sell to trade; or perhaps all proper gamers know who they are.)

In the afternoon we separated as the others wanted to get a good place in the theatre to watch the cosplay masquerade and I wanted to go round the stalls more thoroughly. We were all happy with our choice.

I'd think you'd need to have an ego of steel to be anything below an A-list person on the autograph tables, because most of them seemed very quiet most of the time. Even Miriam Margolyes, I reckon the biggest name while we were there, I saw with no queue, though she'd had a large one when we arrived first. But if you're someone who played a very minor part in something like Star Wars, an appearance fee and £15 an autograph, and general friendly appreciation from anyone who does come to you, must be a reasonable way to spend an occasional Saturday.

We enjoyed it, but I'm not sure we'd go again; having seen it once, we're not in the world enough to get any more out of it a second time, I think, unless one of us gets into it more; or unless we go to a slightly different version - if, say, there's an equivalent convention focussed on 'board' games (though many of them don't have boards), since the game-playing was the best thing. But then, there are probably cheaper and nearer ways to do that.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

hamlet: ethan hawke

Last week I watched (recorded off FilmFour a couple of years ago) the 2000 film version of Hamlet starring Ethan Hawke (and many other familiar faces).

It was a modern version, relocated to a modern-day US business empire. It was a reasonable production, in general, though nothing special.

Assorted notes.
- Ethan Hawke seemed quite characterless, perhaps deliberately impenetrable, but it came across as a bit bland.

- I thought Liev Schrieber as Laertes was easily the best performance. I thought silence was used well in his encounters with Hamlet after the funeral, making a virtue of the fact that of course a lot of those lines were cut (though that presumably is a director's decision).

- Sometimes I got the feeling that some people were delivering lines like they'd learned them phonetically but didn't know what they meant.

- In the equivalent of the corridor scene, with Hamlet and Ophelia (Julia Stiles) being 'overheard' by Claudius and Polonius, I thought it worked well that Ophelia was 'wearing a wire' rather than being spied on (the use of surveillance, communication and media technology was a key element of the modernisation, though interestingly of course this made it very dated, not least with the presence of a fax machine, large floppy disks and a video rental store). The fact that it was uncovered while it was being made apparent that they did love each other emphasised the sense of betrayal that Hamlet felt, and the guilt which Ophelia felt in having done so and being found out. I don't remember having seen that drawn out so well, and made sense as a precipitating factor towards breakdown/madness.

- Having the post-reveal insults in the corridor scene become answerphone messages left by angry/bitter Hamlet after the event worked well.

- Polonius was shot through a mirrored wardrobe door, pretty sure as also in the David Tennant production.

- I'm pretty sure there's a shot of Hamlet getting out of a car with the Lion King theatre in the background, a little in-joke.

- Laertes holds the mad Ophelia tenderly, as a loving brother would in real life, and so rarely happens in Hamlet.

- Something else that rarely happens in Hamlet, interestingly enough, is any sense that Hamlet is changed by his first murder, of Polonius. There was definitely a sense in which this Hamlet felt guilt, or if not guilt then certainly trauma, about having murdered someone, and particularly the wrong person. So perhaps not as characterless as I said above.

- When Claudius (Kyle MacLachlan) is telling Laertes to seize the moment and take his revenge on Hamlet, I did have the thought perhaps for the first time (perhaps coincidentally, perhaps something in the performance) that this is how he had persuaded himself to seize his own moment, before the play, for murder and marriage (because he was quite a mild-mannered Claudius). Probably Kyle MacLachlan's best moment as Claudius.

- While Sam Shepard (as the Ghost) wasn't quite the same, there was a slight echo, though not so extreme, of Patrick Stewart's playing the Ghostly Hamlet as not a loving father but a bully, contrasting with his brother Claudius's more surface-gentle, man of diplomacy rather than war.

- Bill Murray as Polonius did run along the usual lines, but he had two good moments. One was his advice to the departing Laertes, given as if by a loving father rather than (as usually delivered) a tedious lecture. The other was that he spoke the line to Claudius, in relation to uncovering the source of Hamlet's madness, about finding things out even if they go to the top, in a way which made me think of my view that you could plausibly play it that the wise/shrewd/insightful Polonius knew or at least suspected that Claudius had murdered his brother. I'm not sure if that was deliberate in the delivery, or just me reading into it, and I'm not sure there's any other clue in this production that that was what was behind it.

- Relatedly, one also wonders why Claudius is so keen to find out what's behind Hamlet's madness, and sets R&G to spy on him in particular. As Gertrude says, the obvious explanation is his father's death and mother's remarriage, with Polonius's suggestion of mad for spurned love a reasonable second suggestion. I think an obvious explanation for Claudius's keenness is that what he actually wants to find out is whether Hamlet knows or suspects that Claudius murdered his father. I'm not sure I've ever seen that possibility drawn out - though, to be fair, it would be quite hard to convey (Claudius eying Hamlet suspiciously/guiltily all the time?).

- In the final scene Gertrude deliberately drinks the wine, knowing that there's poison in it. It's only the second time I remember seeing this, and it's an interesting and performable idea.

Reviews (some links from the Wikipedia article, then from the first couple of Google results pages - finding reviews proved to be easier than I'd anticipated). New York Times. Washington Post. LA Times. New York magazine. Observer (which describes the set up and some of the characterisation, particularly that of Hamlet, very well). Guardian ('One of the wittiest scenes sees Hamlet, morose and almost torpid with introspection, drifting through a branch of Blockbuster in which every movie genre is "Action".' - a couple of the reviews mention this 'Action' detail (in the scene in which 'to be or not to be' appears) which passed me by; 'Ethan Hawke plays Hamlet perfectly satisfactorily, though he turns him into a bit of an indie-band lead singer'). Rolling Stone. Pop Matters. CineScene (some kind of amateur site, with a review which sounds like it was written by an overearnest and overenthusiastic student). ReelFilm (another film review blog). Fleeting Joy (a site devoted to the works of the director, Michael Almereyda). Ruthless Reviews (actually quite an interesting review, making a good general case for what I have always thought would be a perfectly reasonable reading of the play, that Hamlet is a completely selfish and unsympathetic toff who treats everyone around him badly). Boston Review (a long essay article of a review). Exclaim.

On the whole the reviews were more positive than negative, I think, giving more praise to most people than I would have, with in particular a surprising amount of praise for Horatio, who I thought gave a thoroughly unremarkable portrayal. A couple of the reviews also took Laertes' brotherly love for Ophelia as hinting-at-incestuous, which is a tedious interpretation but was perhaps fashionable at the time. I think the only production I've seen in which Laertes' love was explicitly more than it should be was the first production of Hamlet I saw, in the Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh in the mid-80s, where Laertes planted a most unbrotherly farewell kiss on Ophelia at his first-half departure (and which, as I remember, seemed very out of the blue). The only other thing I remember about that production was that Simon Russell Beale was Osric - he was obviously sufficiently memorable in the production that I remembered him when I started seeing him in other things. And another Hamlet blogpost ends with a mention of Mr Russell Beale.

Sunday, 8 November 2015

religion: origins and ideas

On Sunday 25 October I finished reading Religion: Origins and Ideas, by Robert Brow, an old Tyndale paperback (1972 2nd ed, first published 1966) which I'd had on my shelf for a very long time. It was a straightforward and relatively interesting, though far from gripping or intensely readable, run through the origins and development of religion, and various key theme options (meaning/meaningless, theism/monism, trinity/unity, life after death, ethics & goodness, religious experience).

It was a helpful run-through, but not earth-shattering. The most helpful point made, for me at the time of reading it, was this reminder towards the end (p93):
'Having set out the logic of these religious alternatives, we can see some options to live by. If this world has a purpose for man to discover, that purpose must be discovered by some kind of oneness with our world (Monism) or that purpose is found by knowing the mind of the Creator (Theism). If there is a theistic Creator the main alternatives seem to be the Unitarian and Trinitarian views of God. On the other hand if this world has no inherent purpose, and we begin with meaninglessness, there are again certain options such as atheistic Existentialism and Nihilism. Thus comparative religion can set out alternative systems. Which religion or world-view a man chooses is his freedom.
'This mutual confrontation of religious alternatives, and by our definition all world-views and ideologies are religious, leaves us no place for neutrality. If we live as humans at all we are religious in some sense. The question is whether there is any way to discover which is the way we ought to adopt. At that point I do not think logic can help us. Logic and argumentation can help us see the inner constituency of a particular world-view; it cannot prove that it should be adopted. That is why Paul stated categorically that faith cannot be produced by argument (1 Corinthians 1:18-25). If faith was the result of logical reasoning we would expect all the most intelligent people to be converted to one religion or ideology. It seems that God in his wisdom has insisted on freedom of religion, and this freedom cannot be forced by human reason or logic.'

Friday, 6 November 2015

legally blonde

Yesterday afternoon, both feeling coldy, the younger generation and I watched Legally Blonde on DVD; I'd seen it before, possibly in the cinema, and it was good, better than I remembered (I suspect I may have been mixing it up in my memory with Sweet Home Alabama).

I bailed out of the follow-up in the matinee double bill, Johnny English, as we have seen it many times and it's rubbish.

a private eye cartoon

A cartoon from the 30 October issue of Private Eye, thoughtful rather than funny:
a little girl and her mum stand outside a shop window, in which there is a sign saying 'Halloween Fancy Dress' and costumes labelled 'Sexy Witch', 'Sexy Fairy', 'Sexy Frankenstein' and 'Sexy Ghost'. The girl is saying to her mum, 'Mummy, do I *have* to be sexy?'

hamlet: benedict cumberbatch

On Tuesday 27 October I went with Laura (who'd got the tickets) to the Barbican cinema 3 to see a broadcast of the NT Hamlet, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, which is currently running in the Barbican (it wasn't a live broadcast, but a reshowing of the live broadcast of a couple of weeks ago). It was pretty good, both the production and the experience.