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Thursday, 11 September 2014

Some thoughts on The Book of Eli (2010)

"It was a dark and stormy night."

So begins Edward Bulwer-Lytton's novel Paul Clifford... and hundreds of stories which mock it. Bulwer-Lytton, a popular and prolific nineteenth-century writer, was also a politician, which may account for one of his other coinages - "the pen is mightier than the sword." This second slogan is so respected that it's etched onto the western window of the Library of Congress' South Corridor, from which the United States Capitol can be seen.

I like the first line (which has a fine and strong directness to it), and dislike the second. To me it seems either banal or untrue, and dangerously naive. There's a cloying shallowness to it, and a disregard for history and human experience.

But I don't doubt that moral writing can have a transformative effect. The Book of Eli spins upon a variety of implausible conceits, chief among them Denzel Washington's possession of an ethical rulebook, with which he manages to defeat bands of gangsters in post-apocalyptic California.

Played with zaniness and imagination by Gary Oldman, the chief bad-guy, Carnegie (no accident), delivers a wonderfully crazy hymn to the power of the word:

Carnegie: "Put a crew together, we're going after 'em!"
Redridge: "For a fuckin' book?"
Carnegie: "It's not a fuckin' book! It's a weapon! A weapon aimed right at the hearts and minds of the weak and the desperate. It will give us control of them. If we want to rule more than one small, fuckin' town, we have to have it. People will come from all over, they'll do exactly what I tell 'em if the words are from the book. It's happened before and it'll happen again. All we need is that book."

I'm troubled by the film's theocratic paternalism, its soft-hearted ideology, and its attempts to normalize the supernatural. At the end I felt conned twice over. But its genre-bending loopiness belies its charm. The book ends up in a library on Alcatraz Island.

(Incidentally, Alcatraz Federal Prison had a library, and a notable one. Every new inmate was given a library card and copy of the catalogue. A Federal Bureau of Prisons booklet, published in 1960, noted that "these men read more serious literature than does the ordinary person in the community. Philosophers such as Kant, Schopenhauer, and Hegel, etc. are especially popular." The library was the chaplain's responsibility (for more on librarian chaplains, see this earlier post), and he made sure that all references to sex, crime, and violence were excised from the collection. There's brief library scene in the 1979 Clint Eastwood film, Escape from Alcatraz.)

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Some thoughts on The Final Countdown (1980)

How many books should a library have? I've often wondered whether this question can be answered, and have come to the conclusion that it's possible, and sometimes desirable, to limit a collection to a particular size. Look, for example, at the 'allowance list' for US Navy ships' libraries during World War II. Destroyers were to have 600 books, submarines 150. In a quaint echo of early-modern practice in the libraries of Oxford and Cambridge, the ship's library was the Chaplain's responsibility.

They obviously knew how to do things in the US Navy back then. And they obviously kick ass today, with their SEAL teams, SCALPEL laser-guided bombs, and the ray gun soon to be commissioned on the incongruously-sounding (to European ears) USS Ponce. But something must have been very wrong in the 1980s. How else to explain The Final Countdown?

The Final Countdown is about an aircraft carrier that falls into a wormhole in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Yes, a wormhole in the ocean, which sends the ship back through time, by means of some cheap special effects, to the eve of the attack on Pearl Harbour. Set and filmed on the USS Nimitz, there are a great many badly-shot scenes showing planes taking off and landing, and sailors running about to no purpose. We briefly see the ship's library. Some real life sailors sit around a table, nervously reading books. Others tap lifelessly on boxy microcomputers. Then alarms, klaxons, wormholes, swirly lights... more sailors running around... and the poor Captain, Kirk Douglas, recalling that he was once an actor of note, obviously wishing he could go hide in the now abandoned library.

Sadly, at no time in the middle of all this space/time continuum hullabaloo do Europe appear on the deck and start singing about heading to Venus...

Friday, 8 November 2013

Some thoughts on Oblivion (2013)

Thomas Babington Macaulay, historian and Liberal imperialist, was a trustee of the British Museum and a founder of the London Library. He is one of the nineteen men of letters whose names adorn the windows of the Museum's Round Reading Room, and until the legend of Karl Marx and the winds of change dissolved his reputation, was the library's most noted quotidian reader.

Historically and architecturally, the Round Reading Room vies with the Library of Congress as the most significant building in modern library history, but it is little filmed. By contrast, the New York Public Library's filmography gets longer by the year. Tom Cruise drops through its replicated ceiling in search of a wayward robot in the inept sci-fi thriller Oblivion. After kicking some drone ass, he escapes with Macaulay's Lays of Ancient Rome, most famous for its long narrative ballad about about Publius Horatius Cocles, a hero of the early Republic, who faced down the entire Clusian army to save Rome's troops.

Cruise recites the poem in an incongruent Elysian valley he finds among the ruins, snow, and dust of our demolished planet: ' can man die better / than facing fearful odds, / for the ashes of his fathers / and the temples of his Gods.' Through the twists and turns of the increasingly ridiculous plot, the poem provides a mantra for Cruise and a hint at how the story will develop.

Horatius did not die. Wounded and bleeding, he cut off the enemy and escaped, and when he returned to Rome was paraded through the streets by a singing crowd. For the sake of the human race, it's a good thing that Cruise found such rousing poetry in the Rose Main Reading Room, and not Of Mice and Men or Tess of the D'Urbervilles. But the film might have been much less ponderous, and much more fun, if he had picked up a copy of Biggles.

Monday, 22 July 2013

I'm a doctor, Jim, not a librarian!

A library, with spaceships
Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) 

What's it about?
Kirk and Spock battle a genetically-modified Rip van Winkle, a Starfleet conspiracy, and their own sublimated homoerotic desire. Should any two of these threats overcome the USS Enterprise, the United Federation of Planets will descend into paramilitary brigandage, leading to war.

What's it got to do with libraries?
The Library of Alexandria probably wasn't burned down by a mob of intemperate Christians, the original Library of Congress probably wasn't the direct target of British pyromania during the War of 1812, and the recent panic about iconoclasm by Islamist radicals in Timbuktu led to much worrying, but few charred manuscripts. Though many libraries have been victims of war, I can't think of one destroyed by a deliberate act of terrorism. We say that knowledge is power and that our institutions have deep cultural significance. If that were really true, surely more libraries would get blown up by those whose values are antithetical to ours?

A bomb in an archive sets up the action in the latest Start Trek film. Science fiction has often been a vehicle for investigations of knowledge and power. But not here. The explosion merely pushes the plot towards more explosions. Star Trek Into Darkness provides a sequence of interstellar detonations separated by winks, nods, buddy hugs and gratuitous shots of Alice Eve's bosom. Little else.

In film, libraries often disguise something else (see my posts on the British Museum, Batman and The Librarian for examples). The Kelvin Memorial Library hides a subterranean weapons-development facility; visually, a massive cavern full of spaceships. Given that there isn't a two-mile cave underneath London, I suppose we're meant to assume that Starfleet removed a vast quantity of Tertiary Era London Clay at some time. Very cleverly and quickly, so that nobody noticed. Presumably these spaceships go through some kind of testing process too. In space. Taking off from beneath the metropolis. Again without anyone noticing. When you stop to think about it, little in Star Trek Into Darkness makes much sense. The suicide-bombing is carried out by a Starfleet officer to thank a villain who saved the life of his child. Only the anti-intellectualist Quarterback Kirk realizes that it's odd that someone would want to blow up what is nominally a library.

Is it any good?
The destroyed archive is named for the USS Kelvin, the ship on which Kirk was born, shortly before his father died in battle. Relieved of his command, stripped of his rank, Kirk is reborn as a captain in this act of terrorism, which will lead directly to the death of his surrogate father. The heavy layers of psychoanalytic convolution, plot circumlocution, and self-referentiality stopped me from enjoying the spectacle here. The neat shades of grey written for Benedict Cumberbatch are too simplistic to accommodate the actor's abilities. Triangulated between the comic book, the blockbusteringly nonsensical and the postmodernist reinvention, Star Trek Into Darkness falls into a black hole of its own making. Its already feels time for someone to reinvent Star Trek, again.

J.J. Abrams
Written by
Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof
Daniel Mindel

Maryann Brandon, Mary Jo Markey

Cast includes Zachary Quinto, Chris Pine, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Benedict Cumberbatch, Anton Yelchin, Bruce Greenwood, Peter Weller, Alice Eve

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Saturday, 1 June 2013

Some thoughts on Take Shelter (2011)

There's a predictable inevitability to Take Shelter, a film about the slow unraveling of a good man's life. He has a job, a family, a truck and a best friend, but he's plagued by prophetic visions of an apocalyptic storm. If this makes Take Shelter sound dull, hackneyed, and crushingly banal, it overlooks the fact great films don't need explosions, chases, sex scenes and heavy weaponry. They're often about ordinary people facing something extraordinary.

The performances are compelling. Michael Shannon is magnificent as the troubled working class hero, his physical solidity and mental trauma filling the screen with the presence of a sleeping lion. Also remarkable is the film's everyday approach to madness, which in cinema is usually either a given (most horror movies), or its development is purely exterior (The Shining). Take Shelter examines what it would be like for a good man to worry about the collapse of his mental health. It wonders what a hard-working family man might say and do if he thought he could no longer provide for the family he loves.

Shannon borrows books on mental illness from the local library to figure out what might be happening to him. This is in keeping with his character, whose hands are made for building, not Googling, and removes him from the family home in order to set up a confrontation. It's nice to be shown that you can still find solid, readable medical literature in libraries, despite the many shelves heaving with chick-lit and action-adventure bullshit. 

In a film which dramatizes potential, Take Shelter shows an actor (Shannon) and a director (Jeff Nichols) emerging as movie people with a great future. Last year's Mud, with Matthew McConaughey, pulled them further into the limelight. A big-budget sci-fi project, with echoes of John Carpenter's early work, is next on the cards. I look forward to it.

SGU Stargate Universe ("Epilogue", 2011)

Nearly every sci-fi series with a spaceship has had an episode like this: for ill-defined reasons the ship is drawn to a mysterious planet. Something dangerous, usually involving unstable seismology or meteorology, means that landing is inadvisable, but senior crew-members descend anyway. A significant discovery is made about the origin or future of mankind. The key to this knowledge is almost within reach, but escape becomes critical as a cataclysm unfolds. All are saved but the knowledge is lost forever. The episode ends with someone looking out at the stars and saying 'there are some things we're just not meant to know.'

Though the short-lived Stargate Universe owed much to the reboot of Battlestar Galactica, it didn't suffer from the latter's metaphorical overkill. In one of many potential-for-development stories introduced in the second series in an attempt to save the programme from imminent cancellation, the crew of the Destiny come across a planet they had settled 2,000 years before.

The planet contains evidence of the lost civilization they had mysteriously founded, but is empty of humans and gashed by flowing lava. The intrepid marines and scientists discover a subterranean library and planetary archive made of precast concrete and blue metal panels. They find ebooks written by their future/past selves, two millennia of videos, advanced scientific knowledge, and gossipy trivia. Reassuringly, libraries are still libraries, even in the future/past. The reader spaces are located on a gantry that mimics the railings of a Victorian library. And the library is underground, bringing to mind the notorious bookstacks of the New York Public Library, the British Library and Oxford's Bodleian. 

Just as the crew are on the cusp of discovering the secret of the temporal puzzle, gangways fall and ladder-securing bolts shudder and shake all around. The captain pulls them all away as the planet is torn apart. The series was cancelled. We never did find out the key to the puzzle. Obviously there are some things we're just not meant to know.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Some thoughts on Belle (2013)

The Bodleian Library, aka London, ca. 1762
I've always argued that the depiction of libraries on film is more cinematically complex than most librarians acknowledge. But whether metaphors, visual shortcuts or locations for unexpected drama, libraries in movies are usually filmed as libraries. Examples in which they stand, physically, for something else are rare, but they do exist.

Interior scenes of the reinstated Irish parliament were shot in Trinity College's 1937 Reading Room for Michael Collins. And on the frequent occasions when the Bodleian in Oxford has been filmed, it has rarely ended up as a library on-screen. The court bounded by the Schools Quadrangle, Sheldonian Theatre and Clarendon Building (pictured above) has been anonymized by its ubiquity. In Tinker Tailor Solider Spy, in X-Men: First Class, throughout Inspector Morse and Brideshead Revisited, actors and actresses walk across this quad, going about their business, going anywhere but the library. Filmed at low level, the surrounding seventeenth- and eighteenth-century buildings in Headington stone could be almost anywhere in Oxford. Perhaps the Library authorities are more welcoming to filmmakers than the Colleges - today a website encourages enquiries. 

The Headington quarry also supplied the limestone with which Eton College and Windsor Castle were clad. Indeed, Hollywood seems to imagine the entirety of England to be hewn from it. Harry Potter's Hogwarts library is, in fact, the Bodleian's Duke Humfrey's Library, its infirmary the Library's Divinity School. The Divinity School also featured as the lobby to the House of Commons in The Madness of King George. Nearly all of the Bodleian's buildings and many surrounding streets stood in for early-modern London in Terrence Malick's overlooked The New World.

So it is with Belle, an eighteenth-century period drama due to be released later this year. Belle is the only film I've witnessed being filmed outside a library. All day long horses and carriages trundled up and down Catte Street, a filmic simulacrum of London in the 1760s. What are we to make of the illusion? Perhaps it simply adds another layer of complexity. Location scouts and cinematographers are able to look beyond traditional associations and reimagine libraries, usually successfully, as alternative architectural spaces. Once again, it seems, librarians could learn something from filmmakers.