Tag Archives: Films

Short Films that will blow you away, and other thoughts on The New Scientist afternoon at Sci-Fi London

bg_headerI can’t remember the last time I was blown away by a short film — actually I can, because it was Robots of Brixton which if you don’t know you should watch immediately — but one of the sets of shorts at the afternoon hosted by Simon Ings of the New Scientist had some of the best things I have seen in ages. Like this:

The Centrifuge Brain Project from Till Nowak.

Nothing beat this short for laugh-out-loud, jaw-dropping, fear-of-heights-induced-eye-covering and thought-provoking action. I think it might have been a mistake to open with it, because nothing else quite lived up to its awesomeness.

SEFT-1 Abandoned Railways Exploration Probe (Ivan Puig and Andrés Padilla Domene (2014)) did come close, as the enjoyable film is only the tip of the iceberged project of much deeper, more amazing, and a longer concentrated effort.

It’s an exploration of the past, of the Mexican Revolution and its use of the railways in armed uprising, of the birth of villages along the route where the trains needed to take on more water and coal, of the history of nationalisation and then decay — an exploration of all this things through the physical landscape using a special earth-and-rail-running vehicle crafted as a space exploration probe, collecting stories and interviews along the way.

I am filled with unbearable loss that I could not be part of such a amazing thing that brings together the social, cultural, political, physical nature of hopes for the future and their ruins. I look forward to exploring it at length.

The three other shorts that followed were all enjoyable and thought provoking. Growth Assembly by Daisy Ginsberg and Sacha Pohflepp (2009) explores the potential of engineering new commodities to be grown as plants (products will no longer be shipped, only seeds which then can be grown) through the use of seven different plants to create a herbicide sprayer — an obvious irony I know, but this is clever. Studio Swine’s Hair Highway looks at the uses of human hair in unexpected ways, beautifully done. The final one, Magnetic Movie by Semiconductor shows the wonder of magnetic fields around us, and they are wondrous indeed.

A few other shorts stood out, making me worry that I do not spend enough time seeking them out. Like The Afronauts by Cristine De Middel (2013) about Zambia’s space program, and The Moon by Pavel Klushantsev (1965) about all the things humans will build on the moon once we get there, you don’t need to speak Russian to understand its awesomeness. The other films, however, were more artistic and ranged from actively annoying to vaguely interesting for a few seconds and then boring making you wish they were even shorter — reminding me of why in fact I don’t like most shorts. I was bit embarrassed to laugh at the man kicking the robot dog for example. Still, 7 brilliant ones I had never seen made up for the rest.

Discovering things like this is why I love eclectic afternoons put together like this one, exploring the Science Fiction Future. It had opened with a lovely keynote from Alastair Reynolds, who I confess to not having read but that shall be remedied. I love Gerry Anderson references and space, the call for a critical SF that retains a sense of fun, but that also engages with the world and goes beyond shiny gadgets (but keeping shiny gadgets because let’s face it, they are SO cool). But what most made me think was a comment that obviously referred back to the whole sad puppy debate in the US, the efforts of right wing and exclusionary people to control and define the genre. He noted that all of this was a spillover from the American Culture Wars but that it was having global effects. All my academic work has been looking at race and the city, the physical and concrete aspects of these culture wars that I argue underpins them — the awfulness of that impacting on world culture hit me like a blow. How much more vital that we understand it, do what we can to fix it though sometimes I despair of that.

The first panel on Museum exhibitions and ‘Unreliable Evidence’ contained Doug Millard, who talked about Russian space exploration and the upcoming exhibit at the Science Museum which I am looking forward to immensely. But then there was the Lost in Fathoms project, shown at the GV Art gallery — an exploration of the sudden disappearance of the fictional Nuuk Island. The pictures were nice, the thought of standing in the rift in Iceland and touching two continental plates amazing. Still, the anger such an abstracted look at climate change, geological shiftings, oceanographic explorations (all those glass containers of water from around the world, collected at different depths. What a great use of collaboration with the oceanographic international community!) runs fairly deep. Possibly because the oceans are rising, causing the non-fictional loss of entire islands, their states, their people forced to seek new homes. Possibly because sands are spreading causing desertification, similarly forcing people from their ancestral lands and contributing to instability and violence in places like Mali, Chad and Nigeria. Such luxury and privilege to ignore these things, what a message that in itself sends.

I was also a bit puzzled about the field of fashion forecasting, though I did rather like the idea of fashion as clothing that has been mediatised, narrativised.

The second panel also had moments of deeply interesting ideas and a lot of moments without…Pat Kane’s giant head on skype from Glasgow was very charismatic though surprisingly academic. I really enjoyed thinking about the opposition between the politics of nudge and behaviour modification, and the politics of play. The one controlling and patronising, the other seeking to create spaces of openness. I would love to help create this world where play is respected, where shorter work weeks and citizen’s wages allow more time for us to explore our worlds, to honor our efforts to create meaning, to engage with the physical world around us and to have autonomy in how we do that. This is what is needed for a full life, and I think we should demand it.

Sadly no one else really engaged in this call for a revolution in our political economy.

I will, however, be checking out the game Ingress, that creates a virtual game reality layered on top of the city. That sounds cool.

At this point our heads were full, and if revolution wasn’t on the table (which it didn’t seem to be) we were pretty done with this programme. It was nice to share a room with so many people though, giving up a Saturday afternoon to explore things like this.

Sci-Fi London still has a few days left, check it out.

Andrei Rublev

Just saw this movie and have no idea what to think of it so I am writing about it in hopes that some insight will strike, and so I won’t lie in bed thining about it instead of going to sleep…it is my tried and true method that works about 50% of the time. And I will write like the wind because work rises menacingly in the morning. So, Andrei Rublev…”a cinematic masterpiece,” that bit sounds alright, “a mesmerizing account of 15th century Russian monk AR follows the painter as he faces violence, political persecution…” so far so good, “the soviets suppressed this sweeping epic,” now you can see why I requested it…still, I think it should be subtitled 50 reasons why you should be glad you are not Russian. I might be joking, I suppose almost everyone in the fifteenth century wandered about in mud and pouring rain with rags wrapped round their feet and holes in all of their clothes. Though there was a subtle emphasis on the noble brutish peasant and the all-powerful god like high prince that I felt was a bit unique and certainly not for me.

So, I should have realized earlier that epic meant really really fucking long movie…and this is the culture that spawned tolstoy and pushkin after all. The cinematography was indeed masterful, nice sweeping scenes, nice camera work around trees, some lovely shots of blood and paint swirling in water and snow…a great deal of symbolism of which I probably did not understand a quarter, it takes about an hour to really get into it…it started to get good at the orgy scene connected with witchcraft, and mass skinny dipping on a scale never before seen by the likes of me, who knew the 15th century was also fun? And how brave was the director for trying to show that in 1966 Russia? That’s where Andrei’s crisis of faith first sets in, and about time too, I was hoping for the next 2 and a half hours (as I said, the first hour you really have very little idea as to what is going on) he’d strip off the black hood, and settle down with marya the tempting heathen seductress for a long overdue roll in the haybarn and a jolly nice life, but that would have made it less of a masterpiece I suppose. The tatars were good, I had forgotten all about them, there were definitely a number of shots of evil orientals spearing women, setting things on fire, and laughing a great deal while doing so. And so I felt a little battered after getting beaten around the head with the message “brother Russians unite against the evil outsiders,” and “the great Russian motherland will suffer, but she will always endure.” I suppose that was the gist of things, a good bit about the evils of envy that doesn’t come together for the perceptive viewer until the very end, and finally that it is a sin not to do what you were born to do if you have a great talent, I might possibly agree with that, except for the sin bit because I don’t believe in sin particularly. There were more subtle messages and it was quite layered, i’m probably being flippant so I don’t have to admit I didn’t catch everything, I might read about it tomorrow because I’m curious and then watch it again ten years from now. So Andrei paints icon’s again and Boriska – symbol of a new succesful Russia reborn from war and plague and famine perhaps? – continues making bells and all is well. Except for the 4 or 5 horses that I am quite sure had their legs broken and were put out of their misery on film especially for this movie, and the cow that got set on fire. I don’t imagine that back in 1966 they had the special effects to produce what I saw without harming any animals…

It had an impact, I’ll not deny it, and set my mind working, definitely worth watching on a nice leisurely Sunday evening, especially if you’re drinking wine. The mulling was unsuccesful so I cracked open the other bottle (I might be convinced it’s a sin to waste a good bottle of wine, i do feel terribly guilty), I think I was thinking of mead anyways, though I don’t know what mead is, it does sound nice. So, just one last thought on icons to finish up, or perhaps religious decoration in general. Because icons puzzle me a great deal… I was in Greece and it was extraordinarily beautiful: deep azure sea, rich brown earth, and these incredible dazzling white churches in the hot sunlight that looked as if they had risen up from the ground itself, round and oddly shaped and lovely. And I kept wanting to go inside and see a clean empty space, round and oddly shaped and lovely, with walls of dazzling white because i rather believe that if god exists god would prefer such a space. And instead what strikes you is the darkness, and the overpowering scent of incense and these pale oval faces staring down at you with huge cold eyes and tiny pursed lips that I find singularly unpleasant, and scenes of the last judgement and fire and pain…there was a line in the movie something like “God will forgive you, but you should not forgive yourself. You will forever walk between god’s forgiveness and divine torment.” That’s from Theophanes the Greek who rose from the grave to speak these lines amidst a smoking mass of dead bodies (damn tatars) so I hope I got it mostly right, but still, it captures what orthodox churches are like, but without the forgiveness part, honestly, it possibly solves the great question of the Russian temprement, but which came first? Spanish churches are as bad, I stopped going into them because everything is gilded and flashy, and all the saints are gloomy and accusing, and jesus is here there and everywhere spouting blood. Makes me glad to be English, where you have the great cathedrals soaring up into the sky, of pure unpainted stone and wood and stained glass, and they are vast and echoing and focus your mind on anything but guilt and darkness and blood. Though I daresay were I not speaking of them in comparison to what is far worse I should be able to be a bit more critical.

Anyways, bed for me, i shall stop being terribly un-pc now as I have probably mortally offended anyone who is russian and/or greek orthodox or a spanish catholic, or a new world catholic for that matter because Mexico and Brazil at the least are just as bad. Worse, in Brazil I went into a room that was full of ancient mummified dignitaries still dressed in full canonicals and a full size statue of Christ with red velvet ropes coming out of his side, his hands, and his feet, and connected to another life size statue of a monk kneeling before him. Couldn’t sleep for a week after that horrifying experience, still, they can blame their colonizers for such a monstrosity. Right, can’t believe I reminded myself of that right before bed, this is not one of my prouder moments…