Wednesday, December 27, 2006

I'm about spent for the day. With no break over Christmas and an official working weekend this weekend things are as busy as normal. Having given seminars at IHEP, the ITP, Tsingua and CCAST over the last few weeks, I'm feeling all talked out. They've all gone OK as far as I can tell and the Tsinghua students seem to have a keen interest in learning more about string theory. I have quite a few more to give when I'm in Japan but these will be on a different topic so I need to get around to sorting those out ASAP.

The threads on Asymptotia and Jaques' Musings sent me searching for information about starting my own research wiki pages. I haven't found anything ideal but pbwiki is about the best free wiki host I've found so far. If anyone can recommend something better then please do tell. If all goes well it should be a great place to keep distant collaborations alive (though msn does a pretty good job of that already). I'm also participating in a string theory reading group with students in the department and have set up a private wiki where we can ask questions and post solutions. While I'm away this should be a good way to keep the momentum going.

So, anyway, I'm all worked out today so I thought I'd try and remember some of the books that I think are worth reading and films worth seeing that I've been indulging in over the last couple of months. Novels have been on hold recently as whenever I haven't been too tired to read I've felt guilty if I haven't had my nose in a text book or paper. I have managed to read a few bits and pieces snuck in with a coffee now and then.

Shortlisted for the Booker Prize a couple of years back, 'The Electric Michelangelo' is an odd mixture for me. On the one hand the story is an interesting tale and the writing is truly stunning in places with imaginative use of language utilising the scenery of pre-war Morcambe Bay and the Coney Island funfair to set a great palette of characters. The problem is that the structure of the book feels awkward. The author is so keen to get the sentence texture just right that standing back from the book the timing jars and the flow is rather stalted by the excellent detail. The characters become a bit bogged down in the detail and you're never really sure what the point is. The main events of the book are built up and occur close to the end of the book making the rest of it lack direction. That said, I enjoyed it and the dark world of the tattoo artist in dingy Morcambe and burlesque New York is still a fun read.

Still in New York 'The Emperor's Children' by Claire Messud is a character study of a group of friends and residents of Manhattan pre and post 9/11. It's a simple book but the story runs easily and there are not only enough interesting characters to build a meaty tale but there's the odd unexpected turn. The book tackles the issue of the mask that we put on in society, and asks at what level anyone really knows us in this multi-layered zoo. Some fun ideas and all worth exploring.

I'm currently reading Lolita, having been told many times by a good friend that I was missing out. Seeing half the Jeremy Irons film version didn't convince me but the book is another world and the writing is truly beautiful, very painful and completely engaging. The subject matter is clearly a difficult one but the character writes with such honesty and acknowledged guilt that you don't hate him as you may expect, you simply feel sorry for him. It's not only the depth of the character study but Nobakov's stunning word-smithery which makes the book flow like little else I've read. I'm only half way through but it's clearly a classic for good reason, not just controversy.

Sadly that's about it for books recently but I've been able to indulge a little more in films. Quite a few of these films come with a health warning, mostly far from family viewing.

Visitor Q
fits nicely into this category, though it is about the ultimate disaster in family dynamics. I feel somewhat sheepish to put a link to this movie as the very ideas in the film are pretty repugnant. Miike, who direced Audition - a similarly dark though strangely beautiful film about revenge, plays with just about every taboo imaginable in this film but does so in a way which pushes buttons to make you constantly feel unsettled, not by the subject but the way in which it's portrayed. Anyone who makes it to the end of the film will probably realise that as always in Miike's films there's a lot of very dark humour in with the unsavoury material. In fact it's the less extreme aspects which are the more disturbing, the completely over-the-top ones being just that.

Also from Japan is a much calmer, though far more humanly painful piece from Yasujiro Ozu- Tokyo Story. It's also about a breakdown in a family but this is a passive rather than active breakdown as in the previous film. With tastes attuned to Hollywood action, the slow pace of the movie does age it and there are few shocks to the story given the premise. However, with Ozu's skills the film is beautifully filmed - using the tatami shot for much of the movie - and still engaging. Ozu's films rely heavily on the ideas of "mono no aware", translated as "the awareness of the transience of things, and a gentle sadness at their passing" in wikipedia. For me this Japanese philosophy explains why many of the most moving films I've seen have come from the East. The slow, accepting view of life rather than an active perturbation of it in movies makes the viewer as involved as the director and consequently the director has the ability to move you even more.

Neither slow nor non-perturbative is End of Evangelion. Having mentioned to the friend with whom I set up the 'Beijing book and movie club' last year that I hadn't watched much manga, he immediately gave me a list of must-sees and this was one of the top. It's is a remake of the final episodes of a television series and so, unsurprisingly is rather confusing without the background. It is however breath-takingly imaginative and mind-blowingly surreal and makes CGI effects seem completely redundant. It's strong imagery feels somehow Daliesque (who involved religion in many of his creations) and even without the background and a full comprehension of what's going on, the philosophies (and I don't think it's overstating it to call them genuinely thought provoking ideas) are satisfyingly troublesome. As usual I'm not actually going to tell you anything about what happens in the film but if you aren't annoyed by a lack of concluding explanation and want to see what can be done with animation I thoroughly recommend you to give this a watch. I've never been a terribly big science fiction fan as I see how much time most people seem to put into this genre to get the most out of it. Anyway, even without truly understanding the background of this cartoon it's a hugely creative, powerful watch.

OK, that'll do for now. As I said, this weekend is a working weekend followed by a big night on Sunday and a couple of days holiday. Then off to Korea the following Sunday. The adventures continue.


Benjamin said...

Lolita is the only one of these books and films I've heard of, Jonathan, but I found this post pretty engaging all the same. I like the way you write about the style and methods of different authors and filmmakers. Happy adventuring x

Unknown said...

Hi Ben,

Thanks for popping by. I enjoyed your recent foray into movie making - somehow joyous. I'll be putting up a few more reviews when I get a moment.

All the best and Happy New Year,


Benjamin said...

Oh, thank you! That's encouraging to read.