Sunday, 19 October 2014

Why I don't 'get' superheroes

I've had a few discussions with friends over the years on this topic, but thought I'd blog about it in the wake of quite a provocative piece recently published by The Guardian on Batman. The article criticises Burton's first Caped Crusader movie, arguing that Nolan's version is better because it is more authentic, more progressive and more realistic.

I just don't 'get' superheroes in quite a profound way. I find it hard to separate them from their origins in the hokey American pre-war pulp literature culture where heroes were circus-strong-man who wore leopard-spotted leotards (or, if they were really going to town, their undercrackers over a leotard). It was a chauvinistic era when the protagonists were always male, and women were (mostly) in distress or, at best, feisty but under-powered sidekicks (as in The Shadow). I value this culture for what it is, so I love Burton's Batman because it was magical, theatrical and embraced the nonsense of the genre. I also love Kick Ass, Guardians of the Galaxy and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (the comic) for these same reasons.

The modern trend of making superheroes realistic just leaves me confused. They continue to wear bonkers outfits while wondering around a gritty, realistic world. I can't help thinking why everyone around them isn't saying, "Uh, you know you look a bit weird dressed like that, right?". And injecting a lot of angst and dumbed-down psychology just makes it worse.

There are a few exceptions to my dislike. V has no superpowers and adopts the Guy Fawkes persona as it suits his anarchistic and political aims. Everyone he encounters is completely freaked out by his clearly outrageous outfit. The Watchmen are just unstable, have-a-go-heroes. Doctor Manhattan, arguably the only one with any supernatural abilities, is treated in quite a realistic manner. He is harnessed as weapon of mass destruction by America while being viewed with suspicion and fear. My point with these two examples is that they demonstrate a coherency to the level of realism. The world they live in, the heroes and the supporting characters around them are all treated with the same logic.

I realise that the huge success of the superhero genre in recent years means I am in a minority. Clearly it's hugely popular and the popcorn-chomping public love it. I'm just not one of them and continue to be left cold by the bulk of these raspy, frowning, cinematic offerings.

Oh, and just be clear, giant, genetically engineered, robot-armour wearing fanatics in space are absolutely fine in my book.

Friday, 10 October 2014

The Great Martian War

The Great Martian War is a forthcoming pseudo-documentary by The History Channel detailing the events of a fictional Martian invasion a la War of the Worlds. Questions of veracity and taste aside, the effects in the trailer actually look pretty darn good, with footage either aged to seem early 20th century, or with CGI Martians composited into historical footage (it's so good, it's hard to tell which approach is used). I actually really like their interpretation of the biology and technology of the extraterrestrials. Their walkers seem suitably gawky with a pleasing mix of mechanical and biological elements.

The Ladytron-esque chiptunes soundtrack on this trailer, by Goldchimes, is pretty ace too.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Discovering Tutankhamun at the Ashmolean Museum

Discovering Tutankhamun is the latest exhibition at Oxford University's Ashmolean Museum. I went a couple of weeks ago and can't recommend it enough. The show has three main sections, two of which are really quite left-field.

The first room is a blow-by-blow account of the discovery of the tomb. It focuses more on the sequence of events and the techniques and processes Carter used to excavate the site. The dig was one of the most carefully run operations of the time, eschewing the dynamite and crowbars that had (terrifyingly) typified archaeology up until the 20th century. Genius photographer Harry Burton took meticulous photographs on his plate camera recording the minute position of every object in situ. The detail that the team went into was quite incredible and the Oxford curators have done a great job of bringing this home. In addition, there is an enormous wall-mounted enlargement of an isometric drawing of the tomb complex, which is a dungeon-crawler's dream.

The second room was the real draw for me. It documents the impact the discoveries had on popular culture and the resulting wave of of Egyptian-ophilia which permeated Western creative industries in particular. There are beautiful clothes and accessories, board games, trashy romance novels, postcards and pieces of furniture from the 1920s, all unashamedly borrowing from the style and culture of the ancient Nile delta. Some space is devoted to the 1970s resurgence when the Treasures of Tutankhamun exhibition toured the world. For me one of the most amazing pieces was the poster from the British Museum's hosting of the tour. The design and typography is amazing and, alas, the Ashmolean's efforts pale into insignificance.

The final room is devoted to King Tut's life and the complex world in which he found himself. Modern research shows that the tragic image of the beautiful boy-king is probably rather far from the truth. This section includes enormous, super-detailed prints the Factum Foundation's scanning project which documented the interior of the tomb complex in crazy 3D detail. I wonder how long it will be before this data enables a high-rez Doom-style walkthroughs available to all via the internets? 

The very fact that this show can pull crowds from across the country and the artifacts still inspire us today is testament to the sheer genius and skill of the ancient artists. Their astonishing work still continues to thrill and inspire us thousands of years after their deaths. While it is the name "Tutankhamun" that we remember, it is really the haunting but beautiful death mask that we think of - surely one of the most exquisite pieces of craftsmanship the world has ever seen. What creative could ask for legacy better than this?

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Noct by c3sk

Generally I subscribe to The Oatmeal's view of Kickstarter, but I must admit that there are some cool concepts appearing now and again. Noct is a videogame being developed by c3sk studio and it looks awesome.

The concept is top-down survival horror in a vaguely Lovecraft-ian post-apocalyptic setting, as viewed through thermal imaging cameras. I love the lo-fi graininess of the screenshots which perfectly capture the kind of despondent, hallucinogenic atmosphere that would (probably) be pervasive if weird-ass ancient deities arose from their slumer and sent the whole world mad. Probably.

Alas I am increasingly suffering from nausea when I play 3D games, so anything 2D is a much safer bet. Oh, wait, I just equated a Lovecraft-ian doomsday scenario with 'safe'. Welcome to my world...


Sunday, 7 September 2014

And Now It's Dark

This is the first post in a few weeks as things have been busy at the ToE headquarters. Not only have I begun to renovate the secret bunker in which I now live, there was a trip to Ancient Greece a few weeks ago (during which I got to fire arrows at hoplites, which was awesome).

Now I'm back, I have just been to an amazing show at Nottingham's Lakeside Gallery. And Now It's Dark; American night photography profiles the work of several predominantly late 20th century photographers and includes a section of much older images. The work of these artists reveals a very different side to The American Dream. The long-exposure images are often flooded with eerie and sickly light revealing the delapidation of American cities. Black-red pools of blood run down cracked sidewalks, hooded figures hide in corners, and candid, blurred pictures of blurry women with late-night-blurry makeup stare out from the prints. By day the United States is filled with the self confidence and optimism for which it is renowned, by night a very different picture emerges as those who have fallen through the cracks come out to play.

The section of early-to-md 20th century images was amazing - vintage images of cities New York and Boston. Many of the landscapes looked just how I imagine Gotham city to be. Robbed of the technicolor which saturates most of the other rooms, these older photographs emphasize fog, light blooms and the heavy chiroscuro shadows on the faces of those terrified New Yorkers trapped on the subway in the blackout in 1965.

"Now it's dark" is a phrase often used by David Lynch - it is repeatedly uttered by Frank in Blue Velvet and Julee Cruise whispers it into the Twin Peaks soundtrack. This show perfectly captures the real-life nocturnal hinterlands which have clearly inspired Lynch.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

KIN by Seb and Ben McKinnon

KIN by Seb and Ben McKinnon is a beautiful short film inspired by Scottish folk history.

Although influenced by their trip to Scotland, it was actually shot around Montreal. I love the desaturated shots of bleak landscape and the epic proportions with which they imbue the knight. The latter is acheiveed with some wonderful slow motion and some great natural lighting.

A month ago the pair uploaded a teaser for the sequel to KIN called Salvage.


KIN from KIN on Vimeo.

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Back to The Smoke

Here are some snaps of bits of London I have been to over the past couple of months...

The Olympic park is a rather awesome development. I had just left the city by the time the London Olympics kicked-off, so never saw it 'in action'. Now the stadia are open to the public they tend to dwarf the reduced crowds. The elegantly landscaped park has a slightly Ballardian quality. If feels somehow over-designed next to the more higgledy piggledy spaces of the old city.

This is a view up one of the waterways on the South Bank, near to Tower Bridge. These buildings were derelict right up until the 90s and the flats now cost in excess of £400k. Good evidence for their previous state can be found in films like Jubilee by Derek Jarman and Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket. Both directors shot in the disused, decaying waterfront of the 80s. I think I prefer it that way.

I went to the London ComiCon last month, and had to escape after less than an hour due to my brain overloading. I discovered that Brompton Cemetery is right next to Earl's Court and had a wander through the Victorian burial ground. I realised I had seen the long, colonnaded walk in various films, including the Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes movie. The place has an amazing collection of 19th century funerary architecture.

I've been reading a bit about Chinese migration to UK cities so I visited the London Chinatown. I was really fascinated by the fusion of Asian design with the Victorian and Georgian architecture of the neighborhood. I particularly wanted to wander down the back alleys, where the application of design is far less considered. There were some wonderful little Victorian barred windows and bricked up alcoves in the surfaces, while the Chinese influence was far less bombastic.

This is the Paolozzi bronze of Newton outside the British Library. He is probably the best bit of the campus, which I otherwise don't care for much.

I usually do edits in Photoshop, but used Picasa this time as it's just quicker. The 'Holga' filter is a one-button click and produces OK results I think. Alas there still appears to be no control over the watermark text settings, hence the rather clunky results here.