From the archives: Film

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The metalepsis will not be wikified

Tuesday, 17 March 2015 — 5:17am | Film, Literary theory, Literature, Music

Amber Jacquemain (Kate Miller-Heidke) and Toby Kramer (Roderick Williams) in Sunken Garden (2011-2012), a 3D film-opera by Michel van der Aa with a libretto by the novelist David Mitchell.

For the conscious mind can be set aside and subdued by the emotions, but in a dream world all is logic.
— Mervyn Peake, Gormenghast

One can hardly reproach a reader entranced by the stories of David Mitchell, sold on his aesthetic games and primed for every fresh display of his metafictional tricks, for failing to suppress a squeal of delight on cashing in a ticket for the oldest of loyalty rewards: the recognition of a familiar face. Or in Mitchell’s case, notorious as he is for threading his characters along a washing line of transmigration, not a face but a dislocated name, a clue to a persistent mind and memory. “Fifteen pages into The Bone Clocks,” Kathryn Schulz says of his latest novel (which begins in 1984), “I sat up so fast I clocked my own bones—skull against ceiling, in the low nook where I was reading. [The protagonist Holly Sykes] had just mentioned that, as a child, she had been cured of the strange voices in her head by a visit to one Dr Marinus. Mitchell fans will recall that Marinus is also the name of the doctor in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. When we meet him in that book, it is 1799.”

The recurrence of characters across a writer’s oeuvre is nothing new; Schulz acknowledges Shakespeare’s Falstaff as a precedent, and we could say the same for Pistol, Bardolph, and Nym, the other patrons of the Boar’s Head, whose encounter with the titular king of Henry V is all the more reverberant if you recall from earlier plays their rapport with the young Prince Hal. But Mitchell’s signature devices, the transmigration of souls and the porousness of the border separating narrative from lived reality, dramatically expand the range and flexibility with which a character occurring in one story can be thought of as identical to a character in another, joined by a continuous sense of self.

This is a trick he plays both within his novels and across them. Often our only clue is a name, but as with the early Soviet cinema, the meaning is in the cut: we are ever only who we are in the instant we are living now, and our past or future selves are not the same embodiments of drives and experience, yet we find it intuitive to think of them as part of the same coherent personhood, its growth implicit in the abruptness of difference from one discrete stage to another.

How did you get from there to here? This is what Mitchell entices us to wonder about his players at every turn, and when Neal Brose, the neurotic financial lawyer in Ghostwritten, shows up a school-aged popularity racketeer in Black Swan Green, where we first meet the avatar of adolescent peer pressure Hugo Lamb, who returns in The Bone Clocks as a sociopath making his way up the Cambridge elite and is soon recruited into a secret society of predatory immortals by Elijah D’Arnoq, a rifler from the Chatham Islands implied to be the descendant of a churchman in Cloud Atlas who meets with the crew of the Prophetess, whose first mate Boerhaave sails into Nagasaki as a young midshipman in The Thousand Autumns aboard the Profetes—presumably the same vessel, though you will have to ask the staff of the museum ship preserved in a Californian harbour espied in Cloud Atlas by Luisa Rey, the crime writer who calls into Ghostwritten’s Bat Segundo Show (not to be confused with the literary podcast by Edward Champion where Mitchell has appeared as a guest several times)—you see his method at work, lapping waveforms on top of each other in search of an emergent resonance, a drone. The people, the families, the sailing ships—they are the same, yet not the same, and we read into their histories from not only what we see but what we don’t.

Continued »

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Lipsett’s diarist

Friday, 2 September 2011 — 8:36am | Animation, Canadiana, Film

Over the past week I’ve been attending a number of sessions at the London International Animation Festival. The LIAF has been around since 2003, but this is its first year in the Barbican Centre, where it comes at the tail end of a summer celebrating the art of animation.

July at the Barbican saw a retrospective of Studio Ghibli’s films, which I was shocked to discover never made it to British shores until 2001. Being a kid who remembers precisely two films from his toddlerhood, one being the Cantonese dub of My Neighbour Totoro (the other was The Land Before Time), it continues to astonish me that the childhoods of my peers were Miyazaki-free until Spirited Away. Also running at the Barbican Art Gallery until 11 September is Watch Me Move: The Animation Show, a gallery exhibition spanning 150 years of global animation history that I’ll have to write about another time. My readers in Canada will be happy to note that the exhibition’s next destination is the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, where Watch Me Move will run from 8 October through Christmas Eve.

All digressions aside, I really must commend the LIAF’s outstanding curation. In the out-of-competition programmes alone I’ve found some classics I had hitherto missed like the Russian masterwork Hedgehog in the Fog, which grounded a session dedicated to cut-out animation past and present, and discovered some new and instant favourites. Two that stood out for me, both selections from last year’s SIGGRAPH conference: Mobile by Verena Fels, a crowd-pleasing shuffle of animals on wires reminiscent of Pixar’s For the Birds; and The Wonder Hospital by Shimbe (Beomsik Shim), a surreal descent into what I’d best describe as a funhouse of cosmetic surgery.

The piece that I want to draw attention to here, however, is Les journaux de Lipsett (Lipsett Diaries). It was presented as the fulcrum of a session dedicated to the oeuvres of its director, Theodore Ushev, and its subject, the 1960s Canadian filmmaker Arthur Lipsett. Ushev himself was in attendance as one of the LIAF’s featured guests this year and told the audience of the many coincidences behind his latest project. Here’s one: when Ushev moved from Bulgaria to Montreal, where he has been based since 1999, he stayed in the same building that housed Lipsett for most of his life—until the latter committed suicide in 1986, aged 49.

Continued »

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Dotting the eyes, crossing the tease

Wednesday, 9 March 2011 — 4:06am | Animation, Film, Insights, Literature, Michael Chabon

When I was very young, I heard a legend about a Chinese muralist who painted the most vivid and lifelike dragons but refused to fill in their eyes, lest the dragons come alive and fly away. I tried to track it down four or five years ago for a fragment I was writing at the time, but on that occasion I never found it. Today it occurred to me to make another attempt, and for reasons of n-grammatic potentia that shall remain mysterious, Google was far more helpful this time around.

As with any old story, mutations abound, but the preponderance of them involve the painter Zhang Seng-You (張僧繇) from the period of the Southern and Northern Dynasties (420-589 AD). Depending on who’s telling the story, Zhang Seng-You is asked to fill in the eyes by a bystander, the abbot who commissioned the monastery mural, or the Emperor himself (who, in this case, must have been Emperor Wu of the Liang Dynasty). The ending is always the same: the painter finishes the eyes and the dragons bolt away from the mural in a flash of lightning and thunder.

The wonderful thing about fables is the discordance of what they say—typically a blunt moral lesson, delivered as the payload of a cruise-missile punch line like a Feghoot minus the funny—versus what they do, which is leave innumerable gaps for diverse interpretations to take root and flourish. Stories are not reducible to definite lessons. Fiction is a space for debate, and a fable is an open meadow for all and sundry to frolic. (“I don’t believe in stories with morals,” says the man with the childish fantasy of teaching Lolita in schools.)

So what can we make of the tale of the painted dragons?

Continued »

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Suggested reading, immemorial edition

Thursday, 24 June 2010 — 3:30am | Animation, Assorted links, Computing, Film, Game music, Jazz, Journalism, Mathematics, Music, Pianism, Video games

I’ve been neglecting this space for over two months. Unfortunately for my capacity to keep up with the world in written words, they have been two very interesting months. Had I posted a bag of links on a weekly basis—and this is already the laziest of projects, the most modest of ambitions I have ever had for this journal—the entries for the latter half of April and the first half of May could have been expended entirely on the British general election (with an inset for Thailand’s redshirt revolt) and still failed to capture the play-by-play thrills on the ground.

Somewhere along the way, I penned a dissertation of sorts, but let’s not talk about that. Here is the crust of readings that has built up in the meantime. There are more, but the list below was becoming rather overgrown and at some point I had to stop.

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Suggested reading, spine-tingling edition

Monday, 19 April 2010 — 12:38pm | Assorted links, Film, Harry Potter, Journalism, Literature, Mathematics, Science

Last week here in the United Kingdom was Chiropractic Awareness Week, so let’s all be aware of the good news: the British Chiropractic Association has finally dropped the battering ram of its libel action against science writer Simon Singh, who had the nerve to call some of their purported treatments bogus. (I guess you could say the BCA backed out.) The lawsuit specifically targeted Mr Singh (as opposed to The Guardian, which published the contested article) in order to drain his resources with the abetment of Britain’s libel laws, and the case has become a cause célèbre exposing this country’s need for libel reform. Be sure to read Singh’s reaction to the news and Ben Goldacre’s column on the wider problem.


  • J.K. Rowling, writing in the capacity of a former single mother living on welfare, isn’t buying what David Cameron is selling. In a somewhat frivolous response, Toby Young leaps on the Tory nostalgia of the Harry Potter books, pointing to Hogwarts’ Etonian idyll while somehow neglecting to mention the conspicuously nuclear families; but anyone who paid attention to Rowling’s finer points (which doesn’t include Mr Young, I’m afraid) knows full well her politics aren’t what he thinks they are.

  • Film editor Todd Miro savages Hollywood colour grading for taking us into a nightmare world of orange and teal.

  • Roger Ebert articulates his controversial belief that video games can never be art—not for the first time, though it’s nice to finally see him elaborate on it in one place. I’m of the opinion that the entire semantic quagmire is easily evaded if we adopt an instrumental definition of art. Regardless of whether video games are even theoretically comparable to the great works of other media, our only way of getting at qualitative findings about creativity and beauty in game design is to borrow from the language of art, so we may as well consider them as such.

  • While on the subject of aesthetics: over at Gödel’s Lost Letter, R.J. Lipton’s fantastic computing science blog, are some germinal sketches of how one might study great mathematical proofs as great art.

  • The International Spy Museum briefs us on Josephine Baker, the actress-heroine of the French Resistance.

  • Paul Wells visits the Canadian forces in Kandahar and reports on the shift in the tone and strategy of their counterinsurgency efforts. This is one of the best pieces of journalism I’ve read on the present state of the war in Afghanistan and I can’t recommend it enough.

  • Strange Maps documents two wonderful specimens of literary cartography: back covers of mystery paperbacks, and a poster for a Shakespeare conference in France depicting a town that looks like the Bard.

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A Link to the Past (older posts) »