Friday, 28 October 2011

L’Appollonide – House of Tolerance

I wish that I hadn’t seen this film last night.  The title sequence came after an introduction set at the end of the 19th century.   It was accompanied by soul music and I was unimpressed by this juxtaposition.  The wake, near the end of the film, which is held for one of the girls who dies rather rapidly from venereal disease, was accompanied by the Moody Blues “Nights in White Satin”!  By then I hated almost everything about it. 

The film was written and directed by Bertrand Bonello.  In the hands of a cinematic genius this can really work, but M. Bonello is no genius.  The man clearly has no friends, or at least none that he listens to, or that dare to give him an honest opinion!  His writing and directing was self indulgent in the extreme.   The events leading up to the central violent act, in which one of the clients disfigures a girl, were repeated numerous times.  To dwell almost lovingly on this disgusting scene was unnecessary, it was horrific enough to see the results. Twice the same girl describes a dream in which she cries, and her tears are the sperm that the same man has left inside her. Verbally this was a powerful image, but near the end there was certainly no need to show it visually, it just looked ridiculous!

I have never seen a brothel portrayed as a sort of upmarket funeral parlour where everyone talks in hushed tones but no music is playing.  If this was meant to convey the sadness of the women's plight surely it would have been better to try to contrast scenes of public gaiety with private sadness.  In this film there was just gloom and, in spite of the nudity, precious little eroticism.  It was hard to imagine any client wanting to come back after the first visit!

Clearly the director was imposing his personal view of the situation in which these women found themselves, and this took priority over telling a credible story.  Cinematically it was not, however, entirely badly made.  The use of masks in one of the later seances, combined with the foreknowledge of violence, successfully created high tension.  It heightened the viewer's awareness of the risks that women in this profession always run. 

In the final scene, after the brothel had closed, we were jerked back to the present day so that M. Bonello could show that prostitution still exists.  Well of course it does, but it wasn't necessary to show the same Parisian location in the 21st century with prostitutes working the streets nearby!   Perhaps it was included to further display M. Bonello's social conscience and awareness?  Making a point in such heavy handed way is typical of this film.  The director may have been pleading for the legalization of prostitution, but within this story, the protected environment of the "maison close" still didn't protect the women. 

This film is far too long and repetitive.  It oscillates between being boring and dwelling unacceptably on violence.  If anyone felt it was worth the effort it should be recut by an experienced film-maker and reduced in length by about 20 to 30 minutes.

I left this film profoundly angry and I don’t recommend it to anyone!

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Botticelli's - Cestello Annunciation

During our recent visit to Italy we went to  the Uffizi in Florence.  Their collection of Italian art is unsurpassed and definitely not to be missed.  As a result of the visit I have begun to understand more about the Renaissance.

In the 14th century, when Simone Martini painted “The Annunciation” (1333) the International Gothic style of the early renaissance was in full flower. The art that has been preserved usually concerns religious subjects. It uses little perspective; is painted in low relief and is often highly stylized.  There is lavish use of gold leaf and bright colours.
(You can click on any of the images in this post and they will open at their original size in a new window.  Click the back button to return to the post).

The Annunciation – by Simone Martini 1333 

By  the 16th century the Late Renaissance painters, like the mature Titian, were painting both religious and profane subjects. Their paintings use fully developed perspective, colours are naturalistic; faces and figures are modelled with startling and often seductive realism.  His “Venus of Urbino” 1538, is a striking example.

Venus of Urbino - by Tiziano Vecelli 1538

Between 1470, when Sandro Botticelli  first had his own workshop, and his death in 1510, he was painting at a pivotal point in this transition between the stylized and the naturalistic.  In the Birth of Venus, for example, the background uses some perspective but his faces and figures are in low relief and the plane of visual interest is relatively flat.  His work can't be called naturalistic, neither is it completely stylized but I am fascinated by it.  For me it combines grace and beauty with sophistication.

The Birth of Venus - by Sandro Botticelli 1485

In Botticelli’s paintings the face of Simonetta Vespucci recurs frequently.

Simonetta Vespucci

She was married to a neighbour of Botticelli and within a short time after her arrival in the city, at the age of fifteen, she was celebrated for her beauty. You can find her face everywhere in his work. It was said that by the early 1470’s every nobleman in the city was besotted with her. 

Simonetta Vespucci in Primavera -1482

She died in 1476, but he continued to paint her likeness in posthumous portraits and major works for more than a decade. If this sounds morbid, think about our present day reverence for long dead iconic celebrities like Marilyn Monroe or more recently Princess Diana.  There again, perhaps he was just in love with her!

I can understand his obsession.  Ever since I first saw some of these paintings in Florence in my early twenties, his work and the face of Simonetta Vespucci has stayed with me.  These days some of his paintings, like "the Birth of Venus"  or "Primavera", are so well known that they are becoming almost too familiar, so on this visit I was not expecting to be bowled over yet again!

Cestello Annunciation 1489-90

But my reaction to Botticelli’s “Cestello Annunciation" 1489-90 took me by surprise.  In a busy room I stood for several minutes, unaware of my surroundings, captivated by both the beauty of the composition and its humanity. The moment in which Mary is told that she will bear a child is caught to perfection. The angel Gabriel kneels respectfully before her, whilst she makes a gesture as if to push away the news. The room is drawn in perspective, the figures are partly stylized but fully modelled, especially the robes of Gabriel and Mary.  The position of the arms and the angel’s wings form a diagonal line which bisects the square composition and almost cuts across the view through the window of an idealised Tuscan landscape. A river leads your eyes to a bridge in the distance and the tree in the upper part of the sky acts as a full stop at the top of the composition. 

Of all the works of art that I saw in the Uffizi on this trip, this one was special.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

The French Socialist Primaries

For the first time in France the Socialist Party is selecting its presidential candidate by a process similar to the American primaries. A timetable was established in October 2009 and nominations closed on 13th July 2011. There have been three televised debates between the candidates so far and at the first round of voting over 2 million votes were cast. Last night the fourth debate took place between the leading candidates for the second round on Sunday, Martine Aubry, the party’s First Secretary since November 2008; and François Hollande, who held the same post between 1997 and 2008.

Part of the agreed process was that before the Primaries took place, a set of policy positions was agreed by the Party and published as “Le Changement”. Only one or two of the candidates in the first round departed from this document, which amounts to the Socialist Party’s manifesto. They were able to do so because they were not front runners, and felt that expressing their opinions might act to harden the public statements of the two leading candidates.

I watched the televised debate last night and there was not much to choose between the two. François Hollande was tense at the start, but he seemed to me to be more succinct and direct when stating the policies he believed in like Banking, Taxation and Fiscal reform. When he didn’t want to answer a question, like when he was asked about reducing the number of fonctionnaires (government employees), he was not very skilled at avoiding it.

Martine Aubry, on the other hand seemed more relaxed and gave a polished performance but often less detailed and direct.

Of course when listening to the debate as a Brit you are very aware that the interviewers are exceedingly respectful and rarely ask difficult or awkward questions of a candidate who could be the next president. Most of them are public employees and there have been examples of well known TV personalities losing their jobs because they upset Sarkozy during his campaign. So almost all the questions were based on the Socialist Party’s programme and of course there was no right of reply from the other parties.

Normally parity of air time is very strictly maintained between political rivals. In this case, for instance, each candidate had a clock in front of their desks showing how long they had talked for. But this aspect is troubling the media because the Primaries are solely a Socialist Party matter and so they have had, during the series of debates, eight hours of free television time to deliver their message to the public without any challenges.

There is also a strange flaw in these Primaries. Anyone with an electoral registration card can vote! You don’t need to be a member of a left wing party, although you do have to sign a document saying that you support the values of the left! Theoretically, the right could have influenced the outcome by voting for the weakest candidates, but they do not seem to have intervened. I am not sure whether the public just haven’t understood this yet, or there is an unusual sense of “le Fair Play” at work!

How different all this is from the last Presidentielle in 2007! Then the defeated candidate, Segolene Royale, who has just suffered a humiliating defeat in the first round of the Primaries, was selected only a few months before the election. There was no agreed socialist programme and at times she was making it up as she went along. And against Sarkozy it sounded like it!

Who was the Socialist Party’s First Secretary then? François Hollande. And this time around, who was responsible for guiding the often fractious socialists towards, firstly a set of agreed polices, and secondly the Primaries? Martine Aubry.

I think that if people remember this it could be very telling in the next round on Sunday! 

On the other hand they may remember the laws, which carry her name, "Les Lois Aubry", and were passed  under the Jospin government.  These introduced the maximum 35 hour working week and, it is now generally accepted, were disastrous for business competitivity!

Thursday, 6 October 2011

An Inadequate Homage to Steve Jobs

With the death of Steve Jobs yesterday, after a long battle against cancer, an era has come to an end. My sympathies go to his family and friends.

The fact that Steve Jobs started Apple out of his garage in 1976 has become a legend. My personal experience of a borrowed early Apple II in the late 70’s confirmed that I was not destined to write code, but it was a proper piece of kit that could have become the IBM pc of its day.

In the early 80’s he was in charge of the Apple Lisa project, which pioneered the graphical user interface. I saw it at an exhibition and was fascinated by what it could do with windows. It was, however, expensive and the graphics taxed the power of its Motorola 68000 processor. Steve Jobs moved on to head the Macintosh division of Apple and the Mac became the first commercially successful computer with a graphical interface. After he resigned from Apple in 1985, following disagreements with John Sculley CEO, the company continued to sell hardware and ring fenced their operating system.  If at that point, or even earlier, Apple had licensed their operating system to all and sundry, Microsoft and possibly Intel would never have become the dominant forces that they are today.

Following a short pre-Windows spell with pc’s I was an enthusiastic user of Macs for several years in the late 80’s and early 90’s. They were just so much easier to use.  You weren't restricted to eight character filenames and, in a very simple way, you could set up a network and share data.  Even today Windows 7 home networks are still much more complicated to set up than those of the early Macs.

On changing jobs I went back to pc’s and I've lived with their faults and limitations ever since. Typically I have had to rebuild my 64 bit version of Windows 7 twice in the last six months due to Microsoft’s sloppy testing of its updates.

Steve Jobs came back to Apple as CEO when his company NeXT was bought by them in 1997. This launched the second and most productive phase of his career.  Starting with the iPod and its intuitive touch interface, followed by the iPhone, he led Apple to success after success.

I don’t have a need for either of those consumer orientated items, but I may not be able to resist buying an iPad 2 for long. Of all of Steve Jobs' creations that have changed the world it’s the iPad which might finally persuade me to buy back into Apple technology. Seeing my four year old granddaughter easily use one has convinced me that computing has finally come of age. If it wasn’t for Steve Jobs personal dislike of Flash, which the iPad doesn’t support and which I use occasionally in this blog, I would buy one straight away. Perhaps in time HTML5 will get rid of that issue.

And here is the kernel of my homage, which is incomplete and inadequate because I am not qualified to talk about the personality and character of Steve Jobs. He had an enormous impact on the world of technology. He had an ability to conceive new ideas about the usability of hardware and operating systems, which he combined with an eye for design that was un-matched by anyone else. He was certainly an exceptional visionary.  He also had the means and personal determination to put his concepts into practice, but he was human, and in his second period at Apple he had full control of his creations, so there was always a little quirkiness hiding somewhere amongst the brilliance and perfectionism.

Thank you Steve, rest in peace.