Monday, November 26, 2007

Many Meetings

Had a nicely busy last week. I'm starting to like these weekends when I'm up and about every day. Time seems to move slower then, and you experience much more.

But first, books I finished and liked.

Humphrey Carpenter - J. R. R. Tolkien, A Biography
Biographies usually don't appeal to me too much. Recently I've been enjoying them, though. You learn a lot about other people's dreams and ideas. Carpenter moves chronologically through the stages of Tolkien's life, from South Africa through the war to Oxford and Tolkien's last years in South England. If you've read the Lord of the Rings, Tolkien's biography is a small treasure chest. It made me realize that all of Tolkien's life echoes in his works (especially in LotR). Every inch of the way the Fellowship travels is an inch on the way of Tolkien's life. I find this quite amazing.
Reading about all the experiences Tolkien had in his early life was also very interesting. It's a bit intimidating to know about all the languages he taught himself even before going to University and the depth of his love for language. Then his experiences in the World War - a very short chapter, but nevertheless very shocking, especially since the book contains letters from Tolkien and his friends which reflect their feelings more authentically than a simple report could. You get a tiny sense of how crushed he must have been when he lost almost all of his close friends to the war. We probably can't even begin to imagine the full extent of what people felt during the wars. Lucky us.
Tolkien must have been a brilliant man. He had his failings (incidentally, they are sometimes described as his strengths ... shows you how subjective certain things are) and made mistakes, but it seems he usually acted with the best intent and purely out of love for his passions - an attitude that is quite inspirational. Maybe that's what biographies are for; to inspire you and give you an idea of how much can be achieved in a lifetime.

Peter S. Beagle - Tamsin
My sentiments towards Peter S. Beagle are a bit split. Watching the Last Unicorn has become a personal Christmas tradition through the years (even now that I have it on DVD and don't have to wait for December 24th to see it on TV). I probably love the film more than any other animation, simply for its underlying concepts that are hinted at, but not told, and for the ideas these concepts gave me in my childhood. And Christopher Lee's voice as King Haggard is simply wonderful.
The book, however, and other books I'd read so far by Peter S. Beagle, is a different matter. I could never fully take to the writing style. The thing I liked most about it was that it explained some of the concepts the film had hinted at further. But my heart was always with the film, not with the book. Beagle got a second chance when I read The Innkeeper's Song, which was even worse (stylistically). Good story, ideas and concepts, but the style made it very tedious for me. Then I tried his short story collection, The Line Between, of which I remember absolutely nothing.
Still, I didn't give up at that point. I just loved the film too much, and this made me want to love the author and his other books, too. So I let some months pass and gave it a fourth try. Fourth time's the charm, eh?
Tamsin tells the story of a girl, Jenny, who is forced to move from America to England upon her mother's second marriage. The family moves to a rural area into a farm house. Here Jenny begins to see the ghost of a girl, Tamsin, who she befriends. And slowly the story on the history of the farm, Tamsin's life and death and Jenny's coping with her new surroundings and family unravel.
It's the strong voice of the protagonist that made this book so appealing. From the beginning her teenage emotions draw you in and carry you through the story - from the sulkiness due to the unfairness of life up to the utter and overwhelming curiosity she displays at everything and everyone in the world, so you begin to share her interest in the farm and its history. I guess this shows you again how important appealing protagonists are (at least for me). They can kill the story or bring it to life.
Fourth chances are good. You just need to search for long enough and at some point it will click. I only needed to go through four average books to get to a sweet one ("sweet" is probably the right category. I assume the target group are children and teenagers, but I can easily enjoy it even though I'm slightly older ;)


That's it concerning books for now. On to last week's business. There was a conference on Popular Culture vs. High Culture in Salzburg from Thursday to Saturday, which I attended on Thursday afternoon and Friday morning. Special guest was John Storey, professor of cultural studies. He specialises, among other things, in popular culture, identity, consumption and globalisation. In my Pop Culture lecture in Oxford three years ago we read one of his books (I still remember most of what he wrote in it, which tells you how accessible he can make his research topics).
It was my first conference and I enjoyed it thoroughly. The topics were great. John Storey talked about the concepts of pop and high culture; another talk was on Doctor Who and its intertextuality and relation to British Culture (comparisions with Buffy, the Vampire Slayer were thrown in occasionally), and my favourite talk was on TV Judges and the Law. The talk analysed the success of courtroom shows. In one of my lecture we had discussed talkshows and their aims the week before, so I constantly compared the talkshows with the court shows. Basically, it was said that talkshows aim at establishing borders and boundaries for social behaviour. They are manufacture for consensus (Konsensmanufakturen), shown by the fact that according to surveys most of the audience (in the studio and in front of the TV) is under the impression that the show host "always agrees with me". People don't primarily watch talkshows to make fun of people's behaviour, but to be told which behaviour is acceptable and which isn't. The host is the one who established these boundaries - if one of the guests breaks through the boundaries that the show aims at building, s/he gets sent off the stage (sometimes even without applause, which tells the audience that his behaviour was utterly inacceptable and out of the norm).
In court shows, not the host but the law sets the boundaries. So in the end court shows aim at reassuring the audience that the country's law system works and is reliable. Unlike talkshows, court shows don't work in all countries, because the court system is very different in some parts. British audience never took a liking to the court shows, so they are virtually unknown in Britain. Allegedly the reason for this is that the law is always portrayed negatively on regular TV (in films, series, etc.), so the British audience rejects a TV format that is affirmative towards the law. Quite fascinating. I wonder what this tells you about the countries that broadcast court shows successfully. It seems we need (or are pressured to find) reassurance in everything - social behavour through talkshows, the law through court shows. What's next? People used to live by trial and error and the experiences of their elders for centuries, but now we need how-to's, workshops and TV shows for everything.


Friday afternoon/evening and Saturday was spent in Innsbruck, practicing Kendo, meeting many new people, learning lots and having tons of fun. Warm-ups with 18 people are just great. There's so much more energy present right from the beginning.
Sunday went by with moving stuff from Salzburg to Linz ... not fun. You realize how much stuff you've accumulated when you need to move. And the next time I move there'll be even more stuff to take care of (e.g. all the stuff that's towering up left and right of me and that I have to step over at the moment when I want to walk through my room).

And now it's snowtime! By far not as beautiful as the awesome view we had in Innsbruck on Saturday morning from our sleepingplace (somewhere between mountains, mountains and rocks), but nevertheless I love the sight of the first significant snow on Linz.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Stardust and Hyperion

Finally watched Stardust (in German, reluctantly). The book is based on, by Neil Gaiman, is one of my favourites - it's a beautiful fairytale that you wish would never end. So my expectations for the film were quite high, although I lowered them, partly because it has been ages since I read the book and also because I realize that, yes, a film is different to a book.
All in all I liked the film. It's not perfect. It has weaknesses (as do most films). There's a bit too much Hollywood kitsch and melodrama in it. The first part is a bit tedious, but the nice bits increase in quantity after some time and by the middle the film is quite enjoyable. I even like some of the changes that were made when translating the book to the screen. Captain Shakespeare is a very nice character and the dancing scene on his ship emphasized the glow of the star/Yvaine in a really nice way.
I also liked the camerawork and the effects. The aforementioned glow was fabulous and the green fire effects impressed me, too (and made me wonder when green fire effects in films became a fashion). They seemed appropriate for the kind of film it is and not over the top.
Also, Claire Danes surprised me with her performance. I was not sure she would fit the role of Yvaine, because I always imagined the star as a quite young girl in the book (appearance of a 13-year-old, but wisdom of the ages, that kind of thing). For the film-Yvaine, though, Claire Danes was very fitting and convincing. I also loved her monologue when Tristan's a mouse.
So Stardust turned out to be a nice and very sweet film; special in its own way, as it does not try to copy a film that has been here before and instead sets its own atmosphere.


I also finished reading Dan Simmon's Hyperion. It's a nicely different Science Fiction; almost completely character-driven, and very little actually happens in the book. You basically just get to know the characters' background stories (what a clever way to make the reader buy the sequel) as a set-up for the plot development that is to come. I like that. The little emphasis on character is what usually puts me off SciFi. You even have some of the social criticism that's typical for SciFi. I really enjoyed the religious discourse that worked its way through the book - the novel presents a wealth of world religions (in their futuristic variety) like Judaism, Zen Buddhism and Christianity, competing with each other through the characters (most characters have an emphasis on one religion).
It seems to me that Science Fiction that uses religion as a driving force for the plot or the characters is rare. If religion is present in SciFi, it's only visible as fanaticism (and even then mostly just in end-of-world-scenarios). I guess that's because a futuristic, science- and technology-based world is bound to lose its faith and searches for new gods (e.g. computers, or - as it is probably at least partly the case in the present - Fantasy literature as replacement for the loss of past mysticism, which was greatly based in religious texts).
True enough, Hyperion has an Armageddon-scenario. But it seems to me the religious discourse is still more focused compared to other novels. Moreover, Simmons seems to have researched the religions very thoroughly and developed quite a detailed futuristic version of each, making them more believable. Now I'm very curious how this discourse will resolve itself in The Fall of Hyperion and whether Simmons will actually give one religion a preference (which, I imagine, could be quite tricky).


More experimenting with techniques. I used the same technique as in the last painting, but somehow it didn't work so well this time. Apparently some techniques are better for certain subject matters than others (doh). I'm just surprised because I'd have thought this technique would be better for the pretty-girl-paintings than my normal working habit. Gotta experiment a bit more with it.
(Or maybe it's the colour ... it seems I can get the values alright with this technique, but it messes up the colours so much that I have to do a lot of post-painting editing.)
(And the composition is by far less than perfect...)

Monday, November 05, 2007

The Last Lecture

Here is the video of a lecture by Randy Pausch, in which he talks about achieving his dreams and helping others to achieve theirs. It's a bit long, but definitely worth watching. The lecture is funny and insightful, and above all inspiring.
(I love listening to people talk about something they're passionate about. Working all the time just isn't worth anything if you don't have a dream you can work towards to. "If you aim for nothing you will hit every time, but if you aim for the stars at the very least you'll touch the sky.")


Some more late night scribbling: