Friday, 19 October 2012

Friday Five: Shaking All Over

I first noticed it during NYPD Blue. It was okay then because I used to watch it while doing the ironing – this was before I gave it up (ironing that is) – so didn’t have to watch the screen too closely.

Friends’ home movies also used to make me feel a bit ill, but I presumed this was just because they were subjecting me to footage of their children in a paddling pool or some interminably dull wedding speech. So I’d usually had a couple of drinks to brace myself for the ordeal.

When I was reviewing films for a critics’ website in Wellington, I had a free pass to all the films in the festival, which was excellent. Except for when I went to watch Half Nelson. It was not a bad film but I found myself sweating and nauseous. If it weren’t for the fact that I had to review it, I would have walked out of the cinema. As it was, I barely made it out of the auditorium before chundering in the toilets. I thought I’d picked up a virus. When I mentioned it to my editor, he said blithely, “I didn’t know you suffered from cinema vertigo”. Huh?

It seems I am not alone. Many people are highly sensitive to the technique not-so-affectionately known as Queasycam. It’s that handheld, shaky, blurry effect that leaves you with a distorted point of focus and can cause gross discomfort in the viewer with feelings akin to violent travel sickness. Yes, I am highly susceptible to it. So are lots of other people.

There is a website where viewers can rate the nausea-factor of films. This is a great idea allowing you to check before going whether it is worth it, or whether you will simply spend $20 to vomit on your neighbour. Several people are campaigning to have warnings put on these films – seriously, if you have warnings about strobe lights; this technique induces powerfully negative results also.

The technique is supposedly avant-garde, and I can see where it might work in a film like The Blair Witch Project, which is universally recognized as the worst offender. I couldn’t watch this (not because I was scared, but because I felt so sick) but I understand that it was a suspense-building device highlighting the supposition that this was being filmed by amateurs. Similarly Cloverfield and Paranormal Activity.

Some people have difficulties with the Bourne franchise, although these don't bother me too much - it's dodgy focus issues rather than swift jump-cuts that get my gorge rising. Of course, it's up to the individual director how they want to shoot their film, but if they are tripod-intolerant, they are generally shooting themselves in the foot.

Recently I went to see Beasts of the Southern Wild. I had heard great things about it, and it has the potential to be an excellent film. But no one warned me about the nebulous camera-work, and it ruined what could have been a great piece of cinema. Why would you do that? Even a non-queasycam suffering viewer will spend the whole time thinking about the artifice rather than the art of the story. I don’t get it. I want it to stop. But at the very least, I want to have the choice to avoid the motion-sickness picture.

5 Films That Made Me Sick:
  1. The Blair Witch Project - everyone's favourite culprit
  2. Cloverfield - it's hard to hold the camera steady when there's a monster on the loose
  3. Half Nelson - I have the intelligence and imagination to believe he has a drug habit; I don't need to experience the effects too
  4. Beasts of the Southern Wild - and it could have been so good...!
  5. The Tree of Life - it wasn't just the camera-work that made me ill; the whole thing was a pretentious cup of cold sick

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

The City of the People of the World: Museum of London (Part Three)

A timeline of events and quotes contains photographs and costumes – dresses, Pearly King and Queen outfits – and a picture of Bolton winning the FA Cup Final at Wembley.
“It is not a pleasant place; it is not agreeable or cheerful or easy or exempt from reproach. It is only magnificent.” Henry James, 1869
“If I stand for a moment under the pavement in the heart of London… the great avenues of civilization meet here and strike this way and that. I am in the heart of life.” Virginia Woolf from The Waves (1931)
Meanwhile, the dates: Jack the Ripper stalks the city (1888); Tower Bridge is completed (1894); New Zealand grants women the vote (1894); Harrod’s store installs London’s first escalator (1898) – nervous shoppers are offered smelling salts – Queen Victoria dies (1901); The Ritz opens (1906); London hosts its first Olympic Games (1908); World War I begins (1914); Votes for Women (1918).

Selfridge's lift - sheer hedonism
Carlo Gatti’s Italian ice cream house combined the taste of a treat with the face of immigration. Selfridge’s bronze lift is on display – introduced in 1928 and operated by a uniformed young woman. Displays such as this, and images of the Savoy, highlight the disparity of rich and poor. This was the era of prostitution and suicide. Women took work as baby farmers, laundry facilitators, and matchbox assemblers. Men were brickmakers, or dockers, and unemployment benefit was introduced in 1911. Water pumps were made available and public baths were run by the Council as part of the war against disease, smell, dirt and lice.

Banners from the Salvation Army and Barnardo’s indicate that some attempts were made to relieve the poor. Charles Booth’s Map of Poverty (1889-1891) is on display. It divides London street-by-street into socio-economic areas defined as ‘semi-criminal’, ‘very poor’, ‘poor’, ‘mixed’, ‘fairly comfortable’, ‘middle class’ and ‘upper middle class’.

An array of his volunteers walked the streets taking notes for the survey to enable the categories to be imposed. A rough working-class area was defined as one with open doors, broken windows, prostitutes, thieves, and ‘a row always going on between warlike mothers’. Flowerpots, lace curtains, scrubbed doorsteps and hanging birdcages were the ‘hallmarks of a respectable neighbourhood’.

Displays include the Illustrated Police News with a story on the Whitechapel Murders, Suffragette posters and banners, WWII propaganda posters, travelling trunks and gas masks, bomb fragments, ration books, and photos of the blitz – bomb shelters made out of tube stations, and buses among the rubble. St Paul’s Cathedral was a symbol of hope during the war and remains the heart of London for some. A film of Jewish immigrants explains that they worked as domestic servants because ‘compared with instant death, it was a glorious opportunity’.

There is a mock-up of the Lyon’s tea rooms and a couple of gorgeous paintings by Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson – Amongst the Nerves of the World (1930), and London, Winter (1928). Even street furniture was changing with the introduction of the K2 telephone kiosk: Giles Gilbert Scott won the GPO competition to design one in 1926 and, although he wanted them to be green and silver, they had to be red to stand out more and constitute less of a hazard. Traffic lights were introduced to assist motorists, and a model of the underground/overground reveals the complexities of that particular endeavour.

Amongs the Nerves of the World by Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson
Museum items tell stories: the toy coach souvenir of the Coronation; the fashion over the ages of winklepickers, kitten heels, platform shoes and Dr Marten’s boots; the freedom and statement implied in a Vespa; the Mary Quant dresses of Swinging London; and the end of National Service leading to fears of juvenile delinquency.

A trolley from Heathrow airport indicates global Londoners, and they do come from everywhere: 250 languages are spoken in London and 20% of Londoners are of ethnic minority. Protest placards, silver jubilee memorabilia and psychedelic clothing embrace this diversity – you have a ‘punk’ outfit of mohair jumper and bondage trousers beside a ‘Vexed generation’ hijab to demonstrate that this is ‘the city of the people of the world’.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Rising from the Ashes: Museum of London (Part Two)

After the Great Fire, all buildings had to be made of brick or stone. Bridges built at Westminster and Blackfriars spread growth south of the river. The docks were established in 1800. Regent Street and Trafalgar Square added to the grandeur of the city. A side exhibit has the pleasure gardens revealing people parading in masks, bonnets, flamboyant costumes and hats – such as the design of a ship or antlers. The gardens had outdoor lighting, food and drink, tree-lined walks and often an orchestra. Many cities copied London and called their gardens Vauxhall, after the most famous gardens of all.

With fans, pistols, jewellery and a wonderful display of shoes, the Museum stresses that London’s manufacturing industries were thriving; it had more shops than any other European city (hence Napoleon’s ‘nation of shopkeepers’ jibe) and needed skilled immigrants. Workers in the same trades in England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland and the continent formed associations and unions for better pay and conditions. In 1776 the wages of workmen in London were double those of their counterparts in Edinburgh.

Exhibits from this era include Anne Fanshawe’s dress (the embroidered hops, barley, anchors and bales represent Anne’s father’s trade as a brewer and a Merchant of the City of London), musical clocks, fine glassware, a dentist’s surgery (complete with tools, medicines, spectacles and teeth), a tailor’s workshop, the Blackett dolls’ house (with hand-painted wallpaper and a spit-roasting mechanism in the kitchen), and a wax diorama by Samuel Percy of Turk’s Coffee House in the Strand where folk were meeting to discuss ideas.

Anne Fanshawe's dress
The Blackett's dolls' house
Wallpaper detail
There’s an admission form from the Foundling Hospital where mothers left children they couldn’t afford to raise – a piece of cloth was cut in two; one half given to the mother; the other left with the child in the hope of being reclaimed (very few ever were). There is also a door from Newgate Prison and the walls of a Wellclose prison cell, carved with pictures of houses and churches, and a poem from 1759 which declares, ‘The cup is empty/ To Our sorrow/ But hope it will/ Be full tomorrow.’ Positivity in adversity!

Among items from this ‘new city’ are reminders of its foundations; portraits of Omai and Benelong; a Royal Standard barge banner; a pair of paintings by Henry Nelson O’Neal – Eastward Ho! (a colourful depiction of cheerful, smiling soldiers, kissing wives and babies as they board a ship in Gravesend leaving to fight in the ‘Indian Mutiny’, or first Indian War of Independence), and the companion work, Home Again as they return, many wounded.

Eastward Ho! by Henry Nelson O'Neal

Home Again by Henry Nelson O'Neal
A work from the Community Link course at Barnet College entitled Goods from the British Empire is a cotton tablecloth bearing china cups containing silk, sugar and coffee (the building was originally a warehouse for such goods), representing both the positive exploratory aspects of Empire and the negative associations such as slavery.

You can stroll along the reconstructed Victorian Walk with a pawn broker’s, pub, bank, pharmacy, and tailor’s. The gentleman’s outfitters contain cloth, tweed, silks, suits, collars, coats, trousers and top-hats, with the paraphernalia to make them – scissors, tape measures, rulers, fashion plates, dressmaker’s dummies, buttons, and twists of material and thread. There is also a milliner’s, a barber’s, a tobacconist, a stationer’s (with cards, post cards and paper dolls), a grocer’s (with biscuit boxes, scales for measuring, and glass and earthenware jars), and a toyshop (with trains, dolls, puzzles, toy soldiers, marbles, and an ark with all the animals).

The Victorian Walk, looking a lot like Diagon Alley
There’s a baker’s, a confectioner’s, a tea and coffee warehouse, a glass showroom (with stunning glasses, decanters and mosaics), and a watch-maker’s. I love all their writing desks and sets of drawers. The street is furnished with lampposts, a penny-farthing, an old urinal, a cart/wagon, a piano organ, and beer bottle boxes and barrels.

I liked the Eight Day Regulator Clock from 1860, exhibited at the International Exhibition of 1862. It shows the time in GMT and has 24-hour dials for Sydney, Madras, New York, Canton, Calcutta, Paris, St Petersburg and Constantinople.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Great Walls and Fire! Museum of London (Part One)

The Museum of London had been recommended to me by my super-in-law, so I took a tube there one day while in the city.

As the Olympics have been held in London three times, and everyone has caught the fever, there was an exhibition in the foyer on the subject. This one hopes to be the most sustainable games to date – for example, the top ring of the Olympic stadium is made from surplus gas pipes.

I skipped through exhibitions about London before London and Roman London (not literally skipped, you understand, that would be weird). The city was burned in AD60 by Boudicca and was then rebuilt and expanded. By AD100 it replaced Colchester as the capital of Britannia. Glass cases contained bones and pottery, models of amphitheatres, stone sculpture tools, coins and horseshoes, but I was being selective, and pressed on.

I was intrigued by the remaining part of the London Wall, however. The first fort was built in AD120 for the soldiers in Londinium. There were remaining mosaics from AD 200 when these walls were strengthened and incorporated into a city wall to protect London. In AD410 the Romans abandoned London; the city declined as it was empty for nearly 400 years and the wall began to collapse.

The Saxons moved in (in AD886), repaired the walls, and added towers for extra protection against Viking attack. They built houses right up against the wall, but they were destroyed in the Great Fire of London (1666). In the nineteenth century, warehouses and shops again abutted the wall. World War II bombing caused extensive damage to both the wall and the buildings, and when archaeologists dug up the ruins, they found sections of the original wall, one of which is displayed here, looking secretive in the summer sunshine. I love how the stones are steeped in history.

Real children were playing in a reconstructed house in the Medieval Britain section. Here the displays feature weapons, keys, chain mail, pottery, preserved doors and altarpieces, rings, paintings, books, manuscripts (bibles and primers from the 1400s) and illustrated letters. There’s a collection of London Delftware pottery, and the Cheapside Hoard, a treasure of Elizabethan and Jacobean jewels discovered in 1912 under the cellar floor of a seventeenth century house in Cheapside.

Again, I raced through this bit, but was morbidly interested by the display on the Plague, Black Death and Pestilence caused by the stink and filth of the city. The ‘War Plague and Fire’ section also interested me as it has a model of the Rose Theatre from 1587 and the three copper plates of the 1559 Copper Plate Map – fifteen plates made up a map of London, and only these three survive, although there is no contemporary printed map.

Oliver Cromwell’s death mask is also on display here. He is claimed to have said, in a 1656 interview, “I am as much for a government by consent as any man; but where shall we find that consent?”

London was teeming – furniture, models of 1660s timber houses, and pictures of the Great Fire illustrate this state. Donald Lupton wrote in London and the Countrey (1632), “London is the great beehive of Christendom... she swarms with people of all ages, natures, sexes, callings... she seems to be a glutton, for she desires always to be full.”

One-fifth of the population died in 1665 due to the Great Plague. In an effort to ward it off, people wore bunches of herbs; lavender, cloves, and pommo d’ambre (a mixture of whale vomit, animal scents and flowers – thought to be efficacious). And then came the Great Fire.

London booksellers stored all their books and papers in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral for safety, but it was covered in wooden scaffolding which caught fire, the lead in the roof melted, the cathedral burned down, and everything was destroyed. Fortunately London Bridge had a gap between shops in it (from a previous fire), which prevented the fire from spreading to Southwark, and causing further loss of life.

The gaolers took pity on the debtors in prison at Newgate, and released them to fend for themselves. People pulled down houses and Charles II himself helped with throwing water on the conflagration which raged for five days, destroying 13,000 homes – the King arranged for bread to be delivered each day to feed the many homeless.