Sunday, 6 December 2015

I'm finally convinced that Peter Capaldi is the Doctor

For a long time, I wasn't convinced by the twelfth Doctor. It wasn't that there was anything wrong with Peter Capaldi's performance, it was just that he didn't seem very Doctorly. There was Ecclestone for a bit, then I got used to David Tennant, and then I got used to Matt Smith, and Capaldi seemed like too much of a change. He was too grumpy, too cold, too Scottish, and I didn't see the same character in him. It's not like I could compare him to any of the pre-my-birth Doctors, because I'm just not going to watch any of that (sorry). I can only judge these modern-era Doctors, in the new version of the show that's not that new anymore. And the good news is that at the end of a season that's been sometimes quite good but too often meh, there are two episodes that have completely and utterly convinced me that Capaldi is the Doctor. And he might be more the Doctor than any others I've seen.

The problem with this season has been its strange addiction to two-parters. These days the idea of a two-parter can seem strange, when there's so much good stuff with running storylines. Doctor Who is the rare show that can pull off doing a different thing every week. It can do anything it wants, and if you don't like one story, there's another one next week. Except this year there wasn't, and if you didn't like something you were kind of stuck with it for a bit longer. There were Zygons doing a world invasion thing, which is difficult to do on a small budget. There was an immortal girl who never really seemed immortal (Maisie Williams is very good in Game of Thrones, though). And there was some other stuff that isn't really relevant to the point I'm trying to make: the penultimate episode 'Heaven Sent' is amazing. I don't know what pure Doctor Who is, but this is where it is for me.

There's just him, the Doctor, trapped in a puzzle box, chased by death, choosing to punch through a diamond wall and die over and over again for billions of years instead of giving in. In this episode time is weighty and terrible, and the Doctor is the master of it. I don't think it would have been as good with Smith or Tennant. Here Peter Capaldi really looks, and sounds, like an intergalactic wizard. He is dark and powerful and seems to belong in a never-ending castle of doom. The whole episode was very clever, but not in the overly complicated way that sometimes causes problems. Its simplicity allowed it to focus on the things that really work: hunting for clues in a Gothic space prison, a creepy death monster chasing him, and punching through a diamond wall for billions of years.

Maybe it's all down to the coat. In this episode he is wearing a red velvet coat that is self-consciously more Doctory than what he normally wears. If he is the minimalist Doctor, that coat is what completes the picture. They even make a point of him not wearing it in the next episode. In the finale, he takes it off and becomes even more of a badass by taking over his home planet from a hut. It seems that he would rip the universe apart to get his companion back. It's something he's probably done before, but he's never taken such a long, long road to do it. These two closing episodes are season-saving stuff for me, and it helps that they're unusually well directed. I'm not saying that Doctor Who isn't well directed, just that I don't usually notice. Here I didn't have to try to believe it and forgive the cheap bits or the parts that are obviously in Cardiff. I was there, I was on Gallifrey, and I didn't question it. And I was also, for the first time in a while, back with the Doctor.

Sunday, 30 August 2015

I don't know how to listen to music anymore

I listen to music a lot, but I don't really listen to a lot of music. I buy three or four albums a year and listen to them, which has seemed like the best way to do it. These become my albums. The ones that I listen to over and over again.  I used to buy them on CDs, and now, because CDs are kind of horrible, I download them. It's nice to have a collection. I know where I am with these songs, because they're mostly pretty good. Now big companies tell me I shouldn't be doing this. Don't pay for some of the music, they say, pay for all of the music. Give us ten pounds a month and you can listen to anything you want.

I didn't bother with Spotify, partially because it's easy to ignore, but mostly because it's called Spotify. Apple's new streaming thing was harder to ignore, since it landed in my iTunes and said 'Do this free for three months, you might like it!' And I do sort of like it. I can listen to pretty much anything I want in good quality and with no adverts (unlike YouTube). I can click around to find things that are similar to things I already like, and catch up on bands I forgot about five years ago. There's a freedom to it. I don't have to invest in anything. I can walk into a band's discography, play a few songs, have a nice time, then leave. Except, that's the problem. Music becomes easier, but also throwaway. Streaming music is oddly impersonal. There isn't the care that comes with ownership, or the attention. When you can listen to anything you want, you can give up on something after thirty seconds and find the next song that might be better.

I can complain about this, but then owning music doesn't actually matter. It's not like I'm polishing old vinyl records, or whatever you do with vinyl records. I have CD copies of my favourite albums in cardboard sleeves, and I'm fairly sure 'owning' anything on iTunes is an illusion. Still, having something is a different feeling to consuming it. Taking books out of the library is nice, but my books are excellent, lovely objects that I read more carefully. They take on a different quality.

This might all be nonsense, though. I've discovered that there's a different problem: I don't really like new music. By that I mean I don't like music I haven't heard before. When I want to listen to music I go for something I know I like. The hypocrisy in this is that all my favourite songs were new once. In my mind, though, that happened accidentally, like I tripped over them in the street or something. There's no point trying to look for them in a playlist called 'Best New Songs', and they won't be in 'Similar artists to this one' either. They are the unexpected things you don't know you like until you hear it. For me, that doesn't happen often.

I wonder if I found my new favourite band on Apple Music, whether I would instantly click away to find something better. And there's plenty there, plenty this-is-alright-but-I-would-never-actually-buy-this albums. Cutting off all this noise into a collection is having your own little haven. The internet is a big cloud of floating stuff, and we reach into it and say I'll have this and this and this and keep them over here. I think we need to do that, or it's just endless noise pouring out of speakers. It won't mean anything. But if this is true, why do I keep going back to Apple Music? I'm always looking for the next thing, the next great thing. It's in there somewhere. When I hear it, I don't know what I'll do with it.

Monday, 15 June 2015

The internet of making lists

After making a list of all the films I've watched on a film-diary-type-website, one thing has become clear: I don't watch many films. Since last November I've only seen 27 films. I always imagined I watched lots of films, but that doesn't seem to be the case anymore. Maybe it never was. The thing about a list like this is that it turns your assumptions into bare facts. When I think I've seen lots of interesting films recently, the list will say 'No, you've only seen five films since February'. The films I imagined I watched were probably two years ago. The truth is that I don't feel the need to watch many films. With so much good television on these days, going to the cinema seems almost unnecessary. When I can watch Game of Thrones, or a new season of True Detective, or Mad Men, or Breaking Bad, I already have a lot of stories. Sorry films, I do love you really, but the list doesn't lie.

The internet is great at keeping track of these things. I use Goodreads to do the same thing with books. And as books take such a long time to finish, they enter the list with a satisfying thud. The slowly growing list, like this blog, will remind me that, look, this is a part of what you did on this day, or that month. My mind reduces the past into a squishy blob where the when of things is uncertain. But the lists remember. For instance, this blog will tell me that about two years ago I was watching a lot of James Bond films. I thought that was last year. The technology disagrees.

Blogging becomes an accidental diary. When I wrote 71 posts in 2011, that was just the present. Now it's four years ago, and my random thoughts on whatever take on more significance. This is what I thought then, or at least what I wrote down. Somehow, reminding myself of the time I watched The Host, a film about a rampaging fish monster, illustrates the passage of time more than anything else. Or it at least reminds me of the time I watched The Host. Unfortunately, I don't blog as much as I used to, because I'm a bad person. And I don't leave reviews on 'Letterboxd'. I need to write down what I thought of some of these films, so me in four years will remember. I'll do that now.

Best film Whiplash Film I really didn't enjoy as much as I wanted to Elysium Most grim The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Film I saw just before I started this list Interstellar Film that made me wish the director had spent the time doing something better Pacific Rim Someone is taken, but not for as long as before Taken 2 Second most grim The Girl Who Played with Fire Any Christmas film will do, it just has to be about Christmas Deck the Halls Film I'd never heard of but has Heath Ledger Ned Kelly I remember hardly any of this from when I saw it a long time ago Time Bandits Film I actually wrote a blog post about 2001: A Space Odyssey I just finished reading these books The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring There is nothing really to say about this film The Expendables 2 Action film where main character seems strangely laid back Rollerball I wonder if these films will get less popular soon; I mean they're fine, but there really are a lot of them Captain America: The Winter Soldier Now I understand what all the quotes about running meant Forrest Gump Films I saw half of, but couldn't put on the list because rules are rules Home Alone, Skyfall, other things I've forgotten about because I didn't put them on the list

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Thoughts from watching 2001: A Space Odyssey

Writing about a film from fifty years ago is almost entirely pointless. There is nothing new I can say about 2001: A Space Odyssey. It might help that I'm not interested in saying anything new about it. I only want to write down some of thoughts I had while watching it, and that's probably what blogs are for. They didn't have blogs in 1968. As far as I know there was only advertising agencies and whisky. So this will have to do. I'm also not particularly interested in most of what there is to say about the film. I don't want to use the word 'masterpiece' and then pretend to be a film historian. I don't really care who Stanley Kubrick is. All I've got is what I saw when I watched the film for the first time. Here it is.

The Dawn of Man. Monkeys. I wonder how many film studies essays have been written about these monkeys. The arrival of a mysterious monolith shakes things up a bit.

Spaceships, classical music. After skipping past pretty much everything, the film has slowed right down. Waltzing space stations, waltzing music. It's all very nice, but some of the interiors still look like a film studies class. I'm still imagining this essay: 'The juxtaposition of the red chairs in the foreground and the stark white walls of the background symbolise...' There's a time in school when you learn the word 'juxtaposition' and then attempt to use it in every essay. It's not something you would ever say out loud. It's an essay word. It's especially good to use in exams. Its real purpose is to say 'Look, I know the word "juxtaposition"'. That's at least five extra marks. You can go up a whole grade with 'juxtaposition'. Anyway, the people have found another monolith, and this one is a lot more interesting. Where did it come from? Who put it there? I think these are questions I'd be asking if this actually happened. After all, a mysterious monolith being buried on the moon isn't a lot more strange than the moon existing at all. It's all a big mystery, this universe. We don't know what it is, but we're here, and this lot are about to discover something new. It's the excellent droning soundtrack that's making me have these thoughts. Vast mysteries need vast music.

Bad robot. There's a while where this film is about a sinister machine, which is pretty much all I knew about it beforehand. It's definitely the most engaging 'film' part of the film. There's a plot, and dialogue, and it's clear what's happening. After the evolution of man, we've got the evolution of machines. No astronauts would actually have begun a voyage with a robot that has such a creepy voice. For such a complex machine, there must be customisation options. My Sat Nav has about a hundred accents and languages to choose from. They might have chosen this voice. Of course, by this point the machine is doing whatever it wants, with all the cold logical certainty of an impassive red light that's decided it's better off without you. 'Don't shut me down, Dave. I'm afraid'. It knows how to code the humans.

Dave travels through the universe. It's time to question the universe again. Dave is going on a long trip through some lights, but these are some impressive lights. It's a rare space film that makes you feel like you're experiencing the vastness of space. That's not exactly possible, but the hypnotic, overwhelming, sensory overload of this part gives it a good go. When you read a book about space, or watch a documentary on physics, you have to stretch your mind out further than it's able to. I heard somewhere that the definition of fantasy is something that could never happen, and science fiction is something that probably will. But the truth is that there is nothing in any fantasy novel that is stranger than the actual universe we're in.

There are billions and billions of stars in the Milky Way - hundreds of billions - and our galaxy is just one of around a hundred and forty billion other galaxies, all with their own billions of stars.* This is all meaningless of course, because my brain can't comprehend how much a billion of anything is. There are vast millions of miles of nothingness in between all these balls of fire and planets and bits of rock and I don't know what else (black holes, I mean, what?). The problem with thinking about all this is that you then have to readjust your mind back down to manageable distances, to the tiny bit of the universe you're in, where there's rugby and houses and films, and you're just generally meant to go about your business. Never mind though, because Dave is going to see what's at the other side of the universe, it's...

The end. What? I'm usually all for defusing grand themes with a joke, but don't take us through all that to show us... a strangely decorated bedroom, with towels. Up until now I thought the film was trying to show us something universal, but this is part of a specific sci-fi plot that I don't understand. All the tension is gone, and poor Dave grows old all of a sudden. Is this what would have happened to HAL if it had gone there by itself? I'd like to see the alternate ending where the robot works it all out, then looms over Earth with its big red light. Or at least just something else. I still feel disappointed by this ending. They showed us the universe then gave us a cardboard bedroom with underfloor lighting. Maybe this is what it'd be like if we did discover exactly what the universe was. All those scientists trying to figure it out are working towards a big anticlimax. Questions are more interesting than answers. What will we do when the big puzzle is solved? The collective response to the solving of the mystery of existence might be 'Okay then, what's next?'

Thanks Dave. Good film, though. Shame about the giant baby.

*A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson