Interstellar and the Art of Humanity

November 9, 2014 Leave a comment
...but seriously, it's not that much of a spoiler.

This image may count as a spoiler. So don’t look too close…

Films that are worth talking about are worth seeing twice. Sometimes the second viewing can open up a film, revealing just how good it really is. On the other hand, it can confirm that despite all its promise, it somehow falls short of being truly great.

So far I’ve only seen Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar once, so I can’t say for certain where it falls on this scale. All I can say is that it is worth talking about. Rather than a review, this is going to be a critique, a musing on certain points, and thoughts about where Interstellar fits into the history of science fiction cinema.

Spoilers, obviously, but not too many.

With Interstellar, I made as much of an effort as I ever have to avoid learning anything about the film. It wasn’t an entirely successful effort. Thanks to Facebook and RSS feed summaries, I ended up learning about the movie’s main scientific conceit and the surprise cameo. Thankfully, neither of these are key to what the film cares about: it’s a space opera rather than hard science fiction, despite its trappings, and the cameo is, well, a little pointless.

When it comes to space-based science fiction films, two great films loom largest for me: 2001: A Space Odyssey and Moon. Like Interstellar, both of them focus on humanity against the background of space and science, yet they present this central obsession in different ways. 2001 universalises its humanity, to the point where Keir Dullea’s Dave Bowman becomes an everyman, no more specific than one of the apes who encounters the monolith at the start of the film. Interstellar’s debt to 2001 is everywhere, from its use of music and model work for effect to scenes that harken back to specific scenes in 2001. It’s a very high bar to aim at, but Nolan has never had a problem with ambition.

Moon, on the other hand, makes its humanity intensely personal, and in Sam Rockwell it has an actor whose agonies are always believable. It’s a much more focused film than either 2001 or Interstellar, and its use of science is limited to its setting and the twist that sets its plot in motion. Interstellar bears no specific debt to Moon, but it is as just as emotional and its science is if anything relegated even more to the role of window dressing.

The problem with Interstellar is that it falls between two stools. Despite an excess of verbiage (something neither Moon nor 2001 could be accused of), there are some fine performances here. the emotional heart of the film falls by the wayside in the second act and only really comes into focus in the third, by which point it’s too late to sell it. And in trying to restart that emotional heart, it abandons its efforts to say something all-encompassing about humanity apart from a vaguely voiced notion that we’re going to save ourselves. For Nolan, who mastered the difficult art of the closing scene in Memento and Inception, Interstellar feels like it just peters out, unsure of what it’s trying to say.

A larger problem in terms of Interstellar’s potential to become a classic of the genre is the fact that, at its heart, it’s an American film, not a universal one. The Dust Bowl theme standing in for environmental collapse is one thing, the self-mythologising tendency at its heart, the repeated moments of folksy wisdom, and the cowboy hero of the last frontier that it can’t look away from is quite another. That last one is perhaps Interstellar’s biggest problem. Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper is the ostensible hero, and his adventures are certainly the most cinematic and visually interesting aspect of the film, but the focus on him detracts from the role of his daughter Murph, played with equal weight by Jessica Chastain and Mackenzie Foy. Her struggle becomes incidental, when it could and perhaps should have received equal billing.

This may seem like a negative article so far, but in balance of that, remember that I had big expectations when it came to Interstellar. Nolan’s record is as good as anyone’s at the moment, and I’ve only seen it once (and my initial reaction, before I’d had a chance to think about it, was a lot more negative). On the plus side, it looks beautiful, even though there are a few points where the models look a little too model-like. Hans Zimmer’s score hits the high notes too, as ought to be expected of him by now. Now that I’ve had a chance to read a few reviews, it seems that mixed responses are the order of the day.

Bear in mind too that 2001 was met with similarly mixed responses when it first appeared and only ascended to its towering role within the genre over time. Interstellar may well have a similar path ahead of it. I doubt I’ll ever love it as much as I do Moon though. Whether it’ll improve on second viewing will depend on whether, behind all of its verbiage, there’s brain to match its heart.

Edit: So I went to see Interstellar a second time (this time in IMAX). And while I’m glad I did, it didn’t change my mind much. It’s a fascinating, ambitious, flawed film, notable as much for its tendency to hammer you over the head with its themes as for the epic sweep of its visuals. For all its focus on delivering an emotional, almost mystical experience, there’s only one point where it succeeds in truly touching the heartstrings. That particular scene though is the one part of the movie that is a classic piece of cinema, and while I won’t spoil it by describing it, I will say that it involves a countdown.

On Being Back Home Again

November 4, 2014 2 comments
Storms and sunset. I like it.

There was a lot of this while I was in Chania.

 

This one is a bit delayed. A bit more than a month delayed, in fact. Apologies for that—I don’t like leaving things unfinished, and just because my Greek odyssey ended in quiet fashion was no reason to leave my audience (you’re out there, right? Is this thing even on?) hanging.

Chania, in the west of Crete, was a quietly pleasant way to wrap up my travels. Founded as Kydonia long ago in the Minoan age, it passed through the hands of multiple powers, both foreign and domestic, over the intervening centuries, all of which left their mark. No massive museums to rival those in Athens or Thessaloniki, or fortresses like those of Nafplio or Mycenae. Yet with a cafe tucked into a narrow alleyway, twisting streets filled with craft shops, the relics of Venetian fortifications, and an old church turned into a museum, with relics of the Ottoman occupation in the garden, there was more than enough to see.

It would perhaps have been nice to spend an hour or so on the beach (or preferably in the sea), but wild weather and the first hints of autumn in the air put paid to that. I got plenty of the sea in my face just by strolling along the promenade, and the main adventure of my time in Chania was had the first night, making my way all along the long, crumbling breakwater to the old lighthouse, joining a French couple in climbing over the locked gates to do a little light trespassing for the sake of a good photo.

So Chania was a place for resting and relaxing, either collecting my thoughts and resting tired limbs after more than a week of walking to and around new experiences, or steeling myself for the inevitability of a five-hour Ryanair flight and the cattle drive of the airport that preceded it. With that in mind, as well as the long gap between getting home and writing this, here are a few collected thoughts.

  • Greece is utterly worth the effort. I’d waited for years to go there, and while I didn’t get to see everything I wanted (who could, in only ten days?), I saw wonders.
  • It’s a country of two parts. The Isthmus of Corinth has divided the Greek world for millennia, and it still does. To the north and east are the two main cities of Athens and Thessaloniki, connected by the country’s main railway. To the south and west is the Peloponnese, with smaller towns and cities, truly ancient ruins and wild hills, and no working railway.
  • It’s a straight travel choice. Either travel by bus, of which there are plenty, or by car and risk Greece’s occasionally tricky roads and drivers. The risks of the latter are probably a little overstated, but then I didn’t have to deal with them. Being bus-bound wasn’t a major problem for me, but if you want to get off the beaten path, you’ll need a car.
  • Get there early. Tour buses and the hordes they disgorge are the enemy. In Delphi and Mycenae, I got there before the worst of the crowds, and in Delphi in particular the result was magical. In Knossos I didn’t, and I ended up dodging the crowds and queueing up to see some of the best bits.
  • Alternatively, get there late. The Greeks had a tendency, not uncommon in the ancient world, to build their most imposing monuments on hilltops. If you’re going there in September/October, you’ll be able to catch sunset before they close. There’s not much that improves a sunset more than ruins two thousand years old…
  • Get comfortable with waiting. Service in Greece isn’t bad, it’s just not hurried. At all. Which should give you plenty of time to chill out, enjoy the ouzo or raki, and contemplate the meaning of life.
  • Travelling with one bag? Not that I’m the first person to figure this out, but it’s perfectly doable, even when travelling for more than a week. Just make sure that you know where to find a laundrette, and be aware that bringing presents home is going to be limited, size-wise.
  • Ditching the electronics… This is the second trip I’ve had where I limited my electronics to my phone alone. Given that I prefer to write freehand when I can, and that my iPhone is pretty capable, it wasn’t much of a sacrifice. The only issue is battery life—next time I’d bring a battery case.
  • …but using the ones you have… I was flying by the seat of my pants with regard to a lot of my travel planning. Beyond my flight in and my flight out, plus my first two nights in Thessaloniki, everything was booked the day before, using Booking.com and/or Tripadvisor. It all worked pretty smoothly, but…
  • …paying attention to the details. My one big error on the trip was not realising that there would be so few ferries from Athens to Iraklio per day. I made the best of it in the end, getting to watch the close of the Ryder Cup in a Sports Bar, but the overnight trip was something I could have been better prepared for. Lesson learned—next time I’m not going to assume that everything will be convenient.

History Turned Up to 11

September 29, 2014 3 comments

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Knossos, both restored and unrestored.

Travelling to Crete is like taking the lever that controls the Greek history time machine and pushing it as far back as it will go without breaking. Modern political divisions notwithstanding, this is a very different country, and there’s no better place to see this than in Knossos, heart of the Minoan civilisation of Crete and fabled palace of the mostly legendary King Minos, his daughter Ariadne and her half-brother the Minotaur. (Look it up – it’s a little icky.)
Even for the Mycenean Greeks who supplanted them, the Minoans must have appeared to be something alien and ancient. In the court of the Pharaohs of Egypt, the men of “Keftiu” were regular visits and the acknowledged masters of the wide green sea. The first maritime kings of the Mediterranean, they bequeathed some but not all of their practices to the Myceneans when disaster and strife somehow brought down their power. (The role of the Thera eruption in that downfall is yet another fascinating possibility.)
Looking at the art of the Minoans, it’s still easy to note the gulf that separates them from the later, more realistic depictions of the Greeks. In religion, the Minoans were goddess worshippers, and while they did venerate male deities too, the shift that placed Zeus (born and raised in a cave on Mount Ida on Crete as the tale goes) at the head of the pantheon of Olympian deities came after their time.
This shift in culture, art and language is a fascinating one to try and follow. There are Greek scripts that seem to depict the ancient Minoan tongue. The Linear B text seems of Minoan origin but is used to depict Greek language. The Minoans rose and fell several times over the centuries, coexisting with the Myceneans for several of them until their uniqueness was eclipsed.
The Iraklio Archaeological Museum does an excellent job of putting this tale in its proper context. (Any flaws in my understanding of it all, I’ll have to put down to my sleep-deprived brain – and while I’m at it, I’ll blame any typos on that too.) It seems that the more the Cretans were plugged into the trading networks and political systems of other Mediterranean powers, the less distinctive they became. Eventually, the people who had built and decorated the palace at Knossos so gloriously (though not necessarily as it now appears, depending on your opinion of Arthur Evans) became just another territory. An appendage and territory of other powers, whether Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, or Venetian.
It seems a shame, but we have the memories in myth and legend of those times and the relics recovered from the concealing earth and painstakingly restored. For me, I’ve enjoyed all that and more. My travels have taken me from Thessaloniki in the north of Greece, with its Byzantine and Ottoman influences, all the way to Crete, going ever deeper into history as I’ve continued south. This seems as good a place as any to stop. Maybe tomorrow, before I fly home, I’ll just lie on the beach for a while instead…

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The lighthouse at Chania in western Crete. On a stormy night like this, there’s no place better to be.

The Sublime and the Ridiculous

September 29, 2014 Leave a comment

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Knee-stomping (really), whirling dancing fools.

When one is given a chance to attend a full orchestral performance in a theatre some 1,900 years old, one doesn’t turn it down. Thus it was that I found myself buying a €5 ticket to gain access to the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, in the shadow of the Acropolis, there to watch a performance by the Azerbaijan National Orchestra and several other Azerbaijani performers, notable among them a troupe of dancers.
Whether or not the ticket seller was offering a dramatic flourish of his own when he said that I had bought the very last ticket, I can’t honestly say, but the Odeon was probably as full as it could be while still being safe. Likewise, I’m not exactly sure what the cultural links between Greece and Azerbaijan are – perhaps my attention wandered during the introductory speeches that took up a fair chunk of the evening. Still, there’s no arguing with the fact that the orchestra’s performance was very warmly received, whether they were accompanying other acts (including, incongruously, a tenor offering up his take on “Nessun Dorma”). The dancers turned out to be the stars of the night though, their kinetic leaping, whirling and shouting inspiring the audience to clap in time to every flourish as light and sound illuminated the inside of those ancient stones.
Sublime history of another kind was the order of the day the next morning, as I made my way to the National Museum of Archaeology. With such a resource as the history of Greece to draw on, this could hardly fail to be spectacular, and as much as I may have seen more statues in the past two days than in the course of my life to date, I haven’t tired of them yet. The museum contains the Death Mask of Agamemnon (so called by Schliemann), several rare and exquisite bronze statues (far fewer of these survive from ancient times than their marble equivalents), and items both unspeakably ancient and of such quality of manufacture and art that you can’t help but linger over them.

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Possibly Poseidon, probably Zeus, definitely striking.

Perhaps the most fascinating piece that the museum now holds is a relatively recent acquisition. In an ancient shipwreck off the tiny island of Antikythera were found not only a collection of sculptures (probably looted and on their way to imperial Rome) but a nondescript lump of fused bronze. That lump, carefully studied over decades, now has an exhibition all to itself and is known as the Antikythera Mechanism. An intricate clockwork device, seemingly constructed to track and predict the motions of celestial bodies, it’s a glimpse into the little guessed complexity of ancient craftsmanship, forgotten for centuries afterwards.
So much for the sublimity: whence comes the ridiculous of this article’s title? Well, I’ve supplied most of that myself as I’ve come to the last few days of this trip. For example, on my way to the museum, I managed to get completely turned around and found myself wandering through a mostly deserted park until I figured things out.
The main ridiculousness though has more to do with where I am as I write this. I’d always planned to head to Crete for the last two days of the trip, but following my thus-far successful plan of booking things at short notice has caused me a few problems this time around. First off, I went ahead and booked accommodation without checking ferry times. Bad idea – the only ferries from Piraeus, Athens’ ancient and modern port, are overnighters. Still, I get in early enough that I might be able to use breakfast and a shower before I have to check out. As a final insult, trying to book a ferry ticket online resulted in a lost connection somewhere between the agency and the ferry company. And then it turns out that I could and should have bought the ticket at a booth at the port for half the price! Sigh. Lesson learned for now. Time to try to get some sleep while hoping that the boat doesn’t sink and that the guy behind me stops snoring at some stage…

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Antikythera – A mechanism’s mechanism.

And So To Athens…

September 27, 2014 2 comments

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I’m in ur background, bombing ur photoz.
There’s a trope in film and television of using familiar landmarks to create a sense of place. If a scene is meant to be in Paris, the odds are that the Eiffel Tower will be lurking in the background. If it’s London, Big Ben and Tower Bridge serve the same purpose. If it’s Dublin, well, a pub will probably do fine.
For Athens, the Acropolis and the Parthenon are the more than obvious choices as identifying landmarks. The difference being that when you’re in Athens, the Parthenon and Acropolis actually are in the background most of the time. It’d be a surprise if they weren’t, give that they’re built on a whacking great mountain in the middle of the city.
For all that modern Athens now sprawls all across the Attic plain, its ancient past remains evident at its heart. The Acropolis stands out of course: there are Mycenean stones at its base, as in so many other places that I’ve visited, but habitation here goes back at least to the Neolithic. But it’s hard to go anywhere in the centre of the city and not come across reminders of the past. Plenty of the museum pieces that I’ve seen over the past two days have had notes attached saying that they were found in some construction project or other.
It must make urban planning a nightmare here, perhaps more so than anywhere else on Earth. All around the city you can see building sites that have turned into archaeological digs, though how much of that is due to the economic downturn I couldn’t say. Even the Acropolis Museum has a glass ground floor, the better to show the craftsmen’s district uncovered during its construction.
Tear your eyes away from the Pantheon and take a walk around Athens though and you’ll be well rewarded. In the shadow of the Acropolis alone, you have the Areopagus hill, where high crimes were judged. You have the Pnyx, where Athens’ ruling body of the people met. There’s the largely intact temple to Hephaestus and the mostly ruined but massive Temple of Olympian Zeus. In the ancient agora, you can see the prison where Socrates took his fatal draught of hemlock, and down the hill you can see the uncovered Kerameikos district, where he strove to open minds among Athens’ ordinary citizens, questioning their every assumption.
Once again, it’s all about being close to history. Not just the history of a place like the Acropolis, a sacred precinct for the gods, but the history of the Kerameikos, where the common folk of Athens went about their daily business. Where they lived and died and were buried, for the Kerameikos was a cemetery too. Where you can see the roads that led out through Athens’ walls and the homes where meals were prepared and eaten. In a place like that, where centuries of dirt have been scoured away, you can walk in their footsteps. It’s as close as you’ll ever get to walking beside them.

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The path of grave markers that led from the Kerameikos.

From History Into Myth

September 25, 2014 Leave a comment

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Emerging from the Secret Cistern in Mycenae. It’s bloody dark down there.
I mentioned before that only a scrap of mythic Mycenae remained in Nafplio. Specifically, that scrap exists in the foundations of the Akronafplio, the old Acropolis of the city. In fact, for a long time the acropolis was the city, until the Venetians came along and created the lower city. As with the Palamidi fortress, nearly everything that’s there now is Venetian, and though there are odd chambers and hidden passages still visible amid the foundations, it’s hard to explore them far among all the restoration work.
In contrast, half an hour away by bus, the citadel of Mycenae is almost pure myth. This is Homer’s Mycenae, the city of Agamemnon, founded by Perseus, the son of Zeus. Although it was never forgotten during the dark ages between its height and the rise of Athens and Sparta, what history it had faded into folktales. The stones of the walls and gateways were so massive that it was thought that Perseus had called on the cyclopes to help him build the city.
Through painstaking excavation and the decipherment of scraps of Linear B script from the site, we know a lot more than the Greeks did about how Mycenae operated: its rule by a “Wanaka” and the trade links that stretched all across the Mediterranean and even as far as the British Isles and the Baltic Sea. There are records among the Hittites, Egyptians and other ancient civilisations of contacts with the “Ahhiyawa”, and there we can even glimpse a few names, though their exact provenance is hard to determine. In general, we know no more of the personages themselves – the kings and queens, heroes and villains – than Homer did when he spoke of “gold-rich Mycenae” and its king.
This kind of thing fascinates me and always has: the point in time where history fails us and the only point of reference we have is half-remembered stories of great events and turning points. Be they ever so twisted for dramatic effect or to provide a moral point, they’re as much truth as we have. It still happens too: think of the tales of George Washington and the cherry tree or Abraham Lincoln and his log cabin. Closer to Ireland, was there ever a Cuchulain, or was he just a recasting of an older tale or a folk hero with no basis in fact?
Stories have their own gravity, and myths are just those stories that have been around long enough to solidify into a bedrock for other tales. The Iliad and Odyssey dragged in heroes from other stories, just as King Arthur and Cuchulain became the dominant stories of a nation and more: stealing the narratives from other tales and recasting them as their own. What then happens to those stolen stories?
In some cases, their fate is to be buried, as with the Akronafplio. Larissa Fortress near Argos, another famed ancient city, has Mycenean stones among its foundations too, but the rest of the edifice is of much newer make. Argos had the good fortune though of being celebrated through its heroes, both in Homeric fashion and into historic times. Other sites have not been so lucky.
One such can be seen closer to Nafplio. The citadel of Tiryns is, if anything, even larger than Mycenae. However, it’s in poorer repair and sits on a less imposing outcrop. More importantly, it features in few stories now. The people of Tiryns left behind a monument in stone, but the age that they lived in is the one we now call the Mycenean Age. A tribute as much to Homer and his skills as it is to the greatness of that city and its peoples, whom we remember now only through his tales.

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Tiryns, sadly, also makes for an unimpressive photo opportunity.

From Myth Into History

September 24, 2014 Leave a comment

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The Omphalos, centre of mythic Greece.
If there’s a place in Greece that stands on the border between myth and history, it’s Delphi. Its origins are lost in legend and folktale, but the fact of its influence and wealth can be seen in the incredible physical remains of the place.
According to one tale, the Omphalos above marks the spot where two eagles that Zeus released from the edge of the world finally met. According to another, it was the stone that Rhea fed to Chronos instead of the infant Zeus, and Delphi is where it fell when Chronos vomited it up.
Neither tale did anything more than burnish the already hallowed reputation of Delphi. The sanctuary of Apollo was where kings and emperors sought out the wisdom of the Sibyl, known as the Pythia, when they wished to know what the future held. When Leonidas of Sparta was told that a king’s blood must water the earth of Thermopylae if Greece was to resist Xerxes’ Persians, he strapped on his shield and went for a walk, taking only 300 bodyguards with him. Or so the story goes.
That the priests of Apollo were able to keep this gig going for centuries can be seen in the fact that the sanctuary was rebuilt at least twice, each time more magnificent than before. Until the Christian Era at last put an end to pagan superstition, Delphi endured. Even now, there’s something special about the place. Perched high in a valley above the Gulf of Corinth, bees still buzz in the trees there, and olives are grown in the soil below, much as they must have been in ancient times.
If you go there yourself, go at dawn or dusk, preferably the former. Sunrise over Delphi is something special, and it’ll keep you out of the worst heat of the day. Walk the same path that pilgrims seeking Apollo’s wisdom once did and savour having the place to yourself before the tour buses arrive.

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The Tholos of the Santuary of Athena at Delphi.
If I’d stuck to the plan I made yesterday, I’d be mentioning Thebes now, home of legendary Oedipus, that most complex rex, but also Epaminondas and Pelopidas, two very historical figures who broke Sparta’s power at the Battle of Leuctra. Sadly, either the bus didn’t stop there or Alexander the Great did a too-thorough job when he razed it, as I didn’t see anything resembling a city, ancient or otherwise.
Instead, I did a Chicago, passing swiftly through Athens, across the Corinthian isthmus to Nafplio. If Delphi is half myth and half history, Nafplio has only a scrap of myth left to it. There are Mycenean walls beneath one of its fortresses, but the most of the stone here is nailed down to well-understood history. The imposing Fortress of Palmidi, which rears high above the city, is less than three hundred years old, for all that several of its many fortifications have been named for figures of Greek myth and legend.
The climb to Palmidi isn’t for the faint of lung, but the view is worth it. I got to the top just in time to watch the sun going down over the mountains on the far side of the bay and sat there looking at the much older city acropolis below until I was ready to try the stairs again.
All that exertion is done for the day though. As I write this, I have a beer in front of me on a balmy Aegean night. Not long ago, I was strolling along the waterfront enjoying a (real Italian) gelato in the dying light of the day. If that isn’t what a holiday is supposed to be, I’m not sure I want to be part of it.

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Sunset from the Palmidi fortress.

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