January, 2006

Walk The Line

Prior to a couple of days ago, what I knew about Johnny Cash could have been written on a very small postage stamp. I knew a couple of his more famous lines, and also knew about his some of his latter sounds when he recorded songs by such artists as Depeche Mode and even Nine Inch Nails with Hurt which I remember Nick Stewart (aka Captain America) once giving a talk about at work.
I was quite excited about going to see Walk The Line because I knew that Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon were supposed to be good in it, and Cash is someone that I felt I should know a bit about (in the same way that the Dylan documentary from Scorcese also filled in a few holes in my cultural knowledge last year).
The film does follow a typical rock biopic route: a few childhood recollections that impact on later life, the success, the highs, the lows, the depressions. But it works very well and the performances are really good. In actual fact, I think Reese Witherspoon gives an even better performance than Joaquin Phoenix’s.
The film opens with the beginning of a foot-tappingly spectacular prison concert which we return to later in the film. We see fellow young stars from Sun record – Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis.
In fact, the film does bend a few stories and twist a few things to meet a required structure. But then what film doesn’t? How do I know? Well I’ve just watched a BBC Four documentary on the man, and I’m slightly more inclined to believe that than the film.
The singing, by the way, is indeed superb – with both leads taking the honours. I note that both actors have been duly nominated in the Academy Award Nominations (And while we’re on the subject, I’d love someone to explain how Heath Ledger is up for Best Actor, while Jake Gyllenhaal is only up for Best Supporting Actor. I’m pretty sure that if Gyllenhaal’s character had been a woman, she’d have been a Best Actress contender. It’s not a small role).
On the way out of a party that was held after the film (and which in no way prejudice’s this review), I was given a “goody bag” which included the Cash CD that has Hurt on it. I listened to it both on the way in and out of work today, and that’s despite visiting HMV for some other Cash bargains at lunchtime.
Dad’s going to love this film.

Classical MP3s Again

I just thought I’d post here, the comments I left over at On An Overgrown Path in relation to free mp3 downloads of classical music:
My question is this? What proportion of the UK population (and I’ll limit this to the UK for simplicity’s sake), currently purchase classical music CDs? Unfortunately, the BPI, who’d probably have this information, password protect their statistics section of their website.
But it does seem as though in 2004, Classical “albums” made up 2.6% of all sales in 2004 (among CDs), a fall from 4.0% in 2000.
One way or another, we can be certain that a significant proportion of the population do not buy classical music at all. It’s not so much availability of the music that drives this figure, as interest in the music as a whole. There are plenty of very cheap CDs out there to sate interests, and the music’s freely available on two national FM radio stations, to greater or lesser extents. Nonetheless, for various reasons, CD sales in this category are falling.
The reasons, I’m sure, are many and various, probably starting with the marginalisation of music in education. The BBC’s “experiment” showed that there was significant demand. It’s something for nothing certainly. Does giving away something devalue the product? To a certain extent, yes. But it’s quid pro quo. Some of those 1.3m people who downloaded those files, probably went out and bought another Beethoven CD because they liked what they heard. That’s why Gramaphone give away an excerpts CD every month. Sales come off the back of it. Sure, an excerpt or single track is a different thing to a full piece, but if it costs nothing and generates interest in the music, how can it really be bad.
Classical music is seen as thoroughly inaccessible to many people. A completely closed shop. What version of a piece should I buy? Specialist shops and departments in the larger London stores can seem scary places. Opening up the music like this is a toes in the water way of doing things.
If giving away some music gets a few more people interested and listening to the music, can it be a bad thing?
The caviar analogy is false I believe. Aside from the fact that there probably aren’t enough sturgeon left in the Caspian to meet this demand (there’s an international ban on you know!), there’s obviously an inherent cost in giving people produce compared to media that can be distributed either cheaply or freely (Actually, I bet if I stood out in the street in front of Fortnum and Mason handing out tasters of caviar, I probably would drum up a few customers). But if you truly believe that there’s not a larger market out there for music than the shrinking one that is currently buying music, then giving away the music is not going to make much difference. Unless there was someone who held off buying a Beethoven boxed set because they could download a series of mp3s, then you can at least feel good about culturally improving the lives of the masses!
The other link, discussing the commoditisation of music as a result of the increased availability of mp3s is quite interesting. It’s possibly true, but then the same argument could probably be made, to an extent, for CDs and every other recording medium. Is the answer to remove them all and force us to attend concerts? According to research from BRMB (TGI, 2005), only 24% of the UK adult population attended any kind of musical concert (pop/rock/classical/jazz etc) in the last year.
If I’m just downloading hours of pirated material through p2p systems, then no, I’m probably not investing much emotional committment to the music. But if I’m buying it via iTunes, what’s the difference to purchasing the CD via Amazon?
As a whole, we are buying more music these days, so perhaps, overall music is more of a commodity these days. But the medium is irrelvant. More physical CDs are being sold too. It’s more a question of fitting listening to music into our lives. It’s how we listen to the music.
The Britten quotation is interesting, but I think he was on dangerous ground if he required me to travel, possibly hundreds of miles, if I wanted to experience his mass. Far be it from me to disagree with him, but aside from the obvious financial issues that mitigate against this, mightn’t I actually appreciate the music even more, if I’ve had the chance to listen to it on CD before I attend? Aren’t the liner notes the same as the programme? If you haven’t experienced the music live then you haven’t truly experienced it. But second best is better than not at all, surely?

The Mind Washing of a Big Brother World

Sadly, I’m talking about the TV programme, Big Brother – in particular, Celebrity Big Brother.
Now I know that this is futile exercise, and no matter how much I say or write isn’t going to make a single iota’s difference, but sometimes the coverage that this programme gets infuriate’s me.
In a weekly email, Newsnight’s editor Peter Barron tried to defend the programme’s coverage of George Galloway’s “eviction” even going so far as to have Jeremy Paxman pre-record a piece to camera that was played to Galloway when he left. There are some legitimate questions that Galloway needs to be asked, but getting involved in the farrago that is Big Brother is not the way to do it.
Yesterday, saw The Guardian dedicating its main photo to the winner of the programme – “ironically” a non-celebrity.
Then, and most infuriatingly of all we come to Kathryn Flett, the television critic of The Observer. I’ve spoken before about quite how infuriating I find Flett. She’s given a full broadsheet page to review television and the best she can do is spend paragraph after paragraph talking about Big Brother, while managing to squeeze in just a couple of sentences for The Virgin Queen.
I’m always going to agree to disagree with reviewers, but it’s not even as though this matters for Flett. She readily admits in her first paragraph that only 5.9m people watch an average episode of the programme. A similar number, she points out, watched Stephen Fry on Who Do You Think You Are. One of those programmes gave as an insight into things such as the advent of industrial agriculture and the horror of the Holocaust. The other, er, didn’t. Sadly, despite “the other” being on seven nights a week, Flett didn’t find time to watch one hour of Stephen Fry. Her loss.
But this is, to me, an example of the media culture that a small section of society lives in. Flett explains that all the emails she got were about Big Brother. I say that she needs to get some new email correspondents. Just because lots of metropolitan meeja types have nothing better to do, that doesn’t mean that the rest of the country hasn’t got better things to do.
If you wander around London during the rush hour you’ll see lots of people wearing white headphones. But the majority of the population do not own iPods.
Look, I’ve no real objection if hordes of people want to spend their time watching the programmes that share the nutritional values of grass, but I please don’t assume that the rest of us share your interest. Most people don’t read Heat, and they don’t watch Big Brother.

Horizon Tackles Intelligent Design

This week’s Horizon squarely took on creationism “Intelligent Design”, and in many respects it’s a shame. A shame that a science programme had to give up an episode to explode the myth of something that’s propogated by fundamental Christians.
The programme didn’t shirk its responsibility to the subject, and the programme took a familiar structure: spend around half the episode setting up the seemingly damning evidence that makes, in this case, evolution worthless, before taking that evidence apart piece by piece. In this case, it was against the background of the Dover High School court case.
It is scary that in some parts of the world – well America – understanding of science is being replaced by belief in what might as well be “magick”.
It’s fair to say, as Ben Goldacre says at the start of his column in today’s Guardian, that today nobody can understand the broad workings of most things around them. While science becomes marginalised in schools, even those who become specilists in some scientific spheres, may know pretty much nothing about others. There’s too much! But that doesn’t mean we all have to bury our heads in the sand and proclaim no knowledge.
A very worthwhile programme.
But I am concerned about a BBC News website piece seemingly tying itself in with this programme highlighting the fact that only 48% of the British population chose evolution as their view of the origin and development of life.
The research was carried out by Ipsos MORI for the BBC programme, and was among 2,000 people. Of the remaining 52% of the population, 17% said Intelligent Design, 22% said Creationism, and the remainder did not know.
Now that seems to me to be a strange finding. It suggests that 39% of the British population has chosen a minority Christian viewpoint of the origins of life. This is in a country in which, a previous BBC survey tells us, that while only 17% of the country goes to church regularly (once a week or more), 67% calls itself Christian, with only 22% saying they have no faith. Fortunately, in this previous instance, the full tables were actually made available. So we can quickly see that this was a mutliple choice question with other options including Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Jewish and Other. Presented with that list, someone is far likelier to say that they’re Christian than say they have no faith – unless they’re ardent atheists or agnostics (and actually understand those words). Christian becomes the easy default choice.
I simply don’t find it credible that 17% of the UK population have even heard of Intelligent Design, much less understand what it means. And the majority of those who have heard of it, are far more likely to believe that it’s a baseless attack on evolution. Even Creationism would need some explanation to the man on the street.
We really need to see the full questions and table to understand how these results came about. I’ll drop an email to BBC News Online to see if I can get hold of the full tables.
If this survey highlights one thing, it’s that science has fallen off the agenda for a lot of people and they simply don’t understand. That’s why there is still a big job to explain some of the fundamentals of our world, to prevent “magickal” reasons being propogated by people with other axes to grind.

Free Mozart podcasts

Record companies may have scared off the BBC from doing more classical downloads following their Beethoven symphonies last year, but the idea seems to have taken hold in Scandinavia where both Swedish and Danish state radio services are offering free Mozart downloads to celebrate the 250th anniversary of his birth.
Swedish Radio is offering a series of historical recordings via a podcast link – first up is a 1943 recording of Don Juan. Meanwhile Danish Radio is offering a series of nine symphonies recorded by the Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra. Symphony No. 41, Jupiter, is available now, and there’s an XML podcast link on the download page for that too.
Thanks to James for the Swedish link, and thanks to An Overgrown Path for the Danish link (a site, who’s author doesn’t believe in giving away free classical music).

Order Online, Buy In-Store

The other week, HMV Group’s chief executive is leaving the company after a disappointing Christmas, citing the growth of the internet etc. as reasons for HMV’s poor Christmas period.
There is no way that an outlet like HMV can really compete with the interenet when they have all those leases to pay for in areas full of expensive real estate. But there are some things they could do to make life easier, and still ensure that they have decent, profitable businesses. We don’t always want to wait for the post to bring us the things that we want.
Leading the way in this respect is Argos. They let you search online and then choose either to have it delivered or collect it in store, and importantly, they only charge one price. This is important because if you’re competing on price alone, then you’ve got the problem that a Play or Amazon may well have a better price, in which case, the fact that they’ll postal specialists probably makes them a better choice for byuing the product.
Argos leads the way because the nature of their business is very computerised and stock control led. You go online, reserve the item you’re after, then go to the store and collect it, without the worry of missed deliveries or packages not fitting through your letterbox. Whereas, if you’ve ever been to a record or bookshop seeking a book, and found their computer system saying that the book or CD is in stock, but a search of the shelves shows that it isn’t, you’ll know that their systems aren’t as foolproof.
But picture this: you can get the new Arctic Monkeys album (they’re very hot, I’m told) for £8.49 plus posage online from Amazon, but it’s available in store at HMV for £10.99 without a delivery delay. Why don’t they simply advertise it as such online, and let you pay and collect it in store? With a decent stock control system, that shouldn’t be a problem. As it happens HMV.co.uk sell it for £9.99 with free delivery. So where’s the incentive to visit the bricks and mortar store?
And I still stand by the fact that it’s easier to browse for things you didn’t know you wanted in a physical store than it is online. With Amazon, you’re much more likely to jump in and just look at the item you were searching for, and you don’t get to wander past lots of racks filled with things to tempt you. So when you reach the physical HMV store to pick up your Arctic Monkeys CD, you may well buy something else at the same time. Free postage on single CDs means that you dive into the website, buy the disc you want, and that’s it.
“Adapt or die”, is something of a cliché, but then it’s called a cliché for a reason.

Spectrum

As Ofcom hurries to switch off analogue TV and get us all over to digital, the question is, what’s going to happen to all that free spectrum?
This week’s Broadcast magazine reports that the BBC is trying to interest the other terrestrial analogue broadcasters into joining it to persuade the government that they should hand over analogue spectrum freed up from analogue switch-off to allow them to broadcast HDTV over Freeview (DTT).
It comes down to the fact that Freeview, cramped as it is at the moment, doesn’t have the capacity for HDTV, and there’s no likelihood of it getting it in the short term. Consequently, only Sky and cable operators have announced plans for it.
Ofcom is due to deliver its Digital Dividend Review in the autumn according to Broadcast. But you suspect that the government expects to make a lot of money from the sale of this spectrum to telecoms companies and the like. It still remembers the £22.5bn that it made selling 3G spectrum. Of course, the fact that operators have so far had no chance of recouping this money is swiftly glossed over. (Read the article in today’s Technology section of The Guardian noting the sheer expense of running a 3G phone. Further down the page, an Ask Jack question reveals the fact that if you listen to an online radio station at around 56kbps for four hours a day, you’d get through around 3GB a month. The biggest monthly usage plan I can see on Orange, for example, is £52.88 a month (Mobile Office Max 05 for personal users). So, to listen to that amount of radio would be in excess of £150 a month. And that’s before any other data usage like emails, or indeed, any phone calls).
I mentioned the other day, that mobile television was the other big new thing that’s going to be an earner. Yet at the same time IPTV is also the exciting new thing. With decent data rates, couldn’t IPTV render mobile television unnecessary. Then there are the burgeoning wi-fi and wi-max technologies.
Anyway, I’m going off course. The question remains: if this spectrum is auctioned off to the highest bidder, what’s it going to be used for, and can the spectrum honestly pay for itself?

Brokeback Mountain

I’ve got a lot of time for Ang Lee, although I’ll fully admit that I’ve still yet to see The Hulk, but I’m reasonably sure that I’m not missing an awful lot.
Brokeback Mountain is a great return from someone who hasn’t made a proper film since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Based on a short story that I haven’t read (although I did pick up the copy of Time Out that came bundled with it recently), it tells the story over quite a period of time of two cowboys, who, yes, are gay. Well it’s more complex than that. What we’ve got are two very real people with their complicated lives, and the time they spent together one summer looking after an enormous flock of sheep.
If truth be told, you can see how this is adapted from a short story rather than a full-length novel. But then anyone who’s watched a movie version of a favourite novel will be able to vouch for how much material has to be left out.
The two stars are great, with Jake Gyllenhaal easily better in this than he is in Jarhead. Mind you, he has much more likeable character here. Heath Ledger, on the other hand, is something of a revelation. He puts in an exceptional performance, and despite some slightly dodgy make-up in latter parts of the film when he’s been aged a little, you really understand his situation.
The scenery is spectacular, although I found it ironic that given the film’s Wyoming setting, it was basically all shot in Alberta. It certainly can’t harm the Canadian tourist industry.
Towards the end of the film, you’re never quite sure how things are going to resolve themselves. In reality, they probably wouldn’t until either the men drifted apart, or they became very old. So the way things are wrapped up feels like it was necessary from a short story’s point of view rather than, perhaps, reality. But that shouldn’t detract from an excellent piece of work.

Munich

Let’s have another attempt at this, since my first review from a couple of weeks ago seems to have disappeared from the site.
Munich, the latest Steven Spielberg film, is much more Schindler’s List than War of the Worlds. A few years ago, there was a fantastic documentary feature, One Day In September, that examined in almost forensic detail, the taking hostage and murder of eleven Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic games.
This film broadly speaking is a “what happens next”. The Israeli government puts together a hit team to kill the Palestinians who are said to be responsible.
We follow Eric Bana and his team around Europe as they take these people out one by one. The group of hitmen are out there on their own, and seem to have to rely on a strange French middleman, who can, for cash, point Bana’s team in the right direction.
The acting is very strong, and we never quite know what’s going to happen. Spielberg is able to play out these set pieces with consummate skill. You simply don’t know what’s going to happen.
Of course, the big theme of the story is Bana’s character beginning to question the worthiness of his “quest”.
Overall, this is a powerful film, and the story’s well told. A little long, but very worthwhile.

Hidden

Hidden, or Caché, as it is in French, is a very strange film. I think the only previous Michael Haneke film I’ve seen is The Piano Teacher, which a very disturbing film. But this is probably more unusual.
Overtly, it’s something of a thriller, with a couple (Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche) receiving strange video tapes of the exterior of their house in a nice part of Paris. They’re being stalked in some kind of a strange way. They whys and wherefores are probably best left to the film, because it is an intriguing story.
However, the style of the film is very odd. We get very long takes, with very fixed and singular shots. A long wide shot. Then a long close-up of one character, followed by a close-up of the other. Sometimes, we discover our POV is actually the camera recording the tape images, with no attempt to display the image in a video style, but on other occassions, the camera will suddenly move, and we realise that it’s not. That makes you a strange observer.
Sound is unusual too, with audio being very “real”. So if we’re at one end of a telephone conversation, the other end is so faint as to be inaudible, although this being a subtitled film, we’re let in on the conversation. I don’t think I’d have understood what was being said had I been watching this film in France. On other occassions, overlapping conversations make it hard to hear what the main characters are saying, and in one instance, a television is blaring out the news without a care for the dramatic scene that’s being played out in front of it. Neither character rushes to switch it off, as they would in reality.
And there’s no music either.
The other really notable thing about this film is that, although calm, controlled and realistic, there are a couple of scenes of nearly excuciating horror. One of them actually lead to shouted gasps in the auditorium where I watched this film. Once seen, not easily forgotten, and a reminder of the power of The Piano Teacher in a similar regard.
So what to make of the film? I’m not sure. I won’t spoil the ending, but I don’t think I was alone in being unsatisfied with it. Once we’d been taken on this merry dance, I suppose I wanted something a bit better. The performances were superb – in particular Auteuil, who was very naturalistic. But I find it hard to agree with the critics who in today’s papers found this to be a better film than Munich.