Review: A brush with Vincent

The National Gallery of Victoria winter masterpiece exhibition this year is Vincent van Gogh and the Four Seasons (on now). I finally got to visit on a particularly sombre, grey Melbourne Friday afternoon.

Vincent.

Last year the big exhibit was Degas. It was interesting. I recognised familiar paintings of the usual suspects, admired paintings I’d not met before and generally marvelled at his bronzes, particularly the horses. My response, to Degas’ art was neither deeply intellectual nor emotional, except for the back stories to some of the subjects – such as The Little Dancer. However, little about his practice got me wondering how he achieved it. Perhaps it was all too familiar, perhaps it something about my perception that meant his story and style didn’t exactly grab me. And then of course it became about his ‘male gaze’ penchant for nudes. Or, if you’re less arty, his overtly leery view of a very lot of various naked women going about their private business.

Degas, but not deja vu.

The above is a long-winded introduction to van Gogh, but pertinent, because my reaction this time to 2017’s ‘blockbuster’ exhibition was entirely opposite. It was visceral, emotional, and intellectual. Yes, this is due in part to his pop-cultural status as the definitive tortured artist. It is also due to the familiarity of his life and works and the interpretation of both, in song, and an upcoming film, and even in the likes of Doctor Who and the Simpsons. Even teen me wrote a poem to Vincent (don’t worry I won’t inflict it on you). All of which is to say, if ballerinas are Degas, then almost anything can be van Gogh, if the colours and brushwork are right.

Light and line, rendered solid.

Speaking of which, I can spend hours looking at a van Gogh painting. Particularly the ones where the oil paint glistens in the light so the lines and directions of his brushwork become just as vibrant as his yellows and golds and purply-blues.

Star bursts, vertices, and white stabs of paint.

Light reveals the movement in his work. It conveys the energy of his hand in motion to the viewer through the medium of colour, and direction, in small, quick, but deliberate strokes.

And it was all yellow.

It is art that feels immediate. Degas is history, a moment captured, completely of its time. Van Gogh’s seasons evoke places and eras too, but the electrifying brightness of his springs and nights, the hues of his autumns, the starkness of his winters, well, they’re immortal. The places are specific, but the movement of colours therein are universal. Or something.

 

While his places are of moments, so too his faceless individual forms evoke human experiences without being identifiable. They are ghosts, faces obscured, or with their backs to us, or bent over working. They are not for us, they do not peer out; busy in place, they are home. We are the interlopers.

Winter: a solitary figure of the same stuff as the cold earth.

Moving around a van Gogh reveals the details of his intentions. To to be up close is to see the horizontal and vertical contrasting shades. Stand back and admire the view, but lean in and realise the concentration it took to construct it.

Warp and weft.

A fellow attendee, also in awe, remarked at how the paintings were woven. She was right. Warp and weft of colours make the whole.

He was not all about colour, however.

All of this means a print of a van Gogh seems dull and muddy by comparison. It’s two-dimensional rather than his three dimensions. That could be said of any print of an oil painting. However, the Fibonacci swirls in his clouds, the star burst lines of his shrubberies, and fields of sunny vertices make van Gogh’s work instantly recognisable, but also so much more energetic when confronted by the real thing, framed on the wall. Which I why I took few photos of entire paintings, but rather close-ups of sections.

Landscapes as vectors.

Maybe I am too enamoured of his technique, but then again, he had more than one. Autumnal and winter sketches and paintings show his political leanings through earlier, darker works featuring farmers.

Light gets through even in his darker works.

Meanwhile, a section of the exhibit demonstrated the influence of Japonism on his aesthetic, and forms a worthwhile exhibit of itself.

Something Japanese.

Van Gogh, a late-ish blooming outsider artist, found and pursued his calling. That’s relatable. Maybe it doesn’t just comes down to us being suckers for tragedy, even if the art and the sadness of his life can’t be separated.

There is so much more to say, but perhaps it is better to end by urging you, if your can, to visit Vincent, follow his lines, seek his light, and bask in his fields.

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Doctor Who: Use Your Words

‘ere be spoilers, me hearties, k?

In a Doctor Who story featuring two big reveals, the one regarding the vault was interesting, given the stuff about measurements of fatality, with an apt call back to River Song, but that was the curtain raiser. No, it was the other piece of news that kept me engaged amid increased tension and mystery.

Through technology, you can see what is not real: the original use your illusion.

Steven Moffat’s episode Extremis has all sorts of things going on, many of them my favourites. For starters: Latin tags, hidden libraries, shadows, and dangerous ancient texts, like River’s diary, and the other one. Or so it seems. Moffat’s great joke about this truth book is it not about words at all, it is a count. A word count if you like.

Bad corpses, bad corpses, whatcha gonna do when they come for you in a computer simulation?

The Doctor stealing from his future in order to see is an analogy for what happens in the episode and also what happens with writers and stories. Writers always take from their Big Bag of Ideas and spend them, some times all at once. The stuff about the Vatican and CERN was intriguing, but mainly marvellous and entertaining window dressing to get to the point of the text. And the fact it is a book is important, The Doctor and his Companions, in figuring out what they are doing, are interpreting the text they are within. And they succeed.

The new enemy runs a simulation within a framework in order to understand and overcome future real world outcomes, such as defeat in an attempt to conquer the earth. The hidden text is the verification process, which is the only indication to individuals that they are but characters encoded by their enemy, to be deleted, or rewritten at will. Like like any character. Nardole and Bill feel and see this, and their terror is real. However, this time Father Christmas doesn’t turn up to save them.

This is very much like The Doctor’s Confession Dial experience where he (alone) experienced many deaths over thousands of years to finally reach his destination. This time, Subroutine Doctor doesn’t go anywhere, but he does get the information out, and just like any ‘trapped in a dream’ episode, The Doctor outside of the framework wakes to the impending danger.

Why is this important? Well the danger will come anyway, so this is an introduction. But what the story really indicates is that The Doctor transcends any construct that contains him, even bespoke ones inside his own story. As a character within a world within a world, he speaks to the world beyond him. He is inter-textual, but what the argument really is, is that The Doctor is beyond texts. He is a cultural phenomenon, beyond the limits of a TV series, films, cartoons, books, and audio plays. The Doctor says he stands apart, which is really Moffat making The Doctor say, too damn right he does. As a character he is immortal in a way no one else can be.

The other theme of 2017: dead stalking the living. Wonder what it means? Cough, cough, ahem, um, regener-

But to get more meta, this is also a get out of jail free dress rehearsal or first draft for the real encounter of our heroes and this new big bad. If we don’t like what happened in this episode, the writer is saying it doesn’t matter, because it is one of many possibilities for the actual showdown. This was just one version we happened to catch. It will be rewritten differently next time.

So we can see Moffat is test driving ideas about identity, truth, sight and shadows to see what will fly with his readers (audience) when The Doctor faces these beings and barriers ahead of the next episode: ‘reality.’ But as I keep noting, this isn’t reality at all, merely another Borges-like-Escherscape of repeating Moffat Themes, dressed beautifully, and gloriously freighted with auteur significance. And it doesn’t matter a single jot if no one gets it, because we’re through the looking glass people, and it’s maze-like dangers and adventures are wondrous and beguiling.

 

 

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Doctor Who: Raising Stakes

Ok, this is a two-fer-one deal this week. Two reviews for one episode. It’s happened before and it may happen again. Here we go.

Remember when Psychic Bec™ described the 2017 season’s arc in terms of how each episode would edge closer to the main point of the series and how, in another post (if you’ve been following along at home), I decided the theme this year was barriers.

If you don’t want more Doctor Who skip this, k?

Well I was right. Sort of. The Doctor and Bill have been fighting (even with fists) barriers and exploitative behaviours such as racism, slavery, rampant commodification of people, emotions, giant possibly alien fish, air, and the systematic murder of populations for profit, etc. Meanwhile, the Vault squats beneath the adventures (physically at the university and metaphorically) as a symbol of doom-laden significance. I think most people believe the Master/Missy is inside, but at any rate the being within is sentient, and dangerous. The danger, you see, in Who, is within and without.

No Timmy, you can’t save the Companion, run & fetch The Doctor.

However, what unexpectedly upped the stakes was the refusal of the writers/show runners to get the Doctor out of his blindness by voila deus ex machina-ering the issue by waving Gallifreyan tech over his face, for a happy conclusion. After a couple of seasons (is it that much?) of sporting sonic shades, he can now wear dark glasses permanently, it seems. Way to telegraph I guess?

Anyway the usual escalation of NuWho danger is:

Preview: Arrive at Location.

1) Isolate The Doctor and Companion from the Tardis.

1a) Destroy Sonic Screwdriver or minimise its effectiveness (doesn’t do wood).

2) Increase dangers in the environment.

3) Split The Doctor and Companion.

3) Get Companion in Trouble™.

4) The Doctor does the Risky Thing™.

5) Companion and/or The Doctor save the day.

6) The Doctor returns to the Tardis, fixes what was damaged and pouts over what was broken or lost (eg his hearts, the Master, Madame Pompadour, Rose, his shoes, Sonic, his home etc.)

With enhanced hearing machinery The Doctor still defeats his enemies. 

This time, the promised deux ex wielded by Nardole doesn’t work. Hence, the stakes are changed for The Doctor. He is blind and it is a real barrier (even if he can save a space mining station without sight, a sonic, or much air). There aren’t many physical barriers put before The Doctor these days, or if there are, they’re the same ones everyone in the environment faces. This time his behaviour in saving Bill from the Trouble™ has lasting consequences. This is a welcome development, and yes, a natural progression or danger escalation towards revealing the Vault plot.

The upshot of this is that I hope that the first five minutes of the next episode don’t produce the sudden fix lacking in this episode, because this particular barrier is worth exploring. As is the idea he will continue to lie about his new situation to Bill, who would appreciate the motivation to hide (from one perspective), but perhaps not in relation to what it means for his role as Senior Danger Vault Custodian with a cosmic reputation for planet saving.

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Doctor Who: Deep Space Mine

Here be spoilers, because I can’t do this otherwise, k?

This Doctor Who episode, Oxygen, was saying a lot but I’m not sure I fully appreciated everything beyond omg zombies in space. The tension, the fear, the slow chase and quick deaths were compelling. Meanwhile, the tech looked satisfyingly advanced while also being reassuringly grimy and industrial and workaday solid.

Message repeats

The most obvious episode with reminiscent space station high stakes is 42, which saw The Doctor similarly putting his physical self on the line to save everyone, plus hugs in the end. In this episode it was a new kind of vulnerability for The Doctor and it mostly worked. Beyond that there’s the rescue mission Sleep No More, which I won’t mention…more…because of the ick monsters.

If I work all day at the blue sky mine…

So, if last week’s Thin Ice was an allegory about slavery, as pointed out by fascinating analysis by Liam Hogan, then this episode puts front and centre capitalism and the commodification of the most basic of all human requirements: oxygen (not really a giveaway, if you remember the title).

Of course, the harder people exert themselves working, the deeper breaths they take, which increases the cost to the workers of the jobs they are paid to do, which in turn acts as an incentive to be less efficient as a breath/cost saving to themselves, thus undermining the entire conceit. Hence management’s solution…a better system would offer incentives for productivity no matter the cost or use of oxygen but there I go, bringing sense into this.

They were space miners, but at least they weren’t aboard the Nostromo.

If the blue sky mining company won’t save me…who’s gonna save me? 

Do we have any space economists out there to run numbers on this? A bit like the ‘almost people’ of the 2011’s The Rebel Flesh these employees are resources to be exploited and discarded when the numbers don’t add up. They are literally wage slave oxygen thieves. The Doctor, again, is there not only to save the day, but to upset the system under which business operates, as in Thin Ice. We really need him in free trade agreements I think, otherwise to quote (again) Midnight Oil: ‘nothing’s as precious as a hole in the ground.’

As a side note, industrial workers in Doctor Who generally might be found in exotic locales, but they don’t do very well life-span wise.

In space, oxygen is money. 

But everything else…

Look, I want to say something like: interesting ideas, but um, science that sh*t, ok? If, on a space station, everything is measured in breaths, what exactly is a breath? How deep, how shallow, by whose lung capacity are averages taken? Can you be an asthmatic miner on a space station like this? And if not everyone is human, then how are breaths averaged? Do people train for work like this, like long distance swimmers or mountain climbers, to increase lung capacity? So many questions, none of them answered.

And after all of that, if suits can do the work remotely, sans bodies, why have people at all? Surely an off world mining gig could be run remotely, like they run huge Pilbara mines several thousands kilometres away in Perth, right now in Western Australia, on Earth?

If humans are needed, then aerating most of the station would be cheaper, more efficient and less prone to issues than only providing oxygen to suits, which I imagine sometimes have to come off anyway for human ablutions, and if you noticed, suit repairs? And if needed management could make them redundant from a central control a la The Satan Pit (but off world). Thus, I am deeply suspicious the writer just wanted the suits joke. To be fair, it’s a good pun, with The Doctor again delivering the survivors to head office to have words, just like in The Almost People.

I was going to be extremely critical of the fade out of consciousness cut away for Bill’s survival, because it looked like a cheap way to skip on exposition and special effects. I say was, because in the end I liked Bill’s coming to balanced with The Doctor’s sight returning. Only then did it make sense.

So, while in space, only The Doctor can hear you breathe, this was but a suspenseful place holder, as The Doctor, Bill and Nardole bide their time before confronting the inhabitant of the increasingly foreboding vault. Let’s hope it’s not a big overture, little show, to quote Xander Harris from BtVS.

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Amusing Me: to be or Knottbee.

Well reader I did it. A couple of posts ago I mused about setting up a blog (or some such) to publish some short story-like things I have stored in my computer from years ago. I can now announce it is done, or at least started. The site, called the Adventures of the Affronted Falcon, found here, is still finding its feet, but five little vignette things have been made public so far. I’m not promoting it (apart from this), thus, it’s just there, being very silly, but I’m having fun and that’s merely one goal.

The good ship the Affronted Falcon.

This format means there is so much more to do, because I find writing like this breeds more writing. There are some basic plot points and characters, but I’ve set it up so it could go on forever. This little dream land is whatever I want it to be, subject to the limits of my site building capacities. The world I’m creating (known as Knottbee Island) can be as lame or as weird or as slightly amusing and certainly as odd as I can imagine and find or create illustrations for.

Heraldry of Professor Impossibilios, scientist and explorer of Knottbee Island.

Thus far I have used parts of stories I already had, just re-purposed and edited, but in the process of doing that I have already written new things for this site. In some moods this could be considered writing procrastination to avoid other writing, but most of this was doing nothing but collecting digital dust as files, so it may as well be out in the world. Maybe something will come of this, because what I do know is that nothing comes of writing just sitting on the hard drive.

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Doctor Who: Wouldn’t You Know It

Initially, I didn’t think I had much to say about the Doctor Who episode Knock Knock, but never fear, notions came to me, because’s there’s nothing quite like a decrepit mansion story.

Leaving the light PG horror aside for a moment, this episode revealed the big theme of this series: barriers. Look at all the ways so far walls and barriers are more than what they seem. In a future human colony The Doctor reveals the walls are robots (that eat sad people). In this episode, the walls are navigable passages for alien wood lice (who eat student people). Maybe the theme is eating people? No. It’s definitely walls, because what’s the big Gallifreyan looking vault door except a barrier?

Student accommodation hasn’t improved.

Beyond the theme, Knock Knock did what I expected it to, arc-wise in that we got more about the vault and suspected inmate, and especially how The Doctor can enter at will. A frenemy is inside? We also got Bill schooled in beginner Time Lord factoids, foreshadowing that regeneration thing we all know is coming.

If you can have alien tree people you can have alien wood lice. #justsaying

Let’s return to the horror. This is your basic Old Man Landlord isn’t an alien/ghost at all story, featuring an actual mention of Scooby Doo and a bunch of plucky young people. David Suchet was menacing, while the reveal about his motivation was a nice touch. It formed a neat counterpoint to the Doctor (not-your-grandfather) Bill relationship.

We learn too that the Sonic Screwdriver still doesn’t do wood. Yet again an old house lends tension to story, just like in Hide, Blink, Pyramids of Mars or Image of the Fendahl from way back when. And yet again wood people need help to help themselves, like in The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe, which was also a story about mothers and their children. So many parental issues going on.

There you go, an atmospheric, but simple enough story doing a lot of work. Not sure about the return of the students, but still, good work.

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Review: Galactic Families

Yes, tis I, reviewing Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2. I’d heard bad things and good things about this second instalment. I’m pleased to report while there are criticisms to be made, this is a surprisingly upbeat, nay almost saccharin outing for Star Lord et al.

There were tears and revelations and CGI characters that looked better than the effort in Rogue One. Mostly, however, the tears were mine. Imagine a bespoke spaceship family comprised of ne-er-do-wells and troubled veterans of trauma and no it’s not Firefly, but it could have been, except for the aliens.

Guardians 2 hit all the sweetest notes. Often loudly. 

What I’m trying to say, is that GoTGV2 is so overt in its psychology I’m surprised Freud didn’t get a I am Groot credit at the end. Everything obvious and blatant, including a parent called Ego. I mean come on. Then there’s the will-they-won’t-they romantic element that’s called out with 80s TV references, and yet still works. And that’s the film. All the characters discover, almost to the point of saying out loud: love is the answer and family is everything, including the source of powers as well as their deepest vulnerabilities.

Everyone agrees, Rocket is awesome. 

And yet despite all of this, I can’t loathe this film. As an apparently sophisticated story-teller I had it drummed into me that telling is wrong and wrecks stories but Guardians V2 is not ruined. This is because the characters are just doing what they do too well. Peter Quill gets all his heroic moments, while also being the human heart of the film. Drax is note perfect in his combination of bathos and literalism that shows up Quill’s (and by extension all humanity’s) un-deconstructed biases. Meanwhile, Rocket is the Martin Riggs Lethal Weapon to Quill’s more reasonable personality. There’s relief for the fact that Gamora is not just a romantic interest as she and Nebula explore their sibling rivalries left over from last time.

Future Groot generations.

What made it, even from the opening credits, was Groot. Baby Groot stole the film. He connected everyone, no matter which group he was a part of. He defined the guardian aspect of this crew, in that he wasn’t just there to be useful in tight places (as young Quill was for Yondu), but had to be taken care of.

Shout out for Sean Gunn’s Kraglin too. He featured more this time and it was worth it.

I’ve read criticisms of the sound track for being too weak, or lacking number one hits, but even when it was obvious (Father and Son), it worked. It was fun, while also driving the plot, rather than being background to build emotion. I left the cinema simultaneously wiping away tears and wanting to dance.

Criticisms: does every sci-fi world require background ‘robot courtesans’ for literal window dressing? Really? Can we just not?

The plot. Look, most of the plot outside of the family themes doesn’t matter except regarding the stuff related to a sequel. The Ravager sequences were a sidebar and mostly undeveloped. It would be good if those characters who featured in these bits returned to do some telling of their own. The scenes where we learn more about Yondu’s history felt rushed (even in a long film) like there was exposition missing between him being a respected outlaw and him being outlawed by the outlaws. But for the overall effect, it doesn’t matter. It all mostly makes sense in the multiple endings. Don’t leave before the credits finish, is what I’m saying.

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