Silent Movie (with Live Musical Accompaniment) Double Feature

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Of all the arts activities that I might have expected to be in plentiful supply when I moved to Inverness, silent films with live musical accompaniment weren’t one of them. I’ve seen half a dozen different films over the last year, and rarely has their live accompaniment been anything as prosaic as a piano. Whether a klezmer band, electronica, a woodwind collective or a jazz trio the performances I’ve seen haven’t been afraid to innovate or push boundaries in interpreting silent movies and the screenings have been universally packed.

I’m personally of the opinion that the best way to watch silent film is with live musical accompaniment. There’s something about live interpretation of a film in music – whether in fitting a pre-prepared score to the film as it spools along, or improvising as they go – that gives silent film a vibrancy that seems to get lost in the cold crispness of a DVD transfer and its pre-recorded soundtrack. Something of the mutability and fragile wonder of the early years of the medium restored to the viewer for a short while.

The first film of my double bill did actually feature the traditional piano based musical accompaniment. And what a feat of piano playing that turned out to be. The Thief of Bagdad is a two and a half hour epic in the old fashioned sense. Despite his massively influential role in Hollywood during the silent era, I’d never actually seen a Douglas Fairbanks picture before – I’m generally more of a Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy type when it comes to early US cinema – and this film really showcases his legendary swashbuckling charm. Despite its unconvincing dragon – there was a good deal of sniggering in the screening – the other special effects are really quite effective and the action sequences quite thrilling. It moves at a cracking pace – the accompaniment certainly helped keep the pace up – and honestly you’d never have known it was as long as it was, there was never a spare moment to get bored in.

The Graeme Stephen Trio appear to have something of a specialism in the works of German Expressionist Cinema. (This year saw them interpreting Faust in Eden Court for Hallowe’en while last year on the same date they were interpreting The Cabinet of Dr Caligari in Perth. They’ve also won prizes for their scoring of Murnau’s Sunrise and recently completed a new score for Metropolis.) The film itself is every bit as dark and strange as one would expect from a meeting of the source material, the director and the general period. It’s set in that weird late semi-Medieval period that I’ve only ever encountered in German cinema – though perhaps it equates to an actual historic period in central Europe, my mainland European history knowledge goes, Rome, Vikings, defeat of Napoleon, German unification so I may be missing some subtleties – and can’t be entirely certain whether or not it actually existed. I’d always thought of Faust as being a story of a scientist/philosopher lead to temptation by a thirst for knowledge. But actually his temptation here is a much more complex affair which I feel made it a much more interesting film.

It’s interesting to note that while I can easily call to mind numerous German film directors of this period, I struggle to name more than one actor – Conrad Veidt for some reason, those compelling eyes probably – whereas in Hollywood at the same time I could reel off numerous stars but the directors names are unknown to me. Perhaps it says something about the different film cultures in Europe and the States a the time, that there wasn’t really an equivalent of the star system that was so dominant in the US. Or perhaps this is an artificial distinction wrought by the perspective of being more used to looking at European cinema through the lens of auteur theory. That we associate genres with particular genres in early European cinema, whereas in early Hollywood cinema we associated them with stars. Or perhaps my continuing interest in German expressionism in film and in film noir has just skewed my perspective towards a focus on stylistics.

The main thing that these two films have in common – other than having been made within two years of each other – is that they are essentially adaptions of earlier literary sources. While The Thief of Bagdad is quite a loose adaptation, it plays heavily on the idea of the existing mythos of 1001 Arabian Nights to allow it to make use of tropes and motifs from the genre as shortcuts that require no explanation. Faust on the other hand is much more of a straight up adaptation of Goethe’s novel – how close and accurate an adaptation it is, I cannot tell, as I haven’t read the book. The other major commonality between the two films is how they function as morality plays, where a protagonist of dubious morality has to face the very real consequences of his sins to someone he cares for and is given the opportunity to redeem himself.

Pumzi Redux

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Several years ago (six, in fact) I stumbled across the trailer for a fascinating little short science fiction film, set in a post water-wars world. At the time the film had not long since screened at Sundance and the director was hoping that they might pull together funding to make a feature-length version. Clearly that never came together, and having finally seen the full 20 minute short film, I can only be sad that we’ve never got to see more of this world. It’s a beautiful and compelling little film as it is, packed full of hope and heartbreak and as much as it is satisfying and complete as is, it feels like a tantilising glimpse into a rich and complex world of which we only ever brush the surface. We get just enough of this world to leave us wanting more, with so many unanswered questions that I would love to see explored further.

PUMZI from Awali Entertainment on Vimeo.

NaBloPoMo Returns!

Nablopomo is approaching! I wasn’t sure if I was going to do this challenge this year or not, but given how much I enjoyed it last year it seems worth organising myself to do it. For the uninitiated NaBloPoMo is a sibling challenge to Nanowrimo (National Novel Writing Month) where instead of writing a novel during the month of November, bloggers post every day for the month of November. It’s been running for a decade now and while I never do the full challenge, for the last couple of years I’ve been using it as a tool to write more. An excuse to get round to writing all those posts I think about making and never quite get round to. As much as I’ve been much better about writing here this year, I have rather fallen off the wagon of regular writing lately and could do with getting back on again.

When I was weighing up whether I wanted to make a proper attempt at doing the challenge again this year, I decided to make a list of posts I wanted to make – at the point where I had a list of ten posts for here just off the top of my head, I decided that yes, there was definitely potential there. As with last year I’ll be dividing the challenge between here and the food blog – though I have a rather smaller backlog of posts to make for over there this year, apparently my new years resolution of writing more has been going rather better over there…

Storyville September

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So…Summer? That was a thing that happened, right?

Time to dust myself off after the heady whirl of a packed freelancing schedule and get back into blogging I think.

Back at the start of the year I committed to watching 20 feature-length documentaries this year. To say that I’m behind on my target would be…entirely accurate. Circumstances have transpired that I was more behind on my documentary watching than normally. In normal circumstances I watch a lot of documentaries early in the year, have a lull during the summer and then do the bulk of my documentary watching over Autumn and Winter, motivated by both the approaching deadline of the end of the year and the burst of documentaries we always get in the run up to Oscar season.

(Not being in Glasgow for the film festival this year has had more of an impact on my film watching in general than I expected it to. I haven’t completely missed the Glasgow Film Festival in years; last time I missed it was because I was in Berlin for their film festival.)

As so often when I find myself behind on my documentary watching I turned to Storyville for help. My usual experience with watching the Storyville documentaries on the iPlayer is that either there’ll be lots of documentaries I want to watch and I’ll only have time for one, or I’ll have loads of time to watch them and there’ll be nothing at all I fancy. This time however, while the series doesn’t appear to be running right now, there are a bunch of archive documentaries from previous seasons up on their page so I was able to enjoy a few of those.

I hadn’t really given it much thought before, but almost all the documentaries I’ve watched as part of this strand previously have been by or at least about Americans. I only really noticed this time round because the documentaries were rather more skewed towards European topics than I would normally have expected. Given the current political climate, one wonders if this was intentional or just the scheduler unconsciously responding to the zeitgeist.

Smash & Grab: The Story of the Pink Panthers
First up was this odd little documentary about a group of what were, in the early 2000s, essentially the most successful jewellery thieves in the world. Largely by dint of being a rotating cast of criminals – largely from Serbia and Montenegro – working in groups across Europe and the Middle East, having found a formula that worked they applied it everywhere there were high end jewellery shops while the shifting make-up of the teams made it harder for the various police forces to pin down an accurate MO for them. The main focus of the documentary is the campaign to catch them (the Dubai police do not mess around) but there’s a darker more bittersweet undertone to the confessions of members and former members who agreed to be interviewed. (The longing for security and stability almost all of them express, the desperate struggle for survival in post-conflict society, offered not as excuse but as matter of fact explanation of how it was.)

Cod Wars
The oldest of the documentaries on offer, this was a fascinating look at the messy rivalry between the British (specifically the deep sea trawlers out of Hull and Grimsby) fishing fleets and Icelandic coast guard in the run up to and aftermath of the UK joining the European Union. It provides an interesting and really quite helpful perspective on how we ended up with the disaster zone that is the common fisheries policy and just why the east-coast fishing industry has such a fraught relationship with it.

Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer
Despite being on the topic I knew most about, this was definitely the oddest film of the set. A couple of years ago Pussy Riot were quite the phenomena, brightly coloured balaclavas, political punk and show trials all round. Iconic and mysterious. The film is about context as much as anything else, – mostly for the group themselves – explaining the background of the protests and the history of political art and protest in post-Soviet Russia. It also takes the time to give the context of the relationship between the Russian Orthodox Church and the state that explains why the protest was taken so badly by that section of society. (Arguably there was no way it could have been taken well given historical context and the chasm of political difference between worldviews.) Interestingly context as an important part of the effectiveness of political protest is something that comes up a lot in the film. The idea that the audience for the protest has to understand the protest; for the protest to be effective and not counterproductive. Weirdly this idea is most coherently and blatantly stated by the prosecution lawyers who come across in their interview as faintly exasperated as though they are carefully talking around saying, we understand what you were trying to do but this was not the way to do it. (Some of which is undoubtedly respectability politics and some of it has merit.) It’s interesting that what they were trying to do seemingly made more sense to an international audience than it did to a local one.

Russia’s Toughest Prison: The Condemned
Black Dolphin Prison is a contender for the most remote and isolated prison in the world. It is a maximum-security prison, exclusively for murders, in the heart of a forest bigger than Germany and seven hours drive from the nearest city. (Just in case you needed a reminder of how truly HUGE Russia remains.) It has two very different facilities. One for death row prisoners whose sentences were commuted to 25 years in prison, who live in dorms and do manual labour and menial jobs to keep the place running. The other for murders convicted since the death penalty was suspended, who are imprisoned in small bare one or two person cells 23 hours a day, and see the sky from not much larger outside box where they’re allowed to take a walk once a day. It’s a bizarre double-system. Unsurprisingly enough, some of the most interesting interviewees are those who are most unrepentant, most at peace with what they’ve done and who they are as people. There’s a great deal of acceptance that they are all terrible people and they deserve to be punished, though where they stand on whether either of these methods or something else entirely is the best way to punish them, varies wildly.

Arguably the most interesting part of all is the way that prisoners from both halves of the prison, despite living under very different regimes, feel equally incapable of reintegration. The shared belief that it would have been kinder to execute them, rather than make them live with the things they have done, that they are without hope of redemption both internally and externally was both fascinating and horrible.

The Festival of Architecture @InvMAG

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The Festival of Architecture made its appearance in Inverness last weekend. The Building Blocks/Scotstyle exhibition(s) at the Inverness Museum and Art Gallery is a rather unusual marriage of tow thematically similar but vastly differently executed exhibitions. While they are both part of the same festival they are both very different responses to idea of public engagement with architecture. Scotstyle is the more ‘traditional’ part of the exhibition, a travelling display courtesy of the RIAS (the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland) celebrating the 100 best pieces of Scottish architecture from the century since the RIAS was founded – ten from each decade to give a nice spread to the choices. The buildings of choice were nominated by members of the public – before being narrowed down by a panel of experts – and it shows in some of the more esoteric choices on the list – some of the loveliest factories I’ve ever laid eyes on made the grade.

(Although arguably, I’d have more faith in the selection process if not for the picture used to illustrate the University of Stirling. It’s not that I disagree with their assessment that the Pathfoot building is an architecturally interesting building or that it is head and shoulders a better-designed and more pleasant building to study in than its companion across the loch Cottrell. But that the picture used is not of Pathfoot – its of the halls of residences and look, I lived in them as a student and much as I enjoyed that time and appreciate how much money the university has poured into refurbishing them in the decade since I graduated, but the buildings themselves are ugly, uninspiring buildings undeserving of any kind of complimentary architecture prizes.)

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The other half of the exhibition couldn’t be more different if it tried. Interactivity and engaging children with architecture through technology are its watchword. Mostly it uses Minecraft as its gateway encouraging young visitors to explore virtual reality versions of local architecture and then build their own which can then be displayed in the gallery as part of the exhibition. As much as their part of the exhibition was aimed at – and clearly being thoroughly enjoyed by the much younger visitors, numerous grown up visitors including myself had fun with the best use of QR codes I’ve seen yet. Combining the simple – table tennis bats with QR codes printed on one side – and the complex – Ipads with software that translated the codes into 3D animated versions of local landmarks.

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All in all, I’m not sure that the whole exhibition hung together as well as it could have – the two parts were just a bit too disparate – but it was fun and experimental, something a bit different and quirky, and I look forward to future exhibits that develop that experimentation further.

April Sounds

Our first April sound is that familiar gentle hiss and rattle, that warm analogue sound of…audio tape? First there was the vinyl revival, now, on a much smaller scale audio tape is making a quiet comeback. A couple of weeks ago, I stumbled upon a news video about the last audio tape company in the US (possibly the last one anywhere). They originally made blank tapes, but as their competitors started transitioning to making CDs, they bought out their equipment and have slowly cornered the market in tape duplication. Now that nostalgia has given cassette tapes a certain level of cool, they have the skills and the technology to take advantage of the small but steadily growing market of indie bands and movie soundtracks that want to tap into that nostalgia.

(You can watch it here, as the embed doesn’t work on WordPress.

I must admit, that while I do have a certain fond nostalgia for audio tapes, as the audio media of my childhood – particularly the blank tapes with their versatility and ability to be overlaid and re-recorded to your heart’s content – I can’t see myself rebuilding my music collection in audio tapes. But it does please me to think that somewhere out there some fourteen year old is gently fishing a tape out of a tape deck, half its tape spooled out in awkward heaps around itself and being handed a pencil – a nice hexagonal pencil, none of your cylindrical nonsense – and having the vital relationship between the two explained to them. And perhaps more importantly, an apprentice somewhere else is by now learning how to repair magnetic tape and microprocessors at the same time.

Next up is the Sunday Feature from Radio 3 back at the start of the month called Taking it all Back Home. Which is about reuniting the sound recordings that lurk in the archives of various museums and universities with the descendants of the people they came from. Like any kind of cultural repatriation this is a complex and fraught process, but listening to the stories on the important role that these recordings can have in connecting these communities with their own past – especially people from minority cultures whose culture or language may have been actively damaged or destroyed by outside forces – was both deeply sad and rather uplifting. They cannot get back what was lost, but they can use these recordings to inspire and to build upon to create something new that is grounded in what came before it.

I spent a while last winter poking about in the sound archives of the School of Scottish Studies in Edinburgh, paging through old file cards and even older ledgers and listening to ancient recordings. I felt then, as now, the importance of the work done to record a changing culture on the cusp of modernity. And also of the ongoing work, to keep those recordings in circulation. The artists in residence that the School of Scottish Studies has, musicians making new works inspired and shaped by the recordings, by their own history. Listening to some of the contributors speak, I felt as though someone had finally articulated for me, just why I have such a visceral emotional response to the Niteworks tracks that use archival samples.

In the obligatory podcast corner of this monthly update, due to iTunes having a wee hiccup, I accidentally downloaded the entire archive of Gastropod. And spent April listening to the entirety of said backlog. I’ve written about that in more detail over at my food blog, but the relevant part for this blog is that it meant that I unexpectedly discovered a double bill of episodes from Gastropod, exploring the relationship between sound and food. The first episode – ‘Field Recordings’ – looks at how sounds effect crops and agriculture. From the use of highly sensitive microphones to detect weevil infestations in grain stores and using the sounds of caterpillars eating them to stimulate crops to secrete their own insect repellent to ward off other predators, to the rather more esoteric art of playing different kinds of music to plants to make them grow faster. (Plants ‘feel’ rather than ‘hear’ sound much like the way we feel a really good bass line reverberating in our chest cavity.) I rather hoped that there might be more acousmetrics in the research, it would be interesting to see whether industrial noise – such as being under a noisy flight-path – has an impact on crop growth and animal well-being. However there was an interesting section on documenting the range of sounds and calls that barn and factory chickens make and the use of that information to track animal welfare and wellness in their populations. The second episode – ‘Crunch, Crackle, and Pop’ – looks at how sound affects taste. Anyone who has ever had a heavy cold knows that smell affects taste – the way everything tastes bland when your nose is blocked and how much worse cough medicine tastes when you’re on the mend – and the impact of sight on taste is also commonly accepted. (There was an entertaining experiment recently where a bunch of wine critics were fooled into thinking that white wine was red wine by the simple application of food colouring…) It appears to be a largely psychosomatic effect, but nonetheless one with a very definite effect, marine sounds will make seafood taste more fishy and playing carefully synced crisp crunches to someone as they eat stale crisps will fool them into thinking they’re fresher. An equally fascinating topic but one with less practical implications than the first episode – unless of course you’re a budding restaurateur looking to build the correct ambience for your new eatery.

Special hat-tip this month to @CherylTipp who is the Curator of Wildlife & Environmental Sounds at the British Library and is a great source of interesting sound projects, articles and other sound ephemera. Lots of the interesting things I post about in this series were either brought to my attention by her twitter feed or discovered down some rabbit hole that started with me following a link from her. You can hear her being interviewed for Source Magazine here.

Sounds Like March

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This month we’re going to attempt to move away from the slight podcast fixation that this section of the blog has developed and look at other interesting sound projects that I’ve discovered lately.

Beep Trailer from Ehtonal on Vimeo.

Alright, so our first item isn’t technically a new discovery, but it is one that’s finally seeing the light of day. I’ve talked before about supporting documentaries on Kickstarter, and this is one of them. Beep is a documentary about computer game sound, both the music and the sound design. It’s a subject that I find absolutely fascinating even if it does exist at a tangent to the kind of sound design I do. For a while there, with the rise and dominance of blockbusters and their heavy-handed, turn-it-up-to-11 school of sound it seemed that all the interesting, subtle work happening in sound design was happening in computer games. While we’re certainly seeing a more nuanced view in cinemas these days, computer game sound design continues to set a high bar for the rest of us. (Perhaps because games designers appreciate the importance of sound and aren’t under the impression that it’s an easy job that anyone can do?)

Anyway, this is one of the documentaries that I supported on Kickstarter and they released a trailer for it recently so I wanted to share the excitement with you. Doesn’t it look good? I’m really excited to see it – see it if you get the chance!

Next up is the latest project from Cities and Memories. I’ve been watching their work with interest – and occasionally submitting field recordings of my own to them – as they do interesting things with field-recordings and remixes that have a very specific sense of place. The latest project was created to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of Dadaism as an (anti)art movement. It really takes their wider work right to its logical extreme. As always with their projects you can explore the works in Dada Sounds either via a conventional playlist or by navigating a map of the pieces that illustrates the variety of places and locations that the field recordings (and artists for that matter) originate from. There are some beautifully weird and fascinating pieces in the collection that are well worth giving a listen to.

It should probably be my new sonic resolution to get more actively involved with one of their projects – they always look such fun.

My third choice for this month does sort of lead up back to podcasts, but the Cities and Memories project meant I couldn’t quite forget about it. Alan Rodi’s excellent music for the Wolf 359 podcast has been a subtle but gorgeous element within the show since the start. As part of the wider soundscape of the podcast, I was aware that the music was, fitting and evocative, but it wasn’t until I was listening to the music on its own (everything’s up on the soundcloud page) that I realised just how beautiful it was in its own right. Most of them are themes and cues that are used at various points in the show but I’d recommend in particular the ‘Am I Alone Now’ suite as a more traditional score suite. And why, you might ask did Dadaism make me think of this man’s gorgeous work? Well, because the latest theme to be posted is called ‘Please No Dadaist Poetry Beyond This Point’.

CRIME: Hong Kong Style @EdenCourt

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The CRIME: Hong Kong Style season of films arrived at my local arts cinema Eden Court this month. While we didn’t get any of the Q&As or introductory talks that appear to have graced its visit to larger metropolises and we certainly got fewer films – in its original incarnation in Manchester there appear to be at least 20 films showing, while only six of them made it this far north – but the selection that we did get were certainly worth watching. A good mix of classics, more obscure choices and recent releases. (Also they did a nifty wee discount ticket if you bought four films at once. I love it when that happens.)

First up, from 1974 was The Teahouse/Sing Gei Cha Low (turns out there have been a lot of Hong Kong films released with an English language title that is a variation of The Teahouse.) It’s a film about found families, communities, crime, corruption and honour. One of the theme’s I found fascinating about this season is that the good guys are regularly stalwart, honourable and brave, and they often don’t win. There’s always a price for standing up to the bad guys. (Is it worth paying they ask? Well, at least in this film, the answer is yes. Our hero loses one family – to protect them – but he finds another.)

My second ‘classic’ film of the season was Police Story (1985). Starring a young Jackie Chan, proving just why he’s an absolute martial arts legend. It adds a certain frisson to the action sequences when you know that yes, that’s actually Jackie Chan swinging from that double decker bus. Yes he did in fact injure himself on that fall. (Yes, I too would re-run that slide down the lights if I’d injured myself that badly shooting it!) The action sequences are brilliant, thrilling and hilarious by turns. The plot doesn’t entirely make sense, but who cares, we’re not there for that, we’re here to watch Jackie Chan kick ass and lose the plot!

As Tears Go By was the film I was most excited to see so naturally that was the one showing the night I got stuck at work and didn’t get to go. Of all the films I could have missed it’s probably the best one though because as a Wong Kar Wei film it’s at least going to be relatively easy for me to track down myself. On the other hand, well, I’m sure Wong Kar Wei has made a bad film at some point, but if so I’ve never seen it, so I’m still a bit gutted to have missed this one.

Last up is the newly released Wild City (2015) the first film in over a decade from Hong Kong crime cinema legend Ringo Lam. Two brothers find their fates entwined with that of a young mainland girl, Yun, whose boyfriend has caught her up in a corruption scandal involving a large suitcase of money and a group of increasingly psychotic Taiwanese gangsters. It’s a proper power corrupts story, as Yun isn’t quite the ingénue she at first appears – she’s been seduced by the same corruption that caused her boyfriend to sacrifice her the way he did – but when the boys mother gets kidnapped, she steps up refuses to stay safe and hidden, playing bait to help them get Mona back. To help put all the players away, not just the ones that have hurt her directly. (Interestingly, almost all of the violence that the brothers perpetrate that isn’t in direct self-defence of themselves and Yun, is done on behalf of their mother. The truly brutal stuff is all for Mona, the gentlest soul in the film.) I liked the whole stand-off between T-Man and his former boss his whole, arrest me tomorrow, let me finish the job shtick was great – and it worked!

All in all a great season of cinema, free of pat Hollywood endings. Hooray for Hong Kong Crime Cinema!

February Podcast Stars

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The end of this month has somewhat snuck up on me. I did fully intend to track down some interesting and different sound projects to talk about this month but it never really happened. But what this month did involve was a lot of podcast listening, so having talked about my favourite new fictional podcast discoveries last month, I reckon its high time I talked about some recent non-fiction podcast discoveries.

99% Invisible.
For years people have been trying to convince me of the joys of This American Life, but I’ve been resisting it. When I first got into podcasts the best part of a decade ago, I really struggled with American podcasts – I found them really disconcerting, something about the accent or the subject matter, I just couldn’t get into them. Listening to podcasts from here in the UK was fine; perhaps because I was used to speech radio as the BBC does it and much of their podcast content is essentially the highlights of their arts and current affairs output. While podcasts from other UK providers in the early days of podcasts, were heavily influenced by – or reacting against – the BBC’s speech radio output. Over time my antipathy to American podcasts has faded – probably as a result of podcasts in general getting more adventurous and coming into their own more – and with my continuing fondness for Welcome to Nightvale and Serial – more about the latter later – I tried This American Life again. I fully accept that this will be considered sacrilege to many podcast fans, but I just don’t feel the love for it. I don’t hate it, it doesn’t annoy me, if I listen to an episode I generally find it interesting, but it just doesn’t compel me to listen to episode after episode.

For me, 99% Invisible fulfils the promise that so many people made me about This American Life. Perhaps its because the podcast started out in its presenter’s bedroom before being pulled into the public radio realm, it retains an idiosyncratic and charming quality that I prefer. (Maybe my interests just align better with that of their production team?) Maybe its because the episodes are shorter, I’m not sure, but somehow they manage to give just enough information to satisfy your curiosity so that even if the subject isn’t fascinating to you, what you learn is still interesting and you don’t have time to get bored. To me they’re little snippets of insight into unfamiliar worlds and the oddities and eccentricities of American life that I would never otherwise have considered.

Gastropod
I love food. My other blog is a food blog. Cooking is my go-to form of stress-relief and I recently became a vegetarian. I have lots of feelings about food.

I’ve been consuming Gastropod irregularly for a while now. Someone recommended it to me and I looked up the website, listened to the soundcloud imbed of the current episode, enjoyed it but had too much of an existing podcast backlog to subscribe. However, I never did close the tab it was in, so over the last year I would occasionally discover it in a tab, browse the latest episodes, listen to one and move on again. I only recently subscribed because I figured that something I kept coming back to and enjoying was worth making time for. It’s the history and science of food and while its not necessarily life-changing, it is certainly perspective changing. The episode titles are quirky, the science is interesting and the hosts are funny and likeable. They get in a whole range of interesting experts and passionate amateurs, and they seem really interested in each topic which I think really helps in terms of making it interesting to the listener.

Serial
Weirdly, given my antipathy towards This American Life, I love this podcast. The same team makes it and the story that kicked it off was at one point intended to be an episode of that show that grew arms and legs. And perhaps that’s the reason that it grabbed my attention. It wasn’t just an interesting real life murder mystery; this story had taken over the reporter’s life for an entire year. (There’s a passion there, that fantasy of the passionate crusading journalist you’re sold as a kid.) There’s something about long-form journalism that I adore. Between the Internet and the 24-hour news cycle we live in, there’s such an overwhelming volume of constantly changing and shifting news. Thousands of tiny sound bites, too much for any one person to take in. Long-form, investigative journalism is expensive and its hard work. Given that the prevailing narrative since I was a student, has been that the internet is killing this kind of journalism; I do take a special pleasure in the fact that actually, the internet has made it much easier for me to find new and varied sources of this kind of journalism and for this kind of material to find an audience. Serial is almost the perfect storm of this, it’s a podcast, its long-form – episodes are anything between half an hour and an hour – and its serialised. The pieces come out week by week, but they aren’t set in stone; the story might branch off in a new direction as new leads come to light. It takes its time, it goes in to detail – in the case of the current series, it will stop and diverge into the history of particular events, places or groups to give the audience backstory that sheds a new light on events in the story, or makes seemingly inexplicable events make perfect sense. It’s not patronising, it assumes that its audience is smart and has a decent grasp of current events, but that this is not their specialist subject. It’s smart, intriguing and compelling listening. Also the presenter/reporter Sarah Koenig has a really listenable, compelling voice. That helps too.

If this month’s listening had a theme, then I think its enthusiasm and passion. They’re all podcasts by people who seem – whether or not they actually are – genuinely interested or intrigued about the subjects they talk about. Whether they’re passionate about discovering the truth or just about learning something new and interesting, they talk to the audience like we should be fascinated too. As though they’re saying to the audience: “You’re smart, but this is complicated, bare with me, this is interesting/important, we’ll get there together and all will become clear.” I like that.

German Sound Design Double Feature

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This edition’s combination of films was almost an accident. I picked out Das Boot (1981) to watch with the intention of writing about it for this feature. I originally intended to make it a double feature with Blue Velvet and it was going to be a straight up ‘sound-design films’ double feature. But somehow, I ended up picking up Das Leben der Anderen/The Lives of Others (2006) in the sale and given that it’s a film all about sound and German too, it seemed a good match.

(When I was studying sound design, many moons ago, in one of our earliest classes our lecturer made a list to which we all contributed two films that we thought had interesting sound. Our ‘Desert Island Sound Films’. As a group we came from all over the world and had vastly different taste in films so it was quite a diverse list. The intention was to screen a film a week and watch them all, but while we started well we never actually finished the list – partly because some of them aren’t available on Region 2 DVD – and I’ve been carrying the list around for the intervening years picking the films off gradually. What do Blue Velvet and Das Boot have in common for me? They’re next to each other on the list.)

We’ll start with Das Boot as I watched that first. Due to there being several versions of the film available, I should state that I did in fact watch the three-hour version. I put off watching it for ages because three hours is a long time to spend on a film that you know very little about. I needn’t have worried, watching the film I quickly forgot how long I had been down there with them. It’s compelling and claustrophobic – the sound does indeed do an excellent and (mostly) very subtle job of building and maintaining the claustrophobia of being in a metal tube under water with lots of other people and sometimes needing to be incredibly quiet. Those sonar pings approaching and retreating; winding the tension tighter and releasing it again. The unseen enemies waltzing around each other, trying desperately to take each other out and not get taken out themselves. There’s a certain element of having grown up with this impression of U-boats as silent deadly death machines – that makes sitting in one on the closest it gets to silent running, trying to hide in plain sight and fear absolutely palpable that makes for an unnerving experience. I’m not sure how much of the subtler tensions between different parts segments of the navy (the old-school career sailors and the new Nazi arrivals and the young, green scared conscripts) are obvious if you don’t have a good grounding in German history. Which is a shame because the interplay of those tensions is a fascinating and compelling undercurrent throughout the whole film.

Das Leben Der Anderen on the other hand is a much more recent film and deals with a much more recent period of history. It is however an almost equally claustrophobic film. Less because it is set in the closed world of East Germany – though that is part of it – and more because the focus is almost entirely on one couple, the Stasi officer assigned to listen to every moment of their lives and the politician whose machinations set the whole destructive dance in progress. The strange mix of incredibly powerful and utterly powerless that defines Wiesler’s existence is both fascinating and terrible. There’s something about the world of the film, so alien, yet so familiar that makes the simultaneous implacability and precariousness of the system really come home to the viewer. Spending so much time seeing Georg and Christa-Maria only through what Wiesler is overhearing only adds to the claustrophobia of the situation, as the audience comes to care for them as he does. As his perfect cold world crumbles, the audience wills him to show mercy and compassion to them even as he and we understand that this will undoubtedly lead to his downfall. It’s a little bit metatextual, foregrounding as it does the inherently voyeuristic nature of cinema, but for me that only adds to the pleasure of the film.

It’s really quite strange to think that Das Leben Der Anderen is set just a few years after Das Boot was made. They seem products of completely different worlds and yet they have quite a few points of commonality. The use of sound to create a claustrophobic closed world, whether that of the U-boat – with its constant thrum of the engines, giving way to silence and the ominous sonar pings – or the bugged apartment – the things that Wiesler hears through his headphones and the constant fear that the inhabitants and visitors to the apartment have of being overheard. Although they are both ‘historical’ films it is less the genre than the way they look at history that they have in common. They are both films that look at points in history unflinching from their very different horrors, but with compassion for the ordinary people caught up in – and in many cases chewed up by – the wheels of historical events outwith their control. And, well, both of them do have endings that break your heart a little bit.