tiny stars

Adaptive optics gets better all the time at sifting out noise and interference from beams of light, as the actuators and sensors involved become more responsive and the number-crunching gets faster. But after getting itself established in large-scale sciences like astronomy, where firing lasers into the upper atmosphere to create temporary guide stars isn’t a novelty any more, AO is starting to turn up in applications at the opposite end of the scale.

Last month I spoke to a team at Oxford University who are using AO in super-resolution microscopy, a technique which already tweaks the optics to peer more closely at a specimen than the physics normally allows, and which might soon be able to peer even harder.

And in Maryland, a group at the medical research institute founded by Howard Hughes is applying the astronomers’ macro-scale approach to fluorescence microscopy, creating guide stars only few microns across in the brains of live zebrafish embryos. Those particular embryos are conveniently transparent, but even so it’s an idea to conjure with.

down the tubes

A review for Critic’s Notebook of Pioneer, Erik Skjoldbjærg’s conspiracy story set at the start of Norway’s economic miracle in which deep-sea diver Aksel Hennie gets on the wrong side of history. The thriller aspects require the odd car crash and hallucination, although none of that stuff is as interesting as the bits involving actors climbing in and out of decompression chambers in ratty knitwear, looking suitably harassed. Stephanie Sigman turns up, an intriguing piece of casting that the film makes no effort to turn into anything at all; but she wisely opts not to climb in and out of anything,

grey matter

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It’s Brain Awareness Week. So here’s me interviewing a pioneer in neural imaging at Columbia University about how to map whatever’s going on in there.

Pickup on South Street (Sam Fuller 1953)

Pickup on South Street (Sam Fuller 1953)

Art by Guy Peellaert.

the Lars temptation

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A review of Nymphomaniac for Critic’s Notebook. In the audience I was with, Vol I went down reasonably well, not counting the man snoring two rows in front of me. But Vol II tested the public beyond endurance. Guffaws began early, when a very young Joe has a vision of Messalina and the Whore Of Babylon simultaneously; they grew through Charlotte Gainsbourg’s session with two black man who don’t speak English, the actors’ erect members bobbing in the foreground; but their nerve finally failed when P urinates on Joe, a sight that led the row behind me to guffaw with generic British discomfort and a wish to be down the pub.

Personally my nerve only cracked when I realised that Connie Nielsen was going to be in it for about 45 seconds.

brainpower

A couple of recent science interviews by me.

Optogenetics: it’s not just for tiny mammals any more. At least, not if a group from Rhode Island which wants to apply the technique to larger primates is right. A while back I asked them how easy that’s likely to prove. They also decided to examine whether the technique actually works as effectively as some believe; and it seems it really does.

Also: spotting Salmonella from its distinctive laser scattering signature isn’t a new idea, but a device able to analyse the bugs directly on agar plates could cut out a lot of awkward wet chemistry. And it can tell the difference between different strains of the pathogen, which turns out to be pretty critical. Plus it’s called Bardot, so there’s that too.

iRobots

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I reviewed the new-model RoboCop for Critic’s Notebook, a film which proves all over again that film reviewers and film critics do not have the same job. If a reviewer wants to conclude that José Padilha’s reboot is a passable way to spend a Saturday night, that’s up to them. For a critic not to note how the new version turns an overtly blue-collar victim hemmed in by his own conditioning into a noble knight on a motorbike, a new model lawman who gets around his problems by really putting his mind to it, is to leave the job half-done.

Listing all the things absent in the new version misses the point, which is that the old one could hardly be made now in the first place. The original isn’t even in my top three Paul Verhoeven films (a blatant reference to one which is crops up when New Robo rides on the back of a bucking ED-209), but compared to the reboot its willingness to delineate characters by concise gesture makes it practically Jonathan Swift. The new film, squarely of its moment, could certainly not have tackled Clarence Boddicker’s queasy kinkiness, and is inevitably, hilariously, chaste. If it attempted to contain a laden moment like the one where Kurtwood Smith sticks his fingers in a glass of wine and the beefy gangster in the plaid shirt with the thick bushy moustache drinks it anyway, the projector would explode.

The review is at Critic’s Notebook.

red tales

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The greatest sight in The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks (Lev Kuleshov, 1924) is Aleksandra Khokhlova sprinting down an icy Russian pavement in heels, when the film has already had to edit around several motorcycle riders failing to remain upright on the same streets or missing their marks and gliding straight into snow banks.

Actually the greatest sight is Aleksandra Khokhlova all the time. Built like Allison Janney and with a similar knack for making her co-stars appear to be leaning into a strong headwind, Khokhlova gives it everything she’s got even when she’s just standing there. Her down-at-heel grifter and former Countess responds to the latest harebrained scheme from the criminal mastermind living downstairs with a look of resignation that beams straight across the 90-year chasm between her and you: the dismal con is dismally on. Kuleshov’s career included long periods spent pondering the cinematic power of a human face, an understandable area of interest for a man married to the owner of that one.

There’s more to Mr. West than just the faces. Kuleshov puts a few other theories into practice too, nudging events along through various bits of visual shorthand, nested flashbacks, symbolic montage and the occasional upside-down camera. If the comedy wasn’t already dry enough to make the film seem at least partially modernist, the technique would do the job anyway.

A more interesting question is whom exactly the joke is supposed to be on. Mr. West, a visiting American under the impression that Bolsheviks are thuggish inbreeds waiting to hack him into small portions with sickles, duly attracts his own worst fears when he falls into the hands of the Countess and her fellow dingbats. Their over-elaborate plan to fleece Mr. West of his travelling money flies way over the head of West’s moderately useless bodyguard Jeddy, an unreconstructed cowboy who insists on wearing Western gear in a Moscow winter and sits on the roof of a taxi trying to ride it like a stagecoach. Jeddy’s vision of Russia is even more panicky than Mr. West’s, as per a cutaway gag of two fur-clad goons sat around a miserable bonfire while a woman of unclear morality bounces on a hammock waving her legs in the air.

How even-handed Kuleshov is being towards the visiting cowboys and the domestic conmen is open to interpretation. There’s too much overlap between Mr. West and the output of the silent comedy production lines churning away in Los Angeles for Kuleshov to have been disdainful of what was going on over the horizon, but the bits of US-style business that he appropriates feel more like pastiche than homage - not least because they’re not all that funny. People in authority stay mostly un-mocked, straining the ties with the American model even further; but this might be less of a mystery. Lenin was gone by early 1924, and creative types must have spotted that the forecast for continuing experimentation and free play in the arts was looking cloudy.

So instead Mr. West contents itself with a well-practiced comedic straw man, and puts its efforts into making Mr. West a credulous twit who can hardly have made his wealth through street smarts. And Jeddy is just a buffoon, waving his pistol at passers by and at one point lassoing a policeman in order to wrangle him like a steer. Clearly both visitors are in desperate need of exposure to authentic Bolshevik principles.

Eventually they see the light. Mr. West is disabused of the notion that Russian culture lies in ruins and resolves to put a picture of Lenin on his office wall. Jeddy, having taken the cowboy outfit off in an early gesture of détente, shows his boss a real Bolshevik, pointing out a state policeman whose profile is carved from granite and whose smile foresees no coming years of torment or chronic shortages of shoes.

Suitably reassured, Jeddy puts the cowboy outfit back on and seems all set to be assimilated into Russian society without touching the sides, via the companionship of a pretty American expatriate he once saved from muggers. The pair even adopt kittens. Meanwhile the grifters end up behind bars; the Countess doesn’t look too bothered to be out of business, but the limitless supply of lookalike gangs lurking in every urban rat-hole suggests that the police department still has aristocrats left to sweep up.

Someone in a position to know all about the doings of that department as well as all the other ones turns up in person right at the end, when Kuleshov’s comedy smacks straight into a snow bank of history. The climactic montage of collectivist endeavour includes a glimpse of Leon Trotsky, presumably unaware that his own extraordinary adventure was about to take a turn for the worse.

possession of noses, possession of gonads, possession of life

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I reviewed the recent Arrow Films Blu-ray release of The Long Goodbye for SoFilm magazine, a disk that was already groaning under the weight of laurels before I got there.

Watching 1970s Robert Altman films in pristine remastered condition is a disconcerting experience if your main memory of them involves peering at a 35mm print through accumulated scratches and tears, and makes Elliott Gould’s dishevelled version of Philip Marlowe seem to be beaming in from some discarded corner of last month. But unease and alienation are back in business again, so Altman’s queasy, flexible films are due one of their cyclical rises in visibility, the better to spot that he always knew what he was talking about.

Arrow’s disk includes a new printed interview with Alan Rudolph, and the 1994 Channel Four documentary about Altman to which Rudolph contributes. At least as interesting a film maker as his mentor while being roughly ten times harder to find, any sighting of Alan Rudolph merits a laurel in my house, where The Moderns is available to be piped into every room like oxygen.

The review is in issue 3 of SoFilm, dated January 2014.