Leonardo Da Vinci

Walter Isaacson’s biography of Leonardo Da Vinci is wonderful. It’s long, but it needs to be. It’s given me an appreciation of the master’s life, work and political context (you think ours is turbulent), but also takes care to present alternate theories regarding the more mysterious aspects of Leonardo’s life and work. Above all, it humanises a figure that could so easily be merely revered. It spoke to my intolerance towards the notion that geniuses get a free pass because they’re “better”. Isaacson both increased my wonder at his achievements, and confirmed that was as human as any of us.

Cover of the print editionhttp://www.davincibio.com

If all we had of Leonardo was the body of work that he actually finished, we’d still think him the preeminent genius of his age, the archetypal Renaissance Man. But the legion of works that he either lost interest in, abandoned out of dissatisfaction, or merely planned in his voluminous notebooks shows the scale of his genius. By far the most common phrase in the book is some version of “mainstream science wouldn’t make the same discovery for 200 years” when referring to some rabbit hole Leonardo fell down with all the rigour of modern science, recounted with history’s best-illustrated notes. Furthest ahead is his discovery in the fifteenth century of how the heart’s aortic valves close—science didn’t catch up until 1960.

There are indications that Leonardo had plans to publish at least some of his momentous findings, and Isaacson notes previous biographers’ frustration that he did not. Civilisation had to wait, needlessly it seems, for Newton to articulate his Third Law of Motion 200 years after Leonardo. We had to wait centuries for Copernicus and Galileo to demonstrate heliocentric planetary motion. And as an anatomist, Leonardo was—yes—centuries ahead of his time. The list is too long. If he’d published, we’d have had a head start in all these fields, but Isaacson argues that his search for knowledge for its own sake, the indulgence of curiosity, is what led Leonardo to any and all of his wondrous contributions in the first place, and if you want some solid artefact that encompasses it all, you have it: the Mona Lisa.

Isaacson spends time discussing all his paintings in turn, from commission through to completion (if they were completed), but saves the best for last, justifying it chronologically with the fact that, though it wasn’t the last painting he started, he was still working on it when he died. Through all the discussions, he illuminates the art history of the period along with Leonardo’s innovations—the sfumato blurring of lines, his creation of new types of oils and materials. But the Mona Lisa is the culmination of all Leonardo’s works, not just in art but in science and engineering. He knew from his obsession with optics, for instance, that some of the light striking the paint would be reflected back, but also that some of it would penetrate the oil, instead being reflected by the white base beneath, back through the paint from behind, making sections seem to glow. He knew that the periphery of our vision is not only blurred, but sensitive to a different range of wavelengths, which is why Lisa smiles thinly, if at all, when you look directly at her mouth, but broadly smirks when you look in her eyes. It contains wonders that only his obsession with perspective, nature, engineering (particularly flowing water), anatomy (he catalogued the human lips’ hundreds muscles, and it was worth it for that smile), and so on, and so on.

And, of course, we do have his notes. Thank God. Isaacson ultimately recommends that we all keep notes and lists in the same manner. In fact, the book finishes with a list of practical steps we can all take to be more like Leonardo in our openness to discovery and insight. It’s part of the thesis that he was no genetic freak, but just a man who diligently honed his powers of observation, and rigorously indulged his curiosity. (A parallel in the case of a modern genius is musician, Prince: the few completed pages of his memoir reveals a similar list-making technique as a key tool in realising his stratospheric ambitions).

All I knew before about Leonardo Da Vinci was that his name is shorthand for unattainable genius. Isaacson simultaneously reveals that, while his accomplishments are far greater even than I had ever guessed, he is also something better: an inspiration, and a challenge.

I’ll definitely read Bercow’s memoir

Can’t wait for this. A tell-all, indiscreet account of recent UK politics from Brexit-celeb and incendiary Speaker of the House, John Bercow? Oh, yes, please. Anything that helps make sense of Parliament, to be honest, and I think it’ll be a barnstormer.

I’ve got this list too, also from the Guardian, of books that might illuminate the workings of Westminster.

Many things are making this a bonkers epoch, and my myopia is a small contribution that I hope to somewhat lessen. Wish me luck.

Deleting Social Media Accounts

I just finished Jaron Lanier’s book, Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, and I found it so convincing, that I deleted my Twitter accounts immediately.

Everyone knows they sell your data, but Lanier goes further and explains how, purely in the name of ‘engagement’ with advertising, the algorithms engage in massive-scale behaviour-modification. None of the humans behind these corporations are acting in order to degrade social discourse, at an individual or society-wide level, but that’s the side-effect.

The solution is to abandon the advertising model and actually pay for services, thereby removing the need to modify user behaviour. He also points to LinkedIn as somewhat immune, thanks to its focus on professional, rather than purely social, engagement (you’re not competing for popularity). I’ll leave my LinkedIn account where it is, then, just update it more.

It’s only been a couple of days as I post this, but already I’m aware of my urge to narrate my day and inner monologue on Twitter, and the freedom I’m gaining by not bothering. If I want to share Billie Lourd’s piece for Time about her mother, Carrie Fisher, or my love for Michael Kiwanuka’s new album, I can write a blog post. It might force me to be more considered about it, and if I can’t be bothered, then there’s no loss to humanity if I simply don’t.

No one reads this blog, true, but then no one read my Twitter, and taking the time and space to organise my thoughts is more valuable to me than the addictive posting of half-formed musings in a needlessly provocative, attention-seeking tone.

Here’s Lanier’s page about his book.

Mulholland Drive

Poster for Mulholland Drive
Poster and link with Wikipedia article

I don’t know what in the hell is really happening in Mulholland Drive. Maybe nothing is. Screenwriting manuals would lead us to believe that what it does is invalid, that it could never hold an audience’s attention, let alone its empathy. The fact that it is often voted best film of any given period (the decade, the 21st Century, etc.) belies that. I just watched it for the second time, the first having been in theatres when it was released in 2001, and I can report that I found it as gripping and powerful as all those polls suggest.

Lynch’s films and TV shows are often detective stories, and in interviews he has spoken of the fact that we are all detectives, trying to figure out, in general and specific terms, what is “going on” in life. Part of the allure of his work is the sense that something most definitely is going on, even if we can’t quite divine it.

Mulholland Drive, more than Lost Highway, say, or Inland Empire, signals to the audience that there is a definitive answer to be found. Some elements scream, “Clue!”—like Betty calling Hollywood “this dream place”. The first DVD release came with a card with “David Lynch’s 10 Clues to Unlocking This Thriller”. I believe this is the game we’re meant to play. We participate.

Critics and analysists have argued for and against what seems to me to be the obvious reading: the first two hours are Diane’s dream/ fantasy, where Betty is a role she has invented for herself; the last twenty minutes less so—still not “reality” perhaps, but more memory (however subjective) than invention. Lynch is a well-known fan of the ’39 Wizard of Oz, and there’s definitely a sense in that last fifth of, “…and you were there, and you were there…”. For my money, the fact Betty vanishes just before Rita opens the box, bringing us all out the Dream Place, shows that the dream’s logic has finally broken down and can’t continue. Since Melissa George is Camilla in the dream, there’s no one for Laura Elena Harring to be. The dream gets to the point where it has to solve the mystery, and it can’t, so it’s “time to wake up, little girl.”

Plenty of people would tell me I’m wrong, but that’s okay, because the film is a game to play, not to win. It is also a compendium of astonishing moments: sexy, violent, funny (laugh-out-loud hilarious, actually), scary, and ultimately heart-breaking. You don’t need to know the reality of Diane’s story to know that it’s unbearably tragic.

I can’t explain it, but I love it.

Jodie Whittaker as Dr. Who

Jodie Whittaker as Dr. Who

Great, isn’t she?

You wouldn’t dare suggest that she doesn’t deserve it, doesn’t own it. And thank God, because as a white cis-male I’m getting pretty sick of all the white cis-males who blithely assume they’re the master race. I know I carry that assumption, too, and it still informs my actions and attitudes, but I’m ready to admit I have a problem.

Female Dr. Who is just what we need (along with a mountain of other stuff) right now, and thank God she nails it.

It even made me go back to the last two episodes of Christopher Eccleston’s reign, which is where I’d given up when I last tried to catch up. Knowing Whittaker lay in the future gave me the faith to carry on into David Tennent for a couple of episodes.

I still don’t think I’ll ever be excited about Dr. Who. I thought Peter Capaldi was an inspired choice, but only watched his first episode. I enjoyed it, but not enough to watch any more. I can’t wait for Whittaker’s third, though.

I’m excited about her.

Mad Max: Fury Road

Previous instalments:
   Holy fuck.
   I’m really, really mad at myself: if I’d been up to speed with the three others when this came out, I’d have seen it in theatres, and I’d have gone back to see it as often as I could. And then again for the black and white version.
   It’s an adrenaline-charged epic, so cinematic there’s literally a version where they’ve removed the dialogue entirely. The villain (a wonderful Hugh Keays-Byrne—also Toecutter in the original) is Palpatine and Vader in one. And the machismo takes a back-seat to a femme-led fable three years before #MeToo enabled, say, anti-misogynist Gillette ads.
   Much has been made of the fact that Max isn’t actually the lead character, that honour going to Charlize Theron’s marvellous Furiosa, but it’s a wonder anyone was surprised: this is how these films go, at least since Road Warrior. Max helps other characters achieve their goals, but he never shares those goals. In the lauded Mad Max 2, he discovers that he’s actually the decoy in the plan, rather than the heroic custodian of the “guzzoline”. He takes no shelter with the resulting Northern Tribe, or in the ruins of Sydney after his dalliance with Thunderdome. The flicker of empathy still within him is only ever briefly rekindled; he always chooses to revert to the lone scavenger, nursing his demons.
   It’s great for a franchise, because he’s a character that can continually reset. Unlike Bond, Max can convincingly play out the same transition, from selfish loner to selfless hero, in every film. He gets to be Rick from Casablanca again, and again, and again.
   Brilliantly, this one also makes clear that, in addition to the Max of films 2 and 3, where the viable pockets of civilisation he’s helped establish revere him in legend, there have been groups he’s tried to help, but failed. “You left us for dead!” one memory incessantly tells him. It explains both his need for “some kind of redemption” and his unwillingness to commit to the current cause beyond its immediate crisis.
   It’s really the only thing that makes him “mad”: being a loner in a world where even the other loners jump at any chance to band together. It’s also what lets him help so many people, even if they get to be the real protagonists.
   All this is happening so effortlessly, many have assumed the plot and characters are thin, and it’s only the monstrously brilliant action that sustains interest. People originally made the same mistake with Star Wars, assuming all you needed to recreate its magic was some spaceships. Just see the miserable failure of all its imitators to give the lie to that. Nope, there is depth here—it’s just not explained to you in dialogue like you’re an idiot. And it’s told through, yes, the greatest action ever filmed, period. I bet the Michael Bays of this world assume that no one can do carnage and mayhem like them, but here’s a real filmmaker (just about everything Miller has touched since Thunderdome, from Lorenzo’s Oil to Happy Feet, via Babe, has been recognised at the Oscars) beating them hands down at their own game. It’s an astonishing film just to look at. And look at again. And again.
   This is next-level stuff. Visceral. Primal. Essential. I’m buying it.

Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome

Previous instalments:
   If Road Warior is the series’ Wrath of Khan, Beyond Thunderdome is its Search for Spock: pretty good, with some inspired moments (chiefly Thunderdome, itself), but not quite of the same calibre. For one thing, it’s far more stationary than the other entries. Not until the very end to we get the patented vehicular chase/ ballet, and even then our heroes are literally on rails.
   Also, as much as I love him, I wish they hadn’t cast Bruce Spence. The series’ general avoidance of dialogue left me confused for a long time about whether this was the same character he played in the previous movie (it’s not). This is more than just irritating, because it’s an essential point of his character (which I’ll get to properly) that Max never again meets the people he helps.
   It’s very enjoyable, though, and Tina Turner is surprisingly good.
   Having seen the original trilogy, then, I was free to see what all the fuss was about surrounding Fury Road.

Mad Max 2, aka The Road Warrior

Previous instalments:
   This is the one I’d seen, back when Alex Cox introduced it for Moviedrome. I remember enjoying it, but it’s action was much curtailed by the 4:3 crop—much of the exquisite choreography comes from the framing of cinematographer, Dean Semler.
   More importantly, I didn’t particularly relate to Max, himself. He’s supposed to a cypher but, not having seen the first one, I found him too blank. Seeing it in the proper sequence really helped. The film is purposefully stripped down to the bone, with everything from its plot to its production design as sparse and barren as the outback landscape, and nowhere more so than the character of Max. It helps enormously, though, to know that he’s arrived at this point from somewhere.
   I think the first film is nowhere near as good, and is a bit of a different beast from all the others, but it’s very much worth watching, if only to get the most out of this entry: the template and ideal for future episodes to aspire to.
   It’s way ahead of its time, with outrageously exciting action chases, air-tight world-building, and great action-movie acting from Gibson and Bruce Spence. Gibson’s performance in particular has the confidence of an international superstar, rather than the embryonic potential on display in the original. Little wonder he went on to become MEL GIBSON, and that there was an appetite for yet more madness from Max.

Mad Max

Previous instalments:
   I think I was put off the first Mad Max because it seemed a bit too nasty for me. I was worried I’d be scared, frankly, when my pal’s big brother started raving about his VHS copy. Later, I thought it was merely a revenge-rampage movie, with the murder of the hero’s wife and child the incitement. That didn’t sound very enjoyable.
   It also seemed, from small clips and stills I’d seen, much cheaper and less stylish than the BDSM desert of the sequels, so influential that it became the default for all future movie post-apocalypses, just as Bladerunner’s Tokyo-on-steroids became the default future-noir.
   I was surprised to find that the revenge rampage comes very late in the movie. Most of it is an action police procedural set in the near future, this side of the apocalypse. It’s full of paperwork, bureaucracy, and struggles with work-life balance, admittedly spread between brilliantly staged chases, and, yes, a nasty encounter for some bystanders we’re left to assume involved rape.
   The first sequence with Max’s wife, Jessie (Joanne Samuel) packs in so many traits (she plays the sax, she knows sign language) that I assumed this was all we were going to get before she meets a horrible, but caltalytic, fate. But George Miller and fellow writers, James McCausland and Byron Kennedy, are far more interested in her than that.
   “I’ll be alright… as soon as I get it straight in my head.” That’s how Max explains to her his trauma at pal and partner, Goose, being burned to near death by the evil gang. It’s a better written scene than it has any right to be, with an implied apology for getting himself traumatised in the first place.
   Indeed, rather than being spurred to get even, Max wisely surmises that it’s a fairly shit job he has at Main Force Partol, and quits. On the road to the sanctuary of a friend’s farm, there’s another nice moment where Max tries to express the depth of his feeling for Jessie. In short, their relationship gets much more attention than we need just to set up some ultra-violence.
   The first time she’s terrorised by the Evil Biker Gang, I was still thinking, “Here we go: brutalised and killed in a way so horrible as to inspire a homocidal rampage in our ‘hero’”. I was wrong, though. She gets the better of the gang’s leader, Toecutter, via calm ingenuity and sheer guts. Making her escape, she stops the car long enough to order Max into the passenger seat, Sarah Connor style.
   The second time they try to abduct her, she escapes again, while Max is running off in the wrong direction. The only reason she’s eventually caught is because Max has failed to repair the car (she’s teasingly called him Tarzan at his ineffectually tinkering). And, in the end I was spared the horrible rape I was dreading. They run her over, which is brutal enough, but Miller films it with a discretion that avoids lingering on gore and focuses instead on the grief of the survivors, much to the film’s benefit.
   Which is all to say, I’m far more comfortable with the treatment of Jessie than I thought I was going to be.
   The ensuing rampage by Max—now Mad, at least in the sense of being extremely miffed—is quick, and not terribly satisfying. (Toecutter, like some of the earlier baddies, dies not by Max’s hand, but simply crashes his bike.) I’m not sure if that’s intentional or not. The chatter on the police radio suggests that Max, with his stolen V8, will not be welcomed back to HQ, or civilisation in general. In a reverse of, say, Get Carter, where Carter has gone way too far to get out alive, but is nonetheless ecstatic when he finally kills his man, Max gets to live, but only as a lost, tormented soul. That’s the assumption, anyway, confirmed two years later with the arrival of the first sequel.
Next: Mad Max 2

The Road to Fury: an appreciation of Mad Max

I’ve wanted to see Mad Max: Fury Road since it came out in 2015. Everyone loved it, and its nomination for Best Picture at the Academy Awards broke ground for unashamed action movies the way Lord of the Rings did for fantasy FX movies. The only problem was, of its predecessors I’d only seen Mad Max 2, aka The Road Warrior, and that back in 1992. So, for the last few years I’ve occasionally scanned the various streaming services, looking for the earlier instalments. I’ve even flirted with buying them.
   Then, last week, I noticed that films 1–3 were on Amazon Prime Video, and Fury Road was on Netflix. Here we go, then.