The Unknown Known

Francine Stock hosts Q&A with director Errol Morris at Olympic Studios
Francine Stock hosts Q&A with director Errol Morris at Olympic Studios

A few nights ago I was fortunate enough to get to see a preview of Errol Morris’ film The Unknown Known (2013) at the lovely Olympic Studios cinema in Barnes. The film is a documentary in which Morris interviews Donald Rumsfeld about his career and political decisions. It focuses mainly on his second go round as Secretary of Defense under GW Bush (2001-2006), but his early career and first appointment by Ford (1975-1977) are also discussed. Continue reading

A new hobby

Last May I went to the Copenhagen beer festival with friends. We had a great time at the festival and at Fermentoren, and I managed to stay in touch with some lovely people that we met from a Norwegian brewery called Nøgne Ø. The webshop manager told me that they actually sold beer kits. Brewing was something I’d vaguely considered trying for years, but I’d never really understood what exactly was involved, despite having spoken to a few homebrewers. That all changed when I got the complete starter kit from Nøgne Ø and brewed my first all-grain batch of beer.

I like it but it needs to be aged more
I like it but it needs to be aged more

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This is just to say that this blog has not yet died. I’ll be posting at least a few times a month in the new year. I’ll be writing about film, books, and literature, and maybe I’ll start writing a bit about technology.

The 50 Best Album Opening Lines

I haven’t written much about music because I haven’t been listening to much but the same old stuff I’ve listened to for years. Case in point, today I was listening to Nirvana’s In Utero (1993; can you believe it’s been twenty years?!). The satisfying dissonance of the opening chord of “Serve the Servants” kicked in, and I thought a thought I always think when I put it on: what a brilliant opening line. “Teenage angst has paid off well. Now I’m bored and old.” It serves as a sort of idiomatic update, a response almost, to the equally powerful opening line to an album almost thirty years before it: the UK edition of The Rolling Stones’ Aftermath (1966), which opens with “Mother’s Little Helper” and its unforgettable opener: “What a drag it is getting old.”1 Continue reading

  1. The US release of Aftermath has a different but equally familiar and assertive opening: “I see a red door and I want it painted black.” []

Automation automaton

I’ve been thinking today about automation. Most people I know do not put much effort into automating tasks, even those that are rote, tedious, and time-consuming, because of an implicit but untested assumption that the work involved in automating a task would outweigh any time savings. I seem to have the opposite problem, in that I like automating things even when it clearly does not save me any time. In my mind, this is laziness, but to others it is assiduity (or maybe just weirdness). Others view the work spent on automating something as difficult, so they have a high threshold before they automate things, whereas I view repetitive tasks as difficult, and have a very low threshold for automation. Continue reading

The Turtle Diary

Last week I read Russell Hoban’s The Turtle Diary (1975) which I quite liked. It’s an understated study of loneliness and a search for meaning in London in the 1970s, and many of its concerns remain of unwelcome relevance to today’s Londoners, however drastically the city has changed in the past four decades. The novel’s protagonists are two solitary characters, William H., a divorced man working at a bookshop, and Neaera, who writes and illustrates children’s literature. In an unlikely coincidence, both become convinced that they need personally to liberate sea turtles at the London aquarium. Despite having hardly spoken to one another, they also simultaneously intuit that the other is having precisely the same thought. Continue reading


Prisoners (2013) is an abduction thriller which, despite some implausibilities, is a reasonably good film. It is well-crafted throughout and not without surprises, though it’s not particularly original in either its themes or content. To begin with, Jake Gyllenhaal plays what is becoming a bit of a type for him—namely the troubled, ineffectual cop obsessed with a grisly investigation—in films like Zodiac (2007) and End of Watch (2012). Spiritually, and in a few of its particulars, Prisoners is a cousin to films like Frailty (2001), Kill List (2011), and especially The Vanishing (1988). I won’t spoil these films for you if you haven’t seen them, but if you have, don’t fret: serious, suspenseful and unpleasant as Prisoners can be, it’s more mainstream and lighter than these films. It’s also somewhat better constructed than the first two.1 Finally, the film is familiar in that it centres on that most archetypal incarnation of evil in film since Fritz Lang’s M (1931): the child kidnapper and murderer. In this respect, it’s part of an interesting trend in the depiction of crimes against children. On the one hand, the film depends on the revulsion that this type of villain generates in a rather straightforward way. On the other hand, like M and several other recent films, it at least raises questions about the damage done to society by making exceptions for certain crimes by presenting retributive violence as acceptable. Continue reading

  1. The Vanishing being a brutally effective masterpiece that would be hard for any film to surpass. []

Grizzly Man

Last night I saw Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man (2005). Knowing little beyond the basics (a man lives with bears and they eat him) I found it quite surprising. I was expecting Timothy Treadwell to be an extreme or even insane environmentalist, but what really struck me is how completely normal he is: he’s a stereotypical modern westerner. However outlandish his foray into Alaska, he ended up there for mundane reasons: he was living a directionless life, working menial jobs, depressed and a worsening alcoholic, and needed meaning in his life. The headline for most people, of course, is his odd life and dramatic death, and Herzog chose to focus on the footage he left behind—for its great unintended beauty, out of finding in Treadwell a kindred directorial urge, and for the inner turmoil (at times Kinski-esque) that sometimes boils to the surface in Treadwell’s monologues. But what struck me the most was how utterly unexceptional Treadwell was in most regards. It’s not that this desire to go rogue or native might afflict anyone bothers me (I’d welcome it if people were a bit, or even drastically, more unconventional), but rather that such an extraordinary outcome had such common causes. Continue reading

La grande bellezza

This week I saw La grande bellezza (2013) at the Barbican, and thoroughly enjoyed it. As seemingly every review has remarked, it is deeply reminiscent of Fellini. Although it would be difficult to ignore Fellini as the film’s spiritual forebear and a major influence, Sorrentino’s film feels novel, never derivative. It falls somewhere between La dolce vita (1960) and Holy Motors (2012), but it’s more uplifting than either. Continue reading