29 January 2012

Michel Hazanavicius’ ‘The Artist’

Five days before The Artist received its 10 Oscar nominations, Eastman Kodak filed for bankruptcy protection, a victim of ‘disruptive technology’. In Kodak’s case the capture of photographic images on film has been largely superseded by the use of digital electronics – a triumph of physics over chemistry. The alternative type of innovation, ‘evolutionary’, could have occurred, but Kodak management was too wedded, after more than a century, to its established ways. By contrast in early 1927 the major Hollywood studios, none having been established for long, formed an alliance to establish one system of sound-synchronised filming. This change was so successful that the last major silent film was made at the end of 1929.

Managed in this way the innovation may have been evolutionary for the studios, but for many of the silent movie stars the change turned out to be highly disruptive. The impact of the talkies on the careers of two artistes provides the theme for the film written and directed by Hazanavicius, together with Wilson Mizner’s* advice to "Be nice to people on the way up because you'll meet the same people on the way down". Jean Dujardin plays George Valentin whose career takes a nosedive when the silents go out, but is rescued by Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo, Hazanavicius’ wife and mother of two) who becomes a screen goddess on the back of the talkies.

It’s a simple, charming, well-acted, lightweight homage to Hollywood back in the days when the sign still said “HOLLYWOODLAND” As everyone knows by now, it was shot in black and white in the old-fashioned Academy ratio (1.33:1) and is mostly silent.  Is it French?  Well up to a point: the money wasn’t French and it was (as far as I can tell) filmed in Hollywood with most of the cast being played by local stalwarts. But that hasn’t stopped it getting 10 nominations for the Césars (the French equivalent to the Oscars).

My ‘Anticipointment Index’ rating? Well, The Artist's certainly had a lot of publicity, but most of it has been realistic. Most people will feel that their expectations are matched by what’s delivered. A good mark, then, of 2 (out of 5, the lower the better).

*Wilson Mizner (1876-1933); American playwright who worked for Warner Bros. He also said: "If you copy from one author, it's plagiarism. If you copy from two, it's research." Which is encouraging for a blog like this one.

26 January 2012

Michel Houellebecq and Bernard-Henri Lévy

Over a meal, either in late 2008 or early 2009, Michel Houellebecq (MH here, sometimes) and Bernard-Henri Lévy (BHL here and everywhere, nearly always) decided to begin an exchange of 28 letters which would run from January to July 2008. These were published in France the following year under the title Ennemis Publics. A translation into English, Public Enemies: Dueling Writers Take on Each Other and the World, became available in the US a year ago, and, under the title Public Enemies, has just been published in the UK. 

BHL is well-known as a philosopher, journalist, activist, and filmmaker and MH is a well-known writer who won the Prix Goncourt in 2010 for La carte et le territoire, published in the UK as The Map and the Territory in 2011. Houellebecq likes to go on the offensive from the start – The Map and the Territory opens with an ad hominem attack on Jeff Koons and Damien Hurst. So in Public Enemies, it’s not surprising that he opened up on BHL and then turned on himself:
We have, as they say, nothing in common - except for one essential trait: we are both rather contemptible individuals.
A specialist in farcical media stunts, you dishonor even the white shirts you always wear. An intimate of the powerful who, since childhood, has wallowed in obscene wealth, you are the epitome of what certain slightly tawdry magazines like Marianne still call "champagne socialism" and what German journalists more astutely refer to as the Toskana-Fraktion. A philosopher without an original idea but with excellent contacts, you are, in addition, the creator behind the most preposterous film in the history of cinema.
Nihilist, reactionary, cynic, racist, shameless misogynist: to lump me in with the rather unsavory family of "right-wing anarchists" would be to give me too much credit; basically, I'm just a redneck. An unremarkable author with no style, I achieved literary notoriety some years ago as the result of an uncharacteristic error in judgment by critics who had lost the plot. Happily, my heavy-handed provocations have since fallen from favor.
Together, we perfectly exemplify the shocking dumbing-down of French culture and intellect as was recently pointed out, sternly but fairly, by Time magazine.
We have contributed nothing to the electro-pop revival in France. We're not even mentioned in the credits of Ratatouille.
These then are the terms of the debate. (pages 3,4)
MH and BHL
a passage which starts to reveal the challenge which the translators (Miriam Frendo for BHL and Frank Wynne for MH) faced. In the original, “champagne socialism” appeared as «caviar gauche» – in France champagne doesn’t carry the class associations it has elsewhere. Toskana-Fraktion was left untranslated from the German, but is a play on Rote Armee Fraktion, usually translated into English as Red Army Faction - the UK’s Toskana-Fraktion would probably include several leftist luminaries with a fondness for Tuscany. The references to “the most preposterous film in the history of cinema” and Time magazine’s stern-but-fair article might have benefited from referencing (here linked), but the translators probably felt they had enough to do, footnoting the large cast of French literary personalities the two authors discuss, eg:
“A l’agité du bocal": essay by Louis-Ferdinand Céline, considered to be inflammatory and anti-Semitic, which was published in 1948 in response to Sartre's article "Le Portrait d'un antisémite" (1945).
It may be that your reaction to that is «bien sûr», or “of course”. If so, you are probably a graduate in French and are well equipped to appreciate the majority of the discourse between these two intellos. Otherwise, if you are just curious about France, the preoccupations revealed in the letters still offer insights into that complex country, spread among the literary introspection. It is also quite amusing to watch two alpha males with such high opinions of themselves making the transition from locking horns to bonding, of a sort.

BHL was born in 1948 and Houellebecq in 1956 (probably), and it doesn’t take long for them to begin exchanging notes on what their fathers did, or didn’t do, during the war, that is to say the Occupation. Neither man shows much interest in post-war Europe or the EU, but both struggle with the experience of France between 1940 and 1945. For example, BHL:
There are the good stars, the astra, which, on the other hand, make you raise your head, look to the sky, especially the sky of ideas: there's the star of the sailors of the Ile de Sein and the humble fishermen of Brest and Saint-Malo immediately joining the Free French; the idée fixe that, despite the shooting and the slaughter, made the inspired soldiers of Monte Cassino rise to the assault, the light guiding the first French pilots in the Battle of Britain through the night as they resisted the fascination - again, starstruck - of what de Gaulle called “the frightening void of general renunciation."
BHL is not one to let facts impede his poetic flow. Readers should make their own minds up about the contribution of the French Expeditionary Corps in Italy and at Monte Casino with the Moroccan Gourniers in particular. But the RAF Roll of Honour for the Battle of Britain recognises 574 pilots from countries other than the United Kingdom, as flying at least one authorised operational sortie with an eligible unit during the period from 10 July to 31 October 1940, alongside 2,353 British pilots. The largest contribution came from 145 Poles – there were only 13 pilots from France. (Similarly, when talking about writers with an espionage background (page 119) BHL cites Le Carré, but also Orwell when presumably he meant Grahame Greene.)

MH takes a grimmer view of the World Wars:
… In going beyond the acceptable in that appalling, unjustified [First World] war, France lost all right to the love and the respect of its citizens; it brought discredit on itself. And such discredit is. I repeat, permanent.
This, it seems to me, explains a lot of things.
The nihilist rage of Surrealism and Dadaism, the surge of fury André Breton sometimes felt at the sight of a uniform or a flag.
The ease with which a generation of working-class people (whose parents and grandparents were probably irreproachable patriots) was convinced that the country of the workers was the Soviet Union and there could be no other.
Finally, the lack of enthusiasm with which the French fought in 1940. When people condemn the spirit of Munich, I always feel a certain unease, because Munich after all was in 1938 – twenty years after 1918. Twenty years isn't much. And I think one has to beware of reading it as ideological. Because the first thought that occurred to most French people in 1940 was not, I think, "The struggle against Nazism has started," but something more like "Here we go again with the Huns."
If I don’t know quite what my parents did during the Second World War, I know even less about what my grandparents did during the previous war. There is, however, a number I remember because it struck me at the time. My grandmother was part of a family that in 1914 comprised fourteen brothers and sisters. By 1918, there were only three left. This is what they call "taking a heavy toll." (pages 113, 114)
MH takes a mordant view of life in modern France as well:
There is also what one might call the France of Denis Tillinac - all local color and duck confit. I had barely experienced it until two or three years ago when, for a variety of reasons, I had to crisscross the country. And I have to admit, Denis Tillinac is right: it is a very beautiful country. The rural areas with their subtle patchwork of tilled fields, open meadows, and woodlands. The villages, here and there, stone houses, the architecture of the churches. Fifty kilometers farther along all this can change completely and you find a different arrangement, just as harmonious. It is incredibly beautiful what generations of anonyrnous peasants through the centuries have managed to create. Ooh-la-la, I feel like I might be losing it; admire a rural landscape these days and you can find yourself being accused of neo-Pétainism. (page 116)
The last is an intriguing comment. The French elite seem to like spending their holidays by the sea (Île de Ré and so forth), areas which were mostly occupied and therefore not part of Vichy France. As the map shows, this 'Free Zone', for reasons of Nazi strategic defence, was essentially inland and rural.

Writing before the current EU economic crisis, Houellebecq takes a jaundiced view of France’s prospects as well:
… Denis Tillinac is right; he is absolutely right to live in this France … but he is wrong to believe that it will disappear and to feel nostalgic about it. Worldwide, tourism is now the largest economic sector and selling points like that don’t just disappear: they're worth a lot of money. This is what young British people have come to look for when they retire after their careers in the City (and now that they’ve grossly inflated prices in the Dordogne, they've started buying up the Massif Central). This is what, with all their feverish, financial hearts, the Japanese and Russian nouveau riches hoped to find, and we gave it to them. They have their raw-milk cheese, the Romanesque churches, they have their duck confit. We will give the same warm welcome to the nouveau riches from China and India.
As an economic activity for France in the future, that will be more than enough. Does anyone really believe we are going to become world leaders in software development or microprocessors? That we are going to maintain a major export industry? Come on . . . We will still have some manufacturing, that's true, mostly in the same sector (haute couture, perfumes, Joël Robuchon packaged dinners). Trains will be another exception; the French love trains.
Does this mean that I meekly accept the new international division of labor? Well, yes, nor do I see how I could do otherwise. The "emerging countries" want to earn money, much good it may do them; we have lots of things for them to spend it on. To put it more crudely, do I really want to turn France into a dead, mummified country, a sort of tourist brothel? … Without a second thought I say YES.
You wouldn't think it, but I have, in a few sentences, just saved the French economy; which just goes to show that our letters are not a waste of time. (pages 116, 117)
MH has his own way of handling BHL who, on 4 April, sends a long letter including an essay on Epicurianism and the nature of chaos – one expects he always got 20/20 for his philo – ending (page 132): "Now it’s up to you to play." Houellebecq begins his reply on 10 April:
… I moved my boxes of books into a house which is not habitable just yet and won’t be for several months, maybe until the end of the year. Here I am, therefore, utterly powerless to respond to your letter in like terms. …
By May BHL and MH seemed to be finding more in common than either expected – as MH points out on 20 May:
… I realised a fact, a small but significant fact: we already have the same enemies. (page 212)
When all this has calmed down, long after we are dead, some future historian will be able to draw some great lesson from the fact that we both, and at much the same time, have comfortably fulfilled the role of public enemies. I don’t feel able to expand on the idea, it's just an intuition, one that still seems strange to me: but I believe that the person who manages to work out why the two of us, so different from each other, became the chief whipping boys of our era in France will, in doing so, understand many things about the history of France during this period. (page 214)
which might make the US title, Public Enemies: Dueling Writers Take on Each Other and the World, a little misleading. The two writers’ concluding letters in July are appropriately elegiac. Houellebecq quotes Schopenhauer
:“We remember our lives a little better than a novel we once read.” To which I would add that we remember our lives less well than a novel we once wrote. (page 300)
BHL has the last word:
Contrary to the famous theory, I don’t believe that it's at the last moment, the last breath, that you rediscover the total memory, fully available to itself, that life has dispersed. I believe it's here and now, at every moment of life, as long as it is really lived. On each page of each book, as long as it is intensely desired. And my premonition, if I had one, would be rather that it's time to start worrying when in reply to the question "What is living?', too many of those books, moments in life, or the faces that accompanied them stop answering the roll call. There's a feeling in return for a feeling, a wager for a wager.
Let's wait and see. (page 303)
At which point it's possibly worth re-reading the article in Time.

19 January 2012

Graham Sutherland at Modern Art Oxford

It wouldn’t be controversial to say that the standing of Graham Sutherland (1903-80) was at a peak 50 to 60 years ago (for example at the 1952 Venice Biennale). Or that he is currently out of fashion and now remembered for his portraiture on display at Tate Britain (left) and in the National Portrait Gallery. Ironically his most famous portrait, that of Winston Churchill, was destroyed early in its existence. The catalogue for the show, Graham Sutherland An Unfinished World, at Modern Art Oxford (MAO) goes as far as suggesting that Sutherland might be regarded as “underrated, forgotten or having fallen out of favour”. Perhaps this exhibition of his landscapes and works as a war artist, curated by George Shaw, will be part of an overdue upgrading of his reputation, happily coinciding with a revival of attention being paid to landscapes.

Sutherland first visited Pembrokeshire (now Dyfed) in 1934 and for the rest of the decade produced a succession of landscapes there, concentrating, like David Hockney recently in East Yorkshire, on particular favourite locations. Sutherland is not an artist who can easily be labelled and, although he is sometimes regarded as a neo-Romantic, there are marked differences between his work and, say, Paul Nash’s. One influence on Sutherland was Picasso, who he eventually met in 1947, but he was also a contributor to the International Surrealism Exhibition in London in 1936. The style of these contorted landscapes with their searingly bright colours and deep shadows lent itself to Sutherland’s later depictions of the violent and unpredictable re-arrangements of blitzed buildings. Others of his works seem to anticipate Francis Bacon.

Sutherland’s reputation should also benefit from being one of the seven painters (the others are Duncan Grant, Wyndham Lewis, Ben Nicholson, Henry Moore, Francis Bacon, and David Hockney) whose works will be examined in Tate Britain’s forthcoming Picasso & Modern British Art. In old age Sutherland began to feel that he should repay the debt which he owed to Pembrokeshire, so he presented to the region a collection of 15 oil paintings and over 100 watercolours, gouaches, drawings and lithographs relating to the area. These were housed in a gallery at Picton Castle, which I can remember visiting in the early 1990s, but are now in the custody of National Museum Wales. Hopefully they will become accessible again, in part if not as a whole, at Oriel y Parc in Pembrokeshire. It is perhaps unfortunate that Sutherland did not take care of his posthumous reputation more in the manner of, say, Henry Moore.

Unusually, entrance is free to An Unfinished World although a donation to MAO is suggested. Alternatively, for some visitors that might make affordable the purchase of the excellent catalogue which includes essays by Shaw and Alexandra Harris, author of Romantic Moderns. It seems carping in these circumstances to suggest that the rooms in MAO (their sequence being slightly bewildering to a newcomer) should each have their own poster explaining the particular theme of that part of the show, but it surely would cost very little and be appropriate when over 80 works on paper are on display.

Graham Sutherland An Unfinished World continues at MAO until 18 March.

My ‘Anticipointment Index’ rating is 1 (ie the best out of 5). Although the show has been mentioned favourably in the national press, it would be unfair to describe it in any way as having been hyped, and no one ought to go away feeling that their time has been wasted getting to know Sutherland’s work better.

15 January 2012

Phyllida Lloyd’s 'The Iron Lady'

Much has been said and written about this film since the start of the publicity onslaught in the UK in mid-November. In support there seem to have been numerous private screenings for the movers and shakers before general release to the rest of us on 6 January. Months ago there had been a private MORI screening in Guildford (where Thatcher’s England endures presumably, though “Susan” from Farnham wasn’t struck). Unsurprisingly then, even before seeing The Iron Lady, I wondered what I could possibly add in this post, but here goes.

Firstly, there are three Margaret Thatchers in this film, summarised in the table below. 

The film is structured so that Roberts and Maggie are accessed through flashbacks triggered by Lady T’s finally disposing of Dennis’s (her late husband) clothes. There are too many flashbacks and there’s too much of Jim Broadbent’s jokey reincarnation of Dennis. My guess is that the Margaret Thatchers we see on the screen are divided about 45% Lady T, 35% Maggie and 20% Roberts.

The young Margaret is played competently by Alexandra Roach, but the Roberts period was dramatized well-enough quite recently in Margaret Thatcher: The Long Walk to Finchley, with Andrea Riseborough in the lead role. (Riseborough is shortly to appear as Wallis Simpson in W.E.). The Roberts’ grocery in the film appears to have been the only one where ration coupons were not required during the war.

Streep’s performance has been praised mightily and certainly her Maggie and Lady T were a tour de force of both acting and of makeup, costume and prosthetics. Oddly enough I found Lady T more convincing. Perhaps this is because only a few hundred people at most know Margaret Thatcher at 85 at first hand. Streep’s acting, particularly the voice and posture, seems highly credible to the rest of us, but we lack any benchmark. This puts her Lady T in the same category for most people as her turn as Julia Child in Julie and Julia. However, Maggie appeared regularly on television for over 11 years, and colour broadcasting had begun in the UK at the time she first entered the Cabinet. Those of us above a certain age watched her often in the years up to 1990. Also, during the Maggie period, she must have met thousands of people, including me. I thought, admittedly unlike some who worked closely with Thatcher, that Streep’s Maggie was very good but at times not quite on the button. However, I doubt if anyone else will ever do better than Streep.

The Maggie episodes include contemporary news footage leading, for example, to the sudden appearance on screen of a larger than life (and almost school boyish) Peter Allen. Despite this nod to realism, the Maggie parts of the story are also the most operatic and demand the greatest extension of artistic licence. For example, Prime Ministers do not march around Parliament with the rest of the Cabinet in their wake, like mediaeval courtiers trailing behind their Prince. But I have had a problem with differentiating dramatization and documentary when it concerns recent events. So I couldn’t help but be amused when Jonathan Powell, reviewing the papers on BBC1’s The Andrew Marr Show on 4 December, told us:
… my brother worked for Mrs Thatcher for eight years and she would cook him breakfast most mornings in the flat in Number 10 and he certainly would vouch that she would never have revealed herself in her decolletage to another man, absolutely not …
For nerds like me, the BBC is sitting on a pile of documentaries about the Maggie years made by Michael Cockerell and others and, according to the FT (£), their archive is being digitised for us to watch on a micropayment basis. So I shouldn’t complain about a film drama departing from the strictly factual. However, I found things became irritatingly detached from reality in the House of Commons scenes in The Iron Lady. While these provided ample employment opportunities for male members of Equity over 50, the Commons during the Maggie period was not exclusively for men with one exception. The chart below shows that Thatcher was not alone in Parliament in her time (1 of 25 women when she arrived, 60 when she left), that things improved under New Labour, and how much further there still is to go, as there are only 144 at present (including 82 Labour and 49 Conservative).
Women MPs as percentage of total, 1918-2010

Among the column inches which this film has generated, I thought Boris Johnson’s views were interesting “… [the] writer and director (neither of whom, I guess, would call themselves ardent Thatcherites) …” until he turned his piece into an excuse for City axe-grinding; Matthew Parris in The Times (£) is worth a read, despite his irritating self-references to “Mrs Thatcher’s clerk”; Tom Harris, after he saw the film tweeted “dearie me”, but then blogged his fuller opinion; Tim Robey in the Telegraph explained that someone seems to have had an expensive change of heart about the music - fallout from the MORI session perhaps? Charles Moore, being Thatcher’s official biographer, has to be read, and he made the point as others have done that
:… there can be no doubt that it is calculatedly unkind to take a real, living person and portray that person as demented, which this film does. Either such a portrayal is false and therefore indefensible, or it is true, in which case the poor victim cannot answer back. The making of the film is therefore exploitative, and it is bound to hurt anyone close to her, above all, her family. In this straightforward, moral sense, the film should not have been made in Lady Thatcher’s lifetime.
The right to privacy of a public figure once retired into private life, whatever their mental health, doesn’t seem to be up for discussion, however. Surely there is a debate to be had about the border between legitimate ‘public interest’ and ‘what the public might find interesting’ and might pay to see as a film? It is perhaps worth noting that Carol Thatcher, who has written articles about Lady Thatcher, appears in the film, but her twin, Mark, who as far as I know has never spoken or written about his mother, does not.

David Owen (a former neurologist) observed in the Independent that:
While neither factually nor medically correct in every detail, this film could achieve something important and enduring: acceptance that dementia, however it presents itself, is rarely an indication of a poorly functioning brain in earlier life.
and argued that ‘Hubris Syndrome’ is the psychological frailty which undermines leaders. My pet theory is that Prime Ministers, because of the stresses of the job (eg PMQs, the oversized and hyperventilating UK media, sub-standard personal accommodation in Downing Street, too much travel induced by the UK’s view of its world role) age in office at about 18 months a calendar year, making Thatcher about 92, not 86 (see Table below).

*6 months added for every year as Prime Minister
Professor Steven Fielding blogged some astute comments, in particular in noting the similarity of the plot to that of the late Anthony Minghella’s Truly, Madly Deeply:
In that 1990 British-made movie Juliet Stephenson plays Nina, a widow who refuses to come to terms with her loss. As a result her dead husband, played by Alan Rickman, keeps appearing until she realises that she has to move on and starts a relationship with another man. That Michael Maloney plays Stevenson's new love interest and is also Thatcher's doctor in The Iron Lady might have helped jog my memory.
David Cameron, (perhaps with an eye to the female C1/C2 over-30 demographic taken with Streep’s performance in Mamma Mia - just kidding), told the BBC:
It's a fantastic piece of acting by Meryl Streep, but you can't help wondering, why do we have to have this film right now. It is a film much more about ageing and elements of dementia rather than about an amazing prime minister. My sense was a great piece of acting, a staggering piece of acting, but a film I wish they could have made another day.
According to The People on 15 January Lady Thatcher watched a DVD of the film “with close friend Lord Bell at her home in Dulwich, south London.” They quoted a source as saying:
By all ­accounts she was left quite emotional as she watched her life story. She actually spoke of being ‘pleasantly surprised’ by what she had seen ­although emotions do ­appear to have got the better of her as she recalled her real-life response to events shown in the film.
However, on 21 January the FT (£) reported Lord Bell as saying that he:
has no plans to see [The Iron Lady] as it will not “make any difference to her legacy”.
And finally two things not, as far as I know, reported in the UK press. Firstly, The Iron Lady had its world premiere in Beijing on 19 November at the first U.S.-China Forum on The Arts and Culture. Maggie as a medium for the exercise of US soft power – perhaps they should have called it The Ironic Lady.  Secondly, the aria, sung by Callas, background music in the film as Maggie finally leaves Downing Street, is Casta Diva from Bellini's Norma and, of course, it was John and Norma Major who were about to move in.
Streep-Maggie, Lady Thatcher, Meryl Streep

Note: Data from Women in Parliament and Government, Feargal McGuinness, House of Commons Library Standard Note SN/SG/1250, 5 January 2012.


I'm giving this film an Anticipointment Index of 4 (out of 5 at worst). This reflects that it had a very high level of hype but was redeemed for its failings by Streep's performance.


Benedict Brogan (of the Daily Telegraph) in his daily email this morning reported
Conor Burns, Conservative MP for Bournemouth West, and Lady Thatcher’s chief representative in Parliament, tweets an update on her progress: “Lovely visit with Lady T this evening. Good chat about defence, Falklands and Welfare Bill. In great spirit”. Good to hear.

8 January 2012

The Science Boom - or Death March?

Once a month The Times (£) encloses a slim magazine, Eureka, addressing ‘Science, Life, The Planet’. This month’s issue (28) includes a Science Matters piece by the science writer Vivienne Parry, Engineering Success, with the theme ‘It is vital that engineering is done, but more importantly it must be seen to be done.’:
You might call it the boson effect, or possibly the Cox effect. Either way, interest in physics is booming, both at A level and degree level. It mirrors the CSI effect that spawned, at one time, more than 400 different higher education courses in forensic anything, including my favourite, a joint honours in forensic science with childcare.
But, at a time when the Government is frantic for growth, physicists are the prancing stallions of science — gorgeous to behold, but not easily harnessed. Meanwhile, engineers, surely the fount of regeneration, have removed themselves to a field where, Eeyore-like, and between mouthfuls of thistles, they say: “But nobody loves us.”
The problem with engineers — and, believe me, I wouldn’t be writing this if I’d had a pound for every time they told me they were unloved — is that they’ve got lost within theory.
… So, creative spirits, many of whom have engineering in their bones, go to art school or into product design where using your hands to put ideas into reality is built into the fabric of the courses.
… So, all hail UCL’s proposed Make Space … [which] will allow people to prototype, to share, to exchange and above all, to make.
Certainly, previous posts here have bewailed the lot of engineers in the UK: the way we use the term engineer, and the contrasting presence of engineers amongst the elite who run China. Whether the Royal Academy of Engineering would share the particular diagnosis offered by Parry, trained as a zoologist, or her proposed cure, I’m not sure. But I do find it slightly worrying if there is a CSI-style boom in physics – or at least applications to study physics at university – spurred on by the telegenic Brian Cox, professor at Manchester and former keyboard player for D Ream. Here he is on ITV1’s Jonathan Ross Show on 7 January 2012, talking briefly about, among other things, the Higgs Boson and CERN’s Large Hadron Collider:
I see nothing wrong with Cox making physics or science in general seem a cool thing to consider as a career, far from it. But it might be worth reflecting on an article in the New York Times last November about recent American experience, Why Science Majors Change Their Minds (It’s Just So Darn Hard):
Politicians and educators have been wringing their hands for years over test scores showing American students falling behind their counterparts in Slovenia and Singapore. How will the United States stack up against global rivals in innovation? The president and industry groups have called on colleges to graduate 10,000 more engineers a year and 100,000 new teachers with majors in STEM — science, technology, engineering and math. All the Sputnik-like urgency has put classrooms from kindergarten through 12th grade — the pipeline, as they call it — under a microscope. And there are encouraging signs, with surveys showing the number of college freshmen interested in majoring in a STEM field on the rise.
But, it turns out, middle and high school students are having most of the fun, building their erector sets and dropping eggs into water to test the first law of motion. The excitement quickly fades as students brush up against the reality of what David E. Goldberg, an emeritus engineering professor, calls “the math-science death march.” Freshmen in college wade through a blizzard of calculus, physics and chemistry in lecture halls with hundreds of other students. And then many wash out.
The article goes on to explain, in a vein not dissimilar to Parry’s, how
Since becoming Notre Dame’s dean in 2008, Dr. Kilpatrick has revamped and expanded a freshman design course that had gotten “a little bit stale.” The students now do four projects. They build Lego robots and design bridges capable of carrying heavy loads at minimal cost. They also create electronic circuit boards and dream up a project of their own.
“They learn how to work with their hands, how to program the robot and how to work with design constraints,” he says. But he also says it’s inevitable that students will be lost. Some new students do not have a good feel for how deeply technical engineering is. Other bright students may have breezed through high school without developing disciplined habits. By contrast, students in China and India focus relentlessly on math and science from an early age.
If engineering requires a “math-science death march”, physics even more so. The Higgs boson derives from the Standard Model of particle physics (and its extensions), inaccessible without advanced maths.  It would be comforting to think that young people whose imagination is being caught by charismatic communicators like Cox have a realistic understanding of what’s involved in getting to degree level in a STEM subject.

Let’s hope they do, because if the UK is going to sustain an advanced healthcare system, nuclear energy, submarine and weapons programmes, world-class engineering consultancy and advanced manufacturing, with an IT infrastructure to match, together with HS2 and perhaps a Severn barrage or other civil engineering projects – it’s going to need them.

So will the USA, whose new military strategy, announced by President Obama on 5 January, and rebalancing toward the Asia-Pacific region, implies a competition in military capabilities with China of the sort that characterised the NATO-Soviet confrontation of more than 20 years ago. Such capabilities are, of course, STEM-based.

6 January 2012

Auteur Theory; Anticipointments

This post consists of two items, both by way of being footnotes to other posts, past and future.

Auteur Theory

My first post about a film, almost a year ago, was titled The King’s Speech. A couple of months later came the next film post, Joanna Hogg’s ‘Archipelago’. And from then on, right up to George Clooney’s ‘The Ides of March’ in November, I’ve always given the name of the director in the possessive before the film title. Belated acknowledgement to Tom Hooper in the original omission.

François Truffaut
Originator of cinéma d'auteur
The Auteur Theory of film “emerged in France about 50 years ago and holds that a director's film reflects the director's personal creative vision, as if they were the primary auteur (Fr author)”, quoting from Wikipedia’s helpful entry. To me the flaws in this are fairly obvious, not least because a film requires craftsmanship and creativity from so many people other than the metteur en scène, for example the screenwriters and the camera men and women. On the other hand, a film is shot by location and the director has to control the assembly along the intended timeline (with flashbacks and other artifices) of those scenes he or she chooses and discards the rest - except the ones selected for resuscitation as Deleted Scenes on the DVD.  Also, there seems to be an increasing awareness among the general film-going public, as opposed to cineastes, of a film’s director, his or her previous and forthcoming films and so on – Allen, Spielberg, Scorsese, Clooney just to give a few current examples.

So for the moment, I will continue putting the director’s name before the film and subscribing to the Auteur Theory - Prétentieux? Moi? Jamais! Next up will probably be The Iron Lady directed by Phyllida Lloyd.


Cash Peters came up with this word during his Radio 5 swansong last month, attributing it to the Hollywood Reporter. But it seems to go back to 1995, and has a musical existence (The Ashton Shuffle, Australian house music? – I’m way out of my depth). Anyway, as a blend of anticipation and disappointment, anticipointment is a useful concept these days when so much is preceded by a massive PR hype which so little could ever live up to. I will try to develop an Anticipointment Index in future posts and promising candidates might be The Iron Lady (see above) and the David Hockney show, A Bigger Picture at the RA.

Hockney has put a note on the poster for his RA show: "All the works here were made by the artist himself, personally" which has been interpreted as a dig at Damien Hirst. Hirst’s works often involve using a large number of assistants. Somehow I don’t think Hockney would be very supportive of Auteur Theory.


David Hockney and the RA have now explained that no criticism of Hirst was implied.

I have done some more thinking about the Anticipointment Index and have come up with the chart below where marks out of 5 are given – the higher the mark, the worse the anticipointment. Moreover, the greater the preceding hype the more difficult it is to obtain the desirable low score.

3 January 2012

University League Tables – a calibration of sorts

This blog is mildly obsessed with UK university league tables. One recent post attempted to consolidate the four current sets of UK rankings into a Top 30, and another tried to reconcile this with the rankings provided by the three international university league tables.

I recently came across some data which provide a different sort of comparison. The Cabinet Office reports on its annual recruitment of graduates into the UK Civil Service Fast Stream, which is
:… the Civil Service’s training and development programme, which attracts some of the country’s brightest graduates. Fast Streamers are selected for their potential to become the leaders of the future, and it is expected that many will reach the Senior Civil Service.
The Civil Service recruits to the Fast Stream on the basis of fair and open competition and selection on merit
(For details of the processes of competition and selection, see the Fast Stream website.)

The reports for the annual recruitment in the years 2010 and 2009 (ending November 2010 and 2009 respectively) contain a wealth of data including the number of candidates from each university and their success rates. There are five separate schemes to cover economists, statisticians and others, but the total figures are quoted here.

Two immediate cautionary notes. Firstly, across these two years more graduate Applicants are chasing fewer jobs (see left) which accentuates the second problem: the Success numbers are small. So in 2010 the most high-performing institution at a 100% success rate was, apparently, the Royal Academy of Music, with its only candidate being successful. More significantly, Dundee in 2010 provided 52 candidates, three being accepted, giving a very creditable success rate of 5.8%. However, a year earlier, none of its 53 candidates were successful, so 0%.

Anyway, the chart below shows the success rates in 2009 and 2010 for the recent Top 30 in descending rank:

Overall, there does seem to be a correlation of sorts with the candidates from universities towards the bottom not being as successful as those at the top. St Andrews appears a bit of an underperformer in the top five. In the international rankings, Manchester, Aberdeen and Queen’s Belfast did better than in the domestic rankings, and here (added below the Top 30) they seem to do as well as most below the top 10.

Finally, some pie charts (relative sizes indicative, not to scale) to show that while the Oxbridge slice of the cake is in decline, the Top 30 including Oxbridge, take about 75% of it.

1 January 2012

New Year Predictions 2012

A year ago in a post on this blog, I recorded three predictions (see below) which had surfaced in 2010 and might prove worth revisiting in time.  Here are three more which came up in 2011.

In March in an interview with the Guardian, Adam Posen,
The Bank of England's leading dove has predicted that inflation will tumble to 1.5% by the middle of next year … “If I have made the wrong call, not only will I switch my vote, I would not pursue a second term. They should have somebody who gets it right and not me.”
In May, Henry Kissinger was interviewed by Simon Schama for the FT (£). He offered a scenario for Afghanistan after US withdrawal:
“An India-Pakistan war becomes more probable. Eventually,” says the Doctor, his voice a deep pond of calm. “Therefore some kind of international process in which these issues are discussed might generate enough restraints so that Pakistan does not feel itself encircled by India and doesn’t see a strategic reserve in the Taliban.” He looks directly at me. “Is it possible to do this? I don’t know. But I know if we let matters drift this could become the Balkans of the next world war.”
Finally, and quite immodestly in such company, I made the suggestion in June that the Queen might retire in April 2016 after her 90th birthday.

I will number these 11.1, 11.2 and 11.3 and have applied the same format to last year’s which were:

10.1 “It will be fascinating to see whether the coalition conceived after the 2010 election holds. It may, since the Lib Dem desire for electoral reform is so intrinsic to them. But if that doesn’t come about, I doubt the coalition will last long. However, I may be wrong ...”
Tony Blair, currently looking as though he was “wrong”, but who knows what may happen in 2012?

10.2 “whoever wins this [2010] election will be out of power for a whole generation because of how tough the fiscal austerity will have to be”
Attributed to Mervyn King, who may be proved right in that many aspects of the UK’s fiscal austerity have yet to be realised.

10.3 Prince Charles would never be King and that William would succeed his grandmother
Attributed to Princess Diana – too soon to tell.