2018 Weeknote 9

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Well, then. The snow came! And although it’s sometimes boring to talk about the weather, it’s hard to avoid the fact that this week’s snow changed things up a little bit. It meant a change in footwear, a change in walking style, and just a change in psychology for a lot of people. It’s funny how snow does that.

 

Workwise, it meant that a bunch of jobs went out of the window as I scrambled to ensure our contractors could grit the relevant bits of land we’re responsible for. And to make things slightly easier for them, I took it upon myself to do the land around the office and the two flats we own. There’s nothing like the ‘blank slate’ of a snowed-in driveway to get me out there sweeping, shovelling and salting until it’s clear. Or clear enough, at least. But still, progress with cyclical maintenance rumbles on, and as usual I realise all too late just how much work is involved in this job or that.

It was nice pottering about in the snow. For one thing, the acoustics are wonderful, as the bed of snow absorbs everything and turns everywhere into a sort of anechoic chamber. For another, I suddenly realised I could do some animal tracking on some of the less trafficked areas nearby. I was able to identify the tracks of a cat, a dog, a fox and – maybe? – a muntjac deer. No badgers, sadly.

 

Meanwhile, something I loved reading this week was Andy Kelly’s travelogue-esque thing about the inhabitants of a town in the Witcher 3. It really caught my imagination, not least because I often have this kind of reaction to games, where I wish I could ‘report’ on the goings-on therein in a series of diaries or similar. I even had a go at doing that with a version of Harvest Moon once, but it turned out to be a terrible idea. But the way he brings the place and the people to life is subtly very clever, and it was just a very enjoyable read. Naturally some credit must go to the game’s developers for creating a world so rich and alive that it bears this kind of reportage!

It also reminded me that I’ve not yet spent enough time with Skyrim yet to decide how I really feel about it. I had visions of being able to do something similar to the above article by mincing around the game, looking around the various settlements and treating it like a little holiday. I also had in mind the concept of the newest Assassin’s Creed game that has a tourist mode – it’s set in ancient Egypt, and although it initially has the usual cutthroat assassiny goodness, it now has this update that allows the player to simply go about the world observing the ways of its people and not having to do any of the fighting or level grinding the main game requires.

Alas, as I Googled ‘Skyrim combat free’, I realised that such a function was not present here. The nearest I found was this chucklesome column in which the player tried to do just that, only they still had to use spells to at least enable them to outrun danger if not remove combat entirely.

Still, I spent some time in Skyrim this week and, although I felt a familiar reluctance wash over me as the loading screens spoke of dragons and spells and orcs, I have to admit I love the world design. Solitude looks stunning – from the architecture of individual buildings, to how it is all laid out in a very organic way. It’s a very believable settlement, and the scale is overwhelming in the number of buildings one can enter.

There are a good number of other characters milling about – guards with snarky one-liners just biding their time in the cold night air, traders plying their wares, and drunkards loitering outside taverns telling tall stories of past adventures.

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The lighting complements it all beautifully, whether in daylight or at night when the stars come out, a vast moon looms overhead, and occasionally a spellbinding aurora fades into view. As you’ll note from the slight pixellation above, I was dying for the Xbox 360 to have a screenshot function, but alas it doesn’t. Maybe that’s for the best; I’d spend far too long taking snaps as I went about the place. (I started to do this in GTA:V, but the process for uploading them was ever-so-slightly clunky, so I soon stopped bothering.)

I set myself the task of doing a task or two in Skyrim, to spend half an hour or so in the world, playing the actual game. And I did okay, although it just feels like there’s too much. Too much to learn, too much to know, too much to remember. And although I’m sure I could ignore certain things, it feels like I have a fundamental understanding of how the game plays.

For one thing, I kept accidentally unlocking/starting quests. I get that this is an open-ended game without a linear progression. But it gets a bit confusing not knowing which path I should be on. It’s fairly clear that ‘frightened woman’ and ‘drunkard outside tavern’ are side quests that are just there to fill your time, but I was stuck not knowing whether to storm a bandit-filled fortress or to go and retrieve an unknown object from an unknown place.

And then I fell foul of the world itself: it’s bloody gigantic, and the fact that it’s so organic and well designed means it’s actually quite easy to get lost.

Many of these problems are my own fault. I want to ‘get into’ the game. I want to play it. I want to progress. But I also realise that wayfinding and exploring and making personal decisions about which quest to follow are the game. Right? Just don’t get me started on having to learn spells or keep up to date with my inventory and so on.

This throwaway line in a Nintendo Switch round-up resonated with me, particularly as I had similar issues with Fallout: New Vegas:

That moment when playing Skyrim, scaling a mountain and seeing all that heady scale unfurl before you on a handheld. Followed by the moment, shortly afterwards, when you realise you don’t really like Bethesda games all that much and you just spunked away £49.99 to play a game you didn’t particularly enjoy five years ago.

Anyway. I’ll give it another whirl when I’ve got an hour spare.

Another game I decided to try out for the first time this week was Chrono Trigger (don’t worry – not the mobile or new PC version). But my current summary can be whittled down to “I just basically don’t like RPGs, no matter how beautiful they look.”

This weekend was nice and wholesome. Some cooking and baking, which included assembly of some smørrebrød on Saturday morning, and trying, and failing, trying again, failing again, and then finally succeeding in making some cinnamon rolls.

We haven’t baked much in this flat. Megan has loads of great equipment and is by all accounts a pretty decent baker. But it’s rare that we get the rolling pin out and do what I would describe as ‘proper’ baking. But this weekend on a flip through a Nigella recipe book, we alighted on her Norwegian cinnamon rolls. We were aware that it was quite a longwinded recipe (‘proper’ baking, remember), but also that we had a Saturday afternoon spare to roll up our sleeves and dig out the Kenwood.

Anyway, somewhere between that casual flip through a recipe book, and us stuffing our faces in front of a film on Saturday night, something truly uncanny happened. I’ll save the 900-page epic for another day, but the short version is this: digital scales can be off. I don’t just mean not correctly calibrated. I mean not calibrated properly from being powered on. How likely this is, I do not know. I only know it took us two lots of dough to realise something was amiss.

Reader, putting something with a known weight on a digital scale and it reading out the incorrect weight is an absolutely headfuck. I weighed about five more things. I started to try and work out how long it had been giving the wrong weights. How many other recipes it had subtly ruined. How I had been deceived for so long. I wondered if I could trust the glowing LED clock on the oven underneath.

It was all very unsettling.

But the good news is that we persevered, and we made some of the best cinnamon rolls I’ve ever eaten.

 

Ironic, then, that the movie we scoffed them to was one of sheer human endurance in the face of a seemingly impossible task. Yes, we watched The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young. And what a story it tells. As a documentary, it works pretty well given the tricky filming conditions. It’s supported by a strong cast of oddballs, visionaries, competitors and other misfits.

Without giving too much away – just find it and watch it, it’s a hoot – it tells the story of a unique sporting event (and in particular the 2012 event) in which forty entrants compete to complete five loops of a forest/mountain/wilderness course something like 20 miles in length. It involves navigating, climbing, descending, running, hiking, traversing a storm drain under a prison (I shit you not), and just enduring all this, up to five times in a row, over the course of sixty hours with as much sleep and recovery as your previous attempt allows before you must set out again. The event draws competitors from around the world, who all go through a bizarre application process before assembling and waiting for the unspecified start signal to strike.

It’s a great film. Gripping. And you watch through your fingers wondering, ridiculously, how much of it you could comfortably tackle.

This was the second of two films we watched this weekend, after Wild. Megan had recently read the memoir the film is based on, but I came to the film cold, and I loved it. It tells the story very capably of what it’s like to go on a long, solitary walk, and the mindset of the walker embarking upon it, and the vast amounts of baggage – both literal and figurative – that she took along the way.

I am quite fascinated by films like Wild that try to tell a true story, and that have been produced by, or with the cooperation of, the people involved. I’m thinking of films such as Almost Famous or Apollo 13 – from both ends of the spectrum of ‘personal’ versus ‘global’ story. It can just make for a much more interesting story-behind-the-story, especially if paired with a good documentary or director’s commentary.

On Sunday, not that Wild or The Barkley Marathons had inspired us at all, we set out on the London LOOP again. This time we tackled two sections in one day. It was a fairly tall order, but we’re planning on walking the South Downs Way in a couple of month’s time, so it seemed like a good opportunity to stretch the legs and get an 18-mile day in and see where any problems may lie. It also helped that the snow was quickly disappearing and the air felt positively mild after a week of sub-zero temperatures and a sharp windchill.

 

Section three of the LOOP goes from Petts Wood to Hayes, and section four continues on to Croydon. Two very enjoyable sections, with the latter consisting of a surprising amount of woodland and rural settings.

I’m sure I wouldn’t be alone in saying that when I think of Croydon I don’t think of ‘farmland’, ‘golf courses’ and ‘pockets of ancient woodland’. Sorry Croydon. That’s all changed now. Well, almost. Your weird Emerald City skyline still looms in the distance and – yay, trams! But – boo, no service!

The panoramic views back to London including Wembley stadium, the Shard, and transmitter towers was also pretty ace even on a grey day.

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In general, something I found endlessly surprising about the Capital Ring, and that I continue to love about the London LOOP, is how you can emerge through a thick hedgerow, having stomped through miles of mud until you find yourself at a TfL bus stop and good transport links back to the centre of town.

Fortunately this was true for the end of section four – well, a kilometre or so short of the end, at least. Unfortunately even though the days continue to get longer, we were caught out by the quickly darkening skies and we had to cut our walk short. We had to choose between a busy, unlit road followed by fields, or to double back along a known, sheltered bridleway to the nearest buses – a pretty easy decision in the end. A smattering of photographs from the two sections is below. One of the last sights of interest before the daylight completely faded was the distinctive movement and white tail of a deer in Selsdon Wood.

But what a day. Long, varied, surprising, satisfying – and very encouraging, as it reminded us both that with even better prep and much longer days, we will be able to tackle 20+ mile days on the South Downs Way without too much trouble.

 

Bambi (1942) / Pinocchio (1940)

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“Man is in the forest…”

Over the festive period, M and I watched Bambi and Pinocchio. Have you ever seen those films? Jesus, they’re brutal.

Forgive me if this is common knowledge to all sentient beings other than me, but I was not expecting such darkness on a cosy winter’s morning.

I’d picked up Bambi as it went hand-in-hand with another gift for M of cute Bambi-brand pyjamas. There’s Bambi, all cute with a butterfly on his nose. But God, nothing had prepared me for the onslaught of terror and crushingly dark imagery that Bambi contains. I think I’d remembered that Bambi had a weirdly dark twist, but I didn’t actually know the nature of it until the other day.

And Pinocchio! That cute fairy tale about a wooden boy coming to life? Who remembered the bit where he’s carted off to a grotesque funfair full of naughty boys smoking cigars and shooting pool before being turned into donkeys? I had no idea Spirited Away had taken such inspiration from this film. Admittedly, I found the images of little boys smoking hilarious, but also completely at odds with what I’d expected from these classic, early Disney films.

We were both so shaken from these viewings – the gunshots from Bambi still ring in my ears – that we watched Silver Linings Playbook to cheer ourselves up afterwards.

Hard Eight (1996)

Hard Eight (IMDb / Mubi) was a bit of a surprise. It shouldn’t have been – I came into it knowing I’ve enjoyed every Paul Thomas Anderson film I’ve seen.

It all started with the majestic There Will Be Blood – one of my favourites, and one which I’m so glad I saw on the big screen with its widescreen panoramas and all-encompassing sound production.

And then every year or so I’d happen to put another P.T. Anderson flick on – maybe it was a weird Netflix suggestion, or Matthew Culnane wouldn’t shut up about Boogie Nights, or I was mourning the death of the singular Philip Seymour Hoffman.

What I’m trying to say is that Hard Eight shouldn’t have been a surprise, but boy was it. I loved it.

I suppose knowing it was a wunderkind director’s début picture could have given me reason to doubt it would be any good, but it needn’t have. There are very few elements of this film that even suggest that this is an early production, let alone a début. There are just too many great locations, solid performances, and glorious tracking shots that Anderson has since become famous for. On top of that, the music choices feel vital, and considered – not thrown together at the last minute due to budget constraints.

There’s some uninspired dialogue here and there, but not enough to take away from the likes of Philip Baker Hall absolutely smashing it out of the park with his performance. On which note, John C. Reilly is perhaps the film’s biggest surprise – he’s brilliant. But then, that’s another thing P.T. Anderson has a weird knack for: extracting great performances from surprising casting choices.

My voyage into Paul Thomas Anderson’s filmography continues, and the standard remains high.


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Gilda (1946)

Gilda (1946)

The next film I watched on Mubi after The Golem was Gilda, a noir-ish casino-based thriller from 1946.

It’s typically melodramatic and peppered with shots like that shown above which just ooze class and mystique. There’s nice attention to detail, although some lines/roles feel a bit wooden. It’s the first Rita Hayworth film I’ve watched and by crikey is she something else. The central relationship is an abusive one, which is a little hard to swallow nearly seventy years on, and the ending is a little abrupt and less credible than the rest of it, but it doesn’t get in the way of what is a very enjoyable film.

Gilda was also packed full of people who make smoking look incredibly cool. Casinos, too. This theme was to continue in the next film I watched…


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The Golem: How He Came Into The World (1920)

I recently started watching films a bit more regularly than I have done for a while.

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I’ve signed up to Mubi, whose USP is providing films for streaming (and downloading to devices) one per day, for thirty days. This means there are always 30 films to choose from.

The idea is that a small, well-curated selection of films might actually be of better value to the viewer than a vast, sloppy, loose selection.

I’ve watched about ten films in the past fortnight, and that’s probably more than I had seen all year so far, so it must be working. I’ve not loved them all, but I’ve thoroughly enjoyed about five or six.

Guess what this blog post is about.

The first film I watched after starting my subscription was The Golem: How He Came Into The World, a murky fairytale horror from Germany in 1920. The story is of a rabbi who creates a monster that protects the Jews of Prague from persecution. Apparently it’s an old Jewish folk tale.

The story is obviously interesting for its more modern connotations, but I was happy to lie back and just enjoy the fairytale for what it was. The sets were delicious – not a straight line in sight, and I got a bit trigger happy taking screenshots of architectural features of the walled town like windows, doors, rooflines, and hinges. Seriously, look at those wonderfully gnarled hinges!

Of course it was silent, with a fun soundtrack with recurring motifs, and the stark, melodramatic, monochromatic shots were occasionally augmented by the use of colour tinting, as can be seen above.

As a horror film (albeit a very early one), it even managed to provide two distinct sequences I can recall that absolutely gave me a sense of the willies. I was just as fascinated by the making of the film as its look and feel, and those sequences in particular were great from both perspectives.

I couldn’t have asked for a better film to kick off my subscription to a service like Mubi. And, as I’ve said, the quality hasn’t really let up since.


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