January 01, 2009

La Strada 1954:Frederico Fellini

La Strada 1954:Frederico Fellini

Return to Fellini page

La Strada 7

Gelsomina and Zampanò in the circus ring

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1954  can in some ways be seen as a turning point in Italian cinema as a shift away from neorealism as a dominant aesthetic force amongst more independant film-makers had gone beyond its sell-by date. In many ways the idealised notion of what norealism was was in fact rarely met, with films such as Rome Open City relying upon melodrama and at times a mise en scene which owed something to German Expressionism, however, La Strada by Fellini  and Senso by Visconti were releases that moved away from norealism in quite different directions. In terms of ideological approaches, trouble with the censors and a critical response which prioritised the less challenging La Strada over Senso at the Venice Film Festival. Marcus (1986) picks up on the analysis of the contemporary Marxist critic Aristarco who saw in Senso a development of neoralism into a historically based realism whilst by comparison La Strada reprsented a regression to prewar individualism and mysticism as well as becoming a quest for pure style placed above content. Whilst Aristarco may have been overly harsh and in danger of being reductionist I think that Senso is the more important film but it was politically a hot potato at the time.Certainly André Bazin stormed to Fellini's defence.


At the opening of the film we see small children on a beach who have come to collect their elder sister Gelsomina taking her to met Zampanò. Zampanò is an itinerant 'artiste' with a strongman act. He has returned to give Gelsomina's mother 10,000 Lire for the right to take Gelsomina with him to act as his assistant. We learn that Zampano had already done the same with Rosa, Gelsomina's older sister but that she had 'died'. This assertion is never confirmed within the film. The deal is agreed and then the film which is effctively a road movie starts. The film is structured in a series of episodes which are largely discreet and there is no strong underlying linear narrative driven forward by ach episode This structure is therefore a good representation of the contingency which rules the lives of itinerant entertainers. Initially both Gelsomina and the audience are introduced to Zampanò's act which is a simple one consisting of binding his chest in a chain and breaking the link by expanding his chest. Gelsomina is introduced into what Zampanò needs doing to help him create a performance. Zampanò is taciturn and uncommunicative and makes Gelsomina very unhappy and she wants to return home. After several episodes including entertaining a wedding and witnessing a high wire act in a small city they join a circus on the outskirts of Rome. Here Gelsomina meets The Fool who tries to train her and also temt her away from Zampano. There is much emnity between The Fool and Zampanò which ends with Zampanò spending a night in jail. In the end The Fool persuades Gelsomina to stay with Zampanò by pointing out that she is important because she is the only person in the World to be able to put up with Zampanò. In later episode Zampanò comes across The Fool whose car has broken down. Zampanò hits the fool a couple of times but the Fool dies. After that  Gelsomina suffers breakdown and Zampanò, who shows no remorse about the killing abandons her. The films cuts to a beach resort which turns out to be five years later. Zampanò learns that Gelsomina had been there and had died. Zampanò goes to a bar to drown his sorrows and eventually ends up on the beach in a foetal position clutching at sand in an echo of the Fool's death where he was clutching handfuls of grass.

Critical Responses

Reading some current critical responses and analyses of La Strada has been rather surprising. To my mind some of it is very overblown and efffectively a post-hoc defence of the film's success. Some comments seem based upon assertion rather than being grounded. Peter Bondanella (2002) numbers amongst these critics who tend to exaggerate

The very fact that Gelsomina, Zampano and The Fool appear normally as stock commedia dell'arte characters, often obscuring their identities with makeup and clown accessories... (Bondanella 2002 p 58)

Well, this is something of an exaggration because for a lot of the film Zampano, for example, is in his everyday clothes. He is strongly associated with wearing an old flying jacket to keep warm on the motorbike/caravan. His corduroy trousers have a huge patch in the seat. Zampano manages to get a suit to fit him from the widow who was organising the wdding celebrations. Apart from his show cloths Zampano had nothing else. It is in this suit that we see him in the closing shots of the film getting drunk and ending up on the beach.

A little further on Bondanella discusss the "magical" appearance of some musicians whilst Gelsomina is sitting on the bank playing with some insects (Availabl in Youtube xtract above). In fact although it is a 'magical moment' there is a good underlying reason for the musicians being there as they are on their way to a festival. Bondanella's article focuses upon the notion of the deep poetic powers of Fellini's image making:

The most poetic quality of La Strada consists in its fablelike plot, which is constructed upon archetypal narrative elements that seem as old as time. (Bondanella 2002, p62)
Like great poetry, this film can support equally well a number of intrpretations; and perhaps part of Fellini's message is that a complicated, academic exegesis serves little purpose unless the spectator feels the emotional impact of the film's visuals. (ibid 63)

Whilst not in anyway trying to downplay the visual power of Fellini's work Bondanella is focused upon placing Fellini on a poetic pedestal as though this was not achieved by other filmmakers. Visconti's Ossessione was full of remarkable visual poetry and as for his later The Leopard this combined a high point of aesthetic achievement whilst not compromising on the politics. In contemporary terms on might wish to look at the extraordinary visual power of the work of Angelopoulos for example.

Part of the attraction of this film rests upon a fundamental binary opposite which is apparent between Gelsomina and Zampanò. It is a 'Beauty and the Beast' syndrome and the Chaplinesque characteristics of Giulietta Masina (Fellini's wife) as Gelsomina playing opposite American actor Anthony Quinn whose reputation was built on being a 'hard man' character was central to the appeal of this film. Surprisingly the critics haven't picked up on the mystical associations between Gelsomina being a little "fey" as the Scots would say and "nature" this really is such a cliché which Fellini gets away with and nowadays fminist criticism would be strongly commenting upon this. Although Marcus (1986) thinks Aristarco's accusations about the film's lapse towards cheap mysticism to be "wrongheaded" a reasonably objective account to my mind will find it hard to avoid this conclusion.

Maybe there is a Catholic consciousness presnt amongst some of the critics as Gelsomina becomes associated with a sort of Christlike character. The fact is that Gelsomina is a bit of a simpleton who is innocent and näif and thus ripe for exploitation. She is thoroughly exploited by someone who for the rest of th world can only be considered a loser. Gelsomina's shift from wanting to escape into a position of self-sacrifice to the point of total mental breakdown is a tragic event. Taken as a study in cruelty and neglect with a position of some sort of redemption in the final scene the film works well and certainly there are powerful images which underpin the film.

To some extent this film seems to have been constructed to appeal to a growing international Art House cinema as the de Laurentis production team was behind the film. The fact that two American actors were involved and post-dubbed shows that there was a clear eye to marketing from th outset. This paid off handsomely with the film doing well with overseas audiences.


Despite some of my scepticism regarding some of the academic critical positions this film is certainly very good and well worth seeing. It is important that it is recognised that this film is a move away from neorealism for there is no serious institutional criticism implied compared for example with Umberto D. Some of th parameters of neorelism are present such as grinding poverty and with a strong emphasis on outdoor shooting:

La Strada remains a film indifferent to the social and historical concerns of orthodox norealism. (Marcus 1986 p 150)

With the film focusing upon individual characters Bazin defended it by describing it as a form of "neorealism of the person" (in Marcus 1986 p 148). Marcus sees this attitude to the film as one which is holistic considering problems of existence beyond sociopolitical  and historical determinants.

Certainly the film marked a distinctive break with neorealism and Fellini increasingly followed his own artistic projects from then on putting an increasing distance between himself and left-wing politics.


Bondanella, Peter. 2004. The Films of Frederico Fellini. Cambridge: Cambridge Univrsity Press

Marcus, Millicent.1986. Italian film in the Light of Neorealism. Princeton: Princeton University Press

December 31, 2008

I Vitelloni 1953: Frederico Fellini

I Vitelloni 1953: Frederico Fellini

Return to Frederico Fellini

I Vitelloni Carnival Dance


It was nice to catch up with this film finally only yesterday. The first thing to strike me was clearly the autobiographical influences that were informing the film. On reading the comments by Bondanella (2001) and Liehm (1984) I was struck how far removed these critics were from the social reality which informed Fellini. There was much ruminating on the masks and Pirandellian charactristics of the nature of the central group of protagonists - I Vitelloni or "young bucks" who could equally be described as "the lads".  For me the social ontology and reality of this film was palpable and there is a clear case for arguing that sometimes critics can overwork the intellectual cross-references at the expense of missing the core elements of the film.

The fact that film had an international appeal is hardly surprising. It would have appealed to males in particular who had dreams of becoming something but who lived in a petty constrained highly provincial environment. For anybody who has experienced sad little holiday resorts in winter when the visitors have gone away this film would have had powerful resonances. If Fellini is dealing in masks one mask he is is intent upon unmasking is that of world behind the resort. What happens to those left behind at the end of the season as the crueller seasonal winds kiss the make-belive bonhomie of the outgoing summer. The second aspect of social reality which the above critics really failed to highlight was a wider social critique of the way in which women were hugely exploited by these young men. Whether mothers, sisters or wives the women in the film were forever supporting the good-for-nothing young men. From my perspective at least Fellini was providing an implicit social critique of the Italian family structure.

I vitelloni record player

Fellini & Rimini

Fellini had been brought up in the seaside resort of Rimini which he finally left in 1939 with ambitions to become a journalist at the age of 19. His past is strongly refrenced in both this film as well as Amercord which was made much later in 1974.Fellini struggled for several years spending time writing scripts for reviews and downmarket comedies and drawing charicatures and cartoons. Fellini was to meet Rossellini in 1944 becoming a very close collaborator working on scripts such as Open City, Paisan and several others. He also worked with other neorealist scriptwriters for directors such as Antonioni's Mill on the River Po. his involvement with the creative centre of artistic endeavour within the Italian film industry was central in helping him go beyond his provincial background whilst avoiding the more superficial aspects of commercialism within the big city.

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Some critics have noted the weakness of "the plot" however this is clearly the film's central strength precisely because of the slice of life contingent nature of the group of "lads" / "slackers"/"wasters" or " I Vitelloni" who are the protagonists of the film. A synopsis can't do justice to the film because it can't describe the visual ambience which is core to the creation of meaning of the film. 

Although there are five of them, there are two central characters who the film revolves around. Fausto is described through voiceover as the group's 'spiritual leader' and he appears slightly older than the rest. Moraldo is the youngest of the group and is clearly the person closest to Fellini's own life. Moraldo and Fausto are more closely linked because Fausto is forced to become Moraldo's brother-in-law at the beginning of the film. Fausto has got Sandra, Moraldo's sister pregnant and Fausto goes to live at Moraldo's house as he has no job or current prospects of his own. Fausto is forever trying to get other women into bed and is forever getting into trouble over it. It gets him sacked as a shop assistant in a shop selling religious icons, statues etc and he eventually persuade Moraldo to help him steal a statue in order to gain just "compensation" for sacking without notice. They try selling it to convents and monasteries but fail miserably. Eventually it is kept at the beach and of course discovered. Both get into trouble but Moraldo lies to Sandra about Fausto's amorous activities and he restored. Eventually Fausto goes too far and Sandra disappears from the house and the Vitelloni spend the day searching for her as Fausto finally comes to realise what is actually valuable in his pathetic little provincial life. Sandra has gone to Fausto's father and little sister. When they eventually find her Fausto's father takes a belt to Fausto and finally there is reconciliation.

Moraldo is always represented as being slightly on the outside of the group. He dislikes being placed in a morally ambivalent position of either betraying his sister or his peer group and he of all the group seems to recognise that the town holds no future for him as it constrains his future. He will bcome some sort of shopkeeper making money from summer tourists and settling down to have children and forgetting any larger ideas. Moraldo is frequently associated with the railway station which brings the summer visitors from the cities. In the end he takes the train for a new life and like Fellini himself escapes provincialism. It is a journey made by Julie Christie a few years later in Billy Liar whilst Billy Liar himself fails to make it. In this sense Fellini was well ahead of the game, which is perhaps yet to be recognised.

There are other episodes briefly focusing upon the other characters. Alberto sponges off his hard-working sister and was a little unfairly described by Liehm and then Bondanella as the most pathetic of the group. This is unecessarily judgemental and a pointless criticism. Leopoldo is the group's "intellectual" and is a wannabee playright who by the end we know isn't going to make it.

Episodes are centered around events in the town of which the carnival is the most important. Of course carnival is something which Fellini is strongly attracted to and these moments were clearly important in his development. But these events are interludes in which minor "trangressions" are temporarily allowed but these are chimeras around which the ontology of the everyday proceeds with monotonous regularity.


I thought the film insightful, poignant and funny. It was well supported with a good soundtrack from the ubiquitous Nino Rota. As a critique of the limitations and petty aspcts of provincial life the film worked well. It clearly played an important part in Fellini's own development and as far as I'm concerned it stands the test of time and comes as strongly recommended viewing although it is not a "masterpiece".


Growing up in Fellini's shadow

December 29, 2008

Broadgate Park Nottingham: Exploiting Student Accommodation

Broadgate Park Nottingham: Exploiting Student Accommodation

Warning to all students intending to take up accommodation at what they think is under the control of the University of Nottingham!!!

If you are a student, teacher, lecturer or parent who read this blog please pass on this warning about the growth of student exploitation through the growing property managment services company UPP. This organisation is growing in power in the UK and Kinoeye's wife has just been ripped off for about £1,000 whilst a student at the University of Nottingham.


Regular visitors to Kinoeye are aware that this is an academic blog which amongst its primary target audience seeks to inform  film and media students from the sixth form upwards as well as trying to appeal to all those interested in European films in general. As such it is not for profit and seeks to develop free exchange of information and ideas which are grounded on principles of more liberal / humanistic ideas of education with an emphasis on quality, cheapness and accessibility.

This entry is slightly different to the usual ones being based upon a current personal experience which also contains a generic warning for potential undergraduates who are likely to enter into a vicious contract with a company called UPP (University Partnerships Programme) . This  personal anecdote argues that UPP puts its profits above the welfare of the students. In the case of Broadgate Park the University of Nottingham must also bear some responsibility for a truly atrocious state of affairs. Given the increasing dependence of the British University sector upon overseas students and the rich financial pickings they offer I also hope that readers globally will pass on the relevant information.

Kinoeye Has Cancer

Some regular visitors will have noticed that Kinoeye has gone quiet lately. This is because I have oesophagal cancer. I have been off work for nearly three months, have been in hospital twice and am on chemo which is quite debilitating. Currently I'm able to write this as I have a small window as the chemo has given me such nausea that I've come off it temporarily.

It was the onset of cancer which has caused a family problem at Broadgate Park University of Notttingham. Whilst I work in the South my wife, a mature student, was in her 3rd year of an architecture degree. It was impossible to complete this course by commuting because the course is too hands on. As a result we decided to live apart during the terms and my wife took a place in Broadgate Park which as far as we knew was run by the University itself not an outside enterprise "in partnership" with the University of Nottingham.

My wife duly paid her initial fees, about £1,700, taken from her student loan (pretty much all of it) and spent a month in residence. In the the meantime I was getting iller and cancer was diagnosed. At this stage there was little option for my wife but to defer her course. She came back home and is now a full-time carer for me for which I'm eternally grateful otherwise I would be in a total mess.

Suffice it to say this has messed up our plans entirely and of course living with cancer is living with uncertainty. It is clearly very important to us to regain as much of this fee as possible. It was only ever borrowed and I soon face losing my income as sick benefits run out. In the old days when I was an undergraduate I have no doubts that there would have been sympathy expressed by the institution and that a satisfactory refund would have been worked out however Broadgate Park has been singularly unhelpful and unsympathetic to my wife. And on Saturday they finally agreed to pay back the initial deposit and car parling fees which were extras. My wife was only there for 5 weeks yet they wish to make her comply to a  contract signed until the end of the semester which is the middle of January!!!!

Broadgate Park /UPP & the Myth of "Special Circumstances"

Naturally my wife wanted a refund on her accommodation but they have beeen unforthcoming. The contract tries to ensure that it is the student responsibility to get another occupier if somebody leaves. This was clearly impossible to organise as I was in desperate need of care and my wife needed to organise getting her gear back get the house organised and car for me as well as deal with the emotional and psychological blow of cancer in the family alongside giving up her course which has taken two years of huge commitment.

There is some claim to special circumstances and there was a "tutor" Stephen Greedy who was meant to be some kind of liaison officer with this private company. Greedy was pretty unsympathetic and didn't follow up the case properly as promised. Nobody has bothered to explain what might constitute "spcial circumstances". Under normal circumstances we would have been on top but I was then hospitalised so something had to go. The UPP management at Broadgate Park have completely refused to look at the issue of special circumstances and to provide a proper student service.As the guy is some sort of electrical engineer it seems as though the University management haven't put a lot of care and effort into choosing an appropriate person for the role!

Despite being notified of leaving the hall of residence after 5 full weeks UPP have effectively charged my wife up until the middle of January and are sitting safe behind their legal contract. This is clearly entirely unjust and shows just how exposed to the vagaries of the property market students have become. It is clear from the attitude of UPP that the notion of "special circumstances" is simply a token get out clause. University accomodation has fallen fowl of big business and sadly some univrsity managments are happy to wash their hands of the responsibilities of student care.

A quick look at the UPP web-site reveals the unfurling of a rapacious property company which gives the usual blurb about growth etc. Please note it is not concentrating on providing best student quality and / or services. The message which needs to be spread is caveat emptor or buyer beware!

I hope that you feel it important to spread this mssage. In the meantime I will be contacting my MP as the situation is clearly highly exploitative. I will do my best to update you on any developments but no promises. If anybody else coming across bad UPP experiences write to the press and their MPs this will help many in the future. Please leave links in the comments box.

Cheers to all of you. Thanks for reading Kinoeye and happy 2009.

December 21, 2008

Shoeshine: Vittorio de Sica (1946)

shoshine 1 the Prison

The main hall in the Boy's Reform Institution

Shoeshine: Vittorio de Sica (1946)

Review of the Eureka Masters of Cinema DVD

Below is a YouTube extract from the Eureka film trailer

Released shortly after Rome Open City and Paisà, Shoeshine was the third release which is described as neorealist.In the preface to her important book on neorealism Italian Film in the Light of Norealism Millicent Marcus cites Vittorio de Sica who is reflecting upon Shoeshine and the ethics and moral compass of neorealism:

The experience of the war was decisive for us all. Each felt the mad desire to throw away all the old stories of the Italian cinema, to plant the camera in the midst of real life, tin th midst of all that struck our astonished eyes. We sought to librate ourselves from the weight of our sins, we wanted to look ourslves in the face and tell ourselves the truth, to discover what we really were, and to seek salvation...Shoeshine was a small stone, a very small stone, contributed to the moral reconstruction of our country. (Marcus 1986 pp XIII-XVI)

As it stands Shoeshine is one of the major neorealist films. De Sica follows these later with Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D

Shoshine Giusppe


The Eureka Masters of Cinema DVD

This recent release is up to the usual high standards of this series and reflects a labour of love. The transfer is of good quality and there is a useful booklet which has an extract from a book by Bert Cardullo on de Sica. Cardullo is one of the few academics to have written on de Sica who is quite underwritten in English. The booklet also has a couple of pages from de sica himself on Shoeshine and two reviews. The first review is a contemporary one from James Agee and the other is a later one from Pauline Kael.

Of the extras on the DVD there is a full length audio commentary from Bert Cardullo. This provids both useful social commentary as well as dicussing the underlying meaning behind various typs of shot.  There is also a documentary called Through Children's Eyes including a contribution from Franco Interlenghi who was to play Moraldo in Fellini's I Vitelloni.With the high quality transfer and a wealth of extras the DVD is very good value.


The film itself functions as a powerful critique of Italian society who are clearly letting down their children. The children are left to fend for themslves and if possible contribute to the family budget. Education is clearly a very low priority in the broken post-war Italian society yet children can be harshly treated by the legal and penal system which clearly has many features common to the Fascism which came before it. There is little of Enlightenmnt values displayed within the institutional system it is merely a mechanism for getting children off the streets.

The film is a moving one which starts out hopful and gradually gets darker. It is certainly not going to promote any feelgood factor but it did afford audiences the opportunity to reflect upon how badly children were being treated in the immediate post-war period. It is a classic core film of Italian Neorealist cinema and is very important viewing as well as being very interesting to watch.

Shoeshine 4

The Overcrowded Cells


Shoeshine is set in Rome in 1945. The  war against Japan is still carrying on but Italy has been liberated and the European war is over. The story is centered upon two young teenage boys Giueseppe and Pasquale. In an Italy economically broken by the war along with other boys of a similar age they struggle to survive by shining the boots and shoes of the American troopswho are occupying Rome. The G.I.s are the only people with enough money to afford this.The film opens on a high note of joy an exuberance with long tracking shots of the two boys galloping around a track somewhere on the outskirts of Rome. It transpires that they spend much of their earnings going riding and they are hoping to buy their favourite horse Bergsagliere.

The boys have nearly enough saved and the opportunity to help conduct a little blackmarket trading on the side promises to make  enough money to get the horse. They are unwittingly exposed to a burglary by Giuseppe's elder brother who is something of a spiv. Initially they are given some extra money to keep quiet. As a result they buy the horse and show it off in the streets of Rome to the other ragazzi.

The police quickly catch up with them the following day. They refuse to give away any information and are therefore remanded to an approved school type of institution pending further police investigations.

They are separated in the institution into separate but overcrowded cells. Eventually the authorities get Pasquale to talk by tricking him into believing that they are flogging Giuseppe with a belt. When Giuseppe eventually finds out the close friendship collapes.Giuseppe dosn't realise why Pasquale talked. With the aid of his cell-mates Giuseppe colludes in setting up Pasquale by planting a file in his bed. As a result Pasquale is severely beaten. Pasquale in his turn is determined to find out who was behind the file incident and he ends up having a fight in the shower with Arcangeli who is the vicious force behind the teenagers in Giuseppe's cell. Despite being smaller Pasquale determination and sense of rage help him beat the bully however he is sent into solitary confinement and marked down as being violent by the authorities. Relations have entirely deteriorated between the former friends and Giuseppe's family hire a lawyer who is determined to set up Pasquale in order to gain mitigating circumstances and a reduced sentence for Giuseppe. This comes to pass in their day in court.

Giuseppe becomes involved in an escape plan with Arcangeli and others from his cell. Eventually they escape during the gneral screening of some films for the inmates. Only Giuseppe and Arcangli fully manage the escape as the others are recaptured.  Pasquale guesses where they hav gone and promises to show the authorities if they will take him along. The place is where the horse is stabled Pasquale stops Arcangeli and Giuseppe from crossing the bridge to get away. Arcangeli is a coward and runs away. Pasquale starts to beat Giuseppe who in trying to get away falls to his death from the bridge.

December 17, 2008

Italian Cinema Hub Page

Italian Cinema Hub Page

This page is a hub page which will direct you to the areas of Italian cinema covered by this blog. Please enjoy.

Italian Directors Hub Page

The director pages are undergoing development and are best considered as 'work in progress. The Visconti pages are the most fully developed.

Italian Neorealism

Italian Neorealism: An Introduction

Neorealist Case study : Umberto D, 1951.  Directed by Vittorio de Sica

Roberto Rossellini & the French New Wave

Contemporary Italian Cinema (Not currently available)

Book Reviews

Italian Neorealism: Rebuilding the Cinematic City. 2006. Mark Shiel.

October 10, 2008

Doors Open: Ian Rankin

Doors Open: Ian Rankin. Orion Books 2008

Rankin Doors Open Cover

Cover of Doors Open

One thing about being poorly is that you get a chance to read a few novels. I haven't read any Ian Rankin crime thrillers before and I must admit  haven't visited this genre for a while but I'm only in the mood to read intelligently written but not too intllectually challenging material. I hav to say this recently released novel by Rankin fitted my bill precisely. Only a few pages in I could immdiately understand why he has become a celebrated author in the crime fiction world having won numerous prizes in recent years.

Many of his novels centre around Rebus who is a core detective creation of Rankin's however this book is a standalone one and nothing to do with the Rebus books.

Scottish National Gallery Complex

The novel centres upon a complex heist initially organised by a bored ex-director of a successful software company which made him rich, a banker for High Net Worth clients and an Art Professor.  The heist involves accessing the Scottish National Galleries Art collection that is kept in storage and substituting some fakes - a crime which nobody else will ever know about. The novel itslf developed out a New York Times serialisation from 2007 (see link below).

However things soon get more complicated than that and in the compact if not incestuous world of Edinburgh more and more people become drawn into the scheme. Rankin's Edinburgh in both its geographical and social sense is convincingly related by Rankin in a thoroughly enjoyable way.  The general cultural world is nicely mapped out with nice little in jokes about films such as Reservoir Dogs and Trainspotting. The girlfriend of one of the protagonists works in an Arts Cinema  and somebody else works for an art auctioneer's. 

Rankin has researched Scottish artists as well. Utterson has a confusing status for the Independent claims that the artists involved are both real and imagined:

The paintings that his trio aim to lift come from both real and imaginary Scottish artists. Among the latter is a certain "Utterson" – the name of the friend who, in the classic tale of Scottish dualism that lurks around foggy tenement corners in much of Rankin's work, discovers the identity of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. (Independent see link below)

There is an Utterson though with a work in the Scottish National Gallery! Read the book and check out some more of the refrerences!  It is a good read, the characters are believable and well contextualised. The plot gets increasingly more tortuous  and twisted building to a good climax. It all goes to show that the best laid plans..... Overall strongly recommended if you like this genre and if you were already a Rankin fan I think you will be pleased by this post Rebus effort. Certainly I will be checking out some more of Rankin's work.


New York Times: Sunday serialisation of Doors Open

Independent on Doors Open

October 07, 2008

A Most Wanted Man: John le Carre

A Most Wanted Man: John le Carré. Hodder & Stoughton RRP £18-99

John L Carre

John Le Carré

In general I like the works of John le Carré. Some of the post cold war ones that I've read have provided interesting insights into what is going on behind the scenes as countries and alliances have repositiond themselves in the new global order. Le Carré manages a global take with books such as The Constant Gardner and The Tailor of Panama dealing with Africa and South America respectively. He always comes up with quirky characters who are to some extent marginal to what would be considered as the mainstream of society and A Most Wanted Man is no different to this.

In the reviews referenced below I thought that the Financial Times one by Gilbert Adair was a little harsh. Adair who has written a book on style was applying his insights to A Most Wanted Man in ways which I thought were a little inappropriate. I don't buy Le Carré novels because I think they are great literature but because I think they are an intelligent and good read. For me they are a holiday read or if I'm feling ill. There are usually one or two good insights and occassionally there are some fine cutting comments. One character in a security conference in this latest offering sharply hits the US Post- 9/11 attitudes to human rights comparing the previous rights to proper legal representation and the post 9/11 situation where the accused is not even informed about what they are accused of. In this sense Le Carré is keeping himself and his readers up to date and he does take the trouble to research the background properly. 

As usual characters are flawed, inconsistent, vulnerable, veer between noble aspirations and baser instincts in ways which might not be terribly logical but are human and it is these insights into human fraility where Le Carré is often at his best. The story itself gently builds towards a climax which quietly flagged yet is is still surprising and a little shocking for it places the participating countries in a clear hierarchy, and there are no guesses as to which one is in the driving seat.

The key characters revolve around Issa a half Chechen Russian illegal immigrant into Germany, Brue the owner of a small and quietly fading British private bank with its only branch in Hamburg and Annabel the idealistic lawyer who works for sanctuary an organisation which deals with problems for immigrants many of whom are of Muslim origin and who seek citizenship in Germany.  The plot centres upon the  claiming of the so-called Lipizzaner accounts which represent a dark past in the Bank's history. Lipizzaner refers to the famous Lipizzan horses of the Spanish Riding School which has always been based in Vienna. The horses are born dark and gradually turn grey although they look white. This is a clear reference to the secret accounts held by the bank:

Gray horses, including Lipizzans, are born dark—usually bay or black—and become lighter each year as the graying process takes place, with the process being complete at between 6 and 10 years of age. Contrary to popular belief, Lipizzans are not actually true horses.A white horse is born white, has pink skin and usually has blue eyes. (Wikipedia extract on the Lipizzan Breed)

It is not Le Carré's best book and, as Joan Smith points out in the Independent review, the character of Annabel could have been more developed but then so could Issey's. Certainly the novel acts as a strong critique of American blundering in its treatment of Islam and the Islamic world post 9/11 and is all the bettr for that. I don't think followers of Le Carré will be disappointed and the novel comes recommended with the proviso that it is not amongst his strongest, nevertheless I enjoyed it.


Financial Times Review: A Most Wanted Man

Guardian Review: A Most Wanted Man

Independent Review: A Most Wanted Man

Observer Review: A Most Wanted Man

Sunday Times Review: A Most Wanted Man

Telegraph Review: A Most Wanted Man

Times Online Review: A Most Wanted Man

October 06, 2008

The Oxford Murders 2008. Dir: Álex de la Iglesia – One To Miss

The Oxford Murders 2008. Dir: Álex de la Iglesia - One To Miss

This is a dreadful film out now on DVD. Despite some iffy reviews a friend and I took it out of Blockbusters for a Saturday night 'Whodunnit' lightweight evening as there wasn't much in. We knew it was pretty bad as in the first sex scene we started discussing the set! We thought it was our age at first but the View London review has given me a sense of relief their reviewer was equally scathing. This is a complete waste of two hours of your time steer well clear. There are plenty of good films to watch spend your time doing that. The acting and the scripting are both dreadful.

The film is a sort of 'heritageploitation' film which seeks to build on the Inspector Morse factor by trying to lend an intellectual air to the content by bringing in references to Chaos Theory and Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. What you can be certain of here that this is a smokescren to attract more middle class audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. Pretty shots of Oxford do not compensate for dreadful acting and script. The film is one of those which has worked out its target audience beforehand and tried to apply a formula. A couple of young American actors are dragged in to try and get distribution in the US along with the Oxford scenario in a slightly historical mode to attract the same audience.

What possssed the producers to come up with such a dog's dinner is incomprehensible. The film dosen't deserve serious analysis. Just take this as a warning: caveat emptor. Don't say you weren't warned!!! Get some Morse or Jane Austen instead. A one out of ten is generous for those who like star ratings.


'View London' review of The Oxford Murders

October 01, 2008

Mac Beating PC

Mac Beating PC

I can't seem to get away from people drivelling on about how wonderful Macs are except of course when you come to people who work in the IT departments who hate Macs and refuse to have anything to do with them. This is a ridiculous polar binary of the "creatives" who simply MUST have Macs just to look cool and the ultra-utilitarians who seem to hate the fact that Macs have great industrial design and look far better than most PCs. Perhaps Sony Vaios are the exception but the trouble with Sony is they like to be quirky as well by having their own memory sticks instead of just using SD cards for example.

Last year I had my arm twisted from enthusiastic photographers to put in for a pile of Macs over PCs largely for Video Editing purposes using Final Cut Pro which is apparently currently the best value editing suite and seems to be the favourite of the moment in lots of schools and colleges.  Problem is that it would have meant getting other software to run on Macs which would have been extra cost. The other little problem was that it would have cost significantly more than providing a pile of Dells which is of course what happened.

What to get at home?

The seemingly excessive cost of a Mac which is fast enough to run powerful software is definitely a big put off but then so is the ugliness of the average PC.  We  needed a much better computer than a Core-duo Toshiba lap-top to run Photoshop and 3D Graphics programmes effectively.The poor Toshiba has been well out of its depth when it came to running complex modelling. It frequently ground to a halt.  It probably didn't help that its pretty small hard drive was jammed packed as well, mainly with programmes. Should we go for a Mac? Tempting!  However  before signing up on the the credit line  it was important to  do a little investigation.  It's  one  thing  to spend  a few hundred  on  a  bottom of the line Hewlett Packard  which is fine for most needs and quite another to be looking at over £2k including a monitor. As individuals can't write this stuff off against tax regular replacement of equipment is a costly business.

The key issue was what is the industry standard software in the chosen area in this case Architecture. Apparently Microstation from Bentley is the standard in the UK. Microstation dosn't have a Mac Option. If you want a Mac you will ned to use Vectorworks.

As usual this stuff was getting complicated. It must be possible to get an adequate PC made up which can outperform a Mac at a significantly cheaper price but looked good enough to have in the home. Having established the of the parameters of our holy grail there was one left for responsible computer buyers. I wanted the machine to be as green as is possible and easily upgradeable. If you had seen the massive pile of computers down at our local waste collection you would realise just how polluting all this stuff is. We are often guilty of throwing out computers which have plenty of parts still working or not needing replacement such as cases and power supplies for example.

An initial look at the cases in the computer shop around the corner was not encouraging. The cases were ridiculous mock-gothic monstrosities for the dedicated games geek. Presumably used as identifers at gaming conventions. Eventually I took to the net to see if anybody actually made a PC case which was smart and functional.


I came up with several options in the end non of which was cheap. The Coolermaster Cosmos 1000 impressed me as the best option for our purposes. It looks pretty good (not like a Dell), it has enormous space for hard drive expansion so one can have a drive for programmes, one for work and one for back-up without having a rat's nest of cables and boxes all around the place. It is designed to promote passive cooling and also to be quiet. The incessant drone of computer fans can be quite wearing.

Coolermaster Cosmos 1000 Case

Click on the image for an early review of the case. Apparently the case is very well designed inside. you don't cut yourself on sharp bits of casing for example. Extra hard drives are easy to slot in. The case itself is quit soundproofed.

Keeping the CPU cool using passive means as far as possible was the next target. Initially I was going for a Coolermaster Gemini II but the shop has recommended a more expensive one with 8 rather than 6 heatpipes so I'm going for that one.

As far as the hard drives are concerned I have gone for Western Digital Green drives. Clearly using a little less electricity they will run slightly cooler and hopefully the whole case temperature will be reduced. I haven't ordered a particularly exotic Graphics card although it apparently will run 2 screens. For this computer's purposes it is the number crunching of the chip which is important so I have gone foe a reasonably affordable Intel Quad Core for around £230. There is a huge price hike to the next level the Extreme range which didn't seem to be cost-effective. I have also gone for Microsoft XP Professional as the operating systm which is 64 bit and can use a lot more Ram. I'm having 4Gb to start with which can be increased to 8 on the current motherboard.

Excluding screen the whole thing will weigh in at around £1,200 which is hardly cheap by today's standards but it is a lot cheaper than an equivalent Mac and should look good and be easily upgradeable for years to come.

The screen of course is another thing. Ideally Eizo, La Cie or NEC in the more upmarket range would be ideal, however that will have to wait.


I picked the machine up over the weekend and the technician at my local shop was very impressed with the Coolermaster set up. When a colleague had asked him whther he could tell whether the machine was on or off he guessed off which was incorrect! The case was bought with the intention of being as quiet as possible and obviously achieves this end. If you want a quiet elegant looking which has low energy requirements machine then this is probably the case and combination of parts to beat to beat.  You can access current prices for these in the sidebar by looking at the relevant Amazon adverts.


Coolermaster main global site

September 29, 2008

Skype: Amazing Value?

Skype: Amazing Value?

In the past I have been a little sceptical about Skype and a look on the Wikipedia entry highlights some of the issues that have occurred in the past.  I was rather pushed into trying out Skype because there is no such thing as a 'free lunch' as the well warn cliché goes. Howver with my better half going off to halls of residence as a mature student for her last undergraduate year and with the need to make overseas phone calls an affordable voice communications system was needed. Already 2 colleagues on her course were using Skype with the altrnative being mobiles which is obviously costly. As a result we started to investigate.

After reading a bunch of reviews on the the various Skype headsets and handsets available I ordered a usb phone wireless handset. The advantage of this is that one doesn't have to be tied to the computer. It has a claimed 50 metre range although I can't confirm that, but certainly it is fine around the flat.  As I'm the sort of person who inevitably manages to mess up installations which reviews and manufactuers insist makes boiling an egg the equivalent of nanotechnology I was pleasantly surprised to see that I got the system up and running pretty quickly and with no major issues and my ego intact.

A really big advantage of the system is that you can ring other landlines directly whether in your country of residence or abroad. While it is not free the cost is remarkably small and beats other competitiors hands-down. You will need to buy some credit from Skype to be able to do this. This Timesonline article of 2007 suggests that with the exception of BT Skype is expensive for making calls to other phones.  For example  it suggests that calling abroad via an access number is cheaper than Skype:

Yet Skype Out isn’t just beaten by other Voip providers, it is beaten by normal phone companies too — specifically several small firms where you just dial an access number to connect from your normal home phone. They are called override providers because they override your normal phone company’s charges, and you pay theirs instead (Timesonline 2007)

There are a lot of comments on this article which might be useful if you are thinking of investing in Skype. Well, needless to say we are keeping an eye on this because we have been using an access number to ring abroad. Currently Skype seems to be cheaper to some countries, but as with all these systems the charging structures are very dynamic and one needs to keep an eye on this. Where Skype really comes into its own is when ringing another Skype account holder. This means that the call is free.

That phone went off to university, however, I have now ordered one for me to use which shows that I'm convinced by the technology and general ease of use.  Currently the phones can be ordered via Amazon and have an excellent delivery time. (Type in "For Skype Phones" in the Amazon search box if you are interested and a good range of products come up). These wireless ones are more expensive but I think most people will value the convenience. With P&P they are around £34 each but I fully expect to have recouped that outlay within a few months at the outside. What Skype does is start you questioning why calls from conventional telephone systems are so expensive.

As Skype & other VOIP (Voice over Internet Protocols) become less the arena for those who are more familiar with computer technologies this will put increasing pressure on conventional phone companies to drop prices. If you make a lot of calls or would like to make more, Skype is currently providing an excellent opportunity to make this a low cost activity, however please remember that you will still need a conventional phone system (landline or mobile) as you can't do things like make emergency calls via Skype. Doubtless time will tell whether the systm is cheap and reliable. If problems emerge than I will post on these, however, one must always remember that there are plenty of problems with alternative systems as well.

As mentioned in the Wikpedia entry  there are some security concerns when it comes to firewalls and Skype as peer to peer networking worries administrators as the Heise Security site points out.

Skype itself is now owned by eBay which might be a put off to some. EBay bought Skype in 2005. Overall the benefits seem to outweigh the downsides so be cautious but don't be put off, is my general position.


Timesonline: Ignore the Skype hype

Wikipedia entry on Skype

Heise Security article in Skype and Firewalls

About Skype from the Skype Site

Seven Things You Should Know About Skype

An academic collection of papers on Skype

Currently Skype is outside of the Wiretapping laws in the USA

Mailonline Septembr 2008: Taliban use Skype phones to avoid MI6

Guardian Review of July 2008 of Skype enabled mobile phone

University of Huddersfield has a Skype enabled office environment

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