Tallinn stories

The title is a lie. I don’t have any stories about Tallinn, just photos. But you know me: I like bad puns.

Anyway, Tallinn is a lovely place to spend a weekend. The exceptionally well-preserved historic centre is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Here’s the town hall in the main square.

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And here are some crazy, thrill-seeking Estonians sitting on a sloping roof in the main square.

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That’s Olde Hansa on the left, a medieval-themed restaurant which is actually less tacky than it sounds. Decent food, too.

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Dragon-gargoyles on the town hall.

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There are lots of guild halls and merchant houses in the lower town, many dating from the 13th-14th century when Tallinn (known as Reval in those days) was part of the Hanseatic League.

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The nobles used to live in the upper town, which has a nicer view.

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Apart from anything else it was handy for seeing when another ferry-load of Finnish tourists had arrived.

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Just outside the old city walls, across the road and behind the train station (only a ten minute walk) is the achingly hip area of Telliskivi. An old abandoned industrial zone, this is now home to ‘creative’ types and their media start-up offices, coffee bars, eateries and live music venues. There are lots of nice murals.

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And the inevitable trash rodents.

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A little farther north is another area being prettied up with murals and new apartments and restaurants. The neighbourhood of Kalamaja used to be home to fishermen and their families. There’s still a small harbour with a regular fish market, and some of the old wooden houses still survive, although there’s a lot of new construction going on.

Murals abound here too.

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The chimney on the right is part of an old chemical factory where Tarkovsky shot scenes for his film Stalker back in the early ’70s. Now it’s being converted into a cultural centre.

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That’s Tallinn. It’s the kind of town where ancient and modern co-exist.

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More photos here.

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Original sound track

The other day during a long drive my kids were sat in the back watching the 1980 movie version of Flash Gordon on DVD. As I was sat in front I couldn’t see any of it but I could hear it. This was not at all a strange experience for me because I’m much more used to listening to that particular film that seeing it (in fact I don’t think I’ve actually seen it for decades).

I remember back in the days before home video (yes, I’m that old) that once you’d seen a film at the cinema you wouldn’t get a chance to see it again until it turned up on TV some time later. And then if you missed it, you missed it, as there was no way to record and preserve it. So what was a young movie fan to do when he wanted to re-live (repeatedly, obsessively) the experience of his favourite big screen science fiction epic in the comfort of his own home?

There were a couple of options. One was the soundtrack album. In the case of movies like Star Wars which have very memorable, expressive and almost continuous music (only 20 minutes of the film’s 125 running time don’t have musical accompaniment) this was a decent alternative. It had the advantage of omitting any creaky dialogue and letting you fill in the images with your memory or imagination. Or you could flick through a visual aid like the comic book adaptation or souvenir magazine while listening.

Later there was a brief popularity for soundtrack albums which incorporated dialogue and sound effects, and Queen’s Flash Gordon album was one of these. In fact it was Queen themselves who proposed this approach, apparently, and for me it made it a much more enjoyable experience to hear “pew! pew!” sounds and immortal dialogue like “Gordon’s alive?” and “I’m flying blind on a rocketcycle!” interspersed with guitar solos.

I also had an album called The Story of Tron, which even added voiceover narration telling the story. This was less successful, as you can hear here:

Which is why I also later bought the music-only soundtrack so as to be able to hear Wendy Carlos’ electronic tonalities unsullied.

And as I mentioned before, there were visual aids available too. I went through a phase of reading novelisations, but usually only for films I was too young to see at the cinema (Robocop, Predator, Aliens). I had a couple of “photo-novels” (paperbacks formatted like comics but using still frames from the movie) of Battlestar Galactica and The Black Hole. And, of course, sticker albums: Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, Return of the Jedi, Gremlins and more (there’s a good set of photos here). I was always anxious about not being able to collect all the stickers, bought in packs of five or six, and having a complete set. God knows how much money I spent buying packets looking for those last few stickers, and throwing away the free, sickly sweet pink chewing gum that came with them.

In the case of Flash Gordon the stickers came free with packets of Weetabix, and one day in the supermarket I persuaded my mother to buy an extra large packet as it would contain a larger quantity of free stickers. I promised her I’d eat all those Weetabix, even thought it wasn’t my favourite cereal. Imagine my disappointment when we got home and tore the packet open to discover…no stickers whatsoever inside. My mother, who was not the complaining type, felt moved to write them a letter. In response they mailed me a complete set.

4 things to do in Stykkisholmur

Stykkisholmur is a charming little town on the Snaefellsnes peninsula in west Iceland. There it is, on the horizon.

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Now obviously there are many interesting things to do in and around Stykkisholmur, but for reasons of space I’ve stuck to four. First up is the church, which you may be able to see at the top, just left of centre.

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When we were there it was being painted and patched up a bit. I don’t know how often they have to do this, but it was only consecrated in 1980.

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This postcard shows how it should look once it’s tidy again. Ólafsvík also has a funky church.

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Stykkisholmur also has a volcano museum, housed in what appears to be an old cinema. There are many volcano-themed attractions around Iceland but this one, though small, is well worth a visit.

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Aside from the usual videos of recent eruptions and samples of volcanic rock there’s a good collection of volcano-inspired art from around the world. This caption made me chuckle.

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Mexico:

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Ecuador:

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Japan:

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And of course there are related movie posters.

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A slightly more oblique and original approach to Iceland’s geological heritage is taken by the Library of Water, an installation by American artist Roni Horn. Floor-to-ceiling glass columns are filled with water from different glaciers around the island.

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Bilingual meteorological text is scattered across the floor.

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You can also buy (we did) a book called Weather Reports You, collecting local people’s weather-based memories and anecdotes.

And finally we come to the fermented shark farm. Technically this is a short drive west from Stykkisholmur itself, but it’s worth the trip. Now I’ve heard varying opinions of fermented shark, with some people saying that no one really eats it any more and it’s just kept going in order to appeal to tourists keen to eat something outrageous.

The product is made from Greenland shark. Historically its liver (which makes up 15% of its body mass) was used to make oil for lamps. The rest of the shark was dumped because the flesh is toxic. But someone somehow discovered that if you leave it in a box to ferment for 6 weeks, then hang it out to dry for another couple of months, it won’t kill you if you ingest it. Which still doesn’t explain why you would go to all that effort to make it safe to eat something which still tastes disgusting at the end of the day.

Outside the farm you can visit the shed where chunks of shark are left to dry.

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In this form it almost looks appetising.

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In the main building you can watch a video which explains the main steps in the process, and then you get to taste some. But you may wish to read this warning first:

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Looks slightly less appetising now. It’s traditionally eaten either on a slice of dark rye bread, or chased down with a shot of local firewater brennevin in order to wash away the taste. Which tells you all you need to know, I think.

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You can buy small portions to take home with you. I didn’t.

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The rest of the building is given over to an eclectic collection of nautical knick knacks, some of which I’d have been much more interested in buying than slabs of putrefied shark flesh. Like these catfish skin slippers.

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They missed a trick not selling hats or masks made out of these:

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One other interesting thing to note about Stykkisholmur: it was prominently featured as a location in the film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, starring Ben Stiller. We watched the film on DVD the night we stayed there. You can see some of it in this clip:

But the weird thing is that Stykkisholmur is not playing Stykkisholmur in the film. That scene is supposedly set in Nuuk, the capital of Greenland. This despite the fact that we get a distinctive aerial shot of the town earlier in the film which is similar to the postcard image above. Now I’m quite familiar with the common film-making practice of one location doubling for another (Toronto standing in for New York, Prague for Victorian London, New Zealand for Middle Earth), but what makes it particularly perverse is that later in the film they go to “Stykkisholmur”, but they’ve already used that as Nuuk, so they have to use yet another town (Borgarnes, I think) to double for Stykkisholmur. Now I’m sure they (rightly) figured that most people wouldn’t know the difference, but if I were a Greenlander I’ve be a little peeved that Hollywood portrayed my capital city as a tiny fishing village (in a completely different country) with a population, according to the film’s dialogue, of “8 people” (in fact Nuuk has a population of over 16,000).

Maybe that’s why they like to get their revenge by persuading tourists to swallow chunks of fermented Greenland shark?

Best Of

The other day my kids were watching part of a That’s Entertainment! film on TV. For those of you unfamiliar with them, they’re feature-length compilations of all the best bits (i.e. the song and dance numbers) from several decades’ worth of MGM musicals. Now you could complain that removing these sequences from the context of the originals films is sacrilege and makes for an uneven viewing experience which doesn’t respect the Aristotelian Unities. People who are chin-strokingly serious about pop music similarly complain about Greatest Hits compilations which divorce songs from their albums and thus their historical context.

On the other hand for many of these films the song and dance numbers are the only bits worth watching, and the bits in between are merely there to pad out the film to feature-length. In my film studies classes we were introduced to the idea of “The Cinema Of Attractions vs. The Cinema Of Narrative Integration”. The idea being that there are two types of film: ones which are all about the plot, and ones which are simply a collection of moments of spectacle (comedy scenes, action, musical numbers) where the plot simply serves as a structure on which to hang them. I never had a problem with this kind of film. No one complains after a trip to the circus that the individual acts were good but that they weren’t held together by a strong plot. No one goes to the opera or ballet to find out what happens in the story. I mean, I assume they don’t, since they’re all well-known stories. But I never go to the opera or ballet so I could be wrong.

Considering the paucity of musicals these days what would a modern-day That’s Entertainment! look like? A compilation of action scenes? Action and fantasy films are probably the genres with the most popular appeal comparable to musicals of 70 years ago, but these days we have Youtube supercuts instead (like these) although these tend to be shorter overall and also use tiny clips chopped up rather than presenting entire sequences. Insert here your observation about modern-day attention spans and ADHD-style editing.

 

Interstellar

I saw Interstellar last night. Now I had seen the trailer (which thankfully doesn’t give away much) but I’d avoided any other information about it, as I usually do these days with films I really want to see, and this film definitely benefits from not knowing much about the plot before you go in. Speaking of the plot I do have a few questions but I’m going to talk about those in separate, spoiler-filled section below. There’ll be plenty of warning. Here’s the non-spoiler review I posted on rinema:

One of the best science fiction epics in years, and personally I think the comparisons with 2001 are justified. It’s long and has three distinct sections, each quite different from the other, but works as a whole. The cast is great, the action scenes are tense and the otherwordly scenes interestingly visualised. Hans Zimmer’s minimalist score is a thing of majestic beauty, and the effects work is surprisingly restrained and realistic.
I have a couple of nitpicks with the plot: it’s clever and twisty; sometimes too twisty for its own good, but I’m willing to let them slide because of the way the film made me feel, the ideas and the vision. See it on the biggest screen you can find.

I wanted to download the soundtrack as soon as I got home but it turns out it’s not available until 18th November. Also, avclub.com’s review makes some interesting points, although it also contains a couple of mild spoilers.

Now, I have a few more detailed thoughts about the films’ plot, so I’m going to leave a big space here so that you don’t see them by accident. Only read on if you’ve already seen Interstellar, or if you really don’t mind having the whole plot revealed. Some of these may seem fairly large plot holes once you stop to think about them, but to be honest they really didn’t affect my enjoyment of the film too much while I was watching it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

OK?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here goes:

  • Hello, Matt Damon, in a surprise supporting role as the cowardly villain! They managed to keep that quiet, didn’t they?
  • Thinking about it afterwards, it’s a bit clichéd how the hero is an all-American butch, handsome pilot, while the rest of the crew are scientists who are all portrayed as weak or ineffective in some way. Apart from their scientific expertise, obviously. But it’s telling that Coop’s only “flaw” is his love for the daughter he left behind. When Anne Hathaway’s character is similarly swayed by her feelings for an old lover it’s presented as selfish and immature, compared to McConaughey’s parental feelings.
  • The way the plot loops around is clever, if a little predictable, but I find it a little annoying when the supposed aliens turn out to be future humans. “It was us all along!” It makes the universe seem smaller. Just when the story was getting bigger and expanding our horizons, it turns out that the whole thing is just about one guy and his daughter.
  • So once we know that the “they” providing a helping hand by creating the wormhole are in fact humans from a distant future, the question becomes: why? They wanted to ensure humanity’s survival by reaching into the past and giving us the scientific insights necessary to avoid disaster. And the easiest way to do this was to lure us out to Saturn, through a wormhole, and then hope that events would force one of us into a black hole and over the event horizon so that he could see through time to his daughter’s bedroom and figure out that he needed to send her singularity-related data in Morse code by twitching the second hand of her watch? Convoluted, much? Couldn’t they have just sent that information themselves directly to any one of the NASA scientists (Michael Caine, for example)? No, because then there would be no movie.
  • How does Murph figure out that her father is the “ghost”, communicating with her across time and space? She realises it just at the moment that the audience does. But it’s been explained to us; for her it seems an unlikely intuitive leap.

Naming the dead

This weekend I went to the cinema to see the film Under The Skin. Much to my surprise it was sold out. This film has been out here for several weeks already and, despite the presence of Scarlett Johansson, isn’t exactly a summer blockbuster. Forced to decide between just going back home and choosing another film, I looked at the other dozen or so films on offer. I wanted to see Boyhood but that was already half an hour into its showing, and the only other possibility was Tracks. It wasn’t high on my “to see” list, but it was on it, so that’s what I went for.

It tells the story of Robyn Davidson, who trekked alone across 2000 miles of Australian desert with a few camels in 1977. It’s a beautifully shot story of a woman who just wants to be alone in the wilderness, and how hard that proves to be. There are also some interesting insights into both Australian and Aboriginal society, but to be honest the most fascinating part came before the opening credits. An onscreen caption warned “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers should exercise caution when watching this film as it may contain images and voices of deceased persons.”

Afterwards I looked this up online and found that indeed many Aboriginal tribes prefer not to name or publish images of the recently deceased as they feel that it would disturb their spirit in the afterlife. During this period (which may last between one and a few years) a generic name like ‘Kumantjayi’ is used to refer to the deceased. But it also leads to some problems, as noted on wikipedia:

“This presents some challenges to indigenous people. In traditional society, people lived together in small bands of extended family. Name duplication was less common. Today, as people have moved into larger centres, with 300 to 600 people, the logistics of name avoidance have become increasingly challenging.

Exotic and rare names have therefore become very common, particularly in Central Australia and desert communities, to deal with this new challenge.”

There’s also a bizarre anecdote on this website about how names given to Aborigines by white settlers were affected.

The one thing that remains unclear to me is to whom, in this specific case, are they referring? I mean, if the real deceased person is portrayed onscreen by an actor, does that still count? Or is it because someone who acted in the film died after filming was completed? I guess they probably mean the post-credits scene where we see photos of the real Robyn Davidson and the Aboriginal elder Mr Eddy. Davidson is still alive and attended the film’s première, but I imagine Mr Eddy is long gone by now. Which is a shame because he was one of my favourite parts of the film. It’s worth watching if you get the chance.

But I still hope to see that Scarlett Johansson film some day soon.

The Making of Harry Potter

Ever since I’ve been interested in movies I’ve been interested in how they were made. As a child I probably spent more time reading “making of” books (I still have a large collection) about my favourite films than I did watching the actual films. Partly it’s out of a desire to see how things are done, and partly a chance to take another, slower, more detailed look at the worlds created by these films.

On a recent trip to the UK we took the kids along to the Making of Harry Potter attraction near Watford, just outside London. This is essentially a collection of the original sets, costumes and props from the films and you wander around it with (or in my case without) a smartphone-style device with an audio and video guide and DVD extras like interviews and clips.

After a brief introduction from an amusing tour guide (as the lights dimmed he stage-whispered into his walkie talkie “Release the spiders!”) we watched a video introduction featuring the films’ three main stars, and then the screen lifted out of the way to reveal the large double doors to Hogwarts’ main hall. Once through the doors we entered the hall itself. Inevitably it looks smaller in real life, not least because sets like these are usually built only partially and then extended with CGI.

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Costumes. Sadly they couldn’t afford to get the real Alan Rickman to stand there all day, sneering at visitors.

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Bring me the head of Timothy Spall! My wife was pleased to see that they used the same brand of face cream she favours.

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The main room. A large collection of props in the middle, and selected dressed sets all around.

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There are various short-term events and this week was “wand week”. At right, a display of all the main characters’ wands from the films.

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Craftspeople were there all day making new wands.

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One was carving a scary face on the end of a wand. She ruefully admitted that most of her work goes unnoticed as whenever you see a wand in the film it’s being held, so her carvings are obscured by the actor’s hand.

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Potions room. Some of the pots were stirring themselves.

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The Weasley family dining room.

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The Goblet of Fire.

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The door to the Chamber of Secrets.

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A broom flying rig and greenscreen.

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There was also a corner where you could be filmed and photographed against greenscreen flying on a broomstick. Naturally you then pay through the nose for copies, so we only got a couple of photos.

There was also a fascinating display of books, pamphlets and newspapers produced for the films. These in particular contained far more detail than you would ever notice normally, even with the aid of your DVD pause button. You do have to wonder if it’s worth all the money and effort that goes into making them.

After this you pass briefly outside to see the triple decker bus from The Prisoner of Azkaban. Sadly you couldn’t actually go up inside to the top floor.

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The bridge to Hogwarts.

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Detail thereof.

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Outside you could also buy refreshments, including genuine butterbeer, which was pretty foul. And then it was back indoors for the second half, which concentrated more on creatures and the art department.

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Animatronic Baby Voldemort (ABV).

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Several items, like this book, moved around if you pressed a button on the display case.

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Spiders and dementors and dragons, oh my!

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The last full set was Diagon Alley.

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Again, the level of detail in the shop windows was kind of insane, although very impressive.

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Then came a large selection of art department drawings.

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And finally, the piece of resistance, as the French would say: a ginormous model of the Hogwarts exterior.

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The lighting changed as you walked around it.

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Now this is not a cheap day out, especially if you pause for even a second while exiting through the gift shop. But if you have small HP fans in your family (as I do) they’ll love it; particularly the interactive elements. And if you have any interest in the craft of film-making, particularly as regards designing and building sets and props and creatures, you should enjoy it. The longer you stay the more you’ll get out of it, as there’s almost too much detail to take in (these photos only show a fraction of the displays); especially if you listen to/watch all the material on the electronic guide.

But take my advice: skip the butterbeer and buy a nice cup of tea instead.