Archive for the Film Category

Michael Collins and the Handover of Dublin Castle

Posted in Film, History with tags , , on January 16, 2022 by telescoper

Today is the centenary of the formal handing over of Dublin Castle, on 16th January 1922, by British authorities to the Provisional Irish Government formed after the ratification of the Anglo-Irish Treaty. It was a significant event, but was not what many people (including until recently myself) thought it was.

I went to the Cinema to see the Neil Jordan film Michael Collins when it came out. I enjoyed the film but only subsequently discovered how many glaring historical inaccuracies there are in it, right from the scenes at the beginning of the film, of the Easter Rising in 1916, that show Michael Collins alongside Eamonn De Valera at the surrender of the GPO. In fact the GPO was evacuated long before the surrender and De Valera was never there anyway: his battalion was in the East of the City at Boland’s Mill. I suppose the Director thought it was more dramatic the way it was depicted in the film, but I just find it irritating.

Now to the handover at Dublin Castle. This is how it is portrayed in the film, with Liam Neeson as Michael Collins:

Almost nothing in this entire scene is historically accurate. Collins arrived 90 minutes late owing to a transport strike, so the famous line about “you can have your seven minutes” is a concoction (as is the rest of the dialogue). Moreover, Collins arrived in civilian dress not in military uniform. The handover happened in a private meeting inside the buildings, not outside in a grand ceremony. There was no lowering the Union flag either.

I suppose the cinematic version is more dramatic than what happened in reality, which was much more mundane, but I think this kind of deliberate manipulation is more than a little sinister. If you want to know history then you shouldn’t try to learn it from a movie but instead do a bit of reading of properly researched literature. That’s one of the reasons why we have historians.

Revision of Lecter Notes

Posted in Film, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , , on October 19, 2021 by telescoper

I’ve just finished my 11th Lecture on Mechanics and Special Relativity. The Tuesday lecture is in a 5pm to 6pm slot which means quite a few students need to leave early in order to get buses home. I try therefore to design it in such a way that the last 10 minutes or so is optional, so those that depart before the end don’t miss anything vital. Today I ended with a sort of philosophical aside about the nature of things versus how they interact with other things. I wrote about such thoughts already on this blog but that was almost a decade ago so I reckon enough time has elapsed for me to reiterate it here in a slightly modified form.

The text for this dissertation is a short speech by Hannibal Lecter from the film The Silence of the Lambs (1991), specifically the “quotation” from the Meditations of Roman Emperor and stoic philosopher>Marcus Aurelius.

The quotation by Lecter reads

First principles, Clarice. Simplicity. Read Marcus Aurelius. Of each particular thing ask: what is it in itself? What is its nature? What does he do, this man you seek?

I always felt this would make a good preface to a book on particle physics, playing on the word “particular”, but of course one has to worry about using part of a film script without paying the necessary copyright fee, and there’s also the small matter of writing the book in the first place.

Anyway, I keep the Penguin Popular Classics paperback English translation of the Meditations with me when I go travelling; I can’t read Greek, the language it was originally written in. It is one the greatest works of classical philosophy, but it’s also a collection of very personal thoughts by someone who managed to be an uncompromisingly authoritarian Emperor of Rome at the same time as being a humble and introspective person. Not that I have ever in practice managed to obey his exhortations to self-denial!

Anyway, the first point I wanted to make is that Lecter’s quote is not a direct quote from the Meditations, at least not in any English translation I have found. The nearest I could find in the version I own is Book 8, Meditation X:

This, what is it in itself, and by itself, according to its proper constitution? What is the substance of it? What is the matter, or proper use? What is the form, or efficient cause? What is it for in this world, and how long will it abide? Thus must thou examine all things that present themselves unto thee.

Or possibly, later on in the same Book, Meditation XII:

As every fancy and imagination presents itself to unto thee, consider (if it be possible) the true nature, and the proper qualities of it, and reason with thyself about it.

There are other translated versions to be found on the net (e.g. here), all similar. Thus Lecter’s reference is a paraphrase, but by no means a misleading one.

A more interesting comment, perhaps, relates to the logical structure of Lecter’s quote. He starts by asking about a thing “in itself”, which recalls the ding an sich of Immanuel Kant. The point is that Kant argued that the “thing in itself” is ultimately unknowable. Lecter continues by asking not what the thing (in this case a man) is in itself but what it (he) does, which is not the same question at all.

It has long struck me that this is similar to the way we work in physics. For example, we might think we understand a bit about what an electron is, but actually what we learn about is how it interacts with other things, which of its properties change and which remain the same, i.e. what it does. From such behaviour we learn about what attributes we can assign to it, such as charge, mass and spin, but we know these only through their interactions with other entities. The electron-in-itself remains a mystery.

This is true of mathematical objects too. Objects are defined to do certain things under certain operations. That is the extent of their definition. Physicists tend to think there is a reality beyond the mathematics used to represent it, but can we ever really know anything about that reality?

If the reference to mathematical physics all sounds a bit nerdy, then I’ll make the obvious point that it also works with people. Do we ever really know what another person is in himself or herself? It’s only through interacting with people that we discover anything. They may say kind or nasty things and perform good or evil deeds, or act in some other way that leads us to draw conclusions about their inner nature. But we never really know for sure. They might be lying, or have ulterior motives. We have to trust our judgement to some extent otherwise we’re forced to live in a world in which we don’t trust anyone, and that’s not a world that most of us are prepared to countenance.

Even that is similar to physics (or any other science) because we have to believe that, say, electrons (or rather the experiments we carry out to probe their properties) don’t lie. This takes us to an axiom upon which all science depends, that nature doesn’t play tricks on us, that the world runs according to rules which it never breaks.

An Article about Pride

Posted in Biographical, Film, LGBT with tags , , on June 28, 2021 by telescoper

Today is 28th June which means that it’s the anniversary – the 52nd anniversary to be precise – of the Stonewall Riots.

I was only 6 in 1969 so wasn’t aware of this event at the time but it (and Pride Month generally) always reminds me of how far we’ve come, though many LGBT+ people still face hostility and discrimination. Nowadays though my own celebration of Pride is very subdued as it tends to makes me feel old and irrelevant as well as worried that we might be headed back right to the bigotry and intolerance of the past. The rights we have won could so easily be taken away. Although I am no longer young, I find I have become very protective towards younger LGBT+ people. I don’t want anyone to have to put up with the crap that I did when I was their age.

Despite these reservations I do find some of the manifestations of Pride quite pleasing. An Post have issued special stamps this year, as you can see above.

I haven’t bought any because I haven’t got any letters to send but I think it’s nice. 18 year old me in the middle of his A-level exams in 1981 could not have imagined such a gesture from a public body. Bród is the Irish word for Pride.

I watched the 2014 film Pride on TV the other day. I’d seen it before but enjoyed the second viewing a lot, although it did make me feel a bit ashamed that I didn’t get involved in the events of 1984 at all. I was too much of a coward.

Anyway just to change tack I thought I’d mention that the “An” in “An Post” is a definite article, which is a bit confusing to English speakers for whom “an” is a form of the indefinite article. There are no indefinite articles in Irish.

Other European languages (including Latin) don’t have any articles at all. Russian doesn’t either. It’s always fun writing a paper with Russian collaborators because articles are so alien to them. It’s not so easy to explain when to use the definite or indefinite article or no article at all to someone used to a language in which articles don’t exist.

In the Name of the Solicitor

Posted in Biographical, Film with tags , , , , on March 28, 2021 by telescoper

Looking through the TV listings just now I saw that the 1993 film In the Name of the Father about the Guildford Four, starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Emma Thompson, was on last night. I didn’t watch it but seeing it mentioned jogged my memory about a strange incident when I lived in London which I thought I’d share.

One evening in the early 1990s – I don’t remember the exact date – I was sitting in my flat in Bethnal Green when the phone rang. At the other end of the line was Ruth, a member of the admin staff in the School of Mathematical Sciences at Queen Mary, where I was working at the time. She was obviously very upset and it took some time to get her to calm down and tell me what had happened.

Ruth’s boyfriend, an Irish guy called Stephen who lived in Stepney Green, not far from me, and whom I knew a little socially, was in Bethnal Green Police Station. It seems that earlier in the day there had been some sort of altercation in Whitechapel after which one of the two men involved had got into a car and deliberately ran another man over, resulting in his death. The Police had taken Stephen in for questioning despite the fact that (a) he was with a group of friends in a pub at the time of the incident and (b) he didn’t have a car and didn’t have a driving licence. I remember (b) quite well because I was (and still am) a non-driver too. In any case it was unthinkable that Stephen could have been involved in such a terrible thing. Being charitable to the cops, it was obviously a case of mistaken identity.

Stephen had gone voluntarily to be questioned and as far as could be discerned had not been charged but had been there some time and Ruth was getting nervous about what the Police might be up to. There was quite a lot of real or suspected IRA activity in London at that time, and the Police were notoriously hostile to Irish people, even those who weren’t involved in any of that. Ruth’s suspicion was that the cops were trying to stitch Stephen up and not unreasonably wanted to get him a solicitor. But she didn’t know any. Could I help?

Well, the only solicitor I at the time was the chap who did the conveyancing for the purchase of the flat, which wasn’t of any use, but I did have friends in Brighton who worked in the legal profession so I told Ruth I’d make a few calls and see what I could do. It didn’t take long before I got the number of a bloke who worked for a London firm called Benedict Birnberg (which I had never heard of at the time). When I explained the situation he gave me the home phone number of a solicitor colleague, one Gareth Peirce.

I called the number straight away and asked if I could speak to Gareth* Pierce. “Speaking” came a woman’s voice, which surprised me a little, as I had assumed Gareth would be a man’s name, but I went on to explain how I had got her number and what was the issue. She asked me to confirm Stephen’s full name and where he was being held and, to my surprise, said she would go straight away. It was about 9pm if I remember correctly.

About an hour later the phone rang again. It was a jubilant Ruth. Stephen had been released without charge. He was never contacted again about the alleged incident. When I spoke to him later about it he revealed that the solicitor didn’t mince any words in the process of getting him out and the police seemed rather terrified of her. It was only when I went to work the next day and talked about it at coffee-time that someone told me who Gareth Peirce was: she was rather famous, and was the solicitor played by Emma Thompson in the film In the Name of the Father.

At least for a while, this episode gave my work colleagues the entirely false impression that I was someone with immensely useful connections. In truth I had no idea who Gareth Peirce was and never actually met her. As far as I know she acted that evening on an entirely pro bono basis.

*Gareth Peirce was born Jean Webb but changed her name when young. I don’t know why.

R.I.P. Roger Griffin (1935-2021)

Posted in Film, History, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on February 19, 2021 by telescoper

Roger Griffin (picture credit: St John’s College, Cambridge)

Earlier today I heard the sad news of the death at the age of 85 of astronomer Roger Griffin. He passed away on 12th February 2021.

Roger Griffin worked at Cambridge for over six decades, except for one year when he had a post-doctorate position at the Mount Wilson and Palomar Observatories, of the Carnegie Institution of Washington. He was the Assistant Director of Research in Astronomy at the University of Cambridge for nine years before he was promoted to a Readership of Observational Astronomy and later a Professorship. He appeared in the film Starmen alongside Donald Lyndon-Bell, Wal Sargent and Neville “Nick” Woolf.

Roger Griffin worked on astronomical spectroscopy and his main scientific claim to fame was that he invented a method of measuring radial velocities of stars in binary systems described in this classic paper published in 1967:

Over the subsequent years he published many radial velocity curves thus obtained in a long series of papers in the Observatory Magazine and the same method was subsequently used for measuring orbits of black holes and detecting extrasolar planets.

Despite the Cambridge connection I never met Roger Griffin personally but people who did talk about him with great affection and he will be greatly missed.

Rest in peace, Roger Griffin (1935-2021)

R.I.P. Sean Connery (1930-2020)

Posted in Film with tags , on October 31, 2020 by telescoper

Rest in Peace, Sean Connery, a very fine actor in many roles, but above all The One True James Bond..

Black ’47

Posted in Beards, Film, History with tags , , , on October 14, 2020 by telescoper

The film Black ’47 was released in Ireland in 2018 (just after I moved here) but although it got good reviews I didn’t get around to seeing it in the cinema. Last Friday however it turned up on TV so I watched it and thought it was excellent.

The film tells the story of Martin Feeney (played by James Frecheville) who returns home to Ireland having deserted from the British Army, in 1847, only to find his native Connemara in the grip of the Great Famine. Witnessing the callous treatment of his people by landlords, their agents and the British authorities he sets out on a trail of violent retribution against the oppressors. In structure the film is very like that of a classic `revenge’ Western, though set in the Wild West of Ireland rather than America. It’s very well acted by a very fine cast and superbly photographed, grimly convincing in its depiction of the extreme deprivation of the time, with gripping action sequences. Among many other things, I was impressed by the realistic portrayal of the unreliability and inaccuracy of mid 19th Century firearms. The rifles in use by the British Army at that time were muzzle loaded, using paper cartridges, so their rate of fire was very low too.

There are some splendid beards too.

I’m sure there will be people to correct me if I’m wrong but I don’t think there were any feature films made about the Great Hunger, despite its importance in Irish history, before this one.

Here’s the official trailer for the movie. I think it’s well worth watching if you can get to see it, though somehow I doubt it will be on prime time television in the UK like it was here in Ireland…

R.I.P. Diana Rigg (1938-2020)

Posted in Film, Television, Theatre with tags , , on September 10, 2020 by telescoper

More sad news today: the death at the age of 82 of the wonderful actress Diana Rigg. She had a long and distinguished career on TV, film and in the theatre. I had the privilege of seeing her opposite David Suchet in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf on stage in London many years ago and thought she was brilliant. But it is as Emma Peel in The Avengers that people of my age will remember her best. Here, by way of a small tribute, is her very first appearance in that role, way back in 1965.

Rest in peace, Diana Rigg (1938-2020)

Two X One Y

Posted in Film, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on August 22, 2020 by telescoper

I found out yesterday that the title of the above paper (on arXiv here) has been causing a bit of a scandal in the astrophysics community.

When I saw the title I was baffled as to why it could cause offence. Then I was told that it was a reference to pornography. I still didn’t understand at all. Then I was told the title of the film to which it is alleged to refer: Two Girls One Cup. I had never heard of it until yesterday and wish I hadn’t because it’s so gross. It is so notorious that it even has a Wikipedia page describing it and reactions to it. Don’t click if you’re easily disgusted. I am fairly broad-minded but I found it entirely disgusting.

I’m told that the film generated a large number of derogatory and misogynistic memes circulated on social media but they all passed me by too. I must be too old.

But even knowing about the film I still don’t see the paper’s title as a reference to it. Had it been an attempt to be a pun then I would have got it, but I don’t think it is. “Flares” and “shock” don’t rhyme with or sound anything like “girls” and “cup”. If it was meant as a pun it’s a failure on two counts. Is every phrase of the form “Two X One Y” now a reference to scat porn?

If anything I would interpret the title as a reference to the idiomatic expression “to kill two birds with one stone”. Or it could just be a reference to the fact that the paper is about two flares associated with one shock.

Regardless of my opinions, though, if this combination of words has caused offence – whether intentionally or not – then it is not a big deal to change the title and that’s what should be done. I’d suggest that simply inserting “with” or “from” would do the trick.

The comments I saw on Twitter yesterday basically divide into those like me who didn’t get the alleged reference at all and those who were appalled. The latter were almost exclusively younger people based in America (who are more likely to have been exposed to the film) . The authors of the paper are predominantly based outside the USA and in my view it would be a mistake to assume they all share the same cultural experience as a particular demographic of the United States. I think it would be very unfair to jump to the conclusion that the reference is deliberate.

I’m genuinely interested to see what people think about this title. I realise I have spoilt this by giving the background, but here’s a poll. Please answer by giving your initial reaction.

Update: the title has been changed, as I suggested…

Storm Scenes

Posted in Film with tags , , , on August 19, 2020 by telescoper

Ireland, especially the South and West thereof, is bracing itself tonight for the arrival of Storm Ellen. It seems likely to reach Maynooth in the early hours of tomorrow morning but will probably have dissipated a bit by then.

Anyway, the thought of a storm battering the Irish coast reminded me of the memorable storm scenes in David Lean’s 1970 film Ryan’s Daughter. The film crew had to wait almost a year near the coast at Dingle for a sufficiently violent storm but when one arrived they caught its elemental power superbly. No CGI in these shots!

I love the long shots of the people scurrying like ants on top of the cliff. Their movement makes them look terrified. I suspect they weren’t acting.

Update: it was indeed a very stormy night. I was woken up a few times by the gales, and there are lots of reports on the radio of fallen trees and debris, but I don’t know of any serious damage here in Maynooth.