Archive for the Film Category

The Kindness of Faces

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff, Film, Television with tags , on July 28, 2022 by telescoper
Bernard Cribbins

Another bit of sad news arrived today. The much-loved character actor, singer and comedian Bernard Cribbins has passed away at the age of 93. He was a remarkably versatile performer who appeared in scores of films and TV programmes over the years, including numerous stints on Jackanory, on which he revealed himself to be a superb reader of children’s stories, and providing all the voices for the TV series of The Wombles. Rest in peace, Bernard Cribbins (1928-2022).

Reading about his death and looking at pictures of him taken during his long and varied career got me thinking about something I’ve wondered about many times over the years, namely what is it about certain faces that makes them appear kind?

I know it’s a subjective judgment whether or not someone has a kind face but it does seem that many people do agree on it. I certainly think Bernard Cribbins had a kind face and it stayed with him all through his long career. Among actors, Tom Hanks is another prominent example. His face has clearly influenced the roles he has been cast in. No doubt you can think of others.

This is not just about showbusiness of course. I have met many people in the course of my life who have what I’d describe as kind faces, but what exactly is it about their faces that makes them so? It seems to involve a certain shape – softer features perhaps, not too angular – with rounder eyes and an easy smile. Other than those vague considerations I really don’t know. I have looked back through the personal library of kind faces in my memory and they don’t really have much in common at all. Whatever it is, it’s not the same thing that makes a face handsome or beautiful or sexy, though those are also of course subjective. For me there has to be a hint of danger for someone to be very sexy; a kind face is perhaps too bland.

Anyway, I remember many years ago talking with a (female) graduate student in a pub in Cardiff about this subject. In fact we started talking about which men in the Department we thought were the most handsome – I’d better keep quiet about that bit – but got onto a more general discussion. She had – and presumably still has – what I’d call a kind face, and I told her so when the subject came up. She was very aware that people thought that too and wasn’t entirely pleased about it. She said her face made people assume she was extremely emphatic and proceed to burden her with their personal problems even if she didn’t know them very well. I’d never thought of that downside before then.

In Macbeth, Duncan says “There’s no art / to find the mind’s construction in the face”, and there’s no necessary connection between a kindly disposition and a kind face. No doubt there are successful criminals, con-artists and the like, who trade on their apparently kind faces to manipulate their victims. On the other hand, in a world that can be incomprehensibly cruel, it can be nice to see a kind face even if it’s just a superficial relief.

Any theories on what makes a kind face and/or other examples of people who have such please use through the box below.

Dead of Night

Posted in Film, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on June 6, 2022 by telescoper

Last week I was chatting to one of my colleagues about old films, particularly those made in the immediate post-war years by Ealing Studios. Nowadays this film production company is most strongly associated with superb comedy films, including such classics as Passport to Pimlico, Whisky Galore, The Ladykillers and The Lavender Hill Mob among many more. But there was more to Ealing Studios than the Ealing Comedies. During the war the company was involved in making propaganda films to help with the war effort, most of which are now forgettable but at least one, Went the Day Well, about people in an English village attempting to resist ruthless German paratroopers, is genuine shocking to this day because of its unusually frank depiction (for the time) of brutality and violence in a normally tranquil and familiar setting. The image of Thora Hird taking on the invaders with a Lee Enfield rifle is one that stays in my mind.

Horror films were banned during the War but in 1945 Ealing Studios released one which was to become enormous influential in the genre and which holds up extremely well to this day. As a matter of fact, I watched it again, for the umpteenth time, last night.

I’ve actually blogged about a bit of this film before. There is a sequence (to me by far the scariest in the  film) about a ventriloquist (played by Michael Redgrave) who is gradually possessed by his evil dummy which came up in a post I did about Automatonophobia many moons ago.

Anyway, you only have to watch Dead of Night to watch it to appreciate why it its held in such high regard by critics to this day. Indeed you can see ideas in it which have been repeated in a host of subsequent (and usually inferior) horror flicks. I’m not going to spoil it by saying too much about the plot. I would say though that it’s basically a portmanteau film, i.e. a series of essentially separate stories (to the extent of having a different director for each such segment) embedded within an overall narrative. It also involves an intriguing plot device similar to those situations in which you are dreaming, but in the dream you wake up and don’t know whether you’re actually awake or still dreaming.

In this film the architect Walter Craig arrives at a country cottage, is greeted by his host Elliot Foley who has invited him to discuss possible renovations of the property. He is shown into a room with several other guests. Despite apparently never having been to the property before it seems strangely familiar and despite never having met the guests before he says he has seen them all in a recurring dream. One by one the guests recount strange stories. When they’ve all had their turn the film reaches a suitably nightmarish ending but Craig then wakes up in bed at home and realizes it was all a dream. Then the phone rings and it’s Elliot Foley inviting him to his country cottage to discuss possible renovations. The film ends with Craig arriving at the cottage just as he did at the start of the film.

Here is the trailer:

It’s the “dream-within-a-dream” structure (presumably repeated forever) – what physicists would call a self-similar hierarchy – of the overall framework of this movie that gives it its particular interest from the point of view of this blog, because it played an important role in the evolution of theoretical cosmology. One evening in 1946 the mathematicians and astrophysicts Fred Hoyle, Hermann Bondi and Tommy Gold went to see Dead of Night in Cambridge. Discussing the film afterwards they came up with the idea of the steady state cosmology, the first scientific papers about which were published in 1948. For the best part of two decades this theory was a rival to the now-favoured “Big Bang” (a term coined by Fred Hoyle which was intended to be a derogatory description of the opposing theory).

In the Big Bang theory there is a single “creation event”, so this particular picture of the Universe has a definite beginning, and from that point the arrow of time endows it with a linear narrative. In the steady state theory, matter is created continuously in small bits (via a hypothetical field called the C-field) so the Universe has no beginning and its time evolution not unlike that of the film.

Modern cosmologists sometimes dismiss the steady state cosmology as a bit of an aberration, a distraction from the One True Big Bang but it was undeniably a beautiful theory. The problem was that so many of its proponents refused to accept the evidence that they were wrong.  Supporters of  disfavoured theories rarely change their minds, in fact. The better theory wins out because younger folk tend to support it, while the recalcitrant old guard defending  theirs in spite of the odds eventually die out.

And another thing. If Fred Hoyle had thought of it he might have  called the field responsible for creating matter a scalar field, rather than the C-field, and it would now be much more widely recognized that he (unwittingly) invented many elements of modern inflationary cosmology. In fact, in some versions of inflation the Universe as a whole is very similar to the steady state model, only the continuous creation is not of individual particles or atoms, but of entire Big-Bang “bubbles” that can grow to the size of our observable Universe. So maybe the whole idea was actually right after all..

Blog Life

Posted in Biographical, Film, History with tags , , on March 23, 2022 by telescoper

It has been a very strange past few weeks on the blog with much higher levels of traffic than usual (though it is now reverting to more normal levels). Initially I assumed that this abnormal activity was generated by a certain person sniffing around old posts looking for things to complain about, but further investigation revealed that wasn’t the case at all.

In fact, a large fraction of the increase was generated by a post I wrote about a decade ago about Operation Carthage, a British air raid on March 21st 1945 aimed at destroying the Gestapo Headquarters in Copenhagen.

The reason for the sudden increase in interest in this particular post is that a new film about the tragic events of that day, The Shadow of My Eye, has been on Netflix this month and this has apparently spurred people to google the subject, some of them finding my old post as a consequence. I haven’t seen the film so won’t comment on it myself, although there are some recent comments on the old post from people about it.

Talking about comments, I should remind my readers that I do have a policy which is published on the front page of this site. The statement of this policy includes

Feel free to comment on any of the posts on this blog but comments may be moderated; anonymous comments and any considered by me to be vexatious and/or abusive and/or defamatory will not be accepted.

If people make it necessary for me to ban them from posting comments, then all their previous comments will automatically be moved offline. I don’t take this step very often, but I make no apology for doing so when a person’s behaviour justifies it.

I hope this clarifies the situation.

Facebook Folly

Posted in Biographical, Film with tags , , on February 7, 2022 by telescoper

Yesterday I found myself in the Facebook punishment block. My crime? To share a piece from the main RTÉ website about the film In Bruges.

I couldn’t understand the decision to ban me for sharing an innocuous article about a comedy film (though it’s admittedly a very dark comedy) especially when material that is so much worse is allowed. A few hours later, however, I was unbanned. I clicked on the ‘learn more’ link to be taken to a blank page. I assume the whole thing was just a mistake.

Of course this ban/unban episode is of no consequence. What worries me though is that the ban was imposed immediately, suggesting that somebody (or some AI bot) must be watching everything that gets posted by users; the same entity is presumably also checking the constant stream of bigoted bile, anti-vax misinformation, far-right propaganda, and other hateful lunacies one sees on Fashbook every day and deciding that it’s all perfectly acceptable.

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..