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When Hitler came to power I was in the bath

“When Hitler came to power I was in the bath.”

allthatiamannafunder_reheatAs opening sentences go, this has to be among the best ever, so I’m pinching it to open this blog piece. After all, Anna Funder’s semi-factual novel All That I Am did rather well with that opening salvo.

I really wanted to open with a reference back to one of the very few English lessons I remember from my schooldays. We were studying Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard. Not, in fact, the first line, but the third:

  • The ploughman homeward plods his weary way

Why were the words in this order? The English language allowed many other ways of saying the same thing, but would it have worked any other way?

  •  Homeward the ploughman plods his weary way
  • The weary ploughman plods his way homeward
  • His weary way homeward plods the ploughman

And so on and so on. We looked at alliteration, rhythm, grammar, meaning, foregrounding and so on. I probably haven’t thought a lot about this since that time, and I won’t discuss it here. But something must have sunk in, because it came to mind when I wondered why Anna Funder’s line had hit me in the face so hard when I opened All That I Am. There is so much packed into this sentence that is worthy of a PhD all on its own. But why is it so good?

There is no doubt that the sentence has a lovely poetic rhythm: di dah di di di dah-di / dah di di di dah. But that’s not enough. It’s all about the precise juxtaposition of two ideas.

First of all, the daring matching of these two such contrasting and apparently unconnected ideas: the private, almost intimate event of little consequence, set against, arguably, one of the most momentous events in the public life of the twentieth century. Try some different, less daring pairings:

  • When Dora phoned I was in the bath.
  • When Hitler came to power I was living in the middle of Berlin.

Good starts to a story, but not really arresting.

I discovered I am not the only person to be fascinated by this sentence. Blogger Bryce Alcock cites New York Times writer, Stanley Fish,who says that first sentences need what he  calls “an angle of lean”. First sentences, says Stanley Fish, “lean forward, inclining in the direction of the elaborations they anticipate.” Funder’s book, based on two real characters who were active in the resistance to Hitler’s rise to power in the 1930s, weaves their personal stories around the historical events of the time with devastating effect. The opening sentence is a perfect demonstration of what is to come, and there isn’t long to wait before the connections are drawn. The text continues:

 try-this-404x229“Our apartment was on the Schiffbauerdamm near the river, right in the middle of Berlin. From its windows we could see the dome of the parliament building. The wireless in the living room was turned up loud so Hans could hear it in the kitchen, but all that drifted down to me were waves of happy cheering, like a football match. It was Monday afternoon.”

Next, consider the sentence order. It starts on the large scale, an event which took some years to complete and had effect around the world. The reader’s imagination is whetted: we are prepared for a story of grand ideas, but are drawn immediately into a brief unseen, otherwise unrecorded event, but one which involves the writer. In a film, the opening shot would start with a helicopter view of a great city and steadily shift down to street level and the assembled crowds, and then track into an open bathroom window.

Try the alternative:

  • I was in the bath when Hitler came to power.

Well, it’s grammatical, and clearly expressed. But this order of ideas suggests strongly that, as we move from the personal event to the public historical one, the novel is to be the narrator’s own view of the events of that time, rather than her personal involvement. There is a sense that the narrator wasn’t well placed to observe much, and so we are likely to be left with a personal memoir in which Hitler’s rise to power is nothing more than a context-setting reference to the period.

If we had opened the book and read:

  • I was a cleaner in the Reichstag when Hitler came to power.

It would all have seemed perfectly reasonable, and unsurprising that such a person could have been well-placed to give an account of the events. Equally, there would have been no point in reversing the order as Anna Funder did with such surprising effect.

  • When Hitler came to power I was a cleaner in the Reichstag.

If anything it is weaker than the alternative, but neither leaves us wanting any further explanation for the drawing together of the two events.

hitlerNow look at the construction of the sentence: two clauses, one subordinate to the other. Anna Funder subordinates Hitler to her narrator/observer. The principal sentence is “I was in the bath”, and the clause about Hitler is simply an adverbial clause which adds information by referring to a simultaneous event.

There’s another possibility: “When” can sometimes indicate a causal or a sequential relationship.

  • When Hitler came to power, many Jews rushed to leave Germany.
  • Hitler came to power when Hindenburg made him Chancellor.

Reversing the weight of the sentence, making bath time the adverbial clause, might have implied this causality.

  •  Hitler came to power when I was in the bath.
  • When I was in the bath, Hitler came to power.

Teasing and intriguing, but not really in the service of what is to come as the narrative unfolds.

Finally, like many other great opening sentences, it travels from the weighty proposition to the unexpected or seemingly inadequate resolution – we are thrown into the middle of a great feast and, being delivered nothing more than a snack, are left panting for more. Consider one or two other contenders for “best first sentence”:

And so I have started my career as a book reviewer. One thousand words, and I haven’t really got past the first sentence. I might need to reconsider this choice.


Case versus the English banking system

There’s a sad coda to the previous story about the missing railway ticket and my father’s dealings with officialdom.

Nearly 50 years on from the train journey, father was in the last year of his life, and only just managing to hang on. His well-structured and minutely-managed financial affairs were growing harder and harder to keep up with, and the world was a more impersonal and less understanding place than during most of his working life.

It seems he had a credit card that he hadn’t used for some years, but there was one direct debit on it each year – the TV licence renewal – which he paid as soon as the statement came in. After some years of this minimal use, the bank wrote:

“In our most recent review we noted that your account has been particularly well managed and have therefore increased your credit limit to £1,000.”

But this was the year that he became bedridden, and simply couldn’t keep up. The TV licence was paid automatically, but he missed paying the card off. There was a five pound minimum monthly payment due each month, and for some reason, when the third reminder came in, he didn’t pay the whole balance, just the minimum payment. But by that time it had increased by another month’s worth of five pounds, so he was still in arrears, triggering another round of reminders and demands.

These reminders are quite impressive. The first one reads:

“I notice that we have not received a payment on your account. I feel sure that this is an oversight. However, as your account is a monthly credit facility it is essential . . . .etc”

The next one, ten days later, is a little more assertive:

“I am concerned to note that despite previous requests, you still have not made a payment to your account. etc.”

A month later:

“Please contact this department immediately to discuss the position on your credit card account.”

Then they let rip with both barrels: (this is for just a £15 overdue payment)

 “This is a default notice served under Section 87(1) of the Consumer Credit Act 1974.

“In relation to the agreement . . . you have failed to make the necessary monthly repayments.

“If the payment is not made on or before the date advised, the bank may

(a)     terminate the agreement

(b)     demand the return of all cards issued on your account

(c)     demand repayment of the outstanding balance on your account and commence legal proceedings against you

Additionally we will

(a)     cancel any credit card repayment protector

(b)     award no further air miles points to you

(c)     withhold renewal of your cards

If you have any difficulty in paying . . .  you may apply to the court . . .”

This was sufficiently loud and clear to get payment of the overdue amount (but still, inexplicably, not of the full balance), and so next month the cycle started again, leading up to a second ultimatum and, this time, full payment, clearing the balance to zero.

A month later, over the same signature as the reminders and default notices:

“As part of our commitment to customer service we regularly review our account credit limits. I am delighted to be able to increase your credit limit on your card to £1,200.”

In the next few months, now with others helping my father, the TV licence was once again renewed, paid for promptly, the credit card was cancelled and the account closed. Only weeks later, my father passed away.

Six weeks later, a statement arrived showing the credit card annual renewal fee of £12.


Correspondence from 70 years ago

Seventy years ago in 1942, the world was at war. In Britain, the blitz had eased off from its worst, but for ordinary citizens, life was tough. Food and clothing rationing was in full swing. Petrol was hard to get. Trains were full of servicemen rushing home across the country for 24 hours’ leave.

And it was the year that my parents were married. They took a week’s honeymoon in the Lake District. I believe they found more good food out among the farms, and undoubtedly had a good and relatively peaceful time.

Only one thing went wrong. The train fare from London up to the north would have cost my father a week’s salary. And, somehow, he lost the return tickets. I found the following correspondence among his meticulously-filed papers. The letters speak of a more formal time, but also of a more generous time. And all seems to have ended up well.

Commercial Superintendent
London Midland and Scottish Railway
Euston, London NW

13th April 1942

Dear Sir

On Thursday the 2nd April last, I purchased two monthly return tickets from Watford Junction to Cockermouth through Messrs Pickfords Limited, Clarendon Road, Watford. The tickets were issued on blank cards, numbered 3717/8 the cost being £6 7s 4d.

I travelled up to Cockermouth by the Night Train from Euston on Sunday night 5th April, but either handed in the whole of the ticket at Cockermouth station, or alternatively mislaid the return tickets and was unable to find then when returning last Saturday, the 11th instant.

On the instructions of the clerk at Cockermouth, I purchased for the return journey single tickets to London, numbers 9317/8 travelling on the train leaving Cockermouth Junction at 7.10 and arriving at Watford at 4.6pm, the charge for these tickets being £4 15s 4d.

I should be glad if you would make the necessary enquiries with regard to these tickets, as I understand that the amount of £4 15s 4d will be refundable if the non-use of the tickets is proves to your satisfaction.

If there is any further information that I can supply I should be happy to do so.

Yours faithfully

P J L Case


London Midland and Scottish Railway Company
District Passenger Manager’s Office
66 Drummond Street, NW1

13th May 1942

Dear Sir

Adverting to your letter of 13th ultimo, I have to inform you that I have been unable to find that the return halves of your tickets were surrendered at Cockermouth, neither is it possible to definitely establish whether they have been utilised or not. In the circumstances the Company does not admit any liability for the refundment of the extra fares paid. I do not however wish to take advantage of your unfortunate loss, and as a special case enclose a remittance for £4 14s 4d in respect of the additional fares paid and shall be obliged if you will acknowledge receipt on the attached form.

Yours faithfully


My father regularly took on large companies in this way, and it seems he often won. He was, after all, an accountant (or strictly, at that time, an audit clerk). There is, however, no trace of any further letter chasing the discrepancy of one shilling.

The barista – hairdresser or shoemender?

In my marketing course we learnt about the difference between shoemenders and hairdressers.

Of course there are plenty: for example they deal with different ends of the body. But this was all ab out the “Servicescape” – that is, the environment in which you do business with these providers. It proved a particularly useful distinction for me at work, in helping shift the film processing laboratory’s way of thinking to that of a digital postproduction house. Different headspace, different boots? Well it’s more than that.

The theory goes that when you need your shoes repaired, you simply go to the booth in the shopping mall and leave them there. The work isn’t done on the spot; it’s in some backroom somewhere, possibly off site in a workshop environment. You don’t know or care who does it or what their name is, and are don’t really care to stay around and watch the process or get involved in it. (“Could you try a touch more glue there, look, just under that corner of the heel?”). And there’s nothing really glamorous even about the sales counter. It’s functional, that’s all. You just drop the shoes off and pick them up a few days later. Job done.

The hairdresser is different. I’m not thinking of a traditional men’s barber (short back’n’sides, half price on Tuesdays). The modern hairdresser is quite different. For one thing you can’t leave the job there to be collected later! So the working environment is important, as you’ll be there for the duration. The décor, the music, and the type of chatter you have to put up with, all figure strongly. If they offer coffee is it up to par? You might ask your friends for recommendations before you walk into a new place. And you’ll want to know who is going to do your hair, and probably request them by name after you’ve been a couple of times. Finally, you are going to be involved all along. (How do you like that? A bit less weight on top, do you think?)

It worked that way for the film laboratory – shoe-mender model: you drop the film off to be processed – out the back where it smelt of chemicals but who cares, you aren’t going there. (Probably you don’t even go to the lab, it’s the runner who takes it). You don’t know the name of the processing operator, or which brand of chemicals will be used. And the film despatch counter is probably no more customer-friendly than the shoe-repair booth.

The digital post house is the hairdresser in this story. The environment is everything. The coffee machine almost as critical as the grading suite: you will certainly request a particular colourist (see, it is like a hairdresser), and you’ll certainly seek recommendations before you commit to a new place. Once you are there, you’ll be deeply involved with the whole process, and probably get to know the staff looking after you quite well.

It’s a clear distinction. Different businesses work on different levels of customer/employee contact, and build the business environment to match.

So where does the barista fit in? Many of us grab a coffee on the way to work – or duck out during the day to get a shot of caffeine. It’s become important that the coffee is just right. Baristas are as precious as good hair stylists, and customers will follow them from one place to another. They get to know you, and a good barista will get to know your choice of coffee shot after a day or two (so many of them are ‘he’, have you noticed?). There’s the daily chat, a bit of ‘attitude’ and pride in serving the best possible cup of coffee. Clearly this is the hairdresser model, not the shoemender (who’d probably serve you a weak instant coffee in a paper cup, with no ‘tude).

So what is it with the servicescape in a coffee shop? The most sought-after coffee places are crowded, uncomfortable (the most popular one up the road offers milk crates to sit on), and noisy. The coffee grinder makes a racket, drowning out the noise of the bus going past right outside, and the customers are all shouting at each other to get over all that other noise. Surely it’s not an environment you’d build deliberately to attract people. And yet, the place up the road that had big comfy sofas to sit on, peace and quiet, a door that actually closed to keep the street noise out, went out of business. (Of course it was Starbucks which explains a lot).

I think the Servicescape theory works well at either end of the body – heads and feet – but it’s got a bit of explaining to do before it can account for what goes in between.

“Mama don’t take my Kodachrome away”

It was back in 1973 that Paul Simon immortalised colour photography in this song – but if he saw the writing on the wall, it was a long time coming. The last ever roll of 35mm Kodachrome film will be processed – at  Dwayne’s Photofinishing Lab in Kansas City – in December this year. Manufacture of the film stock was discontinued some time ago.

Kodachrome – a positive ‘reversal’ process that produced a direct positive image on the camera original – was one of the first successful colour processes, dating back to 1936, before Technicolor was perfected. It turned out to be most favoured in the colour slide stills market. The rich, contrasty saturated colours became a hallmark of National Geographic photographs. In the 1960s amateur photographers turned from black and white roll film, with its tiny paper prints to 35mm colour transparencies, and Kodachrome, with the convenience of a pre-paid mailing envelope was the way they did it. You just dropped the exposed film in the mailbox and got your box of slides back a week later.

For the professional moving image business, Kodachrome wasn’t so successful. It started with a two-colour process in the 1920s.

Although Technicolor experimented with Kodachrome techniques very early on, the cost was prohibitive, and they eventually adopted an entirely different process, although it was one that also produced characteristically rich colours: just think of The Wizard of Oz.  Kodak persisted, and manufactured their film in all gauges for stills and motion picture alike. Only one feature, Lassie Come Home (1943) was ever shot in Kodachrome (albeit a version modified for printing by Technicolor), and the most celebrated professional 16mm film in Kodachrome was of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation.

Another problem was the processing. Unlike modern negative and print processes, and even other reversal processes, Kodachrome used a remarkably complex process with multiple stages of development and re-exposure, and the colour dyes were added at the time of processing instead of being incorporated into the emulsion during manufacture. No wonder you generally had to send film back to Kodak themselves for processing! In its heyday there was a processing line at Kodak’s Melbourne plant, but no other Australian company ever offered the service.

The arrival of good quality colour negative stocks and inexpensive stills paper prints spelt the end of Kodachrome’s supremacy in the consumer market many years ago, around the time of Paul Simon’s song.  But it is digital photography that has eroded 35mm’s base much further, to the point where even die-hard professional stills photographers and keen 8mm amateur filmmakers were not enough for Kodak to keep Kodachrome alive.

Apart from bright colours, Kodachrome has one more thing in common with Technicolor: its dyes are remarkably stable. Film is known to last for a century or more under ideal storage conditions (colder temperatures, controlled humidity and so on). Kodachrome colour slides are still the same colour as when they were shot. But although black and white film, processed correctly, doesn’t fade, and modern colour films last well, colour prints from the 1960s and 70s – both stills on paper and the motion picture prints used in projection – very often turn out to have faded badly, leaving not much colour at all except for a flat brownish tinge. It’s a significant problem for film and photographic archives, solved only by good storage conditions, and copying original film components onto modern stocks.

It’s ironic in a way: “film is forever”, argue aficionados and archivists alike. But Kodachrome, the most long-lasting and most distinctive of film processes is the one that has now moved into the Never-Never.

Digital Cinema: fight over, the roll out continues

Avatar (in case there is anyone who hasn’t seen it), tells the story of a powerful human force who have colonised a remote planet, and are intent extracting precious minerals, regardless of the more sensitive, less aggressive natives, whose cultural home lies over the richest deposits. The film has swept box-office records away in a tsunami worth US$2.6m of ticket sales, (still counting). It has resuscitated the roll-out not only of 3D but of D-Cinema in general. But has this roll-out upset the delicately-balanced ecology of independent cinema in regional Australia in just the way the mining colonists trampled on Pandora? And if so, how are the natives reacting?

Until late last year, the case for putting in a full Hollywood-Endorsed DCI (Digital Cinema Initiative) digital projection system was unconvincing. Spending up to $150,000 on a digital projector and server, to show the same films the cinemas had been getting all along as 35mm prints, wasn’t attractive. On the other hand, independent and regional cinemas could see a good case for installing a lower cost e-cinema system that gave them access to art house, independent and Australian titles at the same time as the first release houses in capital cities. Because only a few 35mm prints are normally made of these titles, regional cinemas have had to wait, often until after the DVD is released and their potential audience has evaporated. But this was new, extra box office business, filling the cinema for mid week and matinee performances. Business that would pay for the equipment in a year or two.

E-cinema works well in small to medium-sized cinemas, with less mainstream pictures. But it doesn’t conform to the DCI specifications. It has slightly lower resolution, and less secure (if any) encryption. And the encoding and compression format is different. Hollywood studios won’t permit their films to be shown in e-cinema format.

And so, as things stood last year, there was not a little disagreement in the cinema business: whether to encourage smaller cinemas to put in e-cinema, at least as a first step towards digitisation, or to support Hollywood and the major distributors in their demands for D-cinema or nothing. Independent distributors like Peter Castaldi (The PacK) pointed out the opportunities the e-cinema provided for distributing Australian films to independent cinemas, with fewer booking commitments for mainstream films: ICAA chair Mark Safarty wisely pointed out that D-cinema would ultimately become the universal standard, and argued that e-cinema was already a blind alley.

In the middle of last year, there were between 400 and 450 e-cinema installations around the country, and a hundred or so D-cinemas. But a storm was gathering: and its name was Avatar. Both Hoyts and Greater Union were installing DCI-approved 3D cinema systems as fast as they could go, and a number of independents were too. By the time Avatar opened just before Christmas, the number of D-cinemas had doubled – and they were all 3D-capable. According to Ben Wilson of equipment suppliers EdgeDigital Technology, there are now over 300 D-cinema systems up and running. Since Christmas, though, in the wake of a poorly-timed DCI specification change he reports that it has been hard to source enough projectors to keep up with D-cinema demand. EdgeDigital was formerly Atlab Image & Sound Technology, the leading supplier of e-cinema equipment. “Demand for that stopped dead late last year.” says Wilson. However, he reports that many cinemas are now also installing equipment to allow alternative inputs to their D-cinema system, including HD video and e-cinema.

At first, regional independent cinemas installed just one e-cinema system to play the lower-demand independent features on a single screen. Now, according to Wilson, a growing number are, like the major cinema chains, installing D-cinema throughout their complex, together with cinema programming and automation systems. This gives the flexibility to “play down” a digital film into smaller auditoriums as demand falls off. However, completely digitising a complex is a major investment, still beyond the reach of many independents.

Peter Castaldi bases his distribution business (The PacK) on Australian films. While it’s not always easy to get them programmed by the major chains, which have a constant supply of heavily-marketed product coming from the Hollywood studio system, he focuses more on independent distributors.

He reports that last year’s “D- or death” scenario has been toned down. Even Hollywood realised that could not afford to write off the indie sector (which represents half the screens in Australia), and so the business model has had to shift to accommodate them, he says. The proposed Virtual Print Fee (VPF), a financing model intended to ease the equipment cost for exhibitors, has so far not been adopted: but this has resulted in an easing of any restrictions on what can be shown on D-cinema systems, making a combined D- and e- system more feasible for independents.

He points to The PacK’s recent release of David Bradbury’s surfing documentary Going Vertical in about 30 cinemas, mainly in coastal centres, including major chain Greater Union as well as independents, in a mixture of D-cinema and e-cinema formats.

Another major player in the now slowed e-cinema rollout up is John Stokes, of Skytech systems, and previously Panalogic. Stokes confirms that existing installations of e-cinema are “alive and well”, but welcomes the shift towards the much more closely standardised D-cinema system “it’s more consistent in colour” he says.

With the drying up of conventional e-cinema equipment sales in Australia, Stokes finds his business has shifted. He is working closely with Castaldi in distributing independent features, but also expanding into what Castaldi calls “Microcinema”: very low cost installations in 30-seat rooms in bars and clubs, into other visual display systems (digital signage) for shopping centres. Stokes is also going into the Indian cinema business.

Despite its massive population, and production industry that rivals Hollywood for numbers of films produced, there aren’t many cinemas in India. There are just 12,000 screens: that is, one for every 80,000 people, about a tenth of the ratio for the USA or for Australia.

With its enormously popular local production industry, Indian exhibitors are not as beholden to DCI standards as the Australian industry is, but encryption is vital. So, according to Stokes, they are rolling out a hybrid system: e-cinema (HD) resolution, with DCI-level encryption, playing on low-cost projectors. Cinemas in India also see a big business opportunity in screening live cricket, potentially in 3D. In Australia, Hoyts is also reportedly considering 3D sports coverage.

It seems that Australia’s cinema industry – from the hardware providers to the independent distributors and exhibitors – might have skilfully hitched a ride with Avatar, healed over a potentially damaging split in technology, and found new business opportunities along the way.

– published in SCREENHUB April 12th 2010 –

Alice in Wrongland

I know films don’t set out to replicate books exactly – they are different media. But surely it is a requirement that if you are going to use the same title as a book, then you need to do more than use the same characters and set pieces.

Lewis Carroll’s book was a brilliantly original and amusing but donnish look at some of the conundrums of language, logic, epistemology and philosophy, set out to entertain young children. Alice’s voyage is one of inquiry. She reaches the end of the book with new wisdom.

Burton’s film is a fast-moving colourful adventure in an absolutely standard cookie-cutter mould of “Alice sets out to rescue the world from the mad emperor.” She reaches the end of the film with eventual triumph,having “restored order” in Wonderland, and as an afterthought, having turned into a feisty young woman who won’t marry the rich young idiot, and goes off to conquer the “real” world.

Some have said it’s not so much an “overcoming the evil empire” film as a post-feminist story. Maybe – at least she doesn’t settle for a life of tea parties and embroidery – but the film still supplies a nice, familiar, imperialist/colonialist conclusion.

There’s not a lot of Wondering in Burton’s Blunderland. It’s not just a film adaptation – it’s an entirely different story.