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Napoleon, restored

I spent much of New Year’s Eve quite rationally, watching a five-and-a-half hour silent movie at the Edinburgh Filmhouse.

I should clarify that there were three intervals. And it was time well spent: the film was a restored BFI version of Abel Gance’s 1927 epic Napoleon, telling the story of the general’s early years. Despite the feature’s length it was intended as only the first in a series of six movies covering the life of the great man. As it transpired the opening episode proved so hard to make that its successors were never made.

The film is a technical wonder, illustrating the full range of what the avant-garde filmmakers of the 1920s could do with limited means. It was one of the first movies to use fluid camera action and tracking shots, and employed a battery of new techniques including close-ups, point-of-view perspectives, multiple exposure, colour tinting and mosaic effects.

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The luminous coast

The Luminous Coast is the title of a book about the East Anglian shoreline that – of course – is on my reading list.

It’s a title that describes those North Sea horizons very well. I’ve spent many hours walking by the sea since returning to Britain in October. I once read somewhere that the theologian Paul Tillich described the shore as a numinous place, at the border of the finite and the infinite. I have a feeling I’ve used the image in a previous blog post, but I like it and it seems appropriate to use it again here.

Here are a few images taken during various walks over the past three months, capturing the changing textures of the sea and sky, unashamedly subjected to some Photoshop work to capture something of the ambience of each outing. Please click the thumbnails for larger versions of each photo.

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My favourite books of 2016

There are some chaps who are no good for anything but books. I plead guilty to being such a chap. EM Forster, A Room With A View

Indeed. Here are ten books I particularly appreciated this year – though not necessarily published in 2016 – listed in alphabetical order. I reviewed quite a few of them for various online magazines, and where applicable have provided links to the versions archived on this site.

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Arrival and the possibility of conversation

Arrival, the film adaption of the novella Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang, has been recognised as one of the most intelligent sci-fi films of recent years, as concerned with helping us see our own world anew as with what might exist beyond it.

It is especially poignant, perhaps, that Denis Villeneuve’s movie was released only days after a bitter US Presidential race, whose outcome was only the most shocking upset of a year that has exposed seemingly irresolvable political and cultural divisions. For essentially it is a story about the possibility of communication, of bridging the abysmal gulfs that stop us talking to each other.

An alien civilisation visits Earth, their opaque, ovoid spacecraft – monumental structures recalling 2001’s monoliths – materialising one day at various locations across the world: the Indian Ocean, the Siberian tundra, the plains of Montana – twelve in all. Their portals hover a few metres from the ground, inviting entry.

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Imagining a ‘progressive communitarianism’

The new authoritarianism sweeping through liberal democracies increasingly justifies parallels with the 1930s.

Now, like then, electorates face multiple insecurities: a lack of decent work, crumbling welfare systems, widening inequalities and rapidly changing migration patterns.

And now, like then, there is little faith in the capacity of governments to address those issues, seeing them commonly as ‘elites’ content to trust in the creative destruction of the market or the ability of communities to sustain social solidarities even as their shifting populations wax and wane. This enervation has left a void into which the nationalist right has stepped with crude agendas for economic protectionism and closed borders.

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