05 September 2015

Rabbit Hole: a film about grief

I saw the film Rabbit Hole (directed by John Cameron Mitchel in 2010) while my parents were both alive, alert and very active members of their family and community. Now my parents both died this year, I wanted to review the film with new eyes.

Becca (Nicole Kidman) and Howie Corbett (Aaron Eckhart) lost their pre-school aged son less than a year ago, from a needless, senseless accident. Their son was chasing a dog who ran onto the road in front of the house and was hit by a passing car. There was no fault.

I personally would not have persisted with the support group, had I been in their appalling situation. The group was not supportive; indeed it was insensitively religious and very repetitive in their own, individual pain. But I suppose the Corbetts had to do something with their horrible lives.

Becca’s working family tried very hard to be supportive, but they were even less helpful than the support group. To have lost a son in both generations of the family seems more than just bad luck - it seemed like a family in permanent crisis. Only once did Becca’s mother (Dianne Wiest) make any headway with her daughter; she explained the management of grief and of normal life over a very long, 11 year period. Perhaps the clearing of Danny’s cupboards represented the first step en route to “managing” the crisis.

Becca and Howie

Becca practically stalked the adolescent whose car was responsible for Danny’s death, not to berate him but to find some understanding. I did not understand her relationship with Jason (Miles Teller), nor did I enjoy the interactions, but I suppose a grieving parent will do anything to talk about their deceased child. Jason was stunningly patient – more than one would expect from an adolescent whose world would normally consist of passing exams and hanging out with girls. Nor did I understand the reference to Parallel Universes, scientist fathers and rabbit holes.... and probably Becca didn’t either. Finally I did not understand the frequent appearance of cartoony collage art.

Perhaps in retaliation, Howie considered an affair with Gaby (Sandra Oh), the longest standing mourner in the support group. Gaby had returned to something approaching normal life, many years after her own child had died. Gaby’s husband, presumably, had not.

TheVine was put slightly offside by the film's visual blandness, as if to visually represent the suffocating expectations of upper middle class life. The expression “terminally tasteful” was telling, since there is absolutely nothing tasteful about grief.

But I disagree with TheVine. The fact that a family lived elegantly in a lovely home on the lake did not make the viewer insensitive to their plight. Becca and Howie had not had sex for almost a year, and for that alone, their pain was palpable. The raging anger by Howie and the resentful silences by Becca were EXACTLY what I would have expected. Both of them had meltdowns, but mostly they preserved a brittle stability, at least on the surface.

Two other film blogs made interesting comments. Cinema Autopsy valued the soft, sometimes washed out light that gave the film a melancholic glow that was oddly comforting, despite the great sadness that it elicited. E-Film Blog didn’t expect the film to provide any answers; to even try would have been pretentious. But the questions were still vital.

Seven months after my beloved mother's death and one month after my beloved father's death, I am finding the mourning period to be filled with despair. There is self-blame of course but there is also resentment about the other family members' behaviour and rage about the doctor and hospital's behaviour. A world that seemed perfectly predictable and stable has now become a world of a lost past and a fearful future.

01 September 2015

France or Britain - where was photography invented?

Many thanks to “Introduction to Photography”, published by Niilm University, in Kaithal in the Indian state of Haryana.

William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-77) studied the classics and math­em­at­ics at Cambrid­ge, was elected a Fellow of the Royal As­tronomical Society in 1822, and a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1832. It was his inability to draw which caused him to experiment with a mech­an­ical method of capturing and retaining an image, the camera obscura. In 1833 he was on the lovely shores of the Lake of Como in Italy, taking sketches with a camera obsc­ura when he then thought of re­try­ing an old method. So he threw the image of objects on a piece of paper in the camera obscura’s focus. They were brief images to be sure, doomed to quickly fade away. But it led Talbot to wonder if it were possible to cause his natural images to remain on paper!

The earliest surviving paper negative is of the now famous 1835 Oriel window in the South Gallery at Lacock Abbey, Wiltshire, where Talbot lived. Talbot’s apparatus was armed with a sensitive paper, taken out in a summer afternoon, and placed 100ms from a sun-lit building. Later he opened the box and found a very dist­inct representat­ion of the illuminated building on the paper.

At the same time or slightly earlier, and completely unknown to Talbot, two Frenchmen were struggling with the same prob­lem. The first was Joseph Niépce (1765-1833) who had began research in 1814. He was fasc­in­ated with lithography, but being unable to draw, had to look for another way of obtaining images. Niepce also bought a camera obscura which he loaded with a pewter plate coated with bitumen. Hours later, he removed the plate and washed it with white petroleum and lavender oil. The first ever photograph had been born in 1827, and the prod­ucts were called heliographs.

So Niepce travelled to England and sought to prom­ote his invention via the Royal Society, then the lea­d­­ing learn­ed scientific body. However the Royal Society had a rule that it would not publicise a secret disc­ov­ery i.e. a discovery without all the scientific information attached. So when Niépce died in 1833, leaving examples of his heliographs but no description of his method, he still had not received professional credit from the Royal Society of Science.

Has history underestimated Joseph Niépce’s vital contribution to the invention of photography? If only he had provided a detailed description of his method to the Royal Society when he had the opportunity back in 1827! If only he had taken out a patent on his process! Niepce and France would have been paid their rightful dues as the inventors of photography.

Boulevard du Temple Paris, 1838
The original photo was destroyed in 1940

The second Frenchman was Louis Daguerre (1787-1851) who began work as an apprentice architect, and became a successful stage designer in a Paris theatre. He developed a Dior­ama i.e a picture show with chang­ing light effects and huge paintings of famous places. In 1826 Daguerre learned of Nicephore Niépce’s work, and in 1829 the two men became partners. The partnership was a short one because Niépce died in 1833, but Daguerre continued to experiment with photographic images frozen in time.

Daguerre made an important discovery by accident. In 1835 he put an ex­posed plate in his chemical cupboard, and some days later was amazed to find that the latent image had de­veloped, due to mercury vapour from a broken thermometer. Discovering that a latent image could be “developed” made it possible to reduce the exposure time from some 8 hours to 30 minutes. Though he now knew how to produce an image, it was not until 1837 that he was able to “fix” them. This new process he called a Daguerreotype.

Daguerre announced the development of his proc­ess in Jan 1839 and sought sponsorship, but few seemed interested. So he turned to the French politician Francois Arago who immediately saw the implications of this process and vigorously promoted it. In Jan 1839 the French government announced the discovery, but details were not divulged until August. It was then that the French government, having bought the rights to the process from him, gave it freely to the world.

The Literary Gazette of January 1839 wrote: “We have much pleasure in announ­cing an important discovery made by M. Daguer­re, the celeb­rated painter of the Diorama. This disc­overy promis­es to make a revolution in the arts of design. Dag­uerre has dis­covered a met­hod to fix the images which are repres­ented at the back of a ca­mera obscura; so that these images are not the temp­orary refl­ec­tion of the object, but their fixed imp­ress".

William Talbot was furious. He wrote to Francois Arago, suggesting that it was he and not Daguerre, who had invented the photographic process and deserved all the credit. Arago disagreed so Talbot began to pub­l­icise his own processes. Talbot quickly exhibited some of his Photogenic Drawings to the scientists meeting in the library of the Royal Institution.

The Open Door, 1844
The J. Paul Getty Museum

The early daguerreotypes had limits. 1] The length of the exposure necessary made land­scapes and still lifes ideal but other images less so. 2] The image was laterally reversed. 3] The image was very fragile. And 4] it was a once-only system; copies of the photograph were impossible.

British astronomer Sir John Herschel (1792–1871) was very involved with the founding of the Astronomical Society in 1820. He was awarded the Royal Society of London’s med­al for his work on math­ematics. In Jan 1839 Herschel heard of Daguerre's work on photography and without knowing any details, Herschel was soon able to take photo­gr­ap­hs himself. Appropriately the term photography was first used by Sir John Herschel in 1839, the year the photographic pro­cess became public.

At that time, the sensitivity of the process was extremely poor. Then in September 1840 Talbot accidentally discovered the phenomenon of the latent image. This was a major breakthrough which led to short exposure times: from one hour down to a few minutes. By this time Talbot had learned to be pro-active; he gave a paper to the Royal Society of London ent­itled "Some account of the Art of Photogenic drawing, or the pro­cess by which natural objects may be made to delineate themselves without the aid of the artist's pencil." And Talbot patented this invention in 1841.

Hill and Adamson
Deed of Demission (etching of)

Because Talbot chose not to extend his patent to Scotland, he acc­identally made it possible for outstanding photographs to be produc­ed in Edinburgh. Daguerre and Talbot had both announced their processes back in 1839. Just four years later, in 1843, the part­nership of David O. Hill and Robert Adamson blossomed. Their timing was perfect - 400 clerics signed a Deed of Demission, re­signing their livings and establishing the Free Church of Scotland. The photo­graphers captured this critical moment in the nation’s history, just before the good ministers went to their new parishes.

In 1844 Talbot began issuing a book entitled The Pencil of Nat­ure, the first commercial book to be illustrated with actual ph­otographs. But Talbot's process in general never reached the pop­ularity of the daguerreotype process, partly because the lat­ter produced such amaz­ing detail.


One last thought. Consider the important dates in photographic history (1835-45) and compare them with the arrival of the railways for pass­enger trav­el. The rail­way was THE means of inland trans­port over any dist­ances in the late 1830s and 40s, and by 1850, the nat­ional network was complete. The arrival of railways was unlinked to that of photography, but the impact of each on travel­lers and tourists was limitless. It was now possible to photograph archaeological sites and ant­iq­u­ities in Greece, Egypt, Italy, Turkey and the Holy Land. Travelling Vict­orians could capture mount­ains, rivers, forts, castles monuments and cities in their photographs.

29 August 2015

Whose freedom is more valuable - a loved Israeli prime minister or his murderer?

Yitzhak Rabin (1922–1995) eventually became an Israeli politic­ian and elder statesman. But even from his humble beginnings, Rabin’s family path exactly followed my own family’s and that may be why my parents admired him so warmly. Rabin’s parents, who came from the Ukraine, raised their children with a strong sense of Zionism, socialism and workers’ rights. Rabin had a long career in the military, both before Israel's 1948 War of Independence and then after the War, in the new state’s national army.

Post-army Rabin took up ambassadorial and then political roles, being elected as Prime Minister of Israel in 1974. Later he became Israel's Defence Minister. It has been argued that his true moment of world fame came in 1992 when Rabin was elected as prime minister for a second term. This heroic individual signed vital agreements with the Palestinian leadership as part of the Oslo Accords. Quite deservedly Rabin won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 (alongside Israeli politician Shimon Peres and Palestinian politician Yasir Arafat). Most critically, Rabin signed a peace treaty with Jordan in 1994 so that Jews throughout the world would feel safer and more joyful.

Yet in November 1995, Yitzchak Rabin was murdered at one of the biggest peace rally the Middle East has ever seen. Yigal Amir (born 1970) was a very nasty and violent young man who wanted to sabotage the peace process. He planned for a long time how to achieve the murder, successfully ending the life of a hugely popular leader only on the third attempt. Soon he became the most hated man in Israel because he displayed to the entire world that even a Jew could a] smuggle a gun into a civilian function and b] kill civilians as if he was in the Wild West.

Yasser Arafat, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin
Oslo, Nobel Peace Prize winners, 1994

Amir was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment plus six additional years for attempted murder of the Prime Min­ister’s guardsman. Since I do not believe in capital punishment for any crime at all, the life sentence in gaol seemed appro­priate. Hopefully Amir would never see the light of day again.

In July 2010, after 15 years of solitary confinement, Amir conducted an appeal, asking to participate in group prayers in accordance to Jewish law. Unfortunately it was allowed. Then he wanted to watch television, use a phone, do exercise in a common court yard, meet a woman (Larisa Trembovler), marry her and make her pregnant.

Now a film has come out that celebrates the deep love between the hated Amir and the softly spoken, well educated Trembovler. Beyond the Fear, created by the late Herz Frank, was a controv­er­sial film from the outset. What would make this otherwise intelligent mother of four make the decisions she did? She set up meetings with Amir in gaol; then she divorced her first hus­band; married Amir by proxy; conceived a baby through artificial insemination in 2007; and finally she faces an almost univer­sally hostile reception by the citizens of Israel. Of course an adult could do what she liked, if she was the only person affected. But her four children must be fearing for their lives, every day the brutal Amir and his co-conspirators remain in gaol.

Bernard Dichek (The Jerusalem Report 10th Aug 2015) criticised Israel’s Culture Minister for protesting the showing of the film at this year’s Jerusalem Film Festival. Furthermore, Dichek said, the Minister threatened to cut off government funds for this festival, if the film was included in the programme. He was anxious to see whether or not the rights of artists will continue to be “protected” during this Minister’s reign.

In my opinion, freedom of expression is worth sod all, if an angry young man can murder a community leader yet go on to live the Good Life (albeit behind bars). The prime minister Yitzhak Rabin needed to be protected; no one needs to protect the right of a murderer to express his political opinion, nor the right of film artists to express themselves in a public forum.