James Cameron meets Masaccio in Santa Maria Novella downtown

Art, Film, Human power, Humanism

I saw James Cameron’s ‘Avatar’ over Christmas. It’s a remarkable technical achievement, injecting new possibilities for the creation of wholly artificial, wholly convincing dramatic worlds into cinema. In that, it reminded me of Masaccio’s masterpiece ‘The Holy Trinity with the Virgin, St John and Two Donors’, in Florence’s Santa Maria Novella church:

Masaccio’s work was the first painting to build on Brunelleschi’s understanding of the mathematics of perspective. It demonstrated new possibilities for the two dimensional representation of three dimensional space, creating an image that attempted to directly map, rather than indirectly represent, an imagined space. In that, much like Cameron’s film, it was at once radical, and revolutionary; in fact, it’s generally regarded as one of the key catalysts that triggered the Renaissance.

However, ‘The Holy Trinity’ was also a very conservative work. It was commissioned by the very wealthy Domenico Di Lenzi, who kneels at bottom left. He is dressed as a Gonfalonier of Justice, the titular head of the Florentine republic. His wife kneels opposite him; the tomb beneath them is a family tomb.

The surging structure of the image – leading the eye up from the tomb and its skeleton, past Domenico and his wife, and towards the Trinity, makes it clear that the way to Christ is through the pillars of Florentine society; its powerful families, its civic functionaries. Earthly political, judicial and financial structures are the first step on the way to divine structures. To question one is – by implication – to question the other. Wealth and power are divine properties, automatically deserved by those who hold them.

Much comment has been made on the supposedly subversive properties of ‘Avatar’. James Cameron’s film has been read as being deeply anti-corporate. Certainly, its narrative – proceeding in crude, black and white terms – shows those beholden to or representing the corporate world as ‘bad’, and those not beholden to or representing the corporate world as ‘good’.

However, when viewed from an economic and technical point of view, it becomes clear that ‘Avatar’ is in fact a ferocious corporate rearguard action, responding to the democratisation of film making and distribution that digital technology enables.

Budgetted at $500,000,000, it is an artefact whose cost is so huge that it – and others like it – can only be commissioned by corporate interests. Technically speaking, its central achievement – the 3D experience – can only be fully experienced in large or IMAX venues. Again, these are exclusively owned and operated by corporate interests.

‘Avatar’ masquerades as a radical critique of corporate power. Technically, it in fact reinforces that corporate power, attempting to reclaim peak cinematic experience (and, by implication, corporate resistance) as something that can only happen as a result of corporate mediation. In that, it is directly equivalent to Masaccio’s masterpiece which – for all its technical brilliance – preaches that the only way to enlightenment is through the state and its pillars. Both works are – in the final analysis – propaganda, surprisingly equivalent in their aims and achievements.

Go Go Le FigaROW! (or, London to Paris by hand)

Heaviosity, Human power, Seascapes

Well, tonight allumination takes a break from the weird pondering to salute… My brother Edward! Who even now is getting an early night before getting up tomorrow morning to row from London to Paris.

He’s part of the Le FigaROW Team, racing the Langstone Cutters in one of a pair of matched Thames Watermen Cutters as part of the London2Paris rowing challenge. They leave London tomorrow, departing from the Houses of Parliament at about 11am, reach Dover in the evening and if all goes according to plan set off across the Channel tomorrow. Most of next week is taken up with rowing the Seine, with the two crews arriving in Paris on Thursday.

He’s got his first nine hour rowing session tomorrow on Saturday; the whole trip is going to be deeply physically demanding, as tough mentally as it is physically and – once done – no doubt utterly, utterly satisfying. I won’t be with him in the boat, but as much as possible I’m going to be with him in spirit, and I hope you will be too, sending positive vibes to him (and the whole crew) as he batters across the Channel and through the North of France.

If you want to find out more, or support with a litlte contribution, you can do so here, at the team’s official website. To be honest, I’m slightly in awe of him for doing it; and I can’t wait to cheer him – and the team – into the end of the trip next Thursday, and then hit Paris to celebrate the end of a lot of hard work, and hopefully a very satisfying and enjoyable row.

Go Edward! Go Team Le FigaROW! The Weird Ponderers of London (and beyond, in every sense of the word) are with you all the way…!

King James I’s submarine

Human power, Submarines

A post today about weak points; about where fantasies, alternate worlds, break through into reality. Based on seeing a working rebuild of Cornelis Drebbel’s human powered submarine at a Farmer’s market in Richmond.

Here’s the submarine:

And here’s the plan:

Here some of the fittings – the waterproof oar joints:

The oar mechanism, allowing the oar to paddle when moved backwards and flap shut on the way forwards:

And the rudder – which can split into two and flap open, acting as a brake and stopping the submarine dead.

Drebbel built three versions of his submarine, each fully functional and each successively larger. Apparently King James I rode in the third one, but even his support failed to arouse the interest of the Navy.

This model proved that the concept worked; what’s fascinating is to think what might have happened had the first stirrings of the Empire gone submarine in the 16th Century. Along with my forthcoming tales of John Dee’s Space Navy, it’s a whole set of stories waiting to be told…