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Last Week: Westworld, The House of Shattered Wings, Van Gogh The Immersive Experience

In the Time Before Crisis

Wow, last week feels like it was ages ago. Hard to believe that Sunday 15 March is only two days dead.  All the more important to scrape together my fragmentary memories before they’re washed away in a wave of hand sanitiser. Not that we can find any in shops any more. Thanks fuckheads. Last week was already becoming dominated by the outbreak – now pandemic – of COVID-19 and I’m really weary of it. I’m tired of compulsively reading about it, and our government’s shocking (but not surprising) ineptitude at handling it, but most of all I’m tired of this fluttery anxious sensation about the future. It really doesn’t help that so many utter fuckwits are raiding the supermarkets and making it impossible to get, say, toilet roll or paracetamol, or (today) bread or fresh fruit and vegetables. For fuck’s sake. It’s such a frustrating cycle, and it means if I can finally locate the item I want, I’m gonna end up buying two because I’m not gonna find them again. And I hate being dragged into that cycle of compulsion. The endless hand-washing is bad enough. Anyway… 

Watching: Westworld season one

I’ve been waiting to watch this for ages. I’ve got fond memories of the Yul Bryner movie, and of the general style of things from Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park (which is surely just another nightmare ride in the same park). I wasn’t disappointed. From the gorgeous opening credits, the sublime score and its old West-style piano renditions of popular modern songs (do pick up the soundtrack – it’s ace), to the splendid performances throughout, this is a real SF treat. The story is straightforward enough: dudes make a park filled with simulated humans to amuse rich people through torture, rape and murder. A tale as old as time… Of course the “hosts” are becoming sentient, but their memories get scrubbed every day or every time they’re killed, which is often, and it’s not really working any more.

It’s magnetic viewing, with park guests drawn into the drama, and seeking hidden meaning within the park’s elaborate narratives, and hosts seeking their own freedom from the stories, and possibly from the park itself. Slight downsides, I guess, in the usual HBO vein of truly excessive amounts of nudity, though it’s not remotely erotic, so maybe they succeeded in their thematic point about dehumanising the hosts. It’s also really bloody, which should not be a shock in a western murder park, but there’s still more than you’d like to think people would go for. Gah, there’s too much spoiler fodder I’d like to get into, and some tricksy time-slipping stuff that I believe I need to rewatch the season to really appreciate fully. Just watch it, alright, it’s phenomenal – just look at the magnificent cast. We can watch it together while we’re all at home for the next three months.

Reading: The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard

I‘ve learned that despite summarising books professionally for work, I suck at it for reviews of stuff I read. With that in mind… Aliette’s novel introduces us to a Paris (and presumably world) ravaged by magical warfare. In its ruins stand the Great Houses, centres of magical and political power headed by powerful magic users, such as literal Fallen angels. They vie for power amid the rubble, casually destroying lives and each other to claw their way to the top of the slagheap. We first meet a brand new Fallen, as she’s about to be dismembered for magical parts to be used by others. She’s rescued, and one of her tormentors is captured, by the leader of House Silverspires. But nothing is what it seems; dark secrets and past grudges are the foundation of the house’s power and it’s all set to come tumbling down.

Yeah, that sucked as a description, sorry. What I can tell you is how much I enjoyed reading this. Aliette’s prose is gorgeous, and the setting which ranges from the decay of Paris to the near-mythical magical cities of the Far East is deeply intriguing. Partly I’m thrilled to have a great intimate fantasy novel based in a city other than London or Venice (please, spare me another), but also because I like this set up. Theology made real, with few proper answers given – I suppose I’ll have to read the other two books in the trilogy to figure it out propery – magic based on the fading grace of Heaven or from the ground up parts of angels is very appealing. It’s also a rather strange book, in that it seems to promise epic, but is much more rooted in a broad domestic setting (it’s kinda what I imagine Downton Abbey would be if it was appealing enough for me to watch), and I rather liked that. Strong recommend – you’ll have fun.

Doing (I guess): Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience

We wanted to do this the weekend before last but it was closed, so we seized what’s likely our last chance to see this at All Saints Church in Leicester (as of writing this the exhibition is still open, but for limited numbers per self-guided tour). Our slightly poor time management (we don’t get up well at the weekend), meant we got five whole minutes in the Leicester Vintage Toy Shop, which was not long enough. There were so many wonderful things to pore over… Another time, I guess. I’ve liked his work since I visited the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam as a teenager – I hadn’t especially cared before I saw it for real – and this seemed like a fun way to see more. Big colours and deceptively sweeping strokes of fat paintwork, plus more cobalt blue that you can shake a paintbrush at. 

The exhibition is traveling around various places and is part historical journey with some very nice big pictures and timelines of Vincent’s short and troubled life. The main event is the immersive section, but before that they have a lovely projection of his very many vase paintings overlaid on an urn, which I probably could have watched all day… There’s also a nice life size creation of his famed bedroom, and a short documentary about him, albeit with a rather portentous voiceover. We tarried around these other exhibits for a bit, but finally wandered into the main event: one of the larger chambers of the church, painted with light from projectors over every surface, including the floor. It’s a twenty-minute (I think, I lost track of time) of Van Gogh’s paintings morphing and flowing across the walls, accompanied by a spoken guide through the artist’s life, with inspiring excerpts from his letters. It’s absurdly trippy, and hard to describe, so I badly filmed some bits of it to give you a better (or worse) idea what it’s like.

After this we took in the virtual reality finale (which is an extra £3 each). I’ve never viewed any VR media before, except possibly some truly ancient stuff when it was all crude polygons decades ago. This is both much better than that, and very limited at the same time. It’s a lovely stroll through Van Gogh’s Arles, placing a bunch of his best-known works in the landscape. I enjoyed it, as a novelty experience, and I kinda liked being able to look around and see the terrifying robotic sheep (I know, so Westworld),  but it did make me somewhat dizzy and headachey. It’s fun, but not a patch on the projection show.

I love this use of space and new ways to view and appreciate art. It’s so very different from just seeing paintings in a book. Check it out, if you can.


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