Review: Mary and Max

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Mary and Max is a claymation film by Adam Elliot, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Toni Collette. Narrating throughout the film is Barry Humphries. It is the story of the long pen friendship between Mary Daisy Dinkle (Collette), an australian girl, and Max Jerry Horowitz (Hoffman), a man living in New York. The majority of dialogue between the two are in the form of letters exchanged between them during several decades, starting in the 1970’s.

The catalyst of their unlikely friendship is the one thing they have in common: loneliness. When they first “meet”, Max is middle-aged, has emotional and social difficulties (he will later find out that he has aspergers), while Mary is an eight year old who is bullied in school, has an alcoholic mother and a father who spends his time in his garden shed performing taxidermy on roadkill. The alienation Elliot illustrates is both jarring and humorous, and to some of us undoubtedly quite familiar. Their world is a crazy mirror image of our own, full of funnily bizarre characters and odd notions. But at the same time, everything seems to be grey, awkward and dysfunctional, which tints every laugh and chuckle with a wry sense of melancholy.

There’s no shortage of films and other creative works that strive to portray human existence in a beautifying light. But it is more rare to see a movie like this, where the filmmaker shows a far less flattering visage of humanity and then purposefully taking it a step further into comical grotesqueness. Mary and Max is a movie devoid of the culturally sanitizied perception of humanity that many movies throw at us using glamorous movie stars and sentimental representations of the world, instead showing us an externalized view of our imperfect inner landscapes.

Animation can be a wonderful way to realize artistic intent. It’s free of many of the obstacles present in live action productions. In the case of this film, that potential advantage is fully exploited in the sense that claymation is a little rough and asymmetrical in its nature, which fits perfectly with the quirky gloominess that is employed to tell this story.

The uncouth, gray world of eccentricities that Adam Elliot paints us makes the depiction of the close friendship between Mary and Max so much more meaningful; even in a depressing world, uncontrived friendship can occur. I think that’s why Elliot inserts a small, bright splash of colour into almost every scene; as a small visual cue of that comforting intimation.

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Review: Salmer fra kjøkkenet (Kitchen Stories)

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A common stereotype about us swedes is that we’re distant, cold and a little awkward. As far as stereotypes go, it’s actually pretty accurate and that part of our national identity has manifested itself in curious ways throughout our modern history. In the 1950’s, we were obsessed with applying our particular brand of common sense to almost all aspects of human life. Back in those days, they were convinced that if they analyzed something enough and drew enough diagrams, they would be able to delve to the heart of what makes a society happy and successful. In this particular case, they were able to determine the ideal kitchen layout by studying how women moved around in their daily kitchen routine.

Salmer fra kjøkkenet takes place in a town in Norway populated almost solely by single men, where the HFI (Hemmets Forskningsinstitut, The Home Research Institute) is going to further their understanding of domestic perfection by applying their kitchen layout research paradigm to single, norwegian men.  So they ship their observers off to this little hamlet to gather the required data. The researchers each have their own little trailer that they’re supposed to live in while observing their subjects, so not to impose too much on their privacy. The opening scenes of the film when the long line of HFI trailers parade into the small, rural town are almost a little surreal.

Malmberg, the reluctant swede in charge (played wonderfully by Reine Brynolfsson) is very distraught because he’s had to drive on the right side of the road (at that time, Sweden hadn’t yet switched from driving on the left side of the road) and tries to explain this to his norwegian counterpart, who just looks at him with a bemused expression. Which is one of the central premises of the film: the subtle cultural clash between the swedes and the norwegians. Neither quite understands the other and the swedes seems cluelessly ignorant of the mildly contemptful attitude the norwegians holds of them. Remember that this is the 1950’s; the memory of the second world war is still vivdly fresh, with an emphasis on the different roles Norway and Sweden played in it.

After an awkward introductionary meeting held by Malmberg, we make our acquaintance with the swedish observer Folke (Tomas Norström) and his very reluctant subject Isak (Joachim Calmeyer). When he is guiding Folke to where Isak lives, Isaks’ son Grant explains that his father regrets volunteering for the program and when Folke first arrives, Isak refuses to answer the door. Folke fruitlessly tries to persuade him to cooperate. Having come all this way he patiently waits for several days until finally, Isak leaves the door open indicating his reluctant surrender. Folke cautiously carts his ludicrous tennis judge chair into the corner of Isaks’ kitchen and climbs onto it.

What follows is a struggle of wills. Isak is a cantankerous old fart that seem determined to make life as difficult as possible for Folke. He’s not the likeable Hollywood kind of curmudgeon most of us are used to either. No, he’s a more authentic crank that seem to have very few endearing characteristics. Seemingly out of pure spite, Isak changes his routine completely when Folke is present. He doesn’t use his kitchen sink to rinse out his cups and he takes to cooking his meals in his bedroom out of sight of the perching swede.

Everything about Isak exudes loneliness. He lives in a secluded house in a remote town by himself, his only human contact it with his son Grant. Their relationship is so minimalistic that it’s actually amusing to watch them interact.

On the other hand, Folke also seems lonely. After all, he spends his days living in a trailer in the norwegian countryside. He has no family aside from an elderly aunt and he seems to cling to his work for meaning, telling himself that it will better the lives of a great many people.

The story devleops in pace with the relationship between these two lonely men. While the story takes a somewhat predictable turn, it does so in a very honest way. There’s no sense of forced sentimentality to the burgeoning friendship between Folke and Isak.

It takes a great deal to make a bitter old cynic like me to admit to enjoying watching two lonely individuals connect in such a touching and heartfelt way. I think it is because the film takes such a unpretentious approach to the subject. It doesn’t go out of its way to pander to established clichés. Even more impressive is the fact that when it does take the predictable path, it does so in a fresh and engaging way.

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I welcome our new cephalopod overlords

There is something about octopuses that unnerves me. Whenever I see one, I almost feel as though I should grovel before it and bring it gifts. In recent years, there have been many signs that cephalopods (and octopuses in particular) might be superior to humans and just lets us think we are the kings of the hill because we are beneath their notice.

giant-pacific-octopus
Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn!

First of all, biologists can’t seem to agree exactly how intelligent octopuses really are. All they know for sure is that they are quite intelligent indeed. They are highly analytic and curious and when faced with an obstacle to something they want, they carefully investigate and attempt to solve the problem. For example, in one instance when scientists presented an octopus with a lidded jar containing food, the octopus fiddled with it and figured out how to unscrew the lid and get to the food in a disconcertingly quick manner.

They have also been known to crawl out of their tanks at exhibits and raid nearby tanks of shellfish and other tasty prey. Being invertebrates, they can squeeze through almost any opening. As if that wasn’t enough, they’re also capable of using tools such as empty shells, and as Australian scientists recently observed, coconuts which are carried around and used as little makeshift fortresses when threatened (as seen in the video below).

The octopus brain is another sign that they might be superintelligent creatures from another dimension. You see, only a small part of their very complex nervous system is located in their brain; the majority is actually located throughout their tentacles. This grants an exceptional level of autonomy to each individual tentacle. Research suggests that the brain only sends out very basic instructions to each tentacle and that each one actually decides on its own how to carry out those intructions. Not to mention that the myriad of suction cups on each arm require a lot of brain power, considering they’re incredibly powerful suction devices that can create a pressure to up to 100-200 kPa (kilopascals; 100 kilopascals is approximately equal to one atmosphere). They’re also actuely sensitive; they allow the octopus to taste their surroundings. The tentacles are not only smart and perceptive, they’re also strong and agile. They’re made almost entirely out of muscle and without those irksome bones that we vertebrates have, their range of motion is almost unlimited. Certain species of octopus are strong enough to break through plexiglas and/or wrestle down and eat sharks. Yes, that’s right, there are octopuses that hunt and devour sharks. If you don’t believe me, here’s a video to prove it.

The only hope we have in the face of the imminent cephalopod takeover is the fact that octopuses doesn’t live very long. Some species only live for roughly 6 months, while some can live up to five years. Their reproductive habits also limits their capabilities as planetary overlords; males die within a few months after mating and after the female has laid her 200,000’ish eggs, she watches over them for around one month, during which time she doesn’t hunt or feed. Sometimes the female even has to ingest one of her own arms to survive. After the eggs hatch, the female leaves the area, and being weak from malnourishment, she often succumbs to other predators.

The Corn People

Read this book!
Read this book!

Did you know that the average US resident consumes more corn than the “Corn People” of Mexico and South America, every day? There are almost no items in a US supermarket today that do not contain corn in any form – processed, perfected, enchanted, et cetera – and scientists have ways to tell what a person’s diet are made up of. By investigating dead skin cells (hair, nails) of US residents, they find that a significant percentage

of the nutrition comes from corn – even through the meat they consume, where most of the cattle have been fed with corn, and the sweets, where corn syrup and the likes have provided the sweetening. I guess it’s safe to say that you pretty much are what you eat, and most US Americans are corn cobs with fat legs.

In Mexico and a large part of South America, where people identify themselves as the Corn People, and eat corn in a non-processed, natural form just about every day, the same studies of dead skin cells have been conducted – and these people are less like their food than the US Americans are. Their cattle are mostly fed on grass. Their peripheral foodstuffs don’t contain much processed corn. They, who’ve lived off the corn for hundreds, or thousands of years, are more varied and diverse in their diets than the US Americans who exploit them. So who are the real corn people, really? Those who revel in it and embrace it… or those who unknowingly resemble it?

The Indian Yellow Scheme

yellow pigment

Indian Yellow is a transparent yellow pigment, used in oil paint and watercolours. Nowadays it’s a pretty boring pigment: a mixture of nickel azo, hansa yellow and the tongue-twister ‘quinacridone burt orange’, but it’s been at the centre of a historical claim of animal cruelty: disputed as early as 1830 (the pigment was introduced to India in the 15th century, and from there to Europe in the 18th), the myth still lingers today and is reprinted in (among other works) the Royal Academy of Arts books on traditional fine arts. It is agreed upon by almost every person who’ve done some kind of independent research that the origin of the pigment is another and that the animals were never hurt. But what is the myth then?

The myth is that the Indian Yellow pigment is produced from the urine of cows fed only mango leaves and only scarsely watered, kept extremely underfed and malnourished, and the urine then dried for the pigment. In 1844, chemist John Stenhouse concluded that the pigment was indeed “the juice of some tree or plant, which, after it has been expressed, has been saturated with magnesia and boiled down to its present consistence.

The interesting thing here is therefore not the myth itself, but that it has survived merely because it involves tormenting of cows by people seen as less civilised by the British, Dutch and German painters who used the pigment, ant then kept alive by authors throughout the centuries, and taught as fact despite the obvious Urban Legend quality of the myth.