Saturday, September 24, 2011

Look into my eye

I went to see the film Aliens when it first came out (astonishingly, this was in 1986: this film is now 25 years old). My mum was there, and my brother and sister: probably one of the last times I ever saw a film with all of them. I've always had an abiding love for sci-fi, starting with Silent Running, which made me cry real tears for those lonely little robots when I saw it at my Granny's in the 1970s; and the wonderful, mysterious 2001: A Space Odyssey, from the year I was born, which I first saw on a  family trip to Arran in 1977 just after Elvis died, in a village hall, on an antiquated reel-to-reel projector that required a change of reel half way through, to shouts, jeers and moths fluttering across the screen.

My sister's friend Cathy was obsessed with Aliens, and had gone so far as to tape it off a rented video so she could play it in her bedroom. As a result she knew the dialogue by heart. I'd just started at Glasgow University and was very homesick for Edinburgh (this lasted about 6 months, or until I met a Glasgow boy, and after that Edinburgh was dead to me), so I used to come back on the bus every weekend and arrive on a Friday night at Cathy's flat in Gilmore Place. Sharing a bottle or two of (cheap, nasty) QC sherry, Aliens on the video, me and my sister and Cathy and her sister Jackie would get drunker and drunker until we'd start on the Thunderbird (see the Wikipedia entry for "low-end fortified wine"), maybe going out dancing later; idyllic times.

The pedestal upon which I've placed Aliens is, of course, partly due to those memories; but there are a few more reasons why I'd claim that it's the Best Film Ever Made, against which all other sci-fi films must be compared and, inevitably, found wanting:

  • The heroine, Ripley, is one of the few really excellent female characters ever to appear on film. She's neither sexless nor a sex object (the appalling Sucker Punch (2011)  is the antithesis of this: a borderline prurient film, where even in the midst of a lethal kick, the heroine's skirt is flying up to show her knickers) . She's someone to be taken seriously, she can carry and use a gun, she doesn't lose her head and/or scream witlessly under pressure, but she cares about the people around her. A genuine role model for women.
  • The dialogue is peerless. It manages to be serious and funny and believable all at the same time: I've never seen a better encapsulation of the cameraderie between soldiers. These are people you'd want to spend time with; and you know they'd have your back.
  • It hasn't aged. It's set in the future, of course, but there's nothing quaint about it, no silver foil, or over-the-top outfits, or hamfisted teleportation, or any of the other features of sci-fi that date badly in comparison with reality. Instead, the sets are utilitarian and the clothing is practical and unflashy.
  • The aliens are still genuinely scary. Sci-fi films are often a disappointment from the moment the monster appears; the build-up and anticipation is better than the reality, the creatures are often all too human. H.R. Giger created a completely believable, absolutely non-human and completely other creature. A creature with concentrated acid for blood...
  • It works on many different levels. As a really scary horror film; as a believable vision of the future; as both an indictment and a celebration of human behaviour; as a paean to teamwork; as a thriller; and as an action movie.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Sweet potato brownies

Behold, pictured above, the results of my first ever attempt (surprisingly, I know, for one so greedy) at making brownies. They were very, very good. I used 70% cocoa dark chocolate, and was slightly nervous about using sweet potato (this makes them less fatty than standard brownies but still very moist), but it worked a treat. Follow the recipe below - double it! quadruple it! - and eat in huge quantities.

Dan Lepard's Sweet Potato Brownies
100g unsalted butter
200g dark chocolate, chopped
200g baked sweet potato, flesh scooped out
125g brown sugar (any sort)
2 medium eggs
2 tsp vanilla extract
100g plain flour
¼ tsp baking powder
100g chopped pecans

Line an 18cm square tray-bake tin (or similar) with non-stick paper or foil, and heat the oven to 180C (160C fan-assisted)/350F/gas mark 4.

Melt the butter in a saucepan, then add 125g of the chocolate and stir until that's melted, too. In a bowl, beat the sweet potato flesh with the brown sugar until almost smooth, then mix in the butter and chocolate. Add the eggs and vanilla, beat until thick, then stir in the flour and baking powder until evenly combined. Fold in the pecans and remaining chocolate, then spoon into the tin, smooth the top and bake for about 20-25 minutes, until barely cooked but still a bit soft under the crust. Leave to cool completely in the tin before slicing.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Charmless garments: 5

Slippery, shiny, unwieldy, and uncomfortable-looking: why in their right mind would anyone wear leather trousers? They cling where it doesn't flatter and flare where they want to. They get, presumably, uncomfortably hot. These, from Alexander McQueen, are just the first and worst that spring all too readily to the Google images list. Self-evidently, no one fatter than a stick would even attempt it, but you, yes you Victoria Beckham, should know better too. Black leather is only the acceptable face of leather trousers: any other colour whatsoever is infinitely worse (red, anyone? Are you in Whitesnake?) Creepy, without even trying to be. Leather in any quantity (ie bigger than bag-size), on a bad day, makes my stomach churn anyway: its smell, its texture, the fact that it's something's skin. Leather trousers? No excuse. I confess I've worn them, but in the form of ribbed, protective and padded motorbike pants. I looked, from every angle, like a rhino.

And incidentally, down with pleather: it's the equivalent of vegetarian bacon. Except that at least the bacon this travesty is modelled on looks good to start with.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

A shot at redemption

Stelios (September 10, 2011). Reproduced by kind permission of, and © Shot By Shooter 2011

I've known D since I was at school. He was always the coolest person I knew. He was the year above me at Glasgow University, during which time I really got to know him; he always had great taste in music and a sharp sense of style. He lived in Milan for a while and then London; we shared a flat for a while. I went to his first exhibition of photographs in Hoxton: supermodels, popstars, catwalk waifs. These days he takes street portraits. When I started my street fashion blog Sydney Spy, it was inspired by D's incredible photography. His blog, Shot by Shooter, is so far above the rest, including the over-rated The Sartorialist (the man takes a lovely photo, but often seems to lack any connection with his subjects and all too often seems fixated on superskinny fashion victims). D's photographs, on the other hand, reveal so much about their subject, with the eyes often almost inadvertently seeming to open up a plethora of questions and answers, that sometimes it's almost hard to look. D chooses his backdrops carefully and sequences of photos taken over several days can refer wittily to each other: the most recent sequence has yellow as its theme, whether subtly picked out in Felix's dress or Eric's scarf, or foreground, background and centre stage in Kate's case. D's use of light and shadow is so subtle that it's clear just by the texture whether it's summer or winter.

Over 250 people follow Shot by Shooter, but rarely does anyone comment: I think this is because D's photographs are so peerless, there's nothing more to be said.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Bicycle races

I've been living in Melbourne for nearly three months. Notwithstanding that it's been rated as the most desirable city on earth by The Economist, I must confess that its charms have so far eluded me in comparison to Sydney. Perhaps it's because it feels like a small town masquerading as a big one; perhaps I just haven't given it a chance (and the cold of winter, which is only just beginning to ease, made a big difference to my admittedly petulant sense of aggrieved injustice regarding the place where I currently have to live) - and there's no doubt it looks and feels like a much better place when the sun shines.

One area where Melbourne does outshine Sydney is in the provision and ubiquity of bicycle lanes. The city and inner city are all relatively flat, roads are generously proportioned and laid out in a grid system, and as a result there are a plethora of cycle lanes which get a lot of use every day.

Alongside the light railway line in my suburb (Brunswick) there's a cycle path that runs pretty much all the way into the city. Every morning it's thronging with cyclists, some racing the train to take advantage of green lights at the crossings, which close for the train to pass. There are scores of cool kids in hun helmets (which I believe are more formally known as BMX helmets, and are a far cry from the plastic deformity I have to wear on my head, which is so large it makes me look as though I'm storing some form of foldout tent inside it), and my favourite sight, which is that of two or even three kids packed into a little wooden frontloading cart, speeding along in fine style with a puffing parent behind them, hard at work at the pedals while they sit there, content to be borne along like little nobles. What a great invention! Is it even legal?