Comics and Caius

Iron Man and Dr Doom reminisce in Tree Court, Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge

Victor Von Doom bantering with Tony Stark in Tree Court, Gonville and Caius, Cambridge England. From Invincible Iron Man 13 (Marvel, 2016)

In fiction, Billionaire playboy industrialists are wont to lose sight of both their past and their future, with potentially devastating consequences. When Tony Stark, the Invincible Iron Man, is teleported (against his will) by reformed marvel villain Victor Von Doom, he finds himself standing in the Tree Court of Gonville and Caius College Cambridge.

Tree Court. CREDIT: Gonville and Caius College website

The former Caian then engages on a voyage of discovery from a past forgotten, dressed very casually as the sharply-attired Victor Von Doom (experimenting in heroism as the Infamous Iron Man) prompts a realignment of Tony’s moral compass.

Von Doom, himself expelled from State University in New York for performing unethical experiments, gives Stark a comprehensive tour around Cambridge. The industrialist returns to the MRC Laboratory where he had his first taste of research and academia prior to inheriting his father’s weapons-manufacturing business. He is in a contemplative mood throughout.

Stark is not alone. We all go through moments in life when we have to find ourselves again. Perhaps, whilst breathing in the pungent Wisteria flowers adorning the Tutorial Office of Caius, Tony reminisced about an age of innocence, before he had to make difficult decisions with world-changing implications.

The Tutorial Office covered in Wisteria

What is it about this quaint section of Gonville and Caius’ Tree Court which lends itself to a representation in the comics medium? It lacks the iconic postcard-selling grandeur King’s College Chapel or Trinity College’s Grand Court. This is a unique, Cinderella tower-like corner which can easily be missed when visiting Tree Court, famed primarily for the succession of unique hornbeams lining its avenue.

Hornbeams in Tree Court. CREDIT: Gonville and Caius College website

Perhaps, this specific corner of Tree Court simply evokes mystical connotations which are suitable for the illustrated word, and are a fitting place for Von Doom and Stark to do a tête-à-tête, and remember bygone times.

Whilst attending Caius, one wonders if Tony Stark spent any time talking to Professor Sir Stephen Hawking, who was based in Gonville and Caius for many decades and sadly passed away recently. Certainly, Professor Hawking’s advice about the nature of wormholes might have helped Stark in the first Avengers movie, which does not elaborate on how he managed to survive his experience.

A portrait of Professor Sir Stephen Hawking in the Dining Hall of Gonville and Caius College. CREDIT: University of Cambridge website

It is not only Marvel Comics which has set scenes in the Tree Court. The genre-breaking japanese manga “Pluto” also appears to use this corner in its story.

Tree Court, sans Wisteria. CREDIT: Pluto: Urasawa x Tezuka

Despite being a story about androids, Pluto is arguably the most human of Japanese master storyteller Naoki Urasawa’s manga masterpieces, as he simultaneously builds upon and subverts Osamu Tezuka’s classic Astro Boy. Does this scene pay homage to famous Caians such as nuclear physicist and discoverer of the neutron Sir James Chadwick, Professor Sir Stephen Hawking or John Venn. Who knows?

Tree Court, circa 1870, CREDIT: Kimberly Blaker, New Boston Fine and Rare Books

Long may comics continue to include this mysterious corner in their illustrations.

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Tehran Taboo – Film Review

Tehran Taboo is released 5/10/2018 in UK Cinemas

Tehran Taboo, the debut film from Iranian writer-director Ali Soozandeh, is released today (5th October) in UK cinemas.  This rotoscope-animated film presents a hyper-stylised portrayal of Tehran with an emotional poignance that this technique of animation, when combined with an atmospheric and sometimes chilling soundtrack, can deliver in spades. Films like Waltz with Bashir, Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly have already experimented successfully with this method of drawing and colouring over material.  Indeed, it appears to be tailor-made for this film which could of course not be made, nor released, in the country in which it is set.

Before watching the film, I was very interested in the director’s quote:

“I get a lot of positive feedback from Iranians living in Iran. The feedback from Iranians living outside Iran is rather negative. They are usually angry with the film. Because the film damages the image we present of ourselves to the West.”

Pari

Perhaps this reflects the fact that life for many in Iran is riddled by contradictions and hypocrisies, and the hyper-real portrayal in this film packs a visceral punch for those who live in the country, whereas those who have left Iran may choose to default to a more rosy-tinted nostalgic view.

Tehran Taboo starts with a bang. Immediately, you can tell why this film could not be made in Iran, as a taxi driver who claims he is “not Bill Gates” haggles with prostitute Pari whilst her mute son Elias is chewing bubble gum in back seat of a taxi. This sets the stall for a murky, often shocking, noir exploration of the idiosyncrasies in contemporary Tehran through multiple strands. One of these is a  young musician’s quest to “fix the virginity” of a girl he had a one-night-stand with at one of Tehran’s notorious underground raves, a week before the woman is supposedly due to get married to a faceless thug.

There are moments of dark humour, such as the protagonists’ search for an artificial hymen:

“This is the original model, 100% Chinese.  You know it’s good because the Westerners copied it”

Elias

Later Elias provides a funny moment when asked if he knew sign language and proceeds to mimic a highly offensive gesture he had just seen some children do.   The mute boy is the only totally innocent character in film drowning in various shades of grey, quietly observing the Machiavellianism and the tragedy around him.  Conversely, one of the film’s antagonists is an adipose cleric who sets up an arrangement for Pari to provide him intimate favours in exchange for allowing her to divorce her drug-addicted husband.  Themes of patriarchy and societal misogyny permeate throughout a film in which every man and woman has to look out for themselves, and everything and anyone can be bargained for. The separate narrative threads become progressively entwined during the course of the film, and the tight structure calls to mind films such as Pulp Fiction and Amores Perros.

Rotoscoping seems to accentuate emotional moments, and facial expressions are highly framed, such that even the most nuanced of eyebrow raises become much more obvious.  One of the lead characters is portrayed by Arash Marandi, the go-to guy for genre-hopping films set in Iran but filmed abroad such as Iranian Vampire-Western “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” and socio-political supernatural horror “Under the Shadow”.  In this film, his distinctive large and innocent eyes are emphasised to an aptly cartoonish intensity.

Pari speaking to her neighbour Sara

The background art is detailed and atmospheric, from the vistas of the never-ending sprawl of Tehran, to the vehicles and alleyways which are explored through the multi-layered narrative.  They are also very authentic, impressive given that the film has been made abroad.  Even if the bleak narrative itself does not necessarily beg for repeat viewing, the detailed and intricate backgrounds which are a very realistic portrayal of today’s Tehran, do.

Overall, the film is a stark and pessimistic portrayal of Tehran itself, which provides fascinating viewing for even those who have never even heard of Jafar Panahi or Abbas Kiarostami, let alone seen their films. Certain aspects of the film are slightly outdated, such as the morality police, less prominent now than is portrayed in the movie.  At times, the pace of the film’s consecutive punches renders the viewer overwhelmed, and I was begging for a little respite towards the end.  

Nevertheless, it remains an apposite metaphor for the ongoing psychological corrosion in the city’s collective psyche.  The film may not quite get the traction required to deliver the social change which is the aim of the film’s creator, but it is another seed on top of a mountain waiting to be sown. We can only wonder what Ali Soozandeh will do next.

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The restorative power of hospital gardens

Florence Nightingale asserted in her landmark “Notes on Nursing” that the most challenging ordeal for a feverish patient is:

“not being able to see out of window, and the knots in the wood being the only view.  I shall never forget the rapture of fever patients over a bunch of bright-coloured flowers”.

In 1859, she was emphasizing the value of plants and space in the healing of patients:

“People say the effect is only on the mind. It is no such thing. The effect is on the body too”.

Nightingale was not alone in her appraisal of gardens and green spaces as therapeutic tools which were indispensable in the recovery process. Throughout Victorian and Edwardian periods, green spaces in hospitals were championed as havens for healing.  In the succeeding decades, this notion appears to have been forgotten as priorities in hospital construction were directed elsewhere, with little attention given to green spaces, and the replacement of park areas by car park areas.

Perhaps a renaissance was provoked following a 1984 study by American psychologist Roger Ulrich, who demonstrated that patients with views of trees and animals from their wards recovered faster after gallbladder surgery, and spent less time in hospital than those who had no such views.  In the UK, we are in the midst of re-appraising the role of gardens and green spaces, not just for patients but for staff and visitors as well.  The British Medical Association stressed in 2011 that hospital design should always make allowances for the important therapeutic role of gardens.

The Ninewells Community Garden isn’t just a space for rest and relaxation, but also provides a source of community spirit amongst volunteers, be they patients, staff or visitors. Credit: Ninewells Hospital Dundee

Remembering the history of these beautiful spaces, including the unique roles of specific colours and scents in therapy, helps guide the design of future hospital green spaces. In her book “Therapeutic Landscapes”, medical historian Dr Clare Hickman summarises how importantly hospital gardens were regarded, and the plans for new well-designed green spaces in the future, for example the upcoming Horatio’s Garden at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Aylesbury.  

Painting classes at Horatio’s Garden with artist-in-residence Miranda Creswell. Credit: Horatio’s Garden, Salisbury

Whether they deliver a natural and calming scene from a patient’s bed, an accessible treat for the senses of a waiting visitor, or some relaxation, freedom and privacy for a staff nurse away from the wards, these spaces are once again being seen as crucial for health and wellbeing.   It is no surprise that a reclaimed boiler-house roof, now showpiece garden at Great Ormond Street Hospital designed by Chris Beardshaw, won a Gold Medal at last year’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show.

Hospital gardens need not be highly conceptualized spaces occupied by incongruous abstract sculptures and with little space to walk.  They can be triumphs if they are peaceful, interesting, accessible, well-maintained and engage the senses (though not too strongly).  Here are some beautiful, functional and peaceful hospital gardens across the UK.

                      Ten Hospital Gardens around the United Kingdom

The Morgan Stanley Garden for Great Ormond Street Hospital

The Morgan Stanley Garden for Great Ormond Street Hospital. Credit: JOHN CAMPBELL

Constructed by renowned garden designer Chris Beardshaw, this woodland-themed garden was transplanted from the RHS Chelsea Flower Show (where it won a Gold medal) to a disused roof space, surrounded by tall hospital buildings that look onto it.  The garden provides a quiet and peaceful space for childern and families, with a roof designed such that summer mornings will light up the sculpture of a child which is the centrepiece of the garden.

Horatio’s Garden at Salisbury District Hospital

A path for the senses at Horatio’s Garden, Salisbury. Credit: HORATIO’S GARDEN

Horatio’s Garden is a charity which makes gardens of sanctuary in centres for spinal injury. The gardens are named after Horatio Chapple, who came up with the idea alongside his father whilst volunteering in Salisbury. Horatio was tragically killed aged only 17, but his legacy endures in these beautiful gardens which combine a sensory and aesthetic feast with events and activities. For example, painting the scenic garden with artist-in-residence Miranda Creswell at Salisbury Hospital adds the extra element of creative and expressive arts therapy for patients suffering from spinal injuries.

Ninewells Community Garden, Dundee

A community spirit in action. Credit: NINEWELLS HOSPITAL

This huge community garden is overlooked by the Ninewells Hospital, and emphasizes a spirit of volunteer gardening for patients, staff and the local community.  The garden’s vegetable and sensory gardens, orchard, wildlife habitat and play areas offer a multitude of options for people to de-stress, recuperate and exercise. 

John Radcliffe Hospital Women’s Centre Garden, Oxford

Credit: John Radcliffe Hospital Women’s Centre Garden, Oxford

This discarded area adjacent to the Women’s Centre was transformed into an open space with a compact walking area and two subtle sculptures in the centre. Instead of the previous drab view in front of the building, the colourful array of flowers and scents of thyme and lavender provide a welcome area for female patients and staff to relax during the course of the day.

Horatio’s Garden at the Scottish National Spinal Injuries Unit, Glasgow

Credit: Horatio’s Garden, Glasgow

The second Horatio’s Garden on this list was inaugurated in August 2016, with views of the stunning woodland garden (above) from the hospital wards.  The garden has six distinct spaces, all of which serve to stimulate different senses, and a greenhouse which is surrounded by areas used for horticultural therapy activities.

Chase Farm Hospital Rehabilitation Gardens, Enfield

Credit: Chase Farm Hospital

Chase Farm Hospital has just renovated two of its areas into specialist therapeutic gardens aimed for the specific needs of patients, but open to staff and visitors. One of the gardens supports dementia patients, whilst the other (above) support stroke and rehabilitation patients. Based on a Japanese design, it provides a very compact but tranquil sanctuary within the hospital.

Guy’s Hospital Courtyard Garden, London

Credit: Guy’s Hospital, London

The contemporary feel of the courtyard garden at Guy’s Hospital in London is accentuated by the number of sitting areas amidst the shrubs and hedges, with the vindicated expectation that the garden was designed that the garden would become a preferred spot for having lunch or sitting with family outside the wards.

Bournemouth Hospital Orchard Garden, Bournemouth

A desolate tarmac courtyard in the hospital has only recently been revamped into a three-segmented garden: a therapeutic courtyard garden outside the chemotherapy suite (above), a sensory garden linking the courtyard to a lakeside garden, giving patients and visitors not only options for their retreat of choice, but also a large area to walk around and exercise in.

Chapel Garden, Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital, Norwich

A bland lightwell was transformed into this chapel garden, featuring a central “wish tree” and a number of water features such as a vertical water fountain and a water rill giving the impression of water moving continually throughout the garden.  The calming flow of water and illusion of space allow for, once again, a small and previously unused area becoming a peaceful reservation amidst the hospital.

Dick Vet Hospital Gardens, University of Edinburgh

Credit: University of Edinburgh

Animals, animal-owners and animal-lovers should not be excluded from the healing power of gardens.  This luscious retreat at the University of Edinburgh’s Easter Bush Campus provides ample space and quiet, together with several benches. It is capped off by the Path of Memories, a path lined by granite stones which can be engraved with an animal’s name.

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SpringWatch — The blossoms are out!

Although blossom season isn’t as big an event in the UK as it is in East Asia, it is still enjoyed by many around the country. This bank holiday (the archaic British term for public holiday which originates from when the Bank of England closed) has been the warmest recorded which means that many families have been enjoying the blossoms and the many other delights of Spring. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many families, young and old people, dogs enjoying early May as much as over the last few days.

British blossoms are delightful, though they do not have the symbolic meaning that they have elsewhere. In Japanese culture, cherry blossoms (Sakura) are a symbol of the transient nature of life, and are a cultural feature in art, literature and film. The way they bloom en masse, like clouds, conjures classic iconic images of Japan. There is even a hierarchy for work trips to hanami (“looking at flowers”) picnics. Its definitely on my wish list to travel to Japan for cherry blossom season, but for now I have to make do with the UK’s version, which isn’t shoddy at all (I hope you agree):

Lots of shades of colour on this street’s blossoming trees.

I like the juxtaposition of the pink blossom and the blue sky (which can be a rarity for this time of the year in the UK)

Here I am under a particularly blooming tree, taken with an old iphone camera.

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Seeing Things

An Art Exhibition inspired by the hallucinations of Charles Bonnet Syndrome

Visual Hallucinations

It was a pleasure to attend the first day of the Seeing Things interactive art exhibition, which is taking place at the lovely Forum in Norwich over the next two weeks.

Charles Bonnet Syndrome is a type of visual hallucination which people can experience after sight loss. In comparison with other types of hallucination, those who experience these know that they are just a creation of the brain as a reaction to visual loss.

 Fascinating paintings depicting some of these hallucinations. Source: Own photo

 

The Art of Charles Bonnet

This art exhibition, set up by the NNAB, features art from people who suffer from the syndrome, as well as other visual artists who have been inspired from speaking to those who experience these vivid hallucinations, which have their own unique attributes in comparison with other types of hallucinations.

To the left – a bear statue in front of some upside-down cupcakes. Strange faces can also be a feature of the condition. Source: Own photo

Experiences

Dominic Ffytche, a world expert in the condition, gave a fantastic lecture about the Syndrome, and it was indeed fascinating to listen to the experienced of sufferers from the condition. The audience comprised of people who suffered from the condition, people who had not previously heard of the syndrome and clinicians, such as myself, who are aware about the condition but want to understand more and gain perspective.

I was particularly intrigued by the number of people who experience hallucinations of old period clothing from different eras, which seems to be a consistent feature of the syndrome. Interestingly, even when the syndrome was first described 250 years ago — the literature describes sufferers talking about people wearing period dress of the time. Perhaps 18th century formal-wear has a hallucinatory quality to it?

 Dr Dominic Ffytche, an expert in the condition, shows images of certain visual hallucinations that people experience. Source: own photo

Gaps

Even though Charles Bonnet Syndrome was first described 250 years ago, by a Swiss philosopher who was writing about his grandfather’s experiences having lost his sight to cataracts, we still do not know why exactly it happens. Certainly, we suspect that the brain fills in the gaps generated from visual loss by producing new fantastic pictures or old images which it might have stored. For many people, these hallucinations are not a problem but for some they can, understandably, be distressing. Certainly, it helps to understand these hallucinations and it is useful for both sufferers, the public and clinicians (such as yours truly) to be aware and understand this fascinating condition.

 An interesting hallucination — bear and inverse cupcakes. Source: own photo

To this end, it is fantastic to have an art exhibition which both raises awareness and bewitches us, humbling us as clinicians into realising there is still so much about the eyes and the brain that we don’t yet understand. Do you have any experience of this condition? Please feel free to comment below.

Links:
Royal National Institute of Blind People
Norfolk and Norwich Association for the Blind
NHS Charles Bonnet Syndrome Information

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Mary and the Witch’s Flower Spoiler-Free Review: The Birth of Studio Ponoc

Last week I caught a preview screening for the debut feature from Ghibli heir Studio Ponoc at the fantastic Cinema City Picturehouse cinema in Norwich, UK. I had consciously avoided any review of this film, apart from chancing upon a somewhat disappointing missive a few weeks before.

The cinema was packed to the rafters with cinephiles, and it was a rare pleasure to witness flawless etiquette amongst the audience (which spanned all ages). The only test for the latter was a slightly overlong, nevertheless interesting, behind-the-scenes documentary which preceded the film itself, explaining the birth of Studio Ponoc. Founder Yoshiaki Nishimura was brutally honest in his statement that the creation of a new studio was deemed necessary for several Ghibli staffers after Hayao Miyazaki’s announcement that he would not be making any more feature films. “We have young families” stated Nishimura in his explanation of the rationale behind the new studio.

Studio Ponoc

Studio Ponoc was founded in April 2015, and Nishimura brought several other Ghibli members of a similar age to himself, with the goal being the birth of a new Japanese animation dynasty. Indeed, Ponoc is a Serbo-Croatian word which means midnight or the beginning of a new day. The pedigree of Ponoc’s crew is not in doubt — its lead director, Hiromasa Yonebayashi, has already been a key animator of Spirited Away and Ponyo, before taking the reins completely for The Secret World of Arrietty and When Marnie Was There. Other animators have had roles in a number of Studio Ghibli’s masterpieces over the years.

Mary and the Witch’s Flower is the debut feature for the studio, and is scheduled for a UK-wide release on the 4th May 2018. It is based on “The Little Broomstick”, a children’s novel written by Mary Stewart in 1971. The version I saw was in Japanese, with English subtitles. The dubbed version features some stellar voice cast including the likes of Jim Broadbent and Kate Winslet. However, my personal experience is that there is always some magic lost in the dubbed versions of japanese animated films.

Film Synopsis (No Spoilers apart from those already in the Trailer)

The film starts with a bang, with a chaotic battle scene which only reveals its significance towards the end of the film. We meet Mary, a well fleshed-out young red-haired girl who does not like her hair and is inquisitive about the world. She gets annoyed easily, particularly at her own quirks, but she is caring and empathetic in her interactions with others. As a lead character, she is excellent and deserves to be the early symbol for Studio Ponoc in the same way that Totoro has been for Studio Ghibli. Indeed, our empathy for her transcends some of the finest Ghibli protagonists: Kiki, San, perhaps even Spirited Away’s Chihiro.

Mary’s world is upended following a visit into the woods, which is clearly inspired by the studio’s heritage, and the rest of the story has a magical theme (as implicated by the title) with segments which do resemble Ghibli’s classic Kiki’s Delivery Service. Mary meets a Headmistress who appears inspired by Zeniba from Spirited Away, enters a world of the arcane arts and encounters a perilous situation which threatens all that she loves. The plot is somewhat formulaic and, perhaps, lacks the flights of whimsy and depth from Ghibli’s finest works which could elevate it to a true masterpiece. However, the formula is, like a perfect witch’s potion, brewed perfectly and did not feel derivative.

Visuals

The film is mainly set in Rural England, and the behind-the-scenes featurette described how the animators travelled to England and made sketches of the countryside. Their meticulous research has paid dividends in some breathtaking English scenery, from forests filled with mist to verdant countryside. Later scenes have a psychedelic appearance which seem inspired by The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine, and have so much detail that it is impossible to appreciate them in just one viewing. To put it simply, the beauty of this film rivals anything that Studio Ghibli has done.

BBFC Age Rating

The film is rated “U” for very mild threat. Whilst I agree that the feature warrants a U rating for children to have the optimum chance to be bewitched by this film, it does actually have some intense moments, including emotive scenes involving animals.

Overall

The spirit of Ghibli permeates this film, and a tight plot is complemented by stunning visuals which rival any of the works of the studio’s progenitor. Despite a fantastical narrative, the magical whimsy of Ghibli’s finest works doesn’t quite make it over to Ponoc’s debut to forge a true masterpiece. However it is an immensely strong debut feature which Ghibliholics, fantasy fans and many more will wolf down faster than Spirited Away’s No-Face.

This kind of film needs to be championed, as a world without the beauty of Miyazaki’s legacy, would be a dark world indeed.

My rating: 

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