Restored to life

Confession: I backup everything I write, everything that lands on my Mac, everything. But I rarely go into the backups to restore anything. Until this week when my arm was twisted into powering up my last computer again and doing some work with it. I’m going to claim that it doesn’t matter what the work was but really, I just cannot remember – because of what I found instead.

Every five or six years I buy a new Mac and take a minute or two to bring over all my current documents. I also promise to sort out the pile of hard drives I have inside some of these Macs and outside all of them but I never do.

This week I did and it’s been like data archaeology. Let me just tell you this first: here on my old Mac Pro I found I’d got 44 feature films. They appear to have been ripped from my DVDs but I don’t remember doing that.

Then there are 279 whole episodes of TV series. Some DVD rips, some iTunes purchases, I don’t know.

And 15,768 radio or other audio tracks.

I do understand that one because I used to have my Mac Pro automatically switch itself on to record the Afternoon Drama on BBC Radio 4 every day so there’s a pile of those. It’s a pile with titles like ‘Afternoon Play -ep723.m4a’ and no other way to work out what each is but to listen.

Then, too, I’ve made a lot of radio on my Macs so there’s surely a thousand or more tracks to do with that.

One more thing. Somewhere in that Mac Pro’s folders there were also 3,336 scripts. A thousand or more movie scripts plus entire series of television ones. Oddly few radio, for some reason.

All of this is now on a drive connected to my iMac and Backblaze, my online backup service, is sweating as it uploads the lot to cloud storage to make sure it is never lost, that it is always available to me wherever I am.

And that would be where I’d stop. Look at this, I could say: I’ve found all this glorious material and that it will of course occupy me, enthral me, distract me.

Only, this digging into a massive personal archive turns out to be a delicate dig into the past. It’s delicate because at first you see a photograph and alongside it there’s the date. It’s a file on your Mac, there’s the name and there’s the the Date Modified. It’s putting a pin in a memory – but then opening that image, looking at that document, just glancing at it changes the Date Modified to today. It’s like grasping at something that crumbles in your hand.

Now, if you dig slightly to the left and down a bit there is way to show the Date Created. But I didn’t think of that until I’d go into paroxysms about the ephemeral nature of even digital memories.

And as I write this to you, I’m actually back by that old Mac Pro because I wanted to get that screen grab of its display looking whitewashed. (When did I take that whitewash photo? Apparently Sunday, 8 September 2013 at 11:12.)

But I’m looking for that date and the drives inside this Mac Pro began giving out a little scream.

They’re going to die. And I’ve already plugged in one ancient external drive that I pointlessly struggled to find the right cables for because it’s dead.

We use these machines to do our work and to do everything, but along the way we are inadvertently documenting our entire lives in sometimes minute-by-minute detail. It’s not always great detail. It’s sometimes scraping when you find an old email and the text comes along with a tsunami of upset.

It’s not great detail when you learn what open wounds you still have. But it is great detail, it is the greatest of all details, when you a To Do list from 2003 that has hopes for the future that you’ve since achieved.

I’m not saying you should dig through your old computer documents and I’m definitely not saying you should do it without a strong mug of tea beside you. But I am saying you should backup everything. I’ve said that for years and meant it in very practical terms but today I mean it in emotional ones too.

I’ve not seen Star Wars

I’ve not seen the new film so I can’t spoil it for you. But although I hope to get out of work early today to see it, it’s not the film that’s on my mind. I’m not really thinking of any of the Star Wars films themselves, I am thinking of how they crop up every few decades and remind me of everything else that was going on.

It’s like life is this long rope back down the mountain and the Star Wars movies are pitons in the rock. They are fixed points and each one reminds me of that spot in time even though the films themselves aren’t a big part of those moments. I mean, I have a uselessly good memory for footage: for example there’s a certain type of US TV drama whose closing credits would be done over clips from the episode and I always unerringly notice when the clip is a different take. Totally useless, though sometimes handy when you’re editing video and can remember seeing just the right moment within the hours of footage. So I’m footage-aware, except with Star Wars.

When the prequels are on the telly I have caught myself wondering if I even saw these films because I don’t recognise anything. And as big as all the Star Wars movies were, maybe none were as anticipated as Return of the Jedi. We’d had Star Wars itself, we’d had The Empire Strikes Back which as well as ending on a cliffhanger was also just a good film, so Jedi was a big deal. In six movies, the single frame I remember from seeing in the cinema is an early shot in Jedi where we see the Death Star and I thought oh. We’re late getting into the cinema, such long queues genuinely around the block at the Gaumont in Birmingham, and they’ve started the film before we are at our seats. Doing that excuse me, pardon me, thanks dance through the line, I am seeing the Death Star on screen and all interest, all excitement somehow punctured.

That’s all I remember from the films as I saw them in the cinema: the deflation at Jedi, that single shot somehow telling me this was not going to be a great night. It wasn’t and there’s probably a life lesson in how I believed it was a disappointingly poor film but we didn’t yet have the prequels to know what poor means.

I do remember a vague shot from when I went to see Empire. It’s much less clear in my mind and partly because it isn’t from The Empire Strikes Back at all. I’d won a contest in the Evening Mail and got to see an early screening. I remember the thrill of being in a cinema during the day to see an exclusive screening and the footage I remember is from one of the Omen movies that was playing when we were led back out through the auditorium.

For Star Wars itself, I say the title and I see a very young me walking with my mom across an ice-cold Birmingham. I remember excitement, I remember my mother saying she didn’t understand the film, I think I remember her holding my hand. I do remember us having a meal out at a Berni Inn. I remember how special that was. If you remember that chain of steakhouses, you may think I’m being sarcastic but no, it was special at the time.

I was the exact perfect age for the original Star Wars when it first came out. Exactly perfect: with Star Wars I was a little boy rooting for Luke and Leia to get together but by the time Empire came out I was old enough to see that Luke was wet and Han Solo was the guy. Later every man you know is supposed to have gulped a bit at Princess Leia’s gold bikini in Return of the Jedi and I didn’t. I saw that and felt I was supposed to gulp. I resented it: you think you can push my hormones around? But I had fallen hard for Carrie Fisher in Empire and maybe it’s because she had more to do in that, she was a more interesting character clad in white snow gear instead of barely wearing gold. Maybe I was also getting all sophisticated: I think it was around Empire that I finally nodded and thought yes, it was right that Star Wars had lost out at the Oscars to Annie Hall.

I’m a boy for Star Wars, I’m hormonal for Empire, I’m disappointed for Jedi. Flash forward to 1999 when The Phantom Menace came out and what I remember so vividly is going to see another press screening. I’m now a BBC film reviewer, writing for Ceefax and possibly the nascent BBC News Online if that had started yet. Sitting in a very large press screening, aware that somewhere over there on that opposite side there’s Barry Norman. I’m seeing a film at the same time as quite legendary film reviewer.

I’m also seeing it at the same time as my editor from Ceefax. Never before or after did the editor go to a screening with the reviewer, never before or after would two people go to any screening, but this was big. The first Star Wars in nearly two decades. I remember going in to that Leicester Square screening with her, I remember us coming out. I liked that editor a lot and far, far more than I liked the film and I hope she felt the same. I know she felt the same about the film.

There was this giant, giant movie, this world event really, and I can see us walking out of the cinema into bright sunshine and all thoughts of the film evaporating. We were more interested in what we were doing for the rest of the day, getting back to the newsroom, the other deadlines going on, anything but the movie.

That was 16 years ago. Today my BBC work is behind me and I’m not reviewing Star Wars for anyone. But I’m going to a screening and I’m thinking of the work I’m doing now, I’m thinking actually rather excitedly positive thoughts about what I get to do these days. More excited about my work than about this movie. I’m also just thinking of that editor, of that Death Star, of Carrie Fisher’s heart-buckling Nordic look in Empire and her superb writing style since then, I’m thinking of The Omen and how the Gaumont cinema is long gone, I am thinking of an ice-cold night walking across Birmingham holding hands with my mother.

Who needs to actually see Star Wars?

nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands

3330__hannah_and_her_sisters_(1986)movie_

That film poster was on my bedroom wall throughout the time I was a student. Where my friends and housemates had thrash metal posters, I had Hannah and Her Sisters but it was for a very sensible reason: it was my favourite film. Today I don’t have one. Not just one. It seems a weird notion to have only one. But back then – er, when in the hell would it have been? I’m lost – I believed the best film ever made was Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters.

Now, I don’t mean I believed that in some combative, argumentative way: I didn’t evangelise the film, I wasn’t shocked if you said you preferred Howard the Duck. It was just for me, just fact, just Hannah.

Yet this week it never entered my head when asked what 15 films have most stayed with me.

Well, clearly it did enter my head or I wouldn’t be talking to you about it. But I was tagged in this Facebook meme – if you haven’t been tagged yet, hello, you are now – and I rattled off this lot in a thrice:

Grosse Pointe Blank
Trainspotting
Bourne films 1-3
Boyfriends and Girlfriends
Mission: Impossible 1
The Cider House Rules
Three Colours Blue
Leon (aka The Professional)
Heaven Can Wait
The Shawshank Redemption
Capricorn One
Deathtrap
The Sting
Amelie
The Empire Strikes Back

Okay. The list is true enough, though Empire was a push to get it to 15, but nothing that I’d especially be wanting to tell you about. You know what happened next, though. Other people wrote their 15 and I kept seeing ones that I should surely have had. I think the biggest shock for me was that I’d missed off Twelve Angry Men. (Not ten days ago, I watched the Tony Hancock version on YouTube. It’s the one where he says “Magna Carter – did she die in vain?”.)

Nobody picked Hannah. So I have no idea why I finally remembered, but it was a memory with a punch. A flood. Can you have a flood of punches? Central Park in the autumn. The most gorgeous New York City bookshop – now long gone, I’m afraid, even before I managed to get to it, which just makes seeing it more precious. Woody Allen’s character is a producer on a TV show that is really Saturday Night Live and has a corner office with windows looking out across the city. Carrie Fisher looking amazing. Barbara Hershey melting my heart. The music. Oh, but the music. I have the soundtrack album on vinyl somewhere and haven’t played it in a decade but the very opening notes of this trailer are bliss to me.

At the time of release and the time of having that poster on my wall, I didn’t like Michael Caine in this film. There’s something just off, to me, something just a little forced. Now I think he’s okay but I’m not sure whether it’s because I’ve mellowed or because these days it’s Woody Allen who makes me uncomfortable.

Nonetheless, the film sticks with me and I can see how it has influenced my writing. (My version of the Wirrn in Doctor Who is clearly a homage.) Its poetry sticks with me too. I mean that literally, there is “the poem on page 112”. Actually, quick aside, it’s also because of Woody Allen that I came to adore Emily Dickinson’s poetry: he has a collection of short prose called Without Feathers and I learnt that this was a reference to Dickinson’s line “Hope is the thing with feathers”.

That one line buckles me.

But here’s the e e cummings poem on page 112, with that beautiful music, with the bookshop, with rundown New York still looking great, with Barbara Hershey and, okay, with Michael Caine and some subtitles.

Woody Allen regularly does that trick of dividing up the frame into slices by apparent chance of doorways and walls and shelves. It’s very intimate, somehow, it takes you into the characters when they’re isolated or here where Eliot is yearning for Lee.

I’m aware that I don’t appreciate film directors enough. It’s a kind of solidarity-based revenge for all the times directors ignore writers. And maybe you shouldn’t notice directors, maybe if you notice them then they have taken you out of the story. But there was one scene where I was so alert to the writing, the directing, the acting and the cinematography that I can still remember the pressure on my chest from the first time I saw it. It sounds tricksy: Hannah and her sisters are at a restaurant table and the camera must be on a circular dolly track very close by because it just orbits them.

All three women – Barbara Hershey, Mia Farrow and Dianne Wiest – are talking. Naturally all have different issues and pressures, naturally they are all going to collide here. But the orbiting camera shows us one woman’s face in closeup and is then blocked by the back of another woman’s head. Then another face is revealed, another is hidden, over and over. And the effect is mesmerising. It’s these women hiding the truth and somehow losing that for moments, regaining composure for a moment, losing it again. You feel it building and building and yes, it’s all there on the page, it’s all in the script, but the combination of talents from writer through actor to cinematographer and director makes this infinitely stronger than any one of those could have done.

And thanks to YouTube, here it is.

And with half the film sliced up into clips there, I think I’m going to go watch it properly.

After all, it is my favourite film.

Appy anniversary

This week is the sixth anniversary of the original App Store: the iPhone app store that is now responsible for how I spend a significant portion of every working day. Before then, apps were known as applications and not really that well known at all, not per se. Your mother didn’t ask you what an application was. Mine has asked me what an app is.

Mind you, before then, phones were known for being phones. And for being hard to use. I remember trying to read the manual in a theatre: I had a small production on and guests were coming, I needed to have the phone on but muted. Never worked it out.

Now it’s preposterously easy to do with an iPhone but actually calls must be the least thing I use it for. Because I run my life through the apps on it. The iPhone came with apps – the Phone is an app, but there was also an email one, music, calendar – and there are ones from that set that I have used every day since 2007 when I got my first iPhone. Right this minute my phone’s front screen has 20 very, very well-worn apps of which 10 are Apple’s.

That’s more than I expected. Look at the other 10, though:

OmniFocus – my beloved To Do manager
Fantastical 2 – my newly beloved calendar
Pocket – for reading saved articles from the web
Drafts – for jotting down text and then deciding what to do with it, whether to send a text or save to Evernote
Evernote – speak of the devil
Reeder 2 – for reading a lot, I mean a lot, of news every day
Wordpress – for doing some twiddles with this site
HulloMail – a replacement for iPhone voicemail since I’m on 3 that doesn’t support this naturally
LocalScope – for finding restaurants, companies, ATMs, bookshops, anything nearby
1Password – all my passwords and logins at a tap
AwesomeClock – my bedside clock
Concise Oxford English Dictionary (with audio) – what the words mean and how to pronounce them

There probably hasn’t been an hour of daylight in six years that I haven’t used one or more of those.

But.

Six years.

It’s a long time.

I wanted to know what the first was.

The first app I ever bought.

If you want to do this, the quickest way is to open iTunes on your Mac or PC, go to the App Store and check Purchased. You can’t tell a date from that, unfortunately, but the apps are stored in order. If you have more patience and a steady hand, you can get approximately the right date by going through your Accounts section and slogging, slogging, slogging back through the listings there. Very slow, very long. And the date is the invoice date, not the download one. So it can be the same day, it can be the day after. But as near as you will ever be able to determine, that’s when you got each app. Including your first.

My first ever app was… actually, it was two, I bought two at the same time and can’t tell which was first. But the two were NYTimes – Breaking National & World News and Yulan Mahjong Solitaire. I bough them on 11 July 2008, so that’s six years ago today, and together they cost me £2.99. I’ve just checked and the New York Times one is free, Yulan Mahjong is now £1.19.

They’re both fine but neither lasted on my home screen and I know this for certain because of this. This is what my iPhone home screen has looked like for the last six years.

The music there is “Last Week” from Green Wing’s soundtrack by Trellis.

There is one advantage to slogging, slogging, slogging through your iTunes Store account: you get to find out when you bought everything.

So I can tell you that the first book I ever bought through Apple’s iBooks Store was a free copy of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. The first one I paid for appears to be some psychology thing called 59 Seconds by Richard Wiseman. I bought those both on 28 May 2010 and have only read the Austen. The first paid-for iBook I bought and read – and loved, incidentally – is Mapping the Edge by Sarah Dunant, bought on 29 May 2010.

The first TV episode was the free pilot to Damages: never watched it. The first paid one was The Mighty Boosh’s The Nightmare of Milky Joe, which I’d stumbled across on TV and it silenced the room, we all got so engrossed. I bought that on 2 March 2008 and I must go watch it again.

Films came to the iTunes Store before TV but my first wasn’t until 7 June 2008 and The Paper Chase. It cost me £6.99 and I’ve not watched it. I’m feeling bad about all this now. But the second film, the first paid for and also watched, was Searching for Bobby Fischer, aka Innocent Moves aka the subject of this blog by Ken Armstrong.

And all this buying from the iTunes stores started with music. On 15 June 2004, I spent £3.16 buying In Between Days by The Cure, Always the Last to Know and Be My Downfall by Del Amitri, and Jokerman by Bob Dylan. The first album, two days later, was Greatest Radio Hits by Bruce Hornsby.

None of which has had the impact that the apps I’ve bought this way did, but all part of this peculiar sea change that saw me move away from CDs, move to phones that work, move to actually the life and the career that I have right now. I like telling you that my working life would not be recognisable to me if all this hadn’t happened but I don’t like wondering what I’d have ended up doing.

Star Wars is not a (Han) Solo effort

It’s not like you should rush to find writing advice in the scripts to Star Wars movies, but bear with me. I’ve written before about how drama is a collaboration – and that this is one of its joys – but I’ve never before thought of how it can change over time. Literally change over time: the drama you and everybody makes can be physically changed a little ways down the road.

I don’t know what to think about it. But I’m thinking about it a lot now because actor Harrison Ford responded to a famous example of it this week.

Follow. You hide your inner geek very well so I’m not certain you know this, but there’s a thing about Han Solo in the first Star Wars film. It’s the tiniest very big thing there is. George Lucas went back to Star Wars and changed a scene by about a pixel and it enrages some people, it makes others shrug. It’s to do with a scene where Han Solo is confronted by a baddie and in the original version, Solo shoots this guy. In the revised version, the guy shoots Han Solo. It’s not as big a difference as that sounds, we don’t suddenly lose Harrison Ford’s character, erased from the rest of the film, because this guy misses.

Yet that’s the thing for me. I think we do lose Harrison Ford’s character for the rest of the film.

The guy is named Greedo and when Ford began a Reddit Ask Me Anything interview, he was asked: who shot first, Han or Greedo? Harrison Ford’s reply:

I don’t know and I don’t care.

It’s a funny line and you can imagine the weariness in his voice. It’s almost enough to make me read the whole interview. (Have you tried, though? Reddit’s AMAs are impenetrable after the fact: the transcripts of these live interviews are stupidly hard to unpick. But go on, have a try with Ford’s here.)

The trouble is… it matters.

George Lucas wrote the first Star Wars film and George made these changes, Ford acted the scenes and had no part in the alterations. I’m not arguing that Lucas should leave his own films alone, I’m not arguing that Ford should get in a tizzy over changes to a thirty-year-old movie.

I am saying that this one small change is actually gigantic and that it was done after the collaborative heat of production. I tried watching Star Wars the other day while I was thinking about all this and I got a bit bored so perhaps I’m simply wrong. But I believe that had I got into the story, this scene would have taken me out of it again. It bothers me enormously that someone can make such a fundamental change and it makes my eyes go wide that anyone would want to. It actually makes me think that George Lucas genuinely does not understand storytelling.

Hmm.

Here’s the thing. When Han Solo shoots this alien fella dead, it tells us a lot. We’ve already seen a picture-perfect toothy farm boy hero in Luke Skywalker, this is telling us that Han Solo is very nearly an anti-hero. Let’s not get carried away. But he is out for himself and this is really his one character note throughout the first film. Fine.

When he doesn’t shoot first, when he waits for the baddie to shoot him, Han Solo is a hero. I’d say he’s as empty and unbelievable a figure as 1970s US TV hero, but he’s squarely a square-jawed hero type. We’ve already got one of those in Luke and the rest of Solo’s selfish actions and dialogue don’t square with the squarely square-jawed hero. With this one moment, he no longer fits.

More, this is meant to be a dangerous moment. Han Solo is cornered, we learn his enemies aren’t exactly legion but they are pretty big. (The sequel, The Empire Strikes Back is correctly thought of as the superior film – it’s all relative – but one of its clunkiest lines refers to how Solo is hunted. “A death mark’s not an easy thing to live with,” says a man just trying to get through the script.)

Everyone’s hunting Han Solo and this Greedo guy is the one who gets there first. He’s beaten all the rest. And shooting a laser pistol at a distance of three feet from his target, he misses.

That is a crap baddie.

That is a cardboard baddie.

So now Han Solo isn’t an anti-hero and his enemies are worthless.

Harrison Ford made certain decisions about his performance in 1976 or whenever this was filmed. George Lucas the director made certain decisions then. Lucas the script writer had made all the decisions earlier. Together they created the scene we see but Lucas alone could step back into it decades later and make a gigantic change.

The positive thing I take away from this is that moments matter. It’s scary to think that a tiny touch on the tiller of one scene can so radically change a character but it’s also exciting. Makes me press harder on scenes and moments as I write them.

But the bad thing I take away from this is that unless Lucas simply could not see the impact of his change, he elected to do it regardless. I think he decided Han Solo had to be a good guy. I think he chickened out.

Only, this is Star Wars. It’s just Star Wars. If you’re going to lose your nerve over a character, it should surely be over a better one.