Monthly Archives: April 2016

Messing about in boats

We had a wonderful holiday in the Philippines over New Year, particularly the week we spent on Cuyo island. We stayed at the excellent Coco Verde Beach Resort and had the place to ourselves for 4 nights. We spent our time snorkeling and relaxing, enjoyed great food, cold beer and even wine with dinner. One day, we took a trip to Quiminatin island, a good two hours away by fishing boat. The snorkeling at Quiminatin was gorgeous – we saw dozens of species of fish, brightly colored living coral, huge clams, and lots more.

But the thing that really got me about the snorkeling trip was the boat ride. It was uncomfortable: sitting on a narrow plank for hours, particularly in wet swimming trunks, doesn’t make for a happy backside. But the thrill of the sea really got to me. Scudding along with a mild swell and your destination visible on the horizon: is there anything better? (Actually I’ve a sneaking suspicion that there’s more than a little salt water in my blood. Perhaps this was my inescapable destiny).

Carta Nàutica

I’d talked about trying to get a boating license for a while. I can’t even drive. so it didn’t seem like a top priority. But that boat ride to Quiminatin and back convinced me. I signed up with the Corsa Nàutica school in Barcelona last month and did an intensive course over a weekend. Friday a couple of weeks ago, I took the theory exam in a high school in Sarrià (you’ve never seen so many floppy-haired posh types in your life) and today, the Generalitat has confirmed that I passed. Damned good of them. That’s the only test necessary to become a Skipper of Recreational Vessels so I now have to turn up for some hours of practical experience and radio communications and I’m done.

Shiver me timbers, and avast!

(If you’re thinking about doing something similar, I had a pretty good experience with the Corsa Nàutica school, based at the Port Olímpic in Barcelona. Friendly staff, decent course materials and so on.)

Here’s some additional information about the PER qualification.

There are 5 standard qualifications in Spain for boats and yachts: PNB (Patrón de Navigación Básica), PER (Patrón de Embarcaciones de recreo) – the one I’m working towards, PY (Patrón de Yate), CY (Capitán de Yate) and PPER (Patrón Profesional de Embarcaciones de Recreo). I understand that the PPER is needed if you want to work as a professional skipper.

The PER exam includes questions about parts of the boat (this bit’s basically a vocab test), beacons and other signalling apparatus, safety, simple navigation, international legislation, and nautical charts. The nautical charts section involves being able to find your location based on compass bearings to two charted objects, tides, correcting for magnetic deviation, and that sort of thing. You’re allowed up to 13 errors in total, and only two of them can be on nautical charts.

The exam is the only part of the qualification which you can fail – the other components being 2 days’ practical and several hours’ radio experience, which need to be done with a registered school.

Here in Catalonia, the exam is in both Spanish and Catalan, something which can actually help at times, if you speak both (e.g. ‘el bichero’ in Spanish is called ‘la gafa’ in Catalan, which gives more of a clue as to what it’s used for). Doing the exam when neither of these languages is your mother tongue is tricky but then the vocab is new to most people. And if Clive James can teach himself French by reading Proust, you or I can get through a few dozen multiple-choice questions with a bit of study beforehand. I have a feeling that you could probably pass the exam without doing the course, but you’d need to be a better student than I.

Made in America/Members Only – The Sopranos

An excellent analysis here of the final scene in the final episode of The Sopranos. Don’t read unless you’ve seen it (or don’t care about spoiling the end of a great TV show).

In-depth analysis like this of the direction, camera angles and shots, really adds something to a second or third run-through of The Sopranos, Mad Men, The Wire and maybe a handful of other shows. When you’re not distracted by wanting to know what’s going to happen, you’ve got more time to enjoy how the director gets you there. And make no mistake: these TV series are of a far higher calibre in this respect – the attention to detail and the thoughtfulness of exposition – than the vast majority of movies.

I think it’s time to start on The Sopranos again.

North by Northwest – Hitchcock’s Magnum Opus

While I love his tense psychological thrillers like Vertigo, the humour and tension of Rear Window and the horror of Psycho, there’s a special place in my heart for the heady mix of action, thriller and comedy that is North by Northwest. A better writer than me could certainly write an entire book about this film. I’ll limit myself to a few observations as to what I consider to be its most important qualities.

Visually, North by Northwest is stunning. Its opening titles, overlaid (allegedly) in a diagonal pointing NNW over an aerial shot of Manhattan skyscrapers is the first feature use of ‘kinetic typography’. The titles were created by Saul Bass – the master of 50s and 60s movie titles. North by Northwest might well be his best work. Indeed, it’s pretty obvious that the aesthetic of the film, including Cary Grant’s suits (and Madison Avenue profession), the sets and furniture are the inspiration for arguably the best designed television series in history – Mad Men [of which we’re about to finish our second run through. It’s all about Don and Roger’s friendship, n’est-ce pas?].

Camera angles and shots

Even more important are the camera angles and techniques used in the film. These range from the striking straight-down camera perched high up on the United Nations building, which makes the building’s entrance look like a diorama, as Roger Thornhill flees – to the awe-inspiring crop duster scene, with its jaw dropping 61 camera angles and shots. This scene still impresses today – for a film from 1959, it feels remarkably realistic and seems to confirm the opinion that skilled cinematography, acting and direction can deliver better results than computer generated imagery in the hands of a dullard (cf: most adventure films released in the last 25 years or so).

The soundtrack is also noteworthy. Composed by Bernard Herrmann, it establishes drama instantly with a sinister expression consisting of only two notes: down-up, down-up – it was certainly good enough for John Williams to rip off for Jaws 16 years later. To my ear, the theme itself has something of Shostakovitch about it, but I’m no musicologist. Herrmann and Shostakovitch did collaborate much later, but that could just be coincidental.

Cary Grant is Cary Grant at his best in North by Northwest – suave, permatanned, confident and witty. He’s terrified at times but always manages to brush it off. Eva Marie Saint is a classic Hitchcock blonde – superficially beautiful with a modern, liberal outlook fitting the turn of the decade when the film was released. James Mason is perfect as a genteel baddie – backed up by more physically threatening henchmen.

Crop Duster scene

I suppose that in the end, what makes North by Northwest so much fun is that it’s clearly unreal, yet realised for the audience in a way that we can really enjoy it. The film is a fantasy piece, heavy on fun and light on symbolism, which frees it from the need for a more realistic or explicable plot line. The film’s set pieces, particularly the crop duster scene, are iconic and clearly had a huge impact on future action thrillers. I know I get a hint of a thrill from any film which shows one of those near-abandoned prairie crossroads and I strain to hear the sound of an aircraft. Just in case.

North by Northwest is certainly one of my favourite movies, up there with The Big Lebowski (another absurd fantasy, incidentally, though obviously a screwball comedy rather than a thriller). You’ve seen it plenty of times. Watch it again. I know I will.


 

If you’ve read this far, I’m promising now to do a bit more on here, mainly about films, books, music and food. So, see you next year.