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website hacked

Just a short service announcement: today my website was hacked and down for most of the day until I had a chance to clean up the mess, directory by tedious directory. This was way beyond a bit of spam on the doormat, and more like there was graffiti all over the inside of my house. So apologies if you found the door closed.

If I understand correctly, technically this was an obfuscated Base64 encoded PHP injection hack, though I don't know where exactly they/it broke in. Was this due to my own chmod carelessness? Was PivotX vulnerable somewhere? Or were my FTP or PivotX login somehow sniffed out or brute forced?

In any case there's a kind of perverse pleasure in seeing this described as "definitely one of the most elegant hacks I've seen".

Anyway, things should be okay now, with fresh passwords and everything either restored from backup or manually cleaned. Unless there's a backdoor script installed somewhere that I've missed...

tinker tailor soldier spy

A complaint with many mainstream films these days is that they treat their audience as if they're toddlers, but last year's 'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy' is an interesting exception for deliberately making its plot too complex to understand on first viewing. That is, unless you've read the film's source, John le Carré's classic 1974 spy novel, and preferably also seen the equally classic BBC television series (1979).

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy - 1

The film itself has been reviewed quite exhaustively, so I'll resist another description of its gloomy '70s atmosphere of smoky back rooms and drizzly London with its pervasive feel of paranoia and betrayal, or of Gary Oldman's great sphynx-like performance as the sad and world-weary Smiley, whose eyes often remain hidden behind the reflection of his glasses. I'll also resist comparing the film with the BBC series, and Oldman with his formidable predecessor, Alec Guinness.

It is a tatty, nasty, shabby and stiflingly male world of beige and grey, seen through a dreary particulate haze - fag-ash and dandruff. The interiors and government offices are lit with a pallid, headachey glow. Every room looks like a morgue, and the corpses are walking around, filling out chits, wearing ill-fitting suits, having whispered conversations, giving and receiving bollockings and worrying about loyalty.

In two long blog pieces, film critic David Bordwell (who every film student knows as one half of Thompson and Bordwell's book 'Film Art: An Introduction') close-reads the storytelling strategies that 'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy' ('TTSP') uses to stay ahead of its audience. Highly recommended (but lots of spoilers): 'Tinker Tailor: A guide for the perplexed' and 'Tinker Tailor once more: Tradecraft'.

Put simply, most films go to great length to tell their story redundantly, with vital clues repeated at least once or twice, in dialogue and/or visually, to make sure its audience understands the causal links between what happens, as well as all the characters' motivations. However, as Bordwell notes, 'TTSP' "adheres to common conventions of modern storytelling but then subtracts one or two layers of redundancy."

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy - 2

Obviously, Le Carré's complicated labyrinthine plot had to be condensed and simplified quite a bit to fit into a feature-length film. But this doesn't explain the lack of redundancy and extreme ellipsis.

An interesting example is the introduction of the film's central location, the Circus in London - Le Carré's ironic code name for the British intelligence headquarters - and its key characters.

Another film would have typed out, "MI5 HQ," but we're left to infer that behind this façade the Secret Intelligence Service does its work. So the convention of the exterior establishing shot is respected but made a little less redundant.

Consider as well the introduction of the Circus's decision makers. Another film might have started with Smiley and followed him from his office into the briefing room. Instead, he's introduced as one of several men, then as an out-of-focus figure alongside Control. And even Control could have been more clearly identified. He signs his resignation with what could become an emblem of the film's stingy approach to storytelling.

Bordwell gives a number of other examples, all contributing to this "stingy" storytelling. The effect seems designed in part for the many fans of the book and the series, who would come to the film with extensive knowledge of the plot. Partly this approach also invites repeated viewing, and especially on the small screen where you can watch it nonlinearly. This is not uncommon for modern "clever" films like 'Memento' or 'The Usual Suspects'.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy - 3

However, 'TTSP' seems to go a step further, by not just making the puzzle complex or subtle, but actively creating gaps and missing hints - like a mosaic that's complete enough to see the pattern but not entirely complete. In that sense 'TTSP' is by now best approached as one large intertextual work encompassing both the book, series and film. To complete the mosaic repeated viewing as well as knowledge of the book and/or series is necessary.

(A small but telling example of a missing piece of the mosiac is the painting that Smiley has on his wall. The film never tells us it is in fact painted by the character who turns out to be the mole.)

Ultimately, the film leaves you a bit mystified, like having witnessed but not quite followed a suspenseful chess match. Particularly, the motives of the various pieces remain inscrutable - even of Smiley himself.

The behavior of these spies is oddly ritualistic, caught up in their own web of deceit and suspicion, which they themselves can never fully see. Smiley's glasses play an important role as a symbol for both seeing and hiding, so that even when Smiley has identified the mole, the motivations for this agent's betrayal remain opaque. It is this disillusionment and frustration about the moral rot which was at the heart of Le Carré's novel that is reflected in the film adaptation's deliberate incompleteness.

Update: To add one more work to the intertextual 'TTSP' constellation, here's the film's screenplay (pdf). Much less mosaic in structure than the final film, it shows the extent to which its construction took place in the editing room.

iffr: map

Map by Aram Bartholl - 1

Map by Aram Bartholl - 2

'Map' by German artist Aram Bartholl was part of this year's Signals: For Real program at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, which focused on the increasingly blurry line between physical and virtual space.

It's a simple and almost inevitable idea, placing the familiar Google Maps location icon in real spaces. Bartholl has exhibited the large A in different cities around the world, and it now stands at the exact spot in Rotterdam that Google indicates as the location of the film festival (i.e. at the corner of Schouwburgplein, next to the IFFR offices).

Perhaps most interesting is how natural the icon looks in the urban landscape - a sign of our increasing tolerance for hybrid reality? (Or just of Google's ubiquity?)


Bookstores don't provide
a remote control for Proust,
you can't switch
to a soccer match,
or a quiz show, win a Cadillac.

We live longer
but less precisely
and in shorter sentences.

We travel faster, farther, more often,  
but bring back slides instead of memories.
Here I am with some guy.
There I guess that's my ex.
Here's everyone naked
so this must be a beach.

Seven volumes - mercy.
Couldn't it be cut or summarized,
or better yet put into pictures.
There was that series called "The Doll,"
but my sister-in-law says that's some other P.

And by the way, who was he anyway.
They say he wrote in bed for years on end.
Page after page
at a snail's pace.
But we're still going in fifth gear
and, knock on wood, never better.

- Wisława Szymborska, from 'Here' (2009).

Her Nobel Lecture (1996) also makes for an interesting read, a plea for a "questing" outlook on life.

Whatever inspiration is, it's born from a continuous "I don't know."

iffr: sudoeste

The most cinematically rewarding film seen so far at the International Film Festival Rotterdam is the Tiger nominated 'Sudoeste' ('Southwest'), directed by Eduardo Nunes. Shot in extreme widescreen (cinemascope) and gorgeous black and white, this poetic and magical-realist film from Brazil might be imagined as Andrei Tarkovsky filming a story by Gabriel García Márquez.

Sudoeste - 1

A fairytale for grownups, 'Sudoeste' takes place in a sleepy, tropical village on the shores of an inland sea, where salt is the local industry. Its slow-moving story revolves around a young girl, Clarice, who in the course of one day grows into a woman, grows old and dies. She spends time with a family who have lost a daughter, also named Clarice, and there are hints that what we are witnessing is history repeating itself.

Further interpreting the enigmatic and dreamlike narrative, there appears to be a dark and horrific secret at the heart of this film. But this is wisely left implicit - something to be felt rather than spelled out - and draped in the beautifully composed cinematography and sound design. For instance, the scene when the little girl dozes off in the midday heat, with the local band's hypnotic rhythm playing in the background, and wakes up a woman is a stunning piece of filmmaking.

Sudoeste - 2

In a Q&A after the screening on Wednesday, Nunes explained how the initial idea for his film was to have two different paces of time coexist in one story. This became Clarice's time and the 'normal' time of the village. "Or actually," he added, "there are three forms of time. The third is the projection time."

Indeed, the film repeatedly draws attention to itself as a sensual object, made of sight and sound as well as vividly evoking the textures and smells of its magical world. In another scene, Clarice is heard in voice-over saying, "Close your eyes. Listen to the sound of rain." As the screen turns dark to let the audience experience the sound of the first drops of a tropical downpour, one of the most memorable moments of this film is made purely of sound.

Sudoeste - 3

'Sudoeste' might well win a Tiger Award later this week. If you have a chance, see this widescreen gem in the cinema. As the director commented in a Daily Tiger interview, "It's so difficult to show it on DVD. I joke that when you show it on a laptop you have to use two and put them together to watch the film!"

Update: If you're wondering about the title, 'Southwest', this in-depth review (mind the spoilers) offers an interesting interpretation:

Brazil, as a country, is generally divided into five regions: the North, the Northeast, the Central-West, the Southeast, and the South. So when director Eduardo Nunes names his first feature Southwest, it must be assumed that we are entering a place more of the imagination than of representation.

Update: Unfortunately no Tiger Award for 'Sudoeste'. These are the three winners, including the daring and disturbing 'Klip' from Serbia.