Thursday, April 30, 2015

Citizen of Setsuled's Kingdom

I guess this is my new pet cricket. This is the third I've seen turn up in my apartment from who knows where. This one is missing a hind leg so I didn't quite feel right putting him outside to fend for himself. Since I think these crickets I'm finding are descendants of the ones my upstairs neighbour keeps as pets and I hear her baby talking to every evening it felt oddly cruel abandoning one.

I have him in an empty CD spool with a dead rose from my sister's wedding, a bit of bread, and some broccoli. Since I can't seem to go a week without seeing an article reminding me I'm a disgusting monster for having fed bread to birds, I hope it's not harmful to crickets. He seemed to like the broccoli, burying his face in the stem.

It was 109 Fahrenheit at school yesterday which makes me glad next week is my last week assistant teaching in the Japanese class. By the way, maybe I should warn people about the rampant disease and misfortune that seemed to manifest last week on the day of the exam--two students were far too sick to attend class, one was in the emergency room because his grandfather had two heart attacks, another injured himself helping his friend move. Fortunately everyone seemed to have recovered by the next class session.

Here are a few more pictures I've taken recently;

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Fearful Symmetry of Newborn Eyes

What are innocence and sin without the context of religion or morality? Perhaps an android and a human? Why would someone take the trouble of building a perfect, complex artificial intelligence and then treat it like a disposable object? Might as well ask why someone marries only to eventually treat their spouse like a detested servant. It's senseless and it's human. 2015's Ex Machina is the latest of a long history of films to explore the relationship between android and human. Indeed, the story of a person's relationship with the human facsimile he or she (but usually he) has created is far from new. It's as old as Galatea though Ex Machina bears more resemblance to Blade Runner and to various anime and manga series. But like all stories that are endlessly retold, it has a bottomless well of resonance and, along with amazing visuals and performances, it makes Ex Machina a very nice, intelligent film.

The movie spends a lot of time out-thinking its audience, anticipating expectations people have on familiar directions the story might take--whether the androids will be evil, whether the humans will be irresponsible and cruel, whether some characters we've taken as human might end up having been androids all along. But writer and director Alex Garland seems wisely to inhabit the story rather than produce it from equation. In fact, the film has several enormous plot holes, though only a couple of them really bugged me, chiefly that Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) never thinks to ask Nathan (Oscar Isaac) why he has to speak to the android, Ava (Alicia Vikander), through a glass wall and he fails to ask why there's a fist sized crack in the glass. Caleb is there to conduct a "Turing Test", a test designed to determine whether an AI is genuinely, independently thinking and feeling or if it's simply simulating human behaviour. If the android poses a physical threat, it seems like it would have some bearing on that question.

Nathan is the owner and mastermind of a fictional online media company called Bluebook which sounds like it's a combination of Facebook and Google. He developed his artificial intelligence in secret and has now brought in Caleb, a nicely realistic character, to test the results. Caleb is not physically attractive, we gather he hasn't had a lot of luck with women--he's a coder for Nathan's company, one of the best. I won't spoil how things turn out precisely but I'll say even early on I noticed that Nathan had made his android in the image of a beautiful woman.

As I pointed out at the beginning, the android creator is often shown to have motives that seem to be contradictory. I suspect the reason audiences to tend to more often sympathise with android characters like Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation, Chi from Chobits, the Terminator, or the androids in the recent Swedish television series Real Humans is that these newborn artificial species are pure. Looking at them, one can see a definition of innocence in an intelligence that lacks years of accumulated shame based on the hypocrisy seemingly inevitable for human beings to function throughout their lives while claiming to maintain ideals they were taught in youth. How does Roy in Blade Runner earn that not exactly subtle image of his hand, pierced by a nail, saving Deckard from the ledge? He may have murdered people but he never did so having had the express intention of bringing them into existence to begin with. Even though he's a killer, he's pure and, for having been treated as an outsider by human morality, an innocent.

Alicia Vikander has been justly praised for her performance as Ava. As Richard Roeper said, "Alicia Vikander infuses Ava with the just the right mixture of iciness, vulnerability and mystery." Despite all her android forebears, the character Ava most reminded me of was Rei Ayanami from Neon Genesis Evangelion, a character that resonated so well in Japan she's become a character type, many series of every genre have had this beautiful girl with her mix of ice, vulnerability, and mystery, a kind of doll who is both attractive for her youthful beauty and accessibility but also haunting for her coolness and pragmatism--even as those latter two seem to be manifestations of the same innocence that produces the first two.

So, yes, a very nice film.

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Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Perspective for Respectable Pillage

The real story of Captain William Kidd is almost equal parts tragedy and comedy, a man who would become legendary for piracy when he seems to have genuinely believed he was acting as a privateer for England. 1945's Captain Kidd presents the legend rather than the truth though elements of the real story are mixed in somewhat incongruously. A film with a great deal of potential, especially for most of its cast, particularly for Charles Laughton as Kidd, it nonetheless quickly dissolves into a lazy, rote exercise in filmmaking.

Laughton plays Kidd as a career pirate who's decided to become a gentleman and the movie attempts to achieve comedy from Kidd posing in front of a mirror and pretending to ask a lady to dance, routinely being corrected on proper titles and etiquette by his new valet, and finding himself unable to ditch his cockney accent whatever airs he puts on (though Kidd was in reality Scottish).

It's all played straight by Laughton, who just about sells it, but he's much better in the few moments he's allowed to be genuinely menacing, as in an early scene where he disarms one of King William's personal guard who comes at him for demonstration.

Kidd really did have the financial backing of the king for his notorious voyage though there's no evidence that Kidd was presented at court for it or that he even ever met the king who was one of several investors in what was supposed to be a mission to ostensibly capture pirates--and ships of other nations--and profit from the booty obtained. The film presents a far cleaner version of reality where the English king and government are presented as simplistic authorities for justice and goodness despite the king being inexplicably misled on Kidd's "true" nature as pirate by the captain's broadly ingratiating manner.

Henry Daniell plays King William and it would have been nice to have seen a more complex scene between him and Laughton. A bit better served by the script is John Carradine as one of Kidd's cohorts whom he's always wanting to kill due to a buried treasure they both know the location of.

Unfortunately, one of the worst aspects of the film is its casting for what turns out to be the real main character, Randolph Scott as a down on his luck nobleman turned pirate. Scott could be good in westerns but here he sticks out like a sore thumb in a role more suited to Errol Flynn. Everything Scott wears seems like a costume and never like his clothes.

Even less impressive is Barbara Britton as his love interest, Anne Dunstan, who is little more than a human prop. But you may find the film worth watching for Charles Laughton alone--anyway, being in the public domain, it's incredibly easy to see. Even the Wikipedia entry has the whole film embedded, albeit in very low quality. There are several copies on You Tube of varying quality. This is the best copy I've found:

Monday, April 27, 2015

Who Wants a Throne, Anyway? Not Me, No Ser!

Margery teaches Tommen that sex is neat, Cersei and Tyrion find it's best never to leave the palanquin, Brienne turns out to be Kaylee from Firefly, Jon Snow and Arya Stark face losing identity to get what they want, and Jonathan Pryce will never get anywhere in a suit like that in the new Game of Thrones.

Except he doesn't want to get anywhere, or so he says. Unlike the character he played in Brazil, who at least until he met his dream girl was happy in an unambitious anonymous position in a grey bureaucracy, the High Sparrow, despite preaching everyone is equal, came to King's Landing, the seat of power in Westeros. A fact Cersei points out and the only point he can't seem to counter with his humility rap. It is nice to see Jonathan Pryce on the show and he infuses the High Sparrow with warmth that one can see as being rather persuasive while exhibiting a very subtle, elusive ambiguity of motive.

By the way, am I the only one who hopes Julian Glover is going to be the big, dark horse power player in the final season?

This guy's been on the show from the beginning and we already know he fakes his infirmity. This is the actor who played the main villain in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, could Maester on the sidelines really be the extent of his role?

Maybe he's one of the faceless assassins, the cult Arya's joined. This was a really fine moment for Maisie Williams who, rather fortunately for the series, seems to have grown into a good actress--not that she was bad before but you never can tell with these things.

Sophie Turner is hard to gauge at this point. But I like where her story's going even though I think Ramsey Bolton is ridiculous.

Nearby, Podrick has a nice moment where he tells Brienne how he became a squire and then Brienne's character is undermined as she tells him about attending a ball where the boys laughed at her until Renly rescued her by dancing with her. So much for the little tomboy she told Arya about who wanted to be a warrior.

Overall a nice episode, though. I kind of hope Jon Snow stays at the wall and all of his story gradually becomes totally irrelevant to everything else. What is wrong with me? Hell, I can't help it.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

The Best Cherry Pie In the Tri-County

What is this other world where we are strange copies while remaining ourselves? The Black Lodge? Art? I found myself contemplating reflections as I finally finished watching through the Blu-Ray release of Twin Peaks I bought last year. In high school, I used to skip the big chunk of second season episodes where series co-creator David Lynch was away directing Wild at Heart, which I still think is a good way to watch the show, but a few years ago I watched through those Lynchless episodes, I suppose just out of hunger for more Twin Peaks after I'd run the Lynch era episodes into the ground. Really they're not so bad. Well, the plot about James being seduced by the woman with the rich husband still feels like a cheesy, early 90s HBO movie. Billy Zane's character is still incredibly annoying, Audrey turning into the dull, rote voice of virtue women are typically relegated to is depressing, Ben Horne thinking he's a Civil War general . . . I kind of like Windom Earle but he's also the cliche, flashy evil genius. Twin Peaks without David Lynch was pretty good, average television. Like average television, it lulls you into a sort of complacency and then David Lynch came back at the end like an avenging angel.

It's like your wife coming home after you've gradually grown comfortable with your favourite prostitute while she was away and just your wife's appearance reminds you of all the vows you'd not only made but really meant. Twin Peaks without David Lynch could be your average easy thrill, Twin Peaks with David Lynch is like true love. The ecstasy as well as the pain and frustration.

Oh, how I love that final episode. The bank scene is my favourite, I think. Lynch grabs the threads of Plotty Plotty Plots--Audrey and her father's environmental activism and Andrew Packard coming back from the dead--and just . . . puts them on a skillet and slowly burns them. He uses a slow moving, very old man to move everything along. I love how the revelation of Andrew's presence is unveiled in an unbroken, extreme long shot, like his whole stupid plot about faking his death is exactly what it is, a very small, insignificant thing in this cold bank, no more important than the security guy answering the phone to learn about his kid being born.

This encapsulates the difference between how Lynch handled the series and how the other directors did. It's not an equation for him, not a time tested pattern to be cut out and sewn together but a perspective and statement on reality. And this dumb formulaic thing was a lifeless body in his vision like a splinter which he attacks with white blood cells.

We don't talk about directors when we talk about television to-day. We talk about the writers, the writers are the showrunners. George R.R. Martin is the main focus for Game of Thrones, we talk about David Benioff & D.B. Weiss next, and then as a distant third we might talk about how director Alex Graves made a scene look like rape that wasn't supposed to be or what a great job Neil Marshall did directing "Blackwater"--though I think people are more likely to mention how the episode was written by George R.R. Martin.

Vince Gilligan, writer, is the showrunner of Breaking Bad, Nic Pizzolatto, writer, is clearly in charge of True Detective. The directors seem to count for less and less. Many people have said--including David Lynch--that the creativity in filmmaking these days seems to be moving away from feature films and onto television. If that's the case, the medium would seem to be turning to a more literary one than a visual one. I imagine motion pictures are becoming closer to stage plays in that sense, a medium dominated by writers first, actors second, and then the director is important but mainly in how he or she allows the first two to shine unobstructed.

Of course, Lynch is a writer too and there have been many indications he did a lot of uncredited writing for Twin Peaks. He's said he wrote his own scenes when he appeared as Gordon Cole and actors in interviews have attested to how little what is on the page reflects what actually turns up on screen when Lynch directs, and that's certainly abundantly evident in the final episode of Twin Peaks for which Lynch does not have a writing credit. Lynch isn't simply a showrunner, he's an auteur, and I wonder if that's the crucial problem with his current falling out with Showtime.

I said before I thought maybe Lynch pulling out of next year's planned relaunch of Twin Peaks was cold feet. I still think that might be a possibility but more I think we might be seeing a kind of unwillingness to compromise a vision that is alien to this brave new world of television. Lynch loves the world of Twin Peaks but unlike Steven Spielberg with Kingdom of the Crystal Skull he's uninterested in delivering a weak echo, a prestigious encore. His focus is, as it always has been, whether he consciously likes it or not, on using the medium for a more profound and honest expression. That's my current theory.

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Saturday, April 25, 2015

Finding Evil

One of the things I don't like about Doctor Who is that it sometimes resorts to a moral simplicity, of unambiguously good and evil characters. I was delighted to hear the issue addressed this week in the 2003 audio plays Davros and Master, which form a trilogy beginning with Omega, which I talked about last week. Like the Fifth Doctor television season leading up to the twentieth anniversary, this trilogy leading up to the fortieth anniversary audio play focuses on some of the Doctor's best known foes--Omega; Davros, creator of the Daleks; and the Master. Master, a Seventh Doctor story, was easily my favourite of the two--and a rare pre-Twelfth Doctor Master story I actually like. But Davros was more interesting than I thought it would be when it started off as a tongue in cheek portrayal of a greedy corporate mogul who improbably hires both Davros and the Doctor to be his scientific development department. There's something entertaining about Davros talking about manipulating the stock market but even better are the bits where a psychiatrist analyses him and finds his self-perception as unemotional comes from his fear of thinking about the young woman who helped him create the Daleks.

But Master was a much better story and elements from it seem to have been cannibalised for two Tenth Doctor era television stories--"Human Nature" and "Utopia". Like in "Utopia", the story focuses on the Master having amnesia and living the life of a normal man who enjoys helping others, living in a vaguely Edwardian society. Like the Doctor's amnesia experience in "Human Nature", the Master calls himself John Smith and is reluctant to abandon his life as a human when he begins to learn the truth. As John Smith, he finds himself obsessed with fiction about morally ambiguous protagonists, from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to the works of Dostoevsky. It was a great pleasure to hear Sylvester McCoy read briefly from Crime and Punishment.

The story is also a wonderfully eerie haunted house mystery as the Master's true identity tries to assert itself as free floating psychic force, influencing the actions of Smith's friends occasionally or manifesting as just a barely heard cackling sometimes during innocuous conversation. The story doesn't conclude as I would have liked but for the most part it's one of my favourite Seventh Doctor plays so far.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Shadows On a Face Answered

"There is great power in evil," says an old witch as she gives to a neighbour a healing potion she'd made partly with ingredients she'd gathered from under a gallows. Very soon she would face torture and death herself in Carl Theodor Dreyer's 1943 film Day of Wrath (Vredens Dag), a film of beautiful shadows, both in terms of Dreyer's characteristic compositions and for its eerie, awesome moral ambiguity.

The old witch, Herlof's Marte (Anna Svierkier) goes to the pastor, Absalon (Thorkild Roose), and begs him to spare her as he had done for another witch, the mother of Absalon's new wife, Anne (Lisbeth Movin). Unfortunately, Herlof's Marte doesn't have a pretty young daughter to bargain with, not that Absalon consciously acknowledges his reasons for helping Anne's mother. He's aware of his motivations on a subconscious level and is therefore burdened by a guilt he can't understand that becomes worse the more Herlof's Marte pleads.

Absalon has yet to consummate his marriage with Anne despite her begging to be in his arms. Was Anne's mother capable of influencing life and death with her will alone? Is Anne capable of the same thing, capable of enthralling victims like Absalon's son Martin (Preben Lerdoff Rye) to fulfil her sexual desires frustrated by her husband's forbearance?

I love how this movie isn't simply a story of insane, misguided sixteenth century witch trials. It works from the premise that everything the clergy believe about witches is true and yet their actions still seem barbaric and cruel. But also not cartoonishly villainous--one feels bad even for Absalon, even Anne seems to.

It's a movie about fundamental human uncertainty, the terror it inspires, and the attempts to make assertions prodded by that terror. Nothing is really explicit, characters feel holes in their souls, sense something is wrong in their lives and take violent action or assert willpower in the name of finding solutions or burying problems. Even to the end, the ambiguity tortures the characters, never sure if they've done the right thing or the wrong thing, or if they've done anything at all. But death and the judgement of heaven won't spare the whip as the characters are ever forced to seek answers.

The children's choir at the beginning of this clip is wonderfully horrific:

Thursday, April 23, 2015

But What About Eating?

Here's a very fat skull spider who I found had taken up residence above my kitchen counter last night. Aside from the fact that they're beautiful, I don't like to kill these because they eat all sorts of other things. Not fried tofu, though, because she shied away from the steam coming off the pan.

These days, I tend to alternate between Japanese food and boxty--potato pancakes from Northern Ireland--for dinner. Every now and then I get the urge to mix the two worlds and a few weeks ago I made boxty with daikon instead of potato.

There's Setsuko Hara looking envious. She needn't, though--the daikon made the boxty seem oddly hollow. I may try it with turnip.

There's a strange joy in going back to my routine meals after staying at the winery two days for my sister's wedding. The winery/resort I should say--it was a lovely place but you're a bit stranded out there among the vineyards with just a couple high priced restaurants. Their omelettes were good, though.

My sister had so many left over flowers from the wedding she was trying to give them away. She quickly put together this arrangement for me:

And gave me a separate bundle I've been using for my lapels all week:

I sure like pictures of me better when I have no head. I guess this calls for my Ichabod Crane icon.

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Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Befriend Your Local Witch

How do you spot a witch? Is it the old woman who lives alone outside of town? That seems to be about all the criteria necessary to brand the title character of 1989's Yaaba. "Yaaba" actually means something like grandmother, generally applied to older women in the Burkina Faso village where the film takes place, but only one little boy calls calls this particular woman Yaaba. To everyone else she's Sena or just "the witch" in this somewhat cliche but interesting film.

It's less interesting for its central plot than for the array of characters it introduces to create the feeling of a small community, coming across almost like a Frank Capra movie. All the characters, like the ostracised old woman, are types more than people--there's the wise town drunk, the angry, insensitive father, the patiently smiling and unflappable mother.

The movie is told from the perspective of two children, a boy and girl, Bila (Noufou Ouedraogo) and Nopoko (Roukietou Barry), who meet the old woman (Fatimata Sanga) in a graveyard at the beginning of the film and for some reason take a liking to her. Later we see them tackling another group of children who throw rocks at her.

Of course, when a child becomes sick it's only Sena that recognises it's tetanus and not malaria and it's only Sena who's inexplicably able to contact the great healer in a neighbouring village and convince him to come help the child. How a supposedly ostracised woman has better contacts than anyone else in the village is not explained.

The movie reflects real, southwest African superstition which frequently blames various ills on witches though those witches are rarely identified as actual living people. There's a nice realism to the film's locations and sets and despite the broad characters one has the impression of seeing daily village life.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Place of Condemnation

I love when two of my favourite actors unexpectedly turn up in a good movie together. I'd have never imagined Jeremy Brett and Alastair Sim shared the screen at one point but they're together in a short 1975 television film called The Prodigal Daughter. Obviously this was late in Sim's career--one year before his death--and early in Brett's but both actors are wonderful. The story itself isn't bad, it's rather modest compared to the acting talent. It's flawless, really, by not being especially ambitious and the two stars consequently overpower everything but I can't complain. Though maybe the tale of abortion and Catholic priests questioning their faith might have looked more ambitious in 1975 and even now the film's treatment taps real tension on the subject.

Brett plays Michael, one of two priests who are assistants to the priest played by Sim, Father Perfect. One day, a young woman named Christine (Carolyn Seymour) shows up in the church, crying. Taking her to a private room, Perfect learns Christine had had an abortion, that she's not Catholic, but she'd come to the church because she wanted to be judged harshly for her action.

Sim seems to overflow with benevolence, though, and embodies what one would think is the ideal of a priest. He doesn't deny the church's position on abortion but his focus is clearly on comforting Christine in her distress. He also, when she mentions she went to catering school, is keen on hiring the desperate and unemployed woman as the new housekeeper.

As overpoweringly wonderful as Sim is, the basic reality of the Catholic church's position on abortion and on celibacy for priests becomes an issue between Michael the other assistant priest, Vernon (Charles Kay), a young man bitter over the fact that his resentful nature is keeping him from getting his own parish. Michael's dilemma over whether to remain a priest is at the centre of the story while Perfect and Vernon represent the extreme ends of the spectrum--Perfect being everything that's good about the priesthood and Vernon being everything that's bad.

I was happy just to see a long scene at the beginning of Sim and Brett simply eating breakfast and talking about how they need a housekeeper. They both display such perfect examples of a kind of British acting that mines a poetic creativity in finding evocative inflections, pauses, and gestures.

The whole movie is on YouTube in four parts:

Monday, April 20, 2015

You Think These Thrones are a Game?

Well, we finally had to break the reverie from that wonderful finale for Arya last season and see her actually arrive in Braavos. But Arya's scenes were good in last night's episode, I liked getting a look at the peasantry, for once, about their business at the docks. It would be interesting to see an alternate cut of Game of Thrones where all the snippets of story we see in every episode are strung together. Really, how much more did we see last night than Arya knocking on a door?

I loved Brienne's action scene. I liked the stuff with Sansa and Littlefinger but Sansa's makeover is feeling really silly. When she stepped out with new dark hair and clothes it seems like everyone thought she was suddenly going to be a master manipulator. Of course it takes more than dye for that but Sophie Turner injecting a bitter, resentful tone to everything she says now to make up for the fact that it's still Littlefinger doing all the planning and scheming feels like watching a little kid pretending to be the Wicked Witch on Halloween.

I thought the Daenerys story was extraordinarily dumb. I don't usually like giving spoilers in these entries but I have to talk about how fucking stupid that was so--spoilers after the tired and incredulous Arya.

Do you execute someone without trial for executing someone without trial? No, that would be too self-evidently stupid, no-one could possibly carry out that action without being overburdened by the massive weight of obvious irony. Oh, but that's exactly what happened last night. Or was Daenerys questioning the guy in the throne room supposed to be his trial? If that's the case, why all the hand wringing about having a trial for the first guy? Now everyone in the city hates her which she and all of her advisers should have seen as inevitable as noon but none of them do. This is really the same show that has Tyrion and Varys and their wonderfully witty exchanges of glum observations and optimism tempered in battery acid?

Okay, end spoilers.

But speaking of spoilers, spoilers I'm keeping myself from, I only learned yesterday that something like five episodes of this season were leaked a week ago. Cue various internet magazines seething at not having the privilege of spoiling the show for people who DVRed it every week. Though I'm not above piracy--particularly not of TV shows where I don't see the real difference between watching my HBO subscribing parents' or sister's recording of the show and some anonymous person's--I don't see it as a black and white issue. I wouldn't, for example, refrain from paying for a book or independent film unless it was in the public domain and the creators are long dead. But moral issues aside, I don't find myself at all compelled to watch the leaked Game of Thrones episodes before they air. Maybe it's because I'm one of the few people who doesn't binge watch. I don't think it's wrong to like binge watching television shows. I think some shows are made for it and people argue Game of Thrones is one of them. Maybe I'd like it too if I had the vast amounts of free time everyone else seems to have. I mean, really, how come I don't have five hours to spend regularly watching television in one go? I'm really structuring my life wrong, I guess.

I almost wonder, though, if the leak was perpetrated by someone at HBO. Considering that people at HBO have been quoted as seeing the piracy of the series as almost a good thing, I wonder if this was to covertly test the waters at potentially releasing the show in bushels like Netflix does.

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Sunday, April 19, 2015

Of Swallows and Wine

Swarms of swallows outside the hotel were relentlessly trying to make mud nests on the underside of the awning despite their efforts being periodically hosed off. I say let the swallows take over.

Meanwhile, humans were getting married, namely my sister, Chelsea, and her new husband, Alex (no, he's not Petyr Baelish). I made a nuisance of myself trying to get pictures of people when they weren't posing for pictures.

My little cousin, Ava, the flower girl.

Guests gathering, spotlight on friends of the couple, Erica and her boyfriend whose name I think is Eric unless my brain is assuming couples generally have similar names. I've had a lot of wine this weekend.

My sister's pen pal from Atlanta who was wearing my favourite outfit at the wedding. I learned later the dress and shoes were actually my sister's.

The difference between zoom and closeup, if you want to know.

My hat I was forbidden to wear during the ceremony.

Wistful flower girl, perhaps remembering.

Going up.

And coming back down.