Saturday, 8 June 2019

News From Nowhere - William Morris

During my adult life I have tended to read fewer fictional works than I would have preferred, and generally those novels which I have enjoyed have been of the more "philosophical" variety, including some utopian and dystopian science fiction. William Morris' 1890 novel News From Nowhere pretty much corresponds to these tendencies of mine.

In this novel, a man falls asleep in Victorian London, and apparently wakes up in a future society which styles itself as a socialist utopia, and which is agrarian in character.  He is given a tour of this "new world" by the people who he meets, and this takes in boat journeys along the River Thames.

Even allowing for the times when the work was composed, I found the writing style to be an acquired taste. Although not quite archaic in its flavour, in places it may be difficult for some to follow and even understand. Of the novel itself, I was pleasantly surprised by how enjoyable and absorbing I found it.

The fact that the new society outlined in this book is agrarian in nature means that it probably made more sense back in the late nineteenth century than it does to a twenty-first century audience raised in an age of globalization and rapid technological progress. Despite this, some aspects of the utopia envisaged here are very much relevant to our own modern concerns and problems. Perhaps Morris was prescient and astute in observing that technology does not necessarily emancipate the people, or rather is not allowed to emancipate the people.

Whilst the agrarian society portrayed in News From Nowhere seems impractical and implausible to us in our hi-tech world, and the old arguments concerning incentives and competition remain very valid, facets of this utopian vision are worthy of consideration and scrutiny, as part of piecemeal social and economic reform to improve our world and make it more humane, stimulating and equitable.

One feature of the novel which I found slightly disconcerting was the revelation, or insinuation, that all the people were happy, and that they evince a certain kind of serenity.  This seems unlikely and even undesirable.  A place where there is a uniformity of expressions and moods sounds to my antennae like more of a dystopia!

Some of the language used, and the arguments advanced, are quite persuasive, certainly of the evils of 19th century society and its contemporary industrialism, but whether this means that the agrarian route was a practical and workable solution is another matter entirely.  Perhaps there is a gap in the market for someone to write a novel where a person falls asleep in a 21st century environment and wakes up in a future libertarian socialist set-up?  Maybe we are currently at a similar stage, "spiritually" if not materially speaking, as the Victorians were?

I was heartened that some form of "explanation" was offered as to how the old society of "commercial slavery" gave way to the brave new world, but I found myself wanting more.  For example, what was the full human cost of the transition?  In fairness, we are left wondering whether our hero's "experiences" were from a dream, and some minutiae may not have been imparted in such a dream....

Moving on, I was intrigued by one of the central tenets of this utopia; the notion that work can be pleasurable, and vice-versa, and of the idea that the barriers between work and art can be eroded. Weren't we once told that technological advances would allow people more time and space to indulge in stimulating and rewarding artistic, intellectual and leisurely pursuits?

My interpretation of the utopia proclaimed in this work was that it was too uniformly "nice", with little time for dissenting voices, which appeared to be treated with disdain. The tone of the characters seemed to me unduly smug and complacent, with scant allowance for the co-existence of philosophies or the possibility of syncretism. People in that situation may be too comfortable and serene to notice anything sinister or insidious in their midst. In addition, I think there was too easy an assumption that the old habits and vices would simply disappear or fade away.

Much play is made of the populace of this future community being at one with nature, and loving life as opposed to fearing death. Surely we can incorporate some of the more desirable elements of Morris' vision in our future, by way of gradual, rational reform, and the application of reason, if we put our minds to it, without dispensing with some of the dynamic forces which propel human progress?

Overall, I liked this novel much more than I had anticipated beforehand.  It is more "literary" than I thought it might be, and it is well worth a read.

Saturday, 18 May 2019

Shadow Of A Doubt (1943 film)

In one of those moments inspired by a transient piece of social media information, I decided to give a watch to Shadow Of A Doubt, Alfred Hitchcock's 1943 thriller/film noir, which stars Teresa Wright and Joseph Cotten.

The plot centres on a visit by Oakley (Joseph Cotten) to the family of his sister, a family which includes his niece, the young Charlotte (Teresa Wright), who rather idolizes her uncle. It soon emerges, however, that Oakley is harbouring some very dark secrets.

One of the first things which I noticed about this picture was the meticulousness of the narrative, and the care taken to build and develop the suspense. Quite apart from this, the characterizations, including the Newton household, and even the relatively minor players, ensure that this film holds the interest, almost independently of the central direction of the story line.

Some elements which seem destined to be pivotal to the story are relatively peripheral, whilst those who look like classic red herrings end up being influential to how things turn out.  Part of the appeal and the energy of Shadow Of A Doubt, as with other Hitchcock works, is the masterly way in which we are kept guessing and wondering. Clearly the viewer knows that something is likely to be amiss, and the portentous atmosphere early on in the film contributes to this mindset.

Joseph Cotten is excellent as the suave, but manipulative and cynical Oakley.  Soon after his arrival at the Newton residence he is affable, and the sudden arrival of his sinister side, and the dissolving of the earlier jollity and levity, is disconcerting but absorbing to behold. Teresa Wright is a delight as Charlotte, who has to cope with many of her illusions being shattered.

In general, the movie has a wonderfully "organic" quality which it shares with many of the classic black and white films of that period. The period fashions and stylings are also highly appealing. My one gripe is the background music, which occasionally intrudes unnecessarily, but I guess this was a trait common to many pictures of those days.

Shadow Of A Doubt is a movie which demands very close attention, as it is easy to miss snippets of dialogue, or "clues", which will enhance one's understanding of the story.  It is a highly enjoyable and rewarding film to see.  The ending is also quite something!

Tuesday, 7 May 2019

Zerograd (1988 film)

Zerograd (also known as Gorod Zero) is a 1988 Soviet film, directed by Karen Shakhnazarov and starring Leonid Filatov.

I stumbled across this movie whilst searching for more Soviet science fiction, and I am glad that I watched it, as it had a distinct, but intangible, effect on me.

The story revolves around an engineer (played by Filatov) who journeys from Moscow to a small town on business. Once there, he is confronted by a series of strange events, many of which take place after he witnesses a suicide.

Zerograd has a surreal and disorientating flavour to it, but it is also quite absorbing. The fact that it was made in 1988 in the Soviet Union will mean that people (including myself) will perhaps look for messages which are not really there.  In fact, the beauty of this picture is that it does not make simplistic or direct social observations, and it works on more than one level.

There is a scene in a museum which is perhaps central to an attempt at understanding this film, and this portion of the film is both philosophically fascinating and technically admirable, as well as being amusing.  Also, there is at one point a monologue by the town prosecutor, and this is also perhaps key to ascertaining what the writers were getting at.

A word of praise too for the performance of Leonid Filatov in the role of Varakin, the engineer.  He endearingly conveys a mixture of confusion, impatience, ennui and bewilderment.

Overall, I found Zerograd to be a powerful, fascinating and absorbing film.  It is one of those films which will probably continue to pose questions and tax the viewer's imagination on repeated viewings;quite a rare feat for any film, I would say.  One just has to watch the picture and draw one's own conclusions.

Monday, 29 April 2019

Yorkshire Sculpture Park

I thought I would post a few photographs which I took on my recent visit to Yorkshire Sculpture Park  -  -  which is situated in West Bretton, near Wakefield.

Overall, I found this to be a stimulating and interesting day out. The park was much larger in scale than I had anticipated, so be prepared to walk a fair distance if you want to get the most from your visit! There is a wide variety of exhibits, many outdoors, some indoors. Not everything on display will be immediately to everyone's taste, but approach it with an open mind and it should be a rewarding experience....

Wednesday, 3 April 2019

World On A Wire - 1973 movie

World On A Wire (German: Welt am Draht) is a 1973 German science-fiction movie, directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and based on a novel by Daniel F. Galouye.  I recently watched this film, and found it both interesting and thoughtful.

The story revolves around a research institute, which houses a supercomputer.  The computer generates an "artificial world", a kind of electronically simulated environment. The chief scientist dies in mysterious circumstances, and there follows a series of unusual events and intrigues surrounding his successor.

One of the first things which I noticed about this picture is its pronounced "Seventies" aesthetic, in terms of stylings and decor. Personally I find such things very appealing, especially the austere and minimalist architecture, furnishings and so forth. There is also adroit and impressive use of mirrors in several scenes.

In all honesty, the general narrative is not of striking originality, but the minutiae are thought-provoking and clever. The movie explores the standard, well-worn science fiction themes concerning the uses (or misuses) of technology and science, and also the nature of reality and perception. Unlike some films of its ilk, it does not moralize with undue vehemence, but it does pose questions about whether scientific research and progress should fulfill a socially beneficial and benevolent function, and it examines the thorny issues of the conflicts between scientists and bureaucrats/politicians, the extent to which the boffins should be controlled and supervised by the "civilians", and the dangers of technology being subverted by commercial or private interests.

There is quite an ascetic flavour to the film overall, with a mild sense of disorientation heightened by music and sound affects, which are sometimes incongruous in nature.

Without giving away too much, as the movie progresses we get an impression of the blurred lines between "reality" and the simulated world. Elements of the plot I found rather ambiguous, and the latter stages of the work are confusing, but they do serve to exercise and stimulate the grey matter.

An interesting film.

Tuesday, 26 March 2019

Bohemian Rhapsody (film)

I thought it was about time that I voiced my thoughts on Bohemian Rhapsody, the Freddie Mercury/Queen biopic.  I first saw the movie when it was released here in the cinemas in England in late 2018, and recently viewed it again on DVD.

The first thing to say is that Rami Malek delivers an impressive and endearing performance in the role of Freddie Mercury. He captures, I think, some of the complexities and contradictions in Freddie's personality. I have heard it suggested that such a performance is almost wasted on such a film, and I can see the merits in this argument.

I would also contend that the film is very well made from a technical point of view, with a clearly substantial budget, and the visuals are very appealing and well constructed.  My own personal appraisal of the film overall is that it didn't really grab me emotionally, even with my affection for, and familiarity with, the subject matter.

I won't dwell too much on the lack of absolute historical accuracy in the movie, as this is a given with the majority of biopics.  Over the years I have learned that it is difficult to comfortably watch biopics about subjects on which one is knowledgeable, as one will instantly start picking holes in the accuracy or otherwise of the piece.  Just try to enjoy it for what it is. The picture was not produced for the benefit of Queen "anoraks" such as myself, but for the wider public.

The actors playing the other band members do a fine job.  The guy playing Brian May got the demeanour and many of the mannerisms spot-on, although I was disappointed that "Roger Taylor"'s voice and accent were not closer to the "genuine article".

I thought that Lucy Boynton was very good as Mary Austin, adding some gravitas, and the Freddie/Mary sequences generally form the backbone of the movie for me, tracing the changes and turning-points in Freddie's life.   The scenes exploring the singer's background and family also fulfill this function to some extent.

Some of the film is quite moving and sad, but there are also some good comedic touches, and amusing dialogue along the way.  Part of the fun of watching the film should be to spot Mike Myers, which I failed to do straight away when I first saw it.

My own personal favourite scenes are those which chronicle the recording of "A Night At The Opera". These sections are beautifully done, very pleasant to the eye, and both amusing and in places poignant.

The concert sequences are what we have come to expect from such movies, and although I did not find them particularly convincing, they are not the reason why I watched the film. I was much more interested in the general narrative and the studies and development of characters.

I found the second half of the movie fascinating in some ways, as the timespan which it covers has been for me something of a "lost period" in the Queen story.  Having reached some kind of peak of commercial success, problems began to emerge in the form of personal and artistic differences. How accurate a reflection of this era is presented in the movie is a matter of opinion, but I noted the dark tone of much of this section of the work, in contrast to the more bright and sprightly ambience of other areas of the film.  To be honest, I was mildly surprised that this part of the story was covered with such candour.

People may think that Rami Malek occasionally goes "over the top", but it is very difficult to portray accurately and convincingly such a unique and charismatic person.  It is difficult to imagine any other actor managing the task as well as Malek does here.  I think he beautifully evokes some of the unreality and loneliness of fame and fortune.

So for me Bohemian Rhapsody the movie is by no means a masterpiece, but it is entertaining and slickly produced, with a snappy and organic flavour. It just lacks that intangible quality and dynamism which truly great cinema possesses, that which engages the watcher on a higher plane.

Monday, 18 March 2019

Careless Love - The Unmaking of Elvis Presley - Peter Guralnick

I recently finished reading this superb work, which is the second and concluding volume of Peter Guralnick's highly acclaimed biography of Elvis Presley.  It takes the story from Elvis' induction into the US Army through to his death in August 1977.

The book takes in the "Hollywood years" of the 1960s, and excitedly documents Elvis' resurgence in the years 1968-73 (the Comeback Special, the "Suspicious Minds" period, the early Las Vegas years and the famous Hawaii satellite concert). 

As I made way through Careless Love, my interest increasingly centered on the shifting dynamics within the Elvis entourage and family, including the so-called Memphis Mafia. 

Guralnick captures the insidious and gradual nature of Elvis' descent into isolation and stagnation, with his increasing dependency on unhealthy lifestyle choices and his increasingly impulsive and bizarre behaviour. 

My tentative interpretation was that a life which had once been so full of new, exciting and novel things became predictable, constricting and stultifying.  The tipping point or source was imperceptible, and by the time it registered nobody knew how to forge an escape route. It seems that even as Presley's career fortunes were undergoing a pronounced upswing, his behaviour began to exhibit disturbing tendencies.

This is an absorbing and highly detailed book, intensively researched, but one cannot help but be saddened by the tale of decline and despair related in its closing chapters.  I found the writing style very appealing and immersive.  Highly recommended.