Saturday, 9 December 2017

The Assassination of Trotsky (1972 film)

The Assassination of Trotsky is a 1972 movie, starring Richard Burton and, as the title suggests, it documents the events which surrounded the murder of the famous Russian revolutionary in Mexico in 1940. Also in the cast are Alain Delon and Romy Schneider.

I approached this film with some trepidation, as it has a reputation of being a poor piece of work. However, my recent interest in left-wing politics prompted me to give it a watch. The fact that it is done in something resembling a European art cinema style was also an attraction. It has a quintessentially early 1970s flavour about it, to my eyes anyway!

It has to be said that Richard Burton is always worth watching, and that voice of his invariably adds extra gravitas, gravitas which in this instance the work itself does not entirely deserve. I was relieved that he did not attempt a Russian accent, and he plays the role in quite a straightforward manner, eschewing exaggerations and outlandish affectations. Overall though I found this movie to be somewhat bland and muddled. The dialogue lacks guile, and too many scenes simply stumble along with no apparent purpose. 

On the positive side, the production values are reasonably good, but paradoxically it also feels rough around the edges in places. This might have something to do with the lack of focus in some scenes, and also the questionable standard of some of the supporting acting. 

I found faults in the film, but these pale into significance when compared with my reaction to the truly horrible bull-fighting sequence which is included.  What possessed them to have this in there is not clear - maybe it was an attempt at some kind of symbolism?

One of the scenes which I did enjoy was the Mexican May Day parade, although this looked a little like footage of a genuine event.

So, even the charisma of Burton, Delon and Schneider can't save this one.  It is worth a watch, though, for the sight of Burton at work, and for students of history and politics. 

Friday, 8 December 2017

United Red Army (2007 film)

United Red Army is a Japanese film, originally released in 2007, and directed by Koji Wakamatsu. It tells the story of the famous Japanese leftist militant group, from its origins in the student protest movements of the Sixties, to its eventual self-destruction.

I had been wanting to see this film for some time.  The first thing to stress is that the movie is long, clocking in at over three hours in duration. On reflection it is perhaps too long.  It is divided into three parts. The first section looks at the protest movements in the 1960s, the second at the training camps which they established in the remote mountainous regions of Japan, and the concluding "act" depicts an infamous stand-off with the police.

The first part of the picture was for me the most interesting, and the most impressively put together. The course of the protests in the Japanese universities is related using archive footage and narration, as well as some acted scenes. The mingling of these ingredients works surprisingly effectively, and I suspect that the rigour and scale of the student demonstrations will have surprised many Western observers who were unfamiliar with the Japanese scene from those times.

Some time is taken to explain the grievances which fuelled the anger of the students, such as the Vietnam War and the security treaties signed between America and Japan. This first part of United Red Army is done in almost a "docu-drama" style, and the dramatic nature of the subject matter ensures that the interest is maintained for a while, but after that the film becomes rather mired in an exploration of the internal squabbles and purges which bedeviled the group(s), and things only pick up again towards the conclusion of the picture, with the "siege" sequences in the mountains.

The middle part of the movie I found quite disturbing, and it is easy to imagine the terror and despondency felt by many of the people.  It is ironic, or perhaps not, that an enterprise which was ostensibly undertaken in the name of "liberation" was beset by so much misery and cruelty.

Although I found this film to be flawed in some respects, I am glad that movies like this are being made, as they throw some light on major events of the past which have been slightly forgotten, and they hopefully provoke some thought amongst people of all generations, not just about decades past, but about the world we live in today.

It seems that the budget for this movie was not especially lavish, but I didn't find this to be a problem as such. It means that there are no manufactured crowd scenes and over-lavish sets. This one is all about the story, the issues and the people.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Into The Silence - The Great War, Mallory and The Conquest of Everest - Wade Davis

Into The Silence, by Wade Davis, chronicles and examines the British expeditions to Mount Everest in the period 1921-1924, paying special attention to George Mallory, and to the experiences of various expedition participants in the First World War, and the degree to which these experiences affected how the endeavours in the mountains were approached.

What could have been another book about mountaineering is given a different, and absorbing, dimension. The portraits of the various members of the expeditions are fascinating, and I gained the impression of a Britain in a state of flux, modernity encroaching on traditional values and methods, and people confused and disorientated in the wake of the 1914-1918 conflict. The author does not flinch in his descriptions of the horrors of the trenches, and in his observations about the folly of the war.

Another strand which I discerned from the early chapters was the ambiguity in the outlook of many of these men, even those with a seemingly enlightened and liberal view of the world. It is a candid window on some prevailing attitudes, often expressed in diaries and letters. Paternalism, at the very least, was still very much alive, if this is any guide. The frank and honest nature of the portrayals is one of the things which I found so engrossing about the book. It is safe to say that the human race has progressed in many ways since the early 20th century.

Another part of the appeal of Into The Silence is the diversity of the characters, and the way that attempts were made (or not as the case may be) to mould these people into effective and harmonious teams. It is probably true to say that an environment as extreme and arduous as Mount Everest lays bare individuals' foibles, frailties and idiosyncrasies. Some flourish and rise to the occasion, whilst others are defeated and ground down by the ordeal. Davis manages to evoke these phenomena very capably.

I was gripped by the detailing of George Mallory's early life, before the outbreak of the First World War. I had not realized the extent to which he had associated with some of the leading artistic and intellectual figures of his day.

Clearly, wartime travails had affected people in subtly different ways. All had their own tale to tell, or not to tell. Part of the charm is in sensing how the personnel, and the wider public, interpreted their efforts in the Himalayas, and whether to them it represented redemption, escape, idealism or else something different.

There is always a danger that the constant referring back to, and parallels with, the Great War, could become trite after a while. However, Davis handles matters with some sensitivity and finesse, making the assertions and allusions seem plausible and credible. The meanings, where they exist, occasionally emerge as quite nuanced, sometimes even nebulous.

I did rather feel that the chapters dealing with the 1921 expedition, given over primarily to reconnaissance and surveying, were padded and excessively long. It could perhaps have been condensed. The casual observer might also consider that, by comparison, the legendary 1924 trip is documented with relative brevity. Then again, this is no ordinary book.

The quotes from letters and diaries lend a real intimacy and authenticity to the story. As so often, these snippets reveal some innermost sentiments, and occasionally some unpalatable truths. The personality clashes, behind-the-scenes intrigues and animosities, and the vagaries of the selection processes, are in their ways just as interesting as the tales of heroism and stoicism at altitude.

Above everything looms the enigmatic figure of Mallory. Some of his outpourings during the three trips do not square with his supposed inclinations and sympathies. "Mercurial" might be a good way to describe him. A complex individual, and one has to admire his single-mindedness and drive, tinged as they appear to have been with insecurity.

I think that the author builds the tension excellently, as the stakes rise during the 1922 and 1924 expeditions, and the moments of truth approach. The descriptions of the courage and resourcefulness of the climbers, and the sufferings which they endured, are very well executed. One almost felt like one was there in a tent with Mallory, Irvine or Norton, haunted by gale-force winds and plagued by exhaustion and pain.

A riveting read, then, and one marvels at what these people achieved, with such primitive equipment and communications.

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

This Sporting Life (1963 film)

This Sporting Life is a 1963 British film, directed by Lindsay Anderson, and based on the novel by David Storey. It stars Richard Harris as Frank Machin, a coal miner turned rugby league player. The movie follows Machin's professional trials and tribulations, and his romantic entanglements.

This film has assumed an almost mythic reputation within these shores, but it is different from how I remember it from my previous viewings. There is less rugby league action than one might imagine. One thing which is certain is that the piece would not have worked nearly as well had it been made in colour. 

If I discerned a message from watching the film, it was one of self-expression and honesty.  It was released in 1963, at a time when Britain was emerging from an introspective and deferential period, and bright young things from all kinds of social backgrounds were coming to the fore and making themselves heard.

I know that from the distance of the 21st century, some of the working class based "kitchen sink" drama of the early 1960s can even seem like self-parody, and occasionally comes off as patronizing. However, I think that This Sporting Life is plausible and credible in the main, partly because of the acting performances, and also because it lacks excessive self-consciousness. 

The movie strikes a chord with me, in a nebulous way. I was probably never really "working class" myself, in the truest sense, although my surroundings and contemporaries were.  There is an authenticity and candour here which is quite revelatory. People struggling to contain their feelings, but sometimes "letting go". That was something which I seldom saw in my youth. The grittiness and rawness seem real to me.

The social commentary here is quite subtle and "organic", somewhere in there for the viewer to pick out and ponder upon, and the "kitchen sink" elements focus primarily on the relationship between Machin and his landlady, played by Rachel Roberts.  As the film progressed, I thought that the portrayal of the human condition was increasingly bleak. Not a "feel good" film, from that point of view. 

The characters are struggling to communicate with each other, to open up, partly because of traditional British reserve and reticence. Frank Machin seems more expressive than most, but lacks subtlety and finesse in his dealings with others. Everyone else seems to conform, and this leaves Machin looking and feeling like an outsider, often uncomfortable in this milieu. An "angry young man"?.  Perhaps...

In contrast to the dark, dimly lit scenes in the house, the rugby portions of the movie are (comparatively) bright, less subdued and insidious, perhaps symbolizing the game as a form of escape for Machin from his other demons, frustrations and concerns. The picture is done in a "flashback" format, and this is employed to good effect, imbuing the work with additional dynamism and pace, and encouraging the viewer to muse upon meanings. 

Some of the scenes, especially those accompanied by the mildly avant-garde and creepy music, remind me somewhat of European art cinema, "audio-visually" at least.

The Machin character remains impassive and stony-faced when confronted with sycophancy and shallow fawning by social climbers. His responses, expressions and attitudes are possibly more ambiguous than those of your typical "angry young man". This also applies I think to his interactions with his "superiors", such as the rugby league club's owners. Whilst complex, he lacks savvy or sensitivity.  The brooding but enigmatic countenance is brilliantly conveyed by Harris. It is good to see some "animal" emotion in there, rather than endless oblique philosophizing.

This Sporting Life embodies a collision of  traditional values and the modern, business-like approach to life, as befits a film made during a transitional period in social history. Also, philosophies of life which are not epoch-sensitive are to the fore. Those who had decided "if you can't beam 'em, join 'em" stood out to me. One or two scenes depict Machin as detached, gazing upon the superficiality and pretense around him.

This feeling of detachment and alienation I could relate to.  The world is not a perfect place, and one can be too proud, and refuse to meet people halfway, ultimately to one's detriment. 

Another facet of Machin's personality rang true with me as well. That of not knowing how to behave, and what to say, at a crucial time. Misjudging situations and other people's feelings.  There is a fine line between honesty and leaving things alone which are better left unsaid. Being too eager to impress. Being out of practice, as it were, and this rustiness leading to a crudeness and insensitivity, and much later regret.

I feel that this film also serves as a pretty good study of the human psyche and the male condition especially. People being unable to communicate effectively, being on different wavelengths. This is one of the unpleasant, and unpalatable, realities of adult existence. At the root of it all, maybe, lie insecurity and loneliness. 

A great sequence near the end may encapsulate much of the film's narrative. We see Machin on a hill, looking down on the town, which could be seen as a microcosm of the world.  We then cut to a grim, brutal rugby tussle. Summing up his, and our existence, perhaps?  Then again, the rugby-life parallels are perhaps a little too convenient and easy.

Rachel Roberts' performance I find to be a real "grower".  Early on, it can seem a little bland and hesitant, but one has to see how things develop to appreciate that this was intentional. A strong, seamless effort.

This movie has a naturalness and a believability which makes it compelling.  This is real life. People here are not pointedly or blatantly wallowing in their predicament, or chafing at any kind of social chains. It is surprisingly fresh and resonant. Some of the topics and concerns explored are universal.  If anything, the film goes on too long.  It is not exactly light or "escapist" viewing, but it is satisfying and engaging.

Thursday, 26 October 2017

Rosa Luxemburg (1986 film)

The movie Rosa Luxemburg, released in 1986, and directed by Margarethe von Trotta, is a biopic (of sorts) of the German-Polish revolutionary and activist. Barbara Sukowa plays the title role.

I say a biopic of sorts, because the movie does not cover the whole of her life, although there are a few flashback sequences, referring back to her childhood.

For much of this picture, there is a dark atmosphere of foreboding and oppression, often with a backdrop of snow and overcast skies. I personally found this to be galvanizing rather than discouraging. Some of the most powerful and effective imagery is of Rosa trudging around prison yards in the snow, accompanied by her poetic reflections and commentary.

In addition to the above, a good deal of the running time consists of Luxemburg arguing (often at the dinner table) with her "comrades" regarding strategy, tactics and theory. If some of the settings here are an accurate reflection, then it seems that Luxemburg and her friends and associates lived in a good deal of comfort and luxury, when they were not locked up in prison, that is.

I like this film, partly because it deals with European history and politics, and partly because it is imbued with the notions of learning, ideas and books. The period sets, costumes, decor and so forth, are impressively, if soberly and unobtrusively, done. The scene which depicted a "turn of the century" ball was nicely effected and presented - this is an area where many similar pictures fall down.

The theme for much of the movie, as I interpreted it, was that the subject was principled but headstrong, and often despaired of her older, more pragmatic and conservative colleagues, and their more measured approach. There is almost as much focus on her emotional and romantic entanglements as on the political arena, partly because such areas may illustrate some of the personality traits which helped to determine her destiny and her fate.

I was intrigued by her advocacy of mass action, rather then relying totally on the drudgery of party politics and parliamentary procedure and compromise. She kept receiving promises from her party leaders, but one suspects that they were empty promises, designed to placate her temporarily, though there is merit in the argument that a hasty or ill-prepared "revolution" might be self-defeating.

She was wrong, initially at least, to claim that there would be no mass support for the war which commenced in 1914, but was ultimately proved correct in many of her observations about the effects which the war would have. I thought that the film dealt with this stage of Luxemburg's life quite honestly and deftly, illustrating her despair,resignation and disillusionment at the nationalist fervour which helped to propel Europe towards war, and eloquently summing up her views on how developments in the conflict could slowly turn the tide of opinion.

The chronology might confuse a few people in places, but the main thing is the overall effect. This is not a blandly hagiographic account, but at the same time it does have the effect of making one think beyond the smokescreens and bland over-simplifications which tend to dominate (in my experience) mainstream 21st century discourse and comment.

Barbara Sukowa's performance is admirable. Many movies of this type are marred by cartoonish or over-inflated portrayals of the main players, but here Sukowa delivers a reasonably plausible and convincing picture.

A good movie, not excessively preachy or partisan.  It is visually pleasing, soundly acted and adroitly presented.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

The Sweeney (television series)

When I was very young, there were certain television programmes which retained a mystique, usually because I was never, or rarely, permitted to watch such programmes by my parents!  One of these shows was The Sweeney, the highly influential and acclaimed Seventies crime-drama series.

As I grew older, I was led to understood that The Sweeney had been "ground-breaking" and "gritty", but I had been unable to judge this for myself.  When the series was first broadcast, a combination of factors meant that I was not able to view the show.  The timeslot when it was shown, parental concern over violent content, and our family's mild anti-ITV snobbery were foremost. Whenever any discussion turned to the show, I felt somehow left out.

It was not until the recent past that I was able to watch The Sweeney in any concerted form. It was a revelation to me, although from a 21st century perspective it doesn't seem as innovative or as edgy as it must have done circa 1975/76. And of course some of the attitudes exhibited would not meet the approval of a modern audience.

The series gives a very authentic and honest portrayal of the Seventies in London, and by extension of Britain as a whole during that period of time. An atmosphere of decay and gloom, maybe, but also a sense of community and certainty before technological and socio-economic developments began to change things irrevocably.

The Sweeney follows the adventures of a group of detectives in the Metropolitan Police's Flying Squad. The three main characters are Inspector Jack Regan (John Thaw), Sergeant George Carter (Dennis Waterman) and their boss, Frank Haskins (Garfield Morgan).

Regan is an intriguing and ambiguous character, superbly played by John Thaw. A proponent of unorthodox methods, he seems old-school, but in some ways he might be said to be ahead of his time. He is regularly at odds with his superiors, and even with his subordinates. The writing and the acting combine to make the concept and realisation of Regan very believable and credible, not just as some caricature. A man of contradictions, he appears cynical and jaded, but at the same time seems wholly committed to, and immersed in, his job.

Another key, in my eyes, to the success and appeal of The Sweeney is that it does not over-emphasize or excessively utilize some of the "recurring" themes. For example, Regan and his team are not uniformly at loggerheads with The Powers That Be. Sometimes they find common cause. This measured approach adds authenticity, and prevents the series from becoming stale and predictable.

Dennis Waterman has perhaps not been accorded enough praise or credit for his performance as George Carter. I have always found Waterman likeable in whatever role he happens to be playing, and this series finds him in great, assured form.

The character of Carter perhaps represents the police in a state of flux, incorporating clear elements of the "old school", but also receptive to, and embracing, new methods and tools. Carter often questions Regan's excesses and his outlandish schemes, but is sometimes placated by his "guv'nor"'s self-confidence, his persuasive manner and his track record.

The episode "Hit And Run", in which Carter's wife is killed, provides a fine showcase for Waterman's talents, going way beyond the bravado and machismo for which The Sweeney is, rightly or wrongly, renowned.

It is tempting to see parallels between Jack Regan and Inspector Morse, another detective famously portrayed by John Thaw. An older, cynical, grumpy character, with a penchant for the unorthodox, partnered with a younger, ambitious, more "domesticated" sergeant.

The plaudits extended to The Sweeney are well deserved, but this is not to say that every episode is brilliant. Like other similar television series, it suffered from a lack of continuity and consistency, partly because different episodes had different writers and directors. The ambience and tenor of each story could vary greatly from the next one, with difficulties in maintaining "back story".  Some episodes bordered on comedy - "Thin Ice", "Golden Fleece" and "Messenger Of The Gods" spring to mind. Light relief is all well and good, but not to detract from the mood which is essential to the show.

Few punches were pulled in the depiction of an escalation in the ruthlessness and violence displayed by criminals. I can see how this would have been shocking for the people in the Seventies, raised as they were on a diet of shows featuring gentlemanly, even chivalrous villains, and correspondingly placid and reticent cops. Episodes such as "Taste Of Fear" and " Bait" have the capacity to unsettle and disturb, even after all these years. The rawness set new standards.

The impression emerged that the intricacies of detective work and police procedure had been thoroughly researched, and some things are left unexplained, leaving the viewers to work a few things out for themselves. One eventually gets used to the jargon and slang!

A few episodes did over-reach themselves, and look rather silly today.  One example is "Tomorrow Man", in which John Hurt plays a computer whizz-kid. The word is that Thaw and Waterman grew finally to consider that The Sweeney had run its course. Within the remit of the squad, it was inevitable that genuinely fresh ideas for storylines would dry up eventually. That said, I don't feel that the show went particularly stale or moribund. It ended on a suitably bitter and abrasive note in "Jack or Knave", with Regan feeling highly aggrieved after being investigated for alleged corruption.

Watching The Sweeney is still a rewarding and satisfying experience, sometimes thought-provoking. Dated in some respects, yes, but still quality television.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Sebastian Coe - Coming Back - David Miller

Recently I have been going through a concerted phase of reading about the Olympic Games, and middle-distance running in particular.  This led me to delve deep into my "archives" to re-read the book "Sebastian Coe - Coming Back", by David Miller, published in 1984.

This is not a biography as such, but it documents that phase in Coe's career from the end of the 1981 season through to the aftermath of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. It examines the runner's recovery from two years of illness and injury to retain his Olympic 1500 metres title.

What makes this work doubly interesting is that it covers a period when the sport of track and field athletics itself was going through a time of transition, when commercialism was being allowed to rise to the surface, and when inevitable growing pains were being encountered. Indeed, there are several instances here where those commercial pressures seemed somewhat at odds with the long-term interests of certain British athletes.

Coe was dogged by misfortune and setbacks in 1982 and 1983, and his often turbulent relations with the British press are examined here, as he is written off, and parts of Fleet Street revert to their traditional practice of knocking sports stars when they are down. A hardening of Coe's attitude reached its culmination in his famous gestures to the press box after crossing the finishing line in the 1500 metres final in Los Angeles.

This focus on his dealings with the media is just a part of a wider look at the Coe psyche and temperament. He displayed a resilience and a resourcefulness which many were unaware he possessed, in overcoming adversity to regain past glories. By the time of the '84 Olympics, one becomes aware of a serenity, almost, mixed with a confident resolve to succeed.

Another interesting aspect of this book is its close look at the training methods employed by Coe and his father/coach Peter, and how these were modified to suit the special circumstances of 1984. It becomes apparent how consummately he had peaked for his second Olympics, although I am left wondering how much the problems of 1983 might have actually played a role, by dictating the time when the athlete could begin serious running again.

Reading a book published in 1984 allows one to be "wise after the event.".  The author, for example, assumes in his calculations about the post-1984 athletics landscape that the Soviet Union and East Germany would still exist by the centenary Olympics of 1996. Also, Coe's proposed move up to the 5000 metres event, much discussed within these pages, never really materialized.  Also, he did eventually capture that cherished major title over 800 metres (at the 1986 European Championships in Stuttgart).

An enjoyable and interesting read, this one.