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Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Carlos (2010 movie)

I have long been fascinated by the European "urban guerilla" scene of the 1970s, although I have not fallen prey to the temptation to embrace "terrorist chic".  In fact, I have found that the longer one studies the subject, the more one becomes convinced of the repugnance of the methods employed by the exponents. however sympathetic one may be to some of their political grievances.

The record as regards celluloid depictions of that era is mixed. They either glorify the perpetrators of foul deeds, or water down and distort the content to such a degree that the point is almost entirely missed. One which is superior to most is "Carlos", a French movie about Carlos the Jackal, released in 2010, and directed by Olivier Assayas.

There is a disclaimer at the beginning of the movie, saying that this should be viewed as a fiction, and that the relationships between characters have been fictionalized.  Even allowing for this, however, this is a stylish and pretty comprehensive effort, and the narrative is largely consistent with most of the written accounts which I have encountered over the years.

The movie takes up the story around 1973, just before Carlos arrives back in Europe.One of the first things which becomes noticeable is the "aesthetic" of the film. It doesn't try too hard to achieve visual period authenticity, and strangely by dint of this is more convincing than many movies which I could mention. Throughout the music employed is distinctly "non-period" too, another factor which prevents the film becoming mired in the need to be historically accurate to the nth degree.

The film is held together by the confident and plausible performance of Edgar Ramirez in the title role. It would have been all too easy to slip into some "cartoonish" perception of what the character was, his appearance, persona and mannerisms. Ramirez is augmented by an array of strong performances by those playing the supporting and minor characters

The well-known events from the period 1973-1975 are depicted here pretty much as they have been related and analysed by numerous journalists and historians. For me, the most valuable and fresh sections of the film were those which dealt with the story from the late 1970s onwards, including the dealings with various Eastern bloc governments and intelligence services, and the repercussions of the end of the Cold War. These areas have less direct association with the supposed Carlos "mythology", which largely stems from the period 1973-76.

This is not simply a catalogue of incidents and operations. Some of the underlying causes espoused by the broader global revolutionary movement, and the desire to emancipate oppressed people, are accorded an airing. Many of these problems remain unresolved and pressing. Once or twice in the movie we also see highlighted the fact that some people embody radical ideals without resorting to violent means, and without descending into greed and vanity.

The constantly shifting loyalties and agendas in the Middle East, and the corresponding attitudes of the superpowers, are a constant backdrop. The picture does not lose sight of the geo-political landscape which influenced the events in the film, and conversely their effect on that landscape.

The portrayal of "the German connection" gives a good idea of the extent of their role, even though they were generally overshadowed by other similar groups. There is a real cosmopolitan flavour to the film, with the action moving between various European capitals, and occasionally to the Middle East. The people on all sides appeared to subsist largely on cigarettes and hard liquor! If the depiction of the practices of some of the security forces is accurate, then I would earnestly hoped that things have changed in the past few decades....

Later in the movie, some of the discordant voices are pinpointed; those who felt that the "revolution" was losing its soul, deviating from its original ideals and aims in its morality and its modus operandi. The Entebbe raid, and the plight of "non-combatants" are used as examples. Most of the participants started out with, on the surface, praiseworthy ideals, but over time differing interpretations emerged, as regards which tactics were effective or warranted in seeking to change the world. Some were occasionally scared or expressed scruples, and the movie does not pretend that they were all above humane conceptions. Those who began to harbour doubts and misgivings were trapped. There was usually no going back, once one went "underground", as they knew where the bodies were buried, both literally and metaphorically. The real enemies became ex-comrades.

But enough of my rambling! This film works on several levels, as an absorbing thriller, and as a catalyst for thinking about some intractable issues. Well worth watching.


Monday, 21 July 2014

The War Of The Worlds - H G Wells

Despite its legendary status I had never got around to reading H G Wells' novel "The War Of The Worlds". Until recently, that is. I found it a most stimulating read, even if it was not quite what I expected.
First published in 1897/98, it is divided into two "parts", Book One - The Coming of The Martians, and Book Two - The Earth Under the Martians, although in the actual reading I did not discern any great demarcation between the two sections.
The story is told largely through the eyes of the narrator, who is evidently some form of philosopher type, although part of the novel is given over to his own brother's experiences. This method, of relying primarily on one person's eye-witness accounts and recollections, gives the story a rawness and grimness which would have been absent had the tale been related from the perspective of the authorities, or "the establishment" in general.
The author's scientific inclinations and interests are evident throughout, and little touches here and there add to the aura of authenticity. Indeed, one gains the impression that much of the text is rooted in science-fact. This strengthens the impact and the sobering nature of the story.
"The War Of the Worlds" must have been quite shocking and frightening in its time. The "good news" angle is firmly eschewed, and we are left in little doubt that beings from other worlds might not be too friendly or accommodating, and might not be cute or cuddly humanoids either. Very little sugar-coating takes place. The fact that the initial actions occur in suburbia and what would now be termed "commuter country" adds to the shock element. This could happen anywhere, Wells appears to be hinting.
There is very little in the way of "softening up" at the start of this novel, and we are almost straight in to the descriptions of the traumatic events. This only deepens the starkness and disorientation. It also seems quite incongruous to modern sensibilities to be discussing an "alien" invasion which occurred over a century ago, even if it is fictional. The Martians would therefore have to be confronted without computers, aircraft and full mechanization, implements which we associate with most "science fiction" stories set on Earth. It is also curious to hear the chronicling of a disaster of this kind unfolding before the age of mass electronic communication, let alone social media!
People, myself included, tend to perceive "The War of The Worlds" in visual and cinematic terms, because of the various screen-based and pictorial renderings and interpretations of the story which have been composed. Reading the novel, the imagination has to be exercised and tapped into. Much more challenging...
The overriding impression which I derived from much of the book was of the helplessness and insignificance of individuals. This is captured with some acuity in the chapter (s) dealing with the narrator's journey from Leatherhead to Maybury. Tripods, thunderstorms, human corpses, empty houses, deserted towns, fear and chaos all make themselves felt.
As I read the more harrowing passages, a few random thoughts swirled around my mind. One was whether social cohesion, or lack of it, in any way contributed to Earth's inability to stem the initial Martian tide. The human race was, and is, fragmented along class, economic, nationalistic and tribal lines. Our adversaries may be more homogeneous in these respects. An absence of uniformity, which many of us perceive as an actual virtue in "normal" times, could be our undoing in a time of real crisis and peril. On the other hand, the remote possibility that a real alien invasion will happen is surely not an excuse in itself to undertake root-and-branch social change. If this change is to happen, it should be implemented for other, more earthly reasons, based on other more pressing and mundane factors.
In the descriptions of the upheaval and civil collapse in Southern England detailed here, one sees classic symptoms of the beginning of a "dystopian" society, a staple of much later science fiction and other literature. However, there is also the occasional mention of true anarchy, in the form of spontaneous convened committees and elements of self-government.  I wish that Wells had developed these themes more thoroughly here. Whether or not Wells was seeking to be symbolic in the pointed depiction of church buildings being destroyed by Martian contraptions, I am not entirely sure.
In this time of adversity, did everyone revert to the hunting and gathering role, with the instinct of self-preservation very much to the fore?  In reality, would the nature and gravity of the threat engender a solidarity of purpose, with tribal differences overlooked?  In this instance, it would seem that government collapsed, leaving no authority to maintain a semblance of cohesion. Was it better therefore to wait for a new equilibrium to establish itself, and a remedy spontaneously arise?  In the event such a remedy did appear, but not from a "man-made" source...
I was quite impressed by Wells' descriptions of the physiological and psychological differences between Earth dwellers and the "actual" Martians. The latter appeared to be devoid of the caprices and urges instilled by human digestive and reproductive systems.  I would quite liked to have been one of Wells' Martians, at least for a day!  On the other hand, don't our flaws, imperfections and idiosyncrasies make life worth living?. One could argue that the ultimate demise of the invaders was, in its way, down to the "curious" way in which humans have evolved. That was the acid test....
The novel contains some agonizing about mankind's position in the grand scheme of things, in the light of this invasion from further afield. No longer the masters, but just another animal in this brave new world?  This not only tapped into the late 19th century vogue for anti-imperialism and Darwinian theory, but also perhaps a little ahead of its time in these speculations about how our perception of ourselves might shift if confronted by "intelligent" beings from elsewhere.
One of the characters, the artilleryman, at one point wonders which types of people would react in which ways to being ruled by the Martians. Some would doubtless acquiesce;anything for a quiet, comfortable and stable life. Some of these people would probably also assist the invaders in subjugating and enslaving the more recalcitrant elements of the remainder of the population. For those who resisted, would savoir faire, flexibility and adaptability be more useful than theorizing and preachiness?

I expected "The War of The Worlds" to contain a lot more moralizing and late Victorian angst. It is only touched on spasmodically, and then the tone is hardly abrasive or pious.

The fact that the Martian invaders were vanquished by a bacterial disease was intriguing. Maybe there is more to "progress" and sustainable civilisation than just technology. The endowments of Nature, and the vagaries of evolution and science, can sometimes prevail over brute force, and even the most insidious enemy is not infallible or invincible. It is quite a comforting thought, in a way.


Friday, 18 July 2014

Hymn To Old Age - Hermann Hesse

Few authors had quite the capacity and the vision to explore the human condition like Hermann Hesse. His novels have been an important part of my life in recent years, and his other writings are just as enthralling and inspiring. Some of these writings are compiled in "Hymn To Old Age"....

This collection comprises various "fragments" and vignettes, all loosely addressing and musing on the subjects of old age and ageing. They include extracts from letters and novels, as well as poems and essays. As they were written over several decades, they are endowed with a real vibrancy and diversity. This should not be regarded as Hesse's definitive "take" on the subject matter, and the pieces do not appear to be consciously arranged in any particular order, chronological or otherwise.
As ever, Hesse draws on nature, and natural phenomena such as weather and the changing seasons, as powerful and credible metaphor. There are many allusions too to the febrile and uncertain times in which the author lived. The outpourings published here are also largely informed by Hesse's fascination for Eastern philosophies, and concepts such as transcendence, one-ness and the essential harmony of the universe are much in evidence.
The writer's love of, and zest for, life permeates every word, as does his eagerness to savour every moment which that existence has to offer. This all ties in with the author's concerns with transience, and the urge to live for the moment, and to appreciate the beauty and vitality of those moments.
One of the themes which one detects through these writings is how in some respects the approach of the young and the old bears similarities, even if the reasons for this, and its precise symptoms, are subtly different. Do we lose something crucial in our "middle years"?  Honesty, receptiveness to beauty and simplicity? 
The degree to which we have control over when the beginning ends and the end begins is debatable, and it is arguably affected by the environment in which we operate, particularly in the industrial and technological age. Hesse, delicately though resolutely, implies that modern urban life,  consumer society and "the rat race" are not altogether conducive to quiet contemplation and "mindfulness". Many of the tales and scenarios contained here are set in quintessentially "Hesse-ian" rural or idyllic surroundings, and the protagonists have often lived a vaguely ascetic life.
Despite everything, to me this book did not feel like a treatise on age and ageing, but more as a sampler, refresher or reiteration of Hesse's concerns, outlooks and favourite themes. The language and wordplay are largely gentle , but add up to something profound and thought-provoking, because of the coherence and humanity of the author's vision.
As mentioned above, the concepts of ageing, and the passage of time, dovetail vividly with Hesse's ideas and preoccupations, to do with spiritual exploration, and notions of "home" and constant renewal and rebirth. His attitudes to death, unconventional to many Western eyes both then and now, are but one manifestation of these beliefs.
In my own personal situation, I noted the assertion that the young and the old, both have a lack of real concern for the future, for separate reasons, thus permitting a more dominant role for the present and "the moment". Does this lead to a greater freedom and contentment?  Those of us in the "no man's land" between the two poles, who constantly hanker after a return to the days of our youth, may have got things wrong. A more attainable and real sanctuary could await us when we reach old age.
Some of the extracts in "Hymn To Old Age" I had read before, in novels and so forth, and most are written or expressed in Hesse's trademark style. However, his writing never becomes repetitive or mundane, as it is so invigorating, enriching and life-affirming. The purity and optimism in his work never grows old.

Monday, 14 July 2014

2014 World Cup Final - Germany 1 Argentina 0

Well, in the end I think that Germany were deserving winners of the 2014 World Cup. They were comfortably the most impressive and consistent team in the tournament, and it was quite apt that one of their substitutes scored the winning goal, thus emphasising the strength in depth of their squad. This excellent generation of German players finally fulfilled its destiny on the global stage.
Credit has to go to Argentina for making a genuine game of the final. Their shrewd counter-attacking game plan could not quite carry them over the finishing line, and they had several very good chances to score.
Those anticipating a tight contest were to be slightly disappointed, as it was reasonably open, for a final, throughout, although tiredness naturally set in during extra-time. I felt that at times Germany played more fluently than they had during the entire tournament, although they were possibly made to look more impressive by the nature of the Argentine tactics. The pre-match loss of Sami Khedira had the potential to be very significant, but if any team was equipped to cope with this setback it was Joachim Loew's.
Early possession was dominated by Germany, but Argentina were far from overwhelmed, and threatened down their own right hand side. The match had a pleasing tempo to it at that stage. The glaring miss by Higuain, after being released by a misplaced German header, will rightly be seen as pivotal. It was almost as if he could not believe his luck. However, at the end of the first period, Argentina would have been quite happy, having kept a clean sheet. They were still very much in the game.
As ever, Thomas Mueller was a constant thorn in Argentina's side, posing a real threat down the right flank, and wherever else he popped up. I thought that the "early" arrival of Andre Schurrle might have been a blessing in disguise. Manuel Neuer was as commanding and decisive as always between the posts.
At the start of the second half, Argentina had one of their best spells of the match, with Lionel Messi missing another opportunity around the 47 minute mark. Germany's fluidity had diminished, and their play was not as confident and crisp as it had been. 50/50 challenges were going in favour of their opponents. Argentina were proving disciplined and resilient, and one has to praise Alejandro Sabella for the way he prepared and set up his team.
In the final analysis, though, Argentina failed to convert any of their chances, with Rodrigo Palacio failing to take another one later in the second half. Extra time proved a physical ordeal for weary players. It was often technically "end to end" stuff, but the flow and elan were much reduced.
When it came, Mario Goetze's goal was a marvel of technique and composure, and was worthy of winning any match.
This triumph can only strengthen German football. We can expect that attendances and general interest will increase, and that the careful programmes of development will continue to flourish. It is up to other nations to rise to the challenge.

Saturday, 12 July 2014

2014 World Cup - Greatest Ever?

Readers of BBC Sport have voted the 2014 World Cup the greatest ever....
One does have to wonder what criteria people are employing in making their selection. On the surface, it would seem that patriotic considerations and immediacy in the memory are the prime factors involved in this particular process.
Don't misunderstand me, I have greatly enjoyed this year's tournament, but I would hardly describe it as the best ever. Not the worst, certainly, but not the greatest by an stretch of the imagination. Yes, the group stages got proceedings off to an interesting start, with surprises and goals aplenty. However, I would also contend that some of the "surprises" were due to overall mediocrity and the disinterestedness of some players. There have been spectacular and exciting moments, but not to excess.
Some of the other results in the poll are disappointing, but not surprising.  Italia 1990, widely perceived by experts as one of the drabbest, least entertaining World Cups ever, somehow gets voted second best, presumably on account of the Gazza/Pavarotti/England doing well combo. 1966 was another tournament characterised by much negativity and cynicism, but because England emerged triumphant, it must be absolutely great, right?
How the 1974 World Cup, technically and tactically one of the most fascinating and accomplished ever staged, only comes in 13th place is beyond me, even when taking account of the likely average age of the people who participated in the vote.  Switzerland 1954, which had similar delights and attributes to 1974, is similarly largely ignored, despite the brilliance of the Hungarians, the high goalscoring rate, and the earth-shaking surprise in the final.
Of course, this is only a poll, and it's not the end of the world, but people do need to think critically and dispassionately.  Either that, or they need to start studying the football history books...

Friday, 11 July 2014

2014 World Cup - Media Coverage and Myths

I'm not sure whether I am just becoming hyper-sensitive to such things, but some of the media coverage of the World Cup, at least in England, has been truly woeful.
One of my major gripes is the ease with which myths and clich├ęs are ceaselessly perpetuated, often by pundits and commentators who should know better. Just to get things off my chest, I will detail one or two of my bugbears, in no particular order of preference...
Not least amongst the myths is the notion that Brazil have always played glitteringly skilful, intricate and carefree football. They just haven't.  In my lifetime, they have lived up to the inflated hype in 1970, 1982 and, very very occasionally, in 1998/2002.  Most of the rest of the time, they have been like all other football teams - pragmatic, cautious, functional and concentrating on winning, or at least avoiding defeat. This endless "romanticizing" of the Brazil team has become tired.
One of the roots of the delusions of media and public alike is the undue reliance placed on short video clips and "highlights" of old football in forming judgements. Live television coverage has clearly become much more widespread in the past couple of decades, and this has led many to indulge in inaccurate denigration by comparison. During a live game, the humdrum, scrappy and "uneventful" nature of most football of all ages is there for everyone to see. Old and brief clips of spectacular goals and feats of skill leave us with the impression that plodding mediocrity did not exist in "the good old days", as it is filtered out of the collective memory.
In addition to the skewed perception of past "glories", there is an automatic assumption that "entertaining" and "exciting" should be equated with "great", "good" and "accomplished".  Concomitant with this is a resort to "all or nothing" thinking if the fare on offer does not comply with the commentator or "journalist"'s distorted expectations. So, we are urged to welcome shoddy and comical defending, and end-to-end basketball-style freak shows are valued above cerebral, tactical duels.
Pointless comparisons are made, and pointless discussions about superlatives take place, about the "best this" and the "greatest that". It is little wonder that the level of discussion across social media is of such paucity when take their cues from the lazy nonsense served up by the mainstream media?  The term "lowest common denominator" springs to mind.
There are some pundits who are infuriatingly pompous, self-righteous and overbearing, but ironically they are often the ones who deviate most pleasingly from the dreary norm. It is therefore often a choice between a nondescript but comfortable listen and meaningful content.
I will rely more on "specialist" media next time.  Mind you, I said that after 2010...

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Netherlands v Argentina - 2014 World Cup semi-final

Well, the second World Cup semi-final manifestly lacked the drama of the first, although I would contend that it constituted a more meaningful and genuine contest than Tuesday evening's surreal exhibition.

Although the opening minutes of the match saw a period of fluent and confident Dutch passing and possession, I thought that by and large Argentina had more penetration and energy for the bulk of the semi-final. They seemed much more capable of getting in behind the Dutch defence than Louis Van Gaal's men did with their backline. The tactic of targeting the Dutch left flank was particularly profitable, although ultimately it did not bear fruit in the form of a goal.

After the interval, it seemed that the Netherlands coach had remedied the problem by taking off Bruno Martins Indi. However, the overall pattern and tempo of play barely altered until the penalty shoot-out. Both teams were quite pedestrian, with only the very occasional moment of inspiration and/or incisiveness to relieve the general monotony and inertia.

I found the tense and tactical nature of the match quite interesting and absorbing, although I can appreciate how the billions of neutrals around the globe would have found it less than enthralling!  The Netherlands team defended capably, but their colleagues further forward seemed bereft of real ideas and panache. Were the rigours of the quarter-final against Costa Rica still afflicting Dutch limbs?  That said, the late chance spurned by Arjen Robben will haunt them.  He seemed to half-stumble, half-hesitate, and general weariness may have played its part.

Since the commencement of the 2014 World Cup, the "experts" have been bemoaning the apparent demise of the defensive arts in football. Well, last night they finally got some proper defending, from both teams, although the exponents were not over-taxed by the creative players on either side. Robin van Persie seemed listless and only half-interested, and it was little surprise when he was substituted, so ineffectual was he.

The Dutch again had a good spell in extra-time, but rarely did they look like achieving a breakthrough. Dirk Kuyt as ever was willing, honest and conscientious, and was one of the best players on the night. The Dutch again faded, and it was Argentina who had a couple of late chances to avert a penalty shoot-out, through Palacio and Maxi Rodriguez.

Argentina were emphatic and confident in the penalty competition, and we may eventually find out more about what went wrong with the Dutch in this regard.

On balance, I am glad that Argentina got through, both because of "the Messi factor", and because they were the better team overall during the match itself. Germany, though, must start favourites for Sunday's final. They are stronger on paper, and will be fresher.