Monday, 26 February 2018

Byzantium - The Surprising Life of A Medieval Empire - Judith Herrin

I have always been fascinated by the Byzantine Empire. It held a certain mystique, partly because I knew relatively little about it. Judith Herrin's book serves as a good introduction, and more.

This is not an exhaustive chronological history - the author examines various instructive aspects of Byzantium in a digestible and entertaining format.  I derived from it an appreciation of how the empire regarded itself as a continuation of the Roman Empire, as well as being the descendant of ancient and classical Greece, and how these factors, together with the co-existence of pagan and Christian elements, helped to carve out a distinct identity of its own.

The author is keen to emphasize the role of Byzantium in allowing "Europe" the time and space to develop and breathe, by constituting a "shield" in the East. She also makes some interesting observations about how the empire's participation in religious matters, for instance with the Slavs, helped to shape the future make-up of the world farther north.

The ebb and flow of the relationships between East and West is deftly and accessibly outlined, even if some of the theological struggles and disputes seem obscure and bewildering to a modern reader. Above all, this book details how Byzantium constantly reinvented itself, and adapted to new challenges and to the emergence of new influences and threats.

Occasionally the legacy of the empire is placed in a modern context, and there is recurrent reference to archaeological finds, and to the signs, reminders and remnants of Byzantium's existence and vitality which still remain today. The author warms to the task of addressing and analyzing the vehement criticism which the empire was subjected to after its demise, especially during the Enlightenment.

As so often happens with these matters, my opinion of the Byzantine world has actually diminished as a consequence of learning more about it.  Dynamic and idiosyncratic it may have been, but the fact that it was influential and intriguing does not obscure some things which seem less agreeable. One is left feeling that the world had even regressed in some respects since the classical era. Byzantium did not seem to fully incorporate some of the more progressive features of the civilizations which it claimed to be the successor of.

Whatever one's personal opinion of the "goodness" or otherwise of the empire, though, this is a well-written and thoughtful introduction to the subject.

Monday, 22 January 2018

Resurrection - Leo Tolstoy

Resurrection is a philosophical novel by Leo Tolstoy. It chronicles the efforts of a Russian nobleman to atone for his previous misdeeds towards a young woman, who has found herself in prison. The protagonist, Nekhlyudov, blames himself for her fall from grace and her later incarceration.

As Nekhlyudov tries to help Maslova, he becomes acutely aware of the injustice, cruelty and corruption around him, and this ensures that his mission extends beyond mere personal redemption.

I had not read any Tolstoy since my teens (War And Peace), and the consensus seems to me that this later effort, Resurrection, is not as "literary" as some of his earlier novels, with less depth in terms of storyline and characterizations. It does act as a platform for the author to expound some of his political beliefs (by this time he was a Christian anarchist).

I was drawn to this work in part because of my own interest in the economic theories of Henry George, to which Tolstoy had become an enthusiastic adherent.  The book, though, does not go into as much detail about the workings of Georgism as I had been led to expect.

Resurrection might not be on a par in artistic terms with Tolstoy's acknowledged masterpieces, but I found the story quite absorbing, and the subject matter should tug at the conscience of most people. Some of the passages concerning the conditions endured by the prisoners are genuinely disturbing and moving.  Also, Nekhlyudov's interactions with Maslova are quite complex, and how one interprets and gauges their attitudes to each other at various stages adds to the interest.

It is possible to argue I think that there is not sufficient space in the novel to fully explore how the Nekhlyudov character arrived at his world-view - it seems that even before his liaison with Maslova he was harbouring grave misgivings about "the system", and at the disparity between the luxury enjoyed by his own class and the plight of the downtrodden. On the other hand, his indignation at what he witnesses, and his energetic moves to intervene, help to propel the story.

I found highly interesting the descriptions of some of the less appetizing representatives of the ruling classes and the bureaucracy, and the way in which their attitudes of arrogance and indifference compounded Nekhlyudov's disaffection with the milieu with which he had hitherto been closely connected.

So, Resurrection is an interesting read.  The world may have changed considerably since this was written in the late 19th century, but the broader issues which it examines can, with some imagination, be transferred to modern times.

Thursday, 11 January 2018

Stalker (1979 film)

Having been gripped by Solaris, I moved on to watch another of Andrei Tarkovsky's most acclaimed works, Stalker, released in 1979.

The storyline revolves around a group of men who undertake an expedition to a region known as The Zone. Within The Zone is a room which supposedly has the capacity to fulfill people's innermost desires. What follows is an absorbing and intense series of ruminations about the room and its implications and meaning, with an emotional and intellectual depth which will tax the viewer's brain, but at the same time will be immensely rewarding.

The early portion of the movie has a bleak and ascetic flavour, and this atmosphere scarcely relents over the full duration. Even more than Solaris, this picture probes the very essence of human nature and its vagaries. Matters of perception, truth, honesty and sincerity are examined. "The Room", and its presence, certainly prompt questions concerning what we truly need or want, and how our consciousness may impact on certainties, and prevent us from ascertaining when we are being manipulated, misled or exploited.

Many thoughts, some less than comforting, emerge from the film's subject matter. We chase our dreams despite the perils and the pitfalls. The existence of  "The Room", or its equivalents, drives us on - the mere thought or notion of being fulfilled. At the same time, could we be happier by neglecting some impulses, and simply live in the present moment, savouring things for their own sake?  In this respect, The Zone may be interpreted as a microcosm for how we live our lives, and what we put ourselves through, the thrill of the chase keeping us going. As The Zone is a hostile and stark place, some might see it as a very apt metaphor for the wider world.

My interpretation might be wishful thinking, but strikes a chord with some of my recent reflections. We don't appreciate what is all around us or right under our noses, or appreciate what we can derive from those things. People striving to be benevolent or altruistic miss the point, in failing to see the basics, the root issues.

The movie also contains some periods of relative inactivity, affording the watcher space to think and reflect. The dialogue warrants close scrutiny, and when I watched the film I marveled at it.

The "something to aim for" is abstract. In contemplating the notion of "free will", we must accept how much we are estranged from our true feelings and needs. It is the hope that kills us. Human nature defeats us, and it is surely preferable to live life as a series of small steps, being mindful and extracting the most from each second, minute, hour, day. We should seek to transcend our nature this way, rather than strive for the unattainable and emerge disappointed.  All easier said than done, however.

Stalker, with a suitably eerie soundtrack by Eduard Artemyev, is a gripping, if unsettling, watch.

Thursday, 28 December 2017

Lenin.....The Train (1988 TV movie)

Lenin.....The Train is a TV movie from 1988, which chronicles the railway journey made by Lenin and his associates from Switzerland,via Germany, to Petrograd, in the run-up to the October Revolution. Ben Kingsley stars as the Russian revolutionary.

The film begins with a look at the tortuous negotiations between Lenin's people and the German authorities, the Germans being anxious to help Lenin with his revolutionary programme, as a means of getting Russia out of the First World War. Of course, negotiations also took place between the various Russian factions.

In some respects this is your typical TV-movie fare, but the gravitas and the general quality are elevated somewhat by the standard of the acting, Timothy West standing out in this regard. Initially, my opinion was that Ben Kingsley should have adopted a Russian accent, and that this was necessary to imbue the picture with authenticity. However, by the end I had concluded that this was no major issue, as Kingsley's mannerisms and gestures are very consistent and believable, and convey a distinct persona.

I feel that the movie portrays Lenin as the voice of reason and moderation, his sole objective being to instigate and foment the Revolution. To him, hotheads and indiscretions posed a threat to the prospects for the entire enterprise. Lenin knew that some emotions had to be suppressed, so as not to endanger the quest for the main prize. A plus point is that this film depicts the Bolsheviks as reasonably normal people, not as overly fanatical, belligerent or obsessive.

This movie contains repeated reminders of the futility and injustice of the war. When one looks at the tasks which the troops on all sides were being asked to undertake, it is a wonder that revolutions did not break out in all of the combatant nations. Whatever one thinks of the Bolsheviks, there is a case for arguing that they did the world a favour, by forcing the "democracies" to adopt more enlightened policies and attitudes. The soldiers and the masses had been acquainted with potent new ideas, and their co-operation and deference could no longer be taken for granted.

The picture concludes with the arrival of Lenin's train in Petrograd, an the film-makers thereby cleverly avoided having to cover the October Revolution itself.

Lenin.....The Train is surprisingly good and "learned" for a made-for-TV production The acting clearly lifts it, as does a sensitive and balanced exploration of many of the crucial issues.

Thursday, 21 December 2017

Solaris (1972 film)

My recently rekindled interest in science fiction and spaceflight, together with my longstanding affection for European art cinema, led me to check out Solaris, a 1972 film directed by Andrei Tarkovsky.

Based on the novel by Stanislaw Lem, the movie is largely set on a space station orbiting the fictional planet of Solaris, and it examines the crew's interactions with a strange and mysterious ocean on the planet's surface. The major themes explored by the film are the psychological impact on human beings of spaceflight, and also the relationship between science, perception and conscience.

The film is long, and slow, but symbolism and meaning are there in abundance if one looks closely enough, and I found it quite gripping. I empathized with some of the characters, identifying with their alienation, distractedness and confusion. The contrast between the organic, fecund, green Earth and the clinical and ascetic environment of the spaceship is very cleverly underlined.

Special effects are employed sparingly, but where they do appear they are surprisingly good and convincing. Nothing, though, obscures the intellectual and emotional thrust of the movie.  The film looks more "modern" than 1972 somehow, and this might be down in part to the lovely cinematography.

Another element of the picture's impact is the soundtrack music, by Eduard Artemyev.  Part of it is based on a piece by Bach, an organ prelude, and this forms a recurring, and haunting, "theme tune".  Ambient sounds form a subtle, yet unsettling and disorientating backdrop.

I find films set on spaceships absorbing, no matter the overall quality or gravitas of the work. I feel the same way about movies set on submarines. The claustrophobic and captive atmosphere means that arguments are often distilled down to a basic or existential level.

This is a film which demands intense concentration and attention, and it is one where the viewer is rewarded by taking notice of nuances in the dialogue. Science fiction films occasionally emerge as excessively earnest in their examination of profound topics.  Solaris doesn't fall prey to this, and is not as literal or straightforward as many of its Western counterparts.  The movie's length means that the philosophizing is diffused, and the characters appear less anxious to ruminate on the meaning of life and the universe - interesting to note for a film produced in the Soviet Union.

Some of the minutiae of the "science" in this picture are not startling original, but they are fused into a strong and plausible whole.  The various sub-texts are addressed, on the whole, with finesse and sensitivity, and the primary themes are interwoven adroitly.

Donatas Banionis gives an assured performance as Kris Kelvin, conveying authority in addition to a reassuring "everyman" quality. One of those performances which instills confidence in the viewer, and which supports the overall believability of the story.

The film generally explores the question of humanity's purpose in space. Is this to be human, and how should this blend with cold science? One could interpret the ocean on the planet Solaris as a mirror, forcing us to confront our nature. There are also hints about the limits of rationality.

Solaris is an engrossing and stimulating film.  I am just disappointed that it has taken me this long to watch it!

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.