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Monday, 28 March 2011

Reflections on Steve McQueen's "Le Mans"

In recent months, my motorsport interest has centred on sportscar racing as much as Formula One, and particularly the period 1968-1972. This era took in the tail end of the Ford GT40's shelf-life, the struggles between Porsche and Ferrari, and the fitful exploits of Alfa Romeo and Matra.

Perhaps the most enduring fictional document of this "golden age" of sportscar racing is Steve McQueen's 1971 movie, "Le Mans", much of which was filmed at, or around the time of the 1970 edition of the legendary endurance classic. I recently watched this film in its entirety, and thought it worthwhile to post some of my thoughts and observations here.

The plot of the film centres largely on McQueen's character, Gulf Porsche's star driver Michael Delaney, and his attempts to win at Le Mans. Delaney had been involved in an accident in the previous year's race, which had cost the life of Ferrari's Piero Belgetti. The return to Le Mans of Belgetti's widow, Lisa, forms a central strand of the narrative.

McQueen delivers a restrained performance, and simply allows his own charisma and persona to do much of the work. Being a racer himself, McQueen would have had some insight into the mindset of the archetypal driver. The character of Delaney possesses tunnel-vision and drive, and is quite mono-syllabic! Throughout the movie he comes across as awkward and ill-at-ease outside the racing car, and in social situations generally. An example of this is the stilted small talk which occurs when he is with Lisa Belgetti.

In some respects, Delaney reminds me of the Pete Aron (James Garner) character in "Grand Prix-The Movie". An outsider, dispassionate and cynical, particularly in dealings with the media. It is interesting to note that, even in a mainstream film, the producers resisted the temptation to make the central character a "comic book" racing driver type.

Inevitably, some compromises were made with realism, but these were largely excusable. The manner in which several cars caught fire after accidents was dubious, as was the constant stream of information conveyed by the circuit PA system. The latter, however, assisted with the narrative, and was not totally implausible.

Turning to the mood and tone of the film, at times I detected an almost "documentary" feel, with some scenes almost redolent of "cinema verite". At very few stages does "Le Mans" descend into cliche, like most other racing movies. It seems to have been made by enthusiasts for enthusiasts. The human interest elements are not permitted to totally obscure the "anoraky" technical aspects.

The supporting characters were also constructed with some thought. Stahler, the Ferrari team leader, belying outdated national stereotypes, comes across as more human, warm and likeable than Delaney.

David Townsend, the Porsche team manager, appears to be a composite of various real-life motorsport personnel of that era. He is a combination of British stiff-upper-lip and more modern ruthlessness.

One of the more under-rated parts of the film is the night-time sequence, particularly where the lonely and pensive Lisa wanders through the jolly crowds, emphasising the contrast between her emotions and the more straightforward pleasures of the racefans.

After his accident, Delaney is recalled to take over Ritter's car, but there is no corny fairy-tale ending, as he does not win the race, merely helping team-mate Larry Wilson to do so in the sister car. Also, despite hints of an intimate bond, McQueen does not really "get the girl".  None of this left me with a sense of anti-climax, as it was in keeping with the realism of much of the film overall.

Unfortunately, after the cold reality of the race's outcome, the final scene is something of a schmaltz-fest, with lingering slow-motion, soft-focus glances exchanged between Lisa and Delaney, and some distinctly cheesy music! However, this is a small criticism of a technically well-made movie, which has aged much better than the majority of other racing films.

Sunday, 27 March 2011

The movie "Waterloo"

Just recently, I watched the 1970 film "Waterloo", starring Rod Steiger as Napoleon Bonaparte and Christopher Plummer as the Duke of Wellington. The work was produced by Dino de Laurentiis, and is an account of the pivotal 1815 battle.

I had seen the film on a couple of occasions as a youngster, but decided to revisit it because of my recent study of the Napoleonic era.

The movie opens with a resume of Napoleon's original downfall, abdication and exile to Elba, as well as his dramatic return and reassumption of the reins of power. The rest of the film is devoted to the build-up to Waterloo, and to the battle itself.

Visually, the film is stunning, as would perhaps be anticipated for a de Laurentiis epic. The visuals are ideally complemented by the music.

Steiger gives a superb performance, perfectly capturing Bonaparte's volatility and passion. By contrast, Plummer seemed the ideal choice to embody the cool and aloof Wellington. There is also an excellent supporting cast of character actors, and a cameo for Orson Welles as King Louis.

Although diligent scholars will doubtless detect inaccuracies, both historical and military, overall the film probably takes fewer liberties in these areas than most others of its genre. The battle scenes are suitably elaborate and dramatic, if slightly unrealistic in places. To their credit, the producers do not entirely shy away from the horrors of war in their portrayal of the fighting.

To view the film again in its entirety after a number of years gave me a renewed appreciation of its merits. It remains an accessible, compelling but also reasonably definitive account of its subject.

Monday, 14 March 2011

A Beautiful Day

In the mid-to-late afternoon on Sunday, I decided to go for a walk, to catch some of the glorious late winter/early Spring sunshine. The sun was going down and the sky was blue, and I just thought that I would share this image which I managed to capture:

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Album Review - Boston - Boston (self-titled)

I was very familiar, as no doubt are many other people, with the two most famous tracks from Boston's eponymous 1976 debut album, "More Than A Feeling" and "Peace of Mind". My appreciation of these two songs led me to seek out the album in its entirety.

The opening track is indeed the timeless FM radio staple "More Than A Feeling", a song seemingly revered by musicians of all genres for its sheer aesthetic and melodic beauty. It begins with some faded-in acoustic guitar, a hint of the "light and shade" approach which permeates much of the album. The lyrics appear to centre on the ability of music to transcend peoples' everyday woes, and the semi-ethereal music complements this perfectly. Then of course there is the central guitar riff, which supposedly influenced Nirvana, amongst others. Around this fulcrum we are also introduced to Tom Scholz's distinctive guitar harmonies, which float airily above everything else. Rarely can a debut album by any artist have commenced with such a majestic piece of work.

Track two is "Peace of Mind", a track worthy of scrutiny lyrically as well as musically. The words tackle the issue of "work/balance", a popular topic with American musicians in the 1970s. Once again one is struck by the fresh production, and the ability of the band to achieve separation between instruments in the context of a hard-rock backing. This facet is one of the things which separates "Boston" from many of its subsequent imitators, and which makes it still sound relevant today. Also featured is a stirring guitar part which underpins everything else. Stunning vocal harmonies complete the melodic picture.

Next up is "Foreplay/Long Time", which possesses a protracted organ-led introduction, one of the few concessions to "progressive rock" on the entire album. The central verses and melody strongly presage the AOR which followed in the early 1980s, but once again Boston's melodic sensibilities and invention win the day. Good use of acoustic guitar is made, and some parts of the track reminded me of the Who's middle-period work, in terms of the vocal harmonies and general atmosphere. These factors, together with the organ/guitar interplay and Brad Delp's confident and restrained lead vocal, make this track a real gem.

Tracks 4 and 5, "Rock & Roll Band" and "Smokin'" show the rawer, rockier side of Boston, but still exhibiting the appealing vocal and guitar textures. This song appears semi-autobiographical, and serves as an ideal balance to the more profound opening numbers. "Smokin'" is in a similar vein, with an insistent guitar riff, and frantic vocals courtesy of Delp. More intricate organ work on show too!

The LP's sixth track, "Hitch A Ride", displays more subtlety, with acoustic guitar again to the fore. Delp excels, and variety is injected by an organ-driven middle section, matters being concluded by a stunning and glistening guitar solo, ideal for "air guitar" enthusiasts!

This is followed by "Something About You", which features a brief and futuristic introductory passage, leading into more beautiful guitar harmonies, and a complex verse, founded on a stirring base. More credit here is due to Delp for his phrasing and power. Scholz's contributions are endearing and inventive, as ever.

The album closer is a semi-acoustic ballad, "Let Me Take You Home Tonight", which is notable for being slightly different in tone, and to some degree in instrumentation, to most of the other songs. Acoustic guitars are more consistently prominent, and the vocal harmony parts less pronounced in their intensity. Matters accelerate markedly with a frantic finale.

Overall, "Boston" was a revelation to this listener, and there can have been few more confident and coherent debut albums in rock history.

Monday, 7 March 2011

Census 2011

Just a relatively short post this time, in order to get a few things off my chest!

After I awoke this morning, I ventured to the front door, to discover that the postman had delivered my 2011 Census form. What joy!

The first thing which occurred to me was the stipulation that completing the census form was a legal requirement. In other words, those people who do not "participate" could be liable for a fine. And there was me thinking that we lived in a free society.........

In my view, participation in the census process should be a purely voluntary thing. What "harm" would a person be doing by not filling in the form?  Nobody would be deprived of their life, liberty or property by virtue of such a choice.

I am tempted to say that by completing the census form, a person is merely encouraging the "feeding of the monster". Whether to acquiesce in this way should definitely be a matter for individual conscience and reason, and no coercion should be involved.

If the government, as it appears to claim, struggles to efficiently allocate resources without census data, then that is the government's own problem, and is of secondary importance to the liberty of individuals, and freedom of choice.

Of course, one can argue that the actions facilitated by participation in the census merely hasten the state's efforts to infringe the freedoms and sovereignty of individuals. It is all part of the plan to enslave us, and to allow groups of people to enslave others, all in the name of the supposed "greater good".....

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Piers Courage

I have just finished reading Adam Cooper's wonderful book, "Piers Courage - Last of The Gentleman Racers", and would unhesitatingly describe it as one of the most evocative and moving motorsport books which I have ever encountered.

This biography succeeds because of the author's meticulous research and sympathetic style, but also because of the subject himself. Piers Courage was not just a racing driver, but also moved in social circles which encompassed both the British establishment and Swinging London. As a result, his story is also to a large extent a chronicle of a whole era.

Adam Cooper took great care to obtain the recollections and thoughts of those closest to Piers, and these memories greatly add to the narrative.

Apart from the impression one gains of the fascinating and informal motor racing scene of the 1960s, it also emphasises how things have changed. The drivers and their families were a close-knit community, and commercialism was in its infancy. Some of the most heart-warming chapters in the book dealt with Piers' adventures in the Temporada series in South America and the Tasman series in Australia and New Zealand. Vivid tales of an era long since disappeared.

Of course, during that period danger was a constant theme, and the book deals intelligently with the reactions of the drivers and their loved-ones to the risks involved, and the loss of friends. The story of Piers' fatal accident at Zandvoort in 1970, and its aftermath, are dealt with sensitively but candidly, and I for one was immensely moved by these passages.

The biography also left me with a greatly enhanced knowledge of that whole epoch of racing, particularly how highly regarded Courage was by his peers and the motor racing community. It seems that he was close at times to joining both Lotus and Ferrari, and the portents for his sportscar career also seemed favourable. A balanced approach is taken to assessing his merits as a driver, and how he sought to address his perceived weaknesses.

Overall, a superb piece of work, and highly recommended for all racing fans.