Monday, 20 August 2012

Summer With Monika - Ingmar Bergman

Continuing with my "odyssey" (I hope that doesn't sound too pompous a term) through some of the films of Ingmar Bergman, I recently viewed Summer with Monika, which was originally released in 1953.

The movie stars Harriet Andersson and Lars Ekborg as young lovers who decide to escape on a boat to enjoy an idyllic sojourn on the Swedish coast and inland waters.

At the beginning of the film we are shown a dreary urban industrial landscape, in fairness the type of dark and shadowy world portrayed in many movies of that era, the "monochrome" 1950s. Both Monika and Harry endure a monotonous existence, and various pressures cause them to yearn for an escape from the constraints and claustrophia, and the small minded mentality of those around them. They both leave their day-jobs, and embark on the boat trip.

The sequences which follow perhaps partly hint at some social trends which were to become more topical and pressing in the ensuing decades; the desire to escape day-to-day conformism and straight society, and live an alternative lifestyle.  This was possibly not a great priority for people in the aftermath of World War Two, even in Sweden.  Popular culture in the main did not catch up with "moving on" until much later....

The nudity and sexual frankness evident in this film may have attracted much notoriety, but to me it hardly added to its appeal.  To be honest, I was more struck by the stunning shots of the Swedish countryside and coastline!

Initially, the two youngsters seem to revel and thrive in their new-found freedom and independence, sneering at the world which they have left behind.  However, all too soon the idyll begins to crumble, and the stark truths of human nature begin to close in.  There is no escaping some bitter realities, such as envy and evil, whatever the mode of living or the backdrop.

Summer may be presented here as a metaphor for something pure and idealistic.  As the season draws to a conclusion, the dream ends, and the venture becomes corrupted, with the pair resorting to theft to sustain themselves. Also, Monika falls pregnant, meaning that burdens and responsibilities begin to encroach. 

They return to the city, matters coming almost full circle, except for the fact that the couple have a child, and in some respects their predicament is more dire than it was to begin with.  Monika eschews total domesticity, the Summer's events having given her a taste for adventure and excitement.

Not as locked in the mind as some of Bergman's other films, but a hard-hitting and quite compelling examination of several aspects of the human condition.....

A Night At the Opera - Queen - album review

When people discuss the greatest album of Queen's distinguished recording career, A Night At The Opera more often than not is at the top of the list.  Whilst I agree that it is a fine piece work, I would also venture to suggest that it is not without its flaws, however minor.  As time has moved on, the more certain characteristics of the album have occurred to me. 

The album was recorded at a time when Queen had just achieved their first major international success, via the single "Killer Queen", and the album Sheer Heart Attack.  They entered the recording studio in the summer of 1975 flushed with this success, and perhaps conscious that they were under pressure to improve upon their efforts from the previous year......

Some of the avenues consciously, or subsconsciously, pursued by the band in order to achieve "perfection" end up creating the facets of the album which most grate, if only slightly, to the ears in 2012. The overdubs, whilst nominally adding depth and gravitas to some of the tracks, also lend it a  kind of "patchwork" effect in places, a trend perhaps exacerbated by the use of various different studios to record the album? This all makes A Night At The Opera sound very mildly contrived, calculated and ponderous, at variance with the freshness and spontaneity of Sheer Heart Attack. A case of trying too hard? These issues do not ruin the album, but it could have been even greater if they hadn't been present....

So, those are some of the criticisms of A Night At The Opera. What about the album's many undoubted strengths?  Well, one of the things which makes it distinctive is the trouble clearly taken to experiment with "unusual" instruments and techniques in order to achieve the desired soundscape or feel. Koto, ukelele, double bass, harp and electric piano are all employed at various points. Whilst this makes "Opera" seem more disparate and fragmented than some other Queen records, it does signify a laudable willingness to push boundaries and defy convention.

Some of the songs on A Night At The Opera have aged better than others.  To me, "Love of My Life", more and more sounds like the highlight of the entire album, "Bohemian Rhapsody" aside. Simple, heartfelt, sincere and free of artifice.  One of Freddie Mercury's finest songs, one of his most exquisite vocal performances, and containing some glorious piano playing from the great man.

"Death On Two Legs" was an inspired choice to begin the running order. One of Queen's most incisive and powerful tracks, with lyrics possessed of some vitriol.  The middle of the album is bookmarked by "The Prophet's Song", a ambitious track which finds favour with Queen fans, but which I suspect divides opinion amongst "neutrals".  Much multi-tracking of guitars and vocals here, with the recording technology of the day doubtless being stretched to its outer limits.  Pushing the envelope, I think it's referred to as these days...

The genre exercises on the album meet with variable success.  Looking dispassionately these days, "Lazing on A Sunday Afternoon" and "Seaside Rendezvous" sound a bit too similar, leading to a charge of "filler", even if both do exude a kind of lightweight, frothy charm.  "Good Company", on the other hand, still feels like a gem, a genuine showcase for the many talents of Brian May, and displaying bounteous ingenuity.

The "rockier" numbers, "I'm In Love With My Car" and "Sweet Lady" might seem incongruous in this company, but they have stood the test of time, the former in particular, with its numerous hooks, guitar histrionics and lyrics which are quintessentially Roger Taylor!  The power chords on "Sweet Lady" still have the power to move and satisfy.

In the past, "39" was possibly under-estimated by all and sundry.  However, it now emerges as one of the album's strongest suits, another one of Brian May's esoteric and thoughtful compositions.  For this particular writer, much of the residual appeal of the song rests in its Hermann Hesse-inspired lyrics.  I think that "Siddhartha" may be the novel in question.

"You're My Best Friend" remains one of the Queen songs most often played on the radio, and although a great pop song, it feels mildly out of place on this album, but does inject some valuable levity and spontaneity.

You may have noticed that this review contains relatively little mention of the epic "Bohemian Rhapsody".  Well, I do like to be different, and in any event everything which there is to be said about the song has already been committed to paper (or screen)!

Having commenced with some misgivings, I think that they have been more than balanced out by praise and extolling of virtues. 

For the record, I still prefer Sheer Heart Attack, just!

Saturday, 18 August 2012

The Silence - Ingmar Bergman

Continuing my somewhat haphazard exploration of some of the films of Ingmar Bergman, I recently watched his 1963 film, The Silence.

This movie, quite controversial in its day, examines the tense relationship between two sisters, the story being set against the backdrop of an impending war.  The story commences during a railway journey, and then moves to an apartment in a fictitious European town.  This all allows for some rich metaphor, which it seems has been subject to varying interpretations and much debate down the years!

There is comparatively little in the way of dialogue in The Silence, which is quite apt given the apparent antipathy and tension between Ester (played by Ingrid Thulin) and her younger sister (Gunnel Lindblom). 

Much of the film centres on the conflict between the "intellectual", as represented by Ester, and the sensual, epitomised by Anna.

Johan, Anna's young son, seems to act as some kind of fulcrum, intermediary or interface, between the two sisters. At times, he appears caught up in the warlike emotion of the time, this perhaps symbolising also the struggle or conflict between Anna and Ester?  Much of the metaphor and potent imagery of the film is projected via Johan.

As the tale moves on, we see more clearly the nature of the relationship between the two siblings, and for me questions were posed about the motivations and genuineness of "love", and whether sometimes this is marked, plagued and clouded by feelings of possessiveness, jealousy and a need to control and manipulate.

The movie did make me think, as it touched on a few issues which have at times impinged on my own relations with friends and acquaintances.  Difficulty in seeing and appreciating the needs and desires of others, a reluctance to "let go", and a tendency to live at least partly through somebody else, rather than appreciating and  one's own vitality and "wholeness".  Can love be real and honest if we are excessively precious about how others wish to think and live their own lives?  Is love often proclaimed, but either mistaken and confused for selfishness or does it just become polluted, distorted and subverted by selfishness early on,or somewhere down the line?

I think that Bergman may also, by presenting these two divergent mindsets and lifestyles, represented by two individuals, have been hinting at the conflict and struggle which exists within us all, and our constant efforts to reconcile the two facets, and achieve a desirable balance.  The two elements often co-exist with difficulty, if at all.  A compromise, and practicality, is surely the ideal, but so seldom resolved satisfactorily in our minds....

I did not find The Silence to be as immediately satisfying and compelling a watch as some of the other Bergman films of that period which I have seen.  However, towards the end the essential hub of the story began to crystallise, and I would imagine that repeated viewings will facilitate the unpeeling of more layers, and yield greater understanding and insight.

Still a powerful and though-provoking piece of work....

Monday, 13 August 2012

London 2012 - A Different Slant

Well, the Olympics have drawn to a close. Time perhaps to give my thoughts on the whole thing.

I have to say that the whole British flag-waving feeding frenzy has left me completely cold.  However, I have enjoyed the Olympics immensely, if perhaps for slightly differing reasons to some other people.

I made a point of bypassing much of the populist hoopla, and concentrated on what would be regarded as "minority" sports, such as handball and rhythmic gymnastics.

When watching these reports, I was struck by the sheer joy, pride and emotion of competing, of people achieving a lifetime's ambition merely by participating in the Olympics, and determined to make the most of it, and savour it, whatever the result. These people will never be international celebrities, or acquire great riches.  This was sport for its own sake, and also as a manifestation of admirable and noble human qualities.

I found watching the rhythmic gymnastics competitions to be especially rewarding and heart-warming. The feeling I got was one of intense competition, but also a real sense of community and camararderie amongs the participants.  A sport which is still human, which has retained some roots, and has not sold its soul. At the same time, a sport which is keenly aware of the need to promote itself, and endear itself to the public, but through sincerity,integrity and a sense of fun and enjoyment.

Many of the so-called "minority" Olympic sports are routinely denigrated by media and public, and this disdain is often born of ignorance.  Handball, rhythmic gymnastics and synchronised swimming require just as much skill, athleticism and dedication as any other sport.

So, my main memories from London 2012 will not be of "legacy" or empty nationalistic bravado, but of simpler, more innocent and genuinely uplifting things . 

Saturday, 11 August 2012

The Complete Book Of The Olympics

If you have been enthused about the Olympics in general by London 2012, and wish to delve deeper into the rich history of the event, there is one book which I can unreservedly recommend.  The "Complete Book Of The Olympics", by David Wallechinsky.  As far as I know, it is updated prior to every Olympiad.  This is the latest edition:

I myself have a couple of earlier editions, the latest being the 2004 one.

These books, as well as containing results and statistics from every Olympic event ever held, also have some wonderfully colourful, and often obscure stories and anecdotes from the history of the Games.  The author does not just concentrate on the legendary athletes and episodes; he also relates innumerable human interest stories from minority sports and under-reported corners of the Games.

This is the kind of book that you will find myself going back to constantly, as each subsequent read reveals another tasty morsel of information, or enlightening tale.

Friday, 10 August 2012

David Rudisha

The action in the Olympic Stadium on Thursday evening was spectacular and memorable, but it also left me feeling slightly aggrieved and puzzled.

We had what was by most definitions and measurements, a quite breathtaking men's 800 metres final, with one of the most majestic performances I can remember in my three decades of watching athletics.  David Rudisha lead almost the whole way, throwing down the gauntlet to his rivals, and breaking his own world record.  His searing pace and front-running towed his rivals round to some remarkable times, with five men breaking the 1 minute 43 seconds barrier.

Yet, by the end of the evening, and then this morning, talk of Rudisha's momentous display had largely faded from the forefront of the media, with the focus firmly on Usain Bolt's 200 metres victory, and more "Team GB" success.  I am not under-estimating the importance of Bolt's achievements, or the GB feats, but it seemed to me that things were a bit out of balance.

Perhaps I should not be surprised by all this, really.  This is where we are inexorably heading.  The cult of celebrity, such a pervasive feature of our world today, no doubt influences things, and those with "Pied-Piper" qualities and that aura about them will receive more attention and adulation those who are just simply brilliant at what they do but undemonstrative..  I doubt that this all bothers David Rudisha much, either.  He knows what he achieved last night, as do genuine track and field and sports fans.

I certainly know which race from Thursday's track and field programme I myself found most "inspirational", to use the current buzz-phrase.  A clue - it was won by a Kenyan....

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Olympic Memories

I have major reservations about some of the UK media coverage of the Olympics, and also a sceptical view of the "Team GB" hysteria, but I have become more and more immersed in the Games over recent days, tending to focus on some of the "minority" sports, or those where the British have no meaningful presence.  This has all got me thinking about my own Olympic memories.

The Munich Olympics passed me by, as I was less than three years old at the time.  However, "Mark Spitz" was possibly one of the first famous names which I picked up in those formative years, even though for a while I was unaware of what exactly he was famous for!

I have clear recollections of watching the '76 Montreal Games, although still too young to discern and absorb many of the intricacies of the various events. Some of the clearest images were David Wilkie's astounding swim in the 200 metres breastroke (as well as Alan Weeks' iconic TV commentary), and the exploits of Nadia Comaneci in the gymnastics. The East Germans were also making their presence felt, although my naive young mind did not yet grasp some of the more sinister overtones of all that.

The 1980 Olympics in this country were largely defined by the much-anticipated "showdown" between Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett. I know that the passage of time can dull the effect, but I remember it all being curiously flat and anti-climactic.  The location of the Games, and the boycott, may have contributed to this.  Those 1980 Games kind of passed me by.

By contrast, I have very fond memories of 1984 and Los Angeles.  The time-difference meant that the TV coverage went on until the early hours of the morning, and by then I was at that age when I was permitted to stay up that late! 

Some of my recollections from those Games are a touch obscure.  Britain's first medal was won by a chap called Michael Sullivan in the shooting events, and I remember that the BBC cameras were rolling as he telephoned his wife back in England to relay the good news. 

Early in the Games there was a wonderful duel in the cycling road race, involving American Alexi Grewal and Canada's Steve Bauer.  This had me enthralled for a couple of hours, and Grewal won, somewhat surprisingly, in a sprint finish.

I followed most of the track and field events in 1984 from beneath a blanket on our sofa, and remember waking my brother up with cries of "fantastic!" as Seb Coe retained his 1500 metres crown.

Above all,1984 was the first time when the Games seemed modern, contemporary and immediately accessible, this all no doubt driven by technology.

1988 and Seoul was a different story.  I had just left school, and was in the process of applying for jobs, and traumatic and distressing events were taking place in my family. The Olympics naturally took a back seat, and those Games for me had a strangely lacklustre and sterile feel anyway.  I can't really explain why.

Of all the Olympic Games which I have watched, I would have to say that Barcelona in 1992 was the most enjoyable.  Barcelona itself proved to be a spectacular venue and backdrop, and there was a real dynamism and colour about the whole fortnight.  I booked two weeks off work, specifically to submerge myself in the event, and it proved immensely pleasurable.

Since then, my interest in contemporary Olympics has waned, although I have continued to be fascinated and absorbed by the history.  Commercialism, doping and my own shifting attitudes and world-view have all played a part in this.  Despite this, however, there are still moments when the Olympic Games can deliver sporting theatre like no other event on Earth.

Highway 61 Revisited - Bob Dylan - album review

There are many debates, and much conjecture, about when the modern "rock" era truly began, but there is an argument for citing Bob Dylan's 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited as one of the key staging posts.

It is often taken for granted, or taken as a given, that Highway 61 Revisited is Dylan's greatest achievement, and in historical and critical terms it probably is. It contains some of his most famous songs, and has an ambition and grandeur absent from much of his other work.

Personally, I have always found Bringing It All Back Home, released earlier in 1965, to be a more organic, rounded and likeable record, and in some respects it can be argued that it was more ground-breaking and important than the album which succeeded it.

For all its many strengths and virtues, I have somehow never fully warmed to Highway 61 Revisited. I respect and appreciate its sweep and its audacity, but I don't always find it a comfortable listen.  It feels a little over-earnest in places, and I sense that it exudes a certain smugness.  Admittedly, when the songs are this dramatic and startling, such smugness can be excused!

Dramatic and startling the songs may be, but to me they lack the fluidity and verve of those on Bringing It All Back Home.  It is possible that Dylan was aiming for something different on "Highway 61".  The tracks don't feel as tied together seamlessly, and I would describe this more as a collection of disparate, if mighty, songs than a integrated, cohesive album.

This album may not have some of the homely charm of those which preceded and followed it, but there is no disputing its overall majesty, and it does definitely possess that "wow" factor.

The opening track, "Like A Rolling Stone", is one of the landmarks of 60s rock, although it is probably no more famous than one or two of his folk "protest" songs of earlier years.  It is still astonishing to think that this song almost reached the top of the Billboard singles charts.  Driven by rhythm guitar (possibly played by Dylan himself?) and the organ of Al Kooper, it develops an irresistible momentum, as the wordplay and vocal delivery become more emphatic and daring. Each new verse adds a new dimension, and additional interest.

Just recently I heard "Tombstone Blues" described as "punk music", and I can see why.  Frantic and almost minimalist, with lyrics seemingly speaking of general disaffection and despair. After the exhilarating opening, the level drops with two less inspired tracks, "It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry", and "From a Buick 6".

"Ballad Of A Thin Man" is something else entirely. One of the most dramatic and intense songs on the album, different in tempo and atmosphere to the others.  Was this a message to Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones?

"Queen Jane Approximately" is an appealing if ultimately minor song, with a pleasing melody, and it is followed by the title track. These two numbers prepare the ground for a momentous conclusion to the work.

Containing some of the most entertaining lyrics on the album, "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" has a distinctive backing track, and a real impishness about it, which is difficult to dislike.  I have some theories about some of the words, which need not detain us here!

On to the closing number, "Desolation Row".  It can seem lyrically almost like stereotypical Dylan, with the invoking of historical characters and so forth.  However, if one really listens to it, its power really emerges.  Some might argue that it actually says little which is different from several of Bob's other compostions, but its concentrated intensity wins out. The intricate guitar backing also sets it apart.

In the end, the various minor misgivings about Highway 61 Revisited do not detract from its quality and its importance.  A superb album.

Monday, 6 August 2012

The Olympics

Well, we are around half-way through the London 2012 Olympics.  I am a huge sports fan, but prior to the start of the Games I found myself struggling with a curious lack of enthusiasm, which I found difficult to rationalise.

However, as soon as the competitions got up and running, my interest was aroused, although I have noticed that many of my attitudes and perspectives have changed compared to previous Olympics. These changes are probably a consequence of changes in my own life, and alterations in my outlook on the world and people.

I think that what these Games have shown to me is how alienated and detached I have become from conceptions and notions of "country", "nationality", "patriotism" and partisanship. Of course, enormous credit and congratulations should go to the Team GB athletes, but if I am being honest I feel little different about their success to what I feel about that of athletes from other nations.  I am a human being, and my interest is in human endeavour and human emotions, no matter what colour flag somebody happens to be waving.  I have some favourite athletes, but they come from all over the world. I was delighted for example to see Dee Dee Trotter, who I have admired for a number of years, get a bronze medal in the 400 metres.

I don't subscribe to the theory that the Olympics only really gets properly under way when the track and field commences.  However, there is plenty to look forward to in the next few days, with many of the events looking unusually open and competitive.

Oh, and I wish that the media would make it abundantly clear that their precious "medals table" is unofficial.....