Sunday, 24 March 2013

2013 Malaysian Grand Prix

An eventful and closely contested Grand Prix, but much of what occurred has been overshadowed by the internal ructions at Red Bull.

If nothing else, the team orders controversy offers persuasive evidence that Vettel's desire and motivation remain undiminished, even if he was apologetic afterwards. How this episode will affect his relationship with the team is unclear.  As there seems little immediate prospect of the German leaving Red Bull, it is something which the hierarchy will be required to manage.

The post-race interviews were painful to watch. Mark Webber chose his words carefully, but it seemed to me that he was placing the onus on the team to resolve this one way or the other. The Red Bull personnel on the pitwall were decidedly subdued immediately after the chequered flag. They clearly realise the extent of their dilemma. They dare not risk alienating Vettel too much, and there is perhaps an argument for saying that this compromises their ability to exercise real authority over him in these matters. For all Vettel's contrition today,  he must know that he is in a very strong position.  It is tempting to regard many of today's utterances as mere public relations.

The furore should not be permitted to obscure some of the other noteworthy elements of the Grand Prix, the most significant of which may be further hints that Mercedes are a more substantial and consistent proposition this season. They had their own team orders issue to contend with, but the outcome of this suggested much more harmony and unity than exists at Red Bull. Despite Nico Rosberg's frustration at being told to hold station late in the race, all parties at least seem to be moving broadly in the same direction.

After the nightmare in Australia, some tentatively positive noises are emanating from McLaren, notwithstanding the error which was so detrimental to Jenson Button's race.  It goes without saying that margins are very slender in this current era of Formula 1, and the signs about McLaren's prospects are mixed at present.  People will only be convinced when more concrete results are achieved.

The Lotus results in Malaysia were disappointing, in the light of what happened at Albert Park. The car appeared to have an aversion to the early slippery conditions, and the rest of the race was conditioned by lost places, and resultant traffic.  Even allowing for these factors, the machine looked a handful at times, with Kimi Raikkonen enduring a few lurid moments. It is unclear whether these issues are fundamental, or simply related to the peculiarities of the set-up at Sepang.

There is now a three week break before the Chinese Grand Prix.  Something tells me that the F1 news-wires will be far from tranquil during that time!

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Close Encounters Of The Third Kind

Just recently, feeling at a loose end, I decided to give Close Encounters Of The Third Kind another viewing, and then realised that I had not previously written a blog post about it.

I first the saw the film as a youngster, not long after its release. I was a little overwhelmed by it, both by what appeared back then to be its emotional and philosophical sweep, and by the aspects of the plot which were beyond my comprehension, or simply went completely over my head.  In my more mature years I have come to recognise that behind this lies the secret of the enduring and universal appeal of the picture. It can induce a childlike sense of wonder and awe, but also poses some wider questions.

Another thing which always strikes me is how "timeless" the film is, in the purest sense of that word.  Leaving aside the dubious Seventies "fashions", this film feels like it could have been made now.  The subject matter is just as relevant, if not more so, particularly the mistrust of officialdom.  Public interest (and hysteria) about UFOs was particularly pronounced in the 1970s, but it is still there today, but just not as mainstream in today's fragmented media environment.

So "Close Encounters" possesses several layers, and in keeping with this there is much left to the interpretation and imagination of the viewer.  We are left to draw our own conclusions on many aspects of the plot, and the events which occur.  Some may be red herrings, but others clearly are not.  This is exemplified by the sequence in the air traffic control building. The script does not just rely on the well-worn cliches about "little green men", but introduces additional, less obvious elements which tax the intellect and have the capacity to unsettle, but which help the film to achieve the balance of maintaining both plausibility and immediacy.

Astutely, Spielberg decided to unfurl the story from both the "official" perspective and that of "ordinary" citizens. These days this sort of approach has become rather banal and hackneyed, but back in the Seventies it was still quite fresh. The scenes set in the Indiana countryside at night still have a genuine magic and eeriness about them.

Richard Dreyfuss does a great job of playing the "everyman" character Roy Neary, and of portraying the changes which he undergoes after his "close encounter".   Although I accept that the dysfunctional Neary household is an essential part of the plot, after a while the scenes of domestic "bliss" begin to get on my nerves!  Too much noise and general mayhem for my tastes, and they risk disturbing the ambience of the picture.  On the other hand, the scenes within the Guiler residence are stunning.

My other minor quibbles relate to the dialogue in the film, and my old hobby-horse of "crowd scenes".   At times the dialogue is a little messy, and difficult to discern.  Too many people speaking simultaneously, so that occasionally the main point is almost obscured.  As in 99 percent of movies of all types, the crowd scenes do not work, a prime example being that at the railway station in the aftermath of the mythical chemical leak. In fairness, these are minor drawbacks overall.

One of the most intriguing characters is that of the scientist Lacombe, played by Francois Truffaut. He is depicted as more human, altruistic and flexible than the other scientists and governmental representatives, and as such represents an interface with the general public.  Perhaps he was himself secretly contemptuousness of the secrecy and "elitism" which pervaded the official UFO investigations.  Do scientists, as idealists and searchers, have more in common with the masses than with their political masters?  Spielberg was touching on issues which exercise many minds today.

After watching the movie recently, I sought to extrapolate the story in my mind.  After the Mothership had departed, would the encounter have been publicised by the powers-that-be?  What was the ultimate fate of Roy Neary?.  It was fortunate that a sequel was not produced, as these matters can inspire much debate to this day..

The closing sequences, when aliens emerge from the ship, and Neary goes on board, never fail to inspire and uplift, making one feel glad to be alive.  Spielberg has done lots of great things since, but in many respects he has not surpassed Close Encounters Of The Third Kind.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

2013 Australian Grand Prix

My appetite for Formula 1 was in danger of becoming dulled and diminished, for various reasons, but just the merest glimpse of the television pictures from today's race in Melbourne was sufficient to hook me in anew.

It feels increasingly facile to say this, but all the signs point to a season of comparable competitiveness and interest to that of 2012.  The variable of tyre management is once again present to provide the element of unpredictability.

Having said all this, Red Bull still look to have all the equipment to succeed, and it would not be surprising if this made itself felt more acutely in the next few Grands Prix. The car looks very stable, efficient and consistent, and Sebastian Vettel, although ultimately occupying the bottom step on the podium, was in the thick of the action throughout at Albert Park.

One of the main points of speculation before the next race will inevitably be the "plight" of McLaren.  They were utterly anonymous in Australia, and there has been much conjecture about the reason for their shortfall in outright pace.  Is the design itself overly ambitious?  Much work clearly needs to be done in order to remedy matters.

On the McLaren driver front, one has to feel a measure of sympathy for young Sergio Perez.  When he joined the team, he could have expected to have a reasonably competitive machine under him, and the car's deficiencies must be compounding the pressures he will be feeling as a new driver in a top team. He may also be confronted by a dilemma.  Will he be tempted to overdrive in order to surmount the car's failings, or will he be overly-conscious of the need to avoid mistakes, and consequently become excessively circumspect?  How he deals with this situation may tell us much about the Mexican's ultimate potential as a Grand Prix pilot.

By contrast, Ferrari enjoyed a solid and encouraging opening to the new season.  Hopefully, people will not become carried away by all this.  At this time last year, the Italian outfit was going through a tough time, and just as their problems back then were overplayed, there may now be a tendency to inflate expectations on the basis of one race.  At the same time, it was a heartening display, with both drivers performing capably.  In particular, Felipe Massa seems to have been emboldened by the confidence placed in him by Ferrari.

The augurs for the Mercedes team look mixed. There is little sign that they have attained a major breakthrough, and any marginal rise in assertiveness and feistiness my be attributed to "the Hamilton effect". The Englishman raced manfully as ever, and we can be fairly confident that he will extract the maximum from the car.  A cloud was introduced by the retirement of Nico Rosberg, raising the spectre of the spate of mechanically-related retirements which afflicted the team in 2012.

A "wild card" was provided in this race by Adrian Sutil in the Force India.  Some of us have long rated his abilities, and he looked very much at home at or near the front of the field. The internal competition within that team this season could be very interesting to follow, with Sutil perhaps poised to fulfill the role undertaken by Nico Hulkenberg last year.

Turning to Lotus, it is to be hoped that they have learned lessons from 2012, in terms of how to convert strong race-day showings into regular victories. I would suggest that the jury is still out on this.  As has been observed, Raikkonen will be more formidable this season than last, having got plenty of mileage under his belt, and any cobwebs will now have been comprehensively cast off.  He just needs the tools to enable him to consistently take full advantage.

It is good to see a reshuffle among the teams, and the appearance of some new faces to freshen things up.  Malaysia next....

Thursday, 14 March 2013

The Wars Of The Roses - Trevor Royle

During my high school days, various important periods in English or British history were covered in our History lessons, but one which singularly failed to register fully in my consciousness was The Wars Of The Roses.  This may have been due to the protracted and intricate nature of those events.  Anybody who has encountered similar feelings would be well advised to check out Trevor Royle's admirable book, The Wars Of The Roses.

The author does a capable job of helping the reader to navigate the formidable webs of intrigue and shifting allegiances and fortunes. At the same time, he leaves just enough unsaid to allow room for interpretation for the reader.  There is also some attempt to frankly assess and appraise the merits (and shortcomings) of many of the principal characters.

The relating of the story has a genuine richness to it, helping to convey the turbulence, and occasional brutality and cruelty, of those times. There is relatively little in the way of analysis of military technicalities, with the emphasis very much placed on the power-politics and self-interest which motivated these struggles.

Royle also adroitly links the upheavals consuming England to the close links which the country had with France during those years (and before).  He expertly explains how fluctuations in the dynastic squabbling on the other side of the Channel impacted, directly or indirectly, on the Lancaster v York dynamic at various stages.

So many of the attitudes and episodes related and examined in this book seem thoroughly alien to us now, although some of the factors which precipitated the crises were outside the control of humans, and not even directly caused by the social mores which prevailed in the fourteen and fifteenth centuries.  Also, it has to be remembered that for all the outbursts of instability and violence, there were also long periods of calm, peace and order.

The author makes excellent use of quotes and excerpts from cultural artefacts, to depict and evoke the tenor and ambience of those times, or of their aftermath.  The opening chapters also ably set the scene, by summarising the political, economic and social conditions which existed prior to the conflicts commencing fully.

This book is written in an eminently plausible, accessible and balanced style.  Well worth a read.

Monday, 11 March 2013

Iron Kingdom - Christopher Clark

I admit that I may be a touch late in the day in committing my thoughts to screen on this one, but here goes....

I first read this book two or three years ago, and though finding it immensely enjoyable and stimulating,  was also frankly slightly daunted by its sweep and the volume of information contained therein. Having completed it on that occasion, I experienced a feeling of "unfinished business", and that this was one of those books which demanded several readings over time, in order that its full quality, richness and depth can be absorbed.  So, just recently I read Iron Kingdom once more.  Here are my observations....

The book is subtitled "The Rise and Downfall of Prussia 1600-1947", and this is a fair summation, although it  barely hints at the attention to detail and erudition which leap from the pages.

Iron Kingdom documents the gradual increase in power, influence and prosperity of Prussia (or the territories which later became known as Prussia).  The stewardship of each regime or monarch is analysed, offering theories as to how they contributed to the progression (or regression) of the Prussian "project".  As the history moves forward, Brandenburg/Prussia is placed in its context in the grand European scheme of things, in terms of how it impacted the continent, and how it was affected by external pressures and the waxing and waning of other empires and monarchies.

Throughout, we gain a vivid illustration of how Prussia's geographical position in relation to friends and foes alike dictated its policies, often in the form of a delicate balancing act, and how it coped with the evolution of its demographic and territorial composition.  In addition, the assimilation and integration (or otherwise) of new ideas and social and economic concepts are examined.

One of the things which really pleased me about this book was that it resisted the temptation to devote excessive coverage to certain well-known subjects (Frederick The Great, the Franco-Prussian War etc).  Yes, these topics are accorded their merited scrutiny, but not to the detriment of this as a comprehensive and seamless chronicle.

Clark lucidly and entertainingly explains and highlights many lesser-known episodes in the story, from the role of intellectuals and religious movements to some of the idiosyncrasies of Prussian foreign policy in respect of disputed and sensitive territories.

The richness and vibrancy of the author's writing style also greatly enhances its appeal, exuding a genuine affection for language as well as fascination with the subject matter.

From a personal viewpoint, I found the chapters dealing with the 18th and 19th centuries most compelling, as they address the period both when old and new worldviews came into conflict, and when Prussia's leverage in European affairs became more pronounced.  In particular, the reaction of the Prussian establishment to the upheavals and revolutions of that era is put under the microscope to good effect.  We also how see the militarism which ensued ran in parallel with more enlightened social developments.  I found the passages tackling the "wars of liberation" against Napoleonic France, and the forces and emotions which they unleashed, especially instructive and illuminating.

One of the things which stands out in these chapters is the often stuttering, uneven and hesitant nature of reforms, liberalization and modernization.  The paradoxes and contradictions of Prussian society are duly pointed out, but as with other aspects of this rendering of the tale, in a nuanced and multi-faceted way.

Comparatively little space is dedicated to the post 1871 era, and sensibly this is largely restricted to the role of Prussia, or more specifically the Prussian "mentality" and ethos, in the first half of the twentieth century.  After all, this is a book about Prussia, not Germany.  The sections dealing with the world wars are, unsurprisingly, powerful and pungent....

It was a pleasure to read this book again.  Highly recommended.

Friday, 8 March 2013

The Odessa File - Frederick Forsyth

Having been utterly gripped and impressed by Frederick Forsyth's novel The Day Of The Jackal, I resolved to move on to another one of his more celebrated works, The Odessa File, not really knowing what to expect. I had a brief outline of what the plot entailed, but was surprised at what I ultimately found within its pages.

The story revolves around a German investigative journalist, Peter Miller, and his attempts to track down a former SS officer suspected of war crimes, this search being prompted by the contents of the diary of a concentration camp survivor who had just committed suicide.  Only towards the very end of the book do we fully learn that the young reporter had a deeply personal motivation to find the suspect in question....

The Odessa File repeats the formula of building dynamic and convincing fiction within a basic framework of some actual historical developments and events. This proves to be an inspired decision, as it imbues the novel with a ring of authenticity and plausibility.

As with The Day Of The Jackal, it is the investigative elements, and the game of cat-and-mouse played out between the central characters, which help to propel the tale forward. Forsyth expertly and convincingly constructs the tension, intrigue and menace, holding enough back to ensure that later twists have the true element of surprise.

One of the things which makes this novel so engrossing is the way in which space and time are afforded for some of the topics springing from the investigation to be examined. The sensitivity of the German nation to the events of World War 2 is put under the microscope, as are the inter-generational tensions and antagonism which ensued.  The attention given to the soul-searching and feelings of guilt is greater than I had anticipated, given my prior knowledge.

As his probe develops, Miller is confronted by official recalcitrance, obstinacy and cynicism at several levels, and even those who share his zeal to see justice served urge circumspection.  He remains undaunted by the numerous notes of caution, for reasons which become clearer later, and Forsyth expertly guides us through the stages at which the various layers of bureaucracy and resistance are peeled back, and the goal is neared.

Another shrewd stroke was to cast geopolitics into the mix, particularly the tensions between Israel and Egypt, and the role supposedly played by the Odessa organisation in assistance to the latter.

The pace quickens appreciably when Miller, sometimes unknowingly, crosses paths with the men of Odessa in the course of his work. The stakes gradually escalate, and the web of intrigue is spun more and more intricately.  Miller's increasing diligence and commitment is matched by the desperation and unscrupulousness of Odessa and its associates. Even Miller, as the day of judgement draws near, employs some ethically questionable and dubious methods to attain his aims.

One can detect a major rise in Miller's trepidation and excitement as the gravity and depth of his involvement goes up. The point at which he accedes to a request to try to infiltrate Odessa is particularly chilling and sobering;a point of no return, in many respects.

A different dimension is provided by the decision by Israel and others to try to co-opt Miller for their own purposes in combating Odessa. Although initially one is tempted to view the reporter as being used and manipulated, it quickly becomes evident that he is nobody's puppet.

The twists in the plot are numerous and deftly managed, each apparent impasse in the search being followed by an inventive or novel deviation. The author is very adept at handling these scenarios convincingly and adroitly.

The conclusion to the story is gripping and suspenseful, as the fate of the protagonists is awaited, but we are not provided with the "expected" or "obvious" finale.  The ending is somewhat inconclusive, with the former SS man escaping and Miller surviving. Odessa, however, sustained a grievous blow because of the exposure suffered, and Israel achieved many of its aims.

The Odessa File is another classic of its genre, and embodies the full meaning of the familiar term "unputdownable".

By the way, my thoughts on The Day Of The Jackal can be found via the link below:

The Day Of The Jackal