Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Children Of The Revolution

After much vacillation, I recently got around to watching the 2010 documentary film "Children Of The Revolution", produced and directed by Shane O'Sullivan. It explores the lives of two famous political militants, Ulrike Meinhof and Fusako Shigenobu, through the eyes and experiences of their respective daughters, Bettina Rohl and Mei (or May) Shigenobu.

The film is made up of interviews with the two daughters, together with archive material and also segments recorded in the twenty-first century. There is excellent use of archive footage and photographs, some of which I had not seen before.

The film alternates between the two case studies, but is held together by common denominators such as the Palestine question and the concept of global revolution. Crisp editing and a stylish flow ensure that it remains generally cohesive, and successfully holds the interest and the attention.

The Japanese angle is fascinating, and of course this area is less well known to Western eyes and ears, but the thing which really stood out for me about this documentary was the perspective of Bettina Rohl. Her comments, and those of others in the film, provide some new insight into Ulrike Meinhof''s life and character.  Myths are dispelled, and much of the romanticism which surrounds the urban guerrillas of that era is put in its true light.

The film addresses the question of how Meinhof's personality and outlook may have altered over time.  Whether this came from within, or was prompted by some of her associations, is left somewhat open to question, but Andreas Baader and Gudrun Ensslin are portrayed in a less than flattering light. Indeed, the bleak and blinkered vision of the Red Army Faction leaders is underlined once again.

Both of the daughters on which the film focuses come across as well-balanced and well-adjusted people, despite, or maybe because of, their "unconventional" upbringing and background. Their contributions are both candid and enlightening.

Overall, this is quite an absorbing and thoughtful documentary. It does not just re-hash old material and theories, but looks at a contentious topic from an interesting and imaginative angle. It is well worth watching.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

The Magic Mountain - Thomas Mann

I have recently finished reading Thomas Mann's novel The Magic Mountain, originally published in 1924.
The story centres on the character Hans Castorp, who travels to a sanatorium in the Swiss Mountains, initially to visit his cousin, who is being treated there. However, Castorp himself soon falls ill, and ends up spending seven years in the institution.
Whilst in the sanatorium, Castorp is exposed to a diversity of intellectual, moral and philosophical viewpoints and pressures, and his curiosity on these questions is consequently aroused. He also becomes infatuated and obsessed with one of the female patients.

The novel is set in the early twentieth century, in the years preceding the First World War, and acts as a kind of snapshot of the European bourgeoisie at that time, their social mores and attitudes prior to an upheaval which would in some ways serve as a watershed. Some of the symbolism appears to touch on the forces and factors which brought about the catastrophe.

A constant theme throughout The Magic Mountain is the nature of time, and how people's conception of the phenomenon differs when they are in an "unnatural" environment such as that of a sanatorium, divorced from "normal" existence. Throughout the narrative the meaning of, and attitudes to, death are also a constant concern.

To me the Castorp figure is firstly portrayed as a little "green", perhaps the legacy of a sheltered early life, and although he comes under the tutelage of others in his new surroundings, he is also possessed of some innate savoir-faire and astuteness which bourgeois conventions and constraints would have prevented him from deploying in the "flat-lands". This latent perceptiveness is allowed to flourish.

Although the differences between life below and that in the sanatorium are highlighted, it can also be seen that some of the human relationships and behaviour in the mountain retreat are a microcosm of social dynamics everywhere.

New impetus is supplied by the introduction of the Naphta character, and his intellectual fencing with the humanist Settembrini. This brings me on to another pleasing aspect of The Magic Mountain, and that is the clever construction of characters.  They are distinctive but credible, outlandish but plausible, and generally do not conform to stereotypes.

It is refreshing to become immersed in a novel which does not concern itself with one central theme, or even a loosely connected set of themes. Some readers may even find that it takes a little time to adjust to this, but my advice is to just relax and let the story come to you.  Yes, Mann is trying to tell us things, but he is also telling us a story. Striving to see profound significance in every sentence will only impair one's enjoyment.
The story takes some unexpected but captivating twists, through Castorp's ski-ing expedition, his friendship with the Dutchman Peeperkorn, his continuing obsession with Madame Chauchat, the séances, the tragic duel between Naphta and Settembrini, to the final sequence, which follows the main protagonist's decision to volunteer for service in the war.

This is a challenging but highly stimulating and diverting read.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Marquee Moon - Television - album review

As my musical horizons have become wider, I have grown to see New York or American punk music of the 1970s as more credible than its British counterpart. The "attitude", and occasional anger and vitriol, are by and large dished out more temperately, but the energy and immediacy are clothed in musicianship and pop sensibility of no little consequence.  Television's 1977 album "Marquee Moon" is arguably the single most affecting document to emanate from the scene.

One thing to observe about "Marquee Moon" is that it appeals to a very broad constituency, including people who ordinarily gravitate towards the genres of music to which the advocates of "punk" were meant to be antagonistic. I would not normally self-identify as a particular fan of punk per se, but this has become one of my favourite albums. Indeed, many good judges rate "Marquee Moon" as one of the great guitar albums.

The geometric but scintillating guitar work is one of the album's hallmarks, although it does not totally overshadow the quality of the songs, or the muscular rhythm section. The guitars betray the group's musical roots, but also possess a quality and dexterity which would even command admiration from devotees of progressive rock. I also detect echoes of Neil Young and Crazy Horse in places, and the sonic atmosphere reminds me of the "serious" end of British glam rock (Bowie, Roxy Music etc) and art-rock such as that created by the likes of Be Bop Deluxe.
These factors goes some way to explaining "Marquee Moon"s widespread appeal. The record even contains some songs which are more than four minutes in duration! So if we are defining this as a "punk" album then it can be seen that it breaks many of the "rules" of that genre. Perhaps the term "art punk" is more appropriate?  Or should we just dispense with all attempts at labels, and simply enjoy and savour the music?
I have heard some criticism of Tom Verlaine's vocals on the record. He may not have a conventionally "sweet" or smooth voice, but for me it perfectly complements the musical and lyrical backdrop, and engenders the ideal ambience.
When returning to "Marquee Moon" after a break, one of the things which is striking is the consistent quality of the material throughout the running order. The diet of four-piece guitar-led fare can serve to make the songs feel "samey" on the surface, but closer examination reveals the variety and vitality on offer.
The epic title track could seem to dominate all else, but patient and attentive listening will facilitate an appreciation of the "minor" items, such as the opener "See No Evil", with its insidious but exhilarating and insistent riff and rhythm. "Venus" and "Friction" are also gems in their own fashion, while "Prove It" and "Guiding Light" exude in a more transparent manner the traits of 50s and early 60s rock n roll. "Torn Curtain" concludes proceedings (brings the curtain down, if you'll pardon the pun) on an intense, slightly unsettling but memorable note.
"Marquee Moon" is a remarkable, stimulating and invigorating record, guaranteed to help the jaded listener blow away any musical cobwebs. Unlike some vaunted "classics", it fully warrants the fulsome praise heaped on it. Television were never able to match this album, but it stands as one of the towering achievements of 70s rock music. This really was high quality "indie" or "alternative" music, before those two terms had really been coined.