Sunday, 30 August 2015

Apocalypse Now - movie review

I recently watched "Apocalypse Now", Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 movie set during the Vietnam War, starring Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando and Robert Duvall, and inspired at least in part by Joseph Conrad's "Heart Of Darkness".

Of all the classic movies of that era, probably my favourite age of cinema, it has in the past been one of the most enigmatic and elusive in terms of its ability to grip my undivided attention.

To sum up the plot, Willard (Martin Sheen) is ordered by his superiors to locate and assassinate the "renegade" Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando). We follow Willard as he travels, by helicopter and boat, to Kurtz's hideout over the Cambodian border.

The narration by the Willard character is very evocative, and helps to hold the whole thing together. This aspect of the movie reminds me a little of the similar device used in "Taxi Driver".

Right from the commencement of "Apocalypse Now", one is made aware of an atmosphere of ennui, exhaustion and disorientation, created by the unreality of the experience. I think that the viewer needs to embrace this dimension of "Apocalypse Now" in order to fully appreciate it.

Of course, the Kurtz character does not appear in person until near to the conclusion of the film. Along the way, however, we learn a good deal about him, his character and his history. Willard at times develops a sense of ambivalence towards what Kurtz and his actions represent. Were his actions any more reprehensible just because they were not "officially" sanctioned?

There is something about the combat and action sequences. To me, they almost intentionally look like a movie set. Were they meant to be realistic and authentic, or were they designed to convey a sense of the chaos and confusion, the surrealistic?  These scenes, paradoxically, also have a certain symmetry and order, almost as if they were choreographed.

I must confess that I did not understand the hype surrounding the character of Kilgore (Robert Duvall). I am not being contrarian when I say that his role in the story did not really grip me or engage me. I was much more interested in Willard and Kurtz. Perhaps I am missing something?

Incidentally, the most notable line of Kilgore's is, in my view, not the "obvious" one, but the one which he utters after the girl throws a grenade into a helicopter, and he accuses his enemy of being "savages". This was a bit rich from a man who orders that napalm be dropped on defenceless peasants....

For me, the film really gets into its stride when the river journey gets under way in earnest, and the personalities, quirks and fears of the crew members rise to the fore. The river journey is punctuated by some powerful, poignant and even bizarre episodes, the latter category epitomized by the "concert". Each man goes through his own trials, anguish and voyage of personal discovery. In this sense, this picture has some similarities to road movies.

The jungle passages are beautifully shot, with clever use of natural light helping to the capture the claustrophobia and the trepidation,  as well as the beauty of the environment. Indeed, the use of light and lighting throughout "Apocalypse Now" is one of the ingredients in making up the film's impact and allure.

There has been intense debate about whether this is an anti-war movie. Anti-war sentiments are not overly pushed, but one cannot fail to be affected by the brutality and callousness occasionally portrayed. The scenes concerned get the message across more effectively and eloquently than any preachy dialogue could ever do.  I got the impression, rightly or wrongly, that any disgust expressed by the protagonists was as much directed at the decadent and aimless way in which the war was being conducted on the ground, as at the war per se.

Despite what many people say, I did not think that the climactic scenes, when Marlon Brando and Dennis Hopper enter the fray, were on a separate plane from what preceded them. Again, though, lighting is used to superb effect to evoke a feeling of menace and unreality.

It is noticeable that the Willard character remains relatively phlegmatic and dispassionate throughout most of the film, certainly in comparison to the demons and anxieties plaguing those around him. Perhaps what he had witnessed had made him impervious and hardened.

The scene where Kurtz dies of course alternates with the footage of the sacrifice of the water buffalo. Plenty of scope for seeing the symbolism of the two acts occurring simultaneously.  Both acts constituting wishful thinking, and a case of missing the point, shutting out realities?

Some people I suspect view "Apocalypse Now" as nebulous, but that surely is part of the point. It leaves us feeling bewildered, empty and unsettled. Popular perception of it as a meandering behemoth of a film is misguided. Having watched it again, I would say that it is a stunning and affecting creation, if not without its flaws. If nothing else, it is the type of movie which erases any complacency and glibness from the viewer's mind concerning the subject of war.  Its quality is all the more remarkable when one remembers the numerous difficulties endured in its production.

It is a memorable film because it is different. It is what it is.

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Easy Rider - movie review

I recently watched "Easy Rider", the classic 1969 road movie, starring Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson.

In the past, I had tended to see this film as one of those whose reputation and status was out of proportion to its genuine artistic merit. However, it now strikes me that this in itself has become a stereotyped and spurious attitude.  Consequently, some dispassionate and detached scrutiny was in order...

Essentially, the picture follows the Fonda and Hopper characters as they travel through the American Southwest and South by motorbike. Along the way they encounter various people and different elements of society. In part it is an examination of the Sixties counter-culture, contemporary social tensions, and of popular attitudes towards those things.

One of the things which one first notices is the sumptuous nature of the visuals, a feature of "Easy Rider" which is regularly overlooked. This is complemented by the sparsity and economy of the dialogue. Imagery and symbolism, and the necessity for the viewer to spot and decipher them, form a minor but significant part of the film, if not an overpowering one . An example occurs early on in the piece when Peter Fonda discards his watch on the edge of the desert. Is this some kind of "existential" gesture, or does it signify a more general renunciation of mainstream values?  You decide!  Or alternatively, just sit back, relax and enjoy the movie....

Some modern observers might laugh or snipe at the "arty" editing which occasionally makes an appearance but, making allowances for the fact that this was the late 1960s, it is not too intrusive or egregious. The same could be said for the "freak-out" sequences near to the conclusion of the movie. The occasional diversion into a "homemade", documentary style of film-making offers a counterpoint to the grandeur of the visuals.

Some of the interaction of the two main characters with people they meet on their odyssey is fascinating, although it is easy to read too much into these sections, from a "philosophical" viewpoint. In one of the earlier scenes they stop and speak to some farmers/ranchers, who would perhaps be regarded as "conservative" in their outlook, but if anything the two bikers appear more comfortable in their company than they do when meeting other members of the so-called "counter culture". Non-conformists, outcasts and individualists occur in many forms, and they often find common ground which does not accord with societal categorization, expectations or pigeon-holing.  This is all in keeping with a sense that "Easy Rider" does not necessarily portray its times precisely in the way in which we are conditioned to assume that it does.

The above theme is developed further when Fonda and Hopper visit a "hippie commune". Rightly or wrongly, I got the impression that Wyatt/Captain America (the Fonda character) was too ready and willing to embrace some "romantic" or idealistic notion of communal living, Outwardly Billy (Hopper) seemed the more "alternative" figure, but was much more cynical and wary of the hippies,and the practicality of their way of life, than his travelling companion. Taken like this, it can be seen that the film offers quite a nuanced view of the subject.  The counter-culture was a multi-faceted phenomenon, and its various constituent elements were not always compatible with each other.

Needless to say, the appearance of Jack Nicholson is a highlight of "Easy Rider", although his character does not occupy as much of the running time as people sometimes imagine. Hanson is an intriguing character. It is tempting to see him in part as a semi-caricature of the "trendy" lawyers who, we are told, were commonplace during those times, but even this would be an over-simplification.

Whilst the scene in the cafeteria is disturbing, it also offers some insight;the local girls attracted by the strangers, the males contemptuous and vitriolic. The "discussions" by the campfire are also open to several different interpretation, furthering the ambiguous nature of the general "narrative". Was Hanson furnishing his new friends with a broadened perspective, and were they taking him seriously?

Some might venture the opinion that the movie ends on an excessively downbeat and sobering note, but when one considers that this picture was made in 1969, it was hardly likely to finish with everyone walking happily off into the sunset. Having said that, seeing the violent ending simply as a metaphor for "the end of the 60s dream" is far too trite an option to adopt.

Of course, the wonderful music soundtrack is one of the most compelling and memorable aspects of "Easy Rider", with songs by the likes of The Byrds, Jimi Hendrix, The Band and Steppenwolf featuring, usually in the "road" sequences which link together the stops along the route. A note too about the motorcycles, which are fabulous, especially the one ridden by Peter Fonda....

I think that "Easy Rider" succeeds and endures largely because it is a coherent and plausible document. It does not ostentatiously seek to be clever or portentous, and it doesn't try too hard, unlike other cinematic works of its type and era. It has aged surprisingly well, to these eyes and ears at least.

Saturday, 22 August 2015

The War of Wars - Robert Harvey - book review

I have recently begun to revisit some of the books which I first read about four or five years ago. I thought that I would start with "The War of Wars", by Robert Harvey, a one-volume chronicle of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. It is subtitled "The Epic Struggle Between Britain and France 1789-1815".

The author details the main episodes which characterized the French Revolution. He documents some of the lunacy and cruelty which took place, as well as the ideals, and the undoubtedly good and progressive consequences of the upheaval. Like many people, I find myself  torn between admiration of the general ideological thrust of the Revolution. and revulsion at the often hysterical, absurd and brutal methods.

Of course, much of the story revolves around the person of Napoleon Bonaparte. Yes, he cherished some lofty ideals, but he was also distinctly opportunistic and cynical. Circumstances such as those which prevailed in the late nineteenth century generally allow people such as he to flourish. Those who are adept at manipulating, but also inspiring, the masses.

The book covers the early stages of the Revolutionary Wars. It is sometimes forgotten just how intense those campaigns were. The British involvement is highlighted, as is the often less than united front presented by the "Allies".

One of the most notable aspects of "The War Of Wars" is Harvey's views of Napoleon. They contrast somewhat with those of some observers, who tend to place Bonaparte on a pedestal, and portray him as some kind of demi-god.

Harvey puts many of Napoleon's successes into perspective, not slavishly ascribing every victory to his consummate brilliance, but pointing out where the contribution of others was decisive or instrumental, and those occasions where he succeeded more by accident than design. There is an interesting account of his rise to prominence, and how it was partly triggered by luck and circumstances.

Sensibly, in view of the scope of the events being tackled, the book is divided into "bite-size" sections, each covering a short phase of the conflicts. The naval campaigns are covered in some depth, not always a feature of works about the Napoleonic epoch. There is a "mini-biography" of Horatio Nelson, and his rise to seniority. He does not necessarily come across as a particularly appealing character. The passages about the sea battles also bring to light the struggles of the day concerning meritocracy and the often flawed mechanisms of promotion and command.

Another uncomfortable truth to emerge is that Britain associated with, and endorsed, some rather unsavoury and disreputable people in those times; deeply reactionary monarchs, for example. Was it still early days in British politics, a few decades before genuine democracy and social reform became durable and entrenched?  Napoleon was no angel, but London attached itself a little too assiduously to people who resented and resisted social progress.

In addition, this book serves to re-balance some common perceptions about the extent of Britain's involvement in the conflicts against France. It is often popularly assumed that Britain did little apart from writing cheques to subsidize its continental allies, and dominating the seas in order to protect its far-flung imperial possessions and its trade. However, the truth is that Britain was constantly active in some shape or form, even if many of the projects either ended in failure or were aborted.

Regarding the events of 1799, the version here seems to imply that Napoleon was in the right place at the right time, cultivated the right friendships, and possessed fewer scruples than the others who might have taken power. He was prepared to employ brute force and intimidation, as well as possessing the necessary brand of ruthlessness and ambition.

We are given some balanced and colourful assessments of the key figures, such as Pitt, Wellington and countless lesser participants in the drama. Harvey does not hesitate to illustrate and point out people's failings as well as their assets and virtues.

Some interesting tangents are dealt with, including the activities in Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as Napoleon's repeated efforts to stir up trouble for the British in India and elsewhere. Also, the Peninsular Wars in Spain and Portugal, and their impact on the broader picture, are given their rightful prominence.

The telling here also tends to jar with the notion that Napoleon was an all-conquering genius, and that his decline or stagnation only commenced with the invasion of Russia. Harvey correctly observes that the other European powers learned valuable lessons from their earlier chastening defeats at the hands of France. They reformed their military command structures and revised their tactical doctrines. As early as 1807, in the descriptions of the battles, one can sense that the "coalition" forces are proving to be sterner and more flexible opposition.

In his conclusions, the author espouses some views which people might find contentious, but he argues persuasively and cogently, for example in his assessment of Napoleon's merits as a military commander, diplomat and politician. He also makes some probing observations about how the Revolution and Napoleon affected France and the wider continent of Europe, and also how Napoleon's need to sustain his power base and position, coupled with his arrogance, ensured that further conflict, rather than peace, would be seen.

Needless to say, because of its scope, this book cannot hope to cover the various individual topics and theatres of war in the same comprehensive detail which would be seen in more specialized volumes, but it is a worthy and lively effort at explaining this momentous and turbulent period, the course and outcome of which continue to divide opinion and prompt vigorous debate to this day.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Five Leaves Left - Nick Drake (1969) - album review

The body of work released by Nick Drake during his lifetime, consisting of three studio albums, is intriguing for so many reasons, not least in that each record has its own distinctive character .  In view of these differences, it is a little awkward to single out "favourites" as such, but I will admit that Five Leaves Left, his 1969 debut release, is the one which I return to most frequently.

There is a stripped down tenor to much of the album, with pleasant and tasteful instrumental and melodic flourishes. It possesses a deceptive depth, whilst also retaining an earthy and uncomplicated quality . The opening number, "Time Has Told Me"  has a simplicity of melody, and lyrical sentiments which are profound but universal, a hallmark of the artist's work. Richard Thompson supplies some nice embellishments on electric guitar.

Drake's voice is to me very natural and comforting, if unusual. Expressive if not exactly mournful, sturdily fragile, and well suited to this genre of music, to the nature of the material being performed. The essence of his acoustic guitar technique is very well captured throughout the record. .

"River Man" is a highly evocative and haunting piece, and the singer's voice is used to good effect to accentuate these traits, almost as a separate instrument in itself. This is one of those tracks which employs strings, and they are judiciously used, although they are a feature of the Drake palette which, I find, occasionally divides opinion in some minds.

"Three Hours" is next, and is another instance of different instruments being utilized to add subtle texture;in this case the double bass and the congas.  Drake's guitar style is nicely showcased on this number, too.  This song is quite lengthy, clocking in at over six minutes, but that is no bad thing. More of a genuine mood piece than what surrounds it?

"Way to Blue" adds some variety, the intense strings evoking a "baroque pop" ambience. People who approach Nick Drake's music anew are often surprised to find things like this in his repertoire, having been led to expect more traditional "singer-songwriter" fare.

"Day Is Done" is the shortest item on the listing, in terms of duration, but for me it is the most impactful and emotionally resonant song on the whole record. More delicate guitar is here, and the tune is richly melodic . A day as a metaphor for life as a whole, or an examination of life as a ongoing cycle?

I am not sure whether "Thoughts of Mary Jane" is about what we are led to expect it to be by the title. I guess that one's interpretation of lyrics can be stretched to accommodate anything. In any event, the recorder part (?) is a clever and enticing addition, and the lyrics are suitably enigmatic and poetic, and the overall effect is quite ethereal.

"Man In A Shed" is on the surface an odd song, whimsical even. I find it amusing, although on closer inspection its themes are not altogether different from the other songs featured here. The sprightly and dextrous piano playing adds much to the mixture, and the melody swings rather nicely.

"Fruit Tree" is for many listeners perhaps the quintessential Nick Drake song, both sonically, and lyrically. The poignancy of the melody and the imagery contained in the words complement each other beautifully. "Saturday Sun" is the perfect closer to the set. The vibraphone could have been incongruous, but in practice it is absolutely ideal. An inspired addition, in keeping with the apparent trend on this album for instruments to be selected on a "horses for courses" basis, according to how they could convey or augment a mood or an atmosphere.

In many places this LP is low-key in tone, almost apologetic, but that is a large part of its charm and quality.  It pleads with the listener to pay attention to the lyrics. When taken on these terms, it is a cerebral, exploratory experience. The subsequent Nick Drake albums are more experimental and even more diverse, but they do not quite embody his vision with the clarity which is found on Five Leaves Left.

Sunday, 2 August 2015

Island - Aldous Huxley - book review

I recently read Aldous Huxley's 1962 novel Island, which is often seen as the utopian counterpart to Brave New World. 

This was the first time that I had read any of Huxley's work seriously. I chose Island because the philosophies which seemed to underpin it appealed to me;it is a "novel of ideas", and the ideas propounded here increasingly accord with my own inclinations.

In short, the plot revolves around an English journalist, Will Farnaby, who is shipwrecked on the island of Pala. He is working on behalf of an oil baron. Farnaby is exposed to the way of life on Pala, all of this against the backdrop of negotiations over oil concessions in the region, and with the spectre of invasion by an adjacent, less enlightened, island looming.

Pala is a community which seeks to achieve a fusion of the most enlightened ideas from both Europe and the Orient (the best of both worlds?), standing in contrast to the relentless advance of industrialization, consumerism, tyranny and mass communication in the outside world.

Despite my admiration for the ideals and values which the Palanese espouse, one is left with a feeling of regret and sadness early on in the piece, because of the inevitability of this utopia being trampled on by darker forces, which are intent on bringing the island in line with the misery and injustice being inflicted elsewhere.

To me, there was a real poignancy in reading this story, knowing that noble projects such as that in Pala will find themselves crushed, and dreary and oppressive conformity will be (forcibly) imposed. I say this even allowing for the customary charge that such utopian thinking is naive and "impractical". The feeling of helplessness and resignation is acute . Perhaps the world needs a new "age of enlightenment" - although that would probably be crushed, too....

I had expected Island to contain some criticism of organised Western religion, but was surprised at the vehemence of that criticism. There is much emphasis on Eastern philosophy in the Pala mix. The concepts of "oneness", awareness, mindfulness and so forth are a constant theme here.  

There is I think a case for saying that Huxley was slightly ahead of his time in tackling matters like globalization, ecology and corporatism in such a way. He also makes some prescient observations about the fate of the ex-colonies in the developing world. The Palanese attitude to science and technology is also distinctive - seeking to make it work for the benefit of human freedom and happiness, rather than allowing people to become its prisoners.

A recurring message which I absorbed from this novel was the manner in which fear and insecurity are the main tools by which malign and repressive forces are introduced and embedded in society. Exploiting weaknesses and vices as opposed to harnessing virtues. Cynical, but regrettably highly effective.

Some of the more intriguing aspects of the Palanese vision are the social policies, which differ radically from those seen in the West, especially those concerning population, birth control and the family unit. Considerable space is also allocated to the educational practices and medical procedures designed to minimize and diminish tyrannical and autocratic tendencies in the citizens.

The Will Farnaby character was a little enigmatic to me, although I found his occasionally cynical and sarcastic comments quite endearing. These remarks sometimes made it tricky to discern his true attitudes to what he was absorbing and observing as he spent time in Pala.

As a novel, Island is awkward to appraise, in the conventional sense, but the expounding of ideas is most stimulating. There was less "action" in the narrative than I had anticipated, with the majority of the text taken up by Farnaby's discussions with various Palanese people about how things worked on the island. The geo-political manoeuvrings were more of a backdrop than a centerpiece for the most part. The ending is predictably downbeat and sobering.

As a "novel of ideas", this book is well worth a read.