Saturday, 31 October 2015


Well, Halloween has come around again, and it seems to be a much bigger thing these days here in England, no doubt because the bean-counters in the corporate world have woken up to the fact that it is an easy way to separate people from their hard-earned money.

This wasn't always the case, at least on this side of the Atlantic. When I was growing up, Halloween was an established part of the calendar, but there was little of the hysteria, peer pressure and general media saturation coverage which we are bombarded with nowadays. The shops were certainly not overflowing with Halloween-related "merchandise". Or maybe I lived a sheltered existence, and the "trick or treat" phenomenon was widely established in these parts, and I was blissfully oblivious to it all?

I vaguely remember going to Halloween "parties" as a youngster, but I cannot recall exactly what went on at these events. We may even have played various traditional Halloween games, I'm not entirely sure.  I may even have donned a scary mask or two at various points, I don't know. It all felt like going through the motions....

To what do we attribute the greater seriousness and intensity with which people appear to approach Halloween these days?  Could it be that Halloween represents an oasis of tradition and simplicity in our overly complicated society? I was raised in an organic and analog world, so things like Halloween must have seemed like less of a big deal. We had so many other things to entertain and divert us.

From the vantage point of 2015, I reckon I missed out on a lot of fun.  Even the less "sophisticated" Halloween festivities which my generation enjoyed failed to realize their full potential.  Oh, to have those years all over again...

Friday, 30 October 2015

The Wayne's World Movies

There will doubtless be some media coverage in the next few days about the fortieth anniversary of the original release of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody". Included will probably be reference to the song's second lease of life following its inclusion in a memorable scene in the first "Wayne's World" movie. I recently watched both of the "Wayne's World" films, back-to-back, and found them highly enjoyable.

The thing which stands out for me is the fast pace of the first picture in particular, and the amount of information, particularly the pop-culture references and often obscure jokes. For this reason, the movies bear repeated viewings, so that anything which was missed can be swept up and absorbed. There is a lot going on....

The movies both celebrate and satirize modern media culture, and poke fun at consumerism. One thing which is curious about these films is that by the time they appeared in the early 1990s much of the music and ethos which they seek to venerate was being deemed passe. However, its celebration of the wonder and the occasional absurdity of the "classic rock" genre is touching - the guitar shop scenes epitomize this almost naive enthusiasm, as does the "homage" paid to Alice Cooper and Aerosmith.

Inter-generational teasing forms part of the comedy, as does sending up what Wayne and Garth would perceive to be the dullness and conformity of the corporate world. To describe it as "the kids against everybody else" would be to over-simplify it, but the sub-text is definitely there.

I don't think that Mike Myers has received sufficient credit for his acting performance as Wayne.  He is dynamic but subtle, and he also displays his talent for physical comedy. My interpretation is that Dana Carvey intentionally plays Garth in an "exaggerated" way, so as to accentuate the character's social awkwardness and geekiness.

The sub-plots greatly enrich both of the films. The morose musings of the guy who runs the diner, Wayne's ex-girlfriend Stacey, and in "Wayne's World 2" Garth's romantic liaison with Kim Basinger. The latter was one of the seemingly unlikely but ultimately inspired castings in the movies, two others being Rob Lowe and Christopher Walken, not to mention the cameo by Charlton Heston in the second picture.

I find the plot of the first film to be somewhat unoriginal - evil businessmen and media moguls exploit and ruin innocent and vibrant youth culture - but it is so well executed and entertaining that this hardly matters.

In some ways I prefer "Wayne's World 2" to its predecessor. The plot revolving around a rock festival is more interesting. The writing is sharper, the musical content is cooler (Bad Company, Edgar Winter Group, Golden Earring etc.) and it feels more like a real story. In addition, the sequel is imbued with instant validity by virtue of the appearance by Harry Shearer of Spinal Tap fame!

There are some stellar and engaging scenes in the second movie - the launderette encounter between Garth and Kim Basinger, the martial-arts-film-spoof involving Wayne and Cassandra's father, and of course the great "Village People" parody.

My main gripe would be that a similar "alternative endings" formula was employed in both films. However, both remain fine, feel-good entertainment.

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Eldorado - Electric Light Orchestra - album review

They may not be too fashionable, but I retain a fondness and respect for the music of the Electric Light Orchestra. My brother got into them long before I fully appreciated their merits. Jeff Lynne's pop craftsmanship and gift for melody were the band's major assets. Refreshingly ELO did not set out to change the world;they simply aimed to make good music.

In declaring my liking for ELO's work, I would stress that my tastes have gravitated more and more to their earlier records, in the main the period ending around 1976/77. This phase of the group's career combines some progressive and experimental elements with impeccable pop/rock influences, most conspicuously The Beatles.

Prominent amongst the early releases is 1974's Eldorado. A concept album, it seemingly explores the dreamlike visions of a person striving to flee his dull existence. It was also their most lush and "polished" album up to that point, from a production and sound standpoint. It is possible to contend that other ELO albums contain stronger individual songs, but few hang together like Eldorado does. 

As befits any self-respecting concept album, this record is bookended by an overture/prologue and an epilogue/reprise/finale. The first proper song is "Can't Get It Out Of My Head". To coin a phrase, this one is more deceptive than it sounds, and which in its ability to implant itself in the psyche more than lives up to its title. It contains a few evocative lines, and was a hit single of some magnitude in the USA.

"Boy Blue" appears to relate a tale of a conquering hero returning to his hometown. There are some mildly interesting lyrics and some pleasant instrumental flourishes, but somehow this song fails to genuinely grab me or animate my imagination.

"Laredo Tornado" is a different matter. There is plenty to hold the interest, including sections which almost verge on the funky (not a word commonly associated with this band!). Jeff Lynne's facility for tunefulness is on display, and effective use is made of electric piano and what sounds like a clavinet. The strings on this track have real personality, presumably because they were performed by the band members rather than the session "orchestra".

The next number, "Poorboy (The Greenwood)" may have been intended as a "cousin" of "Boy Blue". It sounds vaguely similar , but has greater dynamism. The song's "protagonist" evidently sees himself as a Robin Hood type figure. The backing track features the familiar piano-bass-drums set-up which would proliferate on ELO records, although the drums sound sinuous and agile.  The group's drum sound would only become ponderous and excessive a bit later on.

With its blatantly Beatlesque leanings, "Mister Kingdom" is one of the LP's high points. The words directly address the "concept". The chorus is quite stirring, and the orchestration remains just the right side of ostentatious.

"Painted Lady" is somewhat unusual for Electric Light Orchestra, with its almost bluesy or jazzy flavour. Not a very imaginative song for me, and it does feel a little out of place among the more abstract and ethereal excursions which predominate on Eldorado.

A curious piece on more than one level, "Illusions in G Major" clearly owes a lot to Jeff Lynne's rock n roll heritage.  It also reminds me of one or two songs which appeared towards the end of the life of The Move. The lyrics are intriguing, and are possibly the most exotic or surreal on the record.

The title track features a simple but enticing melody in the verses, albeit offset by a dose of bombast in the choruses. I imagine that in studying the lyrics to these songs, many people will allow themselves a knowing smile, having recognized visions and dreams similar to those in their own supernatural wanderings.

So, one or two tracks are functional, but they function as part of the greater whole. An intriguing and entertaining journey, and a brave attempt at doing something different. Not a masterpiece by any means, but it is still one of ELO's most noteworthy achievements, and also serves as a healthy slice of escapism...

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

The Rolling Stones - Exile On Main St. - album review

The apotheosis of the Rolling Stones' 1968-1972 purple patch, Exile On Main St., released in 1972, is for many the ultimate rock n roll album of its type, encompassing most of the styles which had inspired the group, and exuding an inimitable swagger and gritty authenticity.

This may or may not have been the musical blend which the Stones had always coveted, and whether it was arrived at consciously is open to question. I prefer to believe that the circumstances under which it was recorded, added to a myriad of other personal and musical factors, combined to create this compelling and effervescent vibe. Above all, they were not trying too hard, but just playing music and seeing where things took them.

People have often asserted that this is "Keith's" album, citing the evidence of his musical and "spiritual" footprint throughout the record. It is true that the mood and the direction bear the hallmarks of Keith, but I would argue that Mick Jagger and the supporting cast all contribute handsomely towards realizing the intoxicating mix. The fragmented nature of the sessions, together with the fact that the usual, conventional Stones unit did not play together on all the tunes, also played a role.

Exile On Main St. commences with as stark a statement of intent as could be imagined, in the form of the tracks "Rocks Off" and "Rip This Joint". Both songs exemplify the spirit behind the project, and introduce us to the murky mix and endearingly "ragged" sound which permeate so much of the record.

The running order is astutely arranged in order to illustrate the full diversity of roots genres on display - blues, soul, country and so forth. The album also benefits from having few "famous" numbers or hit singles on it. It is an album in the true sense, and not a collection of catchy tunes supported by filler. Despite the variety of styles which we hear, there is also a uniformity of "groove", difficult to describe in words, which is one of the keys to the album's greatness.

The impression of spontaneity which emerges is heightened by the naturalness of the singing and vocal harmonies on many numbers. "Sweet Virginia" is a good exemplar of this trend, a song which one could envisage being sung around a camp-fire....

Several other ingredients embellish the picture. Rarely has the undemonstrative, laconic brilliance of Charlie Watts' drumming been more clearly captured, and Mick Taylor has ample opportunity to exhibit his finesse and versatility on guitar.

Some of the songs on "Exile" are among the most substantial and emotionally gripping in the Stones' catalogue, but these songs do not loom that largely in the wider public consciousness. I am thinking of the likes of "Let It Loose", "Soul Survivor" and "Shine A Light".  "Soul Survivor" is searing and defiant, and appropriately closes out what was the band's most fertile phase, "Let It Loose" a haunting ballad which musically dwarfs other such Stones efforts.

It is possibly true that, individually, some of the lesser songs on this LP are not as strong as their counterparts elsewhere in the Stones' oeuvre. However, this misses the point. The various curios and minor items fit perfectly into the framework of "Exile" (a double album when issued on vinyl)  and thereby endow it with its distinctive character. 

"Loving Cup" has always been a favourite of mine; I adore the melody as well as Keith's heartfelt harmonies. Everybody I suspect has their own favourite tunes from this record, and the fact that opinion is divided on many of them is a strength rather than a weakness.

Of the track listing, "Tumbling Dice" is almost certainly the best-known. Here, it is just another song, and somehow for those who were familiar with it before hearing all of the album, it almost seems out of place, guilty of having puts it head above the parapet and stood out from the crowd....

The outward confidence and unity depicted by Exile On Main St. could be said to be illusory, as the Stones were never to scale these heights again. Circumstances helped create the chemistry which triumphed here, but it could not last. Like so many albums whose reputation and appeal endures, it was met with mixed reviews when it first came out. If anybody asks me these days what the Rolling Stones were, and still are, all about, I would recommend that they listen to this captivating and joyous album.

Saturday, 24 October 2015

News Of The World - Queen - album review

This record, released in 1977, marked a transitional phase for Queen, the end of their "classic" period, and the dawn of a more uncertain time.

Less time was taken recording this album than had been occupied making some previous ones, and the finished product had less polish, and more grit, than people had become accustomed to. Some, but not all, of the songs exhibited a more stripped down feel.

News Of The World also saw Roger Taylor and John Deacon making further inroads into the songwriting dominance hitherto exerted by Freddie Mercury and Brian May. This factor affected the content of the album. Stylistic unity was diluted, but horizons were broadened.

The influence of punk on this record, in purely musical terms, is debatable. However, the energy and spontaneity possibly owe something, even subconsciously, to the shifts in the cultural climate. The album's flavour may simply have been born of a desire, unconnected with new movements, to go in a less complicated or grandiose direction.

Of course, by far the best known songs on the record are "We Will Rock You" and "We Are The Champions", opening the running order and tending to obscure and overshadow much of what follows. Like so many popular songs, these two anthemic tracks enjoy a prominence far out of proportion to their artistic merit.

One of the highlights for me is "All Dead, All Dead", a typically introspective and ethereal Brian May composition. It has a pleasing melody and an understated, enigmatic character. One of the most unjustly overlooked Queen album tracks, in my humble opinion.

"My Melancholy Blues" has received greater recognition, as one of Freddie Mercury's most likeable and dextrous piano ballads. The composer's vocal and piano talents are well projected here, and it was an inspired choice as the closing track.

So where on the record do we encounter the new rougher, leaner Queen? Well "Sheer Heart Attack" is an obvious place to look. Frantic and relentless, with lyrics which touch on sentiments being vented by the younger bands emerging at the time. Lacking the finesse which characterizes many Queen tracks, critics might charge that this was a clumsy attempt to appear "hip" and "relevant". I would disagree with such assertions, as this was no great departure for Roger Taylor, sonically or lyrically. "Fight From The Inside" covers similarly urgent and abrasive terrain.

"Get Down, Make Love" is an unusual track, and one which is in keeping with the disorientating nature of some of this record. It is difficult to know what the melodic or musical origins of this song were, and its structure and rhythmic patterns anticipate other Freddie songs such as "Bicycle Race".

The simple and immediate "Sleeping On The Sidewalk" is also in accord with the overall thrust of News Of The World. It was by all accounts recorded rapidly, and it benefits from the resulting lack of artifice. A chance to hear some bluesy Brian May guitar work, which was a rarity on Queen records. The lyrics' ambivalence about fame and fortune, and the vagaries of the music business, were a recurring theme in the band's catalogue.

Ironically it was John Deacon who contributed one of the most "Queen-like" items on the LP, "Spread Your Wings". In fairness, this may have something to do with the arrangement with which the song was furnished. John also supplies "Who Needs You", a composition more in line with his "pop" reputation.

The other number in the patented Queen mould is Brian May's "It's Late", but even here we discern less emphasis on the perfectionism and layered approach of earlier times. The earthy guitars and the muscular rhythm section are testimony to this. As elsewhere on the set, Freddie's full vocal range is subordinated to a more raspy, throaty sound. That said, the song has a strong and affecting melodic appeal.

Despite new areas being explored, even casual observers would be able to identify this as Queen. In contrast to its predecessor, A Day At The Races, this record at least shows the band evolving. It may not be their best achievement, but the "attitude" and sporadic directness makes it an intriguing and enjoyable listen. It still sounds fresh, partly because it exudes some belief and conviction.

In its eclecticism and nods to "modernity", this record also set the group on the path towards what would start to crystallize on 1980's The Game. It was an uneven and patchy road, but the modern Queen sound began to emerge here.

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

A Hard Day's Night - The Beatles - film review

A Hard Day's Night, released in 1964, was the Beatles' first movie, and by common consent their best.

The reasons why this picture succeeds where other Beatles celluloid efforts didn't are quite simple. They didn't try too hard, the plot was kept simple, and minds were not cluttered by grandiose visions or pretensions. The film is clothed in an "arty" veneer, largely due to the fact that it was made in crisp, evocative black and white. The pace is fast and breezy, brimming with the self-confidence of its time. And of course the music is wonderful!

The movie revolves around a journey made by the Fab Four to appear on a television show, and the associated activities of Paul's "grandfather", played by Wilfrid Brambell. In amongst all this there are musical set-pieces.

The opening title sequences set the tone with their slick editing, preparing us for the impending "journey". The scenes on the train are some of the best remembered, including the encounter with the man in the bowler hat (played by Richard Vernon). Here one of the main themes of the film is seen, namely the lads coming into contact with people and situations outside their normal milieu, and their cheeky irreverence with regard to authority figures and social class. The Beatles' humour helps to smooth the edges.

Of the Fab Four, Ringo Starr arguably displayed the greatest aptitude for acting and the comedic requirements of the film. John Lennon's wit and impishness carried him through. A few people have made disparaging remarks about Paul McCartney's acting here, but I don't think he fares too badly. Describing the band as "the new Marx Brothers" and Ringo as "the new Charlie Chaplin" was hyperbole, but there is no doubt that they exhibited a naturalness on screen, in this movie at least, and this contributed to an air of informality which is most endearing.

There is some attempt to depict the Beatles' routine, including their hectic schedule and the demands of the fans and fame. Occasionally this feels artificial, but generally their charm wins the day. The "non-acting" segments are more convincing, almost having a documentary-like flavour. The implication of some scenes I think is that the Beatles were isolated and suffocated by their fame, whilst others are having enormous fun on their coat-tails.

The various small "sketches" and vignettes help to give A Hard Day's Night a distinctive quality. The "shaving" scene involving George Harrison and John Junkin, with John Lennon clowning around in the bath, springs to mind. Odd surreal touches like these lift the picture out of the ordinary, and hold the interest.

The "Ringo on the run" scenes have been justly acclaimed, both for the acting and the cinematography. Was the moral here that "normal life" is just as lonely and complex as life in the spotlight of millions?  All existence has its disappointments, its downsides and its dark sides.

Some of the social commentary is quite subtle, most notably when the guys meet "media types", who represent a transitional stage between the old school of the fifties and the Swinging Sixties generation. The film gently pokes fun at some of the cliches and absurdities of the showbusiness crowd

Brambell, Junkin and others add a solidity and a substance to the acting. Victor Spinetti delivers a nice comedic stint as the morose director/producer at the television studios. Spinetti's "hairy" sweater is also the sartorial high point of the film!

Although the story drifts a fraction towards the end, this is still a charming document of a period in time, as well as fine entertainment.

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Sticky Fingers - The Rolling Stones - album review

Sticky Fingers, released by the Rolling Stones in 1971, is deserving of its place in the company of the other great studio albums issued by the group between 1968 and 1972. Of the albums from that era Sticky Fingers has the lowest emotional pull for me, even though it contains some truly great tracks, and it has also stood the test of time well.

The reason why it doesn't chime as richly as the others is that it is rather "neat and tidy". It is in fact a stylistically diverse record, but is structured in such a way that it feels very orderly. So it serves more as a collection of songs rather than an overall musical or philosophical statement. Saying that it lacks the social relevance of Beggars Banquet and Let It Bleed is not wholly fair. One could argue that Sticky Fingers reflects the jaded resignation and stagnation of the early Seventies. Whilst in the late Sixties people were seeking to change the world, or to vent their anger, by 1971 the trend was towards looking inwards or numbing the pain.

The opening number on the LP, "Brown Sugar", is one of the band's signature tunes, although I have heard it so often that its impact has become progressively dulled, and there is a danger that it can begin to feel like a self-parody or "Stones-by-numbers". Viewed objectively, it is a musical tour-de-force, although the lyrics are dated to put it kindly, regardless of how much tongue might have been embedded in the collective cheek of the musicians. Keith Richards' riffs and Charlie Watts' drumming are still worth hearing, no matter how much familiarity has eaten away at the song's freshness.

This was the first Stones studio album to feature Mick Taylor throughout as a full member, and it is noticeable how his presence and abilities augment the group's palette. "Sway" is one instance of this, his guitar prowess adding much subtlety and melodic texture, as it does on other numbers.

"Wild Horses" is one of the band's most enduring and heartfelt ballads, benefiting from one of Mick Jagger's most impressive and underrated vocals. Keith's electric guitar flourishes are very evocative and significantly enhance the mood of the piece.

I find "Can't You Hear Me Knocking" to be quintessential early Seventies Stones, at least in its early stages. The angry rhythm, the lyrical subject matter, the murky vocal harmonies in the chorus, nicely buried slightly in the mix. The closing instrumental section is slightly untypical of the Stones, but is beautifully executed, with significant contributions from Bobby Keys and Mick Taylor. These passages have a vaguely Latin feel, and are in keeping with the laid-back, "decadent" feel of much of the record.

"You Gotta Move" in some respects harks back to the stylistic territory covered by Beggars Banquet and Let It Bleed, and it is another showcase for the talents of Mick Taylor.  The song "Bitch" is so wonderfully taut, urgent and airless that it can almost pass by unnoticed. It has some nicely ragged vocal harmonies and effective brass parts.

The influence of the Stax sound is clearly evident on "I Got The Blues", most conspicuously in its horn arrangement and the organ playing of Billy Preston.  Another fine Jagger vocal here, and although overall the song is relatively "minor", it is just too good to be deemed filler.

"Sister Morphine", co-written by Mick and Keith with Marianne Faithfull, is a haunting creation, and it also sounds like a hangover from the material of the late Sixties, which is not surprising when one realizes that this version was recorded during the Let It Bleed sessions. The slide playing of Ry Cooder is a key element of the song's power. Of course the subject of the words was a theme which ran through Sticky Fingers, in one form or another...

The penultimate track on the album, "Dead Flowers", is one which I suspect divides opinion. One of the band's first overt excursions into the world of country-rock. It may be tongue-in-cheek lyrically, and to some degree musically,although not without its merits. The chorus harmonies are quite stirring, and the song helps to lighten the mood amidst the weightier and more earnest material which surrounds it.

"Moonlight Mile" deserves its reputation as one of the most effective album-closers in rock music. Atmospherically and spiritually it complements the rest of the record, and it arguably encapsulates where the wider music scene was in 1971. Mick's vocal shows some versatility and range, and strengthens the view that this album is one of those which displays his voice at its strongest and most flexible. Strings are employed judiciously, and other instrumental touches accentuate the tone and ambience of the song.

So in summary it takes a little work to absorb and appreciate the strengths of Sticky Fingers. It can be seen as a summation and a rounding up, or polishing, of what had gone immediately before. As an entity in itself it may be perceived as less iconic and "important" than the other classic Stones releases of the period, but on closer examination it is as substantial as any of them, and arguably contains less in the way of lightweight material.

The music is still earthy and authentic, but also focussed and self-assured. A very fine album.

Saturday, 10 October 2015

The Great Escape (1963) - movie review

Some time ago I wrote a blog post about the classic 1963 movie The Great Escape. Recently I watched the film again, and here are some more random thoughts about it.

One of the aspects of the film which intrigues me is the way in which relations between the camp authorities and the prisoners are portrayed. If not exactly warm or amicable, then there was at least some vague semblance of understanding, as fellow flyers perhaps?

The antipathy between the Luftwaffe officials running the camp and the Gestapo and SS is another significant sub-plot. This is displayed most clearly in the scene where "Big X" is first brought to the camp . One gets the impression that von Luger saw the Gestapo and the SS as enemies as much as he did the Allies. How closely all this was representative of the true historical picture remains open to discussion of course.

To most people The Great Escape is remembered for its action and adventure elements. However, it is often forgotten how much attention is devoted to moral issues and personal relationships. It's not exactly Ingmar Bergman, but the characters are not quite as one-dimensional as the film's reputation might imply.

Virgil Hilts, as played by Steve McQueen, is a rounded creation, and was seemingly a composite of several real-life characters. Truculent and abrasive, mostly towards his adversaries, but also capable of practicality and circumspection. His partnership with Ives is one of the more touching tangents in the movie. A similar scenario develops between Hendley (James Garner) and Blythe (Donald Pleasence). Contrasts in cultures and temperaments, but genuine warmth and affinity.

Mention of Hilts and Hendley leads us on to one of the perennially contentious topics surrounding The Great Escape, namely the notion that the American characters reap a disproportionate slice of the "glory". In my opinion this is a simplistic way of seeing matters. Yes, Steve McQueen participates in the iconic motorcycle sequences. However, at the same time it must be pointed out that the Americans come across as more realistic and measured in their approach to the proposed escape. Hilts, for example, initially questions the sanity of Bartlett's outlandish designs.

In contrast to their colleagues, the British seem to be placing too much emphasis on "duty", and are too sure of themselves, failing to take account of some sentiment and variables. There is a similar, if more acute, dynamic in The Bridge On The River Kwai, namely the tension between William Holden and his British colleagues.

As the character comes across in the film, Big X (as played by Richard Attenborough) is easy to admire and respect. He is the dynamic driving force and leader which all complex and fraught enterprises need. In Attenborough's portrayal he is single-minded, but watching the film unfold I wonder whether some of his subordinates are excessively deferential and receptive to his authority. Even Ramsey, who is nominally Big X's superior in the camp pecking order, seems powerless to intervene.

I know that it is churlish to nit-pick about the plausibility of aspects of the plot, but I'm going to do it anyway. The depiction of the planning stages for the escape makes one wonder how the Germans would not have uncovered or stumbled upon the preparations earlier than they did (they eventually found one of the tunnels). In all honesty, this small caveat does not detract from the quality of the film or its value as entertainment. After all this is a movie, not a documentary. Compromises such as this, and the compressing of timescales, were made to render the picture palatable and digestible for cinema-goers. The apparent ease with which Werner was able to procure a suitable camera for the prisoners is an example of this.

No minor gripes can obscure our admiration for the resourcefulness and courage required to get the escape bid organized in the first place, and co-ordinate the elaborate precautions. In spite of the occasional dissenting voice, there is a unity of purpose. The Germans scored an own goal by placing many officers together, with their obligations, and their wide range of technical expertise and personal attributes.

There are some "technical" matters which contribute to the flavour of The Great Escape. The tunneling scenes are beautifully shot, the set designs amply conveying the claustrophobia, the danger and the arduous nature of the work. The lighting in the tunnels is also beautifully executed and designed.

The sunlight in many of the "exterior" scenes has an almost baleful quality to it. This might have something to do with the film stock used, I'm not sure, and might therefore have been unintentional. Either way, it adds in a curious way to the atmosphere.

One of the more affecting relationships in the movie is that between Hendley and Werner, the camp guard. Werner's timid, vulnerable countenance belies a few stereotypes. These scenes almost leave one with a twinge of ambiguity, as the guard is manipulated and used by Hendley.

A criticism which I think is valid is that of the Gestapo and SS characters in the film. Both in their appearance and in their dialogue they feel like caricatures, and it is one of the few areas where a slight lack of finesse is discernible. Was it a rather clumsy attempt to introduce a clear contrast with the more moderate Luftwaffe personnel?

The pace and drama move up a notch with the "4th of July" festivities and the death of Ives. Elation and jollity turning to despair, but the grim resolve remained.

Does The Great Escape go on too long?  For the average 21st-century attention span maybe it does, but not to me. For a full appreciation of the intricacies and the twists, an above-average running time was imperative, and space is permitted for the various sub-texts to breathe.

Of the other acting performances, James Garner is assuredly, solidly impressive.  I have always liked him as an actor. Despite the often devious and underhand means which he employs, Hendley is a sympathetic character - compassionate, level-headed and strong, and Garner's persona is a major reason for this.

James Coburn's attempt at an Australian accent has attracted much comment down the years, but in his hands Sedgwick emerges as one of the most interesting figures in the group.  Despite his quirks, he displays more savvy than most in the aftermath of the escape.

The excitement and tension of the "post-escape" sequences is exacerbated by the contrast between the wide-open spaces of the German countryside and the confines of the camp. Life beyond the wire presented many perils, though. The escapees were running grievous risks, in wearing civilian clothing and carrying false identification papers, as is amply demonstrated in those sequences.

The Great Escape is not unremittingly gloomy, but neither is there much in the way of levity. The fate of those prisoners executed near the end reminds us that the realities could be very far removed from Boys' Own stuff, and also what this struggle was really about.

A thread which runs through the movie is that of Hilts' baseball glove and ball. It is unclear whether any special meaning was implied through this, but I suppose that the "thwack" of the ball hitting the wall of the cooler cell could be interpreted as a metaphor for defiance of the enemy, and/or a determination to carry on with established traditions. Also, a gesture of individualism, both directed at the enemy and against the world at large?

Saturday, 3 October 2015

On The Road - Jack Kerouac - book review

"On The Road", the classic 1957 novel by Jack Kerouac, had been residing on my bookshelves for some time, pleading to be read. To my shame, I have hardly read any "Beat" literature, and was therefore a little unsure what to expect.

In a nutshell, "On The Road" tells the story of Sal Paradise (the narrator, and based on Kerouac himself) and his friends as they embark on various journeys and trips across America. It is semi-autobiographical, and other characters are based on Kerouac's friends and associates. The tale is set primarily in the late 1940s.

To grasp the essence of this novel, it is necessary to understand the mindset of the colourful characters, in particular that of Dean Moriarty, Sal's friend and regular travelling companion. They habitually operate outside what would be considered social norms. The fact that their outlook still seems outlandish is perhaps a sad commentary on twenty-first century life. Are we still, deep down, so conformist?

The "Beat" concept is somewhat nebulous at the best of times, and must appear even more so with our modern modes of communication and discourse, and their tendency to polarize so many things. The lifestyles appear dissolute, but the joie-de-vivre of Dean and the others is enticing. Some of the behaviour detailed in "On The Road" must bemuse even self-proclaimed free spirits. The effect is perhaps more acute because these events are meant to have occurred not long after World War 2, in a period when we are told that most people were craving stability and security.

The fact that this book has a narrator is an aid to keeping track of the characters and their numerous trials, tribulations, revelations and relocations. One of the surprising things to newcomers is that this story is not one of a single journey or trip, but a series occurring over several years, with other events sandwiched in between.

Along the way, we meet a number of engaging and fascinating figures, and learn about their encounters with our "heroes". Many of these episodes are touching and poignant. Some are vignettes, others are more protracted and in-depth. The sadness and harshness of lives, but also the richness and vitality of our world and the human experience. The occasional craziness does not totally obscure the genuine pathos. What also emerges is an affinity for sub-cultures, for the marginalized and the downtrodden.

Whilst reading "On The Road", I was reminded that it would have been easier to pursue these adventures back in those days, when the world was not so weighed down by regulations and bureaucracy. The title "On The Road" does not just denote a journey, but a way of life, a world-view and an ongoing quest. The "unconventional" existence being led by these people was also a strikingly simple one. Straight society struggles to comprehend that it makes its own life complicated and burdensome.

The conduct of the circle becomes more exuberant and far-out once Dean Moriarty fully re-enters the fray. The prose grows more poetic and evocative, and the stream-of-consciousness a more frequent feature.

The outlook of some characters, such as Old Bull Lee, might surprise or confuse a few people. Explicit social commentary is offered only sparingly, and is not always about "obvious" topics. The reluctance to take the easy option is one of the most noticeable things about this novel.

It seemed that in this book, Kerouac acquired the knack of imbuing the mundane with drama and nobility, and of placing the everyday alongside the esoteric and the exotic. The "cameos", involving hitch-hikers and other people met along the routes, add charm and variety, and help to form the tapestry, as well as telling us more about the impulses driving the main players.

In amongst the euphoria and the exhilaration which the participants met on their travels, there were periods of disenchantment and despair, when "home", in its conventional sense, seemed the best place to be after all. In between the trips, acquaintances were renewed and the changes absorbed.

Personally, I could take or leave the lengthy passages extolling the virtues of various jazz musicians, and of the source and impact of their artistry, but I accept that they are important in forming an understanding the world of Dean, Sal and company.

Criminality raises its head more and more as the story progresses. They may have been testing the boundaries, but were they in reality flagrantly breaching them? A theme which gradually predominates is the decision of people to shun and ostracize Dean. Of course, Sal was not one of these. I identified with Sal more than I did with Dean, but Dean's story is admittedly more heart-rending, vibrant and eventful.

The chapters set in Mexico are the most stimulating, and in some respects the centrepiece of the whole story. Mexico as a metaphor for the promised land, what these people have been searching for? Needless to say, the ultimate outcome is rather ambiguous.

One of the lessons which I detected in the pages of "On The Road" is that however dismal and monotonous things may appear, there is always something good just around the corner, and there is plenty to relish and savour in the "here and now". Much of the problem is one of perception, and how we have been conditioned to think and approach our lives and the world around us. Life is a never-ending cycle...

This is a novel which it is possible to read quite quickly, as it has a flow to it, and does not compel the reader to take in every semi-colon and comma. Not quite what I was expecting, in all honesty, but equally I enjoyed "On The Road" more than I had anticipated.