Saturday, 31 December 2016

Le Mans (1971) - movie review

Some time ago, I wrote a blog post about Le Mans, the 1971 movie set around the famous 24-hour race in France, starring Steve McQueen.  Recently I dug out the DVD again to renew acquaintance with the film, and thought that I would share some of my observations.

It is probably fair to say that opinion on this movie has been mixed down the years. Many have pointed to the excellent racing scenes, but poured scorn on the plot and other aspects of the story. Personally I really like Le Mans, but it almost feels more like a documentary in places, and I can readily appreciate how many "laypeople" will find it pedestrian, dull even. Many things are underplayed, which is admirable from an artistic and authenticity standpoint, but people have perhaps become conditioned to expect a racing movie to be over-the-top and hysterical in tone.

The visuals are lovely, the sound impressive and Michel Legrand's music classy and atmospheric. These all help the film to capture the essence of the event and the times. The plot is hardly imaginative, but I feel that it is handled with restraint, by the standards of racing movies anyway. There is less melodrama, or pandering to the base instincts of the audience. Many of the sub-texts are implied rather than outlined explicitly, especially the emotional and "romantic" elements.

The realism of the racing sequences is difficult to dispute, as the footage was shot with real racing cars and drivers, much of it at the time of the 1970 Le Mans race. However, this does make some of the pitlane scenes seem a little "artificial" by comparison, if not excessively so. Another noticeable trait of the picture is the sparsity of the dialogue.  The narrative and the exposition are driven largely by the visuals and the words of the circuit commentators.

A thing which stands out for me in the film is ambiguity in the characters and their attitudes. The awkwardness of Michael Delaney, for example (well suited to McQueen's "underacting" here), an inscrutability which reminds me slightly of Pete Aron in John Frankenheimer's Grand Prix.  Not really cast in the comic-book image of racing drivers, who are not "meant" to be taciturn or reticent.

Of course the story and the characters are fictional, but I don't really blame the film-makers for distilling it down to "Porsche v Ferrari".  The "heartbeat" sequence before the start of the race strikes us now as hackneyed and even corny, but I guess that it may have been innovative and affecting in the early Seventies. The two main crash sequences are well done, evoking the violence and the energy involved.  The slow-motion reply of Delaney's accident has I think become quite iconic in its way.

Apart from McQueen, the cars are the stars, and few of the supporting actors make much of an impression. Ronald Leigh-Hunt is likeable though as the Gulf-Porsche team manager;authoritative but occasionally avuncular. Elga Andersen also has great screen presence as the racer's widow - those eyes!

In its tone and general aesthetic, Le Mans feels more like European art cinema than Hollywood.  We have the obligatory thrilling climax, but even here things are somewhat inconclusive, in keeping with the generally reflective and sober tenor of the movie.

I still think that, for all its faults, Le Mans is a fine document. Technically very good, and the fact that a mainstream audience would assert that as a movie it "happens" only fitfully frankly elevates it in my estimation.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Racers Apart - David Tremayne

Continuing my journey through some half-forgotten items in my motorsport-related library, I recently re-read Racers Apart, by David Tremayne, a little gem of a book which was first published back in 1991.

Essentially, Racers Apart is a series of portraits of, or articles about, selected motorsport figures. The author includes some figures from the world of land and water speed records, an area of special interest for him. As well as Tremayne's own thoughts, there are observations by colleagues and friends of the subjects.

The choice of people portrayed might seem almost random, but in fact it is just diverse, and the competitors examined are chosen mostly for their human qualities or their influence on the direction of the sport. Some of those featured are personal favourites of the author, such as Pedro Rodriguez, Tom Pryce,Roger Williamson and Gilles Villeneuve. This latter factor I feel induces a greater conviction, passion and authority in the writing.

It is by and large quite balanced and honest stuff, not ignoring the negatives and the frailties.  The interviews with subjects are quite penetrating, managing to extract some candid recollections and analysis. These are not bland portraits.

One thing which also stood out for me during this recent reading was the author's vehemence in lamenting some aspects of modern motor sport. It is sobering to think how, even twenty five years ago, contemporary journalists perceived the sport to be so shallow and soulless at the top level. The book's general tenor is to celebrate those who, in their approach and temperament, bucked those ever-encroaching trends.

Overall, this book seems to come more from the enthusiast than the scholar, and in places seems genuinely heartfelt. Like with much of the best motor sport writing, the human dimension transcends the nuts and bolts and the technology. Those who left a scant impression in the record books are placed alongside the legends and superstars - David Purley sits very comfortably in company with Ayrton Senna and Jackie Stewart.

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

James Hunt - The Biography - Gerald Donaldson

Many biographies of sportspeople are entertaining, informative or provocative, but few manage to stir the emotions.  One work which evokes the latter feelings is Gerald Donaldson's biography of the former Formula 1 world champion James Hunt, first published in 1994.

This is a comprehensive, vibrant but measured account of a remarkable life, and it is amusing, evocative and in places highly poignant.

I think where Donaldson's work scores especially highly is in its efforts to analyse what made this complex man tick, and how this was conditioned by his upbringing.  The factors which influenced James' singular approach to life are frankly impossible to pin down definitively, but here there is much fascinating and insightful speculation, much of it based on the opinions of the subject's friends and associates. He was often portrayed as a caricature, but such assessments grossly over-simplified the true picture.

The biography also delves into what motivated James during his racing career, and how those who worked with him sought to extract the best performance from him. These passages, putting the racing driver's psysche under the microscope, are part of what lifts this tome out of the ordinary, and one gains some idea of how extraneous "personal" matters affected results on the track, and vice-versa.

It has been asserted by many people that this is above all an honest, "warts and all" biography, and I am fully in accord with that judgement. For example, there is a look at how his personality was perceived to have changed after he became World Champion, and also how he tackled the demons which often plagued him following his retirement.

In a broader sense, the story of James Hunt is also evocative of an era in racing, and an epoch in social and cultural history.  A central theme is also how he was one of the first British sportspeople to be covered in a "sensationalist" way by the popular press. It is a salutary glimpse at the effects, and pitfalls, of fame, fortune and media attention.

The chapters which address his post-retirement endeavours and tribulations are, if anything, even more absorbing than those detailing his racing exploits. The chronicles of his later years are intensely moving in places.  The fully rounded picture is presented, in keeping with the compact, economical but authoritative tone of the book as a whole.

A picture emerges of a remarkable character. Flawed, like all of us, but possessing intelligence, drive and charm. I think that the popular fascination with James Hunt grows with time, because whilst seeming on the face of it a throwback, there were some contradictions which rendered him thoroughly modern. As I think the author implies, it is facile to speak in terms of a "split personality". The real essence of James Hunt remains elusive and impenetrable, but attempts to capture that essence are hugely enjoyable and stimulating.

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Vinyl album sales vs. digital downloads

A couple of days ago it was announced that, in the previous week, vinyl album sales (or the amount spent thereon) had exceeded digital downloads for the first time ever.

Whilst it might be fashionable to celebrate this news as a victory for the old "organic" ways, I take a more sober and pragmatic view. Nobody is more nostalgic than me, and the efforts to promote vinyl sales, and indeed the continuing prevalence of the CD, are to be applauded. I get the impression that the "vinyl movement" is preoccupied more with extolling the virtues of the old format(s) than denigrating the new technologies, but my own views on these issues have shifted in recent times.

The most common assertions of the vinyl enthusiasts seem to be that vinyl records have a distinctively vibrant sound which is absent from digital music, and that there is a real satisfaction in handling or collecting "tangible" objects as opposed to clicking on links on a computer screen or 'phone.

There may be a sound unique to vinyl, although it arguably requires keen and trained ears to fully discern it. I don't think that digital music is as "antiseptic" and sterile as some people like to make out. As to the second point, I was actually glad to leave behind the notion of handling "physical" records and CDs when I embraced digital downloads and streaming a few years ago.  The worry of leaving finger marks and blemishes on records began to become a thing of the past!

Oddly enough, whilst digital has become my favoured means of enjoying music, I don't feel the same way about books.  Kindle and e-books still very much take second place to "real" books in my affections. Don't ask me to explain the apparent contradiction; it is just the way I feel.

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

The Rough Guide to Cult Football

Continuing a journey through the neglected recesses of my book collection, I recently remembered The Rough Guide to Cult Football.  The edition which I have was published in 2003, but I understand that updated versions have been released since.

This book really is a delight, being breezy and humorous, and brimful of anecdotes and information, but also occasionally serious, poignant and insightful. Above all, it celebrates the vitality and beauty of football, as well as its glorious absurdities and eccentricities.

Whilst unashamedly nostalgic, it also highlights instances where the true spirit of football is being preserved in today's ultra-competitive and "sanitized" environment. Some of the subjects and items placed under the spotlight seem almost random, but this is one of the strengths of the book.  It brackets legendary players alongside obscure cult figures and journeymen, and the cathedrals of the sport alongside the backwaters. The sublime is explored alongside the ridiculous, the mundane and the surreal.

The sections examining football-related culture, such as movies, music, television, video games and so forth, are especially funny and absorbing. The people who put this thing together deserve praise and credit for their infectious enthusiasm and their sense of humour. It is a real treat for football obsessives, as well as those more casual observers who just crave entertainment and enlightenment.

The Rough Guide To Cult Football is well worth a read, if nothing else as a reminder of the richness, diversity and occasional craziness of the beautiful game.

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Peter Vaughan 1923-2016

It was with great sadness that I today learned of the death of the British actor Peter Vaughan.

He had a varied and distinguished career, but I will always remember him best as "Genial" Harry Grout in the classic 1970s television sitcom Porridge, which was set in a prison.

In Porridge the Harry Grout character was the prison's "Mr. Big", who appeared to control most things which occurred in the institution, and who inspired fear and apprehension in his fellow inmates as well as the staff.

The character only appeared in three episodes of the show, as well as the 1979 movie spin-off, but the impact of Vaughan's portrayal, and the superb writing of Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, made it seem like he was a permanent fixture.  Vaughan managed to convey an effortless but almost avuncular menace, and his scenes with Norman Stanley Fletcher (played by Ronnie Barker) were particularly memorable and amusing.

Interestingly, Peter Vaughan also appeared in an excellent episode (entitled "Stay Lucky Eh?") of the groundbreaking crime show The Sweeney, playing a character not totally dissimilar to Harry Grout, with the difference that he was "on the outside".

However, the Harry Grout character remains as one of the most enduring and fascinating in British sitcoms, and as an illustration of Peter Vaughan's talents.

Thursday, 1 December 2016

Don Revie - Portrait of a Footballing Enigma - Andrew Mourant

Whilst sifting through some of my books recently, I came across Don Revie - Portrait of a Footballing Enigma, a biography of the former Leeds United and England football manager.

This book's value to me lies primarily in its focus on the periods both before and after his tenure at Leeds United. The nature of his background and upbringing give clues as to the evolution of his character and temperament, and also the way that his footballing philosophy was to develop.  It also serves as a snapshot of professional football as it was between the end of the Second World War and the arrival of big money.

Some of the characteristics of that football scene seem mildly bizarre now.  The meagre, hand-to-mouth finances of many clubs, the spectacle of players from outside the top flight regularly featuring in the England national team, and the prevalence of injuries and fixture congestion.

The reminiscences of associates, acquaintances and colleagues form a large part of this telling of the Revie story, and they help to give the book its balance and flavour, and to explain the origins of the personality traits which became well-known;caution, superstition, thoroughness and insecurity.

Detractors might grumble, but Revie was on balance a progressive and innovative football thinker. I might be biased, but his Leeds teams played outstanding and compelling football, and had flair in abundance. Allied to their famed attributes of resilience and a fierce will to win, they were a formidable unit.  They did not win the number of trophies which they should have done, and the book seeks to explain why this was the case. The solution to the question is as complex and elusive as the subject of the book himself.

The concept or notion of blending brains with brawn has always appealed to me as a sporting world-view. Think, but work hard. This was what made football in the four decades after World War Two so compelling, absorbing and popular, and it was a hallmark of many of Revie's teams.

It is noteworthy that Revie in his pre-Leeds footballing endeavours seemed restless, until he arrived at Elland Road, where he finally found his niche, and a place where he could put what he had learned, or taught himself, to good and constructive use.

I found the chapters dealing with Revie's early days at Leeds quite illuminating, especially the methods employed to recruit and motivate young players. The "family atmosphere", and some of Revie's man-management methods, seem quaint and even bizarre from the vantage point of 2016, but they worked at the time, and still induce a smile and twinge of regret and nostalgia that those days are now gone forever.

The book also goes into Revie's turbulent and unhappy spell as the England team manager, and his controversial departure from the post, as well as his final years. I think that there is a balanced and realistic assessment of some of the contentious aspects of his career, and there are lots of good anecdotes and quotes.

The book might appear concise, but in the latter stages the analysis of Revie's character and motives becomes quite intensive and nuanced.

If hardly definitive, this is a good, satisfying read, and leaves one concluding that the man was indeed an enigma.

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

In Through The Out Door - Led Zeppelin - album review

It seems to have become the received wisdom that In Through The Out Door, Led Zeppelin's last real studio album, released in 1979, is a downbeat postscript to their glittering career. However, a closer listen reveals that this is quite a strong record.

In revisiting the album, I found myself slightly afraid to poke my head in, for fear that I would be confronted with sad thoughts of an era coming to an end with a whimper. However, I was pleasantly surprised to discover how vibrant it is.  It is arguably more consistent and convincing than Presence, a patchy work which was redeemed in large part by the coruscating "Achilles Last Stand".

In Through The Out Door has a modernistic flavour, largely by virtue of the heavy use of keyboards and a warm and clear production. The sound points towards where Zeppelin music might have ventured during the 1980s. "In The Evening" embodies these sentiments, and in keeping with much of the album, it exudes confidence and no little ebullience.

In fact, most of the songs here have an energy, belief and confidence which belies the record's traditional reputation. "South Bound Suarez" is likeable if lightweight, and much the same might be said of "Fool In The Rain" and "Hot Dog". To me, these tracks represent an advance on the torpor which characterized parts of Presence.  There is some zest in the rootsier numbers, and the guys sound like they enjoyed making these recordings.

"Carouselambra" mines similar territory to "In The Evening", except that it is more keyboard-intensive. It reminds me somewhat of late 70s/early 80s Genesis.  My gripes are that it goes on too long, and occasionally the keyboards threaten to drown out Robert Plant's vocals. Again, this is a hint of where the band might have been heading sonically and stylistically...

"All My Love" is a strong and emotive song, very personal for Robert Plant, and in feel it anticipates some of his later solo material. My feeling is that the songs, melodies and arrangements are good. The ideas were there, and some thought and time was clearly devoted to them.

"I'm Gonna Crawl" possesses a kind of cinematic grandeur (heightened again by those keyboards), as well as bluesy charm. A classy way to round off what was to be the group's final proper album.

The impression is that Robert Plant and John Paul Jones dominated things creatively, and the relative absence of guitar pyrotechnics is conspicuous.So, on reflection, this is a fine album, albeit not a traditional Led Zeppelin one.

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Books About Sports

Most of my non-fiction reading in recent times has focused on history and philosophy, but it is notable how good and absorbing the best sports-related writing can be. Here are some of the sports-orientated books which have made the greatest impact on me in recent times, or which I just found enjoyable, informative and enlightening.....

Bodyline Autopsy, by David Frith.  An absorbing, erudite and meticulously researched chronicling of England's contentious cricket tour of Australia in 1932-33...

Several works on cycling have left quite an indelible impression.....

Merckx: Half Man, Half Bike, by William Fotheringham...

Eddy Merckx : The Cannibal, by Daniel Friebe.  Another excellent portrait of the great Belgian cyclist....

Put Me Back on My Bike : In Search of Tom Simpson, by William Fotheringham.  A fascinating and candid biography of the tragic English cyclist...

The Lost Generation, by David Tremayne.  An intensely compelling, highly moving and beautifully illustrated telling of the story of three British racing drivers who died young during the 1970s....

Gilles Villeneueve: The Life Of The Legendary Racing Driver, by Gerald Donaldson.

Inverting The Pyramid : The History of Football Tactics, by Jonathan Wilson.

Back Home - England and the 1970 World Cup, by Jeff Dawson.  A highly entertaining and nostalgic look at the national football team's campaign in that fabled tournament in Mexico....

All of these books I would recommend.

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Future Days - Can (1973 album) - review

A few years ago, I resolved to get into the music of Can, the legendary German avant-garde rock group. However, I may have made a mistake in commencing my Can journey by listening to their 1973 album Future Days.  I was left rather bemused and unimpressed, and it took a while for the Can "bug" to genuinely bite, once I had explored their more accessible material, such as that from Ege Bamyasi, and their 1971 magnum opus Tago Mago.

I suspect that Can are one of those bands who might take a while to impress themselves fully on some listeners, but when that invisible threshold is crossed, the wonders and infectiousness of their work are acutely felt. This was definitely the case with me, and Future Days suddenly made a lot more sense in that context.

With the exception of the punchy and relentless "Moonshake", this record is more ethereal and soothing in tone than either of the works which immediately preceded it. "Chill-out" music might be an appropriate phrase to describe the epic closer "Bel Air", certainly, although it does have its livelier and pugnacious moments.

The drumming of Jaki Leibezeit is less dominant in these tracks, based as they are on relaxing soundscapes, with more emphasis on melody, mood and texture than on rhythm. There is some stylistic and sensual continuity between the title track, "Spray" and the aforementioned "Bel Air".  I don't see "Moonshake" as a fly in the ointment;it serves a purpose in providing backbone.

With its habitually hypnotic and laid-back flavour, this LP doesn't jump out and grab you like some of their other work, and as my experience perhaps illustrates, it needs more work, concentration and patience.

My advice would be to listen to the two previous albums, and then this one will be more palatable and welcoming than otherwise might have been the case.  This record, in rounding off Can's classic early Seventies trilogy, as well as being the last one to feature vocalist Damo Suzuki, is a delight in its own right.  Just immerse yourself in the early passages of "Bel Air", and float away....

Monday, 31 October 2016

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920 silent horror film)

To mark the onset of the Halloween "festivities", I recently re-watched the 1920 German silent horror movie The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. 

Described by some pundits as the first "real" horror film, it was also seen as the epitome of the German Expressionist style, partly because of the nature of the set designs, with their distorted and pronounced contours and architectural features.

The film tells the story of a hypnotist "Dr Caligari" (played by Werner Krauss) who uses a somnambulist to commit a series of murders. However, there is a "twist" ending, and this only multiplies the number of possible interpretations of aspects of the plot.  Largely because of the time when it was made, and the country in which it was produced, this must be one of the most (over) analyzed films in history.

It is easy to see why parallels were drawn, in the aftermath of the First World War, between the hypnotist/sleepwalker relationship and the societal dynamics which were perceived to have characterized the conflict. Some other inferences may only have been made in retrospect, but there may have been some sense of the writers including devices subconsciously.

Whatever messages and lessons one chooses to draw from it, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a powerful piece of work.  The exaggerated mannerisms and body language of the acting during the silent film were sometimes strangely suited to the horror genre, as is the monochrome format, obviously.

Another thing to bear in mind is that in those early pioneering days of cinema, film-making was still almost an extension of other visual arts, with many of the defining traits of film yet to emerge, and this imbues this film and others with a distinctive flavour.

I have heard it said that the "twist" ending in some way compromises the impact of the picture, but I personally don't see it that way.  It depends how one views the epilogue section, but I don't feel that it diminishes some of the unsettling and sobering symbolism of the main body of the film.  It also sharpens the other sub-texts, about perception, and the duality of human nature - that there may be a fine line between sanity and insanity, between benevolence and evil or tyranny.

"Cesare", the somnambulist, is one singularly disconcerting and memorable creation, both visually and in a "philosophical" sense.

I'll try not to give too much away, but watch this movie and you will be set thinking. Try not to detect a new layer of meaning in every single frame, and it will still have a strong effect.

Monday, 24 October 2016

Come Taste The Band/Deep Purple Mk IV

The 1975/76 "twilight" period of the original Deep Purple is customarily deemed to be most noteworthy, by many people, for the extracurricular antics of certain band members, and the setbacks which afflicted the group. The Mk IV line-up (signifying the arrival of Tommy Bolin in the line-up) only released one album, Come Taste The Band, in October 1975.

While it is fair to say that the post-1973 output of Deep Purple lacked the eclectic quirkiness and humour of the Mk II line-up, mostly due to the loss of the Gillan/Glover songwriting input, it would be unfair to universally denigrate it as meat-and-potatoes hard rock. Come Taste The Band has a certain energy and intensity about it.

I have heard it said that this is not a "real" Purple album.  This notion possibly stems from the absence of Ritchie Blackmore, and the fact that much of the creative strength on the record comes from David Coverdale, Glenn Hughes and Tommy Bolin, thus bringing about a different sound.

In tone the LP is very much of its time, exuding some of the ennui and hedonism of the mid-Seventies. The active participation of the newer members of the band, and the shrinking input of the Purple "old guard", gives the album its feel, with soul, funk and blues influences more to the fore.

David Coverdale's vocals are agreeably soulful and bluesy in the best bits, with the song "I Need Love" springing to mind in this respect. That song also has a strong R&B component, with a funky interlude in its middle section. "Drifter" has a contemporary, frenetic style, and "Love Child" prefigures later hard rock in some ways.

It is also pleasant to hear Jon Lord's organ actually sounding like a proper organ, and not constantly seeking to imitate guitars. It adds a classy and welcome sheen and texture to several of the tracks here. Ian Paice's drum work is inventive, unorthodox and excellent as always.

"This Time Around/Owed to 'G'" has attracted much comment, and it represents something different in its dreaminess, with some detecting the influence of Stevie Wonder.

Another intriguing number is "Keep On Moving", with its menacing beginning and its harmonies. A strong and atmospheric way to close out the record, and strangely apt when one bears in mind that the band would fold within a matter of months.

Approach this album with an open mind, and it is a surprisingly enjoyable record, especially considering the backdrop to its recording. Some inventiveness and imagination is evident if one looks and listens hard enough.  It might not be the "true" Purple, but it is by no means a bad album.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

The Lives Of Others (2006 film) - review

Every so often I watch a movie which brushes away some of the cobwebs in my jaded and cynical mind, and brings about some hope.  Such a film is The Lives Of Others ("Das Leben der Anderen"), a German movie originally released in 2006, and written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck.

The story is set in East Germany, largely in the mid-1980s.  A writer and his partner are placed under surveillance by the Stasi (the secret police), partly at the behest, it seems, of the Minister of Culture. However, the officer overseeing the surveillance operation soon begins to feel sympathy and compassion for the couple, and tries wherever possible to protect them from the attentions of his own colleagues. 

It is this scenario which plays a large part in making the picture such a gripping and absorbing one. The viewer can never really tell when the methods of agent Wiesler (superbly played by Ulrich Muhe, by the way) will be questioned  by his superiors. The effect is aided by some of the opening scenes, in which Wiesler is shown as an unquestioning and severe servant of the system. Perhaps he sees in the humanity of those he is scrutinizing qualities which bring out his own latent humanity, and the facade recedes. The irony is that he had a hand in the surveillance being instigated in the first place, on what appeared to be a "gut feeling".

Every time the story shows signs of becoming predictable, it maintains its composure and moves off in some new and stimulating direction. This movie is very elegantly shot, and the cinematography emits what might be termed autumnal hues, which are very pleasing to the eye, and which may or may not have been intended as symbolic. 

The oppressive atmosphere within the Stasi is vividly portrayed, but as something insidious and almost unpredictable, rather than one of unremitting blunt force. We are also reminded that even in the DDR the normal human frailties and demons, such as jealousy, lust and insecurity, were to the fore.

Martina Gedeck has great screen presence in the role of Christa-Maria, effectively evoking the mixture of confusion, realism and resignation which the character feels. In fact, the acting is consistently good, coming from some familiar faces in German cinema.

The ending of the film is beautifully conceived and done, and it pretty much leaves conclusions to the interpretation of the viewer.  My own feeling was that despite the minor sense of "redemption", everybody lost in some way. 

The Lives Of Others is a quietly enthralling and moving film, which is one of the best I have seen in recent years. 

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Good Bye Lenin (2003 film) - review

Some of the most satisfying cinematic experiences come from those works which operate on more than one level, but which also retain a simple charm and emotional pull. One such movie is the 2003 German film, Good Bye Lenin!, directed by Wolfgang Becker.

The movie relates the story of an East German woman, a firm adherent to the ideals of the DDR, who falls into a coma shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and only wakes up eight months later. Told by doctors that any kind of shock may trigger a relapse in her health, the woman's son, with the assistance of friends and relatives, constructs an elaborate ruse with the objective of convincing his bed-ridden mother that her beloved state, party and system are still very much alive and well.

Real news footage is employed to drive the narrative.  Although the visuals portraying the 1989/90 period are not always that convincing, that is besides the point. The funniest moments generally revolve around the son Alex's endeavours to recreate a "socialist" environment in the family home, even down to books by Anna Seghers and a Che Guevara poster, and to conceal from his mother the demise of much which she cherished and believed in.

Through this prism of historic political change, we are given an insight into the mother/son relationship, and human love generally, which is genuinely touching and poignant.  The acting is generally top notch, and particular praise must be given to Daniel Bruhl for his depiction of the son, not only in his concern for his mother's well-being, but also for conveying the character's growing ambivalence and unease about the course of events in Germany. Katrin Sass is also excellent and convincing in the role of the mother.

As mentioned earlier, there are some amusing scenes associated with the creation, or maintenance of the illusion of the continuance of a socialist paradise, such as Alex and his friend producing "fake" East German television broadcasts to show to his mother. The scene where a Coca-Cola banner appears outside the mother's window, and the subsequent efforts to explain this away, are both amusing and though-provoking. The encroachment of consumerism and the dog-eat-dog mentality following reunification are gently satirized throughout the film.

Towards the end the emotional gains precedence over the comedic, and the way that the story concludes is central to the film's message and its appeal. The whole concept is admirably clever, if not 100 percent plausible, and one is left with both a warm feeling, but also sadness and regret.

A film well worth watching, combining entertainment value and profundity.

Monday, 17 October 2016

The Third Generation - (1979 film)

As part of my odyssey through "New German Cinema", I recently watched, for the second time to the best of my recollection, Rainer Werner Fassbinder's black/comedy/satire from 1979, The Third Generation. The movie is about an incompetent gang of terrorists who plot the kidnapping of a businessman.

I guess that this film is/was imbued with added currency by virtue of it being made not long after the German tumult of the 1970s had calmed down. Some of the scenes and plot devices are clearly based on memories which were then fresh and vivid.

The atmosphere of chaos and confusion is aggravated by the unremitting "background" noise, generally supplied by television sets.  For some people this could be distracting, not to say irritating, but I say embrace it, and your appreciation of the film will likely increase. The disorientation is all part of it, and The Third Generation is indeed sometimes an assault on the senses.

A task which confronts the viewer with this picture is ascertaining who, if anybody, the humour and satire are aimed at. Clearly to some degree Fassbinder was poking fun at "amateur" revolutionaries, with their absurd pretensions and rhetoric. Could it be that this movie actually invented and popularized many of the cliches which we now associate with the outpourings of urban guerrillas of that particular period?

The film-maker may also have been, at the same time, assailing the glibness and complacency of mainstream society, as exemplified here by the attitudes of some of the "non-terrorist" characters. It did also occur to me that this film may have been satirizing satire itself.  The scene where a few of the gang members are playing Monopoly was one of those which prompted this notion.

There is a surreal quality to the dialogue for much of the time, with mundane concerns receiving undue attention from the characters, who also constantly spout the blindingly obvious out loud. It was the incongruous nature of some of these lines which made me laugh at times.

In assessing the characters, one would have to say that they are cleverly done.  They are not totally convincing as urban guerrillas, but then again they are not wholly unconvincing either, possessing a rather nebulous, individualistic quality which complements the mood of the work.

During my recent viewing of this film, I warmed to it as it went on, being able to re-calibrate my mind to get a grasp of what the angle was.  I began to "get" it, insomuch as films such as this can be "got".  The plot attains some momentum and focus late on, and the ending is suitably enigmatic and ambiguous.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum - (1975 film)

A little while ago, I wrote an article about Heinrich Boll's novel, The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum. I have seen the 1975 film adaptation a few times, and thought it was time that I committed my thoughts on it to blog form.  My review of the novel is here:- The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum.

The direction and screenplay for the movie were handled by Volker Schlondorff and Margarethe von Trotta. The plot concerns a German woman who spends the night with a man who later turns out to be a suspected bank robber and political militant. She finds herself persecuted by the police, media and public.

One of the things about the picture which I find appealing is its visual flavour, which evokes the modernistic West Germany in the throes of its economic miracle. Expensive cars, stylish clothes and fashionable furnishings abound throughout, forming a kind of clinical vibrancy.  The story says, however, that dark and unsavoury tendencies lurk beneath the veneer of prosperity and progress.

Themes of press intrusion and freedom, as well as hysteria and anxiety about terrorism, are the main concerns. Of course, this film was made at a turbulent time in the Federal Republic's history, as the country wrestled with political violence.

I can't really make my mind up about Angela Winkler's performance in the role of Katharina, whether it is bland, or whether it sensitively and subtly conveys the confusion and innocence of the character as she attempts to cope with the maelstrom which has suddenly enveloped her.

For me, the film is exaggerated, even mildly cartoonish, and the dystopian overtones come over more acutely than they do in book form. The police raid on Katharina's apartment exemplifies this. In some ways, I think that the social commentary has more merit than the movie as a whole, troublesome though it is to separate the two.

If there is a lack of restraint in how some of the film's topical concerns are addressed, they are topics which are still immensely relevant four decades later. Press hysteria, collusion between state and media, self-interest masquerading as concern for order and security, and the appeal to the base sentiments and instincts of the populace, all form part of the mix.

Although this film has some of the attributes and tension which make the cinema of the 70s so absorbing, it has never really grabbed me as perhaps it should. In saying that the points could have been made with more delicacy or finesse, it is true that the air of unreality and dislocation is integral to what it is being asserted.

The denouement, whilst no doubt very "poetic" in its way, and highly dramatic, is rather silly. I sometimes think that if the journalist had met his end in some other, accidental, way, the point would have been made almost equally as well, unless the novelist and writers were insinuating that the methods of state, press and public drive people to desperate and irrational measures?

A movie worth watching, but not as satisfying or convincing as later films made, separately, by the two directors/screenwriters involved here, on similar subject matter.

Saturday, 15 October 2016

Flash Gordon (1980 film)

I missed seeing this film, produced by Dino De Laurentiis and directed by Mike Hodges, back when it was first released.  I had been due to see it at the cinema with a group of friends, but fell ill at the last moment.  Only recently did I get the opportunity to watch the picture in its entirety.

Some would contend that had the soundtrack music not been part of Queen's catalogue, it might have sunk into genuine obscurity, but I gather that it has attracted a cult following over the years. It is true that its style and elements of its storyline were influenced by Star Wars, but of course George Lucas himself was inspired by the Flash Gordon serials of the past.  The opening titles of Flash Gordon look like an attempt to invoke the comic-strip tradition, and link this film to that heritage.

The first thing to mention is that the movie is visually very appealing, and I'm not just talking about Ornella Muti and Melody Anderson.  The colours are vivid (I was almost reminded of The Wizard Of Oz), the costumes lavish and extravagant, and the special effects impressive for the most part.

The plot is fairly standard "save the Earth" fare, with Flash uniting various factions to take on Ming the Merciless and his imperial designs. There are sub-texts about the need to unite against a common foe, the futility of petty disputes and so forth, but these are kept largely in the background.

Down the years this film has gathered a reputation for its kitsch flavour, although one problem I detected was that it couldn't decide to what degree it should be taken seriously. Also, one or two scenes lack conviction and/or polish, and almost have the feel of rehearsals, with the dialogue being delivered in a half-baked manner. In a way, though, this all adds to the quirkiness of the piece.

The acting I would have to describe as a mixed bag, even allowing for the frivolous tone of the film. Sam J Jones is likeable in the lead role, if a touch wooden. The substance is added by the supporting cast, such as Timothy Dalton, Chaim Topol and Brian Blessed (in his element here!).

Scenes which stand out are the ludicrous but enjoyable and humorous "football" sequence, and the bit where Dr. Zarkov is subjected to flashbacks and attempted brainwashing.

The Mongo imagery and analogies are not especially original, with clear allusions to certain sinister things which occurred in the first half of the twentieth century, shall we say. In the interaction between Flash and Ming, I sensed vague and loose echoes of the Luke Skywalker/Darth Vader dynamic, or perhaps I was looking out too assiduously for such parallels.

Arguably this film goes on for too long, with one or two scenes which act as padding.  On the other hand, we are afforded a view of how the various warring groups come together, and this is not portrayed as straightforward, with trials of strength being endured before all parties see sense.

In the end, I quite enjoyed this movie, for all its flaws.  It has an idiosyncratic charm and identity all its own, and it is easy to see why so many people remain fond of it.

Saturday, 8 October 2016

The Wall - Pink Floyd

It recently occurred to me that I had hitherto resisted the impulse to listen to Pink Floyd's album "The Wall", in its chronological entirety. Perhaps the prospect even scared me slightly. When, however this gap in my experience was rectified, I was confronted with a few thoughts and revelations.

"The Wall" is a concept album, or rock opera, which follows the protagonist "Pink" in his journey from childhood, to isolation and alienation from society, and out again, the character being based partly on Syd Barrett, partly on Roger Waters himself. My recent and "morbid" interest in this work may stem in part from my own personal experiences in recent years, and my attempts to rationalize these life changes.

One of the things which struck me right away was how comparatively little out-and-out  "prog-rock" features on the record. By necessity the "rock opera" format demands shorter songs and some vignettes to tie the whole thing together, and the relative conciseness of the pieces evokes a mainstream rock feel.  If anything, the strongest direct, or indirect, musical influence which I can detect here is from British art/glam rock from earlier in the Seventies, primarily David Bowie and even Be Bop Deluxe and Queen. Some of Roger Waters' vocals even sound rather Bowie-esque. Songs like "In The Flesh" and "The Thin Ice" carry these traits.

Having listened regularly to the famous tunes ("Another Brick In The Wall Pt.2, Comfortably Numb, Hey You, etc), interest centres more on the pieces which flesh out the album and the story.  There are some recurring motifs, like in any opera of any kind, but the self-contained material is strong, confident and diverse - songs such as "Mother" and "Goodbye Blue Sky".  Also, the better-known compositions acquire a greater pertinence in the overall context of "The Wall"; "Hey You" is a good example of this; its meaning grows more acute, and more chilling.

When closely analysed, the music and the lyrics are not quite so overblown or pretentious as I have sometimes liked to tell myself. Some people might contend that the closing stages, the denouement as it were, is a little over-the-top or extreme, and whilst I would not disagree, it is difficult to deny its impact. The sound affects and speech excerpts which punctuate the record are scarcely original, but they do succeed in augmenting the intended atmosphere.

It is intriguing to note that Floyd, a target for the vitriol and derision of the punk revolution, were in this project exploring, albeit on a more grandiose scale,  subjects which punk also sought to address, such as alienation and the deleterious effects of aspects of human society and human nature.  "The Wall" is to me another vital document of British popular culture of the second half of the 1970s, a period when economic stagnation and psychological and spiritual disenchantment went hand in hand.

I am sure that a lot of people find that aspects of "The Wall" at least strike a chord with regard to their own lives, and supply ample food for thought. I myself can identify with the alienation/isolation angle at least. The "bricks" analogy is rather well done, so the concept itself is quite coherent. The "Pink" character is himself a rock star, but it does not take much for the listener to perceive metaphors in the unreality and artificiality of rock stardom which are more universally applicable.

Few will arrive there by the same route, but I think that most of us who have endured such isolation and angst yearn to have some kind of "epiphany", which takes us back to where we were before. If life can indeed be cyclical, the peaks and troughs are awfully long and deep.

"The Wall", for all its bleakness and occasionally excessive earnestness, is an absorbing musical and social statement.

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

The Aeneid - Virgil

Having read Homer's epic poems, The Iliad and The Odyssey, it was logical that I should move on to Virgil's own epic poem The Aeneid, which can be construed as some sort of "sequel" to the former. The story follows the fortunes and travels of the Trojan Aeneas, a survivor of the sack of Troy, and his divinely ordained mission to help plant the origins of Rome.

In some respects, such as the style and techniques of the writing, this poem shares characteristics with Homer's celebrated works. Whilst it is accessible and streamlined, the way in which the words are presented sometimes make it a challenging read. It is unfair to say that it is less profound than The Iliad, as it covers different ground, literally and metaphorically.

It would be advisable to read a version of this work with a "glossary" included, as it is a constant struggle to remember the Roman equivalents of Greek deities,places and people. At the same time, it is not necessary to keep slavishly referring to these things in order to appreciate the story.

For me, the poem became more lyrical, gripping and coherent once the Dido/Aeneas relationship commenced. This is where some of the central themes of The Aeneid begin to reveal themselves. Funnily enough, the Dido/Aeneas dynamic did not have quite the impact on me that I had anticipated, possibly because I had unrealistic expectations.

The strength of this poem for me is its evocation of strong and emotive imagery within a digestible and compact format. Lots of things occur, but the "destiny" of Rome gives it backbone and cohesion.

The language appeals to the senses - the ritual sacrifices, the feasts and banquets, the forces of nature. The prolonged similes sometimes augment a scene, but in other places they seem a touch superfluous. No barrier to enjoyment, however.

One of the things which stood out for me in the story was the contrast between grandiose ambitions and more private, innermost emotions and practical needs and aspirations. Some people fell by the wayside during Aeneas' journey and settled for a more secure and easy short-term existence. Individuality and pragmatism still had a place here.

The "underworld" passages are tremendously vivid and powerful, and function as the hinge of the tale, introducing the future. The pace quickens from here on in.

As with Homeric poetry, the interventions of the gods, and the consequences of those interventions, might be interpreted by modern observers as allegorical of the "masters of war" or "puppetmasters" who, we are told, orchestrate and precipitate conflict and animosity. Some factions are unwillingly pressured into aggression.

As with The Odyssey, there is almost a fairytale/fantasy feel, with tales of monsters and mythical creatures. Another noticeable thing is how the story brings together elements of ancient and classical history and mythology, and makes them seem as one.

Rightly or wrongly, I discerned that the depictions of people's attitudes to war are more modern than might be expected, with citizens critical of their leaders for putting their ambitions before reason and the common good and tranquility. The diplomatic discourse on display also had a nuanced side to it, and the concerns and anxieties still ring true many centuries later.

The final chapter is dramatic and deftly executed. The ending is not exactly comforting on a human level, but it has a certain finality and tidiness about it.

Friday, 23 September 2016

Marianne and Juliane - (1981 movie)

Following on from seeing The Legend of Rita and Die Innere Sicherheit, I recently watched an earlier movie which covers similar subject matter,  Marianne and Juliane, directed by Margarethe von Trotta, and released in 1981.  Its German title was Die Bleierne Zeit. 

The film tells the story of two sisters who take different paths in trying to change the world.  It is fictionalized, but it is apparently based on the life of Gudrun Ensslin and her family.  Marianne pursues a course as a political militant, whilst Juliane works as a journalist/activist. The film focuses on the relationship between the two, and on Juliane's efforts to help and support her incarcerated sibling.

I was going to say that the movie has a bleak and gloomy aesthetic, but on reflection it is based on realism and authenticity.  So many films of this type try too hard either to faithfully recreate historical detail or to convey a "mood", and turn out as contrived. Marianne and Juliane is very different, and very natural and unforced.

The acting in the film has rightly been praised, but I must single out Jutta Lampe's superb performance as Juliane.  Very measured and very convincing, and those eyes.  Barbara Sukowa is also impressive. I don't think she is quite as good here as she would be in her later portrayal of Rosa Luxemberg, but she does manage to evoke some of the harsh, uncompromising but resolute nature of the Marianne character.

Some of the running time is occupied by "flashback" sequences from the sisters' childhood, but they don't necessarily give us straightforward or comfortable answers as to how the two people turned out as adults. The prison sequences are also beautifully and atmospherically captured.  The symbolism throughout the story is subtle, almost ambiguous (such as a statue of Bismarck), and in general the moral messages are the same.

Working out Juliane's true motives as things progress is no easy task, and it may be that they are left deliberately hazy. The story does not consciously set before us clearly defined moral choices or boundaries.  This is where much of the strength of the picture lies.  The view presented of the world is a nuanced one, where there are not two diametrically opposed points of view, but many different "poles", diverse motivations and perspectives.

Marianne and Juliane is a absorbing film, which is also a genuine story.

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Die Innere Sicherheit - 2000 film - review

The German film, Die Innere Sicherheit (English title: "The State I Am In"), directed by Christian Petzold, and released in 2000, follows the experiences of two former terrorists and their teenage daughter, as they live in hiding, on the run from the authorities, first in Portugal and later in Germany.

The daughter Jeanne (Julia Hummer) yearns to sample the delights, adventures and discoveries of adolescence, but this has the potential to imperil her parents. A lack of money, support and accommodation forces them to take some desperate and risky measures, and at times their plight is miserable and stark.

Jeanne is the focus of much of the movie, and to be frank I found the parents, Clara and Hans, to be somewhat one-dimensional characters.  Julia Hummer's performance as Jeanne is a revelation, conveying the sullen demeanour and rebelllious streak of a young person who has clearly grown up in an surreal, unconventional and bewildering world.

The tone of this picture is dark and insidious, and these patterns are intensified by the fact that much is left unsaid, unexplained or merely implied, and left to the imagination of the viewer. The imagery and the terse dialogue are left to paint the picture and reflect the narrative. The editing is creative, sharp and even disorientating, exacerbating the oppressive and bleak mood of the piece.

To me, the "political" dimension of the story was secondary to the human dramas enveloping Jeanne, as well as her parents. A strong sense is engendered that they are ostracized from a society which would not understood them even if it sought interaction. A soulless and uncaring world is depicted, the settings being suitably austere and unwelcoming. People did not know who they were, but would have detested and shunned them if they had known.

When the fortunes of the family are at their lowest ebb, we are confronted with some harrowing and mournful scenes. Often there is little sound or dialogue, just doleful, empty or confused facial expressions and emotions, as they contemplate how to circumvent the latest obstacle or impending crisis.

The ending to the movie is suitably brutal and pitiless, but I detected a modicum of poetic justice in the outcome for Jeanne, however tragic it immediately appeared.  We do not discover, of course, how things later turned out.

Overall, this is a thoughtful and atmospheric film. Absorbing and quite unusual, and well worth people's attention.

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

The Legend of Rita - (2000 movie) - review

I recently watched the German film "The Legend of Rita", from the year 2000, (released in Germany under the name "Die Stille Nach dem Schuss), directed by Volker Schlondorff.  Somehow this movie had escaped my attention for the past decade and more, which is odd when I consider that its subject matter is the type which genuinely fascinates me.

The movie tells the story of a West German former urban guerrilla (Rita, played by Bibiana Beglau) who takes refuge in East Germany, and is provided with a new identity by the Stasi, and assumes the guise of an "ordinary" citizen in the socialist state.  She has to cope with the fear of her past being exposed, and thus causing embarrassment to the authorities of the DDR, and the fall of the Berlin Wall later complicates the situation further. Her relationship with Tatjana (Nadja Uhl) is also explored.

Once the preliminary sequences were out of the way, and the story settled into a portrayal of Rita's travails in her new life in the East, I felt that the film found its true identity. The "human interest" angles were sensitively done, and were quite touching at times, especially the friendship between Rita and Tatjana. The tension was palpable, as one kept expecting Rita's cover to be blown in some way, or for her "back story" to unravel, and this helped me identify with her anxiety and also appreciate the resilience and vigilance she had to summon up in order to cope.

There are clear allusions in this movie to real people, and to real-life events, but in the end it is a fictitious tale. This means that there was no need, or temptation. to pack in every historical anecdote and incident.  "The Legend of Rita" moves at its own pace, and on its own terms.

In my view, the early "action" scenes were a mixed bag, but I guess that they were essential to some degree for a full understanding of the background to the story. The rhetoric emanating from the mouths of the "terrorists" was occasionally corny, but it also helped to highlight and express their frustrations, their dilemmas and the disagreements which occasionally plagued their enterprises.

One of the central themes which the film articulates is how Rita's idealism and enthusiasm for the GDR "project" came up against the cynicism and apathy of the East German people who she encountered. As much of the story is set in the 1980s, the penny had clearly dropped with the populace by then. I ended up seeing both sides of the argument, acknowledging the stultification which the East Germans had endured, but also perhaps sensing that Rita had really "found" herself in her new environment, having escaped what she perceived to be the numbing effects of consumerism and the "rat race".

"The Legend of Rita" also raises the old question of theory versus reality, with the main protagonist being brought face-to-face with the pragmatism which real life, bitter and sour experience, and empirical evidence,  instill in people. Fine and lofty words and ideas are all well and good, but they don't always work in practice, or satisfy the basic aspirations of the masses. There is one very instructive scene, just after Rita has made the decision to remain in the East, when Erwin, the Stasi man, does his best, using some oblique language,to warn her what she will be up against.

It would be easy to accept that the film presents an image of uniform greyness, austerity and conformity in East Germany, but that is not quite the impression which I formed. We see many attitudes, problems and practices which have a universal resonance, including mental illness and alcoholism.  Yes, the tone and the atmosphere are primarily dark, but isn't this everyday life, for most people, wherever they happen to live?  The picture which was painted was to me rather nuanced and credible.

Two acting performances really stand out.  Bibiana Beglau is excellent as Rita, conveying her complex personality, which has perhaps partly been conditioned by her unorthodox life. A mixture of insecurity, courage, resolution, fear and even fatalism. Nadja Uhl is very engaging as Tatjana, bringing out her character's vulnerability and her humanity. The scene where the two characters part I found very moving, and also tough to watch.

I found this picture to be more plausible and well-executed than most works which cover similar territory.  The understated production values, and the believable countenance of some of the characters aided in this. It certainly got my grey matter churning, and the movie gently poses some awkward and pertinent questions.

I still wasn't quite expecting that ending, though....

Monday, 12 September 2016

(The History Of) The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire - Edward Gibbon

I recently finished the marathon effort of reading an abridged version of Edward Gibbon's The History Of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  It featured 28 of the 71 chapters in full, with summaries of the remainder.

Even in an abridged format, this was a monumental tome. The work was written in the 18th century, so some views expressed seem dated, unsurprisingly.  However, it is hard to dispute that Gibbon could write, and his command, and evident relish, of language are startling, as is the confidence which the writing exudes.

As some have observed, Gibbon's trenchant opinions on certain matters, most notably religious topics, are often couched beneath sarcasm and irony, and it sometimes takes some attentiveness to determine precisely when he is being "literal".  Some of the passages in question only heighten the eloquence, whilst also providing some amusement.

The degree of vehemence, and level of sardonicism, are not uniform throughout, probably a consequence of the work being written over a period of some years. I was quite taken with his depictions of some of the religious fanatics of medieval times, and also with his less than glowing praise for the monastic lifestyle.

Basically, the period covered is from the 1st century CE through to the fall of Constantinople. The middle areas of this version of the book did become rather bogged down, for my tastes, with the theological disputes and conflicts of early Christianity, although once again the richness of the writing is difficult to fault, and helps to maintain the interest.

His views on Byzantium are perhaps what one would have expected of man of the Enlightenment, although they are somewhat at odds with much of the scholarship on that subject which appears these days.

Now that I have read this abridged version, I can definitely see what all the acclaim was about, and I am glad that I made the commitment.

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Flash Gordon - Queen

Yesterday, prompted by the occasion of what would have been Freddie Mercury's 70th birthday, I decided that it would be a good idea to commit to blog form some of my thoughts about one of Queen's least remembered and appreciated projects, the soundtrack to the 1980 film Flash Gordon.

These days it seems to me that the album is regarded as an afterthought, almost as an aberration, and not really taken that seriously, a novelty or curiosity within the context of an overall body of work. However, whenever I go back and listen to the music, I am reminded what a compact and polished piece of work it is, within certain parameters.

I am not really qualified to comment with much authority on how the music complemented the visuals in the film itself, as I find it difficult to bring myself to watch the movie.  In fact, one or two critics have argued, rather persuasively, that Queen's music is one of the film's few redeeming features.

When appraising the Flash Gordon album, one must also bear in mind that it was recorded within a tight timeframe, sessions being squeezed in around the hectic schedule which Queen were pursuing around that time, and time had to be found alongside the band's myriad other commitments. The finished result is a quiet tribute to their resourcefulness and their talents.

Of course, the project represented a stylistic departure for Queen, with the preponderance of instrumentals and the heavy utilization of synthesizers.  The decision to make the soundtrack album "narrative" in nature, and to insert dialogue from the motion picture, was an inspired one. The whole "Flash Gordon" experience can be savoured without the need to subject oneself to the movie itself.

The songwriting and composition process must have involved different disciplines, too, with pieces written "to order" rather than coming from the heart. Many of the pieces do not make much sense outside the context of the soundtrack.  They were not seeking to make a magnum opus, but to create music to fit certain scenes, sequences and moods.

The title track and "The Hero" are to the clearly identifiable conventional songs, and they bookend the record.  Some of the instrumentals are "rock" with contemporary and modernistic embellishments, usually in the form of those synths, which Queen had famously shunned until not that long before this album was recorded.  There are some genuinely affecting and haunting melodies in there ("In The Space Capsule", "Ming's Theme" etc), whilst others are rather more prosaic.

So it is unfair to judge the Flash Gordon soundtrack album by the same criteria as one would a standard studio release. There are not as many accessible tunes as on the bland soundtrack albums which began to proliferate in the 1980s. This is, in many respects, a "true" soundtrack, in that the music is specifically designed to accompany and complement the visuals on the screen.

It is not a masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination, but it is highly enjoyable.

Monday, 5 September 2016

Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

In recent years, I have been most invigorated and energized by my acquaintance with some classic German literature, in the main Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann and, I will say, finding it more stimulating and engaging than most of the work by English writers that I have encountered in the same period.

This process has also brought me into contact with the world of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and I recently read his novel Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship, which had been lurking unread on my Kindle for some little time.

I didn't weigh myself down by seeking to determine whether this was a novel of ideas, a philosophical novel, or a bildungsroman. I am in accord with those who have noted that it defies easy categorization.

Basically, the story follows the journey of the eponymous character, as he strives to escape a bourgeois career, and initially seeks to make a career as an actor. The tension between the bourgeois and the bohemian, the worldly and the spiritual, reminded me, superficially at least, of the works of Hermann Hesse.

Particularly to a modern reader, the story does not appear stunningly original, but it is so absorbing that this is largely immaterial. The characters discuss all manner of ideas encompassing art, literature, religion, politics, philosophy and human nature.  Wilhelm's interest in Hamlet and Shakespeare serves as a kind of peg for part of the way.

The discourse is given added authenticity because the novel was composed at the time when societal and cultural ferment was acute.  This is not some idealized, misty-eyed historical novel.  This sense of realism is accentuated by the fact that the ideas do not protrude forcefully from the narrative, but tend to blend quite seamlessly into the flow of the text.  I found this to be the case especially with the gentle commentary concerning the class structures of those times.

An intriguing aspect of this novel which recurs throughout is the scrutiny of the concepts of Fate and Destiny, as they were up against notions of reason and the idea of making one's own "luck". I related sharply to the parts of the story which stressed the value of falling back on something less exalted and fanciful, and of guarding against unrealistic aspirations in life.

Women play a prominent role throughout the story, especially assertive, educated females from affluent or intellectual backgrounds. I'm not sure whether Goethe was trying to make a point in this regard, but it does endow the novel with an added dimension, and was perhaps intended as subtle social commentary.

The opening chapters engender an immersive and stimulating atmosphere, and before long I found myself genuinely caring about many of the characters and their fortunes, and also identifying with their feelings and their dilemmas. Goethe does seem to have that facility to tug at the heart-strings, and it is displayed most pointedly in the passages which deal with Wilhelm's romantic and emotional entanglements and upheavals.  His alternating anguish and ebullience certainly struck a chord.

This is one of those novels which may reveal its true and full depth with repeated readings. The intricacies of the plot and the subtleties of the characterizations may thereby be more vividly illustrated. Importantly, it has some instructive things to say about how we should improve ourselves and enrich our lives, through activity and cultivating a curiosity about the outside world, rather than lingering in introspection.

Quite a long haul, this one, but a rewarding one, and I can readily see how it has been quite influential down the decades.

Friday, 2 September 2016

Pink Floyd

Recently I was listening to some of the music of Pink Floyd, and I came to reflect on how my perception of the group has developed over the years.

When I was growing up, I had not even heard of Pink Floyd, because they were not a "singles band". It was only when "Another Brick In The Wall" ascended the British charts that I really became aware of their existence. I thought that they must be some mysterious newcomers, although looking back their music scarcely conveyed that impression.

In my early adolescence I purchased "The Dark Side Of The Moon" on vinyl. Until then, the more cerebral echelons of rock music had been largely alien to me.  Perhaps because some of the lyrical content was beyond my youthful comprehension, the record proved a disappointment, as I focused primarily on the musical content, and the relative absence of instrumental virtuosity puzzled me. To me, the album failed to match up to the mythology which had grown to surround it in my mind.

Further down the road, with a more widely developed sense of discernment, I was able to appreciate "Dark Side" and their other celebrated works, including the material from the Syd Barrett era. I could never really get into the albums which followed "The Wall". The music to me had become overly ponderous, and some of the lyrics excessively earnest. Some edge was also lost with the departure of Roger Waters.

Even in their most creative and cogent phases, Floyd were treading a fine line, between leaving much to the imagination of the listener, and straying into too grandiose and preachy an approach. An air of mystery worked best, and this was sometimes lost when the message grew too literal. Half of the fun and the challenge is working out "what are they really getting at here?".  Such an effect is more readily accomplished when sufficient remains unsaid.

I consider that Floyd were at their most vital and compelling when their songs induced feelings both of uneasiness and curiosity, in their capacity to lay bare the raw essence of the human condition - "Wish You Were Here", "Us And Them", "The Great Gig In The Sky".

"The Dark Side Of The Moon" succeeded because it examined the whole gamut of the human experience (death, time, money, insanity, war etc). It was not a stunningly original idea, but it was more grounded and concentrated than the average concept album of the time, and they pulled it off with a collection of concise, poetic and affecting statements. It was profound, but coherently realized and accessible, distilling the often strident statements of Seventies rock down into something which sounded convincing, sincere and digestible.

A thing which I have found over the years is that Pink Floyd's music, or at least some portions of it, have an appeal to those people who would otherwise have little truck with progressive rock or "album" rock. Perhaps the topics of alienation and despair, and the anti-authoritarian outlook, have led such individuals to embrace their work, and deem it credible and "cool".  "The Wall" in particular appears to have drawn in quite a broad constituency.

Although their 1970s releases tend to garner the most attention and airplay, some of their most intriguing and influential work can be found on those albums which came in between the Barrett epoch and the "classic" years.  Records such as "Meddle" and "Ummagumma" are well worth checking out. I know that some people still think that "Bike" is their masterpiece. I find it increasingly difficult to disagree; it is a perfect slice of English psychedelia!

It is also worth noting that Pink Floyd's influence, in a way, has burned rather strongly over the past decade or two, through various groups consisting of serious young men with big statements to make.

Saturday, 20 August 2016

Frederick The Great - Nancy Mitford - book review

Of historical figures, Frederick The Great, the famous eighteenth-century Prussian ruler, has long held a fascination for many.  In my own case, I think some of this has to do with his similarities to, and also differences from, Napoleon Bonaparte.

I recently finished reading Nancy Mitford's biography of Frederick, originally published in 1970. Though by no means definitive, I found it enjoyable, and it provided me with an interesting perspective on the man.

The book is written in a breezy and witty style, although I would guess that some might be put off by its "non-academic" nature and lack of  "gravitas".  It is not what I have to come to expect from such biographies, but in a way it made for a refreshing change, and it does have an idiosyncratic charm of its own.

On balance, I would say that Frederick emerges as a sympathetic figure, making allowances for the times in which he lived. In his reluctance to conform, and in his efforts to defy his domineering father, he stands out. It is easy to understand why the young man was so eager and anxious to escape the cultural and intellectual chains which were placed around him.

Frederick's outlook and cultural inclinations make his military prowess seem incongruous, to the modern day observer at least. I have heard it said that this book underplays Frederick's role in military aggression, and therefore paints an inaccurate portrait.  I don't think that Nancy Mitford seeks to conceals his mistakes, or some of the disagreeable foibles in his make-up, although she does pointedly highlight occasions when the king expressed his displeasure with war.

A constant theme in this work is Frederick's sometimes turbulent friendship with Voltaire. This forms an endearing and intriguing sub-plot, as the two fenced and sought advantage. There are also colourful tales of court life, intrigues and back-biting, and it was nice to be given a hint of life at the royal residences.

The fluctuating nature of some of the king's friendships, and his relationships with other rulers and influential figures, also receive prominence here. There are some quite touching passages, especially pertaining to Frederick's close bond with his sister Wilhelmine.  His alternating periods of joy and despair struck a chord. The author does a fine job of conveying the atmosphere of hopelessness and fatalism during the lowest points of the Seven Years' War.

What emerged for me was a complex man, with his flaws, like all of us, but one whose attitudes and approach were enlightened for the period. I enjoyed this biography more than I had anticipated beforehand, but perhaps more as a primer or catalyst, to encourage deeper research of the subject and the era.

Saturday, 13 August 2016

First World War - Martin Gilbert

I recently re-read Martin Gilbert's book First World War, and I found it sobering, if gripping.

This work takes the form of a narrative account, and it feels more compact than it really is, because the story is related in a largely "bite-size" format, within chapters covering clearly definable stages of the war.

For me, the book is imbued with its drama and poignancy by the inclusion of excerpts from the diaries and correspondence of a wide array of people who were involved in the conflict, or who were affected by it. It is possible to trace changes in their mood and attitudes as time goes on, as the realities and horrors slowly but surely sink in.  There are some anecdotes and stories here which should touch anyone's heart and conscience.

The style I would tentatively describe as moderate in tone, appealing to reason and a common sense of humanity. If anything, the restrained and matter-of-fact character of the writing succeeds by allowing the suffering and chaos to speak for themselves.

Due to the narrative format, the ebb and flow, and the fluctuations in morale and momentum, are vividly highlighted. Another effect of the author's diligence is to demonstrate the sheer magnitude of the struggle, and the diverse array of landscapes and cultures on which it impinged. The Balkans and the Middle East are prominent, and there is constant focus on the aspirations of nationalities and minorities for recognition in the post-war order of things.

The passages which deal with the build-up to the war are relatively brief, but they do convey the somewhat bizarre nature of events. Complacency and wishful thinking intermingled with the insecurity of those nations imprisoned by alliances. The diplomatic prelude also caused me to perceive that in some of the nations the decision-making process was confused and indistinct, with monarchs, politicians and military leaders overlapping.

It is disturbing to read of the harsh and repressive measures taken by "democratic" countries to crack down on, and suppress, protest and dissent during the war, even allowing for the exigencies of wartime. In addition, the callous attitudes displayed by some of the generals, and politicians, towards soldiers and civilians alike are disconcerting.

Some of the most illuminating portions of the book are the ones which encompass the periods in 1917/18 when the "Entente powers" were under real strain, specifically between Russia's collapse and the entrance of American forces into the field in meaningful numbers. The desperation and anxiety of those in power is palpable, and superbly brought across here, partly by the tetchy dialogue between the military leaders of the Western Allies.

A facet of First World War which enriches it greatly is the light which it sheds on the character and traits of participants at differing levels, with their varying temperaments, morals and intellects. Some of the quotes attributed to Kaiser Wilhelm II made me shudder, as did the deluded thinking of some in the German hierarchy as the war neared its conclusion. They failed to clearly appreciate which way the wind was blowing.

Also prominent in my mind was a consequence of the war which is often overlooked. That is the sheer waste of natural resources, and the damage to the natural environment, which was brought about.

I think that humankind, or at least parts of it, have by and large learned, and progressed, in the past hundred years. However, books such as this one should be read by people of all backgrounds, generations and outlooks, as a cautionary tale, and as a stark warning and reminder.

Sunday, 7 August 2016

Help! - The Beatles - album review

When I first bought the Beatles' albums on CD, in the mid-1990s, and listened to them in their entirety for the first time in my life, I remember being especially impressed with Help!, because of the pristine clarity of the stereo mix, the prevalence of electric piano and the jolly ambience of some of the songs.

As time has gone on, however, I have come to realize that this record is perhaps the most uneven in the Beatles' illustrious catalogue. It contains songs which are symptomatic of major artistic and philosophical advancement and insight, but these triumphs are interspersed with some rather insipid and lightweight material.

So whilst Help! exhibits clear signs of a growing maturity, it also betrays evidence of the "tiredness" and lack of inspiration which had also been deemed to have characterized Beatles For Sale. However, I would opine that "For Sale" had more coherence and substance.  Some of the "filler" on this 1965 release is little better than that being purveyed by other beat bands of the mid-60s.  The lifestyle changes and influences which the Beatles were encountering in 1964/65 did not have a uniformly beneficial impact on their work, and this may help to explain the inconsistency.

The reason why this album at first appears better than it really is, I think stems from the production and arrangements, which manage to conceal the mediocrity of a few of the songs. "The Night Before" is an example of this. Other tracks which are great performances, rather than masterly songs, would include "Another Girl" and "Your'e Gonna Lose That Girl", with their intricate vocal and guitar parts.

The version of "It's Only" which features here is, I think, inferior to the one later included on the Anthology 2 collection.  "I've Just Seen A Face", though, is Paul McCartney at his best, an engaging gem of spontaneity, exuding an energy and conviction which is sometimes lacking elsewhere.

Little else needs to be said about "Yesterday". It is another one of those Beatles classics which benefits from the group's (and George Martin's) uncanny aptitude for taste and quality control, knowing instinctively how to treat a high-quality idea, creating the requisite mood without blemishing or clouding the essential quality.

"You've Got To Hide Your Love Away" is a simple but sublimely profound song.  Several interpretations of the lyrics are possible, and several were likely intended, I suspect. It doesn't push itself too hard, a hallmark of the group at its best.

The title track also feels very natural and unforced.  Its words hint at some of the pressures which were having a bearing on the combo's output, whilst clearly illustrating their increasing willingness and capacity to articulate such emotions poetically and credibly.

The most energetic and assertive number on the record, "Ticket To Ride", is not totally out of kilter with what was being produced by the Beatles' contemporaries, but it is somehow rendered futuristic by some standout features. Ringo Starr's thundering but idiosyncratic drumming, and McCartney's brilliant harmonies, elevate it beyond the ordinary.

For me, the fly-in-the-ointment, is the cover version of "Dizzy Miss Lizzy" which closes out the album. In truth, it is not that bad a rendition, but it rather does signify the confusing and disjointed nature of the work. One expects the final track on a Beatles track to be a hint of impending growth and development, and its presence on the album would have been less egregious if it had been hidden away somewhere in the middle of the running order.

This is a fine record, for all its flaws, but despite the consummate quality of some of the music, as a project it still feels rather thrown together.  The stresses and strains of the treadmill of fame were clearly exerting some effect, but that undefinable magic pulled them through, and they were to go from strength to strength as recording artists.

Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Led Zeppelin II - (1969 album)

Led Zeppelin's second album, released in 1969, is often cited as one of the definitive hard rock albums, and judging it by the rawness and power which were carried over from the debut record, it probably is.

The sound, however, somehow lacks the inviting nature of the first LP, with a harshness which is not always totally comforting.  That said, the "live" flavour is still very much there, apparently achieved in part by the judicious employment of microphones and amplifiers. I think that the "blues" component is sometimes subordinated to the pure "rock" elements, and here perhaps lies the reason for the album's influence on generations of musicians.  At some point, the music ceases to be "blues rock" and becomes "hard rock", loath as I am to acknowledge such rigid labels.

Despite this set's reputation as a seminal staging post in the development of heavy rock styles, it is more eclectic than might be thought. The group's melodic, reflective and folk-rock inclinations are allowed free rein on "Thank You" and "Ramble On", and there is some quite pure and authentic blues. In its bite, Led Zeppelin II exudes a distinctive character, removed from the rest of Zeppelin's catalogue, and there are numerous memorable and exciting moments to savour.

The fame of "Whole Lotta Love" can be seen to dominate this album and overshadow all else,and this is a pity.  The song's perceived importance is out of all proportion to its artistic merit, in my opinion. Minimalist, it has "shrunk" on me as the decades have passed.  The middle section is quite affecting in its suspense and its otherworldliness. Otherwise the allure has slowly but surely diminished through honest scrutiny and over-familiarity.

For me, the album proper commences with "What Is And What Should Never Be." , a classic instance of the potential of "light and shade", with some very satisfying guitar flourishes and hooks. "The Lemon Song" is a song which encapsulates the "organic" flavour which makes the early Zeppelin records so engrossing.  The gritty but "natural" feel is very pronounced here - the rhythm section in the middle part, the lovely fluidity of Jimmy Page's playing.  The vocal is also given a nice fuzzy treatment.

"Thank You" is a nice surprise in its elegance, gentleness and poignancy.  It features one of Robert Plant's more endearing and heartfelt vocals, and the production carries distant echoes of the psychedelic and folk-rock genres. By contrast, "Heartbreaker" is constructed around an irresistibly voluptuous riff, great sounding drums, and "that" guitar solo in the middle.  One thing discernible in this track is that the overdubs are more "obvious" in places, a departure from the first record.

"Living Loving Maid", which feels like a natural follow-on from "Heartbreaker", is pleasant filler material, appearing more substantial and musically profound than it really is, due to clever production and arrangement. "Ramble On" is one of the record's definite high points, although if one is not careful, it can pass by almost unnoticed. More light and shade, a generally idiosyncratic and ethereal nature, and the employment of "exotic" instruments make it a pleasing piece. It stands up better than most Zeppelin tracks to the passage of time.

"Moby Dick" is a bit of self-indulgence. A "skip track", to be totally truthful.  Great to hear John Bonham's prowess, but I actually prefer the instrumental "verse" section; the strong riff and the flourishes of guitar.

"Bring It On Home" is yet another example of light and shade . The understated, almost reticent bluesy verse, abruptly superseded by more ebullient and vigorous passages , Harmonica is also effectively used.  Not a great song, but an impactful and effervescent piece of music.  In fact, the same could be said of many of the numbers here.

In appraising Led Zeppelin II, I would say that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Few of the tracks possess the capacity to animate the spirits, or to instill real emotion.  Still, it holds the attention, even if it lacks the personality and charm of other Zeppelin works. We are "meant" and " supposed" to accept its rightful place in the pantheon, but thinking objectively, I would have to say that it is one the band's weaker efforts.  This is not to say that it is a bad album, far from it, but I don't think it is quite as spectacular as the "mythology" sometimes asserts.