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.