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.