Thursday, 19 December 2019

Napoleon: The Man Behind The Myth - Adam Zamoyski

I have read several biographies of Napoleon Bonaparte, but this offering by Adam Zamoyski was one I simply had to check out, having enjoyed one or two of the author's other books.

Napoleon: The Man Behind The Myth takes an emotionally detached view of the great man, and is outwardly quite "dry" when compared to such biographies as Andrew Roberts' Napoleon The Great. There is little of the hero worship or hyperbole which sometimes pervade chronicles of Napoleon's life.

The point which Zamoyski appears to be making is that Napoleon was very much a man of his time, who did have some outstanding qualities, but was not a superhuman. I detected a certain scepticism about some features of the French Revolution and its aftermath, particularly concerning how certain principles of the Enlightenment were implemented practically.  Having said all this, I would emphasise that this is a balanced and convincing account, and the author points out many instances where Napoleon was in the right or vindicated by the course of events.

One of the central themes in this book is the notion of Bonaparte "saving" the Revolution, and the tension between revolutionary ideals and the measures which Napoleon deemed necessary to stabilise France after he assumed power.

As hinted at before, the book is written in quite a sober, measured style.  However, what it possibly lacks in "fireworks", it more than makes up for in depth, and genuine insight into political realities and the merits of events and initiatives.  The book can seem to start slowly, but if the reader persists he or she will be richly rewarded.

The biography is strong on strategic matters, but it does not dwell on military intricacies. One will find that certain major campaigns or episodes are not covered in the minute detail which might be expected.  Even in "condensed" form, however, the chronicling of events in Russia in 1812 is still harrowing.

A feature which recurs is the "obsession", especially after 1804, with harnessing monarchical trappings. As someone who has grown very inimical to such things, I found myself very receptive to the author's observations. A lot of care is taken to illustrate Napoleon's exercising of power and how he interacted with those around him, including his often wayward relatives.  Another key aspect of the interpretation is how the subjects of "honour" and "saving face" loomed so large, and how Napoleon became trapped by some notion of being guided by destiny and his "star".

So to conclude this is a highly authoritative and balanced assessment of Napoleon's life and career, which is underpinned by the author's sure grasp of the big picture.

Wednesday, 4 December 2019

Aguirre, the Wrath Of God (1972 film)

This movie, directed and produced by Werner Herzog, tells the story of a group of 16th century Spanish conquistadors who embark on an expedition in the Amazon to discover the "golden city" of El Dorado.  Klaus Kinski appears in the title role.

Some of the visual imagery in this film is quite spectacular, and reminded me somewhat of the content of some of Herzog's documentaries. Man's struggle with nature is strongly projected, as is his insignificance and helplessness when faced with the strength and pitilessness of the elements.

The plot basically centres on Aguirre's taking control of the group on the journey, in the face of mutinies, setbacks and tragedies. It is easy to conclude that the film becomes bogged down, or loses its clarity and direction, in its middle section, but these sequences are vital to understanding the narrative and the motives of the participants. With these dynamics thus absorbed, the conclusion to the work becomes more rewarding and digestible.

A large part of the fascination of this movie is its examination of power dynamics and personal megalomania, even when largely abstract and pointless, within an isolated group. A microcosm, perhaps, of human social structures and how they are affected by human nature. It also says something about the differences between real power and that which is symbolic or merely imaginary. Power can sometimes be desired and acquired for its own sake, as an end in itself, even where there appears to be no tangible objective or result.

Clearly, for a film set during the early days of European colonialism, one is forced to ask who were the civilised people, and what constitutes "civilised" behaviour. One can argue that the Europeans were self-appointed arbiters.

So overall this is a powerful, visually spectacular and engrossing film, with great, atmospheric music courtesy of Popol Vuh.

Tuesday, 26 November 2019

Nosferatu - Phantom der Nacht - 1979 film

I recently watched this film, directed by Werner Herzog, which is essentially a remake of the classic 1922 silent picture, which itself was essentially an adaptation of the Dracula story.

The visuals in this movie are lavish and impactful, and this factor is important in capturing and instilling the requisite mood.  The same could be said for Popol Vuh's atmospheric and evocative soundtrack. Their styles could have been made for this kind of subject matter, although perhaps not traditionally what one would associate with vampire stories.

This interpretation of the story appears to slant towards an examination of Dracula's personal plight, a psychological study, and looks at how he was trapped by his predicament.

Tension and anticipation are expertly constructed. Part of the interest is in discovering what kind of take Herzog applies to the tale and the traditions. Great use is made of brooding, menacing natural landscapes, and shadow and light. To my mind this picture is more "European" than other vampire movies, with an additional layer of mystique and eeriness.

The dialogue is relatively sparse, and this leaves gaps which accentuate the sense of dread and uncertainty. Klaus Kinski is supremely creepy in the title role, evoking a character who inspires fear, but also fascination and even sympathy.

With its Gothic majesty and the scenes involving rats, this movie is quite uncompromising, stark and unremitting, but highly accomplished technically and eminently watchable.

Wednesday, 23 October 2019

Lotte In Weimar - Thomas Mann

Continuing my exploration of the works of Thomas Mann, I recently read his novel Lotte In Weimar, originally published in 1939.

This novel tells the story of a visit to Weimar by a woman who was the "muse" and inspiration behind the main female character in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's novel The Sorrows of Young Werther. Charlotte has come to Weimar ostensibly to see her sister, but she becomes an object of fascination for the locals, and she has a reunion with Goethe himself.

The early chapters are very much consistent with some other Mann novels, with their vibrant and engrossing character, and their richness of detail. The passages which explore the closing stages of the Napoleonic Wars and the parallel political developments in Germany, and their effects on Goethe's family and social circle, are riveting. Conversations between Charlotte and a series of visitors serve as a fascinating examination of Goethe's personality, motivations and world-view.

Subsequent chapters were less appealing for me. Some space is taken up with a conversation which Goethe appears to have with himself, and which is delivered in almost a stream-of-consciousness manner. There are some nuggets of interest in there, though.  The narrative and the focus pick up again when the aforementioned Goethe-Charlotte reunion finally occurs.

Throughout Lotte In Weimar we see evidence of Thomas Mann's social and political concerns, largely told through the person of Goethe and others. The author's misgivings about developments in Germany during Mann's own time find echoes in a critique of  the upsurge of German nationalist sentiment during the early nineteenth century. The fact that this book was first published in 1939/40 must have furnished it with a contemporary resonance.  The political points are eloquently and sharply observed and outlined here.

So this is an intriguing and rewarding read, different in content and atmosphere to what I had anticipated.

Monday, 14 October 2019

Confessions Of Felix Krull - Thomas Mann

Thomas Mann has, in recent years, become one of my favourite novelists, perhaps rivalling only Hermann Hesse in my estimations. The prospect of reading Confessions Of Felix Krull was an enticing one.

Confessions Of Felix Krull is essentially the "memoir" of the eponymous character. Thomas Mann apparently intended to publish several volumes, but his death prevented these plans being realised.

The story is set in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Felix Krull is a young man from an affluent German family. However, the family falls on hard economic times. Following his father's death, young Felix goes out into the world, to make use of his looks, his wits, his charm and his burgeoning abilities as a con-man.

Much of the early going is taken up with an exploration of Krull's formative years, and how his personality and outlook on life came about.

Some of my favourite passages in the novel concern his time spent in Frankfurt. We gain an idea and an understanding of the social conditions of that time, and we also learn about some of Felix's often lurid adventures and liaisons in the big city.  Felix then moves to Paris to work in a hotel.

I would surmise that the majority of readers will not find the character of Felix Krull very sympathetic, and may conclude that he is downright irritating. Mann may have been writing with tongue-in-cheek, and at the same time making some gentle, and occasionally not so gentle, social commentary. Although the author could have admired some of the character's qualities and talents, I doubt that their respective world-views would have overlapped much.  We are, however, left to interpret or imagine how the writer would have appraised the world in which Krull operated.

The moral ambiguity of the main character is perhaps what makes this book a less rewarding read for me than some other Mann works. The "philosophical" elements seemed more superficial and there was less depth to the characters and the narrative. Maybe the (unwritten/unpublished) subsequent volumes might have redressed the balance in this respect? On the positive side, there are still many examples of Mann's aptitude for detail, imagination and scene-setting.

As this story was "unfinished", the ending to this novel might seem enigmatic or anti-climactic. Mann had set very high standards with some of his previous offerings, but his writing is always formidable, absorbing and invigorating. Very much worth one's time.

Tuesday, 8 October 2019

Les Rendez-vous d'Anna (The Meetings of Anna) - 1978 film

This is an intriguing and sometimes unsettling film, directed and written by Chantal Akerman, and starring Aurore Clement.

The story follows a film-maker (Anna) as she journeys across Europe on business. Along the way she has encounters with friends, strangers, relatives, acquaintances and lovers. She listens to the other people as they tell their stories and their gossip, but she seems curiously distant and disengaged. This is a film about isolation, the personal price of success, and about the human condition in general, set against the backdrop of an economically and socially stagnant continent, rendered so by the energy crisis and its effects.

I would say that the world portrayed in this movie is dreary and impersonal, characterised by uniformity, routine and ennui. There is almost a surreal flavour at points, conveying the unnaturalness and loneliness. The relative sparsity of the dialogue heightens the unreality and the discomfort, as does the relative absence of bystanders when characters are interacting with each other.

Aurore Clement is perfect for the role of Anna.  Effortlessly elegant and compelling, but possessing the ability to maintain an impassive visage, which at the same time is curiously evocative.

The impression which emerges is of people fighting against the coldness and superficiality of their lives, seeking humanity and emotional contact amongst the torpor, their discussions fluctuating between the trivial, the profound and the incongruous. This leads to awkwardness, people struggling to be natural, relaxed or expressive. Communication, or genuine communication, is difficult.

Throughout, the writer/director appears to be essaying a commentary on post-war Europe.  The adults of that time are still affected by their experiences, and the legacy of, World War Two. Some of the routines and regimentation of the war, and the post-war epoch, are still evident.

Some of the unreality experienced by creative people is perhaps explored here. Anna struggles to express herself in everyday discourse, so maybe she leaves things to her films;easier that way.

The cinematography and backdrops are in accord with the general tone. Darkness, cold and overcast weather predominate, and they complement the illustrations of the grind and occasional futility of life, the feeling of being powerless and on a treadmill.

Viewing this picture provoked ruminations in me about how much has really changed since the late 1970s. I have a feeling, or more specifically a hope, that things might have changed in another forty years from now, but I fear that even then this work will have a heavy contemporary pertinence.

The dialogue sometimes hints that work blocks out, or assuages, some of our dissatisfaction or disillusionment, at least for a while.  One might enquire what sort of life that is, or is that what life is actually supposed to be, all along?

We are all searching for something, usually fruitlessly.  The sense of transience may persuade some that life is a series of moments, and that we must extract the maximum possible from those moments.

I wouldn't necessarily describe this as a life-affirming film, but it is one which powerfully illustrates forces and factors which we constantly need to be aware of, as they have the potential to damage us, or define us.

Wednesday, 2 October 2019

Sonnenallee - 1999 film

I recently watched Sonnenallee, a 1999 German comedy film, directed by Leander Haussman.

This is a movie which I had been wanting to see for some little time, and I was glad that I did.  The work tells the story, set in the late 1970s, of a group of people living in East Berlin, very close to the East/West border. Indeed, the street on which they reside is "bisected" by the Berlin Wall itself. Some have friends or relatives living in the West.

The younger people are obsessed with "forbidden" Western rock and pop music.  One of the characters devotes much of his time endeavouring to obtain, by "unofficial" means, a copy of the Rolling Stones' Exile On Main St. album.

The main character, Micha, is preoccupied with his efforts to win the heart of the beautiful Miriam. Alexander Scheer excels in the role of Micha, and it is his performance which helps make Sonnenallee so endearing and entertaining.

As I watched the picture I found myself trying to work out which parts of the script were satirical and which were intended literally. The writers were undoubtedly poking fun at some of the GDR's shortcomings and absurdities, but I also gained the impression that they were seeking to get across the notion that the state had its plus points.  They may have been hoping to go beyond stereotypical portrayals, and in places could actually have been satirizing the West's often simplistic depictions of East German society.

There are some great "set piece" scenes in the film, some revolving around music, others looking at peculiar or noteworthy aspects of life in the GDR.  I enjoyed the parts which examined the issue of the smuggling of contraband from West to East.

Quite apart from the historical and political sub-texts, this is simply a very engaging and enjoyable film. I am admittedly highly receptive to the subject matter here, but I found this much funnier than most Western films of its type.

Friday, 20 September 2019

We'll Live Till Monday - 1968 film

We'll Live Till Monday, directed by Stanislav Rostotsky, is a 1968 Soviet film.  Set in a Moscow school, it examines the relationships and tensions between staff and students in said establishment.

This is another one of those movies which just had to be produced in black-and-white, as the monochrome makes for a certain ascetic quality, as well as offering scope for some effective imagery and symbolism.

The central character in this drama is the history teacher Melnikov. He appears sour, careworn, abrupt and something of an outsider with his colleagues.

A notable feature of this film for me is the irreverence of some of the main players and their dialogue. It is good that we have the chance to see these films. They show a side of the USSR which some people cannot conceive of.  The same dynamics, concerns and conflicts existed in Soviet institutions as they did in their Western equivalents.  It may be that the school was intended as a microcosm of tensions and upheavals in wider Soviet society.  People were striving for means of self-expression and autonomy, testing the boundaries perhaps.

It also occurred to me that the school portrayed here was less rigid and regimented than my own alma mater in England....

Throughout there are subtle commentaries and observations concerning Soviet educational and cultural matters, often delivered with some sarcasm or cynicism.

I liked the sets and the bleak-ish sense of realism in this picture, and in general there is a sense of refinement and elegance which truly appealed to me. No big portentous themes, just an intelligent and endearing piece of film-making, containing fine acting from many of those involved.

Perhaps the most intriguing quote from the film - "Happiness is to be understood"....

Wednesday, 11 September 2019

The Enigma Of Kaspar Hauser - 1974 film

One of the most affecting films which I have seen recently was The Enigma Of Kaspar Hauser, written and directed by Werner Herzog, and released in 1974.

Based on real events, and set in the 19th century, the movie follows the experiences of Kaspar, who had spent the first seventeen years of his existence imprisoned in a cell, with little or no contact with society or other people. One day he is released from this captivity by a mysterious man dressed in black who had apparently fed him previously.

Initially Kaspar is "abandoned" in a nearby village, and is viewed with curiosity by the locals. Having been cut off from "civilization", he has not been nurtured, or raised on societal norms. He therefore exhibits different thresholds, interpretations and reactions towards things around him.

The spectacle of Kaspar getting used to his new surroundings got me thinking.  Perhaps people don't realise what "natural" is, and overlook the impact of man-made customs and laws. Because Kaspar does not conform to society's conceptions of "civilized" behaviour, it seems that the people decide that he has to be exploited, demeaned and humiliated. Fear and ignorance come into play here, in addition to deference to the status quo and "how things are done".

Kaspar was taught by the villagers largely on their terms.  Later, after being rescued and "adopted" by a professor,  he was allowed to find his own way more, and to express himself.  Unsullied by the strictures of mainstream society, he is not brainwashed and indoctrinated like others, on questions of religion, social status and morality. Also, he refrains from subscribing to conventional wisdom on some academic matters.

Kaspar has not been tutored in the niceties of polite society.  He is not aggressive, but he has developed differently. In seeing his musical inclinations, we perhaps see a hint that some things transcend social mores and hierarchies.

The concluding passages of the film are pleasingly ambiguous, and are open to various interpretations. One idea in my mind was that Kaspar was physically attacked because he was not "developing" or assimilating in the manner hoped for or anticipated, and that the "experiment" was going awry.

I found the autopsy scenes fascinating. The participants were arguably missing the point on the question of "abnormality".  Perhaps it is the others who are strange and abnormal, rather than Kaspar himself?

This film was a very interesting and intriguing watch, posing some fairly profound questions about how our society, and our perceptions of normality, have developed over the centuries.

Wednesday, 4 September 2019

Ali: Fear Eats The Soul - 1974 film

Increasingly I have been drawn towards European art cinema, and in particular the simpler works with restrained production values, which make the viewer think rather than assaulting the senses with special effects and action sequences.

One such film which I watched recently only reinforced the direction of my movie-viewing habits.  This was Ali:Fear Eats The Soul, a 1974 film written and directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder.

Set in Munich, the film focuses on the relationship between a 60 year old German woman (Emmi) and a younger Moroccan guest-worker (Ali).  They are subjected to much prejudice and hatred, and Emmi is ostracized by many of those around her, particularly after the pair get married.

The dialogue between the two main characters is very natural and charming, and I found myself rooting for the two main characters (Emmi and Ali), as they are both sympathetic and likeable.

As much as the relationship between Emmi and Ali is endearing and touching to behold, the attitudes of many of the people around them are troubling and disturbing.  I guess that Fassbinder was shining a light on the darker aspects of the German economic miracle, and of West German post-war society generally.

The contrast between the humanity and genuineness of Ali and Emmi, and the rigidity and bigotry of other people is very stark.  The film also explores themes of loneliness, isolation and alienation. The settings are quite austere and bleak, exacerbating these sensations. Interestingly, and disconcertingly, many of the issues brought up by this picture are still resonant today.

In addition to the other merits of the film, the acting is of a high order, and special praise has to go to Brigitte Mira, who plays the role of Emmi.  Fassbinder himself  acts in one of the supporting roles.

There is some fine symbolism in this movie, and Ali and Emmi are often shown alone, with other people either absent or at some distance, as if to emphasise how they are alone, shunned by the rest of the population.

Ali: Fear Eats The Soul I found to be an absorbing and engaging film, the kind of work which really makes people think.

Monday, 26 August 2019

First Spaceship On Venus (1960 film)

Having acquired a pronounced taste for classic Eastern European science fiction movies, I recently watched First Spaceship On Venus, which is an English-language version of a East German/Polish film called The Silent Star (a literal translation of the original title).  The picture is based on a novel written by Stanislaw Lem.

The story begins when it is discovered that a "rock fragment" found in the Gobi Desert is in fact a "flight recorder" from a spaceship which has made contact with Earth.  After it is determined that the spacecraft in question must have originated on Venus, the authorities resolve to launch a mission to that planet to investigate matters further.  Once there, some startling findings are made.

Some portions of the movie have a semi-documentary flavour.  I was impressed by the fast-moving style, which is evident from the outset.  The editing and the vibrant narrative ensured that the attention of this viewer was maintained.

The message, especially in the early stages, is one of international co-operation, of mankind operating in unity to address its challenges and its hopes. I found this aspect of the film to be uplifting rather than preachy or conceited, as it is delivered with such transparency and directness.

Indeed, I was attracted by the broader ambience of the film.  The narrative felt organic and measured, and the cinematography was inventive and sharp. Of course, the special effects lived down to the standards which we expect of science fiction movies from that epoch, but they are by no means the most embarrassing or primitive which I have seen.  The diverse cast of characters on board the Venus-bound spaceship make for some interesting dynamics.

Needless to say, as a film made in Eastern Europe at the height of the Cold War, issues such as peace, nuclear annihilation and so forth assume considerable prominence.  Without giving away the plot, it seemed to me that to some extent, Venus was being held up as an example of what could occur on Earth if we do not recognise our folly.

In fairness, I was expecting more of a moralistic tone than was actually the case. The usual science fiction ruminations about the misuse of science and knowledge receive an airing, but in comparatively low-key fashion.

The one thing which surprised me was the ending, which felt vaguely lacklustre, although the part where the surviving crew members give their assessment to the assembled well-wishers is quite moving and dramatic.

So, in conclusion an intriguing and well made film, which moves along at an agreeable pace, poses some valid philosophical points unobtrusively, and does not outstay its welcome.

Monday, 12 August 2019

M (1931 film)

Just recently I saw a mention of Fritz Lang's 1931 film M, on social media.  Having been transfixed and enthralled by the same director's epic Metropolis, I resolved to watch M.

The story is set in Berlin, and centres on the hunt for a serial killer who is abducting and murdering children. At some point members of the city's criminal underworld decide to launch their own hunt for the killer, although the purity of their motives is open to question.  Peter Lorre stars as the main suspect, Beckert.

From its beginning, this film displays a great inventiveness, grittiness and attention to detail, with much intriguing imagery and symbolism.  The opening scene, in which some children are singing a "chant" about the murder of children, is rather chilling and powerfully but subtly presented. There can't have been too many films tackling such dark and challenging subject matter in the early 1930s.

Peter Lorre is never less than compelling in the role of Beckert, and his "monologue" towards the end of the movie is both gripping and harrowing.

M has some interesting sub-texts, among which are society's attitudes towards children, the rule of law and the decencies of civilization. I interpreted one of the film's messages as being that some people are ambivalent about even such terrible crimes, and more worried about how their own private interests might be affected, whilst others exhibit an unpleasant ferocity and hysteria, shedding their powers of reason.

It is fascinating to note that even in 1931 it is posited that criminal cases have become media events, although back then of course the main medium was the newspaper.  The paranoia and distrust engendered by the murders is cleverly portrayed, accentuated by the generally dark tone and the sets.

One thing which occurred to me whilst watching this picture was a slight parallel with Erich Kastner's Emil and The Detectives. In that novel a group of youngsters try to solve a crime themselves. Here, the criminal elements do a similar thing, assisted by various locals, including beggars. Whether the similarity is significant I genuinely have no idea, but the two stories do appear to have been written around the same time.

I found M to be a highly absorbing film, cleverly conceived and asking some unsettling questions about modern society and human nature. Apparently Lang regarded this as his favourite among his own films, and that in itself is high praise indeed.

Saturday, 29 June 2019

The Prodigy - Hermann Hesse

I have recently resolved to re-read the works of the great German author Hermann Hesse, and as part of this process I revisited his novel The Prodigy, which has also been published under the alternative title Beneath The Wheel.

The novel tells the tale of a gifted young man called Hans from southern Germany who works hard to attain admission to a prestigious theological college, but is subject to constant pressures from his father, schoolteachers and others.  Once at the aforementioned college, he becomes friendly with a young man who questions the value of "abstract" scholasticism. Hans falls from favour with the college hierarchy, his academic performance diminishes, and he suffers from a breakdown, and returns home, eventually enrolling as an apprentice in a manual occupation.

As ever with Hesse's works, there are lots of pleasing passages concerning a person's oneness with nature, and an immersion in the simple pleasures of life. Again, in keeping with the regular Hesse style, there is not much in the way of direct social criticism, and much of his message can be found between the lines, as it were. There is the occasional slice of sarcasm, which underlined for me that the topics covered in this novel were of particular moment for the writer.

The preamble, covering the time prior to our hero's admission to the theological college, is a delight, and worth the "admission fee" on its own.

This novel is ostensibly a critique of the educational system which prevailed in the early twentieth century. More broadly, it explores themes of regimentation, oppression, the folly of some academic pursuits, and conformity as a route to stagnation and decay. Hesse extols the virtues and value of work which brings one closer to nature, which has a tangible result, and which activates and nourishes all of our senses.  For me, it brings home the necessity for a balance in our lives.

Another strand which runs through the story for me is that people should be allowed to find their own path, and that we should not let the success or acquiescence of others become the measure of our own self-esteem, value or prestige.

This is a highly affecting novel, and is to my mind one of the more straightforward and linear of Hermann Hesse's works. Although the story is told from the standpoint of early twentieth-century Europe, the issues are still relevant. Perhaps some of the ills discussed here are less "institutionalized" nowadays, but they are still pervasive and important.

Saturday, 8 June 2019

News From Nowhere - William Morris

During my adult life I have tended to read fewer fictional works than I would have preferred, and generally those novels which I have enjoyed have been of the more "philosophical" variety, including some utopian and dystopian science fiction. William Morris' 1890 novel News From Nowhere pretty much corresponds to these tendencies of mine.

In this novel, a man falls asleep in Victorian London, and apparently wakes up in a future society which styles itself as a socialist utopia, and which is agrarian in character.  He is given a tour of this "new world" by the people who he meets, and this takes in boat journeys along the River Thames.

Even allowing for the times when the work was composed, I found the writing style to be an acquired taste. Although not quite archaic in its flavour, in places it may be difficult for some to follow and even understand. Of the novel itself, I was pleasantly surprised by how enjoyable and absorbing I found it.

The fact that the new society outlined in this book is agrarian in nature means that it probably made more sense back in the late nineteenth century than it does to a twenty-first century audience raised in an age of globalization and rapid technological progress. Despite this, some aspects of the utopia envisaged here are very much relevant to our own modern concerns and problems. Perhaps Morris was prescient and astute in observing that technology does not necessarily emancipate the people, or rather is not allowed to emancipate the people.

Whilst the agrarian society portrayed in News From Nowhere seems impractical and implausible to us in our hi-tech world, and the old arguments concerning incentives and competition remain very valid, facets of this utopian vision are worthy of consideration and scrutiny, as part of piecemeal social and economic reform to improve our world and make it more humane, stimulating and equitable.

One feature of the novel which I found slightly disconcerting was the revelation, or insinuation, that all the people were happy, and that they evince a certain kind of serenity.  This seems unlikely and even undesirable.  A place where there is a uniformity of expressions and moods sounds to my antennae like more of a dystopia!

Some of the language used, and the arguments advanced, are quite persuasive, certainly of the evils of 19th century society and its contemporary industrialism, but whether this means that the agrarian route was a practical and workable solution is another matter entirely.  Perhaps there is a gap in the market for someone to write a novel where a person falls asleep in a 21st century environment and wakes up in a future libertarian socialist set-up?  Maybe we are currently at a similar stage, "spiritually" if not materially speaking, as the Victorians were?

I was heartened that some form of "explanation" was offered as to how the old society of "commercial slavery" gave way to the brave new world, but I found myself wanting more.  For example, what was the full human cost of the transition?  In fairness, we are left wondering whether our hero's "experiences" were from a dream, and some minutiae may not have been imparted in such a dream....

Moving on, I was intrigued by one of the central tenets of this utopia; the notion that work can be pleasurable, and vice-versa, and of the idea that the barriers between work and art can be eroded. Weren't we once told that technological advances would allow people more time and space to indulge in stimulating and rewarding artistic, intellectual and leisurely pursuits?

My interpretation of the utopia proclaimed in this work was that it was too uniformly "nice", with little time for dissenting voices, which appeared to be treated with disdain. The tone of the characters seemed to me unduly smug and complacent, with scant allowance for the co-existence of philosophies or the possibility of syncretism. People in that situation may be too comfortable and serene to notice anything sinister or insidious in their midst. In addition, I think there was too easy an assumption that the old habits and vices would simply disappear or fade away.

Much play is made of the populace of this future community being at one with nature, and loving life as opposed to fearing death. Surely we can incorporate some of the more desirable elements of Morris' vision in our future, by way of gradual, rational reform, and the application of reason, if we put our minds to it, without dispensing with some of the dynamic forces which propel human progress?

Overall, I liked this novel much more than I had anticipated beforehand.  It is more "literary" than I thought it might be, and it is well worth a read.

Saturday, 18 May 2019

Shadow Of A Doubt (1943 film)

In one of those moments inspired by a transient piece of social media information, I decided to give a watch to Shadow Of A Doubt, Alfred Hitchcock's 1943 thriller/film noir, which stars Teresa Wright and Joseph Cotten.

The plot centres on a visit by Oakley (Joseph Cotten) to the family of his sister, a family which includes his niece, the young Charlotte (Teresa Wright), who rather idolizes her uncle. It soon emerges, however, that Oakley is harbouring some very dark secrets.

One of the first things which I noticed about this picture was the meticulousness of the narrative, and the care taken to build and develop the suspense. Quite apart from this, the characterizations, including the Newton household, and even the relatively minor players, ensure that this film holds the interest, almost independently of the central direction of the story line.

Some elements which seem destined to be pivotal to the story are relatively peripheral, whilst those who look like classic red herrings end up being influential to how things turn out.  Part of the appeal and the energy of Shadow Of A Doubt, as with other Hitchcock works, is the masterly way in which we are kept guessing and wondering. Clearly the viewer knows that something is likely to be amiss, and the portentous atmosphere early on in the film contributes to this mindset.

Joseph Cotten is excellent as the suave, but manipulative and cynical Oakley.  Soon after his arrival at the Newton residence he is affable, and the sudden arrival of his sinister side, and the dissolving of the earlier jollity and levity, is disconcerting but absorbing to behold. Teresa Wright is a delight as Charlotte, who has to cope with many of her illusions being shattered.

In general, the movie has a wonderfully "organic" quality which it shares with many of the classic black and white films of that period. The period fashions and stylings are also highly appealing. My one gripe is the background music, which occasionally intrudes unnecessarily, but I guess this was a trait common to many pictures of those days.

Shadow Of A Doubt is a movie which demands very close attention, as it is easy to miss snippets of dialogue, or "clues", which will enhance one's understanding of the story.  It is a highly enjoyable and rewarding film to see.  The ending is also quite something!

Tuesday, 7 May 2019

Zerograd (1988 film)

Zerograd (also known as Gorod Zero) is a 1988 Soviet film, directed by Karen Shakhnazarov and starring Leonid Filatov.

I stumbled across this movie whilst searching for more Soviet science fiction, and I am glad that I watched it, as it had a distinct, but intangible, effect on me.

The story revolves around an engineer (played by Filatov) who journeys from Moscow to a small town on business. Once there, he is confronted by a series of strange events, many of which take place after he witnesses a suicide.

Zerograd has a surreal and disorientating flavour to it, but it is also quite absorbing. The fact that it was made in 1988 in the Soviet Union will mean that people (including myself) will perhaps look for messages which are not really there.  In fact, the beauty of this picture is that it does not make simplistic or direct social observations, and it works on more than one level.

There is a scene in a museum which is perhaps central to an attempt at understanding this film, and this portion of the film is both philosophically fascinating and technically admirable, as well as being amusing.  Also, there is at one point a monologue by the town prosecutor, and this is also perhaps key to ascertaining what the writers were getting at.

A word of praise too for the performance of Leonid Filatov in the role of Varakin, the engineer.  He endearingly conveys a mixture of confusion, impatience, ennui and bewilderment.

Overall, I found Zerograd to be a powerful, fascinating and absorbing film.  It is one of those films which will probably continue to pose questions and tax the viewer's imagination on repeated viewings;quite a rare feat for any film, I would say.  One just has to watch the picture and draw one's own conclusions.

Monday, 29 April 2019

Yorkshire Sculpture Park

I thought I would post a few photographs which I took on my recent visit to Yorkshire Sculpture Park  -  -  which is situated in West Bretton, near Wakefield.

Overall, I found this to be a stimulating and interesting day out. The park was much larger in scale than I had anticipated, so be prepared to walk a fair distance if you want to get the most from your visit! There is a wide variety of exhibits, many outdoors, some indoors. Not everything on display will be immediately to everyone's taste, but approach it with an open mind and it should be a rewarding experience....

Wednesday, 3 April 2019

World On A Wire - 1973 movie

World On A Wire (German: Welt am Draht) is a 1973 German science-fiction movie, directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and based on a novel by Daniel F. Galouye.  I recently watched this film, and found it both interesting and thoughtful.

The story revolves around a research institute, which houses a supercomputer.  The computer generates an "artificial world", a kind of electronically simulated environment. The chief scientist dies in mysterious circumstances, and there follows a series of unusual events and intrigues surrounding his successor.

One of the first things which I noticed about this picture is its pronounced "Seventies" aesthetic, in terms of stylings and decor. Personally I find such things very appealing, especially the austere and minimalist architecture, furnishings and so forth. There is also adroit and impressive use of mirrors in several scenes.

In all honesty, the general narrative is not of striking originality, but the minutiae are thought-provoking and clever. The movie explores the standard, well-worn science fiction themes concerning the uses (or misuses) of technology and science, and also the nature of reality and perception. Unlike some films of its ilk, it does not moralize with undue vehemence, but it does pose questions about whether scientific research and progress should fulfill a socially beneficial and benevolent function, and it examines the thorny issues of the conflicts between scientists and bureaucrats/politicians, the extent to which the boffins should be controlled and supervised by the "civilians", and the dangers of technology being subverted by commercial or private interests.

There is quite an ascetic flavour to the film overall, with a mild sense of disorientation heightened by music and sound affects, which are sometimes incongruous in nature.

Without giving away too much, as the movie progresses we get an impression of the blurred lines between "reality" and the simulated world. Elements of the plot I found rather ambiguous, and the latter stages of the work are confusing, but they do serve to exercise and stimulate the grey matter.

An interesting film.

Tuesday, 26 March 2019

Bohemian Rhapsody (film)

I thought it was about time that I voiced my thoughts on Bohemian Rhapsody, the Freddie Mercury/Queen biopic.  I first saw the movie when it was released here in the cinemas in England in late 2018, and recently viewed it again on DVD.

The first thing to say is that Rami Malek delivers an impressive and endearing performance in the role of Freddie Mercury. He captures, I think, some of the complexities and contradictions in Freddie's personality. I have heard it suggested that such a performance is almost wasted on such a film, and I can see the merits in this argument.

I would also contend that the film is very well made from a technical point of view, with a clearly substantial budget, and the visuals are very appealing and well constructed.  My own personal appraisal of the film overall is that it didn't really grab me emotionally, even with my affection for, and familiarity with, the subject matter.

I won't dwell too much on the lack of absolute historical accuracy in the movie, as this is a given with the majority of biopics.  Over the years I have learned that it is difficult to comfortably watch biopics about subjects on which one is knowledgeable, as one will instantly start picking holes in the accuracy or otherwise of the piece.  Just try to enjoy it for what it is. The picture was not produced for the benefit of Queen "anoraks" such as myself, but for the wider public.

The actors playing the other band members do a fine job.  The guy playing Brian May got the demeanour and many of the mannerisms spot-on, although I was disappointed that "Roger Taylor"'s voice and accent were not closer to the "genuine article".

I thought that Lucy Boynton was very good as Mary Austin, adding some gravitas, and the Freddie/Mary sequences generally form the backbone of the movie for me, tracing the changes and turning-points in Freddie's life.   The scenes exploring the singer's background and family also fulfill this function to some extent.

Some of the film is quite moving and sad, but there are also some good comedic touches, and amusing dialogue along the way.  Part of the fun of watching the film should be to spot Mike Myers, which I failed to do straight away when I first saw it.

My own personal favourite scenes are those which chronicle the recording of "A Night At The Opera". These sections are beautifully done, very pleasant to the eye, and both amusing and in places poignant.

The concert sequences are what we have come to expect from such movies, and although I did not find them particularly convincing, they are not the reason why I watched the film. I was much more interested in the general narrative and the studies and development of characters.

I found the second half of the movie fascinating in some ways, as the timespan which it covers has been for me something of a "lost period" in the Queen story.  Having reached some kind of peak of commercial success, problems began to emerge in the form of personal and artistic differences. How accurate a reflection of this era is presented in the movie is a matter of opinion, but I noted the dark tone of much of this section of the work, in contrast to the more bright and sprightly ambience of other areas of the film.  To be honest, I was mildly surprised that this part of the story was covered with such candour.

People may think that Rami Malek occasionally goes "over the top", but it is very difficult to portray accurately and convincingly such a unique and charismatic person.  It is difficult to imagine any other actor managing the task as well as Malek does here.  I think he beautifully evokes some of the unreality and loneliness of fame and fortune.

So for me Bohemian Rhapsody the movie is by no means a masterpiece, but it is entertaining and slickly produced, with a snappy and organic flavour. It just lacks that intangible quality and dynamism which truly great cinema possesses, that which engages the watcher on a higher plane.

Monday, 18 March 2019

Careless Love - The Unmaking of Elvis Presley - Peter Guralnick

I recently finished reading this superb work, which is the second and concluding volume of Peter Guralnick's highly acclaimed biography of Elvis Presley.  It takes the story from Elvis' induction into the US Army through to his death in August 1977.

The book takes in the "Hollywood years" of the 1960s, and excitedly documents Elvis' resurgence in the years 1968-73 (the Comeback Special, the "Suspicious Minds" period, the early Las Vegas years and the famous Hawaii satellite concert). 

As I made way through Careless Love, my interest increasingly centered on the shifting dynamics within the Elvis entourage and family, including the so-called Memphis Mafia. 

Guralnick captures the insidious and gradual nature of Elvis' descent into isolation and stagnation, with his increasing dependency on unhealthy lifestyle choices and his increasingly impulsive and bizarre behaviour. 

My tentative interpretation was that a life which had once been so full of new, exciting and novel things became predictable, constricting and stultifying.  The tipping point or source was imperceptible, and by the time it registered nobody knew how to forge an escape route. It seems that even as Presley's career fortunes were undergoing a pronounced upswing, his behaviour began to exhibit disturbing tendencies.

This is an absorbing and highly detailed book, intensively researched, but one cannot help but be saddened by the tale of decline and despair related in its closing chapters.  I found the writing style very appealing and immersive.  Highly recommended.  

Monday, 11 February 2019

Bob Dylan : Behind The Shades : Take Two - Clinton Heylin

Another of the music-orientated books which was sitting rather forlornly on my shelves was this Bob Dylan biography by Clinton Heylin. This particular edition was published in the year 2000.

Apart from my admiration for the music, my knowledge of Dylan had been somewhat sketchy. This tome filled in many of those gaps. It contains some interesting material about the subject's family background, his upbringing and his early musical forays.

This was the first Heylin work that I had read, and I quite liked the style. He spends a lot of time putting various myths and legends into perspective, presenting the basic facts.

I absolutely loved the story of Dylan's gradual immersion into folk music, and reading about it has spurred me to explore that scene more thoroughly myself. Heylin makes the story seem real, as the Dylan legend can sometimes appear overpowering. His path to greatness was not radically different to everyone else's.

To be honest, I didn't always agree with the author's opinions on music, or his pronouncements about certain artists, and the relative merits of some of Dylan's "competitors". Having said all this, Heylin's observations did instill a certain food for thought as regards who was truly "innovating" or "making the pace" in the mid-Sixties. The depth and vision of Dylan's albums of that time was unusual and challenging, and it is worth remembering how much reverence other artists had for the man and his music.

The author's take on Dylan's artistic progression certainly solidified my regard for the Blonde On Blonde album.  That record has a reputation for being enigmatic and less than immediately accessible, and I think that Heylin may have enabled some people to see its true strengths more clearly.

From the version presented here, it seems that being around Dylan and his touring entourage in the years 1965/1966 was not always the healthiest or pleasantest pastime. On the surface, it must have been a relief for him to escape from that whole scenario.

A feature of this book is the space and detail which it dedicates to Dylan's life and work following his 1966 motorcycle accident. The "Basement Tapes" era is looked at in some depth, and this section of the book provided me with some indications as to how The Band made the strides to the mastery of Music From Big Pink. 

The "lost" periods such as, let's say, 1970-1973 are a sizeable part of the fascination. I got quite engrossed with the journey which Dylan was on, as his work became perhaps more overtly influenced by his private life and by those creative individuals with whom he was associating.  Another feature of this book is that the author's views on what constitute Dylan's strong creative times do not always correspond with the general public consensus.

The Rolling Thunder Revue, at least in its earlier guise, seems like it was a lot of fun, both onstage and off!

I enjoyed the chapters which addressed the 1980s, although they occasionally felt slightly compressed; or maybe it was just that less of originality and note was really occurring? The tale of stagnation and marginalization, and of several false dawns, is sometimes painful to read. His interactions with the newer artists make for illuminating reading. Most of those people owed a great debt to Dylan, even if some of them did not realize it or appreciate it at the time.

As I followed the story from the early 1980s onwards, I increasingly wondered to myself how much of all this was actually fun. He seemed to be searching for something, but perhaps he didn't really know what that "something" was, hence the bewildering array of collaborations and backing musicians.

This is an interesting read, particularly for someone who is a Dylan fan, but not obsessively so.

Tuesday, 5 February 2019

Born to Boogie (1972 film)

I recently watched the 1972 film Born to Boogie, which is essentially a concert movie documenting a performance that year by Marc Bolan and T.Rex, with some added "extras".  The film also stars Ringo Starr and Elton John. Ringo also produced and directed the picture.

The movie was made at the height of T.Rex's fame and commercial success, and watching it prompted some random thoughts from me about Marc Bolan and about music generally.

Concert footage is interspersed with various vignettes and sequences. Born to Boogie does capture some of the dynamism,charisma and self-assurance which Bolan exuded at his peak, as well his own peculiar brand of showmanship. Again, one is reminded of the idiosyncratic appeal of the T.Rex sound, even in a "live" setting.  The rhythmic underpinnings, Bolan's chunky guitar-playing, and the anthemic and infectious flavour of the songs themselves.

Although the concert sections include the obligatory images of audience hysteria, I find the bits filmed at the concert a little tame.  The stage-sets and presentation seem rather sparse and under-cooked. It was only later I suppose that rock concerts became prolonged, slickly stage-managed multimedia extravaganzas.

The scenes inserted in among the concert footage are strange, and even self-indulgent. One or two of them remind one of The Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour, unsurprisingly perhaps, given the presence of one Ringo Starr. Some of these sequences were dated, even by 1972.  Personally, I would have preferred more conventional behind-the-scenes material, including interviews, in the vein of Martin Scorsese's The Last Waltz. In fairness, there is some fun film of Marc jamming in the studio with Ringo and Elton John, but this part is quite brief.

One or two people have pointed to Ringo Starr's involvement as a symbolic "passing of the torch" to the new leader of British pop. Ironically, within a year of the film's release Bolan and T.Rex had entered a decline in their commercial fortunes.

Bolan did not exhibit the same capacity as some of his contemporaries, notably David Bowie, to grow and adapt artistically once success, fame and fortune had been attained. It seems that Bolan just wanted to be famous (and rich), and he lost his way soon after this stage was reached.  Perhaps the pretentiousness of parts of this film should have served as a warning that complacency and a certain smugness were setting in?

So, this movie is emphatically far from a masterpiece, and it left me expecting more, and strangely enough, wanting more. It does, though, act as an interesting snapshot of the glam-rock period.

Tuesday, 29 January 2019

The Byrds - Timeless Flight Revisited - The Sequel - Johnny Rogan

Timeless Flight Revisited is a highly detailed biography, published around 1997/1998, of one of the most influential of all rock groups. Rogan has written other books about The Byrds, both before and after this one. Much of the material in this one is based on interviews conducted by the author with group members.

Looking at the chapters which cover the formative stages of the band, it is striking how amateurish those early days were.  Some of the guys had musical experience, but in terms of rock n roll they were virtual beginners. In some respects there was almost a punk ethos about the project at that point.

I feel that the author very occasionally gets slightly carried away in extolling the group's greatness and its position in the grand scheme of things as regards music in the Sixties.  And I say that as a major admirer of the Byrds' music myself.  However, this is counterbalanced by honest and forthright appraisals of the chronic instability which plagued the band, and how this both helped and hindered creativity.  The deficiencies and setbacks are discussed with some directness.

Some of the strongest parts of the book are those which examine the personal and artistic dynamics within the Byrds, and the alliances which formed between individual members and producers, management and so forth. A lot of space is necessarily allocated to documenting how people coped with the mercurial David Crosby!  The book makes a valid point in comparing the creative core of the Californian combo with its equivalents in The Beatles (Lennon and McCartney) and The Rolling Stones (Jagger and Richards).  The tensions and antagonisms within The Byrds frequently generated magic, but sometimes the outcome was less than healthy. Their structure was much more fluid and amorphous.

Each album is reviewed song-by-song, and the author demonstrates a shrewd musical ear in evaluating the merits, or otherwise, of the group's released  (and unreleased) output.  Whilst this book rightly celebrates the achievements of The Byrds, there is also a sense of what might have been, both artistically and commercially. The author shows an adroit feel for the real reasons for this deficit, looking at the (first) departure of Gene Clark as a crucial turning point.  The suggestion that Gene could somehow have been accommodated in a non-touring, "Brian Wilson" role is very intriguing.

Time is taken within the pages to bring out a full picture of the personalities and motivations of the key players in the drama.  I found these areas to be especially illuminating in the cases of Chris Hillman and Roger McGuinn.  Hillman is traditionally painted as "the quiet one", but he was perhaps more assertive and outspoken than is sometimes imagined. As the book progressed I began to feel twinges of frustration at how the egos and agendas within the group could not be subjugated to the cause of making The Byrds more commercially successful and enduringly vibrant as a creative entity.

Commendably the author devotes considerable attention to the years of "decline", from 1969 to 1973, with often withering assessments of the era's mis-steps and absence of inspiration. The squandered opportunities, petty jealousies and wrangles are all part of what makes the Byrds' saga so compelling, I think.

There is ample coverage of Byrds-related activity subsequent to the dissolution of the original band, including the numerous side projects and offshoots, and the reunions and get-togethers of various combinations of personnel.  There are also excellent obituaries of both Gene Clark and Michael Clarke.

Altogether, this is a highly comprehensive account of the group's turbulent story.  A lengthy read, but ultimately rewarding in getting a full portrayal, warts and all, of an important part of rock music history.

Tuesday, 22 January 2019

Hotel California - Barney Hoskyns

The book Hotel California, by Barney Hoskyns, looks at the Southern Californian music scene in the 1960s and 1970s, from the folk-rock boom of the mid-Sixties, through the singer-songwriter movement, to the hedonistic mid-Seventies.

The early parts of the book examine the transition from the age of folk singers and professional songwriters to self-contained folk-rock and psychedelic bands, and what factors precipitated this process.  As well as acknowledging the role of Bob Dylan and The Beatles in these changes, the importance of The Byrds and Buffalo Springfield becomes clear. These chapters also reveal how certain visionary figures on the music scene would help to shape how things developed going forward.

I really liked how Hoskyns told the story, with an enthusiastic but authoritative style.  He allows the tale to unfold naturally and seamlessly, eschewing the cliched version which so regularly appears in mainstream accounts of the time. This is another example to me of how reading credible and well-written books is more satisfying, enlightening and rewarding than absorbing the platitudes contained in superficial television documentaries.

A nuanced interpretation of how country rock emerged is one of the book's strongest features. The author gives credit and prominence to less heralded, more marginal acts who helped to encourage the growth of this particular sub-genre of music.

Hotel California is structured in such a way that the reader is able to follow the fortunes of the various artists and personalities in a linear fashion. This is achieved because the author wisely did not attempt to fully document everybody who was involved and everything which occurred.  Space is found, fortunately, to highlight the contributions of figures such as Van Dyke Parks, Randy Newman, Tom Waits, Warren Zevon and Ry Cooder.

Another impressive aspect of the book is the way in which Hoskyns places the various changes in musical trends and tastes into some kind of socio-political context. At the same time, this is not done in a heavy-handed manner, but assertions are made in a measured way. These portions of the book help to illustrate how the Los Angeles music scene did not always necessarily shift in the "obvious" direction for the wider times and the "zeitgeist".

Parts of the story are quite sobering and poignant, even if some of the stories of outsized egos and hedonistic excesses are quite amusing. There is a wistful feel to those passages which assess how much of the original idealism and sense of community became submerged by personal ambition and avarice. Open-minded creativity was compromised by factors which at least contributed to the scene's decay and demise, and these are covered here. These sentiments are counterbalanced to some extent, however, by the realisation of just how much great and significant music emanated from Southern California during those times.

There is lots of insight into career progressions, and the motivations behind songs and albums which emerged from the Los Angeles sphere. 

I found Hotel California to be very enjoyable and rather engrossing.

Wednesday, 16 January 2019

Rock and Roll Doctor - Mark Brend

Little Feat became one of my favourite bands once I had taken the time and trouble to properly listen to their music, in my mid-twenties. However, until recently I had not closely studied the group's history or the stories behind the music. This gap has been remedied to some degree by reading Mark Brend's book Rock and Roll Doctor, which looks primarily at the life of Little Feat's guitarist, vocalist and songwriter Lowell George.

The appeal of Little Feat for me, over and above their infectious quirkiness, was their sheer musicality. There is an intangible and elusive quality which is difficult to pin down, and I have often thought to myself that once somebody has heard Little Feat's music in favourable circumstances, that person is a fan for life.  And much of the pull and allure of Feat was, and is, down to the talent, personality and humour of Lowell George.

Brend's book is perhaps not a definitive biography of either George or the group, but I found it enlightening. Time is taken to document George's musical education, and how some of the things which characterized his conduct during the Little Feat era stemmed in part from those early days.  What emerges for me is a picture of one of the more cerebral, unusual and restless talents in the history of rock music.

The author makes some mild criticisms of the group's eponymous debut LP, and I am in accord with those views, up to a point. Yes, the sound of the album does not have the depth or richness of later efforts, and by some measures Feat remained very much a work in progress at that juncture, looking for a niche and that "sweet spot" which later came to encapsulate the band's unique vitality. However, taken on its own terms that first record exudes a charm and relative innocence which makes it highly enjoyable and affecting.

Throughout the work, Brend displays a good way with words, especially when evaluating the individual albums and their constituent tracks. These commentaries are very well put together, and the dissection of the songs reminded me how the band's finest moments came when fairly conventional ingredients were mixed together to form a vibrant and distinctive product.

I would have liked a little more about Little Feat as a live act, since that was where they gained much of their reputation, especially in their "middle period".  Having said this, the book helped to deepen my understanding of Little Feat's methods and the dynamics within the band. There is some shrewd appraisal of the reason's for Feats difficulties, both in attaining major commercial success and in maintaining harmony and unity.  Brend also exhibits a sound understanding of the legacy of George and Feat.

This is a very readable and well-written exploration, a fine attempt to capture what made George and Feat so special and beloved by so many people, both the fans and journalists. In its portrayal of Lowell George, it paints a picture of a person who had his faults, but who equally was generous in his collaborations, and endlessly musically inquisitive and curious.

Monday, 14 January 2019

Bright Lights Dark Shadows - The Real Story Of Abba - Carl Magnus Palm

Bright Lights Dark Shadows is a biography of the Swedish pop group Abba, written by Carl Magnus Palm. The edition which I have was published in 2001.

After having browsed through it periodically, I recently worked my way through this book in its entirety. In conclusion, I would say that it is a highly readable, and illuminating effort.

A goodly portion of the book is given over to chronicling the period prior to the emergence of Abba, following the upbringing of the four group members and the development of their musical careers. This approach brought home to me how Abba was no overnight success, and that progress in those formative years was not uniformly smooth.

I think the book scores highly in its exploration of how the four people reacted to each milestone or setback in their careers, and how they viewed success and celebrity. The level of detail for me helped to convey how the real story is far more complex than the simplistic version often served up by the mainstream media. This is especially true where the characteristics and personality traits of the musicians are concerned.

Throughout the book there is extensive focus on the business and financial side of Abba's story, and in particular Stig Anderson's role.  We also get a sense of how the music business worked in those pre-internet days, and the struggle which Abba had in receiving "cultural" recognition, most of all in their native land.

From what I can discern the author has delivered a balanced and honest account of the Abba years. The negatives and the problems are analysed, the triumphs are celebrated.  I liked the author's style in discussing the merits of songs and albums, highlighting how the various tracks were born and developed. My own understanding of what made Abba tick artistically was considerably enhanced.

It is clear that, for differing reasons, the members of the group were not that keen on touring for much of the time. The documenting of the 1977 Australian tour, and the attendant hysteria, offers a convincing depiction of how touring was not always conducive to general wellbeing and harmonious personal lives. Indeed, a theme throughout Bright Lights Dark Shadows is how Abba dealt with the various pressures and expectations which encroached once fame and fortune arrived. I am sure it was occasionally fun!

There is some intriguing and thoughtful perspective on the Abba "revival" which commenced around the early 1990s.  The book offers some acute observations on the reasons for the resurgence in interest in Abba, and also some misgivings about certain aspects of the revival.

Overall, I really liked this book. It augmented my knowledge of and appreciation of Abba as artists, and offered a telling reminder that "stars" are also real people, with real feelings and emotions, and that all is not as idyllic, pleasurable or straightforward as the masses might like to imagine.

Wednesday, 9 January 2019

Testimony - Robbie Robertson

Testimony is a memoir by Robbie Robertson, best known as guitarist and songwriter with The Band. It is not a full biography as such, as it only takes the story up to 1976 or thereabouts, but it is an entertaining and enlightening read.

The book chronicles Robertson's upbringing, and his musical apprenticeship, as he cut his teeth playing countless gigs in small venues, soaking up knowledge and expertise along the way. The tales of his time playing with Ronnie Hawkins are especially amusing and occasionally lurid! There is also some intriguing material regarding Robertson's family background and his ongoing links with relatives and his roots.

One of the things which strikes me most about Testimony is that it provides the reader with a ringside seat, so to speak, as the musical revolutions of the Sixties progressed, looking over the shoulder of someone who was a part of those upheavals and landmark events.  To me the journey feels real and organic, free of the cliches and platitudes which often characterize portrayals of that era. Above all, the love of music and self-expression permeates everything. The stories are told with genuine relish and enthusiasm.

The author is candid about the ebb and flow of his relationships with other musicians, particularly his band-mates. Also, I was fascinated by the chapters which cover his associations with Bob Dylan, such as for example the turbulent and momentous concert tours of 1965/66 and the recording sessions which gave rise to the so-called "Basement Tapes".

Robertson indulges in quite a bit of name-dropping, telling us how he used to hang out with the likes of Andy Warhol, Marlon Brando and Salvador Dali. This does, though, help to underscore the vibrancy of those times.

As an admirer of The Band's music, one of the most valuable functions of this work for me is the way that it offers some insight into how the group's acclaimed and important early albums took shape. We also gain an idea of what an impact those first two records in particular had on the music world, and on creative people generally.  Above all, that period just sounds like it was enormous fun!

The closing sections of the book are both interesting and poignant, as we learn how the rock n roll lifestyle began to sap the creativity and cohesion of The Band, culminating in their farewell concert (famously documented in Martin Scorsese's film The Last Waltz).

I found this book to be a riveting read.  It is well worth checking out for fans of rock music.

Tuesday, 8 January 2019

The Life of Senna - Tom Rubython

I know that Rubython's motor racing-related works have met with a mixed reception from enthusiasts, and I share some of the misgivings commonly expressed.  His biography of Ayrton Senna, entitled The Life Of Senna, originally published to roughly coincide with the tenth anniversary of the Brazilian's death, contains abundant detail, but also some flaws and "padding".

For me there is not sufficient nuance in the analysis of a very complex and intricate subject. Too much in the way of "black and white" thinking, and some careless and ill-advised choices of words to describe the merits of teams and drivers.

Another aspect of the book which stands out for me is the amount of repetition.  In addition, there are inconsistencies, contradictions even, in appraisals of events or people.  An occasional absence of cohesion and continuity which does not inspire confidence.

The above reservations notwithstanding, this book contains some interesting material concerning Senna's methods and motivations, and what made him unusual, although much of this is down to quotations from, and interviews with, associates and friends of the subject. One does get the sense of how Senna elevated his sport to another level in some respects.

I would say that the passages concerning the chronology of the Imola 1994 weekend itself are reasonably well done.and illuminating.

This book is good in places, not so good in others, and I suspect that the definitive English-language biography of Senna has yet to be written.