Friday, May 27, 2016

Review of Operation Basalt

A well-written and gripping account of a little-known incident in WW2, this book also raises interesting questions about the nature of historical memory and the purpose of writing history.

In October 1942 with the Axis powers still in the ascendant the British launched a small-scale raid on the German-occupied island of Sark, one of the smallest of the Channel Islands. It was a tiny pinprick against the Nazis, yet it had significant consequences, not only of the people whose lives it touched but also for others far away – civilian and military prisoners who were caught up in the cycle of repression and counter-repression that it triggered, and all those Allied soldiers engaged in commando and partisan warfare, who were henceforth to be summarily executed if captured.

Eric Lee conveys the military and political context of the raid with a deft touch, setting out the background without labouring it. He also describes the raid itself with all the skills of a thriller writer, and it’s easy to imagine oneself there with the commandos, stumbling about in the dark and finding that things aren’t the way they look on maps or aerial photographs. I couldn’t help thinking how we have become used to our present surfeit of information – I can look up any of the unfamiliar terms in the book in a second (even when I’m on a train, as I did yesterday), or check out a Google map or street view of the places mentions. Then, the commandos and their leaders back in Britain had little idea what was going on in the islands – almost impossible to contemplate now.

On the other hand, the extent to which the raid unleashed a round of information warfare seems very modern. It’s hard to believe that the Nazis claimed to be the injured party in breaches of the ‘rules of war’, but they did.

One other thought struck me. This event was relatively recent, and well-defined. It took place within the context of military bureaucracies that tried to keep accurate and detailed records, and several of the participants left eye-witness accounts.

Yet it’s already impossible to dis-entangle some of the details – how many prisoners did the commandos take, and how many casualties were there? What happened to one of the civilians who played a key role? It’s to the author’s credit that he manages to solve some mysteries, shed some light on others, and admit where he is unable to do either.

This is a great and enjoyable book, and I look forward to reading more history by this author.

Review of The Portable Veblen

I picked this up because I rather like the odd economist-anthropologist Thorsten Veblen; I’d used terms like ‘conspicuous consumption’ and ‘leisure class’ loosely for ages until I actually read him, and found him to be brilliant and insightful, and rather relevant to our emerging post-capitalist civilisation.

But while the main protagonist of this novel is named for and keen on the original Veblen, it’s not really about him at all. Instead, it’s about relationships – between lovers, between parents and children, between siblings, old friends and everyone else. Oh, and trauma-induced brain damage, and medical experiments, and the regulation of medical trials, and the treatment of the mentally ill.

A few pages in I decided that this was not my sort of book at all, but I am so glad that I stayed. McKenzie is a very good writer, with a superb eye for details. There’s a good and well-structured plot for those that need that sort of thing (me), and sometimes the interplay between parents and children, and between siblings and parents, was so good it seemed that she’d been listening in on my sessions with my therapist.

So just read this. And then go read some Veblen too – I went and got myself a new copy of the Theory of the Leisure Class when I finished this book.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Review of Florence Foster Jenkins

Much lighter than the recent French film ‘Marguerite’, which was a more fictionalised version of the same story but dwelled more on the tragic aspects of the story. The acting is more camp and over-done, though it’s interesting to see Hugh Grant actually acting. It still has some poignancy, especially in terms of the relationships that MFJ develops with the men around her, who come to care about her feelings enough to protect her from realising how dreadful she is. It also doesn’t shrink from the fact that she had syphilis, which is surely a first in a film designated as suitable for general viewing. And it manages to imply that her pianist is gay without over-doing it.

Also beautiful to look at, in the interiors, the lighting, the costumes, and even the long shots down New York avenues – how did they manage to get the city back to the 1940s? I noticed in the credits that some of it was shot in Liverpool and Glasgow – I wonder which scenes. And a lovely scene with 'Sing Sing Sing' on a gramophone at a party.

Watched at Woodford Odeon, with my mum, in a surprisingly full cinema for a Wednesday night.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Review of Sing Street

Disappointing Irish teen band film – so transparently a wish-fulfilment fantasy that it didn’t really hold my attention. Nice premise – posh kid gets sent to tough school because his parents are broke, survives and attracts cute (slightly older) girl by forming a band with his mates. But if we are expecting a teen version of The Commitments, that’s not what we get. The band are brilliant from the very start. He writes brilliant songs with no apparent effort. There’s no conflict within the band, they all practice regularly at one of the band member’s house while his mum bring them tea and snacks, the pretty girl is snaffled straight away – even the lead’s violent school-bully nemesis is won over and becomes the band’s roadie. Too good be true, and too good to be an interesting film.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Review of Mustang

A beautiful, sad film about five young girls growing up in a rural community in North Eastern Turkey. Though the reviews seem to present this as a ‘coming of age’ story, it’s something rather nastier than that implies. The girls are brought up by their conservative grandmother and their patriarchal uncle, both of whom are very conservative and apply increasingly strict controls over their lives. The house is gradually turned into a prison from which a family-arranged marriage is the only sanctioned escape, and the girls respond to this in different ways. There are a few light moments when they occasionally break out, but it becomes increasingly dark and claustrophobic. A good advert for mainstream feminism and modern liberal urban life; almost the only decent man in the film is the gay truck delivery man befriended by the girls (they do refer to him as ‘queer’, but it’s only the slightly unusual facial hair that marks him out).

It's a Turkish-German co-production, with great music. It also has a sort of German look to it, which set me to wondering whether that was measurable. Are there national (or personal) styles in film making that would be revealed by statistical analysis – length of static or panning or zooming shots, length and angle of close-ups, time between cuts, etc? I wonder whether there has been any work on this. It seems so obvious that I can’t help thinking someone must have done it.

Anyway Mustang (I don’t know why it’s called that – a Turkish cultural reference that is lost on me?) is a good but sombre film.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Review of Dr Strangelove

Somehow I've never got round to seeing this, so I was grateful for the chance to watch it in the Middle Floor at Springhill.

It's horrible, though not in a bad way. Although it's billed as a black comedy there aren't many laughs. It's mainly a believable story about how a rogue air force general goes nuts and starts the slide towards a nuclear war, which then can't be stopped by any human agency.

It's very anti-military, and also quite anti-American. The Russians are largely invisible - the Soviet premier is on the end of a phone line but we don't hear his voice, and the Russian ambassador is mainly decent, though he does take pictures of everything in the secret war room. The Americans are bureaucratic, at least slightly mad, and sex-crazed. I don't think a film like this could be made now, though I suppose 'In the Loop' wasn't all that far off, particularly in the way it portrayed the relationship between the sensible but ineffectual Brits and the crazy but powerful Americans.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Review of Electricity

I didn’t know anything about this – just found it on BBC iPlayer while looking for something to do, but it was really rather good. It’s about a Lancashire girl with severe epilepsy searching for her lost brother in the London underclass, and it’s beautifully shot and very well acted, with lots of emotional depth. 
There are a few implausible plot developments (everyone she meets is really nice to her), and she seems to have an enormous cool wardrobe contained within her small wheelie suitcase; in fact she dresses rather too well for the character she is supposed to be playing.
But it’s quality British drama all the same. Lots of stuff about how people can manage their conditions, and about how they are treated as they do so - something I hadn't thought about much for years, but this made me think about it again.
I was sort of puzzled why it appears to be set in the North East when it’s not in London, even though she’s from Lancashire. Maybe that was explained somewhere and I missed it.

Review of 'Miles Ahead'

Not a terrible film, but not a great one either, and Miles deserves better. This is not a full musician biopic, so it misses out on lots of the familiar ‘struggle to be excellent’ themes. Instead it focuses on the fallow period of five years when Miles wasn’t recording or performing; the earlier years are done by flashback. We see some of his early performances, and so on, as recollections. The present – the time when the film’s main narrative is taking place – is more about guns, shoot-outs, car chases and drug deals. 
This means that there isn’t enough about the music; for me the best bits were where Don Cheadle is playing Miles working with other musicians. There’s nothing wrong with the acting – Cheadle acts well, and if he can’t actually play the trumpet (maybe he can?) he can certainly act trumpet playing.Ewan McGregor's fictional Rolling Stone journalist is quite good too.
Just as Miles makes his comeback and starts playing again the film ends – not before time, because it’s quite long, and the car chases got on my nerves. But I’m sorry it ended where it did, and that there wasn’t more about the creativity rather than about the tortured-ness of it all.
Watched on the cinema screen in a nearly empty Holloway Odeon.

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Review of 'I Married a Communist' by Philip Roth

This is one of the good Roth books (I really hate some of them) – well written, and with several important subjects addressed; McCarthyism, the failure of the American Left, and relationships between people with…um…issues.

Still, it’s a mixed bag. It has a weird structure, with a youngish narrator being told most of the events by an older man recalling them…only the narrator was there for some of the narrative so can provide his own perspective – and sometimes it becomes hard to remember who is talking or what they are saying. It’s a bit muddled and confusing, and not strictly necessary.

It starts out exploring the impact of the blacklist on people’s lives, and the impulses that drove good people into first the Henry Wallace Progressive movement and then to the Communist Party. It covers well the fine impulses that drove people there, and also the sheer misery of the CP’s twists and turns and what they meant for those people. It explains how the New Dealers and liberals were the real target of the red-baiters, and how much nasty score-settling went on.

But two thirds of the way it seems to change tack and sentiment; the liberal and communist characters are suddenly driven not by personal or political conviction but by their own emotional flaws. Some of this is revelation of the plot, and some of it feels like Roth changed his mind and started to write a different book.

And the portrayal of the mutually destructive relationship between the main protagonist and his wife, and her previous destructive relationships with men and with her daughter, are really horrible. It’s put into the mouths of those characters who are generally reliable and insightful witnesses, so we are supposed to take it as a true and honest account.

This is just misogyny, spiced up with some racial and class awkwardness. The knowledge that this is really about Roth’s relationship with Claire Bloom, and that many of the facts map on to the real story, makes it skin-crawling.

At the end Roth brings it back to the historical events covered in American Pastoral – the failure of liberalism in the face of Black-led riots and urban degeneration. It’s all hopeless and depressing, and the moral is that those who pursue political or civil goals based on the possibility of change are fools who waste their own time and put themselves and those they care about in harm’s way. There is some ‘bracketing’ of the view, but the argument against it which is offered doesn’t feel strong or deeply felt.

Very painful to read much of the time, although it is a mostly good book.