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Posts Tagged ‘history’

Normally the Easter weekend, long and relaxed as it is, is an opportunity for a major studio to put out one of their big blockbusters and hoover up a lot of the audience’s money. Last year it was Ready Player One, the year before that it was Fast and Furious 8. But this year? Nothing of that ilk, really: the odd promising genre movie, perhaps, but the looming juggernaut of Avengers: Endgame has everyone running scared: nobody wants their film to have an effective window of only about six days before the majority of audiences are lured elsewhere. As I often observe, this does provide possibilities for inventive counter-programming, which may be why the highest profile release in the UK at the moment is probably Trevor Nunn’s Red Joan.

As I say, this film arguably qualifies as counter-programming, as it has all the hallmarks of being primarily aimed at, shall we say, an audience of a somewhat more seasoned vintage. Your older cinemagoer, as a rule, is not that fussed about the doings of Captain America or Thanos, but they do like gently-paced films hearkening back to the days of yore, with reassuringly solid British production values when it comes to things like sets and costumes, good looking young people, and ideally a Genuine British National Treasure they are comfortably familiar with. No-one meets a violent on-camera death, if there are any amatory goings-on they are handled tastefully, for the most part, and everything wraps up in more or less the manner you would expect. I tend to refer to this subgenre of the British costume drama as hats-and-fags movies, as the setting of the mid-20th century is betokened by virtually no-one going bareheaded and always having a cigarette or two on the go.

Despite all of that, Red Joan opens in the present day – or something roughly akin to it, assuming we can agree that things haven’t changed too much since 2000, which is when the frame story of this movie opens. Harmless old granny Joan (Judi Dench) is getting on with her innocuous life, occasionally sighing over an old friend’s obituary in the papers, when Special Branch come round and arrest her. Judi Dench under arrest? Outrageous! What can this all be about?

Well, Dench is slapped into an interrogation suite and told she has been implicated in an espionage case in which atom bomb secrets were given to the KGB. The police demand that she tell them everything, which is probably a regrettable choice of words: without going into too much detail, Joan doesn’t start leaking to the Russkies until 1945, but the flashbacks comprising most of the film commence a good seven years before that. I suppose this is an acceptable convention allowing some context to be established for everything going on. Basically, young Joan (Sophie Cookson) arrives in Cambridge to study science, falls into the orbit of a pair of glamorous mittel-European refugees (Tom Hughes and Tereza Skrbova), goes to screenings of Battleship Potemkin, and is generally swayed to the ways of socialism. One of the Europeans becomes her best friend, the other becomes her first real boyfriend and tastefully defoliates her just before scooting off to Russia to join the Comintern.

Then the Second World War starts and Joan is recruited into the British end of the project to develop a working atom bomb. As this is still the 1940s, she is only allowed to be quietly brilliant, and has to spend most of her time typing, filing, and making the tea, but her boss (Stephen Campbell Moore) is still much taken with her. Her old friends are well aware of her role in the project, of course, and soon begin to press her to help them: the western Allies are not sharing their research on the new weapon with the USSR, which is surely horribly unfair. For the good of everyone, is it not her duty to help maintain equality by giving the Russians the secret of the Bomb?

When you have a film which centres on the protagonist – a generally sympathetic character – doing something apparently unconscionable like betraying Blighty to Stalin, the thing you really have to do – your number one priority, no exceptions – is to take the viewer on a journey to the point where they understand just why the character behaves the way that they do. Red Joan is a movie which is not short on flaws, but one of the main ones is that it’s never really clear exactly what motivates Joan to make the key choices that she does. Is it a desire to preserve the balance of power? Is it out of a deep-seated attachment to justice? Is she so engaged with the cause of socialism, or is it just that she has a bit of a pash for the fellow who asks her? Is she even sure herself? Obfuscation reigns.

This may well be because, having been handed a lot of little-known and potentially fascinating material – the race to develop the atomic bomb, the Cambridge spy rings, the whole issue of links between left-leaning British intellectuals and Stalinist Russia – the film instead decides to concentrate primarily on Joan’s love life. There is the mysterious and enigmatic young foreigner, who is passionately drawn to her! There is her unhappily-married boss, who is also passionately drawn to her! It’s remarkable how alluring a young woman in a selection of berets and sensible knitwear can be (although, to be fair to her, Cookson is more than averagely pretty).

The decision to go with the romantic tosh would be less objectionable if it was better written romantic tosh – but the script for Red Joan is turgid and poorly constructed, with too much to-ing and fro-ing between heated moments in the 1940s and Judi Dench sitting with her head in her hands in the sequences set in 2000. Obviously the film wants Dench on screen as much as possible, but she really doesn’t get material that’s worthy of her – lots of general purpose being-distraught and some painfully hackneyed stuff with her son, who spends much of the film complaining that she never told him she was a KGB spy.

The film even cops out of a proper sense of closure, ending instead with a set of captions revealing the film is based (seemingly rather loosely) on the story of Melita Norwood, a communist sympathiser who was a highly-valued KGB asset for 35 years, yet never prosecuted by the authorities on account of her advanced age when she was exposed. Presumably the decision was made to make a work of fiction rather than a biographical drama about Norwood herself, on the grounds it wouldn’t be shackled by the facts of the case and could be more exciting and engaging. Which is fine in theory, but this film squanders the potential of its real-world source material and also the potential of the fact it is primarily fictitious. The moral decisions at the centre of the story are never really brought to life, and the human relationships never convince either. The result is a film which is pleasant to look at but inescapably dull.

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Sunday is Kubrick day at the Phoenix, at the moment, with a whole bunch of the great man’s films showing – presumably to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Apart from the famously cryptic SF movie, they have also shown Dr Strangelove and Spartacus (even though Kubrick himself virtually disowned it), with The Shining due to come in a week or so. This Sunday, however, it was the turn of Kubrick’s 1975 film Barry Lyndon. This is one of his movies with less mainstream appeal, which may explain the comparatively low turn-out for the screening (the fact it was a blazingly sunny day with England playing an easy World Cup fixture may also have had an effect on attendance).

This was also the film which arrived in cinemas, 43 years ago, accompanied by a letter from the director giving projectionists extremely detailed guidance as to how the film should be shown. ‘An infinite amount of care was given to the look of Barry Lyndon,’ Kubrick begins, ‘…all of this work is now in your hands.’ He goes on to give notes on aspect ratio, reel changeover specifics, how many foot lamberts should be on the screen (15-18, apparently), and even what music to play during the intermission. Given all this, it was slightly ironic that our screening of Barry Lyndon should be preceded by several appearances in the cinema from a somewhat sheepish member of the Phoenix’s staff, giving us updates on a ‘projection hitch’, which apparently necessitated a phone call to head office and a complete reboot of the digital projector (somewhere Mark Kermode was screaming ‘Wouldn’t have happened in 35 mil!’, to say nothing of the baleful psychic emanations doubtless coming from Kubrick’s region of the afterlife). The film eventually got underway nearly thirty minutes late, although – given the film’s somewhat challenging reputation – sitting patiently in the cinema waiting for something to happen was possibly quite good preparation for the experience of actually watching Barry Lyndon.

Based on a somewhat obscure novel by William Makepeace Thackeray, Barry Lyndon is essentially a costume drama. Ryan O’Neal plays Redmond Barry, a young man born to a modest family in English-occupied Ireland. Over the course of a number of years, he becomes a duellist, fugitive from justice, soldier for several nations during the Seven Years War, deserter, spy, gambler and swordsman. Eventually he marries into money, in the form of the landed widow Lady Lyndon (Marisa Berenson), and attempts to secure prosperity for his heirs by procuring a title for himself, but his efforts do not go as planned and it all eventually results in failure and disgrace.

Kubrick was famously one of those rare directors who was able to combine mass audience appeal with critical acclaim – the closest modern equivalent we have is Christopher Nolan, I would suggest – which probably explains why Barry Lyndon is generally perceived as his great flop, not quite making twice its budget (the criterion for success, by modern standards at least). It rarely shows up on TV, and is absent from the Kubrick box set on sale at my local DVD store, which includes all his other films from the sixties and seventies except Spartacus.

Hence, presumably, that challenging reputation. ‘Stupefyingly dull,’ according to one critic; ‘like going through the Prado without lunch,’ in the words of Kubrick’s friend Steven Spielberg. Well, I’m not sure I would agree with all of that, but I can certainly see where people quailing at the three-hour-plus running time are coming from. This is not a conventional film; it is not even a conventional costume drama. Kubrick’s intention seems to have been to replicate as closely as possible the tone and structure of the eighteenth century novel, not to mention the visual style of art from this period. (Needless to say, this being a Stanley Kubrick movie, it is soundtracked by various impeccably-selected pieces of classical and traditional music.)

The first half of the film is a picaresque meander across Europe, with many disconnected incidents and episodes; some of these are romantic, some comic, some tragic, some thrilling – but the tone throughout remains restrained, even muted. Perhaps this was a choice dictated by the needs of dramatic unity, for the second half of the film, concerning Barry Lyndon’s strained domestic situation and ultimate decline, is much darker and feels much better-fitted to the tone. The action is admittedly slow, with much of the exposition handled by Michael Hordern’s wry, omniscient narrator, but you sense that the look and feel of the thing was at least as important to the director than the actual storyline. So figures pick their way across rolling landscapes, massed ranks of soldiers resplendent in bright uniforms march towards the camera, lavish scenes of dining or gambling are dwelt upon… (Barry Lyndon’s great technical innovation was apparently the creation of lenses allowing scenes to be filmed solely by candlelight, which apparently possessed the lowest f-stop in history. I mention this because it sounds interesting, not because I have any idea what it means.) The plot frequently pauses while the camera dwells upon a tableau composed and framed like a painting; Kubrick’s signature move on this film is the long, slow pull-back on an almost totally static scene (when he abruptly switches to using a hand-held camera at one point, the effect is genuinely jarring).

Given all this, does it really matter that Ryan O’Neal is, um, not terribly good in the central role? Barry Lyndon himself is ultimately a bit of a berk, but O’Neal turns him into a cipher, someone that things happen around, rather than to. This is a particular problem in the second half of the film, which dwells much more on his personal problems and tragedies. I have to say I think it does make a difference: the lacuna at the heart of the film, where the central performance should by rights be, may be one of the main reasons it can seem so inaccessible and chilly.

In any case, I found the film quite mesmerising to watch, and only started glancing at my watch once the presentation entered its fourth hour. Regardless of what you think of the whole, the film is made up of a series of vivid moments and scenes – the extraordinary lyrical delicacy of the hunt-the-ribbon scene, Leonard Rossiter’s spectacular dancing, the brawl between the soldiers (it’s amusing to see that Pat Roach was being beaten up by Ryan O’Neal long before Harrison Ford, Sean Connery or Arnold Schwarzenegger got in on the act), Barry’s encounter with the lonely German woman Lieschen (Diana Koerner) – it goes on. And on and on. And then on some more. The film is worth watching for this alone, to say nothing of the string of cherishable cameos from actors like Rossiter, Hardy Kruger, Andre Morell, Simon Magee and Frank Middlemass.

In the end I almost get the sense that it doesn’t matter what I or anyone else says about Barry Lyndon: you may be depressed by it, repelled by it, bored into a coma, or moved to a fit of swooning joy – the film will grind over you in its stately, imperious way regardless of your actual opinion. In this sense it is Kubrick at his most magisterially impressive, even if for once he seems to be making a film solely for himself, as a rigorous formal exercise, rather than as a piece actually intended for a paying audience. I think this is still a great film, but whatever you think of it, you will be dealing with it on Kubrick’s terms, not yours.

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At the cinema the other day I finally came across the trailer for Star Trek Beyond (I have been routinely referring to it as Star Trek Up The Khyber or Star Trek Beyond A Joke for some time now, so you may get some sense as to the modesty of my expectations), in all its Beastie Boys-playing, motorcycle-jumping, everyone in constant jeopardy-being absurdity, and even though I knew what to expect I felt a tiny sliver of my soul shrivel up and turn to ashes at the sight of it. Just another sign of the terrible pop cultural malaise of our times, if you ask me: Star Trek doesn’t really feel like Star Trek any more, James Bond doesn’t feel like James Bond, Star Wars doesn’t feel like Star Wars (actually, it isn’t, as friends are bored of hearing me say), and (most especially) Doctor Who doesn’t feel like Doctor Who. (It has been put to me that I am far too much of a purist in these matters. To which my response is, obviously: no I’m not.)

Oh well, if nothing else, it reminded me of the fact that – as I have said in the past – while Star Trek may not own my heart, it has a perfectly valid claim to one of my lungs. No-one has the capacity to hate Star Trek more than its own fans, in the same way that no-one is more critical of a poorly-performing sports team than its own supporters – the emotions and the dedication are more intense in every way. Anthropologically, I’m sure that the major fandoms are functionally very similar to the great religions – they all have their articles of faith, their canons, their subdivisions, splinter groups, and heresies. It’s all a question of devotion.

And it’s articulated quite well in Set Phasers to Stun: 50 Years of Star Trek, a look at the franchise in its entirety by Marcus Berkmann, writer, journalist, and semi-professional Fifteen-to-One contestant. (Berkmann’s credentials as one of the faithful are already known to those of us who remember his stint as a columnist for DWB twenty years ago, although I notice this doesn’t appear in his author biog.) With (as the title suggests) Trek‘s golden anniversary looming, I would predict a lot of this sort of thing before the end of the year (my own contribution is in ATB Publishing’s Outside In Boldly Goes – not sure whether this counts as full disclosure, a cheap plug, or both), and Berkmann has made the quite sensible decision to pitch his book at a general audience, presumably reasoning that the dedicated fanbase will likely pick it up anyway, while a more specialist tome would struggle to attract casual readers.

phasers

The result is, essentially, a narrative history and appreciation of Star Trek in all its many incarnations, starting with Gene Roddenberry deciding it would be a good idea to create his own new TV show, and concluding with CBS All Action deciding it would be a good idea to recreate someone else’s old TV show (Berkmann is generous in his assessment of Roddenberry’s role in the creation of the original series, but the sheer weight of circumstantial evidence does paint a picture of a rather unpleasant character). As mentioned, this is a book more for the general reader, and the narrative is paced to reflect that – so the genesis of the original series and its various travails (network indifference, behind-the-scenes tensions, Fred Freiberger) are dealt with in considerable detail, as are the origins of the early movies, but as the franchise continues the focus pulls out to present a more general view, with Voyager and Enterprise receiving only the most general of overviews. (Occasionally he goes off on a tangent and delivers a quick appreciation of Space: 1999, Galaxy Quest, or the new Battlestar Galactica, and these may in fact get more attention than either of the most recent shows.)

(To be fair to him, Berkmann does say some very complimentary things about Deep Space Nine, which to my mind is the crowning achievement of what I suppose we must currently call mid-period Trek, but he makes the reasonable point that it does mark the moment at which the franchise left the cultural mainstream and took up residence in the cult ghetto.)

And I have to say that it’s all rather winningly done, extremely readable, highly informative, and often very funny indeed. I am, as you may have guessed, fairly well-versed in matters of Trek, but this is such a thorough and comprehensive telling of much of the story that I still feel like I learned a lot: and Berkmann retells some of the old stories, such as the extraordinary shenanigans surrounding the writing of the script for Wrath of Khan, so well that it’s no chore to go through them again. Berkmann has a very engaging prose style, although the general tone of the book – glib, ironic, amused – may not be to everyone’s taste (yes, yes: pot-kettle interface approaching).

His analysis of the episodes, too, is quite interesting, although inevitably tastes vary: he is very critical of Who Mourns For Adonis? and The Omega Glory, two episodes I personally find I can watch over and over again without feeling much in the way of fatigue, although on the other hand we (mostly) agree as to what the greatest treasures of the Trek canon are. Some of his more general observations chime very strongly with me too, unfashionable though they may be – I was particularly tickled by his crack that if Voyager were to be made today, Tom Paris, the only white male human amongst the principal characters, ‘would probably only have one leg’.

One common occurence when dedicated fans find themselves writing about the object of their devotion for a general audience is that they seem to feel obliged to establish their credentials as a ‘regular person’ – ‘hey, I’m one of you, I don’t take this stuff too seriously’ (when it’s fairly clear that they really do). Hence, from my own bailiwick, the notorious ‘any old **** with an Equity card’ gag which took Mark Gatiss so firmly off the Christmas card lists of Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy. Things kick off in a similar vein here, with the author at pains to make it clear he’s not really a Trekkie himself (yeah, right), variously describing dedicated fans as ‘odd’ and ‘deranged’. Beyond this, Berkmann is really quite breathtakingly rude about certain of the Trek regulars – hilariously, but even so. ‘God knows what the food is like on Vulcan, but he appears to have eaten all of it,’ is his comment on Scotty/Jimmy Doohan putting on a fairly substantial amount of weight between Star Treks III and IV, while TNG should appeal to tree-lovers, we are told, because it features Jonathan Frakes, ‘who is about the same size and shape and apparently made of wood’.

In the end, though, the overall tone of the book is deeply appreciative, even loving. (When it comes things which are beloved in quite this way, even the mickey-taking is really a sign of love. Even the hate is a sign of love.) And I find myself to be quite on the same page as Berkmann when it comes to the current state of Star Trek, under the grim hand of JJ Abrams and his associates. Never mind what he says of the Freiberger episodes: Into Darkness is a ‘travesty’ that ‘MAKES NO SENSE’ (Berkmann’s caps). Again and again, this chimes with me, I know these feelings – Doctor Who stories like Meglos and Timelash are horrific duffers, but I hope and expect to watch them a few more times before I am absorbed into the great Matrix in the sky, whereas you would have to pay me a very substantial amount of money to watch most of Peter Capaldi’s episodes again.

Which leads me to wonder about the state of Star Trek today. Looking back on it, you could argue that the franchise underwent a surprisingly swift resurrection – rather less than five years passed between the end of Enterprise and the dawn of the Age of Abrams – but it’s whether you consider the recent movies to be a glorious reinvention of the concept or just cack-handed attempts to milk a well-known brand name made by people with no essential understanding of what makes great Star Trek so special. Were Star Trek‘s wilderness years surprisingly brief, or are we still, actually, in the middle of them? I suspect the incoming TV series, which it saddens me to realise I am probably quite unlikely to see, will help to provide some resolution. In the meantime, the series remains beloved, and I would say deservedly so, and Set Phasers to Stun does an excellent job of reminding you why this should be. A book as engaging, informative, and funny as this is a credit to any TV or film series.

 

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The danger when talking about The Dream of Rome, at the moment anyway, is that you start by reviewing the book and end by reviewing the author, for he is journalist, writer, TV personality, politician and Great Blonde Hope of the Tory Party Boris Johnson. Who knows, readers of the future, by the time you read this Boris Johnson may actually have become Prime Minister of Britain (or possibly just England, depending on how that referendum goes).

Johnson cuts such an instinctively endearing figure – it took a real effort of will not to just refer to him as ‘Boris’ just then – that the ever-present danger is of simply focussing on his image and ignoring the substance of the man. This book, written in 2006 before he became Mayor of London, should make some amends in this department.

The Dream of Rome is an attempt to analyse and explain┬áthe grip that the Roman Empire has taken on the political imagination of – it sometimes seems – every other major non-Oriental civilisation of the last two millennia. Boris is trying to discern why Rome was so successful, especially in contrast to the European Union, in many ways its temporal – if not spiritual – heir.

This involves a lot of history, as you might expect, but snappily and engagingly presented, and with some thought-provoking analysis. The book opens with a description of the Varus disaster, which Boris persuasively argues is one of the key events in European – if not world – history, responsible for creating the northern boundary of the Roman Empire and thus the faultline between Latin and non-Latin Europe which remains influential to this day.

Most of the meat of the book is made up of a look at the mechanics of how the Empire operated, and in particular how the various systems of control and unification were instituted by Augustus. For a noted Euro-sceptic, Boris is an unrepentant cheerleader for this previous attempt to unify Europe. Not for him the suggestion that the other cultures obliterated by the advancing Romans were, in their own way, as sophisticated and accomplished: these guys were primitives, and Rome was the best thing that ever happened to them, apparently.

At the other end of the book things are equally interesting, as Boris gives us his take on the final end of the Eastern Empire, which he dates to the fall of Constantinople in 1453. This is the occasion for a look at the historically knotty and troublesome relationship between Christian Europe and Islamic Turkey – it’s a brave writer these days who suggests that, really, Islamic culture is not as rich as its Western counterpart, that it appears to have an inherent tendency towards violence, and that it genuinely is less tolerant, but Boris is up for it.

What’s left unsaid – and it may be that Boris himself doesn’t intend to suggest as much – is that the current division in Euro-Asian relations is not a clash between Islamic and Christian values, but Islamic and Roman ones: that our own society is still fundamentally a post-Roman one. The book suggests a close identification between Empire and Church; also that the success of the latter was mainly due to the effortless way in which its power structures mapped onto the pre-existing imperial ones – but holds back from the logical conclusion, the existence of a direct continuity between the two, on some level at least.

No matter what you think of the ideas Boris espouses in this book, the manner in which he expresses them is authentically his own: the massed horns of German barbarians sound like ‘Rolf Harris didgeridoos’, we are told almost on the first page, while Augustus was ‘the cornflake that gets to the top of the packet’. If Boris does ever get to be a world leader, his description of Christ pantocrator, as depicted in Byzantine art across the Mediterranean, ‘looking exactly like Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees’ may come back to haunt him.

Even more fascinating are the occasional glimpses we are granted into life chez Boris: stories of our guide cocking up hire-car booking, being put into a coma by Revenge of the Sith, and dragging his family all over various sites of antiquity. Needless to say the emerging picture is one of charming dishevelment: but surely we all know enough by now to be dubious of Boris’ self-mythologising.

As an introduction to the Roman Empire, this book is a jolly wheeze, and impressively thought-provoking. However, at this moment in time, the insights it provides as to what a genuinely very sharp customer Boris Johnson is are very nearly as noteworthy.

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