Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Love & Mercy...

...should have been the title of harrowed John Berryman's penultimate book of poems rather than the title that was chosen, Love & Fame. Instead, it is the title of Bill Pohland's fine film about Brian Wilson, the man who wrote and arranged God Only Knows and Good Vibrations for The Beach Boys.

As the titles roll at the end there is an inset of Brian Wilson in concert singing another of his compositions, Love & Mercy, a benediction for the suffering world from a man who, as the film shows, knew a lot of suffering himself. Unlike Amy Winehouse, though, another sufferer, Wilson found somebody who helped pull him through his nightmares.

Moving through past and future with Paul Dano playing the young Brian and John Cusack the older Wilson (Elizabeth Banks is the very important somebody) the importance of this relationship unfolds as the film goes on. At first it irritated me. I didn't want to know about Brian Wilson's personal life. I was more interested in the recreated studio sessions showing how Wilson's key masterpieces were recorded and the friction this caused with other members of his family including his father, the band's erstwhile manager. But all really good films overcome your resistance and I was won over by the way this relationship is interpolated through the film.

While Love & Mercy is explicit about how Wilson was recovered from the whirling circles of his mind, it doesn't explain what sent him into the vortex. It might have been his face-punching father, whose blows impaired Wilson's hearing; it might have been post-fame narcotics; it might also have been the meddling of the man whom Wilson came to entrust with his his well-being. But they may only have been symptoms: the cause, the trigger for all the rest, might have been innate.

Pohland's film is not a psychiatric treatise, however, but an enjoyable entertainment that explores darker areas of creative vulnerability, as does the excellent but deeply poignant Amy. I don't think either film - the second is a documentary - make a case for special pleading. Both Wilson and Winehouse were exploited to some degree. Wilson's obessessive personality and Winehouse's addictive personality made them vulnerable. Ultimately, the older Wilson was luckier than the young Winehouse in his personal relationships.

I saw Amy twice and I shall go again to see Love & Mercy at my favourite cinema complex in Bradford's National Media Museum. It's what I like to do with some of my days since my career as a journalist was cut short at the end of May. Slowly, I am beginning to accept that this is not a prolonged holiday but my life.

Do yourself a favour and go to a cinema to see both Amy and Love & Mercy. Remember, "true love is searching too; but how can it recognise you/ unless you step out into the light, the light..."

Friday, 24 July 2015

The Timebomb That Could Have Changed the Course of History...

What if Hitler, Goebbels, Heydrich and other Third Reich big guns had been blown up by Georg Esler's timebomb in the Munich beer hall on November 8, 1939? The history of the latter part of the twentieth century might have been very different; all the post-war European organisations such as the Council of Europe and the European Common Market (later the European Community, now the European Union) might not have been created.

Oliver Hirschblegel's film 17 Minutes, one of three true-story films I saw over the course of 12 hours yesterday at the National Media Museum, courtesy of Picturehouse Cinemas, is not concerned about what might have happened if Hitler had not cut short his speech to 3,000 assembled Nazis and left the hall 13 minutes early to get on his personal train back to Berlin. Tantalisingly, his intention had been to fly back. But for fog caused a change of transport plans. But for that he might have been a goner. Night and fog.

The director of Downfall, a portrayal of paranoia, hysteria and mind-mangling tension during the final few days of the Third Reich in Hitler's Berlin bunker, was more concerned with lifting Esler out of history's footnotes, showing him to be a man whose actions were shaped by events, experiences, not by ideology. Thus in one scene in a village pub in Southern Germany local Communist Party members and Nazi Party members engage in a shouting match. Before the scuffle starts Esler leaves the pub and refers to both groups as "fools".

In the six years between 1934, when the film starts, and November 1939, this womanising artisan decides that Hitler must be stopped before he destroys all Germany in blood and fire. Hirschblegel moves back and forward in time, telling Esler's story and the story of his village as the Nazi grip on power tightens and the party's Jewish policy becomes evident.

More could have made of how Esler gained access to the beer hall in Munich, hid himself away after the place closed and worked on secreting the bomb of his devising. He made dozens of visits before finally setting the timer, closing up the location and making for the Swiss border. In the film the explosion is seen from a distance, across the foggy rooftops of Munich. Esler, stupidly still carrying bomb-making equipment in his pockets and a Red Front badge behind his collar (he was a fellow traveller), is arrested by suspicious German border guards and taken before the Gestapo.

At the point where the heated tip of an awl is about to be rammed under his fingernails a man in front of me got up and left the auditorium. I don't think he returned. That particular torture was not shown, only heard. Esler is beaten up in Munich and later at Prinz Albrecht Strasse in Berlin, where he eventually signs a confession and draws large diagrams of his bomb to convince his interrogators that he had acted alone. Not unnaturally, they believe he must have been part of a larger conspiracy against Germany's greatest man and other party leaders.

The confession results not in Esler's summary trial and excution but in his imprisonment at Sachesnhausen concentration camp, just north of Berlin, and towards the end of the war Dachau, near Munich, where he is finally shot. The record shows that for many years Esler was forgotten, obscured by the the attempted military coup de tat - Operation Valkyrie - in July 1944 when another bomb failed to annihilate Hitler.

One of the Nazi officials charged with aiding and abetting the conspiritaors was police chief Arthur Nebe, one of Esler's interrogators. A row of butcher's hooks and looped piano wire nooses in the basement of an SS prison is shown.From the rear we watch Nebe's death struggles as a cameraman records them from the front for the delectation of Hitler later.

Nazis make good cinematic baddies, somebody said to me afterwards. While the world may not need another film about Hitler and his chums (Esler's reputation was resurrected and officially affirmed years ago), the quarter of a century in which National Socialism evolved from provincial gangsterism - as lampooned by Bertolt Brecht - to a military empire still has plenty of stories worth recounting. 17 Minutes is a human story first and formost; it shows nothing of World War II. Apart from the man who left, the film absorbed the audience, principally made up of old bastards like me, from start to finish.

While some may have left the cinema speculating on the shape of Europe if Esler had been successful, I don't think many went home mulling over the rumoured Franco-German plan to carve up the EU now that Greece has been dealt with. 

Saturday, 11 July 2015

Ginger Baker and Amy Winehouse Films.

Mr San Francisco heart transplant, Tony Bennett, had it right when he described Amy Winehouse as an old soul in a young body.  Love is a Losing Game is a point in case. One so young should not have written that heart-breaker. I heard her Back to Black LP after her death in July, 2011, for the first time and thought right away that Love is a Losing Game was a masterpiece in the Romantic genre of that type of song about loss.

Asif Kapadim's film Amy made me understand that she felt loss acutely. The big heels and big hair were attempts to add substance to herself. Big performers often have small good self-images, through lack of self-confidence. The brasher the public show, the more fragile the private self.  Amateur psychology perhaps, but I think the film bears this out.

John Lyden appears at the beginning and the end of Beware of Mr Baker, Jay Bulger's rockumentary on BBC1. He said Baker's talent, his ability to make something perfect, makes up for his behaviour (the film shows him to be sarcastic, aggressive and somewhat selfish). I once asked Alan Bennett if great writers had to be shits. He acknowledged that many were, but cited Chekhov as an exception to the rule. The artist as Satan is a cliche of Romanticism. It's the singer not the song. No, it's the song that counts not the singer. The conundrum gets tiresome. Ideally, I'd prefer great artists not to be great shits.

Amy Winehouse had an addictive personality disorder whereas Ginger Baker, who was also addicted to sex and smack and music, was evidently tough and single-minded enough to escape her fate, principally by blasting others out of the way. She died at 27: he's still performing at the age of nearly 75. His former wife said if Ginger was in an aeroplane crash he would be the sole survivor. An apposite analogy for the drummer of Air Force.

Both films have their hallmarks. In Amy, her song lyrics are reproduced on screen. In the Baker film  illustrative animation shows Ginger B as both slave and slave-driver. Both films show exceptional artists at work. The Winehouse film is heart-breaking irrespective of your view of her. It's meant to be. The director said: "This is a girl who had mental illness, yet every comedian, every TV host, they all did it (told jokes about her) with such ease, without thinking. We all got carried away with it." Though I don't go in for collective guilt - we all killed the Kennedys - Asif Kapadim has a point. Jay Leno, Graham Norton and Frankie Boyle are all shown having a jovial on-screen swipe at Winehouse when she was struggling. I'm told that Whoopi Goldberg publicly expressed concern on her behalf while she was alive.

The Ginger Baker film is intriguing, at least it intrigued me because I did not know that the former drummer of Cream and Blind Faith was/is such a strong personality. He loves horses and dogs. When he was the creme de la creme of drummers he also had a stylish taste for combinations of colourful clothing.

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Beware of Greeks Baring Their Chests...

Amusing and ironic at the same time to me to listen to Greeks in Athens complaining about having only 60 euros a day given to them by banks. Just over 42 quid. That's pretty good compared to the £26 a day I've rationed myself to over the past few weeks. That in turn is a hell of a lot better than the £70 a week one homeless man was on whose story was recounted on Channel 4 yesterday.

Always somebody worse off than yourself. The way that some Greeks have blamed the current plight of their country on the rest of the European Union rather than their own profligate complacency is like a man to whom you've loaned money asking his family to tell your family to pay back the loan his behalf. I thought democracy was supposed to be about accepting responsibility for your own words, deeds, mistakes - as well as holding the great and the good to account.  

Didn't Socrates say something to the effect that the unexamined life wasn't worth living? But then his countrymen got rid of him on a trumped up charge of corrupting the youth of Athens.

Shakespeare, who appears to have written a play suitable for every occasion - Macbeth for the eve of the collapse of Soviet Communism, Julius Caesar for every military dictatorship or civil war you can think of, also has one for the Greek drama/crisis and I don't mean Timon of Athens. No, I was thinking of The Merchant of Venice - "three thousand ducats, well." The 'no' voters, stirred up by their Government, think that Europe's financial institutions, which have already lobbed in 200 billion euros or more, is after a pound of flesh.

I think they'd simply like some evidence that thy're not going to be conned out of getting their loans back - eventually.  Debt restructuring is commonplace over here. Over there, I suspect, the art of political lying consists of transferring the blame for national culpability elsewhere. Democracy be damned: it's more like blackmail.

Monday, 15 June 2015

Holmes Alone (again)

Matters of state will just have to wait while I adjust to my new life of post-redundancy. I have good days and bad moments. Yesterday was one of the good days. It started with a trip to the National Media Museum for Sunday morning pictures to see a Picture House preview of Mr Holmes.

Sherlock Holmes has been a presence through most of my life. As a youth I listened to Carlton Hobbs and the avuncular Norman Shelley do their Holmes and Watson double-act on the radio. I didn't think anyone would improve on that until I saw Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke do theirs for Granada Television. Dominic Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman have their moments in the most recent television series although I think technical ingenuity tends to dominate.

In the latest incarnation of Arthur Conan Doyle's forensic consulting detective, Holmes is alone: Dr Watson, Mrs Hudson and brother Mycroft are long dead. The story switches back and forwards to Holmes' last case, when he was 58, to post war Japan in 1945 and just beyond. Holmes, aged 93, lives in ramshackle, somewhat crumbling, country hideaway not far from Dover where he tends bees to acquire the material for Royal Jelly, tries to write what he calls a factual account of his last case and is visited by his doctor.

Holmes, in the early stages of Alzheimers, is asked to make a dot in a diary every time he struggles to remember something. There is a snowstorm of them by the end of the film, but by this time the inhuman reasoning machine - to whom the "softer passions" were to be avoided lest, like a speck of dust in a lens, they interfere with logical analysis - has come full circle. Sir Ian McKellen adds emotion to Holmes mental powers.

This is also a story about fiction and fact. "I have no use for imagination," Holmes says during a visit to Japan in search of a rare plant, the Prickly Ash. He finds it with the help of a Japanese man in the ashes of Hiroshima. Holmes believes it will help restore his memory better than Royal Jelly. Throughout the story Holmes retreats to his study to wrestle with the events of his last case. Unlike his dead friend Watson, he wants no embellishment, no imaginative decoration - just the facts.

But the facts were so painful that Holmes buried them in the past. All he knows is that 35 years ago he retired from public life to lessen the risk of inadvertently harming anyone else. With the encouragement of his housekeeper's young son, Roger, Holmes breaks through the wall of silence he has imposed over more than 30 years and has a moment of revelation, which I shall not reveal.

The story is poignant, witty in places, slightly implausible, but nevertheless entertaining and enjoyable - not least because of Carter Burwell's wonderful chamber orchestra score. And McKellen's acting. It's not Gandalf as Sherlock Holmes, but there is something of Prospero in it, a part which I saw McKellen play in a touring version of The Tempest six or seven years ago. His facial expressiveness and verbal annunciation compel pleasurable attention.

This is a film without villains. There are no shoot-outs, no chases, no Dolby Stereo heavy duty soundtrack. A film for old bastards with nothing better to do than divert themselves at the cinema? Perhaps, though I think there is much more to Mr Holmes than that. I saw it twice. 

Monday, 25 May 2015

On the Road When I was Young

It seems to me that Steve Tilston has never sought fame on anything but his own terms. He has been driven by his own enthusiasm for his chosen subject matter.  He writes beautiful words and melodies and when our generation of songwriters is assessed on our contribution to our time, Steve’s work will rank alongside much better known artistsRalph McTell

British folk singer-songwriter Steve Tilston inspired the storyline of Danny Collins the film starring Annete Bening, Bobby Cannavale, Jennifer Garner, Al Pacino as a washed-up Rock star in his sixties living off his reputation and Christopher Plummer as his friend and manager Frank. In the film Frank gives Danny a surprise birthday present: a framed letter written to him by John Lennon in 1971. The letter startles Danny into revaluating his broken-down life, sustained by cocaine, booze and the uncritical admiration of elderly fans, and make some hard choices.

Sounds corny, but the film is funny, poignant and thoroughly entertaining. And it's based on a true story. In 1971 John Lennon read a magazine article in which Steve Tiltson expressed anxiety about the detrimental effect on him as a performer of wealth and fame. Lennon, rolling in both, told him not to worry about it; he had been poor and rich and neither detracted from his song-writing.

None of this was known to me until Sunday when Lesley and I went to Sunday morning pictures to see Danny Collins. After we came home I looked on the net and found Lennon's original letter. Moreover I found on Youtube a little film of Steve Tilston singing and playing his song On the Road When I was Young. I played it three or four times; the tune is still with me. Thirty-eight years ago I started out on an unknown road as a 28-year-old apprentice journalist on a regional evening newspaper. That road comes to an end this Friday, May 29. Steve Tilston's song could not be bettered as a valedictory.

Danny Collins is not a better film than Robert Altman's Nashville, released 40 years ago in 1975 when John Lennon was going through strange times in America; but it is more appealing. Altman's epic, like Mike Leigh's Abigail's Party and Nuts in May, is excrutiating, at least it is to me, because none of the characters is remotely appealing. That's not accidental: Altman felt it like that and meant it to be like that. The final scene, following the assassination of folk legend Barbara Jean, gunned down on stage at a political rally, ends with Barbara Harris singing "It Don't Worry Me". I could eat my knuckles at the awfulness of what's being implied, especially when a negro choir joins in...It don't worry me, it don't worry me/ You may say that I ain't free, it don't worry me...

Robert Altman comes up because at a previous Sunday morning pictures outing we saw a double bill: a feature documentary about Altman's career as a television and movie director, and then The Long Goodbye, a Raymond Chandler story that I could actually follow thanks to Altman's direction. He got into pictures after coming out of the US armed forces and going to see Brief Encounter, which made him cry. My future life will be spent in part going to the pictures on Sunday morning, Tuesday morning and maybe Wednesday afternoon. Between films there'll be time to reflect on the road when I was young.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

PR and the Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui

A campaign is underway for a system of Proprtional Representation, what Paddy Ashdown glibly used to refer to as "fair votes".

The argument has been going on for years. Is it fair that the nearly four million votes cast for Ukip in Thursday's General Election resulted in just one MP, whereas 1.5m votes for the SNP in Scotland resulted in 56?

PR would share parliamentary seats according to the number of votes cast for each party, putting an end to swing voting and marginal seats, we are told. The sense of disenfranchisement and disillusion would diminish as more people realised their vote counted for something.

Various forms of PR are employed all over the world. It's used to select British Members of the European Parliament, so why isn't it deployed in general elections to our own House of Commons?  I don't know, but I hope it isn't. I don't wish the fair votes petition well, I hope it fails. Why?

In part because I think that too much democracy leads to poor decision-making or no decision-making; parliamentary representation shared out according to votes is bound to increase the number of small parties which will regard its MP as a single-issue delegate rather than a representative of all the people in a constituency - including those who didn't vote for that person.

Representing people who didn't vote for you is what real democracy is, for it tacitly acknowledges other views, other standpoints, other arguments. I was once Father of an NUJ chapel and quickly found out how difficult it is representing others with whom you might not entirely agree.

The argument for PR - it militates against single-party domination - is also an argument against PR - it causes factionalism which in turn can encourage parties of political or religious extremes. 'Oh no!' I hear you cry, 'You're not going to bring up the Weimar Republic as an example!' Of course I am. On the day Victory in Europe was celebrated in London, why wouldn't I?

Between 1919 and 1933 Germany was governed by 21 coalitions. And we know what happened in January 1933 as a result of prolonged instability: power was handed to Adolf Hitler's National Socialist Party. The Nazis, like the German Communist Party, were encouraged by the constitution of the Weimar Republic.

A system of PR operated. Germany was divided into 35 equal electoral districts. If a party got 60,000 votes in a district it got one deputy in the lower house of the Reichstag. Party officials chose who that deputy would be. If the number of votes was half that in several districts the votes were added up and an appropriate number of deputies was allocated.

In addition, plebicites or referenda were offered on specific issues. Under Article 48 of the constitution, the President  had emergency powers to abolish governments and suspend all human rights. Which is precisely what Hitler did as Chancellor after the Reichstag fire. He persuaded President Hindenburg to give him the power to outlaw political opposition and trades unions.

I wasn't there. But the American reporter William S Shirer was, in Berlin, up until December 1941 when Hitler declared war on the United States. This is what he says in his book The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich about Weimar's system of governance.

The weaknesses of the Weimar regime were obvious. There were too many political parties, and they were too much at cross purposes. Too absorbed by looking after the special interests they represented, they were unable to form an enduring majority in the Reichstag that could back a stable govenment.

Parliamentary government had become what a majority of Germans called 'kuh handel' - cattle trading - with the partners bargaining for special advantages for the groups which elected them, and the national interests be damned. 

It had been impossible to achieve a majority in the Reichstag for any policy - of the Left, the Center or the Right. Merely to carry on the business of government it was necessary to resort to Article 48 of ther constitution, which in an emergency permitted the chancellor, if the president approved , to govern by decree.

Although I won't be alone in having voted for a party, not especially a candidate, I've always done so knowing the identity of that party's candidate in advance. I don't like the idea of having an MP conferred on me after the election. I like the first-past-the-post system. Since 2010 it has given Britain coalition government and now single party government.

One defeated Liberal-Democrat MP I spoke to the day after the General Election told me that on the doorstep people complained that MPs from different parties needed to work together more. At the same time they criticised Liberal-Democrats for abandoning their principles by working with the Conservatives.
Many of those nearly 4m people who voted Ukip were tactical voters more interested in keeping somebody out than getting somebody elected. The SNP, as I have said elsewhere, were beneficiaries of Labour Party incompetence. The SNP replaced the Liberal-Democrats as Britain's third party. Temporarily. Five years from now the picture could be very different.