Monday, September 29, 2014

Film Notes: Inside Llewyn Davis

The Coen Bothers are by any estimation remarkable film-makers whose works - spanning almost every conceivable genre,  are known for their beautiful cinematography, stunning musical soundtracks and dystopian cynicism. "Inside Lewyn Davis" is no exception to that rule, embracing all of the above with enthusiasm and style.

In previous films, the Coens have turned their attention to an array of different cultural and historical settings; seeking to tell their stories against a vivid back-canvas of time and place. One of their greatest arts is the evocation of moods based on contemporary impressions of times gone by as much as from historical realities of those times themselves. "Inside Llewyn Davis" is no different in that regard, and this movie seeks to capture for the viewer a glimpse of the folk music scene of New York's Greenwhich village in the early 1960s.

Some Coen movies are narrative driven; but this one is not. The 'story' as such concerns the eponymous folk singer, and his desperate attempts to make a decent living from his craft. He faces the fact that his career and life is going nowhere, and he is resigned to sleeping on a variety of friends sofas; carrying a box of unsold LPs with him. Although Davis is one of the least likeable and sympathetic leading roles in a film I have seen in a long time; the music and the images are superb - as if the LP cover of "Freewheelin' Bob Dylan" has come to life in your hands. T. Bone Walker, the Coen's long time musical director put the soundtrack together with Marcus Mumford - whose real-life wife Carey Mulligan also appears in the film as a feisty and foul-mouthed folk singer. 

The film observes Davis as he negotiates a path between the twin poles of integrity and success. Davis seems to be aware that while he stays true to his ideals he will always struggle to make ends meet; and for the most part he doggedly pursues that ideal. This quest for costly integrity is made absurd by Davis' complete lack of integrity in most other regards - a fact which seems lost only to him.

Much of the film is serious; it is laden with despair and few signs of hope are offered to Davis who ends up at the end of the film in the same plight, in the same alley in which the film begins. Despite that, it is also an unexpectedly funny film. The elderly jazz musician with whom Davis shares a long road-trip (John Goodman) is a comic creation who could have walked in from Where Oh Brother Art Thou? ("you play folk tunes?! I thought you said you were a musician?"). The crashing insensitivity of Davis in various social settings, amongst awkward and uptight characters is funny in the way that "The Office" is funny - because it is buttock-clenchingly cringe inducing. Surprisingly the Coens also throw in a slice of slapstick involving a cat, and then satire in a scene in which Davis 'sells-out' and plays a session for a commercial group whose artistic taste and self-awareness are almost none, but whose income seems guaranteed. The song "Please Mr Kennedy" is really something else.

Although enjoyable in a slightly shocking way, Inside Llewyn Davis is a strange film. Like so many Coen films (The Man Who Wasn't There, Fargo) the main characters search for control over the storyline is fruitless; and their attempts to master their own destinies are held up for us as objects of comic derision; with the ongoing suggestion that we are no different. 

Despite the laughs along the route; this is not a happy journey. Davis is an archetypal Coen brothers character, stuck in a rut of his own devising; and trapped by forces bigger than himself over which he has no control despite his delusions to the contrary. Finally Davis observes a young folk singer called Bob Dylan gaining rave-reviews and a meteoric career using the folk music that has so suffocated his aspirations. The whole point of so many Coen films is that they don't have a "proper ending" (as my wife would say); in that the stories do not resolve and all manner of ends are left perplexingly loose. This is perhaps no more so than in this film, which whimpers to a standstill, rather than builds to a climax. This of course, is the point; the film does not reach a conclusion because Davis ends it as he begins - a man in a rut. This is at once the frustration and the genius of the film - because while there is little story development, that is because there is so little character development. That does not make it a pointless film, because it is about a man who fails to develop and what that entails. 

The cinematography, costumes, music, and the feel of the film are as evocative as they are massively escapist. The reality of the self-obsessed ego, out of depth in the world, an trapped equally by forces outside as with inner demons on the other hand, is a jarringly sober reading of the human condition. But is laughing at its foolish absurdities really the only way to respond to our individual and collective folly? The Coens certainly seem to think so.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Book Notes: Christ to Coke by Martin Kemp

Sometimes it's good to attempt a book from a different discipline, especially when its an unfamiliar one. Oxford University Press' Summer Sale is usually when I attempt something like that, and this year it was Martin Kemp's "Christ to Coke". The title sounds like a de-conversion biography of someone leaving Christian faith in favour of drug abuse! However, that isn't even close to what the book is about. The sub-title of the book, "How Image Becomes Icon" explains that this is an examination of images which have gained a social significance quite beyond their original conception and are used to invoke whole world of meaning. In other words, images which have become iconic. The list of images considered begins with the classic image of Jesus Christ - as depicted in Western art; and goes right the way through to the Coke bottle and logo.

Each extensive chapter of this lavishly produced 'coffee-table' style book is a detailed biography of the image in question - tracing its origins, conception development and then its trajectory onto to iconic status, as well as some notes on the effect it has had and the way in which it has been used. 

The icons chosen for consideration here begin with those which are most obviously Christian icons. Kemp traces the development of the traditional face of Jesus, as well as the power of that image. His chapter on the cross is as insightful as it is disturbing, as it pictures the cross both as a symbol of hope; but also corrupted a symbol of power by the extreme right, KKK or in its swastika derivative. 

Kemp delves deeply into all the subject areas he covers. I'm on 'home ground' with the political, historical and  theological stuff, which was easy to read and informative. To be honest though, the scientific material was in places quite beyond me, both in the DNA and Einstein chapters. I suspect that not many readers would be able to range across so many disciplines at that level with ease. 

For me, the stand-out chapters were those on Nick Ut's famous picture of Vietnamese children "napalmed and naked" fleeing as the deadly burning jelly had completed its work of stripping their clothes and was beginning to consume their flesh. Using that startling and disturbing (in many ways) image as a springboard to discuss its context, and war photography in general and Vietnam in particular; this is I think the best in the book. The chapter on the iconography of Che, is also interesting - not just in the matter of the strange history of the composition of the image but in terms of the way in which it has been used in ways quite contrary to the man himself.

This book was a splendid bargain. To be honest I wouldn't have paid full price for a volume which is so outside my area as art history and criticism. Nevertheless, despite being a stretch in a few places, it was a revealing and fascinating book. One thing I thought was strange was that the title suggested that there would be a greater emphasis on "how" images became iconographic. What he mostly presents is a collection of biographies of the trajectory of these images, rather than an analysis of causes. In the final chapter he concludes that there really are too few commonalities in the histories to draw general conclusions about what makes an image an icon. Fascinating stuff.

Friday, September 12, 2014

In The Great Ben Alder Forest: Carn Dearg, Geal-Charn, Aonach Baeg and Beinn Eibhinn

2014 has been up until now a year off from climbing new Munros. The reasons for that are many, but start in January with the death of the friend with whom I had climbed so many of them. There was busyness too, especially with church commitments at weekends; but the underlying issue was that in January my desire to be out in the hills had been sapped. Something changed a fortnight ago though. I was invited to take part in a charity ascent of Ben Nevis, in memory of my friend. It was organised by his wife and family; and we all donned our "Climb for Kevin" T-shirts, and went to the very top of Scotland - raising money for the Highland Hospice who had cared for him so magnificently. It was not only a matter of being back out in the hills which re-intoxicated me with their beauty; but also being there with his family and reminiscing about his exploits somehow helped me to get over whatever had been holding me back. 

With a day-free and a great forecast, wearing that same "Climb for Kevin" T-shirt, I threw my mountain bike onto the car and drove up the A9 to Dalwhinnie. Drivers through the pass of Drumochter will be familiar with the mountains to the left of the road as they head Northwards. Hidden behind those is the exquisite silver ribbon of water called Loch Ericht, running SW/NE for mile after mile. In his Munro guide, Cameron 'Indyref' Macneish talks about the the glimpse of Ben Alder down Ericht-side from Dalwhinnie making it look closer than it really is. He is absolutely right; Loch Ericht is an extremely long loch, and Alder a vast bulk. 

Ben Alder is the largest mountain in a group of hills to which it gives its name; and from the North there is one point of access to them all; a ten-mile bike ride down Loch Ericht. The miles might be long, but the track is good; built by the bllionaire estate owner to access the various luxury properties which now dot the estate, and which facilitate shooting parties. Although this is the middle of the stalking season, a quick phone call to the estate office had assured me that there was no stalking taking place and so no restrictions on which routes I could take. I was actually undecided about what I would do until I arrived at Culra bothy and parked the bike; (Culra is the bothy which was recently shut because of an asbestos warning).

I began by following the feint track westwards/northwards towards Carn Dearg. While the sketch-map in Macneish's book indicates making the ridge to the west of the summit and bearing right up to the cairn; it seemed to me a more natural line of ascent to hit the ridge to the east, and curve leftwards up the steep pull to the rocky summit.

Stepping over the Carn Dearg summit rocks, I was startled to find myself face-to-face with a large, lone stag. It stared at me, and I back. What a day not to be carrying a decent camera just this little iPhone4! Never having been this close to a stag before, and being somewhat wary of its bulk, and antlers, I cautiously climbed away from it - giving it a wide berth. For its part, I was a subject of general disinterest. Perhaps it didn't take the beast long to realise that I just didn't smell rich enough to be liable to shoot it.... and once that had been established it merely observed me on my way.

In the "Alder Group" there are three clusters of Munros. To the North, accessible from the Laggan Road, lie Creag Pitridh, another Geal Charn, and Beinn a Chlachair. The Southern side of the group, adjacent to Loch Ericht has Ben Alder and Beinn Bheoil, its little sibling. Right in the centre of this, and thus hemmed in from roads on all sides by other peaks, sit four mountains - running NE/SW, parallel with the line of Loch Ericht. Despite being so far South, these mountains are truly remote; they are as far from towns and tarmac as virtually any hill in the far North. The maintained stalkers paths which penetrate the glens are perhaps the giveaway to the truth that this is a landscape which while feeling remote and untouched, is in fact highly influenced by human activity; and has been for a very long time.

During the course of the long, hot day I worked my away along the ridges, and over all four of these splendid hills. Having looked at them from more easily accessible hills in previous years, they not only looked graceful and enticing but seemed to be dangled in my sight like a distant prize. It was then, exhilarating to stride across these perfectly sculpted mountains. Overblown expectations disappoint, but these hills did not. The vast views of far peaks, great lochs stretching away into the horizon, tight ridges, steep ascents, stunning lochans cusped beneath scalloped corries, all spread over great distances fired my enthusiasm again and again. 

Certainly some of the navigation, which was obvious on glorious summer day like this, could have been quite tricky in fog. Some of the narrow ridges connecting wide, flat summits would not have been obvious. As it was, I think I checked the map three times all day!

I picked my way down the steep Southeastern shoulder of Beinn Eibhinn to the floor of the glen, before climbing the southside of it, up to the stalkers path leading up to the Meall an t-Slugain. This is the high-point in the lonely mountain pass between these hills and Ben Alder itself; a silent watershed - and magnificent viewpoint back over Loch Ossian and out over the vastness of Rannoch Moor. This is not far from where my sister was taken safely off the hills by Mountain Rescue some twenty years ago - which is perhaps a story for another time. 

As the views Southeastwards were so impressive, I wondered if the Northwestwards view from the col would be equally grand. Most of all, by this stage in the day with sore legs after a big descent, and not much water left, I was hoping for a distant sight of Loch Pattack, and the bothy where my bike was parked. As can be seen in the photo above, my targets were too far to the left, hidden from view behind the lower slopes of Sgor Iutharn, and its' soaring Lancet Edge. Looking back along my route, this next photo is of Alder to the left, and the Lancet Edge of Sgor Iutharn to the right.

The path soon plunges in amongst a series hummocky moraines, left here by some long-distant ice movement; and then dives in by the Allt a Chaoil-reidhe river. Longing to know how far I still had to walk, I ploughed on, hoping for a distant glimpse of the bothy. I passed the place in the river where on my last outing to these parts I had fallen in trying to get across. I will always remember my walking companion (step forward, one Mr T. Pickering!) sitting on the bank chuckling like Muttley at my Dastardly floundering...

The bothy suddenly appeared in my view, closer than I had expected. I could just see my bike leaning up against the wall of it - awaiting my return. I had saved my final drink for this moment, and threw it down my neck with immense relief; packaged up my walking-poles and pedalled for Dalwhinnie, the car and home. The route in total was about 50km, with almost 30km of that being on the cycled section - while most of the ascent was in the walking. 

Best of all - a day off from all contact (there's no mobile reception out there), and a chance to think, pray, have space, and forget about the Scottish referendum; at least for a few hours! 

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Lochaber 100

It's over twenty-five years since I have done a 100mile bike ride, but the challenge was thrown down to me by a friend from Fort William Baptist Church. The church, in conjunction with TearFUND organise a cyclo-sportive event every autumn to raise money for that great charity. When I was first sent the link I filled in the form, but hovered nervously over the 'send' button (even phoned my wife, so see if she thought I was being too ambitious!). With a deep breath I hit the button, paid the money and booked myself in. I was initially so nervous about going up to 100 again that I barely told anyone I was going to attempt it, such would be the ignominy were I to fail and take a thirty-mile ride home in the support car. People asking how I'd got on would have been like the walk of shame!

Anyway, I began doing some training. With a week to go, I was doing 60mile rides with some good hills, without too much difficulty. I am creaking a lot more than I did all those decades ago, with my back protesting if I leaned into the hills too much. It wasn't just my back that creaked - my old bike has been showing signs of wear and tear as well. In 1980-something, the "F.W. Evans Tourer de Luxe" was a state of the art touring bike. Its' Suntour gears, cantilever brakes, wolber rims, full mudguards and Blackburn luggage racks were all bolted onto Reynolds 531c double-butted tubing. The mudguards broke a while ago, so I took the luggage racks of with them; one of the pedals made an awful crunching noise so they were replaced. and then last week the bike shop told me the chain was worn out, along with the rear gear-cassette - all replaced. Perth has an excellent bike shop, J.M. Richards, and they got the old machine singing like a dream in time for my big day out.

The ride started at the community centre in Corpach - the first village out of Fort William on the road to Mallaig. While I carefully lowered my steel-framed monster off the roof of the car, all around me, car-boots opened and carbon-frames were quickly re-united with their ultra-light wheels. Not only was this my first 100-attempt for many years but I had never really taken part in an event like this before and was unsure as to the etiquette; more in terms of on-the-road, than the administration. 

At the outset, on the mostly flat road from Corpach to Glen Finnan, the riders stayed fairly close to one another. It was a very small field of just over fifty riders, which for the length of ride is small. A handful indicated that they were there for seriously fast riding and pulled ahead, while one or two dropped off the back, intent on enjoying a more leisurely day out. The main group then split into two. Feeling unconfident, I slipped back into the slower group and chatted as we passed Harry Potter's famous viaduct at Glenfinnan. When we hit the first hill, a 150metre climb pulling out of Glenfinnan, I realised I was in too slow a group, and so overtook and ploughed up the hill looking for other riders. On the hill I fell into step with another rider, she was a powerful cyclist and good conversationalist and we made good progress before being joined by another chap. Staying with them was a significant challenge for me, as they were riding well out of my comfort-zone in terms of speed. My fear was that staying with them would mean burning-out well before the finish. 

After one feed station the pair of them left me behind somewhere up Glen Uig, I believe. Cycling alone and trying to keep up a good speed was impossible (plus I wasn't 100% sure of the route!) and so I flogged myself to catch up with the pair. About five or six times I got close as they ascended hills, only to have them disappear over summits into the distance. After about half an hour of the hardest work I have ever done on a bike, I caught them and gratefully exploited their slipstream again. At Strontian the front rider waved to indicate that he wasn't stopping for food, I was hungry - but to be honest the thought of filled-rolls in pouring rain was not appetising - and we pushed on. The road from Strontian to Conan Ferry is a wonderful ride over the hill and down to the sea-loch; and the three of us really got into a good rhythm as the rain stopped and the sun broke through. This lasted most of the way back until we lost one member who wanted to do a big-fast finish over the last twenty miles. 

It was only on the last ten miles that I really began to struggle, saddle-sore and with plummeting blood-sugar I limped along desperately trying to keep up with my companion of the last 70miles. 

I was delighted when we reached the hall at Corpach and completed the 100. I was shocked to discover that I'd done it in 5hrs45mins, which at 17.34mph average speed was a personal best by some margin! The village hall was replete with teas, coffees, cakes, changing rooms and showers too. There was plenty of good chat too, of routes ridden and hills climbed.

This turned out to be a simply fantastic day, thanks to FWBC, TearFUND cycling, and the great folks I met on the road. The Lochaber 100 also includes some fabulous scenery. Sign me up for next year!

Monday, September 08, 2014

Wednesday, September 03, 2014