Friday, March 31, 2017

Film Notes: A Very Long Engagement

A Very Long Engagement is a breathtaking film. Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, has quite remarkably brought together a heady mix of childhood innocence, the horror of war, sexual awakening, romance, mystery, intrigue, and drama; using some brilliant acting, a gripping 'searching for the truth' plot, and absolutely gorgeous filming. The results are highly unusual, emotionally gripping and truly memorable.

The main storyline centres on the fate of one of five French soldiers condemned to death on the Western Front for alleged self-mutilation, in the attempt to gain medical discharge from the carnage of The Somme. This soldier, a boy from Brittany called Manech (Gaspard Ulliel), lies in a military cemetery, according to military files, but his fiancee, Mathilde (Audrey Tautou) refuses to believe it. She takes on years of investigative work in order to establish exactly what happened on one fateful day in one particular trench called "Bingo Crepuscule".

The plot unfolds (with the help of a narrator), from the perspective of Mathilde, as she pieces together the story - and reminisces about her happy life before the war. As her knowledge grows, and she tracks down various witnesses, the audience is allowed to see more of the wartime action. As such, the film moves back and forth between the sun-drenched dreamy Brittany countryside (almost sepia-like in reminiscence); and the muddy, ghastly Somme. The intersection of the saturated colours of Brittany, and the colourless water-saturated battlefield is chilling. The battlefield scenes are absolutely heart-wrenching, and amongst the most vivid portrayals of The Western Front I have ever seen. The recreations of mid-20th Century Paris are incredible too. Tautou caries the part of Mathilde superbly, combining her physical and emotional frailty with a steely determination around which the whole story revolves. The appalling conditions, and dreadful suffering of the trenches is also offset against some very funny moments involving Ticky Holgardo as a larger than life private detective and Jean-Paul Rouve as a hilarious postman. An array of excellent supporting cast members, add to the brilliance of this film.

The film carries a (15) rating in the UK, primarily because of the horror of some of the battlefield scenes, and some post-war reprisals against bad officers. The rating is also earned by a sexual sub-plot, involving Jodie Foster (acting in French!) as the wife of a soldier desperately trying to get pregnant in his absence, to add a sixth child to the family to qualify him for discharge from the forces.

A Very Long Engagement also adds something of a French perspective to the Centenary Memorials of the battles of the First World War. Obviously we are more used to the British perspective here, and Hollywood has looked a American and Canadian experiences; but this is a reminder that men from all over France were called up for the conflict too.

I wonder if the power of this film is because it crosses so many boundaries of genre? Perhaps too many films stick in one groove and work that theme to it's conclusion. A Very Long Engagement, is in places a romance, at others an action film, it has moments of great delicacy and passion, others of great sorrow, yet shot though with flashes of humour too. Real life doesn't exist in single genres, so why do so many films? Delightfully, it does all these different things so well, that the result is not half-baked, and incoherent; but totally absorbing and very moving. The things which stick most vividly in my mind are the subtle inflections in Tautou's face as she takes her character through this shocking journey; and the disturbing battlefield images, which continue to haunt and disturb long after the credits have rolled. That, and the ending of course.... but I'll not spoil that for you.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Book Notes: God's Unwelcome Recovery by Sean Oliver-Dee

Sean Oliver-Dee has a central contention behind his book, "God's Unwelcome Recovery", and that is that the death of the church in UK has been predicted and proclaimed for ideological; not observational reasons. The book is short, and wide ranging and contains the following sections: (i) Statistics; in which the author shows that while the popular perception is of relentless decline, the actual figures are more complex. His analysis shows that  there are both areas of decline, but also areas of significant growth too, which more than offset the death-of-the-church narrative. (ii) Ideology; in which Oliver-Dee lines up the various forces making up the contemporary elites, from liberals to new atheists, and explains why they perpetuate the myth of inexorable church decline. (iii) Apologetics, in which Oliver-Dee rehearses some of the counter-arguments to the ideology driving his opponents (such as the secular view of progress, and science; and (iv) proposals for a Christian future.

The book is constantly, and deliberately counter-intuitive, which is what makes it interesting. It is though, a book of varied consistency and one which asks as many questions as it answers. The thing which had attracted me to the title initially was the statistical re-evaluation of the church in the UK, which I had heard it contained. I am far from being a competent statistician, but Oliver-Dee's claims here, probably need further exploration before they can be accepted as er... gospel. They do at least show good evidence for the wide variety in growth/decline patterns across the country, and the way in which the negative side of that picture is the only one to gain popular traction. The ideological section is interesting but perhaps is only the starting point for the discussion which seemed to me to leave a lot of powerful forces, such as consumer hyper-individualism, and cultural and religious pluralism, the loss of confidence in the 'west', and era of post-modern ascendancy undeveloped. The apologetic section was fair enough, but is far from being the best treatment of these issues, and so seemed a bit odd in the context of the flow of the book's argument. What was oddest of all however were the suggestions which Oliver-Dee seeks to draw from his analysis. Firstly he got sidetracked into a very esoteric discussion about disestablishment of the Church of England, and its relationship to church growth in the UK (more esoteric for those of us in Scotland, than down South, I suspect); this was then compounded by an obscure suggestion about adopting the German/Lutheran taxation system for church funding for its social role in communities. I was left wondering if the central contention of the book was lost behind such idiosyncratic discussions and suggestions. 

A full book-length treatment of the statistical patterns of church decline/health/growth across the UK, mapped by region, age, denomination, (etc), and a rigorous comparison of that reality with media coverage and popular perceptions of the church would be probably a more helpful way to develop Oliver-Dee's starting approach. The further he tracked away from his central thesis, the less useful his book became. If a future work were to take his research in that direction, it could be extremely valuable. As it stands, this book reads a little like a plea to turn a backward gaze to the last vestiges of Christendom. That though, I think, is a ship which has well and truly sailed.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Book Notes: Blues People by LeRoi Jones

Amiri Baraka published "Blues People" in the early 1960s when he was still known as LeRoi Jones. It is a complex book in which he seeks to interpret the course of African American music, in the light of the socio-economic and racial history from which it emerged. 

Obviously the story begins with the enslavement of Africans and their transfer to America for their forced labour; the naked greed of which was smuggled under the ideological pretence that they were less-than-human and not deserving of rights. Baraka argues though that slavery was not unique to America, and had in fact been practised in Africa, and in many previous empires. American slavery was though, uniquely savage though because it involved de-humanising treatment in the context of complete cultural alienation and white cultural hegemony. There are some interesting links between this thesis and some other things I have read recently. 

In his work on Christian apologetics, Tim Keller addresses the critique that the Bible is too tolerant of slavery by pointing out that what most people imagine slavery to mean is African-American plantation slavery, rather than the debtors work-house style arrangement of Roman and Greek times. He argues that the uniquely horrific situation of African American plantation slavery is not discussed in the Bible, and that as such such attacks are misguided. Baraka, demonstrates very forcibly why this is a reasonable view. Likewise, Mark Noll in addressing the same question argues that critics of the Bible's response to slavery fail to consider that the Bible is resolutely anti-racist; and that the central problem in American history was racism, more than slavery. Baraka's early chapters resonate interestingly with such thinking because it was the specific ripping of people from their culture and crushing them beneath another which was the actual horror, he writes.
"There remains some condition of communication on strictly human terms between Babylonian and Israelite or Assyrian and Chaldean that allows finally for acceptance of the slave-caste as merely an economically oppressed group. To the Romans slaves were merely vulgar and conquered people who had not the rights of Roman citizenship. The Greeks thought of their slaves as unfortunate people who had failed to cultivate their minds and wills, and were this reduced to that lowly but necessary state. But these slaves were still human beings. However, the African who was unfortunate enough to find himself on some fast clipper ship to the New World was not even accorded membership in the human race" (p2)
From this starting point Baraka explores the de-Africanisation of what he calls the American Negro (terminology that was uncontroversial in the 1950s and 60s, and used by all sections of the Civil Rights Movement, from SLCC integrationists, to SNCC radicals), specifically with reference to the culture and music that was made as African culture interacted with the dominant European one. "Only religion (and magic) and the arts were not completely submerged by Euro-American concepts", he writes (p16). 

What follows is a very complex exploration of a wealth of musical and cultural trends, to which the author offers explanatory notes as to its origins and influence; from his interpretation of racial history. He notes the western derision at African culture in the 1920, while The Charleston (a poor-man's West African Ashanti dance) was all the rage; for example (p17). He looks at jazz, work-songs, blues, and the troublesome nature of the hugely popular minstrel shows; which while embarrassingly patronising, also grew in tandem with white abolitionism; as the humanity of the slaves became harder and harder for their oppressors to deny. The cultural cross-currents between African and European culture, through church and music are fascinating - and hugely complicated, Baraka writes; "ragtime developed from the paradox of minstrelsy, insofar as it was a music the Negro came to in imitating white imitations of Negro music." (p90). Classic blues of the inter-war years is described, when commercial models of music distribution and recording came to the fore and produced stars like Bessie Smith. One remarkable observation is that the collapse of Reconstruction in the South led to a new fusion of European and African music. Baraka says that the higher-caste of lighter skinned Negroes had sought to distance themselves from  their darker neighbours, and sought integration into the dominant culture. Expelled from such integration by the stricter racial Jim Crow codes, they took this culture back into the 'Negro' sections of town, where new cross-currents emerged. Chapter nine develops such thinking further with a detailed examination of the Black Middle Class, which he repeatedly castigates for its un-Africanness and cultural dispersal into a form of European-isation which he clearly sees as dull, formal, uncreative and weak. Boogie-Woogie, Stride, Big Band, Swing, and 1960s blues, all get this sort of fascinating appraisal.

"John Lewis [of the Modern Jazz Quartet] attempts to "combine" classical music and jazz have more often than not been frightening examples of what the final dilution of Afro-American musical tradition might be" (p229)!

Blues People is a fascinating book, but I have to say it is very hard work. I have read a lot of American History, and music and cultural history; but found this exceptionally hard going, despite how interesting it was. Baraka writes with a dense, obfuscating style which sometimes hides rather elegant thought behind a tangle of knotted clauses. The book is also loaded with knowing references which are meaningless to the uninitiated. Some of the people, and things he cites are still common currency, and his arguments make sense; but over half a century later, many of the things he assumes the reader will know have dropped from view. Likewise there is a dearth of references for some of his startling historical assertions, especially in the first quarter of the book; which made exploring any of those further impossible.

Despite those reservations, this is a really interesting book. It is one of those historical books which is itself now a historical artefact. In 1963 when this book was published, LeRoi Jones (as he was then known), was a Black public intellectual, helping shape the emerging Black Consciousness, as Civil Rights moved towards Black Power. That this was published in 1963, is as important, as what he writes about 1923, 1903, and 1863.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Film Notes: The Lobster

Yorgos Lanthimos' film The Lobster is a most unusual offering. In fact it is weird; gloriously weird. The Lobster is a curious tale of the individual battling against social conformity on every side; set in a surreal, absurd and dystopian version of our own society. Despite that unifying theme, the rest of the film is a patchwork of different moods and settings; the two halves of the film are hugely different, and there are moments of horror, desperate bleakness, hopeless pity, and brilliant black comedy. If that sounds a bit Black Mirror, then that's probably not far from the mark.

Colin Farrell plays the lead character, David. In the opening scene of the film he is dumped by his wife, and promptly arrested, as the tightly controlled society in which he lives does not permit singleness. The exclusion so often felt by single people in our world, is extrapolated to being a matter of law in this film. Such a social satire is only the beginning of the weirdness however. Singles are taken to a 'hotel' in which they have 45 days to find a mate (with whom they must share a 'defining characteristic'), failure to achieve which results in them being turned into an animal of their choice. The Lobster of the title, refers to David's choice of transformation in the event of his failure at the hotel. The hotel, with its overbearing social rules (overseen by a brilliantly hilarious Olivia Coleman) is a surreal house of nightmares; complete with dating rituals, appalling punishments, and weird sexual codes. To add to the escalating madness, hotel residents can 'buy' extra days before their time is up, by killing single people in hunting expeditions into the surrounding woods. All the characters in the film seem to speak in a detached monotone too - as their genuine self-expression has long since expired beneath the all pervasive conformity. It is as bleak and soulless as their required sexual expression.

The first half of the film is set in this hotel, and is gripping, appalling, deeply weird - and brilliantly executed. Another twist is that David is the only character with a name - everyone else is only known by their defining characteristic, another symbol of their de-individualisation by the system.

The film then abruptly changes mood, as David escapes from the hotel and joins a renegade group in the woods. While the viewer might think that he will find some kind of freedom - here he discovers that singleness is enforced with the same degree of brutality as coupledom is in the hotel. Just as in the hotel, we never learn a character's name - here too they are just known as "shortsighted woman", even Lea Seydoux's chilling character is only known as the "Leader". In the woods, amongst the Loner's. David begins to fall for "Shortsighted Woman", played by Rachel Weisz - who also turns out to be the whole film's narrator. When the Leader discovers their affair, she blinds 'Shortsighted Woman', to prevent them running away to the city to live as a couple; unless of course David blinds himself too in order to share the all-important defining characteristic......

The second half of the film is less convincing than the first, probably because it doesn't maintain the surreal, bleak, absurdist humour to the same level. While this film is alarmingly wonderful, most of the brilliance (and the offence, actually), comes in the first half. There is little in the latter half to take the film above a (12) certificate, most of the language, violence and sexual references occur in the hotel; earning it a (15).

The Lobster is a warped, highly imaginative comic-horror-absurdist farce about social conformity. It is like no other film in its nonsensical premise, its relentless following of its own internal logic, and comic darkness and social commentary. It is greatly helped by brilliant performances from a superb cast, with Farrell, Weisz, Coleman and Seydoux at the fore. The soundtrack, with its flourishes of classical music, bursting in and out - add a further note of eccentric and outlandish creativity to proceedings. 

Highly entertaining, haunting, offensive, thought-provoking, profoundly idiosyncratic, and inconsistent; what's not to like about The Lobster. Definitely not one for under-15s though...

Monday, March 13, 2017

Film Notes: Blogging Through Krzysztof Kieślowski's "The Dekalog"

The Dekalog is Krzysztof Kieślowski's critically aclaimed and powerfully engaing series of short films, each of which is inspired by one of the biblical "Ten Commandments". Over the last six months or so I have watched them all, having picked them up in a 2nd hand DVD shop; but having previously enjoyed Krzysztof Kieślowski's Three Colours trilogy.

The series consists of ten little relational dramas, but they are all linked courtesy of the fact that the backdrop for each of them is the same massive Soviet-era Warsaw flats. Although the films are not of even quality, and three of them stand out as being exceptionally good; there are only one or two that fail to be truly memorable. Here is a list of links to my reiews through the whole series.

Dekalog One:

Dekalog Two:

Dekalog Three:


Dekalog Four:

Dekalog Five:

Dekalog Six

Dekalog Seven:

Dekalog Eight:

Dekalog Nine:


Dekalog Ten:

Film Notes: Dekalog 10

Dekalog 10, is Krzysztof Kieślowski's final short film in this series made for Polish TV in the 1980s. The series as a whole has gained 'cult status', because of Kieślowski's imaginative storytelling, some hauntingly beautiful music, and some clever and intriguing responses to each of the Ten Commandments. However, the series as a whole is best remembered as an insight into what late communist Poland looked and sounded like - as well as being a window into the ethical world of the decaying Marxist-Leninist state, which was overlaid on residual Polish Catholicism.

While Dekalog One begins the series with a stunning, and emotional wrenching drama which all but burns itself into the memory; Dekalog 10 is probably the weakest of the set. Dekalog 10, doesn't seem to fit in with the rest of the series either. While parts 1-9 were all emotionally tense, gripping dramas, 10 was a farcical black comedy, which didn't hold my attention in the same way the othes did. So, while I was hoping that the series would end with more of a bang than a whimper, it would be a shame to let this detract from the greatness of the series taken as a whole.

Dekalog Ten concerns two very different brothers, (one is older and sensible, one younger and the front-man in a punk band). Much to their surprise, they inherit an invaluable stamp collection from their late, semi-estranger father. The 'do not covet' element of the film (which is the commandment in question here), is about the lust for wealth and riches, and how it divides the brothers, while they have it. However, while the brothers fall into mutual distrust - they are both conned and robbed of everything they inherited by a series of collaborating con-men. Finally, when others coveting their fortune has succeeded, they are reconciled, the poison of coveting having been neutralised.

As ever, the film is well acted, is atmospheric, and Kieślowski's usual eye for quirky detail shines through. It's not that it is a bad film, it is simply that after nine riveting and tantalising dramas, Dekalog 10 just didn't seem to be of the same calibre.

Spidean Mialach

It was wonderful to be back down the long dead-end road from Loch Garry through Tomdoun, Loch Quoich to distant Kinloch Hourn. It is almost a year since I have been in these parts, and my last drive down this long narrow, single track road, will forever be remembered as the day a car tyre blew out! On that wintry day I managed to climb Gleouraich, a lovely hill on the North side of Loch Quoich; but didn't attempt the steep descent across a heavily corniced ridge to its sister Munro, Spidean Mialach. This weekend I travelled north primarily to meet up with all my friends as Fort William Baptist Church on Sunday; who also kindly put me up for the night so that I could enjoy the hills on my way up to them. My initial thought had been to cross the Quoich Dam, and climb Gairich, a shapely peak on the south side of the loch. A neighbour strongly advised against that plan however, pointing out that she had done it in fairly dry conditions and even then, it involved wading through knee-deep bogs. Heavy rains in the Highlands over the preceding days would have reduced the path to a quagmire, a route better left for a drought, or a big freeze. My plan duly abandoned I struck North, between the dam, and the bridge which carries the Kinlochhourn road over the northern extension of the loch; created when its size was massively increased with the addition of the dam in the mid-1950s.

The path, which is clearly marked on the OS map, is very clear once on the hill, but its first 50metres or so are overgrown with rhododendrons. If it were not for a little cairn and a fallen post, at the side of the road, it would be almost impossible to locate the start of the path.
Once through the jumble of leaves, the path opens out and gives easy, rapid access to the hills. It bears right, under the power lines, and below a rocky bluff called Meall nan Carn. The path continues to bear eastwards, with the gradient easing across wide, wet peat, finally abruptly terminating at the bifurcation of the river, exactly as depicted on the OS 1:50 000 map.

From here, the obvious route is to continue to bear eastwards, climbing gently until Loch Fearna becomes visible behind the unnamed hillock at 614m. From there, it s direct line of assault up the unrelentingly steep and slippery slopes of Spidean Mialach. The summit, is graced with a small cairn and a spectacular drop off it's North side, an edge that was enhanced by some lovely cornicing. 

Sadly the top was shrouded in thick cloud the whole time I was there. The sun faintly appeared through it, along with the occasional path of blue sky - hinting that it might burn off the light the day up; open up the views, or even provide a spectacular inversion. Optimistically, I trudged over to the smaller top on the summit, put all my warm gear on, and snuggled down under the wind for a pleasant doze. I waited half an hour or so; but it there was no sign of any clearing of the cloud at all; so I reluctantly retraced my steps.

While I hadn't needed my (borrowed!), ice-axe; crampons were essential for the top of the hill, as the icy-slush on the steep sides was impossibly slippery without them. I kept the spikes on for as long as I could; following bands of snow and ice down the hill. As soon as I dipped back under the clouds, wonderful views appeared the length of Loch Quoich, over to Gairich, and down towards Knoydart and the Glen Dessary hills. My neighbour's warning about bogs on Gairich was almost certainly well-founded. The burns were in full spate on Spidean Mialach; one of which was very hard to cross. Rising water levels, fuelled by melting snow, made my concerned that my descent would be blocked, so I reluctantly used a bulldozed hydro track back down to the road; the car, Fort William and food. Once in Fort William, my friends up there were able to help me with the correct Gaelic pronunciations of all the places I had been!

This was a small Munro walk with which to kick off 2016. I am now itching to get my boots on again.

Sunday, March 05, 2017

Film Notes: Dekalog 9

In the late 1980s, the celebrated Polish filmmaker, Krzysztof Kieślowski, set out to make ten short interlinked films. The films all shared a common location, a giant monoform set of flats in Warsaw, which create a drab and deadening canvass for each piece. The films all share a common form, in that they are all dramas built around the human relationships in the flats. The films sometimes even overlap, with characters and scenes from one film appearing as extras or backdrops in others. Most significantly though, the films are each loosely connected to one of the biblical Ten Commandments: "the dekalog". Having previously admired Kieślowski's Tricolore series, I was intrigued to learn that he had previously attempted something with its roots in the bible.

The ninth film in the series, shares all the features which marked the first eight; faded filming, moody, atmospheric music, sparse dialogue, the plot mostly driven emotional developments, not action scenes; where the ability of actors to reveal the inner lives of their characters while the camera lingers long on their faces; is more important than any stuntman, let alone special effects (of which there are none!) In Dekalog 9, the prohibition against adultery (and coveting a neighbour's wife) is in view. However, rather than using the commandment to ask complex questions (Do Not Steal; Dekalog Seven) or to deliver a political polemic (Do not Kill: Dekalog Five); Dekalog Nine is more of a straightforward story of tragedy, and relationship breakdown.

The film begins with a man being told by a Doctor that his sexual impotence is medical, permanent and untreatable. (An issue Kieslowski would return to with comic effect in Tricolore Blanc). Anxious, frustrated and angry, he tells his wife about the diagnosis, and also tells her that he would understand if she took a lover. She assures him that, she would remain faithful to him, declaring that, "Love is in one's heart - not between one's legs." As the story unfolds however, the husband discovers that his wife is unwilling to live up to these sentiments; and has a lover - a physics student who is many years her junior. He seems to be infatuated with her, and loves her both with his heart and er..... with what's between his legs; while she merely uses him for her sexual needs. The remainder of the film (along with some little sub-plots) charts the man's disintegration as he discovers the affair; and his attempted suicide.

Rather than leading the viewer to think and wrestle with complex moral issues, this is like a little morality play; in which selfish actions produce great pain and suffering amongst those closest to them. Dekalog Nine, is far from being the best of the series, it lacks the complexity and intrigue of the best of the works. It is still memorable in its own way though, because of the rawness of the human tragedy which underlies it. Another wonderful thing in this episode is the hauntingly beautiful soundtrack music by Zbigniew Preisner, which seems to perfectly amplify the emotional darkness of the characters.

Saturday, March 04, 2017

Book Notes: Out There by Chris Townsend

I first became aware of Chris Townsend as the equipment reviewer for TGO (The Great Outdoors) magazine, telling me which boots were badly made, which stoves are useless in a moderate breeze, or which tents are easiest to pack-away in a storm! There was usually a little thumbnail picture of his face alongside the review, and I think I may have actually seen him on a hill near Ullapool once, over a decade ago. Without any doubt I once saw Cameron McNeish (who contributes a forward to this volume) filling his car up at the Auchenkilns service station north of Glasgow, many, many years ago before the road was upgraded. I was going to say hello, but he was in a hurry, with his head down - and didn't look especially approachable! So, when I was given a copy of Townsend's Out There for Christmas, I was aware of him, but had no idea what the book would be like. It turned out to be an unusual and rather lovely book, quite unlike any other outdoor book I have read.

Out There, is not a route book, it's not a technical how-to book, it's not a macho 'conquer the wild' survival guide, or even an endurance and survival memoir - it doesn't fit into any of those well-rehearsed genres of outdoor writing. Rather uniquely Out There, is a series of essays about different aspects of the wild environment, the value of it, being in it, the sensations it produces, great past writing about it, pioneers of it's exploration and preservation, of walks, camps and backpacks up small hills and across vast continents. Although what I am about to write sounds as if the book is dreadfully cliched and cheesy, Out There reads less like an outdoor manual, and more like a series of love-letters and eulogies to wild country. Townsend just loves wild land, in fact he seems to like it the more wild and unaffected by humanity he can get it. The book isn't romantic in the sense of a romantic poet gushing over the countryside in mystical whimsy; rather every paragraph of this delightful book is simply pulsing with Townsends love of the outdoors. His writing I found especially moving was were his descriptions of places I have seen, especially those in the Scottish Highlands which he has explored extensively; and where I have had many, many wonderful days.

Although this is about North America, this is how he remembers a night under the stars:
"On the first few days, I was captivated by the way the rocks changed colour with the passing of the hours - black, dark grey, deep red, gold, pale yellow, cream then darkening back to black - and the way shafts of sunlight lit up the shaggy red bark of an incense cedar, the way the creeks sparkled as they slid over speckled ganite" (p125)
This passion comes through whether Townsend is writing about long-distance paths like the Cape Wrath Trail, of encounters with wolves or bears, of battling the elements in the Arctic, or camping in a gentle woodland. I have to confess that some of Townsend's exploits are beyond those that most of us could ever contemplate; either in terms fitness, time or cost. Not many people get to walk the length of America - even if they were so inclined. It is tempting to think about such schemes, and to look at maps of the Pacific Crest Trail  - only to be brought back to the sober reality, that my last attempt to climb a modest Corbett were stymied by the need to pick kids up from school!

This is just a wonderful read for anyone who loves the outdoors. My most regular walk is a circuit of little Kinnoull Hill in Perth - at the other end of the spectrum to Townsend's huge achievements. But for a modest hill plodder like myself, there is so much in this book which is inspiring. Happily, the book avoids being diverted into other discussions - particularly politics, which add an unwelcome tension to some hill writers works. This is about Townsend's love of the wild, and little else. The best chapters are those in which he writes about the benefits of the wild, how to appreciate them most, and of his appreciation of it. The less interesting are those at the end which tend to be more straightforward memoirs of places, and trips; although those these too are good reads.

The book describes Townsend as amongst other things a photographer - and so I was a little disappointed that there were no photos in the book. I found that reading the book with a Google image search to hand was enjoyable, as the vast majority of places he describes, have been photographed by others. I subsequently discovered that he has his own website, which does contain some images.

Townsend quotes John Muir - something of a hero in the book; who wrote:
"Everyboody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike." (p149)
It is early March, and the rain is currently lashing the roof slates on my house, which makes my study tucked in the very top of the building, rattle and vibrate. In fact, it sounds not unlike some of Townsend's descriptions of wild nights under canvass! I have been on 'parent duty' all day - which isn't something I begrudge by the way; but with Out There, open on my desk; I am itching to get my boots back on, feel a pack on my back, and see the hills again. I need beauty as well as bread.

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Film Notes: Force Majeure

A perfect, rich beautiful Swedish couple, Ebba and Tomas, take their two children to a beautiful mountain resort for a week of skiing and family time. They plan to spend their days in the mountains, and their evenings with like-minded friends in the luxury hotel they have booked. What could possibly go wrong? Force Majeure is the story of a family for whom everything on the surface looks idyllic; but whose idyll is shattered by dark forces within them. These undercurrents, which have been suppressed beneath their their opulent consumerism, and outward beauty, are exposed by a crisis which physically only disturbs them; but promises to emotionally destroy them.

. The 'perfect family' on vacation look to be doing fine, until lunch on the first day of their trip. Until this point the only indication that all is not what it seems are the sporadic and sudden interjections of bursts of dramatic classical music; that and when Tomas lies about his mobile phone us. These are things which seem to be at odds with the proceedings; but in fact are in tune with the realities of the situation. Then a controlled-avalanche goes wrong and threatens to engulf the family. They survive completely unharmed, but as the thick, smoky, powder from the near-miss settles; it becomes clear that Ebba sought to protect the children; while Tomas grabbed his gloves and mobile phone - and ran away.

The darkly tragic-comedic situation that unfolds is the ever more desperate attempts of the family to continue to present their veneer of perfection; when the proverbial 'elephant in the room' must constantly be stepped around. Of course, as the saying goes, emotions are never buried - they are always buried alive! But when Ebba drinks a lot of wine, in company; all the pain and the anger of that fateful lunch come pouring out, compounded by Tomas' sorry attempts to talk himself out of the situation. The fake 'united -front' is seen through by the children who become emotional and difficult, fearful that their plastic-paradise is disintegrating. All the while, in the background, Ebba has a friend who seems perfectly happy in a promiscuous open marriage something she disapproves of; while her attempts to construct a perfect reality for herself are in turn hugely flawed.

The comedy of embarrassment, over cringe-worthy dinner parties; and by the frequent interruptions at critical emotional moments by the monosyllabic and stony-faced hotel porter; only alleviate the mounting tension slightly. Through it all, the family maintain their stringent teeth-brushing routines seeming to indicate that presenting perfect teeth to the world still matters - even if relationally there is deep-rooted decay setting in. This tension eventually erupts into Tomas' bitter weeping, and confession that he hates so many aspects of his cowardice and deceit.

The film ends with a group of scenes which neither bring the narrative to a definite conclusion, nor reduce the plot to one simple 'message'. In one scene, Tomas rescues Ebba when she seems lost on the foggy ski slopes, and Ebba announces that everyone is now happy. It seems clear though that she has staged the event, in order to reassure the children; but the viewer knows that her attempt to rebuild her husbands' character in the kids eyes is a reversion to the pretence of perfection. Finally, as the family leave the resort and an inept bus-driver scares them all to death on a perilous descent; Ebba loses her cool; and this time, it is her who runs from danger leaving the kids with Tomas. 

But what are we to make of this? Is it the case that Ebba is trying again to reconstruct her fake, perfect marriage and family life - this time by reducing herself; after having tried to just build Tomas up? Or it it simply that her previous judgementalism over Tomas' errors was hypocritical; because in fact everyone is as flawed as everyone else. Lurking alongside all of this of course, is the simple morality tale of a man who preferred his phone to his family - and may have lost them as a result. The final scene of the film involves the whole bus load of people walking down the mountain, having let the maniacal bus driver go ahead. They trudge back down towards their 'normal lives', with a mountain of unresolved questions to face; and the ripples of Tomas' character flaws still dispersing.

This film is, despite the relatively small amount of action, totally gripping - if at times unbearable to watch. Johannes Bah Kuhnke and Lisa Loven Kongsli as Tomas and Ebba put in very good performances in which the chasm between their exterior and interior lives is writ large. They are ably supported by a strong supporting cast, including the children - who seem genuinely caught up in the sorry tale. Force Majeure ("Irresistible Force") is a cracking good movie, full of hypocrisy, vanity, conceit, lies and their exposure, love, pain, betrayal and glimpses of hope. Weirdly, its also at times rather funny. It certainly has enough unusual elements to set it apart from being yet-another action film or family drama.