Saturday, 18 March 2017

Night of the Living Dead (1968 movie)

One of the first modern "zombie" horror movies, Night Of The Living Dead, directed by George A. Romero, has proved highly influential, in part because of the public domain status of the original film, and its consequent wide availability.

It seems trite to say this, but the fact that it was in black and white helped to "make" the film, at a time when most movies were being made in colour. This consideration I think applies especially to the opening scenes, including the one in the cemetery. Their monochrome cloak helped set the unsettling and disconcerting tone.

Consciously or otherwise, the black and white harks back to the classic horror films of the past. In more than one sense, Night Of The Living Dead has a foot in both camps, embracing aspects of previous works, but also helping to form new templates for the genre.

As others have observed, that scene in the cemetery, where Barbra and her brother are visiting the grave of their father, is integral to the film's impact. There is little or nothing in the way of exposition or back-story at that stage - we are straight into the fear and terror.

Equally, the opening "titles" sequence, showing the car driving along a lonely road, is hugely affecting, accentuated by the creepy music. This eeriness is maintained throughout the piece.

The sparse and underplayed production values and dialogue also assist in building up the "believability" of the scenario and events. Slickness all too often compromises and sanitizes horror movies. The camera angles add to the realism and the sense of anxiety and disorientation.

The violence and "gore" are not as graphic or as gruesome as would become almost standard in later horror pictures, including those directly inspired by this one. More is left to the imagination, and it is more about mood, anticipation, psychology, metaphors and imagery.  I wonder whether modern audiences might be slightly puzzled by the "slow" pace, and the relative lack of "action".

As for the acting, I think that both Judith O'Dea (Barbra) and Duane Jones (Ben) do a pretty good job. O'Dea makes her character's shock and vulnerability palpable. Some might question Barbra's behaviour after witnessing her brother's death, but I felt that a mixture of shock and the self-preservation instinct set in.  Some of the other acting is less convincing, but it is better than some people may associate with this type of film.

Part of the impact of the picture is the concentration of most of the running time in an isolated farmhouse. This way, in addition to the claustrophobia, we get to see the interaction of a group of disparate people, with their differing temperaments and fear thresholds. We see the "unity" of the zombies set against the fractious and individualistic people in the house

It is tempting to read various interpretations into the dialogue and the characterizations, given that this was 1968. Was the gathering in the farmhouse a microcosm of wider society? It is fascinating to observe and analyze the examples of human nature - co-operation, egotism, necessity, pragmatism.

Having been tense and unsettling, the film becomes much more disturbing (and graphic) in its closing stages, and the symbolism (intentional or not) becomes more pronounced.

Night Of The Living Dead is very much worth a watch.

Thursday, 16 February 2017

Hot Space - Queen (1982 album) - review

Following on from my recent blog post about my attendance at Queen's 1982 show at Elland Road, Leeds,  I thought that I would take a look at the album which they had released shortly before that concert, Hot Space.

This was Queen's first "proper" studio album for two years, which in those days seemed (to me) like an eternity, but by modern standards this would be no big deal.

I can't really remember whether there were signals in advance of the musical direction which the record would signify, but in the end it turned out to be a mixture of decided funk and dance influences, with some more "traditional" Queen sounds alongside.  In some ways this was a more pronounced and decisive take on the blend which had been represented by 1980's The Game.

This album is sometimes seen as the album which triggered a period of uncertainty and soul-searching for the group. It met with a lukewarm critical (and in some territories, commercial) reception, and these factors may all have contributed to a crisis of confidence, and a lack of direction, which were not fully remedied until Live Aid in 1985.

Looking back now, to me the record stands up reasonably well. The sound, in its breeziness and exuberance, is very much "of its time", but the continuing excursions into more rhythmic styles met with mixed results. I think the inventiveness and stylishness of the production tend to obscure the lack of fresh and potent ideas in the songwriting department.

Of the "dance" orientated pieces, only "Back Chat" really works, not because it is an outstanding composition, but because of the atmospheric production, and the effort which was evidently expended on arriving at the finished article. "Staying Power" worked much better in concert, and "Body Language" remains as puzzling to me now as it was over thirty years ago.

The two Roger Taylor songs, "Action This Day" and "Calling All Girls" are likeable but minor.  "Life Is Real (Song For Lennon), has some intriguing lyrics, but comes across as rather "Queen by numbers".

"Put Out The Fire", a basic rocker, perhaps heralds the beginning of a shift in Brian May's songwriting efforts from the mainly introspective towards a greater emphasis on social commentary. The inclusion of "Under Pressure" almost occurred to me as a rather tired gesture, as it had always seemed to me as a "standalone" single, and putting it as the final track on Hot Space felt like an admission that the creative well was running somewhat dry.

So I would contend that Hot Space is greater than the sum of its individual parts. Although it is by common consent one of the weaker records released by the band, the freshness of its production, and the diversity of the material, make it an interesting listen to this day.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Queen live at Elland Road, Leeds, 1982 - my recollections

A recent internet discussion has rekindled memories of my most memorable concert-going experience, when I saw Queen perform live at Elland Road stadium in Leeds in May 1982.

In all honesty, although I am a massive music lover, I have never been one for attending big concerts in person. I have seen dozens, if not hundreds of bands in pubs and clubs over the years, but bigger venues have seldom had the pleasure of my attendance.

The first thing to mention is that we didn't even have tickets for the Queen gig beforehand. We travelled to the venue on the day, primarily with the intention of soaking up the atmosphere, and possibly standing outside the stadium to hear the music.

Anyway, partly by bus, and partly on foot, we made our way to Elland Road, and kind of mingled with the crowds. I recall that it was a bright and sunny day.  Memories are naturally rather hazy, but I guess that the support acts (Heart, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, Teardrop Explodes) must have started playing around late afternoon, with Queen planning to make their appearance once the sun began to go down.

I was with my older brother and a friend, and we spent much of the afternoon and early evening standing outside the gates of the stadium, hoping to catch a glimpse of band members or assorted hangers-on.  We were eventually rewarded when none other than Freddie Mercury walked past, literally feet away from us, although we were standing on the other side of some metal railings at the time!

Eventually the time came for Queen to go on stage, and at this point we were still standing outside, although as their performance got under way, we could hear the music pretty clearly. Imagine our delight when, after the first couple of numbers, the security guys allowed some of those standing outside to enter the ground. I'm not sure who authorised this, but I've always liked to think that Queen (or their management) had something to do with it.

I can't even remember whether our friend was still was with us at this stage, but my brother and I were very lucky to be standing quite close to the front left of the stage, so we had a splendid view. This was my first experience of any kind of live rock or pop concert, and initially the sheer spectacle, and the attendant assault on the senses, rather blew me away.  Gradually, though, I began to appreciate the sheer brilliance of the performance. At the time Queen were at, or near, their peak as a live band, and there were very few acts anywhere who could rival them at the time.

The major documents of the 1982 UK/European tour are the audio and video recordings of the later Milton Keynes show.  However, I think that Brian May for one has gone on record as saying that the Elland Road show was superior.  Queen's act in the early 1980s was characterized by abundant energy and the tightness of the ensemble, and these elements were very much to the fore that night in Leeds.

I was quite young at the time, and some of the musical and artistic nuances are therefore lost in the mists of time. I recall clapping and waving my arms quite a bit, in addition to singing along enthusiastically with most of the songs. All too soon, the concert was over, and we joined the thousands filing out of the stadium. I remember that local residents were still standing on the pavement outside, soaking up the sights and sounds.

From memory, I think that the last bus had already gone by the time we emerged, so we walked the several miles home, still in a state of euphoria and well-being because of what we had just witnessed.

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Stirling Moss - The Authorised Biography - Robert Edwards

In my experience, most biographies of racing drivers do not offer much in the way of searching insight into personalities, motivations and foibles. They tend to barely scratch the surface in this respect. A notable exception to these rules is Robert Edwards' authorised biography of Stirling Moss.

This book devotes unusual space and attention to examining Moss's family background, his time at school, the role of his parents and his upbringing. At various stages an effort is made to put Stirling's experiences and achievements in some kind of sociological context; again, not something one usually finds in a racing biography.  In some ways I suppose that he was a transitional figure, combining many "pre-war" values with the ethos of the more commercial age which was just beginning.

So often in books, the prowess and drive of high achievers almost appears to come out of nowhere, but Edwards lays plenty of pipework here, allowing us to gain an idea of how the subject's character took shape, and how his psyche and outlook evolved over time.

I would contend that many of the author's observations and conclusions about Moss would surprise the general observer, in that they tend to be less straightforwardly in line with the public perception. The popular image of racing drivers, especially from the era covered here, does not always tally with reality.  Behind the "heroic" facade, they all had their weaknesses, quirks and needs.

Another aspect of this biography which impressed me was that Edwards was not afraid to leave chronological "gaps" in the narrative, instead preferring to concentrate on context and an evocative and representative portrayal of the subject.  The author goes into great detail about the areas which he thinks are instructive and important, but he doesn't feel pressured to document every race of every season. In this way, one gets a more rounded and humanistic sense of Stirling's progress, as well as a richer perspective on events.

It is pleasing to see that as much attention is given to Stirling's exploits in sports cars and certain "niche" spheres as is allocated to his Grand Prix endeavours. The sport was not so "F1-centric" in the 1950s, and all of this also serves to convey the mastery and sheer versatility of Moss. 

Technical matters are also gone into, mostly as a way of illustrating which way the racing wind was blowing, and to place some of Stirling's career moves into greater historical context.  The passages concerning Maserati, Mercedes and Vanwall in particular are thoughtful and penetrating, again dispelling one or two "myths" along the way, and painting a more nuanced picture than is often painted.

A prominent feature of the latter stages of this biography is the concentration on the aftermath of the accident at Goodwood in 1962, and its physical and psychological effects on the driver. Like many areas of the book, it benefits from being "authorised", and is therefore based on good, sometimes rare source material. Again, this all goes well beyond the simplistic, cliched version which was moulded by the popular press.

I also enjoyed the chapters which looked at Stirling's life following his decision to retire from racing, and how he adapted to his new circumstances. The book is written in a pleasingly erudite but economical and accessible style.  If the test of a good biography is whether the reader emerges with an enhanced understanding of the subject, and actually learns a few things in the process, then I would suggest that this fine effort comes through with flying colours. 

Friday, 27 January 2017

Beyond The Limit - Professor Sid Watkins

Following my blog post about Professor Sid Watkins' book Life At The Limit, I re-read the follow-up, Beyond The Limit.

This "sequel" basically takes up the story from when the first book was published in 1996.  It documents the continuing search for enhanced safety in Formula 1 following on from the dreadful events of 1994, and offers special emphasis on the millennium season of the year 2000.

As with Life At The Limit, there is no shortage of amusing anecdotes and insight, but I must admit that it slightly lacks the focus, impact and cohesion of that first book. This is primarily because the charming and absorbing tales from "the old days" and the formative times of Professor Watkins' role in F1 are not there.  Also, the more regimented and corporate tenor of more modern racing arguably makes for less good raw material when writing a book.

So, this is not quite as good or as entertaining as Life At The Limit, but it is still worth checking out.

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Life at The Limit - Professor Sid Watkins

Life At The Limit is a book written in 1996 by the late Professor Sid Watkins, then Formula 1 doctor/medical supremo. It is not a biography as such, but more a chronicle of his involvement in the sport. This is one of those books which the reader will breeze through quickly, and emerge with a happy, satisfied and illuminated feeling.

Although there are compelling accounts of some famous individual incidents, I was if anything more intrigued by the passages which addressed the struggles which Professor Watkins and his colleagues encountered in raising standards of medical back-up and safety, starting in the 1970s. In those early days it seems that arrangements were distinctly haphazard, and it is sobering to discover the gaps which existed before Sid and company, began to get to grips with the deficiencies.  Standardization and uniform excellence were still some way off in the old days.

In documenting his work and his experiences, Professor Watkins also shines a torch on the way of life travelling with the Formula 1 circus, and also what a small world he moved in. There are lots of amusing anecdotes and stories, and the author's dry sense of humour is a delight. In among the seriousness, the pressures and the grave matters at issue, it was still possible to have fun and be irreverent.

Some insight is given into various motor racing personalities, both drivers and non-drivers. Professor Watkins' friendship with Ayrton Senna is of course covered, and it is hard not to be moved by the chapters which deal with the events at Imola in 1994, as well as the accounts of Zolder 1982, Monza 1978 and so forth.

Life At The Limit is in places, and up to a point, a journey through the corridors of motor racing power, although the Professor is necessarily guarded, cryptic or reticent on some points. The remit of this book was really to tell the story of his own involvement.

Above all,  the reader will be lost in admiration and respect for Sid and his colleagues, for what they accomplished in helping people and in raising standards around the world. This is an entertaining and enlightening account of those times.

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

1982 - The Inside Story of the Sensational Grand Prix season - Christopher Hilton

I remember that during the 2012 Formula 1 season, relative neophytes were speculating that we were experiencing perhaps the most dramatic and unpredictable Grand Prix year ever.  Those people had evidently not been around in 1982. Christopher Hilton's book, published in 2007, captures the turbulence and tragedy of that extraordinary season.

For me, the 1982 campaign was in large part coloured, and tarnished, by the death of Gilles Villeneuve, who was one of my first heroes in life. I distinctly remember crying on the day of his accident, staring into space at the end of our driveway, on a warm spring evening.  However, as time has passed I have grown to recognize how that season did have some redeeming features.

The material about the drivers' strike in South Africa is fascinating, in that it suggests that the views of many of the drivers were ambivalent. They were caught between concerns of principle and solidarity and the imperatives of ambition and avarice.  There are some interesting theories about Niki Lauda's motives, too. The strike is also placed within the context of the wider, momentous power struggle which was ongoing within the sport at that time.  A healthy selection of quotes from drivers and other personnel helps to paint the picture.

The chapter dealing with the Belgian Grand Prix in May contains much harrowing but gripping testimony about the events of that tragic qualifying session at Zolder.  Similarly, the passages documenting the Canadian Grand Prix, the scene of Ricardo Paletti's fatal accident, are moving and affecting. It is good that the author went to the trouble of researching Paletti's background and racing career.

Reading the quotes and recollections in this book, it occurs to me that in the 1980s, Grand Prix drivers were more worldly men than they are today. Maybe I think in these terms because the drivers in those days were much older than me, whereas nowadays I am many years their senior. People such as Derek Warwick and John Watson impress with their honesty and roundedness. Making allowances, one would have to say that, thirty-odd years ago, the goldfish bowl was less overpowering, and the world was a different place.

"1982" also offers a persuasive reminder that technological progress has made things too "perfect" and "infallible" to be interesting and uncertain on an "organic" level. Variables and imponderables are banished, and much of the soul and raw excitement extracted.

The heterogeneous nature of the venues, the media coverage and so forth is another part of the backdrop to this work, No identikit tracks, podium ceremonies, pit and paddock complexes, and the like.

Hilton relates some great tales, such as the Toleman "half-tanks" ploys and the Derek Daly "short cut" at Dijon. More innocent times, but in keeping with many aspects of this book, I get the impression that the people involved have been made less guarded and equivocal, and more candid, in their recollections by the passage of time.

It seems to me that, in a Formula 1 sense at least, the 1980s had not truly arrived in 1982.  I tend to see this as happening in 1984, with the full flowering of the Ron Dennis/TAG/Lauda/Prost era at McLaren.  Things became more clinical and orderly, and rough edges were smoothed over. The years 1982 and 1983, by contrast,  still exuded elements of the Seventies. A transitional, confusing, but vibrant time.

Christopher Hilton's book, lavishly illustrated and well-researched, evokes those times vividly.