A lesson in Poland’s history…

…in movie form.

On Monday, when most of the Western world celebrates Armistice Day (and Japan celebrates Pocky Day) Poland has its Independence Day.

But that’s not the reason for this post. The main reason is that I’ve stumbled on YouTube upon an old TV movie, “Squaring the Circle” which I saw for the last time as a politically curious teenager back in Poland, on a secretly pirated VHS tape. I didn’t understand as much of it as I do now, and I don’t understand as much of it now as I probably should… but it’s a great movie for more reasons than one.

First, the cast and the crew are amazing in their own right: the script was written by the inimitable Tom Stoppard, the director was Mike Hodges – of Get Carter and Flash Gordon fame. The star-studded cast included Bernard Hill (Lord of the Rings), Richard Crenna (Rambo), Tom Wilkinson (Full Monty) and other classic British actors of the era. The script is a typical Stoppard: a mixture of hard historical observations, swift dialogue and comic surrealism. The production is very theatrical – all sets, apart from the Black Sea beach, are built in one studio, which plays at the same time a communist party assembly, Walesa’s private apartment, and a striking shipyard.

The characterizations are stunning, although that can probably only be appreciated by a Pole, or a historian of the time; you’ll have to take my word for it, but the characters are instantly recognizable to anyone who paid attention to Polish politics in the 1980s and early 90s. Not only the big star Walesa, but more obscure (abroad) characters like Kuron, Mazowiecki, Gwiazda – and even the communist leaders of the time – are played beautifully, with all their idiosyncrasies and ticks replayed to the dot; what makes it specially touching now is that most of these people are today, sadly, dead (Mazowiecki had just had his funeral last week).

Second reason why the picture is so important is as a historical document. It was made in 1983/84 – when the Martial Law had barely been lifted, when many of the main characters were still in prison, before Gorbachev and Perestroika, before anyone knew how things would end (in fact, there was still a very real possibility that it would all go tits up) – and, crucially, before the political wars of the 1990s destroyed the image of Solidarity and obfuscated the events of 1980/81. In that manner the movie is almost like a Gospel: a second-hand account of historical events, but as close to eyewitness as was ever possible. Nobody in Poland could make such a movie at the time, and by the time we could, it was too late: the hindsight, pettiness and personal animosities have obscured the truth. Not to mention, we didn’t have a Tom Stoppard to write it.

To anyone interested in Europe’s history of the late 20th century, this is a treat. To anyone interested in Poland’s recent history and politics, this is an obligatory viewing.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Part 4:

Part 5:

Part 6:

Part 7:

Part 8:

Part 9:

Part 10:

5 reasons why Tarantino is the new Kubrick – and 1 why he isn’t.

spartacusdogs

I’ve recently come to terms with the idea that Quentin Tarantino is the only possible heir to Stanley Kubrick’s crown of the best Hollywood director of his generation. He’s not quite there yet – his hit-to-miss ratio is bigger than Kubrick’s – but I don’t see anyone else emerging from the herd at the moment. Now bear with me, as I explain my reasoning.

5. Turning pop culture into art

clockworkdjango

Kubrick’s choice of movie genres was far from orthodox for a respectable director at the time. Space Opera. Horror. Anti-Utopian Sci-Fi. Apocalypse comedy. Sword and sandals. He even came close to making a high-budget porn movie, and adapting the Lord of the Rings. It’s all well and good for Ridley Scott to do this kind of thing in the 80s and 90s, but an artistic sci-fi movie in the 1960s? That was nothing short of revolutionary.

And of course, this is Tarantino’s trademark as well. His own generation’s idea of pulp: trashy crime dramas, blaxploitation, spaghetti westerns… and he’s turning it, in his own idiosyncratic way, into pure cinematic art.

4. Taking his time

deathprooflolita

After the initial burst of creativity in the late 50s and early 60s, Kubrick started taking his time with new releases. In 70s and 80s he did only two movies per decade, polishing each to perfection.

Tarantino made five movies in his first 10 years of career – and then only four in the next 15, including a half-hearted effort in Grindhouse and a six-year gap between Jackie Brown and Kill Bill.

3. Innovative soundtracks

fullmetalbasterds

Ever since 2001: Space Odyssey, Kubrick disposed of the traditional soundtrack, preferring to use ready-made songs and instrumentals to great effect. His music choices were revolutionary, both inspired and inspiring, producing sequences which have no peers in cinema: the Blue Danube from Odyssey, the Singin’ in the Rain in Clockwork Orange, the Women of Ireland in Barry Lyndon.

Tarantino does exactly the same; reaching deeply into his personal collection of records, he creates the best and most innovative soundscapes in modern cinema. Never content with what the likes of Hans Zimmer or John Williams can give him, he plays with ready-made tunes to astonishing effect, and creates as memorable scenes as Kubrick: the twist in Pulp Fiction, Stuck in the Middle With You in Reservoir Dogs, Woo Hoo in Kill Bill…

2. Getting the best out of actors

shiningfiction

Even in the weakest of Tarantino’s movies, I am awestruck by what heights of talent his actors strive for. Of course, they are always good or great actors in their own right, but you still need a skilled director to carve the diamond of an actor’s talent to perfection. I mean, just look at John Travolta. People say he got his career restarted after Pulp Fiction, but the truth is, he’s never had a better role since. Samuel L. Jackson is an all-around entertaining and fantastic actor, no doubt, but only Tarantino gave him an Oscar nomination.

Kubrick’s casting was always flawless – and often idiosyncratic. You can’t really imagine anyone else play Jack Torrance, David Bowman or Alex, even though Keir Dullea or Malcolm McDowell were back then as unlikely choices for leads as Travolta or Pam Grier were in Tarantino’s days. Kubrick was the first (and for a long time, only) director who got Peter Sellers to play straight, to great acclaim. Finally, both Kubrick and Tarantino allowed their actors improvisation in key scenes, a trait shared with many other great directors, but which in their case made movie history every single time.

On one curious occasion, their tastes in actors almost converged: it may well have been Kubrick who gave Uma Thurman her great breakthrough role, in Aryan Papers, rather than Tarantino.

1. The painter’s eye

killbarry

There are three parts that are necessary for a movie to be considered great: script, acting and cinematography. Kubrick’s movies had all three – everyone knows that. His movies are pure visual bliss; but so do Tarantino’s, perhaps surprisingly for those who only regard his work as over-ambitious schlock.

The way Tarantino works with the camera, when he’s at his best, surpasses pretty much anything other block-busting directors currently achieve. “Impeccable” is a word often bandied about when describing his craftsmanship in Kill Bill, Pulp Fiction and Django. There is an almost baroque lushness to the way he plays with angles, lights and sets – much the same as with Kubrick.

Both directors have their famous trademark shots: Kubrick’s point perspective, Tarantino’s “looking up”. Both like to set their scenes like paintings. And Tarantino of course wouldn’t be himself if he didn’t sometime quotes Kubrick’s scenes verbatim (parts of Django are straight out Barry Lyndon).


And one reason why Tarantino is not quite yet Kubrick:

1. Technical innovation.

Kubrick was the James Cameron of his day and age; for every movie, he came up with a new toy; although never as flashy as Avatar’s 3D or Titanic’s CGI water, his technological innovations were recognized by the critics and picked up by the moviemakers.

Tarantino’s innovations are limited to editing and scripting; he lets Cameron be the Cameron  of his age, focusing instead on the fun of film-making. In fact, in his love of the old cinema, he’s positively a luddite: he loathes CGI. Paradoxically, his use of old school gimmicks, like the car chase in Death Proof, could be just the kind of technological revolution modern cinema needs.

New BBC2 trailer

For Christmas, BBC2 unveiled their new trailer. It’s got Peter Capaldi on voiceover. They’re really exploiting the guy this year 🙂

Celebrating BBC2

Much have I travelled in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen,
But still I long to learn tales, marvellous tales,
Of ships and stars and isles where good men rest,
How others fought to forge my world.
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape? What wild ecstasy?
How far the unknown transcends the what we know.
We are the music-makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Step forward,
To feel the blood run through the veins and tingle
Where busy thought and blind sensation mingle.
Come, my friends, ‘tis not too late,
For we are the movers and shakers
Of the world for ever, it seems;
To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield.

The end of the world, and how we survived it.

“Seven Days to Rhine” Warsaw Pact strategy

I lived through the 80’s on the “wrong” side of the Iron Curtain. Like the West, we always knew the world would end in a nuclear holocaust. We were taught civil defence in schools: how to recognize siren signals, what to do in case of a blast (not much). There was a nuclear shelter at my school. The official war doctrine was of course secret, but enough of it got through to know that Warsaw would be one of the first targets.  It was too strategically important; its main thoroughfares and rail lines were built for the sole purpose of taking Soviet tanks from East to West as fast as possible.

Both sides had their own cultural reactions to the fear. In Poland we treated the apocalypse with humour, making mostly wacky, surreal post-apocalyptic comedies.The US movies that we were getting through on bootleg VHS tapes, and later were even shown on TV (as a warning, I suppose)  – like War Games – focused on the military or action side of the conflict, rather than the aftermath. The main exception was the terrifying The Day After.

The Brits, uncharacteristically, seem to have lost all their sense of humour in the 80’s. I suppose being faced with total annihilation makes one stop quipping for a while.

Here are the two most important movies of the era: Where the Wind Blows and Threads. Warning: they are drastic and bleak, and likely to spoil your Christmassy mood for good. You probably really don’t want to watch them. But they serve as a tragic reminder of how close we got to the real end of the world.

This would be no Mayan Apocalypse. There would be no heroes to stop that asteroid. This was the real deal – and somehow, miraculously, we survived.

If you want to be thankful to any deity for anything these Christmas, be thankful for that.

WHEN THE WIND BLOWS:

THREADS:

and the one I remember watching as a kid, the American THE DAY AFTER:

1994, M6 on the cable, all’s right with the world.

A friend’s post on Google+ today worked on me like a Proust’s madeleine, throwing me out on a YouTube journey in search of the French pop music of 1994.

I don’t really remember what was so special about 1994 in my life. I was in the middle of high school, so not my best period. The details are a little hazy. I did listen to a lot of new music back then, that’s for sure.

It was definitely an important year in music. Nirvana Unplugged and Kurt Cobain’s death, of course. The Britpop Wars reach a climax with “Definitely Maybe” and “Parklife”. Bernard Butler leaves Suede. Bristol Sound begins with “Dummy” and “Protection”. “Ill Communication”, “Return of the Space Cowboy”, “Mellow Gold”. “7 Seconds” starts out fun and manages to turn everyone crazy by the end of the year. “Zombie”. “Lion King”.

To me, it was the year I discovered European music outside MTV’s English-dominated scene. I must’ve been spending a lot of time at home, in Warsaw, watching cable TV. It was the heyday of cable: we had all the European channels, MTV Europe, Viva, TV5, RAI, some Spanish and Portuguese stuff I don’t remember that well… the best of those was M6 – and not just because it had certain late night shows of particular interest to 16-year old boy 😉 but because it showcased the best of French music at the time – and what music that was!

I don’t know enough proper musical terms to tell why French pop music was so different from anything else I knew at the time – whether it was a difference in phrasing, use of different instruments, or simply another tradition – but to my ears it was a shock comparable only to my later discovery of J-Pop. It was also the year after my return from school trip to Paris – my first journey “to the West”, so maybe I was just ready to be enamoured with anything French, whatever it was. That one year, 1994, spawned songs which will remain with me for the rest of my days.

And here are some of them:

Alain Bashung – Ma Petite Enterprise


(“Les lobbies en Libye” is a brilliant bit of lyrics to this day)

Enzo Enzo – Juste quelqu’un de bien


(this was for a long time my favourite song of the first half of the 90s. Here’s a brilliant version with Suzanne Vega)

Kent – Allons z’a la campagne


(the first French song I got most of the lyrics of)

Les Rita Mitsouko – Les Amants


(personal note: the girl in striped shirt looked like my French language teacher at the time 🙂

Mylene Farmer – Que mon cœur lâche


(directed by Luc Besson, in case you’ve wondered. I had no idea what this song was about.)

Mano Solo – Allo Paris


(what a video!)

EDIT: Oh, just remembered another one! Francois Cabrel – La cabane du pecheur

And one more from Cabrel – the most beautiful one:

The Engines of Democracy: British political satire

So, after four fantastic series, the glorious “Thick of It” has ended yesterday, with a bang, a whimper, and a lot of swearing. I can only pity those who hadn’t seen it yet; it was as good as TV gets. Witty, funny, played and directed with utmost skill. The characters were Shakesperean, the intrigues were Borgian, the language was… well, let’s just say censoring this series would result in very short episodes.

It was a biting satire of the sort only the Brits do, and are rightly famous for: the satire on the inner workings of the government; something that, at first glance, is an extremely tedious and thankless work, but in the hands of a British scriptwriter is transformed into the most hilarious and eye-opening comedy.

I absolutely worship these shows. I used to devour them back in Poland and, as a result, I knew the ins-and-outs of the British government long before coming here. A must-see for anyone trying to have an opinion on how a democratic government works.

Yes Minister / Yes Prime Minister

A grand-daddy of the political sitcom, Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister ran for a whopping five series, from 1980 to 1988. It introduced the viewers to an unlikely hero: a public civil servant. It proved, without a doubt, that the people running the UK were not the ones known from the front pages: the ministers, the MPs – but the bureaucrats who remained hidden, the shadowy figures in the corridors of power. Rt Hon Jim Hacker, whether in his capacity of a minister or even the Prime Minister, was never in charge. It’s the Humphreys of the world that are both the gears and pulleys of the machine.

House of Cards Trilogy

While not a satire per se, the House of Cards thriller (with sequels To Play the King and The Final Cut, running from 1990 to 1995) continued the theme of showing how the government really works. Francis Urquhart, played brilliantly by Ian Richardson, is properly cold and cruel, but, above all, thoroughly believable. You couldn’t help but think that this was exactly how things were behind the closed doors of Number 10 and Westminster – and it was a terrifying thought.

The Final Cut offered some respite to the viewer, and a glimmer of hope that things will not be as bleak forever. The hope, as ever, was brief.

The Absolute Power

A more straight-cut comedy, with Stephen Fry as Charles Prentiss and John Bird as his fumbling partner McCabe, the Absolute Power reflected a change in how British politics was being run since the advent of the New Labour: not by decision-makers, but by decision-explainers. The spin doctors and the PR-masters. By the year 2000, when the series first appeared on the radio, corruption, sleaze and manipulation were obvious and pretty much universally accepted as part of the ruling process, in great part due to what had been already shown on TV. What now interested the discerning viewer was how it all was being hidden from the general public – and the Absolute Power offered a glimpse into the process.

The Thick of It

The masterpiece of the genre, the Thick of It combines all the best of its precursors: the overbearing power of the shadowy figures and “special advisors”; the terrifying, mind-wrecking reality of the innermost core of the government; the omnipresence of spin and PR. Peter Capaldi as Malcolm Tucker was Humphrey, Urquhart and Prentiss combined into one – and multiplied. Ruthless and effective, striking fear into the hearts of those who would get in his way, and – yes – dashingly handsome, Tucker made you both cringe and gasp in awe.

Because this is always the important factor in this kind of a show: no matter how loathsome the main character’s actions may seem, we always root for them. Tucker and Urquhart have the qualities of dark anti-heroes. They are the Dirty Harrys of the democracy; their methods, even their motifs are highly suspect. But the way they go about it oozes class and intelligence. And if there is any positive message, you get from watching British political satire, any light in the tunnel, it is that the men who run the country – the real rulers – are smart and classy. Even if they are thoroughly immoral.

Parade’s End’s End.

So, Parade’s End has now ended.

Christopher Tietjens and his trademark Frog Smile

I have a love-hate relationship with BBC: love it for all it does, hate it for how little it does. Five episodes? That’s it? I could clearly see there was material enough for a whole season of drama. This is worse than Sherlock!

The first episode I skipped altogether at first, thinking “not another Edwardian drama… haven’t we got quite enough of that?” I was drawn to it, eventually, by Benedict Cumberbatch – nothing that man does is ever wrong – and the script writer, Tom Stoppard, of the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead fame. The combination of two promised the entertainment would be of the more cerebral sort. And I was not disappointed. Continue reading “Parade’s End’s End.”

Asylum of the Daleks – 5 questions, 1 observation

I’m too old for this shit.

I’m an old school Whovian. “My” Doctor was Pertwee, closely followed by Baker (even though they were both active before my TV-viewing had begun). Don’t get me wrong – I love the NuDoctor. Eccleston, Tennant, even Smith, are all great. But there is a handicap that being a long-time Whovian gives you, and that is that you care for the overall continuity and quality of the plot.

That’s why I found it hard to enjoy yesterday’s episode. Oh, I appreciate the script quality, the much improved pacing, the overall epicness, and the acting prowess of everyone involved. But the first ten minutes of exposition threw me so far off my suspension of disbelief that I couldn’t watch the rest of the episode in peace, without expecting at least some explanation of what was going on. It never came – in fact, things got progressively worse.

And don’t give me that ‘there’s no continuity in Doctor Who’ crap. Of course there is; loads of it. The writers acknowledge it – there were even nods to a very long established continuity in this very episode (see below). My only hope is that Moffat knows what he’s doing, and that everything gets explained away eventually. As it is, I’m mostly perturbed.

So here are my five questions regarding this episode.

(my God, it’s full of spoilers!)

Continue reading “Asylum of the Daleks – 5 questions, 1 observation”

Delia Ann Derbyshire – A Tribute

Delia Derbyshire at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop

Eleven years and a month ago, Delia Ann Derbyshire died at the age of 64

Delia Ann Derbyshire started out as a working class girl in bombed-out Coventry, soon to grow into a brilliant mathematician in Cambridge – where only one in ten students were female at the time. But it was her decision to specialise in modern music in 1959 which changed her life – and that of millions of people throughout the world up to this day.

Continue reading “Delia Ann Derbyshire – A Tribute”