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The Revenant – a film about wilderness

December 24th, 2015 No comments

revenantLong-standing readers of this blog will know that I rarely touch on films – despite being, among other things, a filmmaker.

But then The Revenant is a rare film and moreover, a film about wilderness, the exploration of which is very much the theme of this blog.

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It is also a reminder of how films need not be formulaic; how a bold director can rework and reimagine a mythic landscape – in this case, a wild west, or perhaps more accurately a wild north as we are in American fur trapping country of a brutal cold.

Alejandro G. Iñárritu finds the lyrical interstices of landscape. The moment you look up into the trees or the mountains.  Most directors use a landscape shot to frame a sequence, usually at the start and end – as Quentin Tarantino does in his new Western, The Hateful Eight. Iñárritu edits his landscape shots to disconcert the viewer during the scene – to give the suggestion that the story is much bigger than the human one.

rev 3In some ways, his rule-breaking reminds me of what Terrence Malick did in Days Of Heaven – and like that film, a different way of working prompted mutiny from some of his crew. Film-making is so often done by default – there’s an elegant shorthand that has been involved for every type of sequence or narrative –  that if anyone tries to escape that, they are rolling a rock uphill or, like Herzog in another movie that broke the mould, trying to take a ship over the mountain.

Iñárritu already showed in Birdman that he has a virtuoso mastery of camera and narrative rhythm (and ability to win prizes, which he certainly should for this); but whereas that was a lighter, theatrical piece, here he applies his talents to an elemental story of survival and revenge.  DiCaprio holds it together well and Tom Hardy is a magnificently gnarly Texan;  Domhnall Gleason’s captain has a documentary plainness to him that is as good as anything in Barry Lyndon, a film with similar lacunae of still moments.

This is a film about what it’s really like to engage with wilderness – the bloodiness of it and the bloody mindedness needed to survive.  And of the beauty of elemental moments. It’s not a film for the fainthearted – but then they never did get out and about much anyway.

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The Revenant is released tomorrow on Xmas Day in the States, about the least appropriate festive film of all time (though The Hateful Eight is released the same day);  and in the UK in the New Year.  see trailer

Two Men and a Mule: The Last City of the Incas

October 1st, 2015 No comments

 

IMG_8640 2 Men and a Mule lo res.

I’ve known the writer and explorer Benedict Allen for some years, but until the BBC commissioned us to undertake an adventurous journey together, I had never travelled with him.

You can hear the results on BBC Radio Four – see the BBC website for Two Men And A Mule – a spanking new three-part series in which we introduce our co-star Washington to the world.

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For the first two programmes we travel down from the Andes towards the Amazon and Espíritu Pampa, the very last city of the Incas, which they built at the lowest level of the cloud forest, almost in the jungle. It is still one of the last ruins left in Peru best reached by mule.

_DSC9324 Two Man and a Mule Prog 3 at Qoyllurit’i

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Then for the last programme we go to the great festival of the Andes, Qoyllurit’i, and take the pilgrimage out through the night for a momentous dawn ceremony.

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listen to the full shows at

BBC website for Two Men And A Mule

and here is an exclusive bonus track:

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Everest The Movie

September 23rd, 2015 No comments

everestEverest as a film has perhaps been unfairly criticised for having some of the messiness of  a real-life expedition – too many characters and an untidy ending –  faults (and strengths) it shares with the other adaptation made from a Jon Krakauer book, Into The Wild. And it’s true there are moments the only way you can tell the men with frozen beards apart is by the colour of their product placement North Face jackets.

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The class British scriptwriters – William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy – have fashioned a story which ostensibly has no links with the Krakauer book, but given that it was his Into Thin Air which made the 1996 tragedy on Everest so famous, his shadow looms large over it. He also makes an appearance in the film as an embedded journalist in the team who accompanies them to the summit.

The film hits one nail hard on the head – that some of the dangers which arise are the consequence of the new phenomenon of commercial guided expeditions up Everest, so that less competent mountaineers are able to attempt a summit they should arguably not be on.  But they fail to bring out one crucial argument in Krakauer’s book:  whereas in the past all members of a team would look out for one another, now the guides look out for the clients but who is looking out for the guides?  Of those who die on screen in the film, three are guides and two clients.

There is one crucial moment when lead guide Rob Hall has an uncharacteristic failure of judgement and allows himself to escort a client up to the summit way past the cut-off point when they should already be returning; the sort of misjudgement that is easy to happen when people are hypoxic and under extraordinary stress.  But also one that occurs when you are no longer dealing with a band of brothers but rather of responsible uncles with their nephews.

Everest_poster highr res 2The filmmakers were lucky to have David Brashears on board, both because of his presence on Everest in 1996 at the time the tragedy unfolded (Brashears was making an IMAX film and his character is played by an actor in this one), and for his help on how on earth you make a movie at such challenging altitudes.  While some sections were shot on Everest itself – in mid January, so freezing temperatures – which cinematographer Salvatore Totino described as extraordinarily difficult in the Hollywood Reporter – the Hillary Step, where much of the most intense dramatic action occurs, was recreated at Pinewood.  As the second unit crew were shooting some remaining scenes of the film at Camp II on Everest, an avalanche struck, killing 16 Sherpa guides with other expeditions.

A facile criticism of the film is that this is such an exclusively male affair.  This just mirrors the actual expeditions which were almost exclusively male – although it is true that the two female climbers are given paper thin characterisation – but also is a reflection of how a tunnel-visioned imperative to get to the top of something, regardless of disruption to family, is a not very commendable part of the male psyche.  Scenes of the two wives back home – Rob Hall’s is played by Keira Knightley – and the way they react as events unfold on the mountain are handled deftly and movingly by Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur, an interesting choice, given his indie background.  The wives’ reactions are not nearly as forthright as those of the widows of some Everest fatalities, who have sometimes expressed bitterness in documentaries at the way their husbands put summits before family.

The movie succeeds in many ways – a particularly fine performance by Jake Gyllenhaal as rival, maverick guide Scott Fischer, and a stunning recapturing of the landscape of Nepal.  See it in 3-D, so that, in the best traditions of filmmaking, the movie takes you there in a way which means you never, ever have to do it in real life – thank God. For one thing, the film amply demonstrates is that the death toll on Everest is not worth it.  Anyone who wants to experience a sublime mountain moment can do so elsewhere below the death zone without putting their own lives – and others – at risk.

Letter from Iceland

August 20th, 2015 No comments

Letters-from-Iceland-TP_zpsb65ae8d4Difficult to be here without thinking of the travel book W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice wrote in 1936 when they came.  Letters from Iceland is a curious and in some ways very lazy book, which they threw together for Fabers at a time when such golden boys they could pretty much do anything they wanted.

So in some ways it’s a mischievous anti-travel book that tweaks the tale of more serious contemporaries like Peter Fleming.  There’s quite a lot of ‘I can’t really be bothered to do this,’ with deliberately amateur black-and-white pictures.  At one point they just bundle in a whole anthology of clippings from previous visitors to bulk it up a bit.

But it also signals a sea change in their own writing – in Iceland, they can loosen up, free from the pressures of being ‘the voices of their generation’ back home, a particular pressure on Auden.  He had read Byron’s Don Juan on the boat over and the idea came to him (in a
bus when travelling across Iceland) that, for the first time, he could write some similar light verse, in the form of letters home to friends in England in which he could put ‘anything I could think of about Europe, literature, myself’ . And this lovely couplet about a place I’ve just visited as well:

‘In Seythisfjördur every schoolboy knows
That daylight in the summer never goes.’

images (3)MacNeice contributes much less to the book – some eighty-one pages out of the first edition’s two hundred forty – but has some equally effective couplets in his own verse letter which prefigures the great wartime Autumn Journal: 

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‘Here we can take a breath, sit back, admire
stills from the film of life, the frozen fire’

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they rode on ponies around the glacier of Langjokull

There was a subtext to their visit as well.  Some Nazi anthropologist were also visiting the island in an attempt to prove that it displayed pure, isolationist Aryan characteristics.  The two poets tried to show in contrast that it was the model for a quiet, democratic nation, free from such shrill nationalistic yearnings.  And it was in Iceland that Auden first heard the news about the civil war in Spain, and everything changed….

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The Riches Of The European Bronze Age

December 3rd, 2014 No comments

Dea MadreAnother reminder this year of the riches of the European Bronze Age which we still underestimate so much – this time in the form of an artefact allegedly looted from Sardinia and now up for sale in New York, magnificent in its stark simplicity.

Adam Nicolson’s superb study of Homer and the Bronze Age, The Mighty Dead, and my own travels through Bronze Age Britain in The Green Road into the Trees have whetted my appetite for more.  And a chance to go to Athens recently and see some of Schliemann’s findings from Mycenae, like the so-called Mask of Agememnon, in the flesh – or rather metal – only confirmed that.

A chance to see something closer to home is at the British Museum: The Mold Gold Cape, discovered in Wales and the most spectacular of British Bronze Age findings, which should have crowds diverting from the Egyptian rooms, but few know about.

One of the Last Few Polymaths

June 24th, 2014 No comments

p01l974wReading Michael Wood’s excellent A South Indian Journey (first published as The Smile of Murugan) and as ever by Michael’s work, impressed. He really is one of the last few polymaths, equally at ease writing about South American conquistadors or Anglo-Saxon chronicles. And filming them as well – ‘The Story of India’ for the BBC a few years ago was a tremendous achievement; and now he’s taking on China for a 2-year film project! Respect…

At The Captain’s Table

March 30th, 2014 No comments

Kindle_let us depart.inddAt The Captain’s Table:  Life on a Luxury Liner, Hugh Thomson (Kindle Singles £1.99).  Round the world the soft way. For less than the price of a cappuccino grande, a frothy confection of a travel book with double shots of autobiography and world analysis thrown in.   download it here.

I  enjoyed writing this  –  light-hearted, it involves all the classic elements of comedy: life on the high seas, some rampant snobbery and even a marriage at the end.  And I got to see a lot of intriguing places.

For those who haven’t come across Kindle Singles before, it’s an interesting Amazon initiative.  Kindle have commissioned established figures like Stephen King, Jon Krakauer and Amy Tan to write shorter, novella-length books and put them in a special branded part of the store, so readers know they’re getting something that’s met a quality control threshold – unlike the self-published parts of Kindle.  A development which may get traditional publishers very worried…

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FROM THE BLURB:  “Hugh Thomson had always wanted to travel right around the planet.  He just never had the money. Until he realised he could do it on the world’s most expensive luxury cruise.

Mischievous and entertaining, this is the first book to be written about a new phenomenon – the strange and unreported world of small luxury cruise ships, so exclusive that if you need to ask how much they cost, you probably can’t afford them.

So don’t act like the Cruise Queen Bee who, when she received her invitation to the Captain’s table, wrote back giving her apologies and explaining, ‘I cannot accept your invitation as, on principle, I never eat with the staff.’  Buy the book and take your place as Hugh serves up tales that are clear-sighted about the rich and observant of the new world opening up on our horizons, powered by a supercharged 32,000 ton luxury liner, a microcosm of 21st-century life, with its superb engineering that almost, but not quite, overcomes all the indignities the natural world can throw at it.

The Vikings got to Ukraine first

March 5th, 2014 No comments

 

 

vikingsFunny how things come together.  I’ve just been to a preview of the British Museum’s new blockbuster show on the Vikings, which opens later this week just as the world is focussed on Ukraine.  A side-bar to the exhibition, which naturally focusses on the Viking invasions of Britain – is the less well-known Viking progress east, when ‘the Rus’ travelled down to Novgorod and Kiev in their longships and founded what became Russia.

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The Viking leader Rurik and his dynasty established their base in Kiev from about 862 on – the same time as ‘the great army’ landed in East Anglia, martyred King Edmund and put Alfred the Great’s kingdom to the sword.

The difference is that in Russia the Vikings won.  Kiev is as a consequence as central to Russian identity and history as Winchester or Canterbury to England.  Hardly surprising they should take a proprietorial interest in what happens there; or that the descendants of the Vikings should value the navy at Sevastopol enough to protect their Crimean base.

The Vikings themselves travelled on past Kiev and down through the Russian river system to reach Constantinople.  Now that must have been a clash of civilisations.  Islamic commentators of the time were impressed by the Vikings’ fighting spirit, but less by their personal habits, reporting that they did not wash after urinating, or after sex, or indeed much at all.

New discoveries in Cambodia

June 20th, 2013 No comments

New discoveries in Cambodia by an Australian team from the University of Sydney are another confirmation that lidar will be a game changer for the discipline, just as radio carbon dating was in the 1950s.

Long term readers of this blog will know of my continuing interest in lidar (light detection and ranging) in archaeology (see past post).

The ability to fly over dense forest and build up a 3D picture of what may have once lain beneath is quite phenomenal.  Unfortunately it´s also expensive, as the going international rate for a helicopter is around $1000 an hour – rather more than it costs for a few volunteers to scrape away at the dirt on a traditional dig. The Australian team covered some 370 sq kms in Cambodia so the bill must have been eye-watering – but worthwhile.

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They uncovered ´the ruins of five other previously unrecorded temples and evidence of ancient canals, dykes and roads´, which they confirmed on the ground after lidar had indicated their presence;  all this was in the area of Phnom Kulen, an antecedent of the neighbouring Angkor Wat temple complex in north-western Cambodia. A collateral benefit is that it will provide conservation and tourism work for the dirt-poor locals who were unaware of the temple complexes nearby.

One important point is that while lidar may make completely fresh discoveries, it can also help shade in existing ones – that while, say, all the churches of a medieval town might have survived, now we can trace in all the other buildings and roads to give a more complete picture of the settlement.

Watch this space for more, as they say….

More detail – and a video – on the discoveries in Cambodia

Paul Fussell: An Anniversary Tribute

May 23rd, 2013 No comments
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Lt. Paul Fussell in Paris, France, May 1945

I was in Philadelphia recently and thought of Paul Fussell, who lived there before his death this time last year and whom I knew:  one of the finest writers about 20th-century war, both because he wrote about the subject as a cultural critic more than military historian and because having fought in WW2 both in Europe and the Pacific, he knew what he was talking about.  The Great War And Modern Memory is his most famous book – but I have only just read one of his very last books, The Boys’ Crusade.  Subtitled ‘American GIs In Europe: Chaos And Fear In World War II’, it highlights some familiar Fussell themes:  how many American soldiers were teenagers, how little about war they knew before they went, and how many cock-ups there were.

Like all of his books – and like his conversation – it is candid and clear-sighted, just like the Augustan prose he so admired (he was a professor of 18th-century English Literature).   Unlike most books on WW2, it is also elegantly short.

But if his other achievements were not enough, he also helped in the revival of interest in travel writing, for which I am more directly grateful to him.  His book, Abroad: British Literary Travelling between the Wars, championed travel writers of the 1930s like Robert Byron who had largely been forgotten at the time.

I was once with him when a BBC executive (I was trying to get the BBC to make a programme about and with Paul) asked him if he had ever met any Germans.  Fussell gave him a stare:  ‘Any Germans I met during the war, I killed.’  The executive blanched.

Read more…