Archive

Archive for the ‘worldwide travel and exploration’ Category

The Upsetter – Lee Perry remembered on a rare meeting in Kingston

September 2nd, 2021 No comments

(c) Hugh Thomson 1994. The photograph I took of Lee as he sang to me in the burnt out husk of the Black Ark studio.

 

“Who am I? I’m the Mystic Warrior. Because I am what I am, and I am he that I am.  I am a technological man, I am not a reggae star, I am a technological star.  I am [with an intense look past my shoulder] the Upsetter”.

 

When Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry granted me a rare interview on his first visit to Kingston in years, I always knew it would throw up surprises. Here, after all, was a man who had created some of the greatest and wildest reggae songs of all time and was considered eccentric to the point of insanity.  A man who planted the records he made in his garden and watered them.  A man who wore compact discs glued to his baseball cap and mirrors on his trainers so that he could reflect light back over walls to ‘own them’. Read more…

Back to the Joys of Armchair Travel

January 10th, 2021 No comments

‘Well that’s you shafted,’  said one friend kindly at the start of the worldwide lockdown. ‘Not a good time to be a travel writer…’

Well yes and no. Obviously there’s not much actual travelling possible at the moment. But then the ratio in travel writing between the former and the latter has always been grossly disproportionate – too little time spent travelling and far too much time having to write about it when you get back.

And in my case I only did just get back. I was writing a piece about the sunny beaches and boho resorts of northern Uruguay – one of those gigs which leads to envy and resentment, particularly in March – when  they introduced the sudden guillotine on air travel, so we had to slip over the border to Brazil for one of the last flights back to Europe. I was travelling with my girlfriend and for a moment we thought of just staying, as there are worse places to self-isolate than a low rent beach hut in the sun; but while this sounded fun for a while, if the worldwide lockdown continued for months it might have become restrictive and complicated. Wiser counsels prevailed. Which is lucky as otherwise we would still be there. Read more…

Salsa Nights in Colombia

March 18th, 2019 No comments

The big black guard outside the Topa Tolondra salsa club is built more like a security truck than a man. But the intimidating effect is offset by his spectacles and affability. “Welcome to Cali – salsa capital of the world,” he tells us. And does a few moves.

If there’s any doubt that we’ve arrived at the Holy Grail for all salseros, there’s a giant mural over the dancefloor based on Leonardo’s ‘Last Supper’; but with Oscar D’León, Rubén Blades and Johnny Pacheco taking the role of the disciples clustered round Ismael Rivera (the Puerto Rican who made salsa such a street sound). A young Celia Cruz is the only woman at the feast, resplendent in a red ball gown with a smile that could light up Cuba, if not entire planets.

They look down upon a cavernous dancefloor that is already shaking to a heavy bass and insistent marimbas. It’s Tuesday and only 10 o’clock, so the place is relatively empty. “Come back at the weekend, and it will be so crowded, ‘no bailas – sino que te bailas,’ says one of our guides, Danilo Uribe: ‘you don’t dance – you get danced.’ Read more…

Return To Havana

October 16th, 2018 No comments

Habaneros using a free wifi spot in the city

Fascinating to be back in the Cuban capital after 20 years. There are still a startling amount of dilapidated buildings along the Malecon; the same old American cars still just about holding together after 60 years of embargo (one taxi driver tells me how hard it is to get the parts); and a few hustlers saying cigars out of doorways – ‘tengo Cohiba!’

But change is slowly coming. Near the free Wi-Fi spots in the city – which are few and far between – you will see groups of Cubans huddled down in the street with the light from tablets, smartphones and laptops reflected back on their faces. Because the Internet has finally arrived.

Read more…

The Lost City of Z:   How to Make Enemies in the Jungle

April 16th, 2017 1 comment

This is a longer version of articles written for both the London Evening Standard and the Washington Post when The Lost City of Z was released . 

“Writer and explorer Hugh Thomson argues that new movie The Lost City of Z gives a totally false impression of its real-life hero.”

With many a jungle drum, this week sees the release and promotion of The Lost City Of Z.  Based on the bestselling book of the same name by David Grann, the film proudly proclaims that it is ‘based on an incredible true story’ in which heroic British explorer Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) ‘journeys to the Amazon and discovers the traces of an ancient, advanced civilization’. And yet it is a quite bizarre distortion of the truth.  

The exploration of the Amazon has been one of the epic undertakings of the last few centuries and is still ongoing: uncontacted tribes are still being found in the jungle.  It has seen many heroic figures. But Fawcett was not one of them.

see the full expanded article

American Honey

December 2nd, 2016 1 comment

american_honey_posterSo American Honey is as good as they say it is. I’m suspicious of critically acclaimed indie movies.  They can be austere and intellectually respectable – like Cormack McCarthy’s The Road – and not terribly watchable. Particularly when they are almost 3 hours long.

But from the first beguiling frame, this is a masterclass both in direction and cinematography.

It’s shot in an at first brutal 4:3 aspect ratio – like an old school TV film, so almost square – and a reminder of how we usually like to soften out the horizons of a story in widescreen.  The effect, together with the strong and harsh colour timing, is to make it look like some of William Eggleston’s cibachrome prints of the Deep South – motel bedrooms (much of the movie is shot in motels or the crew van or lost American suburbs), kids in supermarket checkouts, the shock of going outside onto bright sunlit grass.  There is a fabulous scene – which would have been clumsy in less assured hands – when the two lovers chasing across a suburban lawn set off the sprinkler against an irradiated sky.

From the moment that newcomer Sasha Lane (the director cast her off the streets) appears on screen as Star, she holds it, often in close-up, along with Shia LaBeouf’s brooding and vulnerable bad boy presence.  That is when alpha bad girl Krystal (played by Riley Keough, Elvis’s granddaughter)  isn’t putting both of them in their place, a performance made somehow more aggressive because she is usually semi-naked when doing so.

am-honey

Riley Keough and Shia LaBeouf, her ‘bitch’

The plot is freewheeling in a very good way. But the central premise is that Star is picked up by a van load of kids all trying to make money by hustling and selling magazines, and partying across America.

Where director Andrea Arnold opens it up is with the silences and interstitial spaces of glimpsed life from the van – not just white trailer trash America, but stray birds and dogs and lost children and, in one memorable scene, the oilfields burning at night.  There is sadness and hope echoing round Star as she travels across America with a cohort of lost souls. It’s a film about female freedom and loss.

Is it the best film of the 21st century by a woman director?  Undoubtedly.  And despite the TV ratio, a film that absolutely needs to be seen in a cinema so you can get lost in it yourself.

 

Embrace of the Serpent

July 15th, 2016 No comments

20160621_170716[1]

.

Nominated for an Oscar and already much feted, Embrace of the Serpent can now be seen in British cinemas and is a revelation.

The masterstroke is filming the Amazon in black and white – counter-intuitive but brilliant – and letting the strange dreamlike journey play out along the river.

I am less certain that the dual narrative – many decades separate the two different storylines – works quite so well, and at times the anthropology can creak at the seams, but at its best, this is an odyssey along the most serpentine of all rivers, with many way-stations and dangers for the travellers in their canoes.

The Colombian director, Ciro Guerra, is not afraid to allow strange epiphanies to creep in:  a comet passes overhead at one point, lighting up the dark faces of those below; the torches of mission children are like fireflies in the night. The photography throughout is both numinous and luminous, shot on Super 35.

There’s been some discussion about the historical background to the film.  The producers say that ‘the film was inspired by the real-life journals of two explorers (Theodor Koch-Grünberg and Richard Evans Schultes)’, but anthropologist have already been quick to note the discrepancies:  Koch-Grünberg, for instance, had no interest in hallucinogenics.  The historian John Hemming has pointed out to me that the brilliant and disturbing depiction of the messianic shaman with his own cult is based on Venancio Christo, active in that region from the late 1850s to early 1860s – half a century before Koch-Grünberg and a century before Schultes.

But as an imaginative interpretation of the spirit of the Amazon, this film must surely be hard to beat. And while Fitzcarraldo had previously set the benchmark, that was a film about the European psyche; this tries to be one about the mindset of the South American Indian.

embrace1

Jim Curran – A Tribute

June 1st, 2016 No comments

51t2dQ+OjHL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_I was very sorry to hear that Jim Curran had died.  He was an ebullient and kind figure who was generous with his help – and whisky – to writers like me who were less familiar with the mountaineering world.  When I wrote my book about Nanda Devi, he gave invaluable advice.

I was also drawn to him because he was a talented filmmaker as well as writer. The underappreciated late film he made with Chris Bonington when they attempted a remote peak in Tibet – and Bonington has to face up to the ageing process – is a classic and I shared Jim’s frustration that it was screened so badly by television that few ever saw it.  Overall he shot some 15 documentaries featuring alpine giants like Joe Tasker, Peter Boardman and Alan Rouse. 

He championed the cause of mountaineering films with his stewardship of the annual Kendal Mountain Film Festival and one of my proudest memories is being awarded one of their bronze statuettes of prayer flags.

Both Bonington and K2 have been lucky to have such an accomplished and sympathetic biographer.  In the summer of 1986, 13 climbers died on K2, climbing tragedies that aggressively carved the epithet the “savage mountain” into the public consciousness. Jim Curran was at the mountain all summer. The following year, Curran’s scrawled notes became K2 – Triumph and Tragedy. He went on to write his most famous book, K2 – The Story of The Savage Mountain, which won him the 1996 award for best non-fiction at the Banff Mountain Book Festival: ‘a tribute to all those who have set foot on K2, both living and dead.’  He was a five-time nominee for the Boardman Tasker Prize for Mountain Literature.

jimportBut aside from his multiple creative achievements, one quality will always stand out for me about Jim – a quality that is not always a given in the focused, over-achieving world of mountaineering: he was extraordinarily generous and terrific company.

A Walk In The Woods

March 6th, 2016 No comments

A_Walk_in_the_Woods_Poster.

A Walk In The Woods is a curious film and proposition.

Bill Bryson wrote his book in the 1990s, when he himself was in his 40s like his friend Katz, with whom he makes this journey along the Appalachian Way.

Robert Redford wanted to turn this into a movie – but with himself playing Bryson, despite the fact that Redford is in his late 70s and looks absolutely nothing like the bearded writer.

Despite the incongruity, critics have been a little unkind to it, as it’s worth watching for the gentle humour with which things unfold – and gentle humour is a rare commodity in movies these days.  Also, the film – and the Bill Bryson character – are lucky enough to have Emma Thompson as a (much younger) wife, who always brings some welcome asperity and wit to proceedings.

Nothing is less filmic than a man walking or hiking slowly across landscape – which is why movie-makers since the time of John Ford always try to get them on a horse, wagon or fast moving car.  When I was making travel documentaries myself, I always used to dread the bits when my presenter would ponderously stumble along with a backpack.

But the filmmakers make a decent fist of it here and if it is all a tad inconsequential – particularly the jeopardy moment when they fall off a very small ‘cliff’ and think themselves stranded – there’s a slow, loping charm which is very much like the act of walking across such a landscape.

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.

.

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.

——————

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