The music that makes you

For months, it seems, everyone has been raving about the Queen movie, Bohemian Rhapsody. On the weekend I finally got to watch it myself.

Queen is one of those bands I grew up with. I wasn’t an early fan, but within a few years I remember raving over A Night at the Opera, which is a great album. I recall vividly when Bohemian Rhapsody came out as a single, extravagant and way over the top, and especially the music video that accompanied it. Come the eighties I was a pretty solid fan who owned a couple of albums by them. And it was pretty hard to ignore Freddie Mercury who, as his name suggests, was mercurial and talented and deliciously camp. You had to love him.

That’s one of the things that comes out in the movie. At times he was a right proper arse, but overall he was a warm and endearing personality given to excess. That meant there were times he was frustrating and unreliable, but it also gave rise to his talent and made him the affectionate and loving personality that he was. It’s the thing that probably killed him too.

There were things in this movie I hadn’t been aware of before, and remain uncertain about, but basically it followed the arc of their career from fledgling days to the triumph at the Live Aid concert in 1985. For me, I was interested in the musical side. They had some great songs – my favourites being Love of My Life (beautiful and real), Somebody to Love (lush harmonies), and Under Pressure (w. David Bowie), but there were a dozen others nearly as good. They were a great band in an era when great bands were a thing, unlike now.

I reckon a lot of the positive vibes towards this film are thanks to musical memories and raw nostalgia. I get that. It was what got me. It was well made and acted though formulaic, a fond movie no matter that ultimately Freddie would die of AIDS off-screen. That’s what gave the movie its meaning though.

Before that, I watched a documentary about Sam Cooke. Now he was well before my time, and died when I was only a few months old, but there came a time in my life that he was heavy on my soundtrack. I didn’t grow up with him but he informed my life at a formative time, from about the mid-eighties I guess. I don’t know what started it, but I suspect it was his smooth and simple crooning that affected me at a time when I was discovering all my romantic possibilities.

That’s the simple beauty of much of his music, a velvety, heartfelt voice expressing sentiments that everyone could connect with. They were elemental truths housed somewhere in the warm part of our soul. There were times in that period when I was a dreamy romantic and he was a guiding light who summed up my hearts desires so well.

But then there was another side of Sam Cooke. This documentary showed that very well – the entrepreneur, the activist, the fiercely intelligent and independent man who had a vision of a better world. He was a fascinating individual and might have become a great man besides a great artist had he lived. He died controversially, his name sullied, and it has been shrouded in mystery and outrage ever since – and for good reason.

When I came to him it was his romantic tunes like You Send Me, Wonderful World and Cupid that drew me in, but as I delved more deeply into his career I discovered his more serious compositions, great musically but profound in their message of hope. A Change is Gonna to Come and Bring It On Home To Me are heart-rending classics.

It’s great music. I like Queen plenty, but if I were ever asked to choose then Sam Cooke would be one of those few dozen discs I would take with me to my desert island. (Marvin Gaye and Nick Drake would be a couple of others top of my head).

The myth of Bundy

I finished watching a short series on Ted Bundy on Netflix last night. He’s a fascinating figure in history, but I found my perspective to him shift as I watched.

Bundy is close to being the most famous of serial killers, and surely the most romanticised. His alleged good looks, charm and intelligence enough to elevate him beyond the common rank of psychopaths. I think much of the mystique comes from the fact that such a ruthless killer could also appear like ‘one of us’. I think he seduced and fooled many people like that, but the rest of his mystique comes down to his good looks.

That’s the background, and that was my general perception of him leading into this program. I can say after watching all four episodes that he was a supreme narcissist who thrived on attention and personal engagement. I thought his good looks overrated, and his ‘charm’ creepy and contrived. I’m viewing him in retrospect, aware of the full scale of his crimes, but I still don’t understand how so many so readily fell for him.

Watching him closely he seemed to me full of tics and twitches in the form of great smiles, greetings, and winks. He was someone who craved recognition and sought a response. Observing him it felt like a performance, though heartfelt, and by that I mean while it wasn’t authentically born the reaction he sought was vital to his sense of self and wellbeing. Deny him that reaction and I imagine he would appear the monster he was in actual fact. To me, an Australian, much of his behaviour came across as smarmy.

Much was made of his intelligence also but again, I thought him very cunning, but not nearly as smart as he thought he was – which was much of his downfall.

It was fascinating as so many of these stories are. We’re forever drawn to the lurid, and nothing is as lurid as a serial killer. It’s an interesting story to when you consider his repeated escapes from the law. At the end of it though I found that the aura he had was much diminished in my mind. He was murderer who just happened to have a face and manner that some people found attractive. It was a squalid tale of a squalid personality.

That’s my take, but clearly then – and it appears now – found something more in Bundy than that. Most of them appear to be women and I suspect a lot of it is sexual – here is the ‘acceptable’, even handsome face of murder. It’s dangerous and illicit and thrilling, evidenced by the breathless girls and women who attended his trials and sought to meet him. That too is a lurid fantasy, though it didn’t stop him from fathering a child by one such devotee.

Now there is a movie coming out starring Zac Efron. I guess there’s a story there, but I fear what Hollywood will do with it.

The movies that make you think

I said to someone recently that I’d prefer to discuss Bergman films than the footy scores. That’s a bit of an exaggeration – I live and die by the scores – but I’m done after about 20 minutes, which is when I like to engage in more meaningful conversation, such as Ingmar Bergman movies. This was always the case more or less, just that now I’ve got much less patience for the sort of superficial discussion that passes as conversation so often.

All that is by way of preamble to a discussion on some classic movies I’ve watched recently.

I watched Last Year at Marienbad last month and was intrigued, to say the least. There’s something hypnotic about the story, and how it’s told, but at the end of it I no more knew the truth of it than anyone else.

A couple of weeks ago I actually watched a Bergman movie, Winter Light. It’s a bleakish tale about a minister who has pretty well lost faith. There’s a troubled parishioner he utterly fails to help (and who consequently shoots himself), and a woman who loves him. It’s despairing in many ways, but fascinating, crisply made, beautifully acted, and with a thought provoking script. This is what I like about Bergman movies, and others like him, they get beneath the skin. There aren’t superficial effects here, rather he addresses human nature, human frailty, and first causes. He makes movies like I want to write books. There’s truth in his vision and authenticity you recognise.

In this case, it ends on a slight upswing as the minister, muddled and depressed, is given insight into true faith by a devout follower wanting to discuss something he had pondered.

In the coming weeks, I plan to watch a few more classic Bergman movies – The Seventh Seal, Persona, and – my favourite of his – Wild Strawberries.

Then last week I watched again a crackerjack American classic from the fifties, The Sweet Smell of Success.

Burt Lancaster is one of my favourite actors of the era. He had presence on screen, and was an intelligent, thoughtful man off it. In this, he’s typically great as the toxic J.J. Hunsacker. Tony Curtis is fantastic also as Sydney Falco. In a lot of ways, this is an utterly depressing movie that highlights much of the worst of human nature. It’s about cynical people who exploit and play upon human frailty from greed or ambition or misguided love. The action takes place over the course of a couple of nights in NYC and rushes along as the Falco character tries to do the dirty work for Hunsacker and get in his good graces. Lives are damaged, relationships destroyed, and at the end of it the tyrant Hunsacker is abandoned, and Falco is beaten up, all his contrivances come to naught.

One of the things that occurred to me watching is how contemporary it seemed. This is a movie that could be made today with very little change. It just goes to show too that while we think things are bad now, they’ve always been bad one way or another.

In Hunsacker we have a virtual populist fascist. Back then he was a gossip columnist – today he’s a politician. He thinks he does holy work, has zero self-awareness, he upholds the integrity of the American people, and is casually, brutally violent. There is no compassion in him, no compromise, no insight into other perspectives or any allowance for it. He sees himself as a noble crusader when in fact he epitomises a kind of tyranny.

Falco is the classic opportunist, willing to trade anything if it means he gets ahead. His conscience might squeak from time to time, but it’s easily bought off. There are no ideals, no integrity, no beliefs in a man such as that, he stands for nothing but himself.

It’s a great but merciless movie. If you want to see a similarly cynical movie from the same era check out Kirk Douglas in Ace in the Hole.

We live in bleak, cynical times, but hard to find two more cynical films than those two from the fifties. They’re great movies but they don’t make you feel any better about humankind.

Hard and ruthless

I watched the first episode of a new TV series last night. Succession seems loosely based on the Murdoch family – and aging patriarch and media mogul, a brood of clever and ambitious children, and the wrestle for power. Only episode one but it was very good.

As I was watching, I had a nagging sense of recognition watching the patriarch, played by Brian Cox. Something in him reminded me of my father, I wasn’t sure what. Perhaps it was the sense of quiet but undeniable authority, wrapped though in a declining body. The will still strong, the body becoming frail – though the last time I saw dad he couldn’t be described as frail.

It wasn’t just my father I saw in him though, but who the other is I’ve yet to identify.

While I watched, I reflected on something that had happened earlier in the day. For context, as I have explained previously, one of the projects I’m running is to upgrade a chatbot. It’s quite frustrating often as I get very little support, have no resources, no budget, and most seem indifferent to it. There’s a dotted line to a senior manager who has no real practical involvement, but who seems to be conducting a guerrilla operation promoting the upgrade – I feel almost surreptitious in my role.

I’m dealing with vendors who are well intentioned but must be micro-managed – I can’t presume they’ll know to dot the i and cross the t, I must be explicit in instructing them. This is time-consuming and very often frustrating. Despite my best efforts, I can’t get anyone interested in what I once believed to be basic project management principles and tools. And I’m doing this while trying to carry on with my usual role, which is particularly busy right now.

Because I’m practically solo the design is almost 100% mine. To get to that point has required a lot of analysis and consideration and – wherever possible – consultation. I think it’s pretty good, but my aim is to make it great. Always is.

It’s getting towards the pointy end and I’m reviewing what’s been done and making refinements. Problem is that I’m too close to it to be truly objective now. I asked my offsider to go through it and he made some useful observations but still, he knows the business too well. So I popped upstairs to speak to the manager.

I wanted to discuss with him the option of getting some focus group testing. He’s ex-marketing and I made the assumption that they do that as a matter of course and he would be know how we go about it.

What happened instead is that after I asked him he called me into a room. You’re coming to me with problems instead of solutions, he said. I’m telling you this for your own good, he went on. He went on a bit, all on the same theme, while I remained silent. In truth I was bemused. I watched carefully, leaning forward, fascinated by what he had to say. Gradually I got pissed off – I have a low tolerance for bullshit these days. At the end of it, I told him the solution was that he should tell me who I needed to speak to to make it happen.

By now I was quietly seething. I could have said a lot, but didn’t. I’d have happily punched him in the face for his patronising manner, but didn’t do that either. Fact is – as I could have told him – is that I’m dealing with problems all the time and finding a way to solve them. I’m on the phone to the vendors 2-3 times a day, and probably by email another couple, fixing things up and resetting direction. The whole bloody solution we propose has come out of my head. I’m not someone who runs for help, I find it myself. If I come to him seeking assistance then it’s legit.

By now we’re out of the room and he has given me the answer he should have given me five minutes before – speak to so-and-so. Now I’m discussing another issue with him and it’s clear that he has no real idea and sees me bringing up such things as obstructive. True, they’re pointless as I realise, as he knows too little to be of help – but the things I raise are legitimate and must be sorted out and require someone at a management level to intervene. By now I have become very steely. I cut him off. I take it up to him. In front of his staff, I’m now dictating the conversation. Are we on the same page? I ask in conclusion. Yes, we’re on the same page he answers.

I walk away and think, what was that? And I’m almost a little concerned at my manner. I can’t really disagree with much I said – I was restrained – what I worry about is how absolutely implacable I was. He couldn’t touch me. I listened, I watched, and I was absolutely clinical. In the end, it was the force of my being that had him back-tracking.

Is this the man I’ve become? It seems incongruous given my recent efforts to be home and honest and vulnerable. It seems strange when I think how delicate I was on the weekend with someone who wanted to share with me, and generally how affable I am at work, how kind and compassionate I can be. Yet, it seems, I can be all these things.

I also watched an episode of Ray Donovan last night. There were times when I was struggling when I would watch Ray and relate to him somehow, even while wishing I could adopt his direct manner to deal with some of the issues in my life. This season’s Ray is more vulnerable than before, more inclined to gentleness, and as he heads that way I become more as he was – at least in certain aspects.

I’ve always said I treat everyone the same. What happens after that depends on the other. It’s useful perhaps to be so ruthless sometimes, but I’m not sure it’s good for me.

Movies and life

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve watched two films that meant a lot to me when I first watched them back in the nineties. They remain favourite movies and the very act of viewing them again is a form of nostalgia.
I enjoyed the movies for the very same reasons as I enjoyed them the first time. I was caught up again, provoked and enlarged and moved once more. I went away admiring the art the movies represent, the combination between words and images put together by an expert eye and performed by actors who grasp the very truth of the story.

The act of nostalgia also, briefly, cast me back to the era I watched them in. It was a very different time to now.

It’s a funny act to be so transported. It’s like visiting a museum of your prior life. You look at the exhibits with a combination of bemusement and wonder. Things long forgotten are recalled to you. You briefly enter into the spirit of those times, casting about and seeing around you the things as they were then. It’s a full, rounded thing, made richer in hindsight with the knowledge of where things went.

My experience on both occasions was that in the middle of this nostalgic remembrance I felt some very small thing that was dark and sad. I thought about that. My first take was that the movies were evoking a time of life that was happier for me, and the contrast depressing. It was a time of life when movies such as these – The Age of Innocence and Three Colours: Blue – had added meaning because the themes, I thought, would become increasingly relevant to me in the years ahead, if not already. I imagined I would be living a life as dramatically rich and meaningful as I saw on screen (and I did!). They felt relevant to me as a person in the middle of my life.

The sadness I felt was because I knew that time was past, that stage of my life was gone, or so I thought. It was a melancholy reflection.

I continued to reflect on it though in the background, and a day or two later I had a different take on the situation. It was true that by comparison my life is uneventful now, and emotionally much less exciting. It’s not past though, I thought. It’s not the end of a stage I mourn, but rather the situation I’m in – and situations can change.

That’s my hope and belief. Hopefully in a year from now if I watch a movie like this I’ll know all about it because my life is just as rich and brilliant.

Off the Dead

Yeah, I’ve gone off The Walking Dead. For years I was a devoted viewer. I was drawn to the challenges of surviving in a devastated society. I was fascinated by the ingenuity required to survive another day. It was a tale of fortitude and resourcefulness, interspersed with moments of tragedy and loss. Then it changed a couple of seasons ago. It became more about confrontation than survival. There had always been episodes and story-lines that featured confrontation, and legitimately so, but now it was all about the battle between one faction and another, the threat of zombies largely sidelined, and the logistic struggle to survive altogether missing.

I found it drawn out and tedious, and often overwrought. It felt like a violent soap opera being fought out in some barren, dystopian future, the writing varying between sentimental cloy and laughable ‘tough’ talk.

I’ve lost a lot of interest in recent years, watching out of habit and in the vain hope that this story line might be wrapped up and a new story begun. Throughout I’ve felt often discomfited by what I’ve felt to be a tendency towards the more fascist.

I know there’s a lot of people who feel similarly to me. With the last season just wrapping up I held hopes that it might take a new direction next season, but that seems unlikely. More confrontation was foreshadowed. The writing, which has deteriorated greatly, veered between clichéd contradictions, words undercut by actions. And some of those actions continue to be pretty ugly.

I’ll watch the first episode next season to see where it’s going. In general I’m much more interested in Fear The Walking Dead, but who’s to say it won’t go down a similar path?

Breaking Away

Home late on Saturday night I settled in on the couch, browsed through my movie directory, then found the perfect late, home from being out movie: Breaking Away.

I guess this is now an older movie, though I remember sort of roughly when it came out – around 1980? I reckon I’ve watched it 3-4 times over the years, and responded to it every time. It’s a very well made coming of age story about a cycling obsessed teenager and his mates. It has all the usual elements, a bit of romance, a town in transition and conflict between the two sides of the track, and finally the triumphant ending. It’s probably because it’s so familiar, and ‘known’, that I find myself responding to it so well. It’s a well-worn trope, but it’s a trope that most of us in western democracies have lived some variation of. You watch such a movie with a combination of nostalgia and sentimentality, if not a mild sense of regret that such days of carefree innocence, when the beckoning promised to unfold before you and nothing was impossible, are gone, a part of the past. If only we’d known better at the time.

In this case it’s a particularly well done piece of film making. Peter Yates was the director. He was the director of one of my favourite ever movies, Bullitt, but other accomplished works like The Friends of Eddie Coyle and Eyewitness. He has a sure hand, but the movie belongs to the writer, Steve Tesich.

Years ago I read one of the few novels he wrote, Summer Crossing, about a boy living on the wrong side of the tracks meeting up with a mysterious and alluring newcomer to town. It’s sweet and romantic in places, but ultimately tragic. I read it soon enough after living through that stage of my life that it felt particularly real. I knew what it was like to fall hard for a girl. I knew the sense of budding adulthood and straining at the leash. I knew the feeling of being safe in the family home but rebelling against the strictures of it. I knew what it was like to be a part of a close knit group of friends sharing every moment. And I knew the feeling on unbounding curiosity, as if I couldn’t get enough of life and experience.

It seems likely to me that Steve Tesich wrote from rich experience. Though they have different stories, the themes of Breaking Away and Summer Crossing are not dissimilar.

I half expected on Saturday to grow bored halfway through, as if I might have outgrown the movie. Sadly, it happens. Old favourites, books as well as movies, seem often pale imitations of what I knew and experienced of them when they made their formative impression. I think that’s a great example of how your impression of things is informed by your circumstances. Things that resonated me back then because I could relate, could feel, lose their lustre over time when I have moved on to a different plane of existence.

Fortunately I watched to the end on Saturday, lured on by memory and genuine entertainment. This is a quality movie that everyone should watch. A classic, dare I say.