Archive for August, 2015

woodWhat other broadcaster in the world would commission films in which there was no dialogue, no music, no camera movement and a stipulation from the director that shots should last a minimum of 10 seconds instead of the usual two or three?

Welcome to Handmade, three lovingly-made gems from the BBC that enter the workshops of three master craftsmen to separately follow the process of the creation of a glass jug, a kitchen knife and a Windsor chair.

This is slow television that reveres its subjects in a back-to-the-future style of filmmaking where the action comes to the frame rather than being pursued by the camera.

For modern audiences accustomed to frenetic delivery and torrents of supplementary detail it requires some adjustment. Lingering shots focus attention on what’s happening but there’s no commentary to explain the process.

These aren’t meant to be ‘How To’ films that will equip you with skills, they’re about appreciating the aesthetic, and the gentle pace reinforces the time and effort invested by the makers. The world may be rushed but some things can’t be hurried.

Framing of events in the workshops is exquisite: long shots, close-ups, mid-shots – if the artist Jean-Francois Millet had been asked to storyboard video scenes this is how he would have done it.

If the visuals are a delight then the audio is an especial treat, augmenting the notion that you’re there, watching and listening, but invisible to the workers.

Picking up the subtleties of natural sound doesn’t come easy: Metalworker Owen Bush has tiny microphones taped to his shirt and his turn-ups. You hear his boots scrunch through scraps of metal shavings and grunts of effort as he pounds away at his anvil.

The apparent ease with which you hear these aural embellishments belies the technical complexity of their capture and the skills of post-production editing – master craftsmen at work with master craftsmen.

There’s no ‘performance’ requirement of any of the three experts featured, they’re doing what they normally do, and the fact that they don’t speak helps concentrate the viewer on the task rather than the individual.

Each film is self-contained and lasts less than 30-minutes; together they are a serendipitous delight.

On the X/Y crosshairs of an audience data graph the series would fit the upper left hand quadrant: small audience, high appreciation, yet it’s not the kind of program-making that comes from focus groups or ask-the-audience sessions.

Handmade captures the uniquely creative essence of public-service broadcasting – a license to experiment, a chance to be original and the opportunity to tell a story free from the burdens of commercial pressure.

Jimmy

A Full Life: Reflections at 90

For many Americans Jimmy Carter will be remembered as one of the worst US presidents in recent history.

His legacy remains blighted by memories of the Iran hostage crisis, still a painful national humiliation, soaring energy costs, crippling stagflation and a sense that the US was emasculated by a weak commander.

The kindest critics describe him as more effective as an ex-president than he ever was as leader of the free world.

He deserves better, both for his term in office from 1977-1981 and as a diplomat and mediator confronting some of the most divisive issues of modern times.

This latest book, the 29th he has published, is not, like so many political autobiographies, an attempt to redeem or even burnish his reputation. It’s more of a personal, matter-of-fact plod through the arc of a diverse life.

There’s a quiet dignity about his perspective on his presidency. There are regrets, but no attempt to retrospectively justify policies and decisions that didn’t work out.

“I look back on those four years with peace and satisfaction, knowing that I did my best and had some notable achievements.”

Foremost among those achievements was the 1978 signing of the Camp David Accords in which Egypt formally recognized the state of Israel.

He defers to his vice-president, Walter Mondale, to sum up the best of their administration, quoting him saying: “We told the truth, we obeyed the law, we kept the peace.” And then he goes on to add: “We championed human rights.”

For a man who has endured so much opprobrium the book is remarkably even-toned, a monochrome view of a colorful career.

There’s no bile or anger directed at political opponents, no hyperbole or intrigue and no ‘setting the record straight’.

He does wish he’d sacked his supreme commander of US forces in Europe, General Alexander Haig, stating: “I had difficulty in understanding what he was trying to say and was concerned about his partisanship and derogation of my policies emphasizing peace and human rights.”

He also had a testy relationship with Chancellor Helmut Schmidt of Germany, recording in his diary after a meeting: “He’s a strange man and a good leader of Germany. I’m afraid he has a problem in his attitude toward me…he’s constantly critical of the United States, of our fairness, our commitment, our honesty”.

There may be frustration, but there’s no deep-rooted vindictiveness, no spiteful retorts. Events and meetings are recorded almost as if viewed by an onlooker rather than a key participant. What does shine through, especially in the post-presidential years, is a continued desire to make the world a fairer, better place.

Carter comes across as that rarest of men, a politician who refuses to bend his beliefs to court popularity, and a principled individual whose firmly held opinions have led him into deep and troubled waters.

In 2006 he faced harsh criticism from members of his own Democratic party, the powerful Israeli lobby in the US, and hard-liners in Tel Aviv for condemning Israel’s attitudes towards the Palestinians in his book Palestine – Peace not Apartheid.

He has talked to tyrants, despots and “unsavory people” like North Korea’s Kim Il Sung, Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir and Ethiopia’s Communist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam.

These choices “are not always popular”, he blandly states, but they are not allowed to divert him from efforts to find compromise in intractable situations or broker peace deals where other avenues have ended in deadlock.

He also continues to speak truth to power, denouncing Supreme Court rulings on unlimited, secret campaign funding as a subversion of the US political system.

The country had become an oligarchy in which there was “unlimited political bribery”, he said on a nationally syndicated radio show last month.

Earlier this year he vowed to tackle violence and injustice against girls and women saying it would be the highest priority for the rest of his life.

He hadn’t known then that he had cancer of the liver that has since metastasized to parts of his brain and which he expects to continue to spread as he undergoes treatment.

Just as he did at the end of his presidency, the inevitable parting is being met with a calm dignity: “It is in the hands of God and I am prepared for anything that comes. I feel very good. I have had no pain or debility.”

Telling the truth, obeying the law, keeping the peace and championing human rights is quite a legacy.

So forget Iran, the handover of the Panama Canal, the economic woes and all the other perceived failings. America briefly had the kind of principled president who could pass scrutiny as an exemplar to the rest of the world of the kind of decency, humanity and humility required from a leader in the democratic world.


The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey Oregon trail

You can go a long way with enthusiasm: Two thousand miles in the case of journalist, historian and adventurer Rinker Buck.

His covered wagon epic following in the wheel ruts of America’s 19th Century pioneers is an absorbing mix of trail tales, mule-wrangling and brotherly clashes.

Where Rink is measured and cautious, his younger sibling Nick is gung-ho and excitable. Where Rink is mannered and polite, Nick is brash and vulgar. It’s the bickering between them that provides much of the color.

There’s plenty of humor, too, in the characters of the mules where only one is reliably steady. The second beast exhibits the airs of a prom queen and the third a skittishness bordering on crazy.

They’re a handful for sure and potential dangers are ever present. Items as innocuous expansion joints on a bridge, or a plastic bag snagged on wire and snapping in the breeze, risk spooking the animals with risky consequences for the four-ton rig.

The history of the trail is richly fascinating and it’s here where the book is at its best.

Far from the migration being a deliberate movement, Rink paints details of the varied reasons for joining the exodus: a country riven with clashes between ethnic populations for jobs and space, bitter religious denominational spats and an economy lurching from boom to bust.

Flooding the West with pioneers also suited the purpose of Congress in overwhelming Britain’s lucrative but thinly-staffed fur-trading empire managed by the Hudson Bay Company. And, of course, there was gold fever.

There are some great anecdotes about how the early pioneers were scammed by merchants into oversupplying their wagons. Heavyweight items dumped within the first few miles were recovered by traders and sold again to the next gullible group.

Animals abandoned in the morning by one wagon train were shot and eaten in the evening by members of the one that followed, using utensils that had also been left behind.

Pollution, disease and death were constant companions of the 400,000 or so who made the journey. The Hollywood version would have you believe most were killed by marauding Indians, but filthy water, questionable hygiene and dysentery took the highest toll. And native people, lacking immunity to diseases brought in by the settlers, were cut down as well.

Rink isn’t shy about confronting myths of old, or those being created now, reserving especial odium for the Mormons’ renaming of Devil’s Gate to Martin’s Cove as part of the church’s “parable of noble suffering”.

There are instances where the book descends into mawkish, Waltonesque territory that I could have done without. This is where Rink sheds wagonloads of Catholic guilt about not being at his dying father’s bedside, of always being a disappointment to him and of his own general feelings of inadequacy.

However, movie executives will, I’m sure, be champing at the bit for a family friendly version of this modern-day glimpse into How The West Was Really Won.

20288812572_b85c321e3e_mShadowplay: The hidden beliefs and coded politics of William Shakespeare

Shakespeare can be tough to decipher at the best of times and now there’s another layer of complexity to think about.

Fortunately, code-breaking author Clare Asquith is an excellent interpreter and fashions a page-turning thriller from a tangled web of period politics.

Why did the Bard quit writing and return to Stratford at the height of his powers? Is it credible to think that the greatest playwright of the age would have nothing to say about the turbulent times in which he lived? What did Shakespeare believe in and to whom did his sympathies lie?

The answers to these questions don’t come easy. The concealed messages and ambiguities have eluded scholars for more than 400 years and modern day academic skeptics abound.

It’s the breadth and depth of Asquith’s research in support of her conclusions that make the book so compelling. Little is known about the man, but her painstaking and rigorous inquiries give great insight into neglected areas of an already well documented era.

Shakespeare was living in a virtual police state, an England where political beliefs weren’t just cerebral debating points: Where you stood on an issue, what you said and what you did had consequences – and the wrong answers could cost you dear.

Coded messages

Was your ultimate allegiance to the church or state, monarch or to God? Were you Catholic or Protestant, Jesuit or Puritan? Where did you go? Who did you see? What did you do? Where did your loyalties lie?

Walsingham’s spy network was constantly on alert for plots from abroad and dissidence from within. An allegation, a rumor, a betrayal, any whiff of insurrection could lead to dispossession, torture and a grisly execution.

It’s within this context that Asquith unravels the coded messages that have become even more opaque through the passage of time.

Few of Shakespeare’s contemporaries are read today and, as she explains, the sophisticated elite then were better versed in the classics than many modern theatregoers; they were attuned to allegories, allusions and hidden meanings.

One court dramatist of the time described his play as a Trojan horse: an elaborate gift concealing an unpalatable message.

The subversive genius of Shakespeare was to get his message through to a Catholic audience while concealing the true meaning from the rest. This was a dangerous tightrope to be on and one he walked for many years until, it seems, he had a major fall from grace.