Sunday, 31 January 2016

The Hateful Eight - A Tarantino Western

Director: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Samuel L Jackson, Kurt Russell
Release: 30 December 2015
IMDB User Rating: 8/10
Rotten Tomatoes User Rating: 78%

Okay, before I continue it would be best that I mention that I am working on the assumption that you have seen this film, which means that there will be spoilers. Anyway I generally don't write these posts as reviews, namely because I generally do that on IMDB (though I haven't touched Rotten Tomatoes, and am unlikely to do so since I really don't have the time to post all of my reviews up there as well, but who knows, I might do so in the future). Anyway, if you are interested in reading reviews of this film then I suggest that you go and check out those sites (and if you are interested in my review, then you can find it here). Also, I wish to point out that the ratings I have used above are current at the time of this posting, though I suspect that they generally don't change a huge amount after the initial few weeks of the film's release.

Anyway, this is Tarantino's Eight film, and his use of Eight in the title is a nod to the Fellini film 8 1/2. However it can be a little confusing when you look at Tarantino's filmography on Wikipedia (though if you go to the main article you will find the eight films listed there). Okay, they actually list nine, except that Kill Bill is actually supposed to be a single movie - it is just that it ended up being so long that they decided to divide it into two parts. Okay, Tarantino didn't actually direct True Romance, though it has been included among his eight films (probably because he had a lot more control over it than some of the other films he had written - such as Natural Born Killers).

So, the question is what will one expect from the film? Well, I can say that it is what you would generally expect from a Tarantino film - gratuitous and rather shocking violence, some rather interesting twists, and numerous rather ordinary conversations which have become a hallmark of Tarantino films. Okay, you don't get a scene like the one in Inglorious Basterds where they play celebrity heads with a Nazi officer, however in a lot of cases these rather ordinary, and quite boring, scenes work well to build up the tension. You can also expect the film to be divided into chapters - another hallmark of Tarantino's films. Pretty much all of Hollywood has films as being one continuous story, whereas Tarantino will divide his films into chapters, a useful technique since he does have a habit of jumping back in time to explain something that he doesn't want us to know at the beginning.

Anyway, as I am apt to do, here is the trailer:

The Story

Okay, I may have said that this isn't a review, but I guess I always feel the need to outline the plot before I get into some of the more juicy discussions. Anyway, the film is set after the American Civil War during the period known as the wild west. The film is set in the Wyoming wilderness during a blizzard, and a bounty hunter, John Ruth (known as The Hangman because he always takes his bounties back to town so that they may be hung) is escorting a prisoner, Daisy Domogue, to the nearest town (Red Rock) so as to collect the bounty. On the way he meets up with another Bounty Hunter, Major Warren, and the local Sheriff Chris Mannix (who is actually on his way to take up the position in the same town that Ruth is heading towards).

On the way a blizzard whips up preventing further travel so they shelter down at a wayside inn knowns as Minnie's Haberdashery. Staying at the inn are another five characters: a Confederate General, a Mexican, an undertaker, and another more mysterious man who sits in the corner writing his in diary. As the blizzard gets progressively worse the eight (or should I say nine because we also have Ruth's stagecoach driver) bunker down for a long couple of days. The catch is that Ruth is pretty much suspicious of everybody as he knows that somewhere along the track somebody is going to attempt to either take his bounty, or free her.

The Idea of the Western

I have to admit that I've never been a big fan of westerns, probably because many of them were released before I was born. In fact there was a time when westerns were big. In fact there was a whole sub-genre known as the Spaghetti Western (probably because they were filmed in Italy of all places). These days westerns aren't all much that in vogue, in fact you see very few of them hitting the cinemas. Maybe it is because society has moved on from the western as a genre, replacing it with the cop movie, or maybe it is because the John Waynes and Gary Coopers are no longer around (though Clint Eastwood is still making movies).

A lot of the westerns (though I am no expert on the subject) seem to revolve around the idea of the mysterious stranger coming into a town ruled by thugs and then cleaning the place up, before riding off into the sunset. This basic plot seems to have been repeated ad-infinitum, and if it wasn't bandits it was Indians. In a way the stories of the wild west seem to be one of those eras that defined the character of the United States. Mind you it wasn't as if these lands were unpopulated, or not ruled by any of the European powers (much of the great plains were controlled by France, while California fell under the dominion of the Spanish). What did characterise the region west of the Mississippi was that the civilisation of the East coast had yet to make its way out there.

The main idea is that the west was little more than a barbarous wilderness that was sparsely populated and as such criminals could flee out there to be beyond the reach of the law. The military or the police force did not have a huge presence out there, so these criminals could literally do what they like without fear of retribution. Mind you, this was not always the case as the image of this period is one that was ruled by the gun, and justice was determined by the mob. Even if a town had a sheriff, there was not necessarily any formal judicial system where criminals could be tried. Thus what we have with the classic western is this idea of order being brought to a realm of chaos, and the civilising influence slowly spreading over the west, whether it be going after outlaws, for fighting against Native American insurgencies.
This isn't the case with the Hateful Eight though - it is not a story of the civilised East coming to tame the Wild West. Sure, we have John Ruth, and Chris Mannix, who represent the law, but we also have others who have come out here to be free from many of the problems that have arisen in the East. This is the case with Major Warren, who has become a bounty hunter in Wyoming due to the fact that his skin colour made it very difficult for him to be anything back East, despite the abolition of slavery.
What we have in the Hateful Eight is not so much a civilising influence coming to the west, but rather pockets of civilisation fighting against the overwhelming power of chaos that is represented by none other than the blizzard.

Blizzard in the Wilderness

The only form of civilisation that we see in this film is Minnie's Haberdashery, however as we find out halfway through the film this is quickly taken over by the Domague gang, without too much trouble at all. The world of the Hateful Eight is a barbaric wilderness in which civilised people are fighting a losing battle against the forces of chaos. Minnie established this wayside stop to provide shelter for travellers, yet in a moment's notice the forces of barbarity storm the building and kill everybody inside. As such Minnie's Haberdashery is no longer a safe haven, but simply another aspect of the wilderness.
We are constantly reminded throughout the film that we are surrounded by nothing but wilderness, but this inhospitable world is further compounded by not only it being the middle of winter, but also the descent of the blizzard. At first the world we see is a world dominated by grey and white, with only the occasional colour piercing it (in the form of Ruth's stagecoach). As they ride through the land the wilderness seems empty and endless, with only the occasional encounter along the way, and even then Ruth is immediately suspicious of all he comes across.
Then the blizzard falls, cutting them off further from the rest of civilisation, and blanketting the scarce colours in more white. In fact once the blizzard is in full swing all we see outside the walls of the building is black and white - a powerful storm rushing about tormenting all who dare attempt to enter it. In fact it gets to a point that nobody can even leave the building for to do so would be certain death. As such, we are trapped in a building where chaos reigns outside, and it is soon revealed that even being inside these four walls is not necessarily safe.
Even before the twist is revealed, it comes to the fore that Warren and the General really don't like each other, to the point where they almost come to blows. As such the small hut must be divided even further, to create the North and the South, with neutral territory in the middle. Mind you, we do get this sense of sanctuary at first, with the image of the wooden crucifix out the front, however as it becomes apparent the crucifix is covered in snow, suggesting that the wilderness is taking over once again.

Mysterious Strangers

One of the staples of the Western is the idea of the mysterious stranger, the one who rides in out of the wilderness to set everything right. However this idea is once again turned on its head with the idea that the nature of the stranger is that we really don't know anything about them, and even if we believe we do it suddenly becomes apparent that we may not know this person in the way that we initially thought we knew the person. Initially the idea was that the stranger was good, however it comes apparent in the film that a stranger is what a stranger is supposed to be - an unknown.

The thing is that in the Hateful Eight we really know very little about who these characters are. In fact the only characters we actually know for certain is John Ruth and Daisy Domague. We know that Ruth is a bounty hunter and that Daisy is a criminal that is being brought to Red Rock to face justice. Sure, we think we know about Major Warren, but that is only because Ruth indicates at the beginning of the film that they are old acquaintances.

Warren also adds credence to this belief with the existence of the Lincoln Letter. This is a letter that was purportedly written by Abraham Lincoln to Major Warren, and was a part of a chain of correspondence between the two. However it's existence only serves to add authenticity to his story, and respectability to his character. This changes when we meet Chris Mannix, who is also quite familiar with Warren, and slowly we begin to see him dismantling his story to a point where he points out that the Lincoln Letter is nothing more than a forgery. All of the sudden this respectable character becomes nothing more than a stranger.

However we are also left in the dark with Chris Mannix. We know of his background due to the story of his father, however we are never quite sure whether he is really a sheriff or not. He has accepted the role, but he doesn't have any proof. In fact we sort of wonder why it is that he is found out in the middle of the wilderness with no horse and begging for a lift. Nobody has been to Red Rock, and nobody can confirm his story, yet we must accept it.

The same is the case with Warren. We are told a story of how he confronted the General's Son, and then brutally tortured him by making him walk naked through the snow until he could simply walk no more. Yet we are left to wonder whether this story is true or not, namely because we are told that the Lincoln Letter is a lie and as such his testimony becomes suspect. However Tarantino is tricky in this part through the use of a cut scene. We actually see the story being played out before our eyes, and are almost forced to believe that Warren is telling the truth, even though there is serious doubt as to its authenticity. The question then arises: does the general react because of the story, or simply because he finally took Warren's bait.

In fact everybody in the film has a story, and we are almost inclined to take these stories at face value. The short man claims to be an executioner, and is instantly believed. The Mexican we accept as one of Minnie's servants, which leaves us with the mysterious letter writer, who we all end up suspecting. However it is only when Warren begins to deconstruct the Mexican's story that we are then made privy to the truth behind what is actually going on. However, as with a lot of Tarantino's films, there are still further twists to unravel, and further lies to be exposed.

A Bloody End

I was going to finish off talking about the tension that arises in the film, particularly when you have eight people all trapped in a building who either don't like, or don't trust, each other, however instead I will simply wrap it up by considering the final act. Basically everybody dies, or at least it seems that all die. Sure, the film closes with Mannix reading the Lincoln letter out loud after being handed it by Warren, but both of them are bloody, beaten, and unless they get some medical attention they are unlikely to survive the night. Well, guess what, they are miles from nowhere stuck in a hut full of dead people in the middle of a blizzard - I suspect the writing is pretty much on the wall with this one.

Once again, we see Tarantino turn the concept of the western on its head, in a similar way that he has done with many of his other films. They are not typical Hollywood films - they are Tarantino films. Sure, not every one of his films has an ending where everybody dies - in fact a lot of the films the heroes win, as was the case here, but what we have here is generally what one refers to as a pyrrhic victory - sure, they got the bad guys but as what cost?

So, where we have the idea of the Western as being the strangers bringing civilisation, law, and order to an untamed land, we have Tarantino twisting this idea around to demonstrate that while the bad guys are killed, and the good guys victorious, in the end neither side has won and the land remains as wild and as untamed as it ever was.

Creative Commons License

The Hateful Eight - A Tarantino Western by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you use wish to use the creative commons part for commercial purposes, please contact me directly. All images on this post are © and/or ™ their relevant owners. If you are the owner of any of the images used on this website and wish them to be removed then please contact me.

Saturday, 23 January 2016

Die Hard - Farewell to Hans Gruber

Director: John McTiernan
Starring: Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman
Release: 20 July 1988
IMDB User Rating: 8.2
Rotten Tomatoes User Rating: 94%

Well, it seems like January was a month when we lost some great celebrities, particularly David Bowie and Alan Rickman. Okay, I was originally going to write this post as a tribute to Alan Rickman, who played one of the best in an action movie that literally defined a genre (and while the list of movies that I can attribute him isn't all that long - Quigley Down Under, Robin Hood Prince of Thieves, Galaxy Quest, and of course the Harry Potter movies - when I think of Alan Rickman I always come back to Die Hard). However, as the week wore on I found myself jumping onto Youtube and listening to some David Bowie tracks, and for some reason I just kept on listening to them as I suddenly realised that he was actually a pretty good artist.

Just to prove it, here's Ziggy Stardust:

Mind you, after Rickman's and Bowie's death people started commenting that they (celebrities that we grew up with) were dropping like flies, however I assure you that is not true:

Keith Richards
I hope I don't jinx him
Actually, Keith Richards holds this special place in my heart because I remember going to one of my friend's dress up parties at uni (whenever she threw a party it would always have a theme) and while I can't remember what I had original intended to go as, for some reason everybody started telling me that I looked like Keith Richards (it probably had something to do with the head band). Mind you, those parties were pretty cool, especially since I would always come dressed as one thing, and end up being something completely different (once I was Ronald Regan's War on Terror - go figure).

Anyway, I guess one of the reasons that celebrity deaths do impact us is because we grew up with them and in a way they were part of our life. Sometimes I don't appreciate an artist until after they are gone (though the Beatles had broken up long before I even knew of their existence). At least I got to go and see a Simon and Garfunkle concert.

Now I have a Machine Gun

Anyway, as I mentioned, this post was supposed to be about Alan Rickman and one of the great movies from my teenage years - Die Hard. In fact I decided to set some time aside to watch the movie one more time, despite literally knowing it off by heart (I really don't know how many times I've actually watched it). Anyway, before I continue here is the official trailer:

Actually, I don't even remember seeing the trailer back in the days, but then again why watch the trailer when you can watch the movie. Actually, apparently Bruce Willis' tanktop is even in the Smithsonian. All I can say is that they don't make movies like this anymore, and considering that it was Alan Rickman's first movie, and Bruce Willis was basically known as 'that guy from Moonlighting', it literally catapulted them into a new world (though I have noticed that none of the other actors from the movie amounted to much - except for maybe the cop who is famous for playing, well, cops).

I have to admit that the 80s was seriously a different world, and watching Die Hard again sure does bring back lots of memories. For instance Bruce Willis carries his gun onto the plane, lights a cigarette while wandering around the airport, and plays with a touch screen TV (which looks suspiciously like a CRT screen - can you even make them touch screens?), and we even have pregnant women drinking. Oh, and we can't forget the hairstyles.

Mind you, when Google Street view went live one of the first things that I looked for was 'that building in Die Hard'. So here it is:

I wonder whether they are going to make it a heritage listing

It's a Christmas Movie

Yep it sure is, but then again if you have seen Die Hard that would probably come as no surprise. In fact it is suggested that when Hans Gruber falls out of Nakatomi Plaza it has just turned over to Christmas Day.

There is a funny thing with Christmas and movies because every year there seems to be a raft of them appearing in the cinemas, and they usually involve Santa Claus and his elves (and some of these movies have even had names such as Santa Claus: the Movie, and The Santa Clause). Of course these movies all evolve around the idea of Christmas not happening (which basically means that the children don't get their presents, though there is a deeper tradition in that Christmas generally comes around the winter solstice, which is generally the longest, coldest, and darkest night of the year, at least in the Northern Hemisphere). Okay, you also have It's a Wonderful Life, but that has more to do with it being set on Christmas Day as opposed to being a Christmas movie.

Then you have Die Hard:

Okay, I don't actually watch much television anymore, and even then come Christmas Eve the last thing that I happen to be doing is sitting at home watching the idiot box. If I'm not going to some midnight mass, I out on the town with a couple of mates and don't get home until after midnight. However, I do wonder how many television channels actually play Die Hard on Christmas Eve? Not many I suspect, especially since most tend to play those rather annoying, and some what cliched Santa Claus movies.


Maybe the television channels aren't too keen on showing movies on Christmas eve that involves machine gun fights, buildings blowing up, and criminals falling from skyscrapers. I guess if I want to watch Die Hard on Christmas Eve I'm going to have to watch it on DVD (and then again I can safely assume that it won't be edited for television viewing).

One Cool Criminal

Which brings us back to the ridiculousness of the whole concept, but then again it is Hollywood, and seriously what would you expect to come from that segment of society. Sure, the police these days have armoured personal carriers and fully automatic weapons, but a part of me wondered if they did back in the eighties, or was it just Hollywood making the SWAT team look much more impressive than they really were (I remember an Australian TV series called Water Rats, which was about the Sydney Harbour Police, and the boat they had on the TV show was much better than any of the equipment the actual water rats had).

Mind you, these criminals are also quite well armed - something that I wouldn't expect coming from thieves. In fact I wonder if there is any criminal organisation who happens to be that heavily armed that would actually rob a bank, or a corporation (okay, the Red Army Faction in Germany did, but they were terrorists, these guys seem to just want the money). Once again, it is Hollywood, but I also seem to be pinging Hollywood a bit too much when in reality it is based on a book called Nothing Lasts Forever (which I've really got to get my hands on one of these days).

There is another problem with the film:

Actually people generally don't keep $800 million dollars stashed away in a safe either, normally they keep it in a bank. However Die Hard solves this issue by using Bearer Bonds. Basically they are a piece of paper that says that somebody owes the holder of that piece of paper a certain amount of money, and also is entitled to interest payments. As such by using bearer bonds it solves the problem of the $800 million dollars sitting in the safe. Mind you they don't exist anymore but still it is rather amusing, especially since when money rains down from the sky in a movie everybody tries to grab as much as possible, whereas if bearer bonds were to rain down from the sky everybody ignores them (despite the fact that bearers bonds are probably worth quite a lot more).

Well okay, not that one

As for Alan Rickman, it certainly brought him to the forefront of the movie industry. In fact not only was it his first foray into film, but he almost turned it down since he did not want to star in an action movie. However, one could say that it wasn't just the film creating Rickman, but Rickman creating the film. In fact he didn't just play the role, he took it and turned it into the sophisticated villain that we just love. Mind you, it wasn't that Rickman had never acted before - he had a long history on the stage, it was just that we never hear about those performances - we only hear about the ones on film. This is probably because they tend to remain around for much longer. Plays come and go, but movies last as long as we have a medium to play them.

Mind you, as I read through some of the obituaries I discovered that there were other films that I missed, such as Dogma, where he plays the Metronon, the voice of God, and Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy where he plays none other than Marvin the Paranoid Android. Of course, we can't forget the Harry Potter Series where he takes the role of Severus Snape, and for most of the movies we sit there believing that he is one of the major villians.

Anyway, if you are interested in some more useless Die Hard facts, you can also check this out.


 Back to Bowie

So, I know David Bowie has nothing to do with Die Hard, however I opened with him so I think it is only fitting to close with him as well. So, why the sudden interest in Bowie? Well, as I was scrolling through my Facebook feed one day (recently) I came across this little photo:

Obviously it caught my attention, and suddenly the song started going around my head, so I decided to type it into Youtube where I discovered that it was none other than a David Bowie song. Mind you, Youtube also has the habit of selecting similar videos to follow on, and in the case of Modern Love it was a bunch of Bowie videos, which ended up playing in the background. I have to admit that pretty quickly I was hooked. However, before I finish off I must say that sometimes where a celebrity dies you find Christians writing blog posts about whether the celebrity was a Christian or not - which I personally find a waste of time and energy. Sure, we all want our heroes to go to heaven, but sometimes I feel that we are trying to piece together a life that in reality we know nothing about. This is even more so with celebrities because they literally have two lives - their public life and their private life. Actually, everybody lives two lives, and in many cases we don't see people's private lives - we only base our understanding on their public lives.

Anyway, I'll finish it off here, but before I do so here's Modern Love:

Creative Commons License
Die Hard - Farewell to Hans Gruber by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If use wish to use the creative commons part for commercial purposes, please contact me directly.

Monday, 18 January 2016

Cats - A Rather Extra-ordinary Production

I was going to open by saying that I am quite particular with regards to the musicals that I end up going to see, but when I come to think about it I am generally particular about most things (with the exception of pubs - there are very few pubs, and restaurants, that I wouldn't visit at least once). I guess I don't want to waste my time reading a book that is of no interest to me, or spending the money to go and see a play (or a movie) that I suspect that I am not going to like. Mind you, I guess that means that I am not opening myself up to new opportunities, but once again there is the time, and the money, factor (and the theatre is actually quite expensive - at least here in Melbourne).

As for musicals, I can quite easily list the number that I have seen (which is not much) and the number that I want to see is quite a lot shorter. In fact now that I've seen Cats that list has dwindled to practically nothing (though I am sure if something of interest is playing then I might go along - I had a quick look at what's on in London at the moment and other than Phantom of Opera, and Ms Saigon, there doesn't seem to be anything that really grabs my attention).

Anyway, since Cats is no longer playing at the West End I wasn't sure how long it would be until I was able to see it, that is until advertisements began to appear around Melbourne for a very limited season. Fortunately that limited season finished the week after I returned from Adelaide, which meant that I snatched up a ticket for one of the Friday night sessions (and once again it wasn't cheap).

A Friday Night Out

The show didn't begin until 8:00 pm, which meant I had some time to go and have some dinner and visit a couple of bars (though I have found that exploring bars on a Friday night can be a little tricky since they tend to all be packed to the brim). However, come 8:00 pm (or a little before) I made my way to the Regent Theatre, which had a steady stream of people pouring in through the doors. To me it seems as if theatre is not dead, and the number of young people coming along is also quite encouraging.

Mind you, the Melbourne scene is nowhere near as great as the London scene, but that probably has a lot to do with the fact that while we are a major city, we don't have the population, or the huge influx of tourists, that can support a scene similar to London. Melbourne only has three major theatres (The Princess Theatre, Her Majesty's Theatre, and The Regent Theatre) and shows tend to come along for limited seasons. Okay, Les Miserables and Wicked both had a pretty long showing, however that tends to be the exception as opposed to the rule (and here I was thinking that the only time I could see Wicked again was when I returned to London - and I actually travelled all the way to London just to see Les Mis, which I have to say was probably the most expensive theatre ticket that I have ever purchased).

In a way it is a shame that I'm unlikely to see Les Mis (or Wicked) again, because I would like to write a blog post about them, however the next time I head to London (which is hopefully going to be this year) I would prefer to experience something that I haven't experienced three times already (yep, I've seem both Wicked and Les Mis three times each, and while it is tempting to go and see Les Mis for a forth time, since it is a much better musical than Wicked, I probably won't). Anyway, I can always watch the movie sometime (and there is nothing stopping me from writing a post on Wicked anyway - I have seen it three times.

As for other musicals in Melbourne, I guess it depends on what ends up coming along. To be honest I am really not interested in seeing a musical version of Ghost, and when I discovered that they had turned King Kong into a musical I simply shook my head in disbelief. A part of me felt that they must be getting really desperate for ideas to create a musical (maybe they should consider Die Hard - the musical; or The Terminator - The Musical).

The Jellicle Cats

It actually took me a little while to get used to the production. I guess a part of me, who has only seen musicals which have a very definite plot, was expecting something much the same from Cats. However I have to say that Cats isn't like any of the other musicals that I have seen to date - in fact I would probably describe it more as a stage show than an actual musical. What I mean is that the musicals that I have seen tend to have quite a defined story where the actors will either sing all of the lines, or randomly burst out in song. Okay, Cat's does have a story, but to me it seems to sit in the background and the actual production is what comes to the fore. The reason I say that is because there was a lot more dancing - in fact it is the only musical that I have seen where the actors actually dance. In fact you even have the actors doing somersaults and cartwheels across the stage.

The play is based upon a children's poem by T.S. Elliot called The Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats (I believe if you look hard enough you might be able to find a version on the internet). At first the musical baffled me somewhat because, as I have suggested, I was expecting there to be more of a story. Sure, there was one in the background, however it seemed to focus much more on the songs, and the production. Thus for the first quarter I have to admit that I didn't really like it, until I started to get into the songs (and also being quite intrigued at seeing these actors crawling all over the stage dressed up as cats). However, when I discovered that the musical is actually based on a poem it all started to make sense - it is no so much the story that is important, but how the story is constructed.

Sure, there is a main character - the cat Grizbella - who begins the play being scorned by the other cats since she had left the fold to go and explore the world at large. However, I was a little baffled because there was a suggestion that these cats lived together in a tribe - the Jellicle tribe. However, once again we must look back to the source - this is based on a poem for children (though Webber, with the assistance of T.S. Elliot's widow, went beyond the original poem, and the entire musical was constructed by various poems written by T.S. Elliot, even if they weren't part of the original collection). In these poems the world that we know tends to be left behind, and the curtain is pulled back on a world that many of us would be privileged to see. In the case of Cats we are allowed to look upon a ceremony that is performed once a year where the tribe comes together for the Jellicle Ball to elect one cat to ascend to the Heviside Layer where they will be born anew (if it sounds like nonsense, that is because, once again, it is based on a children's story).

As I have suggested, there is a story, but many of the songs involve us being introduced to various members of the tribe. In fact most of the songs deal with individual members. It begins with the naming of the cats, where we are told that the cats have three names, however instead of going into detail I'll just play a clip that I found on Youtube:

The Old Possum's Book

As I am getting into the habit of these days, I grabbed a copy of the program (though I almost forgot, and a part of my felt that it was way over priced - $20.00 for about four pages of interesting discussion, and a bunch of glossy pictures of people dressed up as cats). What was interesting was the piece by Andrew Lloyd Webber on how the musical came about. I have already mentioned that it is based on a collection of poems by T.S. Elliot, and while the original poem was The Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, he also collected a number of other poems which went into the final product.

However what was also interesting was the risk that he took when the play was produced. At first I thought it must have been an American production, that is until I read Webber's piece and discovered that it was first released in the West End (and as a friend of mine said, on the day she was born). The thing he explained was that while London had been producing musicals for ages, they hadn't yet managed to master the art of combining them with dance - which is what Cats had proposed to do. Apparently Judi Dench was originally slated for the role of Grizbella (and that caught me as a surprise because I simply cannot imagine Judi Dench playing such a young role, but then again I guess I am only acquainted with her later, Hollywood roles). The opening night also had a bomb scare, which resulted in the entire theatre being cleared, but as they say, that is all now history as it turned out the musical was a roaring success.

The interesting thing that I picked up when speaking to others after seeing the musical was how it had changed from the original. Of course I have never had the opportunity of seeing the original, so I am not at all sure (and certainly wasn't expecting) there were any changes. However apparently there is, and one friend suggested that they had to refrain themselves from laughing throughout the show. Mind you, as I have indicated, I wasn't aware (and it certainly wasn't billed) that it had been updated and modernised - as far as I am aware this is the same Cats that graced the West End and Broadway for so many years.

The Heviside Layer

In a way you could say that the musical is about a wanderer who returns to the fold, and despite the fact that she is initially rejected by her clan, she is not only eventually welcomed back, but also given the opportunity to be reborn. This story isn't surprising coming from the pen of T.S. Elliot, though the original poem didn't have Grizbella as a character (in fact she was in another poem that he had written but not published). Grizbella, when she returns (and it is suggested that she has been away for a while, even though the cats only come together once a year for this ball), is initially scorned by her peers and is left alone on stage remembering the time when she was part of the clan. Yet it is strange that she doesn't actually do anything to be welcomed back into the fold, she is just finally accepted, and is then selected from the other cats to be reborn.

It sounds in part like the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32), the Biblical story in which the son takes his inheritance and then leaves his family to go and live it up. However, after squandering everything, he then returns to be welcomed by his father as if he had never left. Mind you, while the prodigal son is initially rejected by his brother (and the story never tells us whether the brother eventually accepts him back into the family), he is immediately welcomed back by the father. This is not the case with Grizbella - she is rejected, and remains rejected until the end when she is the one who receives the honour of being born anew.

I guess, it is in part a story about redemption, and renewal, a story that strikes at the heart of many of us who have suffered broken relationships. Yet to many of us these broken relationships are in the end beyond repairs. Like Grizbella, we are shunned by our peers, and find ourselves on the outside, alone. We don't exactly know what Grizbella did to land up in that situation, but she is eventually given that second chance, to return to the fold as a new person, and cleansed of her past. This may not necessarily be what happens to us when we suffer a breakdown in our relationships, however I do note that it is not necessarily the tribe that welcomes her back, but Old Deuteronomy, the defacto leader of the tribe (or should I suggest the wise old man). In a way Old Deuteronomy is like the father in the prodigal son - he is the one who welcomes her back, and gives her that renewed life among her peers, a renewed and restored life that maybe many of us need to seek out as well.

Creative Commons License
Cats - A Rather Extra-ordinary Production by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me.
This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If use wish to use the creative commons part for commercial purposes, please contact me directly.

"Koty musical" by Effie - Own work. Licensed under GFDL via Commons
"CatsOriginalLondonCast" by Felina's Jellicle World. Via Wikipedia

Monday, 11 January 2016

Parliamentary Russia - Lenin's Coup Fails

Once again I was watching one of the really informative videos on the Alternate History Channel (and I will embed the video, as I usually do, below) and it fuelled my imagination - this time in regards to the Russian Revolution. However, as I was thinking about how I would tackle this I suddenly realised that so many different things could have happened that would have had a significant effect upon the way the modern world would turn out, it is difficult to simply take just one path. For instance:

  1. Czar Nikolas could have given more power to the Duma after the 1905 revolution, which would have resulted in Russia becoming a constitutional monarchy;
  2. Czar Nikolas could have been assassinated, which would have resulted in the heir becoming Czar, and most likely launching a huge crack down of dissidents;
  3. Czar Nikolas could have died in a freak accident, resulting in his son becoming heir, and establishing a constitutional monarchy;
  4. The February Revolution could still have happened, Nikolas abdicates in favour of his son, and once again a constitutional monarchy is established.
These are just a few scenarios, however the scenario that I will explore will be that the February Revolution did happen, and Czar Nikolas is deposed, but the October Revolution either doesn't happen, or if it does then it fails (and I will work on the principle that it failed). Anyway, as I promised, here is the video from the Alternate History Hub:


 Brief History of the Czars

Okay, while I won't claim to be an expert on Russian History, the period in the Early 20th Century where we saw the collapse of the Czarist government and the creation of the Stalinist State was one of the major topics that we studied in highschool. This isn't surprising because that one little event in October 1917 ended up having a huge impact upon the direction the 20th Century headed. Not only did we see the collapse of the European dominated world view and the rise of the superpowers, the creation of the USSR had a huge effect upon the political landscape, particularly with a huge shift to the right in the United States. In fact even though the Soviet Union is long gone, we still see a lot of tension between Russia and the NATO states.

To say that the October Revolution had a huge impact upon the course of the 20th Century is an understatement.

Anyway, as for the history of Russia, in my mind until the Napoleonic Era it simply seemed to be that frozen land to the north beyond the edges of civilisation, though it was the gateway through which the Monguls entered Eastern and Central Europe. In fact, Russia really didn't exist prior to the Mongul invasions and it was upon their retreat that the beginnings of Czarist (or Tsarist - both are correct) empire began to appear. However, while they did have a minor impact upon the European stage during the 18th Century, it wasn't until their victory against Napoleon in 1812 that Russia made a name for itself on the international stage. You could say that her defeat of Napoleon signalled her coming of age.

Napoleon's Failed Invasion

Actually, her defeat of Napoleon had a significant impact upon her development as a nation. Through the 18th and 19th century we see the beginnings of Russian expansion as she moved east over the Siberian plans and south into the Balkans, picking up land deserted by the Ottoman Empire. The beginnings of the empire emerged under the leadership of Czar Peter the Great (1672-1725) and Catherine the Great (1762-1796) and continued into the 19th Century. However her expansion into the Balkans came to a halt when she came into conflict with the British and the French that led to the disastrous Crimean War.

It was also during this time that we begin to see the flourishing of the arts with authors such as Dostoyevski, Nicolai Gogal, and composers such as Tchaicovski. While we begin to see what I would consider the Russian Renaissance, politically the empire was still an incredibly backward country. While the rest of Europe were establishing constitutional monarchies and republics, Russia was still very much an autocratic state with a system of indentured landholdings. This resistance to change created a rise in extreme political activists known as the anarchists and the nihilists. No doubt Karl Marx contributed a lot to the rise of extremism (despite the fact that his writings referred to the more industrialised states of Western Europe, as opposed to Russia, which was still very much an agrarian state).

Three Revolutions

Bloody SundayThis tension between the populace and the aristocracy increased during the later years of the 19th Century with strikes becoming ever more common, and the government putting them down ever more brutally. This came to a head on 9th January 1905, a day that has become known as Bloody Sunday (though the U2 song of the same name has nothing to do with this event) when the Russian troops gunned down between 200 to 1000 protesters outside the Summer Palace in St Petersburg. This sparked off a series of revolts across the country, literally paralysing the state. One knows that one is in serious trouble when during the active phase of a revolution the army supports the protesters - this happened in France in 1789, in Egypt in 2011, and also in Russia in 1905. The most famous of these was the strike on the Battleship Potemkin that was docked in the harbour in Sevastopol, which is the subject of a movie of the same name. Okay, the movie is basically a load of communist propoganda, but it is still one awesome movie, and you can watch it in its entirety (with subtitles) on Youtube.

Anyway, Nicholas did put through a few reforms, including establishing a legislative assembly known as the Duma. Actually, calling it a legislative assembly is quite incorrect since they didn't actually do all that much other than rubber stamp Nicholas' laws, but sometimes to be seen to do something is just as good as actually doing something, and it was quite clear that Nicholas really wanted to maintain the status quo. It worked though because Nicholas managed to hold onto power for at least another 12 years.

Then comes 1917 and Russia was once again in a lot of trouble due to one major European event - World War I. The thing with Russia was that it was losing and losing badly. They did manage to win the battle of Tannenberg early on in the war, but that victory was fleeting and the Germans were pretty much thrashing them on a regular basis. This caused significant problems for Nicholas since being Czar he was also head of the armed forces. As it turned out he, and his hand picked generals, really didn't know how to fight a real war. In fact they had been beaten by the Japanese - decisively - in the Russo-Japanese War.

As such in January 1917 there was another revolution and Czar Nicholas was removed from power (actually he abdicated) and a democratic government was established. However this new government decided to continue fighting the war, namely because they really didn't want to upset their allies on the Western Front. Unfortunately things didn't improve all that much, and the war continued to go badly for them, which resulted in the Bolsehvik coup of October 1917 (they referred to it as a revolution, however it is more like a coup).

This is the problem with revolutions, and we saw it in the French Revolution, and we see it once again in the Russian Revolution - they are rarely, if ever, successful. Okay, what about America you might ask. Well, unlike France and Russia, the United States, when it revolted against Britain, already had an established government - the Continental Congress. With France and Russia they literally had to start from scratch, and if you look at France you will see them going from one failed government to another until Napoleon said 'stuff this' and took over himself.

October 1917

The more I think about it the more I believe that the major turning point with modern Russia is the October Revolution (even though I prefer to call it a coup). The thing is that the major changes to world history came with the establishment of the Bolshevik government. If Nicholas, or the republic, managed to survive then, well, nothing much would have changed. Okay, there would have been more freedom of movement, and less of an autocratic rule, but it is more to do with what wouldn't have happened than what would have happened.

The thing with Russia is that the historical change would have been so dramatic that it is very difficult to see what would have happened if there had been no October Revolution. Quite likely Russia would have been much more integrated into Europe, and would have developed a more capitalistic society along the lines of the west. However to believe that it would have gone down the road of the extreme capitalism that we now see, I believe, is quite unlikely.

The Socialist Monster

Needless to say the Bolsheviks had made enemies with the west right from the outset. In fact as soon as Germany had been defeated the allies sent troops into Russia to attempt to overthrow Lenin. Obviously the allies lost that war (one of the reasons was that after five years of hell people simply didn't want to keep fighting, and the Bolsheviks appeared to be harmless enough) which meant that communism managed to gain a foothold in Russia. However one thing we notice is that with the rise of communism (for want of a better word) in Russia resulted in a dramatic shift to the right in the United States and the West.

It is interesting to note that in the early 20th Century we see the United States government making moves on the various monopolies and breaking them up, however after World War I there is a dramatic shift back to deregulation. We also see a rise in union busting and a greater disparity in wealth. As Calvin Coolidge famously said "the chief business of the American people is business". I suspect that if the Bolsheviks had failed then there wouldn't have been such as dramatic shift to the right in the United States.

The Great Depression

The Soviet Union (as it was then called) actually escaped the Great Depression due to it being economically isolated from the rest of the world. However one of the reasons that the great depression occurred was because there was a huge amount of faith placed in the markets. It wasn't as if this was the first time the stock market had crashed - the economic cycle had been going through peaks and troughs for the past two centuries (with the South Sea Bubble in the 18th century being quite a famous one). However with the sudden shift to the right, the belief that markets regulated themselves was once again in vogue.

Look, I'm not saying that Black Friday would not have occurred - for all we know this faith in the markets was inevitable, and people seem to keep on forgetting the past resulting in the economic cycle continuing. However, without the spectre of the Socialist Boogeyman, maybe it wouldn't have been as harsh as it was in our timeline. One thing that we do need to consider is that Russia would have been drawn into the Great Depression as well.

The Five Year Plans

Well, lets just say that without a Bolshevik coup there would have been no Lenin, and as a result there would have been no Stalin - which means no five year plans. These plans turned Russia from an agrarian backwater into a military superpower by World War II. In fact the rate of industrialisation was astounding, though we have seen a similar occurrence in modern day China. The reason that Russia was able to do can be simplified into one word - totalitarianism. For all of the flack that totalitarianism gets, if you have the right guy at the helm then things get done.

It was because of Stalin's desire to bring Russia into the modern world that enabled them to stand up to the might of the German Army. Okay, he also had the habit of going around and executing his most capable officers (Stalin had a serious case of paranoia - which ended up killing him because he came to the conclusion that his doctors were out to get him so had them executed), but despite that they were still able to turn the tide to the battle and storm over Eastern and Central Europe.

World War II

The Alternate History Channel, in one of it's videos, suggested that without communist Russia we wouldn't have seen the rise of Facism in Europe. I disagree because the rise of Facism, or extreme nationalism, came about due to economic turmoil and rampant poverty. I have suggested that the Great Depression may not have occurred, however I will stick to my position that it doesn't matter whether the Soviet Union had existed or not, it would have happened. The reason Hitler came to power in Germany was because they had been hit really, really bad by the depression, and he was able to capture the hearts and minds of the people.

It is quite possible that if the Soviet Union had never existed then World War II would have played out much differently. The reason that Russia managed to turn the tide of the battle was that Stalin had radically industrialised the country, and despite initial setbacks, they were able to fight back ferociously. A Russia that had not undergone the five year plans, and had been ravaged by the Great Depression, would not have had the infrastructure, or the materials, to be able to turn back Hitler. More likely than not, Hitler would have stormed through Russia, turned south through the Caucuses, and then captured the Middle East.

The Space Race

Okay, Hitler defeated Russia, and pretty much dominates Europe (namely because D-Day either never happened, or failed abysmally - though we must remember that when the Americans entered the war it significantly tipped the scales against the Germans). Okay, maybe Hitler wouldn't have won the war, but that is because Berlin is little more than a radioactive wasteland (they bombed Japan, so no doubt they would have bombed Germany as well if they hadn't defeated them already). However there is one major thing that the Soviet Union did for us that created the world in which we live today - space exploration.

The only reason that the Americans decided to send people up into space was because the Russians had done it first. When the Soviet Union put the first thing, dog, man, woman, and orbital platform in space the Americans realised that they were on the back foot. In fact the Americans, right up until Sputnik orbited the Earth sending little beeps back to the ground, really didn't care about space. The only reason that the Russians ended up lobbing something into space was because of, yep, you guessed it, Stalin's five year plans.

The Space Race has had a dramatic impact upon the world in which we live. In fact most, if not all, of the technology that we currently use that makes our life easier comes about because of that one little satellite that orbited the Earth with the letters CCCP emblazoned on the outside (as well as that stray dog that because famous because she got to be the first living creature to look down upon the Earth). Without the space race we would not have GPS, the internet, and quite a lot of the medical technologies that make our lives longer. So, the next time you make that phone call on your mobile phone, just remember that if it wasn't for Stalin's five year plan, you probably would still be using a phone box.

Creative Commons License

Parliamentary Russia - Lenin's Coup Fails by David Alfred Sarkeis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me.

"RedSquare (" by Christophe Meneboeuf - Personal work.More of my photos on my photoblog: Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons

Sunday, 3 January 2016

Commodore 64 - The classical days of computing

Commodore 64 Startup Screen
I can't think of a better way to open this post
While there are many people who will look at this post and scratch their heads in bemusement, there are still many of us who grew up with this humble little home computer. Okay, maybe the Commodore 64 doesn't hold anywhere near the processing power of the computers of today (including those ones that we can hold in the palm of our hand) but the 64, as it was fondly known, formed an essential part of the lives of many of us in my generation.
I first got a Commodore 64 after repeatedly pestering my dad to purchase a computer that was much better than the dinosaur that he had occupying the back corner of his workshop - one that actually had colour and sound - as well as one that many of my friends also owned. In a way, to own a Commodore 64 back in the eighties was to be a part of the in crowd of the computer geeks because if you had anything else you simply were not able to share anything. Back in those days there was no such thing as compatibility, which meant that if you owned a different computer you simply were not able to trade software with anybody else or were pretty much reliant upon what you to purchase at the shops (and considering the price of store bought computer games, there were quite a few restrictions).

Commodore 64
And this is the machine
Floppy Disc
You can bend these
Look, I'm not intending on writing an academic history or encyclopedic entry on this computer, and if you are looking for something like that, then there is always Wikipedia. What I am intending on sharing are my memories on the what I call the classical days of the computer era, back in a time before the internet, where there were no harddrives or memory sticks, and games (or other programs) came on what were known as floppy disks and cassette tapes (and I originally thought they were called floppy discs because you could bend them, not that you were encouraged to do so because it would pretty much ruin it). Programs didn't load instantaneously, and if you wanted to load a complex game you would have to go and do something else while that happened, at times crossing your fingers and hoping that it wouldn't crash in the process (meaning that you would have to start all over again). Remember, I'm talking about discs here - they were considered to be quite fast, unlike the cassette tapes, which were much, much slower, and if you had multiple programs on the tape you would have to spool through it to try to find where the program was located. In fact it was not uncommon to have the covers of the cassette tape labeled as such:

Cassette Tape
A pencil was essential
0-156:      Space Invaders
160-217:  Pacman
218-324:  Labyrinth
325-327:  Poker .... and so on.

I remember at times having to regularly spool the tape right back to the beginning just so that we could reset the counter to be able to find the program that we wanted to load. Fortunately, since my dad was an electronics engineer, he readily understood the frustrations associated with cassette tapes so we rarely had to deal with them (unless I was at my friend's house) because he had purchased a disc drive.

Disc Drives
Some disc drives were much larger than these ones
Okay, a lot of the desktops that we use today still have an eight inch floppy drive installed (well, mine doesn't, but I believe the one I use at work does, despite the fact that they are pretty much obsolete these days) but I don't think I have seen a disc in use for a very long time. I still have some in my Dad's shed, but with the development of external hard drives and flash drives, they are simply no longer needed. However, I still remember carrying my box of floppy drives around to my friend's house, or down to the state library, so that we could swap games.
Okay, I notice that I have referred to programs above, but to be honest with you I only ever used the Commodore 64 for two things - playing computer games and writing computer games. Okay, we did have some programs that we used, such as Fast Hack'em (I can't believe there is actually a Wikipedia entry on this program, and I even noticed that you can download copies of it, not that it is of any use) and that was so we could copy games (it was one of the fastest available). However you also had cartridges known as 'Freezer' Cartridges, such as Freeze Frame and ICEPIC, which would dump the contents of the computer's memory into an executable file, which made bypassing the copy protection of some games rather simple.
C64 Disc Drive
The disc drive
c64 Datasette
The datasette

Now, I mentioned above that one of the things that I would use the Commodore 64 for was to write computer games. While I will probably say more on the topic in later posts, I still wish to touch on the subject here. Being the son of an electronics engineer I grew up around computers, and prior to the Commodore 64, the games that we had access to were very limited, so I had to learn how to write them myself. In fact you could get computer magazines where the back would contain listings of code (usually in basic) that you could type into the computer. That began to change where demos and free software would be included on a disc (and later a CD) that came with the magazine, but in the early days you had to type them out yourself.
Not all of the computer magazines had listings in them, but a few of them did (namely the ones that were targeted towards computer professionals and hobbiests, as opposed to those of us who simply used them to play games). One magazine I remember was Zzap! 64, which was purely a games magazine (which basically reviewed upcoming and recently released computer games, as well has having a section containing hints, cheats, and game hacks).
While you can still buy computer magazines in the stores, like all other forms of media, the internet is slowly taking over the sphere (and honestly, why would computer geeks even bother buying magazines when most of them are pretty proficient in the internet anyway). I've noticed that these days a lot of programmers have their own blogs which they use to share code with the programming world at large, such as my Dad's blog (if you can call it as such), or my friend Andrew's.
I think I'll finish it off here, though I will make a mention of MOS6502, a blog for Commodore 64 geeks, Lemon 64, a website that looks back on the many games of the 64 era, and, an archive of Commodore 64 software (which I believe you can also find an emulator, though if they don't have one, you could always try CCS64, an emulator we purchased years back using the old method of getting a bank draft and sending a cheque to Scandanavia - there was no Paypal in those days). As for the games, well here is a Youtube video commemorating a whole heap of 64 games.

Creative Commons License
 Commodore 64 - The classical days of computing by David Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License
If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me. All images on this post are © and/or ™ their relevant owners. If you are the owner of any of the images used on this website and wish them to be removed then please contact me.

Floppy disc: Use permitted by KENPEI under creative commons attribution share-alike 3.0 Unported
TDK Cassette Tape: Use permitted by GRAHAMUK under creative commons attribution share-alike 3.0 Unported
1541 disc drive: Use permitted by aFrank99 under creative commons attribution share-alike 2.5 Generic
C64 Datasette: Use permitted by Toni Saariko under creative commons attribution share-alike 3.0 unported
Zzap! 64: Used under the fair use provisions for illustrative purposes only. Source wikipedia.