history

Dunkirk

It takes something special to lure me into a cinema to watch a modern war movie, and the involvement of Christopher Nolan definitely piqued my interest, even though I thought that The Dark Knight Rises was a bloated misfire and Interstellar was deeply flawed. Thankfully, Dunkirk is a lean mean machine that dispenses with stilted dialogue about love, and in fact relies very little on the dialogue. It’s probably not an obvious comparison, but of all the recent movies Dunkirk reminded me the most of Mad Max: Fury Road, and not just because Tom Hardy’s face is covered up with a mask in both films. Like George Miller’s instant classic, Nolan’s latest is a visceral, purely cinematic survival story that made me feel like someone grabbed my insides, twisted them in a knot and didn’t let the grip go for a couple of hours. It’s a kind of movie where you need some time and preferably an energetic walk to decompress after.

Dunkirk is Nolan’s first bash at a historic genre, and tells the story of the Allied soldiers in World War II, who were cornered on the beaches in France by the German army. Faced with the possible annihilation of their troops, the British launched a desperate rescue operation. There are three distinct narratives in the film: one follows a young British soldier (Fionn Whitehead), one of the trapped unfortunates. The second follows a small yacht operated by Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), a civilian who sets out with his teenage son and a young helping hand as a part of the rescue fleet. The third narrative takes place in the air, where British Spitfire pilots (Tom Hardy and┬áJack Lowden) engage the German planes heading for Dunkirk in aerial dogfights. Nolan also continues his obsession with time by placing the three narratives into different but ultimately overlapping time periods. To be honest I wasn’t sure if this non-linear approach was really necessary, but since it didn’t ruin the film either I didn’t object to it.

The movie pulled me in right from its opening scene, where you see Whitehead’s character walk down an eerily empty and silent street. All of a sudden, there’s a sound of gunfire from an unseen enemy, and before you know it all five of our boy’s companions are mowed down. It’s so intense and vivid and if my guts could express a thought it would probably be, holy crap this is probably what being in a war feels like, not knowing where the next bullet is going to come from. And then the movie doesn’t drop this gruelling mode until maybe the last ten minutes. The extraordinary cinematography captures just about every physical fear in existence – fire, drowning, heights, dark and confined spaces, you name it. It does it so well in fact I was made slightly nauseous by the spinning and swooping aerial scenes. The pulse-racing score by Nolan’s frequent collaborator Hans Zimmer, with the sound of a ticking clock as its backbone, helps tie the narratives together and ratchets up tension even further.

The decision to portray the characters in-the-moment, without any backstories or conventional character arcs, might not sit well with everyone. For my part, I got invested into every character’s fate and liked the decision to develop them through their onscreen actions and physical performances. While Whitehead’s young and vulnerable soldier is clearly the audience stand-in, Rylance and Hardy’s characters are more heroic, though in a very reserved, understated British fashion. Overall, the lack of sentimentality and any kind of speechifying and flag-waving was very welcome. Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy and an impressive debut by Harry Styles round off the superb ensemble cast.

Mum and I watched the movie at the Melbourne IMAX theatre, and I really can’t recommend enough catching Dunkirk on the biggest screen you can. I wouldn’t say it’s an “enjoyable” experience per se, but immersive and impressive, heck yes.

Lenin the Dictator: An Intimate Portrait by Victor Sebestyen

My history education back in Russia fell on the period where, in my primary school during the last years of the Soviet Union, we were fed the rosy idealised stories about “Grandfather Lenin”. There were school excursions to lay the flowers at the city’s Lenin monument, the red star-shaped pins with Lenin’s portrait in the middle that every kid had to wear at school, and so on. Once the USSR was no more, immediately after there came a weird transitional period where they couldn’t quite figure out what version of history to teach; as an example, my history book somehow managed to have one oblique mention of Stalin in the entire post-revolution part. My idea of Lenin therefore was always rather lopsided; I figured that the idealised version wasn’t true but had little to replace it with, especially after moving to Australia. I was then quite interested to read this biography by Hungarian-born, UK-raised Sebestyen; while complete objectivity is non-existent I thought that the book provided a fairly balanced view of Lenin’s undeniably remarkable life.

The prologue opens on Tuesday, 24 October 1917, the eve of the Revolution (not quite the impeccably organised operation it was later portrayed to be), then follows the more conventional structure, starting with Lenin’s family background and childhood, and finishing with his death and the embalmed rest inside the Red Square mausoleum. What made this biography more easily digestible than some heavier biographies I’ve read is its arrangement into relatively short and tightly focused chapters (54 in total), each covering a different aspect of Lenin’s life and the greater social and political events of the time. It’s pretty blunt in regards to Lenin’s darker aspects, among which cynicism and ruthlessness stand out the most, though it’s not out to paint him as a total monster either:

Lenin thought himself an idealist. He was not a monster, a sadist or vicious. In personal relationships he was invariably kind and behaved in the way he was brought up, like an upper-middle-class gentleman. He was not vain. He could laugh – even, occasionally, at himself. He was not cruel: unlike Stalin, Mao Zedong or Hitler he never asked about the details of his victims’ deaths, savouring the moment. To him, in any case, the deaths were theoretical, mere numbers. But during his years of feuding with other revolutionaries, and then maintaining his grip on power, he never showed generosity to a defeated opponent or performed a humanitarian act unless it was politically expedient.

Most people who met Lenin seemed to find him thoroughly unimpressive, but he was an astute leader and good at image-making. One example is Lenin’s appreciation of the fact that a rival socialist political party, Mensheviks, stuck with a name derived from a Russian word for minority, in contrast to Bolsheviks whose name suggested the majority. Hmm which one makes for the smarter brand-building I wonder?

The first chapter, devoted to Lenin’s parents, remarks that the most important relationships in Lenin’s life were with women, while close male friends were very few and inevitably lost to politics. Other than Lenin’s many political allies and enemies, the book covers his personal relationships with his wife Nadya and Inessa Armand, his mistress for many years and the most glamorous of the female revolutionaries, who his wife accepted in an unusually civil menage a trois. There are other details and trivia that flesh him out as a person, such as his deep lifelong love of nature, and strong dislike of most modern art and literature (I was amused to read that Lenin considered Mayakovsky’s poetry garbage, though the latter was at pains to glorify him).

The biography also paints the picture of the broader Russian society at the time, and outlines the causes that ultimately led first to the abolition of monarchy and then to the Bolshevik October Revolution that paved the way for the Soviet Union. They include a weak and incompetent Tsar presiding over a country in desperate need of reforms, yet unwilling to change and maintaining the grip on the autocracy, under the delusion that repression and censorship would preserve the Romanov dynasty. Lenin’s older brother Alexander, whose execution at the age of twenty-one for plotting an attack on the Tsar is cited by the author as the main reason for seventeen-year-old Vladimir Ulyanov’s own immersion in politics, was one of the many radicals eager for change. The author’s view is that Russia’s involvement in World War I was Tsar Nicholas’ most catastrophic decision which in the end cost him his throne and his life (though he’s not entirely without sympathy for the Tsar’s terrible final fate). While the pre-revolutionary period is well-covered, the civil war that erupted soon after the Bolsheviks took power is unfortunately sketched in rather thinly.

Overall, I found this a very accessible and readable account of one of the most important figures of the 20th century. While not as massively detailed as some other biographies I’ve read, it gives enough of the historical background and insight into Lenin as a person.

Apocalypto

I came across this one thanks to the most excellent History Buffs YouTube series, a show dedicated to reviewing historical movies run by a British guy called Nick Hodges. Nick is not a fan of Mel Gibson movies to put it mildly and he panned Apocalypto mercilessly for its many gross historical inaccuracies and the overall misrepresentation of the Mayan culture, with Gibson rolling his Mayans and his Aztecs into one. While his criticisms seemed legitimate, I’m way more forgiving towards the movies fudging historical facts for drama, and the film looked visually interesting at the very least. Besides, who else out there is making movies about a pre-Columbian civilisation shot exclusively in the Mayan dialect? I’ll take my Mayan movies where I can get them.

The story is very simple: Jaguar Paw, a young tribesman living in a jungle village with his little son and very pregnant wife, gets captured by the raiders from a nearby city, where he and his fellow villagers are due to be sacrificed to appease the angry gods. The collapse of the Mayan society is imminent, with the dying crops and strange diseases decimating the population, and nothing less than a constant waterfall of blood will do. Jaguar Paw manages to hide his wife and son in a pit cave before he’s taken, and he must escape and return to his family before it’s too late.

There’s some social commentary about the decline of a civilisation, with the scenes showing environmental degradation, the contrast between the pampered ruling elite and the sickly poor, and the cynical manipulation by the religious leaders. Some of it is as subtle as a brick, such as the creepy little girl prophesying the end of the Mayan world in a typical Creepy Child fashion. The movie really works best as a crazy, audacious, ultra-violent adventure story. Whatever else you can say about Mel Gibson, he knows how to pack a cinematic visceral punch and film a tense chase through the jungle, as the hunted becomes the hunter and picks off his pursuers one by one through the ingenious and often gory means. It’s like Home Alone, Mayan style.

The city scenes can be truly stomach-churning with the decapitations and cut out hearts galore, but they’re also visually stunning and feature the colourful body paint, eye-popping costumes and tribal decorations the likes of which I’ve never seen onscreen before (all that jade jewelry! The film is at least accurate about the Mayan upper class decorating their teeth with jade, as I got to learn on my recent trip to Mexico). I don’t know how historically accurate they really are, but they sure do look spectacular.┬áThe cinematography makes the most of the lush green jungle and other naturally beautiful locations. The indigenous cast, many of them first-time actors, do a fine job, especially Rudy Youngblood as Jaguar Paw, and there’s a surprising amount of humour in the scenes where we get to know our hero and his fellow tribesmen and women before everything goes to hell.

Vietnam Week 2

We stayed in Hoi An for three nights, and it was totally worth it: it’s an incredibly pretty place, especially enchanting at night. We did another countryside excursion on the second day, this time on a mountain bike. By the end of the trip, I felt like some parts of me might never be the same again, but it was a fun day out. Among other things, we got to make our own rice noodles for lunch.

I’ve never heard of Nha Trang before, and it turned out to be a coastal resorty place, full of Russian tourists. It was bizarre seeing Russian signage and menus everywhere. We had a full day boat trip on the bay, including snorkelling which unfortunately I didn’t get to do since I can’t see much without my glasses. The water however was lovely and warm, and I really tried to squeeze in as much sunbathing and swimming as possible before coming back to Melbourne and the impending winter.

Once in Ho Chi Minh City (our group leader never called it so, preferring the old name of Saigon), I finally gathered enough courage to try the frog. It tasted kinda like chicken and caused many Kermit jokes around the table. I really liked the city and its wide shaded boulevards, even if the street traffic here was at its most intimidating to cross.

Vietnam Week 1

I’m back from my two-week trip to Vietnam, and it’s amazing how quickly the rubber band snaps right back and the whole thing feels like a dream. Thankfully, there are photos to remind of all the good times had. It was a big success all-around: great group and leader, a wide variety of experiences, yummy food. The weather was humid and got progressively hotter as we went further south, but other than sweating like a piggie I bore it surprisingly well. The only real low point came when I ate something dodgy couple of hours before boarding the overnight train. Food poisoning and bumpy Vietnamese train and me with my motion sickness… let’s just say it wasn’t pretty. It’s probably a karma payback for all those times in Egypt and India when I was almost the only person in the group without tummy troubles.

Hanoi is not the prettiest of cities, to be honest, and the pollution level was the worst of the entire trip, but the Old Quarter is rather exciting and chaotic to walk around, with good food places and people watching. We spent half a day getting a crash course in the history of Ho Chi Minh, who I didn’t even realise was a real person (yes, my knowledge of Vietnam’s history was non-existent). Also got a crash course in crossing the streets lorded by the mopeds, cars and bikes with no traffic lights in sight. Hint: really can’t afford to be timid. Avoid the fast-moving vehicles and stop the slower ones with the power of your hand.

Ha Long Bay is as beautiful and impressive as the travel brochures suggest, even with the occasional pieces of garbage floating by. We had an overnight stay there on a junk boat, and a kayak expedition in the morning, enjoying the peace and quiet and the eerie misty beauty.

Had a motorbike tour of the countryside in Hue. I was a bit nervous beforehand, as I’ve been at the back of the motorbike once before and found it terrifying, mostly because of lack of control. I’m obviously more chilled with age now – after about a minute of trepidation the ride was enormous fun.

Going through the Hai Van Pass was an interesting experience. On the way up, the weather was overcast and the fog was as thick as milk, but as soon as we went down towards Da Nang, it was as if someone installed some kind of cloud stopper: perfect visibility and blue skies.

Books I’ve read lately

goldGold: The Final Science Fiction Collection by Isaac Asimov

I’ve only read one other short stories collection by Asimov before, so this bunch of previously uncollected stories probably wasn’t a great place to start for a relative Asimov beginner. The stories are rather hit-and-miss; there’s a couple which are more like sci-fi jokes culminating with rather unfunny puns; while others are really good, like the first story in the collection called Cal, about a domestic robot who wants to be a writer just like his master.

Far more interesting was the second half of the book, which is a collection of Asimov’s essays, taken from various anthologies he edited or introductions to his own work. In them he muses on all sorts of things to do with writing and/or science fiction: his own creative process, the women in science fiction, the relationship between sci-fi and real-life science, the possibilities of space travel, his opinion of the book reviews, his view of dystopian genre (apparently he found George Orwell’s Animal Farm an abominably bad book, because in his view dystopian stories which do nothing but repeat how awful everything is are just as dull as utopian stories in which everything is wonderful, wonderful, wonderful), among others. I was also interested to read that he was a big fan of P. G. Wodehouse, because to me the story-within-the-story in Cal definitely seemed to channel Wodehouse a bit. Again, some essays were more interesting than others, but what really endeared me to them was Asimov’s down-to-earth, familial style of writing, personal charm and (often self-deprecating) humour that really shine through.

napoleonNapoleon: His Wives and Women

This historical biography was in a way a polar opposite to the recent one I’ve read; if Caesar’s biography was all politics and military achievements and very little on the personal side, this one was all personal. It still gives you a general outline of Napoleon’s rise and fall, but you won’t find detailed analysis of the crucial battles or descriptions of Napoleon’s political life. Instead, as the title suggests, this biography concentrates on Napoleon’s relationships with the women in his life: his strong-willed mother, who outlived him and many of his siblings, his sisters, his many mistresses, and his two wives: Marie-Josephe-Rose who he was to call Josephine, and Marie-Louise of Austria.

The book then is rather gossipy by nature, but wonderfully entertaining to read, with tons of personal anecdotes, details and descriptions of Napoleon’s family life, and his own habits and character quirks. His portrayal here as a private man is often far from flattering; he was capable of great personal charm and acts of love and devotion, but he could also be selfish, domineering, cruel, petty and crude. He had a nasty habit of pinching the members of his family and servants, sometimes so hard as to leave bruises. Naturally one must take into account the times Napoleon lived in, but all the same it’s hard not to wince when you read of him referring to women as ‘mere machines for making children’. Despite all of this, he really seemed to inspire devotion on the part of both of his wives, even though neither of them married him for love initially, which depending on your view is either romantic or depressing. Still, it was hard not to be moved by the scenes of Napoleon and Josephine’s divorce, which by all accounts was harsh on both of them and was mostly motivated by Napoleon’s desire for an heir that Josephine could not give him. Very late in the biography, it also briefly touches on Napoleon’s possible homosexual tendencies, which I kinda wondered about since the earlier episode in the book, where he remarked that, had Tsar Alexander of Russia been a woman, he would have made him his mistress, he was so pretty.

Julius Caesar by Philip Freeman

cvr9780743289542_9780743289542_hrI love me a good historical biography and I really enjoyed this account of one of the greatest figures in history. As with any serious historical non-fiction, you can’t just skim over it casually and it requires your full concentration, but it was so absorbing I finished it in a space of three days, abandoning the usual distractions of TV and internet. It also helped that it was written in a very straightforward, accessible language.

In the preface, the author states that his aim was not to praise Caesar nor to bury him, but simply to tell his story as it happened. While it’s true that overall the biography keeps a neutral tone and doesn’t gloss over Caesar’s mistakes and the less-than-admirable episodes, I still got an impression that the author had quite a bit of liking for his subject. It’s not hard to see why though. Caesar was a truly great man, a skilled politician, a brilliant orator and a general. He was capable of both careful, cautious planning, and acting boldly when he needed to (there are so many occasions in the book when Caesar sprung surprises on his enemies by doing something completely unexpected that no one tried before). His psychological hold over his loyal armies was exceptional, with numerous occasions when he was able to bring his men back from the edge of mutiny by, paradoxically, not giving in an inch. He also had a policy of clemency and forgiveness towards his enemies that was unusual by the standards of the day, even if it was calculated and politically motivated most of the times (on the other hand, he rarely if ever showed mercy to the same person twice, and never had a problem destroying an entire city if he felt it was necessary). Plus he just had style. There’s an anecdote early on about the time when young Caesar got captured by the pirates on his way to Rhodes, and raised his own ransom by more than half because he found the initial sum insulting. It is fair to say that his ambitions and military exploits brought a huge amount of death and suffering, but on the other hand, you can’t really separate his actions from the world he lived in, in which war and conquest was a normal part of life. Romans were just much better at it than most.

The biography can be said to be roughly split into three sections: Caesar’s early life, his campaigns in Gaul (modern France), and the civil war which ended with his rise to the ultimate power (which in turn ended with one of the most famous assassinations in history). Unfortunately, the only good source on the childhood of Caesar available to the modern historians begins with his sixteenth year, but the author does a great job evoking the time and place in which Caesar grew up, and making educated guesses as to what his childhood might have been. This section of the book also has the most interesting details about the society of ancient Rome: politics, education, structure of the Roman households and family life, the ancient view of homosexuality, religion etc. The middle chapters on Gaul were probably the least compelling (though still interesting) partly because they shift much of the focus away from Rome and its political life, but then it comes back with the vengeance in the last third. As an aside, it was interesting to see how many details the TV show Rome (one of my all-time favourites) got wrong and right about that period. Pompey’s death, for instance, was pretty much spot-on in the series. I wish the book gave more details of personal nature, such as Caesar’s relationships with the people closest to him, but I guess these details could be hard to come by when the person in question lived more than 2,000 years ago. It was rather amusing to read though that, just like many men throughout the ages, Caesar was quite self-conscious about his baldness and tried to hide it by combing his hair over. Some things never change, haha.

The only thing that really annoyed me was the amount of grammatical errors in my edition of the book, just really stupid stuff like saying “really” instead of “rally”. I found at least five and that’s absolutely unforgivable in a professional publication. Grrrrr.