This year everyone has been talking about the Senna documentary, including me. But while praise for Senna has come from F1 fans and non-fans alike, I have been more impressed by another sport documentary from this year — Bobby Fischer Against the World.
Chess may seem like an unlikely game to take to the big screen. But chess comes alive in this riveting documentary about one of the most fascinating figures of the 20th century.
The term ‘flawed genius’ may be an overused cliche, but if it applies to anyone surely it is Bobby Fischer. The film tells the story of how a variety of factors contributed to a great man’s decline.
The centrepiece of the film is the famous 1972 World Chess Championship match between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky. The individual American took on the might of the Soviet chess system, which had dominated world chess for a quarter of century. This Cold War face-off had as much political significance as chess significance, as is cleverly illustrated through the use of archive news footage.
But the chess itself is never forgotten. The significant moments of the match are explained in a very vivid and accessible manner. I would guess that little or no chess knowledge is required in order to enjoy this film. The world’s most popular board game doesn’t have a sexy image, but after watching this film you wonder why.
But what stays with you is the tale of Fischer’s decline. This is where this film excels over Senna. It is a painfully honest assessment of the downsides of Bobby Fischer’s character. In the Senna hagiography, the driver’s flaws are only ever briefly brought up, and even then it is only to sweep them straight under the carpet.
In contrast, Bobby Fischer Against the World in unafraid to shine the torchlight on the enigma of the world’s greatest chess player who managed to alienate everyone he knew. At times it is painful and embarrassing to watch as a successful man becomes a delusional, anti-American, antisemitic and all-round offensive man.
In doing so, the film paints a genuinely complete picture of one of the 20th century’s most significant figures in sport. Senna, in contrast, only skims the surface.
One of my odd little interests is public information films. Lately I have been getting stuck into the ‘Charley Says’ DVDs. Fantastic stuff.
It was just after watching the ‘Splink’ PIF with John Pertwee that I realised that I hadn’t taken in what ‘Splink’ stands for at all. It always gets me how some mnemonics are far harder to remember than the actual thing they are supposed to remind you about.
I guess it was the inspiration for this brilliant video, from a Channel 4 pilot called ‘Shit Club’ by Alex Morris.
I also recommend the ‘Careers Adviser‘ video from the same television programme.
I was pretty excited when it was announced a few weeks ago that Pulp are getting back together to play some concerts next year. Pulp have been one of my favourite bands since I was nine years old. Yet I have never seen them live.
Many times my friends and I have discussed going to see one of Jarvis Cocker’s solo shows. But somehow it has never quite come together.
I’m keeping my fingers crossed that they will play in Scotland. Only three dates have been announced so far, all at pretty far-flung festivals.
Mind you, I’m not too sure about the way it is being marketed as being “all the original members of the band”. It might be the “classic” line-up that propelled the band to the height of its mid-1990s fame. But it is by no means the “original” line-up.
The band had several incarnations throughout the 1980s until success was reached. Jarvis Cocker is the only common element of them all, although the majority of the band was in place by the mid-1980s.
I was listening to some Pulp from this period the other day. It reminded me of this footage from a 1980s documentary about the Sheffield music scene. The footage is pretty grotty-looking, but it’s great to have this rather rare peek into the band’s early days. This is available on the ‘Hits’ DVD.
Clearly, they weren’t quite the finished product. Masses of loo roll is an interesting choice of stage decoration, and Jarvis Cocker himself does not yet have the commanding stage presence that made him famous.
The band themselves always warn against listening to their earlier material, preferring to think of the 1992 release of ‘OU’ as their year zero. However, I like all of their earlier albums.
Even though their earlier material rough around the edges, there is still a lot of great songwriting and the potential can be heard. Fascinating to listen to with the knowledge of how they turned out to become one of the biggest groups of the 1990s.
This is interesting. We are used to the idea of Easter eggs (hidden extras) in DVDs and the like. But how could there be an Easter egg on television?
Unless you are like me, it is probably not very exciting. But if you miss those late nights in the company of Carole Hersee and Bubbles the Clown, then this is a treat. It is accessible in the vast majority of DTT / Freeview boxes, but some older ones won’t cope.
Once the BBCi menu has loaded up, press GREEN. The word “secret” should now display in the top-right of the screen
Wait for the “Status” page to appear
Press 33582REDGREENYELLOWBLUE (33582 spells ‘delta’ on a phone keypad)
Wait a short while
It is probably used for engineering purposes, although it seems a bit odd that it has to be hidden away behind a code quite as convoluted as this. The “status” page is also tantalising and intriguing. The borders around the edge are ‘safe areas’ and it is possible to change your region. But the rest is a bit puzzling to me. But I suppose it would be given that it’s not designed to be seen by the like of me.
Record labels and video distributors had been ticked off by consumers for charging high prices for quite a while. At first the labels got away with it though. This was because they actually added value to the product. They were the only ones who were able to actually deliver the product to consumers efficiently.
However, with the advent of the internet and explosion of file-sharing, they are no longer the only people who can deliver content. It’s even worse than that. They are now woefully inefficient at delivering content.
The big question staring the record companies in the face has been: why should people pay £10 or £20 to buy a CD or a DVD when they could download it for free? Their original answer to this question has been to criminalise the very fans whose custom they depend upon. At every turn, consumers of music are accused of stealing music and killing the record industry.
Not exactly the best way to build a loyal fanbase.
Since that approach didn’t work, the record labels reluctantly dipped their toe into the digital water. But even this was a complete disaster. They insisted on releasing music that was crippled by DRM. This shackled the music, yet again making the consumer feel like a criminal.
The worst instances of DRM prevent people from listening to music on different devices. A high-profile example is music purchased from the iTunes Music Store, which can’t be played on any device unless it was made by Apple. That is like buying a CD released by Sony BMG and only being allowed to play it on CD players manufactured by Sony. It is outrageous, and it is a wonder that the music industry ever felt that it was a sensible approach. Sadly, the most blinkered companies still release digital music in this way.
Incidentally, kudos should go to Warp Records, who recognised from the very start that its fans wouldn’t like to be treated as criminals. Its foray into the digital download world, Bleep, sells music at the highest quality the MP3 format can provide and entirely without DRM.
Some albums are even available as lossless (i.e. CD-quality) FLAC files. And you are allowed to preview the entire track before purchasing. Some albums also come with exclusive artwork, screensavers and so on. Furthermore, a (comparatively) huge cut of the profits goes to the artists, which is where fans like to see profits go.
Now hundreds of independent labels sell their music on the service. Bleep has been a huge success, having sold over a million downloads. The majors should have realised that this is how it should have been done from the start.
The problem facing the record industry remains. Their expertise was in distribution, but this advantage was removed by the internet. Their solutions don’t address the fundamental problem. Why should someone buy a digital download when they can get it for free from peer-to-peer networks?
The worst solutions were never going to work because they made the consumer feel like criminals. The better solutions — like Bleep — work to an extent because they tickle the fan’s tummy, making him feel good.
Regardless of what the record companies would like to think, the internet has greatly improved efficiency and has made consumers better off. Unless they really like pretty boxes, a choice between buying a CD for upwards of £10 or downloading the music for free is a no-brainer.
Sticking plaster solutions such as reducing the price of CDs or releasing DRM-infected MP3s were never going to do. And you can’t un-invent the internet. In their current state, record companies are a complete anachronism. An entirely new business model is needed in order for them to survive. It is the only way. For some of them, it may already be too late.
But I think there is an answer. And I think they are catching on to it. But I’ll write about that in my next post.
I hope you all managed to have a good Christmas. I have to say, I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed Christmas so much.
In recent years I have enjoyed it just as a nice day off with a big meal. But beyond that I didn’t enjoy them much more than a normal day of leisure. So maybe I’d watch my new DVDs, but I would probably spend a great deal of the day on the internet anyway.
Perhaps it is because I have had such a tough year (not emotionally tough, but physically and mentally). Maybe it was because last year my brother wasn’t here, but it was probably mostly because I have become older, jaded and cynical.
Of course, when you’re young, Christmas is probably the most exciting part of the year. All those presents! Unfortunately as you get older this wears off. One day you find that you have the responsibility to give presents as well, with all the shopping hell that entails. And soon enough you might be earning enough to buy pretty much all of the luxuries you want.
For that reason, I always tell my parents to try and surprise me. They still want me to write them a list of what I want, but that is rubbish. Normally if I want stuff I can just buy them anyway. So I find myself not buying things just so that I can put them on my Christmas list. What a load of old bum. What is the point of knowing what you are getting anyway?
So I was quite pleased when my parents decided to buy me a poker set, which I completely didn’t expect. I didn’t even realise the big box was meant to be for me, so I just left it at first.
Apparently my father didn’t really want to get me it in case it encourages me to gamble. I think that’s a bit rich coming from someone who spends £2 on the lottery every week, but there you go! I doubt I’d ever gamble myself. I am pretty risk-averse and the odds are always stacked against you.
I have kind of hinted at getting a poker set before, but only as a sort of “ooh, wouldn’t that be amusing” kind of thing. I wasn’t dead serious about getting one. But I found myself getting quite excited about it, and we all played a game later in the evening.
I had never played a game of poker before, and I knew very little about it. All I knew was whatever I gleaned from watching Late Night Poker back in the day, which was very little. I only ever watched that because there was nothing else on, and I was mesmerised by the amazing under-the-table cameras.
My brother led us all by the hand, explaining the rules as we went along. My parents were knocked out quickly, and it was just the young’uns — me, my brother and his girlfriend — left. Time flew by really quickly. Before we realised it, three hours had passed and it was after midnight.
And in the end, I won my first ever game of poker! Muhahah!
And this evening, I won at Scrabble. This is in stark contrast to my record on Facebook Scrabble (won 2, lost 8). This winning streak is unusual, because normally I am just one big loser. I should ride the wave and carry these optimistic feelings with me into 2008. It’s a big year, so being optimistic is probably the only way I can get things done from now on, even though it goes against my instincts.
My brother got me Dead Children Playing, although I had already bought it for myself and had got it wrapped up. Amusingly, I bought it partly as a backup for my brother in case I couldn’t find him anything better (eventually I got him this). That we both got it for each other is a sign that it was a good present, I think. We are keeping a copy each.
I have just watched Taking Liberties and I can very much recommend it. It concisely documents what is happening to this country under the Labour government and why it matters. It demonstrates that this affects a wide range of people and includes interviews from critics of the government across the political spectrum, from all of the major parties. If you don’t recognise the loss of freedoms that is happening in this country, you should watch this film and you will soon enough understand.
The film looks as though it’s only half of the story as well, because taking a look at the list of DVD extras, there is lots more to get through.
Back to normal tomorrow I think. I decided — two days off: Christmas Day and Boxing Day. But deadlines loom. Back to writing essays and dissertations tomorrow.
I was beginning to lose my faith in Sigur Rós a bit. Takk… was a pretty good album, but lacked the oceanic beauty of Ágætis Byrjun, the novelty of ( ) and the experimentation of Von and Ba Ba Ti Ki Di Do. The most recent EP, Sæglópur, contained the most boring output I have ever heard Sigur Rós release.
So I was not expecting too much from their latest release, Hvarf / Heim, a double CD. The Hvarf CD contains “new electric recordings”, although really it seems to be old leftover songs that never made it to an album.
‘Salka’ is nothing particularly special. ‘Í Gær’, meanwhile, sounds like it was specifically designed to be used on any television programmes that want to evoke a kind of creepy, wintery feel. That tuned percussion provides plenty of ammunition for those who have bemoan the use of same Sigur Rós songs on television over and over again. (‘Í Gær’ is the music used in the Heima trailer which I have embedded at the bottom of this post.)
However, it is good to see ‘Hjómalind’ (what used to be called ‘Rokklagið’) finally getting a proper release. But why not ‘Fönklagið’? It might not fit in with their current image, but I still think it’s a great, fun song.
The reworked version of ‘Von’ is also a pleasant listen. The new version of ‘Hafsól’ is fantastic as well, although was previously released as the B-side to ‘Hoppípolla’ so is not really anything new.
Heim meanwhile is a disc of live acoustic recordings of classic Sigur Rós songs. The songs are inevitably a little bit stripped back and raw. Some of the performances were recorded in outdoor locations. In ‘Heysátan’ in particular you can hear the birds enjoying the performance.
Despite the stripped back nature of the album, long time collaborators Amiina perform alongside Sigur Rós, meaning that the band’s grand sound remains in some songs. After all, ‘Starálfur’ would be nothing without the string quartet.
But the best song on the disc is performed by Sigur Rós alone. ‘Ágætis Byrjun’ has long been my favourite song by the band, so it was always going to be a stand out for me on Heim. The original version is largely acoustic anyway, but there are still a couple of subtle differences. The piano almost takes its rightful place at the forefront.
Part of what I love about this song is the fact that most of it sounds beautiful, but dissonant notes briefly appear just after the climax of each chorus. I wonder why? “An all right (but not perfect) beginning” perhaps. Whatever, these bits stand out a lot more in this live version than on the album version, and it sends a shiver down my spine.
But the best part of the tripartite alliterative Sigur Rós bonanza that hit the shops this month is the DVD of the film, Heima. It follows Sigur Rós touring Iceland, playing a series of free concerts in a diverse variety of locations.
Conventional concerts are documented. My favourite moment of these is at the start, where the band are performing ‘Sé Lest’. At the appropriate moment, a local brass band unexpectedly emerges from backstage to perform the brass part. But the moment is fleeting as the band walks between the members of Sigur Rós, climbs off the stage, makes its way through the audience members and out of the door.
As well as conventional concerts, the band also performs in some stranger places, such as an abandoned fish factory (where lead singer Jón Þór Birgisson and Amiina perform in a giant fish-oil tank, creating a peculiar audio resonance). The band also played a protest concert, performed without using any electricity, where a dam was being built at Snæfell.
The Icelandic tourism board must be cock-a-hoop. The film follows Sigur Rós, but it focuses as much on the scenery as it does on the band. The whole film has a beautiful visual style because of this. Heima will probably do more to advertise Iceland as a potential tourist location than anything else.
The film also follows Sigur Rós visiting some locations for pleasure. The best of these features is about Páll Stefánsson, who makes percussion instruments out of natural materials. The film shows Stefánsson tirelessly testing stones, checking the tone each makes, so that he can build a stone marimba. Sigur Rós later perform an improvisation on the makeshift instrument.
I was a bit apprehensive about buying the Heima DVD. I can never resist buying the limited edition if there is one, and this one cost £25. But with two discs (the second disc contains two hours worth of full performances of each song featured in the main film, spanning all four of their albums) and lush packaging, it feels worth it.
In fact, the artwork and packaging is a strong point of Heima and Hvarf / Heim. Both feature nostalgic-looking, treated photographs. They have been deliberately aged, with colours bleeding. It is similar to what Boards of Canada do, but I think the Sigur Rós artwork is even more evocative.
The limited edition DVD comes with a 116 page photo book. A lot of the photography is stunning — as good as the photography in the actual film. And, most importantly, the book itself smells wonderful (smell, I find, is one of the most important aspects of music packaging).
Now I find it incredible that I was actually reluctant or indifferent about buying these. I was becoming tired of Sigur Rós, but Hvarf / Heim and Heima have reminded me why I love the band so much. If you were swithering like me, I would advise you just to buy.
FUTURE-gazers claimed 20 years ago that it would be doomed by the arrival of the home video recorder.
And more recently they’ve been claiming that the internet is killing the entertainment industry. So how do they explain the following two paragraphs?
But figures released yesterday reveal that the cinema is set to enjoy a golden 2007 in the UK, with the largest number of visits to film theatres in 40 years.
The wettest summer on record and a slew of blockbuster sequels led to 50.8 million visits to UK cinemas between June and August.
This is despite the fact that people are supposedly killing cinema by downloading pirate films from the internet. This surely suggests that the entertainment industry has got it wrong when it points at the internet for its failings. This summer shows that the film industry should spend less time running scared of the internet, and more time simply giving people what they want.