April 05, 2008

The inversion of Oscar: the neccessity of employment

Bruno Anthony is one of the most compelling evil geniuses in cinema. He is compelling because he is charming. He begins the film, Strangers on a Train, by attaching himself to Guy Haines, an amazing tennis player, and proposes a scenario

now lets say that you'd like to get rid of your wife... oh no no just suppose, lets say you had a very good reason, no no lets say, you'd be afraid to kill her, you know why, you'd get caught, and what would trip you up, the motive! ah now here's my idea... listen its so simple too, two fellows meet accidentally like you and me, no connection between them at all, never saw each other before, each one has somebody that he'd like to get rid of, so they swap murders...each fellow does the other fellow's murder, then there's nothing to connect them, each one has murdered a total stranger like you do my murder I do yours,... for example your wife, my father, criss cross.

That sets off a plot which twists and turns. Haines never wants to get involved- and Bruno spends the film trying to force him to murder Bruno's father and then attempts to incriminate him in the murder of his own wife (a crime that Bruno committed). It is a plot worthy of the finest artists of suspence and in Patricia Highsmith the novelist and Alfred Hitchcock the director it found those artists. Raymond Chandler was also involved but withdrew as a screenwriter. But the key here is in Hitchcock's version the character Bruno. Bruno is the charismatic centre of the film: he is charming and sinister, an artist- but this is also one of Hitchcock's most sexual films, filled with homoerotic tension between Bruno and Guy, phallic imagery- popping balloons with cigarrettes for example- and a conspiracy to murder which is in part a seduction.

One aspect of this deserves commentary- and that is the way that Bruno is a comment on Oscar Wilde's characters in his plays about Victorian London and hence a comment on European civilisation as a whole. Wilde's characters in his novels are typically idle aristocrats: they need no incomes and no occupations. They live lives without profession or usefulness: they are noble exceedingly witty and they are sexually ambiguous. These characters live in masks and disguises which hide their neverending expeditions to bunbury, to devise more time to waste time in London or to unfold their sophisticated plans. Wilde's plays often end with the good triumphant and married (eg the Importance of Being Earnest, Lady Windermere's Fan) and conventional endings but their structures, their comedy is subversive. Hitchcock evidently knew Wilde well: his later films are indebted for instance for scenes and ideas to films of Wilde's novels and Hitchcock to some extent lived out a Wildean fantasy of life. But Strangers on a Train is a very Wildean film and its main character Bruno is deeply Wildean: a painting in Strangers just like in Dorian Gray reflects the true personality of a respectable man, Bruno even quotes one of the most famous lines from the Importance of being Earnest and there are many other examples of direct quotation. In the play Lady Bracknell commends Jack for smoking as 'a man should always have an occupation': are we surprised to find that in the first meeting between Guy and Bruno, Bruno tells Guy that he doesn't do anything- apart from smoking which he does too much of.

That cinematic quote of a theatrical line and Bruno's overall manner, his charm and disguises, not to mention the whiff of homoeroticism (indeed bisexuality- he manages to seduce Guy's wife into being murdered) is very Wildean. It reminds one instantly of Wilde's characters. Hitchcock though was no mere ingenue, quoting simply in order to quote. He knew what he was doing- and in the character of Bruno, indeed in the set up of Strangers on a Train, he was deliberately trying to do something. Hitchcock's intentions are not easy to elucidate: the film is dark and powerful. It ends with the best of endings: heterosexual unity in the face of bisexual criminality- but noone watches this film for Ruth Roman's performance as Guy's love interest. (Ruth Roman's pubescent sister is another woman semi-seduced by Bruno and their abortive romance is more interesting than the real romance between the sister and Guy- she is another with some amazing lines, 'Daddy doesn't mind any scandal, he is a senator'.) Everyone watches the movie for Bruno's act as a Wildean genius, a dark malevolent and yet charming and seductive presence on screen.

Let us for a second go back to Wilde. In Wilde's plays, the aristocratic dilletantes are the majority of the cast- in this play Bruno is alone as the sole member of the cast with Wildean characteristics. Whereas Wilde lauds leisure in the classical manner- as a Latin poet might laud otium, Hitchcock uses Bruno to express the value of a puritanical ethic. This isn't really about sexuality- there is no doubt that other members of the cast exhibit homoerotic characteristics- but it is about manner, it is about a judgement about psychology. Hitchcock's purpose here is in my view to reject the whole concept of leisure- instead of supporting character and enabling contemplation, Hitchcock tries to show that it fosters a spiralling of character out of control. Bruno is more clearsighted than most of the other characters: he has afterall experienced everything once. But his experience, his intelligence are redundent and he knows that he is a drone, he knows that he has been forced out of three colleges and that his position in society is not assured. In contrast to Wilde's assured aristocrats, Bruno's aristocrat has to realise that the twentieth century has changed the way that position works: employment now defines your status not your birth or even your cultivation. In a previous society, Guy the proletarian trier with a solid sporting and political career would be the outcast, in 20th Century America it is Bruno.

His reaction to that is interesting. Again for Wilde frivolous sparring reduces easily to conventional or even unconventional morality. In Hitchcock's darker view leisure creates the atmosphere which perpetuates triviality: and thence arrives at an even darker possibility as genius spirals into insanity and psychosis. Bruno is more charismatic than the rest of the characters, but he is not made happier, securer or stabler by this knowledge. Rather Hitchcock's movie is a sceptical statement about the possibilities of decadence, it is a statement about the psychological possibilities that lead on from leisure, that contrary to the Romans the devil makes work for idle hands. This insight is in part basically right- and Hitchcock far more than Wilde confronts the reality of leisure and aristocratic leisure at that- it gives the time for brooding, a brooding which can create genius but as in the case of Bruno also can create psychosis. The contrast to Wilde enables us to observe the way that Hitchcock makes a historical as well as a psychological case: the time of the aristocrats is over and in the new society of 1950s America leisure is, whether it was a sensible proffession in the days of Wilde's aristocrats when society was more leisured, corrupting.

Simply put, if your only profession is smoking, the consequences are likely to be devastating in our society.

H.H Asquith and Gordon Brown

Martin Kettle argues in today's Guardian that Gordon Brown risks facing the fate of Herbert Henry Asquith in the early twentieth century. I think that Kettle seriously underestimates Asquith and overestimates Brown's possible position in the UK's political history. In order to understand things I think we need to briefly understand where Asquith stands and why he is one of the crucial British Prime Ministers of the Twentieth Century- and then understand where Brown stands, at the moment, in British political history and what dangers threaten the Premiership at the moment.

Asquith was Prime Minister for eight years. He took over two years after a general election, when Henry Campbell Bannerman retired from the Premiership and he stayed there through a second and third election (both in 1910). He was a great reforming Prime Minister- bringing in a great deal of reform over the years. Asquith brought in free medical treatment for children, free school meals, pensions, sick pay, health insurance for the poorest workers and unemployment insurance. Asquith presided over a ministry of great talents: Lyold George at the Treasury, Winston Churchill at the Home Office, Board of Trade and later Admiralty. Asquith ultimately was also significant because it was he as Prime Minister who presided over the UK's entry into the First World War. That led to his fall as Prime Minister in 1916, but as long as he was a peacetime Prime Minister he survived and did rather well.

Gordon Brown shares neither Asquith's circumstances nor his longevity (yet). Brown became Prime Minister over what looks like a tired government with many ministers having been in charge for ten years- people like Jack Straw are old figures on the political stage. The cabinet is in no way as attractive as the cabinet of 1908. Brown has not brought forward any marked reforms: he has not yet brought forward ideas which will really change Britain, rather this is a continuation of Blair's regime at Downing Street. That is the sense that Brown is really so much different from Asquith: he is a continuation of a previously charismatic Prime Minister, Asquith was the charismatic Prime Minister. The other difference is in their mentality: Brown is by all accounts an obsessive, Asquith was relaxed to the point of insouciance.

Kettle's article suggests to me one of the major perils of making historical analogies. It is attractive to think that Brown is underestimated as Prime Minister and to look for other underestimated Prime Ministers. You could possibly argue that Labour faces a threat to its position as one of the two great parties of state from the Liberals (more on that later, I do not beleive it) and look to the last time one of the two major parties was replaced by another party (the Liberals by Labour in the 1920s just after Asquith had been the last Liberal Prime Minister). But that brings you to an illusory parallel. Asquith's situation and Brown's were and are so fundementally different: their tempraments are almost opposite, they took the Premiership in different circumstances as well, Asquith's career was a casualty of the First World War, Brown's might be of the pressures of the Premiership itself and there are further distinctions about the degrees of reform that Asquith and Brown have made to Britain. In truth its a bad analogy because it doesn't instruct us as to Brown's possible future and Labour's possible trajectory.

April 03, 2008

Intelligent design and terrorists

I just recently posted two articles at the Liberal Conspiracy: one is on the difference between Brits and Americans in their beliefs about evolution and what that shows, and the other is about why we ought to talk to terrorists.

Jesus Camp

Jesus Camp is a documentary about one of the most perplexing phenomenon in the world today- American charismatic evangelical Christianity. I think I have to preface this review with two comments: firstly I am not a believer and secondly if I were, charismatic religion revolts me on an aesthetical level. For me religion is quieter and more reflective, at its best it is deeply personal and internal- an examination of the soul- I come you might say out of a different tradition, in the sense that going back generations everyone in my family was either a Methodist or an Anglican. So in that sense, this film represents a strain of Christianity that I am naturally unsympathetic to: speaking in tongues and enthusiasm generally denote for me a rock concert, not a religious profession.

Jesus Camp was made to shock. The documentary makers are definitely not evangelical nor are they conservative: though their subject is both evangelical and conservative. They show their subjects- in particular Becky Fischer the children's pastor at the centre of the film- in a particularly bad light. Fisher uses the swell of group emotion to put forward both a religious and a political cause. She also teaches these kids to isolate themselves from other kids: the stress is on everyone else's sinfulness. Furthermore she and those affiliated with her ministry teaches them ideas which are just bizarre, that evolution did not happen, that Global Warming is a government conspiracy. What you have to say watching the film though is that she is an impressive propagandist in her own cause, she uses toys, keeps the kid's attention and is charismatic and fun to listen to. Her message is obnoxious and repellant- this is a call to extoll faith and neglect evidence based reasoning. She admits at the start of the program that she admires Islamic Fundamentalists and how in camps in Palestine they educate their kids (she derives this information from that incredibly accurate source- unidentified websites) to commit terrorist acts, she argues that she wants to do the same thing for young Pentecostal and Evangelical kids.

This woman is mad and dangerous. There is an issue though with her madness which I think the film should take more seriously. I am absolutely sure that lots of kids attend her camp in the summer but the film made me uneasy because it failed to take on two rather important questions. The first of which is that Becky Fischer may not be representative of most evangelical children's ministers: at various points she says that in her techniques she is an advance of them. I wouldn't mind betting that she comes from the more extreme fringe of this phenomenon. The second thing is that we should beware that we assume how the kids react to her: at one point one of the camp workers says that the kids are far too interested in having fun and far too uninterested in Christianity: they prefer climbing stuff to theology. In that sense I wondered how long this stuff will remain in the children's minds: you may be overcome in a crowd shouting that homosexuality is evil, you may be overcome in the crowd dismissing others, but does that endure or is that just a surface phenomenon. We get interviews with Kids demonstrating that some do internalise it, but I'm not sure we get any proof that all of them do.

There is another facet to this. This kind of ministry only works because in a sense there are kids who need it. One of the most interesting facets of this film I thought was less the condemnation of evangelical right wing crazies- I can do that for myself, thankyou- than the way that it portrayed the kids. At the beggining of the film Becky Fischer approaches two boys, who must be both about 10 and one of them confesses that he doesn't find social situations easy. For that boy religion gives his life meaning and means that he can confront to some extent his fear of social situations in Christian camp. Christian camp is something that these kids look forward to as a bonding experience. The thing that is central to them I'd suggest is that the Camp is fun, the beliefs flow out of the fun that they are having. In that sense, they aren't convinced by reason or by faith but by tieing together fun with this belief system. Its an interesting sidelight on why humans end up believing what they do, I don't think it is only relevant here and another post hopefully in the future will deal with it. But the central thing that I am trying to get at is that Jesus Camp is not a good thing, but that it supplies for these children things they would not naturally have.

All that said, and I hope you see why I am ambivalent about this film, the one thing you don't find at Jesus Camp is Christianity. Bear in mind all my aesthetical conditions above, but I found the purveyors of Jesus Camp to deeply unChristian. They do not know what Christ meant when he said do not cast the first stone, they seem not to have read the New Testament and to be using Christianity as a justification for expressing their own hatreds. More than the kids, it is the adults who run the camp who seem to me to end up looking ill, Fischer and her minions have such a warped view of reality, they are so consumed by hate, that they have lost their humanity. All kindness is directed to an end, all forgiveness is secretly abandoned and self righteousness is endorsed. I am not sure that that was the message of the New Testament. There is something very disquieting about hundreds of kids yelling 'righteous judges' without really knowing what it means and wanting to listen to anyone who disagrees. Something sinister about kids wandering around a bowling ring telling customers that they are going to hell.

Many of our belief systems in the end are psychological crutches- we rely on them to sustain us during the bad times and there is nothing neccessarily wrong with that. I think what we see with Jesus Camp is interesting: of course the theology and politics is crap, a point the film makers blast into your mind again and again and again. But in some way the more interesting thing is that the kids seem to enjoy it, for some of them it fills a gap in their lives. In part that is because say the boy who said he was isolated is home schooled- he doesn't meet many other kids- so in part it arises from this unique conservative Christian culture in the States, but it also arises out of real needs the kids have. I am not saying that I endorse anything that goes on at Jesus Camp, but in a way that's not the interesting question. The interesting question is about why these kids enjoy it so much, adult attention, the sense of being part of a 'greatest generation' and the comradeship of their fellow Christian kids I'd suggest have a lot to do with it. The basis of a religion, you have to be joking! But the film presents us, despite the intentions of its makers, with an interesting sociological portrait of how these camps perform a role in the life of the kids that go to them. And that is far more interesting than bashing Bush another time.

April 02, 2008

Paul Schofield

When Paul Schofield died I wrote this on Bits of News. I think at the time I should have posted it here- but I didn't and so I post it today, concurring even more than I did when I wrote it with my judgement on March 20th- as such I feel it should go on this blog.

Paul Schofield was one of the great actors of his generation. He did the great roles- Lear, Hamlet- and succeeded in being according to others the best Lear of his generation. He also took an oscar for playing Thomas More in a Man for all seasons. I came across him towards the end of his career, but even so you could see that this was a formidable actor. Its three performances of his- neither of which much remembered in today's obituaries that I particularly remember him for. That in a sense seared his impression upon my brain as a film viewer and as a consumer of poetry.

Schofield in 1989 was persuaded by Kenneth Branagh to take part in Branagh's Henry V as the King of France. Normally the French King is a pathetic man with little time on stage, but Schofield's presence imbued a small part with great weight and majesty. When he was on the stage, even playing a doddery old failing King, he gave that part a sense of Priam-like forsight. This was a man you could see who could not hold back the tide but could forsee the way that it was turning. He used Shakespeare's lines which create the personality of the King of France, to flesh out a role that was both feeble and wise. A role which in a sense performed the perfect counterpart to Branagh's Henry. Henry is of course the good King, vibrant and vital- Schofield's King was the good king grown old surrounded by foolish councillors and an even more foolish son. In a sense his presence in the play made it unneccessary for the earlier history plays about Henry IV to be performed- for Schofield's role demonstrated that the other side of Kingship was there, the side of kingship that worries and frets, that is powerless under the threat of fate. He performed that role so well that I can't think of the film without him in it- even though he was on stage during none of the major set pieces and probably only for a few minutes.

Secondly I came across him in Quiz Show where again he played a father to a brilliant son- but this time the brilliance of the son was flawed. The son, played by Ralph Fiennes, was corrupted by the lure of money. Schofield's role as the father was brilliant. He was able to make the father's slightly intellectually snobbish academic knowledge charming and forgivable. He was able to demonstrate how beneath the crust of sophistication there were very strong principles that this man believed in and wished to follow. Again Schofield's performance did not take away from the main drama of the film, rather his performance strengthened many of the other aspects of the film. He was the dressing that made the salad work, but he didn't obscure its other components.

My last memory of Schofield, and again it'll be one that lots share, is as a reader. He read in the early 2000s as he reached his eightieth birthday, the Waste Land on BBC Radio. He captured the full range of its voices, appreciated its nuances and the rhythm with which Elliot managed to infuse the closing calls at a pub or the crowds over London Bridge. Its one of the most frequently listened tracks on my Ipod and it demonstrates the ability of the man's voice to permeate the poem, to give a difficult text meaning and also its versatility, coping with all the different voices of Elliot's imagination.

I cannot claim that I knew Paul Schofield, nor that I saw his best work which people say was on stage. I was too young to observe him in his prime as an actor, too unobservant to realise as a teenager that I should have made an effort to see him and others of his generation before they passed. Yet I think from these three moments- captured on film and on radio- even I could sense today was a moment of sadness. We have lost a superb actor who lightened up the stage and was able to really reach into and think about great parts. For me, neither of the three experiences I wrote about above could have been the same without Schofield's sure grasp of what he had to do and his talent for doing exactly that- bringing out of his character something to make the films and poem work even better. Working with the grain, not against the other members of the cast, but with them and not overacting them off the stage with his performance.


I just thought I'd apologise for the radio silence on the blog- normal service will resume shortly- by saying that the reason is that I have just handed in my PhD thesis!