April 19, 2008

The Orphanage

The Orphanage is not an easy film to review- it depends to a large degree on elements of surprise so I'm going to strive not to give away anything in this review which will make it less satisfying. The Orphanage is really really good- its scary and plays with your mind in an interesting way, you never quite know where the story is going- there was one moment in the cinema I was in, where several voices, male and female, shouted out in amazement, surprise and horror. I can't tell you when that was but there are a couple of moments, where everyone I was with screamed or ground their fists. It is really interesting as a film as well- exploring all kinds of things, notions of family life, of the way that kids and parents interract and men and women get along or don't. Essays will be written about what the film means- who knows I might write one myself, but they might give away the ending and I don't want to do that here.

What's the story anyway? Basically our heroine, Laura, pictured above, turns up at an old house with her husband Carlos and her son Simon. Carlos and Laura want to convert the house into a refuge for kids with special needs- seems like down syndrome and the like. The house previously was an orphanage where Laura stayed as a kid before she was taken away and she recalls being very happy there, playing games with the five or six other children she was with at the time (they seem to have been the only occupants) and enjoying life. As you'll expect there is more to this orphanage than that, and more secrets to its past that Laura has repressed and that others are concealing: it all comes back ultimately to questions about disability in this case and how society deals with it- but again I run before my horse to market.

The performances are very good- Belen Rueda as Laura does brilliantly- she conveys excellently the way that a woman can lose control but also her determination in pursuit of her son's good. Fernando Cayo has a thankless task playing the husband but acquits himself very well- he is both reasonable and sensible and irritating. Roger Princep playing Simon, the son, is really cute and he fits into the template of the movie- he isn't required to do anything particularly complicated but he manages to be childlike, cute and angry at the right times. The rest of the cast also does well- there are some wonderfully haunting moments and some terrifying moments which the actors concerned portray well. The centre of the film though is Belen Rueda's performance, without it the film wouldn't work- but she does brilliantly and the film does indeed work.

I have tried not to tell you anything about this movie- beyond the details you'd know from the credits. But it is definitely worth seeing and that's why I have done what I have done. Its a fantastic film, interesting on so many different levels and one that you'll be terrified by at the time but think about for days afterwards. Go out and see the film...

April 17, 2008

Hobbes's education

Reading Quentin Skinner's Ford lectures, as I am at the moment, its interesting to reflect on the education of Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes was one of the great philosophers of his or any other age- he was an innovative thinker, reviled in his own time but incredibly influential on a whole range of philosophers, both contemporaries like Spinoza and later individuals like Vico and Rousseau. Hobbes's education was typical of his era and his time- as a predigiously intelligent individual he went through a traditional education, through Oxford University and became eventually secretary to the Duke of Devonshire: as secretary to the Duke, Hobbes was able to take advantage of the library at Chatsworth and furthermore to exploit the contacts that Devonshire could give him, with intellectuals working for other English noblemen (though Skinner does not mention it, other noblemen had intellectuals working for them in similar capacities: Henry Parker for example worked for Lord Saye and Sele, Henry Ireton (a future commander in the New Model Army) worked in some capacity for Lord Wharton). Others had similar commitments- John Rushworth worked for the Fairfaxes for example and continued working for them through the civil war.

That environment brought a young intellectual like Hobbes right into the centre intellectually of the seventeenth century. Through accompanying the Duke's son through Europe, he met Mersenne, Descartes and others. Hobbes's background was incredibly conventional and strains of it were retained when he came to look at his future work: the style of his work was humanist even though its content was not. The style of his work was influenced by the fact that he Hobbes was a Latinist, who had consumed vast ammounts of classical literature. Despite saying that his time in Oxford was wasted (something he shares with that other great English intellect of the early modern period, Edward Gibbon), he learnt a great deal there- gaining a background both in classical history and in classical philosophy. He probably wasn't involved in texts which were definitely produced at Chatsworth, including a translation of Tacitus in the mid-1620s, but it was translation that took his fancy early on. We have his magisterial translation of Thucydides's History of the Peloponesian Wars: Thucydides had in analysing the break up of the democracy in Athens and the society of Corcyra (modern Corfu) provided the great classical accounts of social instability- which were to influence Hobbes's later famous account.

But even more than that, such studies influenced what Hobbes's works looked like. The Humanist scholars of the17th Century loved to illustrate their work with pictures which denoted their ideas. Hobbes translated humanist texts from 1627 onwards and despite disagreeing with them, he adopted the conventions of humanist presentation in this form at least. Take a look at the frontispeice of Leviathan (1651) shown above- it represents the central idea- that the state is a corporate personality made up of many men in a simple illustrative version. Hobbes in that sense was as in many others typical of his times, his atypicality was a production, a swerve out of what most people were doing but he used the ladder of a humanistic education, in order to demolish humanism as an idea later in life. I'll pass to his ideas and Skinner's lectures on them soon- but I think it is interesting that the relationship between this incredibly influential individual and his times was not that he sprung original from the womb, but that he was a typical educated man of the 17th Century, who had some new and revolutionary ideas.

April 15, 2008

They drive by night (1940)

They drive by night was made in 1940. It wasn't one of the greatest films ever- but it is a very interesting document of American history or rather of the American depression. Rather than understanding the story, lets understand the situation. George Raft and Humphrey Bogart play the Fabrini brothers- self employed truckers who mainly take fruit up and down the highways of the United States. A film about truckers is a film about those on the borders of society- this isn't about the New Dealbut its interesting in exposing some of the attitudes of 1930s America. The life of the open road is viewed with a kind of nostalgia and also a desire which is fascinating. Raft and Bogart play two brothers but in reality one is a young man, an overgrown adolescent, whereas the other is beggining on family life and the responsibilities that that entails. One is a boy who tempts older women, the other is a husband whose wife desires kids. Of course they are sometimes opposed in those interests: but its also worth remembering that they have an identity too- they are both truckers.

One of the interesting things about them being truckers is that this film in a sense begins an American genre or continues it. The genre is that of the adolescent road movie: more realistic than its modern inheritors, the film still has an aspect of adolescence, it is about the development of two characters through journey. But its about more than that, these two believe in journeying as a hopeful activity, they need no qualities, education or creased trousers- all they need is hope and a truck to take them to their dreams. Of course that's not quite it and constantly both of them are brought up against the limits of their dreams. Destruction and near death dog the drivers at their heels- one of them loses his arm and they both witness the death of one of their friends plunging in his sleep over the curb as he chases yet another load. Hope though provides the fuel with which one of the twins, the adolescent, played by Raft, Joe acquires a business empire which his brother later joins. However again you have the contrast between the younger man who acheives something and the 'elder' brother who retreats to the home and the solidity of family relationships. The dangers to Joe are represented by the presence of a femme fatale who attempts to distract him from the woman he should be marrying and by her wiles to take revenge when he slights her. Joe sits in a more exposed position, but can succeed more because of his innate hopeful stupidity whereas Paul is more realistic and consequently less likely to taste both triumph and disaster.

Women come into this therefore in an interesting way- and in a sense represent the classic masculine tropes. You have the woman as inspiration- driving her man to success. You have the woman as incubus, trying to destroy the man she loves. And lastly of course you have the wife who keeps her husband down through children and the patterns of homely life. All these stereotypes are present in the film- and they are all twisted through the prism of the film to become signifiers of the stages of life of a man- from adolescence to comfortable and boring middle age. Its a film whose female characters are strong but definitely off centre- something I find objectionable is that women here are objects- parts of a thesis that is only about men and only important as they contribute to male lives. Adolescence marks out Joe to be battled over by sweetheart and femme fatale stereotypes and adulthood sees Paul moored to his wife.

That main theme runs like a chord through the entire piece and in that sense it maps out the American life- in the thirties and of course in the military forties. What is interesting though here is that unlike in a film from the fifties the married middle aged man, the bureaucrat, is not held in the same universal respect. You could argue that Joe is a more successful character: you could argue he is the centre of the film. And in that sense the switch between the forties and fifties was a switch in sympathy. The film noir of the forties was a much more critical creature- it sought to expose those who aspired. Even this film, such an establishment effort in terms of its attitudes to women, argues in effect that virtu matters more than perspiration in the creation of a business. In that sense it remains a fascinating document of its time- for it argues both that success is in some sense the result of real merit but that merit is not the same as bourgeois virtue. It is a bridge between a film like the Sweet Smell of Success, where all is corrupt, and the world of the Waltons and as such exposes a lot about attitudes to marriage, employment and the world in the America of the early 1940s.

April 13, 2008

Away from her

Films about the process of aging, about death itself touch us all very closely. Away from her is a film about the most terrifying proces of them all- the slow loss of the mind that accompanies Alzheimers and the slow loss of relationships. The thing about us all is that we have to as one character says you just have to be happy, to accept what comes your way, because life is uncontrollable- and nothing is stable, nothing lasts forever and nothing endures. We live a life which is unstable and forever changing, forever evolving. Our passions, our loves and hates are all mutable and change slowly with time, they alter and they cannot be forced into a single prism, they cannot be stablised. Learning to live is learning to cope with change- change that can be dramatic and terrible but still needs to be survived- still needs to be enjoyed- to use that great theatre phrase the show must go on.

Away from her is a film that really symbolises that process. For forty four years Fiona and Grant have been married- she is now sixty two and begins to feel the affects of alzheimers disease, her brain is breaking down. Over the course of this slow film, exactly what you know will happen happens. Slowly she loses connection with the outside world, she puts the frying pan in the fridge, she forgets where she lives, she forgets who her husband is, she falls in love with a fellow patient, she slowly loses her sense of reality. A fog descends upon her mind. A blankness replaces the ever present life that once was there, curiosity becomes a conviction that the world outside the four walls of the home doesn't matter. For her husband that process is unbelievably painful: she even forgets that he brought the gifts, he brought for her, she thinks they were left around in the home. She even forgets the man who she was in love with in the home. In a symbolic moment, a girl who used to communicate with her family through her mother, the only person who could understand sign language, is forgotten by her mother- her mother is angry at the interference from this stranger signalling to her in her life, her daughter is distraught.

But he lives with the knowledge that everything has died, and he has to live with that knowledge and care for his wife at the same time. Caring for her, going in every day to the home, he doesn't drive away, he stays, he stays and watches and waits for any sign that she might recover. He waits and is dependable when all else seems lost. But he too evolves. You cannot live as a perpetual nurse, he has to learn how to cope, he has to learn how to enjoy life. He has to go to a dance for example with the wife of the man who his wife is in love with. He has to decide to be happy. He has to wake his soul- to learn how to enjoy the precious moments that are left- to enjoy the few moments of lucidity that his wife has. Its a terrifying glimpse into what the human soul has to do: we all face in a way the same dilemma, life is not so much about avoiding tragedy, its about living with tragedy and living with hope. When Pandora's box opened, that was the Gods' last gift to human kind and as Away from her demonstrates even when the person you most love is going mad, that hope can still be a precious commodity. Hope and endurance.

Carrying off a film like this is hard. It softens some of the worst aspects of Alzheimers- many sufferers berate those who come to see them. The worst thing is to see someone who knows that they are losing their mind, losing it and knowing that that is happening. Knowing that they will wake up tommorrow and cease to be Fred, Stan or Dorothy. Imagine if you can't remember the word for chair, that's not a nice feeling. It does illustrate however the way that homes for the old and sick are often surreal worlds: looking at the dining hall in this film brought back memories for me of seeing my grandmother inside such a place. That same slightly stuffy atmosphere with eighty year olds watching TV and not really understanding it. The performances here are all very good- the two leads, Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent do fantastically well at conveying the process that they are involved with. Also worthy of comment is Kristen Thomas who plays the main nurse in the film, she portrays the mixture of sensitivity and toughness that I came across whenever I met the nurses in the homes. Very kind, very sensible and yet also very strong people who are amazingly gentle to their patients and yet strong enough to bear with the quite incredible strain of looking after people who are so ill.

This is a very good film and very much worth watching, it is very sad of course, and it neglects some of the nastier aspects of the condition but it still captures the essential sadness of it. That slipping out of your mind is a tragedy for you, and also for those left behind. They see every day a body out of which the person that they knew is going, the body is still alive, it moves, speaks, but a different personality inhabits it- a personality which lacks the memories, reference points and often emotions that it had before. Those left behind have to cope with that, those going through it have to cope with the slow death of their own personality and its replacement by something else. What could be worse afterall than knowing that you are losing your mind?