May 23, 2008

Felicia's Journey

"Memory Lane" is a constant presence in this fine novel by William Trevor. Memory governs both of his characters- Felicia, a young pregnant Irish girl come to England to find her lover, and Mr Hilditch, a catering manager who she finds instead. Felicia of course is possessed by her memories as the story begins- she searches the streets of Birmingham for a face, for a whisper of news about her lover. Mr Hilditch though is also gripped by the memories of other girls in other places who he met and had tea with, counselled and eventually who parted from him. Felicia finds in Mr Hilditch a temporary resource, she does not care for him particularly and does not really think about him, the trajectory of her mind is set by her memories into a particular form and in her story, Mr Hilditch, is nothing more than an aberration on the way to find her Johnny. Whereas for Mr Hilditch she represents another itteration of a story that he retells himself again and again, about the girls he has met and about his time with them, and the times afterwards.

There is no getting away from it, this is a sinister novel, with the shade of Fred West for instance instantly present at every moment. But it is far more interesting than a mere thriller, though those aspects are there as well. It is about the way that we think about each other- and the way that our habits of explanation collide. Felicia unwittingly stimulates Mr Hilditch through her panic: when she runs down to find out how he is doing at finding Johnny in her nightgown, her urgency is interpreted by him as sexuality. There are plenty of other moments in the story where a character's actions are misunderstood- particularly there is the obtuse missionary who meets both Felicia and Hilditch and fails to comprehend either of them, then there is Felicia's family whose instant condemnation fails to appreciate Felicia's guilt and lastly there is Felicia herself who assumes that such condemnation is perpetual and therefore runs away. Most notable and tragic is Mr Hilditch, almost everything he thinks about other characters, almost every way he classifies people is an error and a mistake. It drives him onwards towards an unpleasant ending.

The novel does not offer any satisfying resolution to these issues- what I found interesting was that in the end the resolution is almost an abandonment of hope. Trevor's characters can only find peace by neglecting to remember, by forgetting the ability to write stories but just observing life as seamless and meaningless incident they find a kind of truth. By dying, they live. In a sense that Christian motif runs right through the novel- from the first hints of an Irish mass, to the last calls of an Evangelical old woman- but in a deeper sense this is a novel whose roots are incredibly Christian. What could be more theologically apt than the power of a pregnant woman, carrying a child into a strange country, what could be more theologically accurate than the conception of the anger of conscience, the torture of wronging an innocent destroying the lives of the guilty? Trevor's portrait of individual Christians is very bleak- but his conception of the world rests upon a Christian moral sensibility- and in particular an Irish Catholic sensibility.

If this has one last meaning, it is to do with the position of Ireland and England in their never ending dance (which hopefully is entering a newer and brighter phase). Written in the early 1990s though, this book reflects that world in which the IRA ceasefire was but a myth and the Celtic tiger had only begun to roar. Felicia's lover, Johnny, is feared by her father because of his possible links to the British Army. In a deeper sense his fear of his daughter's violation by this representative of Britain is an emblem of the crossing of the two societies. Felicia's remembered Ireland is the land of conservatism and rural community, Britain in contrast is scary, urban and liberal. In Ireland, a man may easily be beaten up, his face kicked to ribbons and left to die without a word passing, in Britain Mr Hilditch with all his problems fades into the anonymity of modern life. These portraits are not nice- but Trevor balances throughout the novel between the two and between the two narrators- inevitably what he portrays is the journey of Felicia psychologically from Ireland to Britain, a journey which only begins when she arrives in the UK. And lastly a journey which is deeply ironic, for everyone she meets in Britain is attempting to help her not become the person, that she eventually, under their pressure becomes. Felicia is naive: but so are the small c conservatives she meets- for they think that it is possible to be Irish in Britain. As the story proves it isn't.

There are lots of journeys in Felicia's journey, but the essential ones are internal journeys. Styllistically Trevor manages to convey this through a peculiar narrative style- most of the book comes in third person narration, from the position of one of the two main characters' minds. The key though is that the internal journey is the real event described in the title- I hope I haven't given away its ending but suffice it to say that the journey winds and twists and its ending is not what you might expect.

May 20, 2008

Industrial Britain (1931)

Part of the recent 'Land of Promise' collection of 30s and 40s documentaries put out by the BFI and made by Robert Flaherty at the start of the British documentary movement of the 1930s and 1940s, Industrial Britain is a wonder to behold. Flaherty believed in a romantic ideal of work- an ideal that we have almost lost today- that work was the culmination of life. His craftsmen- and in this film every single worker is a craftsman- are the epitomy of what it is to be a real person. In a sense what Flaherty captures is not so much industrial Britain, as pre industrial Britain- in that he seeks to find amidst the industrial the remnants of the craftsman who can be happy with his skill, the man who is more than machine, who is an expert in his own craft. It is no surprise for example that he turns to look at men who make glass and pots as his exemplas of the way that industrial Britain is or rather the way it should be. What he captures though is important and it is a precious insight- his documentary is about the value of work, work should not be about going to an office for a day and coming back in the evening to earn a wage in what is ultimately boring, futile and soul destroying, such as the ancients or the early moderns would have described it is slavery. Provender, as Mark Anthony comments, is fitting reward for a horse but it is an insult to regard any person as a horse! Rather work in Flaherty's conception was noble, it was an endeavour that transcended its dull monotony- one might not know it but the work of a steel mill or a coal mine produced a ship, a speed record, a lighthouse, a railway track or the girder that held up a hotel roof.

Flaherty was a wonderful film maker as well as someone who had an insight into the way that what we might call the industrial aristocracy of England thought about their jobs. What I think he also conveyed was something that England as a country rather lacks today- the responsibility I hasten to add of a series of complicated social changes- which is an esteem for engineering and craftsmanship. What he manages to communicate in this film is why engineering is so wonderful: it is creation at its purest. He has a wonderful sequence in which he films the construction of a glass light for a railway- the workers puffing away- the fine tweezers which manipulate the glass and the fascinated and intent look of the craftsmen at their job. Another example is where he shows a potter moulding the clay- here the eyes of the young man are intent, his hands in sinc with each other as they caress the lines of the clay and move up and down, changing subtly its shape until it becomes something recognisable as a pot. His filming is impecable- it is hard to fault any part of it- the shots are well chosen- in a steel mill for example he captures the urgency with which the men shape the course of the steel into a mould- he focuses always inwards on the expressions of those working, on their faces, intent and concentrated staring at their product.

He does romanticise, this is not the kind of film produced later in the decade which highlighted the suffering of those that worked in industrial Britain. Flaherty's workers are undeniably physically tried, in one remarkable sequence he takes us down into a coal pit where the miners are hewing out the coal with picks. The work is hard, arduous and back breaking: far removed in a sense from the glass work of the craftsmen. But he doesn't dwell on it. Rather for Flaherty the miracle is that despite the modernity of what these industries produce, ultimately it is human agency which determines their production. Coal has to be bludgeoned out of the rock, steel supervised, glass and clay shaped in order to produce what seem to us at the other end as purely mechanical productions. What he stresses is the effort, the sweat and the attention that went into the creation of industry in the modern era- and in his context the pride that also went into it, professional pride in creation. It is a part of the story that we often lose- we forget that the industrial revolutions of this and other countries depended and still depend on people doing difficult and hard jobs, and doing them well. Sometimes the part of the story that we seem to have lost is not so much the awareness of class struggle, as the awareness of the acheivement of craftsmen, engineers and manual workers. That's what Flaherty at the end of the day gets to, it is a call for recognition and a call for people to feel proud of their acheivements- the call for the Industrial Revolution to turn all men into craftsmen- if leaves an idealised picture partly because it seeks to transform the world into an ideal.

Looking back on Flaherty's film from this point in time, we can admire the photography, admire the filming and recognise that what he does is utter a call to recognise those, whose back breaking labour formed our modern world. Alongside the great scientists, great businessmen, great politicians, we shouldn't forget the great miners, great glassworkers, steelworkers and potters- our world was shaped by their hands.

May 19, 2008

The Plague

The Plague is a novel by Albert Camus. What Camus intended to do was to dramatise the problems of the French Resistance, what he intended to do was dramatise the reasons that men decided they would die in the Resistance. Instead of taking the subject on directly, Camus presented the problem of the resistance by analogy. He took the subject of a plague hitting the small Algerian (at that point French) town of Oran. The plague is indescribable. It afflicts all with equal indiscriminate ease and seems to strike at the most random moment. Furthermore because of the plague the town of Oran is isolated, cut off from the rest of France and left alone to suffer. Its townspeople for instance are reduced to watching over and over again the same films, because no new ones arrive and Camus documents their attempts at escape, the riots which threaten to sweep away the armed encircling guard, the psychosis of a citadel in the midst of an epidemic. Perhaps most terrifyingly he dwells on the experience of those whose families have been divided by the iron law of quarentine and lovers whose love is stuck in the world outside. Camus manages to capture in his prose some wonderful ideas about the ways that humans feel: he captures something that I think no novelist has ever quite got for me, which is the feeling after you have left someone you love, of their face fading before your eyes. At another fantastic moment, he captures the way that two men planning an escape attempt, suddenly begin to trust each other as they debate the position of a centre half on the football field.

The novel is almost a documentary at points and demonstrates how a community feels under that kind of awful pressure. But it is also a deep and intense psychological drama focussing on a doctor, Dr Rieux and his friends who form part of a group committed to aiding the plague sufferers in their final death pangs. Rieux and the others become hated, despised because they bring diagnosis and the reality of isolation. They labour without quite knowing why, they labour in order to labour. Camus brings out the way that in the silence of God, God becomes irrelevant to human morality. Rieux and the others are not motivated nor moved by theological speculation but by the need to struggle to do what is decent. What he also gets about morality is that there are no costless decisions, staying in the town of Oran to care for the sick is for Rieux a moral imperative and yet it leaves him with a final personal tragedy. He cannot say, no more than we can, that those who escape to find their loved ones are evil or bad: he can only say, to borrow Michael Frayn's line, that after the fact we see what matters. Each choice, including the most altruistic one, contains the possibility of tragedy and the possibility that it is futile and that the other choice would have been better. But equally for Rieux there are real moral choices- they are just not clear and codified in some divine scripture- but revealed on earth through the dispositions of conscience- to paraphrase Kipling it is when the heart and sinew give up, when everything is against you and the only thing that keeps you on the road is the realisation that an action is right, that you act in a true moral sense. Its a Kantian emotional reaction and Camus gets it.

Perhaps the great moment of this whole book comes when Camus describes the perfect individual, the embodiment for him of what it is to be moral. For him that individual is a man called Grand- a civil servant who has never risen that far- whose life seems from the outside a failure, having lost the love of his life, Jean, for being unable to speak to her. Grand spends his whole life fining and refining a sentence to start a novel about a woman that rides down a street filled with flowers. He does not serve on the frontline but rather organises the relief of the plague and he is weak, almost collapsing with the strain and yet he is the hero. For he represents the fact that ordinary people can do extraordinary things. During the whole novel we see the traditional repositaries of moral instruction- priests, magistrates- fail: often as they see their role as being to rebuke and instruct others rather than serve their communities. The priest for example as the plague begins delivers a terrifying sermon to the townspeople about it being their fault that the plague has come down upon them: how that does anything to save people from death or how it manages to do anything save for make the priest feel better in his moral superiority. Religion gets a bad press in this novel, partly because it encourages people to resign from their moral commitments in this life to attain a future one- it produces a false ascetism.

But the novel really is not about condemning any sequence of ideas, as much as in providing an explanation for the ways that humans come to behave morally. What Camus shows is the way that the drive of conscience works: it operates as a kind of neccessity- a blind neccessity forcing people to do things that they are scarcely conscious of. Interestingly it has little to do with religion or other justifications for morality- interestingly it also makes little discrimination. One of Camus's characters is Cottard, who likes the plague because it saves him from possible arrest, Cottard though is not condemned by the book as much as he is examined. And here emerges something that I savour about Camus- the book compares Naziism to a plague, and explicitly at one point links the plague to human immorality- to capital punishment but at no point does it seek the easy condemnation. It is a moral work, infused with morality, but condemns sin without looking at the sinner. And it condemns sin for the right reasons- not because of an offence to any tabboo- but because of the ways that sin hurts and destroys human lives. Camus is a humanist in the real sense of that word- someone who places their ultimate value on the relief of human suffering.

This is a great book, and I have scarcely probed its surface- but there is something magical here in his perception of morality that gets to the bottom of a thought that I find half articulated in protestant theologians of the 17th century and German philosophers of the 19th, that morality is an inward commitment, a sense, a conscience and that understanding that impulse of duty is the first step towards understanding what it is to be moral.

May 18, 2008

Station Agent

I really like steak sandwiches, with onions, and accompanied by a nice bowl of chips, well cut potatoe chips. Strange way to begin a movie review perhaps, but its information that immediatly occured to me after watching Station Agent, not merely because there is a scene in which the three main character sit and eat steaks, just cooked, and rice and tomatoes fried with onions and garlic. Its a scene that made me feel incredibly hungry and that pang hasn't really left me yet, despite the fact that I ate dinner several hours ago and am not undernourished at all! The sight of frying steaks makes my mouth savour.

What has this to do with Station Agent, well nothing really- its a self indulgent complaint! But on the other hand, it has everything to do with a movie that at its best is about the simple pleasures of life. Station Agent is about a train spotting dwarf- the worst bit about this film is its synopsis which makes it sound like Garden State but without the subtlety. Station Agent is about the way that this dwarf, bequeathed a station hut out in New Jersey decides to go out there and live in solitude. Unfortunately for him, outside his door, is a Cuban-American coffee maker called Joe whose response to rejection is just to try and try and try again- conversation becomes inevitable. It becomes even more so when Fin, the dwarf, is run off the road twice by the same woman, called Olivia, a neurotic artist trying to cope with the loss of her son, Sam. It sounds trite and a film about personal renewal- but it isn't really, its a film in which nothing much happens- redeemed by the fact that noone has an epithany until towards the end, the director makes the mistaken decision to install some drama- but even that fits into the mellow movement of the overall film.

It wouldn't work so well unless it had good actors- and Peter Dinklage does a great job here. The character he sketches out is fascinating. Fin is a character who despite his professed normality is a all interior and no exterior. He finds it hard to cope with the rejection of ordinary people who laugh whenever they see him, 4 foot and five inches tall, he gets laughed at wherever he goes or abused. The truth is that the end of the film shows him still laughed at. But he has his fascination with trains- he walks along the railway lines because he can't drive and also because he is just interested. He spends hours reading about trains and watching them- its a great moment when he finally gets to chase a train in a car. Interests make the man interesting. There are some other fine performances- the two secondary leads do well- and Michelle Williams confirms, that despite lacking the fame of her Dawson's Creek costar Katie Holmes, she is by far the best thing to have come out of the irritating teen drama of the 90s.

This isn't a major piece of work- it reminds me a little of Karismaki but without the darkness that you get in a Karismaki piece- rather its a meandering meditation. There are some little points here- if you want happiness, you have to go out and get it rather than sitting at home waiting for it to turn up on your doorstep etc. But they aren't really the point- the point is that here is a man, not a dwarf, here are a set of characters and over the time you spend with them, you get to know them a bit and get to work out why they are friends. This is a film that is best when it isn't a normal film, without a story it functions better than with a story. It is an observation as much as a narrative: and as an observation, it is charming and very funny. The humour is very subtle but Dinklage in particular just has to raise an eyebrow to make you notice the absurdity of his situation as he gets run off the road for the second time or irritated for the umpteenth time. This is a good film- but it is definitely an acquired taste- if you like casual, funny and gentle looks at life, I'd give it a shot- if you want plot and drama then move on somewhere else.

The Love Song of J.Alfred Prufrock