June 07, 2008

A glory of Miles Davis

Radio 3 is one of the great institutions of England- this evening I was listening to a great program on Miles Davis. They were discussing Davis's Carnegie Hall concerts in 1962. One anecdote though interested me in a more than musical sense- amongst my many failings is that I do not understand music as much as I should- and that was that it was often incredibly difficult to get Davis to record anything. The point was not that Davis abjured publicity- if your profession is playing instruments in front of people, you can't be shy! But that his concentration was on the music and not on the crowd around him, or notionally around him at their gramophones and in their houses.

Its an interesting thing- and I suppose constitutes a really important question that we often lose sight of. There are a hierarchy of pleasures. Davis felt them in the right way- music first and then publicity. Others today seem to feel them in another way round- with publicity and fame overtaking the pleasure of making music- the far end from Davis is populated by someone like Paris Hilton whose interest in music is purely notional. The question that we have to think about is whether its worth assigning a value to what someone feels as the keener pleasure: is a civil servant's joy in his job as praiseworthy if he enjoys analytical argument, working for the public or the money and security. Its probable that he will enjoy all three- but the hierarchy that he sets between them tells you a lot about his priorities in life.

And that really is the point here- the reason why we can condemn Hilton and exalt Davis is not merely their respective musical skills but also their sense of what is important in life. Fame is ultimately something that whilst attractive is meaningless and fuels competition and a desire for further acquisition. It is in that sense very similar to money- it is a good which is emulative- I know I am famous if I am more known than x, I know I am rich if I am richer than my friends (the great example of that principle recently was Alex on the apprentice who said he was successful because he was more successful than those he knew!) The point is that emulation is a natural and productive desire- but it is hard to think of it as a morally good desire. Contrast that to a passion for something- when I am passionate about something I seek out those who are also passionate and, though partly I wish to be known as 'the' expert, partly also I want to have someone to share my love. As love is a good, and it drives the passion- for history, cars, wine, football, dresses or jazz- and makes the passion an instrument to the creation of friendship so is the pursuit of the passion a good. That is why ultimately the musician who cares more for the music or as much for the music as s/he cares for the fame, is preferable to the musician who cares more for the fame than for the tunes.

June 05, 2008

The Challenge of filming the past

Filming history is something that directors increasingly do- it is something that they increasingly do badly. There are two equally bad mistakes to make when placing a person into the past: you can either put the person into the past as though they were an artefact of the 20th Century- the kind of creation of Jane Austen heroines as though they were Carrie Bradshaw is something that I perpetually have contempt for. But there is an equal mistake to make- which is to imagine the past so differently as to begin to condescend to those that lived in it. Great directors, as well as lesser ones, are guilty of this kind of thing- for instance its worth taking an instance of this attitude and working out why a director made the decisions he made, and also why the choices he made created an imperfection in a very great film. The instance that I want to discuss here is Ingmar Bergman's film The Magician and Bibi Andersson's character Sara, pictured above.

The Magician is set in 1846, it is about the visit of a Magician to the house of a leading townsman's house and it explores the role of magic and fantasy, art and science, God and death in a kind of philosophical horror film. The Magician himself is surrounded by cynics- upper class scientists and lower class sceptics- who challenge and confront him. But Bergman also wanted to create another group of people those who believed- we have the wife of the townsman's house- but we also have a chorus of servant girls (two of them including Sara) who give us the access to the crowd that believe the magician. Sara thus fulfils a role within the film, Bergman presents us with an uneducated, sexual, naive young maid. An end of the pier girl, sexy, sweet and fundementally stupid. There is a kind of comedy here- but its a coarse comedy and to modern ears fairly sexist.

The reason I call this sexist is because Sara's character is not really a character- it is a caricature. The actress in the role Bibi Andersson would do great work later on for Bergman- performing in Persona exquisitely six years later. But this part is not really a character- there is no depth here- nothing to get a handle on- rather this is an idea. The problem is that Bergman has tried to imagine a nineteenth century maid- and yes he has not tried to create a twentieth century woman and put her in a dress- but what he has done is just as problematic, because he has used the caricature of a 19th Century maid from bawdy comedy and placed that caricature inside the film. The thing is that you cannot imagine that just because someone existed in the past- and so for example might be naive (I wouldn't expect Swedish maids to be well educated) doesn't mean that they might not have characters. This caricature is all squeeling over love potions- I'm sure that there were people who did but they had more content to them than that. This is an unsubtle portrait- and so its a postcard of a past that never existed, and a sexist portrait that appeals to various male stereotypes as well.

Bergman was a great director- and created great roles for women- there is one in the Magician itself (the Magician's wife) but there are others scattered liberally through his films where his great actresses from Ingrid Thulin to Liv Ullman created women who will endure down the ages. But this single character is a failure: and I think it is a failure because Bergman allowed a caricature into his work. He basically forgot that a young uneducated girl was still a person- and not just a caricature: to an extent Sara is a sexist fantasy maid, to that extent Bergman fails to convey what he wants to in this film and it collapses. The irony is that Sara is created in order that the audience takes the magician's illusions more seriously: but of course Sara herself is an illusion and it is precisely because that character is a caricature, that we see the illusion and like a magic trick, when you realise its a magic trick, ceases to have an impact- so a film when you realise it is being directed- loses some of its dramatic power. Ingmar Bergman was one of the great illusionists (to borrow Scorsese's image), with Sara though the illusion is incomplete and therefore unbelievable.

June 02, 2008

Deir el-Bahari

Deir el-Bahari was an important ancient Egyptian religious site. It held the female pharoah, Hatshepsut's, mortuary temple. But it also was the site of another temple- more venerated in the ptolemaic age ( 305 BC-30BC) where two particular gods Amenhotep and Imhotep were worshipped. Recently the site has been excavated by Adam Lajtar- and a report on his reports of his excavations is here. What I find interesting about it, and I'm just reading at the moment an analysis of Roman religion which I will inflict on you later, is a number of points about the way that religious observance functioned differently in the polytheistic ancient world to the way it functions in today's modern world. What Lajtar has found is fascinating: he has found a great deal of Greek inscriptions from believers who came to this shrine to worship. Egypt at this point in history was dominated by a Greek dynasty- the Ptolemies were one of the more important successor dynasties to Alexander's empire in the Eastern Meditereanean- culminating with the spectacular figure of Cleopatra and sustaining the Alexandrian Library amongst other culturally important activities.

Perhaps more surprising than that historical detail is a couple of things- which are characteristic of Ancient Polytheism. One of which is that the temple commemorated two individuals- one of whom at least was an identifiable historical personality: Amenhotep, son of Hotep, a court official, priest and medic at the court of Amenhotep IV of the 14th Dynasty. Imhotep was also a minister- he served the 3rd Dynasty (in the 27th century BC). These two ministers therefore became venerated as important figures, intercessionary figures with the higher Gods and later turned into Gods themselves. The line between human and divine which in the austere monotheisms is so solid, in ancient polytheism was much more fluid. That has implications for the way for instance the Christian doctrine of the saints worked- but it also suggests to me a very different idea about religion itself. Noone going to these shrines would have gone under any illusion that these men had originally been men, noone would have doubted that they were now Gods.

There is a second point that I think is very interesting and seems very strange to a modern eye though. And this is this: just because you went to worship Amenhotep in Deir el-Bahari, does not mean you wanted to worship Imhotep. Furthermore many Greeks went to worship neither God, but to worship Asclepius, the divine physician, who they assumed Imhotep to be an Egyptian form of. What is interesting about this: and it is a point I will build on in my later article: is that ancient religion unlike modern religion was far less concerned with doctrinal difference. Polytheism could embrace a fluidity between religious custom that modern religion finds difficult to sustain. (I am not arguing that Polytheism was in any way better than modern monotheism- but that it was very different in character, it could fuse with less tension Greek and Egyptian religious practise than say one can fuse Jewish and Muslim and Christian religious practice). It is an interesting distinction- and we will come back to what that reveals at a later point but as a prologue to a later article, Deir el-Bahari is a useful pointer- it demonstrates some of the differences between a polytheistic ancient outlook and our own understanding of religion as a doctrine to which you adhere, excluding all other doctrines.

June 01, 2008

Le Plaisir

Watching Le Plaisir, you realise imediately the crassness of much romantic comedy. Guy de Maupassant's stories and Max Ophuls's direction point us though in a different, more realistic and still amusing direction when we consider relationships between the sexes and the way that we obtain pleasure in society. Ophuls chose to direct three of Maupassant's stories: Le Masque, about an old man trying to recover the womanising dancing youth he had been, La Maison Tellier, about prostitutes and a madam on a trip to the country and lastly La Modele, about the relationship between a model and her boyfriend, an artist. The three short films are introduced by a narrator, Maupassant himself, and the last by a journalist. They are not equal in length nor similar in temprament: the first gives is sad and short, the second long and more buoyant and the third returns to a darker mood in its short span.

Three stories, and three narrations between them, beggining fantastically as Maupassant tells us that we are in the dark, and he is sitting next to us, illustrating with a wave of his hand the contours of the stories. But like any narrator Maupassant is unreliable: this film is a great example of literary criticism, Ophuls takes apart Maupassant's narration and his stories do not always fit with the narrators confident judgements. Sexual desire is at the centre of these stories. Sexual desire leads the old man up to the dance hall to frolic with the young, under a mask, but he cannot cope and collapses- having to be taken home. Sexual desire provides the trade for the brothel- but the women of the brothel in the countryside cannot escape that sexual desire- they are still desired and they find being desired a less disturbing place than the pieties of the church or the loneliness of a single, quiet bed. They want to be loved. Sexual desire though can never last long- the last story illustrates for us that fact: 'Familiarity breeds contempt' afterall.

What we discuss though here is the male observer: the observations made by the narrator are always from the male point of view. One of the ways that Ophuls subverts that narrator is by demonstrating that his judgements are prejudiced. Perhaps this is most evident in the last story- Le Modele- where the narrator tells us that women are fickle, but the model proves anything but- ruefully the narrator has to admit, perhaps I was wrong. There is more to this than that: for Ophuls shows us that in a world without women, men are reduced to dispute. When the brothel closes for an evening: the men of the town start to fight, without desire, we are left with competition. Desire is not what creates competition, but it is what satiates competition. In this world, violence is the result of the absense or the denial of what you desire. A woman attempts suicide when her lover says no, men feud when the brothel is closed.

If Ophuls is interested in the mechanism of desire, he is also interested in the way that we are temporarily diverted from it. Ophuls's camera for instance shows us a church which the prostitutes visit at the girl's communion: whereas in Maupassant the scene is a farce, in Ophuls he gets us closer to the view of the prostitutes. We recognise the incongruity of these sinners acquiring a spiritual side: but then as their tears, the tears in particular of the hardened Rosa, affect the entire congregation, we recognise a central Christian truth- the incongruity of any sinner approaching the church and also the majesty of human freedom, that no matter who you are, you are free to be inspired by the good. Throughout the film's city scenes we see the prostitutes behind the bars of the brothel, we never intrude into it and we perceive them as the commodities they are, once out in the countryside they gain a respectability and an anonymity which means they are no longer prostitutes but people.

The central theme to these films is that Ophuls replaces Maupassant's sarcastic look at human kind with a gentler examination of human folly. Ophuls does not beleive that desire is stupid and what is desired worthless. Rather he suggests that beauty can become part of an almost mystical experience- in Le Modele that is the attitude of the artist at first to his model. He has a sense that often love decays, often people are in situations which are unhappy, and that beauty and strength wither with age: but Ophuls does not mock human folly, he invites us to observe, to gently smile at his characters but ultimately to sympathise. His camera has an attitude and it is gentle and amused: tragedy strikes and terrifies, age withers and money corrupts and yet humans are still loveable in the world of Max Ophuls.

The Effect of War

Vino suggests that we should be cautious about automatically assuming that the fact that America did not fight in the first world war leads to the point that America is more militaristic than Europe. He is entirely right. It struck me when reading Vino's post that the experience of war has some very complicated effects on societies. For a start, it is worth remembering that American history no less than European history has been governed by war- whereas we remember Churchill and the trenches, America has a folk memory of Roosevelt and Lincoln. The Civil War is a crucial moment within American history and in a sense you cannot understand America in the late 19th and early 20th century without understanding the civil war. Afterall the vice President in 1932 was born barely after the war had ended and lived right up until 1968.

America's past may be as war torn as Europe's but its also worth remembering that wars can have odd effects. The First World War has been a great force for pacifism in European history since 1918: the change effected on the generation that went to fight and the generation that sent them was profound. Just consider Rudyard Kipling whose life was shattered after his son died at the front, or JRR Tolkein whose Lord of the Rings trilogy is obviously scarred by the implications of total war- the marshes of the dead by Mordor are one of the more terrifying descriptions of the trenches ever to have been written in literature. But Tolkein's example should indicate something else- that war can transform lives but not neccessarily in a pacifist direction. Tolkein was no pacifist, rather war reinforced his Catholicism- which is so memorably expressed in the structure of his fable. If that variety is true of the First World War and of the American Civil War then it is equally true of earlier wars.

The point is that it is the mindset with which people approach war that governs their reactions to it. Ultimately war is a terrifying and upsetting experience- especially a war like that in 1914 or in 1860 which kills a large proportion of those who go out to fight. It changes lives. But it changes lives from within. The soldiers of the English civil war for example went to war with a profound monotheistic conviction and came back convinced that providence had saved them for a purpose. Wilfrid Owen and Seigfried Sassoon's generation often went to war with a more secular conviction and came back with a hatred for the 'old gang' who had manipulated the country into war. The effects of destruction in Iraq have ressembled the model of the 1640s more than that of the 1914 war but the general truth remains there. Vino is right to be cautious that war explains differences in militarism between the two parts of the western alliance: it is the attitude you go to war with that largely governs how you interpret the experience of war and how you come out of it. War can therefore do different things to different societies- depending on the way that soldiers approach and experience its tragedies.

War as a general phenomenon produces stress and fear, sorrow and hate. Those emotions cause change in individuals. But it is the base from which they start often, as much as the experience they go through, that explains the place they end up in. Searching for differences based on shared experiences within societies but not between them might help us, but we need to understand whether the societies were in the same place beforehand before we can state that the absense of a variable contributed to the different attitude.