October 14, 2008

Ethical Encounters: Brief Encounter


"Nothing lasts" says Laura Jesson to herself, "this misery can't last". Brief Encounter is a film about time and feeling- the encounter between Laura and Alec is brief but briefness shoots through the entire film. Even as viewers we can feel this hour and a half like an interlude of dreams, punctuated by the sweeping music of Rachmaninov and the voice of Celia Johnston, clipped, English and very emotional. As a movie it does not seem to move so much as to exist- to exist like a dream exists as an alternative but temporary state. After the film, you and the characters are in exactly the same position- as Fred says to Laura at the end 'you have been a long way away, thank you for coming back to me'. We have all been a long way away watching Brief Encounter- and as I will discuss later in this article that distance that we've been is important.

Brief Encounter is about the meeting between a woman and a man. They are both married and after a small set of meetings- five in all- they decide never to meet again. To give away the story is really to give away nothing- because this is a film about an issue and an atmosphere. The atmosphere is created by incredible acting and direction. Let us start with the acting- both Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson have been praised endlessly for this film- that praise is well deserved. Johnson in particular scarcely has the camera off her- much of the film is spent with the director staring straight into her eyes as they flicker round a train carriage, or sink to the floor in despair or light up with the excitement of dreams of love. Howard too does well- he is suave and smooth as he needs to be. It is the direction though which is often less praised but deserves more- one impeccable shot which I've used as an illustration above demonstrates in my view the perfection of Lean's work. Laura is at home feeling guilty about deceiving her husband about where she was that afternoon- she stares in the mirror and what we look with her into the mirror and see what she sees, a woman wracked by guilt. It is a very subtle way of literally getting you to see Laura's position from her point of view but it is incredibly effective.

If that was all, perfect technical ability made manifest on the screen then the film would sit in the category of well made but insignificant but this is not such a simple or irrelevant film. I have told the basics of the story already but there are a couple of issues opened up within the film that need more analysis to elucidate the issues involved. The film pivots around Laura and her relationship with her husband and with Alec her possible lover (I will use the word 'lover' from now on despite the fact that they go no further than a quick kiss). Laura trusts her husband- she wishes she could tell him everything as he is so kind and gentle. She comes across Alec in a cafe and then in the street and she finds him exciting, kind and intelligent- she finds him the epitome of the kind of man that she would have loved to marry as a girl. She describes her feelings towards him as a girlish fantasy- to marry the idealistic doctor- in a sense he ressembles the hero of Agnes Grey, Mr Weston, but modernised. The film is about whether she should leave her husband or not- she does not in the end and it is evident by the end of the movie that here we have an argument for her decision. Throughout the film we are reminded that Laura has people she must look after- her children- and right at the end, Lean makes sure that we see that her husband, though unromantic, does care deeply for her. We never see as much of Alec- though we are invited to remember his two sons and delicate wife (it is significant that we are told about both of them) and invited to see his life as a mirror to Laura's.

The second question is about the morality of Laura and Alec. How should we see them? The fact they have sex has nothing to do with the question of their morality- the interchange of bodily fluids is the culmination of a process at whose heart is emotional infidelity. That is why Laura cannot tell her husband about what has happened- because it would hurt him to know that she desired and felt happy in the company of another man. From Laura's account Alec comes off as the instigator- but that is afterall her perception of events and we do not have his. Around these two figures are gathered other figures within society- Alec's friend who despises Alec when he finds the two of them in his flat, Laura's friends who gossip about her or who annoy her. Alec's friend, Stephen, is the least morally repugnant- expressing disappointment with Alec's behaviour. Laura's friend Mary Norton seems though to revel in sin as an opportunity to gossip nastily. Stephen and Mary embody different responses- to publicly tell the person of your displeasure and then remain silent in the interests of the family unit (Stephen) or to avoid confrontation, enjoy the titillating spectacle of sin and gossip about it maliciously (Mary). Lean wants us to see how unsympathetic society can be to these lovers: but also in Stephen's dialogue with Alec he wants us to see the love affair from the outside- he wants us to see the sordid nature of this magic.

Our focus though must remain on the central pair- they are constrained by their society in the sense that they cannot abandon their spouses- but as we see with Laura abandoning her spouse would be an act of selfishness. What this film gets at, what I think that Lean gets, is that life is made of patterns- strings between individuals- and that when we snap those strings or rearrange those passions we can bring great suffering to everyone involved. We can break hearts and worse. Human beings are fragile and human life is fragile- we have a brief encounter with the world- what Laura comes to realise is that had she world enough and time, she would end up with Alec. As we shall discuss in my next post there are good reasons for Laura to be disappointed with life- one of the reasons I'd guess that Alec is not the focus of the film is that Laura's life is drab and boring, a round of visits to the local county town and lunches with Mary Norton. But Lean's argument is that even despite that, she has things to lose by leaving- the tragedy is greater because these two people cannot be together.

I do not think he makes this argument easily. This film is sad for a reason- and its quite possible to come out of it thinking that the lovers have lost too much by abandoning each other. As Isaiah Berlin argued every choice can be a tragedy. "Nothing lasts" can seem like a reinforcement of the idea that Laura thinks everything will last- and that the love affair will colour the rest of her life as the film colours the rest of ours. I think the moment in which her husband wakes her from the dream is crucial though- because when he wakes her and thanks her for coming back, I think that is symbolic both of the end of the dream of the film but also of the end of the dream of her love. She has woken up, as has Alec, and that must be good, mustn't it?

October 13, 2008

Workers and Jobs (1935)

Arthur Elton's Workers and Jobs was made at the height of the Great Depression in 1935. The then unemployment rate in the UK was incredibly high. Elton's film was made with the cooperation of Poplar Employment Exchange- it was made to illustrate the virtues of the employment exchange both to employees and principally to employers. The working men are shown in the film to be trained, good workers, quiet and disciplined. They queu towards the desk in the exchange without mumbling or grumbling as others are sent to the jobs that they might want. Furthermore the exchange is shown to be an efficient way of acquiring labour for businesses. I want to highlight two things about the way that the Labour Exchange worked that give us an insight into the economies of the 1930s.

Firstly it is noticable that as the introduction to the film states there are at least 15,000 types of work- domestic, industrial and clerical- that men and women can do. We see the employment exchanges taking notes on the applicants- their experience, their competence- what say a machine tool repairer has experience repairing or what kind of tailor this person is. Then they match them to employers. Its a fascinating lesson in the variety and division of labour within the economy- and the difficulty of matching workers to jobs. I suspect of course that the labour exchanges were not this efficient- Arthur Elton was making an advertisment for them- but what he demonstrates is rather that the economy by the 1930s was already highly specialised- as the introductory voice over says the costs of hiring the wrong person for a job were high.

My second point is that the Labour exchange of the thirties looks completely inefficient compared to a modern operation. As you can see in the still above, the model was based on telephoning other labour exchanges to check their vacancies. All the exchange functions on the back of card files- and remember this is an efficient exchange on show in a film whose purpose is advertising- one wonders about the status of those card files and how many records got lost. Furthermore printed sheets are sent out to other exchanges at the end of the day with unfilled vacancies on them- again the potential for misplacing, misrecording and simply destroying accidentally records must have been high. An organisation in the thirties could not afford anything better- but it is interesting to imagine how different a similar organisation would be today.

This kind of documentary is fascinating- just looking at the faces of these long dead normal people doing their business gives me a thrill. But I think it is also useful for seeing both how similar and how different the experience of the thirties is from today's. President Bush and others have said that our economy is teetering on the edge of another Great Depression- it is beyond my competence to say whether that is true or not- but if it is true, I suspect that the way that our society goes through that experience will be very different to the way that our grandparents and their parents did in the thirties. Not least because though they lived in a complex economy, they lived in a much more local and much less computerised one.

October 12, 2008

A disgraceful incident

Those are Livy's words about an event that happened soon after the Decemvirs fell, in the consulship of Titus Quinctius Capitolinus and Furius Agrippa. Rome was asked to arbitrate between two cities within Latium, Ardea and Aricia, about a piece of land that both cities claimed to be theirs, and 'for which the two towns had fought so often they were exhausted' (III 70). In the midst of the discussions in the forum, conducted it seems by the people under the tribunes, an aged Roman Publius Scapita, rose to his feet and began speaking. Scapita told the assembly that the land that Ardea and Aricia were claiming was originally the property of another town- Corioli- and as Corioli had been conquered by Rome, that territory ought to have gone with the city that had been conquered. This speech was listened to by the crowd with a 'high measure of approval' and despite the arguments of the consuls, 'cupidity prevailed' and Rome claimed the land. (III 72)

This 'disgraceful incident' is interesting- because of two things. Firstly it exposes how the Roman Constitution may have worked- and secondly it exposes what Livy thought of justice. Let us begin with the first consideration. I have mentioned before that we seem in the Roman world to be in a situation where the judiciary and the executive are separated- the judiciary rests in the people, the executive and legislature in the senate and consuls. That's a broad generalisation and does not fully work- but what we can establish in this case is that quite complicated questions of international law were resolved by the assembly of the people, in great contrast to what is done today in most if not all democracies. The people were the court. The reasons for this are not difficult to work out- many of those within the assembly would have had knowledge of other parts of Latium and possibly Italy- Scapita would not have been alone in having visited in the army the places that they talked about in the assembly. Scapita's evidence is interesting- obviously (and Livy agrees with this) there was an accepted right of conquest that allowed a city to claim a territory that had belonged to a vanquished enemy. (III 72)

Livy though thinks that the case that Scapita outlines was an unjust one. The reason that Livy gives for the decision to be regarded as unjust was a simple one. He argued that 'for an arbitrator to convert disputed land to his own use was a crime revolting in itself, and would set a precedent even worse' (III 72). Livy cites the senators arguing that Rome would lose Ardea and Aricia's friendship and lose its reputation not to mention its honour through these proceedings. (III 72) Livy, we have seen, opposed the idea of judging one's own cause- and in a sense this is the beginning of a critique of empire- as soon as the Roman populace become sovereign over territories which are not free or seek their arbitration, the temptation to judge in their own interest as they have the power becomes tyrannical. Livy here may be indicating some of the dangers to the Republic that will flow from its expansion- dangers to the very conception of a just and honourable republic. In that sense the incident fits into a narrative which sees the empire as the product of virtue (ie rising military strength) and the incubator of the decline both of virtue and ultimately of the city.

These arguments lead I think to an account of Rome which emphasizes the dynamic between expansion and democracy- and the ways in which Rome's character as a republic changes as the empire advances. One could even make the argument based on this case that Rome's transition from a Republic to an Empire is a transition from a Republic to a Tyranny of the citizen over the subject- an arrangement which might naturally lead to a habit of subjection and eventually to the Imperium. It is a speculation but in this case, I think we have an indication of one of the pattern that Livy sees underlying the last years of the Republic and first of the Principate.