November 22, 2008

Have you seen...

David Thomson is one of the doyennes of the American cinematic critical community. His book 'Have you seen...' has many merits- it is written by someone obviously obsessed and discontented with the art that he writes about- a positive attribute for any critic. He aspires to a cinema which really does touch the stars and explain them and the void beneath in sentences of perfection and images of perfect clarity. And yet, and yet, for me there is something that does not quite work about Thomson's book- though I admire it in so many ways, its completeness, the ability to give an opinion on so many films, the verve of the writing and its style- there is something which makes me wonder about how profound the critic is when he looks at that he loves.

What's the problem? Let us distinguish between two things- one is cinema, the other is 'Hollywood'. One sees Grace Kelly, the sexiest blonde in film history but also the coolest, as the heroine of Rear Window, the other sees the actress as a nymphomaniac and later a princess. A great test of whether you like Hollywood or cinema is whether you are interested in Princess Grace- if you are its not the films but the glitz and the gloss around them. Robert Bresson never cast an actor or actress twice in a film and always chose unknowns because he never wanted the actor to overshadow the performance, the stylist the sentence that the film delivered. And that's the problem with Thomson's work- he takes a great film like Voyage to Italy and tells the story of its production as though that explains what the film 'means' to an audience that never heard of Ingrid Bergman and Rosselini's flawed passion and never cared.

Ultimately if we are to ask why a film was made the private story matters- Taxi Driver might not have been made without Scorsese's drug fuelled crisis, the battles between Hitchcock and Selznick changed the nature of Notorious, Kidman and Cruise's dynamic in Eyes Wide Shut almost certainly influenced the way that film was made and was perceived. But those movies all have to survive in a world where few know and fewer in time will care about those moments. And films flower in that harsher world when they say something important or interesting and they say it with verve and interest. Lets face it, there is a great backstory to the recent film Mr and Mrs Smith starring Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, but noone would match that film up with Voyage to Italy and that's not because the back story of Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rosselini is more interesting, its because the film is better.

Thomson and Kermode and other critics that I like often seem so carried away with the back story- the trivia of whose career is up and down and what a film does to a career- or who is having an affair with whom- that they forget the first duty of a critic. Is this a good film, and if it is, why, what does it tell us that we need to or want to hear? Once I've heard that- I may be interested in why it is a good film and the process of production, the relations of the leading players etc, but the key point is not what Goddard was feeling on the set of Le Mepris, but what he created and what it means to the viewer. Of course, one of the ways of understanding that is placing Le Mepris against others of Goddard's films, to get the syntax of the director and against other films of the time, to get the cinematic syntax of the time, but the reasons why the film was made are unimportant beside the question of whether it is interesting or not.

Ultimately films cannot be judged independently of their times- their times tell us a lot about the context of what the film is saying- but we should never lose sight of what the film is saying. That is what is interesting about the film- and only after that is the question about why the film was made in this form an interesting one. This is an unfair criticism of Thomson perhaps who is less guilty of this sin than many others- but it is a sin and it besets film criticism today and irritates your blogger profoundly. If you want to take film seriously, lets take it seriously and explore the film as an intellectual creation not as an excuse to gossip about the stars. 'Hollywood' gossip is interesting, but cinematic genius is essential to our civilisation and the way that we think about it.

Gracchi is back

I am back- thanks to Vino for a fine guest post. I was away for work for a week but normal service is now returned.

November 19, 2008

Guest post - On The Age of Empire

I was invited to write a guest post here and so have decided to write about Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Empire – which I see as a good popular history book that reawoke my interest in the period. It’s the 3rd of his series of modern history books (the others being The Age of Revolution, The Age of Capital and The Age of Extremes).

The key point of the era he is writing about (1875-1914) is that it saw the territorial conquest of much of Africa and Asia that had hitherto remained independent by European colonial powers. In Africa, only Liberia and Ethiopia remained independent. This age of Empire saw not only territorial conquest but the spread of the capitalism. Underdeveloped parts of the world were partly integrated into what was becoming a global economy.

Being a Marxist, Hobsbawm goes into detail on the topic of economic change and economic development. This period marks the continuation of what can be seen as the ‘first phase’ of globalisation. Perhaps it is the second phase that we are living through now.

He sees the post-1875 period as a move away from the Cobden-Bright ideas of free trade into one of competing national economies. These national economies may be capitalist but they do not subscribe to the orthodoxies of free trade of what he dubs The Age of Capital (1848-75). Germany and the USA economically develop rapidly within tariff walls. This enables them to protect their domestic industries from British exports. The increasing division into national economies makes it more essential for European powers to obtain colonies to acquire cheap raw materials and markets for their goods.

Now, the Marxist interpretation of this period can be challenged, since it is not clear that that many colonies were actually profitable for their rulers. However, the perception at the time was that they could be. And, what’s more, the fear that a rival country would take the territory often spurred conquest. At this stage, rivalry between European nations tended to stick to the diplomatic and economic arena. It would only turn into military conflict later on.

The growth of social-democratic and workers’ movements is also of great interest to Hobsbawm. While not able to attain power given the nature of the German political system, the SPD still manages to emerge as the foremost party in the land. Its very strength implied that – by its rapid industrialisation – the German state had also created its main political opponents (the industrial proletariat).

The other interesting thing about much of the 1870s, 1880s and 1890s is that it is a period of deflation. Deflation is not something that really occurs much nowadays, but it was common then. This deflation partly spurs the move to a more protectionist world economy after the 1870s. But it also means that employers try to reduce workers’ nominal wages. This results in the growth of trade unionism and goes hand-in-hand with a growing political polarisation in advanced economies.

The end of the period also sees revolutions attempted in Turkey, Persia and Russia. These can be seen as the forerunner of later, modernising attempts in those societies.

In that way, the Age of Empire sets the stage for much of what happens in the 20th century – with nationalism and revolution continuing at a more intense level after 1914.

November 16, 2008

Let it Rain


Let it Rain is a film about the return of a French woman to her family home. She is a feminist intellectual and a Parliamentary candidate. For everyone in the house, the arrival of the feminist politician is like a stone falling upon a still lake. For her sister it reactivates all kinds of resentments- from those of an unloved child for a loved child- to those of a domestic housewife for her emancipated peer. For her sister's husband it presents a challenge to his position as the incompetent head of the household. For others too in the community it represents both a challenge and an opportunity: two drifters- Karim a hotel receptionist and Michel an amateur camera man- want to make a film about the feminist as an example of a successful women (a series on which the local television station appears to be running). Karim as well is tempted into infidelity- whereas Michel is sleeping with the sister of the feminist. Its all complicated- and we end up at one point with Michel, Karim and Agathe (the feminist) followed by a herd of sheep trying to walk to the local town- but the intention is there to make a film which thinks about the challenges within contemporary France of race and sex, does it succeed?

It does not really. That is partly the fault of the direction and the acting- there is no real sense that anything much is at stake here. I found myself curiously abstracted from the film- perhaps mildly amused but nothing more. Ultimately there are some wonderfully comic moments in the movie- pure slapstick for example a camera man dropping a slide into the baptismal font or the stupidity of Karim and Michel's questions- but they do not really go anywhere. I watched abstractly- enjoying the film and there is plenty to enjoy but it did not force me to think. The reason for this is partly because the film wraps its character's courses up so neatly- no one really loses at the end of the film- and every character is given a final scene of resolution. You could argue that all those resolutions are false- but in reality, the director does not give us any insight to say that- all the resolutions are bourgeois- the film is about family and the resolutions bring all the characters back to human companionship, but I did not get the feeling that there was any neccessary ominous tint in the happy story.

There is more than that though that confuses me about this film. For at its deepest it is a film about deep subjects- sex, relations between human beings, race- and yet it seemed to have no core. There was no coherence. You could read it as an anti-feminist film- the feminist politician learns she has to have a man to be happy. You could read it is a feminist film- the sister's dire life continues because she subjugates her desires to a series of inadequate men. You could read it as a film about the way that white France plays with ideas from the new left, without really caring or considering what Arabic France thinks. You could read it as a film about the unkindness of bourgeois humanity. I could go on- but none of those interpretations is sustained and some of them seem contradicted by other moments in the film. There is something intensely human about the film- which makes it hard to fit into a pattern- but then it comes up against the simplicity of the motivations it ascribes to some of its major characters and their worlds. Karim seems for example entirely non-plussed by any moral forboding when he neglects his wife to take a mistress- indeed the poor wife is forgotten about half way through the film and seems to be a mere dramatic device- a stage woman to be wheeled on as a prop (a further feminist or anti-feminist point?)

There is some nice humour here- its sweet and well meaning but without a message, there is nothing radical about it. Indeed one might argue that there is something deeply conservative about a film in which you see a radical feminist politician who has no political program- apart from being a bit headstrong. There is something light as a feather about the film- and for an evening out it is good entertainment. Go with that mindset and you will not be disappointed- there are some really nice moments, some good laugh out loud lines, but there is nothing here which will make you consider or rethink anything. I saw this on Thursday, its taken me so long to write a review, not because the film was bad but because I struggled to think of what to write. I actually think for once that says something about the film- there is something there but its light and amusing, there is no message, no description that you could not see elsewhere.

Go and be amused by the folly of mankind, but seek no answers as to why men and women are fools for you will not find them.