April 16, 2009

The Court of Life and Death

Imagine for a moment that you had died- but imagine that you were reprieved, not by some awe inspiring moment of medical science, but by the chance that the angel of death sent to collect your soul miscarried in the fog (this is an English dilemma you will notice). Imagine that in the twenty hours extra on earth that you had you fell in love- would you be justified in taking a case to the highest tribunal of all to appeal, would you be justified in continuing to live- even though that meant that the entire world was out of kilter, even though another man died in your place. Would you choose to be judged as an individual or by your nation, your religion, do you think this should even be relevant to the decision of that higher court, or do you think that it is irrelevant? The film A Matter of Life and Death is a thought experiment along these lines- its a subtle and thoughtful and moving film, it does much more than just provide that thought experiment but today that is what I want to concentrate upon- whether you have seen it or not, I think it is useful to think through these themes, to wrestle with them and provide your own answer. For ultimately whether you believe in heaven or hell or nothing at all, you have to think about what your life is worth, what a life is worth and whether we should go on living or just exist.

This is the central problem of the film. A Matter of Life and Death is divided into two parts- the first establishes the life of Peter Carter, and his brush with death and in particular his close love with June- an American from Boston- is the background we need to evaluate the trial later. The film makers do this part of the story with a touching charm: the charm and the folksiness of the love story are so touching because they are not laboured. There is no special effort here to create them- they are not quite believable- indeed the whole story is fantastical but they invite the most sceptical of audience members to suspend disbelief and to beleive the premises of the story. It is crucial to do so for the story to work: if you do not believe that Peter and June feel something that they might call love- then you might as well give up half way through the film, give up and go and watch something else.

There are a couple of issues that this raises- these issues are raised in the second half of the film- I want to deal with two in particular. The first is the issue of nationhood. The film was made in order to bind the grand alliance of World War II into the special relationship of the postwar era. The film makes the prosecution counsel against Carter a patriot of the American War of Independence- at one point his jury consists of all the peoples that the English nation has ever harmed- the Indians, Irish, Russians, French, Americans and Chinese. The prosecution counsel's fury is enhanced by the fact that is a daughter of America- a daughter of Boston no less- who Carter has fallen in love with. What is so interesting is the arguments that this produces- on the one side the prosecution argue that man is a product of his genetics and his culture, on the other side the defence argue that man is an individual and that cultures are mixed- you may place Shakespeare against Cecil Rhodes and by implication of course Goethe against Hitler. For us as moderns its probably easy to underestimate the strength of the prosecution's arguments- they have an emense emotional and common sense appeal despite the fact that in this case they are clearly cruel and in all cases, wrong.

The second issue concerns love. What asks the prosecution council is this love whereof Carter and June speak. What does it mean to be in love with someone that you have not met for more than a couple of days? It is actually a very good question- and rides to the very point of what we mean by love. Sexual attraction is not something which goes by merit- but is felt instantaneously for good or ill- it can build up over time as well but it can come like a sudden thunderstorm. Neither when you feel sexual attraction and combine that with tenderness and affection are these beliefs reasonable neccessarily: to say that one person is the most apt to fit your purposes and you theirs of all the people in the world is clear lunacy, it is just untrue. The vows that lovers swear are likely to be broken and yet they are made sincerely. The stress of the film though is on something other than the truth of love- the stress of the film is on the power and responsibility of love.

Love conquers the law- so Walter Scott says in lines which are quoted during the movie. The point about the film is that it seeks to explain why love conquers law. In a sense the arguments of the last paragraph were legal- about probabilities and facts- how can they therefore be conquered? They can be conquered not by explaining that they are wrong- they are not- but by explaining that they do not provide the whole picture. The probability is that June and Peter will discover that after three years they are less in love than they were at this moment- it is possible. But against that is the fact that at this moment in time they are in love- and that that love means that both feel an obligation to each other which is stronger than their mutual obligation to the law. The law of the universe though exists for a purpose- it has an equity and part of that equity from the human point of view is love- without other reason save for the existance of the law, it is not easy to argue against the postulate that love should be supported, even at the expense of death. The film makes this point in subtler ways: the earthly scenes are shot in technicolour whereas the heavenly scenes are shot in black and white- death is anasthetic and uninteresting, life warm and vivid. Life down here is in technicolour and so is love.

THis is an incredibly complex and interesting film because it deals with incredibly complex and interesting issues- and in an hour and a half (heed that modern film makers!). I do not think I have answered them satisfactorily here- but I do think that this film is an important place to begin thinking and tackling them from or to revise your thinking about them. Ultimately the question of what life is for, how much individuals are the products of the collective or of their own creation and how much love matters in the world are questions which concern us all- if we could answer them, then much of our search for philosophical knowledge would end. But then sometimes it is better to travel on a pilgrimage, than to arrive: this at any rate is a cinematic staging post.


Anonymous said...
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James Hamilton said...

George Szirtes has been hearing from Anonymous about his product too..

I'd add to your comments about the trial - to draw attention onto heaven's arrivals bay, and Powell and P's use of it to express a very modern-feeling shock at the sheer scale of WW2's bloodshed.

On the other hand, Roger Livesey's doctor's reaction to his horrifying death-in-flames is so laid back (dead? oh, well, at least I can be Peter's bushy-tailed counsel! Good show!) as to be funny. Fine character played by a fine man.

The earth-bound parts of the film feature the Surrey village of Shere, which, aside from road markings, tarmacadam and parked cars, is entirely unchanged from its wartime self. The "White Horse" is one of the great pubs of southern England on its day.

Gracchi said...

I'm not sure Anonymous realises that my deletion policy has one constant element- I will never leave spam up!

James I think all your points are just. The point about World War Two is particularly apt- its something I did think of as I watched the film and something you can't avoid thinking about but its also definitely there.

The doctor's reaction is amazing- the cheeriness with which he takes being burnt to death is incredible- but then I suppose in a sense so is Peter's when he knows he will die and isn't in love with June. The film almost takes the attitude that if you aren't in love, it doesn't matter if you die which is an odd position.

I didn't know that about Shere

James Hamilton said...

"The film almost takes the attitude that if you aren't in love, it doesn't matter if you die which is an odd position." It does rather, and it is, and the only explanation I can think of is that old chestnut about death and love/sex being closely related opposites.

Then again, oddness is a feature of P&P pictures - it was part of their being ahead of their time and part of their being rather too good for their time when that time finally arrived.