March 21, 2009

Winstanley

Gerard Winstanley was an English radical who thrived in the immediate aftermath of Charles I's execution. His acts have become famous because the group that Winstanley led- the Diggers- were a communalist group that held property in common. Many have therefore seen Winstanley as a proto communist of some sort. The 1975 film about Winstanley falls into some of these traps: but it avoids them mainly and it as a work of historical filming it is actually fairly impressive. The detail of the history is less important than the impression that the film makes, the argument of the camera which is the key to the film is double: it shows Winstanley's radicalism and the conditions against which he campaigned and argued.

The figure of Winstanley in the film does have good features. The script is largely taken from Winstanley's own works, recited over the action, and at points the film almost becomes a silent film, in which the words are like captions rather than being, as in most modern films, part of the scenario. Where that happens, the film actually works. The words of Winstanley give one a pretty good impression of what the radical believed: that he was not a communist but an agrarian communalist, that he was not a secular socialist but a religious libertarian. The film captures Winstanley's view of Winstanley- it makes him a saintly presense- and where he is shown interacting with others, he isn't showing expressing any impatience or violence. He sagely stands aside from the action- even when he talks to other characters- carrying himself with dignity like a seventeenth century Gandhi. Winstanley probably was not like that. But having his words at least- though they are excerpted words and so for example ideas about the Norman yoke and some of the religious ideas are diminished- having his words means that the film represents Winstanley's ideas fairly well or distorts them less than it might.

The second strain of the film is to show the conditions in which Winstanley operated. The most impressive part of this film is the photography. The opening sequence, jagged shots of battle in the war, are stunningly done. They convey the chaos and terror of battle in the civil war: having read many accounts of battle, I think soldiers' experience was scary and chaotic. Tolstoy gets it right in War and Peace- nobody fighting in a battle has any idea of what is happening elsewhere. This film is one of the few I have ever seen that gets that principle and actually through a visual means shows you battle as sudden and confusing. But this merely explores a central strength fo the film- this film shows you the grime and mud of the civil war period. Simple things like the effect of rain and wind on workers scything crops, the physical strength needed to chop down trees and bind them together to create houses, the wide skies over the fields of England: all these things have diminished as features of our lives since then. The film places you in a world where you are much closer to nature, much closer to the rain and wind than many of the readers of this blog live in.

Winstanley and his context are obviously important but the film also makes comments on other characters and events. Some of these it gets slightly wrong: the Putney debates were not principally about the franchise and did not end with a vote on the franchise, I do not know that the ranters (another radical group) were present in Winstanley's commune and upset it. The film could explain some things better: villagers resented the commune because they saw the common land as belonging to the local village and didn't want a group of people wondering in to dig it as part of a religious commune. Others it gets right: Sir Thomas Fairfax is presented as a radical and intelligent leader, many historians would disagree with both judgements, but based on Luke Daxon's research I would suggest both are right. There are also some great set pieces- the preacher preaching to the villagers for example on Isaiah is a wonderful piece. But ultimately the film comes down to Winstanley. Winstanley himself is too much of a plaster cast saint and that is the film's main flaw- it makes him an earnest and almost passionless man, a Christ. Perhaps also it glosses over the difficulties that there must have been in the Digger community about their life up on the hill- especially in the winter.

Despite those concerns, the film is a major acheivement. It gets the conditions of seventeenth century England right, the filming is wonderful and evokes what life was like with brilliant technique and the words of Winstanley prevent Digger ideology from being caricatured too much. If the film has faults, they are not severe: its virtues are impressive enough to mean that this is a film that should be better known and have a wider audience.

March 18, 2009

Caught


Max Ophuls was a craftsman in 1940s Hollywood. Caught is one of his lesser films- berated by the New York Times critic of the time Bosley Crowther- but it deserves to be recognised and understood. I would argue that it is a deeply feminist film: concerned with topics that are unusual to see in a film from the 1940s or 1950s, and directed from the female point of view. The film concerns a girl, a shop girl in Los Angeles, and her fantasies and attempts to acheive those fantasies. She begins the film living in poverty, staring at the images of models wearing beautiful clothes and believing, partly through social pressure, that a girl's duty is to find a rich husband- a man who can provide mink (literally).

The story of the film in part is the way that she discovers that a heart of gold is worth more than a handful. She is faced with two men- a kind doctor who spends his time serving poor patients out on the East side of New York- and a proud, difficult and pathetic millionaire whom she marries at the beggining of the story. In that sense the story is conventional. But though the choice is framed typically, you will have already noticed the difference. Because before the story starts the girl marries the millionaire- the choice that she makes is firstly a choice to flee from him and then the choice between these two men. Marriage is a convention that we see should be discarded so that the girl can live with the virtuous doctor- instead of the millionaire who might destroy her. The other modern touch- and I do not really want to give away the story more than I should- is that the film hints at the possibility of abortion and the desirability of it.

That hint apart, the real argument here is about the reality of marriage. Does the girl's formal marriage to the millionaire bind her? In truth, such an argument as soon as you see what Ophuls has done, becomes an absurdity. Marriage cannot and should not bind one to cruelty- and the 'moral' choice is not to go with the millionaire. The doctor at one point makes an even more subtle point: when she tells him that the reason she still thinks about living with the millionaire is security, he points out that money is not the only form of security. By that he doesn't mean that there is much threat to her phsyical security: but that living with a husband who wants to dominate and not love her, she will be insecure. What Ophuls suggests very accurately is that marriage can become a prison- a prison with strong iron bars- and that the conventions of life can coerce. The point he makes is not particular to women alone: but in Ophuls demonstrates that in the period he made his films, the oppression of marriage hurt women more than most.

This is a very moody atmospheric film- but it is also a film with a point. A point about the socialisation of women into forming their lives into particular forms through materialistic magazines and a sexist culture: and a point about the way that marriage can be a prison as well as a liberator. What Ophuls suggests here is that the 'magazine' lifestyle is an illusion and masks the reality that a solid wage and a loving relationship are better than the gilded life of the super rich and the superficial consolations of lifeless convention.

March 17, 2009

Pinkie's Devils

Brighton Rock is about a crucial distinction- that between right and wrong and that between good and evil. Right and wrong are the categories used by Ida, the amateur detective, who seeks to find out what happened to her friend who was murdered. She is a lively, sexual and vivacious woman who desires to live and lives within a set of rules- common sense principles of morality. Opposed to her is the criminal Pinkie and his girlfriend Rosie, Pinkie and Rosie are both ‘Romans’, Catholics. They live within the world of good and evil: invest the world with an eschatology that Ida never feels and believe in mortal sin- Pinkie believes that losing his virginity was worse than committing a murder- rather than in common sense morality. The novel is about a contrast between these two principles- two ways of looking at the world.

Some interpret this as a repudiation, not of Pinkie and Rosie, but of Ida. Her ‘totalitarian’ morality is what one introducer to Greene’s novel believes is at issue within the story. Common sense morality is rejected upon the basis that it is inferior to Catholic morality. This reading of the novel- and it may well be the intention behind the writing- has some merit: Ida is definitely viewed as disgustingly lively, her plump breasts are referred to by Greene with scorn as though they were overripe. There are pretty obvious echoes in Ida’s character of the barmaid in Elliot’s Wasteland. Rosie in particular is presented as battleground within the novel- she like the reader is poised between Pinkie and Ida and yet at the end of the day, she chooses Pinkie and not Ida. Ida’s confidence that she can reverse the girl’s decision by imposing her own view, not persuading but cajoling, is condescending and unpleasant.

Step back though and what Greene’s novel exposes is something that would be familiar to any observer of the nineteenth century novel. The insight of Dosteovsky that a higher morality does not justify immoral deeds- throughout so many of his novels, this point is expressed in different ways- seems to have been forgotten. What we have arrived at with Pinkie is a nihilistic Christianity which sees murder as less important than sexual taboo. What Greene argues, in my opinion, is that Ida’s morality is insufficient to properly live within the world- but that so too is Pinkie’s and Rosie’s morality. Right and wrong and good and evil must live together- or become enemies to each other. Ida’s sins come with a kindness that is no vice, Pinkie’s come with an ascetic contempt that is no virtue.

Greene appears to me to be directing his novel towards contemporary Catholicism: it should be read as a resounding call to Christianity not to abandon the common sense ideas of right and wrong, the underpinning of morality, as it becomes a minority faith. Perhaps instead of reading the book as a contrast between secular and Christian morality, we should read Brighton Rock as a terrible warning- that if Christianity becomes an aggressive minority culture, it might lose a sense of right and wrong in the search for good and evil. That warning is important- for it reminds us of the great danger of intellectual eschatology- whatever its source- that elevated ideas must be accompanied by moral intuitions unless they are to become perverted.

Pinkie, like Raskolnikov, is a warning of a type of nihilism- Raskolnikov warned the West of the dangers of Atheist nihilism. Greene through Pinkie warns us of religious nihilism and its dangers.

March 15, 2009

Badlands: a poetic memory


If Bonnie and Clyde is the vision of hippies with guns going across the thirties countryside of the south, then Badlands is a much more realistic account of what criminals are about and what they live for. Sissy Spacek and Martin Sheen's characters, Kit and Holly meet on the street: they fall for each other. Both of them are slightly simple- the combination is lethal. Firstly they kill Holly's father, then they go together on a murderous spree across South Dakota and Montana. The film is accompanied by vast panoramas of the American landscape- indeed it is one of the films that most perfectly captures the sheer size of the United States and the majesty of the far West, the plains and bare brush of the Badlands. Such landscape is counterposed against the triviality of what we see on the screen: a tale of murder might become a myth, actually it is tawdry and boring. When the two characters have sex for the first time, Holly wonders is that it? I thought the same thing about the film.

That question is the question that the film wants you to ask. These are not characters like Faye Dunnaway's Bonnie and Warren Beatie's Clyde- the definition of sixties cool- these are two misfits. A little girl that noone likes at school twirling her batons in the dust, a garbage collector with a ready wit and a lacivious imagination. As they go through America they keep on assuring us that they are having fun- but actually those desperate assurances are accompanied by no smiles but merely by boredom. That repetition from Kit- 'we're having fun' is like a drumbeat through the film that reminds us that they aren't having fun. They turn on each other throughout as well- by the end of the film, they are chained to each other, chained to each other and going down together to the end of the line where you get off through an electric portal.

Over above these images and brief dialogue (one of the great ironies of the film is that the two characters never talk to each other but Kit constantly tells Holly they have to talk about something or other) comes a narration. The narration is from Holly years into the future- and what that future Holly does in a sing song voice is turn the banal images that we are seeing into poetry. What Holly does is turn the mundane into a myth. She does that through using this wonderful poetic narrative- it is a beautiful monologue- Spacek does that perfectly. And Mallick the director fits that narrative in to present the entire film as a memory- a memory in which the true parts- the actual speeches and actions are real and boring but then you get this magical memory over the top. The magic of that memory takes the film from one damn thing after another and makes it a coherent story: Mallick does that and because he does that he directs a film which is both true and mythical. True because it depicts the mundanity of crime: mythical because it depicts the mythos of memory.

Of course the memory of the participants fuses with the image the outside world sees of them. The Bonnie and Clyde image influences the world of the film: Kit believes that he will be remembered, he will be someone through his crimes. And to be honest, we see at the end he is right- but what Mallick does is subvert that. He subverts the whole notion of what really exists and appears by showing the mundane as poetic through memory: but he also subverts the myth by demonstrating that the mythic story that the young people have created around themselves is a delusion. For them the murders have not happened- they are merely consequences, banal events. Martin Sheen in an interview attached to the DVD says that Mallick told him that his character killed people not realising the consequences- he told him to think when Kit killed someone that all that happened was that someone got in the way, and poof, a shot meant that they were no longer in the way. The narrative of their lives has no relation to the reality of their lives- Spacek's narrative too is unshocked by death and childish in the extreme- even though it is poetic, it is the poetry of a two year old.

So the myth here is a delusion, and the reality is banal. Mallick demonstrates to us both the power of the human mythic imagination: Holly creates a myth out of nothing as does the general public watching Holly and Kit from afar. Moreover that myth propels Kit and Holly into dark and desperate deeds, deeds which bind them together in a loneliness that they dislike on a road to a place that they do not wish to go- the grave is not such a fine place to embrace. The film is fascinating as a description of crime: but even more so as a description of how we shape our lives into narratives and how those narratives shape our lives. For Holly and Kit the narrative becomes the purpose of living- and the narrative becomes the means to maintain their blindness about the consequences of their crimes.

Plays and Decline

Livy is not merely a historian, he is a geneaologist of the customs and mores of the Roman people. We can see this trend within his history at its most explicit in the beggining of Book VII. Livy deals at this point with a fearful plague that struck Rome, carrying off amongst others Praetors, Tribunes and Marcus Furius Cammillus. The Romans as a way of stopping the plague sought to appease the Gods, they held a lectisternium, bringing out draped chairs from houses for the Gods. They then imported players from abroad, from Etrusca, to 'dance to the strains of the pipe without any singing or miming of songs', young Romans joined them 'exchanging jokes at the same time in crude improvised verse'. Livy takes a break from his main story and then tells us how the players gradually became mimers, and singers sang over their acting, and then how the customs degenerated into the 'folly' present in his own time. (VII 2)

It is easy to forget how ancient drama originated in religion- whether at Athens or at Rome, drama was a means of appeasing the Gods, appealing to them in time of need or even seeking to supplicate annually to them. Religious festival was a crucial part of Ancient Polytheism. But it is equally important to understand this practice as Livy wrote it, rather than as we might see it. For what emerged for Livy from Rome and Etrusca as a religious practice to confront a plague, becomes eventually a folly which draws in a licentious and libertine population. His argument is directed against the mores of his own day- plays originally began with a 'modest' purpose and now have been deformed. Livy, the traditionalist, sees the Republican era as holding within it a more credulous, more religious, less luxurious mentality: and the story of Roman drama allows him to make his point. Furthermore he ties the religious decline to increasing wealth- as the folly increased so did its proffessionalisation, so did young Roman nobles stop performing and the task fall to a variety of proffessional players. The shadows of the court of Augustus are present throughout Livy's work: here no less than anywhere else.

The story of drama in Rome is a means for Livy to show his readers how far Rome has declined. She has fallen from a pious and poor Republic, to an irreligious and rich Empire. Conquest, wealth and decline are tied together in an inexorable nexus that means that Rome's rise will be the cause of its fall.