April 02, 2009

The Damned United


The Damned United opens to the songs of Leeds supporters- it closes to the songs of Derby supporters. The film's power and drive lie in the narrative of the rivalry of these two clubs led by Don Revie and Brian Clough during the late sixties and early seventies. It also chronicles the almost manic devotion to success that Clough felt, the way that he set up Revie as an inspiration and later as a nemesis and the way that nothing came before that devotion to success nothing, his family or his long term partner, Peter Taylor. The narrative is separated into two parts- one half tells the story of how Clough at Derby became the most promising young manager in England, how he built a team of champions and how eventually he fell out with the board and was sacked. The second story concerns Clough's 44 days at Leeds United- a month and a half of disunion and disaster which culminated with Clough being sacked but becoming financially secure for the first time in his life (a fact that the film does not dwell enough on, though Clough later in interviews stressed it). The stories are told well but is there more to them- do these stories matter or is this a film only to see as a Derby or Leeds supporter?

The film unsubtly makes the point that behind all of this lies a love story between two northern males- giving film critics everywhere a chance to make an intellectual point. Essentially this film makes sense as a romantic comedy. Clough and Taylor are united at the beggining of the film- we see their partnership blossom and Clough's magnetism drive it onward and then, through stupidity, Clough throws it all away. At the last of course Clough becomes contrite and goes back to Taylor and apologises. Grovelling on the ground, he says sorry and the two men are united hugging at the end of the film in a spasm of emotional intensity. There is some truth to this account of Clough and Taylor's relationship but to be honest, it is nothing that we have not seen before on screen. There is a sense that this film loses out by relinquishing the individuality of the two men concerned: bar the fact that they were males with northern British accents, would this really have been out of place in a Hollywood romcom.

The other thing the film could and should be is an account of how Clough knit together a team at Derby and failed to knit together one at Leeds. To be honest again the real issue here is that we are shown the surface of both Cloughs. We are shown the Clough who at Derby nurtured his players and the Clough at Leeds who told his players to take their medals and put them in a bin. We are shown the Leeds players gathering in the background and intriguing against him- but we are never offered any reasons why Clough was an inspirational leader at one place and wasn't at another. We could all go into a dressing room and shout 'Come on', some people have a natural wit and intelligence, but few even of those are Brian Clough! The film doesn't have anything save the natural pieties to say about football management- this goes for Don Revie as well. Though the film captures Revie's family building- the way he would take all his players to bingo games- it shows that as mere illustration, not what it was a method (whether conscious or not) that bound together those young men- in some cases young thugs- into a team.

The performances in the film are fine: Michael Sheen slips into caricature as Clough occasionally, Timothy Spall does well as Taylor (though playing an impassive and goodhearted working class man is not that much of a stretch for the veteran of several Mike Leigh films), Jim Broadbent plays a caricature midlands chairman complete with plump cigar drooping from between his lips. All the cast are fine- but somehow the lack of definition within the film means that the performances do not add up to the sum of their parts. The Leeds United squad are a perfect example- the actors capture the characters well but never really get them to be anything more than thugs with Celtic accents. That means that we never really care for them- and with Sheen's caricature neither do we really care that much for Clough. It is an entertaining film- the performances make it that- and Sheen's Clough gives the laughs and the lines their due merit but its the deeper points, the broader contexts (you never get an impression of Britain in the seventies like you do for instance from Control), that you never get. Ultimately the Damned United is ok, but it is damned to be soon forgotten.

April 01, 2009

Onibaba


Two women live in a marsh. They are isolated from almost all other contact with the outside world. Their world, Japan, is torn by civil war anyway and armies march across the land- the swamp seems some kind of safe haven amidst the strife. But any samurai who strides into it risks everything- for the women are unable to make money by any other way than by murdering the samurai and taking their armour which they sell on to a local trader. The reality of their lives is pretty brutal and unpleasant. They live together on the floor of a one room hut and sleep on straw- they scurry about like beatles in the long grass and they risk continually being caught by those that they wish to capture (indeed one of the women is at one point almost killed by a samurai warrior that she meets). However they are tied together- without cooperation it is certain that both would die, without cooperation they could not kill in order to steal in order not to starve. Added to that though their lives are consumed by desire- the arrival of Hachi the best friend of the son of one woman and the husband of the other- is a knell of doom for both of them. The younger of the two immediatly falls in lust with him- his leering reminds the mother in law of a dog after a bitch- and both women animalistically desire Hachi almost immediatly. The desire creates tensions and those tensions ultimately lead to disaster.

When Hachi first enters the lives of the women they are sitting eating. The way they are eating at that particular point is significant- tearing strips of meat off a bone with their teeth. Hachi arrives as another carnivore with his and their object both being sexual desire for each other. One gets used in this film to the flowery poetic language of love being replaced by a brutal signification of desire- I want to sleep with you confesses the mother to Hachi after bearly meeting him. The other thing about this is the impermanence of the relationships- Hachi and the daughter in law enjoy moments of sexual extasy but there is no plan for the long term here- afterall what is the longterm in this environment but death. The only thing that seems long term is the neverending warfare erupting around them (which killed the son) and the swaying long tendrils of the grass which isolate these women from the rest of the world and confine their horizons to literally the fields that they live in.

Lastly it is significant to note the role of superstitition in the film: superstition is an adjunct to these lives. The girl believes in devils, her mother in law seeks to persuade her that these devils exist (it is the mother in law's way of persuading the girl not to visit Hachi in the middle of the night). Superstition is a means for the mother-in-law of convincing her daughter that the trysts in the night are not merely dangerous but they are sinful. Those superstitions are almost political devices- but what the director here shows is that whilst the supersitition is incorrect, the sense that the world is biassed against human beings is not. The very fact that the samurai blunder into this maze and never comes out reflects the vicarious nature of human existance- as does the conclusion of the film itself. In both cases it is the lusts of men and not the power of some deity that destroys.

Onibaba's title- Devil Woman translated from the Japanese- is meant ironically but it is also powerfully descriptive. This title is meant to tell us something about ourselves- it is meant to tell us that the film that we are about to see is a film about men and women as devils but also a film about how we can become devils. For these women, that cycle involves deprivation, narrowness and lusts- it involves the warping of sexual desire, animalistic sexual desire into animalistic rage and jealousy- inevitably producing a doom that swallows up everyone in a group in which to fail to cooperate is to die.

March 31, 2009

The Imperial Crown and the Union of the Kingdoms

Edward Freeman, the great 19th Century medievalist, wrote of the English Scottish relationship in the middle ages that 'the vassalage of Scotland was an essential part of the public law of the Isle of Britain'. Freeman spoke for many Englishmen throughout the centuries- restating a case that depended upon medieval precedent and was supposed to have modern implications. He and various other Englishmen including Francis Palgrave in the 19th and William Attwood in the 18th Century argued that the Scottish crown had always been a feudal possession of the English crown. Such arguments went all the way back to the days of William the Conqueror who had maintained that his Archbishop of Canterbury, Lanfranc, had sovereignty over the entire island. The argument of course was supported by historical precedents- both Henry II and Henry VIII had in different ways asserted their authority over the northern part of the island- and its importance was political. It both reasserted the unique status of the English crown- as an imperial crown raised above other sub-kingships- and it made clear that the British state was a continuation of the English state. Freeman and those who shared his ideas unwrote the union- turning it into an English empire.

For Scottish unionists that was an anathema. They attacked the argument historically- David Hume poured derision upon those who believed in such myths, suggesting that only amongst monkish historians and propagandist English kings could anyone find support for these fallacies. Hume, the pre-eminent enlightenment historian of Britain, argued that the only Scottish concession to English claims had been obtained under duress. He suggested that Scotland's history was free and independent of any English claims. Of course for Hume and other Scottish unionists this was vital: without Scottish co-eval status Scotland would descend into a conquered province. Without 1707, Scotland was threatened by an imperial England just as Ireland or other further flung parts of the world were. That claim developed into the 19th Century, as Professor Kidd shows, into an image that far from following the imperial crown of England, the Scots and English were part of two sister Kingdoms who had voluntarily allied together. Indeed Scottish unionists with a racial bent (a particular 19th Century ideological fixation) developed the argument that the Scots and English were the same people- both Saxon and indeed that the Scots were more purely Saxon than the English were. The antiquary John Pinkerton for example argued that Scots dialect was an older more Gothic dialect than English which had been perverted.

Union between the English and Scots was an alternative to English domination or conquest of the Scots as well as to Scottish independence. To understand the choice that the Scots in the early 18th Century made, we have to understand what they saw as the alternatives. Union was a statement of equality with the English- an attempt even to control the overmighty southern neighbour. Furthermore though it enables us to see how Scots responded to union- they sought to destroy and disparage the occasional English effort to reconceptualise the union as an English empire led by the Imperial Crown- they sought a sisterly union not an imperial relationship. In a curious way therefore, developing the idea of Scotland within the union meant developing a conception of Scotland outside the union, an independent nation with a history separate to England. That is one of the interesting ironies of 1707: the Scottish defence of union developed a Scottish history suitable for nationalists to pick up on later.

March 29, 2009

Parliamentary Authority? What Authority?


The Union of England and Scotland in 1707 is a fascinating moment in terms of the doctrine of Parliamentary sovereignty, there are two reasons for that. The first is that the Union in some senses has been taken in the past to limit British Parliamentary sovereignty- some have argued that the Union has the authority of a British constitution or a treaty between two international partners. The second, which I will discuss here, is whether the Scottish Parliament ever had the authority to sign the articles of union and subsume itself within a British Parliament. The arguments between those who believed that the Parliament could or could not deal with the English Parliament concentrated on what powers a Parliament might have- they came in the end down to status of the Scottish Parlaiment as it might dispose of property.

Essentially what we have in 1707 is an argument about the rights of property in a new union. There were broadly three positions that Scots took within this argument. For some like Robert Wyllie and earlier Sir George MacKenzie the Scottish Parliament could not overturn property rights on its own- and property rights included the right to vote and the right to be represented. As the Scottish Parliament could not do this, Wyllie demanded a referendum, MacKenzie suggested that every Scottish MP be accorded the right to veto the legislation should he so choose. A second answer came from Francis Grant (later elevated to the bench as Lord Cullen). Grant argued that the Scottish Parliament could not alter the rights under which Scots lived- but could like a landowner who bequeathed his estate through an entail which limited the rights of disposal of his heir- limit what the British Parliament might do to Scotland. The fact of inheritance in Cullen's mind changed the nature of Parliamentary power- it created a limited power for Parliament within Scotland.

Those were not the only arguments available to unionists though in 1707. The last argument was made by a group of theorists including the Earl of Cromarty, William Seton of Pitmeddon and David Symson and its implications for what a UK Parliament might do were revolutionary. Seton, Cromarty and Symson suggested that the Scottish Parliament was a sovereign body- what distinguished it from any other assembly was not its representative nature but its powers. Its powers meant that it could alter or dispose of the Scottish constitution and indeed of Scotland as it chose. Symson evoked the idea of eminent domain, borrowed from the Dutch political theorist Hugo Grotius- the argument that for the public benefit the sovereign could decide to annex and use any piece of land or property whatever the wish or right of the previous owner was. Using this argument, Symson argued that though the Scots had rights to representation in a Parliament, that Parliament might dilute them in any way it chose. Similarly Cromarty denied that there was any way in which sovereignty might be held to account for the actions it chose: if it was held to account, it would (he argued immitating Hobbes) not be sovereign. Seton agreed completely, rejecting the argument that Scotland was like a Poland an aristocratic confederation or a democratic government.

These last two arguments, about the competence of the Scottish Parliament, were the arguments most harkened to by politicians in 1707. The first of them- that the Scottish Parliament bequeathed to England a country by entail has disturbing implications- it implies for a start that Scotland, as some argued, might be a different constitutional entity within the United Kingdom from England. The second argument though is equally disturbing and interesting. Suggesting with Cromarty and Seton and Symson that the Parliamentary union of 1707 depends on the assumption that the Crown in Parliament has untramelled sovereignty to dispose as it wishes creates an unsettling thought: that the United Kingdom's Parliament may be a Hobbesian sovereign. In a sense it moves us to the real issue underlying all of this argument: the Union of 1707 was a device in part to stop the reemergance of religious warfare in the UK (through the accession of the Stuarts in the North of the island and the Hanoverians in the South)- it was part of a settlement that was created between 1688 and 1715 which created the modern British Protestant state.

Perhaps a secret about that state is that its creation involved the acceptance of untrammelled Parliamentary authority and perhaps when we discuss that state we ought to be more aware of the shadowy ghost of Thomas Hobbes stalking behind us. Perhaps, if Seton and Symson and Cromarty were right, the Parliamentary union between England and Scotland represented the solution to the problems of the 1640s: to avoid an arbitrary Catholic monarch, the United Kingdom became (for a time) an arbitrary Parliamentary dictatorship.