April 18, 2009

Dressing up

Dress in ancient Rome as in the modern day is a form of language. By dressing the way I do I mean to tell you something about myself that I think you ought to know. It is significant that in societies like Orwell's 1984 where the individual is reduced into the collective dress is made more uniform- that is even true today in modern offices where workers are supposed to be interchangeable to the outside world, again dress is circumscribed. Dress is a language and it communicates to those who see the type of clothes that we wear what we are doing, who we are and what we think. As a language, it has conventions- we might call those conventions the fashions of the day. Amongst those conventions are conventions about the kinds of dress each gender wears.

In that sense, this review of a book about Roman female clothes is very interesting because it points out, using evidence from the reviewed book, the kind of things that women in Rome were keen to say and were taken to say through the way that they dressed. Women in Rome were trying to protect their reputations both as women of style and as women of virtue: they trod a tightrope in terms of the way that they dressed to avoid the accusations of boorishness and prostitution. Just as interesting are the other associations that came with clothes: transformations in scientific technique means that we are less likely to do this, but in Ancient Rome cosmetics were associated with poison. To devise and wear perfume was an art close to that of the poisoner-the same skills and often the same substances were involved. In that sense the woman who over emphasized her sexuality through clothes and perfume became a prostitute and a poisoner.

Of course there are other societies with other ways of viewing clothes- and male clothes too are significant. But ancient Rome reminds us of the importance of what we wear as a signifier of who we are- and the history of those signs is important if we are to understand the nature of the societies in which the people wearing the clothes lived.

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.

April 13, 2009

Brian's Britain

Bagehot, the Economist columnist, is normally an interesting guide to British life and politics. This week he attempts some movie criticism and falls below his normal standard. He argues that there is a movement of mood away from the complacent and irritating world view of Richard Curtis- something this blogger fundementally agrees with- but towards a gloomier and dystopian view of the world encapsulated in the film, the Damned United. I agree with him about Mr Curtis's films which I have never seen as anything more than a fairground view of Britain, sold to American tourists- though as the box office figures so far this year indicate, Bagehot is wrong to assume my countrymen agree with me: the Damned United has taken less so far than the Boat that Rocked. I disagree with him about the Damned United and consequently about the mood he identifies as changing- the Damned United is not as good nor as grimy as the Economist columnist believes it to be. The fashions of the clothes are different but the Damned United is no Mike Leigh film- it is a feel good movie looking back nostalgically on the achievements of Clough and accepting without qualification his view of Leeds United as a cynical team: the film is about the escape from the seventies not its return.

I have reviewed it already on this blog and so don't feel the need to do so again. This point has been made in other places notably for example in the Guardian, where the film's producer noted that it is a film 'with an upbeat ending... an enjoyable experience'. As Owen Gibson for the Guardian argued the film was 'more Carry on Cloughie than... Yorkshire Heart of Darkness'. That contrasts to the book but it is important to remember when you read Baghot's piece that the Damned United fits much easier into the Richard Curtis mode than say a darker and more interesting period piece about the seventies, Control, does. Understanding trends in culture is important- if the British are becoming more gloomy that has implications politically and economically for the country and for the world but I do not think you can derive those conclusions from this piece of fluff. The danger is that reading a film through its subject matter- ie the dark times of Clough at Leeds as chronicled in David Peace's book- can lead you to misunderstand the mood of the country that made the film popular.

Far more interesting might be the approach which took Control and considered why it released in October 2007 took 2.4 million dollars Uk wide in that year, whereas the Boat that Rocked has taken 2.7 million already this year and the Damned United has already taken 2 million! Indeed looking at the box office figures, the top ten films this year in the UK are Slumdog millionaire, Bolt, Marley and me, He's just not that into you, The curious case of Benjamin Button, Confessions of a Shopaholic, Role Models, Gran Torino, Bride Wars and my Bloody Valentine- there are some good films there but it scarcely indicates the nation's movie tastes are getting grimmer- there is a whole pillow full of fluff in those top tens to assure me that the reign of Curtis is not over yet.

April 12, 2009

Bob le Flambeur: Life is a gamble

French directors immediately after the war and right into the sixties and seventies preserved the look and feel of Paris for future generations. The Paris after the war with its difficulties, poverty and crime, its glamour and nightlife is more real to us than many places in the world today are thanks to the films that were made in, around and about it. One of their tendencies though is to use the vocabulary of American cinema- the thought of Hollywood- to describe the reality of postwar Europe. Goddard in Breathless for example has a hero who dresses and acts like Humphrey Bogart and a heroine who is actually American. You see in these films America as the land of opportunity and cinema that it really was after World War Two- the land of imagination, the dream of what Europe might be- glamorous and free. One of the idiosyncrasies of the films of this period is that they created a Paris of dreams, but they did so by using an America that the directors and actors were dreaming about. Of course that dream died across the period as the political left in Europe became more and more disillusioned with the states- and it was always more subtle, taking its standpoint from an admiration from that most tragic and unAmerican of genres- Film Noir- but it existed.

Jean Melville's Bob le Flambeur (Bob the Gambler) is one of the original French films which drew from Hollywood. The first name of the protagonist is a clue- Bob is hardly a normal French name. It is set in Paris- in Montmartre amongst the crooks and whores. They gather around in cafes. The film begins with Bob, a compulsive gambler, touring the cafes- where he meets various of his friends including Palo, a kid whom he has taken under his protection and a police officer that he knows. He also meets for the first time Anna, a young girl roaming the streets. Bob takes in Anna- though it is Palo who ends up having a relationship with her. The stage is set. The next steps are that Bob loses money at gambling and learns of a heist that he might take part in- he organises getting the backing for it (in a further borrowing the film has become the basis for films like Ocean's 11) and the heist is revealed to the police. The stage is set for the final denouement.

Of course to tell the story is not to explain the film- there are a number of interesting things going on here that deserve discussion. The first is the way that Bob as a character operates. Bob is addicted to gambling. He even has a fruit machine in his room at home- just so that he does not have to stop gambling at any moment. What Melville shows is that Bob cannot be defined by his gambling- his ethos is a strict one- he hits Anna, he pushes away pimps and tells Palo that involvement with them will terminate their friendship. Bob's addiction controls him- he cannot think of anything else whilst at the tables with dice and money. He cannot even think about the amount of money that he bets- placing more and more on the table. Rushing from a win on a racehorse to a game of cards- maintaining everywhere a quiet dedication to gambling. This addiction is one to a set of games that he more often than not loses- but it is in the nature of a compulsion, one does not get the sense that he always enjoys it, merely that it is an itch that he has to touch.

Bob of course has comrades. Men he has known for years including a police inspector- who accept him with a fatalism. Bob is a gambler- that is what he does. Perhaps his principle companion is Palo. Palo is an interesting character- a ladies' man, charming, smooth and stupid. Too stupid not to tell his girlfriend Anna of what the men might be about to do. Bob has been imprisoned- he was imprisoned for 20 years by the French state- Palo though has not and whereas Bob stays away from pimps and the like, Palo consorts with them. Bob's code is something that he tries to pass on to Palo- tries to get him to see. In many ways one senses that Bob is what Palo might become- Palo is what Bob was. In a sense there is a touching relationship between them that resembles one between a father and son. But Palo is not alone- there is the police inspector who sees Bob as an old friend and companion and tries to warn him that the police are on his tail, there are a multitude of old friends who share a certain sense of morality as well as a desire to gamble. There is Mark, who Bob despises for being a pimp and then there is Anna.

If Bob is a gambler with a compulsive itch, then Anna is a different kind of character. Played by Isabelle Corey (who was 15 when she starred in the film), she projects an amazing sensuality. She is flirtatiously waiting for a 'sugar daddy' to make her fortune. She has an innocent carnality and is willing to fall into bed with any man who will offer her something in return. Her carnality is innocent though- for though she knows corruption, she seems unaffected by corruption. There is a hint of amusement lurking in her eyes- a girlish laugh about and with the world that she inhabits in. She knows what men are- thinks that Palo when he talks of a robbery must be exaggerating to get her into bed and only later realises that she has given vital information away. What Bob spots about her and what we I think are meant to spot is that Anna stands on the brink of becoming a gangster's moll- she stands on the brink of disaster. Like Palo she may be dragged into this seedy world. Bob's protection is ineffective: like Palo (and like Bob before them both) Anna does not care enough for the future to sacrifice the present. She goes through life in cheerful resignation to reality.

The world of the cafes and the bars- the dice and the games- reminds us that life is a gamble. Every character here has staked his or her life on a turn of the dice. Ultimately this is what makes the film into something of a noir- the fatalistic mood reminds you of great American films of the 1940s. But in Bob it is extended to the old and the female- consequently it is extended into the family: Bob, Palo and Anna constitute a kind of family unit and what you see is the older member of the family warning the younger about the path that they are about to take, warning them that the gamble always beats the gambler. Bob the Gambler is the best person to talk about this: and even as he keeps gambling so he instructs others to keep away- but even as they keep living they keep gambling.