May 07, 2009

Fathers and Sons

When Lucius Manlius was appointed Dictator at Rome he was hated for his harshness. Livy tells us that the tribunes plotted to bring down Manlius and in particular to use his son to do so. Manlius had sent his son away from Rome on account of the fact that his son had a speech impediment, he had forced him to do hard labour and to work in isolation 'practically in a prison or a penitentiary'. (VII 4). Amongst the leading tribunes accusing Manlius was a man named Pomponius. When Manlius junior heard of his father's plight though, he came to Rome armed with a dagger. He came into Pomponius's house, the servants believing that he came to aid their master destroy Manlius, but instead threatened Pomponius with death unless he swore to leave Manlius alone. Following this act, the accusations against Manlius petered out and the Roman populace respected the father for the son's sake and even elected the son to high office.

I suspect that this story may not be true- it sounds too picturesque to be entirely accurate- but it may be purposeless to enquire of its accuracy, we are hardly likely to ever be able to know whether these events happened. What I think is interesting though about the story is what it tells us about the attitudes that Romans had to parenthood. We see in this story competing values about parenthood emerge. Livy puts his own case for clemency towards the son through a rhetorical question: 'Should his father not have tried to help this natural infirmity if he had any humanity in him instead of castigating it and making it conspicuous through his persecution'. The question though betrays the anxiety which Livy believed motivated Manlius- the conspicuous disability threw dishonour upon the Manlian house and upon Manlius himself. Livy argues that persecution merely made such shame worse- rather than lessening it as 'helping' this natural infirmity might have done.

Disability was something to be ashamed of- but then so in this example is severity. It is worth also pointing out that Manlius's attitude towards his son came over into his attitude towards his state. Manlius treated Romans, like his son, as clay that might be moulded adequately or discarded. In this sense the story about parenthood which may sound quaint to modern ears is a vital revelation for Livy's audience of what Manlius was like as a statesman and why he should be criticised and possibly prosecuted. To treat your son like this and fail to ameliorate his problems, suggested that you would treat the state in the same way.

If Manlius's actions teach us a lot about his attitude to politics, then what of his son, what do his actions teach us? Manlius's son behaves with admirable pietas towards his father- this is the point at which Livy suggests to us that the son's love redeems and saves physically the father. Manlius's son also acquires honours through his actions- his physical imperfections are unwritten by his moral perfections. I think what is key here though is that Livy stresses the healing power of faith towards one's elders. In this sense the tale furnishes an example for parents of how not to behave and yet an example of unconditional childhood love that is supposed to redeem the parents. It is odd to consider in a culture where unconditional love is most often talked about flowing the other way, from parents to children, that Livy here talks about a situation in which unconditional love flows from children to parents (the love of the parent is conditional upon the success of the child in avoiding social stigma). The political implications of this are profound: if one links the idea of city or nation with that of father, or the idea of the ruling class with that of the father- I don't have time to explore the implications fully but it is interesting to find this tale nonetheless exploring that view.

May 05, 2009

Brighton Rock: the difference between film and literature

The film, Brighton Rock, is a masterpiece of British noir cinema- it is expertly photographed and filmed- but more importantly it has at its centre a thought about criminality that is worth considering. Brighton Rock has a murder at its centre- it concerns the cover up of the crime (which involves the seduction of a waitress Rose by the murderer Pinkie) and the investigation of the crime by a woman named Ida. The novel that the film was based upon is an intriguing work (I wrote about it here)- and very well written- and the film though its screenplay was written by Graham Greene too takes the same basic plot line and characters but does different things with them. In a sense the differences between the novel and the film show the different strengths of the two media- and how they can create different arguments in our head. Ultimately the film is not a lesser or better piece of art than the novel, but it is focused on different things: not so much the nature of Catholicism and guilt as the nature of crime. Both are about the internal situation of the criminal but the one treats his moral perdition and the second treats of his situation and its psychological consequences.

The film is about the latter. Pinkie in the film says at one point that he is not interested in love but interested in security: security from those looking for him for his crimes. What Richard Attenborough, playing Pinkie, does is give you a sense of the terror of being hunted. When the film begins he seems ultimately in control- but his control we see as the film goes on is very brittle. His control over his gang mates depends more upon sudden bursts of cold fury than it does upon real leadership. When we first see him, we get the sense of tense coiled control and aggression: but in reality what that aggression and control mask is a sense that the world is getting beyond him, a sense which is entirely accurate, the world, unlike the piece of string that he manically ties round his fingers, is actually not amenable to his own manipulation. Seeking for security, he keeps making mistakes that might lead to further insecurity. The irony is that the reason he has to secure himself is that he killed someone who did something he could not control which led to another disaster. In that sense Pinkie's crimes are merely pathetic- a failing attempt to safeguard himself.

Richard Attenborough plays Pinkie with sustained menace and frantic panic. He has the screen presence to control the pace of the film and its direction. The film narrows in on his face, the camera drawn to chart his emotions. Alongside him the members of the gang fade into the background, objects of his fear, contempt and eventual destruction. Ida the detective is much less of a figure than she is in Greene's novel. Rather Pinkie's antagonist is Rose- who he seduces into marriage and almost into a suicide pact. Rose embodies a different attitude to other people- whereas Pinkie is determined to secure himself from others and his Catholicism adds to his gloom- Rose is determined to live for others, specifically Pinkie, and her religion is ritual rather than guilt. Rose becomes central because she cannot leave behind the fact that Pinkie might be redeemed- she cannot ignore that idea and equally is willing to follow him anywhere- even at the expense of her religion and her eternal soul. Carol Marsh is charming, innocent and more importantly gets Rose's beneficence rightly. In a nice touch, whereas Pinkie greets every stranger with suspicion and manipulation, controlling the meeting, Rose treats every stranger with openness, ceding them control immediately of the situation.

I found the film very powerful- just as I found the novel. What the film does, that the novel cannot, is take you fully inside the situation. What it cannot do is deal with the complicated Catholic nihilism- the peculiar kind of religion that is irreligion- that the novel does deal with. In both works of art, the argument of the other is implicit but the nature of the work of art governs the message that can be delivered. What you have here is an excellent and interesting case of the way that films and books differ- not in the quality of what they deliver- but in the type of message they deliver. Brighton Rock is almost the perfect adaptation because it really does adapt the new work into another medium: rather than just putting the book on screen, or betraying the book, the film gives the story a new interpretation.

May 04, 2009

A Royal Family!

Throughout the last decade of the seventeenth century, Europe waited. The courts at Versailles, St Germains, St James and Vienna pondered upon the life of a young man in Madrid- Charles II of Spain- his death brought out into the open in 1700 the question of who would succeed to the Spanish crown and began a decade of unremitting warfare across Western Europe. Charles II has the dishonour of being the last Hapsburg king of Spain- after him the kings of Spain were princes of the House of Bourbon, from France. He was the last successor to an empire that had been founded back in the 15th Century and had thrived in the 16th century, even aspiring under Charles V some contemporaries feared to world domination. The story of how that empire came to relative decline and how its branches in Vienna and Madrid were sundered is a long one that involves a lot of detail about the comparative economic and military decline of southern Europe, particularly Spain, in the early modern period and the rise of her traditional enemy France. But that process was not aided by the fact that the last Hapsburg king of Spain was weak, feeble, ill and incapable (so his wife said) of reproducing. Why?

It is an interesting question- Charles II was definitely a sadly deformed young man. His lower lip did not quite meet his upper lip, he could barely walk in the last years of his life, was subject to delusions as his life finished, found speaking difficult (he did not learn how to till he was four) and was scarcely able to properly eat. Charles's conditions might seem like an accident- of course in part it was an accident of history- but on the other hand it was also the product of a strategy of marriages going back right into the beggining of the 16th Century. A new study estimates that Charles's diseases were the product of the Hapsburgs' desire to marry each other. Charles's mother and father were closely related and were also the products of interbreeding. His predecessors had also been effected by long years of interbreeding, their death rates were higher than the villagers they ruled over, despite living more pleasant lives, partly because of their susceptibility of disease. The famous Hapsburg jaw- jutting out under the mouth- was an inherited defect. The Spanish physicians diagnose from afar two particular diseases that they believe that Charles had, which explain his fairly unique clinical profile, pituitary hormone deficiency and distal renal tubular acidosis. To have two recessive genetic diseases may seem implausible but then the paper explains that Charles had a genetic interbreeding measure of 0.254 (interbreeding at the first cousin level produces a child with a measure of 0.0654) and that therefore it is not impossible or unlikely for him to have this rare combination of diseases.

What does this do though beyond illuminating the condition of poor Charles II? I think it actually is very interesting- and its important because of something that people often forget in their analysis of why families rise and fall- and that is the increasing chance of intermarriage that comes with superiority. The Hapsburgs ended up intermarrying so much when they had become supreme in Europe- before hand marriage as a strategy had earned them territory (for example the Southern Netherlands) but eventually their primacy created a situation in which there were few non-Hapsburg suitable partners for a Hapsburg prince. By 1500, their only peers were the monarchs of France with whom they were locked in war: is it any surprise that they ended up marrying each other. Marriage functioned for the Hapsburgs as a tool of status. Marriage for the Hapsburgs was a political strategy. In the short term it created their vast empires- for whenever a duchy's male line became extinct it descended through the female to the Hapsburg claimant. But in the long term, as their successful policy raised them above all other European Catholic rulers, they had to turn to marrying each other and that created the malign genetic inheritance that ruined Charles II's life.

All of this is only conjecture- even the researchers here admit that their research is conjecture- and my argument is conjecture based on conjecture therefore. But I do think it is interesting to consider how a strategy of marriage followed by the Hapsburgs led naturally to intermarriage and hence to disaster. If Charles II's life was not so tragic, we might be able to describe the demise of the Spanish monarchy as a kind of ironic comment on the centuries of Hapsburg marital policy.

May 03, 2009

Schimb Valutar

Exchange (Schimb Valutar) played tonight as part of the Rumanian film festival at the Curzon cinema in Mayfair. It is an important film- retelling the same Tolstoy story that L'Argent shows- but telling it in a very different way. The film is about a working class Rumanian who is fired from his factory job and so decides to go to Bucharest with money to get a visa for the western world- for Australia though the destination is not what matters so much as the opportunity. Unfortunately when he arrives he is quickly robbed of his money: a fraudulent exchange dealer takes his Rumanian money and gives him fake dollars. Emil is thrown on his own resources, he contemplates suicide, but eventually takes up with a prostitute, Lili, and becomes involved both in trying to find the man who robbed him and in attempting to find the money to get to Australia. The plot is dark but full of humour- there are moments of sweetness and moments of kindness- but the underlying tone is of sadness and regret, folly and mistakes.

The two main characters exemplify this. Both Emile and Lili are where they are because they have made mistakes. Lili followed her boyfriend to Bucharest- the boy vanished and the law student became a whore. Emile lost all his money to a crook and they find each other- as two lost souls amidst the detritus of the post Communist era. They find each other- and they enjoy each other's companies and predictably each other's bodies too. Lili is a force of life- caring naught for her condition and more interested in enjoying life. She finds solace in the joys of life: in the bottle at worst for alcohol she tells Emile will wipe out woe till the morning. Emile on the other hand evolves from brooding about his misfortunes, to finding an unethical way of coping with them- he evolves from sadness into sin whereas Lili never partakes of the first, and retains her fundamental human dignity. In that sense this is a drama about how to deal with misfortune and betrayel- the contrast between the two protagonists is the contrast between the way to deal with misfortune, confidently and 'looking on the bright side' or gloomily looking for a way to 'get even' with the world.

The relationship between the two characters is fascinating and is what the film turns upon. Emile looks up to Lili- her knowledge of the law is something he refers to as gospel truth, she can protect him or can seem to protect him at key moments- she knows the city in a way that he does not. What I found most touching about it is the way that he consults her: to take an example, they both come to the decision that it is kinder to lie to their relatives about what they are doing in Bucharest but whereas Lili makes up her lies herself, Emile has to check his with her to make sure that they make sense. There are several moments where you can see the genuine friendship between these two misfortunates come through- whether its drinking vodka and dancing in a bar, or sitting in Lili's little room joking about Emile's son and what he would be doing at that moment. Do not be deceived though for when they joke they do so in a world that is tawdry and sad- Lili's room is battered and bruised (as battered and bruised as both her and Emile's experience of the world).

This film is exciting and interesting- the characters drive it forward- but it is also a piece for its time. It is definitely a film that is post-communist. All sorts of touches are there which remind you subtly of the political situation of south eastern Europe at the moment- whether it is the fact that Emile's generation have to cope with the departure of the certainties of communism and desire to emmigrate to do so, or its Lili- one of the many thousand girls that have been exported across the frontiers of the old Soviet Union in the last few years to prostitution and worse in Europe and America- or its the surface gleam and greyer seam of Bucharest which could stand for so many capitals in that- the indications of the early twenty first century are there. They are not obtrusive but this is a film of its times- and definitely captures something of them, whilst using a source written by a 19th Century Russian and rendered into the language of cinema by a 20th Century Frenchman.

Communism and character and the way that social structures, morality and destiny interplay are all at the heart of this film. Like the Bresson film it is the relationship between the social and the single person is the centre of the film: exchnage is a fitting name for the film as in a sense it is all about exchange- the criminal exchanges on the streets of Bucharest and the more concrete exchanges in the houses off them. What I think is best about the film is despite the concentration on the central characters- the victims both of Emile's anger and his currency fraud- are clearly shown. In one touching scene, after he has taken his revenge on the poor sap who defrauded him, we suddenly realise that fraudster is probably as poor and desperate as Emile- and furthermore we see that even though he is a criminal, he is still loved and whether he deserves death, his family might not deserve to lose him. Emile's victims are also seen: he defrauds two old pensioners and you watch them just stand there on the pavement as the realisation comes that their life savings have just turned into nothing.

This is not a simple film: in some senses it is a film about the dangers of the delusion that crime pays, in some senses it is a film about coping with misfortune. The interest of the film is that it combines both- and in a sense- the way that they combine gives the film its absorbing power. This is a great and interesting piece of cinematic craft- and a testament to the health of Rumanian cinema. Like the Bresson film, it explores themes which are so profound that they touch the deepest cores of human nature, like the Bresson film it explores the nature of corruption and like the Bresson film there is a strong sense of doom about the end. That despite moments of glee the wages of sin is death.