June 27, 2009


This review contains spoilers.

An image remains from Woyzeck, Werner Herzog's film starring Klaus Kinski, it is Kinski's soldier, Woyzeck, holding the body of a dying woman that he has just stabbed, her hands reach up to touch his jacket and smear his elbow with blood. On Kinski's face is a look of absolute horror, the look that tells you that no matter where this character goes- no matter what he does- this moment will stay with him for the rest of his life and he will be inhabited by it. Kinski's character has just murdered this woman because she was his wife and he suspected her of infidelity- in that sense Herzog is telling a story that is as old as stories and the world itself. Othello and Desdemona might tell the same story- yet here Woyzeck is correct, Maria his wife has committed adultery with a drum major. But that is only the beggining of the indignities poured upon Woyzeck's head- this is not a tale about jealousy, it is a tale about the slow disappearance of a man's mind under the pressure of hierarchy, under the pressure of being normal.

Lets go back for a moment, let me describe a key scene- the scene in which Maria commits adultery with the drum major. She makes him march up and down. She then strokes his arms and hands and proclaims them the arms and hands of a 'real man'. He fumbles with the top of her dress, feeling inside to her breasts and pronounces that she is a 'real woman'. Woyzeck of course is neither of those things- later on when he encounters the drum major, the young man flings him aside like a rag doll. The contrast between the vast and handsome drum major- a caricature of a manly man- and Woyzeck who apologises for his presense at every moment. The drum major runs his hands over Maria's breasts and forces her to accede to his sexual desires, whereas Woyzeck passes through his rooms and her house like a shadow, a ghost of a man who mumbles his entrances and exits, coming to present money but not romance and not even having a real role in the life of his son.

This makes it all the more ironic that Woyzeck's second major relationship in the film is with a doctor who wishes to examine what men are. He has been asked to eat peas for an entire year and nothing else. Woyzeck's humiliation in the service of science is a deadly business and it reveals two things. The first is the blindness of a scientist who concentrates callously upon the content of his experiment, ignoring its wider context. The doctor who does the experiments is not interested in Woyzeck the man but Woyzeck the specimen. The doctor's failure of interest is a moral failure- but more importantly it is a schematic failure. The doctor's role is to analyse and understand Woyzeck's madness- but of course what he misses is the danger of Woyzeck's depression. What Herzog therefore argues is that the doctor just like the drum major is complicit in Woyzeck's depression, by treating him as less than a man- and that unlike the drum major whose function is to seduce, the doctor fails in his function.

Like the doctor, the third major character that stands over Woyzeck is his captain. Again the issue is the captain's blindness to Woyzeck. The captain too is not really enacting his function- he gives a little speech, Flashmanlike, on the value of cowardice in the army (in that sense he is the opposite to the drum major). But furthermore the captain is offensive and ignorant about his subordinate- he treats Woyzeck when he shaves him as a screen to rebound ideas off and not a human being. In a sense Herzog in the relationship between Woyzeck and the captain is making a point about the alienation of workers from their employers- it is an alienation visible here in a hierarchical bureacratic system and reminds us that the responsibility of command is to contradict alienation, also that the most fatal critique of command is alienation. In a similar way to the doctor, the captain fuels the later crisis- in the doctor's case it was a failure of epistemology in a scientist, in the captain's it is a failure of pastoralism in a superior- in both cases, they betray in Woyzeck's case the definition of their role and their betrayel causes the terrible events of the later film.

The complexities of the film I think are complexities that Herzog diagnoses in modern society. This is meant to be a commentary on human life- in a sense Herzog is showing us that the consequence of repression is terrible. But it is also a commentary on the social and hierarchical relationships that enthuse society and drive repression. Woyzeck's life is ruined- he then ruins the lives of others but Herzog is much more interested in the first part of that phrase than the latter. Woyzeck's decisions happen inside his head: what could have been changed is the factors which led to them.

June 23, 2009

The Birthday Party (1968)

Roger Ebert wrote about the lead actor in this film of Harold Pinter's play in his review of it,

Thirty seconds after Shaw appeared on the screen, I was still waiting for his entrance.

Ebert gets the feel of this film exactly right- Shaw's character, Stanley, is so unsure at the end of the play of his own existance that he has lost his own ability to make a speech. Everything happens in this play somewhere else- every part of the story is not revealed to us. We see the spirals of the galaxy, the jagged edges of the star, but not the interior, not the thing that links together the story and makes it make sense. The story sounds simple: in a sordid building society somewhere in an English town ('on the list' (What list?) according to the landlady, lives Stanley. Stanley may have once been a pianist- or he may not have been- he possibly came from Maidenhead, at least that is what he tells us but we have no way of knowing that it is true and all the way through the film Stanley's ability as a narrator are cast in darkness. Anyway two men turn up, Goldberg and McCann who might know Stanley or might not. The landlady, Meg, tells them it is Stanley's birthday- they organise a party and after a grim drunken night, Meg ends up with a headache, Stanley with a mental breakdown and their neighbour Lulu loses her virtue.

So what's going on? Well lets start with something we can talk about and make sense about. The environment in which this film takes place ressembles somewhere that Pinter once stayed at. Its dirty and horrible- its the kind of boarding house that you can still find in places in Britain (I've stayed in one in Durham and one in Sheffield) and its not the kind of place you would ever want to go back to much. Slices of fried toast are the extremes of culinary perfectionalism, the tea is cold, the cups are dirty, there is dust everywhere and noone ever washes up anything. Stanley is there as a boarder and has been there for a year- and he looks it. His clothes are dirty and threadbear- he wears glasses that are off kilter and hasn't had a shave in a month. Meg is also dirty, fat and disgusting- her jowels almost have another unkind part in the film. She is a stupid and yet bossily arrogant woman whose breezy sensuality is that of a fetid rotting corpse. Her husband Petey, with one exception at the end, has turned from a man into a shell- nothing lives inside him save the ghost of his own resignation to the fate and foilibles of life. Into this come Goldberg and Mccann- the one the very exemplar of cheap charm, the other a gloomy sullen Irishman.

I have moved from environment to manner- and in a sense the film allows us to do that- though let us be in no doubt that whereas Petey and Meg might have some reality to them, Goldberg and Mccann perform rather than exist. Goldberg is he tells us an expert on the neccessary and the possible- at least he tells Lulu as he seduces her- the neccessary comes before the possible he states and in a sense both he and McCann are possible performances of neccessary characters- they develop out of themselves but they are themselves merely performances. Pinter draws attention here to the artificiality both of personality and of the distinction between the character that we create and the character that we are- cleverly the film creates both the sense that character is and is not fully formed. Perhaps though it is with Stanley that the film's development of character is most important: William Friedkin the director coaxed out of Robert Shaw the actor one of the great performances of all time in this film.

Shaw's performance alternates between fear, agression, flirtation, bemusement and finally nothingness. He is able to portray a man who is insistant about his own identity ('do you know to whom you are speaking' he asks Meg) and yet who by the end of the film, through some horrifying moment, is completely broken down, positioned like a doll in the suit and ready to be sent to the Kafkaesque Monty. Stanley in a sense is an everyman- the moments where the film is seen through someone's eyes it is Stanley's eyes it is seen through. We receive a point of view shot from his perspective both when he loses his glasses and when temporarily he loses his sight- in this sense he represents all of us, guilty because he has a past and that past is not one he favours recalling. Stanley draws our attention to the disgusting environs, he reacts without lying (see Goldberg) or illusion (see Meg) but by realising how awful a state he is in, sitting in a boarding house drinking cold tea. In a sense he is an existential hero- a hero whose existance is in peril and because we know so little about him- this pianist down on his luck- and all we know might be lies- his peril is that that confronts us all, the moment when character dissolves into memory, when psyche dissolves into subconscious Jungian imagery.

I cited Kafka above- and he is the spirit of European literature who most reminds me of this film. Josef K was woken from his bed by investigators, Stanley is interrupted at breakfast- but the motif is the same. The political subtext may be obviously antitotalitarian (and is particularly good on C.S. Lewis's bete noir the medicalisation of political discourse- in that sense Lewis's NICE and Pinter's Monty anticipate the ghastly psychiatric wards of Soviet Russia)- though there are things I do not understand about that, why Goldberg and McCann are Jewish and Irish, whether the fact that they belong to an organisation denotes that Pinter envisaged the privatisation of terror, what the link between sexual corruption and political corruption (a deliberate swipe at Orwell's 1984 no doubt in which puritanism is the handmaid of totalitarianism) is. I do not pretend to understand this or understand the plot on the first point but I hope this article has tempted you to watch this film and work it out for yourself.

June 21, 2009

Suicide in the Middle Ages: Volume 1 The Violent against themselves

Suicide in the Middle Ages is not easy to detect. Societal stigma and legal prohibition meant that families and friends were eager to conceal a suicide rather than reveal it. Alexander Murray in his history of suicide in the medieval period therefore sets himself a harsh and possibly impossibly exacting task: to summarise the levels and types of suicide and compare them to modern suicide rates and early modern ones. This task is one that he partially succeeds in performing- and yet what he does has to be seen against the context of an evidence base that omits to record suicide more than it exagerrates its incidence. Murray is conscious of this problem and his book, unusually, is not divided by theme or by chronological period but by type of source. He suggests that there are three basic sources that record suicide in the Middle Ages: the historical chronicle, the legal text and the religious memoir. These three sources have different characteristics and their authors different interests- none of them are interested per se in suicide as a topic in the way that a modern psychologist might be- but all of them were interested.

If Murray's history is led by its sources, then one of its most interesting aspects is what it tells you about those sources. So for example, he writes clearly and interestingly about the distinction in the volumes of legal sources that he comes up with. Most of his legal sources come from the English Coroner's roles and judicial eyres- the coroner, an office created by the crown, and the eyre, where a judge was sent to a county to make sure that local justice and national justice were the same, were both creations of a mighty royal power. English absolutism (if I may be forgiven for the anachronism) was the source of a fertile legal record which contains the majority of Professor Murray's cases. French courts though too yield up records to him but the different nature of the powers of the French crown- governed largely by the fact that it had within it a dukedom that was held by another King (Normandy)- mean that the record in France is very different. It is largely twofold- the legal records of Abbeys attempting to preserve their jurisdictions and that of the French crown, seeking to entrench a right of appeal to Paris in its remote comital provinces. In Italy and Germany the distinct nature of politics there means that legal records are those of towns. Ultimately the structures of medieval monarchy- the fact that the property of the suicide went to the crown- and the differing interests of those courts whose records survive in protecting or defeating the powers of the crown govern their explicitness about suicide. Even there though the information reported is only the information that the court deemed interesting: Murray's frustration is evident when he records that an English court was more likely to report the value of the items used to commit suicide than the motive itself.

Clerical records are sparcer but give more in the way of motivations- chronicles seek to deny that suicide existed at all (save for in the cases of the parvenu). Professor Murray's thorough examination of his sources is too his credit- as is what he finds there. He finds story after story of medieval suicide- much of which shines a fascinating light on attitudes and mores within the period and countries that he anatomises. For example there is the story that Caesarius of Heisterbach tells about a nun who fell in love, refused permission by the sisters to leave the order, 'driven by her grief' she died by jumping down a well. Murray evaluates these sources rigorously- for instance he argues that bad stories are better than good ones if they are placed in a clerical account to prove an argument. A 'bad' story that does not fully suggest the moral or suggests it alongside other elements may be evidence that the monk in question was using a real moment, too good a story which fits the moral too well may suggest that the writer was elaborating too much. Murray finds time to make excursions into medieval social history in general- commenting for example that stories about miracles took off as government fell away, particularly miracles about the capture and punishment of criminals. He writes as well perceptively about the Judas myth and the way that that presented a useful hook for writers to hang suicide upon: Judas Iscariot was a type of suicide that others could resemble and that reminds us of the importance of scripture in even forming the accounts that we are left. Also interesting is the way that he beleives that women are hidden in our sources: how much more shocking than suicide was a suicidal woman.

Murray's last two chapters cover what might be said about the statistics of suicide in the Middle Ages. Based on the judicial eyre of Essex in the 14th Century he comes up with a tiny figure of suicides per head of population- 0.88- a figure which he admits is unrealistically low and maybe because of the tendency of the justices on eyre to ignore reporting on a whole county, concentrating on the major roads alone instead. He does bring some interesting detail to bear though- for example about the time of suicide and how it tied into the sequences of harvest and crop yield. One fascinating thing is that he draws out the methods of suicide and suggests that methods of suicide have remained constant as proportions of overall suicide figures- or at least did from the Middle Ages to the 19th Century- with something like 50% of suicides being hangings for example. Ratios of suicide to homicide are fascinating: Murray implies that the ratio was very low in the Middle Ages- though also suggests that that may be deformed (what better way of suicide for a knight than charging recklessly into battle!) Furthermore using evidence from the 16th Century and 20th Century Italy, he suggests that suicide may rise with intrusive government. He plucks sex ratios as well from his evidence- suicide ratios seem to be fairly constant with relation to sex until the modern era, with more men dying than women by a ratio of about 2 or 3 to 1, that only now seems to be changing (perhaps a cost of sexism is increased male suicide?). There are interesting points to the statistics- but you cannot help feeling that the samples are too small. There are for instances only 100 suicides for which we can know the occupation of the suicide. Family data has to be deduced from who was the first person on the scene to find the suicide and so on.

These flaws are not Murray's but flaws within the evidence. Overall this is a fascinating book. It is of course the first in a trilogy and to some extent judgement should be withheld until the rest of the trilogy is complete- but this is a good begining. As to another important concept which Murray does not fully explicate- he begins his volume by stating that suicide may have risen in the modern era and hoping that the medieval sources might tell us why. He does not really and probably cannot actually answer that question- even though he suggests (against much current scholarship) that suicide as well as reporting of suicide rose into the sixteenth century. It is also worth noting here Murray's style: he is one of the most charming guides to the landscape of the forlorn that I have ever come across. As a historian he combines erudition, passion and obvious wit- so much so that it is easy to forget the flimsy evidential basis upon which he has to rely. This is a fascinating and important book- the general conclusions are interesting, but it is the anecdotes, the faces in the crowd of suicides that Murray necromances from the grave that I will remember. Last and most important amongst the lessons Murray has to teach is perhaps one that we often forget, that the people of the past were people and that the costs and perils they faced were as real as ours.