August 21, 2009

Open your Eyes


Open your Eyes begins with Penelope Cruz's voice waking you into the film- it closes with Cruz's voice asking you to lapse back into the film again. The first and last image therefore that my imagination presented itself with was that of a beautiful girl leaning over and waking me up from a long sleep. It is a fitting image to discuss this film with because it conveys the two issues that this film is focussed on- the relationship between men and women and its relationship to beauty- and the coils of a story that never stops becoming more and more intricate. The first I suggest is satisfactory- the second less so. But I run before my horse to market: the film concerns Cesar, a young man, whose parents are dead and who has therefore inherited all the money in their catering firm. He is stunningly handsome and makes it his business to never sleep with a woman more than once- once bedded they are discarded. His friend Pelayo, who is less handsome and unsuccessful with women, makes the mistake of bringing his latest girlfriend Sofia to a party that Cesar is holding: Cesar as part of avoiding his previous conquest Nuria seduces Sofia away from Pelayo and stays the night with her. The next morning however Nuria persuades him to get into a car with her, and drives off crazily to commit suicide- during that process she does not kill Cesar but leaves him disfigured. As a disfigured man he finds that Sofia rejects him, he rejects Pelayo and from there on in, I think its worth leaving you to discover the story.

One of the themes here naturally established is that someone's looks are what establishes their romantic viability. I have never noticed that to be untrue in my dealings both with men and women- despite what we say, looks count for more than anything else in the ways that we assess potential mates. Cesar exposes like Dorian Gray does in Oscar Wilde's novel that human beings are much more focussed on looks and superficialities than on anything else in any sphere of life. Love, work indeed almost every relationship between human beings are based upon externalities which do not necessarily have anything to do with the rather false ideas of moral worth and hidden virtue: virtue we learn in this film is a social concept as is worth- you are worth what others esteem you as and insofar as you disagree with them, your role is not to rage against the world's judgement but to accommodate yourself to it. In part this is a critique of society in its technical and wide sense- ie society as a group of people living together. But in reality it is not a critique at all: to state a fact is not to critique or argue against it. The ugly like Pelayo must accept that they are second class citizens in a world given to the beautiful- it is Cesar's refusal to accept his later disfigurement and its consequences for him, his relegation through the social hierarchies that causes problems.

The story is about more than the effects of beauty on the world. It also whirls into a story about dream and perception- the question continually confronts you from Cruz's first words. We wake up in order to perceive the world- we wake up to truths and ideas and we are caressed into believing certain things- as is Cesar through whom we view the story. The development of these ideas is cleverly and cunningly managed. I found particular sequences which tread the boundaries between reality and fantasy brilliantly realised. It demands a lot of the two female actors involved- they have to keep within character and yet play different characters. Cruz does this very well indeed- she manages to be both accepting of Cesar's advances and later cold and then warm to him but the stand out performance in this regard I thought came from Najwa Nimri playing Nuria. The shift in performance that she has to make and make realistic is incredibly demanding- the technical challenge of shifting so slightly from madness to sanity, from malevolence to warmth is something that I think very few actresses could do. Cruz's part in a sense is easier- to imagine a girl who has a manner to reject as well as to accept advances is easier than to imagine a girl whose character is in flux as much as Nimri's is is. The actors reinforce then the confusion in the mind of Cesar and in the mind of the audience- but what they cannot do is atone for an over-neat summing up. If there is a fault in the film it is that some questions may be more interesting if they are not answered and the audience is puzzling over them than if they are answered: one might say the American film Donnie Darko has the same problem, what started interestingly, ends sillily.

Open your eyes serves a third purpose. More and more I think films are attempting (see David Lynch's recent effort) to chart the language of dreams- to put dreams in front of our conscious minds and see what we make of our own mental languages. I think Open your Eyes attempts to do this- the characters may be waking up but we in the cinema may be waking into sleep. THe film in that sense represents a heightened dream. Its an idea that haunts the film- Cesar is always dreaming, Sophia is Pelayo's dream woman, etc. The film itself has a dreamy quality to it- the stars are the epitome of beauty, Cesar's face is the dream of handsome openness replaced by a configuration that resembles a drawing of the beast. Film has always been an art of aspiration from the musicals of the thirties onwards and I think this is picking up on that artistic camoflage- pointing out that beauty hides worms and malignancy. If this is true of people, it is also true of industries. Art is an industry- an industry that like our tales of dreaming and our tales of reality knits together realities into a sequence. Like a dream, which takes realities and puts them together with a string that is invented, art does the same thing. It takes realities and rearranges them- whatever is a critique of reality thus functions as well as a vindication of art, of the art of reimagining life. If reality is a dream, then we are faced with choices between alternative dreams- one of which is an artistic one./

Open your Eyes is imperfect. I was not happy with an end which Donnie Darko like manufactured coherence- but there is so much here to enjoy, so much to love. The acting is wonderful, Cruz is luminous, the ideas are good until the end and the cinematography is wonderful.

August 19, 2009

Helen


Helen is not an ordinary film. It is not an easy film. But it is a film with a great deal to say which says it sparingly in a short expanse of time. Helen is about an absense. At the heart of a film is a girl who has vanished called Joy. Joy went missing one day walking through the local park. The police decide that the best way to find her is to stage a reconstruction and hope someone has seen her since the event. They find at the local school, which Joy attended, a girl called Helen who looks like Joy, with the same frame and the same hair. They dress her in Joy's clothes and begin leisurely filming a reconstruction of what happens- we do not see much of the filming but this is in a sense the positioning which gives us our story. Helen is an odd character- she was brought up in a care home- she has no knowledge of her parents, neither do we, and no knowledge of what she is going to do. She addresses us in stilted dialogue and reveals very little of herself- save perhaps for a desire to be loved and a desire to be someone else. Slowly as she acts out Joy, talks to an imagined Joy in her head and meets people in Joy's life- Joy's boyfriend, Joy's parents- she is faced with a choice, whether to become Helen or to become Joy. The film focuses on that choice and what that choice means.

One aspect of that choice is that the two girls are interchangeable. Joy's boyfriend eventually kisses and it is implied, sleeps with Helen. Joy's parents invite Helen around to their house and help her with her mathematics and try to take an interest in her. Helen begins speaking to Joy in her head and keeps on telling us not merely her own views, but Joy's views- views which she would not neccessarily have any access to. Furthermore she starts articulating expectations of Joy's future movements- starts imagining where Joy might be- starts implying a link between the two girls. Her acceptance of her role is likewise suggestive- she stands in a line up and the film makers angle their camera like a passport camera upon the faces of various teenagers, they are all possible for the part and all look passively back at the officers- any of them could do it, Helen does and when she gets the role, she reacts with a lack of enthusiasm, a passiveness that denotes her interchangeability. A human being without interests and passions is an interchangeable item in a sea of other passive faces.

Items though is what the filmmakers think our society treats individuals as. All the figures of authority in the film are kind and condescending. A policeman at the beggining and a social worker at the end assure their 'customers' that they want them to control the process- ask us when to stop. A policewoman at the start assures her audience that the world is big but its not bad. Teachers talk about love welling up through a community. The world is filled with shiny happy people- all of whom are interchangeable. As noone is special, everyone is a cipher. To love, these figures seem not to grasp, is to particularise. You cannot be generally benevolent, you have to be specifically benevolent to be truly kind. This is perhaps most memorably seen in the film in one exchange where a teacher asks her pupils for their dreams- as soon as a pupil gives their account of their foremost ambition, the teacher moves on to the next pupil having said that the dream was good. The general rules of behaviour and sanitised conduct obscure the real relationships that we as human beings have to feel in order for our lives to have any meaning.

Helen is just a kid. So like all children- or young adults- she makes her choices at a time when her identity itself is in flux. In a sense Helen is the ultimate result of an identity less world- a world in which each person is encouraged to see themselves as a democratic unit, equal to and the same as any other person. However her particular openness to this possibility results from her lack of a family, her lack of a real background and history. She is in a sense noone- and Annie Townsend who plays her gets the sense that Helen has of tentativeness. Incidentally Townsend's performance is a very promising start in cinema- this girl has potential. What she captures in Helen is a reticence, a reluctance and a straightforwardness that lend all her responses the quality of terseness and also allows the character to grow through the story. Helen becomes more assertive as the film goes on- more willing to stand forwards. The writers have here developed a very perceptive point: that even being picked out to act as another girl in this scenario is being picked out, that in a sense it is a distinction of a kind and therefore gives the orphan confidence in herself.

The acting is spare in this film. Critics have criticised it for this as though it were a fault- Robert Bresson, a greater director and critic of film than I or any modern critic could claim to be, would demur. The actors are blank for a reason- they convey the duplicate nature of humanity and the falseness of the public emotional scenes that they are forced to play. This is a film set in public spaces- with a couple of exceptions (Helen's scenes with Joy's parents and boyfriend) the scenes are all public, a policeman and a couple after their daughter's disappearance, scenes in schools, scenes between strangers. Such public scenes are where the language of general benificence triumphs most- such are where the blank spaces of modern life, blank emotional spaces, fill gaps between our private lives. In a sense the film points us to this central fact- that our private lives mean more than our public lives. But it also points us towards the ways that the language of our public lives has become anodyne and unemotional- in a post-religious, post-ideological age all that is left is the blank faces of shiny happy people.

August 17, 2009

Agricola's upbringing

Tacitus makes only the briefest of comments on Agricola's upbringing but what he says is interesting. He pauses to tell us that Agricola was brought up in Massilia, a place where 'Greek refinement and provincial puritanism are happily blended' (Agricola ed Mattingley 1970 para 4). And then he tells us something that might seem strange:

he would often tell us how in his early youth he was tempted to drink deeper of philosophy than was allowable of a Roman, and a future senator, but his mother, in her wisdom, damped the fire of his passion.

Philosophy is here the equivalent of a youthful dose of marujana. Tacitus's comment does deserve some thought because we see a life of scholarship as a preparation for life as a whole- in a sense we are as Victorian as our ancestors who believed that conjugating verbs in Jowett's Baliol was a fit preparation for ruling India. Tacitus obviously partly disagreed.

It is not that Tacitus saw philosophy as an unmixed evil- he tells us that it taught Agricola equanimity and plenty of ancient writers from Plato through to Boethius raphsodised on its merits for the ruler. But for Tacitus, using an Aristotelian metaphor the mean was everything and the extreme nothing. Notice that the metaphor that he uses for philosophy is that of alcohol- reasoning like wine could divert the Roman aristocrat and render him incapable of providing his basic service to the state. Philosophy is a diversion and one inappropriate to those too young to grasp its subtle doctrines. Perhaps there is also a hint here that philosophy is dangerous- perhaps a hint that it can seduce the young mind away from other more worthy matters and that bad philosophy may drive out good. Philosophy is also foreign- in the passage cited Tacitus associates it with Greece not Rome- with decadence and not provincial puritanism. For a historian and philosopher who looked back with envy on the early republic the position of his craft- a product of luxury and decadence- was always an ambiguous one. I think this passage concerning Agricola brings that aspect of Tacitus's thought out.

August 16, 2009

Crimes, Follies and Misfortunes

Eulogies indeed were written by Arulenus Rusticus and Herennius Senecio- the one of Thrasea Paetus; the other of Helvidius Priscus. But both were treated as capital offences and the savage fury of their enemies was vented upon the books as well as the authors. (Agricola para 2 trans Mattingley London 1970)


We have seen that history is naturally subversive of the currents of popular opinion- it tends to attack the envious and support the admiring and this, as Tacitus dryly notes, is contrary to human nature. What we are yet to explore is the way that the Republic and the Empire produce different reactions to history, to that disturbing admiration. Tacitus offers us a clue here. Imperial censorship is a means of allowing the 'enemies' of eulogy to thrive- the plural is important, Tacitus is not arguing that censorship proceeds merely from the throne but that the throne and the people unite to exploit its prerogative in order to crush eulogy. Tacitus was fully aware that despotism rests upon consent as much as any other regime and that is not his quarrel with it: rather his quarrel with it is what it does to the people under its command, as we are to see. This point though is crucial and important- histories cannot be written under the empire not because the tyrant will object but because those that do object now have the prerogative powers to attack histories.

Tacitus enlarges on this later in the same passage: he links the burning of books to the fact that the Romans under the Empire are 'robbed... by informers even of the right of exchanging ideas in conversation' (Agricola para 2 trans Mattingley London 1970). The image that he presents is, as typical with Tacitus's understanding of the imperium, truly terrifying. Human thought and life has turned to become an internal activity rather than an external one: tyranny means that the only thing left to the Roman subject is their 'memories', they have lost their 'tongues' (Agricola para 2 trans Mattingley London 1970). Tacitus's portrait of this process is not meant merely to illustrate a situation but to teach us about what that situation does to the population who live under it. The student of empire must analyse the effects of the imperial system upon the people who live under it- we have seen they are silenced and that they consent to the prerogative silencing because it satisfies their envy- but Tacitus has more to say on the effects of the process upon their minds and habits of thought.

Tacitus's description is one of tyranny under Domitian- tyranny under Nerva and Trajan is a different and more benign thing: he tells us that 'Nerva harmonised the old discord between autocracy and freedom', that Trajan is 'enhancing our happiness' (Agricola para 3 trans Mattingley London 1970). But even under such virtuous princes (bear in mind that Tacitus writes under Trajan as well- he may be hinting in his first paragraphs that all is not well even now) the Roman populace are unable to use their freedom. He comments that the 'mind and its pursuits can more easily be crushed than brought to life again' (Agricola para 3 trans Mattingley London 1970). The effects of tyranny are longlasting: young men have passed into their primes, old men to the limits of their mortality without saying a single unguarded word of praise (Agricola para 3 trans Mattingley London 1970). Mental idleness has turned from a despised option into a relaxing habit (Agricola para 3 trans Mattingley London 1970). Tacitus's psychology of imperial rule comes to its culmination when he addresses the kind of history that now can be written:

I shall still find some satisfaction however unartistic and unskilled my language, in recording the bondage that we once suffered and in acknowledging the blessings we now enjoy (Agricola para 3 trans Mattingley London 1970)


This is our last irony- even the great historian himself is so effected by despotism that his only recourse as a historian is to describe it or praise it. The kind of history that Tacitus says is most laudable- eulogy- has passed and become impossible: the effect of empire is that there are only two subjects, to write about the slavery that one knew about under past emperors and to sustain the illusion that under present regimes there is perfect freedom. The mind has been taught by the blazing fires of books, the whispering of informers and the creak of the rack that anything else is dangerous and the brain has become too indolent to realise how to write another text: in Tacitus's text, Gibbon's old saying has become true and modern history is formed as the record of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of human kind. Tacitus cannot write any other type of account.