September 12, 2009

Mesrine Public Enemy No 1


Mesrine, Public Enemy Number 1, is the follow up film to Mesrine Killer Instinct: but its a better film and a more interesting one. It shares the spectacle of the first film, there are the spectacular heists, there are the explosions, there is the sex appeal (thanks to Mme Sagnier) and there is the energy and movement in the plot. Furthermore there are the performances. Again the film hangs upon the performance of Vincent Cassell- he is the film, he is the dynamism, the verve and continuity in the film. The rest of the film swirls around his persona. But there are other performances here: Ludivine Sagnier can do better than play a coquette, but even as a coquette she has a charisma and screen presence that adds to the film. If Mesrine were to fall in love with such a limited character, then the only person he could fall in love with is this character portrayed by Sagnier. Equally important is Mathieu Almaric playing Mesrine's accomplice- Almaric's character is uptight and nervous, silent and vicious whereas Cassell is expansive and loud. Almaric is like a snake, wrapped up in his own coils and ready to spring, Cassell's Mesrine is laid back and louche, again there is the ever present threat of violence. Lastly there is a third performance here: Gerard Lanvin plays a socialist revolutionary, looks like a Provencal peasant and plays his part as though he were Baader!

So what makes this film better than the first film. Firstly the time line is more constrained- there are three main characters, you could say the film tells three stories that of Mesrine and Besse (Almaric's character), Mesrine and Sylvia (Sagnier's character) and Mesrine and Charlie (Lanvin's character). That's not quite accurate- the stories overlap but whereas the first film lacked cohesion with Mesrine having more paramours than I've had cups of tea and more plotlines than the Canterbury Tales- the second film is much more focussed. The film has to do less and therefore in its two and a half hours, we can see more about its stories. There are some moments which cloy- the relationship between Mesrine and his family, his father and daughter, is exaggerated emotionally but left undeveloped- the worst of all worlds is for a character you know to meet his daughter for the first time and both to start crying on camera and then never to see her again in the film! But the flaws are less impressive than the successes: at the end o the film I didn't remember the cloying sentimentality, I remembered the narrative verve.

There is more than narrative verve though. One of my real concerns with the first film was that there really didn't seem to be a theme. Half way through the second film, a theme does emerge and its an interesting one. Mesrine is a thug- he is a pretty unpleasant thug at that but in this film it emerges that he thinks he has a purpose- he thinks he is honest. Of course he isn't honest at all. He thinks he is against the system- whatever that is. Of course like many a revolutionary before or since, his anti-systemic instincts are merely the railings of a toddler like ego. Furthermore he thinks he has a virtue, a morality- the reality is that his ethics are about as convincing as rotten fish. Mesrine's eventual death (and this is not a spoiler as the incident is shown both at the beggining of this and the last film) is a good argument for judicial murder- not something I tend to condone! The revelation though that Mesrine is such a mindless, brutal killer using a faux revolutionary ideology as his justification is important. What noone asks and yet the film hints at several times, is that Mesrine does not really want to change the 'system', just to have the excuse to be violent which is arguing for extreme change to the system. His ego is supported by what he sees as his non-conformity but in truth it is the political equivalent of masturbation, thrilling but absolutely futile and ultimately merely the exercise of an over indulged ego.

Mesrine therefore is more than just a crime film- it is a study of something else- the evolution of extremism. As such it is an argument for political moderation- the people in the film who end up being exploited and carved up by the gangster are its silent heroes. Mesrine evolves into a political extremism. His violent, anti-social politics are a ex post facto justification for violent anti-social behaviour. In that sense the film makes two arguments: there is an argument for political action as accomodation and compromise buried within it. Stronger than that though is an argument that extremism in many of its types emerges not when a character is fortified against the system by their righteous anger but when a character is already righteously angry and in search of something to be angry about.

Coolidge described the way that Shakespeare wrote Iago in Othello as describing 'the motive hunting of a motiveless malignity'- Vincent Cassel's Mesrine has less intelligence and directly spills more blood than Iago, but the two characters in their essense are not that different.

September 09, 2009

The Ulsipi

Rome's armies were made up of different soldiers from different nationalities. Like any imperial army they included units from countries they had conquered (think for example of the British Ghurkas or Russian cossacks for more modern examples). Tacitus testifies to the strength of the Roman army later: but he also gives us reason to doubt its cohesion just before the major battle of Agricola's time in Britain. He does this by describing the revolt of the Ulsipi. According to Tacitus, this German tribe maintained a unit within the Roman army in Britain. However they were unhappy with the way that they were being trained and murdered the Roman soldiers placed within the unit. They boarded ships and landed only to get provisions, at which point they fought running battles with the Britons that they robbed and at times were so low on provisions that they committed cannibalism. They were eventually captured as pirates by the Swabians and Frisians on the coast of northern Germany and modern Holland and were sold as slaves- some of them even arriving back in Roman territory and crossing the Rhine by that means. (Mattingley ed. Agricola para 28)

Tacitus tells this story for a couple of important reasons- its presence is not accidental even though he notes that it is 'memorable'. The first reason he tells us it is because he wants to stress the difference between the British force- fighting for their homeland- and the Roman force, a cosmopolitan, artificial, imperial unit. The second is because he wants to expose the effects of indiscipline within the Roman army itself. The difference between the Britons and the Romans is discipline- and the reason for that difference lies in the Roman need to avoid incidents like those committed by the Ulsipi. Worse than any atrocity committed by the Roman army, is the set of atrocities committed by a mutinous part of the Roman army. Rome's forces are only virtuous in so far as they are controlled by the imperial commanders: once lost to command (and hence to the support of tax revenues) they threaten to become an imposition in a strange land and worse still common enemies to human kind including themselves.

In some sense here Tacitus's argument comes back to an earlier point about politics that he is fond of. Political institutions are created to respond to the people that they govern. A tyrannical institution like the Principate is ultimately required by a people who have lost their sense of freedom. In the same way, the Roman army requires, for Tacitus, the direction and discipline of a stern commander to keep its several units in check and prevent the overall unit falling apart into disparate war bands roaming the country. In the fall of the Ulsipi, we have hence a Tacitean diagnosis not of how Rome did fall (Tacitus had no knowledge of that) but of how it might fall.

September 08, 2009

Venturing into the unknown

I think its easy to forget about how little the Romans actually knew about their empire and what lay beyond it. When we see the perfect maps drawn up by modern historians, we imagine that that was the way that the Romans saw their world- but of course it was not. Tacitus reveals this when telling us about Agricola in one telling incident. Agricola wanted to conquer Ireland and add that to Britain as part of the empire- in part his reasons were prudential (the British were less likely to revolt if they could not see freedom across the Irish sea) but they were also strategic. Tacitus's description of the strategic reasons to conquer Ireland though make clear how wrongly he imagined the Atlantic Archipelago. He thought

Ireland, lying between Britain and Spain, and easily accessible also from the Gallic sea might serve as a valuable link between the provinces forming the strongest part of the empire (Agricola ed. Mattingley 1970 para 24)

However great a historian he was, Tacitus was no geographer! Tacitus was also no idiot- he would not have written this down in a hagiography if he did not beleive it and why should he not believe it- all he or Agricola knew was that Ireland was westward of Britain, its extent and position were not noted (particularly as the Romans were coastal and not oceanic navigators). Tacitus's short statement about the strategic advantages of annexing Ireland makes clear the degree to which beyond the boundaries of Rome, the Romans were ignorant of what they faced.

September 07, 2009

Agricola's methods

Tacitus provides us in his analysis of Agricola's role as governor in Britain with a template for how he, Tacitus, thought that Rome should carry out its government. He was keenly aware of the vulnerability of Rome's position: like most empires up to our own day, the Romans maintained very few soldiers in the countries they occupied when compared to the vast multitudes that those soldiers held in check (Mattingley ed Agricola para 15). Hence empire always was in part a confidence trick, an imposition upon the 'native' population that they beleived was both in their own interest and also not in their interest to overthrow. Tacitus gives us some examples of how Romans before Agricola subued the Britons, using Cogidubnus (Mattingley ed Agricola para 14) a local King to maintain discipline or with military victories either by Caesar, Claudius or later commanders. But Tacitus leaves us in no doubt that a subtler analysis is needed of the ways that peace could be maintained- for him no less than for us the Roman empire was a vast problematic. Indeed his purpose went further for having discovered, thanks to the reigns of Galba and Vitellius, the enormous power of the Roman army, it was also the historian's purpose to detect how the Roman army retained discipline. Rome rode two tigers- the army and the province- and Tacitus's story in Agricola is a story about how one governor at one point in time managed to subdue both.

Tacitus defines what Agricola offered to the Britons in terms that we have already seen. An enfeebled populace was less likely to resist the imposition of Roman power- taught to be slaves, the Britons like the Gauls or even the Italians before them might learn to enjoy and yearn for the imperial yoke. Tacitus understood this: he tells us that in the winter months Agricola took time to plan amenities as he 'had to deal with a people living in isolation and ignorance and therefore prone to fight. His object was to accustom them to a life of peace' (Mattingley ed. Agricola para 21). Agricola was brutal with those that opposed him and yet with those that supported him he was clement (Mattingley ed. Agricola para 20). He sought to bring the Britons into the world of Rome, hoping to corrupt them from their military valour. Tacitus stresses that this came alongside good governance and a cultural education, Agricola sought to wipe out the British tongue replacing it with Latin and to get the sons of chieftans to take places in his court. He sought to replace a martial scale of value with a peaceful one- a British definition of patriotism with a Roman one. For Tacitus this process of cultural assimilation to the norms of peace from the virtues of barbaric independence was the means by which Rome's colonies survived- it was also as he commented elsewhere the means by which her armies became effeminate and eventually tossed by the ambition of the Caesars.

September 06, 2009

The Education of Charles I

From Plato onwards people have believed that if you educate someone they absorb the knowledge and then that brings them the basis of knowledge that they use for the rest of their life. The truth is very different. Charles I (1600-49, r. 1625-49) illustrates the point. The popular idea of Charles is not wrong: basically Charles was anti-Calvinist and anti-Parliamentarian. He was influenced by people like William Laud, they did not agree with Calvinists about predestination. Predestination is the Calvinist doctrine that salvation was decided before you were born. But Charles was educated as a Calvinist. Charles's other famous predisposition was as a man who hated Parliaments and again there is some truth to it. Richard Cust's new biography of Charles suggests that Charles disliked negotiating with Parliament. But Charles had more experience than any other English monarch before him in Parliament: he sat in 63 of the 89 sessions of the House of Lords in 1621 as Prince of Wales. Charles was as Benjamin Rudyerd said a 'Prince bred in Parliaments' and yet, unlike his father who had no experience of English Parliaments before coming to the crown, Charles was unable to sympathise with his MPs and the House of Lords, making misjudgement after misjudgement in his handling of them.

So did Charles not take anything from his education? He definitely does not seem to have taken John Preston, the Pope of Puritanism, lectures about Calvinism seriously. Henry Burton, another of Charles's teachers, ended up earless after an incautious anti-bishop pamphlet in the 1630s. So what did Charles take from his teachers? He may not have taken their theology but he did take their strong interest in providence- their belief that God directed the world. Charles beleived that God punished him through his misfortunes in the late 1640s because he had deserted his friends in the early 40s- particularly the Earl of Strafford. Charles believed that you should not adjust your beliefs to the times- you should, in his view, stick to your views no matter what the political moment suggested. Again his teachers would have been unhappy with the view he wanted to stick to, but happy with his stubborn affection to what he saw as God's will. Despite Charles's inability to see other people's points of view, he tragically did believe in Parliament- he just didn't believe that they were forums to criticise him, but forums which should give him supply in return for his benificent acknowledgement of their greivances.

What Charles's education did for him was not to give him a base of knowledge or ideas but a set of mindsets. The main thing- the most important thing that emerged for Charles from his education was a sense of insecurity relating to his father. His father kept him away from politics until the early twenties, overawed the young Prince with his intelligence and isolated him socially: Charles's prickliness, in Cust's view, partly came out of this early experience. Education is emotional and about mindset. Noone comes up against the same problems as they were educated to deal with: what education does is equip you to deal with the new problems that you face when your education finishes.