January 30, 2010

Drifting Clouds

I watched this film, sitting in the dark, with a mildly burnt hand in a bowl of cold water. I'd burnt it earlier in the evening whilst cooking. In a sense that incident sums up Aki Kaurismaki's style of film- he looks for the sad that would not be the subject of tragedy. It also sums up I think why this film is the only Romantic Comedy or one of the few Romantic Comedies I've ever liked and enjoyed. Kaurismaki has a sense both of the way that people work and of the small misfortunes that make up life. Drifting Clouds is about a husband and wife who suffer in the recession (presumably of the early 90s). They both live on the borders of poverty- the wife is a waitress, the husband a tram driver. They've bought a television and sofa and bookcases- but it will take them four years to pay off the loan and then they can buy some books for the bookcases (a wonderful comedic way of summing up the effects of their poverty). Both are approaching middle age- the wife Ilona is sacked by her resturant for being too old at 38 to be a waitress. Both are sacked in unfortunate circumstances- the husband when the tram company decides to lose a driver and the drivers draw cards for who will lose their job, Ilona when a new company owning her resturant decides they don't need her. The rest of the film is consumed with their efforts and the efforts of various characters around them to get out of economic distress.

The humour in the film is made up in part of the stoicism of the characters. Their expressions seldom change, when being sacked, getting ridiculously drunk, getting beaten up or whatever else. They bare every misfortune with a dull expectation of more to come- and when things do turn out to be worse than expected, the comfort they offer each other is minimalistic but meaningful. When Lauri, the husband, is turned down for a job as a bus driver because he is deaf in one ear (unknown to him), he collapses on the floor. Ilona asks him how he is, typically Lauri responds that he is ok- but she bends down to him and puts her cheek against his back. Its a gesture of solidarity and gestures are what this film is made of. Constantly the characters do and say less than they mean- it conveys much more of course because of the minuteness of the characterisation. Kaurismaki's camera eschews the dramatic- at one point Lauri gets beaten up but we do not see the beating, at another Ilona has to stop a drunken chef going postal, but we do not see but only hear her efforts.

This eschewing of the dramatic has an effect on the film- it renders the film less episodic. Instead of thinking about moments, you think about moods which stretch over sections of the film. This isn't a perfect film by any means- but it is an interesting one. It gets the sense of closing down of possibilities that poverty can and does represent: Lauri and Ilona slowly lose the potential avenues of exit from their situation because of their poverty, not of lack of ability. Ilona comes across throughout the film as an incredibly capable woman- but poverty closes down her options. Perhaps this is most vivid when in desperation she has to take a job for a resturanter who avoids tax- Ilona is of course the soul of rectitude and hands him her forms, which he puts in the desk. She cannot though walk away in the world of the film because that is the only way that she can earn money to support herself and Lauri.

I really reccomend this film as an avenue into the world of Kaurismaki- it is subtle and gentle and thoughtful. Its a fine beggining and introduction to a director who makes interesting pieces.

January 25, 2010

The Ideological Origins of the British Empire Part 3

We often think of economics as a matter of tax rates and welfare expenditure: whether you are on the right or the left today, you tend to think of economics as being about the position of an individual citizen visa vis other citizens. Gordon Brown and David Cameron will boast in next year's elections about how they benefit hard working families with their policies and allow people to pursue their ambitions. But it was not ever thus. Economics as a discipline emerged not because of a discussion about the rights and needs of citizens but as a discussion about the rights and needs of states. Political economy meant precisely that- it was geopolitical in the kind of questions it wanted to answer. So John Locke for example looked on trade as an engine of state power, a mechanism to promote the power of the commonwealth. Empire sustained the economy because colonies could be cultivated to support the mother country's trade. Perhaps this was most evident in the Scottish attempt to break loose of English dominion through the founding of the colony of Darien on the Panamian isthmus, but it was the centre of English thinking about its British appendages and about its empire itself.

This created though an interesting adjunct- and exposed a political question that we are not unfamiliar with today. The adjunct was that if the colony was to be run in the interest of its mother country, then it should not neccessarily have the same rights as the mother country. The English from the 1650s for example limited the amount of trade that Irish merchants could do with third parties: Irish goods had to be exported to England and then abroad. The same was true of the Americas. This profited England, according to contemporary theory, but it definitely left Ireland or America out of pocket. England entrenched such advantages over the Irish and the Americans and the Scots (until 1707) with the use of unequal representation- simply put the English Parliament made mercantalist decisions on behalf of the other members of the Empire. This point, the disunion between the economic and political roles of the state, was of course one of the things that led to the American Revolution of 1776. The question of how far economic nationality and political nationality flow together was part of the question of Ireland as well- with the Irish Parliament objecting to English decisions, which by Poynings law took precedence. This kind of question has a contemporary salience today- whether it be in the debates about the European Union or over third world economic specialisation- but its worth recalling where its origins lie.