February 20, 2010

Review: The Fifth Monarchy Men

Most people today, Christian and non-Christian are no longer millenial in their understanding of history: many of my friends would class themselves as conservative Christians, none of them would say they are preparing for the second coming with policies designed to advance it. No prominent Christian politician on either side of the Atlantic publically declares the Book of Daniel to be their inspiration: few of them cite the Bible in political speeches at all. This makes the Fifth Monarchists, a movement of seventeenth century English Christians, incredibly weird and controversial for modern tastes. The Fifth Monarchists emerged in 1653 to support one of the constitutional innovations that followed the English Civil War: they believed in reinstating the Mosaic law into England in its entirity, demolishing property rights- most importantly the right to tithe but also other rights, eliminating religious intolerance between Protestants and a massive campaign of evangelisation launched into the darker corners of England and Wales. From 1654 they opposed the Cromwellian Protectorate and the Restoration that followed it. After a frightening attempt at a coup in 1661, when Thomas Venner and 50 of his congregation marched through the streets of London crying out for 'King Jesus and the Heads upon the Gate!' (Cromwell and other leading Parliamentarians were decapitated and their heads stuck on London Bridge), the movement petered out into the late seventeenth century.

The classic study of the Fifth Monarchy Men is Bernard Capp's Fifth Monarchy Men. Its an old book, it was published in 1969 and lots of this review will be in pointing out how history has changed as a subject since then. Lets just widen our narrative a little. Capp like the other major writer on this period J.P. Laydon (whose PhD was never published but was completed in the early seventies) beleived that the Fifth Monarchy arose out of the end of Barebones Parliament. In early 1653 Cromwell decided to dismiss the Rump that had ruled since the execution of Charles I and had been made up of those elected MPs who could accept the execution. He did so. To replace the Rump, he decided he could not hold new elections as they would merely return the Rumpers, instead he summoned churches and his army officers to nominate people they deemed fit to sit in Parliament. That Parliament which convened in July 1653 and sat to December 1653 (when Cromwell grew sick of it and dismissed it) is commonly known by historians as the Parliament of Saints or the Barebone's Parliament (after one of its members Praisegod Barebone). The Fifth Monarchists were a London and Wales based group of men who interpreted those actions as being eschatalogically mandated in the bible- most beleived that the end of the world was due in 1656 (later 1666 was chosen as a date) and that it could only be advanced when King Jesus not King Charles or King Cromwell ruled England. After the Barebone's Parliament was dismissed prominent ministers like Christopher Feake at Blackfriars, Morgan Llywd and Vavasour Powell in Wales and figures in the army like Thomas Harrison and Robert Overton blasted Cromwell for destroying England's first and only Parliament of Saints.

Capp's book charts the movement from its inception in 1653 all the way to its demise in the 1680s. He puts it into the context of other European millenarial revolutionary movements- that of John of Leyden in Munster for example- and suggests that there was a connection. He suggests as well that there was a connection to a millenial discourse in British and continental academic life: in Britain the key figures were John Foxe and Joseph Mede, this tradition has been examined since Capp's book, most recently in Crawford Gribben's study of the millenium in the early modern period. What is fascinating is how Capp shows that Fifth Monarchism started as a distinct set of commitments- to the Barebone's Parliament, to the proposition of rule by King Jesus and to a set of ideological commitments- and slowly evolved into a growing continuity with other oppositional movements. So in 1659 Feake supported the reintroduction of the Rump Parliament and in the 1660s Venner's revolt was inspired by the 'Heads upon the Gate', one of whom Oliver Cromwell was the Fifth Monarchy's leading opposer. The term Fifth Monarchy comes from Daniel: Daniel's prophecies make mention of four monarchies which will be replaced by a Fifth Monarchy, the empire that will rule in the last days.

Capp's interests in the movement are profoundly of his time. Ever since John Morrill's Revolt of the Provinces, which came out four years after Capp's book, a naive Marxism which suggests that people went to particular movements because of their social position, has been exposed to formidable criticism. Assigning people to categories and then sorting them out between their social classes is ridiculous in a period in which movements were fluid and people crossed between them. Capp's book is a pre-revolt of the provinces effort and consequently is written in homage to Christopher Hill and the rest, and includes an analysis of the Fifth Monarchist's social background- something which inevitably we know little about. This does mean that he does try and link the ideas to experiences that these men and women (there were plenty of significant women- Mary Cary and Anna Trapnell are two examples) had. It also means that for a modern historian you have to wade knee deep through a lot of analysis of class backgrounds before you get to the meaty stuff of how people's experiences interracted with what they read to produce the ideas that supported the movement.

The other criticism of Capp's book, looking at it afterall this time, is whether there was a movement at all. There was a political movement centered on various churches. That does not neccessarily mean that that movement had much in common as far as ideology went. John Rogers one of the great Fifth Monarchists said that they had nothing in common theologically, but a lot in common politically. One wonders whether like many groups formed in opposition to a ruling regime what they held in common was their opposition and not their intrinsic ideas. The Fifth Monarchy men further were a useful bogieman for the state- right up until the 18th Century investigative magistrates were finding more and more Fifth Monarchists in their communities. Like Communists in the 50s in America, the Fifth Monarchists were so revolutionary as to define an other that everyone else could oppose: frequently therefore Quakers and others were linked to holding aspirations for a Fifth Monarchy. Slowly the movement dissolved into the wider sectarian mainstream- the Fifth Monarchists sought the same protections as Baptists and Independents from Charles II, they sought the same protections from William III and ultimately at the price of their politics acheived them.

Capp's book is a fascinating document- it is very well written. It may be dated, but you would expect nothing less of a book written forty years ago. The point to make though is that it is still an indispensible account for anyone interested in the 1650s- one of history's forgotten decades- and that perhaps is a testament to his acheivement. The book is not brilliant and does not compare to the other classics of the sixties- John Pocock's Ancient Constitution and Feudal Law, John Dunn's Locke or Peter Laslett's edition of the Two Treatises- but its contribution is invaluable because it directs our attention to an understudied subject. The Fifth Monarchists were crucial to the English Republic and to English Republicanism.

February 19, 2010

Hayek versus Keynes

I just enjoyed this too much to leave it alone

February 17, 2010

Sherlock Holmes (2009)

There are plenty of things to like and plenty not to like in this Guy Ritchie adaptation of the famous Victorian detective. This review therefore will be mixed. The difficulty that Ritchie faces as any director does who takes on this type of material is that everyone has their ideal Holmes, their vision and version of the man, and very few are ready to relinquish that Holmes into the hands of the director. For me the closest to Holmes on television or film is Jeremy Brett's ITV Holmes, whose precision and sudden manias are very similar to how I see the books' intellectual force developing. That is a disclaimer that anyone writing this should start with- Holmes exists in our heads as much as on any script page and unlike say a character like Sam Spade in the Maltese Falcon the material is well known enough that no director can hope to redefine him. With that in mind, I think we can evaluate the film.

The first thing to say about it is that this is no literary adaptation. Unlike Brighton Rock which adds a new perspective to the stories, Ritchie neither has the force of intellect nor imagination to do something startlingly new with the character. He has not got the discipline to follow an actual Holmes story and tell it from a different perspective: how about the villain's- there are plenty of sympathetic ones in Holmes whose stories would be interesting to tell. He invents instead an absurd story starring the Templars, magic etc- something worthy at times of the Da Vinci Code- a web made by charlatans. If he adds any ingredient to Holmes's character he inverts the argument of the story. Conan Doyle's character used the methods of science to unravel the mysteries of humanity- data, deduction and then finally proof- his readers were able to accept this process because they accepted it for the physical world, so why not the mental. Ritchie inverts that: in the film we are confident that Holmes can read motivations, but we need to have it proved to us that the world is not a grand conspiracy of mystical irrationality. The pity and perhaps the decline of modernity is represented by the fact that too many people are convinced of the Da Vinci Code and therefore need this film and others to tell them its not true- having said that it does leave you with the false if seductive impression that Victorian London was controlled by the templars- it undermines the magic but leaves the conspiracy- a thesis about as historical as the traditions the Victorians themselves invented.

Away from that, what Ritchie does therefore is take us less further inside Holmes's method, what made Holmes unique. That is a lessening factor in the film. Added to that is that there is too much action within the movie- Holmes is a boxer, a user of bartitsu and Watson is handy with a revolver- but most of the stories do not include that much action, they include discussion and thought as well. There is a reason for that- after a while too much action becomes boring, where you want to see a character arc, you get an arc of flame and once you've seen one of those, you've seen them all. The same thing could be said of romance- Ritchie does not do female characters well. His actresses work hard: Rachel McAdams does sexy with a smile, but there is not much else for her to do. Its hard as well to get from her character's uncomplicated and playful relationship with Holmes to Holmes himself, to his complications and his problems. Incidentally anyone from London will be instantly distracted as I was by the moment when she appears to run from Westminster to Tower Bridge in two minutes!

That last sentence encapsulates something that Ritchie does do: he and Robert Downey jr give us a complicated or semi-complicated Holmes. Jude Law gives us a Watson who is no dullard either. Downey's Holmes is an eccentric- a man who boxes and stays in his rooms for months. The only problem with this Holmes is that aside from some minor eccentricities it is hard to tell him from James Bond or from Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief. In a sense the film's main problem is that it is hard to tell it from a James Bond film- the girl gets undressed less but apart from that the differences are minute. There are the same bangs and the same suspense. All the way through this I have struggled not to compare this to the book and it is impossible not to, but you cannot label a film as about Holmes and deprive him of moments of intellectual power (he has two in the movie that I counted and they are brief)- Ritchie needs to give us more of Holmes the brain and less of the brawn.

Lastly there is the period. The CGI department have been working overtime- they get the foggy lighting, they get the carriages and the congestion on the streets. Ritchie gets some of the anarchy and menace of London- at one point McAdam is robbed at knife point on an alley near Baker Street, something that is very realistic. What he doesn't get though is any sense of the Victorian mind. The mysticism is supposed to reflect spiritualism but the latter was not about magic so much as about talking to the dead. The characters behave in thoroughly modern ways- they do not have enough Victorianisms about them to make them realistic. I worked on a historical documentary once and was told that the thing people are most concerned about isn't the accuracy of the dates or the sentiments, but the accuracy of the clothes- who cares that no Victorian leader was a member of the Templars so long as the buttons on their jackets were accurately represented. To that audience, Guy Ritchie will have done superbly, for people interested in the past and not fashion, the film has more flaws.

Having said all of that, the film is enjoyable. Downey does a good job of portraying Holmes's eccentricities, Jude Law does a good job of getting Watson (indeed he might be the best Watson I've seen- he is afterall a young man and looks a plausible veteran and lady's man), McAdam does as well as she could given the part, the villains are alright if ludicrous. What is really missing is a dose of Holmes magic, something that doesn't make this a James Bond film with less sex and a more eccentric hero. The film is entertaining but it isn't much more than that- if you want a reasonable action film, with some nice quips, a good performance from Robert Downey jr and a lively though ridiculous account of Victorian London, go and see it. For more meaty fare, pass on to something else.

February 14, 2010

Un Prophete

A Prophet is the latest film from Jacques Audiard. Set in a French prison, we follow the career of the petty criminal Malik as he comes to prison, joins the prison hierarchy, spins off into aiding Corsican independence fighters, trading drugs and learning how to read. Malik interracts with a series of other characters- Luciano, the leader of the Corsican gangsters, his friend and 'brother' Ryad, the prison guards, the Corsican independence fighters, corrupt lawyers, charitable Imams, the Muslim organisations within the Jail and most importantly the imagined Reyeb. There is even a reference to the current French President, Nicholas Sarkozy, from whose version of the Dark Department comes the order which changes the plot of the film completely. But back to the subject of the film, this film is centered on Malik- the camera stalks him through his career- as he uses to days off to sell drugs and murder, as he passes through the corridors and the clanging doors of the jail. We see him with an intensity and we see his experience- including mystical interludes where Reyeb, whom he murders early in the film, appears to him to talk to him about the future.

The plot is told in episodic interludes- Audiard uses a chapter structure borrowed from amongst others Tarentino though he uses it more effectively. Malik's career in prison starts when he is spotted by the Corsicans- they need a murder done and they tell this callow youth that if he does not perform it, then he will be murdered. Violence is used to up the tension for this moment when morality and survival clashes. The plan is for Malik to pretend to offer Reyeb a blow job, and as he goes down to do the deed, to take a blade from his mouth and cut the unsuspecting man's neck. The moment when he practices and performs this murder is perhaps the most shocking in the entire film. Because he does this he rises to become a servant within the Corsican faction- they hate him because he is an Arab, but slowly thanks to Sarkozy's reforms their numbers dwindle and Luciano becomes increasingly dependant on this son that he did not wish for. He sends him out of the prison on leave to perform murders and Malik starts a business with the 'gypsy' selling drugs outside.

Malik's story is a story of socialisation. At the beggining of the film he is a gauche young man, who feels uncertain in his own skin, wary and aggressively fearful, he responds to any encounter with a hostile attack. During the film, he is taken in by Luciano in order to perform the murder and learns the value of diplomacy- slowly he comes to silence himself, to be more focussed in his aggression. At the beggining of the film, you know what he is thinking, by the end you do not. Furthermore he is much more strategic- at the beggining of the film he has no idea about the groups that make up the prison, by the end of the film he is exploiting and manipulating them. Advising the Muslims that the Corsicans are powerful because they control the guards, going behind Luciano's back because he knows the mobster needs him. Luciano's brutal lessons, including trying to gouge out Malik's eye with a spoon, teach the young criminal that diplomacy is neccessary even if it is war by other means. Accompanying this is a demographic change in the prison- the Corsicans are moved south and increasingly it is the Muslims who dominate the population of the prison- Malik sways adeptly through this change, and does so in a way that he himself years before could never have imagined.

This increasing strategic sense of the prison as a political community is accompanied by two other relationships. The first is with Reyeb who is the victim that Luciano tells him to kill. Reyeb is a ghostly figure who informs Malik of what is to happen- in a sense he is the embodiment of a more sophisticated Malik. He tells Malik how to interpret his life and his prophetical supernatural skill saves Malik's life on occasion. He is Malik's first teacher- just as the episode of the murder is Malik's first episode of learning. Secondly we have Ryad who tells Malik to read, introduces him to Muslims and becomes his greatest ally. We have, because this is self consciously a story which is supposed to say something, two emotions- the first is guilt and the second is friendship and both create a different persona for the young criminal. What we have here is the advancement of Malik from a state of criminality to another state, the two are differentiated not by brutality but by two different but connected evolutions. The first evolution is towards education, the second is to depersonalising. Significantly Malik's first murder makes a greater impact on him than any subsequent murder- the first blood scars Malik and remains upon him until the end, the latter episodes are less profound for him.

You could see the film as a bildungsroman, but it is more than that. It is a sociology of what happens in the prison- both in terms of how it effects prisoners (they become accustomed to its routines: so when Malik goes on a plane he sticks out his tongue during the search- that is what you do afterall in prison when you are searched) and in terms of how the community works. There are some fantastic aerial shots of the yard where you can see that in the mixture of games and waiting, groups are forming and alliances are made and unmade. There are some shots reminiscent of those in Goodfellas which map out a criminal activity or career. The comparison to Goodfellas I think is particularly apt: both films make the atmosphere they live in very real, Malik is an Arabic Henry Hill joining a Corsican mafia. But this film is different because it happens in a prison and Audiard uses that constrained environment to suggest the reality of being unable to escape a particular type of society.

I hope I have not given away too much of the film: this review is not meant to be complete partly because I don't understand what I saw last night, what I hope this review makes you do is see the film. I definitely want to see it again- and I think it is an interesting and provocative film- there are elements I do not understand but it has an intensity that I enjoyed and appreciated.