March 06, 2010

A single man

Martin Heidegger argued that death is the true individual act. We cannot share it, we cannot do it together, it is the ulitimis finis but also the utmost aim of our characters. At our resolution we are ironically for Heidegger most ourselves. Heidegger's theory has had a huge influence across the 20th Century and through his followers, from Hannah Arendt to the postmodernists, his influence has spread across the globe. Heidegger's thesis is one of those that we can criticise, we can think about through art, and in a sense Tom Ford's recent film is most interesting at the points at which it reflects on and criticises this central thesis of Western modernity. Ford's film is about a college Professor who lost his partner to a carcrash. George cannot recover from Jim's death and no balm will ease his tears. We are presented with a picture of utter desperation, depression and loneliness- Colin Firth playing George presents us with desolation in its purest form, not Father why hast thou forsaken me (for every Father must) but lover why hast thou forsaken me.

George's loss colours every experience. He wanders through a school of ciphers- students who are interchangable, their glee seems in several shots like mockery of his loss and of his commitment to literature and the arts. His longterm friend, Charlotte, cannot comfort him as she too is hurt by her individual loss and sees his loss as an opportunity for him to play the role in her life that she always designed for him. Friends prove a broken reed, society disappoints. Occasional encounters bring back moments from his life with Jim to the fore- whether it is seeing a dog whose breed ressembles that of their dogs or talking to a Spanish kid in a parking lot. Seeing a photograph prompts a reminiscence about a moment on a beach that he and Jim spent together. Memories create their own isolation- they are a history shared by only George and the dead.

The film is skilful because the director creates the impression of following events through the eyes of George, this is a subjective film. It is a film in which we see the fragrance of a flower, the fragrance of a dog no less. We learn to observe that time has its own rhythms- that looking a jacket can last an hour and walking to work a couple of minutes. The camera has a very close intense focus allowing us to absorb every iota of the changing emotions George is subject to. We can also gather how his friends and others behave around him. This is central to the purpose of the film because it wants to rouse the intensity of experience that George feels- both positively and negatively. It makes the film slow- too slow for at least one of the people that I watched it with- but that lack of speed is neccessary for the slow emersion that the film promises you.

There isn't really a story here- an emotional evolution that questions Heidegger's assumptions about life and death, loneliness and sociability. Jim tells George at one point that he would wish to die as a social experience- not live with the possibility of future loneliness. The anguish is a common anguish for all human beings- whether it would be expressed differently in a film about heterosexuals is a different question but what I think this film does is make the experience of George losing Jim a universal experience. It does not ghettoise and is not a film about rights, it is a film which demonstrates that any relationship involves similar feelings and similar feelings of loss as it ends and therefore deserves the same respect. But that's not so much the point of the film: its point is to explore that loss and what it means for Jim and whether he has a life to live after it. In a sense, Heidegger's maxim is refuted by the loneliness that Jim feels, the loneliness he feels coming to life or waking up, the loneliness he feels whilst living.

Loneliness for George is only redeemed through an extatic sense of union with others- a mysticism of friendship or fellowship you might term it. In a sense this is what George imagines to have had with Jim and possibly one of the ways to define love itself. Any film about lost love profers a definition of love and the film's definition of love is that it represents an escape from loneliness. Unrequited love such as Charlotte feels for George is lonely and purposeless: requited love is purposeful fellowship. The film has flaws of course- depending on your mood it may test your patience, occasionally it luxurates too much in its abundant imagery but the central performance is well crafted. It took me a while to get into the film- my entry to its world lasted 45 minutes by by the time it closed I was involved and interested. Less a story than an atmosphere, I think the film works and works mainly because its leading man gives one of the performances of the year- by Colin Firth.

If this film is right, then Heidegger was wrong. To be individual is to feel unloved and to the essence of humanity is not to be found in its loneliest moments.

March 04, 2010

John Adams

In 1824, John Quincy Adams ascended from the role of Secretary of State to that of President of the United States. John Quincy Adams was the first and only (until George Bush jr.) son of a President to become President himself. His father, President from 1797 to 1801, was one of the most interesting of the American founders and has just a television series made about him by HBO. John Adams was a Boston man, drawn into the disorders of the American Revolution by his participation in the politics of Massachussets, he was a dominating figure throughout. Elected to the Massachussets council in the 1760s, a delegate at the convention in 1776, ambassador to Paris in the late 1770s, to Holland and then to Britain in the early 1780s, he returned to America to become the nation's first Vice President. He was an acerbic personality who had no taste for the intrigues of politics and quarelled with the equally talented Thomas Jefferson, his Vice President and succcessor as President, and yet he was a subtle analyst of politics and one of the great letter writers of American history, whose letters to his wife Abigail form one of the most moving archives of the period: not to mention his letters to Jefferson when both men were on the brink of death.

It is an accomplishment that these writers and these producers chose Adams and not the more charismatic Washington or more superficially sympathetic Jefferson. Adams was a troubled man and his time at the top of American politics was troubled. They do not duck away from this, showing his disappointment as Washington effectively bans him from the cabinet, describing the disappointment of his Presidency, the way in which we was outmanoevred by his great rivals- Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. They show the pain of the decisions he was involved in. The battles over the ratification of independence were long and doubtful- at least as vicious as those over the constitution ten years later. They show how deeply he was wounded by the personal slights, particularly early on that were thrown against him and how also his work effected his family. Adams spent most of the 1770s and 1780s away from his wife and children, across frontiers and seas from them, campaigning for a United States that might be free from British imperial control.

Ideologically this series does not fully capture Adams. It understands the importance of law to the younger Adams and the importance of stability to the elder Adams. It does not capture the full subtleties of the ways that his opinions and experiences changed over the years. John Adams was a revolutionary who passed acts against seditious libel. He was a Federalist who spent the last years of his life corresponding with the idol, to this day, of the Democrat-Republicans, Thomas Jefferson. He was an advocate against tyranny who introduced measures to rename the President of the United States with royal titles. Like most of the northerners, though ambivalent about slavery (and his son was ferociously against it) he did went consciously into union with states that supported slavery as their raison d'etre. Maybe a television series is not the place to map out such complexities- but we should acknowledge they exist. And they existed for the other heroes of the Revolution: Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and the rest.

This is a long and involved story and the series skips over sections with abandon. We do not see the negotiations with France or the negotiations with Britain. Adams and Jefferson go from friendship to exasperation with little in between. We do not understand the charming hold that Hamilton had over Washington, nor the reason why it was only the great General seemingly, according to the series, who fell for those charms and backed his nationalistic agenda. These gaps may be understandable- but they are sad when you place them besides the effort the series puts into the negotiations for independence which are well chronicled (or as well as can be expected) or the court case involving British troops, whom Adams defended. It would have been fascinating to see more of the negotiations in which Adams was involved in over the end of the war with Lord Shelbourne's administration. Fascinating too to get a sense of Adams's relationship with Jefferson breaking down: in the film it seems inexplicable that Jefferson would not have seen that Adams was playing a Republican game with Federalist means, in reality Jefferson was intelligent enough for that not to be true.

Those are flaws. They are flaws common to most television programs about history- I have seen precious few television companies that do not believe a bonnet makes a good eighteenth century show- but they are offset by merits. One of the most obvious is the period detail and here I do not mean costumes but a sense of the pain of every day life. There is a scene of tarring and feathering which is wonderfully accurate and painful to watch. The moment when the votes are given for American independence is very good: you can feel as the votes are counted that even the counter does not quite believe what is happening- they leave a pause after the vote as the delegates sit back and realise what they have done and what scaffolds they have made for their own fall. Washington taking his oath without any ability to see his audience- the public- and almost whispering is another high point and watching the amputation of a breast- something that in those days occured without anaesthetic- was one of the most vivid historical experiences of the year for me (thankfully it is not too graphic). There are many others. Little details that remind you how much the American constitution and the American experiment was born of improvisation- as the most venerable constitution in the world (bar one) it is easy to forget how new the United States were in 1776.

I am sure there are errors I have not spotted- this is not my era. The flaws are those of most historical productions from movie companies and television executives- they have very little sense of the stuff of history, that these people thought differently to us. The other flaws are mostly those of speed- six episodes is not enough to fit a life of the complexity of Adams's into. The series made me want to find out more about the second President of the United States though and I suppose that is a vindication. If this series sends more people back to read the words of Adams, Jefferson and Hamilton in particular then it can do only good. Errors are forgivable when the effort is there and my impression is that HBO did make an effort with this film: if not everything came off that is not their fault- what does is impressive. There is a quote from Locke in the title sequence- if that doesn't endear this to you, what else would?

March 02, 2010

Gratuitous Yes Prime Minister link

My excuse for posting this is a superb expression of the argument that newspapers tell you a lot about the people who read them: Mercurius Politicus does some decoding over here of what seventeenth century people thought when they read the newspaper or newsbook. I can't match his article- but Jim Hacker can!

March 01, 2010

The Wicker Man (1973)

This review is filled with Spoilers.

The Wicker Man is about a Scottish sergeant who comes to the Island of Summerisle. He comes to find a missing girl, Rowan Morrison, and through his researches realises that he has unearthed a mysterious pagan cult. The cult is led by Lord Summerisle the JP and hereditary lord of the island but it has filtered through every part of island society. The postmaster, teacher, harbour master, librarian and even the grave digger all hold to this 'religion'. The Sergeant has to cope with the brazen sexuality of the island- in particular an uninhibited Britt Ekland who flings her clothes away in order to dance like a Succubus outside the sergeant's room. In order to analyse the film, we must go further. The ultimate plot has the Sergeant lured to his death, lured so that he can become a sacrifice to the old Gods so that the island's crops will return. The Sergeant comes as a King (representative of the law), a fool (he disguises himself as Punch to enter a parade to save Rowan) and a virgin. So the culmination of the film sees the sergeant burn in a wicker man as a sacrifice to the old Gods.

The film opposes two philosophies: on the one hand there is the paganism of the Islanders who believe that Howie's death will restore their crops, on the other Howie who believes that 'if I am killed it is I who will live again, not your damned apples'. A convincing interpretation of the film resting on these two interpretations is provided here and the film makers may have wanted to show the strengths and weaknesses of the the old and the new religion. Looking back on it though after all these years and some of the many more bizarre movements of the 1960s, I am minded of Chesterton's old saying that

The nineteenth century decided to have no religious authority. The twentieth century seems disposed to have any religious authority

Chesterton, for all his follies, may have been right on that. Summerisle tells Howie that the Island is the natural conclusion of the world if the truth that God is dead is accepted, that is not neccessarily true but what is true is that it is one vision of the post-Christian world.

I am not sure even so that the film works. The 1970s were a dire decade in British cinema and this has several indications of that decade- silly bawdiness, bad acting (Miss Ekland is a full time culprit- but there are others) and a general implausibility mar the film. When America was producing Scorsese and Coppola, Badlands and Five Easy Pieces, this was the best of British cinema and besides any of the great American or French films of the seventies it looks plain silly. There are flaws all over the place- if this is an allegory of the coming of Christianity why set it in this period, if a discussion of the modern day when God is dead, why no real atheists? Furthermore is the argument made that paganism has to be sacrificial- there are pagans according to the census but I see no heifers slaughtered on Tower Hill. The image of Calvinism here is severe and puritanical- which merely betrays a misunderstanding of Calvinism, Calvinism at its core was not about sex ever but about faith. If it is about how a society can conceal things- then the society is not claustrophobic enough: if it is about the imperial attitude of outsiders and their different moral codes, then the point is banal but furthermore is the director's argument that murder is a quaint custom that should be tolerated if there is a dance around the Maypole first?

Perhaps this is a failure on my part to see the film for what it is, but I didn't get the Wicker Man. It is worth mentioning a rather good soundtrack- and two good performances one by Edward Woodward and the other by Christopher Lee- but two good performances and the sketch of a good idea do not make a classic film. Perhaps I'm wrong and the rest of the world is right: the chances are that's true and so dear reader, distrust this review, but I cannot be anything but honest. The Wicker Man does not compare to films made at the same time on similar subjects- faith, alienation, community and politics- in Europe or America at the same time. Chesterton's thesis may be true- but it needs more fleshing out than that provided here.

February 28, 2010

Review: Language and Communities in Early Modern Europe

What do the words 'infantry', 'tomato', 'cashew', 'sheikh', 'bank', 'cash', 'samba', 'vanguard', 'vast', 'antipathy', 'absurdity' and 'exaggerate' have in common in English? The common factor is that they were all brought into the language during the early modern ear. Infantry came in from English soldiers who mixed in a Spanish army with their Italian counterparts and originates in Italy. Tomato and Cashew were borrowings from the Spaniards who found the words in America. Bank and Cash originate in Italy and come from the merchants on Lombard street. Samba is an African word which came through Portugeese into English. Sheikh originated from English merchants who traded with the Levant in the sixteenth century. Vanguard comes from the French 'avant gard' an expression used in the army on the Rhine where English volunteers served. 'Vast' and 'Antipathy' were invented by William Shakespeare, 'absurdity' and 'exaggerate' by Sir Thomas More. Overall English, only one of the languages of Europe, took in over a thousand new expressions in the early modern period. German and Russian were similarly influenced from the outside as were French and Spanish.

Peter Burke's interest is in the structure and sociology of language across the period between the invention of printing and the French Revolution. He notes that there were massive changes in language. Latin retreated from its supremacy as a lingua franca in the Middle Ages to the study and the symposium- it did not retreat fully until the eighteenth century when treaties began to be written in French. It was replaced to some extent by Italian and French. In the church the vernaculars in the Protestant world were included in the Bible for the first time and the foundations of German and English were laid respectively in Luther and Cranmer's words. These languages were transmitted around the world- influencing the way that others spoke outside Europe and the generation of pidgins and creoles. The notable ones include the Portugeese influence on Africa, the English on the north and the Spanish on the south- many Brazilian words originate in Tupi and the rhythms of African English still reflects the structures of Yoruban dialects in Nigeria. Some of the creoles though are more surprising- on the shores of the Atlantic a language half way between Basque and Icelandic developed in the fishing communities that competed for space in the mid-north Atlantic.

Burke's interest is in two ways that language changed. The first and surprising one is empire. People forget that Europe is a continent of Empires- from the English empire in Britain and the Castillian in Iberia through the French and German (Holy Roman) and thence into the Russian. Imperial languages gained as they were used for administration and non-imperial languages like Cornish or Polabian died away. The second large phenomenon into which the history of language was bound is the history of trans-national communities. The community of scholarship used latin- so the Republic of Letters was founded on the exchange of Latin pamphlets, and the use of Latin meant that in the early eighteenth century great scholars like Vico could communicate with others such as Jean Le Clerc. It facillitated the first learned journals from Bayle and Le Clerc which dominated intellectual life. Other communities evolved though- military communities in the thirty years war furthered the exchange of languages and mercentile communities swapped terms. Immigration like that from southern into Northern Netherlands changed the structures of Language- so Dutch gradually began to be influenced by the language spoken in Antwerp.

Burke's interest takes in debates about language in the past- debates between those who like the Academecians in France or Dr Johnson in England wanted to systemise language and purify it and those who did not. Treatises from Dante on were issued defending particular languages. Others rubbished their competitors- a Dane described English for instance as the scum at the bottom of the pot in which all the other languages had been cooked together. The Emperor Charles V is said to have spoken Spanish to his God, Italian to his courtiers, French to his ladies and German to his horse- the anecdote was recycled again and again, I've heard versions about Frederick the Great as well as Charles. It gives the sense of the reputations of languages. Languages might be lauded for being pure and attacked for being mongrel. Equally they might be lauded for their ability to cope with new situations- there was an anxiety that no modern language could compete with ancient tongues when it came to subtlety of expression, particularly philosophical description.

Burke's book surveys all these subjects with a light touch and an expert eye. The prose style is fluid and thoughtful- if at some times the examples pile up without examination- lush fields of footnotes can be both treacherous and formidable at the same time. Perhaps the impression that there could be more to the book is unfair- a survey is bound to be a survey. But it remains throughout the book. Many of Burke's footnotes are to secondary rather than primary literature which again may demonstrate a skilful skater exploiting the opportunity to use other research rather than an original scholar. The book has longeurs unusually for Burke. But with all those caveats the learning is impressive and the writing equally so. This is launching pad to get a grasp on what this period was about and some of Burke's observations particularly on the primacy of Empire as an idea in this period rather than that of nation are important and often forgotten.