March 31, 2012

Trishna

Trishna as a film is based upon one simple insight- Freida Pinto (see above) is very beautiful. You may think that's a betrayel in some way of a film that models itself on one of the great tragic English novels, that transfers it into another context and seeks to play with our ideas about the West and the rest- but I don't think it is. You see Freida Pinto's beauty is really the issue in Trishna, the new film by Michael Winterbottom. Its what the main character Jay wishes to possess and flaunt, its a metaphor for the beauty of India itself and lastly its the fate and despair of Pinto as an actress herself. Her beauty is not incidental to the film it is both the film's success and its failure, it is the alpha and omega of what Trishna is really about. You can't really just get the film by looking at the portrait I have put above, but you can sense its themes and understand its ideas if you stare into her eyes for a couple of seconds and flick your gaze away. You see its all about the beautiful girl and the beautiful country.

Trishna really is a film about glimpses and glances. Jay catches sight of Trishna (played by Pinto) at a dance somewhere in Northern India, she is there to entertain the tourists, he, a British Asian playboy, is there to be entertained by the quaint customs of the locals. She stands for India in its exoticism and perhaps its eroticism. She is a child of India, less comfortable than he is with the sexual mores of the West and Western cities- in their relationship, he bears no risk, she bears all the risk. He can look at and enjoy her beauty, she has to suffer their relationship- to say more would be to give away details I don't want to give away. But whereas Jay slowly becomes uglier and uglier as the film goes on, Trishna retains her beauty. Though abused and insulted, she retains that perfect look: Miss Pinto does almost no acting in this film, she stands impassive to receive what the world throws at her, and throws back her looks. In that sense, she perhaps does ressemble an India that Jay is colonising- he has come to run his father's business, but actually he is creating his own cultural universe within the country. Even the way that the film is photographed mirrors the girl and the country: both are beautiful, both are impassive.

Glimpses and glances are not quite enough to make a film though because they do not give an inner life. No character in Trishna has a developed inner world: they are externals. There are indications that Trishna and Jay's relationship will fail in the way that she doesn't talk, and isn't confident as opposed to his breezy confidence and sense of ownership. There are hints in the power relationship between the two. These relationships are surface ones though- one never gets a sense of why these two people are together apart from the fact that Pinto is very beautiful and her male costar, Riz Ahmed, is also handsome- but that's not enough for a real drama about relationships. Its not enough for two and a half hours of screentime- not enough to just admire, one has to enter into and understand.

And that's the real problem with Trishna- it goes to some dark places and really doesn't own those dark places- or justify going there- but more than that its a film about surfaces and beauty. It might make you want to go to India, it might make you acknowledge that Freida Pinto is a beautiful woman- but it doesn't make you want to rewatch the film. Pinto is never allowed to give her character an inner life here- she dances, she talks, she smiles, she suffers- but I never got the feeling of a character- more of a target. Whether that's Pinto suffering from the disease of beautiful actors- that they aren't allowed to act, I'm not sure. But as I walked out of Trishna, I wondered about whether beauty ultimately is really ever enough.

March 30, 2012

Poirot's Psychology

In Cambridge the other day, I was between meetings and decided to go to the Waterstones cafe and read a book- I picked up a copy of Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie and began reading. I read the entire thing in about an hour and  a half. Its the first time I'd read Christie since I was about 15 and I have to say it is very readable stuff- I can see why I liked it. She is also a seductive writer and I thought quite hard about what she writes as well as the story I read. One of the interesting things about Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express is the way that he talks about psychology. He makes intuitions about people and those intuitions, rather than a logical chain of reasoning pace a Mr S. Holmes of Baker Street are what carry him to his solution. This is an interesting model of human knowledge.

Its worth thinking about for a second. Whilst we read the books, we believe that Poirot's intuitions are correct and some may well be. But they are based often upon stereotypes- so for example a murder might be an Italian murder or a British murder. This reasoning is appealing to us I think because it is the way that we reason in every day life often: without the time to construct logical chains we proceed on inference. Its a subject of much of the annoyance we all face: what we might call presumption- how dare you think I wouldn't be interested in... Poirot's approach to solving murders relies on this kind of presumption- he gets it brilliantly right or rather Christie rigs the story so that he gets it brilliantly right but even so, is there something fishy about it? To a modern sentiment, it definitely is and I think its one aspect of the way in which Christie is quite dated and feels dated in ways in which Holmes does not. She is anchored within the prejudices of her time.

March 28, 2012

Law, Politics and the British Empire

International Law was invented, so we are told, in the 17th Century when like a modern Athena it sprang from the brain of Zeus (or Hugo Grotius to be more accurate but poetry is more fun!). Disregarding my flippancy for a second that means it must have had an impact upon the creation of European empires in the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries. In a recent review, that's exactly what Peter Karsten suggests, though he points out that on occasion colonial officials were not as aware of legal texts as modern historians are! Karsten's review of a book which I have not read points out some interesting facts: he shows for example how important it was for patriarchal English thinkers to make the colonial subject acknowledge the English King as a father. In their thinking this term implied a legal relationship of subjection- in the colonial subject it could or could not obviously. Its an interesting point and deserves amplification. As does the collision between these worlds- obviously as a theorist when your world collides with a world that is strange, you adapt your theory. Sociologically however the distinction Karsten notes between those who theorised and who colonised is interesting- the chain of knowledge and thinking could go both ways. One wonders whether a 19th Century jurist had the same sense of colonial reality as his seventeenth century predecessor or whether he had more or less. One wonders how the 19th Century empire changed his ways of viewing international law, when compared to the political context of his seventeenth century rival.

March 27, 2012

Thomas Cranmer

21st March is an important date in the history of Anglicanism. On that date, Thomas Cranmer, the last Archbishop of Canterbury to be executed for heresy, died at the stake in Oxford- on the site now marked by the Martyr's Memorial on St Giles. The anniversary would have been marked fifty or even a hundred years ago by most Anglicans-just as other great anniversaries within the Anglican tradition (the death of Charles I for example) were marked. Today of course, although there was some traffic on blogs last week- there wasn't that much public recognition or memory of what happened in March 1556 and of the death of the first Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury. That's despite the fact that last week also saw the resignation of Cranmer's latest successor- Rowan Williams (for whom this blog has almost unlimited admiration).

Is there anything to feel sad about here? For the historian, there may be. Personally I'd love it if people were more interested in Cranmer- for a start it would make party conversations so much easier for those of us with an obsession with Early Modern religious history, its amazing how infrequently the line 'so what do you make the Muggletonians' works (or maybe its not that amazing :)). Less flippantly there is some sense I think in which the subject of history is becoming more obscure- fewer and fewer people know or care about it as a real, living thing- they might as a soap opera but not as something that matters to them neccessarily. And if people do the stories they know and want to tell are different: conservative stories about the 1960s and the Welfare state, liberal stories about Woman's Suffrage and the development of democracy, Marxist stories about class. Few of those stories reach back into the past, before the Industrial Revolution- and if they do, they do so through the medium of religious texts not religious history or history itself. In that sense, our society is either sociological or fundementalist.

That may not be a bad thing. Cranmer's life afterall supplies us with very few uncomplicated lessons. He was a courtier par excellence, a survivor when England was ruled by one of its many tyrannical rulers, an intolerant evangelical in an age before tolerance was a virtue and a continental Protestant before the Anglican Church had fully separated from the Reformation. Cranmer was a Reformation figure and deserves to stand alongside comparable figures: he was no saint, twice he abandoned his friends to the axe and even his death involved recanting his views and then recanting his recantation. Whatever lessons come from Cranmer's life are difficult and it takes a historian of the subtlety of Diarmaird McCulloch to unweave them fully. When the Anglican congregation thought about the events of 1556, they would have thought about the vindication of Cranmer's stand for religious liberty and yet this was an Archbishop who burnt his way to the top, quite literally.

So if there are no lessons- are there any reasons to remember Thomas Cranmer? I think there are- but they do not lie with the easy lessons that others may pick. Cranmer is an interesting character precisely because of his contradictions and his differences to a contemporary thinker. He reminds us firstly that our origins are definitely different from our current state. He reminds us no less of the complexity of human nature: that is something worth remembering all the time. We go into history to seek for ourselves in some ways- we go into history to seek for allies and enemies. In part that is what the old story of what happened at Oxford in 1556 was, it was a story about good persecuted and bad persecutors, about Bloody Mary and the Archbishop. The crooked timber of history cannot be forced so straight, as modern historians have shown: however its still worth going back, to feel the warp of the wood, to understand I think the complexity of the individuals involved and see that politics is a matter of fear as well as fidelity. These statements are platitudes of course- but they can only be given life and vigour by the practice of history.

We should remember 21st March 1556, and the life of Thomas Cranmer, not because it can be fitted into a neat story, but because it can't.