Thursday, 19 December 2013

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Pagan People

It is a silent film, where the dialogue is part of the score, which is extraordinary: folk music played on traditional instruments producing avant-garde effects.  The movie is even split up into chapters, with titles informing us of what is to happen next.  The results are incongruous, and we assume they are meant to be; these old cinematic conventions dressed up in brilliant colour and allied to a very modern technique (which has since dated slightly) to create an alienating quality that is ideal for capturing the foreignness of a pre-modern society.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

All Gone Now

In an excellent introduction to Ran Isolde Standish situated the film’s pessimism within the postwar trajectory of the Japanese film industry.  From the early sixties the number of films directors like Kurosawa could make became smaller; with the consequence that the time between projects increased and funds had to be secured from overseas, this film a co-production with Serge Silberman.  For Kurosawa this represented the defeat of a particular kind of cinema where it was the directors, and not the marketing department, that were in charge; Ran a memorial to a once vigorous industry that had been wrecked (largely) from within.  It is a wonderful interpretation; to which we could add…

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Case by Case

What is a generalisation?  It is a statement that is both truth and false at the same time.  Alternatively, and perhaps more accurately, it is a statement that can mean something and nothing.  To narrow it down still further: the better the generalisation the more individual the content it will contain; a good generalisation actually explaining something about a phenomenon rather than merely describing a few of its surface features.  The worst generalisations are those that can be applied to everything: humans have a heart.  Now we are getting close to where we want to go: there are some generalisations that useful and others that are superfluous.  If we were of a mind we could create a scale to rate them.

Friday, 29 November 2013

To the Knacker’s Yard

It is about power, and its paradoxes.  It is about change, its dangers and results.  It is about a past too strong to be ignored, and which fights for its right to exist; imagine a wounded soldier returning to a battlefield on which his enemy has built a large and prosperous town.  There is a weak king and a strong queen; while illusions and cynical self-interest are much in evidence.  The opening is majestic.  A vast panorama of green hills, speckled with decorative humans; who traverse this valley with lordly insouciance; having transformed a wild territory into a country estate and royal hunting ground.  And yet… against these large hills these great men look tiny.  This country they have conquered has turned them into dwarves.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Old Love (III)

These words between them
Create a face both will share.

And little gullies of laughter
Make a valley to cultivate

With words freshly grown
In gardens of their own.

Wild roses amongst hawthorns,
An accident they have designed.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Shaky Sheds on Sinking Soil

This review is odd.  It rests on a misconception about a state that was always more complicated that the caricatures portrayed on our television screens.  This leads to some curious assertions.  Here is one:

It takes some 40 minutes before we begin to understand where we are… (Catherine Wheatley, BFI Notes)

Yet at the very beginning of the film, just after Barbara gets off the bus and is walking through the town, East Germany 1980 appears on the screen.  Why such an obvious error?  Was she tucking the cigarette packet into her handbag, unaware that there will no be opening credits to this movie…?  Although the most banal explanation usually ends up the truest, I think in this case there is a deeper reason for such a mistake.  Catherine Wheatley needs a mystery to dictate the form of this film.  She wants it to be a Kafkaesque place whose concrete identity is only slowly revealed; the moment of revelation sudden and unexpected: ah ha! the Deutsche Demokratische Republik.   She first needs the myth.  Then she needs the particular details to confirm it.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Thursday, 31 October 2013

Yes! Yes! Yes!

“Ah!  It’s Mr Schloss.  Please come in.  Come, come…  I want to show you something.  I think you will find it very interesting.”

Monday, 7 October 2013

Befuddling the Bourgeoisie

Kaspar tells us a story.  He doesn’t want to.  For he has listened to the advice of his guardian and will only start a story if he can finish it.  A sensible suggestion turned into dogma through too rigid an application.  Of course Professor Daumer was only trying to help.  He wanted to give Kaspar’s thoughts greater power by providing them with more coherence.  Alas!  In mistaking an apothegm for a law he stifles his protégé, whose original ideas transgress the normal conventions.  This kindly man still doesn’t understand his young friend.  Even now he wants him to be a simple bourgeois, his ideal of the good citizen.  As if Goethe could be made into an accountant.  Ummphhh.  Arrrghh.  Ouch!  The great man bursts the seams of his trousers; he rips the arms of his suit… His temper up he throws the ledger across the room, where it smashes the office window…  Wild with talk his words erupt all over us.  We call 999, and he runs down a back alleyway…  Later the police arrive and arrest a line of poetry.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Separate and Ideal

Come on.  Come on!  Come here with me.  I have kept a seat for you.  Yes, yes, make yourself comfortable.  Good!  Put your drink away, and switch that phone off, the film is about to start.  Now look straight ahead...

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

The Flower Called Nowhere

All the small boats on the water aren't going anywhere.
Surely they must be loaded with more than simple matter. 
Floating on top and gracefully tending to the same pole.
All the small boats on the water going nowhere...

Is it true that none of them will ever break free and sail?
Feel the night is made of rocks, the stagnant mass.
Is it true that none of them, will ever break free and sail? 
Break free from the stagnant things left in obscurity.      
Left in obscurity...

All the faces with their eyes closed giving a smile.
Weightless like a body that would vacate to its own light.
Is it true that none of these contented happy faces       
Will not ever hear a cry, won't hear a cry?

Is it true that none of these contented happy faces       
Will not ever hear a cry?
Filled with love not with desire, love not desire...

Is it true that none of these contented happy faces       
Will not ever hear a cry?
Filled with love not with desire, love not desire...

All the small boats on the water aren't going anywhere.
Surely they must be loaded with more than simple matter.
Floating on top and gracefully tending to the same pole.
All the small boats on the water going nowhere...

Is it true that none of them will ever break free and sail?
Break free from the stagnant things left in obscurity...

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Friday, 6 September 2013

Bad Ideas

Charles Barr has something very interesting to say, though he says it rather crudely.

What seem to be problems outside him are in reality projections of his own conflicts and repressions… [H]e sleepwalks through the film.  His treatment of Frieda is unconsciously sadistic…  Witness Robert’s actions in exposing her to his family and to his community while the war is on, with no smoothing of her way; in arranging for separate bedrooms…; in leaving his teaching job because of the gossip, and [sic] act guaranteed to double her guilty feelings; in bringing her ‘accidentally’ into a series of awkward situations, for instance to a public space where his sister is making an anti-German speech, and to a cinema showing concentration camp newsreels.  The moment he does tell her that he loves her, and kisses her, her brother abruptly appears on the doorstep and turns out to be a fervent Nazi who accuses her of being one too.  Irresistibly, he comes over as a figure conjured up by Robert himself, and his own feverish acceptance of the accusations –‘I wish she were dead’ – as a way out from his own conflicts and fears.  His fear of growing up, away from his own family, his own town, his own school where he has returned to teach; his fear of women; and his fear of thinking.  He seems never to have dared to think about the question of Frieda’s relation to Nazism, any more than has the community, which swings between blind prejudice and blind sentimentality.

The melodrama of the climax is a release in that it at last plays out the masked emotions of the story in a full-blooded way…  [However] there is little sense that the hero will have learned from his nightmare, or that the lessons of the experience can be integrated into his personality, and the film ends with the drawing of the cosy humanist moral (BFI Notes.  My emphasis)

The giveaway is the reference to repression.  Professor Barr interprets the film within a Freudian framework, which although highly illuminating – the explanation, by appearing to be insightful and profound, shows us the power of dogma - is wrong in this specific case.  The psychoanalyst, locked up inside his own adamantine theory, is too rigid and unsubtle to uncover the nuances that make Robert Dawson human. 

So come on, let’s take a peek underneath his couch…

Saturday, 24 August 2013

Getting Down to Details

Some analysis is so abstract it reads like a foreign language, though its words bear no relationship to ordinary usage, and there is no dictionary to help us decode them.  It is part of a modern trend; the academy detaching itself from the reality it is supposed to investigate by devising its own concepts that only its adepts can understand, creating a self-insulated world free from the layman’s intrusion.i   We see this particularly in departments of literature where many academics no longer have any interest in the books they study.  Thus novels, whose meaning lies in their overall unity, are too often used simply as data mines; the original material broken up, smashed into pieces, the rubble then fed onto conveyor belts, from which trucks take them to the university… where they are turned into citations which prove pre-existent theories that are copied wholesale from secondary sources; themselves abstracted from their original disciplines (such as Freud from psychology, Marx from political economy and de Saussure from linguistics).ii  Decontextualised, these theories are inevitably simplified and distorted, and domesticated - they are no longer part of a battlefield of contested ideas (inside their home countries the fighting would be fierce) but are turned into hallowed ground, on which ecumenical cathedrals are built, their walls decorated with the trinkets picked up on the pilgrims’ travels.

Saturday, 10 August 2013

Dear Mr Albert…

Poor Verso!  Lucky for them life isn’t as simple as black and white.  Although it is admirable that you wish to take sides, and openly admit it.  And surely few can disagree with your demands for good reasoning and clear prose?  Ha!  Humans: if only we were perfect!  But let us agree that we should all strive towards the ideal…  Even then there are problems with your argument, which though generally sound is too narrow to be wholly convincing.  The result is that your article is polemical - you fail to adequately see, to properly understand, the opponent you so strongly criticise -, and so it will convince only those who already share your views; which may have been the intention.  For the rest of us: having turned off the main highway we find ourselves in a little suburban cul-de-sac; we look around, sigh, and swing the car back to the main road, where we continue on our trip....

Thursday, 25 July 2013

Civilised Bigotry

Nell watches Frieda as she enters the room, walks across it, and goes out through the French windows.  She tries faintly to say hallo to a woman who appears neither to see nor to hear, nor to notice anything; stiff and silent Frieda is acting like the zombie she indeed is; all the life sucked out of her by the prejudices of this family who have rejected her in a time of crisis.  For a few moments Nell is confused, and remains seated in her chair.  Then curious and uneasy she gets up, goes to the open window and looks out onto the snow covered-countryside, where she sees Frieda walking towards the river.  Nell has a revelation: she is going to jump in!  After a few seconds of hesitation she goes back into the room, draws the curtains, and slowly returns to her comfortable armchair.  It is an extraordinary moment, which the photography turns into brilliant images: a series of shadows vanish and emerge again and again out of the folds of the curtains as Nell moves across the room towards the camera.  A crowd of ghosts is following her!  Real psychological demons - of guilt, of shame, of national fanaticism and of populist politics – that refuse to leave her alone, despite her inflexible will and ideological obduracy.  For Nell has decided, as she herself will later say, that it is for best – for Frieda, for Robert (and of course for Nell Dawson) – that this young German should die.

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Get Me Out of Here!

Albert Brent… could not understand… how they could have ever reached, and could continue to suffer, such a condition of dullness, torpidity, inactivity, stupidity, and silence…

They didn’t talk, they didn’t laugh, they didn’t seem to enjoy their food, they didn’t seem to go out, they didn’t seem to have any interests, they didn’t seem to like each other much, they didn’t even seem to hate each other much, they didn’t seem to do anything.  All they seemed to do was to crawl in one by one, murmur a little to the waitress, mutter little requests to pass the salt, shift in their chairs, occasionally modestly cough or blow their noses, sit, eat, wait, eat, and at last crawl out again, one by one, without a word, to heaven knew where to do heaven knew what…

Most of them, he thought, were pretty ordinary boarding-house specimens…  The two younger women also, he supposed, were of a type.

He studied these two – one of whom, he observed, was a foreigner.  Plain women, both of them, though the darker one had a “nice” face.  Not likely to marry, either of them – the spinster type – not likely to marry unless a bit of luck came their way – which might not be impossible with all these Americans about.  What puzzled him was the way the awful atmosphere of the place seemed to have got these two women down as well.  They were comparatively young – young enough to talk and laugh, to exhibit some sign of vivacity, of response to life.  But no – instead of this they seemed to be, in some way, duller, dumber, more deadly quiet and lifeless than all the others.

Imagine this.  Then imagine you live alone, with plenty of habits, which you have come to rely on, including the fifteen-minute chat with your neighbours at the end of each work busy day.  Think about this.  Now imagine the community in which you live.  It is a tightly squeezed small-minded place that has the power to ostracise you for once and forever if it thinks you aloof or strange.  One fundamental disagreement and poof! gone is your daily fix.  And although these conversations will be banal and repetitive, mostly about the weather and “those beastly Germans”, and the “greasy spivs” who are making a fortune “while our lads are losing their legs and limbs”, they are as necessary for you as a hit is for a heroin addict.  Heroin!  “A vile practice the social scum do in back alleys…”

Friday, 5 July 2013

The Abominable Lake

Deep in the still mysterious waters of the lake a world lies
How sombre and sad the silent world in the womb of the lake,
Not the reflection of Tellus, not the arch of heaven
Lies in the waters of the abominable lake,
But an earth and a heaven beyond the dominion of Time,
Beyond the soft sensual touch of the seasonal flow
And the inviolable sequence of midnight and noon.
Poor world, my heart breaks for your sealed inarticulate woe,
And the tears that are frozen in yours melt to flood in my eyes,
Overflow and descend and impinge on the waters of the lake
And shatter at once the form of the silent world.
But the teardrops mingle, the waters shudders and close,
And again and again the sad world is revealed to my sight.
Then I know, and the knowledge transfixed my sensitive heart,
Not my tears, nor my prayers, nor my gold shall encompass at last
A freedom unthought, manumission unhoped, undesired.

Saturday, 29 June 2013

He Africa Man; Original

I wrote it and then I wondered…  Maybe I’d made a mistake.  Perhaps I’d got it wrong.  Had I been unfair to Noureddine Ghali?  After all he does speak about the differences between the Wolof and French languages, and notes that it is the intellectuals who ran post-colonial Senegal.   In my desire to smash the idol of politics that mystifies so much of film and literary criticism I wondered if I might have gone too far… 

I reread his piece and was relieved.  Perhaps I didn’t go far enough! 

To read my guerilla raid go MyWeku, where you can it view it in two parts.  Part one here.  And two part here.  Amongst many other things, which include flights of fancy and sober analysis, this piece is a manifesto of sorts.  My very own cri de coeur

Thursday, 27 June 2013

Sunday, 23 June 2013

It Means Nothing

He’s not Fassbinder.  Oh no!  Chabrol does not have his feel for left wing politics.  He is an outsider in this game, and this film shows it; Nada a cool satire on a subject that is more idea (and other people’s at that) than lived experience.  This is a thesis not a movie.  Keep to what you know, and make it immaculately… but no!  Like all great artists his ambition extends way beyond his reach; his own perspective, limited but exquisite, is not enough for his ambition, which is outrageous.  He wants to go beyond the horizon of his own talent!  So he walks to the fence at the bottom of his garden, and imagines the metropolis he believes he can glimpse in the hazy distance.  He turns the water tower into a thin skyscraper with a protruding restaurant and imagines a political rally, journalists, and the guest speaker whom he crowds out with cabinet ministers, waitresses, and an assassin.  Once triggered his imagination follows its own logic producing a gun, a dead body, and three characters clambering along the high roof; while the TV channels report the death of a great liberal hero.  He sees a body fall…  It is a symbol of futility.  He smiles at the quality of his metaphorical mind.  Then he looks in a different direction and sees a telegraph pole.  He ponders this for a long time before he turns it into a totem; shifting his eye line so that it hides the water tower.  He smiles to himself: “The games I play!”  Then he stops.  He is amazed.  Then he laughs out loud.  “It’s Alan’s ...  Mercy!  I’m stealing his film!”   Abashed at his foolishness, he remembers Paris, thinks of a local farmhouse, and imagines terrorists breaking into a fancy brothel.

Monday, 27 May 2013

Extraordinary Games

The ending is fabulous.  The beginning is even better.  We’re in an office, high up, looking out over Berlin.  There is a computer; and a television set showing a film we can barely see - cops and robbers, heist, thriller; something violent for sure.  Although it could be, and this is not impossible, this movie!  There is a person in the room watching the TV, although they are hidden from us in a high backed chair; the sort favoured by successful executives.  We notice the credits.  Then our eyes become distracted by them.  Typed onto our cinematic screen they look like randomly scattered letters on a computer’s monitor.  It takes time to see the underlying order: gaps are being filled in to form names - of the characters; of the actors; of R.a.i.n.e.r.  W.e.r.n.e.r . F.a.s.s.b.i.n.d.e.r., who now chucks in quotes from the famous and the unknown; stencilled graffiti daubed straight onto the camera lens.  The subtitles add an extra layer of visual data.

Sunday, 26 May 2013


MyWeku has published my review of Xala.  It is in two Parts.  Part one and Part two.

Friday, 10 May 2013

Terrorists are Boring

We want so much more from our critics.

Almost all the major film-makers were in some way caught up in May 1968 and its aftermath.  Even the generally apolitical Chabrol took part in the Estates General and later explored the world of the ‘groupuscules’ in Nada (1974).  (Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, in The Oxford History of World Cinema)

I don’t think Chabrol is such an explorer.  He hardly leaves the inner ring road of the Parisian political establishment.  Never, we suspect, has he jumped in his car to explore the outer suburbs of far left politics; that maze of tower blocks and concrete walkways where little groups hide out in flats that look like squats; and from out of which few return completely sane.  Instead, he has made a film that is influenced by the atmosphere of May 1968; an event whose impact on the culture was probably far greater than its social, and certainly its political, effects. The intellectuals loved it, and have mourned those few days ever since.i  

Nada was written in a café near the Sorbonne, and it shows.  It simply doesn’t capture the emotional world of a tiny sect committing what for them is a major political act.  They are, like most of the characters in his best work, too indifferent, too liberally normal, to be impassioned extremists; that is, real radicals. 

Thursday, 2 May 2013

Sunday, 28 April 2013

Small Town Minds

Odd.  Weird.  Not quite normal.  We don’t understand it!  A key scene, the pivot on which the plot revolves, contains too much ambiguity; which is a mistake because it confuses the film’s meaning without enriching it.  Too much happens too quickly.  There should have been a few extra scenes to properly fill in the explanatory background so to clarify the character of Hélène.  Chabrol cuts a corner, and it shows: we interpret some crucial moments very differently from what we believe is the director’s intention.  The unity of the work is broken, and we become aware of a narrative flaw: the motivation of Lucienne’s daughter is not so obvious to us as it should be.  Puzzled by an inconsistency we try work it out for ourselves.  Oh dear!  Instead of letting the movie do its osmotic work we spend our time trying to solve a pseudo-problem that should never have existed.  Enamoured with our own thoughts we lose track of the film, engrossed in a question we struggle to answer: why did Hélène shop her mother to the police?

Friday, 19 April 2013

Wit is Everything

Thérèse philosophe is addressed to a Champagne-and-oyster readership – as were most of the works of the early Enlightenment.  Montesquieu cut up De l’Esprit des lois into tiny chapters laced with epigrams so they would suit salon society.  Voltaire made petits pâtés (anti-clerical tracts) comestible in the same way.  A great deal of what passed for philosophy before 1748 took the form of short pamphlets rather than formal treatises.  They remained confined, for the most part, to salons and princely courts, and they often circulated in manuscript.  The most important of them, Le Philosophe (1743), insisted that philosophy belonged in le monde, the world of high society as opposed to that of scholars and literary drudges.  It should be witty, well written, free of prejudice, and in good taste. Thérèse philosophe fits the formula perfectly.  Like Lettres persanes, Candide, and La Religieuse, it presented its philosophy as a story, sliced into bite-sized chapters and served with a sauce that would sit easily on the delicate stomachs of le monde.  (Robert Darnton, The Forbidden Best-sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France)

We would expect the content to reflect the style.  The sophisticates of the Paris salons unlikely to accept as serious a message that hard work and no talk is the solution to life’s problems.  No talk?   The salons would cease to exist!   Of course they would see the joke, and share it, but it is unlikely they would take it as anything more than a light metaphor; Candide believed to be too naïve to be credible.  Not like the sophisticated author who guides his hero's actions with a permanent wink.  Irony indispensable in such circles…

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Talk About the Translator!

Aldous Huxley, clever as always, situates the meaning of Candide not so much in the book itself as in the era of its readers.  It is the Zeitgeist that decides its semantic fate!  A few years either way enough to change our views…

In the good old days, before the Flood, the history of Candide’s adventures seemed to us quiet, sheltered, middle-class people only a delightful phantasy, or at best a high-spirited exaggeration of conditions which we knew, vaguely and theoretically, to exist, to have existed, a long way off in space and time.  But to read the book today; you feel yourself entirely at home in its pages.  It is like reading a record of the facts and opinions of 1922; nothing was ever more applicable, more completely to the point.  The world in which we live is recognizably the world of Candide and Cunégonde, of Martin and the Old Woman who was a Pope’s daughter and the betrothed of the sovereign Prince of Massa-Carrara…

Men, we thought, had grown up from the brutal and rampageous hobbledehoyism of earlier ages and were now as polite and genteel as Gibbon himself.  We now know better.  Create a hobbledehoy environment and you will have hobbledehoy behaviour; create a Gibbonish environment and everyone will be, more less, genteel.  It seems obvious, now.  And now that we are living in a hobbledehoy world, we have learnt Martin’s lesson so well that we can look on almost unmoved at the most appalling natural catastrophes and at exhibitions of human stupidity and wickedness which would have aroused us in the past to surprise and indignation.  Indeed, we have left Martin behind and are become, with regard to many things, Pococurante. (On Re-Reading Candide in On the Margin)

Huxley has inadvertently uncovered a paradox in the novel.  If we accept that the environment shapes our behaviour (British empiricism the foundational philosophy for the Neo-Darwinian belief in natural selection) then Candide’s message that we adapt to circumstances, that we make the best of what little is available, is simply an acknowledgement that in a beastly environment we will become beasts.  Indeed, in Candide’s descent from the top of Pangloss’ metaphysical pedestal to the tilled soil of his practical philosophy we do see the decline and eventual fall of the abstract intellect.  By the book’s end there is no value left in it.  And yet, it is precisely his kind of practical almost mindless work that leads to the Garden of Eden that is the modern age.  Calvino tells us so.  His view today’s conventional wisdom.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Modern Man

The best assessment I’ve read of Candide is by Italo Calvino.  It acknowledges the intellectual asceticism of the book’s conclusion; and so confirms by own views about it, which I had begun to doubt after reviewing some of the critical literature, discussed in previous posts.i  Always we judge others by our own judgements that we believe are categorical and just.  To find someone to agree with is like finding a comfortable sofa to sleep on undisturbed.  Zzzzzzzzzzzz….

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Monday, 1 April 2013

He Splatters the Girl in the Yellow Frock with My Sentences

I am always punching people up!  Not today.  Today I need time to recover.  Hit by heavy blows I sit on the ropes, to consider my ideas, as my opponent jabs and jabs away, and jabs again, at my arguments.  It is a powerful piecei with a nasty uppercut that sends me to the canvas… Michael Wood is good, light on his feet with a quick right hand he bloodies my theories and knocks a few of my paragraphs out cold.  Naturally, I disagree with him.

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

…one doesn’t feel cheated exactly, but feels: Is that all?

What happens when you disagree with a great critic?  To them: nothing much.  If they notice you at all, you’re a slight irritation, a chihuahua yapping in the distance.  But to the little critic like me…  they overwhelm us with their prestige and their confidence – they know they are right; they have the bank balances to prove it.  Disagreeing with one of the greats is like being ravaged by a Doberman on the threshold of their locked estate; while inside they have afternoon tea and talk about Baudelaire as if he were an old friend; an equal.

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Autumn Sonnet

Strange amorist, what can you see in me?
(Clear crystal eyes – I watch the question start)
- Be sweet.  Lie still!  This irritated heart,
That longs for animal simplicity,

Will not reveal its pact with Hell, nor the
Deadly legend written in flames, by Fate,
To you who lure me to my sleep.  I hate
Even the thought of love – passionately!

Go gently, now.  Concealed in some retreat,
Love bends the fatal bow in secrecy.
I know too well that old artillery:

Madness, crime, despair – oh, pale marguerite!
But are you not an autumn sun, like me,
My distant, listless, cold, white Marguerite?

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

This is Love

Murder is an incidental detail to Claude Chabrol.  Although advertised by the posters, and implicit in the plot, when we actually watch his films we soon realise that the murders are only partially relevant to the story; if he had so desired the director could easily have removed them without overly disturbing the movie’s structure or meaning.  Death, especially in Chabrol’s early films, seems to occur mostly by accident.  Even in Les Biches, where the murder is done consciously, the act itself feels contingent, as if carried out in a moment of absent-mindedness – there is so little affect in either the execution or the fatal response. The feel of that film would hardly changed (indeed would not have changed) if the murder had never taken place.  It is more symbol than concrete fact.  For Chabrol crimes are not so much a function of narrative as metaphor and decoration; adding texture to a story but not determining it.  Like the clothes the characters wear, and the books they read, the murders are an important but nevertheless arbitrary detail: we could easily imagine Hélène wearing a yellow skirt instead of her blue check or preferring Anatole France to Balzac; and we could easily imagine the schoolteacher’s wife still living with her husband rather then bleeding over the cliff’s edge.  The deaths are significant only because of their effects; a Chabrol film only concerned about the reactions of the main characters to the dead and the dying.  If the victims had lived we wouldn’t have missed their murders at all; the film happily existing without these oddly affectless crimes.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Too Rich to Accept the Rags this Shopkeeper Sells?

Terrible, aren’t they?  Doubts. They can destroy even the best work.  Stellar stuff demolished by a single question.  A thousand pages defeated by a few words.  “Why” as deadly as an Assassin’s knife. The only things we think about if we think at all about the book we have just read - the questions we ask ourselves about it.  Doubts.  Such terrible things!   We shouldn’t have them, but we do.  So human!  Are they what separate us from the animals?   We are what we are because we doubt?  Civilisation founded upon our uncertainties.  Can this really be so?  What an odd place on which to build a home!  Doubts, it seems, can be such strange, such useful, such wonderful, things when we begin to really think about them.  Like rabbit holes in a grassy bank they should riddle the books we read…

I know I know, intoxicated with a new idea, I’ve forgotten someone important.  The author!  Can a hothouse plant, so fragile that it wilts under the mere whiff of an autumn wind, welcome such cold questioning?  Open the doors!  Break the glass!  Now’s the time to see...

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Saturday, 2 February 2013

An Interlude

From the company of thinkers. – In the midst of the ocean of becoming we awake on a little island no bigger than a boat, we adventurers and birds of passage, and look around us for a few moments: as sharply and as inquisitively as possible, for how soon may a wind not blow us away or a wave not sweep across the little island, so that nothing more is left of us!  But here, on this little space, we find other birds of passage and hear of others still who have been here before – and thus we live a precarious minute of knowing and divining, amid joyful beating of wings and chirping with one another, and in spirit we adventure out over the ocean, no less proud than the ocean itself.

(Friedrich Nietzsche, from Daybreak)

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Practical Stupidity

Unlike Bacon, the French philosopher Descartes allowed himself few explicitly utopian moments.  While as a good English Protestant Bacon could live his life at home, in the 1630s Descartes stayed out of France and found freedom abroad.  In the safe haven of the Dutch city Leiden, he published his Discourse on Method as an alternative to the medieval philosophies taught by the clergy who controlled the French universities.  Illustrated on its title page by a peasant digging his field, it insisted in clear and simple language that every movement or change in nature had to be explained mechanically, that is, by the pulling and pushing of bodies against one another.  No spirits or magical agents, no inherent tendencies, belonged in a philosophy of nature that encompassed everything from the movement of the planets to the action of the nerve endings in the human hand.  In the Cartesian universe, pain results not from an affliction of the soul, but from impulses travelling to the brain.  In the place of speculations by medieval philosophers and theologians, Descartes proclaimed that “a practical philosophy can be found by which… we thereby make ourselves, as it were, masters and possessors of nature.”

Safe from the Inquisition that in 1613 had condemned Galileo, Descartes lived and wrote in the Dutch and largely Protestant cities because, as he explained, in them men got on with their business and left others to their speculations  (Telling the Truth About History, by Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt & Margaret Jacob.  My emphasis.)

Non-utopian; tending to one’s own business; the emphasis on practical knowledge; a reference to “a peasant digging his field”… Sound familiar?

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Neither the Future nor the Past

I haven’t taken the standard line.  But is the obvious always so right and so certain?  Professor John Butt is without doubt correct when he writes that Candide is a satire on the optimistic philosophers of the 18th century; a group of intellectuals who believed all things were part of the universe's preordained pattern where everything, even suffering, was necessary for it to work.  Their attitude one of indifference to generalized pain.  This sounds right.  But how much are we saying, when we say this?

Isn’t such a view, signposted very clearly by the author, just a little too obvious and simple-minded to sustain a book over two centuries?  Why didn’t it die once the fad had ended?  Pangloss, in this interpretation, reduced to a simple caricature of just one kind of ideologue, the Philosophic Optimists, rather than a representative of a type common throughout the ages; Voltaire’s wit demolishing not only 18th century metaphysicians but today’s deterministic disciples of Darwin, the latest in a very long line of rationalist simpletons.

Friday, 11 January 2013

Killing King Reason

Pangloss was right.  And he can prove it!  Oh, and very easily.  In his own experience he did live in the best of all possible worlds; living as he did on Baron Thunder-ten-tronckh’s rich and well-managed estate, tutoring the Baron’s beautiful daughter, making love to an attractive young lady, who reciprocated his affections, he could easily demonstrate that no other world could possibly compare with it.  Bliss! and truth.  Nothing, nothing, can compare with this.  Here indeed was a world sufficient unto itself, and it was ideal; a real life utopia that only ignorance and contingency could destroy.  He knew it, and thus stated a truism that should be obvious to us all.   To attack him as a fool is to reveal the limits to our own understanding, while exposing both our prejudices - against wealth, against luxury, against the old aristocracy – and our envy.  If we had been so lucky, hey?

Friday, 4 January 2013

Tuesday, 1 January 2013