Monday, 27 December 2010

What I am looking forward to in 2011

The Invisible Province has already got its beady eye on a number of cultural events in 2011. I am sure there will be many others that will come along and grab its attention, but I thought I might share these with Invisible Province readers:


Slowly I learnt the ways of humans: how to ruin, how to hate, how to debase, how to humiliate. And at the feet of my master I learnt the highest of human skills, the skill no other creature owns: I finally learnt how to lie.

Frankenstein at the National Theatre. I've already booked simply because I consider Mary Shelley's Frankenstein to be one of the great novels of the nineteenth century. This production (written by the playwright, Nick Dear, who I am hoping will not neglect the epic sense of sadness that is so much part of the novel) is being directed by the film director, Danny Boyle. I must confess that after Trainspotting, Danny Boyle films have left me stirred but never shaken. Slumdog Millionaire may have pulled at the commercial heartstrings, but it was artistically overrated. Yet he's a home grown talent and one cannot deny that his films have a popular appeal (he's also got the gig to stage the opening of the 2012 Olympics). But can he transfer his cinematic skills to the stage of the Olivier Theatre? The production also includes two good British actors, Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller who will alternate the roles of Dr Victor Frankenstein and the Creature. This may not be the theatre event of 2011 but it is bound to be interesting.

2. I missed Clybourne Park when it was at the Royal Court and have been kicking myself ever since. But now that it is transferring to the West End I have been given another chance. This is a play that explores the limits of political correctness and how, on its own, it cannot keep a lid on racial tensions...the play is also meant to be very funny.

In 1959 Russ and Bev are selling their desirable two-bed at a knock-down price. This enables the first Black family to move into the neighbourhood, creating ripples of discontent amongst the cosy white urbanites of Clybourne Park. In 2009, the same property is being bought by Lindsey and Steve whose plans to raze the house and start again is met with a similar response. Are the issues festering beneath the floorboards actually the same fifty years on?

3. A new Terence Malick film is an event for anyone who claims to love cinema. His films are, in the words of the poet, Louis MacNeice, alive with "the drunkenness of things being various". I have always come away from a Malick film deeply affected and having felt I've witnessed something of our transient existence through a clearer, purer lens. I can hardly contain my excitement about The Tree of Life. The only worry is that Brad Pitt is in it...

4. Has Steven Speilberg made a decent film since Schindler's List? Well, this year he offers us two films: The Adventures of Tintin and Warhorse. Not so interested in Tintin (I was always an Asterix the Gaul boy) but I am fascinated to see what he does with Michael Morpurgo's Warhorse. The acclaimed National Theatre production is currently on in London's West End. Speilberg now brings it to the screen and if anyone can make a success of doing so then it must be him. I'm willing this film to be a great Speilberg movie. Can he do for the First World War trenches what he did for the extermination camps? We'll see.

5. Two big sculpture exhibitions this year. Modern British Sculpture at the Royal Academy and The Shape of Things to Come: New Sculpture at the Saatchi Gallery on the Kings Road. Although, when the blurb for the Royal Academy exhibition says:
The exhibition will take a fresh approach, replacing the traditional survey with a provocative set of juxtapositions that will challenge the viewer to make new connections and break the mould of old conceptions.

I want to run to the hills. Still, if I can mentally shield myself from the curator's radical juxtapositions, then I hope to still be able to enjoy work by Alfred Gilbert, Jacob Epstein, Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, Anthony Caro and co.

6. New REM album, Collapse into Now. New Elbow album. New Plan B, The Ballad of Belmarsh. New Mumford and Sons. So lots of interesting pop sounds in 2011.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

My top SIX albums of the year

2010 was a superb year for music. The synthesiser made a comeback which for a child of the eighties like myself was electronica to my ears. Just as the New Romantics were a reaction against punk, so this was a reaction against that which is deemed street and "real" in favour of something more synthetic, glamorous and playful. At the same time, there were some great dance records. And at the further reaches of music, my ears pricked up (thanks to Radio 1's Zane Lowe) to a whole host of innovative sounds that have not made it into my top SIX (I just couldn't leave out Plan B) this year but could well do so in 2011...we will see. In the meantime here are my favourites of 2010.

Janelle Monae's debut album, The Archandroid, is breathtakingly inventive and exciting. It is a concept album (remember those?) with a narrative arc but achieved with such a lightness of touch and musical playfulness that it never becomes an exercise in musical onanism. Like some diligent art student, Monae pilfers from the musical canon only those sounds and riffs that will give her sound its unique musical texture. This snatch 'n' grab approach is audacious, daring and it works. She bounces from genre to genre (rap, r'n'b, folk, disco, cabaret, film scores, etc) with effortless dexterity and sure footedness. In less gifted hands this could have ended up as a pretentious mess. Here, however, every song is crafted to perfection and performed with a soulful confidence. This is Aretha meets Stevie meets Prince. There's not a weak moment in this album. Above, Cold War - not just a great song but also a video moment to rival Sinead O'Connor's famous tears in Nothing Compares to You. My album of the year just because it reminded me that pop music still has a revelatory power.

Let's get her age out of the way. Laura Marling is twenty years old. If I and everybody who writes about Marling hadn't mentioned this fact then you would think I speak because I can exhibits the emotional maturity and musical range of someone twice that age. Setting poetic language to music is a devilishly difficult business but Marling places her finely tuned lyrics on a musical framework of contrasting dynamics that both support and expose her ideas. Rambling Man is an example of this. These lyrics are polished with the finest emery board of creative intelligence. They exhibit a gemstone translucence and honesty. I Speak because I can are miniature hymns of the highest order to love, loss and beauty.

Cee Lo Green's Forget You was one of the big hits of the last year. It is a cleaned up version of Green's potty mouthed assault on an ex-lover given to a cheerful Motown beat. In The Ladykiller, Green successfully channels Motown polish, Stax sassiness and Philly soul for the twenty first century. This is barrelhouse soul, big lunged and finger lickin' good. Stadium sized melodies, horns and strings combine to make one of the great pop albums of the last year...some say, the decade?

This is music that seems designed for the eyeliner brigade and those with complexions so pale that they blister should daylight touch them. But the eerie, multi-layered soundscapes in Stridulum have a sinuous power. They have escaped from the suburban bedrooms of teenage goths and have infected a wider public with their crooked beats and wall of sound synths. Zola Jesus's lead singer, Nika Roza Danilov, has a Siouxsie Sioux vocal range that mesmerises and chills. She is a siren calling us to the darker undercurrents of contemporary living. Stridulum has an independence of vision that lifts the black veil on all the shadows that inhabit our imaginations. This is music for the twilight hours when all seems strange and feverish. It draws you in and once in, you just can't stop listening.

If Stridulum is the dark side of synth pop, then Happiness by Hurts is the New Romantic pop side. So perfect is the mimicry in every musical detail that I can imagine having heard this music in La Beat Route or the Blitz club in the 1980's. With its glacial rhythms and edgy lines - part Ultravox, part ABC - this is a homage to the icy dance music of an era but made accessible to a new audience. For those of you who have been waiting for a duo with sharp suits, slick haircuts and a monumental sound, this is it. If you haven't been waiting for this, what's wrong with you?

Plan B's The Defamation of Strickland Banks is stylish soul music for a new generation of absolute beginners. Ben Drew's conceptual Motown conjures up a world of smoky East End night clubs (owned by The Krays) where if you weren't on your guard, someone would nick your new tie pin at knifepoint. Stonking tunes - all horn hooks, blues guitars and full orchestra sounds - only just mask the air of threat and menace. It is this edginess that stops this album from becoming just another indolent foray into retro-Amy- Winehouse-soul.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

My Favourite Films of 2010

It’s that time of year when newspapers and magazines start to list their cultural highlights of the year. So not wanting to feel left out, here are The Invisible Province’s top five movies of 2010.


Of Gods and Men (Xavier Beauvois). Film making doesn’t get much more luminous than this. This is based on the real life story of seven monks in a North African monastery who are threatened by Islamic fundamentalists. The narrative exhibited a complete lack of pretension, irony or religious cliché. This is a sublime study of religious vocation and sacrificial love. I am not ashamed to say that this deeply moving film brought me to tears. If this doesn’t win the Oscar for best foreign film I’ll eat my biretta.

I am Love (Io sono l'amore) (Luca Guadagnino). This was a flawed film, but these were flaws in a diamond. The story of a frigid bourgeois Milanese family coming apart at the haute couture seams was told with ravishing imagery and an opulence that made love to the senses. Tilda Swinton’s central performance – part ice-maiden, part Lady Chatterley, all pent up sexual repression – was a master class in melodrama. Oh, and then there was that bowl of soup...

Another Year (Mike Leigh). It was the tenderness and humanity of Mike Leigh's latest film that impressed me. Yet, it is a film that has split audiences. I side with the view that the shifting, moral complexity of the characters does not undermine the central thesis that human beings are made for goodness. A film that reveals the sadness and serenity found in the human condition and why we would not have it any other way.

The Killer Inside Me (Michael Winterbottom). The only film that made me flinch and turn away from the images of brutality on the screen. Yet, this was as far from the current trend in torture porn as you can imagine. A serious analysis of sadism and masochism that months after seeing it has left questions in my mind about what makes us moral beings and what degrades us. Not an easy watch but one that is thought provoking which is more than can be said for most films.

Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik). For me the performance of the year goes to Jennifer Lawrence who seemed to inhabit her 17 year old character in a way that appeared to make acting redundant. This was a film that could have played to all the “white trailer trash” stereotypes but stubbornly refused to do so. Instead, we were given an austere portrait of the damage eking a poverty-stricken life from a harsh environment can do to human beings.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Of Gods and Men

Save us, Lord, whilst we watch!
Keep us, Lord, whilst we sleep!
And we shall watch with Christ
And we shall rest in peace…

It’s hard to believe that a film about seven Cistercian monks living in a remote monastery in Algeria, five of whom were murdered by Islamic extremists in 1995 ever made it past the financiers to the screen. Of Gods and Men did and then went on to win the Grand Prix at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival and became an overnight sensation in that most secular of countries, France. If nothing else, this catalogue of unexpected success is a small miracle.

The screenwriter, Etienne Comar, has taken the historical facts about this monastic community and with, Xavier Beauvois, the director, transformed them through the alchemy of art into something that explores “the dignity of difference” and how God “takes the weak and makes them strong in bearing witness to Him.” Neither Comar or Beauvois would describe themselves as “believers” in any conventional sense, but with an utter lack of irony, they have dared to combine secular interests and spiritual truths in such a way that an audience is given creative permission to glimpse a reality that lies beyond empirical measure or psychological explanation. Few films have managed to achieve this – Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev, Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St Matthew, Alain Cavalier’s Therese – but Of Gods and Men does partly because it approaches its subject matter with a reverence and sense that our lives are imbued with a meaning, a Braille that can only be deciphered with the most sensitive, finely tuned spiritual touch. Quoted in The Times newspaper, Beauvois comments:

“I never wanted it to be a Catholic film. It comes from left and right; it is about men more than about gods. But it is true that something in this story resonates with people. The culture of crashing banks, conspicuous consumption, and others working hard for less and less, all those problems mean people want breathing space for a few hours, an escape. They have a need for growth, spirituality, silence...Nowadays it’s rare to die for what you believe in, to have conviction and passion...”

The film opens with a question that echoes for the remaining 121 minutes running time. The monastery’s elderly monk medic, Brother Luc (played with a rugged earthiness and generosity by Michael Lonsdale) is asked by a young woman if he has ever been in love. “Many times,” he replies ruefully, “but then I found a greater love.” It is the question of what makes for a vocation, a love that one is prepared to sacrifice all other loves for that becomes the main centre of interest for Beauvois. The film eschews pious melodrama or political rhetoric. Instead, it is the life of faith both at the communal and individual level that provides the film with its existential drive. The film's soundtrack, used to sublime effect, are the hymns and chants of the Divine Office that mark human time with resonances of the eternal.

We are privy to each brother’s response to the question of whether collectively they should stay (with the inevitability that they will be murdered) or leave and save themselves. On the one hand, Brother Luc says, “I’m not scared of terrorists, even less the army. I’m not scared of death. I am a free man.” At the same time, the much younger Brother Christophe (Olivier Rabourdin) is tormented by the decision he is being forced to make. “Help me. Help me,” he cries to God in the dead of night, as his fellow brothers listen from their cells. Community life exists to support the brothers in friendship and sustain them by the rhythms of prayer, but ultimately the life of faith remains an individual response to a terrifying gift.

Nowhere is this struggle explored more poignantly than in the monastery’s Abbot, Christian (Lambert Wilson). The final decision weighs heavy on him. He understands that if the community stays that this will inevitably lead to the deaths of the men he loves. In a scene of fatherly tenderness, he says to Brother Christophe that by entering the order, “you've already given your life”. In accepting to follow Christ, Christian recognises that he and his brothers have already laid down their lives and that they can no longer be defeated by any earthly power. “To leave is to die”, as one other brother remarks. But their commitment is not to the place but to their vocation. This commitment is total because it is not to acquiesce to an idea or philosophy, but to surrender to a person that can be known and loved - Jesus. In a final voice over, Abbot Christian says, “This country and Islam for me..are a body and soul...God willing, I will merge my gaze in the Father’s and contemplate with Him His children of Islam, as He sees them.”

Too much cinema today operates at the emotive level, as a desperate form of distraction. Of Gods and Men possesses a quiet intensity and passion, combined with a directness of storytelling, that has engaged audiences at an interior level and brought them to tears. It releases a depth charge into the very soul of man and stirs from the silt of our beings something that is irresistible and hard to ignore, no matter how hard we may try. You don’t have to be a believer to appreciate what a tremendous piece of film making this is, you just have to be human.

Friday, 26 November 2010

The Exorcist, Let the Right One In and the horror film genre

I‘ve just read the film critic, Mark Kermode’s, autobiography, It’s Only a Movie. This is a wry summary of a life spent in darkened rooms and his futile assaults on artistically impoverished summer blockbusters. In the film world, the critic’s pen is not mightier than the Hollywood studio publicity machine. Kermode is not only famous for his quiff but also for his knowledge of the horror film genre."I am now a very happy horror-film fan," he writes, "who has derived hours of harmless pleasure from watching people pretend to disembowl each other with chainsaws."

Kermode's favourite film of all time is William Friedkin’s 1973 classic, The Exorcist, which he has “seen about two hundred times (I stopped counting after the first hundred)”. He has written definitive and peer group acclaimed academic studies of this film. Here is Kermode firing on all evangelical cylinders but, along the way, making interesting points about the positive aspects of the horror genre:

The first viewing (of The Exorcist) passed in an almost orgasmic whirl of fear, and remains one of the most genuinely transcendent experiences of my life. Rarely have I been more aware of being alive and in the moment than in the two hours that it took the movie to run through the projector that night. People talk endlessly about the damaging effects of horror movies but too little is heard about the life-affirming power of being sacred out of your mind – and, in those very rare cases, out of your body. You ask me if I think there is more to this world than the grim “realities” of ageing, disease and death, of mourning and loss, and I will refer you to that first viewing of The Exorcist during which my imagination took flight, my soul did somersaults, and the physical world melted away into nothingness around me. I don’t think that there is a spiritual element to human life, I know it because I have experienced it first-hand, and I have horror movies to thank for that blessing.

The Exorcist is clearly an accomplished film on all sorts of levels (I’m, not surprisingly, particularly interested in its perspective on the Catholic priest) but I’m not sure it would make it into my top ten films. I also admit to knowing next to nothing about the horror genre which exists at the periphery of my cinematic vision and knowledge. The Exorcist, along with Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby and Kubrick’s The Shining are all films of exceptional artistic quality and yet the horror genre as a whole is too camp and predictable for my tastes.

In 2008, I began to read the rave reviews of an indie Swedish vampire movie called Let the Right One In. Curiousity got the better of me and one afternoon, I took myself off to a matinee performance. Let the Right One In became one of my favourite film of that year.

The film circles around the relationship of two outsiders. Twelve year old, Oskar, is bullied at school and without proper parental support, he must fend for himself emotionally and practically at home. New neighbours move in next door and Oskar meets the mysterious Eli. An adolescent romance begins to develop between them which is handled by the director, Tomas Alfredson, with real tenderness and humour. They are “a pair of star cross’d lovers” and in Eli’s case she can only appear when there are stars because she is a teenage vampire.

Let the Right One In directs the horror genre to a new territory where the fragility of all our loves and relationships are examined. The sense of being misunderstood that is so common in adolescence (and such a staple ingredient in films about adolescence) acquires an added depth when the individual that is misunderstood is a vampire. Let the Right One In is no gore fest but a more melancholy meditation on those insurmountable barriers that make love impossible. This is Catcher in the Rye with fangs.

Let the Right One In has just experienced an American makeover as Let Me In. This new version (which stays reasonably faithful in terms of narrative structure to the original), directed by Matt Reeves (Cloverfield), is worth seeing in its own right. The action has been transposed to the United States of the 1980’s, but the essential elements remain the same. The most significant change is that this feels much more like a conventional horror film. There are more shocks, more breaking of necks with attendant Dolby sound effects and more CGI. Given this directorial slant it is inevitable that the horror displaces the ambiguous romance and makes it a less disturbing film than the Swedish original.

These films may not have convinced me of the importance of the horror genre. They have, however, made me question my prejudices and that can never be a bad thing.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Another Year

At the heart of Mike Leigh’s Another Year is the happy marriage of Tom (Jim Broadbent) and his wife, Gerri (Ruth Sheen). He is an industrial geologist and she an NHS therapist, both approaching retirement in an unremarkable suburbia. Leigh captures the gentleness, unspoken tenderness and friendship of a long marriage without ever allowing this picture to slip into sentimental sludge. With an acute eye and ear, all the minutiae of a contented marriage are examined: the bedtime hug, the shared mug of tea on the allotment as the seasons pass by, the humour and eloquent silences that weave through kitchen table conversations. Their years together have given an emotional earthiness to their marriage that finds expression in their kindness and hospitality to others.

All the characters in the film are linked in some proximate or remote way to this marriage. Tom and Gerri’s way of living becomes a kind of measure of happiness or illuminates the corrosive effects of solitude, the failure that some people have in finding a sustaining love in their lives.

The film opens with a menacing prologue that alerts the viewer to the themes that will be examined in the film. Janet is sent to Gerri for help with her insomnia and depression. In a tense cameo performace from Imelda Staunton, Janet's pinched features seem to be in a vice-like grip of self-loathing and terror. “On a scale of one to ten, how happy would you say you are?” probes Gerri. “One”, snaps Staunton as she bullies Gerri for medication to sedate her from the grim reality of an unhappy homelife. Even for those who are married, Leigh suggests, the consolations that Tom and Gerri experience are for others cruelly unattainable.

This is particularly true for Mary who works as a secretary in the same hospital as Gerri. Mary (an intelligent, brittle performance by Lesley Manville) has a manic, chatterbox personality that covers the “quiet desperation” of her private life. A failed marriage and a car-crash relationship with a married man has led her to invent an illusory love life, where almost every man she meets is encouraged to “take her out for a drink” and none ever do. Mary is a fantasist, trying to escape the ageing process and the prospect of a future spent alone. Her loneliness has turned into a bitter pool of remorse and resentment and only glass after glass of white wine dilutes the pain. When Gerri says, “Life’s not always kind, is it?” In Mary, we see the answer.

Tom and Gerri invite Mary to share in their life, to come in from the cold and find some warmth in their relationship. But, as the seasons that mark the course of the film turn, so Mary tests the patience of her hosts. Her behaviour chills the atmosphere in their home and their response to her becomes less accepting, more distanced. In this, Leigh explores the limits of kindness. Is there not some tough kernel of self-interest, desire for recognition in all our acts of kindness? Is a truly selfless kindness ever possible? Must there be limits and boundaries to our kindness? If so, how do we determine what those are?

Tom’s old university friend, Ken (Peter Wright) is also weighed down by loneliness. He is not the happy-go-lucky Northern bachelor boy but an overweight, chain-smoking, beer-swilling image of sadness. At a barbecue in Tom and Gerri’s back garden, Ken wears a t-shirt with the slogan “Less thinking, more drinking”. The irony, of course, is that the more he drinks, the more he thinks about his situation.

Another Year is a subtle meditation on the necessity of love in human lives and how "without it we remain incomprehensible to ourselves". But it is also a meditation that is full of Mike Leigh’s observational humour and generosity of spirit. Our human lives are complex, fragile, ridiculous, Leigh observes, but if our lives – even in their disillusionment, loneliness and mortality – are to be embraced then there must be something that we can hope for. Tom and Gerri symbolise that hope.

There are so many reasons to see this compassionate film but the main reason is Lesley Manville’s performance as Mary. It is heart-breaking without ever becoming mawkish, immediately recognisable without any lazy traces of caricature.

On Oscar night, when Sandra Bullock (or some other Hollywood starlet) stands up in her Armani Privée frock and says And the winner of the Best Female Performance goes to...the answer has got to be Lesley Manville.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

some favourite film quotations

My new curate suggested we watch David Fincher's Se7en the other night over a pizza. By the end of the film, he was being violently sick. Nothing to do with the film. Nothing to do with me (I think?) and everything to do with gastric flu.

I'm a fan of Fincher. He is one of those few directors who bridge the gap between popular cinema and more thoughtful subject matter. Last week I saw the first ten minutes of his latest film, The Social Network, before there was a power cut and the cinema was emptied. So that is still to be seen at some point.

I saw Se7en when it first came out in 1995 and wondered if it would stand a second viewing(it does on many levels even though Brad Pitt and Gwyneth Paltrow's acting are flat affairs). However, the thing I remember most about Se7en is a speech given by Kevin Spacey near the end of the film. Watching it again, the speech does not disappoint - a memorable piece of the kind of economical, flick-knife sharp writing that is especially suited to the cinema.

So, I thought I'd offer some of my favourite quotations from popular films. I was going to track down the relevant film clips, but I think I'll let the words do the talking and let you conjure in your mind's eye and ear the scene from each particular film.

1. Innocent? Is that supposed to be funny? An obese man, a disgusting man who could barely stand up; a man who if you saw him on the street, you'd point him out to your friends so that they could join you in mocking him; a man who, if you saw him while you were eating, you wouldn't be able to finish your meal...After him, I picked the lawyer and I know you both must be thanking me for that one. This is a man who dedicated himself to making money by lying with every breath that he could muster to keeping murderers and rapists on the streets. A ugly on the inside she couldn't bear to go on living if she couldn't be beautiful on the outside. A drug dealer, a drug dealing pederast, actually. And let's not forget the disease-spreading whore. Only in a world this shitty could you even try to say that these were innocent people and keep a straight face. But that's the point. We see a deadly sin on every street corner, in every home, and we tolerate it. We tolerate it because it's common, it's trivial. We tolerate it morning, noon and night. Well, not anymore. I'm setting the example. What I've done is going to be puzzled over and studied and followed...forever.
Kevin Spacey, Se7en

2. I remember when my daddy gave me that gun. He told me that I should never point it at anything in the house. And that he's rather I shoot at tin cans in the backyard, but he said that sooner or later he supposed the temptation to go after birds would be too much, and that I could shoot all the blue jays I wanted, if I could hit 'em, but to remember it was a sin to kill a mockingbird. Well, I reckon because mockingbirds don't do anything but make music for us to enjoy. They don't eat people's garden, don't nest in their corncrib, they don't do one thing but just sing their hearts out for us.
Gregory Peck, To Kill a Mockingbird

3. You talkin' to me? You talkin' to me? You talkin' to me? Then who the hell else are you talkin' to? You talkin' to me? Well, I'm the only one here. Who do you think you are talkin' to? Oh yeah? Huh? Okay.
Robert De Niro, Taxi Driver

4. This an absolute good. This list is life.
Ben Kingsley, Schindler's List

5. I am not an animal! I am a human being! I am a man!
John Hurt, The Elephant Man

6. I read somewhere that everybody on this planet is separated by only six other people. Six degrees of separation between us and everyone else on this planet. The President of the United States, a gondolier in Venice, just fill in the names. I find it extremely comforting that we're so close. I also find it like Chinese water torture that we're so close because you have to find the right six people to make the right connection. I am bound, you are bound, to everyone on this planet by a trail of six people.
Stockard Channing, Six Degrees of Separation

7. Why did you go to the police? Why didn't you come to me first? What have I ever done to make you treat me so disrespectfully? If you'd come to me in friendship, then this scum that ruined your daughter would be suffering this very day. And if, by chance, an honest man like yourself should make enemies...then they would be my enemies. And then they would fear you.
Marlon Brando, The Godfather

8. You love playing with that. You love playing with all your stuffed animals. You love your mommy, your daddy. You love your pyjamas. You love everything, don't you? Yeah. But you know what, buddy? As you get older, some of the things you love might not seem so special anymore. Like your Jack-in-the-box. Maybe you'll just realise it's just a piece of tin and a stuffed animal. And then you forget the few things you really love. And by the time you get to my age, maybe its only one or two things. With me, I think it's one.
Jeremy Renner, The Hurt Locker

9. Extraordinary! On the page it looked nothing. The beginning simple, almost comic. Just a pulse - bassoons and basset horns, like a rusty squeezebox. Then suddenly, high above it, an oboe, a single note, hanging there unwavering, till a clarinet took over and sweetened it into a phrase of such delight. This was no composition by a performing monkey! This was a music I'd never heard. Filled with such longing, such unfulfillable longing, it had me trembling. It seemed to me that I was hearing the voice of God.
F.Murray Abraham, Amadeus

10. The final passage is the famous Ezekiel 25:17 from Pulp Fiction. Too long to write out so I have tracked down the clip. I should warn people that it does contain some rather colourful language, but not, I think, gratuitously so. It is Quentin Tarantino at his best and Samuel L. Jackson at his coolest. Enjoy

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Indifference and its consequences

In the morning, the Campo dei Fiori in Rome is blush with the colour and smells of fruit and vegetable stalls. In the afternoon, emptied of the stalls and washed cleaned, locals and tourists sit outside the restaurants people watching. And in the evening, young people congregate around the bars, flirting and laughing with each other. Overlooking this daily cycle of work and play is a monumental statue to the Dominican cosmologist and philosopher, Giordano Bruno. Found guilty of heresy, Bruno was handed over to the civil authorities. On February 17, 1600 he was burned at the stake. In his poem, Campo dei Fiori, the Polish poet, Czelow Milosz, meditates on the indifference of the bystanders who blithely watched as Bruno was consumed by flames:

Someone will read as moral
That the people of Rome or Warsaw
Haggle, laugh, make love
As they pass by martyrs’ pyres.
Someone else will read
Of the passing of things human,
Of the oblivion
Born before the flames have died.

In The Other Schindlers, Agnes Grunwald-Spier recounts the stories of those men and women who helped their Jewish neighbours during the Holocaust. Sometimes this was inspired by religious belief as in the case of the nun, Soeur St Cybard (1885-1968), who saved a young five year old girl, Josie Martin, by taking her into a Catholic school and concealing her identity. Later Josie would write:

I can only surmise that Soeur St Cybard was a pious and sincere human being who practised her religious beliefs well beyond the dictates of her immediate superiors...I also wonder if I could have been a rescuer. When I think of that, I’m always struck by how heroic that nun was – not just for the obvious reason of risking her life by taking in the enemy or the perceived enemy. I also think of the upheaval it must have caused for this woman to take in a child!

Other rescuers had humanitarian motives such as Jaap van Proosdij (1921 -) who was only twenty one when he rescued 250 Dutch Jews. Reflecting on his actions, he said:

Why did I do it? Because it was the only normal thing to do. One can’t sit and watch when people are in mortal danger even when you do not know them...It is an important thing in my life to feel that I was useful somewhere...that I did not live just to enjoy myself. Nothing else I ever did was as important. A friend of mine said to me that the war was the time he really lived. For me, it was the time I lived the most intensely.

These histories of bravery and selfless concern for others are deeply moving. But, as Agnes Grunwald-Spier reminds us, these were largely isolated events before the general sea of indifference to the sufferings of the Jewish people.

What moves one person to compassion and action when others remain largely indifferent to the suffering around them? What makes one person a bystander and another a Good Samaritan? Has it something to do with categorising people as “them” and not “us”? Does the primitive tendency to stereotype the “other” feed into this indifference? Do some people possess a religious or moral integrity that goes beyond doctrinal formulations and deepens them? Are there some people who have an acute awareness of their interconnectedness with humanity, that, in the words of John Donne, “no man is an island, Intire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent. A part of the Maine…Any man’s death diminishes me, Because I am involved in Mankinde; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee”. (Devotions XVII) Where within us does the darkness of indifference give way, if at all, to the breaking dawn of active compassion?

In 2001, Professor Richard D. Heffner interviewed the Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Elie Weisel. Heffner asked: “You’ve spoken about those who put people in the death camps and brought about their deaths directly. You also speak about others who stood around indifferently. Do you feel that this is increasingly a theme in our times?” Elie Wiesel responded:

Oh, more and more. I have the feeling that everything I do is a variation on the same theme. I’m simply trying to pull the alarm and say, “Don’t be indifferent”. Simply because I feel that indifference now is equal to evil. Evil, we know more or less what it is. But indifference to disease, indifference to famine, indifference to dictators, somehow it is here and we accept it. And I have always felt that the opposite of culture is not ignorance; it is indifference. And the opposite of faith is not atheism; again, it is indifference. And the opposite of morality is not immorality; it’s again indifference. And we don’t realise how indifferent we are simply because we cannot not be a little bit indifferent
J.D.Salinger, author of Catcher in the Rye, helped liberate Dachau concentration camp. He would later observe that “anyone could turn out to be a Nazi –your neighbour, your babysitter, the man at the post office – anyone. And anyone could be a hero; you never knew until it happened who would be a hero and who would be a coward or traitor.”

And that is the rub. We remain largely hidden from ourselves. Only our actions or acts of omission reveal us in any concrete sense. None of us can predict the existential maturity of our moral natures until we act or fail to act. Above all, it is in the moment of tragedy or trauma that either our moral grandeur or failure is revealed to us. We see ourselves as we really are. Until we are faced with the suffering and fragility of another human being, those who are hunted and crucified outside the city walls, we do not know whether we will reach out to them or whether covering our own backs, protecting our reputations, parroting given ideological positions will be our main preoccupation.

Would I have been another Schindler, Soeur St Cybard, Jaap van Proosdij or just another indifferent bystander, rationalising my cowardice and ignoring those who were “other”?

The Other Schindlers: why some people chose to save Jews in the Holocaust, Agnes Grunwald-Spier, The History Press, 2010

Sunday, 31 October 2010

Racism, football and the collective.

One of the reasons I read The Times newspaper (although it frequently infuriates me and I constantly think about having an affair with some other paper) is the writing of the journalist, Simon Barnes. He is the Chief Sports writer for the newspaper, but also writes on his love of bird watching and a variety of other subjects, including his son who has Downs Syndrome.

Simon Barnes is what people now refer snootily to as a “prose stylist”. His words have a cleansing, Alpine purity and yet he is not afraid to exercise language and metaphor in order to create vivid sporting images. He has the ability to take foreign subjects and through the written word, make the reader believe that the alien sport he is surveying is also within their mental apprehension. Not only that, through his incisive analysis, the reader believes that sport has a meaning and value beyond mere distraction. This, in the sociologist, Peter Berger's famous phrase, is sport as "a signal of transcendence"

It is because Simon Barnes considers sport to be a human virtue, that he also recognises its vices. His latest article, No masking football’s ability to up the anti (29 October 2010), considers the relationship between racist, neo-Nazi organisations (in this case, the English Defence League, EDL) and football. He writes:

It’s always football. Whenever you follow the more grotesque forms of politics, you end up on the road that leads back to football. As I read the disquieting interview with Stephen Lennon, founder of the English Defence League in The Times this week, so I waited for the moment when we came up against football.

It happened in the sixth paragraph, with the information that Lennon is banned from going to matches at Luton Town as part of his bail conditions, after being charged with affray and assault after two separate incidents. The EDL, I learnt, began with Luton supporters handing out leaflets that read “Ban the Luton Taleban”.

Barnes thinks there are a number of reasons why football attracts such degenerate, disordered social views. “The politics of violent intolerance traditionally does best among working-class youth,” he observes, “particularly when they can be separated from older people and from women”.

The first part of this statement seems uncontroversial to me. The pale faced youths on the crumbling terraces of the 1970’s and '80's were the obvious recruits for the National Front. They were susceptible to the rhetoric of the far right. “Some people say we’re racists. We’re not racists. We’re realists,” says the character Lenny in Shane Meadows 2006 film, This is England, “Some people call us Nazis. We're not Nazis. No, what we are, we are nationalists and there's a reason people try to pigeonhole us like this. And that is because of one word, gentlemen - Fear.”

It is Barnes’s contention that when men (especially, young, impressionable men) are separated from the elderly and from women, their ideas become more easily manipulated. When ageing (with all its frailties, experiences and sense of approaching death) and the feminine are marginalised, men become more vulnerable to a distorting machismo that often finds expression in a brutal herd mentality.

“In a footballing context, jocose bigotry is socially and morally acceptable”, writes Barnes, “In football, it is perfectly acceptable to be illogical and absurd in the name of loyalty...When you turn to football, you are entitled to let your sense of fairness and common sense – almost your humanity – take a holiday. Tottenham Hotspur can hate arsenal and Arsenal can hate Tottenham and Everton can hate Liverpool and everybody can hate United....When the precariously maintained joke of rivalry and hatred becomes something people actually believe in, the madness begins.”

If this is true of football, then, perhaps, it is true of other collectives where men and testosterone predominate? I don’t know what the social theorists would say about this and I'm not entirely convinced by this suspicion. Nevertheless, as I looked out at my congregation this Sunday morning, the sight of young men alongside women and the elderly felt kind of healthy and reassuring.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Hamlet and the Search for Identity

To thine own self be true,/ And it must follow as the night, the day,/ Thou canst not then be false to any man.

Over the years, I have seen a number of Hamlets (Anton Lesser, Ian Charleson, Kenneth Branagh, Jude Law, Ben Whishaw, Simon Russell Beale and I even, as a guilty pleasure, enjoyed Mel Gibson’s portrayal in Zeffirelli’s 1990 film of the play) and all have – to a greater or lesser degree – shed new light on the complex soul of the Prince of Denmark. Last week, I went to see the latest production of Hamlet at the National Theatre where Rory Kinnear (the son of the late, Roy Kinnear) takes on the role with a renewed freshness. His performance and the inventiveness of this production makes you feel as if you are watching the play for the first time.

One of the challenges that any actor faces when they approach Hamlet is to what extent they travel the fault lines between sanity and insanity in the character. Kinnear’s Hamlet is very sane and his “antic disposition” is a psychological mechanism to protect himself from the pain of grief and injustice. This Hamlet circles the epithet “to thine own self be true” and considers if that is possible when "the time is out of joint” and you are under surveillance from family, peers, institutions and society.

In such an environment, must we repress truths about ourselves in order to survive, achieve preferment or engender some form of acceptance from others? Are we ever willing to let down our guard and be entirely honest with ourselves or with another? Or is there always an element of self-deception when we look at ourselves and subterfuge when we present ourselves to others? Do we prefer to manufacture and live with the illusion rather than wrestle with our reality? Kinnear's Hamlet asks if it is possible to live a more authentic appropriation of who we are? If so, what might that look like? The director, Nicholas Hytner, in a programme note remarks:
One of them (the play’s chief concerns) is human authenticity. It’s one of Hamlet’s obsessions: the apparent impossibility of being authentically oneself, or of knowing others authentically. The first line of the play is famously resonant: “Who’s there?” The second line seems even more telling to me: “Nay answer me: stand and unfold yourself!” Is it possible to completely unfold yourself? To anyone else, or even to yourself?

Rory Kinnear commenting on the famous soliloquies that are so central to the play observes:
Hamlet is someone who’s constantly searching for the truth in humanity and in himself, and, through the continual betrayal of those he once loved or was close to, adopts more and more walls to protect himself or to obscure his motives. In those five or six soliloquies you’re able to be open, to enlist the audience to your situation and to work things through with them...He’s trying to be honest with himself.

This might seem like simply a psychological process of introspection - the caricature that many people have of Hamlet is of a melancholy youth, a sort of Danish Morrissey, endlessly soul mining or indulgently navel gazing depending on your prejudices. But Kinnear suggests that Hamlet’s self actualisation cannot be reduced to mere psychology or sociology but is something that also happens outside his immediate understanding of himself:
Madness seems to be a label for behaving outside the norms of society. Hamlet, in seeing the ghost of his father, seems to be taken – as well as to rage at the murder and adultery, which he might have already suspected – to a state of wonderment at this other-worldliness, a new sphere of life. But at the same time he’s wondering how he’s going to be able to deal with this knowledge. He instantly decides that the way to deal with it is to behave as “other” as possible. If he tries to sit on his new knowledge it will out somehow, so actually to let rip from the start.

I find these questions of identity, of what makes us who we are, fascinating and, perhaps, that is why I so enjoyed this production. Are we, as Descartes describes it “in the strictest sense only a thing that thinks: that is, I am a mind, or intelligence, or intellect, or reason...a thinking thing”? Is such an atomistic description of the human person adequate or is our authentic identity to be realised in something beyond the self, for example, in love for an Ophelia or a mother or God? Does the ek-stasis of being, the movement towards communion with others lead to a transcendence of the boundaries of the self and thus to true authenticity? Is the philosopher, Charles Davis, correct when he writes in Body as Spirit:
Man’s true subjectivity is not the self-sufficient independence of an isolated monad, but a self-possessed openness to the plenitude of being. As an embodied subjectivity, the self participates in the plenitude of being only in and through the world with which it is a bodily one.

Too many big questions here to think and write about in a brief blog post. But the fact that a production of Hamlet still has the power to stir such universal concerns makes it a profound, unsettling and moving experience.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Nothing is Self-Evident

One of the pleasures of writing The Invisible Province is that I often receive ideas and suggestions from people(and even if they don't make it into a blog post, they are always interesting - so do keep sending them to me). The following blog post is thanks to the chaplain of the University of Essex, Fr Paul Keane.

In 1988, the American writer, Raymond Carver reflected on the following words from St Teresa of Avila: "Words lead to deeds...They prepare the soul, make it ready, and move it to tenderness." Carver was receiving an honorary doctorate from the University of Hartford and in his acceptance speech before a packed auditorium of university students and lecturers, he said:
Long after what I've said has passed from your minds, whether it be weeks or months, and all that remains is the sensation of having attended a large public occasion...try then, as you work out your individual destines, to remember that words, the right and true words, can have the power of deeds.

Václav Havel, the renowned dramatist, essayist and the first President of the Czech Republic, would agree with Carver. Words lead to deeds and that is why words are such volatile, powerful and important things. They are vessels of sacredness and should be handled with a sacramental reverence. One cruel word can, in the words of George Steiner, "do dirt on hope". On the other hand, words that are blessings, revelations of understanding can illuminate the darkest abyss and build communion. Contrasting the words of Salman Rushdie with those of Ayatollah Khomeini, Václav Havel famously wrote: "Words that electrify society with their freedom and truthfulness are matched by words that mesmerise, deceive, inflame, madden, beguile, words that are harmful - lethal even. The word as arrow."

For Havel, the question of our time is whether words can be expressions of truth that man can live by or have our words become so semantically corrupted by the virus of relativism (e.g. those schools of postmodern literary theory that advocate the deconstruction of meaning and the annihilation of all syntactical or lexical descriptions) that truth is beyond expression. Where words have been emptied of their truth and are reduced to the level of a euphemism, the value and power of language is called into question. In this environment, the meaning of words become so elastic that the linguistic bonds that unite human beings begin to fray and break. The idea that words are to be used responsibly is viewed with suspicion and disdain. Words become instruments of power and violence. Havel writes:
We should all fight together against arrogant words and keep a weather eye out for any insidious germs of arrogance in words that are seemingly humble. Obviously this is not just a linguistic task. Responsibility for words and towards words is a task which is intrinsically ethical. as such, however, it is situated beyond the horizon of the visible world, in that realm wherein dwells the Word that was in the beginning and is not the words of Man.

Václav Havel has just given a remarkable speech at the opening ceremony of Forum 2000. This is language used with all the fervour and energy of an Old Testament prophet. But, above all, this is language that has the power to make synaptic connections between different viewpoints. Havel links the destruction of our landscapes by a philistine consumerism with "a civilisation that has lost its connection with the infinite and eternity." In Havel's mind, the economic recession is of a piece with a mystical intuition that "strangeness, unnaturalness, mystery, inconceivability have been shifted out of the world of serious thought into the dubious closets of suspicious people. Until they are released and allowed to return to our minds things will not go well." Havel really does believe that words can lead to deeds.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010


The sad fate of the album XX is that it will end up being blogged about by middle aged men (worse still, blogged about by priests, which must be the kiss of death to anything cool and stylish). Unfortunately, XX is going to go the same way as every Portishead and Massive Attack album - the way of the middle class, hip dinner party and the television advertisement. This is a shame because around the addictive dubstep melodies and riffs the XX have crafted a musical landscape that echoes with dystopian menace and the heartbreak you find whimpering in council estate stair wells on a Saturday night.

The XX are four youths from South London dressed in black and looking as if they haven’t had a hearty meal for some time. A boy/girl duo – Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sims – are the lead singers and their vocal interplay, all hushed intensity and jagged intimacy, veneer their lovesongs with an urban vulnerability. Supported by Baria Qureshi (keyboards/guitar) and Jamie Smith (programming/samples), the XX have created a critically acclaimed debut album that has just recently won the prestigious Mercury Music Prize.

As the musical interlude, Intro, fades, the listener is drawn into the seductive, languid spaces of XX - a bedsit, youth squat land for damaged hearts. Synth beats and smoky soundscapes give more than a respectful nod to the 80’s band the Cocteau Twins but this aural expansiveness is hooked to lyrics that dissect at the nuclear level the autistic anxieties and tics of contemporary relationships. Big sounds and emotional longing are what make XX an interesting listen. These are songs that, in the words of the track VCR, “live half in the daytime/live half in the night”, that no man’s land where authentic love is hard to come by.

One of the standout tracks is Crystalised. Its helter-skelter, unpredictable riffs conjure up a bruised psychological state of self-mutiliating uncertainty. “You’ve applied the pressure/to have me crystalised./And you’ve got the faith/that I could bring paradise ./ I’ll forgive and forget/before I’m paralysed./ Do I have to keep up the pace/To keep you satisfied.” Reading the unspoken contradictions of a relationship takes on a forensic struggle. The pressure and pace inherent in a youthful relationship is also recognised to be destructive and paralysing. This song, like so many on the album, has an unsettling sensuality, the closeness of breath and the grinding of teeth.

Some critics have complained that by the end of the album, the songs have melted into one luxurious, indistinguishable blend. There is some truth in this but with an album that provides so many unexpected pleasures, this criticism feels petty and mean. XX is a perfect soundtrack to all the consolations and terrors that swirl around our search for love. Let's hope it does not end up at too many dinner parties or on too many grandad blogs.

XX, The XX (Young Turks, Rough Trade Records, 2009)

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Is the internet weakening our ability to read?

There’s a striking passage in the Confessions, where St Augustine describes his surprise when he stumbles across Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, reading. Augustine observes that “when he read, his eyes scanned the page and his heart explored the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still. Often, when we came to see him, we found him reading like this in silence, for he never read aloud.” Augustine was witnessing what, we may term, a paradigm shift from a largely oral idiom to a written idiom, where the thinking subject internalises the word and becomes not just one who reads but a reader.

But this shift, Nicholas Carr believes, also marks a significant cognitive development with brain function being stimulated and exercised in new ways. For centuries, the commonly held neurological view was that, after the malleability of childhood and youth, our brains became structurally fixed. In this mechanistic understanding, the brain was like a combustion engine, its many parts having a specific character and function. If any deviance from these functions occurred the circuits of the brain, like those of the engine, would begin to break down. Such an understanding of the brain has recently been called into question and it appears that our brains are more “plastic” than previously thought. With repetitive thought and action, the neural circuits of the brain appear to develop and strengthen.

Augustine witnessed the shift from an oral to a literate culture but now there appears to be a further shift to an electronic vernacular, which, again, will provide challenges at the neural and cultural level. We are witnessing the digitilisation of text. It is conceivable that all the libraries of the world will be stored on a computer and accessed via the i-book in your hand. At the forefront of this revolution is Google that aims to scan every book ever printed and make them “discoverable and searchable online.”

In comparative terms, is this anything more than the change from vinyl to c.d that many of us experienced in the twentieth century? Does it matter if our texts are printed or digitalised, isn't this just a technological development which only the Luddite would see as threatening? Well, though there may have been benefits from the move from vinyl to c.d and more recently, to download, there have also been losses. No one listens to an album sequentially from track one to track twelve these days. The idea of artistic coherence, at least in the mind of the majority of listeners, has been lost. Instead the listener flits from track to track until they land upon something aurally attractive and then, when they are satisfied or their attention is tested, they move on. Our ability to listen to music - pop, jazz or classical - in a concentrated, uninterrupted fashion is challenged. It is not just that the music or the methods by which we listen to music have changed, what is changing is the very act of listening itself. Listening for the "still, sad music of humanity" has become an activity associated with a bygone age.

Similarly, having a digitalised text may have many benefits, such as easy access to a particular book but there are also likely to be losses. For example, what happens to the cohesion of a text? What happens to the intellectual discipline of following an argument? What happens when we stop exercising our more reflective faculties, when a text becomes just hyperlinked data, something to scroll rather than an integrated body of learning to be thought through? What happens to the architecture of our brains when we start thinking like this? Nicholas Carr writes ominously:

For Google, with its faith in efficiency as the ultimate good and its attendant desire "to get users in and out really quickly," the unbinding of the book entails no loss, only gain. Google Book Search manager Adam Mathes grants that "books often live a vibrant life offline," but he says that they'll be able "to live an even more exciting life online." What does it mean for a book to lead a more exciting life? Searchability is only the beginning. Google wants us, it says, to be able to "slice and dice" the contents of the digitized books we discover, to do all the "linking, sharing, and aggregating" that are routine with Web content but that "you can't easily do with physical books...The great library that Google is rushing to create shouldn't be confused with the libraries we've known up until now. It's not a library of books. It's a library of snippets.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Film Quiz

I have been exposed by my fellow priestly blogger, Stephen Wang, for what I really am: a nerdy cineaphile. It's true. There's no escaping my reality. His last film quiz provided me so much pleasure, especially his really difficult, cryptic clues. Now the fascinating Bridges and Tangents blog has stumbled upon a great film quiz from The Guardian newspaper...I'm doing okay at the moment, although a few of the film references have escaped me. Nerdy cineaphile, me?!

Thursday, 30 September 2010

Beauty is truth, truth beauty

My review of Roger Scruton's book, Beauty, has just been published in the online art periodical, Artfractures Quarterly: Summer 2010. There's lots of other stimulating essays and reviews in there as well. Do have a browse.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Winter's Bone

Sometimes a film come along, like Winter’s Bone, that just reminds you how important cinema is. Unlike any other medium, the cinematic experience gives the viewer the psychic space to imaginatively explore the lives of those that they would never encounter in normal circumstances. But, this is more than an education in neo-realism. There is a certain moral position informing such film making that aims to exercise those faculties of empathy within us. Watching films that are more than entertaining distractions but have a serious intent enables us to imagine in a vivid way something of the invisible darkness in others.

Set in the Ozark mountains of rural Missouri, Winter's Bone follows 17 year old Ree as she searches for her father who has disappeared on bail after having put up their family home as a bond. If she does not find him within the space of a week, she, her catatonic mother and her two younger siblings will be evicted. The film is a chase, race-against-the-clock movie but elevated to something more profound by the rawness of impoverished lives drawn with a visual acuity and poignancy.

These American backwaters are not unfamiliar to film goers. John Boorman's 1972 film, Deliverance, starring Jon Voigt and Burt Reynolds, presented the inhabitants of these peripheral sub-cultures as backward hillbillies, emotionally ruined by lines of familial consanguinity and intent on making city-dwellers squeal like a pig. The Coen brothers' No Country for Old Men suggested that the contemporary cowboy landscape had lost its John Wayne values and become an amoral wilderness. Again, Ang Lee mapped this territory in Brokeback Mountain but, in that film, the landscape became a metaphysical backdrop to suppressed passion and eventual violence. In Winter’s Bone, director Debra Granik avoids any consoling lyricism or horror film clichés in order to consider the grinding effects of poverty on a community. These are people who have aged before their time, the lines in their faces etched by the toil of eking a living from a barren land or surviving their loneliness by snorting lines or firing rounds into each other.

Winter's Bone possesses all the menace of any good thriller but the film’s real achievement is to place these thriller motifs within a domestic context. In between playing Nancy Drew, we witness Ree's effort to look after her family. Where ends cannot meet, she survives on the food handouts from neighbours or the hunting of squirrels for a stew. Played by Jennifer Lawrence with impressive emotional commitment, Ree combines gritty resilience with the awkward vulnerability of any teenager. Her world is one of trailers, cabins and anorexic dogs tethered to long chains. Yet, she accepts this stark, unforgiving existence for the sake of keeping her family together. When her brother and sister ask her if she is going to abandon them, Ree replies “I’d be lost without the weight of you two on my back.”

Yet for all the emotional and visual austerity, this film does not succumb to fashionable nihilism. Winter’s Bone is a more nuanced project and seeks a kind of ambiguous redemption. Even in an hermetically sealed environment where the laws of barbarism and vengeance shape social attitudes, the possibility that individuals will choose generosity and goodness breathes hope across this tortured landscape. This hope may look grimy and weather beaten but it is still something recognisable as worth living for.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Lady Gaga and death

The Lady Gaga phenomenon seeps incontinently into every crevice of popular culture. She is, in the words of Madonna’s song, Vogue, on the cover of a magazine or, more correctly, every magazine. She has become a “living sculpture” that claims to fuse raunch, mortality and violence into an art form with its own pop soundtrack. At first glance, she and her arresting visuals look like performance art but, on closer inspection, they are too self-conscious, premeditated to be anything more than an exercise in crepuscular camp. With her Marge Simpson wigs and “look at me, look at me” shock tactics, the Lady Gaga brand has become as ubiquitous as Nike trainers and McDonalds. You can sneer at her, but it is hard to ignore her. She has become the Damien Hirst of the music industry, a headline junkie.

“Death subtends life, or underlies life,” the pathologist F. Gonzales-Crussi explains, “and the action of time consists in peeling away successive layers so as to render death ever more visible.” Lady Gaga’s striptease creates an aesthetic of the funeral parlour. Her walk-in freezer complexion and cat suits that give her an anorexic silhouette locate her inspiration in the mortuary. The Jacobean revenge narratives of her videos (that involve male models being burnt and poisoned) are meant to reveal “the skull beneath the skin”. Recently she has captured the headlines by wearing a dress made of proscuito crudo. Remember man that thou art meat. The more twisted and macabre, the better in this weird carnival of death. The cultural commentator, Camille Paglia writes in a recent article for The Sunday Times Supplement:
At last year’s MTV awards show, Gaga staged a barbaric spectacle where she was seemingly crushed to death by a falling chandelier, after which her bloodied body was hoisted up to dangle limply above her piano. On her current tour, she appears to be killed by a psychotic stalker, who gnaws her throat as the blood pours down her chest. Monster claws and other horror-movie regalia are a Gaga staple...All the frantic, flailing arm moves imposed on her by professional choreographers can’t disguise her essential depressiveness and spiritual paralysis...

It's not clear what Paglia means by “spiritual paralysis” but she captures the idea that something innate to the human person is damaged by such nihilistic preoccupations. This is the soul of man dragged through the sewers of the imagination or what the American art critic, Adam Gopnik, describes as the High Morbid Manner:
A detached, distanced, oddly smiling presentation of violence – a pageantry of violence – is, as every evening’s television and every summer’s big movie demonstrates, as much the popular fashion as the avant-garde one...The shock of the new, which for most of the century could reside as much in a black square as in a slit eyeball, isn’t available any longer. It’s not possible to shock any more by being new. The only way to shock is by being shocking.

Lady Gaga may dress as if she is the high priestess of the avant garde but she is simply appropriating the ambient culture around her – the torture porn of horror films and the drive-by fantasies of Grand Theft Auto. Her music sells because she can write a hook. She sells because she has tapped into the maggot infested corners of the contemporary imagination. "I want your ugly/ I want your disease," she sings. Disease and ugliness is what we get. The pursuit of Beauty is forsaken.

Without any eschatological hope or reference point, the secular mind ekes out a little comfort from futile distraction. With annihilation offered as our ultimate meaning one endures this living death by downloading Bad Romance and dancing like zombie.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Is the internet playing with our minds?

“Dave, stop. Stop, will you? Stop, Dave. Will you stop?” So the supercomputer HAL pleads with the implacable astronaut Dave Bowman in a famous and weirdly poignant scene towards the end of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Bowman, having nearly been sent to a deep-space death by the malfunctioning machine, is calmly, coldly disconnecting the memory circuits that control its artificial brain. “Dave, my mind is going,” HAL says, forlornly. “I can feel it. I can feel it.”
The Shallows, Nicholas Carr

Did you get to the end of the above quotation without pressing a link or playing the video? Reading anything on the internet is full of distractions, pop-ups, siren voices inviting us to click, link, search and surf. Unless I make the effort to print an article from the internet, I invariably don’t read it from beginning to end. Online I’ll skim read it and if it doesn’t hold my attention or I find it too difficult, I’m back to the Google search engine. Even when I am reading, I catch myself taking sneaky glances at my e-mails, Statcounter, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, blogs, etc. I am snacking or grazing on information, images and ideas. I have the suspicion that when I log into the internet, I am logging out of my usual ways of thinking. Reading a book and reading a blog or an article on a website feel like two cognitively different experiences. But, are they? And if they are, does it really matter?

Of course, the fact that all this immense store of data on the internet is just a click away is widely accepted as having radically benefited mankind. This is hard to dispute and only the Luddite would argue that we would be better off without the internet. When Tim Berners-Lee composed the code for the world wide web, the way human beings collected and transmitted information and ideas changed for ever. Now, with a quick Google search, I can find out within seconds that, for example, A Space Odyssey was released in 1968. No more traipsing to the library and wandering the stacks. For cherry picking information (the way I mostly use the net) I find the internet invaluable, but there are moments when I wonder how helpful it is if we want to think a bit deeper about things and ideas? How is the internet affecting our cognitive faculties and our ability to think more seriously?

One of the criticisms of this blog is that it is not bloggish enough. It’s not punchy, pithy or journalistic. It’s not angry, opinionated or flashy. The paragraphs are too long, the language too literary and rhetorical, the ideas too culturally arcane. These criticisms are spot on. But that’s the kind of blog I chose to create. Yes, there are links and videos, but I wanted to see if it was possible to put ideas and their expression at the centre of this medium in a way that was less feverish and less about convenience. I wondered if the effort and patience that have been essential requirements when reading a book could still be part of reading a blog? I’m not sure. And I become positively pessimistic when I read the pathologist Bruce Friedman, who also blogs about the use of computers in medicine, admit, “I can’t read War and Peace anymore, I’ve lost the ability to do that. Even a blog post of more than three or four paragraphs is too much to absorb. I skim it.” I am beginning to suspect that this experience is not uncommon.

I think something is happening to our minds (or, at least, to my mind). We appear to be moving from a linear, narrative processing of information (largely influenced by the book) to something more staccato and disjointed (largely influenced by the Internet). A more contemplative, focused reading of material is being replaced by a hurried, superficial reading that fillets essays and articles for the “essential” facts and discards the rest as superfluous waste. We are becoming, in the words of one commentator, “skilled hunters,” butchering the involved, challenging argument for the gobbet, soundbite, snazzy snippet.

It appears I’m not the only one that has these concerns. In his book, The Shallows: How the Internet is changing the way we think, read and remember, Nicholas Carr examines similar anxieties but places them in a broader technological context. He argues that there is growing scientific evidence which shows the internet is changing the way our brains function and that for all the benefits of the internet, there may also be real losses. Like the computer, HAL, Carr suggests that our minds may be going and being replaced with a radically new synaptic organization:

For the last five centuries, ever since Gutenburg’s printing press made book reading a popular pursuit, the linear, literary mind has been at the centre of art, science and society. As supple as it is subtle, it’s been the imaginative mind of the Renaissance, the rational mind of the Enlightenment, the inventive mind of the Industrial Revolution, even the subversive mind of Modernism. It may soon be yesterday’s mind.

The Shallows: How the internet is changing the way we think, read and remember, Nicholas Carr, Atlantic Books, London, 2010

Monday, 30 August 2010

No Way Down: Life and Death on K2

For the serious mountaineer, there is only one mountain. K2. After Everest, K2 is the second highest mountain peak in the world, standing some 28,251 feet. But whereas Everest has been “overrun by a circus of commercial expeditions” and thousands have had their picture snapped at its top, K2 retains its deadly attraction. Only 278 people have ever stood on its summit. Of those 278, only 254 have made it down to base camp alive.

On Friday August 1 2008 a series of international expeditions (Norwegian, Dutch, Italian, Serbian, American, South Korean and French) began an attempt on the K2 summit. By Monday August 4, eleven mountaineers and high-altitude porters (HAPs) were dead. Many of those who made it down alive were suffering from severe frostbite or were emotionally bruised by the knowledge that friends and loved ones had been killed. This became one of the worst disasters in modern mountaineering history. K2 with its natural arsenal of ice, snow, avalanche and altitude sickness had defeated almost all those who had tried to scale its fearsome heights. The Sherpas were wary of “waking the fury of the mountain gods” that they believed lived in the glaciers, seracs and crevices of this cold mountain. That fateful weekend the mountain gods roared.

Graham Bowley’s No Way Down provides a meticulous account of the central events that culminated in this tragedy. But, above all, he tells with wonderful economy the human drama of courage, hubris, self-sacrifice and ultimately, loss and grief. It is a fascinating exploration of the existential pull that mountains exert on the lives of some people.

For these mountaineers, climbing is more than a physical challenge but it bears a metaphorical weight as they attempt to articulate through the climb what it means to be mortal. Every groan of the mountain, every careless footstep, the ice screw and line badly anchored makes the cold breath of death visible. These tough men and women remind us that when we are exposed to our human fragility in such a stark, uncompromising fashion, we are also provided with a simultaneous awareness of what we are capable of and of what we cannot achieve by our own powers. It is not mountains that are conquered, it is fear. In a Himalayan light, the illusions and armoury fall away and we find ourselves clinging to a new clarity about ourselves. For some, this is a touching of the void. For others, a touching of the transcendent. In both cases, the climbing of mountains like K2 are death-defying and self-defining experiences for those involved. Bowley observes:
They (the mountaineers) had broken out of comfortable lives to venture to a place few of us dare go in our lives. They had confronted their mortality, immediately and up close. Some had even come back to K2 after serious injury in earlier years, attracted like flies to the light, to some deeper meaning about themselves, human experience, and human achievement.

In return, K2 had required from them heroism and selflessness and responsibility. It had also laid bare fatal flaws and staggering errors.

Gerard McDonnell was one of those who came back to K2 after he had been caught in a rockfall in 2006 and had to be airlifted to hospital. Back to fitness, this time he successfully climbed K2, making him the first Irishman to do so. There is a photo of him triumphantly holding an Irish flag at the summit. Bowley explains that Gerard’s reasons for climbing were, in part, due to his personal history. His father, Denis, had died when he was just twenty. In 2003, when he climbed Everest, he took with him his father’s rosary beads and told his mother, “I felt close to my dad up there.” For those who knew Gerard this was a statement stamped with real conviction rather than sentiment.

Sadly, Gerard McDonnell never made it down alive from K2, probably succumbing to the devastating effects of altitude sickness. Yet, during his descent, he is believed to have selflessly tried to help three Korean climbers who had fallen and got trapped in their ropes. He did so in the knowledge that this would put his own life in grave danger. At his memorial service back in his home town of Kilcornan, County Limerick, the priest said, “We know we are here to honour Gerard, to praise him, and welcome Gerard to his heavenly home. Gerard, who died on the K2. That is his burial place and in a sense where he wished to die…It was on a mountain that Moses communicated with God. It was on a mountain that Jesus was transfigured. It was on a mountain that Gerard achieved one of his life’s ambitions. It was such a spiritual experience that he even referred to it as being an honour to die on a mountain.”

No Way Down could have been reduced to a boys own adventure yarn. Instead, Graham Bowley chooses a more complex, rigorous route through his material. He does not allow the bravery of the mountaineers to camouflage their flaws and vanities. He shows how the different memories of those forty eight hours reveal as much about those who are recalling the events as those who they are recalling. And at the centre of his story rises K2. With prose that is as spare and precise as anything in Hemmingway, Bowley provides a vivid sense of how this mountain inspires both jubilation and fear.

The photographer, Anselm Adams, famously said that “No matter how sophisticated you may be, a large granite mountain cannot be denied - it speaks in silence to the very core of your being” No Way Down does not hesitate to explore these ontological intuitions and thus turns a tragic event into something with universal application. No Way Down is my favourite read of far.

No Way Down: Life and Death on K2, Graham Bowley, Viking 2010