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

Tuesday, 24 August 2010


In On Balance, Adam Phillips suggests that you can determine when a thing is fundamental if it turns up in dinner party conversation or after a few pints down the pub and the tolerant fa├žade people present begins to slip. The debate becomes agitated and sometimes violent. To protect us from such ugly displays, some polite forms of society have created the convention that we are never to discuss politics or religion…or, in other words, never to discuss anything that really matters, that pertains to Truth.

But, outside the etiquette of polite society, this is very hard to do. There are few human beings who live lives of obscene indifference. Most human beings consider something or someone as fundamental. Without this fundamental idea, without recognizing something as definitive, our lives are trivialised. The fundamental may be your children or the State of Israel or the Bible or your socialism. Whatever it is, it is fundamental to how you understand yourself, your place in the world and, for some, your eschatological purpose. In this loose sense, we are all fundamentalists.

It follows that we will want to protect these fundamental things from views that seek to harm them. “There is no such thing as free speech,” Stanley Fish writes in No Such Thing as Free Speech: And It’s a Good Thing Too, “because from the very start your sense of just how free speech should be is shadowed by your identification of, and obligation to, the good in whose name acts of speech are to be justified.” For example, the democrat will try and hold in some sort of harmonious tension the multiple views within society. However, if it is perceived that the fundamental idea of democracy is itself being threatened by a particular view then this dissenting view may considered inadmissible. Adam Phillips observes that “For the fundamentalist, as for the democrat, people can say what they like; but when they start saying things that aim to destroy the foundational preconditions of their given political culture there have to be penalties.”

But how do you manage fundamental beliefs in a pluralistic, liberal society? One possibility is that there can be what the political philosopher, Chantal Mouffe, calls "productive conflict", lively debate that invigorates democracy. Another possibility is that some consensual ground is mapped where we accept that there are fundamental things that we disagree on but other fundamental things (e.g., our common humanity, our desire for peace, our search for unity) that we can choose, at times, to recognise. Or society responds to these tensions by elevating the idea of tolerance with the result that vigorous “truths” are turned into flaccid “opinions” and bled of some of their power.

Increasingly these methods are being questioned. Productive conflict may be useful in a democracy, but who decides what is productive and for whom? Or what happens when discussions and negotiations keep breaking down and we are no longer able “to agree to differ”? I noted that in a recent article, an activist wrote, “it is not tolerance that we want, it is acceptance” signalling a philosophical shift to a position that is more sharply defined and, for the advocates of tolerance, threatening. Adam Phillips suggests the following modus vivendi:

We are talking about the moment in which people begin to believe, in despair or with relief, that co-existence rather than consensus is our best option; or alternatively believe that the unbelievers – those who are not of the same mind – must be eradicated. Coexistence, in other words, is the modern liberal’s last hope; the only remaining political ideal left, and one that will survive only if that is itself agreed upon.

Today the word “fundamentalism” is most often associated with religion. Islamic fundamentalism. Christian fundamentalism. Religious fundamentalism is a complex phenomenon (too complex for a blog post) but it appears to arise, in part, as a reactive response to a contemporary world view, for example, to secularism or Western materialism. In this reaction, the balance between faith and reason tips towards more aggressive expressions. "The quest for certainty and simplicity becomes dangerous," writes Pope Benedict in Salt of the Earth, "when it leads to fanaticism and narrow mindedness. When reason as such becomes suspect, then faith becomes falsified." The fundamentalist becomes less concerned with honouring the fundamental and more concerned with strategies of conflict. When what is considered fundamental is defined as in-opposition-to rather than as a truth to be valued in itself, then the distorting effects of this process proliferate with grave consequences. When fundamental beliefs are imposed rather than proposed, human freedom and dignity is treated contemptuously.

“There is no goodness without belief,” wrote John Updike, “There is nothing but busy-ness. And if you have not believed, at the end of your life you shall know you have buried your talent in the ground of this world and have nothing saved to take into the next.” Most people accept that believing in something fundamental is essential if our lives are to have some moral coherence and purpose. Yet this can only be achieved if these fundamental beliefs are protected from the corrosive effects of fundamentalist designs. Adam Phillips advises that for the religious believer to achieve this involves keeping the vital relationship between faith and reason in play at all times. Without this relationship those things that believers consider fundamental risk spinning dangerously out of control. This is not a new idea, but it is one that Adam Phillips expresses eloquently in On Balance. For those, who believe in something they consider fundamental, this is a salutary warning.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

On balance, excess and religious fanaticism

I am temperamentally suspicious of extreme positions in religion, politics, culture and people. These are commonly described in terms of binary sectarianism: liberal/conservative, progressive/reactionary, utopian/revolutionary. I find these tags intellectually lazy and adolescent. My psychological anxieties about such divisions are that (a) they are too crude to be useful in thinking deeply about ideas. By generalizing, they inevitably degrade the vital nucleus of an idea and (b) nuance, paradox, intellectual humility and the slipperiness of human thought become vices rather than virtues of intelligence. By making an aristocracy of the final word, the possibility that there may be something more to say about a matter or fresh ways of speaking about it are closed off.

It follows that the idea of mature, respectful “dialogue” with contrary perspectives becomes a sign of weakness. The possibility that other views may shed light on a given view is held as anathema. Such sectarianism must turn the person who holds a contrary view into an enemy. They are to be defeated either by battering them into submission with an argument or by battering them physically, verbally or emotionally until they no longer exist. The umbrella term for these attitudes and strategies is fundamentalism.

I am looking for something more balanced, especially in a world where there exist competing and opposing views. A balanced economy. A balanced body politic. A balanced Church. A balanced person. More balance in my life, my ideas and in myself. I believe that because balance is attractive and difficult to achieve that it has an inherent value. But, has it? For example, what makes me think that the “balanced argument” or the “balanced presentation” of a particular argument is of more value than the polemic or the rant? Could, in fact, the polemic or the rant be nearer to the truth of the matter than the meticulous weighing of ideas and expressions on some finely tuned scales? And, how does one determine what is the balance, what is the extreme? I clearly have some idea in my mind of what are excessive positions, but based on what? Maybe I should be more suspicious of balance?

I’ve been thinking about these mental balancing acts because I’ve been reading Adam Phillip’s infuriating and fascinating (you see, I’m trying to strike a balance and ending up with a critical imbalance!) meditation, On Balance. He writes:

When the dramatist Mark Ravenhill writes that “Art that isn’t driven by this basic impulse to create an unbalanced view of the world is probably bad or weak,” we are not shocked by this, partly because after Romanticism we take it for granted that this is the province of art; elsewhere it is balance that is required. Art, ideally, is where the unbalanced views should be kept, as far away from religion and politics as possible. If we want art to be an isolation ward it is because we know just how contagious these so-called unbalanced views of the world can be (fascism, racism and sexism in modern liberal societies are unbalanced views, but liberal democratic values are not).

I’m not sure this view bears close examination. I’m not aware that, for example, in the contemporary art world “unbalanced views” are proliferating and that dangerous germ cultures like fascism, racism or sexism are being grown. The really “unbalanced” views (and they are, at present, minority views) in this environment are that beauty, harmony and truth are more than bourgeois, cultural constructs. Yet, there may exist some art forms, such as in the theatre, and entertainment forms, such as comedy, where playwrights or comedians dare to tip the balance or knock it over.

The reason that Adam Phillips is convinced that “unbalanced views should be kept, as far away from religion and politics as possible” is because the memory of 9/11 casts a dark shadow over his thinking. On Balance is as much a book about this event as it is about balance or psychoanalysis. For Adam Phillips, 9/11 is the example of modern excess that colours all his views of other, lesser examples of excess:

The anorexic and the suicide bomber, the attention-seeking child and the compulsive gambler, the person who has more money than he needs and the person committed to celibacy are all involved, in their different ways, in extravagant violations of law, decency or morality; even though, of course, they may not see it this way. And this, too, is important when we are thinking about excess: what is excessive to one person may be to another person just an ordinary way of life. The devoutly religious are not, in their own view, overdoing it; terrorists are not, in their own view, overreacting to the injustices they feel they have suffered. Indeed, one of the many ways of describing many of our personal and political and religious conflicts is that someone is trying to persuade someone else that they are being excessive: excessively cruel, excessively disrespectful, excessively unjust.

Perhaps, we need to take a more balanced approach to our discussion of excess. Instead of lumping together all forms of excessive behaviour – “the person who has more money than he needs and the person committed to celibacy” – as if they were identical, we need to recognise that different excesses belong to different categories of behaviour. For example, is the excessive behaviour of grief the same as the excessive behaviour of sexual promiscuity? Can you ever have too much grief? If so, what is the right amount of grief? Can you ever have too many sexual partners? If so, what is it about having multiple sexual partners that could be damaging? Different excesses. Different categories.

Adam Phillips concludes his discussion of excess by considering religious excess or fanaticism. This, of course, interested me because I, according to Phillips, am supposedly living an excessive life as a religious celibate and for somebody who prizes balance that is unsettling. But, more importantly, this discussion (post 9/11) has widespread cultural implications. Phillips suggests that there are three ways to account for religious fanaticism:

i. …Excessive belief is called up to stifle excessive doubt, as if the fanatic is saying to himself: “If I don’t continually prove my belief in this extreme way, what will be revealed is extreme faithlessness, or despair, or confusion, or even emptiness.”

ii. ….Excessive acts of belief are required to persuade other people, as if the fanatic is saying to himself: “What matters most in the world to me will not be listened to, or considered, or thought about or even noticed unless a dramatic statement is made.”

I think there is something in these descriptions of extreme religious behaviour, but it is Adam Phillips third description that I found really thought provoking. I will conclude this post with it.
iii. …the religious fanatic is someone for whom something about themselves and their lives is too much; and because not knowing what that is is so disturbing they need to locate it as soon as possible…Because the state of frustration cannot be borne – because, perhaps, it is literally unbearable, as long-term personal and political injustices always are – it requires an extreme solution, which is usually a fast one…Fanatics are people who have had to wait too long for something that may not exist. Wherever there is excessive frustration there is a false solution; this would be an excessive way of putting it. Our excesses are the best clues we have to our own poverty; and our best way of concealing it from ourselves.

On Balance, Adam Phillips, Hamish Hamilton, 2010

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Michael Clark at Tate Modern

I have blogged elsewhere about the Michael Clark dance company. Therefore, it was an unexpected pleasure to stumble across them in Tate Modern as they and selected members of the public rehearse for a performance next year in the Turbine Hall.

Leaning over a concrete balcony you get a birds eye view of the dancers sculpting potential moves in what must be the world's biggest rehearsal room. They are dwarfed by the industrial architecture, a space not designed for human beings but for machinery. It is a challenging environment with no respect for the scale of human dimensions. This fascism threatens to overpower the Lilliputian proportions of the dancers as they imagine fresh marks and gestures with their bodies. Yet, before the creative project, the ugliness of fascism is exposed. Beauty defeats the imbecilic. The dancer warming up with splits and stretches shrinks the uncompromising features of the building and we respond to something recognisably vulnerable and helpless, those features that make us human and loveable. "A victory for the person," I overheard a woman comment to her partner. I agree.

Friday, 13 August 2010

A Brief History of Nakedness

Wearing nothing is divine.
Naked is a state of mind.
I take things off to clear my head,
to say the things I haven't said...

Dolly Parton, Naked Eye

Being naked is an ambiguous experience for most of us. The land of the birthday suit borders the states of humiliation and hippy freedom. One way to degrade a person is to have them stripped naked in public, to expose them as a fragile, shivering creature before the forces of power and violence. On the other hand, trip along to see the musical, Hair, and the constraints of clothing are cast aside. The audience are invited to enter into some prelapsarian world of dancing, singing and jiggling genitals. Let the sunshine in which is all well and good if you have the body of a twenty year old rather than bums, boobs, moobs and midriffs that are all crawling south.

Philip Carr-Gomm's book, A Brief History of Nakedness, argues for the supposed liberating qualities of getting naked. He is a tour guide to the joys of living in the buff. Although Carr-Gomm recognises that nakedness can be an instrument of torture and cause public or moral offense, his real interest is in cataloguing the many and varied "positive" expressions of nakedness. For him, nakedness is the key to spiritual renewal and a political weapon that has the power to disable all strains of of despotism. His case for nakedness is comprehensive and lively but, also, never more than skin deep.

Carr-Gomm quotes John Berger's subtly drawn distinction between nakedness and nudity: "To be naked is to be oneself. To be nude is to be seen by others and yet not recognised for oneself. The nude is condemned to never being naked. Nudity is a form of dress." Yet, Carr-Gomm ignores this nuance and prefers to use the terms "nakedness" and "nudity" interchangeably. This failure to approach his subject matter from more oblique angles blunts the sharpness of his analysis. Or again, there is no consideration of the importance of clothes in human lives as a distinguishing feature of our evolutionary status or as a metaphor. After all, nakedness is only of interest because most of us wear clothes most of the time. And there is almost no mention of the ubiquity of pornography and the increasing interest in burlesque. Extolling the virtues of nakedness, Carr-Gomm turns a blind eye to the exploitative aspects of the naked state.

Nevertheless, there remains much to recommend this book. A Brief History of Nakedness fizzes with interesting facts and ideas, many of which I had never come across. In the section on religion, Carr-Gomm observes that early Judaic baptismal rituals would have involved the full immersion into a river or mikvah (stone pool) of a stripped person. Christ, it is believed, would have been naked when he was baptised by John the Baptist in the river Jordan. A fact that is attested to by early Christian iconography, such as The Baptism of Christ image in the Basilica of San Marco in Venice. As Christianity developed its own baptismal rites, the nakedness of catechumens remained an arresting visual symbol in the ritual. Thus, St Cyril of Jerusalem in c. 350 AD, addressed these men and women with the words, "You are now stripped and naked, in this also imitating Christ despoiled of His garments on His Cross, He who by His nakedness despoiled the principalities and powers, and fearlessly triumphed over them on the Cross."

The link St Cyril makes between the nakedness involved in baptism and the nakedness of the crucified Christ is one that would be picked up by later thinkers and artists. The crucifix pictured above is attributed to Michelangelo and originally hung behind an altar in the Santo Spirito Hospital, Florence. A reminder to the patients that through their humiliations and physical trials they were conformed more intimately to the suffering Christ. Nudus nudum Iesum Sequi, "Naked, I follow the naked Jesus", as St Jerome put it. It seems, however, that prudery took precedence over such spiritual considerations and the crucifix was removed and hidden. Having been rediscovered it was, first of all, housed in the Buonarotti museum. In 2000 it was returned to its original Augustinian owners who hung it in the Basilica of Santo Spirito where it is an image of popular devotion as well as cultural interest.

Interestingly, in secular thought, nakedness and "spirituality" are often associated. "When I free my body from its clothes, from all their buttons, belts, and laces," wrote the playwright, August Strindberg, "It seems to me that my soul takes a deeper, freer breath." The intuition that nakedness reveals a truer, interior dimension to a person is not just the reserve of members of naturist camping sites or nudist beaches. This idea exerts a significant influence on popular culture, especially via the self-improvement industry.

In the How to Look Good Naked television series, a person (usually, a woman) who is not emotionally comfortable in their own skin is forced to confront their nakedness and, guided by the benign "go, sister" camp of the presenter, come to an appreciation of their "inner beauty". In this way, they achieve some sort of body acceptance and karma. Nakedness, then, opens up new channels of self-understanding and healing. All this may be playful marketing, but it does suggest that human beings have an instinctive understanding that "the self" has a unique relationship to the body. It is through the visible reality of our bodies that we intuit the existence of invisible realities which, in a secular context, many describe as "spiritual".

A Brief History of Nakedness is a thought-provoking survey of the fleshiness of human life. It is also a beautifully produced book with excellent illustrations that have been carefully chosen to illuminate ideas rather than provide puerile titillation. Sadly, Carr-Gomm is overwhelmed by the number of examples of naked flesh, from Calendar Girls to The Romans in Britain, streakers to Superbowl costume malfunctions, naked protests to Abu Ghraib, Yogis to St Francis of Assisi. Without a stable philosophical position, Carr-Gomm cannot control his references and as a consequence, his argument struggles to find coherence. Unfortunately, by the final chapters, his full frontal approach to his subject matter begins to feel more than a little like the Emperor's new clothes.

A Brief History of Nakedness, Philip Carr-Gomm, Reaktion Books, 2010

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

The Karate Kid

If you want a popcorn movie with cod Confucian philosophy thrown in, then The Karate Kid is for you. The original 1984 version passed me by and I would not have gone to see this remake if it had not been for the persuasive powers of my six year old nephew. I'm glad I did - for a bit of a lump-in-the-throat-kick-ass action on a wet day in London this did it for me. Admittedly, the screenplay could have been written on the back of a pack of Marlboro Lites. A widowed mother and her son, Dre Parker, move to Beijing because of her job. Dre is smitten by an English speaking Chinese girl who plays Bach violin solos. Unfortunately, Dre is bullied by a gang of thugs who are trained in the shadow side of kung fu by a brutal dojo whose motto is "No Fear! No Pain! No Mercy!". But, in the flats where Dre lives works a maintenance man, Mr Han, who just happens to be a kung fu master. And, well, the rest is a lot of jumping around, gurning and fake pearls of oriental wisdom, such as, "stillness is not the same as doing nothing" and "Life will knock us down, but we can choose whether or not to stand back up."

Yet, it works because Jackie Chan as Mr Han crafts a neat little performance with flashes of real emotional intelligence. Chan is not afraid to portray this kung fu master with a middle aged spread and as bruised, not only by kung fu opponents, but by a life of bereavement. Dre becomes his surrogate son and unlike the kinetic action sequences, the development of this relationship is given the time to resonate at a deeper level. Jaden Smith (the son of the actor Will Smith, who is also one of the film's producers) turns in a performance that is 50% cool and 50% balsa wood. Like father, like son.

I enjoyed the gratuitous tourist shots of China: the Great Wall of China, the Olympic Birds Nest Stadium, etc which will have had employees of the Chinese Tourist Board rubbing their hands. I enjoyed the schmaltz, the spirituality and the puppy love romance. It's not Kill Bill, but I did flinch at the kung fu bullying inflicted on Dre (my nephew didn't bat an eyelid) and whooped (well, internally) with the rest of the audience when the baddies were defeated by the forces of virtue. Yes, the moral of this tale is that friendship, discipline and mercy make for the good life...but it helps if you can give your enemy a good kicking at the same time. So not quite the Nicomachean Ethics, but certainly a little more fun.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010


At last a film that gives hope to ugly johnnys everywhere, those for whom the words "buffed" and "chiseled" could only refer to their hapless experiments in d-i-y. Thanks to Joann Safar's film Gainsbourg, these men can believe that they have the power to attract the most beautiful women in the world. After all, if the dweeby Serge Gainsbourg with his beak nose and elephantine ears could date, among many others, the ravishing Brigitte Bardot and the gamine beauty, Jane Birkin, then there is hope for all the aesthetically challenged. Serge Gainsbourg proved that it is not a six pack that is the way to a woman's heart, but a single pack of Gauloises cigarettes and a nicotine stained voice singing Je t' non plus.

Safar's film is not a conventional biopic. Using animation, puppetry and an array of narrative devices, he builds an impressionistic sketch of Gainsbourg. In tone the film is closer to Todd Haynes's meditation on the life of Bob Dylan in I'm Not There (2007) than, for example, James Mangold's Oscar winning, Walk the Line, which provided a chronologically driven telling of the life of Johnny Cash. In a recent interview, Safar admitted:
Serge Gainsbourg created a character for himself. I don't want to go around delving into his personal life to discover who he really was. I couldn't care less about the truth. I love Gainsbourg too much to bring him back to the realms of reality...I want to make a cult film, not a journalistic account of his life.

I tell stories through images, so my film is very visual. It is full of lies, because I love lies. This is how I go about creating a modest and self-conscious work: lying, always lying. I always do a great deal of documentary research beforehand and then purposefully forget half of what I learned. Then I take my subject and make him into a legendary hero...I believe that Gainsbourg is more heroic than Superman, in the sense that the Greeks understood it, because a hero is someone who suffers and gets knocked down, but will still grab burning coals with his hands.

I'm not sure how seriously one can takes such comments, especially when Safar's film so closely follows the narrative arc of Gainsbourg's life. We see the Russian/Jewish Gainsbourg's youthful contempt for the anti-semitism of Nazi-occupied France and his creative longings to be a painter. By all accounts, this does not deviate from the biographical details of Gainsbourg's early life. But Safar takes these basic facts and creates a fictional scene (as far as I am aware) of emotional intensity. To earn some money, the adult Gainsbourg is forced into giving a music lesson at a school for orphans who have lost their parents in the Nazi death camps. As his reservations evaporate before the class, he begins to dance wildly and Gainsbourg the performer is revealed. The children burst into spontaneous applause. Beaming, Gainsbourg is grasped by his vocation.

The vocation was music. The film captures the eclectic range of musical genres that inspired Gainsbourg. From French chanson through teeny bop pop to reggae, Gainsbourg's music was always shapeshifting and provocative. With lyrics that combined poetry, scatology and agitprop, Gainsbourg seemed to capture the prevailing mood of the 1960's. All polite social conventions and moralities were exploded on stage. Yet, ultimately, the real casualty of this performance was himself and Safar does not shy away from the destructive aspects of Gainsbourg's personality. The alcoholism, broken relationships, cheap publicity stunts and sleazy film appearances were all desperate attempts by Gainsbourg to keep his myth alive. The myth lived, but something of the man perished. In a seedy nightclub near the end of the film, Gainsbourg picks up a beautiful, drunk young girl. "I want someone to save me," she says to him. "That's life...," he replies, a cigarette hanging from his bottom lip. This exchange may be the fantastical invention of Joann Safar, the lies he admires and wants to propogate, but it also speaks in an authentic way of that universal ache within all human beings for redemption. And that is an important truth.