Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Apocalypse Now: why we love violence and war

A new print of the 1979 version of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now is in selected cinemas now. It is a masterpiece. In a future post, I’ll challenge the common consensus that argues it is a “flawed masterpiece” and the flaw is Marlon Brando. Until then, have a look at my fellow blogger, Fr Stephen Wang’s great piece on the film on his blog, Bridges and Tangents. Apocalypse Now visualises many of the ideas that Barbara Ehrenreich considers in her fascinating book, Blood Rites: The Origins and History of the Passions of the War.

Why is it that human beings are so keen to wage war? Is war primarily a male pursuit? Fully aware of the horrors of war, why do we continue to inflict suffering and death on other human beings? Why are we so attracted to violence? Why do we think aggression is an acceptable way to resolve our problems and disputes? What turned Cain against Abel and initiated the tragic cycle of internecine violence? Ehrenreich quotes Tolstoy on the question of what “causes” war or any particular war:
The deeper we delve in search of these causes the more we discover, and each single cause or series of causes appears to be equally valid in itself, and equally false by its insignificance compared to the magnitude of the event.

Blood Rites is an attempt to untangle these causes and isolate those fundamental causes that stimulate the pathological desire for war. One fundamental cause, Ehrenreich proposes, is man’s primitive need for sacrifice, where the sacrifice (human or animal) restores order and promotes some form of reconciliation. She points out that these sacrifices were often enacted in ritual form – involving hymns, uniform gestures, sacred sites, costumes and a priestly caste. Such ritual form, she argues, has passed over to military activity where warfare is sacralised. This idea reminds me very much of the thought of René Girard as found in his influential book, Violence and the Sacred. I am a huge fan of Girard and admire his speculative energy.

Girard claims that war and sacrifice were, from the earliest times, integrally related to each other and had a common goal. They reigned in the aggressive forces within a community that had the potential to tear it apart and, instead, channelled those forces towards an enemy (in the case of war) or a sacrificial victim (in the case of religion). So, Girard argues:
Religion in its broadest sense...must be another term for that obscurity that surrounds man’s efforts to defend himself by curative or preventative means from his own violence.

The god to whom the sacrifice is offered is only of secondary interest, according to Girard. What matters is that the victim must be seen as a scapegoat and endure a violent and public death. Girard points to the ancient Greek ritual in which a pauper who had been cared for at public expense becomes the cure (the pharmakos) for the community’s evils, actual or potential. He would be driven outside the city’s walls and possibly be killed. In time, an animal would serve as the designated victim, the scapegoat, upon whom the sins of the people would be heaped. The slaughtering of the scapegoat had the symbolic force of taking away their sins and restoring social cohesion.

War, according to Girard, is “merely another form of sacrificial violence”. Apocalypse Now ends with both a ritual act of sacrifice and the sacrifice of a military hero. In the film, these sacrifices lead to the laying down of arms. A Girardian would read these scenes as the preservation of communal identity by transferring internal conflict outward and onto a scapegoat. As Girard himself writes:
We see here the principle behind all “foreign” wars: aggressive tendencies that are potentially fatal to the cohesion of the group are redirected from within the community to outside it.

Blood Rites: The Origins and History of the Passions of War, Barbara Ehrenreich, Granta, 2011

Violence and the Sacred, René Girard, Continuum, 2005

Sunday, 22 May 2011

And the winner of the Cannes Film Festival Best Picture is ....

Since writing my blog post this morning it has been announced that Terence Malick's The Tree of Life has, in fact, won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival 2011.

The greatest film director of all time?

A new Terence Malick film is a cinematic event. And they are events that don't happen very often - Malick's last film, The New World, was released six years ago. But, in the past week, The Tree of Life previewed at the Cannes film festival. For those who love movies the excitement around this film - a family drama spanning multiple time periods including the creation of the universe - is palpable. The critic, Chris Wisniewski, sums up why Malick is such a significant director:
Those rambling philosophical voice overs; the placid images of nature, offering quiet contrast to the evil deeds of men; the stunning cinematography, often achieved with natural light; the striking use of music - here is a filmmaker with a clear sensibility and aesthetic who makes narrative films that are neither literary nor theatrical, in the sense of foregrounding dialogue, event, or character, but are instead principally cinematic, movies that suggest narrative, emotion and idea through image and sound.

One thing Wisniewski overlooks is Malick's intelligence. There are not many directors that studied for a doctorate in philosophy at Oxford. Malick's thesis, under the direction of Gilbert Ryle, was on the concept of world in Kierkegaard, Heidegger and Wittgenstein. These philosophical interests underpin his cinematic work. So, for example, The Thin Red Line, uses the visual medium of cinema to discuss the nature of original sin. In this way, Malick takes cinema to an intellectual level that is rarely explored by other directors.

Peter Bradshaw awarding The Tree of Life five stars in The Guardian, writes that "This is visionary cinema on an unashamedly huge scale: cinema that's thinking big. Malick makes an awful lot of other film-makers look timid and negligible by comparison."

Time Out's Dave Calhoun said: "The Tree of Life offers breathtaking imagery and even manages to survive an epic detour to the dawn of time, featuring the Big Bang, dinosaurs, meteors and all.

"It's so ambitious and full of inquiring ideas and questions about our place in the world that, perhaps inevitably, it feels like a grand folly - albeit a heartfelt and stimulating one."

What Sport Tells Us About Life

I have just read What Sport Tells Us About Life by the cricketer, Ed Smith. It is not only stylishly written, but also keeps in the air all sorts of eclectic ideas that provide much intellectual enjoyment and stimulation. I was particularly struck by the chapter on amateurism and the way Ed Smith draws convincing parallels between sporting and artistic creativity.

In sport (and elsewhere), amateurism is a derogatory term. As the literary critic D.J.Taylor put it, “The amateur, formerly the symbol of fair play and a stout heart, became the watchword for terminal second-rateness and lower-rung incompetence.”

Ed Smith is concerned that the relentless pursuit of “professionalism” has discouraged “an instinctiveness and individuality that is well suited to producing success in sport”. The thing that most of us enjoy about sport and art are those moments of creativity and inspiration, when an individual or team are not playing safe, but transgress regulations, planning and over organization to produce something innovative and beautiful.

In his autobiography, Chronicles, Bob Dylan writes, “Creativity is not like a freight train going down the tracks. It’s something that has to be caressed and treated with a great deal of respect. If your mind is intellectually in the way, it will stop you. You’ve got to programme your brain not to think too much.”

In other words, creativity – whether in the arts or sport or elsewhere – lies beyond easy analysis. Indeed, over analysis impedes the creative spirit, makes it tense and sclerotic. In this regard, the sports writer, Simon Barnes, comments:

If you look at your own talent too searchingly, it might cease to be what it is. If you bring these highly trained but deeply instinctual matters to the level of conscious thought, the magic stuff might never happen again...Ian Botham would only describe his outbursts of brilliance with the phrase “it sort of clicks”.

The literary critic, Christopher Ricks, sees the link between artistic and sporting creativity in these terms:
An artist is someone more than usually blessed with a cooperative subconscious, more than usually able to effect things with the help of instincts and intuitions of which he or she is not necessarily conscious. Like the great athlete, the great artist is at once highly trained and deeply instinctual.

Great artists and sportsmen have a freedom and instinctiveness about what they do. A sort of childlike joy infuses the hours of practice and training and stops sport and art becoming a matter of mere professional concern. “Playing with joy,” writes Ed Smith, “without concern about the money you might earn or the criticism you may provoke, often makes sportsmen play better. An unburdened sportsman is more likely to play at his best.”

If all that is true of sport and art, then might living with joy, being unburdened and having a lightness of being, also help us to live in a more complete, creative and inspiring manner?

What Sport Tells Us About Life, Ed Smith, Penguin Books, 2008

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Corpus Christi

Today, I received an e-mail claiming that Terence McNally's 1998 play, Corpus Christi, has been turned into a film and is about to be released. The e-mail was a rallying cry to stop the film being shown because of the perceived blasphemies contained in it.

There is, in fact, no film version of this play, let alone one about to be released. Internet rumours, such as this, stir up all sorts of hysterical emotions and attitudes of antagonism (usually directed at an individual or a particular group of people). The willingness to uncritically accept such rumours as truth, casts doubt over the motives and other beliefs such people hold to be true.

Such scurrilous internet activity does as much damage to the gospel of truth than any out-for-cheap-shocks play or film might.