Sunday, 30 December 2012

And my favourite film of 2012 is...

2012 began with a great film and ended with a great film.

In January, Steve McQueen's Shame was released in the UK. I can't begin to describe the impact this film has had on me, months later and it still haunts my imagination. The story of a sex addicted drone (Michael Fassbender) and his mentally unstable sister (Carey Mulligan) was treated with such sensitivity and compassion that it became almost unbearable to watch. For me, one of the greatest pieces of pure cinema occurs in this film: an extended tracking shot of Fassbender jogging through a nocturnal city, desperately trying to sweat out of his system his distorted, contradictory passions. Technically, the most amazing tracking shot since Touch of Evil and Raging Bull. Existentially, the most poetic summary of the contemporary predicament.

In December, I saw Amour - Michael Haneke's penetrating examination of old age, sickness and death. There's not an ounce of sentimental fat on this film. The story of an elderly husband who cares for his wife is told with a fierce tenderness and humanity. Every frame of this film has a painterly quality. Every emotion on the screen is delivered with gamma knife precision. Cinema for adults only.

And so, there is no favourite film this year. For me, Shame and Amour both take the top spot. They share the laurel crown.

And my other favourites:

Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master - Anderson is the new Kubrick. Joaquin Pheonix gave a performace of such feral rawness and strangeness that it tore up the screen.

Leos Carax's Holy Motors - it is demented, punk, exotic and completely mesmerising. People use the word "surreal" about things that are merely strange. But this film is surreal. Holy Motors takes its place alongside Dali and Bunuel as a surrealist work of art.

Sam Mendes' Skyfall - this Bond movie looked a million dollars and that was thanks to the remarkable cinematographer, Roger Deakins. It was tense and exciting, until the anti-climactic final scenes (big Scottish pile in the Highlands blows up...yawn). It also had the campest villain in any multiplex film I can recall. Javier Bardem channelling Kenneth Williams and Augusto Pinochet.

Gareth Evans' The Raid - kickass entertaiment.

Dexter Fletcher's Wild Bill - the gangsta movie reinvented.

So what were your top five films of 2012?

Saturday, 29 December 2012

Bee keeping, Quantum mechanics and love

Constellations is seventy minutes long. No interval. Most “scenes” are brief. Blink and you’ll miss some of them. The stage is bare apart from white helium balloons, heavenly spheres or molecular models, that float above the action. Two actors (Sally Hawkins and Rafe Spall) are on stage throughout.

Constellations is a boy meets girl love story – a metaphysical romcom with dark metastases. A love story about the infinite, shifting possibilities of love. This is a theatrical chamber piece written with intellectual dexterity and played with inventive commitment.

Marianne, a vivacious quantum physicist at Sussex University, and Roland, a blokeish beekeeper, meet at barbeque. There’s a bit of awkward flirting. She makes a joke that bombs and any possibility of romance ends there. But then the meeting is played out again in a parallel universe. Slight variations in the original meeting – the turn of a phrase, the language of their bodies – result in new outcomes. Another universe. Another meeting. Exponential results. And so on, until we see their love for each other take shape.

The defining moments of their relationship are played out in these parallel universes. The theoretical existence of a multiverse, that our lives and deaths can be played out in any number of ways, is what excites motor mouthed Marianne. For Roland, struggling to keep up with his girlfriend’s lessons in quantum mechanics, the three different kinds of bees, each with their specific purpose in the hive, provide him with a key to understanding the purpose of life. “If only we could understand why it is that we’re here and what it is that we’re meant to spend our lives doing.” The word “God” punctuates the play as a challenge to positivistic ways of thinking.

Constellations is thought provoking and stylish, but it's not as clever as it would like us to believe it is. The playwright, Nick Payne, can’t quite make up his mind whether he wants to engage our hearts or our minds. In the end, he does neither.

What this production does have are the two perfectly pitched, charismatic performances of Hawkins and Spall. Their relationship fizzes on stage with authenticity and tenderness. They remind us that love, in all its complex variations, is the atomic matter that makes us who we are. Love is the driving force of the universe.

Constellations by Nick Payne is currently playing at the Duke of Yorks Theatre, London.

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

What was my favourite album of 2012?

Some music is so exquisitely beautiful that it acts as a healing balm to all that is bruised and hurting within us. Some music embracing the this-ness of life, a never ending happening, swells the chambers of the heart. And then there is music with a radiant clarity, a transfiguring power, that forces you to your knees before the mystery of creation. Bill Fay’s remarkable album, Life is People, possesses all of the above.

In the early 1970’s Fay released two critically acclaimed albums that made little impression on the listening public. He was a voice crying in the wilderness of the music business. Having fallen out of favour with the accountants at Decca, Fay became a lapsed singer-songwriter. He made ends meet by working in parks, shops and by cleaning factories.

However, some of his followers remained faithful to his memory and treasured their vinyl copy of his 1971 masterpiece Time of the Last Persecution. His fans, including Nick Cave, Marc Almond and Julian Cope, never lost faith and waited for his return from exile. This finally happened in 2007 when the US indie band, Wilco (who performed a cover of Fay’s Be not so Fearful), persuaded Fay to step on stage with them.

Now, forty years after his last studio album, Fay has returned from the wilderness of his personal Lent. In his cupped hands he carries a music that is fragile and poetic, birdsong with a broken wing. This music has a prophetic pitch. It sings of the soul of man. It draws tears.

Strings, Gospel choirs, piano, electric guitars combine with Fay’s rich, bass voice to produce an album of musical conviction and integrity. Dense, lush arrangements (Cosmic Concerto) are balanced with a spare, compelling intimacy (Jesus, Etc.). Fay’s unpretentious lyrics have a Blakean quality – adult experience expressed with a childlike innocence and purity.

These songs chart Fay’s search for the voice of the Holy One, a voice that is so often drowned out by the ferocious chatter within us and the white noise of a technologically oversaturated culture where oases of repose are hard to find. Life is People has the feel of a contemporary psalter, a collection of deeply-felt songs recording exile, redemption and thanksgiving: Thank you, Lord, for the love you’ve shown me/ your Son on the Cross is ever before me.

There are miracles in the strangest of places, Fay declares, there are miracles everywhere you go. A couple of weeks ago, I had never heard of Bill Fay. Danny Watson, a father who has a son in the choir at Brentwood Cathedral, recommended this album to me. I know Danny has a great love and knowledge of popular music so I thought it was worth taking his recommendation seriously. I’m glad I did and I’m indebted to him for introducing me to Bill Fay.

Listening to Life is People for the first time was a kind of miraculous cure. It was as if some unexpected, buffeting power caught me unawares and knocked me sideways. I had been deaf for so long, without realising it, and now could hear again. I could hear “the still, sad music of humanity” and had been given a note with which to sing new songs to the Lord. Yes, there are miracles in the strangest places, even in Brentwood Cathedral Clergy House.

Life is People is a masterpiece. Listen all you that have ears!

And my other favourites of 2012:

Channel Orange by Frank Ocean
Blunderbuss by Jack White
Devotion by Jessie Ware
Is your Love Big Enough? by Lianne la Havas
An Awesome Wave by Alt-J

Wednesday, 21 November 2012


Michael Haneke makes films for adults who want to be treated as intelligent. The commercial function of mainstream cinema to feed docile audiences with pureed cliché and sentiment in the name of entertainment are anathema to him. His films are unashamedly cerebral and severe. They are tough experiences - film making in the “High Morbid Manner”. They press one’s face (at times, with sadistic force) against some aspect of reality, pinning the viewer to the glorious and basest features of his nature, until, tapping the canvas, he is forced to submit to the reality.

Haneke’s interest is the fragility of the human enterprise and an individual’s vulnerability before the demands of living. In the face of violence (Funny Games) or an obsessive relationship (The Piano Teacher), when living under the surveillance camera (Hidden) or the brutality of provincial totalitarianism (The White Ribbon), what moral response is appropriate? His cinematic answers are tenebrous.

Like previous films, Amour is concerned with the vulnerability of the human situation – in this case, the ageing process and the degradations that some of the elderly will face as their bodies and minds begin to fail them. In such circumstances, what does love look like? What does it cost? What, if anything, remains of love?

Haneke places our mortal natures on the dissection table and, using the sharpest visual imaging, picks them clean until the whites of our bones are laid bare. The process of sickness, deterioration and death are recorded with mimetic detail. It is designed to make your skin crawl. “Death subtends life, or underlies life,” the pathologist F Gonzales-Crussi writes, “and the action of time consists in peeling away successive layers so as to render death ever more visible.” The relentless erosion caused by suffering and death appals our Western liberal sensitivities. Our attempts to preserve ourselves from suffering are shown to be futile - no one escapes death. We would prefer decay and corruption to be hidden from public view, behind a hospital ward curtain. But our familiarity with suffering and death also provide us with a brutal clarity about what it is to be alive.

Amour is about an elderly married couple, Georges and Anne (Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva). They are classical musicians who live in a chic Parisian apartment, designed around their cultural interests: books, paintings and a grand piano. The passage of time has matured and softened their love for each other. This is expressed in small acts of physical tenderness and a stability found in shared experiences. When Anne has a stroke, leaving her paralysed, George chooses to care for her at home. The film follows the decline of her mental and physical faculties over the weeks and months and George’s response to her deterioration.

In Haneke’s film, Funny Games, two delinquent, violent youths invade the home of a family and torture them with “games” that are anything but funny. The theme of invasion of a home occurs again in Amour, where George and Anne’s home is invaded by sickness and death. It is chilling to watch the mechanical bed being fitted in the bedroom, every bedside table top being annexed by boxes of medication and other medical detritus. Their home is violated by these objects and slowly transformed into a mausoleum. Mortality plays funny games with them.

In all of this, Haneke finds moments of tenderness – the calming experience of a caress, the care with which a lovingly prepared meal is spoon fed, the intimacy of sharing childhood memories that cement their love. Old age and a long marriage are portrayed as beautiful things. But Haneke articulates this without sacrificing the psychological complexity of his characters. We see how generosity of intention and violent energies can coexist in the same nature; the fact that individuals can live lonely, even desperate lives, within otherwise mutually sustaining relationships. “You are a monster sometimes. You are also kind” Anne says to George.

Trintignant and Riva perfectly capture the fundamental splits, dualities and twinnings at the heart of George and Anne’s marriage. Both in their eighties, these actors produce performances that are perfectly pitched. By making themselves completely vulnerable before the camera, they make emotional and physical disintegration, sublime. It is deeply moving to see acting of such depth and honesty.

Amour makes so much other film-making look crass and adolescent. It does what all great art does - it tells us something about the ineffable business of being alive. That may not always be something we want to consider, but when we do, we grow and mature in ways that are beyond our imagining. We leave behind consoling deceptions and illusions – we become adults.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master

It feels as if the film ends mid sentence. The words The Master appear as they did at the beginning of the film. The credits roll. It’s an ending but not as an audience normally experiences it. In a packed Leicester Square cinema, the audience sat momentarily frozen, unsure how to respond. There was a communal sense of bewilderment at the beauty and strangeness of what we had just seen.

The friend I went with admitted to getting bored three quarters of the way through and wanted there to be more “ordinary” characters. He described it as “a mood piece...think, late Kandinsky.” I don’t disagree with his reflex review (and the need to find analogies with other artists and artistic forms) but, twenty four hours later and having allowed my initial responses to settle, I think there might be more to say:

1. You are not going to see a better performance on screen this year than Joaquin Pheonix’s war-damaged ex-sailor, Freddie Quell. This is acting of such feral ferocity and rawness that it shreds the “method acting” handbook and takes film performance into another territory. This is not acting, this is possession. In his portrayal of Quell, Pheonix exposes the terrible damage to the soul caused by the lacerating shrapnel of life – a failed romance, the horrors of war, existential rootlessness, Godlessness. Quell is a man in spiritual and psychological tatters.

Pheonix's Quell is a portrait of an outsider – a man to whom life has become something alien and he an alien to it – but without any existential romanticism. Though terribly damaged, Quell clings to a scintilla of hope: that he is loveable, that someone might love him. Your cinema ticket is worth every penny just to see how Pheonix conveys longing and hurt in his wounded-animal eyes.

2. There is not a frame in Paul Thomas Anderson’s film that is not beautiful. It has a numinous quality. Shot in 70mm format and designed with meticulous attention to period detail, The Master definitively answers the question of whether a film can be a work of art with a resolute, “Yes, of course, it can and this is such a work of art.” The Master is an aesthetic treasure that will be looked at, studied and commented on in decades to come.

3. Contrary to internet reports The Master has very little to say about Scientology or the dubious motives of those who found religious movements. The Master is a bromance but not of the comforting sort we have become accustomed to. This is a bromance with barbs and thorns that cut and nick. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd, the founder of a religious movement called The Cause, uses Quell as a guinea pig for his experiments in spiritual “processing.” He claims to be able to heal Quell. For the damaged Quell, this promise is attractive. He sees Lancaster Dodd’s new religion as the way to restore some sort of psychic stability in his life. This is not a friendship based on affection but one based on the different needs of the two men. The need of the charlatan to believe his own lies and to have his lies believed. The need of the outsider to find a way inside the city walls. The Master is an oblique study in neediness.

4. There are no simple narrative arcs or easily comprehensible character motivations. The film is a frustrating watch and for this reason comes close to reality as we experience it, where so much is hidden from our immediate understanding and slips our conceptual grasp. So much of who we are remains a mystery, at once, fascinating and terrifying. If people find The Master boring and frustrating, it is because, in one sense, it is exactly that. Anderson refuses to pander to the audience’s need for the security of conventional story-telling. Instead, he delivers something that is closer to a parable or tone poem where depths of meaning are released with every viewing.

5. Why should you go and see The Master? Joaquin Pheonix, Philip Seymour Hoffman and the uncompromising originality of the writer-director, Paul Thomas Anderson.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Ben Johnson, Carl Lewis and the Olympic gods

Few people who were watching the BBC coverage of the 1988 Olympics will forget the evening of Tuesday 27 September. The suave sports presenter, Des Lynam, was given, on air, a bulletin from the Agence France-Presse, an international news agency. He read it with the solemnity of someone broadcasting a declaration of war to the nation: “I’ve just been handed a piece of paper here that, if it’s right, it’ll be the most dramatic story of these Olympics, or perhaps any others.”

The story was that Ben Johnson, who had three days earlier won the 100 m final with a world record time of 9.79 seconds and defeated his nemesis, Carl Lewis, had tested positive for the anabolic steroid, Stanozolol. The image of the pumped hulk, Johnson, crossing the finishing line, his finger pointing to the Olympian gods, was overnight replaced by that of a man destroyed by his own hubris. The Furies, “those who beneath the earth punish whosoever has sworn a false oath” according to Homer, gathered around Ben Johnson. This athlete had sworn to the Olympian ideals of honesty and fair play while injecting steroids in locker rooms. For this, he would be punished. He would be stripped of every medal, title and world record. He would be cast out into the dark. He would become a thing of shame.

Richard Moore revisits the events of the Seoul Olympic 100m final in his book The Dirtiest Race in History with a forensic, impartial eye. Moore avoids lazy portrayals of Johnson as the panto villain of the piece and Carl Lewis as the handsome prince with wings on his ankles. A simple, moralistic reading of these men would not do justice to the complexity of their stories, characters and bitter rivalry.

Ben Johnson was all muscular aggression, ripping up the blocks on the “B” of the “BANG!” of the starting gun. Carl Lewis, on the other hand, was grace and beauty, a human gazelle. Johnson, the poor Jamaican immigrant, was embraced by the people of Canada as a national hero. In America, the middle-class Lewis was admired rather loved for his athletic ability. He was unable to woo the romantic heart of the American people. Johnson was the stutterer, Lewis the honey tongued one. Johnson, the lothario. Lewis, the suspected homosexual. And what brought these two very different men together was a 100m strip of racing track.

Moore humanises these athletic titans, unpicking their complexities and dissecting the hatred at the heart of their relationship. It is this which makes The Dirtiest Race in History read like a psychological thriller. You know the ending but that doesn't stop this book from being a page-turner. Actually, the ending of Moore's account is where the author finally encounters the elusive Carl Lewis at the opening of a London Nike store. It is a brilliant conclusion to the book.

Moore also successfully brings to life the shady managers and ambitious coaches who will stop at nothing to give their athlete the edge on their competitors. There are the unethical doctors and dubious friends, the megalomaniac sports executives and greedy hangers on. Moore exposes a mafia cesspool of greed, double-dealing and syringes.

But there are also the good guys, such as Don Catlin, “the father of drug-testing in sports” according to the New York Times and Manfred Donike, the German chemist, who patiently found more reliable ways to detect steroid use and create an “endrocine profile,” the science which strives to keep sport “clean”. They prove to be the heroes of the story and those who carried the torch for the nobility of sporting endeavour. It is thanks to men such as these that the London Olympic Games 2012 remained relatively drug free and the world could marvel at the speed, strength and stamina of its participants.

The Dirtiest Race in History, Richard Moore, Bloomsbury 2012

Friday, 19 October 2012

Joey Barton, Morrissey and the teenage me

Back in the day, Eric Cantona was the philosopher king with his gnomic musings on sardines and seagulls. In recent years philosopher footballers have been thin on the ground. Until now that is. There is a new pretender, an unlikely heir to the cod-philosophy throne: a tattooed boy from Birkenhead (actually Huyton, Merseyside) called Joey Barton, presently on loan from Queens Park Rangers to Olympique de Marseille.

Depending on your point of view, Barton is a sweet and tender hooligan who can’t control his fists or a refreshing voice on the football scene who eschews Neanderthal soundbites in favour of speaking his mind and mixing it up with a quotation from Virgil or Nietzsche. His musings range from Gary Lineker to Lucian Freud via Isambard Kingdom Brunel. There’s nothing David Beckham about Joey Barton – nothing photo-shopped, manicured or groomed. Barton is old style, George Orwell working class: the lad from the council estate who got hold of a library card and got clever and lippy. Joey Barton has over 1.6 million Twitter followers hanging on his every unpredictable word.

I’ve taken an interest in Barton because he is interested in The Smiths and their lead singer, Morrissey. Barton’s Twitter biography reads Yes, we may be hidden by rags but we have something they’ll never have... These are lyrics from The Smiths song Hand in Glove, that soaring anthem to working class nobility. The song was all rage and vitality, romanticism and self-loathing. It was the clarion call the doomed youth of Thatcher’s Britain had been waiting for or that was how it felt at the time.

I still remember the first time I heard John Peel play Hand in Glove and how pop music suddenly seemed important – important in the way that Shakespeare and Rembrandt are important. Culturally important. The idea that Culture and pop music might cohabit was a kind of revelation to my teenage mind.

I remember climbing on to the shoulders of a friend as Hand in Glove was played at a gig in The Venue, Leicester Square and having to take the following day off school because I’d lost my voice and my ears were still ringing. I still have the twelve inch, Rough Trade vinyl (and the wonderful B-side Jeane) with the cover photo of some handsome devil mooning at the world. Hand in glove, the sun shines out of our behinds...It was 1983. I was 17. Hand in Glove was a thing of beauty and youthful joy.

From that moment on, I went to every gig The Smiths played in London. I bought every single, every album, learnt every lyric off by heart – I can still spot a Smiths lyric from a hundred miles. I watched A Taste of Honey and read Saturday Night and Sunday Morning because I read in the NME that these were Morrissey’s inspiration. I bought gladioli and hair gel and made compilation tapes of favourite Smiths songs which I took with me to university. It was great to be a Smiths fan in the 1980’s. I am proud to admit that the music of The Smiths became the romantic soundtrack to a chunk of my reckless teenage years.

For me, Hand in Glove has become the equivalent of Marcel Proust’s madeleine. Every time I hear the mouth accordion opening, every time I stumble across words from the song, my involuntary memory ignites and, to paraphrase Proust, the vicissitudes of life become indifferent to me and life’s disasters innocuous. I wonder if Joey Barton enjoys the same experience?

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Loneliness and Jumpy

The trouble with young people is that they have no sense of the past. The trouble with old people is that they have no sense of the present. Discuss. The question April de Angelis unpicks in her bitingly funny new play, Jumpy, is whether these positions, if true, can ever be bridged and if so, how and by what.

In a brilliantly nuanced performance, Tamsin Grieg, plays a fifty year old mother called Hilary. Her middle class life is beginning to come apart at the seams: her job with a literacy support group is about to be axed, she’s experiencing panic attacks on the tube and she’s taking comfort in a glass or three of Chardonnay. On top of this, she is married to an emotionally inarticulate husband and has a sullen, teenage daughter, Tilly, who would not be out of place on The Jeremy Kyle Show.

This mid-life crisis comedy plays for big laughs, but laughs that are never cheap. It achieves this with a compassionate awareness of the generational gaps and psychological fissures that stop us relating to each other as we should. This is writing with real emotional truth and psychological accuracy. When Hilary tries to speak to Tilly in an adult manner, she is constantly interrupted by the ping of another text message on her daughter’s mobile. The mother tries to find some way to connect with her daughter only to be trumped by the teenager’s desire to connect with her “friends” by txt lol omg XXxx. In her marriage, Hilary tries to connect with her passionless husband by reading him Great Expectations as a bedtime story. This fails and Hilary then tries to connect with one of her daughter’s buff boyfriends. This also fails because Hilary cannot play the cougar and the toy boy jock has an emotional range that runs from A to B. Hilary wants to talk about feminism and her time at Greenham Common. The jock, if he talks at all, probably wants to talk about Gran Turismo 5 and his latest milf conquest.

In Paradise Lost, John Milton observed that “Loneliness is the first thing which God’s eye named, not good.” Part of our fallen natures is that we now live with the existential knowledge of loneliness: we’re born alone, we live alone and we die alone. Only love and friendship provide us with those invisible paths, aboriginal songlines, by which we make our way back to Paradise. We retrieve from our ancient, collective memory the remembrance of a time when our relationships were harmonious, when we did connect and love. The ache in our beings is the ache for Paradise. For the believer, this is the ache for God.

The characters in Jumpy live with the poverty of loneliness and the feeling of being unloved. Their sad, fumbling, comic attempts to combat their loneliness are deeply moving because they resonate with what we know to be true about ourselves. We know that loneliness and vulnerability in our beings, but we also know the truth that love and being loved are essential to any understanding of what it is to be a person. This truth does not take away the knowledge of loneliness, but it puts it in its proper place and fills it with meaning.

Jumpy has neither a Pollyanna or pessimistic view of what it means to be human. In the play, the teenage mother who loves her baby instead of aborting it, the wife who returns to the marital bed and finds consolation in the affections of her husband, the teenage daughter who cannot imagine living without her mum, the soft toy that connects us to our more innocent, less cynical selves provide the ways, De Angelis suggests, that we regain some foothold in Paradise. The final message of Jumpy is that love alone has the power to bridge the gaps. In the tragicomedy of life, we can love and be loved. Paradise is not competely lost to us.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Untouchable and the bromance

In cinema terms, we’ve been here before. This is the bromance genre that is usually based around a true story: two men from very different backgrounds are thrown together by circumstances and develop a deep friendship.

In the 2010 Oscar winning, The King's Speech, it was the friendship between the Aussie speech therapist, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), and King George VI (Colin Firth). What brings these men together is George VI's stammer and his attempt to find a cure. It is Lionel Logue’s unconventional methods that helps the King master his disability. George VI finds his voice and in the process, he gains a friend who is prepared to see beyond the royal state and relates to “B-B-B-Bertie”as a human being.

In the 2012 French film, Untouchable (which I would predict has a good chance of winning an Oscar), it is the friendship between an ex-con black immigrant from the benlieues, Driss (Omar Sy), and a cultured Parisian, Philippe (Francois Cluzet). What brings these men together is Philippe’s hang gliding accident which has left him paralysed from the neck down. The paraplegic millionaire has grown weary of live-in carers who either pity him or behave like oily sycophants. The irreverent Driss does neither of these things. Philippe does not find his feet but, thanks to Driss, he regains his love of life and finds love through this friendship and that of an understanding woman.

I’ve written in a previous post about bromance and The King’s Speech, but that film was too earnest for my taste. This was bromance by numbers. Buttoned up King meets eccentric speech therapist and has his tongue loosened. And the moral of the tale is that men can have friendships as deep as the friendships women are perceived to enjoy. That didn’t seem to me to be a great insight (back in 44 BC, Cicero had sussed that fact and wrote about it in his treatise, De Amicitia). The friendship depicted in The King’s Speech felt too staged and theatrical to ring true.

The bromance in Untouchable did ring true and that’s partly because the film is corny, sentimental and playful just like the friendships between men. The directors, Oliver Nakache and Eric Toledano, capture these aspects of male friendship perfectly, but they also recognise that the authentic bromance also contains subterranean emotional and spiritual depths that distinguish it from the “friendships” of pub mates or golf course buddies. Along with its broad stroke charm and crowd-pleasing humour, Untouchable has a real intelligence and eye for the matter and form of male friendship. It is this which makes it moving. Untouchable is a bromance with its heart and its head in the right place.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Holy Motors

At the Cannes Film Festival Holy Motors polarised the audience. From one camp, cries of “Sacre...merde!” sounded. They believed that they had seen through the Emperor’s new clothes and that this was a self-indulgent exercise in pretentiousness. From the other camp, there were hollers of excitement and the conviction that they had witnessed a contemporary classic. However, all agreed that this was iconoclastic filmmaking – you may love it, you may hate it, but you will never have seen its like before and once seen, Holy Motors leaves a compelling impression on the viewer.

The friend I went with hated it. By the time we got to the chimps (you have got to stay for “appointment nine”) and the talking limousines (a sly reference to Pixar’s Cars), he was begging for mercy and was found clawing his way to the nearest illuminated EXIT sign.

Holy Motors is a form of cinematic terrorism – a volatile mix of gags, pseudo-philosophy, musical numbers, cinephile film allusions, Kylie Minogue, longeurs and general French nuttiness. The film’s director, Leos Carax, has strapped these ideas to his torso and confronts his audience with detonator in hand. Conventional narrative structures are blown apart and the familiar story-telling building blocks of a beginning, a middle and an end come crashing down around the audience. You just have no idea where Carax is taking you or why. No scene exists in the arena of tidy categories or predictable conclusions. Just when you think you have a handle on something intelligible, the film wrong foots you and slips the bounds of normality. Images are so imaginatively fluid and eccentric that they cannot be processed by trusted mental actions. Everything that we might normally recognise as a film is subverted as we are tipped into an hallucinogenic state which is both recognisably familiar and disturbingly alien. In a word, Holy Motors is bonkers. Good bonkers? Bad bonkers? Judging this kind of movie with such blunt critical notions is a futile enterprise.

The opening scene acts as a philosophical prologue. Carax, playing himself, wakes from sleep and activates a concealed door in the wall of his bedroom that has been wallpapered with a forest background. This first scene lays down the director’s main interests. The film will inhabit that peninsula of the imagination that exists between dream and waking reality, between the known and the secret, the visible and invisible, reason and the absurd. The only thing we are certain of is that we will not be able to see the wood for the trees. Carax has admitted that the forest is a reference to the opening lines of Dante’s Inferno: “Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself/ In dark woods, the right road lost.”

Monsieur Oscar, played by Denis Levant, takes to the roads of Paris in his stretch limo as he moves from one appointment to the next, from one parallel life to the next. Like some tormented soul in the Inferno, he is trapped in a daily round of role playing. The back of his limousine doubles as an actor’s dressing room where he transforms himself with latex, wigs and costumes into a series of characters. For one appointment he is an old woman, for the next, a gangster, the next, a deranged, dead-eyed man and so on. The words from T.S.Eliot’s The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, “There will be time/To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet,” could be Monsieur Oscar’s mission statement.

These transformations are so complete that Monsieur Oscar’s sense of himself is eroded. With time, it becomes difficult to distinguish the man from the personas he is called to play. The job, the habitual demand of acting out these roles, has taken over the man and consumed his personal identity. When asked why he does it, he replies, “For the beauty of the gesture.”

With a magpie voracity, Holy Motors references everything from Bunuel to Disney’s Tron, Godard to an Ingmar Bergman death bed scene. Carax ticks off film genres with reckless ambition: the balletic eroticism of a motion capture shoot, the gangster film, the psychological drama, etc. The film oscillates wildly from profundity to inanity, from visual lyricism to crassness. This is achieved with such anarchic enthusiasm and uncompromising inventiveness that I totally succumbed to the film’s energy and magic. Holy Motors is fun, infuriating and loopy. 115 minutes of cinema at its enchanting and provocative best.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

If This is a Man and human suffering

Can we write about human suffering in a way that does not reduce it to the poverty of an indulgence? Do words exist with a tensile strength that can hold the pain of one soul, let alone six million souls? Does the creative imagination have the nerve to view the open wounds of another human being? Or is silence the only response before the charnel house of human misery? Is not our every inadequate attempt to say something meaningful, an insult to those who suffer?

Over the summer, I read Primo Levi’s If This is a Man and The Truce. They are witness statements to the industrial genocide of the Nazi Holocaust. Levi, an Italian-Jew and chemist, was arrested on 13 December 1943 for being a member of the anti-fascist resistance movement “Justice and Liberty”. On 21 February 1944, he and 124 people were transported to Auschwitz. On his arrival, his arm was tattooed with the number 174517. When the camp was liberated at the beginning of 1945, only Levi and two others from this group had survived the hell of this concentration camp.

These books have, in the words of Philip Roth, a “moral stamina” and it is this which charges them with the creative daring to describe the horrors of the death camps. Levi trains his attention on the molecular makeup of each sadistic act of degradation and, ever the chemist, distils this violence through a prose so precise and diamond cut that it produces a purifying quality. His language exhibits none of the splintered rhetoric of pathos or revenge. This is prose cleansed of exaggeration and literary effect. With the care of a laboratory technician, Levi handles his words, potentially volatile words, with such reverence that they would, as he put it, “assume the calm, sober language of the witness”

In Levi’s writing, the evil of the Shoah is revealed in its proper moral context as the absence of good. For Levi, his experience of Auschwitz is primarily a moral one. There he witnessed man in his most demoralised state, where people freely chose to mutilate their moral natures by butchering their goodness so that they could perpetrate acts of barbarism. But Auschwitz was also the place where Levi saw how when man is stripped of every physical and emotional dignity, he still retains his moral grandeur, his personhood, because that cannot be taken from him by violence or force. Primo Levi could never have become a number. The soul of man rebels against that violence which aims to violate the truth of the human person and in doing so, what is true and good about man asserts itself with greater urgency. Levi writes:

...after only one week of prison, the instinct for cleanliness completely disappeared in me. I wander aimlessly around the washroom when I suddenly see Steinlauf, my friend aged almost fifty, with nude torso, scrub his neck and shoulders with little success (he has no soap) but great energy. Steinlauf sees me and greets me, and without preamble asks me severely why I do not wash. Why should I wash? Would I be better off than I am? Would I please someone more? Would I live a day, an hour longer? I would probably live a shorter time because to wash is an effort, a waste of energy and warmth...We will all die, we are all about to die...Steinlauf interrupts me. He has finished washing and is now drying himself with his cloth jacket which he was holding before wrapped up between his knees and which he will soon put on. And without interrupting the operation he administers me a complete lesson...This was the sense, not forgotten either then or later: that precisely because the Lager was a great machine to reduce us to beasts, we must not become beasts; that even in this place one can survive, and therefore one must want to survive, to tell the story, to bear witness; and that to survive we must force ourselves to save at least the skeleton, the scaffolding, the form of civilization...We must walk erect, without dragging our feet, not in homage to Prussian discipline but to remain alive, not to begin to die.

Primo Levi was well versed in the periodic table of the material world. But he also came to an understanding that there exists a periodic table of the moral world. Here, elemental virtues, essential to the makeup of man, are to be discovered and even when man is most debased, these cannot be destroyed. The man of sorrows remains a man. We are made to be moral beings and living as such we find in our suffering a redemptive power.

Philip Roth has described If This is a Man and The Truce as “one of the century’s truly necessary books”. It is. This is a book that moved me to tears but it also fired my conviction that we can and must write about suffering, that this is an imperative if we are to continue to believe in a moral universe.

If This is a Man and The Truce, Primo Levi, Penguin Books, 1979

Saturday, 15 September 2012

On true feeling: Lucian Freud and Anton Chekhov

On the 28 November 2003 at 6.30 pm, the art critic, Martin Gayford, sat in a low leather chair and fixed a pose. He would hold this same pose at dozens of sittings over the next seven months. He had agreed to have his portrait painted by the great figurative painter, Lucian Freud (1922-2011).

Gayford kept a diary of the sittings, reflecting on the long gestation period of the painting and his deepening relationship with the artist. The intense experience of being an object of Freud’s penetrating gaze is told in a beautifully illustrated book, Man with a Blue Scarf:On sitting for a portrait with Lucian Freud.

Gayford’s vivid account is a reminder that all great art sets out to achieve just one, difficult thing: to map the ridges and contours of the human condition in as accurate a fashion as the imagination will allow. To achieve this, the artist refuses to subdue our complexities and ambiguities into a cliché or formulaic style. Abjuring sentimentality or rhetorical flourishes, serious art reveals the grandeur of the human person with a crystalline clarity.

By paying close attention to the atomic makeup of our humanity, the artist serves to increase our stature. The artist hones in on a previously ill defined aspect of our humanity and, through the lens of his imagination, brings it into focus by a true, rather than counterfeit light. An oblique, unspoken knowledge of what makes us human is thus expressed, given form and definition, and provokes in us a sense of recognition and wonder. Then, we are ready to confess, behold the man.

When we encounter art that possesses this quality of imagination, the cataracts of delusion and narcissism that distort our vision are momentarily mended. We catch, some entirely surprising, potentially transformative, truth about what it is to be human. For me, Shakespeare, Chekhov, Tolstoy, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, T.S.Eliot,among others, possess this fierce, irresistible power.

Every detail, every fastidious worm and gob of oil paint, in a Freud painting exists to guard his work from artifice and rhetorical filigree. He, like his friend, the artist, Francis Bacon, was interested only in “the brutality of fact”. Gayford writes:

LF (Lucian Freud) leans forward sometimes, shading his eyes like a sailor in search of land. His demeanour when painting is that of an explorer or hunter in some dark forest. He peers at me, holding his palette in his hand, with the brushes he is not using held between his little finger and the next, protruding like arrows in a quiver. His attitude is a combination of audacity with caution: an intense determination to get the thing exactly right.

Most human beings do not possess this determination. We are prone to live slapdash, bodge-job lives, to accept the superficial, the makeshift and prefabricated over the discipline and effort of getting the thing exactly right.

Great artists do not live in this way. They possess a highly developed self-critical awareness. They do not bear false witness. Their faith is that there is a truth to be discovered about the human person and creation. It is their vocation to look very, very hard for this truth. Their gaze is simultaneously interrogative and contemplative.

A familiar criticism of the artist is that they are fleeing reality by an aesthetic route into some arty la-la land that is divorced from reality. Freud’s work challenged that criticism. He abhorred false feeling and superficial representations of reality. His lifetime’s project was to make reality present to us through the faculty of the imagination – to see ourselves and things as they really are. Discussing his dislike of drug use with Gayford, Freud articulates this central, motivating belief:

People say such things as, “Oh, they make me see such marvellous colours”- which to my mind is a horrible idea. I don’t want to see marvellous colours. I want to see the same colours,and that is hard enough. Then they say that they are taken out of this world, but I don’t want to be out of this world, I want to be absolutely in it,all of the time.

After I had finished reading Man with a Blue Scarf, I immediately picked up a collection of Anton Chekhov short stories. I read The Lady with the Little Dog(1899),one of his finest stories. It exhibits the same qualities of honesty and true feeling that I would argue all great art must have. I want to end this post in a tangential way with a quotation from this story,one which requires no comment but is, I think, complete in itself and a good example of true feeling. In my view, Chekhov and Lucian Freud inhabit the same aesthetic order.

The Lady with the Little Dog concerns a serial adulterer, Dmitry Gurov, who treats women as his “inferior breed” – there simply to pander to his emotional and sexual needs. He sets his predatory sights on the newest woman in town, Anna Sergeyevna,and begins an affair with her. With time, however, this casual liaison turns into something more substantial. Gurov begins to fall in love with Anna and she with him. In a remarkable paragraph,alive with insight and psychological truth, Chekov writes:

He (Gurov) was leading a double life:one was undisguised, plain for all to see and known to everyone who needed to know, full of conventional truths and conventional deception, identical to the lives of his friends and acquaintances;and another which went on in secret. And by some strange, possibly fortuitous chain of circumstances, everything that was important, interesting and necessary for him, where he behaved sincerely and did not deceive himself and which was the very essence of his life – that was conducted in absolute secrecy; whereas all that was false about him, the front behind which he hid in order to conceal the truth – for instance, his work at the bank, those quarrelsat the club, his notion of an “inferior breed”, his attending anniversary celebrations with his wife – that was plain for all to see. And he judged others by himself, disbelieving what he saw, invariably assuming that everyone’s true, most interesting life was carried on under the cloak of secrecy, under the cover of night,as it were. The private, personal life of everyone is grounded in secrecy and this perhaps partly explains why civilized man fusses so neurotically over having this personal secrecy respected.

Man with a Blue Scarf:on sitting for a portrait by Lucian Freud, Martin Gayford, Thames & Hudson, 2010

The Lady with the Little Dog in The Lady with the Little Dog and Other Stories, 1896-1904,Anton Chekhov, trans. Ronald Wilks, Penguin Books

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Posh, toffs and the class system

Almost everyone goes to university these days. We all eat hummus and have sun tans. We are a nation of homeowners. We live in a meritocracy. If you get on your bike, you can make it. Even young royalty wear baseball caps and mimic street patois. We’re all middle class and if we’re not, then we’re chavs, members of a Yahoo, pariah underclass. Class is a thing of the past - it’s a glass of Chardonnay in front of Downtown Abbey on a Sunday night, rather than a recognisable reality. But is this, in fact, correct? Has class become the thing that dare not speak its name?

Laura Wade’s play, Posh, suggests that class – far from being extinct - has been forced to go underground or has acquired a politically correct face. The upper class still believe that they are entitled (by birth) to positions of economic and social superiority. They continue to operate through intricate networks of public schools, universities and dining clubs. The masonic rituals of privilege and preferment protect the upper class from the worries and struggles of the majority.

A private room in a gastro pub in the back end of the Oxfordshire countryside is the setting for Wade’s play. Here, the Riot Club, a gang of nine young toffs and their feckless president, gather for a meal. These people hold one thing in common: they have rich, old money parents and they believe that this economic fact gives them the liberty to trash each other and their surroundings in a night of destructive debauchery and violence. The members of The Riot Club are bound together by an allegiance to their birthright superiority and their barely-concealed contempt of the middle classes who by sheer force of numbers have eroded their aristocratic power base.

As the Riot Club members get bladdered on fine wines, their supposed good-breeding and patrician manners disappear and we are exposed to their venal, bigoted and finally, violent natures. The most vituperative Riot Club member, Alistair Ryle, rails against the levelling forces at work in contemporary Britain. Small businessmen, like the pub landlord “thinks he can have anything if he works hard enough...thinks his daughter’s getting a useful education at Crapsville College...thinking they’re cultured cause they read a big newspaper and eat asparagus and pretend not to be racist...I am sick to f***ing death of poor people.”

Posh is savagely funny, thought provoking and entertaining. Wade’s characters are so deftly drawn that one never feels she is indulging in crude agitprop or cheap pops at Lord Snootys. Although they may be dressed in flashy waistcoats, her characters and their ugly attitudes are disturbingly recognizable. Their preoccupation with wealth, sex and status is not so different to the characters in The Only Way is Essex. The political difference, Wade contends, is that her characters have power and influence and look like David Cameron. Discuss.

Posh by Laura Wade is on at the Duke of York's theatre, London

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

The Raid: the cult film of 2012

All the familiar motifs of the gangland thriller are apparent in The Raid: bent cops, badass thugs, a sadistic gangland boss, a sleazy urban background (in this case Jakarta in Indonesia) and a good, handsome cop who is going to do some serious kickboxing damage. The Welsh director, Gareth Evans, marries Indonesian pencack silat martial arts with Western genre conventions, referencing most obviously John Carpenter’s influential movie, Assault on Precinct 13. The Raid could have been a culturally muddled, clichéd mess. Instead it is a breathless, butt-kicking, pulse-pounding, skull-smashing two hours thrill ride like no other.

The action takes place in an architecturally brutal, decaying fifteen storey tenement. The top floor is occupied by a megalomaniac gangland boss, Tama, with the lower floors run by his thuggish minions. This block of flats is not a good advertisement for the utopian visions of high-rised, communal living.

A swat team, largely made up of rookie, inexperienced cops, arrives to clear the building floor by floor. When Tama gets wind of their presence, he orders a lockdown, sending in his own heavies and the building’s tenants to fight off this “infestation”. But it becomes clear that corrupt police and venal politicians also have a vested interest in maintaining these gangs. “We don’t kill cops, we buy them,” Tama points out.

At this point, the story takes flight into a kick ass orgy but one that is executed with real imagination and sly wit. The action is relentless - one bone-crunching set piece hurtling into the next, every sweaty scene building into fresh crescendos of carnage. The audience is grabbed by the lapels and thrown around by each increasingly outrageous fight scene. Evans’ kinetic editing and edgy, unpredictable camera work masterfully controls the material so that it does not slip into slapstick mayhem or macho camp. Every scene, every death blow is perfectly choreographed for a cathartic release and adrenalin rush. The audience audibly winces and groans with every decapitation and body blow. In Evans’ hands, the logarithms of violence become attitudes of elegance.

No one will remember The Raid for the character development or narrative subtleties or fizzing dialogue. They won’t remember The Raid for these things because they don’t exist. The Raid is not a sophisticated film which prevents it from being a great film. But what you will remember this film for are set pieces of such physical dynamism and visceral artistry that you are left breathless. The Raid is a lean, mean, muscular fighting machine without an ounce of visual fat.

The Raid is quickly turning into a word of mouth cult film. It will be interesting to see if Gareth Evans can now move from the periphery of film making and establish a more mainstream position without losing those qualities that make The Raid such vivid and riveting entertainment. If he does, then the action movie has a future.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking

I am trying to work out if my friend is an extrovert or an introvert. According to Susan Cain’s book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking: “We live with a value system that I call the Extrovert Ideal – the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight. The archetypal extrovert prefers action to contemplation, risk-taking to heed-taking, certainty to doubt. He favours quick decisions, even at the risk of being wrong. She works well in teams and socializes in groups.”

My friend is ticking all the extrovert boxes. Yet, he assures me that he is, in fact, an introvert. He has done the Myers-Briggs personality test twice and on both occasions he was confirmed as an introvert. “It’s not about the outward persona you put on, but where you get your emotional energy from,” he tells me. I’m sceptical. So what is he? An extrovert or an introvert? What, for that matter, am I?

Susan Cain’s thesis is that we are living in an increasingly narcissistic, look-at-me, look-at-what-I- am doing-and-thinking world as exemplified by Facebook (and blogs!). If you hate networking and speaking in public then you are destined to be ignored by an attention deficit world. The introvert is marginalised and regarded as a psychological pariah. Cain maintains that over the past century in the United States there has been a move from the “culture of character” to the “culture of personality”, where people are admired less for the virtues they embody than for the superficial decoration that manages to get them noticed. In such a culture even Jesus is imagined by some evangelical believers to be the model of extroversion. “We’ve turned it (Extroversion) into an oppressive standard to which most of us feel we must conform,” she writes.

It is presently the survival of the loudest and the slickest that dominates our attention. The introvert is overlooked and their considerable talents are wasted in the process. Introverts “tend to be philosophical or spiritual in their orientation, rather than materialistic or hedonistic. They dislike small talk. They often describe themselves as creative or intuitive...They love music, nature, art, physical beauty. They feel exceptionally strong emotions – sometimes acute bouts of joy, but also sorrow, melancholy and fear.” Rosa Parks, Gandhi, Eleanor Roosevelt, Steve Wozniak and JK Rowling have all described themselves as introvert, at best when they are solitary.

Cain amasses statistics, research data and neuro-physiological studies to support her thesis. But what becomes clear is that all this information and anecdotal evidence makes the case for there not being any convincing division between extroversion and introversion – in fact, there is no consensus as to what they actually are and if they exist. Cain wants us to believe that extroversion/introversion are binary divisions on a par with male/female, alive/dead. They are not.

Cain stretches her argument so far that it begins to undermine her thesis. It’s hard to believe that every introvert is a would-be Marcel Proust or Albert Einstein or that every extrovert is a loudmouth, chest thumping cretin.

There are important insights in Quiet, but they are devalued by Cain’s dualistic tendency to read everything in terms of the categories of extroversion or introversion. Do attention seekers exist? Yes. Are they boring? Oh, yes. Are there people who are tongue-tied nerds? Yes and yes, they are boring. But, thankfully, most people are more complex, subtle, mutable and interesting than this. Cain ignores this fact because it does not fit her thesis.

So, is my friend an extrovert or an introvert? After reading Quiet, Cain has unwittingly persuaded me that I’m asking the wrong question.

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, Susan Cain, Viking 2012

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Misterman and religious psychopathology

The mental labyrinth of religious psychopathology makes for an unsettling night in the theatre. Using the device of a dramatic monologue, Enda Walsh’s latest play, Misterman, draws the audience into the disturbed mind of Thomas Magill, played with fierce physical and emotional conviction by Cillian Murphy.

Thomas acts out the events that take place during a single day in the life of his hometown of Inishfree, a place twinned in his mind with Sodom and Gomorrah. He believes his divinely ordained mission is to expose the sinful behaviour of the town’s inhabitants and bring them to their knees in an act of communal penance.

On first evidence, Thomas appears to be a young man buzzing with energetic, evangelical zeal. With a breezy desire to do God’s will, he would make a prize catch for many a vocations director. But as his story unfolds, disturbing theological attitudes leak out and clues about his personality begin to emerge. The intensity of his religious experience and the conviction that he is surrounded by human filth and depravity begin to sound menacing notes. The sins of the pelvic region become the especial focus of his disgust.

Thomas’s story is gripping, but it is one that intends to grip you by the throat and squeeze the life out of you. His final, chilling revelation does just that.

Cillian Murphy plays Thomas and all the characters of Inishfree against the setting of a disused warehouse of sputtering neon strips and loose wires. Scattered among the junk and debris are Krapp’s last tape machines - huge spools of sound effects (a dog barking, a door closing) and the voice of Thomas’s beloved “mammy” mithering him for jammy dodger biscuits. Thomas venerates his mammy, although it is a veneration infected with the tapeworm of resentment. The dilapidated, multi levelled set is a perfectly imagined visual metaphor for Thomas’s collapsing, disconnected mind and a life being played out in an infernal loop of feverish missionary activity.

Thomas’s language has a biblical vitality and poetry. His talk oscillates between lofty visions of the transcendent and an unforgiving view of the weaknesses of the human flesh. Theologically, he seesaws between grace and the cataclysmic effects of Original sin, between heaven and hell. There is no middle, theologically nuanced way. He is John Calvin with an Irish accent.

Into this distorted metaphysical world view, steps an angel. The beautiful Adele. She cuts through Thomas’s dualistic interpretation of life and appears to offer him the hope of gentleness and love. Cillian Murphy makes real Thomas’s desperate longing for this hope. It is this desperation that proves his tragic undoing. In Cillian Murphy’s sensitive hands, Thomas never becomes a caricature of the “religious nut,” but is a soul damaged by his past and circumstances, a man seeking healing and certainty in religious belief.

Misterman is a sobering reminder of how our personalities are bound up with particular expressions of religious belief. These can take the form of a psychological reaction to, aversion of and flight from experiences that we have found personally disturbing, painful or challenging.

Religious belief can contain these experiences in an interpretative framework. On the one hand, this can contribute to the development of a healthy, mature understanding of our personal relationship with the God who is love and of his relationship to us. However, there is always a danger that, when cut loose from love, religious belief can become severe and fearsome, a hell where, whether we recognise it or not, the fallen angels of self-loathing and hatred of others reign.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

God's Jury: the Inquisition and the making of the modern world

"We know you're wishing that we'd go away,
But the Inquisition's here and it's here to stay."

Mel Brooks, History of the World: Part 1, 1981

On Holy Saturday, the headline in The Irish Examiner was “Nobody expected the return of the Inquisition”. The article concerned the recent investigation of writings by Fr Tony Flannery, a Redemptorist priest, by the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). Others will express their views about this particular case, but I am interested in how the shorthand use of the historical term “the Inquisition” retains the power to stir up in the cultural imagination ideas of surveillance, intolerance, interrogation, censorship, torture, murder, injustice or just Monty Python. Why is this?

Cullen Murphy, the editor of Vanity Fair, tackles this question in his latest book, God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World. He argues that “the Inquisition” remains such a potent, terrifying concept because the mind-set (what he calls “the Inquisitorial impulse”) and the bureaucratic machinery of the Inquisition were inherited by the modern, secular world. They would appear again in Stalin’s Russia, in the totalitarian juntas of Latin America and, following 9/11, in the dubious interrogation practices (such as “waterboarding”) and unlimited detention used in Guantánamo Bay. “The Inquisition” remains stubbornly alive in religious and secular circles, he suggests, because it continues to provide a practical arsenal for those who exercise any form of authority.

Cullen reminds the reader that there was no such thing as “the Inquisition,” an organized event with a singular purpose and that, in fact, over a period of some seven hundred years, there were a number of inquisitions each with distinctive features, goals and exhibiting different degrees of efficiency and severity.

In 1998, Pope John Paul II opened the so-called Archivio Segreto which houses a significant store of the Vatican’s records of the Inquisition. At the time, the opening of the Archivio was marked by two academic congresses of Inquisition scholars and, with access to new source material, renewed academic interest in the Inquisition has flourished. Two years later, from the altar of St Peter’s Basilica, an ailing Pope John Paul II made a sweeping apology for the sins of the past, including the Inquisition. The Pope pleaded for a future that would not repeat the mistakes or abusive practices of the past. “Never again,” he said.

Cullen Murphy’s book provides an erudite, witty and stimulating guide to the Inquisition. Although, he weakens his argument, by tending to be overly suspicious of those in authority and by relativising Truth, so that all views appear to hold the same moral and rational weight. Nevertheless, God’s Jury is a useful primer to the Inquisition and makes thought-provoking parallels with contemporary attitudes, such as the burning of The Satanic Verses.

1231 marks the beginning of what is commonly known as the Medieval Inquisition when Pope Gregory IX appointed the first “inquisitors of heretical depravity”. The “heretical depravity” that was of most concern to the Church was Catharism which existed in pockets of southwestern France. Cathars were dualists (the oldest and most virulent form of heresy), believing that the created world (with its disease, famine, violence and suffering) had to have been created by the forces of darkness and that God only had a hand in the pure world of the spirit.

Next to nothing remains of Cathar documentary sources because they were destroyed along with leading figures in this theological movement. But what does remain are the detailed transcripts of interrogations, manuals and the development under Gratian of a code of canon law. Unlike previous forms of persecution, the Inquisition created an organized bureaucracy that formalized in law clear procedures to be enforced by an institutional power. With this administrative infrastructure, “questionable beliefs could be examined against codified standards,” Cullen Murphy contends, “Casual remarks could be sorted into pre-existing categories of nonconformity.” Bureaucracy was the novel and distinguishing feature of the Inquisition.

The Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions lasted for some 350 years. Their main focus was the potential threat posed by conversos – people who had converted from Judaism to Christianity and who were suspected of “judaizing” – reverting to their Jewish faith. These conversos were not only seen as a danger to the Church but also to the power of the monarchy.

It was men like Tomás de Torquemada who were inspired by the task of rooting out heresy and “judaizing” influences. They were prepared to use excessive, sometimes, brutal practices in order to achieve this. “Full of pitiless zeal,” writes the historian Henry Charles Lea of Torquemada, “he developed the nascent institution with unwearied assiduity. Rigid and unbending, he would listen to no compromise of what he deemed to be his duty, and in his sphere he personified the union of the spiritual and temporal swords which was the ideal of all true churchmen.” Secret proceedings, accusations from unnamed sources; confessions extracted by torture; and defense lawyers unable to access crucial evidence became common features of the show trials that men like Torquemada conducted.

The Roman Inquisition was established in 1542, by Pope Paul III. It was this Inquisition that created the Index Librorum Prohibitorum – the Index of Forbidden Books. Attempts to control the spread of ideas that were considered harmful to the faith led to book burnings and extreme forms of censorship. And finally, there were the Inquisitions that took place in the New World, Asia and Africa in the 17th and 18th centuries which tailoured the principles of the European Inquisitions to meet the challenges of new cultural situations.

“Moral certainty ignites every inquisition and then feeds it with oxygen,” writes Cullen Murphy. This is not an argument for abandoning moral certainty and the quest for truth, but a reminder that such a quest must always be done with humility and a great reverence for others. Humility, Cullen Murphy reminds us, protects us from our baser natures and actions. Humility is a guard against triumphalism, orthodoxies rigidly construed and a sclerotic certitude that can maim, disfigure and do violence to other human beings. Humility saps the Inquisitorial impulse of its violent power and allows the truth to be spoken in love.

God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World, Cullen Murphy, Allen Lane, 2012

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Lucian Freud and the lost art of seeing

“What do I ask of a painting? I ask it to astonish, disturb, seduce, convince,” wrote Lucian Freud. These attributes are on full show in the Lucian Freud Portraits retrospective at the National Portrait Gallery in London. The lavish fleshiness and lunar craters in Freud’s paintings of Leigh Bowery, astonish. A naked model viewed from a fierce perspective, disturbs. The erotically charged gaze of Freud’s beautiful first wife, Kitty Garman, seduces. The inner life of a nude made transparent, convinces.

Freud’s paintings exhibit a vision sharpened to a surgical fineness. He is able to peel away superficial accretions and reveal the human person in his vulnerable and sublime mortality. Freud gets under the skin and reveals the skull beneath. And all this is achieved through the simple act of looking.

Freud's artistic project was to train himself to look with a hawk-eye intensity. He would study his subjects for hours, days, months and sometimes, years on end. He locked the sitter in his sights. David Hockney, who had his portrait painted by Freud in 2002, remarks in the exhibition catalogue that “His (Freud’s) method of painting is very good because, being slow, you can get to know and watch the face doing many things...looking and peering...coming closer and closer...he has this energy...his portraits are as good as have been done by layered, photographs can’t get near it.”

An artist friend of mine once told me that the average time that people take looking at a painting in a gallery is four seconds. He suggested that part of the reason for this was that the art of seeing in a concentrated fashion has been eroded by the constant assault of crass visual images. We find it increasingly difficult to look at those invisible presences beyond the clichés. At the same time, looking at another or being looked at in a way that is more than a superficial engagement can become threatening. We fear being exposed. We cover and hide our nakedness. The intense, shameless gaze that can look upon naked flesh with a loving intimacy is something that only lovers and artists can hope to achieve.

But Freud is more than a skilled draughtsman. His interest lies beyond accurate, technically accomplished recordings of his sitters’ features. Freud’s work possess a psychological acuity, an emotional temperature. It is this which makes his images so arresting. These paintings are as much works of autobiography as attempts to capture the subject. For Freud the disciplined effort of looking at a model delineates the contours, conscious or unconscious, of his own life. The gap between subject and artist thins to a gossamer. The artist, Frank Auerbach, remarks:

When I think of the work of Lucian Freud, I think of Lucian’s attention to his subject. If his concentrated interest were to falter he would come off the tightrope; he has no safety net of manner. Whenever his way of working threatens to become a style, he puts it aside like a blunted pencil and finds a procedure more suited to his needs. I am never aware of the artistic paraphernalia. The subject is raw, not cooked to be more digestible as art, not covered in a gravy of ostentatious tone or colour, not arranged on the plate as a “composition”.

I saw the exhibition and, yes, I did buy the t-shirt. On the t-shirt are four words: astonish, disturb, seduce, convince. Freud does.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Wild Bill and the importance of fatherhood

The East End of London is a familiar backdrop to the gangster, hard man film genre. But in Dexter Fletcher’s gritty and accomplished first movie, Wild Bill, the sink estates and building sites around the Olympic stadium provide his action with an emotional content and resonance. Fletcher introduces us to a part of London that is under reconstruction and this mirrors the moral project of the film’s central character, “Wild” Bill Hayward (Charlie Creed-Miles).

Bill is attempting to reconstruct his life after being banged up for eight years in Parkhurst prison for robbery and GBH. He is out on licence and planning to go straight. The question is will he be allowed to break with old-style East End omertà or will he be sucked back into the underworld of drug dealing and casual violence?

The ex-con returns to his family but finds that it is also in need of some radical reconstruction. His wife has run off to Spain with a fancy man, leaving behind her two sons, 15 year old Dean (Will Poulter) and 11 year old Jimmy (Sammy Williams). Dean has been acting as both father and mother to his younger brother while living a covert existence beneath the radar of social services in order to avoid being taken into care. Bill’s return releases in Dean all the repressed anger at his father’s desertion.

Yet, without Bill’s presence, Dean and Jimmy will be at the mercy of social services. Bill must learn from scratch how to be a father and his sons must learn to love and respect him as such. This is not a cosmetic makeover, but something that goes to the heart of how they understand themselves. The relationship between Bill and his sons develops a tensile strength like no other and gives a unique order to their relationship.

Wild Bill is set in a macho environment where threat and force have become flaccid expressions of manhood. The flexing of tattooed East End muscle and menacing attitudes look Neanderthal. But, in the fatherhood of Bill and the response of his sons, we glimpse the inherent dignity of the masculine, where true strength is manifested in care, protection, tenderness and playfulness. Without sermonising, Wild Bill reminds us that young lads do well to have real dads. They benefit and so does society.

Dialogue as sharp as a Stanley knife and raw performances make Wild Bill all that and a bag of chips. It’s not scared to take on the Lock, Stock and Two Barrels clichés and credits its audience with intelligence and wit. This film can more than handle itself and deserves to be widely seen. Imagine The Wire set in Newham. Yes, it is that good. I wouldn’t be surprised if Dexter Fletcher and Creed-Miles replace their hoodies and trackie bottoms for something a little sharper as they pick up shiny gongs at awards ceremonies in the coming year.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Sweeney Todd

I saw the original 1980 production of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. At the time, the critics damned his new musical with faint praise. They admired its cleverness but questioned its emotional detachment. A musical about revenge, serial killing and cannibalism was too much for a West End audience to stomach and it soon closed.

I have never been a great fan of musical theatre (too camp, too trite and too obvious for my tastes) but as a fourteen year old I was mesmerised by the musical ambition and lyrical wit of Sweeney Todd. Sitting in the gods at Drury Lane, watching Hal Prince's spectacular production, has become one of the defining moments of my theatre going life. I fell in love with the musical and, over time, I have become a devoted fan of the work of Stephen Sondheim.

Over the years I have seen countless productions of Sweeney Todd – including the famous 1993 National Theatre production, an Opera North production and a promenade performance with the opera singer, Bryn Terfel, singing the part of Sweeney. Tim Burton’s film version – though visually exciting – was, to my mind, a disappointment. Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter had neither the musical or emotional range to make the relationship between Sweeney Todd and Mrs Lovett convincing.

Why has this musical (unlike any other) captured my imagination? I think it is the completeness of Sondheim’s musical venture and the lyrical perversities that continue to excite and startle. For example, what other musical would use a love song (“Pretty Women”) as throats are being slashed by a sociopath? Sondheim allows beauty and horror to cohabit in the same melodious, orchestrated line. Dissonant key-changes create an atmosphere of menace and even the lyrical sensuality of some of his orchestration acquires an erotic ambivalence. At every point, the audience is musically wrong footed and kept in a state of permanent suspense.

Sondheim’s lyrics straddle grand guignol melodrama and farce with a contortionist’s ease: “For what’s the sound of the world out there?/Those crunching noises pervading the air?/ it’s man devouring man, my dear,/ and who are we to deny it in here? ” Though set in Victorian England, Sondheim’s musical feels as contemporary and disturbing as American Psycho or We Need to Talk About Kevin.

Jonathan Kent’s new production of Sweeney Todd has just transferred to London and stars Michael Ball and Imelda Stauton. It is one of the darkest and most theatrically convincing productions of Sweeney Todd I have seen. The gothic visuals of Hammer House of Horror movies viewed through the lens of the Communist Manifesto. It's scary and thought provoking.

Michael Ball, every housewife’s Radio 2 crumpet, is unrecognisable. He has transformed himself into an obsessive, vengeful force who satiates his hatred by murdering the innocent. Imelda Staunton’s Mrs Lovett is a master class in comic timing while conveying the unique pain of unrequited love.

The Demon Barber of Fleet Street raises his razor again at the Adelphi Theatre. Kill for a ticket.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Travelling Light

Last week’s Oscar winner, The Artist, is about that liminal moment in cinema history when the silent movie became the talkie. It was also a salient reminder of the continuing influence of the Jewish community in Hollywood. The producer of The Artist is the indomitable, Harvey Weinstein.

Nicholas Wright’s new play, Travelling Light, is concerned with another liminal moment in cinema history – the moment when the still photograph became a moving picture and motion pictures were born. The play also highlights the fact that the birth of modern film took place within the Jewish community. These cinematic pioneers became the pilgrim fathers and mothers who took their new invention to America and laid the foundations for the Hollywood factory of dreams of Louis B Mayer and Samuel Goldwyn.

Travelling Light sees in the bustling life of the shtetl, the small town, the embryonic beginnings of cinema. A scene in the play, where the would be director, Maurice Montgomery, and his female assistant, realise that a length of continuous film can be spliced and glued together to form a new narrative is presented as significant as the invention of the combustion engine. It’s a wonderful Eureka moment. Man using his intellect, creativity and ingenuity to produce something that would provide another light with which we might interpret the world around us.

But why did the community of the shtetl become the focus for such inventiveness and creativity? In a programme note, the writer, Eva Hoffman, points to the moral centre at the heart of the shtetl:

Everyone within the shtetl’s small compass knew each other; and although there was clear social hierarchy, based on the values of wealth and religious learning, the importance of charity meant that not even the poorest or the most improvident were entirely rejected from the communal net. On the Sabbath, those who could not afford a proper meal were taken in by their more prosperous neighbours; and on those evening, the shtetl really did become a united organism, with Sabbath candles visible through each home’s windows....

What accounted for this outburst of inventiveness and creativity? Perhaps it was precisely the encounter between traditionalism and modernity; the disciplines of piety and religious reasoning colliding with new, turbulent social realities...such confrontations can liberate surprising forces of imagination and thought...

Travelling Light is a sentimental reimagining of the early days of cinema. All those eureka moments – editing, casting, continuity, cinematography, finance, etc – are celebrated with real warmth and humour in Wright’s play. When I next walk into the local cinema multiplex, I’ll remember with a new clarity the huge contribution that small Jewish communities made in providing pleasure, entertainment and stimulation to those millions of us who simply love the movies.

Travelling Light by Nicholas Wright is currently on at the National Theatre, London.

Monday, 27 February 2012

And the Oscar winner is...

The Artist
(a film I enjoyed as a novelty project but could not get really excited about) scoops the big prizes. But I was watching the Best Foreign Film category and, yes, the marvellous Iranian film, A Separation,wins.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Sport, depression and the death of Robert Enke

There is a strong fascist bias in our relationship to professional athletes. We expect them to be paradigms of physical and psychological strength. These are the men and women who have actively trained away the weaknesses of mind and body that most of us passively accept. They have achieved a state of perfection that sets them apart as superhuman. It is this we admire in them. It is this that fills stadiums, sells tickets and clinches sponsorship deals. We want them to wear a carapace of invincibility.

But should they show signs of frailty or weakness then, public adulation can quickly turn to disappointment. And, worse still, should this become a sustained weakness then the athlete will be exposed to an intense scrutiny under an exacting audience that usually results in them being expelled from the divine sporting pantheon. They fall to earth as figures of public pity or ridicule. Chad Harbach’s critically acclaimed novel, The Art of Fielding, nails this tension through the rise and fall of his baseball protagonist, Henry Skrimshander. He writes:

We all have our doubts and fragilities, but poor Henry had to face his in public at appointed times, with half the crowd anxiously counting on him and the other half cheering for him to fail.

This year’s William Hill Sports book of the year, A Life Too Short: The Tragedy of Robert Enke by Ronald Reng is a disturbing account of how public and professional expectations can place terrible pressures on sportspeople. While the rewards for those who excel in a particular sport may be enormous (both in terms of public acclaim and wealth), this can turn into a Faustian pact, with men and women trading their souls and, in some cases, losing their lives for the promise of success.

On 10 November 2009, Robert Enke, threw himself in front of a passing train. He was a goalkeeper for the German football team and would probably have represented his country at the 2010 World Cup. From an early age he was recognised as being an outstanding talent: physically strong, intelligent, with an instinctive sense of space, excellent reactions and a radar like sensitivity to the position of players and the ball. He was admired by both peers and fans as a formidable goalkeeping presence. But Robert Enke was also a man who suffered from severe bouts of clinical depression which he hid for fear of looking weak. After his first game for Fenerbahce in Turkey went disastrously wrong, Enke wrote in his diary:

11.08.2003. I’m finished. We lost the game 0-3. Didn’t look good from the first goal. After that I was very nervous in the second half. Was mocked by some of the fans...Would like to get away from Istanbul, do a proper course of therapy at last. At any rate, it can’t go on. Understood yesterday that I’m simply not up to the demands...Terri (his wife) just rang and had to put the phone down again to cry. I feel helpless and anxious. I don’t leave the hotel room, I’m afraid of people’s eyes. I’d just like to live without anxiety and nerves.

The emotional honesty of Enke’s diary entries provide valuable insights into the nature of depression itself – the feelings of isolation, anxiety and inertia. Reng gives us a clinical glimpse inside Enke’s head. But we also see how his position as an international goalkeeper compounds his anguish. The goalkeeper is the last line of defence. Everything is literally in his hands. Enke’s Barcelona team-mate, Victor Valdes talks of the goalie’s “special sort of suffering”. The goalkeeper is at once part of a team and a figure who stands alone. Tactical and defence errors may result in a goal but it is the goalkeeper who lets the goal in. He must live with this failure.

One psychiatrist who cared for Enke told him that his problem was that he had never learnt to live with his mistakes. He reminded the goalkeeper that “a mistake wasn’t the whole game, a game was never the whole season, a season wasn’t a career. A career isn’t a life.” Enke could accept the principle intellectually but he was incapable of integrating it into his personality. “If you could have my head for half an hour,” he told his wife, “you’d know why I go mad.”

Like so many sportspeople, Enke found it impossible to admit to his psychological and emotional difficulties. He kept burying them for fear of being outed as weak. This contributed to his unhappiness and mental dissolution. But recently some professional athletes have been willing to talk about how the pressures of their particular sport has played into their feelings of depression. Respected figures such as Marcus Trescothick, Jonny Wilkinson and Stan Collymore have spoken openly about the crushing self-doubt and emotional turmoil that they have battled with. They have brought this hidden subject out into the open. While we may fantasise that our sporting heroes are invincible, such brave testimonies remind us that sportsmen and women are not immune from the fragility of the human condition.

A Life Too Short: The Tragedy of Robert Enke by Ronald Reng, Yellow Jersey Press, London, 2011