Equilibrium (2002)

Equilibrium (2002)

My wife was away visiting the sick yesterday and I had the evening on my own. The demands of milking and feeding the animals mean that it is well nigh impossible for both of us to go away at the same time. It took negotiations, and the coordination of two groups of neighbours, to let us away overnight last year for our annual holiday (to a hotel over 10 miles away). As the sick relatives were closer by blood and marriage to my wife, it was felt best if she was to go to visit.

This left me on the sofa last night, searching for a film to watch. On these occasions I try and find a film that my spouse would not want to watch; it seems wrong to watch a film on my own that she might enjoy too. If I did, I’d probably not want to watch it again so she may never see it, and I’ll miss out on discussing the film, which is a large part of the pleasure of film viewing. She tends to be less keen on Science Fiction than I am so this is often a safe choice. A further factor at play in my choice,  is that I tend not to want to buy a film, spending money is usually a joint activity, so I need to choose from the free-to-air channels or Amazon Prime. All of these factors combined lead me to settle down with a bag of popcorn and watch “Equilibrium

The premise of the film is quite simple : thFWDOJDNSafter the devastation of a third world war it is agreed that the world and humanity can not take the risk of a fourth, it is recognised that emotions fuel the violence that drives wars and therefore society is constructed to ensure people do not experience emotions and feelings.  To curb their emotions and help them avoid feelings (and thus committing “sense crimes“) the people take Prozium regularly, a name obviously chosen to allude to the current antidepressant (Fluoxetine, or Prozac). To police this, and to apprehend sense offenders, the state of Libria (This is the same reason chlordiazepoxide got the brand name Librium) have an organization of grammaton clerics who are trained in the  art of Gun Kata. One of these clerics stops taking his Prozium and, after a convoluted set of twists and turns, ends up leading the resistance towards a finale of the individual overturning the authoritarian state.

The premise in interesting and the camera work, visual effects and story progression are all quiet satisfactory. There is a tendency to be heavy handed on the puns , the underground resistance literally live underground, in the “Nethers”, but the story line is engaging. The cast are able and there are some big names in here, (Christian Bale, Sean Bean, Emily Watson) and they, and the rest,  perform well. But, unfortunately the film tends to fail as a whole.

The film doesn’t really get to grips with the importance of emotion and feeling to the individual. When it does try to deal with emotion in characters it tends to end up being mawkish or kitsch (One cleric is lead off the straight and narrow by looking into the big eyes of a puppy). While it is visually well made it pays homage to many better films. The clerics and firemen are from Fahrenheit 451, clothing and fighting styles are from The Matrix, the architecture and landscapes are from Metropolis. Even the major plot devices are echoes of better films : the imperfect human fighting the state was handled better in Gattaca and 1984 was much more effective in discussing the state’s control of the individual even though it only had a ‘Big Brother’ rather than a ‘Father’ figure.

As you watch ‘Equilibrium’ these visual and plot devices remind you of much better films and lead to a growing feeling of dissatisfaction. All the elements are there but they do not coalesce into a good film. Indeed sometimes the handling of elements is quite jarring. This is a film whose target demographic is young men, I’d imagine, and thus the stylised and  choreographed fighting plays a central role. This and the copying of fascistic imagery in the outfits and architecture lead it to the edge of glorifying violence and the strong man. There can be a fine line between  parody and glorification (see Leibach) and this film sometimes crosses this line.

So overall, a lot of able cinematographic work has been  has been hammered together in a rather heavy handed fashion rather than thoughtfully crafted. The end result is passable rather than good. The same ingredients, in a cook’s kitchen, can produce a great meal which in the fast food store merely make something to ‘fill a hole’. This film filled a hole but, either it or the popcorn, left me with indigestion. However, I can feel confident my wife would have enjoyed it even less.

 

Straw Dogs

Straw Dogs

I have come to find Talking Pictures TV a useful channel from our television providor. It screens old classic films and television and has been a good source of viewing when I want to feel nostalgic. It is also instructive to re-watch films and programmes that I enjoyed when much younger. Frequently I am pleasantly surprised at how well these have weathered the passage of time. Sometimes I can be quite shocked in the difference between how the item appears now and how it was when I saw it originally. It can sometimes feel quite awkward trying to mentally reconcile my original views with how I think and feel now.

Now a large part of this is my own fault. When a teenager and a young adult I was deeply involved in student politics. At that time I felt it very important to know, and appear to follow, the party line. There was a party line on everything from the  economic status of Allende’s Chile (State Capitalist) through to which chocolate bars were edible (not Nestle). In the issues relating to economics, politics and boycots then things were fairly straightforward, there were goodies and baddies and my enemy’s enemy was my friend. This was easy ground to master and never caused me any great difficulty.

However, in the world of the arts it was a different matter. In the 60s and 70s everything was political and especially the arts. Some books, paintings or plays were progressive and in the vanguard helping us push back the boundaries of the old regime and breaking new and exciting ground. Other works of art were  reactionary, regressive and backward and needed shunned and avoided at best and preferably rooted out and destroyed.

There were guide books of marxist cultural criticism to help you manouvere this minefield but these were much trickier waters. Especially as issues about how pleasing or well executed the artwork was, seemed to bear no relationship whatsoever to the likelihood of it being considered progressive or reactionary. The faux pas of  expressing enjoyment in reactionary art was a near fatal step in social circles and required a great deal of fancy footwork  (professing one was being ironic and post-modern) in an attempt to redeem oneself.

During this time I watched a lot of emperors parade their new clothes : I watched films where people sat in a chair silently for an hour, or a camera filmed the front of a building for three; I  listened to poems lacking grammar, content or imagination, let alone rhyme; and I read novels that had abandoned the narrative structure in search for new ways to narrate a story. While I watched and read this rubbish I made sure I knew the correct stance to  take, and the right things to say – “its transgressive”, it “pushes back boundaries” and “confronts the reality” it might even “attack the hegemony” if I was lucky. I even read Richard Brautigan and Thomas Pyncheon, for Heaven’s sake. If there had been a three hour epic of watching paint dry on a wall, as long as it had been trailed as a provocative film, attacking our conceptions, and revealing how the media covers all opposition and blanks it out, then I’d have been there in the queue. I would be in the audience for anything, as long as it was cutting edge and hopefully made me look windswept and interesting to the opposite sex. In short I was a bit of a prat.

So I remember “Straw Dogs” well : it was a film that pushed the boundaries and explored issues of violence and masculinity in our society. It was an uneasy watch but an important film that made us question our views. Or so I thought. Does it stand the test of time, is it still an important piece of film theatre ?

The plot of the film is very slight : mild mannered mathematician moves with his beautiful wife to a town in the back of beyond. The locals are strange and start to torment them building up to the killing of their cat and the rape of his wife. Eventually the worm turns and, in an X-rated version of the siege in Home Alone , he vanquishes the attackers with a stunning show of violence.

There are aspects of the film which still work. The acting is generally of a very high standard and, through this, the menace is built up well. By the time of the climax you have really come to dislike the attackers and are ready for revenge. The violence and slow motion effects are still shocking. In days of CGI we are used to being able to see anything whether it is possible or not. But the hyper-real detail that often accompanies CGI is somehow less frightening, we know this is made in the computer , we know there is no real risk. A bit like if one replaced fireworks with flashing lights and buzzers, they would look and sound the same, but they would not be exciting as there is no risk that it might go awry.

There is a slight piece of moral justification for the films feast of violence but it is really very minor. So if all you want is excitement and violence then this film would fit the bill. But then so would many other video nasties from the 70s, this film is meant to be better than that. This film is held to be a significant piece of art not some populist piece of porn. However, there are serious limitations to the film that stop it rising above its true genre.

Firstly there is the problem with the female characters in the film. There are only  two in the film (The vicars wife really only plays an ornamental role). Amy is his annoying, provocative and flirtatious wife who undermines Hoffman’s masculinity and interferes with his work. At the height of the siege she would be happy to give the mentally handicapped man to the crowd, to be beaten to death, if it saved her own skin. The other female character is a young girl who flirts and teases the handicapped man to such an extent that he accidentally kills her (John Steinbeck may come after Pekinpah  for some of the royalties due to this scene).

In essence both female characters are dislikeable and behave in ways that lead to their own downfall – rape or murder. The rape scene is upsetting, as a serious depiction of rape should be, but this is not the worst aspect of misogyny on show. In his masterful phase Dustin Hoffman, having found his masculinity, starts to shout to tell his wife what to do and when she doesn’t jump to it he strikes her – presumably for her own good. There is a clear message women should shut and do as they are told as the men know best in a crisis.

The only thing which might ameliorate the misogyny is that, in truth, it is not only the women who are unpleasant. There is more than a touch of misanthropy; all of the male characters are unpleasant also (With the questionable exception of Dustin Hoffman). There is no character guided to do good, there is no explanation of why they do bad, just a picture of a world populated by nasty people doing nasty things. When Duston Hoffman starts to fight back he does not do so for any real moral purpose, he simply intends to defend his house. He is not avenging his wife’s rape (he does not know of this), to a small degree he is protecting the handicapped man from the mob, but he is repeatedly clear it is his house he is defending.

The nearest we get to a moral to the tale is that, having won, Dustin discovers that he enjoyed the violence and took pleasure in it. Indeed, the finale would suggest that any moral justification for violence is just a convenience, an excuse, to start fighting and killing. There is no questioning of this, which is why this film really doesn’t move out its true genre : it is simply an exploitative vigilante film. It is possible to move above this and consider issues of violence and masculinity. It can be done, and was done, 5 years later with Travis Bickle and Taxi Driver. However, this film would be best filed alongside “I spit on your grave” rather than beside “Taxi Driver“.

It is sad when we look back and find our earlier heroes have feet of clay but it is better to have a true memory rather than a fragment of fiction in our mind.

 

 

 

 

The Sea of Faith

The Sea of Faith

While I was watching an old film on television this week I was reminded of Mathew Arnold’s wonderful poem “Dover Beach”.  This is the lyric poem that he wrote telling of his feelings of loss and sadness following the ebbing of faith in his society. He uses the metaphor of the tide to show the retreat of religious faith, which he felt was now only an echo of its former self.  With regret he wrote :-

The Sea of Faith

Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore

Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d.

But now I only hear

Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,

Retreating, to the breath

Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear.

And naked shingles of the world.

Watching the tide retreat under moonlight he rued the passage of faith and considers his and society’s loss.

I was reminded of this poem after catchingMV5BNjU4NzQ4NzU5MV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNDM2Nzk1MDE@._V1_ the film “Lease of Life” on television. This was the penultimate film of the great Robert Donat who had returned to acting after a long sabbatical necessitated by his poor health from asthma. In this film he plays a village parson who discovers he has less than a year to live.  Donat’s ill-health is obvious when watching this film, he looks much older than his years, but this adds a poignancy to his role as a man coming to terms with his mortality. The whole cast are excellent but Adrienne Corri, whose youth and beauty are counterposed to Donat’s age and frailty, is especially so.

So why did this 1954 British film from Ealing Studios, remind me of Dover Beach ? It was the theme of the film –  death comes to us all, but before then how do we live life well ? The film takes this religious theme and explores it through a number of vignettes : a wife who has subjugated her life and wishes for her husband and daughter, a daughter who wishes to seek advancement but not at the expense of ther parents, a dying parishoner who who has a complex relationship with his wife. There is no violence, no sex, no excitement, just moral dilemmas played out on a human scale. It would probably be impossible to make this film today. Imagine the pitch to the movie moguls.

Mogul “Right give us your pitch ! What’s the payload of the film

Director ” Sure. The film has at its core a vital unifying scene that lays the whole film open”

Mogul “Great give it to me

Director ” The elderly, terminally ill parson gives a short sermon in church to a group of schoolboys reminding them that religioun is about free will and choices not about dutifully or slavishly following rules

Mogul “And ?

Director “The boys like it and we later see the paron lving in accordance with his beliefs”

Mogul “Next ! Close the door as you leave

The film reveals how issues of faith and morality were central to life. It reminds us we have to think actively about how to be a good and moral person and that it is inadequate to choose the most expedient options at every turn. With this deontologiocal message it does not sit easily in our utiltarian culture.  This film revealed just how important issues of faith, and the role of the church, were in British culture two generations ago. But this has largely gone and, like Mathew Arnold watching the tide ebb, I watched this film and thought what have we lost?

Certainly we have gained some freedoms, particularly in the realm of our sexual lives, but how valuable is it to gain this sexual freedom if we risk loosing romantic love or reducting the pleaures of love to simple mechanics of friction. What if our need for gratification robs us of the virtue of patience. There are so many changes where we cannot foresee the resultant complications and  I fear we are loosing many of the principles that perviously guided our personal and family lives. This film reminds us that these small quotidien decisions that constitute our lives are vitally important and this film does not need any pyrotechnics or CGI assistance to make its point. Like other films from Ealing Studios it looks at people humanely and reveals to us, if we wish to see it, what it is that makes humanity special.

This gentle but thought provoking film reminded me of our losses, but I fear I need to check my priviledge here. The loss of faith and the ebbing of this tide is particularly a problem for white developed-world cultures, particularly in Europe, like mine. This sadness is unlikely to be shared equally across the globe as the number of people of faith (Christians in China, Muslims in Africa and Asia) elsewhere continues to grow. There are now more people on our beleaguered planet who profess religion is important in their lives than ever before and perhaps, in this, there is hope that the tides of the sea of faith will again lap on our shores.


Dover Beach

The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; – on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanch’d land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Mathew Arnold

 

Dr Zhivago

Dr Zhivago

I never thought it would happen. I almost thought it was impossible. But, I have found the situation when the film was better than the book, and not by a small margin : Dr Zhivagio the film is much better than the book. Dr Zhivago is a classic of the film-makers art, the book, on the otherhand, is an overlong and maudlin saga.

I remember well when I saw David Lean’s “Dr Zhivago” as it made an immediate impact on me. The photography was spectacular, there was an epic tale of revolution and chaos, upon which was played a moving love story. The whole thing was bound together by the magical music particularly “Lara’s Theme“, by Maurice Jarre, the leitmotif that glued everything together. Even today I only have to hear a few bars of this, or the opening of “Somewhere my Love“, to be instantly back remembering this film. Although I enjoyed and regarded the film highly it was initially a difficult film for me.

When I first saw the film I was a youth, a teenager, and a firebrand for the left. I found it difficult that a film as powerful as this was not a paean to the great communist revolution, but rather a shocking indictment of the treatment of the individual at the hands of the state. Being obstinate and foolish, as a lad, I omitted to read the book as I had the habit then of only tending to read what confirmed the prejudices I already cultured. I was therefore delighted when our bookclub decided to do Dr Zhivago, it gave me the chance to rectify a wrong and I would read Dr Zhivago, the book.

I knew the history of the book, I knew it had won the Nobel Prize for Boris Pasternak, and I knew that it was an important text in revealing the problems of totalitarianism. I had mentally filled it alongside George Orwell’s “1984” and  Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn’s “One Day in the life of Ivan Denisovitch“, both of which I had re-read recently and found excellent. It was therefore with expectant optimism that I started “Dr Zhivago”.

The first couple of days were fine, but as time passed my spirits sagged and my reading slowed to a barely perceptible crawl. I found the text dense and difficult, there was far too much detail which failed to add to setting scenes or developing characters or relationships. The frequent use of multiple, different names for characters was occasionally confusing. The story was rather jumbled in its chronography and relied heavily on coincidences for plot development, many of which were very contrived. None of this was helped by the poorly drawn characters who failed to engage with me. In particular, our hero, Yuri Zhivago, is rather dislikable; arrogant, self-opinionated, a philanderer and user of women. He is a poor example of the individual in a book promoting the Tolsoyian ideals of the individual.

I have to confess that I could not continue reading after a third of the way through and I cheated. I switched to Audible and had Philip Madoc read the remaining two thirds of the book to me as I walked the dog, fleshed the sheepskins, or cooked the meals (It’s 18 and a half hours long on audible). But this was the only way I could have completed my task. I found it difficult to see why the book won the Nobel Prize for Literature as I agree with Vladimir Nabokov who found it “a sorry thing, clumsy, trite and melodramatic” and presume it won for its political impact rather then its literary merit. All in all a great disappointment but did reveal that my earlier prejudice that the book is always greater than the film was wrong.


P.S. Since then I have started to reconsider whether Christopher Isherwood’s “Goodbye to Berlin” is better than Bob Fosse’s “Cabaret“, this is a tight contest.

I blame Audrey Hepburn

I blame Audrey Hepburn

I blame Audrey Hepburn. Alright, she wasn’t actingBreakfast_at_Tiffanys on her own but had a number of accomplices. Alongside her winning looks and performance, Henry Mancini’s composition “Moon River” and Blake Edward’s direction make “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” one of the great films.  In fact in 2012 it was recognized as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the United States Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry . I’d agree with praise lavished on the film as it is one of my favourites. However, due to the film’s success I thought I could accurately, anticipate what would be in the book and, as a consequence, I had never bothered to pick up Truman Capote’s novella and read it. Yesterday, in preparation for the book club later on, I got around to reading the original and was pleasantly shocked.

There are many times when the book and the film are closely related. For example I doubt anyone could find many important differences between the cinematic and literary versions of Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451“. Anyone having read, or seen, one could anticipate the other and there would be no surprises; one art form has held a mirror up to another, created its sibling,  and managed to double our pleasure. Sometimes films do take liberties with the content or intention of books and, while the result may be pleasing, they must be seen as two quite separate entities, related but separate, as the messages communicated are potentially very different. This film is so different to the book as to be almost unrelated. Perhaps it is a second cousin twice removed from the original book.

While they have taken the name and the beauty indexof the Holly Golightly character they have cleaned her up and washed away all the complex and untidy aspects of her nature. They have changed the era in which the story takes place. The novella occurs in wartime – a time of austerity, a time of death and uncertainty and it has the wise-cracking dialogue of the time. The book occurs in the post-war period – a period of optimism and growth and abundance. Holly in the book is a very complicated character, lively and enticing as in the film, but much more free in her spirits, partially a libertine and partially a lost soul. She uses her looks and youth to survive though it is clear that she is a character who has many other strings to he bow – she can act, she can sing and speak other languages – but she can not face being tied down or  to live in the mundane world.

“I’ll never get used to anything. Anybody that does, they might as well be dead”

Both the book and the film convey Holly’s beauty indexand attractions. It is difficult to imaging the character Holly Golightly without imagining Audrey in her sunglasses, elbow length gloves and cigarette holder. In the film the sunglasses carry the glamour of Jackie Onassis and the mystery of the mask. In the book we know that masks do help to hide ourselves  but that also the sunglasses can hide the effects, or black eye, from the night before.

She misses all her opportunities for contentment,  as to be content is inadequate for her. This leads her to a life possibly overful which makes her question her own, and society’s morals, and wonders if she is a prostitute by living off her appearance and favours :-

“Really, though, I toted up the other night, and I’ve only had eleven lovers — not counting anything that happened before I was thirteen because, after all, that just doesn’t count. Eleven. Does that make me a whore? ”

“Of course I haven’t anything against whores. Except this: some of them may have an honest tongue but they all have dishonest hearts. I mean, you can’t bang the guy and cash his checks and at least not try to believe you love him. I never have. Even Benny Shacklett and all those rodents. I sort of hypnotized myself into thinking their sheer rattiness had a certain allure”

She recognizes that love is more important than sex and it is clear that other characters, who have no libidinous interest in her, do indeed love her and, over a generation ago, she suggested that all love should be considered valuable.

“I’d settle for Garbo any day. Why not? A person ought to be able to marry men or women or — listen, if you came to me and said you wanted to hitch up with Man o’ War, I’d respect your feeling. No, I’m serious. Love should be allowed. I’m all for it”

However, her fears of restraint  or curtailment hamper any attempts at forming deeper relationships. We always know this is going to be a picaresque tale and unlike the film there is to be no happy ending. In the book we know that she will be an ever fading beauty who will slide from view as her looks and allure weaken. It is in this area that the book and film differ most markedly. Both are romances but the film is a romance of fairy tales and dreams coming true, while the book is a tale of loosing your heart to someone while you try and live your dream

 

 

Titus Andronicus, The RSC, 10/8/17

Titus Andronicus, The RSC, 10/8/17

There has been much controversy over Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus – Is it his worst play ? Did he even write it ? It is generally felt that alone, or in conjunction with another, Shakespeare was writing a revenge drama, full of blood and guts, high in emotion and horror, in an attempt to have a hit on his hands. It seemed to work initially as, at first, it was one of his more successful plays. Later it fell out of favour as our tastes changed and it was felt to be rather overwrought and over-gory, perhaps felt to be a relic of days passed, when a public execution was the competition for a performance of a drama.

 

It is clear that its bloody history was on the minds of the RSC when they staged this performance. A trigger warning was offered at the beginning and through the play great care was taken to avoid any excessive gore. It is odd that in these days of bloodthirsty television (C.S.I., etc), popular horror films in the cinema (Saw, Hostel, etc), and the ubiquity of the internet it was felt necessary to do this. It is also unfortunate that they did. The blood and gore are, in fact, the guts of Titus Andronicus. If they are removed there is very little left. If they are played for effect with appropriate histrionic aplomb and bravado they are less distressing than this clinical approach (We have to deal with it but we’d rather not).

 

Further, Titus Andronicus is a revenge drama dealing with violent urges. This was always a preoccupation with Shakespeare from Macbeth, Hamlet, Othello, and the Merchant of Venice. Shakespeare looked into the darker corners of our souls and it is often insights he had on these murderous passions which stood the test of time. It was not a political thriller. To try and make it into such means that, in addition to losing all of the excitement, we also lose any of the possible insights.

 

It seems modern day concerns seriously damaged this performance, hopefully somebody else will be a little more honest and respectful of the text and do a better job.

The 100-foot Journey

The 100-foot Journey

This was a serious disappointment. A remake100ft of Chocolat without the panache or ganache, although it would be true to say that this confection was rather sickly sweet. There is a rule in cinema that there is an inverse relationship between the amount of slow-motion photography and the overall quality of the film – this film uses a lot of slow motion scenes (just so we understand that we are being emotional) . The scenes of cooking were reminiscent of a Marks & Spencer food advert and the whole piece came over as ‘The Peoples Friend’ magazine for the middle class urbanite.

The film poster  tells you all you need to know about the storyline. It is so formulaic that there are no surprises whatsoever. There is no question ‘if‘ couples will fall in love simply ‘when‘ . The cinematography paints some lovely pictures which are chocolate-box lovely. If this is what you want, a box of sweets to wend away a wet afternoon when Masterchef is off the television, then this is the film for you.

If you are able to, and enjoy thinking, then perhaps try something else, perhaps try anything else