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

 

Drifting towards the rocks.

Drifting towards the rocks.

It is increasingly apparent that the left has abandoned its originators. It was through the struggles of the working class that many of the present left wing organisations were born. These movements had their roots in the organisations formed by the working class to protect their interest and promote their advancement. The trade unions were the stalwarts of the Labour Party in Britain, and to a degree remain important today, but few on the left today have more than a vague awareness that the other strand which pushed the development of the left was Christian thinking. As Morgan Phillips, when General Secretary of the Labour Party said “the Labour Party owes more to Methodism than Marxism“. In any event, any link between the Labour Party and working class organizations and culture has largely atrophied and disappeared. Now, like many organisations on the left, is more concerned with identity politics and intersectional theory than with any class struggle.

Thoughts on this subject were stirred last night MV5BMzc1MDY3NDIwMV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNzkwNzU0MzI@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,674,1000_AL_when I went to see the Swedish film “The Square” which won the Palm D’or Award at Cannes. I’d heartily recommend this film to anyone who has not yet seen it as it is a biting, vicious satire which is genuinely funny but also very thought provoking. Although the main target is the “Art World” it also takes aim at the progressive elite who run our charities, government quangos,  health boards, government enquiries and generally wield a large part of the day-to-day power in our society. These people talk the talk of inclusion, accessibility, sharing and caring and empowering the powerless, but rarely do they walk the walk. As the film reveals they often have a deep seated fear of the poor and have much more interest in satisfying their own needs. In the film they create art to show they care for their fellow man but fail to recognise their fellow man in need when they pass them in the street.

On the left the politics of identity and intersectionality may have been able to help some groups. Although the womens’ struggle and the fight against racism seemed to be being fought with success before this new theory took the high ground, and it is arguable how much added benefit these theories have had in advancing the causes of women and minorities in western societies. Sometimes the focus on cultural issues, and cultural identity, has indeed been counterproductive when one considers the struggles of women, or homosexuals,  in Islamic countries where a blind eye has been turned to horrific events and support has been denied to those struggling for liberation. But there has been also an unintended negative  consequence of these theories. Now there is a problem of what to do with white working class men and boys.

These individuals have found that ‘class‘ does not count in the hierarchy of victimhood. Poverty and powerlessness do not, in themselves, interest the left. Their struggles are no longer what drives the progressives and their culture no longer has any interest to them. When they think of white working class men they think of brutes, loud scary people with opinions they reject, the wrong ideas on Brexit and immigration. often with attachment to old fashioned cultural constructs and morals. They just don’t fit. In the world of the media and the arts they have all but disappeared. Working class men make up a third of the population but they will not be seen in our plays, films or television series except as in small roles as bigot No#1 or possibly as a wifebeater. In between the programmes on television, the adverts will show every demographic possible with the exception of white working class men. They are an embarrassment which will hurt sales, best to hide them away.

We have a culture that despises them, as Frederick Mount in his book “Mind the Gap” reported they have been “subjected to a sustained programme of social contempt and institutional erosion which has persisted through many different governments and several political fashions”. They have no political project promoting their aims and therefore is is no surprise  that as a group they are suffering badly.   In education, according to the 2016 report by the Sutton Trust, white pupils on free school meals achieve the lowest grades of any ethnic group. In employment and housing they are also steadily failing. These effects should have been anticipated.

The final, probably unintended, consequence of these changes should worry us all. These people who have a proud tradition of fighting for equality and for the moral good have shown themselves able to transform society. Their rejection by the left and progressive movements creates a vacuum. We can hope that new movements will form and pick up the struggle for social improvement. However, recent experience in Europe and America makes me fearful that other political movements will move to fill this vacuum. I fear it is easy to sell a project based on hate and anger to a group that has been marginalised, alienated and held in contempt. Vengeance is a powerful motivating force !

We need a progressive movement that includes everyone, particularly the majority of working class men and women who make up our society. We need to stop defining ourselves into smaller and smaller groups and trying to create our power bases and start defining what we want a good society to look like. We have to start to think we can change society and that we all have something to gain in the future. As Vance wrote in Hillbilly Elegy “We hillbillies need to wake the hell up.” – we all do  – because if we don’t Trump, Orban, and Le Pen are only the first glimpse of our future. We still have a chance to stop it.

 

The Death Of Stalin

The Death Of Stalin

We try to go to our local cinema in the town on a fairly regular basis as we wish to give it our support. Like many small communities we are loosing many of our services as they are concentrated in the cities and larger towns where the economies of scale make them viable. So we go regularly, not because we are film buffs (though we do enjoy cinema), but to try and keep up the audience numbers. It will be another thing certain to disappear in the near future.

The car and personal transport led to the decline of public transport systems; the railway has long gone and the bus services are very rudimentary. Shopping malls and internet shopping have decimated the local towns shops. Internet banking is now taking the banks and building societies away from the small towns and, at the moment, plasma televisions, film streaming and on-demand viewing are banging the last nails of the coffin of our local cinema.

Therefore on a cold Friday night in January we joined the six others who made up the audience to see the latest film on offer. Including the two staff on the evening the number of people just, and only just, made it into double figures ! The cinema itself is pleasant, the seats are comfortable, the screen is large, the sound is state of the art and the prices are reasonable. The film we saw was also very good, but  I fear our hopes of saving our cinema are rather forlorn.

The film was saw was The Death of Stalin by Armando Iannucci. This is a comedy and political satire based on the events surrounding the death of Stalin and the consequent scramble for power after his demise. The script is historically accurate and the tensions and power-plays of the time are used to good comedic effect. In the early part of the film the difficulties of knowing Stalin are well shown, how do you live with a paranoid psychopath who has total power ? The feelings of tension and fear that this would engender are skilfully drawn. The acting is first class and it was a wise move to forgo using Russian accents as it left a natural feel to the performances and allowed some excellent comedy turns (especially Jason Isaacs as General Zhukov). It was a pity there were only eight of us in the auditorium to enjoy it.

However, after the film I noticed I had a nagging doubt. There had been nothing amiss with the acting, direction or production and, as I said above, the script was extremely funny. The anxieties of some of the characters was revealed but there was a huge gaping hole in the story. The experience of Soviet citizens living through this nightmare. Although there were scenes which alluded to the terror, these were slight and almost dismissed at times. The assassinations, the firing squads, the tortures, the secret police, the destruction of families, the corruption and the sexual abuse were there but only on the edge of the frame.

While recognising that this was a comedy I can see why many would say that there is no need to spend time on the horrors of totalitarianism. But would we have made a film of this nature about the difficulties of power battles in the Nazi high command ? Would we have had a comedy character for Mengele ?  Lavrentiy Beria was at least Mengele’s equal. Stalin introduced him as “our Himmler“, at the Yalta Conference, and he would not allow his daughter to be alone with this known sadist, rapist and mass murderer. This man was the head of the dreaded NKVD which organized the terror which engulfed Russia and he was also responsible for the ethnic cleansing which followed after the Second World War. Is this really a suitable subject for a skit?

It is surprising that we have quite clear double standards when we look back at the atrocities in our recent past. We have no difficulty in condemning the horrors of Nazi Germany but seem to have a blind spothouse-of-terror-2084 when we remember the horrors which arise from the left field : the horror of the Gulags, the horror of the cultural revolution in China, or the horror of the killing fields in Cambodia. The totalitarianism of the left has not been kinder than that of the right nor has it been less industrious. They are equally responsible for mass murder and abuse. The House of Terror, established in 2002 by Maria Schmidt in Hungary reminds us of this fact lest we forget. So, although I concur that this is a well-made and successful satire, I was left feeling uncomfortable as I am not entirely convinced that life under Stalin was a laughing matter.

 

 

Liar (ITV). Keeping the plebs ‘on story’.

Liar (ITV). Keeping the plebs ‘on story’.

 

There was never any tension in this drama. We knew from the outset that it would be, like all the others, a play in which the woman was the victim telling the truth and the man was the villain. I mean, could you imagine the playwright writing that the woman had told lies ? Think about it. Miscarriages of justice are staple fare for film and television drama; the innocent accused of murder, the unfortunate either deliberately or by coincidence accused of fraud or deception.  Dramas of good people trying to clear their name and reveal the truth are mainstream and common. However, though they will consider many crimes (murder, arson, theft, assault, causing catastrophic calamities) they never involve accusations of rape. That would be going ‘off message‘ and suggest that, however rarely, it is possible that the victim is not the woman but the man having been falsely accused.

This drama never deviated from the standard message. Like all clunky propaganda it beat us about the head with the party line. Listen, it said, it doesn’t matter if she has made unfounded accusations in the past, it doesn’t matter if the evidence doesn’t match her story, it doesn’t matter if she has been psychotic and held erroneous beliefs before, it doesn’t matter how you might construe her behaviour that evening – it’s simple stupid – she says she’s the victim so she is the victim.  Victims never lie.

And, just to be certain (in case you had any doubts) it doesn’t matter how handsome and successful he is , how believable his story might be, it doesn’t matter that he is a caring and kind doctor, it doesn’t matter that he is a single parent bringing his son up alone after being widowed, it doesn’t matter what he says – he is the man and all men are rapists. He is the one lying.

This was not drama. This was not an attempt to show something that is usually hidden from our view, this steadfastly ploughed the accepted furrow. This was not an attempt to subvert harmful stereotypes or caricatures, this play had the standard new-age tropes a plenty. This did not try and foster sympathy for a currently abused or disadvantaged group. It did none of these laudable dramatic aims. This was simply a play to make sure the plebs “get with the programme“. It was preparation for the jury room. If you find yourself on the jury remember there is no need to weigh up the evidence, no need to consider the testimonies, no need to seek the truth. Because, we already know the truth, just stay strong and remember “the victim never lies”.

I have not seen, and may never see, the final episode but I’d wager it will be the last stage in the public education. It will be an episode which shows how terribly wrong things go when the victim is not instantly believed. If the episodes so far have not made it clear enough this is just the warning of the harm you can do when you step out of line.

 

Propaganda like this is so crude in its socialism-vs-capitalism-propaganda-poster-1crafting that it resembles the Soviet posters with capitalist monsters (looking like the fat controller from Thomas the Tank Engine) debasing heroic proletarians, or the Nazi equivalents with hook-nosed Jews preying on the fair Aryans. As they become more  crass they become more transparent, Hopefully people will see through them and they will loose some of their effect. Hopefully, because this is no way to improve society for women and men. Indeed, this probably worsens matters by continuing to attempt to polarise the argument when it is clearly the case that the truth is equally important to women and men.

jew0295e59a781Although the writers, Harry and Jack Williams, may deserve  (for crimes against drama) the unjust and distrustful culture they are helping to create the rest of us don’t – but we may be obliged to share it. A future where prejudice reigns is unlikely to be a better one for our sons or our daughters.

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

 

Southwest of Salem.

Southwest of Salem.

These documentaries are the stuff of modern horror movies.  Innocents are wrongfully convicted of child sexual abuse and incarcerated and mistreated. No matter what evidence they provide to show their accusers wrong, no matter what lies and falsehoods they can reveal, the legal machinery rolls on as they see the world of reason, logic and justice desert them as they descend further and further into their nightmare.

This time it concerns four women from San Antonia. They did nothing out of the ordinary, tried to be helpful and good, but despite this were wrongfully convicted on the gang-rape of two of their nieces. Their only crime was to be homosexual at a time when bigotry against homosexuals still was a powerful force in the legal department and media, and to have been young lesbians at the time that fears of satanic cults were deranging the logic of the public and professions alike.

While it is distressing to watch these events unfold and one feels ashamed to be complicit in a society which treats people like this;  there is a positive side. The strength of character of these women, who fought on for their exoneration, and defied the system’s attempts to destroy them, is rewarding to watch. To know that some of us, in the face of dreadful adversity, can still act with integrity and dignity allows you to retain some respect for humanity.

It is a shame that we still periodically have to rely on films like this or others (Capturing the Friedmans, The Thin Blue Line, etc) to correct our legal mistakes. But hopefully these films will increase awareness of the dangers of blind faith in the legal system and its agents and perhaps make errors like these less likely to happen.

 

3170744-4-out-of-5-stars1Website : Southwest of salem