May 21, 2017

Lady Macbeth

I have tried to write a review of Lady Macbeth three times so far and failed each time. It is easy to write a synopsis of this film but I don't want to do that. The film is about one of the oldest cinematic story- a young wife, with an older husband, who falls in love with a younger man. We've seen it often from the male point of view- think for example of The Postman always rings twice- a story which focusses on John Garfield as the central narrator. Lady Macbeth plays with this narrative because the central character is not the male lover, not the husband, both of whom have barely any character at all. The central figure in the film is the wife- she is the only character in this film with any character whatsoever. Florence Pugh plays this Lady Macbeth- Catherine- brilliantly and her performance is definitely the best thing about the film. What she shows though is a character who is neither likeable nor admirable- though possibly sympathetic.

It is easy to sympathise with Catherine in the film. She is married to a husband who not merely is older and implicitly not sexually attractive to her but who will not give her any sexual outlet. Her father in law humiliates her- demanding that she has a child when he knows that his son will not take the necessary action. She is confined in doors by the two of them and by respectable opinion and she is clearly constrained in everything she can or might do. She is treated by her husband as though she were a commodity that his father bought for him, along with a piece of land that as he says would not even provide enough fodder for a cow. This is a woman trapped in a sexist household and constrained in a sexist society. Even after her husband dies, she is still threatened by the potential threat of a male coming into her world and taking it over. Perhaps most symbolically, the film traps Catherine in her house- which feels very Victorian and starchy. She is also trapped by her clothes- we see her again and again being put into corseted dresses, a symbol of her constrained circumstances.

However whilst she is sympathetic, she is not likeable. Catherine is not dislikeable because she has an affair. I think any reasonable woman or man seeing her position would see how an affair was natural. She wants in the early parts of the film affection and sexual desire which her husband will not, for some unexplained reason, give her. However, she is still not likeable. There is another set of relationships in the film apart from the relationships between Catherine and the men in her life and that is the relationships between Catherine and her social inferiors- including her maid and her lover. Catherine's relationship with her maid- Anna- is vicious and she exploits her position as a mistress to the full. She clearly treats Anna badly at several points in the film. This is a woman who sees nothing in making her maid complicit in murder. She also steals Anna's love interest. With her lover, Catherine's behaviour may not be as coercive, but it is still clear that their relationship is all about sex and not about his personality or his qualities. Catherine is unlikeable because she constrains other characters in similar ways to the ways in which her husband and father constrain her.

What I took from Lady Macbeth was a horror story. It is set in an imagined 19th century- where slavery existed in the North of England. Her fieriness may remind one of Catherine Earnshaw- but that Catherine's story is very different. This is fictional setting I think makes me generalise this story- it is not about a particular place or time but about a human condition of constraint. What's interesting about it I think is that no character in this film really has a character. Catherine's character is the most fully developed- but I think for her, we have three real insights- firstly the effects of sexist constraint, secondly her exploitation of class constraint and thirdly her raw desire for pleasure and independence. Character has been obliterated by convention. In an odd way, the very stylised dialogue which made me think of Pinter reasserts that point. Human beings communicate in this film to express lust, domination and order- rather than to communicate about their different worlds. Catherine has no apparent interests- her one interest (going outside) is really a symbolic choice by the director to suggest her desire for freedom.

Some reviewers have seen this film and come across with much less complicated feelings about it than mine (take Deborah Ross in the Spectator for example). My own analysis is that this film is in a sense a fable about how extreme constraints on human behaviour produce a humanity drained of everything save for its desire for freedom. The constraints on Catherine and on Anna mean that their personalities are only really visible in their conformity or struggle against those constraints. It is suggestive I think that these two- both of the characters who we feel sympathy with in the film- are left at the end of it both mutely looking into an uncertain future.

April 15, 2017

The railways in Scotland

I was doing some research a couple of years ago in the British Library and came across John Kerr's Memories Grave and Gay- an account of his life as a school inspector. Kerr is an interesting source for school inspection in the late 19th century but he is also an interesting source for the way in which Scots treated the inspector. Kerr was interested not just in recording the content and the ideology of his inspections but also the way in which he found Scotland itself. One of the most interesting facets of this was transport. Kerr was appointed to be an inspector in 1860 within the 'whole of the north of Scotland, between Dundee and Shetland, with the exception of Perthshire and the Western Islands'. He was one of three men who covered this vast area and he described them as 'regular vagabonds' (p.14). Kerr says in his memoir that he was 'one of the last men in Scotland who did his travelling by the now almost disused pair of saddle-bags' and equipped with waterproofs said he rode several times from Dundee to John O'Groats and back.

Trains were just making it to Scotland in this period. Kerr describes his experiences with them in this fairly long passage.

On the Elgin and Rothes line I saw the Provost of Elgin walk across a field with a letter in his hand, which he waved to the driver of a train going at its usual full speed. The train stopped and the guard took charge of the letter. At Ordens, a siding on the Banff and Buckie branch line, I was instructed to go into this siding and as the train approached, set fire to a newspaper or other material that would make a good blaze and the train would stop. The night was very dark and windy and I failed to set fire to the newspaper, but a stentorian shout which I executed had the same effect and I was taken on board. On another occasion, I called on a school correspondent whose house was about a mile from a station on the Findhorn line. When I proposed to walk back to the station, he said "You needn't take the trouble. I always stop it as it goes past." And he did. (pp. 22-3) 

There is a serious point here beyond the whimsy of stopping trains like taxis. Transport in these remote areas of Scotland was obviously badly used and limited. What Kerr was doing would not have been out of the ordinary to someone in the reign of Macbeth- riding around the northern hamlets and villages. What was different is that there is no indication in his memoir of any fear of highwaymen or bandits- something that anyone doing what he did in centuries past would have faced. Secondly in terms of the railways, I think you can see the fascinating way in which railways came in to life here- in the response of the correspondent you see an attitude to railways that is far less limited to the station than our attitude today- but also depends as Kerr notes on the fact that that line was under used. (Incidentally he points out it was closed by 1902 when he wrote the book- a line that didn't even make the Beeching cull of the early 1960s). The availability of this kind of transport though was only arriving in the Britain of 1860: and that tells us something about the way in which the UK government could project its power. I wonder as well whether it is entirely an accident that the kind of administrative welfare that Kerr represented- with its systems of central funding and inspection- arose at the same time as the mass transport Kerr recognised arriving in the Highlands.

April 20, 2016

Medieval Poisoning a doorway on the past

I haven't yet finished Stephen Bednarski's book on Margarida du Portu, accused of poisoning in her medieval town in the fourteenth century. Du Portu was accused of poisoning her husband by her brother in law, Raymon, and for the moment I'll leave it there. Bednarski's book is interesting because its a reflexive book. He goes inside his own choices and shows you the different books he might have written. His interest is in family history so the first story he shows you is the story of Margarita and Raymon. Then he shows you how you could tell the same story but focus on the gender aspects or the way that it reveals how Roman law was practiced in a medieval French town. The story becomes illuminated from different points with the different angles of light illuminating different features of the tale.

It is a really interesting way of writing history and one I've not seen much of before. It takes you inside the box with the historian. I found it quite disorientating. I was quite gripped by the story of Du Portu's family and to be suddenly transported back into the confines of Roman legal procedure and how it worked in this case- I found quite disturbing. I also found it spoiled the book for me in some ways- the neat flowing story that my mind wanted was broken up. That's possibly a good thing- but its an interesting thing because it shows to me how much I am dependent on that narrative flow to understand the world. As soon as you present the way that the light shifts depending on how the historian shines the torch, my mind struggles and gets upset.

January 30, 2014

12 year a slave: views of Washington

After seeing the film, 12 years a slave, I went away and read the book by Solomon Northup, published in 1853 on which the film is based. There are numerous features which aren't in the film but are in the book. One that I thought was really interesting was that the film doesn't make explicit some of the things that Northup says. Northup is very keen to bring out the hypocrisy of the Washington establishment: for example, he talks of Washington, and says of the house that he was imprisoned in

Strange as it may seem, within plain sight of this same house, looking down from its commanding height upon it, was the Capitol. The voices of patriotic representatives boasting of freedom and equality and the rattling of the poor slave's chains, almost commingled. A slave pen within the very shadow of the Capitol.
We can support Solomon's insight with other sources. Solomon also mentions a time when the ships sailed bearing him south, as they passed Mount Vernon, the White Men bared their heads to the memory of George Washington, whether the black slaves did is left to us to imagine.

There were probably good artistic reasons to leave these things out. Slavery is not a live political issue today- but I think they also demonstrate the change of genre that the film represents as opposed to the book. The Book is quite clearly a political polemic: its saying, look America is the land of the free and Washington fought for justice for all- look at how you don't do this. The film is talking about the suffering of the slaves in the past- a suffering that thanks to the sacrifice of US citizens (both black and white) has passed. I can imagine reading the book in 1853 would have been a completely different experience to how we see the film in 2014: the latter is a shocking artefact, the former something more akin to reading about an atrocity today. Our responses are different therefore: the book is trying to rouse anger, the film, understanding and regret. The book fights against actual southerners who believed in slavery, the film against forgetting the suffering.

January 27, 2014

Twelve Years a Slave

Slavery is a big word. It is a horrific word, one that sums up a horrific reality in which the fortunes of a few were made with the sinews of the many. Its a concept that has been central to European thought since at least Aristotle and the fear of becoming a slave haunts the imagination of most European republican thinkers. Of course slavery became most famous on the western shores of the Atlantic, in the southern United States. I would be surprised if anyone now thought that slavery was in any way justified: the days in which a Calhoun or Alexander Stephens might fulminate on the floor of the senate in support of natural slavery are thankfully long gone. So why does the world need a new film which focuses on slavery and which retells the story of Solomon Northup, a kidnapped slave from the north who was brought to work on the cotton fields of the south for 12 long years? It is a question that some people have asked: I think they are wrong.

Slavery is a word that gets used a lot. Politicians talk about slavery all the time, comparing in America and Britain various political initiatives from their opponents to slavery. We have almost emptied slavery of its reality: it didn't look or feel like Obamacare, I could use other examples but am wary of going round the internet to find them. 12 years a slave brings you face to face with a reconstruction of what slavery might have been like. Based, fairly accurately on the life story of Northup, it doesn't spare any of the brutality. Once he is kidnapped, Northup gets beaten for claiming his real name. On the fields, he gets lashed by overseers and sadistic masters. He gets beaten and attacked by others. Perhaps the violence is not really the shocking element of the film: more its the sign of slaves being stripped down as their masters treat them and talk about them like cattle or horses, beasts whose muscles may be praised rather than humans whose feelings must be respected. (Of course, although the violence seers the screen, the director didn't portray as much as is in the memoir!)

Slavery in this context doesn't just mean theoretical subjugation, it means the real deprivation of freedom. Northup the slave may work even for a benevolent master such as Mr Ford, but when that master decides to sell him, his life is at that master's whim. This is particularly illustrated by the case of Eliza- a fellow slave of Northup in the early part of the film. She became the mistress of her master (as we can see later in the film this was not neccessarily a voluntary relationship): having born him a child, when he dies, she was flung out of his house by his wife and daughter. She was sold into slavery: and her children were sold separately so that Eliza spends most of the early part of the film weeping her loss. It is agonising to watch this innocent woman bewail her loss, a loss that she did not in any way deserve. Slavery reckoned a mother's love as less important than her children's price.

I think there is a real moral point in this film and its one that we should think about ourselves. Slavery reduced people to goods. Solomon forever as a slave is shown not speaking, a silent presence on the stage of history. He can't write- save for in blackberry juice. Only when he meets an abolitionist can his words get north. Without writing, without honest speech, he loses family and name- all the coordinates of his existence. He and his fellow slaves have become mere property. Save of course for the fact that they are not. This is nowhere more ironically portrayed than in the relationship of masters to slave girls: Patsey a young slave girl (amazingly played by Lupita Nyong'o) is treated as an economic asset, a piece of sexual meat and a threat but never as a person by her master. Only Northup treats her thus, by refusing to help her commit suicide. This is part of the fundamental immorality of slavery: 12 years a slave captures this on screen.

This lack of personhood is written through everyday life, it runs through it. So for example when Solomon for a trivial episode is hung by the neck, kids play around his body. McQueen captures the pettiness of the entire system, the bullying songs that were sung in the South, the environment in which slavery took place. The horror is partly the normality: a normality that has everything for a human apart from their humanity. At one point in the film, a slave owner lashes a slave: he responds to a question by telling the questioner that there is no sin in owning property. For him the fact that human beings have become property empties them of their humanity: he can enjoy ridiculing it, he can enjoy sexualising it, brutalising it, battering it, working it into the ground but it can never assert itself.

Perhaps one of the greatest horrors we have as human beings is to be treated not as beings but as things... if so then that's what slavery was in part about and that's what I found this film captured.

January 19, 2014

All is lost: a film without a character

Who is the central character of All is lost- the recent film starring Robert Redford? I think almost everyone will say that the central character is Redford's man, played outstandingly by the Hollywood veteran. He is the only human being who appears in the film. We watch his face for an hour and a half as his boat is blown hither and thither by the storms of the pacific, as his hopes rise and fall, as he learns to cope with the disasters that continually effect him. We watch him as he responds to the problems that come upon him. We watch him when he writes home a last letter, watch him as he exclaims in a swear word even Mary Whitehouse might have allowed, 'fuck', watch him as he battles to stay alive. So he must be the central character, the psychological presence that defines the film.

If so, then he is a pretty odd character. Character means choice. I am who I am because I chose to eat satsumas rather than grapes, prefer Leeds United to Manchester United, like talking about politics. Do you notice something about those three things: they are all positive choices. I am not forced into any of them. Freedom is in a sense a condition of character because its the space in which character can evolve- that's why Auden's lines about a 'million boots' in line make us cringe- human beings have become mechanisms. In all is lost, Redford's man doesn't make a single decision: all his decisions are merely expedients to survive- they are the decision of a man to cling on to an overhanging rock when teetering on the brink of a drop. They don't offer anything that we can comprehend in terms of character: you can't say anything about what this character loves or likes- you can say he is a fighter and he endures- you cannot say though why he fights or endures.

Equally the thing he fights does not have a character. Nature threatens Redford but there is no sense that it cares. The film moves us away from comforting myths of providence: there are no reasons for Redford to suffer and we can't invent any because we know nothing of him. Nature just is. It buffets him with waves and rewards him with sunshine. Sharks look at him with a greedy eye. Fish pass underneath him, without curiosity. The man is abandoned as the film makes clear against the vastness of the great Pacific ocean and the ocean has no interest in whether he survives or not. If Redford is reacting, he is reacting against forces he does not understand or control- against forces who have no ultimate goal as far as he is concerned at all. He is alone against them because they do not share any companionship with him at all. In that sense Redford's fight is characterless because he cannot respond save by resisting.

I am unsurprised that the Oscar academy didn't know what to do with this picture: Redford's performance is monumental and he deserves the best actor as much as the other nominees (I hasten to add I've only seen American Hustle of the other films) but its not a performance which is easy to categorise or understand. Redford only has a couple of lines of dialogue. The film has no easy message- it isn't about the environment nor the triumph of the human spirit. If anything its about the lack of location of that spirit, the strangeness of the world and its lack of recognition of these hairless bipeds within it. That's a hard message to give an oscar to, but its a rewarding insight into our condition.

April 08, 2013

Geoffrey Elton and Alexis de Tocqueville

Although the Ancien Regime is still quite close to us in time, since we daily come across men who were born under its laws, it already seems to be lost in the obscurity of the past. The radical revolution which separates us  from it has the same effect as centuries would have- it has cast a veil over everything it did not destroy. Thus few people exist today who might give a precise reply to this simple question: how was the countryside administered before 1789? In fact, it cannot be answered with any accuracy or in any detail unless you have studied, not the books, but the administrative archives or that period (Alexis de Tocqueville The Ancien Regime and the French Revolution)

I love this quotation from Alexis de Tocqueville: in part because it reflects the thought of Geoffrey Elton about history- one of the intellectual legacies that I've grown up in the shadow of. Partly though I think what Tocqueville gets at here is a really interesting distinction. There is a history that we all know and a history that was documented at the time. Neither history is free from distortion: the history that we remember is interpreted through what happened next. You can see this everywhere. Take two periods in American history. The 1850s are always remembered as the prelude to the 1860s: we think of them through the lens of the war that was to come. It can lead to mistakes. Some might argue that the divisiveness of the politics of the 1950s in the UK is forgotten because of the breakthrough of Thatcherism in the 1980s. What comes after often means that we forget about what came before.

Tocqueville's history is based on what he sees as more contemporary evidence and that's a very modern concern. Memory though is important and can itself be underrated. Tocqueville in this way is a predecessor to Ranke- but documents can deceive as much as they can illustrate. To privilege what is recorded over what is not recorded may privilege those activities which are recorded and those actors who author the records. This can have sinister implications. Tacitus in the annals speaks of the control that emperors had over those who kept records and we know from our own century too well the danger of propaganda. However distortion doesn't need to be sinister to be there. For example, Geoffrey Elton's histories of the reign of Henry VIII were focussed on Thomas Cromwell because Cromwell was the master of the records: more recently historians have embraced a more expansive vision of court culture precisely because they recognised that documents may distort. To use another example, documents only preserve the trace of an activity which is documented: take an operation, a document will preserve what the operation was, it will preserve how much it cost, it might even preserve what the medical outcome was and possibly a scale of patient satisfaction. It won't preserve the doctor's forgiving manner, the nurse's smile, the feeling of pain and of relief: those things are lost.

I'm not criticising Tocqueville here- more I'm riffing on his words- but I do think its interesting to think about what he was trying to analyse. He was trying to get to the meaning of an event: the French Revolution. The key question there though is that the meaning of an event may be dual. It may be what the event meant in reality: the actual conditions which provoked and ended up sustaining or failing to sustain that event and the change it brought. It may mean that we are interested in the meaning of the event for those who lived through it- people who might have believed all sorts of inaccurate things about it. Meaning is multifaceted and the stories people tell about events can be more important than the events themselves: the revolution in France for example only meant something to the world because people told stories about it as the origin of democracy or the bourgeois moment of conquest. Its worth us both reexamining the validity of those stories but also enquiring into what stories people told about events: we must go back to the documents for both halves of that picture.