Wednesday, 30 March 2011

The King's Speech gets its turn under the sleet

Haven't blogged in a while. Two reasons for this. Firstly, I have recently re-imbarked on a ship, this time the MSC Poesia (I know, I know, how apt). The second is that my writing efforts have been funnelled into an essay on James Cameron's The Terminator. I originally intended to post it on here, but I saw a reclame for papers on a site, and I thought I'd give it a go.

The link to it is here.

It's an article I thoroughly enjoyed writing, though I feel a bit silly for not giving it some more revision-time (it has a potency which has yet to lose its power... fuck my life, how did I let that slip??). I think it makes sense that I should link it here as well, given it was originally meant for the blog.

I've been blogging a lot about cinema, lately, and this is only natural, because I've been seeing quite a few films. One of the latest was The King's Speech, you know, that black horse which swept up all of the major Oscars. I wanted The Social Network to win as I thought it was masterfully directed and very relevant, and I suspected that TKS would be a bit flaccid. I was disappointed in terms of the judges' decision, but as it happens, I was right.

I saw TKS in Paris, chez a friend of mine who lives there in the most lovely house, with the most lovely girlfriend, who cooks the most lovely bolognese (no, this was not part of either of the two weed marathons, and I didn't see it stoned, so my judgment is unclouded) (no pun intended). He's a truly cosmopolitan Brit, which is something of a rarity. Anyways, we put the film on and spent two hours watching the life and times of King whatever-his-name-was.

I can't say I didn't like it. As with Black Swan, it's a very predictable flick, and the kind of thing that is made to please. Even the central actor, that insufferable curly-headed guy who always seems to play The British Pillock character in whatever film he's in (setting the mould, of course, with the role in Bridget Jones' Diary), was kind of ok. I've never liked the guy and I've been wanting to plant a stake in his heart ever since he took part in that abhorrent adaptation of The Portrait of Dorian Grey. But there's no denying that he plays the part of King Whatever wonderfully, presumably because the character comes across as a true British Pillock and by now he must have mastered the role to a T (I realise I may be sounding a bit insulting to my British readers - maybe I should add here that the 'pillock' thing refers to the Hollywood stereotype of the Brits, not to my own).

I think I uploaded the wrong king. What the fuck is that? A dog?

So the film was enjoyable as a popcorn throw-around thing. I didn't think it deserved the Oscar for best picture, though, mainly because it was the typical patriotic delusional rehearsal. Much like shooting a film about the holocaust is one of the surest ways of earning critical approval, so the making of uncontroversial, linear, frequently rhetorical stories about how the anti-Nazi struggle makes everything that we did right is a comfy way to please the authorities (especially the Americans, who seem to draw their entire historical identity from World War II). Among the problems I had with this film was the way it seemed to exclude all history but the personal history of the royals - you get no sense of what was going on outside of the royal chambers at all, for instance on the domestic political or economic scene. The effect of this narrative slant is, of course, that the King's speech is made to seem relevant from an historical point of view, and this is the delusional bit that I mentioned. I can't bring myself to imagine what the big screaming deal was about this guy speaking into the microphones when all of Europe was being put through steel and fire, and the film certainly didn't convey it to me. It doesn't contribute to the filmmaker's cause that the more famous and important speeches of the time were those by Churchill. So what's the point of making a movie about this? Might as well make a movie about the King's dog Pongo and how important he was in the formation of the monarchy. Plus, royals in general are quite irritating, and you can see the film leaping backwards over itself in an attempt to make them likeable, if not legitimate. I recall my friend commenting at the beginning of the film that the American dream is about making it on your own, while the British dream is that of having the Queen coming over to your house and having tea with you. When this actually happens in the film, he could hardly restraing from whispering 'So fucking pathetic...'.

But maybe I'm revealing my own bias. The Social Network is a film about the American dream in its contemporary, divisive form. It stimulates a lot of questions on social and individual ethics, and I thought its portrayal of (the myth of) creativity in our current age to be extraordinarily incisive. The King's Speech doesn't encourage you to do anything, it just makes you feel comfortable with your values. The peak of the bourgeois cliche' came with the speech itself, when they threw Beethoven's 7th Symphony in the background (later followed by Mozart's Piano Concert 23). It's precisely the choice of music you might expect from someone who doesn't understand classical music, but listens to just enough of it that s/he may throw around the odd comment in a conversation about how 'I just LOVE the late sonatas by Beethoven' (it was presumably thought out for an audience of such a nature as well... *sigh* what depresses me isn't even that said audience is so powerful that it includes the judges of the major awards, more the fact that classical music has been relegated in popular culture to the role of "background for poignant scenes in films." You've got little Danny the Horse dying while he saves his family? Throw some fucking Mozart in there and you've got a masterpiece!). What these people don't understand is that these pieces of music have their own individual meanings and histories. Beethoven's adagio from the 7th Symphony follows a military march and therefore has an anticlimactic effect when it comes to nationalistic values (you could even argue that it's deliberately ironic, especially as I've heard it said that the opening march was carefully crafted to appeal to that type of belligerent feelings). So it's hardly the most appropriate choice to flank the speech of a King! At least they could have used an English composer, since the film is all about Aulde Britain (Elgar what's-his-name? Or was he not good enough?). Mozart's Piano Concerto is a little less odd, but considering how that passage was (supposedly) written for his mother after her death, it still doesn't make a great deal of sense to me that such an intimate piece of music should be plastered over a scene of multitudes and crowds in a scene expressing social / patriotic values.

You could say, "Dude, who cares, it's just a piece of music, we can use it however we like." Well, sure, I've got nothing against re-interpretation, but such a superficial, appropriative and casual use of music, one which is so dismissive of its history and meaning - doesn't it then undermine the point of an historical film like this? If we can forget our European musical heritage like this, then we can just as easily forget a king and his prissy little speech (especially considering that with all due respect the guy wasn't exactly an equal to Mozart or Beethoven...). And if that is the case, then again we can't help but asking - what exactly is the point of this film?

Anyhoo. This is probably going to be my last post about film(s) for a while, seen how I won't be able to see much of them over the next six months, and certainly none at the cinema. I've got a mind to write something about Double Indemnity (fifty points if you didn't have to google this title to know what I'm talking about), but that's for the future, and I could just turn that into an essay. In a recent daydream on what to write about to make some captivating posts, I even toyed with the notion of putting up a series of posts with the history of my sex life - it actually makes for an interesting story! But ultimately that project is going to have to abort, as there's too much personal information, and too many people involved who (probably) flit by this blog every now and then. I'll have to think of other things to keep up the interest. In the meantime, if you wish to forward the tale of your own sex life, the comment section of course is open.

Friday, 18 March 2011

Reading History Through the Lens of Christianity

I've been engaged in a number of debates on Christianity over at the blogs of Mike and Jack for several months now. Jack's latest post prompted some protest from me in the comments section, and this in turn led me to an exchange with Nate. The thing got quite lengthy, so I've decided to turn it into its own blog-post. For anyone who's interested in partly-theological-but-mostly-historical discussion, here's the stuff.

This is the original post by Nate:

We have to assume that if the religion of the west had been different than so too would everything else. Shakespeare certainly would have been living in a different world, and so would have had different influences.

If the Muslims had not been turned back in the 700′s than it is very likely that the forms of government would have been different, in addition to the obvious cultural changes.

While Christianity isn’t by necessity responsible for any scientific or literary accomplishments, the world in which they were attained was shaped by Christianity, the results of which cannot be underestimated.

And here is the second post, expanding the points, and providing a link to an entry of his own:

Yes everything we have could well have been created/discovered with no Christianity.

However, to think that we would have had the same achievement with a different culture/religion is just crazy. We may have made greater strides, but I don’t think so.

That post isn’t right on topic but it kind of covers what I’m talking about. You just can’t discount such a large part of a culture and expect the same results.

So let's pick things up...

Firstly, and with all due respect, as long as we're investing indirect causes with direct merit, we can attribute Shakespeare to anything we want. I could argue that everything in Western culture happened thanks to the Etruscans (the ancestors of the Romans), including Christianity, because, of course, without them history would have been different to the point of being unrecognizable. So everything wonderful in Western culture is Etruscan in origin!

Your reading of history is selective, and I would discourage you from projecting meta-narratives to explain causal relations between events taking place five-hundred years from each other. No more is Leonardo Da Vinci responsible for Hitler than Christ(ianity) is responsible for Shakespeare. Elementary chaos theory tells us that events so far apart are impossible to be directly causally related: if you switched the reset button and started everything again with the same settings, in the long run it wouldn't repeat the original scenario; it would lead to hugely different results.

An example of your dubious reasoning lies in crediting the Dark Ages with "the freedom and restlessness that came to shape modern Europe and so the entire west." The values that you are talking about were actually popularised in Europe by the (secular) French revolution, an event so far removed from the Dark Ages - and so unpredictable in its causes and development - that it cannot be given a deterministic explanation. Indeed the casual/inevitable debate on the FR has absorbed historians for centuries. And your claim that the Arabs "never achieved what the rude, christian Europeans did" is baffling. Western culture as we know it was actually preserved in the libraries of Arab civilisations and only rediscovered in central Europe thanks to the cross-fertilisation occurring AFTER the dark ages. Without the Arabs, we might have no memory of Plato and Aristotle, to name but two luminaries who were absolutely cardinal in the intellectual rebirth of Europe. Without the Arabs, we might never have come out of the Dark Ages at all. Regardless, are you familiar with any of the achievements of the Arabs at all? Do you know why our stars have arab names like Aldebaran or Betelgeuse? Have you read the poetry of Ibn Ammar, Ibn Khafaga, Ibn Hamdis? Do you know why we've got the number "zero" on our keyboards instead of having to type MMMMCCCXXXXVIII to say 4348? Your statement is typically dismissive, but if we're comparing the 'rude, Christian Europeans' to the Arabs in their time-frame from the end of the Roman Empire to 1258 (the fall of Baghdad to the Mongols, comparable to the defeat at Adrianople) I'd say that yes, the Arabs achieved every bit as much as the Europeans, and considerably more. And then there's all that stuff about 'individualism' as a prominent value in Medieval culture, which has no grounds whatsoever. Not only were values highly varied according to the strata of society we were looking at (peasants weren't expected to follow the rules of chivalry, for instance), but family and blood-ties were far more significant than individualism. Your lineage defined both your past and future. (In fact, pre-19th Century individualism reached its peak a thousand years before the Dark Ages, amid the Greeks). Oh yeah - and what exactly is 'the strongest and most resilient culture and ideals the world has ever seen'? Wouldn't that be China? Or Hinduism? Some of the most important Western countries (USA, Germany, Italy) aren't even 300 years old as self-ruling nations. Or wait, do you mean THE WEST? You mean that that's a unified culture?? And then how does it have more weight and history than THE EAST, whatever that is in turn?

Anyways. Even if your reading of history as a linear process were tenable, your assumptions leave me just as puzzled. Yes, we may never have had the same achievements without Christianity. Similarly, we may have avoided the endless atrocities that the West is guilty of committing. Alternative historical scenarios remain not only unknown, but unknowable. Maybe without Christianity we would have had far greater advances and now there would be world peace! As long as we're speculating on the unknowable, it's as plausible a scenario as the next. I'm not even sure that the good things we did outweigh the bad. The world would certainly have been better off without the Western colonial empires, for one.

Look, surely you can't fail to see what irks me in these arguments. If you told me that Christianity had merit for the Divine Comedy and for Paradise Lost and the Sistine Chapel, I'd be with you. How could I not be? But if you're going to argue that Christianity is at the heart of King Lear and Impressionism and Shostakovich, you're lying to yourself and to me. There's so much that is wonderful in Europe (and beyond) that cannot be called Christian in its origin, and the insistence you guys display in arguing otherwise is symptomatic of the type of religious thinking I don't like: the idea that everything my religion says is absolutely right, and everything everybody else says is absolutely wrong (textually voiced as, He who is not with me is against me, Mt 12:30).

In closure, if you'll accept a reading suggestion, I think you'll find this book very interesting: The Black Swan, by Nassim Taleb. It's a brilliant piece of work and it seems very much in line with your concerns. No, it's got nothing to do with ballet (I've been getting a lot of this Black Swan stuff on my blog lately). It's about understanding causes and unpredictability in our history, and it's a wonderfully accessible and illuminating read.

Peace out!

Thursday, 17 March 2011

One hundred and fifty

Just a couple of lines tonight. This isn't much of a post, but I just wanted to celebrate the anniversary of someone very special: my country of birth. :)

Italy became officially 150 years old today. Since 1861 we've had monarchies, dictatorships, republics and media regimes. Since before that date we've had... sheesh. No point even in recounting it all. The fall and rise of empires, religions, cultures. At least two golden ages of literature (Latin and Medieval), more art than you can begin to quantify, luminaries of all sciences (Copernicus, Galileo, Leonardo Da Vinci), three hundred years of music of all types, some of the greatest explorers in history (Marco Polo, Columbus). And then the supposedly lesser things, the ones which don't really get into the history books: the food, the climate, the enormous and yet (mostly) internationally obscure traditions in sports, comics and song-writing (how many know, for instance, that 70% of Walt Disney's global comic publications are produced in Italy?).

Italy has a typical reputation for triviality: our country is seen as amiable and benign, and Italians are the guys who make it into Japanese videogames with the name of Mario or into American films as fat guys saying Mamma Mia. It's seldom associated with notions of greatness.

I'm not going to claim otherwise - though it wouldn't be hard to put up an argument, if one wanted - especially because of the situation we're floundering in now. It's hard to explain what loving one's country means to people whose greatest idea of a political crisis is an inefficient President. Perhaps it is the shame that I am forced to bear on account of my motherland, as our international image is constantly reduced to mud by the scoundrels who are ruling us, that makes me feel so tender towards all the good things that there are in it. History goes by ups and downs. The last great down lasted twenty years, and it was called fascism. The present one has gone on for a similar period of time, and it's the age of Berlusconi. I have hope that it will end soon.

Time passes and takes away the houses and the cities, the empires and the myths. It will take away this generation of inept rulers as well, and then I'll finally be able to feel proud about being Italian again (in truth, I can't wait). In the meantime, Happy 150th Birthday, Italia. May the 200th fall under better days, as there are people who believe in it. Like me.

Never let it be said that I'm not going to close with a flourish. Here's an old sonnet I wrote a few years ago. Enjoy!

To Italy

There is a vine that binds us, made of rose
And olive leaves, and figs and spikes of pine;
It is entwined with sunlight, grain and wine,
The song that is our language lets it close
Around our wrists and waists, and we are led
As one into the ribcage of the self.
A monumental doorway, clean like health,
Bears these old words once Polyphemus said:
Who. Are. You. – I don’t speak, air goes amiss.
Italia, sacred no-one, earth and mother,
This question (cryptologically spelt, 'bliss')
Was only made by Time to break or smother
The heart in me, the flag in you. And this
Is why we’re bound: we answer for each other.

Monday, 14 March 2011

Black Swan, Objections Thereto

I'm a bit lost as to where to begin writing this post. I'd like to say a few words about Darren Aronofsky, if only because he keeps getting praise which I don't understand. But I'm not sure how to frame my argument so that I don't give off the wrong message. My issue with Aronofsky is not that I dislike the films. It's something else.

Let me try putting it this way. I've seen three films by Aronofsky. The first of these, I loved it, I thought it was absolutely brilliant. It was Requiem for a Dream, a harrowing, graphic tale about a group of people who are into the use of drugs and ultimately sacrifice themselves to them in the film's climactic conclusion. Next followed The Wrestler, a harrowing, graphic tale about a guy who is into wrestling and ultimately sacrifices himself to it in the film's climactic conclusion. And now Black Swan, a harrowing, graphic tale about a girl who is into ballet and ultimately sacrifices herself to it in the film's climactic conclusion. Are we beginning to see a trend?

Aronofsky has caught a virus which was supposed to belong to Guy Ritchie. Ritchie made one brilliant comedy in Lock & Stock, and then remade it in both Snatch and Rocknrolla by switching the ancient shotguns for a diamond and then for a valuable portrait. But it's still, essentially, the SDF (same damn film).

And then there's the fact that Aronofsky seems to be getting more popular the less his films become interesting. From what I understand, Black Swan (which abbreviates to BS but I don't have the heart for that) is the first of Aronofsky's films to win a major Oscar (Best Actress). The others have swept up the Baftas, the Golden Globes and other prizes, but have been ignored by the more populistic Academy Awards. Black Swan finally breaks the mould – and rightly so, because it's by far the most audience-friendly of his films.

I've stopped that old silly thing of exploiting gratuitious boobs to get hits on my blogs. It's Lesbo kisses all the way now!

One of the major problems I have with the film is that it's one of those old stories about art. The point being that an individual sacrifices herself for her art, and the parable shows how art takes everything from you, demands everything, etc. In other words, it's the famous (*yawn*) dialectic about art versus life. I liked Requiem for being a simple narrative about what happens when you take drugs, told with brutal efficiency and indelible power. But the points made by Black Swan are about two-hundred years old, and they're really beginning to feel stale. The ending, with the 'it was perfect' closing line, is one tired cliché (and it made me think of that abhorrent closure in Last Samurai, when the master sees the 'perfect cherry-tree' while dying in battle).

Of course, precisely because the story is so old, it's easy to recognize and easy to digest (hence so many people going nuts over the film's cathartic power, I guess) – even though it's false. When presented in this form, Nina's tragedy is meant to encapsulate an underlying dilemma – whether she should choose art or life (which is the Romantic form for the original choices of Hercules and Achilles between life and glory). And the audience is meant to be provoked into reflection because, y'know, they're weighing out the same question. But since the possibility of a positive response is conditional on her identity as an 'artist,' and since this identity is not assumed but born into (via another old myth, 'talent' – read, blueblood), there really is no question, and Nina is stripped of her tragic dimension as she simply follows through the struts and frets of her linear script.

With no sense of the tragic, all the gore and graphic details that we're constantly subjected to over the projection lose their weight, and become voyeuristic at best, torture-porn at worst. These graphic details are the things that normally make Aronofsky's films tough to stomach, even when they are so easy to digest. In association with the sensitivity denoted by the themes (a vaguely left-wing sensitivity, at times), and the intellectual aura which surrounds his movies, I am getting a real sense of what their target audience is. Aronofsky makes films for Young Men Who Think They Are Smart. They're the ones who can be expected to like old Darren's films most readily. Black Swan's most clever touch was to focus its story on female characters and concerns, thus broadening its appeal enormously – and this probably accounts for its popularity at the box-office (its US gross is ten times the total gross of his last film, The Wrestler, and it's still showing in the EU).

I've defended Inception in the past as one of the notable films of 2010, more so than Black Swan anyway (it goes without saying that this has provoked a few intemperate responses, as is often the case when your interlocutor is a Young Man Who Thinks He Is Smart). I'm not crazy for Nolan's picture, but it did have some effects I liked. It divided critics on whether the film is clever or hollow, on whether its technical set-pieces made for good story-telling, on whether it took any steps forwards with respect to its granddaddy The Matrix (and if so, how), on whether it was engaging science-fiction or just re-hashed Philip K Dick. In other words, it generated some waves. It caused some change. It posed some questions. With Black Swan, critical response has been pretty standardised. There's a few people who are calling the film for what it is, but even then, the disagreement is about the execution, not about the theme or the idea of the film. And how could it be any other way? Black Swan is a film made to generate consensus. It's a film which we cannot help agreeing upon (mostly).

Look, I want to make this clear. It's not that I didn't like Black Swan. I enjoyed it – how could you not? It's a well-crafted story, about an all-too familiar topic. It's like the intellectual version of family comedies – as long as they're properly executed, it's almost impossible not to enjoy the viewing. But it does nothing that hasn't already been done in Aronofsky's previous films, and it says things about art which have already been said, what, a billion times? As far as I'm concerned, if the next film by this guy doesn't show me a radically different synopsis when I google it, I'm gonna steer away. Peace out.