July Miscellany (2009)

I re-read, with more concentration, Caryl Churchill’s Fen (1983). It is a remarkable piece of work mainly concerned with the lives of a number of women in a Fen village. There are a couple of male characters – Mr Tewson, the landowner, and Frank, for whom one of the women, Val, is leaving her husband and young daughters, but the play’s concern is with the women. It is a play which, in the reading, requires serious concentration, because there is a substantial cast and it takes a little time to sort out the characters – in production, as with Serious Money, and indeed Top Girls, the actors are required to play multiple roles. The women of working age are employed in hard, repetitive agricultural labour – potato  and stone picking. This, as we are told by a Japanese businessman, whose company ultimately owns most of the land (and is, we presume seeking to buy Mr Tewson out), at the start of the play, is some of the most valuable and fertile agricultural land in England. But it has become so on the back of the drainage of the Fens in the 1630’s which destroyed a way of life, and then the hard labour of generations of workers. The atmosphere is a mixture of deep conservatism and class-hatred. Much of the latter is expressed by Nell who lives alone and the former by Shirley, Val’s mother.  The play ends in tragedy. This is the grimmest of the three plays I have read, despite the presence of a couple of long and entertaining stories – though even these are decidedly dark. No particular hope is offered. The feeling that these people have been made by the land, by generation upon generation of exploitation and stunted lives, is powerful. The optimism, such as it is, comes in their ability to survive at all – which not every one of them can bear. It may be that the play comes over quite differently in performance.

Even harder to comprehend and more demanding of a re-read was Chuchill’s SoftCops (1978) – the final play in Plays:2 along with Fen, Top Girls and Serious Money. The most immediate and obvious difference between SoftCops and the other three is that the cast is entirely male. The author’s note which precedes the play is vital to any understanding. Churchill says that it came as a result of reading Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, followed by the memoirs of Vidocq (criminal turned chief of police) and Lacenaire (‘ineffectual murderer and petty thief, who was briefly a romantic hero’ as Churchill describes him). Churchill writes “There is a constant attempt by governments to depoliticise illegal acts, to make criminals a separate class from the rest of society so that subversion will not be general, and part of this process is the invention of the detective and the criminal, the cop and the robber”. She notes that in 1985 as the play was published the Thatcher Government was attempting to depoliticise the miners by emphasising a ‘criminal element’. The play then is one of ideas; it is a constant debate about methods of social control.  One central character, Pierre, is dedicated to making the justice system one of moral instruction; his dream is of a ‘Park’ in which criminals are displayed withthe appropriate placards for benefit and moral welfare of the citizenry. The Minister in contrast longs for the old days of savage punishments which induced fear. Not that Pierre’s methods are initially humane – the play opens with a thief having his hand cut off. Vidocq argues that what matters is whether people expect to get caught and his methods – the establishment of a massive card index, allied to his own mastery of disguise – seem to guarantee that. He builds Lacenaire up in order to demonstrate his own powers as the man who brought him down. At a later point Jeremy Bentham himself makes an appearance (linking SoftCops to my current reading of Reeves biography of Mill – see https://movingtoyshop.wordpress.com/2009/07/14/reeves-on-mill-chapters-1-5/). Churchill interpolates a delightful satire on Benthamism in the shape of the following speech…

‘Roses last from early summer right into the winter. They provide considerable pleasure of long duration. An act of sexual intercourse is a hundred times more intense a pleasure than the smell of a rose. But the roses last many hundred times longer. So multiplying the degree of pleasure by the duration, the ratio of the pleasure of roses to that of sex is approximately 500 to 1, a comfort to us in our old age.’

Bentham’s real purpose in the play however is to introduce to Pierre  the idea of the Panopticon and how people can be controlled by being observed – or indeed by making them think that they are observed. This completely changes Pierre’s ideas ‘I’ve always wanted to affect the spectators. You’re affecting the person who is seen. This is a complete reversal for me.’ He reluctantly gives up his idea of a Park and instead establishes a model reformatory, before finally we see him taking a group of ‘criminals’ to the seaside; one attacks him and is shot, but the others are completely docile. Once again it is very difficult to estimate from a reading the impact which the play would make in performance, but also once again it demonstrates the breadth and ambition of Churchill’s ability.

The first couple of weeks of July were generally appalling as far as television was concerned but one bright spot was Freefall, written and directed by Dominic Savage. This was touted as a drama about the credit crunch, and to a certain extent it was, but it had more universal resonance than that. It told the story of three main characters – Gus, a Master of the Universe banker type, who was selling multi-million pound packages of dodgy debt, Dave who was selling extremely dodgy mortgages to anyone he could, and Jim a security guard. The story opened in 2007 with Gus celebrating another massive deal, and Dave the best of his company’s salesman (due to his total lack of any kind of scruples). While out buying some bling for his girlfriend (played by Sarah Harding from Girls Aloud – making her acting debut in a not wholly convincing way) Dave is hailed by Jim who is doing his security job; apparently they were at school together. Dave persuades Jim that his life is unsatisfactory and can be improved by buying a house – dodgy mortgage supplied, of course, by him. Jim, his somewhat reluctant wife Mandy and their two children move into a nice bit of Mock-Tudor. The action then jumps forward to 2008. Gus’s business deals collapse around him and he is eventually fired by the bank. Jim receives a shock when his low-rate first-year mortgage expires, and the repayments go up by £300 a month; he takes on more hours but is then sacked for sleeping on the job. The house is re-possessed and the family end up in a high-rise block. Jim has in the meantime tracked Dave down – he was sacked by his company and had to sell his extravagant house (although he still makes a profit) but is living in a desirable flat with a replacement girl-friend (Harding having dumped him for infidelity). The film ends with Gus committing suicide, Jim still having his family, and Dave successfully pursuing a new career – with appropriate spiel – selling solar panels. The dark humour of this particular ending can only be appreciated if you watch the entire film but it fitted perfectly. Freefall was very far from flawless. The whole of the Gus story – which included his non-relationship with a teenage daughter, his non-relationship with a female co-worker whom he used for sex, his masturbating when he pulled off a deal, his inability to comprehend a life other than that he had known – were somewhat of a cliche, and nothing that has not been seen before. However, when it came to Dave – wonderfully played by Dominic Cooper – and Jim the film was more convincing; this was particularly true because it did not take the easy – but untrue and false – option of punishing Dave. He is just as successful, just as obnoxious, at the end as  at the start. In the big confrontation Jim says that Dave’s parents would not be proud of him. At this point you feel that this is something which really matters to Jim and is a major accusation – but equally you know that it means nothing at all to Dave. Dave is not going to be one of capitalism’s – or the credit crunch’s- victims,  precisely because he is a vulture, and there will always be those on whom he can prey. The film managed therefore to bothbe disgusted by Dave but yet offer a convincing portrait of him and of the attractions – women, cars, money – which drove him on (these concrete attractions were also able to sustain him because they remained available where Gus’s more intangible desires – status and power – vanished). If the portrait of Dave was a triumph and that of Gus a failure, that of Jim was somewhere in between. One of the moral points the story was presumably trying to make, was that it was Jim’s ‘greed’ which was his undoing – and ‘our’ greed which has been our undoing; I am deeply suspicious of this explanation at both the individual and general level. At the individual level it was in fact Jim’s trust in someone he thought a friend – very mistakenly as it transpired – which led to his troubles. After all for most people the effect of the credit crunch is that mortgage payments have gone down not up : it was because he was sold a dodgy one by Dave that he suffered. And at the general level the very nature of capitalism is driven by greed – to blame individuals who live within capitalism for the system’s failings is just a way of excusing and white-washing the system itself (and a very old excuse). Despite all these deficiencies Freefall was extremely well made, and in the performance of Dominic Cooper and the story of his character, utterly riveting.

For some reason in the third and fourth weeks of the month television suddenly looked up again. Not only did The Proms commence but there was a sudden spate of interesting programmes. This fluctuation is most peculiar. New episodes of Taggart, Midsomer Murders and New Tricks were screened – all reliable old favourites even if Taggart is but a pale shadow of its’ glory days.  I’m not going into the whole history but of course when we talk of mysteries on UK TV this series is now, by a very long way, the longest running. However competent the current productions are – and they are competent – I can never really watch them without thinking of the glory days of Mark McManus in the late 80’s and early 90’s.

Mark-McManus-Taggart

For me the Taggart of that period was simply the best British mystery TV series ever – the characters, the visuals, the plots, the gothicism – stunningly original, strange, scary and on occasion intensely moving. It is interesting that of course this related to a series which was notan adaptation. Since McManus’ death the show fairly rapidly declined into run-of-the-mill realism. Well done run-of-the-mill realism and still retaining some faint hold on aficionados because of its ghostly links to the past – but the glory is not merely faded but almost completely vanished. Sic transit etc.. Actually the episode broadcast on 19th July was rather above the current standard and boasted in particular a splendid opening (which were one feature of the glory days) – DI Ross finds an abandoned bay on the doorstep of a grand Glasgow house, then receiving now reply to his knock goes round the back and through the open French windows sees the body of a murdered man. The second of the Midsomers – Secrets and Spies – was particularly notable boasting not merely an especially absurd plot in which most of the inhabitants of a village turned out to be current or ex-members of MI6, but also included in the usual cast of luminaries the wonderful Anna Massey.

 In the debit column comes Desperate Romantics which purported to be the story of the Pre-Raphaelites. This was badly-written, badly-shot tosh which was objectionable for two reasons. In the first place there clearly is a fascinating story to be told here which could be done withclass and style. But perhaps even more objectionable is the fact that the thinking behind the programme seemed to be that because it concerns a ‘serious’ subject, it should automatically be dignified with a status which is not accorded to programmes which are self-evidently, even proudly, tosh (by tosh I mean mindless entertainment – in case that should be unclear). Now I have absolutely no objection to tosh – indeed many of my favourite television series might be so designated; Midsomer Murders is one example, Dallas another to take a couple of widely disparate examples. And tosh can be very well written, well shot, well conceived. It is not easy to do good tosh. It is when tosh pretends that it is something else – and is extremely badly done to boot – that I become irate. In many ways Rupert Everett’s take on Byron – The Scandalous Life of Lord Byron – was a tosh documentary. But it succeeded as a result of Everett’s very considerable charm. His take on Byron was basically that he was a version of Rupert Everett, and I think there is probably just enough of the tiniest tincture of truth about this to enable the programme to work. Certainly Byron as poseur, self-publicist and hedonist was clearly brought out. Of course it was in many ways a travesty – notably in the almost complete absence of any of the poetry, let alone serious consideration of it. But it was hard even for such a Byronist as myself to object. The ‘scene’ in which Everett attended a posh Embassy party in Istanbul and went around relating to everyone Byron’s description of the vices in London as ‘drinking and whoring’ and those in Constantinople as ‘sherbet and sodomy’ was a gem slowly revealed as the shots of horrified and non-comprehending faces accumulated.

Much more substantial fare is provided by a new series of The Street. There have only been 3 episodes of a scheduled 6 in this the third, and apparently last, series of this much praised (and garlanded with awards) BBC series which is the work of Jimmy McGovern, who has written or co-written all of the episodes in this series in addition to being the producer. I have very mixed feelings about The Street ; of its kind it is sometimes excellent but it also reveals all the limitations of its kind – and when we talk of its kind I refer of course to the British realist (or naturalist) tradition. The secret is given away by the fact that people talk about The Streetas a Jimmy McGovern creation – but McGovern is a writer and has nothing to do with the direction or visual appearance. This is television where primacy is assigned to writer and actor. All of which is very evident from watching even 10 minutes of any episode – visually the series is as dull as ditch-water, and when it attempts to go beyond ditch-water generally falls flat on its face. Now The Street is television not cinema so this lack of visual imagination or flair is not of itself a condemnation. There is also however a lack of visual pleasure given that it is shot in a resolutely unenhanced urban environment (I am not being critical – the street concerned looks pretty like my own; I can look out of the window of the room in which I am typing and see a vista very like that of the eponymous Street – I do not delude myself that the view is especially charming however) – Midsomer does not boast any great visual imagination but the pictures are always pretty. The central point however about this lack of visual attraction or interest is that everything then depends on the story. We will take it as read that the acting is always very good; this is what British actors are trained to do, so they do it well – the realist/naturalist style comes easy. Sometimes it is excellent and that alone can lift an individual episode as was the case with David Bradley in episode 2 of this series. But generally matters come down to the story. A brief consideration of the three episodes to date will show how the quality of this can vary.

Episode One, much the worst, was an absurd story about a pub landlord who barred the son of the local heavy/hard-man and refused to lift the bar even though he knew he would be beaten up. None of the community rallied to his defense and he was duly beaten-up, but gained his revenge by returning to the pub and serving the hard-man’s son a drink with an umbrella to demonstrate that he was a ‘tart’. I didn’t even understand this macho nonsense. Apparently there was intended to be some reference to High Noon but the comparison, which was barely possible, only served to emphasise how silly this story was. Barring someone from your pub for smoking in the toilets has nothing to do with any high moral principles, and the community’s desertion, far from paralleling McCarthyism, seemed eminently sensible. Why the bar owner didn’t just call the police was a mystery no-one attempted to answer. Presumably from his absurd macho values which the episode endorsed. Indeed as a whole The Street, or at least those episodes I have seen and I should say my viewing is very far from complete, displays a heavily male bias in terms of its ethos and centres of attention. Even the second episode which featured a young single mother who was working weekends as a prostitute in order to pay the mortgage, which she needed to get into the catchment area which would ensure her sons got into a decent school, was principally interesting for the previously mentioned performance of David Bradley. The story was that the young woman met a man, fell for him but his father (Bradley) turned out to be one of her clients. He revealed himself to be utterly vicious and determined to make her break off the relationship. When she does so by telling the young man the truth he deserts her. But the story ends happily as she gets her boys into the school due to the fact that the vicar on the interviewing panel turns out to be another one of her clients, and the young man eventually comes back. The episode was notable however for Bradley’s performance as a rancid, bitter, cruel hypocrite of the worst kind; his attitudes and speeches were a kind of textbook of the double standard and the woman as Madonna or whore dichotomy. So the episode did work because of writing and acting. The third episode, perhaps the best to date, featured another very male subject that of a soldier returning from Afghanistan with terrible scarring on one side of his face and the loss of his hand. This is the kind of subject which the realist/naturalist tradition tends to deal with very well and it did so.

My problems with The Street are not solely to do with over-dependence on writing and acting however. Another limitation of some parts of the British naturalist tradition, and this is the same criticism which I make of certain books in the hard-boiled mystery genre, is that the naturalism is not in fact realistic or naturalistic. In particular there is a near complete absence of comedy and light. It is all shade. Now while this may work very well in a particular context and for a particular purpose it is not in any sense ‘true to life’ when it is being asserted as a general truth, which is what I think The Street attempts to do. In this context the soaps (at least as I remember them – it may be they are changed now) are much more ‘naturalist’ in that they do introduce comic moments and some light to balance the shade. I freely admit that I am probably over-critical of this entire tradition precisely because it does receive such uncritical adulation from the British critical establishment; this in turn has the effect of underrating the importance of those with real visual imagination and of the paucity of discourse about cinema or visually innovative television in the UK. Yes the writing and acting are – sometimes – excellent. But without some visual ability, charm, flair, imagination, then greatness will never be achieved. In comparison with a visually stunning programme like The Unloved (see May Miscellany https://movingtoyshop.wordpress.com/2009/06/02/may-miscellany-2/ ) The Street will always lack something. 

On more movie that I did manage to see was Alphaville by Godard from 1965 (in talking of Godard’s films the use of the term ‘by’ is the only possible appropriate one). Now the truth is that I got this somewhat by mistake as I had not properly figured out Lovefilm’s rather arcane methodology for ordering specific films from multi-disc collections. Alphaville, as several of the contributors in the accompanying documentary said, is not one of his major achievements and might be said, as another contributor opined, to promise more than it delivers. The story (and of course one has to be careful in using the term story, let alone assigning it any sort of primacy,  in relation to Godard who generally did not work from scripts) concerns Lemmy Caution played by Eddie Constantine, a private eye who goes to the city of Alphaville, in another galaxy, to investigate what is happening there and what fate has befallen his old friend Dickson, played by Akim Tamiroff. He finds a totalitarian nightmare, the brainchild of Professor Von Braun, who has created a system in which all emotions are crimes, and logic, as dictated by the massive computer he has established, rules. Lemmy falls for and finally rescues Braun’s daughter Natasha, played by Godard’s muse and wife Anna Karina, after killing her father and destroying the Alphaville system.

 2798703192_5ef9370e17

 The film is a cross of noir private eye and science fiction, infused with Godard’s own sensibility and preoccupations. Of course there is much of utterly compelling interest – Godard’s camera-work, editing, close-ups, the use of light (the film is in black and white) are often arresting. For instance one brilliant scene shows the public executions in Alphaville – the prisoners are pushed onto a springboard in a large swimming pool where they declare their belief in emotion (and hence reason for execution) before they are shot, whereon they fall off the board – if they have happened to survive they are surrounded by a troupe of female synchronised swimmers and drowned before the troupe perform a short routine; meanwhile the important guests watch this ‘entertainment’ from an observation platform. But for all Godard’s genius the fact is that the film tends to disintegrate slightly in its latter part (although the ending is – very rarely one commentator observed – tender and beautiful) ; this is down in part to the crudity and inevitable obsolescence of the vision of the computers (massive) which inevitably strikes the modern viewer, but also to the fact that Godard is not quite able to come with a truly convincing metaphor for what happens when logic collapses – the citizens are shown as hardly able to walk, clutching at walls; this does not quite work (although apparently it was in part a tribute to Cocteau) . For perhaps the first time since watching these DVDs the accompanying documentary was both brilliantly insightful and essential viewing. Now in part this is because of the ‘difficulty’ of Godard’s cinema, which is high, so that it is correspondingly easier to talk and discuss the film persuasively; it is also no doubt down to the fact that it was French and hence treated matters with high seriousness and intellectual insight. One contributor explained that at the time – ironically given his later political development – Godard was on the side of Sartre and the Existentialists and against Barthes/Levi-Strauss/Foucault and the Structuralists ; thus one of the institutions of social control in the film is an Institute of Semantics and it turns out that the ‘Bible’ in Alphaville is a dictionary to which almost daily updates are issued – if a word does not appear there then the concept does not exist and is criminal (eg: ‘conscience’ and ‘love’). Obviously this is somewhat of a satirical attack on Structuralism and the divorce between words and meaning. Lemmy’s great weapon in his attack on the computer is poetry . At a lighter level this in turn is a very obvious subversion of the values of the private eye film noir tradition. The documentary explained that Constantine had played Lemmy Caution, the creation of British pulp-fiction writer Peter Cheyney, in several movies, but after Alphaville was never cast in the role again – although apparently he held no malice towards Godard for this (it is a lovely irony that Lemmy Caution is now only really remembered precisely because Godard decided to use the character for mischievous ends of his own). Turning back to the documentary and film’s philosophical intent one commentator remarked that Godard is the ‘Socrates of cinema’ by which he meant, I surmise, that not only are the films always questioning, but also that Godard’s positions do not remain fixed – this is plainly true of his break with the past and political ‘conversion’ in 1968, but I think the commentator intended it to be taken generally. One cinematographer who worked with Godard said that from a cinematic viewpoint he wanted to try something new with every film. It is worth saying that while the documentary had many insights it was also very funny in places – for instance to satisfy some German backers the producer wanted Godard to produce a script – Godard instructed one of his assistants to read a Cheyney book then produce 30 pages of script which was sent to the Germans who were delighted ; it had absolutely no relation to Alphaville of course, and when the backers saw the finished movie they asked for their money back! In talking of the film’s antecedents a commentator said that for all the surface correspondence to Metropolis they thought it was Welles rather than Lang who had been most influential on Godard, and he had loved Tamiroff in Touch of Evil. Someone else pointed out that the film, like all those of Godard’s Karina period, is to some extent about their own relationship; Godard always ensured that Karina was lit to the best possible advantage, and the film is a love affair between Godard and Karina as well as between Lemmy and Natasha. It might be argued that Alphaville is something  of a mess for all its moments of brilliance; but even Godard’s relative failures are fascinating and compelling, and one is aware not only of a cinematic genius but a restless and probing intelligence.

4 thoughts on “July Miscellany (2009)

  1. Dear Nick,

    I read only up to where you began to talk about Godard and the movies. I’ll come back tonight for that. Here are comments on Churchill and your reviews of TV shows.

    I cancelled an order I had in for _Top Girls_ to teach it to a class because the play required an understanding of the politics of feminism. Students don’t begin to understand feminism itself 🙂 These two I think they would understand, but they might not like them. They often voice this demand for hope and uplift at the end (not caring if it’s true). I particularly admire Nick’s analysis of the function of detective and mystery solving figures and TV shows.

    I so wish we had anything like your TV shows. The only thing close are the costume dramas that come over from the BBC and we’d never get anything as contemporary or revelant as _Freefall_. PBS would probably be risking its funding to show it. Dominic Cooper is certainly moving into the high phase of career. I like the attack on greed, though you make a good point that blaming those who behave that way when they freefall is blaming them for the very values the system has taught them. I hate the system. Was Gus presented as naive? or did he understand what he was doing. On some level many people taking these subprime or unusual mortgages do. Jim and I did; it was the only way we had only hope of getting a house and safety. We were lucky; times were good and he was promoted. NOw this house constitutes our main safety and stability.

    Ellen

  2. nick2209

    Many thanks for your, as ever, insightful comments Ellen. They have led me to consider the levels of understanding of the system/process which Dominic Cooper allotted to the three central characters in Freefall.

    Jim certainly had none at all. He was the classic victim, trusting in what he was told mainly because the person telling him was someone he regarded as a friend. Perhaps his naivety was a little stretched, but then many people have found themselves in the same situation.

    Dave of course had no interest whatever in the question – everything is the same to him – dodgy mortagages or useless solar panels – anything which will earn him enough money to sustain his material lifestyle. He knows they are dodgy but sells them anyway.

    As you identify, it is with Gus that the question becomes moot. He is given a couple of speeches where he justifies the system as having all kinds of socio-political benefits but one is never quite sure as to the extent in which he believes in all this. That would be a fascinating dramatic examination, but would probably need to be focussed solely on a Gus-type character and one who was somewhat less cliched than Gus here (as I remarked he is much the least successful of the three characters).

  3. I thought I’d mention the banks in the US today. Print journalism never gets near the truth the way an intelligent blogger who merely spends much of his life ferreting out information everywhere on the Net, sifting and writing brilliantly upon it. There are actually a number of such blogs now on the Net (some have been picked up by online magazines). One such blogger pointed out (with information) how the banks in the US own congress. This is the explanation for why there has been no change whatsoever in policy towards banks, money and mortgages between Bush fils and Obama. A banker makes more doing a foreclosure than a modification. Hence Congress did not pass a bill which would have helped prevent foreclosure. This power is why they get millions and millions, and don’t have to loan money out and give their executives huge bonuses and we are to be grateful we are not in the midst of another really devastating depression like the earlier one, also caused by them.

    And this is why we cannot get a film like Freefall. It might cause talk, the talk might lead to some intelligent informed person’s knowledge getting through to the public. Can’t have that.

    Ellen

  4. Pingback: Reeves on Mill : Chapters 6-7 « Moving Toyshop

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