So Teresa May, the most racist, small-minded, reactionary Prime Minister in living memory, has just ruined the best party song ever written, ABBA’s wonderful Dancing Queen.
I take this very, very personally. This is an anthem of female empowerment, every bit as much so as I Will Survive or RESPECT. In a music industry saturated with the sexualisation and objectification of women’s bodies, it is a rare, no-strings celebration of a young woman on her own, in no need of a partner, dancing to music and having a wonderful time.
And ABBA tell us to watch her. Learn from her. Stop treating woman as objects to be controlled. It’s actually a very Scandinavian message.
But the recent Mamma Mia movie gives another twist to this act of musical abuse. Because that movie is the biggest bloody celebration of freedom of movement ever. It’s about a young woman who can travel throughout Europe and do whatever she likes. It’s about the joy of different cultures, different nations, different outlooks, all coming together in one big joyous party.
Yes, it’s cheesy as hell. But dammit, we’ve never needed that dream more. And it shouldn’t be a dream. It should be a reality. The reality, the joy, the opportunity, the freedom that Mrs May is taking away from a generation of young people – with enthusiasm and glee.
I hope ABBA sue the pants off the bloody Tories.
Whatever happened to our world? I wish I understood
The more I think about the unrealistic elements of this narrative, the more I realise that the narrative that frames it was in itself a fantasy, a political construct that was considered necessary but was completely artificial.
“Oh brave new world, that has such people in it.” Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones in The Shape of Water, image Fox Searchlight, reproduced without permission.
NOTE: This reflection does not contain spoilers, but the two reviews linked beneath do.
There are narratives that wear their artificiality and predictability on their sleeve as a badge of pride. In the Shakespearian equivalent of breaking the fourth wall, a character in The Winter’s Tale compares the action unfolding before us to an old tale. Fairy tales use familiar phrases – “Long ago and far away,” and “Happily ever after,” to alert us to their alternate universality. And the property of myth is that it is told and retold, possibly embroidered or repurposed but fulfilling the same essential needs.
One such fairy tale is Beauty and the Beast. In a patriarchal society, frightened young women were routinely sent out of their childhood homes and into arranged marriages with unfamiliar partners, often much older than themselves. The narrative trope of a cunning woman managing to negotiate this relationship helped to comfort and guide them. As a reward, the Beast may well turn out to be a handsome prince. The destination of the journey and the reward is framed by the expectations of the host community. Belle is an outsider, set apart by her love of books and her intelligence, but her journey suggests that in “taming” these socially problematic qualities in herself she may become a valuable and loving mate. The taming is not all one way.
But beastliness may be in the eye of the beholder. In a social system that has its own distinctive bigotries and cruelties, it may be the outsider who is, in fact, virtuous and lovely. In the monster-taming movies of the 20th Century, from King Kong to The Creature from the Black Lagoon onwards, there is an implicit comment on the intolerance of human society. The Fay Wray character in King Kong acts as a bridge, though ultimately an unsuccessful one, mediating between the apparently savage and the outwardly civilised.
Guillermo del Toro’s new work, The Shape of Water, has the malleability of our concept of the strange and monstrous built into its very title. The opening narration alerts us to the possibility that the monster’s identity may not be as obvious as first appearances suggest. We are also told to expect a princess who cannot speak. There is a fairy godmother figure who is, in fact, a gay man. The rules of engagement are clear; this is a world where achetype and symbol is as significant as plot and character, if not more so. This is not a Three Billboards movie examining humanity in all its depth and complexity. Its moral messages are writ large, its characters presented with little in the way of backstory. What we are called to bring to our viewing is an appreciation of world-building, minor details, and themes recapitulated, like a nest of Russian dolls. Something as simple as an egg unlocks a whole range of messages.
The more I think about the unrealistic elements of this narrative, the more I realise that the narrative that frames it was in itself a fantasy, a political construct that was considered necessary, but was completely artificial. The Cold War was one of history’s greatest examples of tragic and wilful “othering”. Millions of roubles and dollars were spent maintaining the fiction of the opposing sides’ essential inhumanity, and that apparatus, particularly on the American side, is fetishised here.
There are other signifiers of the fantastic. Two of the main characters live above a faded cinema where blockbusters play in faded glory to a handful of viewers. Screens are ever-present – on closed circuit TV, and broadcasting vintage situation comedies and dance routines into people’s homes. A character’s emotional awakening is realised as a homage to Fred and Ginger’s Let’s Face the Music and Dance. Framing is everywhere.
A gay man is told to leave a “family restaurant” in a painful scene that also features overt racism, while black employees remain silent in the background. A “family man” appears conventional and is seduced by a salesman’s patter into seeing himself as someone who is going places, yet abuses everyone in his world and turns out to be a sexual predator. A Russian defector shows humanity and compassion. Most of the action takes place at night, in a greenish-tinted universe that itself appears aquarian. This gives it an air of dreamlike unreality, but what we see in the light of day is equally constructed. And many of the interiors seems to fetishise retro-chic, particularly the secret base where the monster is being held. Nothing seems to date more, or speak more eloquently of a past era’s values, than its concept of the futuristic.
I haven’t touched here on Sally Hawkins’ remarkable performance as the mute Eliza, whose origins themselves evoke the trope of the orphaned infant with a literally unspeakable past. All the main characters are outsiders, isolated by disability, race, sexual orientation or a sinister background left unspecified. All have something unfamiliar, and in some people’s eyes repulsive, about them. All are objectified and abused and casual or wilful racist statements abound. The Creature is simply the most obvious example of isolation, yet has the greatest transformative power.
So here is a tale as old as time, unapologetically signalling its plot cliches in letters marquee-high, because originality isn’t the important issue here. It’s the power of storytelling and how it creates our world. There have been reviews that have pointed out the flatness of characterisation and the obviousness of moral signposting. But perhaps we are looking for subtlety in the wrong places. We are more likely to find it in the minute details that lodge in the mind – a family pictured around a green plate of Jello, an egg-shaped timer, a severed finger in a brown paper bag. A hackneyed popular song expresses the film’s great truth. The familiar is made strange, the strange familiar. And isn’t that one of the things cinema has the great potential to achieve?
Every musical has a manifesto number. It’s usually a solo, and it packs a huge emotional punch. After all the razzamatazz, the stage filled with people, noise and colour, the stage darkens and the spotlight literally falls on one person, singing their heart out to someone that really matters. In Funny Girl, it’s People. In The Sound of Music, it’s Something Good. The power of such songs lies in the intimacy, the directness, the peeling away of layers.
And La La Land has a stunner. An audition piece, because in LA that’s the ultimate make-or-break, sing-for-your-supper situation.
Mia has had six years of humiliation, knockbacks and broken dreams. In true musical fashion, this is her last throw of the dice and she puts everything into it. She cares too much to pay games any more. She’s also learned the cost of chasing your dreams and this beautiful song comes from a rare place of self-awareness.
This isn’t a movie blog, it’s a blog about libraries and what they mean to children. Setting up three school libraries was my big thing, my impossible dream that would take everything I had to give. Okay, that sounds cheesy, but sometimes cheesy hides the truth. And as it happens, a library remembered from childhood plays a significant part in the plot of La La Land, which gives this song an even bigger emotional punch for me.
I want this on my library wall:
Here’s to the ones who dream
Foolish, as they may seem
Here’s to the hearts that ache
Here’s to the mess we make
Librarians tend to fetishise order; they are natural introverts, happiest a in calm and controlled environment. I have spent weeks setting up school libraries, listening to the children safely behind my closed door and feeling apprehensive about the day I finally have to let them in and allow them to make a mess. As it happens, I’ve a library opening coming up tomorrow. But creativity is messy, filled with mistakes and compromises. There’s another fantastic couple of lines earlier in the song, as Mia recalls someone who inspired her:
She captured a feeling
Sky with no ceiling
Sunset inside a frame
Art begins with that feeling that something is so amazing, so beautiful, so filled with possibility, that it can’t be captured. And yet if the artist doesn’t try to put a frame around it, to give it form, it can never be shared. The only perfect work of art is the one that stays locked in someone’s head. The thing I loved most about La La Land was that it’s absolutely honest about the cost of having dreams, yet if nobody ever did that the world would be a grim and colourless place.
All children begin with the capacity to dream. Libraries are the laboratories where those dreams can be shaped and forged, where children can find the confidence to bring them alive, to expose themselves to the risk and pain and effort that will involve. Libraries are filled with the products of other people taking that risk. They are a safe place to contemplate its cost. They are a refuge when being different becomes too much to handle, a source of comfort, strength and – at their best – a kind but firm process of propelling people back out into the world to try again.
It was my partner who pointed out the interesting parallels and contrasts between these three stories. Each concerns a person who was dreadfully abused, caught up in an evil system without their knowledge or consent, but simply as an unfortunate accident. Philomena bears an illegitimate child in 1950s Ireland, which leads to the removal of her baby and its forced adoption, sanctioned by the state (in contemporary terminology, outsourced to the Catholic Church).
In 12 Years A Slave Solomon Northup, a free black man in 1840s Saratoga, is duped into being kidnapped and sold into slavery in the South. Finally, The Railway Man tells the story of Eric Lomax, appallingly tortured by the Japanese in Burma as a young man in World War II. For the rest of the life he is emotionally crippled by this trauma, and eventually has the opportunity to meet one of his tormentors face to face and decide whether to murder or forgive him.
All three are based on true stories. All continue to have contemporary resonance. We still struggle, as a species with the questions of torture, war, trauma, slavery, racism and what to do about people who don’t follow the socially sanctioned rules for reproduction within marriage.
And all three ask a vital question – is it possible to recover from severe abuse, and is forgiveness an essential, or even desirable, aspect of that process?
Such forgiveness takes two forms – forgiveness of one’s individual abuser(s), and forgiveness of the ideological system in which the abuse takes place. You can have one without the other. It may be too difficult and dangerous on a practical level to return to the scene of the crime, even assuming you would want to do so. This was clearly Solomon Northup’s situation. The evil of slavery was so entrenched in society at the time that his only option was to continue to fight on outside the South as an abolitionist, which was what he did.
Eric Lomax, however, was offered the opportunity to return and offer reconciliation. It is interesting that, according to his second wife Patti (who features prominently in the film, played by Nicole Kidman), he returned to Thailand with every intention of killing his torturer, expecting that to bring him closure, if not inner peace. It was only when they met, and he discovered the reality of Takashi Nagase’s commitment to reconciliation through his work of historical education that Lomax concluded, “Sometimes, the hating has to stop.” This is the most complete reconciliation of the three stories under discussion, and the film depicts it movingly and convincingly.
Philomena’s case is rather more complex. She remains a Catholic and is, in that sense, reconciled with the institution that was the author of her pain. In fact, the film strongly implies that only the Church gives her the moral framework to cope with the very pain it has caused her. She is not reconciled with the individual nun who sanctioned her child’s adoption, and we see that her attitude has, if anything, hardened in old age. And the film does not touch on Philomena’s views towards the Irish government for allowing her child, and many others, to be sold rather than creating a society where illegitimate children were valued and included. So this is a partial, and rather problematic and incomplete, reconciliation.
However, the parallels between these stories are instructive, and it is interesting that they have all been made into successful films at roundabout the same time. The questions they ask have a timeless relevance and are arguably the stuff of compelling drama. In each case, though certain accommodations with the original source material have inevitably been reached, the movie treatment is broadly faithful to the original.
Undoubtedly all are worth seeing. Of the three I found Philomena the most entertaining, 12 Years A Slave the most shocking and The Railway Man the most emotionally satisfying. In addition, The Railway Man gave me a far more powerful insight into the reality of being consistently and repeatedly tortured than the far more morally problematic Zero Dark Thirty I saw about a year ago. At the time I concluded that Zero Dark Thirty was morally justifiable because it showed that torture brutalises the perpetrator as well as the victim. Now that attitude has shifted. Torture is wrong, period. There are no attenuating circumstances and justifications whatsoever.
Twelve Years A Slave, which I saw yesterday, is a harrowing and shocking film. I expected that. I was rather less prepared for what shocked me the most.
I was primed for scenes of sickening violence and they will stay in my mind for a long time. I also thought I was a decent, liberal person who understood racism and what it must feel like to experience it.
In fact, I was wrong.
Yes, the n-word was used, repeatedly and casually, to such an extent that I felt that, for the first time, I could imagine what life would be like in a community habituated to such things and the attitudes that accompany them. It was the absolute commoditisation of human beings that shocked me the most. That sounds like a no-brainer – slavery is about owning people, well, d’uh. We think we understand it, that we can imagine it. I think we’re wrong. At least, I was.
The scene where the new batch of kidnapped slaves are put on the market was as shocking, in its own way, as the vicious beatings and lynchings that followed. Here were human beings being sold as possessions, regardless of any dignity or feelings involved. A little boy forced to demonstrate his physical fitness. A mother screaming as her children are sold away from her before her eyes (later, when she arrives at her new home without them, the mistress says, ‘Poor creature. Give her rest and food, she will forget them in a few days.’) Human beings tagged, abused, robbed of all dignity and self-determination. And hope.
Keep your head down. Don’t let anybody find out you can read and write – they’ll single you out as an uppity n-r. You are now, officially, someone else’s property, to do what they think best with. If you are a woman, you may be raped regularly by the master and, as if that isn’t bad enough, savagely beaten by him because he loathes himself for being attracted to you and takes out that loathing on your body and soul and, for good measure, his wife will hate you for reasons of her own and find her own ways of making you wretched.
If you are a man, your destiny is to work until you drop dead in the field and then be thrown into an unmarked grave with scant ceremony.
A system so evil is horrendous for everyone to live in. For the slaves, that’s obvious. But equally disturbing is the brutalisation of the entire society, the acceptance of extreme violence as part of the texture of everyday life, the well-dressed little white children playing while lynched bodies swing or vicious beatings occur in the background of their world.
We may congratulate ourselves on the wickedness of times past and feel a sense of false worthiness because people don’t keep slaves now (an argument that it, as it happens, untrue). But we continue to live in a society that singles out particular kinds of people – poor people on welfare, for example – as being less worthy of the description “human” and the privileges that go with it. And that is an attitude that impoverishes us all.
I can only watch and reflect, in humble horror, and feel glad that at least Solomon Northup escaped, returned to his family and did not forget his sufferings – that, quite literally, he lived to tell the tale.
Sometimes at night the darkness and silence weigh upon me. Peace frightens me; perhaps I fear it most of all. I feel it is only a facade hiding the face of hell. I think, ‘What is in store for my children tomorrow?’ ‘The world will be wonderful’, they say. But from whose viewpoint? If one phone call could announce the end of everything? We need to live in a state of suspended animation like a work of art, in a state of enchantment. We have to succeed in loving so greatly that we live outside of time, detached.”
Cinema gives us the ability to frame moments of beauty and passion and replay them again and again – but only by creating and staging them in the first place. Is there any such thing as an authentic life that is a beautiful work of art? Or must all beauty carry within itself the corollary that it is the product of artifice?
Is this why Steiner finds his life unbearable?
Rather bizarrely, we watched this on a DVD that had been given away with the Daily Mail years ago, harvested from John’s parents’ home.
I’m really glad I was almost completely ignorant of this movie before watching. It meant that I went in blind to all the moral judgements others had made on the characters, particularly Marcello. Although he works in a shitty job and does some very shitty things, right from the start of the movie, I never felt he was completely beyond redemption. So although the movie has satirical elements, and definitely a satirical character, I saw it as a tragicomedy (or perhaps a Divine Comedy), with some clear decision points for Marcello, and therefore it had dramatic tension.
Another example – according to Philip French, Maddelena is a nyphomaniac. Well, that might be true, though her behaviour doesn’t seem noticeably more promiscuous than that of others in her set. I saw her rather as a privileged woman suffering from crippling ennui, hungry for any new experience, including slumming it in a prostitute’s bedroom. It seems to me that she is a balance to Emma, who is romantically deluded, thinking that she can save Marcello through her devoted, maternal love. Clearly that is a non-starter, given the kind of man he is, and in fact her behaviour is smothering and controlling. I didn’t feel that Fellini was presenting Emma in a particularly attractive light.
Maddelena is more complex. With all her faults, she can touch a nerve in Marcello that few others can reach. What he loves in her is her total lack of illusions. Even while she is proposing marriage to him, she’s flirting with someone else. He doesn’t see this happening (though you wonder if he suspects), so he is free to imbue her with whatever ideal qualities he needs. But to call her his Beatrice is reductive in the extreme. He would like her to be his Beatrice, but he knows she never would be. In fact a recurring theme of the whole film is Marcello experimenting with different kinds of womanhood, and rejecting them all. Other archetypal females are Sylvia, Steiner’s wife, Nico, Fanny (the Kit-Kat hostess) and possibly even Nadia – there are also a couple of archetypal cultured women (interestingly neither are Italian). They are all possibilities, but ultimately he rejects them.
That leaves Paula, his little Umbrian angel from the sunlit cafe. I do think Fellini may be setting her up as a genuine alternative to the cynicism and sensation-seeking of Marcello’s milieu. She remains an innocent, a pure and natural template on which anything could be engraved. She still takes a simple delight in pleasures like a piece of catchy pop music (later used very differently as the background to Nadia’s striptease). She appears in one of the few scenes shot in the full light of day (this is very much a movie of long nights and weary dawn scenes). She appears as Marcello is trying to write, making at least a gesture towards what Steiner believes his true vocation to be.
And we see her in the film’s last frame, smiling enigmatically, Madonna-like. It’s inconceivable that we shouldn’t connect this to the film’s opening scene. Considered blasphemous by the Catholic Church at the time of the movie’s release, this showed a Christ statue being airlifted over Rome, holding out its hands in apparent benediction. But Christ was pursued by a helicopter containing Marcello and Paparazzi, and the noise of the rotor blades made communication impossible. We saw the world of the trivial and the depraved in pursuit of the holy and the ideal. The last scene echoes this set up, but now the fish (an old emblem of Christianity) is an enormous, stinking, three-day-old corpse. And Marcello cannot hear what Paula is saying; her words are blown away and lost in the crashing of the waves, so ultimately he returns to the battered crowd of revellers and turns his back on her.
What are we to make of Steiner, who appears to represent everything worthy and desirable in the pursuit of a meaningful life? Steiner has it all – wealth, a beautiful home, gorgeous children, devoted wife, interesting friends and cultural authority. But he can’t enjoy it. He is tormented – by the past (World War II – there are searchlights outside his balcony?), by the future (nuclear Armageddon?) or just by existential angst? Whatever the answer, his demons pursue him until he shoots himself and his gorgeous children, and in a particularly tragic scene (with an undertow of dark comedy) his wife becomes a commodity pursued by Marcello and his band of paparazzi – and at first she’s flattered (“Are you turning me into a film star?”) before she senses the terrible truth.
Peter denies Christ three times. Marcello has three – or possibly four – opportunities to turn his life around:
1 the “truth scene” with Madellena
2 when he reaches out for connection with his father
3 when he breaks up with Emma (this one is the most ambivalent, I feel)
4 when he is complicit in the reporting of Steiner’s suicide
Most if not all of these come with huge caveats. The third in particular is probably a complete illusion (interestingly, it’s the only one where we witness him changing his mind). All are presented with a dark mirror. Immediately after (1) we have a ghostly mock-wedding procession breaking into a church that almost became a brothel. In (2), the hottie that Marcello lines up for his dad almost ends up killing him, as if to remind us that once youth is gone, it is futile to try to recapture it. (3) is so full of contradictions that there is no need for any subtext, although I still find the presence of a blinding floodlight interesting. And (4) carries its own heart of darkness into an apparently perfect set up.
In all these scenes, there’s use of silence and space, and that contrasts with the movie’s generally noisy and frenetic world. Normally, there are too many people around, too much going on, for any real human communion to take place, and you get the sense that most of the characters are actively avoiding it. And the framing first and final scenes both use the contrast between space and supposed “civilisation” to make a satirical point about affluent society and its discontents.
What came over most strongly to me was how beautiful the film was to look at, as if it carried the DNA of every James Bond movie, every Avengers episode, every Martini advert of the 1960s (perhaps it did). You could imagine that anyone wanting to portray sophisticated people in a movie for at least the next 10 years would have aspired to make them look like they do La Dolce Vita. And that is what makes it such an honest movie – it shows us how attractive excess can be.
Every scene carries a weight of conflicting metaphors. A church can be a brothel. A popped balloon can become a smashed plate. Again and again there is the still, small, wordless voice of pathos invading scenes of feasting and success. When the showgirls take a break, onto the dance floor comes an incredibly beautiful, Chaplinesque comic trumpeter, and although he plays badly, he pulls all the balloons away with him and makes the onlookers cry, without really knowing why. In a world of lies, the truth cuts like a knife.
Imagine this. You’re just about to go to work one evening when you find your elderly mother quietly weeping over the photograph of a three-year-old boy. She tells you he would have been 50 today. She had him out of wedlock in the 1950s in Ireland, and has never mentioned him since. He was taken away from her without her knowledge or consent, sold to a rich American family by the Catholic Church, and she was told on pain of damnation never to tell a living soul.
That’s the starting point for Philomena. It’s a true story, more or less.
What would you do? Philomena’s daughter contacted a journalist who was, as it happened, a lapsed Catholic called Martin Sixsmith, cast aside by the Blair administration, contemptuous of doing a mere “human interest story” but in no position to be picky. Drawn in despite his prejudices, he takes Philomena to Washington to find out what really happened to her son. It turns out to be a life-changing experience for them both.
There are a good few movies around exposing the horrors of the Magdalene Laundries where pregnant Irish women were incarcerated in the mid-20th century. Philomena’s baby was born breech without pain relief – the Sisters in their mercy wanted her to really suffer for her sin. There are also plenty of road movies featuring the sparring of odd couples. Remarkably, Philomena doesn’t fall into either of these rather hackneyed groups. It’s an initially unassuming movie that slowly creeps up on you and shows you that the contrast between good and evil, faith and reason, meekness and crusading fervour, is nowhere near as simple as we might think.
Martin is a very angry man. It’s convenient that Philomena’s horrific story gives him something socially acceptable to be angry about. He’s angry with God, he’s livid with the Catholic Church, and he’s angry at his own circumstances. Being a reasonable, civilised man, he doesn’t necessarily like to admit to the last one, at least. He’s utterly cynical and hard-nosed when he sells Philomena’s story to a features editor, but deeply uneasy when he realises what it’s putting her through. He finds her infuriating and incomprehensible, particularly her refusal to question or abandon her Catholicism, but gradually he comes to realise that, although the Church has been the author of her pain, it also gives her the tools to make it bearable – forgiveness, acceptance, a measure of inner peace. And ultimately, he realises that in that respect she may be better off than him.
Steve Coogan is wonderful as the kind of charming but smug metropolitan intellectual who’s waiting for all those simple people out there to catch up with him and admit that this religion business is a load of dangerous rubbish. He’s charming, he gets things done, but in his interactions with this simple, Irish lady who can’t quite believe how nice the hotel staff are in Washington and wants to lend him romantic novels, there’s more than a hint of snobbery. It’s a snobbery that many upwardly-mobile baby-boomers can recognise in themselves when they confront sincere and arguably irrational belief.
There are about half-a-dozen fascinating stories in this film, any one of which would make a good movie in its own right. At its heart is a very good script, the kind of story you’d dismiss as ludicrous if it didn’t happen to be true, and two stellar performances from Coogan and Judi Dench. Dench is one of those actresses who becomes transparent, completely subsumed into her character. It’s an incredible performance.
A quiet movie, without razzmatazz or fireworks, that packs quite a punch.