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Saturday, 21 January 2017

Trinitarianism

The American films being trailed in British cinemas during the week of Donald Trump's inauguration as US President offer an unintentionally wry commentary on contemporary events, highlighting both the power and weakness of the Obama years. Jackie's evocation of "Camelot" (and Natalie Portman's reinvention of JFK as "a great proponent" of civil rights) reminds us of how narrative has long trumped actual politics, while Loving's collision of human desire and the state celebrates the progressive values of due process and decorum. The bleak and unforgiving language of Trump's inaugural address - "carnage", "tombstones", "urban sprawl", "windswept plains" - was a calculated repudiation of Obama's "hope" and "change" in favour of "fear" and "revenge", while the blunt policy promises - America first, protection, the eradication of "radical Islam" - suggest that a liberal resistance based on peaceful marches and polite editorials will fare no better than appeals to the Supreme Court. Short of the ritual sacrifice of Black Lives Matter activists (the scene was weirdly reminiscent of Apocalypto) it would be hard to imagine a more thuggish performance.

The films that actually landed in early January appear to have less contemporary relevance, being self-consciously antique in different ways. The best of them was Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester by the Sea, which featured an excellent performance by Casey Affleck amid a strong supporting cast. The title sounds like an opening stage direction, indicating the theatrical nature of the film. Though never actually stagey - the acting is restrained and well-judged, even when it veers towards comedy - it has strong echoes of Eugene O'Neill, notably A Long Day's Journey Into Night. Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a janitor (or "custodian") in flight from tragedy and guilt who is drawn back to the scene of his suffering by family obligation: the death of his brother who leaves a teenage son. It is a very Catholic story (there is one ironic reference to the religion), concerned with the idea of guilt as a burden. Affleck is shown as a man who appears to be carrying a permanent weight, and when not speaking he is often carting boxes or shifting snow from one place to another.


Lee shoulders the burden of his brother's death: the tedious logistics of mortuary and burial, the demands of the will (that he care for the son), and the resentment of the town at the return of this prodigal. All of the other characters try to put more burdens on him, from the selfish tenants of the apartments where he works in Boston exile to his sixteen year old nephew, Patrick, who has to be ferried from school to band practice to romantic trysts. In the climactic scene, Lee's ex-wife attempts to relieve her own guilt at having blamed him for the death of their three kids in a fire (the key reveal that is rightly held till late in the story). Lee gently but firmly refuses to take that burden from her - he has his own - which is the moment of catharsis that allows him to move forward with his life. Set on the Massachusetts coast, there are lots of shots across water to nearby islands and discussions about getting from one place to another, or failures to find parked cars or particular roads. Replacing the failing engine of his brother's boat becomes a central symbol of both movement and renewal. Lee Chandler is a New England St Christopher.

The family name hints at crime detection and in one scene we see Lee reading a Dashiell Hammett novel. The point is not that a crime needs to be solved, but that we live in permanent guilt - i.e. the notion of original sin. Lee is surprised, after telling the police that his own drug-induced negligence with a fire guard probably caused the fatal accident, to be told that he can go, as if he were a meddling gumshoe they couldn't pin anything on. The power of Affleck's performance stems from the struggle between self-hatred and compassion, which touches not only on the Catholic ideals of humility and suffering but the modernist trope of the lonely but honourable hero: "down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean", as the other Chandler put it. There are a number of touches that remind you of old Raymond: the more dramatically interesting a female character, the more unreliable she is; the big, bluff guy is the one most likely to cry; the lawyers and other middle class drones are empty husks etc.

The trinity is prominent. In an early scene, a bartender asks Lee "Did you see the game last night ... have they got a chance?", to which Lee mournfully responds: "they'll drop [i.e. lose] the next three". In his bare cellar room, the screen is split into a triptych: the back of a TV showing a game, Lee slumped on a sofa and in the distance three picture frames on a dresser - the children he's lost. At one point, having forgotten where he parked the car, Lee and Patrick head one way, then the other, and finally orthogonally: a truncated cross marked by their weary, cold bodies (the freezing and warming of flesh is a motif). This attention to small, often initially baffling detail makes it a film that rewards a sober and critical engagement. In contrast, the more ironic and sensual La La Land demands our easy surrender to the moment from the off. Some critics cited Jacques Demy's Les Parapluies de Cherbourg as an influence on the opening scene (and overall story arc), but it looked to me like the ideal world of modern tech: the diverse but funky crowd of an Apple advert clothed in the vibrant colours of Google.


The film emphasises communication and how music and cinema both allow different (even incompatible) people to connect and share. There are snaps and souvenirs aplenty, but also the sense of instant nostalgia. I was reminded of Picasa (already history) and Pinterest. The technology (smartphones, tablets) is ubiquitous but unobtrusive. The festishisation is reserved for antiques: a stool, a piano, an old car. The film shares Demy's fascination with the trappings of modernity but also his respect for the symbols of the past. It's a time-travel film, not just in its homage to Hollywood musicals and 50s jazz but in the flashbacks, discontinuities and use of counterfactual history (the climax is essentially a riff on Sliding Doors). At times the central characters, Ryan Gosling as Sebastian, a frustrated pianist, and Emma Stone as Mia, an aspiring actress, appear to inhabit different decades, which is naturally no hindrance to them falling in love but makes their ultimate separation oddly painless.

Everything is raw material for reuse, from childhood memories to 80s synth-pop. Rebellion is recuperated as ambition, while ambition is redefined as self-actualisation. The cost of that ambition is offset by the gain: neither protagonist truly suffers and their regret is for the loss of one possible history, not dissatisfaction with their actual lot. The direction is not merely vibrant but unmoored. At one point Sebastian and Mia become lighter than air and you feel that only the ceiling of the Griffith Observatory (which appears both "as itself" and in Rebel Without a Cause) prevents them floating away. Despite the nods to backstory you never really get the sense that these characters have a hinterland beyond their essentially clich├ęd dreams. Following the success of WhiplashLa La Land confirms Damien Chazelle as a housetrained Tarantino in his "kinetic" directing and fanboy film chops, but it also suggests that he is too respectful of the canon and too enamoured of the surface. He lacks Tarantino's bite as much as Demy's pathos.

Martin Scorsese's Silence, which is based on the novel by Shusaku Endo, is a tale about the paradox of monotheism: an omniscient and omnipresent god who appears not to listen. This is contrasted with the nature worship of Shinto - the spiritual essence of Japan despite the instrumental value of Buddhism - in which the higher power is distracted or disinterested but may be cajoled into listening. From Mean Streets to The Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese's persistent interest as a film-maker has been in personal struggle and crisis, which presumably reflects his own background as a failed seminarian. Silence is about the instrumentality of crisis. The first half of the film shows small people intimidated by large landscapes. The air is grey and sombre with a sense of uncertainty: mists, smoke, tall grasses swaying in the breeze. The sea is cold and near-black. It ends with a beachside crucifixion that echoes Goya's The Disasters of War. The second half, which also marks the transition from countryside to town, is colourful, ordered and precise. The one moment of shocking violence is like a Noh play.


The plot concerns two Portuguese Jesuit priests, Rodrigues and Garupe, played by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver, who infiltrate 17th century Japan at a time of anti-Christian persecution in search of their spiritual mentor, Father Ferreira. It soon becomes clear that what the clandestine native Christians value in their adopted religion is not the austere theology but the promise of a release from earthly suffering and the assurance of uncritical forgiveness for their sins. This leads them to both embrace martyrdom and, in the person of Kichijiro, played by Yosuke Kubozuka, to pathologically betray the Jesuits in order to provide justification for confession. Dramatically, the second half revolves around Rodrigues's separate interviews with the apostate Ferreira, played by Liam Neeson, and the grand inquisitor (Endo owes an obvious debt to Dostoevsky), played with amused relish by Issey Ogata. It is the ultimate refusal of Rodrigues to continue with the pattern of self-indulgent despair that provides the climax to the film when he apostatises to save the lives of others.

Silence is a philosophical work in its concern with "being in the world". The echoes of Heidegger go beyond the existential to the role of language (there is much discussion of translation as well as actual translating) and the sense of belonging (the inability of Christianity to take root in the "swamp" of Japan). Despite this, I doubt it will find favour with nationalists. Though Manchester by the Sea has a topically "white working class" milieu, there is little that speaks to the political moment and good reason to see it as a more profoundly Catholic film than Scorsese's adaptation of Endo. In such company, La La Land can seem shallow, but the knowing celebration of its own shallowness is part of its charm and there is enough directorial flair to justify a second viewing. Considered comparatively, the films turn respectively on choice, fate and chance, or perhaps the father, the son and the holy spirit of Jazz (don't try and claim you didn't know that was coming). The stand-out is Lonergan's study of guilt, which is class conscious but never reduced to the schematic. As a study of contemporary America, it has a rare richness and depth. Let's hope the Trainspotting sequel is half as good.

4 comments:

  1. Herbie Destroys the Environment22 January 2017 at 09:24

    Apparently Obama dropped 26,000 bombs in 2016, and moreover 90% of the drone strikes he ordered hit the wrong target!

    Good riddance bad president!

    This is why the million woman March and all the Liberal tears really just make me want to puke.

    It is interesting how the liberals are using Russia as a scapegoat in the victory of Trump. We see this time and again, the need to project the actual decision of ordinary people onto some nefarious other, in this case Russia. So the liberals cannot rationalise that it was actual real life Americans who entered the ballot box and put a tick against Trump but have to divert the blame to the Russia. In this way the liberals are not so different to the far right, who like to use the old scapegoat tactic now and again!

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    1. There's more to the Putin bogey than simple projection - i.e. avoiding the question as to why the Democrats lost. As you saw with Trump's rhetoric in his inaugural address - "The wealth of our middle class has been ripped from their homes and then redistributed all across the world" - the far right manoeuvre involves both an alien enemy and (implicitly in this quote) a native traitor.

      This is not simple populism - the antipathy towards elites - but the suggestion that the wrong elite are in charge: that they've sold the country out ("a bad deal"). It is therefore a critique of the establishment. You can see this in the way that Trump on day 1 both continued his verbal assault on the media (the old establishment) and attempted to get the CIA on side (the new elite cutting a deal with the old apparatus).

      The liberal demonisation of Russia has focused on the perceived corruption of the institutions of the Republic: elections, "news", the FBI etc. As such this is a plea for the defence of the establishment, which is why it is failing to gain popular traction. The demos yesterday made little of it, being more focused on pre-emptive defence of abortion and healthcare.

      The anti-Trump forces in US society are still divided between establishment liberals emphasising propriety and the popular mass offended by what they anticipate will be assaults on their rights and social gains. Instead of getting wound up by the WH spokesman telling bare-faced lies, liberals ought to be insisting that the repeal of the ACA should lead to the introduction of a full single-payer health system. Don't hold your breath.

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    2. Herbie Destroys the Environment22 January 2017 at 14:45

      I think I am making the point that the liberals are no better than Trump and in some ways worse because they do try and occupy the moral high ground. Whereas with Trump there isn’t much pretence of that. And I don’t think by liberals I mean liberal elites but the liberal guy on the street. I saw an interview with some ordinary folk on the liberal anti Trump march and it was Putin this and Russia that. Clearly they have no qualms about playing the scapegoat card when it suits.

      Also if the liberals have a problem with the US electoral system maybe they would get more credibility if they voiced that when one of the murderous liberals was in charge! If you accept the voting system as it stands it is really pathetic actually to complain when the vote goes against you, as if that isn’t implicit in the system! It is even more sickening that you protest after staying silent to a President who has dropped 26,000 bombs in a single year and has a, let us be charitable, appalling record when it comes to hitting the right targets! Oh and the cherry on the cake is that under Obama the mass surveillance society with its clear illiberal totalitarian implications grow exponentially and the liberals remained all but mute on the subject.

      I can only hope that Trump uses the mass spy network to document every single liberal in America with the intention of ‘dealing with them’ in sizable batches and that their anticipations about assaults on their rights are an understatement. Now that would be beautiful irony!

      To sum the above up in a single line, the ‘elites’ and the ‘establishment’ are the very least of our problems!

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    3. Herbie:

      The problem with contemporary liberalism is its obsession with rhetoric and abstract principle rather than procedures and institutions. Thus they are obsessed with the idea of a 'good president' who, like Obama, can talk in their 'language' and who gives the veneer of the state a shine of diversity and managerial competence.

      If anything, someone like Trump has let the cat out of the bag. His own rhetoric and style is almost ridiculously instrumental in its play for certain groups and their interests and identities, while his open grasp at the flag with his 'America first' claims and promise to 'make America great again' have exposed the USA's claim to be the benevolent hegemon that aims to rule for the good of the world.

      Unfortunately I think it will take Democrats and liberals a long time to stop seeing the political process in terms of electing a good or evil chief executive and more in taking the democratic process they claim to love to the lower levels of politics where their influence has become so weak.

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