Sunday, January 29, 2006

Herbert Marshall and Lulu?

thoroughly modern Lulu - a favourite pic

After watching The Razor’s Edge, a somewhat overlong, occasionally stodgily directed 1946 film of Somerset Maugham’s long novel (I only know it was long because the DVD also featured a brief filming of Maugham handing over the brick of a book – though they called it a manuscript, which confuses me), I wondered about the actor who played the role of the novelist in the film. Herbert Marshall. The name struck a chord with me. Hadn’t Louise Brooks had an affair with an actor called Herbert Marshall in the twenties or thirties? Hadn’t she followed him across America, in pursuit of kicks, with film folk chasing her and dragging her back to Hollywood to serve out some film contract? It seemed unlikely. Herbert Marshall was perfectly cast as Maugham in The Razor’s Edge. Middle-aged, jowly and ponderous, he had all the sex appeal of a blunt razor - yet still he had the savoir faire to command a kiss on the lips from the lovely Gene Tierney.

Louise Brooks, though, in spite of her four hundred-odd sexual partners (her vague and probably unreliable reckoning) is another affair altogether.

The very British Herbert Marshall, who apparently did a great job in the Ernst Lubitsch film Trouble in Paradise (1932), actually had only one leg. He lost the other during the first world war. The first world war and the way it changed the life of the character Lawrence Darrell, played by Tyrone Power, was a major theme of The Razor’s Edge.

As far as I know, Herbert Marshall and Lulu never made a movie together. Maybe it was E G Marshall. No, of course it wasn't E G Marshall.


Saturday, January 21, 2006

the lower right hand corner


grim beautiful Sylvia


In Brueghel’s panorama of smoke and slaughter

Two people only are blind to the carrion army:

He, afloat in the sea of her blue satin

Skirts, sings in the direction

Of her bare shoulder, while she bends,

Fingering a leaflet of music, over him,

Both of them deaf to the fiddle in the hands

Of the death’s-head shadowing their song.

These Flemish lovers flourish; not for long.

Yet desolation, stalled in paint, spares the little country

Foolish, delicate, in the lower right hand corner.

From ‘Two views of a cadaver room’, Sylvia Plath


Friday, January 20, 2006

a summery summary

I can honestly say I’ve been very busy lately, that there are plenty of excuses for not posting. I must also note that I’ve seen a great many films so far this summer that I’ve either not reviewed or partially reviewed and never posted on. A couple at the cinema but most either on DVD or TV. They include, from memory: Pride and Prejudice, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Human Nature, Donnie Darko, Lost in Translation, Sylvia, The Life and Death of Peter Sellars, All About My Mother, Manhattan, Supersize Me, Wonderland, Jesus of Montreal and Twenty-four Hour Party People, and no doubt there are some excellent films I’ve not mentioned. It’s a matter of input way exceeding outflow at the moment. Having a weakness for the triumphs and tragedies of romance, I was particularly drawn to Manhattan, Lost in Translation and Pride & Pred. For a brilliant satire on the myths and delusions around evolution and the nature/nurture conundrum, Human Nature is not to be missed. In terms of spillover complexity and the sheer messiness and ineffability of life, I’d recommend Donnie Darko and All About My Mother. If you want the horrors of junky (or base-headed) life confirmed, watch Wonderland. If you want to be mesmerised by an actor completely on top of his craft, see The Life and Death of Peter Sellars. And so on.


Thursday, January 19, 2006

fiction's gift

The early hours are best for me, increasingly. Awake before Sarah – at least this morning, for usually she rises early too, and then everything’s disturbed, with animals noising about the house and the radio on or one of those awful ‘good morning’ TV programs – I’m able to grab that half-hour or so for reading. I’m reading John Murray’s ‘A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies’, stories often with a medical them running through them, but mainly about the confusion and difficulty of life and our sometimes pathetic but also inspiring attempts to wrest something out of what has been made of us. It’s a sort of modernisation of the territory Chekhov covered more than a century ago, in which details and incidents mount up to create an atmosphere, a mood and a character in whom our sympathies are totally engaged. This is the best fiction I’ve read in a while, and it reminds me of what the best stories can do for us in the moral sphere.

I recall that a few years ago I was reading a little textbook called ‘Equality’, one of those things in a commissioned series designed to introduce political ideas to uni undergraduates. Sarah’s daughter Catherine, someone for whom the term ‘chardonnay socialist’ might’ve been coined, was surprised and delighted to find me reading such a text. I was annoyed, partly because she always liked to treat me as some sort of political novice (whereas I was sure that it was she who was the novice), but more importantly because she seemed to imagine that such a book could teach anyone about real equality or inequality, or even that such concepts could be extracted from the mess of life as actually lived without being rendered more or less useless. The textbook was useful in distinguishing between the notion of equality of inputs and that of equality of outcomes. It clarified such notions as equality of opportunity and equality before the law. Good fiction, though, teaches us the hard truth that there is no equality of opportunity, no equality before the law, and that inputs and outcomes are as hard to measure and weigh as the air on a squally day.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Je suis d’accord, François

For a long time my favourite maxim from Francois La Rochefoucauld has been:

People often complain about their memory. They never complain about their judgement.

Now, though, thanks to Steven Pinker, I’ve got a new favourite:

Our enemies’ opinion of us comes closer to the truth than our own


Gray’s anatomy – a sceptical view

Interspersed I hope with other things, I’m planning to devote several posts to a book by John Gray, apparently a professor of European thought at the London School of Economics. The book’s title is Straw Dogs: thoughts on humans and other animals.

Novelist Jim Crace described the book as enraging and engaging, and I heartily concur, especially in the order of those two words. Author Will Self raved about it, though that’s hardly a recommendation. J G Ballard described it is as ‘exhilarating’ and the best he’s read since The Selfish Gene (a book which incidentally had a great impact on me). Exhilarating isn’t a word I would’ve used, though it has certainly exercised me, and that's a big positive.

Let’s start with the first lines of the book, and the first to give me trouble. It’s in the first section, ‘science versus humanism’, of the first part, ‘the human’.

Most people today think they belong to a species that can be master of its destiny. This is faith, not science. We do not speak of a time when whales or gorillas will be masters of their destinies. Why then humans?

My first response on reading the first sentence was to ask – do they? I certainly have never, or rarely, felt that I belonged to such a species. Nor do any of the people I know, as far as I know. Of course there are times, especially in youth, when particular human achievements, such as landing on the moon, leave a thrilling, even hubristic impression of overcoming improbabilities. And there’s also the individual sense of achievement and mastery that comes when you solve a problem, make a good score, even have a good shit, which you naturally hope to apply to other areas of your life – and after all, you’re human.

When I read this first sentence out to my down-to-earth friend Sarah, however, she responded that yes, most people did think they could be masters of their destinies, with a little application, a little more discipline. That accounted for the perennial popularity of self-help and self-improvement books – the marketing of a myth of self-mastery, and other-mastery.

Not that this had much to do with science, so why was Gray bringing science into the picture? Hardly anyone would consider science when they contemplated individual mastery. Only in terms of the species would it come up, but only then, I would contend, among a small percentage of the most avid ideologues. In any case, there’s no warrant for Gray claiming to know what ‘most people today think’. I can only assume that he uses the term to give the impression that he’s a brave thinker swimming against the tide, rather than the bandwagon-jumper he may well turn out to be.

This isn’t to say that I strongly disagree with him. Like, I suspect, most people, I don’t believe we can be masters of our destiny, either as individuals or as a species. However, I suspect that we’ll always try to be, and for good reason. We’ve probably all experienced the benefits of achieving mastery in some small sphere of our life. And this sphere often grows in proportion to our mastery, and comes to dominate our life. Think of Tiger Woods. Think of anyone in fact – think of John Gray, who no doubt believes himself to be a master of Impressive Thinking, and so engages in Impressive Thinking as often as possible.

I’m sure that this striving for mastery can be explained in terms of evolutionary theory, and as such can be applied to other species. Bearing this in mind, the questions which end the first paragraph of Gray’s book, which I’ve quoted above, and which are intended to be rhetorical, are not rhetorical at all. Of course, Gray has traded on the gap between the pretentious-sounding, all-too-human term ‘master of their destiny’, and our ideas of whales and gorillas, but if you think of it in terms of greater control of their immediate environment, don’t all species indeed strive for this?

Yesterday I fed two of my cats, a mother and a son. The son is almost half again the size of the mother, and has for a long time eaten first from the bowl, with the mother sitting back and waiting. On this morning, on the way to the food bowl, the mother hissed at and attacked the son, much to her boy’s surprise. When the food came out, it was the son who held back, allowing the mother to eat first. So the mother had asserted herself and regained a modicum of control over her environment. No doubt this will be temporary, the son will recover from the shock and seek to regain control. Doubtless neither will gain complete mastery over the situation, but both will strive to achieve it. This is the simplest observation imaginable.

It isn’t a matter of faith or science, it’s completely outside the dichotomy Gray has tried to set up from the outset. It’s about human psychology, or evolutionary psychology if you will.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

indiscriminate sex: sadly a vain hope

While unsuccessfully looking for the just-right pickie of my Halle, I came across a few fascinating critiques and mentions of Bulworth, including this one by a self-styled liberal Christian named Hugo Schwyzer, a professor of history and gender studies from somewhere in the US. He quotes with a qualified enthusiasm this passage from the film:

Rich people've stayed on top, dividing white people from colored people. But white people've got more in Common with colored people than rich people. We're just gonna have to eliminate 'em.
Connie: Eliminate?
Bulworth: Eliminate.
Connie: Who? Rich people?
Bulworth: White people.
Bulworth: Black People, too. Brown people, Yellow people. Get rid of 'em all.
Connie: Get rid of them all?
Bulworth: We need a voluntary, free Spirited, compatible, open ended program of procreative racial deconstruction.
Connie: Uh...
Bulworth: Everybody just got to keep fucking everybody till we're all the same color.

Here, Beatty is giving his amusingly libertine twist to the melting pot fantasy, one which I first heard enunciated in the ‘What we need is a great big melting pot’ song of circa 1970. As I recall, it was a black singer who mused about churning out ‘coffee-colored people by the score’, which no doubt would’ve rendered the idea more palatable to we ‘developed’ whites who would've felt guilty about not wanting too much of our colour or culture to be blended away in the pot.

It was an idea with particular appeal to the young, I think. Just as it’s the young who forge new languages, creoles, in the intersecting of different language groups, because their primary interest is communication rather than preservation, so their interest in interconnection and bonding would transcend their cultural baggage, what little of it they have. Kids are too little to carry their own stuff, their parents and elders carry it for them, and that includes their culture. Consequently they don’t have that much respect for their culture and would toss it all out if it got in the way of their more or less immediate needs.

In contrast, most elders are weighed down and hedged in by their culture. They carry it for themselves and their children and their children’s children. They even come to revel in their status as repositories.

So you might say that the melting pot myth appeals to the young at heart, or the eternally naïve. Those who haven’t invested so much in their culture, or pretend they haven’t. And perhaps it doesn’t have to be culturally imperialist, but those for whom the myth appeals wouldn’t really want to give up an ounce of their easy liberality for a smidgeon of, say, Islamic fundamentalism or Hindu hierarchalism or Bantu tribalism.

Everyone who hankers after the melting pot myth, or Bulworth’s more libidinous version of it, will secretly, or not so secretly, want more than his or her fair share of influence on the resulting colorless offspring. Sounds like the beginnings of a battleground. Fact is, though, it would be much harder to blend religiosity with secularism than it would be to blend blacks with whites, or even one language with another. We derive so much pride from our separate histories and traditions and practices, for better or worse.

In any case, today we’re more divided by religion and culture than ever. As John Gray points out, with his usual sombre glee:

Everyone believed that the world was becoming steadily more secular. Yet on September 11 war and religion were as deeply intertwined as ever they had been in human history.

Human history appears to show that we’re fuelled by division.


Saturday, January 07, 2006

Bulworth breaks through

Halle Berry, the woman I love, in Bulworth

Last night a film on one of the commercials managed to grab my attention. Warren Beatty played the eponymous hero, Senator Jay Billington Bulworth, in a satire directed by himself. Bulworth is a veteran Democrat, but a conservative one, or seemingly so to judge from the television speeches and ads – it’s election time – we observe at the outset, in which welfare cuts and the elimination of affirmative action programs are touted.

However, it turns out that Bulworth is profoundly depressed, presumably at least partly because the views he espouses to get re-elected aren’t really his own. He contacts a hit-man and puts a contract out on his own life.

So, released from earthly cares he ‘cuts loose’, speaking his mind while wolfing down the free lunches at various speaking engagements organised by his increasingly anxious minders. Much of this is quite funny, and there are some telling observations (echoed by Paul Krugman in his The Great Unravelling, which I’ve recently read), such as that the real reason ‘privatisation’ is so profitable compared to public ownership, for example in health insurance, is that private companies decide to keep 24c in the dollar of premiums paid, compared to 3c in the dollar for government health schemes. Don’t know if it’s true but it sounds convincing. And more of the same is served up, on corporate media ownership and the lameness of the press, on campaign funding, on the real importance of the black vote and such-like.

From his first speech in a black church, a group of young black women hook up with him, and somehow osmotically transform him, by the end of the film, into a white black dude, complete with classy yank wide boy clobber, an obsessive interest in mother-fucking and those endearing hand gestures that drive women as insane as they do me.

Released just as the 2000 presidential campaign was hotting up, it’s a film with even greater relevance after five years of GOP hegemony. And where it’s self-indulgent, it’s forgiveable to a mid-life-crisis-ridden-wannabe-libertine male like me. I mean, I’ve never seen Halle Berry in a film before, but she was totally rivetting here (but it must be said that she conforms to a certain pattern of successful black actresses who look and sound more white than the blacks around her – she was apparently raised by her single white mother), and her machine-gun speech on the reason for a lack of contemporary black leadership was as delicious as her dirty dancing. A worthy late-night distraction.


Monday, January 02, 2006

some reflections on the idea of christianity

Christianity has evolved and adapted itself from a messianic cult to a world religion, with the key to its spread being the application of universal meaning to the particular circumstances of Jesus’ life and death.

The original Jesus appears to have been both a religious and political figure, apparently standard for messianic figures of the time. The Jewish Messiah or Mashiach is a king of the line of David (whose very existence is disputed), who will be greater than Solomon and who will bring freedom to the Jews in the land of Israel. He is a figure of fantasy, but more or less completely of this world. Orthodox, conservative, reform and reconstructionist Jews disagree on the meaning of the Mashiach and the world he will help to create for Jews and Gentiles. It helps to keep them occupied.

Christianity also uses the messiah term, choosing Jesus of Nazareth, a radical preacher who found himself at odds with Jewish religious authorities and who was crucified about 1970 years ago, as their messiah, or christ (both terms refer to someone who is ‘anointed’, though what this means isn’t entirely clear).

All of the facts about Jesus are in dispute, and some scholars question whether he ever existed. However, apart from the gospels, none of which appear to have been written in Jesus’ lifetime, there are other non-Jewish references to him – for example, in Tacitus.

The gospel authors are the first to associate Jesus with the term messiah. They also promoted the idea of his resurrection and the performance of miracles. Belief in miracles was common at the time and strongly promoted by the Pharisees, an emergent group in the complexity of Jewish religious and political life.

The idea of resurrection was no doubt more important than the performance of miracles in the transformation of Jesus into a god, and the creation of a new religion.

Once resurrection, and thus god-like status, was established in the minds of those willing to believe, the question naturally arose about why Jesus should suffer, be allowed to suffer, allow himself to suffer, such an excruciating death. Ideas then would’ve begun to emerge about the meaning of the death of Jesus (now established as Christ).

It’s hardly surprising that these ideas would’ve been influenced by aspects of the Jewish religion from which Christianity was beginning to emerge, most notably the ‘fall of man’ or ‘original sin’ concept.

The fall of man story is an attempt to explain human imperfection. We were once godlike. Perhaps we were once the children of god, like Jesus. The crime or sin we then committed is unclear. We ate of forbidden fruit. Was it the fruit we ate that caused our decline (amusingly, the pardoner in Chaucer’s ‘The Pardoner’s Tale’ excoriates humankind for the first sin of gluttony, citing this story, and maybe he’s right) or the fact that it was forbidden? If the latter, then the story is telling us that our great crime is disobedience.

But there are other elements to confuse this story. We’re told more than that the fruit is forbidden, we’re told that it contains the knowledge of good and evil. It’s unclear what this actually means, never mind the idea that having such knowledge should be so disastrous for humanity.

But leaving aside this vexed question, the story of the fall tells us that we were thrown out of the garden, that we lost our godly estate, due to sin. Jesus, established as a god, could not challenge the long-established god of the Jews. His followers, promoters and propagandists had to establish a relationship between himself and the god they knew. They had also to maintain monotheism, a great innovation I think, in the god invention business, comparable to the invention of the wheel in the transport business. The idea of Jesus as the son of god was not long in coming. It’s mentioned in the gospels. With this development, the earthly Jesus became the locus of a number of ideas rich with contradiction. He was a god and master, but the son and subordinate of god the father, he was an ordinary man but also man before the fall, without sin, and he was the messiah, king of the Jews, harbinger of the great Jewish time to come, for with the resurrection came the promise of return.

In order to preserve monotheism and its great advantage of control (obedience to the one god), the godness of Jesus had to be incorporated into that monotheism without violating it. The concept of the holy trinity, father and son and holy spirit, or one god in three persons (accept one and you get two more free), has been the subject of mountains of theological speculation and justification, but essentially it’s a convenient fiction to account for Jesus’ divinity, and to release the possibility of Christianity. The triune nature of the god is an especially ingenious development for masking its own purpose in that regard.

So to the complex over-supply of meanings attached to Christ’s being, we must add the meaning attached to his death, and his role of redeemer of sins or, saviour.

The idea that Jesus ‘saves’ or that he ‘redeems’ us or that we achieve redemption through him seems a particularly puzzling one. What do we need saving from?

Of course, the standard response is that Jesus redeems us from our sins. We’re also told that Jesus died for our sins, and that ‘god so loved the world that he gave his only son’. For what? Again the stock answer is – so that whosoever believes in him shall have eternal life.’

Christianity stakes all its credentials, in essence, on an interpretation of Jesus’ death based on suffering and sacrifice, in exchange for the wiping out of ‘sin’; and all sin, be it clearly understood, is born of the first sin, the sin of disobedience. It’s a bizarre scenario, to say the least, and one which, if accepted, puts humans in a more abject position with regard to their own invention than just about any other scenario that has been invented. But of course we humans are far from done with creating bizarre settings for the playing out of our lives.


pavlov's cat