Johnny Cash, Hurt, and a particular falsehood

(Note – this piece will make more sense if you’ve seen the video for ‘Hurt’, by Johnny Cash. It’s linked here.)

I wanted to share this video, ‘Hurt’, and what I felt about it.

There is the simplicity of Cash’s gestures, the honesty; think of how he runs his hand over the piano at the end, as if he wasn’t being filmed.  That looks almost natural, as if the camera has caught a genuine, honest human gesture: the instinct to touch, without thought.

There is the honesty with which Cash sings, attempting to express the anger and vulnerability of the song:

‘I wear this crown of thorns,                                                                                                     upon my liars chair,                                                                                                                   Full of broken thoughts,                                                                                                             I cannot repair.’        (1:48)

There are the images, fragments of film from throughout Cash’s life; concerts, his old home, time spent with his children, and nights spent in prison. There is the life that these images create. For this was a man who suffered, and who made mistakes: through the poverty of his early years, the death of his brother, the break-up of his first marriage, his recurrent battles with drug abuse and finally, the death of his beloved June Carter, months before his own death. This video  succeeds in depicting such a memorable, painful life as Cash’s; it suggests a profound humanity, through the combination of archive footage and the honest, ‘unrehearsed’ performance of the singer. To repeat my earlier point, Cash doesn’t seem to be wearing the mask of a performer here. This all looks real. And perhaps, when you’ve suffered as he had, and you have only a few years left to live, why  waste time performing? Even if such honesty means admitting that you haven’t ‘succeeded’ in life.

Such honesty counters a particular lie; that old age means peace, contentment, and ‘homecoming’, after  life of struggle and success. Sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes there is little or no success. Sometimes there is regret, doubt, frustration, and grief, and a desire to have it back, all that time, and try and make it right.

‘If I could start again,                                                                                                                A million miles away,
I would keep myself,
I would find away.’             (3:12)

I think that, if I could find it, I would like more art, more performances like this. More honesty.

Dear.. Um…

There is a question that has been running round my head, the last few days, one that is some way beyond my ability to answer.

That question is… When, and why, did the first human beings decide to pray?

Assumptions. By ‘pray’, I mean ‘try and communicate with the divine being or beings, who are clearly ‘distinct’ from the material world: they inhabit some other level of reality. But I could mean ‘experience an awareness of something, some presence or force, that cannot be (easily) attributed to a natural cause.

The only ideas I have at the moment are Rob Bell’s, from his ‘The Gods Aren’t Angry’ speaking tour. Here, Bell makes the argument that we pray and sacrifice to the Gods in order to keep them happy, so that they bless us with food, shelter, victory, and in their anger don’t decide to destroy us. Example: it hasn’t rained, so we sacrifice to the Rain God, so that she will forgive us whatever we’ve done, and make it rain. If it still doesn’t rain, we give more. And more. And more…

(I would highly recommend this lecture, available on Youtube. Bell goes on to describe how the bible’s God upsets this notion of the need for sacrifice. Instead of requiring Abraham to sacrifice his son, he provides a ram in his place. This isn’t a God for whom you have to provide, it’s a God who provides for you….   watch it)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nMd58qOxhYs

 

If anyone else has any ideas on this matter, or any literature with which to begin, I would be grateful.

 

Peace

On Needing Forests

There are two ‘forests’ within a metro journey of Paris centre: The Bois de Vincennes and the Bois de Boulogne (Bois means ‘wood’). They are in fact large wooded parks with little clusters of trees, cycle-paths, and artificial lakes, of a kind I took for granted in Surrey. There is sunlight through the trees, there is shade, there are stretches of grass at the centre where you can, if you want, close your eyes and pretend you’re in the wild, somewhere.

And there is quiet – that is, quiet not intruded upon by traffic, by car alarms, by sirens. A silence in which you’re not, at some unconscious level, always aware of the people walking around you or of the car that might swerve onto the pavement. A quiet that lets other things; a dog barking, a parrot (there are a lot of those, escapees, in the Bois de Vincennes), or your own breathing rise gently to your attention.

‘Where can I go from your presence, where can I flee from your presence?’ asks the writer of Psalm 139. Neither in Heaven nor in the grave nor on the wings of the dawn or in the distant sea… But what about here, in the heart of a busy, noisy city? I’d always thought that God lives in silence, and here silence is fleeting, something to be treasured. Where is God at a crowded intersection, on the metro, in a room where you can hear the traffic from dawn until evening?

Or to ask a different question: is quiet; that is, space away from the perpetual hubbub of civilisation; a lake or a forest for example; is this essential to a healthy life, a healthy spirituality?  Do we need to go and find quiet, and space, in order to be alone with ourselves and with God?

I’ll think about this some more. Watch this space for further posts.

(and comments are always appreciated :))

Monsters

A monster is a creature is sole function is to terrify, to devour, to destroy. They are the property of fiction. Mindless brutes that kill without reason, or food, or those that possess a semblance of personality, of cunning that are always more terrifying. One thinks in the first instance of a troll, or a kraken; in the second of a vampire, or something dead, or perhaps ‘The Silence’ from Dr. Who. It is the latter who always the more terrifying.

Monsters inhabit stories, fables, myth. They are not real. It may the case that in our world, in reality, there are no monsters; no true, pure, only monsters, that carry no vestige of humanity. Because perhaps, even the ‘monsters’ of the real world have something human, something… endearing about them. I am reminded of Chinua Achebe’s poem ‘Vultures’, which depicts the Commandant at Belsen ‘stopping at the wayside sweet shop to pick up a chocolate for tender offspring waiting at home for Daddy’s return.’ He can still smell the smell of human flesh clinging to his nostrils.

And then there is a passage in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale,  in which the mistress of a camp commander defends her lover. ‘People say he was a monster but he was not.’

   Probably he had some endearing trait: he whistled, off-key, in the shower, he had a yen for truffles, he called his dog Liebchen and made it sit up for little pieces of steak. How easy it is to invent a humanity, for anyone at all.  A big child, she would have said to herself. Her heart would have melted, she’d have smoothed the hair back from his forehead, kissed him on the ear, and not just to get something out of him, either. The instinct to soothe, to make better. There there, she’d say, as he woke from a nightmare. Things are so hard for you. All this she would have believed, otherwise how could she have kept on living?’

                                                                                                Margaret Atwood, the Handmaid’s Tale                                                                                                                       (Vintage, 1996), pp. 155-156

   Perhaps there are no monsters, no pure, only-monsters. Monsters without anything human about them, in some way. Nor are there Peoples, groups, cultures, religions that are only monstrous. We know that.

   Perhaps the term ‘Monster’ is in some way a boundary, a barrier that denotes the line between acceptable and unacceptable, clean and impure, between human and monster. Monsters, in stories, exist beyond the city walls, and can be kept there, at bay. They can be chained, punished, culled. They are not like us.

Perhaps. It may also be that the things monsters do are so terrible they eliminate their capacity for empathy, for understanding, or finally for repentance. The last petal falls and they remain as monster for ever.

   Perhaps. Atwood also writes, ‘How easy it is to invent a humanity, for anyone at all.’

Argo: History, Complicity, Intervention & Consequence

Ben Affleck’s Oscar-winning film Argo raises difficult questions about western interventionism, complicity, and the value of an individual life.

The plot is as follows. In the aftermath of the 1979 Iranian revolution, crowds storm the American embassy in Tehran, incited by America’s support of ousted dictator Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi and his brutal regime. They take most of the embassy staff hostage. But six embassy staff, having taken refuge in the home the Canadian Ambassador, are in far greater danger, out of the world’s gaze, in a country where anti-American feeling has reached fever-point, and where score-settling, lynching and violence have become commonplace.  The CIA, including top ‘exfiltration’ man Tony Mendez (Affleck) attempt a rescue, which involves concocting a fake movie named ‘Argo’, and fake, Canadian identities for the six, as members of the film crew, on location scout.

After a tense journey through the airport, including several skin-of-the-teeth escapes, the six and Mendez finally board their flight out of Iran, cueing tearful celebrations on the plane and back in America. Mendez reunites with his estranged wife and son, receives a medal for his actions, and the film ends with a sense that everything has been set to rights.

Except that clearly it hasn’t. Most of the embassy staff remain hostage, and will for another 360 days. Iranian anger at America and American intervention remains. As, for that matter, does the system of power that allows a powerful nation to manipulate the fate of a smaller one for the sake of its own interests.

Professor Juan Cole draws attention to the Argo’s failure to address American complicity in the deposed Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi crimes. He explains how the Shah’s secret police were installed by the US, in cooperation with far-right Iranian soldiery, and how America’s use of Iran as a spy base against the Soviet Union gave it an interest in maintaining the Shah’s regime.

Jian Ghomeshi criticises the film’s ‘deeply troubling portrayal of the Iranian people, who appear almost unanimously as ‘hordes of hysterical, screaming, untrustworthy, irrational, bearded and legal antagonists,’ not one of whom, in Ghomeshi’s view, is represented sympathetically.

I think the film is a little more nuanced than Ghomeshi gives it credit for. During a scene at the bazaar, we encounter a particularly aggressive man, whose anger, it transpires, results from the fact that ‘the Shah killed his son with an American gun’. At other times, the new Iranian authority’s PR statements set out Iranian accusations against American imperialism. But on the whole, Cole and Ghomeshi give fair, reasoned accounts of the film’s inherent tensions, in its depiction of the Iranian people, and its account of Iranian history and America’s involvement.

But what interests me is not what the film omits, in terms of history, complicity and imperialism, but the window it opens onto global systems of power, and of the value that such systems give one life, over and against another – namely: the value of a western life over that of a Muslim, or eastern, life.

One scene in particular seemed to highlight these differences in value. Sahar, the Canadian ambassador’s housekeeper, appears later in the film as a refugee, fleeing Iran. She carries few possessions, besides her clothes. Earlier, she demonstrated as much courage as anyone in the film by refusing to give away the identity of the fugitives to an inquiring state officer, and yet where is her rescue mission? Her security? None exist. She is forced to flee her homeland, guiltless of any crime, with no government authority taking an interest in her affairs. It is to the film’s credit it that we are shown her fate; that she is not simply forgotten, amongst the celebration and relief of the Americans’ escape. But in doing so, the film raises difficult questions, about the value of her life, as a non-westerner, compared to the lives of the six embassy staff.

America and Canada’s attempts to save the six embassy staff were laudable. But it is the reality of our world that not all peoples are blessed with the same level of security, and that in general, western, white citizens enjoy more security than those of Islamic, or African, or oriental societies, or of hundreds of indigenous societies around the globe. Furthermore, the causes of this dissonance, this unfair distortion of value are in part the result of American and European action, throughout history. As Professor Cole makes clear, the context of Argo is one of Western complicity in a brutal regime, a cost paid in order to gain advantage over Communist Russia, at the expense of individuals in places like Iran, individuals like the father, whose son was killed by an American gun.

An opinion piece by Mohsin Hamid, a Muslim, a writer and a journalist, accurately summarises the tensions surrounding Western foreign policy and its consequences, intended or otherwise, which can be traced through Argo. Hamid, alongside his generous praise if American values, draws our attention to ‘the accreted residue of many years of U.S. foreign policies,’ and their enormous, devastating consequences. A case in point – Hamid describes how, growing up in Lahore, Pakistan, the city’s relative safety was shattered, due to the appearance of weapons and cheap heroin, by-products of America’s proxy-war against the Soviet Union in neighbouring Afghanistan. The CIA supported the establishment of jihadist training camps in rural Pakistan from which the weapons and heroin (the currency used to buy the Afghan warlords) gradually filtered through to Lahore, sparking a crime wave and ‘putting an end to [Hamid’s] days of pedalling unsupervised through the streets.’

Incidents like these, Hamid writes, form only ‘minor footnotes’ in U.S history, but for the nations affected, they can shape the experience of a generation. The events that form the context for Argo fit within this category – relatively unimportant to the life of an ordinary American; world-shaping for an Iranian. Argo, in my opinion, gives us a valuable window onto this reality, where Western interests, possibly well-intentioned, have bitter consequences, far from Western soil, where the citizens do not enjoy the same protection from violence and turmoil as we, in the West, are privileged to enjoy.

To conclude, I enjoyed Argo, as an intelligent, well-made piece of art. It is to the film’s credit that it engages with this ‘footnote’ in American and British history, and the consequences that were felt in the nation of Iran.  I think the tensions inherent in the film – creating a victorious, triumphant narrative with the rescue of the embassy staff, when the causes of the Iran-America hostility remain unresolved – I think that these raise questions, about systems of power that govern global affairs, and the damage, intended or otherwise, those systems might have. In addition, it raises questions about the value of a western life versus that of a non-western life; whether, on account of her race, religion or skin colour, an individual should not be afforded the security enjoyed by others, citizens of the powerful, privileged west.

The Prestige

Wonder was, for me, the dominant emotion I felt when watching this movie, even the second, third, fourth time. Wonder’ mirroring Angier’s, the foolish, obsessive magician, or Cutter, his wary ingénieur, when presented with the ‘wizard’ Tesla’s machines, and their implications. David Julyan’s score was particularly effective in adding to that effect, its subtle ambience contributing to a texture of awe, of fear, over the strange frightening possibilities presented in screen. (Though for some critics, the score was dull, or merely functional, succeeding in the context of the film but not on its own merit. Not being a film score critic, I’ll avoid sliding into that debate.)

This film raises questions about the nature of magic, wonder, progress, and exploration. It is, in part, a film about a visionary, Nicola Tesla, and the seemingly limitless possibilities afforded by scientific advancement. ‘Nothing is impossible,’ Tesla tells Angiers on their first meeting, when Angiers commissions Tesla to build him his impossible machine. ‘Nothing is impossible… what you ask is merely expensive.’ Or, ‘You are familiar with the phrase, “Man’s reach exceeds his grasp?” It’s a lie. Man’s grasp exceeds his imagination.’

Is ‘wonder’ the result of appreciating the possibilities that exist, or could exist, thanks to modern science? Is The Prestige a science fiction film, dealing with events that, though they are not possible in the real world, can seem otherwise, through the modern narrative of scientific progress?

But the possibilities with which this film deals, the machine it depicts, cannot be explained by or even theorised by any branch of science. It is impossible to duplicate a top-hat, or a cat, or a fully-grown man, and it is hard to imagine this ever changing. Often, the film’s characters refer to Tesla’s machine as ‘magic’, as opposed to science. Is this a film about fantasy, about impossible things that are hidden under the guise of scientific progress?

My question is, why does the impossible, the magical, carry such an allure? Why does it provoke wonder, and awe? Fantasy remains, for me, the primary form – it captures my interest most completely. And sales figures for modern fantasy novels and film would suggest that this is the case for a lot of people. Fantasy provokes wonder, fear, and the thrill of confrontation with something strange, frightening, wonderful. The Prestige, in its depiction of an impossible machine, and its awful consequences, evokes these emotions.

I think I will return to this film, in  a later, longer post. It raises multiple questions, about fantasy, wonder, magic, in which I am particularly interested.  

Shawshank

I saw this movie for the second time, a few days ago. I began with the intention of analysing it – of ‘reading’ it, like a novel, or perhaps more like a poem. Pulling apart its technique, its voices, its tensions, like sifting through your hand through tiny clockwork pieces of machine. Gears. Screw-heads. Wires. Motors. I gave this up, ten minutes in. The narrative is so compelling, even in its minor characters; Tommy, Brooks Hatlen. It seemed to fit together so rightly, in its pacing and movement, its series of small victories; the roof-tanning, the diploma, the empty cell, escape. It was long, longer than I would have expected, but even its side-notes, the scenes that weren’t necessarily part of its main narrative – Andy Dufresne’s descent, transformation of, and escape from Shawshank Prison – even they captivated: other, well-lived rooms in its many-roomed house. Brooks Hatlen’s journey, outside, for example. Red’s similar journey, and its different, hopeful conclusions. Even those.

The first of these, Brooks’ time in the halfway house, in the grocer’s packing bags, in the park looking for Jake, his one-time companion, were for me the film’s most emotive, perplexing scenes. Perhaps, it was the difference in tone, emotionally, between these and the main body of the film. Most of the film’s scenes are triumphant, in its depiction of Dufresne’s victories, over the warden, the gaurds, over Shawshank. Or, they depict the dark, ugly realities of prison life – beatings, assaults, brutality, the closing down of escape-routes, which serve to heighten the catharsis of Dufresne’s series of victories. Such scenes, violent, cruel, or hope-filled and triumphant, operate as an organic whole. Bruce’s scenes seem disconnected, almost. There isn’t a task to be completed, outside. No need to redeem one’s surroundings, as in Shawshank. Bruce Hatlen drifts through ordinary, friendless days, anonymous. His story is the quieter, sadder note in the film’s triumphant movement which, for me, gives it its resonance; its power to stay in the mind long after the film’s close.

I don’t have a whole lot to say about this film, yet at least. It seems to work, as one, integrated piece of work. None of its rooms seem any way superfluous, as if they don’t contribute to the effect of the whole.

One more thing: Captain Hadley reminds me of an older, slightly less comic incarnation of Biff, from the Back to the Future Films. It’s the eyes, I think. And the smile.