Another excellent counter-intuitive thesis is advanced by Gillian Tett in this morning’s Financial Times (on counter-intuitive theses, see this previous post). Now a celebrated economic journalist but originally a cultural anthropologist, Tett spent time living with, and observing, remote Tibetan communities in Tibet and Tajikistan, where ‘Each night, piles of people would all sleep in the same room, or tent. If somebody was not sleeping or eating well, it became a matter of wider knowledge and debate.’ Personally, Tett found that extremely intrusive, being used to Western-style ‘privacy’. Until recently, she writes ‘I vaguely assumed that societies tended to shed this group pattern when they got richer. After all, the broad sweep of history suggests that most cultures have become more individualistic over time, as wealth gives people more freedom to break away from the group.’ But now Tett wonders whether the digital revolution isn’t undermining such assumed trends. Over and beyond the way young people think little nowadays of posting a great deal of private information on such social networks as Twitter and Facebook, she cites a new trend in New York, whereby young professionals have started wearing monitoring devices that share information about such intimate aspects of their lives as sleeping patterns, exercise and eating habits. One can see the competitive logic and the use of peer group pressure to maintain self-discipline but, still, Tett sees this development as ‘one more sign of the degree to which most of us want to remain inside a social group.’ We are never too far, it seems, from that communal sleeping space.
Hmmm….. Somebody clearly thought this film was a good idea. Take eight top drawer actors and actresses (including stars like Judi Dench and Maggie Smith), make them show just how brilliant they are by giving them a pretty pedestrian plot reminiscent of the Carry On era, and set the whole thing in India. And it worked – at least, in the UK, from where most of this film’s gross earnings apparently came. The plot’s central device is the ‘outsourcing’ of ageing British singles and couples to a cheaper, but more anarchic and colourful, India. Cue an on form Dev Patel, hot from Slumdog Millionaire, as the eager young manager of the hotel in question, the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Why it should have been a surprise box-office hit in the UK is almost certainly down to the real star of the film: India, especially Rajasthan and Jaipur, and the magnificent swirl of colours and people and buildings. The Wiki entry cites one Liza Schwarzbaum of Entertainment Weekly, who opined that the film achieved what it set out to do: ‘Sell something safe and sweet, in a vivid foreign setting, to an under-served share of the moviegoing market.’ That just about summed it up for us on this, our last film evening before the return to the crush. And, if I may cite one of the better lines from the script, ‘when I want your opinion, I’ll give it to you.’
One of the great treats of sitting by a lake in the early spring is to watch the water birds’ courtship dances. This morning I have watched a couple of great crested grebes and then a pair of swans. In both species the dances are elaborate and the neck is the primary means of expression and, yes, sometimes they inadvertently form a heart shape, as in the illustration. These species share something else in common. They both carry their young around on their backs between their wings, and I only regret that I won’t be by the lake to see this next beautiful step as spring advances.
In late April 2008 it was reported that a 73 year-old Austrian man and locally respected pater familias, Josef Fritzl, had been arrested on suspicion of having kidnapped and imprisoned his 18 year-old daughter, Elisabeth, and of having held her captive in an underground cellar complex for twenty-four years. Josef Fritzl was accused of incest, rape, coercion, false imprisonment, enslavement and negligent homicide and was subsequently sentenced to life imprisonment. He had begun abusing Elisabeth, born in 1966, when she was eleven. Somehow resenting her independent spirit, he had clearly planned for her imprisonment. Once he had trapped her, he subjected her to continuous abuse and physical violence. His constant incestuous rape led to the birth of seven children (one of whom died shortly after birth) and one miscarriage. In the end, this monster’s monstrosities were uncovered when Elisabeth’s oldest daughter, Kerstin, suffered a life-threatening illness and had to be taken above ground to hospital for treatment (although, incredibly, already Fritzl had, in his manipulative madness, been planning for a ‘miraculous’ unification of his ‘underground’ and above-ground families). I have just finished reading The Crimes of Jozef Fritzl Uncovering the Truth, co-authored by a Brussels-based journalist acquaintance, Bojan Pancevski (together with Stefanie Marsh). It is a thoroughly researched and very well written study of the origin and development of this human evil. How did a monster like Jozef Fritzl come into being? What made him behave in the way he did? Why did the society around him not suspect something sooner, given his past record and the strange events that repeatedly occurred? Marsh and Pancevski seek the answers in his own horribly abusive childhood (he later turned the tables on the mother who had beaten him so mercilessly by locking her up in the attic with a bricked-up window for twenty years), the simultaneous claustrophobia and comfort of Amstetten’s wartime tunnel air raid shelters and the mores of Austria’s post-war provincial society (Fritzl, for example, was sentenced to just eighteen months in prison for a cold-blooded rape). It is page 118 (of a 294-page book) before Elisabeth is imprisoned, and the next third of the book is largely an account of his daughter’s extraordinary fortitude. Though she was frequently in despair, her spirit never broke. Her profound humanity and maternal instincts somehow reconcile the reader a little. But the last third of the book, devoted to psychiatric analyses and the trial, is perhaps the most depressing. Neighbours above the cellar prison had for many years heard all sorts of suspicious noises. But for collective incompetence, Elisabeth’s plight could and should have been brought to an end long before. As Marsh and Pancevski conclude: “Everything pointed to the fact that Jozef Fritzl was not in fact the brilliant operator that the authorities and the media had painted him. He was clumsy. He was a bad liar. He had left clues all over the place. But he had an unshakeable belief in his own fantasies, and he had been lucky. Even when everything had pointed to the fact that something very wrong was happening in the house in Ybbsstrasse, nobody had looked.”
Taking a spot of lunch in a mountain refuge today we came across this photograph on the cabin wall. The mysterious thing was found, still alive, under the ice at about 1,000 metres altitude. It was not, the lady insisted, a ramaro (local dialect for a green lizard, I think). It was distinctively blue, about half a metre long and had never been seen before. They had sent it off to the University of Florence for ‘tests’, but the local theory is that it is a mutant, caused by the latent radiation, still in the soil around here, caused by the Tchernobyl dust cloud. (There are rumoured to be an abnormal number of radiation-linked tumours among people living in the Alto Lario region.) It was a sort of reminder that even in remote spots man’s deprivations of his environment are not far away. She gave another example. The beautiful Lago di Darengo, high up in the mountains at the foot of a natural rock circus, where we bathed only last summer, was found to be completely sterile and stagnant some ten years ago and had to be treated with large quantities of lime and bicarbonate of soda. The local rumour was that a civilian airliner in trouble had had to dump its fuel and most of it had ended up in the lake.
This evening we watched a golden oldie, John Huston’s 1985 penultimate film, Prizzi’s Honour, in which his daughter, Anjelica, won an Oscar for best supporting actress. Jack Nicholson’s eyebrows play Charley Partanna, a contract killer and heir apparent to Brooklyn-based mafia family, the Prizzis. The (and his) padrino, Corrado, sends him East to ‘clip’ a gangster who has stolen from a Prizzi antennae operation in Las Vegas. Spurning the advances of his longtime sweetheart, Maerose Prizzi (played by Anjelica), Charley inadvertently falls in love with a fellow, West coast-based, contract killer, Irene (played by Kathleen Turner), whose true calling and role in the Las Vegas heist is only gradually revealed to him. He decides to marry rather than kill her and, at first, there is honour, as well as love, among thieves. But a kidnap operation for the Prizzis goes wrong and Irene shoots a cop’s wife, bringing unwanted complications to the Prizzi family’s operations. Charley and Irene hide away their kidnap victim (a banker) to extort a deal from the Prizzis and buy Irene’s protection. Meanwhile, Maerose goads her father, Dominic, Charley’s jealous rival within the Prizzi clan, into putting out a contract on Charley, and the killer he contacts is … Irene. The padrino has already decided that his godson, Charley, rather than his son, Dominic, should become the Boss. When another Family kills Dominic, the padrino accelerates his plans, which means Charley must come back into the fold, let the banker go and kill Irene. Hence the film’s central twist: two contract killers simultaneously in love with each other and with contracts to kill one another. Since the Family always comes first, there can only be one winner: Maerose!
This afternoon I at last finished Alan Watts’s 1966 The Book On The Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, which has been by my bedside for several months. A British-born, later American, philosopher, Watts played a central role in introducing Eastern philosophical and religious thought to Western readers, having become a Buddhist as a teenager. This is a small book but a delightfully rich read. Watts wore his learning lightly, but his analyses were based on a wide reading of Western as well as Eastern texts together with an eclectic knowledge of different cultural, linguistic, philosophical and theological traditions, frequently leading to fascinating digressions. At one point, for example, he rails against the use of nouns and adjectives in science, pointing to the Amerindian Nootka language, which consists only of verbs and adverbs. “Thus, in the Nootka language a church is ‘housing religiously,’ a shop is ‘housing tradingly’… Everything labelled with a noun is demonstrably a process or action, but language is full of spooks, like the ‘it’ in ‘It is raining,’ which are the supposed causes of action. ” Addressing the decline in the ‘paternalistic state’, Watts tellingly points out that “the home in an industrial society is chiefly a dormitory, and the father does not work there, with the result that wife and children have no part in his vocation. He is just a character who brings in money, and after working hours he is supposed to forget about his job and have fun.” I could go on but there are, of course, websites devoted to Watts quotations, observations and aphorisms. The central purpose of the book is to examine the illusion that the self is a separate entity confronting a universe of physical objects rather than being an integral part of such a universe. Watts thus offers a different understanding of personal identity and an alternative to the feelings of alienation (also, but not only, in the Marxist sense) that have become prevalent in Western society. This is also an early ecological tract, since Watts argues that the separation of the self from the physical world leads inexorably to the misuse of technology and attempts to subjugate the natural environment. (It’s another digression but I think, through this book, that I have also found the probable origin of the first line in John Lennon’s (The Beatles’s) I am the Walrus: ‘I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.’ In his text, Watts cites James Broughton’s 1965 rendering of a Chinese Zen master: ‘This is It/and I am It/and you are It/and so is That/and He is It/and She is It/and It is It/and That is That.’) Written almost half a century ago, the analyses in this book remain entirely pertinent.
Tonight, thanks to a tip from MC (to whom thanks), we watched Ron Howard’s 2001 biographical drama, A Beautiful Mind, based on the life of John Nash, A Nobel Laureate in Economics (well, if improbably, played by Russell Crowe). With a brilliant mathematical brain, Nash comes under academic pressure to produce. The stress induces paranoid schizophrenia, leading on to increasingly frequent and ultimately continuous delusional episodes. His wife and young child struggle to cope. He is incarcerated, treated, released, suffers a relapse, becomes inadvertently violent, gradually comes to terms with his delusions (ultimately cohabiting with them), and in later life is rehabilitated at Princeton and awarded the Nobel accolade for his youthful original work on governing dynamics. I don’t want to give too much away, but the film uses the oldest trick in the book, POV (point of view – think The Sixth Sense or Shutter Island), to draw viewers into a delusional world, then jolt them back into reality. There was a discussion afterwards about mental illness and concepts of reality. The person suffering the delusions perceives them as being real. Which reality is the more valid and on what basis? The film also raises the issue of evolving societal attitudes. In past times a Nash might have been considered a seer or a prophet or a saint (indeed, at the beginning, at Princeton, he is half-mocked, half revered for displaying the eccentricity of potential genius). And when does treatment become persecution, or do both attitudes necessarily co-exist? The film was criticised for its ‘poetic licence’ (for example, the real Nash suffered only auditory delusions, Crowe’s Nash sees people as well as hearing them), but that debate is something of a red herring. Like Shine, the film works as a plausible portrayal of a difficult condition and reminds us that all too often genius comes at a heavy price. (Postscript: here, thanks also to MC, is an article about the real John Nash by his biographer, Sylvia Nasar.)
This evening we watched Bertrand Tavernier’s magnificent 1989 film La vie et rien d’autre (Life and nothing but). It is 1920. In a northern France still bearing the livid scars of war Commander Dellaplane (Philippe Noiret at his best) is in charge of attempts to rediscover the identities of both the dead and the living (former soldiers suffering from amnesia). It is a massive task – Dellaplane cites a figure of 350,000 ‘missing’. At the other extreme, Perrin is charged with finding a genuinely unknowable corpse for the monument to the unknown soldier at the Arc de Triomphe – a task Dellaplane had refused on deontological grounds. Given the 350,000, it should be a relatively simple job, but ‘Paris’ has imposed conditions; in particular, the unknown soldier must be known sufficiently to be certain that the dead man is French. Into the desolate scenes of death and destruction wander a rich young Parisian, Irène (Sabine Azéma), looking for her husband, and a simple country girl, Alice (Pascal Vignal), looking for her lover. Irène and Alice are drawn together in their common quest, whilst Irène and Dellaplane become increasingly attracted to one another and Dellaplane gradually realises that the two women are almost certainly looking for the same man. The portraits of the three protagonists are beautifully drawn and the backdrop is poignantly portrayed. (A sculptor proclaims that never since the Greeks has there been such demand for public sculptures.) The film includes a historically faithful reconstruction of the ceremony to choose the unknown soldier – a private has to place a bunch of flowers on one of eight coffins. The government is represented by André Maginot, then the Minister of Pensions. This scene and Maginot’s presence remind the viewer that no matter how well the wounds may heal, they will be opened again less than two decades later: the protagonists’ pasts are also their futures. There is a good analysis of the film and its themes here.
Thanks to a tip from AT (to whom go grateful thanks) I am reading Richard Nixon’s Six Crises. It was written in 1962, after Nixon’s 1961 loss to John F. Kennedy and in part in response to the latter’s 1957 Profiles in Courage, which was said to have greatly improved Kennedy’s image. In a foreward Nixon explains that ‘if the record of one man’s experience in meeting crises – including both his failures and his successes – can help … then this book may serve a useful purpose. The 1948 Hiss case (the first ‘crisis’ recounted in the book) brought the then unknown junior congressman Richard Nixon into general public view for the first time. Inadvertently or not, the telling impression he gives is, in the words of Dwight D. Eisenhower, of ‘a man who has a special talent and an ability to ferret out any kind of subversive influence wherever it may be found, and the strength and persistence to get rid of it.’ (Nixon proudly quotes this description himself!) Nixon’s account faithfully reproduces the paranoid atmosperics of Washington politics in the late 1940s, in the heyday of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Alger Hiss (picture) was a high-ranking and well-regarded State Department official with a distinguished career who was suspected of being an active Communist sympathiser and alleged to have been part of a spy ring. Judging from the Wiki account, the doubts about what exactly might have occurred rumble on and may never be entirely clarified. Nixon provides some lucid insights (particularly about the judiciary and the press) and aphorisms (‘in politics, victory is never total’). There is a wonderfully unselfconscious irony when he regrets that there were so few television sets in American homes in 1948 (notoriously, his physical appearance on the now ubiquitous TV sets in US households in the first ever televised presidential debates was supposed to have cost him the 1960 Presidency race). The publicity the Hiss affair generated pushed Nixon into the Senate in 1950 and the Vice-Presidency of the United States from 1952 to 1960. He served as President from 1969 until he resigned in 1974 and died in 1994 at the age of 81. A Presidential pardon, time and his subsequent humility put his achievements into perspective and rehabilitated his reputation to some considerable extent but could never get rid of the odour of the Watergate hearings, the threat of impeachment and his resignation. Hiss, meanwhile, was sentenced to five years imprisonment for perjury in 1950 and released after 3 years and eight months on good behaviour. He published a book, re-married, crowed publicly on an ABC programme when Nixon failed in 1962 to become Governor of California, was re-admitted to the Massachusetts Bar in 1975 and wrote an autobiography in 1988. He died in 1996 at the ripe old age of 92, protesting his innocence to the end. That somebody will one day make a film addressing these two lives in parallel seems to me to be inevitable.