Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Road

A funereal silence pervaded the cinema as the spectators flocked out as the credits rolled for the film 'The Road'. Set in a post-apocolyptic world, the film chronicles the journey of a father and son as they head 'south' / towards the coast in an effort to stay alive in a world where nothing else lives except a very small number of unlucky survivors like themselves.
The opening scene showed a beautiful summer garden with a Barranquilla Golden Rain tree, a pink cherry blossom-like flower and the smiling face of a beautiful woman, Charlize Theron, and then shot to a scene with father and son, clothed in rags, faces smeared with dirt, dragging a trolley along a dark, grey bumpy road, ravaged by the hand of death. The contrast is striking, and on one or two other occasions, we are given a glimpse into life pre-apocolyse, which is done to great effect: we are not given too much of the 'good life' as we must endure some of the journey with the father and son along their bleak and hopeless path, yet what we do see is familiar: it is colour, life, hope; and it reminds us to be grateful for what we have and to look after all of creation, which in essence is the central message of the film.
The roles of father and son were ably played by Viggo Mortenson and Kodi Smit-McPhee, and as they journey together, we can see their strong bond, intensified by the situation in which they have to live. The boy, it seems, knew no other life, and we see his innocent awakening to various aspects of the 'old world' for example his first taste of coca cola, after they find a can in an old house, and how the father shared the moment, overcome with love for his child, and sorrow that such a paltry treat should mean so much to the child. Along the way, they are met with situations where they grapple with life's usual dichotemys: good versus bad, right versus wrong. We see how the son is like a god to the father: he is his conscience, his hope, his good angel and his reason for enduring, and indeed along the way, the son, seeing the good in others, is the one who forces the father to act in a humane and loving way.
It is a film that leaves a very strong impression, and one of the most shocking scenes was one where father and son happened upon an old deserted house, and on forcing open the basement, they find it full of naked, wailing prisoners being held hostage as food for their captors. There are numerous other encounters with cannibalism, but this is certainly the most graphic, exposing us to the sheer horror, of Cormac McCarthy's imagined world's end.
While the dialogue in the film is very strong, especially in the father-and-son scenes, and the son in particular has a very soft but high-pitched cry, expressing the intense emotion, voiceover is also used in parts to good effect, adding some distance between 'them' and 'us', and having something of a calming effect on us. However, for much of the film, we are right there, and I believe that that is the intention of Hillcoat, the director, as after all, it's meant to cause some discomfort, to arouse questions in us about our own life and fate.
How the Apocolypse actually happened is not revealed but this is not the point of the film. Instead, its aftermath is the present time in the film, and the punishing, bleak wasteland is so utterly abysmal that we feel the despair of the father and son as they trudge hopelessly on the road to nowhere. They are each of them alone, as they cannot fully confide their terror and fear to the other, and we, the viewers are alone in our own fears and existential questions. It is with relief that we returned to our present time and space, with a new-found respect for every thing alive (though I wasn't too enamoured when a wasp landed on my shoulder later that evening!) and the silence of the parting crowd was a fitting tribute to the power of the film and all involved in its realisation.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Music and Madness.

I was drawn to this book, 'Music and Madness', by the very title. I had seen it several times on the bookshop shelf, and very conscious of the power of music on the soul, and very aware of the 'madness' that is shielded in 'normality', I requested this as a gift from my sister for Christmas.

The book, in essence, is an account of Ivor Browne's personal and professional life, and how he has come to discover the truth behind much of what society deems 'madness'. Esteemed psychiatrist and holder of a plethora of credentials, this book is written in a style that is far from imperious, but is, rather, accessible, personal and and humane.

He begins by giving an account of his own childhood and development to adulthood, and how his father, set up 'the field', a space at home where they grew vegetables, camped, swam, had parties and engaged in numerous creative activities with friends in the area. He goes on to say how he didn't quite fit in with others his own age, how he was made to feel that he let his father down and how he seemed to 'march to a different beat', quite literally.

Music was his passion, and through music, he lost himself and found himself. His discovery of music gave meaning and direction to his life, but when as a result of tuberculosis, he was unable to play the trumpet anymore, he was forced to think of some other career. Having dropped out of school at an early age, he describes how he 'fell into' studying medicine in the Royal College of Surgeons, which didn't require the Leaving Cert, but had its own entrance exam. And from medicine, he branched out into psychiatry, as this was the only area in which he showed any interest. However music continued to influence him profoundly, particularly jazz music and Irish traditional music, which he believed had much in common with each other. Also the fact that he identified with these musics of the minorities, perhaps showed his ability to empathise, qualifying him for a life of psychiatry.

Because of Ivor Browne's own background and failure to comply with the prescritive education system in Ireland at the time, he was enabled to understand the shortcomings of such a system, and question the practices which were so embedded at the stage where he encountered them. As he travelled and worked beyond Ireland, he became aware that this was particular to Ireland, and that in other countries, people were encouraged to think independently and come up with solutions themselves. This way of thinking hugely influenced his way of working and went on to benefit numerous people under his care. Understanding is his way, and understanding the inner world of a psychotic, by gradually building a relationship with them, enabled him to help them in a positive way, rather than treating them with psychoactive drugs or even harsher methods of physical intervention.

One part of the book that I found quite heavy was the section on 'Breaking the Mould' and 'Definitions of Living Systems'. whereby he draws up the work of much scientific research and philosophical thought through the ages in order to come to what he believes determines the evolution of living systems and understand something of the nature of how we are formed out of the matrix of relationships and environmental influences we absorb from the moment of our conception. While there was much in this section that I didn't quite understand, I understood the reason for its inclusion as it added scientific and historical weight to Browne's argument, allowing him to draw up his own conclusions based on a very wide range of research, again refusing to fall in to the thinking of any one scientist or movement.

Having studied Community and Mental Health in Harvard and being inspired by what he saw, he endeavoured to use some of these practices in Ireland, and set up the first Community Assosiation in Ballyfermot, and was also heavily involved in a similar project in Derry, the Inner City Trust, which rebuilt the city of Derry, most of the impetus coming from the young people themselves, which Browne had learned is the key to change.

In fact change is the central message of this book. 'Change oneself and one's world changes', cites Browne. However, because change involves both work and suffering, many people resist change. The change that he espouses is very much a message of hope, and in his final chapter, he says that 'true human behaviour, the natural state of the human being, only exists when our spiritual nature is awakened, for we are, in essence spiritual beings'. Browne describes his own journey towards this realisation, and his honesty and openness regarding his own suffering along the way, made it all the more meaningful.

This was a wonderfully engaging read, about a subject that needs far more discussion in Ireland. His system of working, through understanding, and 'unfreezing' our inner lives, as writer Colm Toibin describes in the introduction, was a much more humane approach to healing what might be otherwise labelled as 'mad'. Such groundbreaking work needs to continue if integration and change within the system, and within the self, is possible.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Looking for Eric.

When this film was first released, I heard great things about it, and directed by Ken Loach would in itself bring a certain expectation, but because the 'Eric' in the title referred to Eric Cantona, I thought it would be all about football, and much as I'm a hopeless fan of the sport, with an unequalled knowledge of the game (NOT!!), I was unconvinced about how 'great' this film could be. I was proven wrong.
The film instead of bringing to light the trials and troubles of Cantona, bespoke those of Eric, a man in his fifties, to whom life has dealt some tough blows, and who is now questioning the validity of his life, as he trudges joylessly through the banal, day-to-day slog, being walked on by everyone it seems, on his way. His one idol, his one inspiration is Eric Cantona, and a life-size poster in his room, makes him ever-present. The film goes on to show how Cantona begins to appear to Eric through dreams of sorts, acting as a mentor and advisor to him in his hour of need. Cantona then assumed the role of a god-like figure, albeit smoking weed, and appeared as wise, noble and strong, speaking volumes in but a few words.
The story centred around an episode in Eric's life, where he was forced into meeting his first wife and first love after many years of silence, and he freezes. He is overcome with guilt, anger and remorse over all the wrong directions he took in life, and had something of a breakdown Meanwhile, his friends, loyal though they are, do not provide sufficient stimulation or interest for Eric, and his sons are taking him and his home completely for granted, and are getting into trouble beyond their reach. Eric, weak, has let all this happen. He turns to Cantona for the strength to turn his life around.
The plot was strong, with several subplots running simultaneously, which kept the story alive. The characters were beautifully played, the two Erics standing out most for me, especially in those scenes where they appeared together, both acting as a foil for the other, but forming something of an intimate relationship nonetheless. The film had an even balance of humour and pathos, very often the humour exposing some of the pathos lurking beneath, for example in the scene where the co-workers were gathered at Eric's house, invoking their idols in order to assume their qualities in an effort to change their lives. This session was directed by Meatballs, a well-intentioned but simple man, and the boorish way that he led the session, showed the huge gap between the reality and the dream.
All in all, despite lacking a certain subtlety at times, it was a very enjoyable film, one where the football theme runs throughout, but remains in the background, letting the more important issues of life and love come to the fore.

Looking for Eric.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Art in the Age of Anxiety.

An exhibition, currently showing in the Crawford gallery, Cork, showcases the work of about thirty artists, from as far back as the Romantic period to the present, who use art as a way of expressing contemporary fear and anxiety. These are mainly in response to social and political issues, prevalent at the time, but show a psychological dimension also, which personalises their work, giving it greater meaning and power. The works are in a variety of media, with some installations, lithographs, oils and even some sculptures imitative of Duchamp's 'readymades'.

Works that stood out for me in particular were the two installations in rooms side by side on the second floor. The first of these, by Nigel Rolf, depicted powder being cast at a mans face, forming a thick mask. The video was cast in slow motion, and a wind action, caused the powder to blow away, very gradually, but very definately, until we are left with the man's bare face once more. This almost ressembled how society forces us to assume masks, which we wear out of fear and as a defence from the world, but how as we grow and develop as people, we slowly learn to shed our masks and discover the truth of ourselves that lies within. Cecily Brennan's installation began with a woman looking into some yonder space, when suddenly muddied water is lashed at her, forcibly propelling her against the wall. She tries to recover from this, struggling upwards slowly, but no sooner is she almost standing once more than more water rushes at her. And so on. This is accompanied by loud and sudden sounds of water from speakers at the back, bringing the viewer right into the space and into the experience. Again this seemed to me to be a metophor for life: how each of us struggle through the difficulties, and no sooner do we feel in control, than we have some other obstacle to contend with. Such is life.

Portrait photos in very large scale were also part of the exhibition: one of a young girl, another of a middle aged man. These were quite powerful to me also as they show effectively the multiple layers of a person. The clarity of these photos tell us much about these people, but what we are left to wonder about them is so much more. All that lies within a person can never fully be known by another, and it shows the dichotemy between the individual and society: our sense of conectedness to ourselves and others.

There were several works in the exhibition that didn't seem to me to belong to the exhibtion (i.e. the scenes of Killarney), but maybe I was missing something? And several others that just didn't make that much of an impression on me. But overall, it was interesting, thought-provoking, and certainly succeeded in making me feel not-so-alone in the anxieties and fears that are part of the human condition.

Friday, January 22, 2010

House of Flying Daggers

...not a very likely choice for me, but since my housemate was just putting on the DVD as I was haaving my dinner, I went with it. Doris Lessing, one of my favourite writers, says that people who refuse to read science fiction because they (disdainful voice) 'don't like that genre' are prejudiced and are missing out. While I readily identified myself as belonging to that category, I still don't believe I'm missing out. Well, the same is true for wuxia films.
The film opened introducing us to the corrupt Tang Dynasty, on the cusp of being overthrown by the underground, guerilla-style 'Flying Daggers'. It is essentially a love story between Mai, a blind courtesan and two government officials who pursue her, and whose loyalties are called to question not once, but a few times throughout the film, so that by the end, we're confused to a laughable degree.
Where the film's strength lies is in its cinematography. The vivid colours present a kaleidescope of exoticism and beauty. This is manifested through the ornate delicacy, but also through the wild and raging nature, both elements of which constitute the beauty of Chinese lore. The fight scenes are played out beautifully, making for not only a visual spectacle but also a soundscape of artistry and mystique. So precise is each movement that it looks like a wonderfully choreographed dance (except, of course, for the flying splashes of blood, though these too move with a quality of grace and poise, that they seem to be part of the 'dance'). The fact that all this beauty denied to the allegedly blind heroine made it seem all the more special, a gift, something to be cherished. It also showed how downplayed out other senses tend to be: we see Mei use smell, touch, and hearing to glean part of the world's princely treasures, and how perfectly honed these senses are.
By the end, when it is revealed that Mei is not blind after all, and when several other revelations are made, with all sorts of twists, turns, subplots and pseudoplots, we don't know what or who to believe, and the love story becomes something of a farce. However, the final scene, where Mei lies in her lover's arms, snowflakes falling, and her other suitor is turning to leave, reminded me of that of Romeo and Juliet. Love won through, but at what cost: 'Where be these enemies? Capulet! Montague!See, what a scourge is laid upon your hate,That heaven finds means to kill your joys with love.'

Monday, January 18, 2010


I had lots of work to do this weekend for the week ahead, and I actually had time to do it too. But no...procrastination won out once again. So there I was on Sunday night, playing 'catch-up', as usual! But I decided to keep an eye on Raw as I worked.
I saw about one episode last season, or more likely bits from a few episodes, and wasn't impressed by what I saw. Since there was little else on T.V. last night, it was 'Raw' I was left with. However despite my previous misgivings, I was quite surprised. First of all there seemed to be a few new characters, a waiter called Dylon, and new boss, Fiona, who previously played the boss/owner in 'The Clinic'. The role suits her: she doesn't say a lot, but has quite an authoritative air, and when she does speak, there are often hints of sarcasm.
Jo-Jo and Shane's mother graces them with an unexpected visit, and the dynamic between the three was very interesting, very well played and true to life. Shane was clearly the favoured one, Jo-Jo bearing the brunt of any family angst.
Pablo, trying to confidentally fill his role of floor manager encounters a problem with a slightly psychotic dinner guest. A man and woman are out to dinner and the man proceeds to bully the woman, making decisions for her and snide remarks, and then turns his wrath on Pablo.. While it was interesting to be drawn into the lives of the diner, his character seemed to be a bit over-played and didn't quite ring true.
Another area where the scripting fell down was when Jo-Jo and Dylan, after flirting with each other all day, were locked into the self-locking wine luck would have it!! How cosy!
And finally, as regards scripting, when Jo-Jo and Shane's mother meets Fiona (boss lady), she asks 'do you have any kids yourself?' (Reasonable enough) But Fiona answers, 'No (pause), but I always...' (BUT I ALWAYS!!??, to a complete stranger?!) We already know that this woman has secrets, but what an unrealistic, unguarded response for Fiona, cool, always-in-control Fiona!
But apart from that, it was a strong and holding drama, with a far better developed plot than previously and the cast of actors gelled well and fulfilled challenging roles. The overall effect was a satisfying drama with the essential emotional weight.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Up in the Air.

'Up in the Air', the new film by Jason Reitman (Juno) was a film with a lesson, but told in an un-preachy, humorous way. It was a film of contrasts, highlighted not least by how the overall sad and poignant theme was communicated through humour.
The main man, Ryan Bingham, played faultlessly by George Clooney, was the epitome of success, yet he fires people for a living, which he does to such a successful degree, that he seems to get a macabre sense of joy out of the process. He spends his time travelling, moving from place to place as if his life depended on it. In a way, he believes it does, stating "the slower we move, the faster we die". We get the odd glimpse into his sterile, cold 'home' in Omaha, bringing him face-to-face with reality; yet he seems reluctant to see the truth. His sister's upcoming wedding presents a huge contrast to this lonely and vacuous life: Bingham is presented with the job of carrying a huge cardboard cutout of the loved-up couple around to various destinations so that they can be photographed in places they can only dream of visiting. Of course, Bingham's suitcase is just too small to accomodate the mammoth model, so we are left with the image of the suave, light-travelling Bingham, with two smiling heads sticking out of his suitcase. This seemed like an afterthought, but was a very clever touch.
On his travels, Bingham meets Alex, a female version of himself, it seems, who also travels for a living. They synchronise their schedules to enable brief encounters in various cities, empty encounters lacking in any emotional connection. However, when Bingham invites her as his guest to his sister's wedding, he falls for her, calling to question the meaning of his life. Her character, full of complexity, was wonderfully played. She comes across as an ice-queen, but the more we see of her, the more she melts into something warmer, though let us not be fooled...
The third main character was Bingham's unlikely partner, bright, ambitious, Natalie Keener, whose innovation presents something of a threat to Bingham. Bingham takes charge of the situation, condescending upon her at every given opportunity, and revealing weaknesses in her hitherto concealed. Her role was ably played by Anna Kendrick, alternating between emotionally charged scenes, to comic scenes, exposing her own flaws, and perhaps strengths: she is human after all.
Overall it was an exceptional film, one whose message roots itself in your memory, and whose characters inveigle you by showing themselves as rounded, imperfect human beings.
A nice touch in terms of directorship, that I read about after seeing the film, was that the characters playing the role of those being fired, were actually fired in real life, so could relate to the experience in a real way. Bingham's virtual firing technique, coupled with the smooth 'pep-talk' of this being a great 'opportunity', show the contrast again between the dismal and the incandescent, comic panache.