Thursday, 16 August 2018

"The People vs. Larry Flynt" (1996)

A most unusual film, for America, and yet very apposite just now, in the world of "fake news" and the silencing of people we disagree with.

Larry Flynt was a pornographer, presented sympathetically as a man who didn't use or exploit his models beyond what they were prepared to offer. In the circumstances, that doesn't limit it so much. But he was good at his trade, and he met a commercial need.

What's intriguing is that the case that went to the Supreme Court isn't about naughty pictures, it's about whether you can say outrageous things about people and get away with it. In this instance, it was the mad frothing evangelical preacher Jerry Falwell, and Flynt's "Hustler" magazine said he'd had sex with his mother in a cowshed. It was obviously ludicrous, and no one would believe it. So, there was no case to answer, and the Supreme Court got it right.

Fascinating to watch, as Flynt is not portrayed as an attractive character, nor engaged with an honourable trade, but yet he has right on his side.

It's really "Larry Flynt vs. the State".


Wednesday, 15 August 2018

"The Duchess" (2008)

Lots of wigs, obviously. Even the chaps. Makes you think how ludicrous the 18th century was, and then, with a sense of foreboding, how utterly absurd the 21st century is going to look to normal people who come along later.

It's a horrid story. It's not meant to be. What could go wrong? A young Spencer girl marrying the most powerful aristocrat in the land? But he just wanted a brood mare. And she wanted .... well, she didn't know, until Charles Grey came along.

There's astonishing privilege and indulgence in this story, but underneath is another story of entrapment and imprisonment. Even the Duke of Devonshire envies the freedom that his children have as they play - although they will, in due course, all lose it.

Keira Knightley plays the duchess with aristocratic dignitity (and I think she could have pulled a bit more rank over the Cavendishes - an older family, but less money). Ralph Fiennes plays the lordly arsehole. You just can't like him. He's got principles, some are good. But he's just basically bad.

I think it's a tragic tale. But it's well-told.

Monday, 13 August 2018

"Blood Diamond" (2006)

Rather unusually for me, I think this counts as "an action movie". There's certainly lots of action, shooting, bombing, and the all too graphic portrayal of mautiliation in the ghastly Sierra Leone civil war.

At one level it's about the continued Imperialist pillaging of Africa, whilst at another it's about Africa's peoples pillagning each other. As a distant descendant of imperial colonisers, I can relate to the vicious indifference of the white minority to the people they considered themselves born to rule. Leonardo DiCaprio's character is avaricious and beneath contempt until he manages to pluck noble martyrdom out of extremis - when he really has nothing to lose.

DiCaprio fascinates me. I don't like him. I think it's because he's not pretty. He's a Hollywood type, he OUGHT to be pretty, otherwise any old monkey could be doing it. And yet time and again he plays a role which is the person, not himself, real acting. I saw it first in "What's Eating Gilbert Grape?" I don't know him, of course, nor have any idea what the real Leonardo is like, but it can't be like all the people he's played well.

The film was a tragic montage of despicable war scenes with glorious African countryside. And it also portrayed the instability and cruelty of nations founded on corruption and greed.

I've seen this film before, but noticed far less. It's unsettling, and all the better for that.

Saturday, 11 August 2018

"Victim" (1961)

Starring Dirk Bogarde as a blackmailed barrister in the grimy days before the 1967 Sexual Offences Act decriminalised gay men. Quarter of a century later, he said that it now seemed absurd that the film might have been "courageous, daring, and dangerous", but in its own context, it was. It may well have contributed to the change in the law, which followed the earlier report of the Wolfenden Committee in 1957.

Most people think that Bogarde was himself gay, which made taking the role the most daring thing about it, even though sexuality is played down throughout. The only kiss is between the hero and his wife. I don't buy the line - which is the film's, not some subsequent spin - that the Melville Farr character was merely attracted to Boy Barrett, and remained chaste. I can't see him feeling vulnerable to blackmail just for feelings. But maybe that's how they had to tell the story.

Equally, the situation of his wife is over-sympathetically drawn if all her husband has is a roving eye. The film allows her to question her feminitity, her wifehood, even her womanhood, in the context of a man who is attracted to other men, and not merely attracted, but emotionally drawn.

It's a grim picture of a horrible age - the shadow of the vile Lord Kilmuir who first as Home Secretary and then as Lord Chancellor waged a war on gay men, leading to record prosecutions for "gross indecency". Alan Turing was one of his many victims. It became the age of "the Blackmailers' Charter", and led to the eventual change in the law.

The most interesting character in the story is the police chief who is more concerned to stop blackmailers, than bothering about what consenting adults do in private, despite the reservations of his "puritan" junior. When the constable replies "there's nothing wrong with that", he says "puritanism was against the law, once".

Although the film leaves us expecting doom for Farr, his wife's determination to stand by him, and his impeccable establishment credentials, make me think he's have survived - as Jeremy Thorpe survived a much worse scandal some years later. But that is a pleasant speculation we are given to ponder.

Sunday, 5 August 2018

Strange dream

Extraordinary dream - one of those slumber ones, when the radio's on, and bits of the broadcast are becoming part of your story.

I was leaving my office and walking down the main corridor, only to find two jaguars which had obviously escaped from the zoo nextdoor (it's actually St Peter's College), and I was non-plussed. I tried to lock the doors to contain the beasts - who were exceptionally beautiful - but our system allows the doors to be fixed open, but not closed. Then I was trying to find a telephone number, but I couldn't remember the name of the zoo, nor the name of the town we were in, so I wandered through into the chapel, noting on the way that the lobby had become a medical ward, and the jaguars were quite interested in it, but no one seemed to be noticing them. The chapel was much bigger now, size of a cathedral, and the service was communion, and they'd come to the eucharistic prayer. I thought perhaps it better not to make a public announcement that there were dangerous big cats loose in the building until after communion. As I walked down the steps (which don't exist) to get to my office and work out how to use the sound system, I saw that the words of institution were being said by a person sitting on the floor with no legs and a microphone, and not even within reach of the bread and wine. I was concluding that this might count as "irregular but not invalid", but that I really did need to do something about these jaguars, when I woke up.

What a curious bundle of memories and priorities!

Friday, 20 July 2018

How to startle a foreign visitor to Oxford

It had to be the bus, because I was runnning late. Much prefer not to - the bus is hot and sweaty, and full of hoi poloi.

This week started a little oddly with the monthly requiem mass on Monday for the Sisters at Fairacres. It happened to be the 41st anniversary of the death of my great-grandmother in 1977. Grannie was the only great-grandparent I'd known, and hers was the first funeral I ever went to. She was a tiny little Italian lady - been here for nearly 80 years, never bothered with the language, found us all quite funny, though.

Half-way along the route, the bus started to fill up with Italian summer school students - there was absolutely no reason why they couldn't have walked into town, they had the legs for it, but no, on the bus it was. And they were quite fun, chatting and joking amongst themselves, and eventually drawing me in. One of them said "Oxford is the new Pisa", which left a whole load of questions dangling.

And then one of them turned his name badge round. "GianLuigi Pisani". And I said, much more loudly than I meant to, "that's MY name!". Grannie was Rosa Pisani before she married. And we chatted about this, and I said obviously, Pisani is a common name, but no, he and his friend were both from Campagnia, the southern state of Italy where Grannie was born, and Mr Pisani came from Naples, just round the coast.

He might just have been my cousin.

Sunday, 15 July 2018

A Homily for S. Swithun's Day

A Sermon for Holy Communion
on the Seventh Sunday after Trinity
being also the
Feast of Saint Swithun (translated)
& Patronal Festival for the Parish of Compton Beauchamp

14th of July, 2013, 10.30 a.m.

Readings: James 5:7-18 & Matthew 5:43-48

Soggy Saints & Sinners, Whatever the Whether

“The rain it raineth on the just
And also on the unjust fella;
But chiefly on the just, because
The unjust hath the just’s umbrella.”

No prizes for guessing why the invitation to preach at your Patronal Festival on this eve of Saint Swithun’s Day made my ancient and clogged brain dredge up this half-remembered nugget from childhood. I looked it up, and saw that it is attributed to a Charles Synge Christopher, Lord Bowen, a lawyer and a judge in the reign of Queen Victoria, who was caricatured by the famous cartoonist “Spy” as “Judicial Politeness”.

Saint Swithun is a shady Saxon saint from the shady Saxon dark ages, a contemporary of the great King Alfred, and to be quite frank we know little about him. We know very little about anyone from that long ago, and what we do know is quite possibly not true, and almost certainly not what they would have liked us to remember. Stories are tricky that way. Think of the family stories you grew up with, from a passing generation, your grandparents’ perhaps, or even great-grandparents. Your family was probably much nicer than mine, but our family stories tend more often to be about bad behaviour than good. I remember my grandfather talking about his father returning from a couple of weeks away working – he was a fisherman in Kent (from time to time) and spinning a couple of gold sovereigns across the table, his wages. Unfortunately, the other part of that story was that this was one of the few occasions he actually brought his wages home, preferring usually to call in to another port and drink the money, leaving my great-grandmother to knock at the door of the workhouse, with her nine children, which was where my grandfather was born. Even about the great King Alfred, we chiefly remember that he got told off for letting the cakes burn.

Being a saint, of course, Saint Swithun’s stories are nicer, and doubtless you have heard them all, although the little I have been able to research conflict about both fact and interpretation. They can’t even agree about the rain. Did he want to be buried outdoors because he liked the rain, and wanted it to fall on him, just as it fell on everyone else? Or did he send forty days of rain in displeasure at his body being dug up and moved indoors? And of course, the revisionists and demythologisers have been at it, and there’s even a scientific explanation for the legend that the weather on Saint Swithun’s feast will hold good for forty days. Apparently it all depends on whether (ha!) England sides with Europe or America. ‘Twas ever thus.

But for a feast day, legends and dubious old stories are not enough, we must have Good News too, because all are agreed that Saint Swithun was a man of God, a builder of churches, a defender of the poor, and such faith finds its bedrock in the Gospel of Jesus. Today’s readings are chosen because they are about rain, in honour of the best Saint Swithun legend, but both are also about living together in community, which is something any parish and its congregation needs to know something about. Saint James tells us to be patient with one another, not to blame, and to pray for those in need – he tells us that the prayer of a good person is “powerful”. And in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus tells us that we’ve achieved nothing very much if we are nice to our friends – any foolish Pharisee can do that – but if we can be kind to our enemies, then we have come close to the kingdom of heaven.

Ideally, of course, we shouldn’t have enemies at all, and underlying both passages is the hope that by patience, and prayer, and forgiveness, this will actually happen, that enmities will dissolve by the discipline of love, that our compassion will overcome our self-centredness, which is the heart of sin. Treating everyone fairly, and as equals, is at the heart of that compassion. Whether about material resources, or about opportunities in life, we are to expect much, as God does, of those to whom much is given, and to seek ways, in God’s Name, to make amends to those to whom too little has been given. Regardless of whether they are the just or the unjust, and whether we like them or not.

A tall order, perhaps, but I found a nice little quotation attributed to Charles Synge Christopher, Lord Bowen. He was to make a speech on behalf of the judiciary to Queen Victoria (the one who wasn’t amused – that’s all we remember about her, and it’s not even true). He had planned to say: "conscious as we are of our shortcomings," but was told this was too humble, so he changed it to “conscious as we are of one another's shortcomings”. Maybe that would be a good place to start – where we are conscious of one another’s shortcomings, let us forgive them, and let us strive in time to notice only our own.

For now, let us give thanks for the day, for shady Saxons, kings who can’t cook, and queens who aren’t amused, for the rain that raineth on the just and the unjust, and for Saint Swithun, who looks as if he just might be minded to give us a little sunshine this year. Amen.

Richard Haggis
July 2013