The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Wednesday, January 18, 2006
FRIENDS AND CROCODILES

I’ve never quite understood the immense acclaim afforded to Stephen Poliakoff, other than the fact that he’s one of the few playwrights still allowed licence by mainstream (or, indeed, any) television to Do and Say Big Things – a sort of Play For Today equivalent of Kate Bush, to belittle the latter. Perhaps the “Big” is the key problem here; in histopathological terms, Poliakoff concerns himself with big blocks and large cut-ups, whereas the works of Dennis Potter, say, were all to do with small cut-ups. By focusing almost exclusively on his own life as the cynosure of The World, Potter nevertheless managed to say a lot more about the world in which we still live than Poliakoff has achieved with his brusque epics. Thus Pennies From Heaven speaks acridly yet still compassionately about the ultimate inability of music to transcend a flawed humanity, even though it is set in the ‘30s – although Potter was fully aware of music’s unanswerable power to illuminate the course of humanity, to make the course worth travelling, or ploughing.

Friends And Crocodiles was yet another Meaningful Statement about the legacy of cloistered crassness permitted by Thatcherism, and as with most of the others it failed because of characters who were always more signifiers than believable people. Thus we are expected to credit Damian Lewis’ Paul as an exemplar of that most otiose of oxymorons, the beneficent capitalist, building his own holographic Bloomsbury on the back of astute property investment. About the means which he deployed to secure his fortune we were told nothing, and there was a far-from-innocent smugness which he displayed throughout which suggested that Rachman or van Hoogstraten-type tactics were not beyond his capacity; indeed, may well have defined his capacities. Balance this out with the closing section, where he buys an old school and burns all the school furniture – a sequence frightening in its superficial bonhomie – thereby proving himself to be a far more rapacious and ruthless capitalist than Jodhi May’s innocently unapologetic Thatcherite. He only becomes a hippy because he can afford to be – so this may have been an essay about the apparent indestructibility of the crocodile of capitalism so long as its scales are feathered by what Kubrick described (to Peter Sellers, who promptly appropriated the phrase for himself) as “fuck you” money. After five months walling himself away from a venture company, he decides that the future lies in bookshops with a coffee shop attached. The monetarists’ outrage (“Five months for THAT?”) may be less to do with his cheerful demolition of all they have believed (i.e. invested) in, than dim foreknowledge of the fact that, a generation hence, the Waterstones of this world would become as corporate corner-cutting as any damnable venture company would allow.

In this context, May’s character Lizzie is less of a strident Thatcherite empire builder than someone who just wants to get on with the important business of keeping her life in “order” – a compulsive-obsessive/fear-the-bailiffs/ultimately-fear-oneself concept of order which only works because it permits the admission of only those things, and only those people, which fit into the concretely abstract boundaries of her dream of the ideal (never to be confused with idealism). Therefore, even though life conspires to hurl her into the Paul wall at regular intervals, she has to avoid him, run away from him, in order to breathe, in order to avoid the oversight of her order not only being meaningless (even in subjective terms; she acts as the anti-Marxist token axiom because she conspires, or is persuaded to conspire, in the takeover and destruction of places which actually make useful things, in favour of making, not merely surplus things, but nothing at all – the beaming blankness of the pre-21st century internet. Thus the lamps are thrown off the balcony and destroyed so that millions of virtual people might consume in the dark.

However, as I said, the story, and therefore the analogy it proffers to offer, fails because there is never the remotest possibility of these two “extremes” (or mirror images) actually connecting; indeed, Lewis and May revel in their unbridgeable distance. This allows for dreary 50-feet-high Signifiers to elbow their way into the text (“Oh I See Maggie May Resign The Home Secretary May Make A Speech,” “I See Labour Have Won The Election,” “I Wonder Who Will Get To Number One – Blur Or Oasis?,” “OK I Made That Last One Up But Even So,” etc.) and thereby elbowing out any humanity, any possibility of redemption or even coherent explanation of an era. The cynical male versus the superficial female – hasn’t this been done before, and better?

GONE WITH THE WIND

The best way to sum up Gone With The Wind would be as an essay about two cinema spectators watching each other on either side of their respective screens. Even if it is set 150 years in the past, it accidentally manages to say an awful lot (and something of a good lot too) about the virtual Atlanta burning that was Thatcherism and Reaganism (as long as the contemporary viewer shrugs aside all that dialogue about “darkies”). As a Good angel to the Black angel of Henry Fonda’s Frank in Once Upon A Time In The West (or, two generations later, John Huston’s Noah Cross in Chinatown, and a further generation yet thereafter, Christopher Lloyd’s Judge in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?), Gable’s Rhett sees the future on his doorstep and cautiously welcomes it, such that he might profit, knowing that every wink of his left eye is inversely proportional to the ritual sacrifice of fire necessary for any future, however prematurely damaged, to exist. Leigh’s Scarlett is an unwilling co-conspirator, but that unwillingness is only partial; once she has Tara back on its feet and called in some favours, she becomes as enthusiastic a free marketeer as any Shermanite turncoat.

But it is entirely illusory. Towards the end, as Gable departs, he muses that their deceased daughter reminded him of “you…unspoiled…before the war and poverty did things to you.” But at the film’s beginning we do see Scarlett before the war, and she is as stuck-up and starstruck as ever she might have been. Like any over-idealistic cinemagoer, she has preprogrammed ideas about what a perfect life might constitute – the squeaky clean hero (Ashley), the spotlessly white existence, glamour and more glamour with no irritating pain or contrary people – and is repeatedly frustrated, or defeated, by the wearisome inability of real life to live up to what someone has written for the purposes of transient entertainment (as opposed to transcendence).

Meanwhile, Rhett is the cynical moviegoer at the other end – perhaps even the film critic – knowing the workings of the racket (as only a born racketeer could) and commenting like a Roger Ebert Greek chorus at the ludicrous melodramatics of the plot. Frequently he acts (acts!) towards Scarlett like an impatient casting director, scoffing at her fake mourning, her careful histrionics. Finally even he wearies of the flimsy delights offered by the cinema and wanders off – to read a book? To paint a picture? To be Orson Welles? – leaving Scarlett alone, the last spectator in the cinema, dutifully sitting until the last credits have rolled (over her, like a steamroller).

Very notably, Gone With The Wind is almost entirely free of sex. Leslie Howard’s Ashley is such a fragile fop you wonder what Scarlett ever saw in him (presumably only that deduced from seeing his face illustrated on a penny-dreadful read by her at the age of twelve), and the pampered, puffy peacock that is, for the most part, Scarlett herself is defiantly unsexy – except for one moment, after the war, when she has returned to the ruined farm, gets out into the fields, kills stray Sherman deserters/bandits. Then she lets her hair down and there is a snarl of blood which sets the stage perfectly for Blanche DuBois. Or worse.

TAXI DRIVER

Travis Bickle is an overly naïve moviegoer, but much more, is less of a clueless Christ reincarnate than a stranded alien who has fallen from somewhere out of the sky, very far from home. The obvious comparison here is with E.T., but the apter comparison would be with Chance the gardener in Being There. Both men appear fully (mal)formed, with no known previous history – Travis has been in Vietnam, Chance in the big house all of his life, but both remain abstracts; indispensable McGuffin’s, perhaps, for understanding their subsequent (in)actions (if “understanding” is indeed necessary). Both men, when presented with the outside world, act precisely as though seeing it for the first time – and to both men, it is as incomprehensible as theocracy, or ritual statues, or centipedes. Both nurture simple, black-and-white philosophies about how to live, their damaging simplicity compromised by the lives they have hitherto not lived.

The difference between Scarlett, and Travis/Chance, is that Scarlett’s character at least allows for the possibility of sex, as rapidly as she persuades herself to deny it (throwing herself down the staircase to lose that second baby), whereas with Travis and Chance sex is as abstract as origami or tangerines. Neither really knows, or perhaps cares, what sex is; thus Chance’s complete indifference to Shirley MacLaine furiously masturbating beside him (he sticks to watching the television), thus Travis’ bewilderment at Cybill Shepherd’s Betsy and her outrage when he escorts her to a porn film (“You’re wrong,” he stammers at her rapidly retreating frame, “a lot of couples come here and enjoy this kind of film!” – and there ensues a tender but clever cut to the audience, which is indeed mainly composed of loving couples, getting off on what they’re watching).

Thus also is Travis’ crusade to “save” Jodie Foster’s Iris consigning both of them to doom, because of his complete misunderstanding of the concept of “family.” This is very subtly brought home to us by Scorsese by the matching “dance” sequences. In one, Iris and Harvey Keitel’s pimp/father figure Sport waltz very tenderly to a record – and far from being pederastic, it is perhaps the most tender and human scene in the film. Keitel and Foster’s closeness is exactly that of the father and daughter – a father whose capabilities exceed the actual father from whom she has run away. Meanwhile, Travis can only watch other people dancing, on a television screen – other anonymous, facelessly smiling people embracing to Jackson Browne’s “Late For The Sky.” The only choreography which he can master is that of the gunslinger. Thus Iris’ howls, following Travis’ carnage, are not howls of relief and liberation; it is as if her family has been massacred in front of her.

Travis takes to guns far more readily than to sex – bullets are abstractly clean whereas sex is concretely dirty. But even these he sees as essentially harmless; you can never imagine him as a Presidential assassin, any more than you can imagine Charles Palantine as a Presidential candidate (in their only meeting, as a passenger in Travis’ cab, Palantine reveals himself to be as uncomprehending of political ideology as Travis – and probably a lot more so. What his party or politics or manifesto are, we never find out. “For The People.” Whoever got elected on a mandate of “Against The People”?). He can’t quite appreciate the possibility that people might get hurt or killed by guns, except when he determinedly sets out to do so.

And when that happens, it is implied that he consigns Iris back to her former living death, out in the sticks. Observe the closing letter reading by her father, and the bloated, simple-minded figures of parents we see in the newspaper cuttings – the voice is hesitant, not quite literate, nothing like what Iris wanted, which was why she tried to escape them. So she will grow up constricted, committed to nothing, and fifteen or so years later re-emerge – not as Clarice in The Silence Of The Lambs (though that’s a tempting thesis; is Hannibal a truer Christ figure than Bickle?) but as Cybill Shepherd’s blithe campaign worker Betsy (the character set-up scene in campaign HQ with an earnest Albert Brooks quietly demonstrates that she knows equally as little about “politics” as Travis), idling away her mind to Kris Kristofferson records but not really listening to them (when she quotes the “He’s a prophet and a pusher” lyric at Travis, we feel Scorsese speaking rather than Shepherd).

I watched Taxi Driver again over Christmas with my mother, who was watching it for the first time. For the first hour or so she thought it was a hilarious comedy about a dopey guy who had problems getting girls, until the submucosal violence finally seeped through, and the shock was evident – “It’s worse than The Godfather!” (and she’s a big Sergio Leone fan, so figure that one out). But then again, Travis’ isolation is voluntary – De Niro’s voiceover makes it clear that he makes a pretty good living out of taxi driving – not because he dislikes humanity, but because he simply doesn’t get it. Presidential candidates or pervy suits – it’s all banter and he can’t register a word of it (even if the latter, played by Scorsese himself, might be his own suppressed conscience whispering to him in serrated giggles). But note the sequence where he goes to meet Betsy, striding in slow motion down the street in a red jacket; with the angle of sunlight casting a glow on his brown hair, he looks like the Devil, on his way to end the world.

And at the end, after the blood, after even Travis knows in himself that Betsy is now interested (that sly semi-grin as he leaves her standing at her gate and speeds off), after he has become a “celebrity” – he still can’t bear to look at himself in the mirror, nor at us. With the exception, of course, of “you lookin’ at me?” after he has willingly sauntered onto his self-constructed soundstage, still a non-celebrity but not for much longer. Which brings us to the story, if story there be, of Chantelle Houghton – but that story has yet to end before I can tell it.


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