Movies – Trumbo and Goya

 

So far as I know, no people or culture has welcomed informers.  Betrayal is a very black act, and it is worse when the people betrayed have put their trust in the informer.  Denunciation was an evil encouraged by regimes like the Spanish Inquisition, or the reigns of terror of Robespierre, Stalin and Hitler.  Few people deserve denunciation, and a regime that not just encouraged denunciation but enforced it would be Un-American.  It is therefore odd that the body that did just that in the U S in the 1950’s lives in infamy as the House of Un-American Activities Committee.

During one of those communal nervous breakdowns that the U S undergoes now and then, people got scared of communists, and a black list was prepared to deny work to suspected communists in the film industry.  People would then be compelled by subpoena to attend this form of inquisition conducted by McCarthy at the HUAC and be required to inform on people, including mates.  If they refused, they could be jailed for contempt of Congress.  They had committed no previous crime.  They were not even suspected of committing a crime.  They were suspected of holding political views that the majority did not favour.  If ever the word Un-American could be used decently, it would be to describe this despoliation of due process.

Yet it went on, and some prospered under it.  One upcoming politician made his name as one of the witch-hunting ferrets.  Another prominent union official ratted on his members and was a stool pigeon for the FBI.  The first was Richard Nixon.  The second was Ronald Reagan.  Both became two term presidents, and the second is still held in some regard even though he was a rat.  American politics are, after all, very different.  As I remarked elsewhere about Arthur Miller, who wrote The Crucible:

The failure of due process before the HUAC takes your breath away, but it got worse before the courts.  When people were charged with contempt for refusing to answer, the trials did not take long.  The prosecution called expert evidence. They called an ‘expert on Communism’ to testify that the accused had been under ‘communist discipline’.  When Miller’s counsel announced he was going to call his expert to say that Miller had not been under discipline of the Communist Party, Miller noticed ‘that from then on a negative electricity began flowing toward me from the bench and the government table.’  Miller thought his expert was good, ‘but obviously the tracks were laid and the train was going to its appointed station no matter what.’  The nation that would have been entitled to see itself as having the most advanced constitutional protection of civil rights on earth had been scared out of its senses by a big bad bear that existed mostly in the minds of the tormented.

All this is looked at in the film Trumbo, about a prominent writer on the black list.  The film was too much of the black hats v white hats and too hammed up for my taste, and it is too long, but it is an important story.

And the film touches on another weakness of the American legal system that we have been reminded of recently.  Their Supreme Court is appallingly political, and death can change the numbers and the legal climate.  Trumbo and others were advised that they would succeed in the Supreme Court.  But a judge on their side died, so they had to go to jail.  That form of lottery is not how the justice system should work.  And you wonder why a nation that wears its Christianity on its sleeve wanted to jail people for refusing to commit the crime of Judas.

The film Goya is one of those events that make you wonder why we didn’t think of it before.  You take a great painter, and put him up on the big screen, so that we can get up face to face with genius and see the brushwork in action.  The results are wonderful.  The film follows the documentary style of movies on Mozart and Beethoven, but the show is about the paintings.  You get close to the mystery.  For example, the painting of the Duke of Wellington is not a portrait of an imperious general – it is a portrait of a man who knows what apprehension, if not fear, is.  It is so different to portraits of Napoleon.  They were very different.  Wellington was not prodigal with the lives of his men.  Nor was he bent on wars of expansion.

According to the movie, Goya taught himself how to paint.  That is humbling.

I have just reread Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London.  I read a fair chunk of it while undergoing the ritual humiliation of delay in a doctor’s waiting room.  One phrase caught my eye.  He refers to an ‘embittered atheist’ – ‘the sort of atheist who does not so much disbelieve in God as personally dislike Him.’  I’ve seen a few of those – and you get them now politically with people who loathe what they call ‘liberalism’.  The Tory Party in the UK and the Republican Party in the U S are disintegrating because they cover too wide a field.  There are rumblings about that here from some Looney Tunes, but we don’t take ideology seriously – and thank God for that.

45 Years

 

When I moved from Toorak to Richmond, I celebrated my liberation by putting pin-ups on the fridge – I disdained the fridge magnets of Little Johnnie.  One pin-up was of a lady –a word I use advisedly – of my age in a demure black dress under a light-weight light grey cashmere twinset.  I had just seen her in a film where she had bested a busty French flibbertigibbet – to use a term applied to those sexy young French actresses by a lady friend of mine – who, as it happens, is also English.  I am of course talking of Charlotte Rampling. She has been in movies for a while but not as long as Tom Courtenay.  He did Billy Liar in 1963 and Doctor Zhivago in 1965. She did The Damned in 1969 and The Night Porter in 1973.  (And you need a stiff drink before and after each of those movies.)

I went to see two great actors in 45 Years, but I went with trepidation because I thought it might end badly – which is tricky when you are of the same age as those on screen.  I was therefore hugely relieved when it ended well – as I thought it had to from the moment when the heroine stepped up to the piano and rippled off the most beautiful music ever written.  I just wondered what the point of the whole thing was.  Imagine my disappointment when I found I had missed the point, and that the movie, some say, did not end well!

Just before their forty-fifth wedding anniversary, news of the fate of a previous love reaches Geoff (Courtenay) and this starts to discompose his wife Kate (Rampling).  The question why? is never answered.  OK, our pre-revolution generation was different – naïve, fumbling, priggish, and neurotic about sex – but even in the dark ages some people slept and lived together before marriage, and pregnancy was more of a risk for us fumblers.  But would we get shitty if we found out after 45 years’ marriage that out that we were not the first?  Not unless we are rolled gold neurotics.

Perhaps that is Kate’s problem.  Looking back, I should have been en garde from her first lines.  She tells a neighbour that he should call her Kate, because she is no longer a schoolteacher, and then she says that she is ‘over the moon’ – they were the words, I think – because the neighbours have had twins.  That means either Kate or the scriptwriter has serious issues.  We then find that she is a retired teacher in a childless marriage – I did not notice it in the film, but the internet suggests there is no doubt about his potency – and her husband is softer and weaker than her.  She has not lost the capacity to scold, especially about smoking, or to order him about, either in travel abroad, or in attending a social engagement set up by a crashing bore.  When he goes to this function to appease her, and he is physically ill as a result, she looks calmly at him in her rear vision mirror, like a butterfly collector observing a catch in the net.  But she has used his absence to search through his private papers, and to get evidence, as she sees it, against him, and then not tell him – she just goes cold at a function that might have made any bloke sick.  Just how cold or bitter is this woman?

I did not pick up what she saw as the evidence against him – I was insulating myself from the Pinteresque acid drip – or the cold shoulder at the end.  I only saw it on the internet.  In my need to avoid pain, I apparently just missed the point.

Now, I have no doubt that the features I have referred to were not uppermost in the mind of the director. But nor was his apparent message uppermost in mine. And don’t give me any of that bullshit about ending a play or a movie with a question mark.  When was the last time you saw Euripides, Shakespeare, Ibsen or Chekhov end a show with a bloody question?  When Nora walks out on that drip of a husband, she slams the bloody door.  Bang!  ‘Playtime is over.’  (Peugeot made an ad out of it.)  When Hedda walks out on her drip of a husband, and the sleazy lover boy, there is an even bigger bang!  ‘Good God – but people don’t do such things!’

No bangs here – only a whimper.

Balls.

Passing Bull 28 Just who is running this bloody country anyway?

 

We have become resigned to the fact that we have lost responsible government in Australia.  Ministers no longer resign when someone in their charge does something wrong.  They sack the wrongdoer.  On a very good day you might get an expression of regret.  You will not get an apology – and of course resignation is entirely out of question.  It has only taken about a generation to wind up that part of what used to be called the Westminster System.

There appears to be a new and possibly more insidious invasion of ministerial responsibility.  A suggestion has been made that a federal government minister has not complied with some written standards.  The Prime Minister says that he has referred the issue to a senior public servant.

There are two things here.  First there is apparently some written code that someone has prepared – I’m not sure whether it applies just to this government or all members of this party or what its standing is; I am accordingly even less sure of whether its prescriptions would accord with what members of the public might think should be standards of decency to be expected from their elected representatives who happen also to be ministers of the Crown.  That is one issue – our legal system has not always got on well with codes.

The other question is why the Prime Minister, or any minister, or any Member of Parliament is referring an issue of their conduct in office to a civil servant.  Judges do not ask their clerks if they have done something wrong; generals do not ask their valets if they have buggered something up in battle; doctors do not ask their receptionists or even their nurses whether they have got something wrong.  Just who, then, is in charge?

The accused minister is happy to describe the civil servant as ‘the highest public servant in the land’: golly, should we curtsey?  I had assumed that this personage would merely offer some report or advice.  Perhaps we could live with that level of intervention, as long as the decision is ultimately taken by those who should take it, namely, the relevant ministers or members of Parliament.

But that view does not appear to be shared by all of the press.  The senior political reporter for the AFR yesterday said that the fate of the accused minister ‘now rests with senior public servant Martin Parkinson who is deciding whether Robert [the accused minister] breached the ministerial code of conduct.  If he finds he did, his future is grim.’  That report does suggest that this civil servant has received some kind of high judicial appointment.

Well, these things happen in the press, but other suggestions in that report of Phillip Coorey are a lot more disturbing.  The article says that in June 2013 a Chinese billionaire attended a dinner at Parliament House.  So also did Tony Abbott, his chief of staff Peta Credlin, the then Shadow industry Minister Ian Macfarlane and the Shadow Minister for defence Stuart Robert – who is now the minister the subject of the enquiry.  The article then goes on to say that the Chinese billionaire gave each of these people ‘designer watches… as a goodwill gesture…’  In addition, watches were provided, the article says, to the wife of Abbott and to the wife of Robert who were not there.  It must have been quite a night at Parliament House – did the bountiful Chinaman turn up with a big sack of gifts like Santa?

Mr Macfarlane then went and saw the clerk of the House of Representatives to declare his gift.  So here we have another case of politicians referring to civil servants for advice on their professional conduct.

But then Mr Macfarlane made a very serious mistake.  He ‘reasoned’ that his ‘designer watch’, a Rolex, was a fake.  Was the then Shadow Minister an expert in watches, fake or otherwise?  Mr Macfarlane, whose star has fallen, comes across, with some effort, as a plain man from the sticks – but that did not stop him estimating the value of the ‘fake Rolex’ at between three hundred dollars and five hundred dollars.  This was, I gather, beneath the value in which he had to make a public declaration relating to the gift.

The article appears to me to suggest that the clerk of the House was a party to this exercise in assessing the value of the gift.  If so, both of those involved were making a very serious error.  It does suggest, to put it at its lowest, a cavalier regard for determining the value of gifts for determining how someone in a position of public trust should respond to them.  Getting a fake Rolex might be one thing; getting a real one is altogether a different thing.

And the problem is worse for Mr Macfarlane because his thinking was apparently predicated on the assumption that the Chinese billionaire who made the gift was a crook – a crook who could not even give a proper watch, but had to give a fake one.  This is hardly a good position to start from if you have two come to explain later on why you get accepted a gift – that you thought that the donor was a crook.  You may be able to dismiss a fake as a bauble, but no one is naive enough to think that Chinese businessmen are handing out real Rolex watches to Australian politicians for nothing.  I’ve had some difficulty in following the current allegation against Mr Robert, but I doubt whether it is as serious as suggesting that he received a gift worth tens of thousands of dollars from a Chinese businessman.

But then apparently Mr Macfarlane ran into a colleague who had a real Rolex and who compared the weights of the two watches.  On the basis of that show of expertise by another MP, the two of them concluded that the gift was a genuine watch.  Golly – what will we do now?  Mr Macfarlane then had the watch valued – which he should have done in the first place if he was serious.  He was then told it was worth $40,000!  And he was also told, again according to the article, that his watch ‘wasn’t as flash as those given to Abbott, Margie Abbott, and Credlin’.  Was even the sky no limit to this bounty from the Orient?

What should Mr Macfarlane do then?  Well of course he should go back to the clerk and be advised what to do.  He told the clerk that he thought he should hand it back.  The clerk said he was entitled to keep it – which is an interesting proposition of either propriety or law – but that giving it back would be a good idea.  It would be interesting to know how the return of the gift was worded.

The article then says that Mr Macfarlane informed Mr Tony Nutt who is now the federal director of the Liberal Party of the problem.  Mr Nutt then ‘ordered the immediate collection of the watches so they could be given back… Robert like his MP colleagues complied.  There remain suggestions one watch was not returned.’  The word was ordered.  The scene may have been more interesting if Mr Nutt’s predecessor had issued such an order to Ms Credlin.

So here you have a whole group of politicians who should know better behaving in a very curious way in response to gifts of Rolex watches by a visiting Chinese businessman of great wealth. Whoever else the arbiters of ministerial conduct may have been, they appear to be here the clerk of the House of Representatives and the director of the Liberal Party.  We are told how Mr Macfarlane blithely accepted these gifts of great value – but we are not told how the other donees pacified their consciences.

I happen to know something about Rolex watches.  One thing I know is that Rolex watches of the kind apparently being handed out here are worth many times the value of a bottle of Grange Hermitage.

Those who want to condemn footballers for the way that they accept what their employer tells them would presumably be horrified at the conduct of these leaders of the nation with a Chinaman on the make.  Who do you think behaved more irresponsibly – the footballers who accepted what is alleged to be Flyaway X, or the political grandees who accepted actual Rolex watches worth $40,000 each or more?

But, whichever way that you look at this report, there is some absolutely prime bullshit here.

***

Correction

When I said in my previous note that Essendon lied to the players, I should have made it clear that that allegation is predicated on the assumption that the relevant finding by the CAS Panel was valid.  I was saying, or meant to say, that if you accept the decision of the Panel, then the other propositions followed.

***

Poet of the month – Philip Larkin

Long Sight in Age

They say eyes clear with age,

As dew clarifies air

To sharpen evenings

As if time put an edge

Round the last shape of things

To show them there;

The many-levelled trees,

The long soft tides of grass

Wrinkling away the gold

Wind-ridden waves – all these,

They say, come back to focus

As we grow old.

***

Movie – Steve Jobs

This film is brilliantly written. It is put together like a top West End play.  Fassbender and Winslett look perfect in the lead roles.  (I did not think she had it in her.)  The only problem is that the hero, who is rarely off the screen, at a personal level makes Hitler look like an avuncular softy.  Jobs has a manic need to hurt those closest to him, and to insult and bulldoze people, especially the weak.  Is it something in his past that makes him degrade people in a way that makes us wince?  He is what we call ‘damaged goods’ – he has a maimed psyche.  (There is a lot of the revenge of Heathcliff and Gatsby in this character, but more of that later.)

At his best, Jobs was like Wagner – a rolled gold shit who thought that the world owed his genius obeisance and that it also owed him a living.  There is no genius here.  Jobs says that he is not the musician but the conductor.  He is no more a genius than the Madam of a high-class knock-shop, if a bit better paid.  The film is often painful, but it is well worth it – even if the end is tartly mawkish.

This film is as good in its own way as The Big Short.  After you have seen both, you might conclude that the big winners in big business are crooks, nuts, or psychopaths.  Well, is this what Shakespeare may have called the ‘promised end’ of capitalism?  Was Karl Marx right after all?

Movie – The Big Short and the Cancer in Capitalism

 

G K Chesterton once said that the ultimate test of a Catholic was to visit Rome and remain in the faith.  You might say that about a capitalist going to Las Vegas – or watching The Big Short.  Las Vegas is the ultimate temple to greed and emptiness.  It is therefore only right that this film reaches a kind of climax in Las Vegas.  The film, following the book of the same name by Michael Lewis, is as full a diagnosis of the cancer in capitalism as you could find.  It is also as good a movie as I have seen for a long time.

Banking is not hard.  The bank takes money from me and pays me the cost to them of X %, and then lends that money on to you for a price for them of X +Y% and trousers the Y% difference in the two rates of return.  The only way the bank can lose is if you default on the loan.  That loan will be secured by a mortgage.  The effect of a mortgage is that the bank can sell your home if you don’t repay the money.

There are therefore two ways the bank can get it wrong.  It can lend you more than you can afford and put you in a position where you may well default if there is some change in your fortune.  Then if you do default, and the housing market has gone down, and the bank has lent too much to you, it may not recover its money at all.

This is at the bottom what happened with the failure of the mortgage market in the US in 2007 that led to the Great Financial Crisis.  It was compounded because very clever people in the finance industry and bond markets – all known in America as Wall Street – bundled up all of these mortgages in fancy sounding documents and securities that hardly anyone ever bothered to read or try to understand and then sold rights to the returns on the mortgages as bonds.  The bonds of course were only as good as the underlying mortgages – no matter how complex the eventual layers on the cake became, the whole structure turned on the capacity of the original borrowers to repay the loan, or of their secured property to make good any default.  If interest rates went up, and the property market went down – and those two events commonly occur together – then the house of cards would all fall down.  That is what happened in what we call the ‘sub-prime’ mortgage debacle that brought the financial world to its knees.

(As it happened, I had to look at most of this a long time ago when acting for the government after Pyramid failed – some silly people (including one Supreme Court judge) suggested that the government may have been at fault!)

This all happened because people who were negotiating the original mortgages and then tying them up to sell them on were being paid so much by way of commission that they lost any interest at all in the worth of their transactions and simply kept churning out the mortgages and all the subsequent bonds in order to get their own commission and irrespective of the consequences.

There is only one other thing you need to remember when looking at the failure of Wall Street that led to the GFC – there is one born every minute.  Most people lose their brains if you wave enough dollars in front of their face.  And Wall Street lives off feeding that greed and stupidity.

You need only to see that greed and a kind of moral emptiness drove these deals at both ends – those selling the mortgages or bonds got paid too much; those taking them paid too much for what they thought was cheap money.  At both ends, people were getting money that they had not earned.  The people we feel sorry for are those at the bottom who were conned into transactions they could not afford.  People should be jailed for inflicting this kind of misery.  It is daylight robbery.

How did it all work at the top end?  The big hitters see every deal – or ‘trade’ – as a gamble or bet.  Most people buy shares or bonds in the belief and hope that they will go up in value.  This is called going long.  But what if you think that a security – say, a share, bond, or even mortgage – will go down in value?  How do you profit on that movement if it happens?  What ‘trade’ can you do to give effect to the bet you want to make?  One way is to enter into a deal where you sell a security before you buy it.  If you agree to sell now at a current market price of $X on the basis that you will deliver in the future, and when that time comes the market price has dropped or crashed to $X-Y, you win – you trouser the $Y.

This is called going short, or short selling, or simply ‘shorting’.  Hence the title of the book and film.  The practice is legal and some say useful in serving to keep market values real.  Slater & Gordon may have a different view – their shares have been shorted by dealers who talk the stock down to fulfil their own prophecies and trades.  People tend to go long in a rising or bull market and short in a falling or bear market.

And if you have won your bet, someone has lost theirs.  And if they take a big enough hit, they might fail and go out of business.  If this happens to a lot of them, the whole economy might be threatened.  A bet against a number of banks if they are big enough may be a bet against the economy of the United States – if not the world.  And although any investment is a kind of gamble, shorting is not for mum and dad.  If the bet of the short comes off, the other party takes a real loss – and not just a foregone possible profit if they have sold before a price rise.  But if the bet fails, and the price goes up, the capacity for loss for the short seller may be unlimited.

That is all you need to know when you go to see The Big Short.  And the world owes Michael Lewis a great debt for the books that he has written about Wall Street.  He has on a number of occasions now lifted the lid clean off a stinking cesspit.  He has now got the status of Bob Woodward – people listen to him, and you choose not to speak to him at your own risk.  I read the book with a lot of interest, but at times it lost me.  This film never did.  I think it is a brilliant film that should be seen by anyone who has any interest in the fragile way our moral world is structured.

The main charm of the film is that although it deals with an industry run for the most part by outright crooks, the people in it have an interest if not a charm of their own.  The most important part of the film is that the idea of the big short was put in place by a man who did what no one else bothered to do.  He actually looked at the mortgages and the properties that they secured, and the lenders who took the mortgages, and concluded that they had to fail.  This man looked hard at the security and saw it that it was bad.  A dealer in securities actually looked at the securities!  The loans were doomed to fail.  This dealer could therefore bet against them and the deals done on top of them.  This man is a cranky but brilliant former doctor.  He lives with music blaring in his earphones and playing the drums.  There are people out there like this who are quite brilliant in their own way, but who are utterly unable to carry on a decent conversation.

So, he is the man who first discovers that the house of cards may come down.  By accident, this information falls into the hands of a real Wall Streeter who unusually has a social conscience, and who wants to stick it right up the big banks on Wall Street, even though his little hedge fund his effectively owned by one of them.  He is the man who worried his rabbi by finding inconsistencies in the word of God when he was a boy.  (His mother asked the rabbi whether he had found any.)  We first see him coming late into a group therapy session and hijacking it and then bitterly resenting the suggestion that he has done so.  He is a wonderful character that is beautifully developed and played.  He, rather than the mad doctor, is the man at the heart of the film.  (My recollection is that the man in the book is not likeable at all.)

The other two main characters are young whiz kids starting a business out of a garage.  There is a hilarious scene where they go to one of the big banks to try to get some ticket that will have them ‘to sit at the table’ as they say, and they get wiped off like a dirty bum.  The kids get a disaffected dealer to get them in and out of the big market.  These three bring a sense of fun and innocence – at least they are sane.

And so it all goes on, and it all comes to pass, and the balloon goes up, and the banks go down.  And we, the public, bail them out, and cop the bill.

It is a very, very funny movie and you worry for a while that you are laughing at events that will lead to untold human misery.  But the film deals with this in a way that works dramatically.  The human element is there, and so is the fact that the crooks have just walked away.  The film said that one person went to jail.  I cannot recall that, but what the film makes crystal clear is that the US should have had to set up a penal colony to deal with all of those shysters who robbed ordinary people.

There are two levels of robbery revealed in in the film.  One is those at the higher level of the banks who just rip off anyone in sight, including the bank’s own customers, and its own shareholders.  The other is the people down the bottom who are defrauding members of the public who blindly sign their life away.  There is a hideous scene where mortgage brokers are boasting about the way that they clip migrants and people of colour.  The hedge fund manager who is the hero interrupts the discussion to take his colleagues outside and ask them why these idiots are confessing.  The answer is they are not confessing – they are bragging.

And the film gives it to the ratings agencies with both barrels.  Standard & Poore are represented by a woman who looks blind.  She is – but not physically.  This is brilliant theatre.  These bastards – and that is the polite term – gave glowing endorsements to liars and thieves who paid them to do so.  It is a very sad comment on American justice that these crooks have not been brought to justice – even in civil actions.

The central message of the book was that those driving this world-threatening farce were utterly amoral.  They could not spell the word ‘conscience’, and we have no reason to believe that anything has changed.  Clever crooks still skin greedy idiots.  They are not just too big to fail – they are too big to be reined in.  Their corruption now looks endemic, just as violence in the US is rooted in the gun laws and their way of life.  There will be more regulation, but this just makes the dealers more careful and soulless – liked doped cyclists.  You cannot, after all, legislate away greed and inanity.

Inequality will be the issue of our time – inequality in income and wealth, and in the justice system.  These shysters keep getting away with it at both ends, and history suggests that the victims will eventually erupt unless there is a real change.

The film has what may be called an ensemble cast including Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale, Steve Carrell, and Brad Pitt.  It was written and directed by Adam McKay.  They all show complete assurance.  One character is like a Greek chorus who offers asides to the audience – that I think is a mark of this film as high theatre.

This is a very important story and I find it very hard to imagine it being better told.  It is also I think a tribute to the U S that they can tell such a dark story so well and so frankly.  God only knows that the U S can deal with some tribute just now.

Movies – Suffragette – And a little history

Our morals tend to get plastic when we talk of politics.  Take the following.  Politically driven people want to change the world.  They want to have more say in how things are done and to right injustices.  They are passionate but they are getting nowhere.  They get hardened, and they turn to violence.  The reaction of the law hardens them more, and former unbelievers are inducted, indoctrinated, and ‘radicalised’.  (Are you with me?)  They leave or are cast out of their own homes.  Their own families feel betrayed, but this rejection just drives the militants on further.  They become outlaws and utterly case hardened.  They have crossed over to the other side.  They adore their leader and they do whatever they are told.  Their righteousness acknowledges no legal or moral boundary.  Zealotry and fanaticism leads inevitably to terrorism that repels all but the hard core.  The logical conclusion is self-immolation, suicide, in the most effective way possible – before the eyes of the world.  For the cause – live on film.

A Muslem ‘terrorist’?  Perhaps.  A suffragette?  Emphatically, according to this film.

There are related risks with a political film.  It may become holier than thou, and the white hats may be whiter than white, and the black hats blacker than black, and you may be left with a tawdry melodrama that is bad history and worse theatre.

Although others whose views I respect hold a different view, that is what I got with the film Suffragette.  The men are almost laughably bad, and the women are all glorious but boring martyrs.  The predictability ends by leaving you flat, and the people who made this film have not learned that since the dramas of ancient Greece, the best theatre, excepting Ibsen, has been relieved by humour.

Does devotion to a political cause ever justify you in walking out on your own family?  The question is hardly asked in this film – and some twerp thought that it would be a good idea to have Anglo-Saxon male tyranny led by a red-bearded Irishman played by a throwback to James Robertson Justice.

I had a go at the story of English women in those times in a little book called The English Difference?  The tablets of their laws.  Some extracts are below.  The real story is in my view far more uplifting.

There will be more on Essendon and the law shortly – a statement of the case for a public inquiry.

WOMEN (1905 – 2011)

Patriotism is not enough. (Edith Cavell)

In a war-time speech that you do not hear so much now, Churchill spoke of the need to deal with class and snobbery in England.  [The fate of Churchill after World War II.]

There is a famous photo of Lloyd George and Winston Churchill on their way to delivering the People’s Budget on 29 April 1909.  Lloyd George is obviously the older (by about twelve years).  Both men are in pinstriped trousers, frock-coat, waistcoat and watch-chain, wing collar, a bow tie or necktie, and top hat.  Lloyd George is carrying a furled brolly and the red despatch box.  Churchill is carrying a cane and folded gloves.  To our left, Margaret Lloyd George looks wary. (What woman married to Lloyd George would not look wary?)  To our right, a tall and desperately humble functionary is wearing gloves and carrying a brolly and another despatch box.  Behind them is a double-decker bus carrying a sign for Tatcho and Dewars, and a man with a boater and a moustache.

Lloyd George is looking at the camera, unflinchingly; Churchill is looking both determinedly and devoutly at his leader, as if seeking some sort of assurance.  It is of course a still photo, but you can still sense the rhythm and purpose of their stride.  Here are two men on a mission, two men who do not mind a fight – on the contrary, their opponents, both in Britain and in Germany, would from time to time lament that they would rather have had a fight than a feed.

These two, very much an odd couple of the sorcerer and his apprentice, were on their way to take from the rich to give to the poor.  They were intent on developing ‘real change’ in a way and to an extent that the President of the United States and the American nation itself could never even dream of.  And for that purpose they were giving battle – you might as well say that they had gone to war – with the British ruling class in a way that Karl Marx and his disciples could never have dreamed of.  These two fighting men – these two British samurai – were largely responsible for winning that battle or war, and in so doing they led the reshaping of British society and its constitution. We may not see such peace-time leadership again.

Lloyd George was a Welshman, the protégé of a cobbler, a defender of the Welsh church, and a great admirer of Abraham Lincoln.  Churchill was the son of a lord and an American heiress (a popular conjunction for a fading aristocracy).  These two men of very different backgrounds joined together to forge what was in truth a social revolution.  The opposition from entrenched wealth and class was ferocious – they had to use all their political skill, and that of Asquith, their PM, to get by.  They also had to deal with two kings.

The opposition was so visceral because that vicious little Welshman appeared to be committed to something more than equality – he looked like he wanted to make the Sermon on the Mount one of the tablets of the law in England.  Lloyd George had told the Commons: ‘These problems of the sick, the infirm, of the men who cannot find a means of earning a livelihood, are problems with which it is the business of the state to deal.’  Was he quite mad?  Was he really saying that ‘it is the business of the state’ to deal with the sick and the unemployed?  Had this little Welsh lunatic forgotten what happened to the first man who said the meek shall inherit the earth?  Would that the old Duke of Wellington were here – his grace would certainly have known how to clear the stables of this sort of rabble.

Both Lloyd George and Churchill were moved by compassion – nothing more, nothing less; what Sir Lewis Namier in another context referred to as ‘plain human kindness’.  Each of them was also a consummate politician, and each was alert to the politics of what they were about.  Churchill had publicly warned that the Liberal Party had to begin to address social issues or die.  The Labour Party was coming around the bend and might soon gobble them all up. 

[Discussion of the achievements of this Liberal government.]

These were stirring and progressive times for Asquith, Lloyd George, and Churchill.  There was another hot issue on which they were stirred but not so progressive – the rights of women, especially the right to vote.  Their attitude to women reminds us of Jefferson’s attitude to slaves.  Independence was a wonderful universal good; but it was not for slaves – slaves were not in the same universe.  A universal franchise was a wonderful universal good: but it was not for women; women were not in the same universe.  Some poor men were coming to terms with the view that they had descended from the apes – now a lunatic fringe was saying that men were no different to women.  Where will it all end?  In the trenches, perhaps.

The agitators came to be called suffragettes.  One group started with John Stuart Mill.  Of them, the French historian Elie Halevy said: ‘…its members abandoned themselves to the pleasure which English people enjoy so keenly of founding groups, gathering recruits – they began to come in large numbers – drawing up rules, electing presidents, secretaries, and treasurers, and organizing public meetings in the customary style.’  The other group was more militant.  Its leader was Mrs Emily Pankhurst.  They would use the word ‘militant’ in the titles of their memoirs.  They were long on what cricketers call sledging to sabotage public meetings.  Two of them wrecked a meeting addressed by Sir Edward Grey.  They went to jail rather than pay the fine.  The movement had martyrs.  There is a photo of two others in a carriage on their release – they had garlands in their hair.  They marched in great concourses, mixing with the unemployed.  They especially targeted Grey and Lloyd George.  When jailed, they went on hunger strike, and by violence made force feeding impossible.  They were evicted from the Commons, but then men took their place.  On Derby Day 1913, Miss Davidson committed suicide by throwing herself on the track.  They put bombs in letter-boxes, and they burned down churches.

How did Monsieur Halevy relate to all his when writing in 1952?  ‘The suffragettes exploited the weakness of their sex, its proneness to hysteria.’  It was not all violence.  There was a political movement.  One group broke with the Liberals to support the Labour Party.  The leaders of that party were not wild with enthusiasm about the idea, but the women had real money, and money talks.  Then Mrs Pankhurst got nine years’ jail, but what good would that do in the face of fanatics intent on martyrdom and bombing?  Should the Establishment follow the example of Napoleon and the Tsars and answer fire with fire?

Then a much, much more earthy but powerful force intervened that made all this internal conflict and excitement look both irrelevant and tawdry.  We recall from our discussion of the Anglo-Saxon levee of arms, of the law not simply allowing arms to be borne but requiring their men to carry arms, that such a law promotes a kind of equality.  If the state depends on you to protect and sustain it, then your standing in the state is so much surer.  Even the feudal relation went both ways – the vassal gave service, but the lord had to protect the vassal; if the lord did not discharge his obligation, the vassal was freed from his obedience.  If you fight for someone, you expect them to look after you.

At 6 am at Brussels on 12 October 1915, a German firing party assembled for that purpose executed by firing squad an English nurse named Edith Cavell.  Edith was forty-nine, the daughter of a vicar at a village near Norwich.  She had been practising her profession in Belgium before the war broke out.  Then she was engaged in saving the lives of both British and German soldiers.  She had also spied, but she was tried before a German military court for helping about 200 British soldiers to escape.  She had therefore been aiding the enemy.  She freely admitted what she had done.  The verdict and sentence were open to the German military court, but the latter was a frightful military mistake. 

The night before she died, Edith Cavell took Holy Communion with an Anglican priest.  She told him that ‘patriotism is not enough.’  Those four words should be enrolled on every military school, mess, and court in the land; they are on her memorial at Trafalgar Square, and for them alone Edith Cavell should be remembered.  The next morning she told a German Lutheran chaplain that ‘I am glad to die for my country.’  The German laws under which she was executed did not discriminate between men and women; neither did the English laws; laws against treason or military laws rarely do.  It is not recorded that the condemned prisoner showed any of the suggested weakness of her sex, ‘its proneness to hysteria,’ in the time leading up to her being shot for what she had done for her country.

Now, here you had a hero, a real hero, the kind of hero that a nation can sustain its faith on.  It was open to the Germans to say to Edith Cavell that if it was good enough for you to aid our enemy then it is good enough for you to be executed under the laws of war.  So could the women of England say to their government that if it is good enough for us to die to see that the country is run properly, it is good enough for us to vote to see that the country is run properly.  That argument is unanswerable; it was unanswerable even by those inbred fops out of Eton who had been sheltered from girls by mummy and daddy, but to whom exclusion came naturally, and who believed that old fairy tale about the battle of Waterloo being won on the playing fields of Eton. 

When they voted against these reforms, had Asquith, Lloyd George and Churchill forgotten that their longest serving monarch, before whom all mere Prime Ministers had kow-towed, was a woman; that the monarch who defeated the Spanish Armada, and who had put on a uniform before addressing her troops at Tilbury, was a woman; and that the mother of God was, of necessity, a woman?

These World Wars fell to be won or lost in the great armaments factories at home, and in the great arsenal of the United States.  And those fields of war were mainly staffed by women.  By the end of the First World War, there were nearly five million women in the workforce, and many of them were engaged in armaments and munitions.  You cannot deny the vote to those you depend on to win your wars.

There is another point.  This was not the time for the ruling classes of Europe to be saying ‘Leave well enough alone.  Leave it to us.’  The rulers of Europe behaved appallingly to get Europe into war, and then they behaved even worse in allowing inept officer classes to lead millions upon millions of poor workers to useless death in the mud of the Western Front.  The Kaiser and the Tsar – both deriving from Caesar – were deposed forever, but many of the men at the front thought that in an orderly world the entire officer corps – or at least the entire general staff – should have had to face the penalty faced by Edith Cavell for a war crime constituted by sending men to their death when there was no reasonable prospect of their being able to obtain a tactical or strategic objective.  It is very hard to believe that people like Haig behaved as they did while believing that the men that they were killing were as valuable as those men at the top.

The move to equality therefore was bottom up and top down.  The men and women at the bottom believed that they were worth more, and that those at the top were worse than useless.  Women had to get the vote.  They did in 1918, although then only those who had made it to thirty were trusted.  The battle was in substance over.  But some would not be able to break free of caste.  When the first woman MP took her place in the House, Winston Churchill could not bring himself to acknowledge the presence of this infidel in his temple – although he had broken bread with her in her own house.

 [A discussion of the role of ‘terror’ in war and a war-time judgment on due process and civil liberties.]

England had to wait more than half a century to see the vote for women being translated into a woman as Prime Minister.  Her name was Margaret Thatcher, and she aroused strong feelings back then.  She arouses even stronger feelings now – and not just in England, but in the colonies.  We will therefore completely ignore her politics.  Why are we looking at her at all in a book about the constitution?  Because the fact that Margaret Thatcher became PM about sixty years after Winston Churchill could not acknowledge a lady friend in the House of Commons says something about the tolerance and capacity of the English to adapt to change and to accept diversity.

Three things about the Iron Lady.  First, to get where she did, she had to get past those who were still the prisoners of their shibboleths about sex, many of the ilk of Monsieur Halevy.  But more than that, she had to confront and overcome the most appalling snobbery.  ‘In the name of Heaven, my dear boy, her father was an alderman – an alderman! – at Grantham – at Grantham! – and she – yes, SHE – stood behind the counter at a shop! Not even trade, Old Boy!  Retail.  Bloody retail, Old Boy.   Not at this club!  If she gets in, she will prove Napoleon right – a nation of bloody shopkeepers.’ 

Secondly, before she was elected, Mrs Thatcher said what she would do.  She had a policy and it was different to that of anyone else.  She was not afraid to adopt a position and then stick to it.  We do not see politicians like that now.  They cower behind minders and opinion polls and the dregs of the press.

Finally, when she became PM, Mrs Thatcher was not going to take any nonsense from any of those boys in either party who had not supported her, or who had let England down – and there were not many boys that were in neither category.  They were lined up on shelves like laced up poodles so that she could from time to time wipe the floor with them.  If the world knew a stronger political leader at that time, it was a very well-kept secret.  Perhaps that is why she still makes so many people generally, and men in particular, anxious.  The only PM since to try to take a position has been sullied by Napoleonic ambitions in the Middle East evidenced by decisions to go to war based on false premises and not even referred to Cabinet –and a Napoleonic refusal to apologize to the nation.

Well, it took time to produce a Mrs Thatcher, but she certainly gave them something to talk about.  The Latin countries have not made it yet.  They are the ones bringing Europe down because they cannot balance their books.  Might there be a causal connection between the inability of France, Italy, Spain and Greece to elect a woman leader, and their inability to run their own economies?  How strong is the economy of the nation being run by Frau Merkel?

Finally, for more than 1000 years, the great stain on England’s record was Ireland.  The history is too long and too painful to recount.  In 2011, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II visited Ireland, the first English monarch to visit the Irish Republic.  A descendant of a people that had come over the water from Saxon forests, this singular queen is descended from another German line from around Hanover.  She was visiting a land of Celtic people with their own royal line.  The visit was an unqualified success.  The Irish President, also a woman, palpably gasped when the queen began a major speech in Irish in one of those parts of the program broadcast live on TV to a breathless Irish diaspora around the world.  There is good reason to believe that the peace will now hold, and that both nations can move on.  This was an affecting instance of the way that the English crown still holds an essential working place in the English constitution whose story we have tried to trace.

The Leviathan

 

It was extraordinary how so many intelligent English people became Communists and whose faith survived a visit to Russia. The distinguished historian Dr Christopher Hill, of whom I am very fond, is an example. He reminds me of the remark of Chesterton that the ultimate test of a Catholic was to keep the faith after a visit to Rome. Well, the film The Leviathan will extinguish any faith or hope that anyone may have had in Russia.

It is hell on earth – drab, lawless, and soulless, and above all, a land that will not tolerate any hope at all. Every shot shows that lifeless, unfinished and motiveless emptiness that you see all over suburban Russia and Turkey. The State runs on corruption; people run on vodka; and the Orthodox Church leers over all. The survivors of the serfs, the Cossacks, and Tsars have never learned the meaning of freedom, much less how to govern themselves. The State operates like a totalitarian state – it just grinds down any person or decency or life that gets in its way – and there is not an oligarch or KGB hood in sight. The Leviathan consumes all, and a sense of hopelessness oozes out of the screen like the vodka that so many pull from the bottle or take straight like medicine. No part of life is left undenied.

The plot is that of The Castle but without the happy ending, and with a lawyer who is not quite so flawless. There is a complication involving the lawyer and the wife of the hero. She is wonderfully played by a woman who invests the part with haunting elements of Anna Karenin and the wife of The Doll’s House. The bad guy is also flawless. (Remember T P McKenna as Richmond in Callan?) The film does not move fast, but the pressure never drops. It is inevitable and unrelenting, and with more meaning and purpose than a Wagner opera.

This is the strongest film I have seen since Mystic River. I went back to see that film again the next day, as I did, for very different reasons, The Castle. The Leviathan is like the former. It has something like a Shakespearian intensity that leaves you drained and unsettled, but somehow purged. If the cinema were closer I would go back to it tomorrow. This is a movie that calls for a serious liquid debrief.

I spent a lot the Easter break writing a long note on 800 years of Magna Carta. Its most famous clauses say that we (the State) will not move or send against you except under a judgment of your peers, and to none will we sell, delay, or deny justice. If you want to know what life might be like without those rights written into the fabric of our law, go and see this mighty film. If you asked me to say how far Mr Putin’s Russia is behind the West, I would say not less than 800 years.

Birdman

This is a movie by a brilliant director about the other side of the lights on Broadway.  We are going through a phase of movies ‘based on real stories’.  Another phase is about actors on the skids, including actors who can just drop in and who know the lines already (Venus in a Fur), or who have diverting personal lives.  As well as Birdman, there is one on the way with Al Pacino.  If you like your humour blacker than pitch, and if you like the supernatural at full throttle in the Latin American mode, so that the hero literally takes wing and  flies out the window, you might enjoy this movie.  If you don’t, you won’t.  You will see it as silly, precious, pretentious self-indulgence.  Sadly I fall into the second group, so I did my dough.  I think many who claim to be in the first group are like those who acclaim minimalism – they are scared to stand up for themselves.  At least we get an insight into why the West End is different.

Mr Turner

 

Once I knew a very refined elderly man in Toorak who refused to go to see the film Amadeus. He worshipped Mozart and he did not want to see that lavatory humour splashed across the screen. For the first hour of Mr Turner, I was wondering if I should have followed this example, but the movie came to life, and started to carry the audience with its hero, thanks to two women, his maid and his later common law wife. Both of these parts looked straight out of Dickens – the sets and costumes are uniformly excellent – and each was played inch perfect. The Poms are so good at this on stage and screen – they bat right down the order.

Turner comes to life with his new love. For some reason the director wanted to drive us to distraction in a very long movie with two of the most irritating whingers ever born, the ex-wife and a failed painter. Foreplay may not be the hero’s strong suit, but the courtship scene is affecting and involving. We knew that he cared for his father, but we wondered otherwise if his only outlet was with the paint brush. Although Turner snorts a lot, and can be abrupt, he gets on with the Academy like one of the boys in the locker room at the golf club. I was surprised at his easy acceptance – the son of a barber with a gruff South London accent. We get a glimpse at some of the great paintings – there is a real frissson when a few of them in a boat see the fighting Temeraire being towed toward them by that black steam boat. Ruskin gets a family backhander, which is not unjust for the most over-rated commentator since Cicero.

For me, Turner is right up there with El Greco as a mould-breaker in painting. I doubt whether the film will convey this wonderment to all, but in one of two beautiful scenes involving a daguerreotype, Turner asks why the camera cannot show colour. When he is told that this is a mystery, he replies, softly, long may it remain so. We have seen an experiment on colour with a prism, but the mystery of art is inviolable. The film is gorgeously apparelled on the screen. I did not like the music, but others, I gather, do. At least it is not that Muzak we normally get. This is a film of substance about a genius.

The Water Diviner

 

Now you know. They do make films like this anymore. The Water Diviner is a film about an Australian farmer and water diviner (Russell Crowe) who loses three sons on Lone Pine and goes there to use his capacity to commune with the earth to recover their bodies. He does not return empty-handed, but that simple and uplifting tale has been expanded into a combination Beau Geste, The Man from Snowy River, Zorba the Greek, Kim, The Guns of Navarone, Gone with the Wind, Lawrence of Arabia, and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. It is also a cry-out-loud weepy. Mr Crowe is putting down a big marker – subtlety will not be the hallmark of his film direction. Well, not a lot in his history suggests shyness.

This is all OK for those who like this kind of thing in the sequence about the lost sons, although on at least one occasion the fearful exuberance comes mortally close to a failure of taste, but by the time that the hero gets to help Ataturk to found modern Turkey with the aid of a cricket bat, some might incline to the view that we have gone over the top once too often. And there is some bleak typing, of a miserable, venal Irish Catholic priest, of insufferably snooty Pom officers, of incorrigibly democratic Australians, of lustful and polygamous Turks, and of bloodthirsty, eye-rolling Greeks. The love interest is carried by a ferociously attractive young woman; whatever other attributes she might have are lost under lines of banality that the screen-play suffers too much from. I thought that the acting honours were taken by the guy playing the Turkish officer – he looked flawless to me from start to finish.

This is all I think what used to called derring-do, but the film has a curious premise – that the hero failed in not doing enough to stop his sons setting off for the slaughterhouse in the bizarre and un-Australian name of King and Country. This whole nation is set to embark on an orgy of celebration of that very sick notion in the centenary of the disaster at a time when it is deploying war machines under the odd name of the Royal Australian Air Force to kill Arabs in a sectarian war that extends to Turkey – and, we are told, the shores of Australia. But whatever else the sons of the water diviner got killed for, I do not think that it was in order that one hundred years on, their descendants might tug their forelocks to a knight or a dame or join in hostilities on the other side of the world on the ipse dixit of the patron du jour.

This Is Where I Leave You

If you look up the word kitsch, you will see references to material that is low-brow and mass-produced, gaudily decorated with icons of the mob, and given to sentimentality and melodrama – something like a shock jock that appeals to those with no taste at all, and little sense of decency. The film This is Where I Leave You sets new levels of vulgarity in this genre that may never be surpassed.  It redefines my notion of a nightmare – spending one hundred minutes with the people in who inflicted this on us to see whether they could increase their insult to my brain and our humanity in person.  Like The Judge, it is a generational tale about a yuppie with a cheating wife who goes back to middle America after a death in the family and confronts his demons and his childhood sweetheart and some intellectually challenged people.  It could have been shot in the same town with the same cast. but the latter film had a theme and two distinguished actors.  This one just keeps getting worse.   It is like the Titanic such a bad film that it holds you enthralled to see whether it can sustain bullshit of such elegant and inevitable refinement.  Good art puts us at home with our humanity.  Kitsch makes us think that the apes are better off.  There is only one redeeming feature.  You get the same feeling with Der Rosenkavalier.  There is not much air between fascism and kitsch – if they can sell this rubbish, selling Hitler would be a breeze.