Category Archives: Film

The Polar Express (the train of life)

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I’m not the first to look for the deeper meaning in the animated film The Polar Express. It is a wise film interspersing thoughtful conversation with high action – it would make a thrilling fast ride at a theme park.  The music is also wonderful – it would also make a great musical.

train

Faith, and lack of it, along with the innocence and loss of childhood, are big themes, but also the general challenges of life that we experience whether child or adult. There are some key one-liners from the train conductor (Tom Hanks) – I thought one might pop up “it’s not the destination but the journey that is important” but instead, better, it’s: “it doesn’t matter where the train goes, it’s making the decision to get on it that matters.”

Hanks

It is a risk for all the children to jump on the train but they do and discover aspects of themselves that they either didn’t know they had or find they needed confirmation of the qualities they did have. On the journey they are challenged, but also helped, by Doubt – the spirit of the dishevelled, teasing spirit of a man who appears on and off in various parts of the train – also played by Tom Hanks.

This pairing of these two characters (conductor and spirit man) could be seen as theological – Hope (the conductor) and Doubt (the dishevelled, teasing spirit of a man) are two sides of the same coin. We experience one with the other in most cases, but with friendship, empathy, and our own individual reflection, we can get through them.  Three of the children become good mates – one boy struggles particularly with the concept of Christmas (we’re not given details but we assume he’s had a tricky home life, is lonely, and certainly doesn’t come from a wealthy background) but he is valued by his two friends.

boy

Materially the children are on the search for presents but learn a great deal more about the gifts they already have within them and also what they need to learn and do to maintain hope and faith. The conductor makes a passing but key comment ‘sometimes the most real things in the world are the things we can’t see.’

Holding onto the unseen is the challenge in life – the symbol of the bell in the film personifies this. Doubt says you must see to believe.  Hope says you sometimes have to believe in order to understand, and to see.

bell

Happy Christmas.

The Arts as vehicles for Identity and Truth

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In his statement to his film Mr Turner, Mike Leigh says:

“Back at the turn of the century, when ‘Topsy-Turvy’ was released, I wrote that it was “a film about all of us who suffer and strain to make other people laugh.”

Now I have again turned the camera round on ourselves, we who try to be artists, with all the struggles our calling demands. But making people laugh, hard as it is, is one thing; moving them to experience the profound, the sublime, the spiritual, the epic beauty and the terrifying drama of what it means to be alive on our planet – well, that’s altogether something else, and few of us ever achieve it, much as we may try.

Yet Turner the man was eccentric, anarchic, vulnerable, imperfect, erratic and sometimes uncouth. He could be selfish and disingenuous, mean yet generous, and he was capable of great passion and poetry.

Mr Turner is about the tensions and contrasts between this very mortal man and his timeless work, between his fragility and his strength.”

I enjoy films which are about complex people and I read this after seeing the film. Too often it feels as though society puts people into boxes and has no time to consider those who are outside the box. The business of the arts is to explore characters and the world they lived/live in.

Timothy Spall as Turner

Timothy Spall as Turner

Turner seemed not to engage with the reality of his own responsibilities yet his paintings engage realistically with the world of nature. I look at the paintings and their wildness strikes a chord with me – the emotions I can’t always engage with are almost acknowledged by the art and artist instead – on my behalf.

The same could be said of Beethoven the composer.  The classical pianist James Rhodes says ‘his music is the very definition of “interiority” – music became about feelings, about looking within and expressing things hitherto unsayable…Study Shakespeare and he will show us who we are.  Listen to Beethoven, a man tormented and isolated, who wrote simply to justify his artistic and intellectual existence, and he will show us who we could be.’

Beethoven

Another who was labelled as odd was Alan Turing – the code breaker in World War Two.  At the time, he didn’t behave or talk like ‘the group’ he was working with, but they learnt to respect and work with him – all portrayed brilliantly in the film The Imitation Game. We should be careful of the word ‘odd’ – life is complex, and we sometimes need complex people to illuminate our own lives, whether we see our lives as black and white, or grey.  As Oscar Wilde says ‘the true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.’  And let us remember we are all human – so complexity generally comes with that.

The superb Benedict Cumberbatch as the persecuted Alan Turing

The superb Benedict Cumberbatch as the persecuted Alan Turing

Robin Williams R.I.P.

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One hopes that the peace he couldn’t find in this world (which let’s face it offers no peace) has now been found following his death.  As President Obama and many others have said – he knew every human emotion and this allowed him to be exposed to his own suffering.  He gave all and was also wholly generous in how he listened to others.

“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.” – John Keating (Robin Williams), Dead Poets Society (1989)

The last line has a haunting resonance with me personally – these deeper emotions that we ‘stay alive’ for are often the ones that, in the end, take us away in searching for them. Losing Robin Williams is like losing someone who understands those on the edge – the person who wears the mask to conceal the truth.  There are very few like him who don’t pass judgement, or who understand.

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Real lives being recognised

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There was a common thread to this year’s Oscars – many of the speeches paid tribute to the REAL characters they played.  This is one of the reasons I tune into these Award Ceremonies because the drama they represent is the real life of other people.

Jared Leto accepting his Best Supporting Actor Oscar

Jared Leto accepting his Best Supporting Actor Oscar

Leto, whose performance was a revelation in Dallas Buyer’s Club, said: ‘And this is for the 36 million people who have lost the battle to Aids and to those of you out there who have ever felt injustice because of who you are or who you love, tonight I stand here in front of the world with you and for you.’

The sadness of Leto’s character is that his character is most moved in the film when other people show him some humanity – and when those once against you become your closest supporters and recognise that you are not so different from them:

Leto in role

Twelve Years A Slave paid tribute to those on whom the story was based.  McQueen reiterated his words from the BAFTA’s (see previous post)

Triumph for McQueen as he accepts his Oscar for Best Film but also that he stands equal with many races

Triumph for McQueen as he accepts his Oscar for Best Film but also that he stands equal with many races

and Lupita Nyong’o reminded the audience that her character was as real as she is: ‘It doesn’t escape me for one moment that so much joy in my life is thanks to so much pain in someone else’s, and so I want to salute the spirit of Patsey, for her guidance.’

Happiness but not without pain

Happiness but not without pain

There is no other forum other than that of film and theatre which shows us so well the injustices of life.  Yes these awards are also the glamorous side of acting that many of us won’t relate to but at their heart they showcase not only talent, but humankind, in its greatness but also its great injustice of the past, and in many cases, still today.

 

Films as Mirrors

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I was thrilled that Twelve Years A Slave got Best Film and Best Actor at the BAFTA’s.  Both speeches were great – Steve McQueen’s touched a nerve.  The film as we know is more than just a film as what happened in it was real.  McQueen, in his after-award-show comment to the media said that the film is a mirror to humanity; we watch it and unfortunately we see ourselves.  In his acceptance speech he said that today, 21 million people are still in slavery of one form or another.  Yet again it takes the arts to remind us of our history and expose us to what we are still capable of.  It would be a bad thing, as he said, if in 150 years time, another Director has to make another film about this depraved human activity to reveal the truth.

12 Years

Inside a Soul

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The new Coen Brother’s film Inside Llewyn Davis is a film that says what it needs to without saying everything.  As I find myself saying in response to a lot of artistic projects (whether a film, play or musical), Llewyn is a character who we can relate to.  It struck me that the majority of people he encounters blame him for the mess he’s in and although it’s hard for the viewer to say these people are wrong all of the time, we do not know why his musical partner threw himself off a bridge, or why Llewyn’s music is not appreciated, so it’s not really right to blame him for his bad luck.  The wider message is – we all have a story which has landed us where are; only the person who is in trouble knows that story.

Llewyn trying to make a go of the music with Jim (Justin Timberlake)

Llewyn trying to make a go of the music with Jim (Justin Timberlake)

We’re not meant to dwell too much on these questions – he is down on his luck and life in general and is someone for whom things just do not work out.  Not much has changed.  I’ve not been in a position as unfortunate as his (but we never know what’s around the corner) but I’m surrounded by people who say life is fantastic, based of course on their own experiences.  There are many similarities between then (1961 when the film is set) and now – in the West at least, if you’re not ‘in with the crowd’, no one understands you and you’re pretty much ‘done’.  If you’re not at a certain stage in life by a certain age, people find you hard to contemplate and it can be a downward spiral to desolate aloneness.  People have conversations about their own life which rarely relate to yours.  Ironically, the Dylan song which plays at the end of film picks up on the traveller who goes through life ‘unnoticed’.  Also ironically, much of the folk music that follows the forgotten era of music that Llewyn portrays, is a music which does have sympathy for the forgotten, the misjudged and people who have not made it.  Folk music is generally the music of the people, for the people and about the people.  But, like any other art form and indeed like in any other walk of life, some do not make it and there are no happy endings.

Looking for luck, while the successful world pass him by

Looking for luck, while the successful world pass him by

The song Llewyn opens the film with goes ‘Hang me oh hang me’ – it’s not the hanging that bothers him but the laying in the grave afterwards.  There is a deeper meaning here – he doesn’t want to merely exist in life.  He doesn’t want to be living but living in a grave, and for him, not being recognised for his music and his passion, is basically laying in a grave; being buried alive by the expectations of others.  I identify with that.

A Way of Seeing

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I often wonder if people who don’t enjoy culture or do not feel drawn to any kind of artistic endeavour, are missing out on a way of seeing the world.  The poet Coleridge said of imagination – that it is the unconscious, primordial power of the soul and that knowledge is wedded to feeling.  So this would indicate that for knowledge to be accurate, it must have a relationship to feeling, to emotion – even to the irrational.  He also said that imagination allows us to see reality as a whole.  Parts are seen as a whole through the creative imagination; art is not a skill – it is the imaginative work of the soul.  Art is a certain kind of seeing – the inner eye’s fusion of the external and internal.

Coleridge

Freud went so far as to say that the discontent of the world is due to the lack of connection between the inner and the outer.

So what of the person making the art – singing the song, playing the instrument, writing the music/song, painting the picture, dancing the dance, writing the poem or book, or acting the character?  Coleridge said that a poet can be known by how he/she makes the reader express their emotions. The artist does not know what they’re expressing until it is expressed – hence it is unconscious.  Mentality cannot be strictly identified with consciousnes itself – e.g a musician is not completely aware/conscious of what or how well they’re playing.  They have a mentality of it but are not 100% conscious of it.

So having said all this, we are pointed to the concept that imagination clarifies and makes aspects of life clearer; in the act of elaboration, ironically we see more clearly.

I leave you with two quotes; one from a composer of great music – Sergei Rachmaninov – who says that his need to create music is linked with his reaction to it after it is created.  Both are efforts to create something good and beautiful through which the rest of life can be carried –

‘I always feel that my own music and my reactions to all music, remained spiritually the same, unendingly obedient in trying to create beauty.’

Life is lived forwards but understood backwards and we often need tools – such as the arts and imagination – to understand it.  In the book ‘The Other Side of You’ by Salley Vickers, one of the characters says ‘how little of another person’s reality is visible to us.  We see their form, their features, their shifts of expression, but all that constitutes their sense of self remains unseen.  And yet this invisible self is what to the individual constitutes their real identity.’

Vickers

Imagination is like a window which allows us to see others more clearly, as we use imagination to interpret the arts which are about people.  Film and Theatre Director Rufus Norris says in relation to his film ‘Broken’ – acting is the business of humanity.  The arts are more informative than we give them credit for and far more than simply fantastical.

Broken