Tag Archives: humanity

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

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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

The Naturalism Debate

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Most of the comments about the film Les Miserables remark that the film is too naturalistic and ‘in your face’.  A well known musical theatre performer commented that it was all rather emotional and that she would have liked it if the voices has been ‘tweaked’ a little bit in the studio after recording to make them more presentable/easy on the ear on film. Interesting.  The film’s power in its use of non-edited singing: the actors are in the moment.  Eddie Redmayne who plays Marius says the joy of this is that actors don’t therefore have to make their acting decisions 3 months before their character is in role.

Marius 1

I would also say how stange it is to talk about tweaking emotions.  Do we ‘tweak’ emotions in every day life?  No!  If we’re about to cry we don’t say ‘now hang on a moment, let me make sure I don’t upset other people and I’ll just adjust my tears.’ What is the problem with being real?  Nothing!  If we are embarrassed or somehow disgusted by the rawness of this film then we’re disgusted by the reality of the human condition and even history itself.  The historical facts of the French revolution are gritty and violent like any other battle.  The human stories of Valjean, Fantine and all the people in the street scenes are realistic – there were such people who had lives of utter misery – some of them managed to create a better world for themselves (Valjean – though only because the Bishop gave him a second chance and Valjean acted on it), but others, due to the repression of the system and the unforgiveness of others, had no chance to move away from their wretched lives.

The only voice that is not raw and not broken is Russell Crowe’s – which suits his character, Javert.  Javert becomes obsessed with hunting down Valjean purely because he is the law and there is no bending – ‘the law is not mocked’.  He cannot see that Valjean does not fit into his category of right and wrong.  His uncompromising nature is reflected in his smooth vocals.  Any doubt Javert has (and he does doubt) is seen in his face rather than heard in his vocals.

I would therefore conclude that the naturalism of this Les Mis film works and is justified – it takes courage to face the truth because once you face it you have to engage with the world and your place in it.  Once you do that – as Valjean and Fantine do, they find that their engagement with the world costs.  Facing the truth is a rough ride and the events that happen to them are life changing…what would be the purpose of ‘tweaking’ their emotional response?  Nothing, other than making it look like their characters are pretending and let’s face it, life is not a rehearsal and we can’t pretend our way through it.  The characters in Les Mis don’t.

Size isn’t everything

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I’ve come across another two small charities which I believe need a message of support.  I am struck by the much needed work they are doing – what they are doing also exposes how nasty humans can be to living beings they see as ‘lower’ or somehow less worthy of care and respectful treatment.

The charities are the Greek Cat Welfare Society www.greekcatwelfare.moonfruit.com and Animal SOS Sri Lanka www.animalsos-sl.com .  Both charities are registered in the UK, run by volunteers.  They are desperately trying to rescue the cats and dogs thrown on to the streets in Greece and Sri Lanka.  Not only are the animals neglected, they are abused – having been neglected.  It is shocking.

Animal SOS

These small charities are doing the biggest work – saving life where they can.  In the words of William Wordsworth

‘the best portion of a good man’s life – his little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and love.’

Greek Cat Welfare

What we can do….support the charities, be aware that when we travel – if we see something that does not sit comfortably with us, i.e. an act of cruelty, speak out (in countries such as Morocco, Egypt, Turkey, Tunisia).  If we see a working animal abused – such as a donkey or a horse, report it to the many UK charities that are working to stop animals being used as tourist buses (charities include SPANA, The Brooke Animal Hospital).

And above all – don’t pay to ride on a donkey or a horse or camel or any animal.  It is likely to have been beaten into doing it!

Actions speak louder than words and tourists have a lot of power to change primitive and cruel behaviour.