One of life’s little questions

Why do i love The Sound of Music so much?

Could it be the cracking songs? Well, i’m sure they’re part of the reason but the fact is i’m not generally a fan of musicals or that type of music: too contrived and controlled for me. Could it be the beauty of the landscapes? Stunning indeed – and not just in their beauty but in their scale; but in these post-BBC nature documentary days there are plenty of other opportunities to see panoramas as lovely as the those in the film. What about the romance between the Captain and Fräulein Maria? Definitely a factor. Christopher Plummer and Julie Andrews are magical together; it’s a great shame they haven’t been reunited more frequently.

All these things contribute to my enjoyment – as do the moments of humour and the flight from the Nazis at the end – but, on reflection, i realise they aren’t critical to it. No, for me it’s the joy and genuine sense of family that the kids, especially the younger ones, bring to the film which raises my spirits. They shine out from the television, obliterating the wintery greyness outside. That same joy also renders me oblivious to the movie’s obvious sentimentality. Even their mistakes are joyful: in the “My Favourite Things” scene for instance the little girl playing Marta is mouthing the words to a song she isn’t supposed to know. She’s can’t help herself.

Bottle that joy and you could make millions. And of course that’s exactly what the film makers, if not the children, did. As for me, joy is something i’m sadly short of in January.

Eight rooms

On Saturday i went with a friend, B, to check out the Wellcome Collection’s new exhibition: Eight Rooms, Nine Lives. This is part of their season looking at Identity and Identification – of obvious interest to me as a trans person, especially as one of the ‘rooms’ was devoted to April Ashley, one of Britain’s most famous trans women.

As it happened, although Ashley’s room was interesting – especially the footage of her being interviewed by Michael Parkinson, it was the one which focused on the actress Fiona Shaw which made the greatest impression. It was supposed to demonstrate the multiple identities that an actor takes on; and, to this end, there were four or five TV screens on which you could watch Shaw playing various roles: for instance a mad woman in Gormenghast and a rather overwrought lady in an Ibsen play.

I can’t honestly say that i looked at these and saw someone changing their identity; but they were thrilling performances – Shaw is a true virtuoso. The standout was her portrayal of Richard II. For some reason though this only worked for me as an audio experience: if i looked at the screen there was no magic; but if i looked away and just listened I got goosebumps. It was that powerful.

I don’t think the issue was the ‘cross-gender’ casting – after all, her voice is just as female as her appearance; but rather that the physical aspect of her acting style is overdramatic. She has a tendency to gesture abruptly and stare wildly. Yet this exaggeration doesn’t carry through to her voice, so as long as you don’t look at her you aren’t bothered by it.

Not surprising then that the other exhibit which made a great impression on me was also audio-only. This had Shaw and her mother reciting a poem together. The idea here was to examine similarities and differences in their voices. For me, however, it was the relationship between them that was captivating: identity is interesting, human relationships are fascinating.

Other rooms focused on people such as Alec Jeffreys, who pioneered DNA testing, and Samuel Pepys – although in truth this room was really an exploration of diarists more generally. Some of these were interesting, but not always for reasons related to identity or identification (an old computer made you think of how technology had progressed, the cover of an old novel caused you to reflect on how illustration styles have changed). Only one disappointed where I’d been expecting great things: Claude Cahun, a French photographer obsessed with androgyny. The endless self-portraiture was exhausting and really rather boring: self speaking to self in a vacuum.

Overall, it was an interesting exhibition, if a bit uneven. B commented to me that she felt there was a lot of padding – exhibits that were very similar or of little relevance – and i agreed with her. I was also disappointed with the presentation. The rooms were little more than wooden partitions; little attempt had been made to make them feel like rooms or individual spaces of any kind.

More satisfying than the the exhibition is the book, ‘Identity & Identification’*, which has been published to accompany it. In it you find interviews with people as diverse as the singer Billy Bragg, the Jewish-British journalist Jonathan Freedland, the philosopher Julian Baggini, trans woman Roz Kaveney and the Somali-Dutch former politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Each interview is a thoughtful exploration of the person’s identity and in the case of the philosophers and scientists of identity as a concept and neurological phenomenon.

The depth and subtlety of the interviews is wonderful. Reading through them it came to me that identity is rather like an iceberg: we conceal more than we show. I can see two obvious reasons for this: the first is that aspects of our identity may rest on things which we feel might be contested or not understood by others; the second is that we take much of it for granted, so don’t think to ‘perform’ it. Unless asked, we may not even be aware of why it matters.

There’s a beautiful example of this in Jonathan Freedland’s interview. He says he identifies as Jewish, male and British in that order. When asked why he has singled out the fact that he is male, Freedland replies:

I suppose because i think it goes to something quite psychological – the inner voice as it were… And that, to me, feels like such a male voice.

As soon as i read his words i realised that this is also true for me – so true that i’d never even noticed. Fascinating from a trans point of view but also illuminating in a broader sense: we only really come to understand who we (feel we) are when we engage with others. Human relationships: not just more interesting than identity then, but essential to it.

All in all: 7/10 for the exhibition; 9/10 for the book of the exhibition.

* Identity & Identitification: ISBN 978-1-906155-86-5 (Black Dog Publishing)

Space is a dangerous place

Just an aside, but after writing the last post, something else occurred to me about Sci-Fi. This time it’s more about films than books. I was re-running scenes from films and TV shows in my mind – Star Trek, Star Wars, that sort of thing – when it suddenly struck me that not once had i ever seen anyone die from contact with (Outer) Space. I’ve seen countless spaceships blown up. I’ve seen people die from plagues, seen them zapped by lasers and even watched them fall victim to mind control, but Space itself has seemed to pose no danger at all to the people of the future.  The heroes (and villains) of Sci-Fi movies zoom through Space as though it were just a giant black backdrop. Yet stop to think for a moment how cold, how vast, how airless, how exposed to radiation Space is – what a barrier it poses to all our dreams of exploring the universe. We couldn’t survive direct contact with it even for a moment.

You must remember this?

I was over in Germany visiting a relative last week and one of the things we did was go to see Casablanca at a local art house cinema. This was a strange experience for a number of reasons, the first of which was realising that i’d never actually seen the film before. I kept thinking that i must have seen it, everything was so familiar to me, but in fact i hadn’t – i’d just seen so many clips and so many references to it that it felt as if i’d seen it. On the other hand, i definitely have seen Woody Allen’s film Play It Again, Sam and images of Woody “doing” Bogart kept on rising up from my memory. This made some scenes unintentionally funny (especially the one at the airfield) although the melodrama and wonderfully ridiculous dialogue helped too: “The Germans were wearing grey, you were wearing blue”.

Stranger still was the fact that we were watching the film in Germany of all places. I found myself wondering what the Germans in the audience were feeling, especially during the scene in which the customers in the Café Americain drown out a German patriotic song with their rendition of the Marseillaise. My companions said they don’t think modern Germans feel any connection to the Germans of the 40s. It was a long time ago, they said. Seventy years is a long time i agree, but it’s hardly centuries. There are still people alive who fought in that war, even if they are elderly. My companions’ other comment rang true though: we always think if we’d been there we’d have behaved differently. We’d have been brave, we wouldn’t have been swept up in the madness. Sadly, unlikely to be true.

In any case, when it came to being stereotyped the Germans were hardly alone. Every character in the film is defined by their nationality – by its supposed characteristics or in terms of a general “European” stereotype (Interestingly, as far as i can remember, no-one is identified as Jewish). The Germans are merciless and boorish, the French are charming but unctuous and the Arabs, in so far as they come into the picture at all, are just unctuous. They’re also just blacked up white people, but hey this is the 1940s. As an American, Bogart’s character Rick stands apart from all of them (of course) in his refusal to be cowed or controlled. Then there’s the black pianist Sam: another American and another America.

Probably the thing that surprised me most was that i loved the film. Despite its corniness and its mass of clichés Casablanca is a great film. Much of that power comes from how tightly plotted it is: there’s never a moment when the story lags. It was odd then to read that the script was written on the hop by a constantly changing team of writers as the film was being made. Ingrid Bergman’s daughter Pia said in an interview that this may actually have given her mother’s performance an edge, as she never knew which man she was supposed to be in love with. It probably also helped that there was no on location filming so there is less time wasted with scene setting shots.

I think some of the film’s power may stem from the fact that so many of the actors and extras recruited for the movie had themselves fled the Nazis. I only discovered this when i started to look up the life stories of some of the main players in the film. Most poignant for me was finding that the actor who played Major Strasser (the main Nazi character) was a fervent anti-Nazi. Conrad Veidt fled Germany in the mid-30s after marrying a Jewish woman. He died of a heart attack just a year after making Casablanca, so never lived to see the War’s end and the Nazis’ defeat.

I suppose i ought not to overlook the chemistry between Bogart and Bergman, which is remarkable, yet to me this is a film of character actors. Despite Umberto Eco’s claim that “two clichés make us laugh. A hundred clichés move us”, i think those hundred clichés would have sunk the film if it hadn’t been for actors such as Claude Rains (Captain Rénault) and Peter Lorre (Ugarte). I was startled to discover that the former had started life with a thick cockney accent and a speech impediment. His suave, unrufflable persona is what grounds the film and makes it believable. At the same time there is something rather feminine about him which highlights Bogart’s masculinity. The fact that he’s even shorter than Bogart helps too of course.

As for Peter Lorre, i was even more surprised to find out that he wasn’t German as i’d always thought, but from a part of central Europe that was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire when he was born, later became part of Hungary and is now part of Slovakia. Even now, on the discussion page for his entry in Wikipedia, people are fighting over which country he belongs to, which felt rather ironic to me after seeing Casablanca.

In the end, what is the film about? Well, it’s about a war which is always threatening to arrive but never quite does, an escape route which is tantalisingly close at hand but almost impossible to gain access to and a dilemma that is irresolvable without the loss of something fundamental. It’s a film about the poison that is limbo, the possibility of redemption, the power of sacrifice and, most of all, the painful, painful truth that nothing – not even the most perfect love – can escape reality:

You must remember this
A kiss is still a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh
The fundamental things apply
As time goes by

The black and white world of Marjane Satrapi

In the past week i’ve watched the film Persepolis and read the book on which the film is based. This is the autobiography of Marjane Satrapi, who was around ten years old when the Iranian Revolution took place, ultimately bringing the Islamists to power. In both the book and the film she describes the initial optimism of her middle class but left leaning family. It sounds almost absurd now but it seems many such people seriously expected Iran to become a Communist state.

For Marjane, her family and for many other Iranians the actual outcome was a tragedy: her Uncle Anouche ended up executed, the Iran-Iraq war claimed the deaths of thousands of young men and the women of Iran, Marjane included, found that they were expected to dress and behave according to the dictates of the Islamists’ puritanical code.

I don’t dispute any of this. What i do find puzzling is that nowhere in either book or film is there any consideration of what Iran’s fate would have been if the Communists had come to power. Are we to imagine there would have been no executions of political opponents by the Communists, no curtailments of freedom? Maybe Marjane’s family would not have experienced these things. If they were part of or connected to the ruling elite – rather than in opposition to it – then perhaps they would have been protected. But another family might have suffered – an Islamist family perhaps?

Uncle Anouche, the most important Communist ‘character’, is a weary, gentle man. He is also a survivor of torture under the oppressive regime of the Shah. Of course we warm to him but surely, among those who returned from the prisons, there were also weary, gentle Islamist men? The point is: it’s rarely these naive individuals who end up in power, but rather their harder, much less innocent comrades.

In fact, even Uncle Anouche shows us a glimpse of something which doesn’t seem to sit right with his talk of democracy. In a conversation with little Marjane he tells her about his uncle Fereydoon who “proclaimed the independence of the Iranian province of Azerbaijan” and “elected himself Minister of Justice in this new little republic”. Elected himself?”

I wonder what Marjane’s feelings about freedom and leftist politics would have been if the Communists had taken power? Would she still have left? Would she have ended up an apologist for the regime? Or would she have eventually rejected it, just as some Iranian Islamists have rejected the Islamist regime? Might she even have rejected leftist politics altogether? (Note if you’re reading this that i’m not judging the left or the right. I am suspicious of all politicians).

Those who have never had power do have this sad luxury: if you have never had the chance to act then your actions by definition cannot be judged. But Marjane Satrapi, the adult, has lived abroad and seen other countries, other regimes, other possibilities, yet she never shows any awareness of this issue. The politics of Persepolis are as black and white as the illustrations themselves.