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.

My perfect museum: ‘A living house’

This morning on the way to work i found myself thinking about museums: why they are always unsatisfactory and what they ought to be like. In my notebook i wrote: “A living house: 1940s”. What did i mean by that?

***

You begin out on the street looking at the house from the front. What you see as you look through the windows is a modern-day home in the midst of every day life. It’s film footage: the windows are screens, though this isn’t apparent. Likewise, the faint sounds you hear from within are recordings.

You meet your guide – incapable of speech it seems – who ushers you into an adjacent house. Here the windows are blacked out, front and back, and the building is soundproofed. Looking around, you see you are in a waiting room: nondescript and devoid of anything but chairs (along the walls); and a great clock, which ticks, yet whose hands do not move. A bare bulb flickers uncertainly. The guide motions you to be seated and disappears through a door which locks behind them. There are no other doors. You wait.

Your guide returns. Now he or she is dressed in the fashions of the forties. You are led through a door that had been concealed from you: down into the cellar and along a tunnel. When you emerge at the other end you are at the bottom of the garden – a long garden with high walls – of the house through whose front windows you had earlier gazed. Washing is on the line. Voices can be heard indoors.

You enter through the back door, straight into the kitchen. This is no longer a modern house; the furnishings, all the contents, belong to the 1940s – or earlier still of course. What do you see? Maybe a table with butter and other ingredients laid upon it – as though someone had stepped out partway through baking a pie. Or perhaps the table is set for tea. You must smell it too: reality always has an odour. You must also touch it. There can be no ropes draped around the scene, sealing you off from it. Go on… pick up the fork, taste the butter if you want and place your hand against the side of the kettle – you may be startled to find it’s still warm. All the rooms are like this; each contains a tableau suggesting life in motion, arrested only upon your entry. Whichever room you are in you hear sounds from one or more of the others: a wireless; the voices of people discussing the war; laughter; rows. But as you turn the handle of the door, that room falls silent.

In the front room you go over to the window and when you look out you see the road – the very one in which you’d stood earlier, gazing across at this room; but this time you see it as it looked then. It’s quiet and still, there is no-one around. When you look from the upstairs windows the scene is still that of the past, but now there are people going about their business. The guide – how long have they been there? – is standing behind you, watching you watching. You’re led across the landing into the back bedroom. Through the window you see a woman come out to remove the washing.

Suddenly, you hear the sound of air raid sirens… BANG!!! The house is felt to shudder slightly. The lights go out. The guide produces a candle, lights it, and leads you out of the room and down the stairs. More explosions can be heard, thankfully this time at a distance. On the ground floor you smell burning and, glancing through the downstairs windows as you leave, you can see the house across the road has been hit. Sometimes you may hear the sound of a woman crying.

The guide leads you back down the garden path. The washing is gone from the line.

Back into the tunnel you go and into the waiting room. The bulb has failed. Ushering you through the darkness the guide points urgently at the door. You emerge and find yourself back on the road, which is just as you left it. As you pass the house the people inside are watching TV.

***

Ideally, there would be multiple scenarios, for different parts of the day – and perhaps for different days of the week: so there wouldn’t always be a bombing for example. One thing i wouldn’t have is live actors. Seen close up modern day people never convince as citizens of the past: too big, too brash, too obvious that they know how the story will turn out.

In any case, the key is the house.

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.