By David Langwallner
The great Japanese film director Kurosawa defied the odds on age and the decline of the great artistic sensibility by penning in 1990 Ran his adaptation of King Lear. Most great artists decline after 70. The arteries harden, complacency and repetition kick in. I was reminded of this as Dylan’s new album at near 80 has been hailed by even the most skeptical as one of his greatest albums ever. So Ran is The Japanese word for chaos or in fact anarchy. The Philip Glass sound tracked films such as Koyaanisqatsi (1982) are also about chaos or a world out of balance. And that is where we are now and for lawyers as we confront the virus, the potential descent into anarchy.
Now anarchy can be vitalizing and reinvigorating. A Swedish commune or a Jewish Kibbutz for example but such modes of self regulation and order are only acceptable in academic institutions, alternative lifestyles or in effect dissociated states. A kind of opting out. The idea of John Gray or Ms Roy in India peddling about a post virus portal of opportunity should be treated with the utmost skepticism save as pie in the sky. We are all now in a state of derealisation.
In this context The Seven Samurai (1959) by Kurosawa is also relevant about the highly skilled, samurai caste those of devastating intellect and ability fighting for the good because they need a few grains of rice. Michael Mansfield QC of course recently remarked that the Criminal Defense barrister is in a sense like an underpaid janitor but fighting for the amorphous good. And though I have never met the man it seems in his effacing way right. He is A kind of Mount Rushmore of British civic decency. A British folk hero.
Now, regrettably some might say in an even handed way, a French fascist folk hero, but a man of merit is still alive Mr. Deloin as much a telegenic folkstar as Mr. Mansfield in a different way.
His performances in the Antonioni film L’Eclisse (1963) shows the preliminary genesis of how finance, corruption, gangsterism, corporatism now interact as they do today and How Le Samourai (1967) is about the glorification of gangsterism so let us be careful as lawyers who we venerate or serve.
So the samurai warrior is not always a good role model unless they fight for the good. Increasingly a tricky judgment. As Trump pre covid appeals to his pretty boy fascists. His pretty boy Fascists.
Japan is relevant in this context as part of that culture has always tolerated the other life violation that stokes the ire of right wing conservatives and that is euthanasia as a way of disposing of those who are no longer useful and productive members of society So in the film “The Ballad of Narayama” (1959) twice made the elderly person goes to the mountain place to die. She is surplus and that of course is true in Ireland now potentially but not in the uk yet though insidiously but now we must be cautious about that possibility and defer to the other great Japanese tradition the wise elder and not the abrupt disposal of humanity on outrun virus age.
Miyazaki, one of the great artists of our age, has created in many of his anime films parables relevant to our age, not least in Princess Mononoke which presages neatly as a parable ecological meltdown.
Ozu, the greatest of all film directors emphasised family values and integrative balanced lives of zen and contemplation. The need for integrated communities
Let us move beyond japanese humanism.
Several years ago I got on a flight to Stockholm with bronchial pneumonia. I was very concerned about my condition but determined to go as I was visiting the Swedish Film Institute and had made an appointment to see Mr. Ingmar Bergman after a lengthy recitation of how much I loved his films that at the very least I should be in full possession of my faculties
Health wise I need not have worried the high temperature and lung condition were killed by the anti bacterial forces of 14 degrees below. Extreme cold is not a bad thing if you wrap up warm and allow the cleansing power of snow and coldness to expel the demons from the system.
Mr. Bergman had allocated to me a half an hour which turned into over an hour. He was interested in the fact that I was a cultivated lawyer and martinet though he referenced Fanny and Alexander (1980) the last greatest humanist epic of cinema as an example for lawyers as to how austere religious puritanical prejudices if given the dictator of authority destroys lives. The holy writ should not be in law he concurred whether protestant or catholic a message for our age.
Amongst the dying humanist tradition he was one of the greats but his cold as ice sense of observations was not that of the great Jean Renoir son of the painter Renoir.
La Grande Illusion, a film of the first world war, says a lot about the need for pacifism and the somewhat courtly treatment of prisoners of war. It also demonstrates the futility of any word or in effect any form of conflict that descends into tribalism, nationalism and chauvinism which is where we are now headed. A seam of under-stated but well observed anti-semitism is in the film. The treatment of prisoners of wars or those under detention should not have a discriminatory nature between officer classes and others or be ethically motivated. Von storheim in the film is a presage of rommel in this respect and we are close to an awful age of pre judgment if not there already. We should not distinguish in the application of the effects of the virus between the privileged few and the excluded many.
His most significant film is La Regle De Jeu and I have referenced it before in counsel in a review of robertson qcs autobiography.
It is decidedly jittery, with a real sense of fine de siècle and things falling apart set in an aristocratic milieu just before the second world war. The sense is that rather attractive though silly people very class driven are on the precipice of a calamity they are simply sleepwalking into then and now. All now relevant as we face unprecedented times as lawyers wher chaos and uncertainty rule.
Renoir views his characters sympathetically and his own character Octavia is central to the film. The voice of moderation. Though he was acutely conscious that they are on the brink of disaster and with the objective humanism expressed by a famous line in the film
that everyone has his reasons.
In the subjectivity of our time that is a clarion call for danger.
Renoir elaborated in commentary on the film that all cultures are cliquish and have their own rules. Their own protocols and their own way of dealing with those who do not observe the rules of the game or the rule of law but what is that when there is seismic change.
When it opened a largely right wing audience in France went berserk similar to the reception in the abbey theatre in Dublin to The Playboy of The Western World in 1907.
Renoirs acid comment was in effect that these people were doomed and the audiuence reaction showed that “people who commit suicide do not do so in front of witnesses”
He had touched a raw nerve.
The film has an astute sense that class or poverty more than race or ethnicity is the ultimate determinant of social divide and indeed victimhood as it is now which we should be vigilant of in housing, criminal justice and healthe care matters.
Orson Welles arrived in Ireland as a fifteen year old farm boy but precocious and overweight beyond his years. After a tour of the West Coast a kind of obligatory rite of passage he was penniless and clutching fake representations and reviews he presented himself before Mr. Michael McLiammor at The Gate Theatre Dublin and said I am a prominent Broadway actor. Now the great old whore and ham did not believe a word of it but gave him a job. Old Ireland. He was impressive. An impressive confidence trickster.
Mr. Welles acquitted himself brilliantly and used all of that and the glorious reviews of The Gate in Dublin and London for the Gate then and now has always had a dualistic existence to springboard himself into America.
The point of odd coincidence in my life is that the avuncular, cigar chomping, rotund bon viveur a far too kind expression out of loyalty frequented The Gate even when MacLiammoir was dead and came back one of the many great qualities he had. Loyalty to old friends.
So Mr. Welles went back to The Gate often and I met him once.. The Third Man (1949) a film he made after Hollywood had dispensed with him in my view looms largest in this day and age. Why?
The premise is that Harry Lime has engaged in killing children through selling an unlicensed drug. A kind of variant of the Harold Evans inquiry into Thalidomide and Evans died recently.
Carol Reed directed but Welles reluctant and for money walked in and changed it into his own production as he did often. The lines are very prescient for our times.
So I think the following line captures much in our virus times about how world leadership, The Bilderberg Group and The Alt Right think of people.
If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? Free of income tax, old man. Free of income tax – the only way you can save money nowadays.
People as dots of insignificance and objects of exploitation.
Citizen Kane (1941) is also relevant in this age of self saving corporate and indeed political fascists with a limited grasp of the truth. And the overarching press barons power to manipulate information and messages.
In fact Welles was obsessed with magic, trickery and fakery as his splendid digression into the world of conmen, art fraudsters and illusion F for Fake (1973) demonstrates. So are our politicians and pr gurus.
Charlton Heston, an unlikely hero and ultimate blue blood republican, insisted he do a pulpy film which he was inclined to reject which became the great maverick baroque masterpiece Touch of Evil. (1957).
The film has all sorts of interesting things to say about how drugs corrupt and how reforming self righteousness comes up against local practice. The figure of Hank Quinlan framing people but a brilliant detective working on his intuitionism is one of his great creations and says a lot about police practices then and now.
The great surrealist artist Luis Bunuel was of course also the great anti fascist artist. In fact he is perhaps prior to Almodovar and in a different era the great artistic cultural commentator on Spain. He attacks the prevailing mores of clerics, sexual repression and state authoritarianism with utter clarity and savage wit. Thus unsurprisingly there were periods of exile and a final hideaway for 18 years in Mexico. A bit like Voltaire he had to get out
He is associated initially with Dadaism and Surrealism which often went hand in glove in the anarchic anti fascist agenda. In fact the art form of Tristan Dada of improvisation, absurdity and the distortion of reality into oblique texts and shapes reaches its apotheosis in Salvador Dali with his pink cushions, lobster telephones and crystal clear paintings of meaningless objects or symbolic objects depending on your point of view. Dali was too much a charlatan and a quack though certain works like the Christ of St John of The Cross painting in Glasgow (1951) are difficult to deny. His relationship with Bunuel was always an uneasy one more of which later.
He d was in effect the head of film propaganda. He fortuitously was able to avoid the savage excesses of initial Françoism by exiting to the United States where he worked for the Museum of Modern Art despite his avowed communistic sensibilities. In a background check interview the question asked of his political sympathies led to the answer I am a Republican. The interviewer did not grasp that he meant a Spanish republican and thus a socialist but instead thought he meant a supporter of the Republican party of America. Bunuel was in on false assumptions.
The stunning and very brave film about poverty and child criminality in Mexico Los Olvidados (1950) caused a sensation at the time though little seen and hard to get a seismic film most relevant for our times. The drift into criminality of the young in many parts of London is truly horrific. Child poverty and crime are a feature of our age. He lived in Mexico for the rest of his life but directed internationally. UNESCO hailed the film as a matter for heritage preservation and one of the best depictions of child poverty of the age.
The new generation of influential Spanish film makers such as Carloa Saura invited him back to the motherland but with typical relish as he recounts in his splendid autobiography My Last Breath ?(1983) he bit the hand that fed and financed him. Viridiana (1961) is one of his greatest films and perhaps one of the most anti-religious films ever made. Now apart from a rape of a virgin in itself incendiary. The scene of beggars in a parody of Da Vinci’s last supper drove them crackers. Banned in Spain but winning the Palme D’or for Spain, such a contradiction. In fact sensitivities on the portrayal of the last supper continue to this age. Witness the banning of a fashion representation of the same.
The great anti religious tracts are fabulously scurrilous. He exposes perfectly the sexually psychotic nonsense that is embedded in catholic culture in Viridiana and to a lesser extent though an international hit in the housewife as prostitute in Belle De Jour.
Some of his great films due to his association with the international producer Silverman are at a very advanced age and most prescient for our times. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) etching the earlier Exterminating Angel (1962) is about the impossibility of leaving a confined space or completing a dinner. Self isolation has in fact created that sense of claustrophobia in fact.
His last film deeply disquieting The Obscure Object of Desire (1962) is set against a backdrop of leftist and rightist protests of terrorism and counter terrorism.
So what do humanist cinema say about our age for lawyers.
- Poverty, housing, health care and inequality are the most abiding issues that lawyers should focus on if public spirits.
- Quacaks and spin merchants era everywhere.
- Morality should not be legislated for.
- Let us venerate the samurai who help the poor but not gangster samurai.
- Community is all important but not necessarily religious