Saturday, October 30, 2010

Things Not Said

It's rare for me to pick a film at random that really turns out to be a winner. The Grand Jury prize at the Sundance Festival in 2010 went to "Winter's Bone". Filmed entirely on location during late autumn and winter in rural Missouri, the film makes up for small budget with beautifully crafted cinematography and a bleak, sparse dialogue, much provided by the locals, hence with accents so thick it's hard to make out what's being said. With an absent father who is in some unspecified fashion, part of the local trade in crystal meth manufacture and a withdrawn, incompetent and depressed mother, a glowering, taut Jennifer Lawrence is Ree Dolly, a seventeen year old earth mother trying to put food on the table for her and two younger siblings in a dirt poor Ozark log cabin, a teenage girl forced into adulthood. Her father has put up their house as bail collateral and unless he shows up for his trial in a week's time, they will lose it all. All attempts to find him meet with a wall of inbred hostility and menacing silence from family and the local community. It’s a powerful articulation of a vulnerable child-woman pitilessly hurled into a brutally tough, unnerving maternal stance, with Lawrence triumphantly shaping Ree as a soldier fighting for her home - the only shred of comfort she has left in a life of unremitting austerity and misery.
The audience is left with minimal clues as to exactly what is happening or about to happen - we are expected to piece together the snippets, making sense of them as we go. Unspoken dialogue revolves around a jagged 'omertá' which the participants believe holds their fragile social fabric together. Think unvarnished Coen brothers and you're some way there - there was more than a hint of "No Country for Old Men" in the screenwriting.
What's not said became more significant than what was.
I found myself in an interaction the other day which was less conversation than monologue where words were plentiful but what was not said spoke much more loudly to me than what was. Advice to listen to the actual words, although valuable, became contextually meaningless since I formed the impression that the purpose of the conversation was to supply me with a subtext, perhaps subconsciously. I tried hard to follow this advice, but found myself returning to an initial impression that I was being subjected to diplomacy clad poorly - in the kindest and most well-meaning sense - as of an actor playing a role which I was supposed to see through.
I was left with a nagging disquiet, since truth unvarnished, preferably whole, is almost always better than dressing it up in cheap clothes.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Retired and Extremely Dangerous

A friend was kind enough to give me a copy of "Red", the new Bruce Willis film. I was excited to learn that RED means 'retired and extremely dangerous'. As a retiree not so long in the future myself, having this on one's dossier might be quite a buzz, I think. Willis is getting good at spoof and this one is the spoof spy movie par excellence. Willis is retired CIA Frank Moses with a black ops record that not even half the Agency can read because it's so secret. In retirement, his principal source of daily entertainment is a lingering, distant, unconsummated, internet relationship with Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker), an office girl in the Pensions Department of spectacular ordinariness whom he’s never met. As Frank’s former government employers begin to demonstrate determinedly murderous intent, Sarah becomes a wide-eyed, unwitting accomplice in Frank’s attempts to escape their gunsights. So, Frank junkets around the country, gathering intelligence, with postcards telling us where he is and his pursuers waste a shockingly profligate amount of ordnance trying to finish him off . Willis collects Morgan Freeman, the elder retiree "we're getting the band together again" together with a paranoid John Malkovich who talks to a furry pink pig containing advanced weaponry because the CIA fed him LSD for fifteen years, thus making him a little bit strange, and Victoria, a spectacularly girly Helen Mirren formerly of MI6 who used to kill people for a living but now prefers cookery and flower arranging with the odd contract to keep her hand in. All of them used to be the CIA's top agents, but the secrets they know have made them the Agency's prime targets. Framed for assassination, they use all of their collective cunning, experience and teamwork to stay one step ahead of their pursuers and stay alive, keeping the hapless and permanently bewildered Mary Louise Parker alive as well. To stop the operation, the team embarks on an impossible, cross-country mission to break into the top-secret CIA headquarters, where they will uncover one of the biggest conspiracies and cover-ups in government history. Fur-hatted Russians are involved, the US Vice-president is using the CIA as his personal hit squad and there's some memorable one-liners "if you break his heart, I'll kill you and bury your body in the woods". There's a sense of almost apologetic self-consciousness. The cast is so very seasoned and they can pull this sort of thing off so very, very easily. They're all too clever by three-quarters. And they know it. Eight out of ten. At least.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Cold Nights at the UN

I like Canadians. They’re like Americans with manners. They have sometimes been criticised as a colourless people, the cold winters perhaps making their yesses "yes" and their noes 'no"- probably before their lips freeze - a people of robust opinions but often economical with words, lacking the flamboyance, even hypocrisy of their southern neighbours.
This does not sit well in the UN, it seems, since Canada at the weekend decided to drop out of the race for a non-permanent seat at the UN Security Council since after the last round of voting the General Assembly put it in last place among the contenders. Canadian media believes its support of Israel is the primary reason. 
Canada has long held a non-permanent seat at the Security Council. But with current Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s consistent support for the Jewish state at the world body, the non-aligned movement of nations, which are a Muslim majority at the UN, began to bare their teeth.
Toronto Sun columnist Peter Worthington wrote on Sunday that “Canada’s  unqualified support for Israel under Harper worked against us at the UN, which regularly condemns Israel for policies it ignores in other countries.”
Bravely, Worthington decried the hypocrisy that rules the UN, noting that “while the UN regularly votes in favour of human rights, roughly half of the 192 member states abuse human rights in some form in their own countries.”
He concluded by condemning the UN as an institution that had long ago abandoned its position as a credible and objective broker and protector of peace and human rights, and wondered “why decent countries still pay attention to it.” Muscular indeed, if a little politically naive. It remains to be seen how Canadian voters will react.
Countries that did make it on to the Security Council included Lebanon, which with Hezbollah’s growing power and influence is an Iranian satellite, also  Brazil, which has aligned itself with Iran in its nuclear arms race. Canada is fast learning what most Israelis have known for a long time - that economic and political stability, dedication to human rights and basic human decency don’t mean jack at the UN. It has long struck me that the UN as an institution is a puppet show of spectacular and convoluted magnitude. Shadowy figures who rule with fists of iron send their most siren voices, clothed in some semblance of democracy to Manhattan to gather whatever political momentum they can.
The speaker at the podium, however, is no siren voice. He isn't Canadian and his country probably has nuclear capability. And will someone please buy the wretched man a tie.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Happy Birthday Oscar

Today is the anniversary of Oscar Wilde's birthday. He would have been 156. A Stephen Fry throwback - his dry, almost laconic one-liners have been a source of dinner party interjections for as long as I can remember. When I first read the tortured, narcissistic self-loathing of “Dorian Gray”, it seemed clear that Wilde was attempting confession by proxy, a catharsis of soul that found expression in the gargoyle into which the picture had metamorphosed.
"I am not a Catholic," he said. "I am simply a violent Papist."  Like so many of Wilde's outrageous paradoxes, this conceals a sober truth. Reviewing his life more than a hundred years later, it’s tempting to see irony in such a statement, for Wilde was fascinated with Catholicism, its mysteries and rituals. I, on the other hand, am both fascinated and appalled in almost equal measure.
Wilde was homosexual, promiscuously so, and his downfall was precipitated by his passion for a younger man. It was this young man, Lord Alfred Douglas, who in one of his poems called their desire "the love that dare not speak its name." The tale of their romance has classic, even operatic, features — objections by the beloved's family, separation and exile, brief reunion before the lover's death. He was prosecuted for "acts of gross indecency with other male persons," found guilty, and sentenced to two years in prison at hard labour in Reading gaol where, it seems, he read Augustine, Dante, and Newman. On his release, his health broken, he fled across the channel to France to reunite with his lover. But his first act on his release had been to write to the Jesuits begging to make a six-month retreat at one of their London houses. Not surprisingly, the Jesuits refused.
Wilde is celebrated as the hub of a circle of unconventional poets and artists - decadents and aesthetes. But looking past the labels, many of these became converts to Catholicism — Wilde being among the last of them, entering the Church only in his final moments of life. I am not surprised. Catholicism has more than a touch of operatic drama about it and was to poetic souls a sort of dangerous aesthetic temptation, while to many ‘proper Englishmen’ the Roman Church was still the Whore of Babylon. Less than fifty years earlier the Emancipation Bill was passed that allowed Roman Catholics to hold public office in England, only thirty years since the defection to Rome of John Henry Newman and other prominent Anglicans, and just a few years since the First Vatican Council under Pius IX had debated and defined the dogma of papal infallibility — a dogma that must have seemed to many an outbreak of mediaevalism at the very birth of the Age of Darwin.
All this came about because of a lunchtime discussion I had with friends the other day. I wondered whether those who are hormonally and emotionally inclined towards – yes, let’s use the old Victorian word – sodomy, and more importantly are so inclined to practise it have a different place in the kingdom of Heaven than those whose sexuality is more central on the bell-curve. Gafcon’s argument with the C of E has nothing to do with liturgy or doctrine, but the ordination as bishop of an openly gay man, a practising homosexual.
Women and gay priests are often pastorally more adept than their straight male counterparts – at least in my experience - frequently having more highly developed empathic skills. Should their sexuality disbar them from high office? Perhaps it really doesn’t matter to God. On the other hand…I rather wish I had clarity myself, since I cannot currently either attack or defend either position with any conviction.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Workers Unite!

Protest is the legacy of post-revolutionary France, indeed it's almost a national sport. The French enjoy getting out on the street and blowing a few balloons up - perhaps preferable to blowing each other up.  A national strike against French government plans to raise the retirement age has gained momentum thanks to broader participation by education, energy and transportation workers, as well as high school students.
Flights were cancelled, train and Metro services patchy and there was nowhere to park.  The Eiffel Tower was closed to visitors, as protesters expressed their displeasure with the move to raise the legal retirement age from 60 to 102. In recent times the iconic structure has had to be evacuated on a number of occasions because of the threat of suicide bombers.
It’s comforting to hear therefore that the protests are not confined to elderly mutterings. 
Suicide bombers in France are set to begin a three-day strike set to begin after Friday prayers in a dispute over the number of virgins they are entitled to in the afterlife. Emergency talks with Al Qaeda have so far failed to produce an agreement. The unrest began last Tuesday when Al Qaeda announced that the so-called ‘virgins entitlement’ a suicide bomber would receive after his death, sorry, martyrdom, will be cut by 50%, from 72 to 36, implementation to be immediate. This produced a storm of protest and a number of unknown persons handing in their suicide belts at local police stations. 
The rationale for the cut was the increase in recent years of the number of suicide bombings and a chronic shortage of virgins in the afterlife. The suicide bombers' union, the Blessed Organisation of Occupational Martyrs (or B.O.O.M.) responded with a statement that this was unacceptable to its members and immediately balloted for strike action.
General Secretary Abdullah Amir told the press, "Our members are literally working themselves to death in the cause of Jihad. We don't ask for much in return but to be treated like this adds insult to injury."
Speaking from his shed in in La Goutte D’Or, an underground car park in Paris where he currently resides, Al Qaeda chief executive Osama bum Laden explained, "We sympathise with our workers' concerns but Al Qaeda is not in a position to meet their demands. They are not accepting the realities of modern-day Jihad in a competitive marketplace."
"Thanks to Western depravity, especially in Paris, a known haunt of swingers and others of dubious moral virtue, there is now a chronic shortage of virgins in the afterlife. It's a straight choice between reducing expenditure and laying people off. I don't like cutting wages but I'd hate to have to tell 3000 of my staff that they won't be able to blow themselves up."
The unrest is not confined to Paris. Spokespersons for the union in the Northeast of England, greater Glasgow and the entire Australian continent stated that the strike would not affect their operations as "There are no virgins here anyway".
It seems that the drop in the number of suicide bombings has been put down to the emergence of the Scottish singing star, Susan Boyle - now that potential recruits know what a virgin looks like, they are not so keen on going to paradise.
The debate continues.
with my thanks to an anonymous author who provided inspiration for the above...

Monday, October 11, 2010

Loyal to the Tribe

I have been re-reading Richard Dawkins’ closely reasoned ‘The God Delusion”, since one of my students gave me a free .pdf copy of it. The writing is compelling, a behemoth of linear, unassailable reason, trampling lesser intellects before it. There is a chink or two in the armour, however. Apart from overt and perhaps unnecessary contempt – politely put  with a deftly derogatory adjective here and there – for those who adhere to inexplicable religious views, I rather wondered why he felt it necessary to seek the opinions of his friends – great and good as they might be – to support the argument. Swerving dangerously close to logical fallacy, an irrelevant appeal seeks to persuade by citing what someone else, a perceived authority, thinks on the subject, as if that resolves the question. The degree of support that such an appeal lends to a claim varies depending on the particular authority in question, the relevance of their expertise to the claim, and other factors, but in all cases is limited.  The opinions of those whose mental powers are greater than one’s own, no training in theology or experience in grace notwithstanding, might sway some and sell a few more copies, I suppose.  
He writes: 
“Great scientists of our time who sound religious usually turn out not to be so when you examine their beliefs more deeply. This is certainly true of Einstein and Hawking. The present Astronomer Royal and President of the Royal Society, Martin Rees, told me that he goes to church as an 'unbelieving Anglican . . . out of loyalty to the tribe'. He has no theistic beliefs, but shares the poetic naturalism that the cosmos provokes (in other scientists) In the course of a recently televised conversation, I challenged my friend the obstetrician Robert Winston, a respected pillar of British Jewry, to admit that his Judaism was of exactly this character and that he didn't really believe in anything supernatural.”
Leaving aside for the moment Dawkins’ shameless leverage, and consequent speculation about the fellowship of light with darkness, I was left wondering about ‘unbelieving Anglicans’. As a kind of flying buttress or loosely tethered barrage balloon to the Church of England, I have more opportunity than most to privately speculate whether I know any of this particular species of ‘believer’, loyal to the tribe. Dawkins believes that there are more of these than you can shake a stick at, a silent, monumental fifth column of Laodicean terracotta warriors. The parable of the sheep and the goats comes to mind and given that since they look alike here and they are only distinguishable by the shepherd, I am wasting my time in such speculation. Nevertheless, their presence in a company of the redeemed is unlikely to raise the worship to transcendent heights, I suspect. But hey, what do I know?
The letters in the image are an anagram of, inter alia, "A Ethic Husk Owl". Curious.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Bras against Bloodshed

Here's a face you don't see very often - some might give thanks for that. Surprisingly, this motherly-looking old duck happens to be the President of Finland, on a tour of the Middle East. I once went to a sauna in a village outside Helsinki and she reminds me of the old girl who was doing the beating with birch twigs in the snow. Saunas are supposed to be healthy and make one's adrenals excrete ketosteroids. Mine felt like a couple of squeezed lemons afterwards.
A dose of metaphorical twigging however might just be a way forward in the Middle East peace process, since the suggestion has been made by the above that 'more women need to become involved'. I wonder what she really means. More Condoleeza/Hillary  clones? No, I don't think so. Perhaps a few more like the Mairead Corrigans, perhaps. The youngest winner of the Nobel Peace prize in 1976, co-founder of the Community of Peace people and recent deportee from Israel mobilised a grass-roots women's movement which did much to finally bring about an end to the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Such bottom line activism may stand a chance where diplomacy and political footsie has failed. Imagine if all Hamas wives told their gun-toting husbands - "Right, Ali. No more sex till you stop firing Kassams at Sderot and coming home all dirty after grubbing around in tunnels under the Sinai. And, no more of those all-nighters down the mosque with your mates!"
Oh, dear. I'm letting my imagination run away with me again.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

The Glittering Prizes

The Nobel season is upon us.  I've often thought it curious that the award is presented in the form of a medal usually reserved for battlefield valour. 
The physics prize has been awarded for studies on graphene – a miraculously simple concept accessible to all - which I suspect, like lasers, will find multitudes of applications worldwide.
Some of the others are more ambiguous.
The Prize for literature is invariably viewed through a political lens, particularly in Latin America, where writers often play prominent roles as high-profile intellectuals, almost apprentice politicians. As news of Mario Vargas Llosa's 2010 win spread, it seemed that many lit-lovers in Latin America felt that he deserved the prize for his long trajectory and much-loved novels. Mario Vargas Llosa belongs to a group of writers who brought Latin American fiction out of the regionalist doldrums of the nineteenth century to the attention of the world. This group includes Jorge Luis Borges, my personal favourite Gabriel García Márquez, Julio Cortazar, and Carlos Fuentes. Vargas Llosa, sometimes referred to as the national conscience of Peru, has made a career out of adapting personal and historical events, without bothering too much about accuracy, to the novel. He uses sophisticated techniques of non-linearity and multiple viewpoint, which the film industry in recent years has begun to exploit.
His first novel, “The Time of the Hero” made use of his own experience at the Leoncio Prado Military Academy. It was so accurate in its portraiture of the academy that the authorities burned a thousand copies. This guaranteed the book's sales but its content made it perhaps the greatest Latin American novel of adolescence: It is the story of young Peruvian males in their transition to manhood, a theme so successfully explored in a quite different context by Salinger in “The Catcher in the Rye”. As an almost orthodox liberal, the author supports same-sex marriage and the decriminalisation of drug use. Yet he reserves his most venomous criticism for hard-line leftist leaders in Latin America, including Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Castro in Cuba. Vargas Llosa considers himself, above all else, an opponent of dictatorships of all flavours. As am I. I think I'd have gone to the mattresses or even the gulags a long time ago had I had to live under the thumb of either of them. 
It takes courage to protest and it’s ironic that the Prize Committee has awarded the Peace Prize to someone who has effectively been silenced. In December 2009, Liu Xiaobo was imprisoned for subversive activity against the State. He wrote 
China's political reform [...] should be gradual, peaceful, orderly and controllable and should be interactive, from above to below and from below to above. This way causes the least cost and leads to the most effective result. I know the basic principles of political change, that orderly and controllable social change is better than one which is chaotic and out of control. The order of a bad government is better than the chaos of anarchy. So I oppose systems of government that are dictatorships or monopolies.”
In a disgraceful and reprehensible act of censorship, the Chinese authorities have deployed considerable technical and human resources to prevent the Chinese public from learning that the jailed dissident intellectual had been awarded the Prize, Thirty years ago, he would have been shot so some small progress has been made.
The Nobel Committee has an unenviable task. This year, they may have chosen worthy winners as the human race continues to try to emerge from a carapace of mistrust, ignorance and prejudice into a time of greater political, social and spiritual clarity. We live in hope.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Rubik's Iconostasis

In Eastern Christianity, an iconostasis is a wall filled with icons and religious artefacts that separates the nave from the sanctuary. There's a more than usually extreme set of liturgies and rubrics for priests, bishops and abbesses to follow which govern its use and practice. It's principal use is as a separator. As far away from me as might be possible to get.

Local churches create their own real or virtual iconostases. Sets of rules, gates through which some can pass and others cannot. To a greater or lesser extent, almost every denomination does it.

I was speaking to someone the other day about education. They pointed out that a classroom situation is one of the most artificial settings kids ever have to face. They are all trying to or more usually being compelled to do the same thing at the same time with people of their own age. In a sense, we do this when we walk through the the doors of the church. is saying the same thing at the same time any necessary guarantee of meaning?  Perhaps it's hardwired into us to develop a politics of specificity in what we do in terms of collective spiritual response and how we gain access to transcendence. But, what if such politics were absent?  If disbelief can be suspended this far, what might church look like?

A large room with a big open central gathering space. perhaps with big tables. What might be on them - or better - what might we like to bring to put on them? As community members, we bring our own objects to the table, worship toys, ritual objects, flyers, teaching material, artwork. We work at tables, we play games at them, some of us pray sitting at them, some are places where we read, discuss, argue. A table is an altar, what might we put on it? Around the edge, sofas, coffee tables, small corners , places of refuge, perhaps with cushions and soft lighting. 'Going to church' might end up with an hour of prayer in front of a candle, singing with the kids, writing songs and working them out prophetically together, developing a eucharistic liturgy, belonging to a 'thinking space' where discussion and teaching in loose seminar format might be happening, people drifting from one space to another.
How would community work? How would Eucharist work? How would pastoral and prophetic leadership work? Membership? I think the only two criteria might be a desire to meet and interact with the Creator of the Universe and a willingness to leave prejudice, preconceptions and pride at the door, in expectation of which face of the cube God presents to us at any one time.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Party Animals

Went to a party the other night. Not one of those with paper hats and gooey chocolate but a proper, grownup sixtieth birthday party. Which made me realise why I really don't see myself as much of a party animal. Gordon's tea was available in abundance, as was a visitation from dear old uncle Jack Daniels and various Scottish and fortunately distant relatives such as Mr John Walker, inter alia. Watching people in social settings where disparate people groups who know some but not all of the assembled multitude is interesting. Everyone is, it seems, trying quite hard to forget sorrows and to have a good time, and the bonhomie often has a sickly, cloying sweetness about it which is endurable only in quite small doses, like cough medicine. Alcohol has a tendency to loosen the fabric of neatly woven social infrastructures and if people have a wee drop too much the whole garment has a habit of unravelling with remarkable speed which turned out to be my experience on this particular evening. As a non-drinker, the accelerated effects become all too obvious and I found myself promising a ride home to a number of people, one or two of whom had divested themselves of their customary carapace of politeness and had no compunction in picking a (fortunately verbal) fight with some of the others. I've never quite seen myself in the guise of a referee, but I was tempted to show more than one or two red cards. Inveterate observer that I am, it was both challenging and uncomfortable to be drawn in to a situation which could very easily have ended in tears before bedtime. It was salutary, nevertheless. I was reminded with sharp clarity of the fact that I had done much worse and had had forgiving friends. Once, I strolled into a bar with breezy insouciance to be met by a gravelly silence. One brave soul then reminded me that on the previous evening, brimful of the smooth and blushful, I had, without provocation picked a fight with someone who outweighed me by close to 50kg and could have snapped my neck like a carrot. Saying 'sorry' didn't seem to quite cut it, since the unfortunate man had spent a painful morning at the dentist having a chipped tooth fixed. In addition, I had no memory of the incident at all. The rose-hued dawn had brought a measure of reconciliation in the present case as well. Fortunately. All's well - as the man said - that ends well and my clumsy and plonking efforts at arbitration appeared to have met with a measure of success and Nepenthe seemed to have worked her magic.