Thursday, 4 August 2022

Introduction

 Welcome to Stuart Fernie’s Blog



Please scroll down or find on the right links to articles, pages of reflections on films, books, TV series (including "Persona", "The Seventh Seal", "A Clockwork Orange", "Night Moves", "Lonely are the Brave", "In the heat of the night", "The League of Gentlemen" (1960), thoughts on the nature of film noir, "Star Trek", "Seven Days in May", "Dead Poets Society", "Good Will Hunting", "Callan", "The Hill", "Cool Hand Luke", "The Hustler", "Road to Perdition", "The Verdict", "Three Colour Trilogy", "Jojo Rabbit", "Jeremiah Johnson", "Collateral", "Joker", "Barry Lyndon", "The Bridge at Remagen", "Le Mans '66 (Ford v Ferrari)", Charles Foster Kane ("Citizen Kane"), "The Deer Hunter", "Highlander", "No Country for Old Men", "Gattaca", "The Adventures of Robin Hood"(1938), "Apocalypse Now", "Spartacus", "The Bridge on the River Kwai", "The Long Good Friday", "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood", "The Third Man", "Finding Forrester", "The Outlaw Josey Wales", "Untouchable" (2011),"Unforgiven", "The Manchurian Candidate", "The Wild Bunch", "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre", "Papillon" (1973), "Public Eye", "Existentialism in society today", "Seven Samurai", "It's a Wonderful Life", "Don Quixote", "We're No Angels", "The African Queen", "Babette's Feast", "War for the Planet of the Apes", "Dunkirk", “Dances With Wolves”, “Inherit The Wind” and “The Prisoner”), and occasional pieces of flash fiction. These are additions to similar pages which may be found at www.stuartfernie.org .


link to my YouTube channel with video presentations of a number of my pages.

After I retired from teaching, I thought I’d write my memoirs, “What have I done?”, and present them online. Please find links to these memoirs, some French support pages and reflections on "Les Miserables" below.


I can be contacted through the comments sections or at stuartfernie@yahoo.co.uk

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Reflections on characters and themes in Ingmar Bergman's "Persona"

 

Reflections on “Persona”

Written and directed by Ingmar Bergman

Starring Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann


Ingmar Bergman’s intriguing and deliberately perplexing film has prompted many interpretations and while I cannot know what Mr Bergman’s original intentions were, I did come up with a few ideas that helped me chart a way through the film and while this is by no means a full analysis, I thought I would offer these few thoughts and notes as a start point to engaging with the film and as a minor contribution to the debate inspired by it.

In the middle of a performance, actress Elizabeth Vogler stops, looks around as if she is seeing things clearly for the first time, laughs and then ceases speaking. She withdraws from the world and takes to her bed, and Elizabeth’s doctor assigns nurse Alma to care for her. We then follow Alma and Elizabeth’s experiences in trying to effect Elizabeth’s recovery in a summer house on the coast.

Elizabeth Vogler is having an existential crisis, a breakdown if you will. In the midst of her performance, she suddenly sees in the fabric of society a tissue of lies, fabrications, pretences and falsehoods. Just as she is pretending to be someone else whose emotions and reactions she is faking, she sees she is surrounded by people who also act as they lie, pretend and compromise constantly in life.

The absurdity of this realisation causes her to laugh but also evokes a desire to no longer participate in this great existential conspiracy and turning away from truth, and so she ceases to communicate and seeks to withdraw from society.

She has a short and somewhat dry and academic conversation with her doctor who confirms Elizabeth’s breakdown and allows her (and us) to understand the situation, though of course this abstract diagnosis offers nothing in terms of a solution.

Thus, nursing sister Alma is employed to care for Elizabeth. She will provide a form of therapy in the hope of encouraging Elizabeth to re-engage with the world, and she hopes to achieve this through open discussion, sympathy and emotional engagement.

However, in my opinion, the key to understanding what is going on here is to recognise that Alma is the product of Elizabeth’s psyche, fabricated to help her heal from her breakdown. Come to that, I would suggest the scenes involving her doctor and perhaps even all the scenes in the hospital are also fabrications of her mind. The conversation with the doctor giving an analysis of Elizabeth’s condition may be based on a memory, but it is too dry, condensed and unfeeling to be “real”. This is Elizabeth’s hurt recollection of being more or less dismissed – bear in mind the doctor suggests this is another role she should simply play out until she tires of it. Indeed, this may be the reason Elizabeth invented Alma as an instrument of helping herself.

The scenes between Alma and the doctor are also inventions of Elizabeth’s mind. The rooms are very plain with little detail and are quite nebulous, suggesting a dream-like nature, and the conversation between the two is fairly abrupt, business-like and unconvincing. Really, this is Elizabeth’s attempt to justify and convince herself of Alma’s usefulness by way of the authority-figure of the doctor.

When Alma goes on to introduce herself to Elizabeth, her speech rather resembles a character synopsis you might find in the preface of a play, betraying, perhaps, her true roots and Elizabeth’s mindset.

At the beach house, Alma speaks to Elizabeth with familiarity, sweetness and affection. She speaks with a childlike openness, innocence and purity, reflecting that part of Elizabeth’s psyche – the sweet innocent girl she once was before being “corrupted” by society, self-awareness and ambition. Alma’s purpose is to draw Elizabeth back from disappointment, disillusion and despair. She is there to offer a different perspective, gentle at first but becoming more assertive in time, while also seeking understanding and clarification as to how Elizabeth arrived at this juncture in her life. When Alma speaks, Elizabeth is effectively speaking to and debating with herself.

Alma recounts a tale from her past, offering an account, or a memory for Elizabeth, of how she and a friend had sex on a beach with a couple of complete strangers, and this was the greatest sexual experience of her life, before and after the event. The reason? This was an act of pure, unbridled pleasure that involved no relationship, pretence, compromise or façade such as she would undoubtedly go on to encounter in her more socially traditional experiences, and this will prove relevant to events at the beach house.

When Elizabeth’s husband visits the beach house unexpectedly, he speaks sincerely and seriously to Alma but he clearly sees Elizabeth, despite Alma’s protests she is not his wife. He shows patient understanding and sympathy, and both share words of encouragement and love, with Alma treating him like her husband and this culminates in intimacy during which Alma tells him he is a wonderful lover but then gets very upset and once again claims she is sick of lies and pretence.

Alma is Elizabeth and she gets upset because her husband is not her greatest lover, as we now know, but she feels she has to engage in lies and pretence in order to flatter and appease her husband, the type of conduct Elizabeth has rejected and seeks to escape.

When Alma and Elizabeth have a face-to-face discussion regarding Elizabeth’s coldness toward her son, Alma is clearly aware of Elizabeth’s innermost feelings and fears, and she helps Elizabeth confront her own fear of responsibility, genuine emotion and devotion, with no room for social fakery and acting.

As time passes, Alma and Elizabeth’s personas seem to draw on one another and get ever closer. While Alma still displays love and affection, she becomes visibly and audibly more assertive as she tries to break through Elizabeth’s emotional isolation, suggesting Elizabeth recognises the progress that has been made and she will not allow herself to regress. Indeed, at one point their two faces are conjoined, suggesting potentially conflicting attitudes and outlooks in a single person and a need to come to terms with this by showing compassion and exercising self-control.

At the end, just one person gets on the bus to begin her journey home. Alma and Elizabeth have become one.

 

A true and intense psychological drama, “Persona” gives us an insight into the workings of the mind as it takes us along for Elizabeth’s journey to recovery, aided by alter ego Alma.

I can’t say this is an easy film, but it is intriguing, stimulating and rewarding.

 

My thanks for taking the time to read this article. I hope you found it of some value.

Stuart Fernie (stuartfernie@yahoo.co.uk)

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Tuesday, 26 July 2022

Reflections on characters and themes in Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal”

 

Reflections on “The Seventh Seal”

Written and directed by Ingmar Bergman

Starring Max Von Sydow, Gunnar Bjornstrand,

 Bibi Andersson, Nils Poppe et al



A video presentation of this material is available here.

Antonius Block is a Swedish knight returning home from the Crusades with his faithful squire and right-hand man, Jöns. We join them as they wake up on a rocky beach looking out onto a vast expanse of water, and the personification of death arrives to take Block but Block persuades Death to delay his mission while they play a game of chess over the coming days.


We will follow Block as he and Jöns continue their journey home and encounter a variety of people and situations in the process, and we will be invited to reflect upon themes such as faith, religious views and their impact on society, the effect of experience and thought on belief, the nature of happiness and nothing less than what is meaningful in life.

The opening scenes involving Death and the game of life and death he plays with Block (encapsulated by chess as it involves planning, challenge and purpose) brilliantly set the framework, tone and purpose of the film.

In this concept film, presented in a historical context to help clarify his themes, writer and director Bergman presents his ideas through characters who are rich and colourful enough to engage our interest but who exist principally to illustrate the points he wishes to make.


Antonius Block has been described as disillusioned and his squire Jöns as cynical, but I would suggest they merit closer and more precise evaluation and even that these characters complement one another to such an extent and are so intrinsically connected that together they form one complete whole.

Briefly, Block represents the spiritual and directional element of human understanding and experience while Jöns tends to what is practical and physical.

When conversing with Death, Block states his body is ready for death but he (meaning his spirit or soul) is not. Essential to this spirituality is his belief in God, but Block has started to question his faith. This is verbalised in later scenes, but this issue is clear from the opening scenes on the beach when Block begins to pray and we see that his eyes are open and he lowers his hands, indicating his doubts, doubts that will have a devastating effect on his outlook on life. Indeed, the rocky beach looking out onto a vast expanse of water may possibly suggest they are on the border of what is known and unknown and perhaps represents Block’s equally rocky mental state and anguish over the breach between known experience and uncertain faith.


Jöns cannot really be described as cynical as he is not self-interested and does not reject integrity or humanity to pursue his own ends. He may be disillusioned and disappointed by the conduct of some of his fellow men but he applies standards of humanity and justice in his dealings with others, saving an apparently mute girl from rape and stopping the humiliation and abuse of Jöf, an actor of whom we will hear more shortly.

It is essential to note that Jöns does not require biblical or ecclesiastical authority for his actions. He applies a moral code based on humanity and common sense, but Block seeks more. He seeks the reassurance and validation of a higher authority, that of God, and the fact he has started to lose faith in God’s existence causes him real existential angst.

There are several passages in which Block (whose name, it is tempting to think, may be inspired by so-called writer’s block, but applied to faith) vividly describes his longing for a sign of God’s existence as perceived through his senses rather than having to depend on promises and talk of miracles, a situation that clearly pains him greatly. His entire outlook is built upon belief and he has devoted years of his life, abandoning his beloved wife in the process, to a cause whose whole validity he now questions. He desperately wants to believe but experience has led to reflection and a loss of faith.

In the course of their travels, Block and Jöns encounter a variety of people whose lives are influenced to varying degrees by religious beliefs of the time, superstition, ignorance and doubt. Block and Jöns will often react but on some occasions we, the audience, are left to draw our own conclusions.


They meet a small group of itinerant entertainers, Jöf, Mia, their toddler son Mikael and Jönas Skat who appear light-hearted and relatively happy with their lot. Jöf and his small family are unburdened by matters of commerce, society, doubt or guilt. They simply offer their performance and move on, depending only on one another and are happy with that. They are content, optimistic and relatively untainted by issues, anxieties and problems faced by town dwellers whose outlook is soured by fears of the plague, its effects on their livelihoods, and superstitions and myths arising from the spread of the plague, potentially leading to the end of the world.

We learn that this small troupe of players has been hired by priests to play Death and the human spirit at the upcoming All Saints Festival in order to frighten people and presumably drive them toward the clergy. This contrasts somewhat with the relatively pure and innocent outlook of Jöf and co. Jöf even has visions and we share one which may suggest the simplicity and beauty of their religious stance – an idealised view of the Virgin Mary walking with her toddler, Jesus.

Perhaps this quality of purity appeals to the pious Block who will eventually invite Jöf and his family to join him and Jöns on their journey to his estate. His encounter with them and their simple and obvious love for one another causes him to think of his beloved wife and the life they had together, a life he abandoned through faith and a call to the Crusades, reasons he has come to regret. Perhaps seeing them and their happiness together gives him hope for the future.

When Block and Jöns arrive at a village, Block goes to a church and Jöns comes across a Dance of Death, with graphic depictions of plague-related horrors, being painted on the wall of a Hall, including one section of the mural depicting a group of people indulging in self-flagellation in an attempt to apologise to and appease God in view of man’s guilt and the assumption God sent the plague as a punishment.

The reason for these awful images?

To remind people life is short and once again to frighten them and drive them toward the clergy, but also perhaps to encourage them to do something of value before their time is up.

Shortly afterward, just such a group of self-flagellators passes through the town, to the visible distress of the inhabitants and our troupe of actors. No comment is made or is required as we recoil in horror at this extreme effect of contemporary religious thought and we are more or less invited to ask ourselves if this really could be God’s will and what purpose their pain is truly serving, especially if Block’s doubts are correct and God does not exist…

This spectacle has little effect on Jöns who appears to regard this as just another story or religious interpretation among the many he has seen and heard. Ever the pragmatic man, Jöns seems keen to get on with life and attaches no great importance to philosophy or religion.

While Jöns investigated the Dance of Death, Block sought a church and makes his confession to a figure he takes to be a priest. This scene is essential to our understanding of Block, his issues and his spiritual pain.

He confirms his spiritual obsession and disillusion, describing his indifference to his fellow man (a quality overtaken by Jöns, perhaps), his desire to believe in God and his overwhelming desire to gain knowledge of God through his senses rather than depend on nebulous faith, half-promises and perceived miracles. This question has come to govern his life and he goes so far as to suggest that without God’s existence, life is nothing but a preposterous horror filled with nothingness, and that God may only be an idol built around our fear of nothingness. Clearly, he fears his time on Earth may have served no good purpose.

Upon realising he has made his confession to Death, who remains keen to fulfil his stated mission, Block asks for a respite so he may try to produce at least one meaningful act before he leaves…

On leaving the church, Block encounters a girl in stocks who is condemned to be burned at the stake for consorting with the Devil, the consequence of fear, ignorance, assumption and resultant superstition of the time. Block is keen to speak to her as, having failed to make progress with God, he seeks answers from one who apparently has knowledge of the Devil.

Eventually, after a further encounter with the girl when she is about to be burned, Block will come to the conclusion the Devil is a figment of imagination, confirming and redoubling his anxiety about life and its meaning.

At one point, Jöns seeks fresh water in a hamlet and comes across an unscrupulous chap who steals from corpses and is about to rape a girl, advising her not to bother screaming as there is no-one and no God to hear her. Jöns recognises the man as Raval, a former monk who persuaded Block to pursue his honourable mission to the Holy Land. However, Raval has clearly not just lost faith in God but has lost all sense of morality and common decency as a result. He has become a common thief and a villain.

Jöns saves the girl and threatens Raval, displaying a code of honour and decency based on humanity and showing he is not necessarily dependent on God or his existence for direction and validation.

Interestingly, Jöns makes advances toward the girl but accepts her rejection, suggesting that in any case he is tired of mere physical love which he finds dry and perhaps lacking. Jöns, rather like Block, is apparently seeking something of greater depth and perhaps more spiritual.

Jöns goes on to apply a form of moral blackmail, suggesting the girl owes him her life and should accompany him as his housekeeper, an offer she reluctantly accepts and which perhaps illustrates the spirit of feudal servitude and personal bondage which appertained in medieval times.

In a tavern, we meet several townsfolk whose conversation and anxieties reflect attitudes and thought of the time. They discuss the practical effects of the plague on their businesses and mix this with dubious religious views and superstition, all augmenting fear and apprehension, and encouraging them to reach false conclusions due to ignorance and a desire to understand and find a solution.

In this atmosphere of fear and insecurity, Raval tries to sell a bracelet he stole from a corpse to Jöf and eventually stirs trouble for him, inciting the gathered group to humiliate Jöf and perhaps do him real harm.

In a tactic used elsewhere in history, Raval attempts to deflect attention from himself onto an innocent outsider and his efforts are well received by the crowd who may regard this situation as a means of relieving their own anxiety and forgetting their own problems and pain by promoting pain and problems for others.

This pack mentality, initiated and led by the villainous Raval, is brought to an abrupt halt by the arrival of Jöns who applies his standard of humanity and fairness and marks Raval as a villain, as he warned he would do if he saw him again…

As they make their way through the woods, using his visionary gift, Jöf manages to see Block playing chess with Death and leaves the group quite furtively with Mia and little Mikael while Block distracts Death’s attention. Block has thus fulfilled his desire to complete a meaningful act before his own death.

It would seem then, that, in the face of a Godless and meaningless existence, substance and meaning are lent to life if one does something to help others.

Accepting the inevitability of his fate, Block asks Death to reveal his secrets and knowledge, upon which Death replies, perhaps a little puzzled, that he has no secrets and he is unknowing. There is no knowledge or understanding to impart.


Once in his home and when Death comes to collect Block and his entourage, Block persists, in desperation, in asking God for mercy while realist Jöns points out there is no-one to hear him. In the face of imminent death, the supposedly mute girl aided by Jöns wears an enigmatic little smile and utters, almost in relief, “It is finished.” Perhaps she feels her feudal life of servitude was not worth continuing and this contrasts markedly with the final shots of Jöf and Mia whose optimism and appreciation of life are due in no small part to their shared love and apparent freedom from social anxiety, superstition, overthinking and the creation of issues and problems that need not exist, perhaps.

 

 

I have to confess I approached this film with considerable apprehension. I have had the DVD in my collection for some years but I resisted watching it as I thought of it as an arthouse film whose symbolism and metaphor would be beyond me, but to my great surprise I found the film quite accessible and I would thoroughly recommend it.

I found the direction and intelligent, literate script richly thought-provoking and rewarding, while the performances were uniformly engaging and at times touching.


My thanks for taking the time to read this article. I hope you found it of some value.

 

Stuart Fernie

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Tuesday, 31 May 2022

Characters and themes in Stanley Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange"

 

Reflections on “A Clockwork Orange”

Scripted and directed by Stanley Kubrick

Based on a work by Anthony Burgess

Starring Malcolm McDowell, Patrick Magee and Warren Clarke

 


Often summed up as a damning indictment of the State’s willingness and capacity to exercise control over its citizens, “A Clockwork Orange” is that but is also so much more in that it invites its audience to consider or reconsider some fundamental truths about society and human nature…

Peaceful co-existence in society is dependent on showing consideration toward others, recognising that our actions have an impact on others and accepting responsibility for that. This is instilled by parental nurturing and enforced by state-sponsored rules and laws.

Of course, man is not necessarily a disciplined or moral organism on whom it is easy to impose constraints and direction, as is suggested by the film’s title. There is always the potential for conflict as a result of individuals exercising their self-serving free will, poor or weak parental nurturing, governmental policies developed for political effect rather than societal benefit, and subjective or corrupt enforcement by officers of the law. Indeed, in this film we are presented with a somewhat pessimistic series of characterisations and events that may lead us to question whether man is truly capable of achieving conduct in line with principle and idealistic values.

It is in this context that “A Clockwork Orange” takes place and the film can usefully be divided into three parts for our consideration: conduct and crime, punishment and treatment, and consequences and repercussions.

At the very start of the film, we are presented with a group of four self-centred, indulgent and amoral juvenile delinquents, led by Alex DeLarge, who bolster one another’s egos and sense of self-worth through bluster, acts of assault, rape and theft, and through shared moral indifference. Yet these adolescents are dependent on the very social order and conventions they wilfully scorn and mock for their self-absorbed and hypocritical survival and upkeep.

Alex’s ineffectual parents seek a quiet and easy life without conflict, question or responsibility, and more or less turn a blind eye to his undisciplined and narcissistic attitudes and conduct because that is easier than trying to assert themselves or impose authority. As a result, Alex and his cronies appear to have determined that within society there is little real resistance to their use of brute force and the childlike and manipulative imposition of their wills, leading to an excess of confidence and shows of bravado.

There are ironic disputes within our band of young delinquents as they expect, with a considerable degree of hypocrisy, respect and loyalty among the group members, but Alex, their de facto leader, wishes to exercise his authority and exert control, so he follows the successful pattern of violence he has been in the habit of pursuing and beats his “friends” into submission to his will.

Beyond sharing experience, principles and aims, social groups appear to require common respect and consideration to create a bond and be successful, and in denying this honourable concept and indulging his own ambitions, Alex sows the seed of discontent among his “friends”, leading to revenge and betrayal…

A planned break-in goes awry and Alex kills his victim. He is then betrayed by his friends and is arrested for murder. This apparently crosses a moral line, even for Alex, though he may be more concerned about the consequences for himself than the fact he has taken a life…

Up until now, the only figure of authority we have seen is Alex’s social worker who is presented as corrupt, abusive and self-serving. Now the police officers who arrest Alex are portrayed as judgmental, brutal and manipulative, imposing personal evaluations and means of meting out punishment rather than being impartial instruments of seeking justice.

In prison, strict discipline is imposed and it is clear that the authorities are in favour of vengeful punishment rather than expend time and effort on rehabilitation, though the prison pastor makes some attempt at reforming inmates’ souls and responds favourably to Alex’s efforts to ingratiate himself and thus ensure he has a relatively easy time in prison.

So far, we have encountered few positive role-models or examples of upright and responsible behaviour in society.

After two years, Alex claims to have seen the error of his ways and wishes to undergo a new state-sponsored treatment which will allow him, if successful, to go free in two weeks. It is fairly clear he is motivated by the prospect of early release rather than truly believing in the apparently noble purpose of the programme, to “cure” delinquency and violent behaviour.

This miracle cure is to be achieved not by the high-minded raising awareness of the consequences of our acts on others and development of a sense of responsibility and accountability, but rather by means of brutal and invasive brainwashing and aversion therapy which will condition Alex to feel physically ill at the thought of violence, sex and, as an accidental by-product, his beloved Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.

The powers that be are willing to resort to extreme and dehumanising methods to achieve their aim, using science to deprive individuals of personal freedom and natural instincts and training them to respond to others in what they judge to be a more society-friendly way.

This is all politically motivated as the government wishes to be able to claim reduced levels of criminality in order to attract votes. This scurrilous and manipulative purpose is confirmed and enhanced by a theatrical performance designed to gain positive government publicity during which Alex is summarily humiliated and debased, and actors and models happily participate in an attempt to develop their own careers.

Having paid the price of humiliation and character-changing treatment, Alex gains that which he had schemed to attain – his freedom.

On his release, Alex learns something of the consequences and cost (to himself) of his previous actions and conduct, a lesson that will have a more personal, emotional and immediate effect than his social conditioning.

When he returns to his parental home, Alex is rejected by his parents who have all but replaced him with a considerate and appreciative lodger. This rejection causes Alex some emotional distress and reveals a certain lack of awareness of the effect of his conduct while he lived at home, and a depth of feeling for his parents and the stability they provided, factors he had taken completely for granted and whose deprivation he has brought about through his own actions and attitude.

He has thus begun the process of sharing and understanding the consequences of his past actions and discovering man’s capacity and predilection for vengeful acts rather than idealistic acts of charity and understanding.

He next encounters the old man he and his “droogs” or friends beat up viciously near the beginning of the film. Taking advantage of Alex’s state of bewilderment and hurt at his parents’ rejection of him, the old man hauls Alex before his friends and invites them to give him a good hiding.

Alex is saved, somewhat ironically, by the authorities in the form of a couple of policemen, but it transpires these policemen are none other than two of Alex’s former “droogs” and they proceed to beat him in revenge for his abuse of them…

It appears that talk of principle, social understanding and forgiveness is just that – talk. When presented with an opportunity for old-fashioned revenge, the scale is tipped by human nature in favour of brute vengeance.

This is reinforced and clarified by Alex’s next encounter…

Still suffering physically and emotionally from his experiences at the hands of his parents, the old man and his former friends, Alex ends up seeking help at the door of another of his former victims.

Alex has returned, inadvertently, to the scene of a rape and assault he and his friends inflicted on a couple in the opening part of the film. Although the now wheelchair-bound writer and owner of the house is initially willing to show sympathy and understanding to Alex (whose rehabilitation by dubious means has gained considerable publicity), when he realises Alex was responsible for his own life-changing assault and the brutal rape of his wife, personal reaction overwhelms him and he abandons his liberal and well-intentioned principles, and he sets about torturing Alex psychologically, driving him to attempt suicide and completing the vicious circle of violence.

Alex survives and his story is simplified and manipulated for political and commercial gain by the press. His attempted suicide is presented as the result of his misguided medical treatment and political ambition, and certainly not the result of his own actions and Alex is treated well in order to buy his silence and avoid further negative political publicity.

Thus, the press will benefit with an attention-grabbing story, the politicians will benefit as they focus on Alex’s rehabilitation and, of course, Alex will profit, while the full sordid and brutal truth of his past remains concealed or ignored.

Indeed, at the end Alex experiences dreams and sees images that suggest he has reverted to his natural inclinations…

Perhaps human nature cannot be overcome despite our façade of civilisation…  

 

This may be viewed as a representation of the eternal conflict between social responsibility and the exercise of personal freedom, but I think it is much darker than that. There are no heroes in this story. No-one comes out well as no-one has behaved in line with the principled and idealistic values we like to think are at the heart of society. It may be that morality, principle and justice do not exist and life is what we in society choose to make of it and accept. We set our own standards and live by them, or not…

 

Although presumably conceived as a satire to shock viewers out of their complacent negligence or indifference regarding the direction in which society was going, something misfired in the perception of this film and its import in some quarters.

Rather than be sensitised to, or concerned and sickened by the violence and consequences on display, certain youthful elements in the seventies took inspiration from it and this led to a spate of violent incidents which eventually caused Kubrick to withdraw his film from presentation for a number of years.

This may have been due to the fact that in this rather bleak tale most of the characters are less than admirable and, perhaps because there are no heroes on display, Alex appears more positive and dynamic than was anticipated as he shows a degree of challenge and integrity by remaining largely true to himself. This was enhanced, of course, by Malcolm McDowell’s supremely confident, composed and charismatic performance.

Perhaps the theatrical, staged style also led to a lack of clarity in the goals of the film. This “detached” style actually suited and enhanced some of his other films such as “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Barry Lyndon”, but here I wonder if it may have contributed to the fundamental misapprehension of the film by some on its release.

 


 

My thanks for taking the time to read this article. I hope you found it of some value.

Stuart Fernie (stuartfernie@yahoo.co.uk)

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Wednesday, 13 April 2022

Reflections on “Night Moves” as a film noir and Harry Moseby as an existential hero.

 

Reflections on “Night Moves” (1975)

Directed by Arthur Penn

Written by Alan Sharp

Starring Gene Hackman, Jennifer Warren and Melanie Griffith

“Night Moves” presents the tale of L.A.-based Private Investigator Harry Moseby and his relatively straightforward search for Delly, a 16-year-old runaway, missing for two weeks, who is the daughter of a former actress. However, complications and repercussions abound when, having found the girl and returned her to her mother, Harry learns Delly has been killed in a freak accident on a film set and he feels compelled to investigate the circumstances of her death, unearthing deception, theft and murder in the process.

This film is regularly billed as a neo-noir and in the first half it incorporates many noirish elements, with dubious and potentially damaging parenting skills, Delly’s precocious and promiscuous behaviour (suggesting social and psychological issues), several predatory male characters willing to take advantage of Delly’s lack of moral direction and self-respect, some lovely lines of dialogue suggesting disillusion, and Harry Moseby’s vague rectitude in the midst of this moral malaise. In the second half there are considerably more obvious noir elements as we are introduced to deceit, theft and murder.

That said, until toward the end of the film, it doesn’t really play like a film noir in that despite events, circumstances and occasional lines of dialogue, the general atmosphere or mood is not especially downbeat or pessimistic, and if Harry Moseby is the central character in a film noir, he doesn’t seem to know it.

Most film noir detectives display a knowing understanding of character and plot, and exercise a degree of control through that understanding gained by hard-won and sometimes bitter experience. Harry Moseby is buffeted on a sea of events and is pushed by the tide to make discoveries and connections rather than uncover them by intelligence, reason or perception. He is curiously idealistic and sensitive while virtually all those around him are tainted by selfishness or disillusion, yet they remain relatively positive and seem willing to adapt to their circumstances in order to make the best of their lot, though this may lead to disharmony, conflict and perhaps even criminality.

Harry holds on to integrity and a desire to help others by disentangling the complexity of their lives and providing some beneficial understanding, clarification and a possible way forward. This may be embodied by his devotion to chess with its reliance on planning and strategy to arrive at a satisfactory conclusion. Of course, success in chess, and by extension in life, depends on a clear overview and perception of pathways and opportunities, and the title of the film may cleverly refer to reduced vision and understanding of what is going on in life while trying to apply strategies. In short, Harry seeks order in life even though ultimately it may be random and unfathomable.

We may engage with the characters, their relationships and themes of social morality, but the storyline in the first half unfurls at a fairly leisurely pace and there is little real drama or sense of urgency and peril. However, it undoubtedly also pursues existential themes, especially in the evolution of Harry Moseby. Harry is frequently reminded that as a Private Detective he simply follows the instructions of his clients. He plays a part in others’ lives but largely as an observer or an extension of his clients and as such he bears no real personal responsibility for his actions.

Harry gathers information and makes plans for returning Delly to her mother but even there he considers bringing in the police, thus avoiding personal involvement, though in the end Delly volunteers to return, much to Harry’s relief.

There is also a subplot involving Harry’s marriage, the upshot of which appears to be that meaningful relationships require emotional investment and are worth more than relatively frivolous dalliances.

However, things change dramatically after Delly’s death. Harry becomes more focused and purposeful, perhaps because he feels he has contributed to the circumstances surrounding her death and he bears a degree of responsibility. He will now become an active participant and will conduct an investigation into Delly’s death.

Harry abandons his professional neutrality to tell Delly’s mother exactly what he thinks of her and then pursues his inquiries in the best existential tradition, discovering he has been manipulated and deceived by just about everyone. Largely by chance (another theme often pursued in existential films), Harry uncovers a complex web of lies, theft, smuggling, jealousy and murder.

As most people would do when faced with the myriad of potential motivations of the characters and the complex links between them, he displays fundamental human limitations and fallibility as he fails (along with the audience) to pick up on a variety of clues dropped in the course of the film, largely because things often fall in to place only in retrospect or when we have access to the full picture, though he remains driven by his desire to understand and help.

The storyline and script by Alan Sharp are often accused of a lack of clarity but I consider it a finely crafted and deliberately nebulous piece of work that reflects the lack of order, precision and clarity in life in general.

Harry has evolved from an observer who tries to make sense of things for others to an active participant willing to express himself and take action. However, in the end Harry can exercise little or no control as he is overwhelmed by events and he passes out while his boat circles endlessly and ineffectually around the sinking plane which may serve as a symbol of human chicanery that Harry, and perhaps mankind in general, is incapable of resolving despite his idealistic desire for solutions or justice.

“Night Moves” incites distinctly different responses from viewers but I think its real strength is in the humanity of its characters. Noir themes are explored but the film is not cynical, glib or stylised. It is a nicely observed study of human imperfections, relationships, responsibility, morality and, eventually, existential nihilism, with a commanding and engaging central performance from Gene Hackman and purposeful direction from Arthur Penn.

 

My thanks for taking the time to read this article. I hope you found it of some value.

Stuart Fernie (stuartfernie@yahoo.co.uk)

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