Tuesday, 26 November 2019


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 "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.

Having retired from teaching fairly recently, I thought I’d write my memoirs, “What have I done?”, and present them online. Please find links to the various chapters on the right, though chunks of the text (but perhaps not all) may also appear below. If you suffer from insomnia, this may help!

Click on the arrows to access links to 2016 and then December.

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

All intellectual property rights reserved

Reflections on "The Third Man"

Reflections on “The Third Man”

Written by Graham Greene

Directed by Carol Reed

Starring Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli, Trevor Howard and Orson Welles

A video presentation of this material is available here.

Post-war Vienna can be seen as something of a metaphor for battered and exhausted Europe shortly after WW2. While much remains intact, there is plenty of evidence of the Nazi-led conflict which plunged Europe and half the world into physical, emotional and moral turmoil.

Judged to be one of the first victims of Nazi expansionism, after the war Austria was declared an independent nation but was occupied by forces from the United States, Russia, the U.K. and France in order to rebuild the nation but also, presumably, to enforce rule of law and to protect against a Nazi resurgence. This was an area where political, social and moral systems had been undermined or even destroyed and the potential for humanitarian crisis, crime and corruption was readily recognised. The international character of this operation serves to underscore the potential universal nature of the themes touched upon, while linguistic problems emphasise the importance of communication and understanding.

It is against this background of existential crisis, pain, disillusionment, loss, distrust and confusion that pulp Western writer Holly Martins investigates the sudden death of his good friend Harry Lime. On the face of it this is a fairly straightforward matter but Holly’s dogged determination and persistent questioning bring him in contact with a series of dubious characters whose contradictory evidence and suspect accounts eventually lead to the revelation of truth and then to unexpected consequences.

Holly encounters several of Harry’s Austrian friends and acquaintances and while each has his own reasons for being involved with Harry, his schemes and his death, they all share a variety of characteristics. They all give the impression they are giving a false or incomplete account of themselves, may be involved in some chicanery, seem untrustworthy while trying to ingratiate themselves and seem to have little or no respect for truth or morality. They may be viewed as amoral pawns willing to participate in schemes that will benefit them without regard for others and it has been implied that Harry Lime was a master of such practices.

Other citizens, onlookers rather than participants, are keen not to involve themselves in the affairs of others. Having undergone years of dictatorship and moral, physical and political threat, they are reduced to adapting to whatever circumstance will best ensure their survival.

Major Calloway and Sergeant Paine represent authority, law and order. They, along with their international counterparts, enforce regulations. While they may appear officious, cold, inflexible and uncaring at times, we discover the fundamental purpose and humanity of their work as they try to protect against tragedy and defend the inhabitants of Vienna from scheming black-marketeers willing to put people’s health and lives in danger in order to make a quick and substantial profit.

It is interesting to note that religion plays no part in this affirmation of order, apart from nuns caring for sick children. Clearly thought out rules and regulations, based on fairness and fact, are to be applied assiduously in order to combat potential crime, corruption and unfairness.

Anna, Harry Lime’s staunchly supportive friend and lover, must have known duplicity, disillusionment and fear during the war years, but she has opted to be almost simplistically and insistently idealistic in terms of love, at least as far as Harry Lime is concerned. Her idolising love for Harry remains virtually unaltered even when she seems to accept evidence of his wrongdoing – she affirms that because she loved him in the past, she can and will do him no harm. At one point she even suggests that a person does not change just because you learn more about him or her. She appears to cling to this idealistic and blinkered form of love because she needs to believe in something positive, but surely this begs questions as to the validity and worth of such love or infatuation. It is worth noting that she is an actress by profession and she refuses to play tragedy. Is she trying to exercise control and avoid reality and pain by clinging to hope and making Harry a repository for her love?

Such complete and resolute devotion to love and idealism is surely indicative of denial and can lead to harm to both oneself and to others. She even turns against Holly when he eventually yields and agrees to aid the authorities in the capture of Lime, accusing him of base deceit and betrayal despite ample evidence of Lime’s crimes and selfish conduct. To carry devotion to this level is surely self-deceiving lunacy.

Much is made of the fact that Holly Martins is a pulp Western writer. Unlike actress Anna who attempts to control her own response to events and people, Holly is a writer who tries to understand and steer events and others’ perceptions. The fact he writes Western fare may reflect his core values.

In keeping with cowboy tradition, he may appear somewhat guileless at times – he falls for Anna almost instantly, is loud, brash, unruly and has a somewhat breezy approach initially, suggesting self-confidence and a certain lack of understanding and compassion for the time and place in which he finds himself. He shows loyalty and devotion toward his friend and cannot accept the authorities’ version of Harry’s motives and activities so he sets out to investigate the circumstances of his death, which he finds suspicious, in the hope of clearing his name. He is unpretentious, principled and honourable, if inexperienced and perhaps naïve and idealistic.

Eventually, Holly meets with Harry and Harry confirms the truth of the authorities’ accusations. Rather like Anna, Holly reluctantly accepts his friend’s guilt but will not take action against him until he is forced to confront the consequences of Lime’s latest money-making enterprise when he is shown the victims of Lime’s selling of diluted penicillin. He has also learned to act less like a principled cowboy and more like an astute participant in this game of life by setting a price for his involvement in Lime’s apprehension – Anna’s freedom to leave Vienna. Of course, this he does out of love and principle rather than for selfish reasons, though he clearly feels Lime is no longer worthy of his loyalty. That said, he agrees to act merely as bait and not to participate in his capture.

Reality and truth finally win out over brotherly love, devotion and idealism as Holly takes decisive action to stop Harry, with Harry’s shooting of Paine being the final straw. Holly acts out of humanity and disillusionment. He is visibly shaken, perturbed and upset but he has evolved as a human being. He has learned to respect doubt and truth above love and friendship, and that there comes a time when decisive action must be taken.

He is undoubtedly disillusioned in the end but is perhaps more fulfilled and complete. Of course, he will also learn that not everyone shares his newfound and hard-won outlook on life as Anna walks past him (and away from her own past) without a flicker of recognition, once again exercising control and demonstrating her continued commitment to blinkered love.

Before we meet him, we hear a great deal about Harry Lime, both good and bad, from a variety of characters, reflecting different aspects of Lime’s character and different perceptions of him. We see him for the first time more than halfway through the film and by that time we are thoroughly intrigued – is he the boyish extrovert, the faithful and jovial friend or the master criminal we have heard about?

The answer is that he is all of these things and more.

When Harry meets Holly at the Ferris Wheel, he exudes self-assurance and oozes charm, casually ignoring Holly’s questions and asking questions of his own. He takes control. He displays a disarming openness and self-belief that is persuasive and manipulative, leaving the audience quite breathless and charmed while he casually tries to convince Holly of his case…..

As he looks down (both physically and figuratively) at the “dots” of people scrambling around below their carriage, Harry suggests that the loss of a handful of humans is insignificant in the grand scheme of things and he clearly feels no remorse or sense of responsibility in making use of these “dots”, even indirectly causing their deaths, in order to benefit him financially.

With these outrageous affirmations pronounced with casual conviction, Harry reveals himself to be something of an existential thinker. He has reached the conclusion morality and order do not exist but has such an ego that he seems to regard others as his playthings and has lost all sense of humanity, if he ever had one.

He shows no regard or genuine feeling for his lover Anna whom he clearly charmed and manipulated and is now using as a pawn vis-à-vis the Russian authorities to ensure his own escape. Holly recalls incidents from their youth which he presumably found amusing at the time but which he now sees differently, realising they revealed selfishness and callousness in Harry. Unlike Anna, Holly does see a person differently the more you learn about him or her.

It appears, then, that Harry has always harboured such feelings of humanitarian indifference and moral disorientation but presumably these have been enhanced by his wartime experiences. He is, however, a cynical hypocrite willing to manipulate and take advantage of those who believe in love, friendship, humanity, justice and freedom. His brilliant speech about the Borgias producing misery, murder and bloodshed but also genius while peace-loving Switzerland merely produced the cuckoo-clock is his final attempt to justify his stance and persuade his pal Holly to join him. This speech underlines his charm and eloquence as well as revealing his nihilistic mindset.

Harry Lime is a warning. He represents what man can become if he is selfish and has no respect for others and values. Love and idealism may have taken a battering and man may have been led to question the existence of God and morality in the course of the war, but the same experiences gave rise to fighting for values, defending truth and showing humanity toward others.

“The Third Man” is frequently referred to as a film noir. While it clearly depicts the consequences of amoral actions and motivation and warns against the result of excesses in love and loyalty, it also establishes the principles of humanity and integrity which lead to Harry’s downfall and which offer hope for the future.

Director Carol Reed creates a tremendously noirish atmosphere. While darkness is used to convey lack of clarity and confusion, and is used ever more regularly as Holly becomes more deeply embroiled in the plot, light is used to accentuate understanding and clarity and is used to its greatest effect when Harry is revealed to us for the first time – the revelatory light offering a chink of comprehension and lucidity in the surrounding darkness of incomprehension.

Reed fills the screen with menacing close-ups, buildings reduced to rubble, ominous shadows and pursuits (often moving downhill, perhaps suggesting a descent into moral uncertainty) set in damp dark alleyways, all reflecting insecurity, doubt and uncertainty, both physical and spiritual, culminating in the pursuit through the sewers.

Perhaps representing the depths of humanity, this unsavoury underworld is a suitable setting for the comeuppance of one who has proved to be the lowest of the low, and it contrasts with other encounters with Harry - on the Ferris Wheel where he is cocky and superior, literally looking down on mankind, and as he approaches his final rendezvous with Holly, again looking down on the scene. Many shots of Harry are taken at an angle which suggests his superiority and even the shot of the cat licking his feet might be taken to suggest his power and charm.

The famous (and tremendously catchy) zither music by Anton Karas captures Harry’s playful, charming and domineering personality.

The script by Graham Greene is dense and largely character driven, and contains any number of sly, engaging and thought-provoking observations on life (the Viennese inhabitants’ desire to keep to themselves, Sergeant Paine’s unquestioning implementation of duty in striking Holly while cheerfully engaging with him, Harry’s friends who will do whatever they have to do in order to survive, Anna’s refusal to give up her bedazzled view of Harry and Holly’s slow abandonment of blind loyalty in the face of reality). This he manages to achieve while developing both the plot and the characters.

The acting is excellent throughout, though I would suggest that the scenes with Orson Welles in his playful, charming and challenging role, lift the whole to another level of entertainment and engagement.

My thanks for taking the time to read this article. 

I can be contacted at stuartfernie@yahoo.co.uk .

Stuart Fernie

Thursday, 17 October 2019

Reflections on "Finding Forrester" (2000)

Reflections on “Finding Forrester” (2000)

Written by Mike Rich 

Directed by Gus Van Sant  

Starring Sean Connery, Rob Brown and F. Murray Abraham

A video presentation of this material is available here.

This is a story of friendship (arising from dubious beginnings and circumstances), evolution and principle set in the Bronx and extending to a prestigious school in Manhattan. This gentle drama focuses on character development and relationships, with a relatively restrained and realistic conflict used as a dramatic device to provoke reflection and growth in the two principal characters.

16-year-old Jamal Wallace has a raw writing talent not hampered by his relatively impoverished social background, though his abilities could be honed and developed with focused tutelage of quality. Jamal has concealed his talent for and desire to write, jotting down his thoughts and observations in a series of notebooks he carries around with him in a backpack. Indeed, he has concealed his academic abilities in general, gaining no more than average grades in assessments. However, he does well in national testing and is offered a place at the prestigious Mailor-Callow school where he will encounter support, discipline, academic demands and privileged competition.

Jamal has learned to use his sporting prowess in the field of basketball as a means of achieving acceptance, success and communication. Mailor-Callow is, of course, happy to offer Jamal an academic education in exchange for sporting success, along with the attendant publicity and glory such success will bring them. Apart from displaying skill on the basketball court itself, Jamal uses a basketball almost as a prop, bouncing it regularly as a means of maintaining reassurance or to divert attention. He even bounces the ball during a conversation with his mother who appears to be incapable of exercising influence over his behaviour. It is interesting to note that later in the film, when he starts to act similarly in a conversation with Forrester in his flat, Forrester sees through his device instantly and brings Jamal’s diversionary tactic to a halt with a single look.

William Forrester is the author of a much-loved, highly praised and enormously successful book but apparently never wrote another and has led a reclusive life since shortly after his book’s publication.

We discover, after a number of conversations with Jamal and considerable soul-searching, that Forrester was profoundly affected by the death of his brother followed by, in the space of some five months, the deaths of both his parents. We learn of Forrester’s trauma and the key to his reclusiveness when Jamal invites him to a baseball game but the outing goes horribly wrong. Forrester fails to cope with crowds and the social encounters associated with such an event and he collapses, triggering a recounting of the circumstances surrounding his brother’s death and the catastrophic effect this had on Forrester and his attitude to life. Having made his brother’s post-war experiences the focus of his highly successful book, exploring his situation, feelings and the deterioration of his health, the loss of his only brother in a road traffic accident for which he feels in good part responsible, had a devastating effect on Forrester’s outlook and the conduct of his life, leading to social anxiety.

These feelings were exacerbated by the fact that a nurse caring for his brother at the time of his accident wished to discuss Forrester’s book and its significance to her rather than deal with the death of his brother. This seems to have triggered something of an existential crisis in Forrester, possibly prompting doubts concerning the value of art (in the form of his book), and perhaps his fame as its author, and questions as to how his work could take priority over reality. He appears to have been desperately disappointed in people if they are capable of casting aside understanding, compassion and interest in others and their genuine experiences for what amounts to a copy of life or an abstraction. This may have led to his rejection of the status of a famous author whose position derives from the work he has produced rather than his character, beliefs and actions.

Like most good writers, this intelligent and sensitive man (despite appearances) is adept at reading character and understands motivations, purpose and thought processes, as Jamal learns in his initial meetings with him, meetings in which Forrester is testy and provocative, but also insightful. Due to his trauma and his subsequent rejection of society, he is untroubled by the desire to be accepted or popular, especially as the continued success of his book provides him with the means to live while writing (though not necessarily publishing) provides him with stimulus and satisfaction. He rarely leaves his flat, preferring to insulate himself against the dangers, insecurities and disappointments of the world outside. Yet he continues to observe life outside, rather than participate in it, cleaning the windows regularly to ensure clarity of vision. He has preserved a natural curiosity and social intelligence which he has satisfied through surveillance of the local area by way of powerful binoculars and a video camera which enabled him to become vaguely acquainted with Jamal even before the dare from Jamal’s friends and his consequent breaking into Forrester’s home.

Forrester cannot hold himself back from reacting to the pieces of writing he finds in Jamal’s bag which he left behind in panic when Forrester disturbed his tentative and furtive exploration of Forrester’s flat. Their common bond of writing paves the way to friendship as they explore common curiosity, abilities and backgrounds, leading to shared thoughts, feelings and even affection, and then a willingness and desire to play a part in one another’s lives, to the point where one friend is willing to put the other’s interests above his own.

They have much in common:

Both are inspired to write due to family traumas – for Forrester, it is the return from war of his distressed brother and his descent into alcoholism and, for Jamal, there is the struggle with drug addiction of his father, the disintegration of his parents’ relationship and his father’s eventual departure from the family home.

Jamal hides his writing, scribbling in notebooks kept in a backpack, while Forrester keeps his writing hidden in a file in his flat.

Both use writing as an outlet for their feelings and a method of understanding and coming to terms with the world around them.

Family is essential to each of them. Jamal is clearly emotionally close to his mother and brother, even if he does not share his literary aspirations with them, while the loss of Forrester’s family had a catastrophic and deeply emotional effect on his life.

The fact that neither of the main characters has left his familial roots or neighbourhood may also be worthy of note. Each of us is deeply influenced by our background and family, and although ability and opportunity may lead to changes in circumstance and geography, our hearts remain tied to “home”. This may explain why one of the production companies listed in the film’s credits is “Fountainbridge Films”, undoubtedly named after the area of Edinburgh in which Sean Connery was born and raised.

Our two main characters are drawn together by writing and shared character traits and circumstances. Almost despite himself, Forrester recognises Jamal’s potential and offers him advice, while Jamal recognises the value of what is on offer and wants more. And so, Forrester becomes Jamal’s mentor.

Comparisons may be drawn between the teaching Jamal receives at Mailor-Callow and the mentoring undertaken by Forrester.

According to Jamal’s new friend Claire, teachers at Mailor-Callow are fonder of hearing their own voices than hearing those of their students and this is confirmed by our encounters with Robert Crawford, Jamal’s English Language tutor. He appears to take pleasure in vaunting his own knowledge and in so doing implies the relative ignorance and inferiority of his students, demoralising them in the process. His purely knowledge-based and lecturing approach to teaching is far more restrictive than the mentoring approach adopted by Forrester which depends on engagement. Although knowledge is incorporated, emphasis is laid on the fluid exchange of ideas and discussion, allowing the evolution of the student and quite possibly the teacher too, if he or she is open to it.

Jamal’s skill in basketball opens a pathway to acceptance and achievement in society. He is literally following the rules, playing the game and building a career and a place in society through developing his skills and putting them at the use of others. However, Jamal’s writing is where his true aspirations lie. Through his writing he can express himself and give value to his own thoughts and ideas, leading to his independence.

There comes a point where he must make a choice between the two pathways. After entering a writing competition, Jamal is accused of plagiarism and faces possible expulsion from school. His piece was indeed partially inspired by an article written by Forrester but Jamal went on to make it his own, though he retained the original title. Forrester happily recognises it is Jamal’s own work and is probably proud of the fact he exercised some influence in the development of the piece, but Forrester has asked Jamal to remain discreet about his identity and so Jamal will not reveal the source of his inspiration, leaving him in this difficult position in the school.

Certain authorities at the school are willing to use this situation to apply pressure to ensure sporting success, assuring Jamal his problems will disappear if he gains victory for his team and his school in an upcoming match. Of course, acceptance of such conditions could lead to perpetual blackmail so Jamal chooses the pathway of principle and shows he is willing to abandon a burgeoning career and education to protect the identity of his mentor and inspiration while insisting his writing is his own work.

Though he initially refuses to defend his friend because of the impact such action would have on his life, Forrester is forced to re-assess the direction he has allowed his life to take and the values by which he has been living. Because of his friendship with Jamal, the influence Jamal has exercised over him and the rediscovery of humanity Jamal has kindled in him, Forrester realises he must conquer his social anxiety, sacrifice his anonymity and appear in public to support his friend. After all, Jamal’s problems have come about as an indirect consequence of their friendship and he is facing life-changing repercussions due to his willingness to protect Forrester.

As suggested in the title of the film, Jamal found Forrester and that find changed his life. Sharing and developing his thoughts and aspirations with a kindred spirit gave him strength and confidence and allowed him to value his own efforts as an individual. Jamal was already a thinker but his relationship with Forrester not only helped evolve his talent but encouraged him to remain true to himself.

It is also true that Forrester re-found Forrester. Through sharing his love of writing, observation and thought with Jamal, Forrester also learned to share his innermost feelings, emotions and fears, allowing him to rediscover humanity, the warmth of friendship and a taste for life.

In the end, we discover that Forrester has died and has left his flat and its furnishings to Jamal. He has also left in his care a final novel for which Jamal is to write the foreword, completing, in a sense, his mentorship of Jamal.

At the heart of the plagiarism debate was the question of copying, but Forrester inspired Jamal through his writing and his counselling to produce his own work, thus encapsulating the means and purpose of art – to observe, consider and express ideas in order to inspire similar thoughts or ideas in others.

Jamal becomes not just Forrester’s friend and mentee but also his heir. Forrester bequeathed to Jamal all his worldly goods but also, and perhaps much more importantly, the essence of his writing spirit.

This is a film to which I can return again and again, and I consider that quite an accolade.

Writer Mike Rich and director Gus Van Sant created a slow-burn character piece that is entertaining, engaging, touching and thoughtful. The principal characters and their development are the stars here and the evolution of their friendship is logical, sensitive and emotive.

Rob Brown, making his debut at just 16, had a daunting task but coped remarkably well, giving a mature, rounded and natural performance.

F. Murray Abraham, totally controlled and self-assured, did his usual excellent job and made you dislike his superior, condescending and at times oily Robert Crawford.

Sean Connery, in what is almost certainly his penultimate film role, gives one of his best performances as the crusty yet vulnerable Forrester. Indeed, the multi-layered nature of his performance plays a pivotal part in the re-watchability of the film. Various aspects of the role may have resonated with him and Mr Connery is engaging, affecting and at times quite moving.

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

I can be contacted at stuartfernie@yahoo.co.uk

Monday, 15 July 2019

Reflections on "The Outlaw Josey Wales"

Reflections on “The Outlaw Josey Wales”

Written by Phil Kaufman and Sonia Chernus from the book by Forrest Carter

Directed by Clint Eastwood

Starring Clint Eastwood, Chief Dan George and Sondra Locke

A video presentation of this material is available here.

“The Outlaw Josey Wales” is something of a revisionist western in two parts. The first part is a grim and realistic representation of war and its horrifying, painful and unjust consequences.

Josey Wales is a simple farmer going about his business when his wife and child are brutally violated and murdered, and his property is destroyed by an unruly group of Unionist soldiers known as “redlegs” under the command of a Captain Terrill. Josey survives the attack and joins a group of rebel soldiers who have presumably suffered similar fates and who seek to avenge themselves, leading to further violence, death, destruction and undoubtedly further injustices.

Eventually, when the rebel cause is all but extinguished, Josey’s compadres, exhausted and demoralised, are persuaded to surrender to Unionist forces but they are betrayed, mocked and massacred by ambitious and unprincipled officers and men, including Captain Terrill, who will not be held accountable for their actions. Josey manages to rescue a young but gravely wounded friend, Jamie.

Josey is declared an outlaw by the complicit Unionist authorities in order to protect their positions and to justify their actions. By manipulating facts, fabricating stories and exaggerating rumour, they hope to incite the interest and greed of bounty hunters and gunmen, but they also help create a figure of legend or myth in the process.

After a series of adventures in which our two heroes outwit their pursuers, imply criticism of merchants whose sole objective is to make profit from both sides of the conflict, and kill a couple of bounty hunters who reduce everything to the financial value of their prey, young Jamie dies and Josey heads for Texas in the full knowledge he will be pursued and he will have no recourse to reason, justice or honour.

Under the auspices of war, terrible crimes may be committed. One of the central and recurring themes of the film is that those who do not respect rules of engagement or common human decency on or off the battlefield cannot hide behind the uniform, cause or legitimacy of their faction. Atrocities carry personal responsibility and guilt and may incur personal enmity and a desire for retribution. War cannot be viewed as giving free rein – one remains responsible for one’s conduct and the consequences that may entail.

The second part of the film starts with Josey’s encounter with an ageing native American played by Chief Dan George. The rain, grime and melancholy of the war scenes gradually give way to brightness, lightness of tone and no small amount of humour.

Although far from free from his past, Josey does not dwell on it – it is there but he is able to focus on the present. As he crosses Texas, he encounters and attracts a number of “strays”, people whose lives have gone awry for a variety of reasons and whom Josey is able to help or defend from profiteering or threat, giving him purpose and a means of living with the past.

Josey appears unafraid. He is willing to face and accept death as a consequence of his actions but he will not shrink from defending those under threat. He has no fear of, or automatic respect for those who claim authority. He has seen that policies, positions and laws are all man-made and may be self-serving or open to interpretation, abuse or corruption. He is ready and willing to defend himself and others if such is the case.

The group he gathers round him is disparate and diverse (long before this recent trend in Hollywood) – culture, race, creed and age appear to be immaterial as they unite to combat common enemies or help one another in a time of need or peril. They become a family of sorts. They may bicker and disagree at times but they are willing to overlook foibles, idiosyncrasies and the past as they pull together to help one another build a new life and resolve problems.

As demonstrated in the discussions between Josey and Ten Bears, an Indian chief who is equally willing to defend himself and his followers, they seek to live in peace and harmony which, it is suggested, appears possible if negotiations are left to ordinary men and women as opposed to governments or figures driven by political ambition, commercial enterprise or greed.

Society is what we make of it or, alternatively, what we allow it to become. As reasonable and peace-loving citizens, we must be willing to defend ourselves and those who share common purpose against those willing to impose their will on us or disrespect us. There is therefore a sense of satisfaction, completion and hope when Captain Terrill gets his karmic comeuppance, allowing Josey to put the injustices of the past to rest and focus on the present and the future.

This is something of a deceptive film – I remember going to see it on its release, expecting an entertaining Eastwood action film, and indeed there are several exciting action set-pieces but it is also a film of surprising depth, texture and engagement. Clint Eastwood clearly wanted to depict the horrors of war and the shattering lasting effects it has on individuals, but he balances that with a tale of stoicism, hope, positivity and society in the face of opposition and difficulty, man-made or natural. This is undoubtedly a highlight in his directing career. He retains the classic Eastwood elements of over-the-top confrontation, audience complicity and focus on the taciturn hero’s communication through long, meaningful looks, but these elements are complemented by close attention to atmosphere, sympathetic secondary characters and performances, the unlikely inclusion of humour and the appeal of an underpinning “message” about war, trauma, justice and the importance of society, which is accessible to us all.

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

Stuart Fernie

I can be contacted at stuartfernie@yahoo.co.uk

Tuesday, 9 July 2019

Reflections on "Untouchable" (2011)

Reflections on “Untouchable” (2011)

Written and directed by Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano

Starring François Cluzet and Omar Sy

In memory of my friend, Alfie

A video presentation of this material is available here.

The opening scene encapsulates the film’s dynamic and provides insight into the character and relationship of the principal characters, plus their interaction with society.

Two men are driving in an atmosphere of melancholy, even depression. Passenger Philippe is in low spirits and driver Driss is concerned as they drive aimlessly through the Parisian night, following the constraints of traffic and the highway code. They are dully going nowhere and this reflects Philippe’s frame of mind and, as we shall discover, his physical limitations. Suddenly, Driss breaks free from the traffic and powers away, breaking speed limits and several other laws at the same time, but supplying a sense of exhilaration, defiance and a taste of life. 

Naturally, the police become involved very rapidly but Philippe (who is quadriplegic) and Driss act together to manipulate the figures of authority so they gain their sympathy and pity, thus not only avoiding punishment but gaining an escort to a nearby hospital in the process. Philippe and Driss take great satisfaction in this result as, together, they have managed to profit by Philippe’s disabilities and limitations to outwit the system and society which have conspired to write him off due to his condition, while seizing a few moments’ escape from Philippe’s highly restricted existence.

Philippe is a very wealthy quadriplegic who belongs to the economic and social elite. It appears that he was so accustomed to what he regarded as life-numbing security that he took risks to furnish thrills and excitement and so, as he went ever higher and faster, he eventually took a risk too far and lost feeling below the neck as a result. He also lost his beloved wife to illness. In such circumstances it would be easy to slip into negativity and depression but, recognising the essential value of life, Philippe has focused on cerebral or intellectual pursuits such as art and music in his physically diminished life. Surrounded by a helpful and devoted staff, he makes the best of things, though spiritually he may be doing less well as his somewhat restricted daily life appears rather clinical, uninspired and lacklustre.

In contrast, Driss and his family lead a somewhat crowded chaotic hand to mouth existence, and may be struggling both economically and emotionally. Driss is physical, spontaneous, open, friendly, shows common sense and has principles, though we discover he has a prison record (due, we imagine, to desperation to provide for his family). He displays a caring attitude toward his sister and his mother, and he is highly protective of his younger brother who is leaning toward joining a gang. He also displays a natural effusiveness and dynamism which, combined with his openness and frankness, could easily lead to conflict or discord.

When he presents himself for interview as Philippe’s personal assistant, Driss is entirely open about the fact he is required to apply for a number of jobs in order to qualify for financial assistance from the state, and so all he needs from Philippe is a signature to indicate he has gone through the motions of interviewing him. Driss makes no attempt to ingratiate himself, shows no real consideration or understanding of Philippe’s situation and responds to questions without guile or hope of gaining the position, yet they engage in some banter and, despite being a less than obvious choice, Philippe offers Driss the job on a trial basis - exactly because Driss displayed spontaneity, frankness and a willingness to challenge the perceptions and attitudes with which Philippe is surrounded. In other words, he offered a spark of life and energy in what had become a dull and repetitive undertaking.

For Driss, this position offers stability, independence and security as well as a fruitful, insightful and highly amusing introduction to modern art, classical music and opera. Driss continues to share his incisive and challenging observations on Philippe’s cultural pursuits, offering down-to-earth alternatives to Philippe’s abstract and artistic interpretations, and a mighty slice of amusement and energy in the process. He approaches his physical care of Philippe with the same openness, innocence and spontaneity, potentially causing Philippe considerable injury but at the same time injecting the process with life and energy, but also, most importantly, without pity. Driss treats Philippe as an equal – he does not affect compassion, tolerance or sympathy, and Philippe greatly appreciates this quality. He is treated like a man and consequently he finds Driss’s company stimulating and enjoyable.

Their status of companionship evolves when Philippe struggles one night and is clearly pained both physically and spiritually. Driss responds instinctively, asking what he can do to help. The relationship they have built so far allows Philippe to confide he needs air, or simply to get out. Driss then seizes Philippe and takes him out in Paris in the middle of the night. They hold a relaxed and open conversation in which they share events of the past and emotional responses, a discussion which forms the basis of their future relationship. This is no longer an employer-employee relationship. Personal interest, sharing and emotional commitment raise their relationship to the status of friendship.

And so, they help one another. Philippe gains physically, spiritually and emotionally. Apart from movement, Philippe gains experience of different types of music, is immersed in humour-laden discussion of art and learns to assert himself as a father when he disciplines his haughty adopted daughter. But most importantly, he regains a sense of hope, purpose and appreciation which had been slipping away from his existence.

Driss experiments with modern art, is exposed to culture, learns some self-discipline and to conduct himself with greater finesse, while retaining common sense and principle. This is amusingly demonstrated in the contrasting ways in which he deals with drivers who have parked in the entrance to Philippe’s driveway. More importantly, Driss derives a sense of purpose and self-respect from their association, and hones his quick wit and charm to reflect a more cultured and reflective approach or outlook.

However, family obligations and duties, readily acknowledged by Philippe, mean that eventually Driss and Philippe must part company. Driss has evolved and moves ahead with his life, applying for jobs with new-found confidence and poise. However, having developed a reinvigorated outlook on life, Philippe is dreadfully disappointed and misses the friendship and emotional engagement he has come to value so much. It is at this point that his friend returns briefly, but only to transport him, unknowingly, toward hope, positivity and the next emotional stage in his life, for which, in a sense, his friendship with Driss paved the way.

The film’s huge surprise success is due in no short measure to the sharp script which balances sympathy, humour and emotional engagement, and the crisp, involving direction, both the responsibility of Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano. However, the natural, touching, amusing and thought-provoking performances by François Cluzet and Omar Sy transport the material to another plain.

Although the film touches briefly on themes such as integration and understanding of the handicapped, family, discipline, seizing the moment and savouring life, whatever it may bring, this is undoubtedly above all else an uplifting hymn to friendship and the mutual benefits emotional engagement can bring, even in the most surprising and doubtful of circumstances.

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

Stuart Fernie

I can be contacted at stuartfernie@yahoo.co.uk .