Part of the history of the meaning of the word ‘ordinary’

In the eighteenth century [...] ‘an ordinary’ was a meal that was equivalent to the French term plat de jour (the dish of the day).  So, in Henry Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling from 1771, two well-to-do men are walking by a park when ‘they observed a board hung out of a window, signifying, “An excellent ORDINARY on Saturdays and Sundays.” It happened to be Saturday and the table was covered for the purpose’ [...].  There is no sense that the two men are going for the cheap or the measly option here.  An ordinary in this sense was the meal on which most care and attention was lavished, that used the freshest produce and the best cuts of meat.  It was also what you might eat as a regular customer of the café or restaurant.  An “ordinary” suggests both the care and effort of the cook or chef and a community of diners who know how to choose the best option because they respect the decisions and skills of their patron.

Ben Highmore. Ordinary Lives: Studies in the Everyday. Routledge, 2011.

One of the many passages in Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction which could be from Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy

…these short cuts are only permissible because one is and feels at home, among the family, where ceremony would be an affectation.  For example, to save washing up, the dessert may be handed out on improvised plates torn from the cake-box (with a joke about ‘taking the liberty’, to mark the transgression, and the neighbour invited in for a meal will also receive his piece of cardboard (offering a plate would exclude him) as a sign of familiarity.  Similarly, the plates are not changed between dishes.  The soup plate, wiped with bread, can be used right through the meal.  The hostess will certainly offer to ‘change the plates’, pushing back her chair with one hand and reaching with the other for the plate next to her, but everyone will protest (‘It all gets mixed up inside you’) and if she were to insist it would look as if she wanted to show off her crockery (which she is allowed to if it is a new present) or to treat her guests as strangers, as is sometimes deliberately done to intruders or ‘scroungers’ who never return the invitation.

Pierre Bourdieu. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Trans. Richard Nice. Routledge, 1984.

Taking Calvary seriously

This post contains ‘major’ spoilers, and should not be read by anyone who plans to see Calvary but has not done so yet.

Calvary (John Michael McDonagh), although it contains comedic elements, is a film that seems to want to be taken seriously.  In support of this suggestion, we might point initially to features of the film such as its somber, white-on-black opening quotation from St Augustine (‘Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved.  Do not presume; one of the thieves was damned.’), or its swelling soundtrack, which serves to emphasise the intended poignancy of key dramatic moments.  We might also point to the film’s trailer, which positions it within the realm of art cinema, and much of its critical reception, which offers it as a film with something to say.  If the film’s ending is to secure the effects that it seems to be seeking, then the viewer needs, ultimately, to view the film’s characters as beings capable of authentic suffering and moral decision-making.  This, at least, is what I want to argue, and I also want to argue that Calvary fails to satisfactorily reconcile its comedic and dramatic dimensions, resulting in a film that, although accomplished and enjoyable almost throughout, ultimately fails to hang together.

Calvary begins with Father James (Brendan Gleeson) sitting in the confession booth.  What he receives though is not a confession but a death threat.  The man in the other half of the booth (kept offscreen throughout the scene) tells Father James that he will give him a week to put his ‘house in order’, then come looking for him on the beach the following Sunday.  The proposed act is a combination of punishment and public statement.  ‘I’m going to kill you ‘cos you’re innocent’, Father James is told.  Killing a bad priest, the man reasons, wouldn’t be news; killing a good priest will be more shocking.  We also learn of the would-be killer’s motive: he was sexually abused over a period of years by another priest (now dead).

By Calvary‘s end, Father James has been shot, point blank, in the head by parishioner Jack Brennan (Chris O’Dowd).  What happens in between to deliver us to this climactic moment of violence?

The film’s trailer and its opening scene suggest that Calvary might offer us a suspenseful ‘who’s-going-to-do-it?’ structure, in which we are offered the pleasure of trying to identify the killer before he commits his murder, and perhaps the pleasure of watching Father James trying to do the same, or at least to evade his date with death.  However, the killer’s identity remains undisclosed to the viewer until the scene on the beach, and the scenes in between the declaration and the act offer us, time and again, the dysfunction and misanthropy of virtually all of residents of Father James’s parish, without giving us any means of singling out one character over the others as a killer, or, really, any dramatic or structural reason for wanting to (after all, unlike in most detective fiction, where much hangs on the criminal’s motive, the lack of motive against Father James specifically means that the killing will be equally arbitrary whoever commits it).  Father James does not try to identify the would-be killer, because, having recognised his voice, he already knows who he is.  This, at least, is what he tells the Bishop, and there is no reason to disbelieve him.  However, Father James does not identify the man to the Bishop (not even after the church is burned down much later in the film), nor to anyone else, and he is similarly poker-faced in his interactions with all the parishioners.  Even when one watches the film a second time, knowing that Jack is the one who has threatened murder, and knowing that Father James knows this (and, probably, that Jack knows that Father James knows), one’s understanding of the two characters’ interactions is not, I would suggest, altered in any significant way.  Rather than being dramatically- and suspensefully-driven, Calvary is predominantly structured around Father James going about his priestly duties: presiding over Communion, seeking to intervene among unhappily-married parishioners, offering spiritual guidance, visiting the aged and the dying, working alongside a fellow priest, reporting to his Bishop, and so on.  Not until Father James has been killed does the camera leave his side.  The film unfolds as a series of strands, in which we witness the protagonist’s encounters with a range of secondary characters.

The best of these secondary characters are Michael Fitzgerald (Dylan Moran), a banker who ‘got out’ just before the crash and now (divorced from his wife, estranged from his children and even abandoned by his maid) lives alone in a giant house on the edge of town; Father Leary (David Wilmot), Father James’s craven fellow parish priest; and Freddie Joyce, a cannibal prisoner (played by Domhnall Gleeson, eldest son of Brendan).  Michael and Father Leary have the most satisfying character trajectories in the film.  They are also the characters whose behaviours resonate with their social roles in a manner lacking in the rest of the secondary characters.  Michael, who takes a work of art (Holbein’s The Ambassadors) off his wall and pisses on it (a logical if extreme follow-up to his declaration ‘I don’t have to know what it means; I own it, that’s enough’) clearly stands in for a whole financial class that only deals in one kind of value at the severe expense of other values and other people (as Father James’s response makes [probably over-]explicit: ‘People like you have pissed on everything else I suppose’).  But this, in the case of Michael’s character, is not a problem for the film, because there is no conflict between this role and other things the film wants to do with him.  Even near the end, when Michael articulates his sense of detachment, this does not feel like a rewriting of the character to suit the demands of the moment, but the character arriving at and articulating an understanding of the behaviour we have seen from him up to this point.  Father Leary is shown to be a man whose way of moving through the world is to avoid conflicts that might leave him vulnerable to censure or reproach, even if this entails (as it inevitably does) that he compromises his own moral standing in the process.  The key example, dramatically well-handled, comes when he warns Father James off intervening in a situation in the parish involving adultery and domestic violence simply because one of the people involved is black (his weaselly justification is that this makes it a ‘matter of diversity’).  Father James’s ultimate denunciation of Father Leary as a man without integrity therefore possesses dramatic logic and weight (in addition to the structural and thematic salience created by Father Leary’s role as a precisely-opposite kind of priest to Father James).  Freddie Joyce, by contrast to Michael and Father Leary, only receives one scene, but it is one whose tonal texture is different from (and, I would suggest, superior to) the film’s predominant strategy of leavening drama with absurd or gallows humour.  Here, a different kind of modulation is provided when Freddie, rather than rejecting or accepting responsibility for his crimes, moves the conversation to another plane by imagining another version of himself, in heaven, who does not possess the destructive desires he does in this life, but will instead meet and love the people he has tortured and killed ‘with a real, true love’, and will have ‘no desire to hurt them in any way’.

The least well-realised of the film’s secondary characters are Frank Harte (Aiden Gillen) and (and this hurts the film more than any of its other shortcomings) the killer himself, Jack.  [Since I published this post, a reader has taken issue with my account of Jack's character, and raised some good points.  See the comments below.] Frank Harte is an unbelievable and uninterestingly unpleasant doctor.  The atheistic doctor is not a very good role, Frank comments in one of his early scenes, but the film’s observation of this fact does not make it any less the case.  ‘One part humanism to nine parts gallows humour’, Frank also observes of himself, but that crucial one part to dilute and offset the other nine is nowhere in evidence.  Aiden Gillen grins and sneers with malice in every scene he appears in (and the last thing we see him do is put out his cigarette in a dish containing a human organ).  He does seem to take a particular delight in goading Father James, but his atheism goes beyond a hostility towards religion and becomes, it would seem, a contempt for any and all kinds of value.  This makes Frank a representative of, to use terms of condemnation offered by Calvary itself, cheap cynicism.  The characterisation of Jack is marred by the opposite problem – that is, not by one-note consistency, but by a confounding and frustrating inconsistency.  In the most sustained scene of interaction between Jack and Father James before the former kills the latter, Jack is the advocate of moral short cuts in the interests of an easy life.  So what if my wife is cheating on me, he tells Father James, if she is happier and I can come home from the pub at any time I like.  It is hard to square this with Jack’s unshakeable commitment to murdering Father James at the end of the film, especially as we have been given little else in between.  And if one really feels the need to include the line ‘I think she’s bipolar – or lactose intolerant, one of the two’, then it should probably be given to a character who can afford to have her or his credibility diminished and psychology simplified in the pursuit of a cheap laugh, and not to the character who kills the protagonist, and who we are asked to respond to as one whose suffering is real and demanding of recognition.

Calvary includes repeated moments of what Douglas Coupland termed ‘derision pre-emption (‘the refusal to go out on any sort of emotional limb so as to avoid mockery from peers’), moments which we might also see as ‘in-befores’ (to use the language of Web 2.0 communication).  It is as though the film wants to try to short-circuit potential accusations of obviousness or unearned emotion by itself making such observations.  We have already noted one such moment in relation to Aiden Gillen’s character.  But again: acknowledging such shortcomings does not overcome them.  The other major instance comes in a scene between Father James and his daughter (from a marriage that ended, with his wife’s death, before Father James became a priest) Fiona (Kelly Reilly).  The dialogue has already framed the father and daughter’s heartfelt exchange as a ‘third act revelation’, and at the scene’s end, Fiona observes ‘It’s corny, but I like it.’

Fiona is one of only three female characters in the film, and of those three, only one (Veronica Brennan, played by Orla O’Rourke) lives in Father James’s parish (the other, who is something of a Madonna to Veronica’s whore, is a French tourist whose faith and piety remain undented by the sudden of senseless killing of her husband in a road accident).  This is all the more remarkable for a film that gives us no fewer than ten males, besides Father James himself, living in the parish (plus Freddie Joyce and the Bishop), and it is another of the film’s features that makes it difficult to believe in the community presented, or to extrapolate the unseen from the seen.

There are many films that start out as comedies, that surround a fleshed-out protagonist who possesses emotional depth with flat caricatures, and that deliver us ultimately to a dramatic place where we care for the protagonist and feel the moral weight of her or his decision-making.  I would offer Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World (2001) as a vivid and distinguished example of such a film – and pursuing a comparison with Ghost World for a moment can offer a way of explaining the difficulties that Calvary finds itself in when it reaches its climax.  Ghost World is a coming-of-age tale in which an adolescent tries to find her place in the world and avoid the inauthenticity, compromise and sterility of the adult world she sees around her.  Her commitment is to herself and to her own authenticity, which means that the viewer’s emotional response to her and to the film’s climax does not depend centrally upon any kind of positive investment in the other characters (or most of them, at least).  Indeed, the film’s effect is supported by those characters remaining inauthentic.  Calvary shares Ghost World‘s ironic worldview, but in place of an adolescent protagonist undergoing an existential crisis, it has an adult who has committed himself to and appears to be seeking to honour a Christian worldview.  That is, the viewer’s emotional response to Father James and to the film’s climax surely does depend on Calvary‘s other characters.  In its happy guise, Christianity is about reciprocal fulfilment – about seeking one’s own fulfilment through the fulfilment of others.  In its tragic guise, it is about dying for the sins of others.  Neither of these options is tenable, is worthy of a protagonist who is worthy of our care, if that protagonist is surrounded by others whose fulfilment or suffering is prevented, by the nature of their representation, from seeming to really matter. It would not quite be fair to offer this as an overall description of Calvary, but I would suggest that it is a description that fits much of the film and many of its characters, including the moments and characters that ought to matter most.

I don’t want to leave the impression that I think that Calvary is a bad film, or a complete failure.  Its achievements (about which I probably haven’t said enough) identify it as a film that should be taken seriously.  But I think that if one does take it seriously, one cannot help but be disappointed by a thoroughgoing unevenness.  Take the film’s closing minutes.  There is elegance and thematic pointedness in the script’s raising of ‘detachment’ as a contemporary affliction from which Michael suffers profoundly, but which, as Father James is (literally) forced to admit, also formed part of his own response to learning of the Catholic Church’s shameful history of sexual abuse (this admission directly precedes Jack pulling the trigger: the dialogue furnishes a logic somewhat lacking in the characterisation).  Then comes the aestheticisation of the head shot and the blood splatter, which seemed to me yet another tonal betrayal – precisely the wrong way to handle the demise of the film’s central character.  And then the Donnie Darko/American Beauty-esque montage of what everyone else is doing, the details of which appear completely unpointed (and in at least one case – Father Leary’s reading of The God Delusion – another instance of the pursuit of the cheap laugh).  But then finally, we get the beautiful protraction and pregnant pause as Fiona visits prison to face her father’s killer, and, with a pane of glass between them, the two pick up the phones that will allow them to talk, and the film ends, leaving the viewer to wonder what forgiveness or understanding might be on offer.

Thank you to John Osborne, Jane Thomas and Louise Zborowski for our post-screening discussion, which first made me think of some of the points I have pursued above.

I love that moment in Boyhood…

…where Mason Sr./Ethan Hawke and Mason Jr./Ellar Coltrane are driving through the desert on their way to a night of camping, and a country song comes on the stereo.  Mason Sr. turns it up, and commences enthusiastically narrating and appraising the song.  It’s straight-up country, he says, nothing fancy, but the way he says it, we know that this is being offered not only as the terms upon which the song is to be enjoyed, but also a reason for doing so.  The desire to articulate and share enthusiasm that is one of the hallmarks of Ethan Hawke performances in Richard Linklater films (and one of the most beguiling qualities of those performances) is here given a parental inflection: Mason Jr. is still young enough to have his taste ‘coached’ by his father, but also old enough that might reasonably be expected to partake of the pleasure being offered.  Both times I have seen the film, this moment has elicited a smile of recognition, and a feeling of warmth towards the characters.

The experience of time of an academic/parent

Writing is a form of therapy - Graham Greene

Anxiety and guilt are the two dominant emotions in my endless agonisations over how I spend my time.  In my academic life, I suffer anxieties about not using my time effectively or productively enough.  In my life as a parent, scheduling is unavoidable, but one of its side effects is that I am usually anxiously racing or watching the clock, and therefore out of sync with my very much immersed-in-the-present infants, a fact which makes me feel guilty.

At work, my experience of time is often as follows: I’m sitting at my computer.  I have my Outlook account (my work email) open.  Sometimes I try to ‘Work offline’, but I never seem able to manage it for long.  On top of the general compulsion to receive correspondence as soon as possible, often there’ll be something more specific I’m waiting for: a reader’s report, a message finalising an appointment, a reply to a message where I’ve tried to smooth over a delicate matter, and so on.  Often one of my Twitter accounts will be open too, and there’ll be a mini-cycle of refreshing going on there too.  Perhaps I’ll be preparing some powerpoint slides, or drafting an article.  Both of these activities involve the assembling of materials – any or all of the following: books from my shelves, photocopies of articles and chapters from my filing cabinet, online resources, DVD clips, former iterations of material I’ve produced stored on one of several USB sticks, or on my desktop, or the university’s virtual learning environment.  Each of those texts points outwards, either implicitly (‘That reminds me of…’) or explicitly (in the form of quotation or discussion) to any number of other sources, and it wouldn’t take long to use a search engine to check a detail or chase up a source.  These multiple labyrinths and trains of thought are perilous enough even if one isn’t also being led out of them by the window in the corner of the screen heralding the arrival of a new email that you may as well reply to now rather than have it hanging around in the inbox.  Then there is that intimate partner of perfectionism: procrastination.  I’ve gotten better at forcing myself to commit to formulations in my writing, or to concrete plans in my teaching preparation, but it is still done over a small, persistent voice suggesting to me, with me barely formulating it as a conscious thought, that if I postpone that commitment, my future self will be better equipped to nail that passage or slide and slay it first time (never mind that writing is rewriting, or that to begin is to be halfway there, or even that I personally find it much easier to edit a first draft than to produce it).  Perhaps part of me also thinks that it should take me, say, a day, if I’m going to prepare a decent set of sessions for one of the weeks of my module, so if I’m cruising through it in less time, something must be wrong.  I’ve gotten better at recognising and countering all this bullshit, but it doesn’t mean that I don’t still break off unnecessarily from what I’m doing to perform the check-the-online-communication cycle, or to go to the toilet, or to eat or drink something, more often than I should.  Very quickly, my brain is buzzing with half-finished thoughts and imagined trajectories for multiple tasks.  It’s impossible to keep either of my desktops tidy.  My PC’s desktop windows are closed down easily enough at the end of the day, but the migration of books and paperclipped piles of A4 paper from their homes to the surfaces of my office is harder to prevent, and very soon there are reproachful piles of various things to do all around me.

The productivity imperative even makes it hard to commit with a clear conscience and an uncluttered mind to tasks that one has allotted time for.  I’m working on an article at the minute that requires me to engage with a rather weighty monograph, so this reading is one of the things I’m committing my research time to at the moment.  But 100 pages in to its 500 page length, I’m already feeling the itch: surely I should now be writing something?

I won’t say too much about the time I spend with my wife and children here – that is, after all, my private life – but I will say a few things about domestic chores.  I don’t imagine many people like domestic chores, but, for me, in addition to the relative monotony of the time spent actually doing the chore (which can sometimes be quite pleasurable – and of course, some domestic tasks, such as cooking, are enjoyable, to me at least), I experience a resentment, which sometimes verges on anger, that this task is the thing that stands between me and my evening’s leisure!  The future that is within my grasp exacerbates my displeasure at the present.  (I experience the basic routines of personal hygiene that stand between me and my sleep at the end of the night similarly.)

Finally: books (and, to a lesser extent, DVDs).  Like most academics, and because I love books more than anything non-human, I have, by my estimation, more than a thousand books that I would like to read.  The anticipation of the pleasure of reading them is great, but so too is the despondent knowledge that I may in fact never find the time.

Recognising problems is said to be the first step to overcoming them.  The other piece of conventional wisdom I keep repeating to myself is that habits are hard to break but that one does it one day at a time.  I remain, for the time being at least, hopeful that I can do a better job of not robbing myself of productivity, pleasure and happiness.  I’ll try to start now.

A particularly interesting passage from Bourdieu’s Distinction

The Parisian or even provincial primary teacher, who can beat the small employer, the provincial doctor or the Parisian antique-dealer in the tests of pure knowledge, is likely to appear incomparably inferior to them in all the situations which demand self-assurance or flair, or even the bluff which can cover lacunae, rather than the prudence, discretion and awareness of limits that are associated with scholastic acquisition.  One can confuse Bernard Buffet with Jean Dubuffet and yet be quite capable of hiding one’s ignorance under the commonplaces of celebration or the knowing silence of a pout, a nod or an inspired pose; one can identify philosophy with Saint-Exupéry, Teilhard de Chardin or even Leprince-Ringuet, and still hold one’s own in today’s most prestigious market-places—receptions, conferences, interviews, debates, seminars, committees, commissions—so long as one possesses the set of distinctive features, bearing, posture, presence, diction and pronunciation, manners and usage, without which, in these markets at least, all scholastic knowledge is worth little or nothing and which, partly because schools never, or never fully, teach them, define the essence of bourgeois distinction.

Pierre Bourdieu. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Trans. Richard Nice. Routledge, 1984.

Brief reflections on The Double (Richard Ayoade, 2013)

I saw The Double (Richard Ayoade, 2013) at Hull Independent Cinema Project last night, and I enjoyed it more than its trailer had led me to believe I might.

The set design, as per the trailer, is indeed meticulous and overbearingly atmospheric; much of its character is captured in José Arroyo’s description of it in his short review as ‘the present… imagined as a dark 19th-century world with 1930s appliances where everyone is lonely’.  (In terms of its look, the film’s closest relative in many ways is Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, as Ayoade has acknowledged, but in terms of feel, The Double does not have, or go for, Brazil’s wide streak of mania, opting instead for humorous deadpan.)  Dim, artificial light pervades the film (I don’t remember any scenes in daylight), punctuated by moments of elaborate lighting design, another way in which the film sometimes feels, a bit like its characters, organised to within an inch of lifelessness.  The film’s opening scene thoroughly embodies these qualities.  Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg), the film’s protagonist, sits on an underground train, tunnel lights flashing across his face, the rhythmic clacking of the tracks dominating the soundtrack.  A man, whose face we do not see, curtly informs Simon (the film is not afraid to prefigure its central theme as boldly as it introduces its style) ‘You’re in my place.’  A monotone exchange, with long gaps between turns in the ‘conversation’, ensues.  Simon protests, but without conviction.  After a long beat, the close shot on Eisenberg is replaced by a wider one which confirms that, as we probably suspected, the man is demanding that Simon vacate the one seat in the carriage that is occupied.

Such archness has its pleasures, but they are pleasures of a limited sort.  Likewise, achieving such a tone is an achievement, but again, a limited one.  But then, just as I was turning against the film, it modulated.  Mia Wasikowska’s character, Hannah, the object of Simon’s romantic fixation, becomes the film’s much needed locus of authenticity and tenderness.  Her apartment, which Simon views (much in the style of L B Jefferies in Hitchcock’s Rear Window) via a telescope installed in his own apartment across the courtyard, is noticeably softer and warmer, in its set design and lighting, than anything else in the film.  I am not so much praising the fact of the film’s positioning of a woman as the object of a man’s desiring and often intrusive gaze and as a means of alleviating that man’s sense of the harshness and futility of his existence, but the way in which the film so successfully captures the feel of such predominantly one-way relationships as these (with their combination of deep feeling on the one hand, and repression and stuntedness on the other), and builds this feel into its architecture, using it to offset, and be offset by, the gloomy environs and affectless exchanges that characterise the rest of the film.  The pauses, repetitions and poker-facedness of much of the film’s dialogue gives way to rapid-fire, overlapping, engaged exchanges during some of Simon’s encounters with Hannah (and some with his doppelganger, James).  It would be an exaggeration to describe Simon’s exchanges with Hannah as fully authentic or communicative, but there is at least the sense that both parties are invested in making the effort, and Wasikowska’s performance is, for the most part, in a significantly more ‘authentic’ register than the performances in the rest of the film.  In the moments where Simon observes Hannah, Ayoade finds perfect details or framings to hang these moments on: as Hannah sleeps, her inhaling and exhaling disturbs a few strands of hair hanging in front of her face; whilst Hannah photocopies a document for Simon, the camera’s angle and close framing, combined with Hannah’s posture, emphasises the nape of Hannah’s neck, and its elegance.  There is also a nice moment where Simon returns to his cafe table to discover that Hannah has left, but that she has left behind a note and a coin, instructing him to play a song for her on the jukebox, a moment which Simon embellishes in his head in a well-crafted moment of fantasy.

The things, then, that I admired most about The Double revolved around its (probably) secondary relationship, between Simon and Hannah, rather than the (probably) primary one between Simon and James which more straightforwardly drives the film’s plot and themes (and its marketing).  This also explains why I was most engaged by the film’s middle, rather than its beginning or end.  However, precisely this tension between ‘foreground’ and ‘background’, and the way the two play off each other, was one of the key pleasures I experienced whilst watching the film, and whilst reflecting afterwards on the experience it offers.  Ayoade managed to pack more arresting, eloquent images into this one film than one often sees in a dozen, and he demonstrates a sure hand for combining the elements he works with.  On the strength of The Double, I’ve just ordered Submarine (Ayoade, 2010), and I’m very much looking forward to watching it.