Recognition and Alienation in They Shall Not Grow Old

There’s a moment in Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old, where the screen expands from the familiar black and white century-old 4:3 ratio to a modern, colour 16:9 ratio. It’s a key moment in the film, where the shroud of familiar alienation from First World War footage is removed and for the first time we can recognise these young men as they were.

The film consistently plays with this familiarity and alienation throughout. It doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to think how frustrating it would be to only have one flavour of jam (plum and apple was regularly the only choice), but however much cleaned, coloured footage we see, the visceral and terrifying nature of the trenches still remains out of grasp. One of the voices describe them as “one of the most desolate places on earth” and thankfully most of us are unfamiliar with the ever-present stench of the rotting human flesh that many describe. Indeed, these trenches were so horrifying and terrifying for those involved that it changed the very meaning of the word ‘horror’.

It seems relatively easy to put ourselves in the place of recruiting officers trying to fill as many places as possible, but thankfully our modern ears are shocked by the repeated assertions of those officers telling 14-17 year olds to walk outside and come back in, pretending to be 18. The fact this means that many of the soldiers were only 18 at the *end* of the war. There’s a common refrain of how today’s youth are coddled, but the fact a majority today’s western adults would try and protect a 14 year old child from fighting a war seems an improvement.

The theme of recognition and alienation applies across no-man’s land as well. For groups of people who have spent many years shooting huge explosives at each other, the footage of them actually meeting, when Germans are captured, is another shock. There’s no animosity in this footage at all (accepting that it was unlikely any mistreatment or animosity was unlikely to be caught on film). Soldiers from both sides play and joke with each other. This mysterious, terrifying ‘other’ who may have shot a friend’s head off yesterday, today turns out to be just like them – a small, frightened youth. The soldiers talk of how they “admired and respected” their opponents and discussed with them “how useless war was and why it had to happen.” They constantly play with each other’s hats as though realising that it’s only the uniform that sets them apart.

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The First World War is an appropriate conflict for this sort of treatment. In the film some describe the arrival at Calais, the changes of expression from excitement to fear and the first sound of a shell close up. ‘Close up’ is key here, because reports from the time suggest that the shelling could be heard from Dover, perhaps even London. However, unlike the Second World War, where many were familiar with the horrors of regular bombing, the First did not directly touch those who stayed at home.

The war seemed distant for many in the UK – it was in Europe, a place that many would not have visited, especially not at 14, but it was taking place a few hours’s journey away. Brookes’s “corner of a foreign field” could theoretically have been visited in a day. It was physically near, and yet still, unmistakably ‘foreign’ in so many ways.

On their return to the UK, soldiers felt this alienation, but this time with the country they had departed from up to four years previously. Signs went up saying “No ex servicemen need apply”. Like many service personnel today, they returned to a country that did not, indeed, could not, understand what they had been through. War is, thankfully, alien to those who have not experienced it. They Shall Not Grow old does an astonishing job of giving us a sense of recognition through time, but this final step of giving a deep understanding what it is like to experience war remains, thankfully, outside its grasp.

Friday Reading: Inscription About Grave Robbing From Jesus’s Hometown, Jony Ive Talks About The New iPad, and Extra Terrestrial Life?

There’s a first century piece of marble from Nazareth that warns of the punishments of grave robbing. Some wonder if it’s connected to early Christianity.

Would it be better to run elections determined on lots on a continuous cycle?

Short Jony Ive interview about the new iPad.

Some astronomers are asking if a recent interstellar object that seems to be accelerating might be debris from a distant civilisation.

This video (without narration) of a vice being restored is satisfying and relaxing.

The Sound Design of Magic in the Harry Potter Films

Another excellent video from Evan Puschak, this time on how the various filmmakers tackled the issue of making plausible sounds for magic spells in Harry Potter.

One thing this draws attention to is the fact that Alfonso Cuarón makes significant changes after the first two films when he directs the sounds of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, something I’d never consciously noted before.

C’est La Vie by Phosphorescent

It’s been five years since Phosporescent’s last album, Muchacho. That album found an artist exploring the end of a relationship, caused in part by constant touring. It was the music of a man at the end of a period in his life.

The subsequent five years have been busy for Houek. During the recording of Muchacho, he met Australian musician Jo Schornikow, who subsequently joined the band, they married, had two children and left New York for Nashville. Houek says of his departure from New York “If you’re not actively seeing shows or going to museums or being part of the vibrant city, what are you doing there?” In Nashville, Hoeuk’s been raising children and building a new studio. It’s the beginning of the new life marked as finished in Muchacho.

C’est La Vie No. 2, the final track written on the album sets its tone. A simple series of romantic, overblown statements are shot down in turn as he sets out his new life. “I wrote all night / Like the fire of my words could burn a hole up to heaven / I don’t write all night burning holes up to heaven no more.” It’s the sound of a man grappling with a new life – grappling, as well, with his image of himself as a romantic hero. There’s even a reluctance in the acceptance – it’s not his: ‘C’est la vie she say / but I don’t know what she means’. This acceptance is something he wrestles with as the album progresses.

However, a lighter view of his new found responsibilities is found on the first single from the album, New Birth In New England. It’s an upbeat pop song that makes the refrain ‘honey, don’t I know ya?’ refer first to meeting a soul mate, then the birth of a first child. It’s a more positive view of a middle-aged man getting to grips with new, profound and beautiful, responsibilities (he even find a moment for a War On Drugs-esque ‘Woo!’). In this song, it’s not a reluctant acceptance of this new world – he is experiencing a ‘new birth’ as much as his child.

In Nashville, Houek’s been working on creating a new studio, called Spirit Sounds. He seems to have some fun on the two tracks opening and closing the album putting that studio through its paces. Black Moon / Silver Waves and the longer Black Waves / Silver Moon are both haunting layered compositions that set the audio tone as much as the two singles set the topic.

Around The Horn takes that tone and drags it very close to Spiritualized. Indeed, this song almost sounds more like classic Spiritualized than anything on Spiritualized’s own album this year. Keeping with the protagonist’s journey, though, he opens with “Anything is fine once you make it fine.” Unlike the broken romantic of C’est La Vie, this is almost pragmatic.

Despite Christmas Down Under’s title and references to Jesus, it’s the least Christmassy song I’ve heard in some time. Perhaps that’s appropriate for a song reflecting on Christmas in the Southern Hemisphere, but it fits beautifully with the next track, My Beautiful Boy – a love song written to his sleeping son, who, following the Christmas references, becomes like the sleeping infant Jesus: ‘Just what in heaven would I do? / Just walk around and look for you.’

These Rocks closes the lyrical songs on the album. It’s a dark, but hopeful track – the rocks being what he’s been ‘carrying around all my days’ but he ‘wouldn’t have any other way’. However, in keeping with the album, in the second verse, he’s considering ‘putting all that stuff away’. Like a reflection of C’est La Vie No. 2, the past he’s leaving behind he realises is weighing him down.

C’est La Vie is a beautiful album that avoids the schmaltz of a new parent, by giving a meditation on middle age, and becoming an adult. As in the song There From Here (If you’d have seen me last year, I’d have said / I can’t even see you there from here), it’s an album that understands Kierkegaard when he wrote “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”

Corruption and Redemption in Widows

Widows is the fourth film by director Steve McQueen, following 2013’s Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave. Although a heist film based on Lynda La Plante’s 1983 ITV series, it’s no less intelligent than its predecessor and weaves issues of corruption, race and gender politics in to an engrossing and captivating thriller.

The film introduces the main characters each in relation to the man whose loss will make them the widows of the title. The shots are interspersed with the heist that kills the men. At the same time, these scenes introduce the weaknesses of the respective men. Henry is a bank robber, obsessed with money; Florek beats up his wife between robberies and Carlos is a hopeless gambler who’s been taking his wife’s shop rental money to pay gambling debts.

One of the more shocking elements of this opening is that both Liam Neeson’s Henry Rawlings and Jon Bernthal’s Florek are dispatched in the opening minutes. Neeson appears in multiple subsequent flashbacks, but it’s clear that the widows themselves are the focus.

All three of the ‘widows’ face problems related to their gender and the men in their life. Veronica (Viola Davis) is dragged into the life of her robber husband, Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), is recovering from domestic violence and needs to show that she is a smart, resourceful woman. Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) is a business owner whose living is destroyed by controlling, gambling, husband. She finds it difficult to live as single mother – similar to her babysitter Belle (Cynthia Erivo) – who has to take any work she can get to make ends meet. Belle also works in a salon whose successful business is at the whim of a local, male, politician.

However, It’s the seeming weaknesses of the women that come to be their greatest strengths. In one scene, Alice notices a woman and her child at a gun show, and starts telling a story that’s actually true about how she had been controlled by her husband, but pretending to be a Russian. In doing so she persuades the women to help her buy guns for the heist. When Alice has bought the guns, she walks out of the gun show with guns and a hot dog – almost showing her acceptance into American culture when she’s been successful. She gradually becomes confident that she will be able to “get wherever I need to go.”

In some ways this is a stereotypical heist film. The first act shows us the impetus and the plan being put together. At times this act appears like it’s focusing more on character than plot, but as the film progresses it’s clear that this is far from true and each seed planted is like Checkov’s gun. Act two shows the gang being brought together, often because of a distinct lack of alternative options, and in the final 20 minutes, we see the heist being carried and its aftermath. And yet, this is all done with such depth of character from an outstanding cast that it’s far from a usual heist film.

Veronica Rawlings’s grief for her husband, Henry, is shown through her being represented in reflections – those of the windows of her apartment, or in her dressing room. As though the death has made her incomplete. The reflections also give insight into her consideration of her self-image and who she is becoming. In her grief, she’s haunted by Henry in her thoughts and dreams and often through a notebook she discovers that outlines the future heist. To most she’s hard-hearted (with a “stick up her butt”, as Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) puts it. But in private she’s broken and scared, being dragged from her life as the head of a teacher’s union into this dark and unknown world. She relies on her focus on the task at hand to keep her going: “We have a lot to do – crying isn’t on the list”.

widows 2Political corruption in the film is represented by two generations of Mulligans. Tom, played by Robert Duvall, is a racist alderman, disgusted by the changing demographics of the Chicago neighbourhood he’s been leading. He tells his son Jack “I don’t want you to be the first Mulligan to lose to a n*gger”. Jack distances himself this racism, however one a scene we hear the audio from outside the car, seeing only the reflections on the outside window, as though a hot microphone has been left recording the conversation. Within the car he starts questioning his wife, Siobhan, on whether she has ever “slept with a black guy” showing the racism has made its way down the generations.

Jack Mulligan is facing a black upstart, Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), who he meets in the early stages of the film, with the hopes of getting him to withdraw. Jamal is not interested only in the salary of the role, stated as $104,000 – his brother Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya) points out they could “make more than that in a week”. Jamal instead sees the fact that he could use the role to leverage much more money than that, following the footsteps of his white predecessors.

A constant question of the film is how much Veronica is corrupted by the position in which she finds herself. It’s made very clear that she’s stealing the money not out of a sense of greed, but necessity – something the other widows reflect. However, when she meets a former associate of her husband, Bobby Welsh (Kevin J. O’Connor), he suggest she give up the notebook itself, using the biblical phrase that she should “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s”. But the question remains – can the widows keep their putative purity whilst engaging in this messy business?

The notion of purity, redemption, and religious imagery returns regularly to the film. Aside from Bobby’s phrasing, the politicians fight over the backing of a prominent local preacher, and Jamal’s headquarters is a former church, with two massive crucifixes above him – one wooden, one in the lights in the ceiling. Again, the decisions of all characters are compared to what is right and correct (and generally found wanting) and the church is no refuge from the prevalent corruption.

The work of director of photography, Sean Bobbitt is outstanding. In one scene, Daniel Kaluuya’s menacing Jatemme deals with two rapping gang members in a gym while the camera circles him as though it’s marking him in a game of basketball. When the local preacher is introduced, however, the camera stays locked to his face for minutes while he delivers his sermon.

The writing, by Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn and Steve McQueen is excellent. Characters reveal their intentions through word and action, but never is there a moment where the plot is driven by characters spouting exposition at each other – something that most heist films find it hard to avoid. Each character feels real and driven by clear motivations; the audience is left to make up their own mind about who deserves support. Every character is a victim of history, but some deal with this better than others.

The film reminded me of The Wire: almost all of the characters are trapped by circumstance. However, what Tom Mulligan is the one that states the true message in a heated discussion with his son: “What I’ve learned is that you reap what you sow.”