Éloge d’amour

Dir: Jean-Luc Godard, 2001, DVD

This is what gives elliptical, uncompromising intellectual French films a bad name. I’ll embrace the “dull elf” badge fully and say that it was tedious and tiresome. If Godard couldn’t be bothered to engage his audience more, then I couldn’t be bothered to try harder. It touches on so much – love, memory, age, maturity, war, the state, wartime resistance, identity, death, anti-Americanism, all to be pulled into “a project” – that it’s impossible to begin and, in the end, boils down to nothing.

A static camera with moving figures – an inversion of the norm – is quite interesting for a few minutes and then becomes annoying, eroding the impact of the images. If this really were a thoughtful gaze, then I would be able to move my eyes to get someone else in shot. (Actually, it was really more like the bit in Clockwork Orange when Alex has his eyes fixed open.) The shift to garish colour for the flashbacks. Pauses for thought (or heaving a sigh in my  case), when the same few words would come up on the screen as in a silent film. Two years ago, a long time ago . . . The flat delivery of the actors, except perhaps for Berthe. I couldn’t wait for it to end. (Or break off.) I didn’t find it engaging enough to ponder why it was shot this way, why characters were only partially glimpsed (yeah, OK, memory).

“I’m writing a cantata for Simone Weil”: was that a running joke? If so, I quite liked that. But what if it wasn’t a joke?

It bewilded and bored me. No doubt I’ve missed something important, but I don’t much care.

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Sapiens: a brief history of humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

An interesting book – far more readable than the finger-wagging harangue that was A history of the world in seven cheap things. It covers a much broader sweep: Harari’s starting point is ca. 70,000 years ago with the Cognitive Revolution, when our ancestors began to communicate more elaborately and to create ideas and fictions shared by the group: practical knowledge, stories, hopes, religions. By 45,000 years ago homo sapiens had made it to Australia; followed by the disappearance of all megafauna except for kangaroos. By 16,000 homo sapiens was in America; disappearance of megafauna. Coincidence?  By 13,000 years ago we were the only homo left standing, and 12,000 years ago we embarked on the Agricultural Revolution.

Harari is very disparaging of that Agricultural Revolution (ca. 9500/8500 BC): we swapped a fairly leisurely life of gathering and hunting in small groups for one of constantly tending seeds and plants and putting yourself at the mercy of poor weather and bad harvests. Harari sees the embrace of agriculture as a fraud; once we fell for it, however, there was no going back. Agriculture enabled populations to grow, and by the time your population has increased by 10% you are on a treadmill of having to grow more food to feed the extra mouths, and you no longer have the option of leaving your hard-earned plot to find a more fruitful corner. There is evidence that foragers were healthier and longer-lived than the early agriculturalists; living permanently in small, growing communities enabled the spread of disease, and the back-breaking work involved in growing and preserving enough food was constant. It took millennia and many famines before it all paid off, but now we can have grapes all year round and don’t have to sharpen a spear before we prepare dinner.

As in “A history of the world . . .”, Christopher Columbus is presented here as the gate-keeper to the modern, capitalist world we inhabit today. Imperialism, economic expansion, credit, voyages of discovery and exploitation, scientific revolution, extinction . . . it’s all here. Both books emphasise the death and suffering caused by human activities – not just to other humans but to all creatures, not least those that we breed for food.

Harari has a detached, irreverent way of describing the world of the past. He expects his readers to have no illusions:

The other-worldly meanings medieval people found in their lives were no more deluded than the modern humanist, nationalist and capitalist meanings modern people find.

and I found him constantly entertaining and thought-provoking. For example, he says that trust in the future was the founding principle of the modern economy, which depends on continuous growth. The opening of the Americas to European trade/plunder combined with the scientific revolution led to a new belief that it was possible to have an ever-expanding economy. New commodities, new markets, new discoveries in manufacturing methods, new tastes and fashions . . . and so here we are today with perpetually growing economies on a finite planet.

Harari ends the book by looking forward to the possibilities that our collective ingenuity offer in the future: biologically engineering humans that become a new form of homo, anyone?

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The Merry Widow

This was delightful and thoroughly enjoyable. I knew little about it before I went (apart from hats) but guessed there would be echoes of Dad’s LPs of Richard Tauber. And, yes, there were.

It wasn’t quite as frothy as I had expected: there was real sadness in some of the music. But is there anything more fun than “Cherchez la femme”? I have no idea how much the libretto follows the original, but this English version (Kit Hesketh-Harvey) was very witty.

  • Hanna – Katie Bird
  • Danilo – Quirijn de Lang
  • Baron Zeta – Geoffrey Dolton
  • Valencienne – Gillene Butterfield
  • Director – Giles Havergal
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A day in Manchester

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Chetham’s Library, founded 1653 and housed in a fifteenth-century building 

An interesting guided tour of Chetham’s Library, which made me revise my view of Manchester as a Victorian city. Books – then costly objects – were originally chained to their shelves; you sat at the table to read them.

In the reading room is a square alcove where Marx and Engels used to sit and study in 1845. There was a list of the books they consulted: they were reading books published 50 or even 150 years earlier for historical background, with only “The Literature of Political Economy” by John Ramsay McCulloch a contemporary work.

Then a look at Manchester art gallery and coffee at the Whitworth. I find to hard to care for its exhibitions, but I don’t really try. Racist wallpaper . . . really? But, yes, when you look at what had been produced I could see the point and I did experience a slight mental realignment.

But I really went for the wonderful café (the coffee wasn’t much).

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Tosca

To the Lowry for the Opera North production. It was brilliant all round. What more can I say?

It was interesting to compare the staging with the only other version I’ve seen – in Hannover, where it was set in a Nazi/Stasi/Mussolini-type police state, and the final two acts were run together in an elaborate two-storey office/dungeon set. The Opera North version was also in modern dress but – as a touring production – more modestly staged, with the Pantheon-style dome and oculus turning on their side for the final act. The action was performed under the painting of Madonna that Cavaradossi was working in – initially eyeless, but later complete, giving a particular poignancy to Tosca’s Vissi d’arte (which is pretty Beckettian anyway when you analyse it). The production emphasised support given to Scarpia and the regime he represented by church and families.

  • Tosca – Giselle Allen
  • Cavaradossi – Rafael Rojas
  • Scarpia – Robert Hayward

(The Merry Widow tonight –  that’s bound to be a bit different!)

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From the sixteenth floor

69B7B8E8-A29C-4B66-9E91-50C67D1DBA21From the sixteenth floor, the football match below resembles Subbuteo.

The view also demonstrates how Manchester is turning into a mess of tall towers; they spring up randomly so don’t create an impressive silhouette like Frankfurt.  Each time I come in by train I notice more blocks; I feel like turning to my neighbour and saying in a quavering voice, “I remember when all this was factories”.

While I’m moaning, I may as well regret that my train no longer stops at Oxford Road, so I have to alight at Piccadilly. If there’s is a more depressing walk between railway station and city centre, I’ve yet to find it. (Yes, I know. There but for the grace of God . . .”)

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Plastics

An interesting article in The Guardian yesterday about plastics – how they are made, the history of their production and use, and the current “backlash” (drinking straws! Can’t we be a bit more ambitious than that?) against their ubiquity.

Little of it was new to me, except for two interesting bits: firstly, in 1970 President Nixon lamented their increasing use for packaging (Nixon, for heaven’s sake; we really have fallen when he appears as the voice of sanity), and the plastics industry bit back with fierce lobbying; and, secondly, this from economist Victor Lebow in 1955:

Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life. . . . We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced and discarded at an ever-increasing pace.

This has been the background to my whole life and I am part of it. It’s not just the industry lobbyists and the marketing people who should be held to account; it’s also the little people like me.

(I did ask for no drinking straws in my orange juice in Greece last month. #Making a difference . . . not.)

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