We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

Heartening Film Awards & Compton-Burnett: "these secrets should not be ... They must be revealed and ended. · 21 February 06

Dear Fanny,

I write to celebrate and spread the word about the recognition the Berlin Film Festival, whose the Jury is headed by Charlotte Rampling gave "several hard-hitting, sometimes political and often women-centred films this year." Fran W told us about it on WWTTA yesterday:

"The main prize, the Golden Bear, went to a mother/daughter film dealing with the aftermath of the mass rapes in Bosnia, Grbavica by first-time, feature-film director, Jasmila Zbanic.

Sandra Hueller won the prize for best actress for her role in the German film Requiem, based on the true story of an epileptic girl who died from the effects of an exorcism here in the ‘70s.

Danish director Pernille Fischer Christensen won a prize for her film, Soap, a tragi-comedy about the growth of relationship between a woman and a transsexual.

Michael Winterbottom won the Silver Bear for his film, The Road to Guantanamo, based on the true story of three men who were held there for two years without trial and without any subsequent convictions. The three men themselves
helped receive the prize to standing ovations."

The report of the ceremony quoted director Jasmila Zbanic at a gala ceremony in the German capital after the competition dominated by politically charged themes.

"’I just want to use this opportunity to remind us all that the war in Bosnia was over some 13 years ago and the war criminals Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic still live in Europe freely," said Zbanic, 31, referring to the former Bosnian Serb leader and his army chief.

They (have not) been captured for organizing the rape of 20,000 women in Bosnia, killing 100,000 people and expelling from their houses one million. Nobody is interested to capture them.’

Grbavica, which Zbanic described as a ‘small film from a small country with a small budget’, tells the story of the fraught relationship between an assaulted woman and the rebellious daughter she raises alone in Sarajevo without knowing which of her rapists was the father."

The festival’s Silver Bear for directing went to British filmmakers Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross for The Road to Guantanamo, which tells the true story of three British Muslims who were held at the US prison camp in Cuba for more than two years before being released without charge. Winterbottom was quoted as follows

"’There’s really only three people that should get any prize because of this film and that’s the three people whose story it was,’ Winterbottom said, before calling Shafiq Rasul, Asif Iqbal and Ruhel Ahmed to the stage for a lengthy round of applause.

Earlier this month all of us on WWTTA also wrote to tell one another about the good books we had read over the holiday. I wouldn’t want Leslie R’s description of Ivy Compton-Burnett work to remain buried in a Yahoo archive. The themes Leslie makes visible are a counterpart to the themes of the winning films and make visible why it’s important that these films were honored:

"I just finished my first novel by Ivy Compton-Burnett, A God and his Gifts (1963). I’m told that she is one of those writers whose readership is not large, but is apparently quite devoted. She tells a story that spans decades.

Hereward Egerton is the eldest son of a baronet and a successful novelist. He marries (though not the woman who was his first choice) and has three sons. To the outside world, he seems a successful man, and his family is admirably close and devoted to one another. But there are secrets. There have been children born to other women, children whose parentage was concealed, children born of sexual relationships between Hereward and spectacularly unsuitable women, women who should have been completely off-limits. He expresses only the mildest regret for his behaviour.

In his mind, and apparently in the minds of others, his manhood and his status as an artist bring him special privileges; he cannot be judged by the standards one would use for others. This is not to say that Compton-Burnett grants him the same licence, but then it’s hard to tell whether she does or not, because the author is oddly absent from the book. We have no narrator’s commentary to determine the author’s position. We have only the words of the characters. This is Hereward’s summing up of his attitude towards his own sexual misdeeds:

“I am a man, as not all men are. If I have lived a man’s
life, what other life should I have led? I have carried a man’s
burdens, given up a man’s gains, done the work of men. It is my
nature that enables me to do it. It is the force in me that carries
me on. All force may at times go astray. I have cheered the homes of thousands. I have served our family home. I have judged easily, pardoned much, helped others to fulfil their lives. I will help them still. I will still understand and give. Would some men ask a return?”

The most striking feature of this book is its style. It reads more like a playscript than like a novel. But it is a playscript with very little in the way of stage directions and many of the speaker
identifications removed. Page after page is filled with dialogue, in
which speakers are identified only sporadically. I was often
surprised when a character suddenly spoke, because his or her
presence had not been indicated previously, and some of what was said could hardly have been spoken in his or her presence. But when did this character enter? Or has he or she actually been there all along? And when a speaker is identified, his or her manner of speaking usually is not. We are rarely told that someone speaks angrily or sadly or loudly or laughingly. We have only their words.

We are also never told how many years or months or days have passed between chapters, and only gradually become aware as a chapter continues that we have moved forward in time. There are children where there were none, those who were children are now grown—but only gradually do we become aware of these changes. Setting and description are almost completely absent. We are never told what a room looks like, what a character looks like (except in the most minimal way), what anyone is wearing, or any information about the landscape. We have only the dialogue. And very odd and surprising dialogue it is.

It is stylised and bare, at times weirdly stilted. When several characters go into the nursery to see a child asleep, they are cautioned by the child’s nurse to let him sleep. “‘That is why we are here,’ said Salomon. ‘It is our object to view him in that state.’” Moments of tragedy and suffering are communicated in the barest of words. When one son learns of his father’s sexual behaviour in the past, behaviour that now reaches out to affect the present and future, his grief and anger are rigidly controlled:

“I have no wish to be revenged. You have done me no conscious wrong. But these secrets should not be. They lie beneath our life to escape and shatter it. They must be revealed and ended.”

And these words sum up what is at the heart of this oddly
compelling book: the poisonous nature of secrets, the secrets that
fester below the surface of families, even families that seem to have none."

I never did mention to Leslie on WWTTA that I was reminded of Diderot’s Rameau’s Nephew where he debates the question whether the artist-genius ought to be allowed to be what others call amoral and possibly to hurt and do damage to those close to them, to not have to work as hard as chance might make them to survive in order that they might create living useful beautiful art.


Posted by: Ellen

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  1. More from Fran:

    "She must be doubly heartened this week: today the news agencies are reporting at least Mladic’s imminent surrender to the authorities who have been searching for him so long. If true, it looks as if he’s finally become too hot to turn a blind eye to and protect anymore.

    chava    Feb 21, 5:45pm    #
  2. From Leslie on WWTTA

    A belated thank you to Ellen for this blog posting. I was interested in this comment at the end of her blog:

    "I never did mention to Leslie on WWTTA that I was reminded of Diderot’s Rameau’s Nephew where he debates the question whether the artist-genius ought to be allowed to be what others call amoral and possibly to hurt and do damage to those close to them, to not have to work as hard as chance might make them to survive in order that they might create living useful beautiful art."

    This is such an interesting question. Another text that addresses it explicitly is an essay by George Orwell called "Benefit of Clergy," which begins as a review of Salvador Dali’s autobiography and turns into an examination of the need to combine moral judgement with aesthetic judgement. Orwell find Dali morally repulsive as a human being and considers much of his work to be equally repulsive in content—while fully acknowledging Dali’s skills in composition and draftmanship. Is the artist’s character relevant to a judgement of his/her work? and what do we do when moral and aesthetic judgement of the work itself are at odds? I don’t have a copy of the essay at home with me, but I do have a couple of significant passages in computer files, like this one: "In an age like our own, when the artist is an altogether exceptional person, he must be allowed a certain amount of irresponsibility, just as a pregnant woman is.

    Still, no one would say that a pregnant woman should be allowed to commit murder, nor would anyone make such a claim for the artist, however gifted. If Shakespeare returned to the earth tomorrow, and if it were found that his favourite recreation was raping little girls in railway carriages, we should not tell him to go ahead with it on the grounds that he might write another King Lear."

    In the end, Orwell isn’t quite sure what to do with morally repulsive art that nevertheless has artistic merit. He cannot advocate censorship, yet he can’t advocate the primacy of aesthetic over moral judgement, either: "The first thing that we demand of a wall is that it shall stand up. If it stands up, it is a good wall, and the question of what purpose it serves is separable from that. And yet even the best wall in the world deserves to be pulled down if it surrounds a concentration camp. In the same way it should be possible to say, ‘This is a good book or a good picture, and it ought to be burned by the public hangman.’ Unless one can say that, at least in imagination, one is shirking the implications of the fact that an artist is also a citizen and a human being."

    I love how he acknowledges the complexity of our responses to the arts, and the need for our response to involve our whole self, not just a small part of ourselves that we call our aesthetic sense.

    I teach this essay to my first-year students in combination with Samuel Johnson’s Rambler No. 4, which also addresses the conflict between moral and aesthetic judgement, but which comes to rather different conclusions. Together they provoke some wonderful conversation among my students, especially since they are preceded in the reading list by Aphra Behn’s The Rover, with characters engaging in some morally questionable behaviour, and a few poems by Rochester, which shock my first-years quite badly (although I don’t use his rawest poems—they would be too much for them, I think).

    To take this posting back more closely to the subject of this list, it seems to me that male artists have always been more readily granted the artistic "benefit of clergy" that Orwell talks about. People have generally been far quicker to confuse moral and aesthetic judgement of female artists and far more reluctant to grant them the same sort of licence.

    chava    Feb 24, 10:17pm    #

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