Archive | January, 2015

Pale Rider

31 Jan

Spoiler alert:- if you haven’t seen the following films; Pale Rider, High Plains Drifter, The Outlaw Josey Wales, High Noon, Shane or Rio Bravo, but you plan to and you don’t want to have any plot details revealed, then maybe you should stop reading now.

I don’t normally write about films I don’t like, but I’m willing to make an exception for Pale Rider.

I should also mention that I have a great respect for Clint Eastwood as a filmmaker (I don’t care to comment on his politics) and the following remarks should be read with that in mind.

Maybe Pale Rider should have worked, since it’s an example of Clint Eastwood revisiting an idea that he had used successfully before.

The origins of High Plains Drifter (as I think Clint Eastwood has said himself) lie with High Noon. High Plains Drifter starts off from considering what would have happened to the town of Hadleyville if Will Kane (Gary Cooper) had been killed by Frank Miller and his gang.

Needless to say there’s more to High Plains Drifter than that, and it can also be read as a ghost story where the drifter (Clint Eastwood) may be the ghost of Jim Duncan, the murdered sheriff of Lago. (Or possibly he’s a man who’s haunted and driven by Duncan’s ghost, it’s hard to say and to a degree this enigmatic quality is part of what makes the film so effective).

Pale Rider, on the other hand is pretty obviously a reworking of Shane. And maybe this is where the problems start because while High Noon is a complex, brilliant and highly intelligent film, that’s not a moment too long, Shane, in my opinion, is a pretty lightweight children’s novel that was adapted into an overblown, overlong, pretentious sagging mess of a film.

In fairness I should add that it’s also a film that is loved and revered by an enormous number of people whose opinion is every bit as valid as mine and it’s also worth mentioning that even I enjoyed watching Jack Palance, clearly having a whale of a time, playing the wicked gunslinger. In fact I would have found the film much more tolerable if he’d had a lot more screen time, but regrettably that’s just not the way the story was written. (Maybe an idea for another film, anyone?)

Having said that, starting from what I consider to be vastly overrated source material needn’t have been a fatal weakness. Sometimes you can create something really interesting as a response to source material that you really don’t like. For example Rio Bravo was very much John Wayne’s reaction to High Noon – a film he described as ‘un-American’ and essentially it’s his retelling of a broadly similar story in his own way, reflecting his own values and perceptions. (Personally, I think High Noon is the better film, but both are undeniably classic examples of the genre). But then again, maybe Clint Eastwood doesn’t dislike Shane as much as I do and he’s trying to emulate it, rather than reacting against it.

So in Pale Rider Clint Eastwood is revisiting a method of working that had worked form him before. Pale Rider is also similar to High Plains Drifter in having an enigmatic central character (played by Clint Eastwood himself) who may, or may not, be the ghost of a righteous man who was murdered.

The film starts with thugs riding into the camp of a group of eco-friendly(?) gold miners where they cause mayhem and shoot a small dog. The small dog belongs to Megan (wikipedia puts her age at 14, I had the vague impression that she might have been a little older than that, but I’m a poor judge of ages and I suspect that Sydney Penny, who played Megan, probably was a bit older than 14).

Megan goes off by herself to bury her little dog and prays over the grave. As I recall her prayer is not altogether Christian in some respects and her prayer seems to act as an invocation that summons the eponymous pale rider out of the haze. (And this recalls the appearance of the Drifter in High Plains Drifter).

Megan’s, would be stepfather, Hull Barret (played by the excellent Michael Moriarty) heads off into town for supplies, against the advice of all and sundry and is set upon by a gang of thugs, basically more of the same thugs who rode into the miner’s camp. He is then rescued by an enigmatic stranger (Clint Eastwood) whom he invites home for supper.

So far so good.

But then Clint Eastwood seems to start making a series of mistakes that turn a promising start into what seems to me to be a self-indulgent vanity project.

I think most of the mistakes revolve around the character of Megan. She is clearly a young girl who is hovering somewhere on the verge of sexual awakening and maybe this was dangerous territory for a man at the stage of life that Eastwood had reached when he made this film.

The first problem with Megan is that she’s under written and under developed.

From a promising beginning, where she seems to conjure the mysterious drifter, out of the ether, she then lapses into being a silly little girl who falls in love, or at least becomes infatuated, with Eastwood’s character. (Henceforth referred to as The Preacher). There is even a somewhat toe-curling scene where Megan offers The Preacher her favours (and is turned down in manly fashion). This rejection seems to prompt Megan to make the absolutely bizarre decision to visit the mining camp owned by Coy Lahood. (The truly hissable villain who not only employs the thugs who have been harassing the miners, but who is also an eco-rapist using hydraulic mining methods that are shown to be incredibly destructive and are also apparently about to be outlawed).

The camp is being run by Lahood’s son, Josh (played by the late, and sadly missed, Christopher Penn). Josh is initially hospitable and shows Megan around the camp. He is also closer to Megan’s age than The Preacher and, one suspects, the underlying reason for Megan’s visit. The implication seems to be that, having had her advances rejected by The Preacher, she is now throwing herself at Josh. (Honestly, outside of the fantasies of middle aged men; do teenage girls really behave like this?).

In any case, Josh soon shows his true (and rather despicable) colours by attempting to rape Megan amidst a cheering mob of Lahood employees. Megan is rescued by Club, (Richard Kiel) another Lahood employee, but one whose mother clearly taught him better. A shot of The Preacher looking on approvingly indicates that he would have intervened (probably with a rifle shot) had Club not done so.

In the meantime Lahood Snr hires the sinister Sheriff Stockburn (John Russell) and his posse of equally sinister deputies. (Billy Drago in particular makes a superbly sinister deputy). Stockburn’s reaction to a verbal description of The Preacher indicates that the two men have a history although Stockburn indicates that The Preacher is already dead. (As he may well be – it’s that sort of film).

From here on in we should be back on reasonably solid ground. The sinister sheriff and his sinister deputies will seek to kill The Preacher and drive the eco-friendly miners off their claims and they will, in turn, be duly despatched in various ways by The Preacher.

Unfortunately, Clint Eastwood makes another mistake at this point. One of the themes of the film has been the somewhat troubled relationship between Hull Barret and Megan’s mother, Sarah Wheeler (played by the truly excellent Carrie Snodgrass). Barret has been nothing but nice and kind and gentle towards Sarah and he has been protective and nurturing towards Megan (and not even a tiny bit sleazy, his intentions towards both women are entirely honourable and appropriate). Unfortunately Sarah has been abandoned by Megan’s father and she feels unable to commit to Hull and accept his offer of marriage due to her consequent inability to trust men.

For some reason, Sarah then has a sexual encounter with The Preacher and we are expected to believe that this, somehow, facilitates Sarah’s relationship with Barret. (As opposed to undermining it and possibly even destroying it completely, which seems much more likely to me).

Other than sheer vanity on the part of Clint Eastwood, or possibly pandering to what he assumes his fans expect of the characters he plays, I don’t see why the plot should take this turn.

Much like Megan’s infatuation with The Preacher and her subsequent visit to Lahood’s mining camp it seems to be driven by male fantasy and not by any plausible motivation on the part of the women concerned. And this is particularly curious in a Clint Eastwood film given that, generally speaking, he has a pretty good record when it comes to the female characters who appear in his films. He has even been described as the most successful feminist filmmaker in Hollywood.

All in all, I think that somewhere inside the self indulgent mess that is Pale Rider, there’s a much better film trying to get out.

So what would have made Pale Rider a better film?

Well, the first thing that could, and should, have been done would have been to give Megan a little more complexity. Not to mention a little bit of common sense.

It seems to me that having conjured The Preacher out of the ether, Megan’s attitude towards him should have been a little more ambivalent than simple-minded adolescent infatuation.

She might well have been fascinated by him, but wouldn’t she have been the least bit unsettled, and possibly even afraid of him? Shouldn’t she have been the least bit disturbed at what she had managed (albeit inadvertently) to do?

Her visit to the Lahood camp also seems like clumsy story telling. She has to know that the camp is full of people who are far from friendly neighbours and while she might not anticipate the attempted rape, surely anyone with any common sense would have expected some kind for trouble from the visit. Is she supposed to be stupid, reckless or just self-destructive? (I won’t even bother with the possibility that she’s somehow inviting rape. It would have a parallel with one of the more disturbing scenes in High Plains Drifter, but there’s a difference between an adult woman of uncertain sexual mores behaving in a provocative manner and a pubescent girl doing the same).

So it seems to me as though this scene is about placing Megan in jeopardy and in giving Josh an opportunity to demonstrate that he’s really not a very nice man. The first purpose seems to me to be redundant and the second could surely have been managed rather better.

I also think the sexual encounter between Sarah and The Preacher could also have been dropped. It seems to come out of nowhere, to serve no real purpose and to be altogether implausible.

I also think that Hull Barret is much too passive as a character.

He’s presented as being nice, reliable, decent, altogether tedious and ultimately ineffectual. I think if he had been shown to have a bit more moral authority, preferably expressed in a non-violent way, the film would have been more balanced and there would have been a greater degree of moral complexity.

In short there would have been the possibility of suggesting that there are ways of being a good man other than simply killing bad men.

As it is, however, the suggestion seems to be that good men who don’t kill are boring (and sexually unattractive) and that the only way to be truly heroic (and get laid) is to kill someone. (Even Barret ends up shooting Lahood Snr in order to prevent him from shooting The Preacher in the back. The fact that The Preacher has clearly already survived being shot in the back, given all the scars revealed when he takes his shirt off to have a wash, suggests that Barret’s gesture is an unnecessary precaution, although I suppose a welcome act of generosity nonetheless).

So there it is.

In my opinion Pale Rider is one of Clint Eastwood’s failures. He does have them from time to time. And I think the reason it’s a failure is because in this film Clint Eastwood does not follow his usual practice of allowing his female character to be fully developed and have credible motivations and because he builds his own character up at the expense of other characters.

If you want an example of where Eastwood gets it right see The Outlaw Jose Wales where Laura Lee (Sondra Locke) may be strange and certainly falls in love with Wales, but is at least an interesting character. As is Little Moonlight (Geraldine Keams) and Grandma Sarah (Paula Trueman).

In addition to this Clint Eastwood consistently gives most of the best lines to Lone Watie (Chief Dan George who delivers those lines with understated aplomb), while Fletcher (John Vernon) plays a key role as observer and commentator (almost like a one-man Greek chorus). This is Clint Eastwood at his best and most generous and it’s one of his best films.

And you’ll see similar characteristics from him in what may be an even better film, Unforgiven.


Prince Andrew and the Value of Pyrrhonism

24 Jan

Actually this isn’t very much about Prince Andrew, but the ongoing story about his alleged sexual activity with Jane Doe 3, also known as Virginia Roberts does provide a convenient example of why Pyrrho of Elis was probably right on one or two points.

At the time of writing, the situation is that Prince Andrew has been named in a lawsuit, to which he is not a party, as someone that Virginia Roberts was allegedly forced to have sex with while she was under age.

(The age of consent in Florida where this sexual contact is alleged to have happened is 18, Ms Roberts was 17 at the time. A quick search of the Internet reveals that the age of consent varies from 12 to 20, depending on where you happen to be at the time, with some countries having no specified age of consent, other than the onset of puberty. A legally defined age of consent is a pretty blunt instrument, but in the context of protecting children from sexual abuse and exploitation any instrument, however blunt, is better than none at all.)

So far as I’m aware, Prince Andrew is not, at present, the subject of a criminal investigation. Possibly, given the nature of the allegations, he should be, but in any case he has certainly not been charged, as yet, let alone convicted.

Which is pretty much the point. In the various legal systems operating in the USA, the UK and various other countries, an accused person is presumed innocent until they are proven guilty in a court of law.

So the law presumes that Prince Andrew is innocent. This is a centuries old tradition and probably a pretty sound system since the alternative, a presumption of guilt, while it might be convenient for the law enforcement community, would seem to have disturbing implications for basic human rights.

Of course, a quick glance through some of the comments on social media would indicate that not everyone is willing to assume that Prince Andrew’s innocence, but that’s their business.

What seems to be at odds with the presumption of innocence is the relatively recent practice of treating all allegations of rape and sexual abuse, at least initially, as being truthful. This new approach must be a step forward, since the long-standing practice of treating such allegations with scepticism, or even downright dismissal has allowed a number of sexual predators, notably Jimmy Saville, being allowed to go unchallenged and also added to the trauma suffered by victims/ survivors of sexual offences.

But where does that leave the person who is accused of committing these offences?

Well, nowhere really.

Or at least nowhere different from where they would have been anyway, because in reality, the way that an allegation is received by the authorities need have no impact at all on how the alleged perpetrator is treated when he (or occasionally she) is investigated by those same authorities.

So the conflict is more apparent than real when it comes to the legal system.

You could even argue that by adopting a more receptive approach to people alleging sexual offences, the presumption of innocence is not being challenged, as much as it’s being extended to the accuser as well as to the accused. All we’re really doing is assuming that the accuser is not guilty of lying any more than the accused is guilty of the offence they’ve been accused of.

On the other hand, this conflict seems to be much more real in the media and in the minds of the general public.

I think this is because of a confabulation in the minds of people unclear on the basic concepts.

The presumption of innocence is a matter of law. Not a matter of fact. The fact that, in this instance, the law presumes that Prince Andrew is not guilty has no bearing at all on the actual facts of what he did or didn’t do and whether or not he is actually guilty of some form of sexual misconduct. It is a simple recognition of the fact that we don’t yet know what those facts are because the evidence hasn’t even been collected, let alone tested in court.

In the same way, the fact that police officers are now encouraged to take a more receptive approach when dealing with allegations of sexual offences has no bearing on whether or not those allegations are actually true. And it

certainly doesn’t mean that every accusation of sexual offences must, of necessity, be true.

The plain fact is that whether or not we like it, and whether or not it happens to fit with our personal set of hang ups and prejudices, people lie. Not everyone, and not all the time, but often enough to make caution advisable.

It’s also a matter of fact that some people are guilty of offences that they are never convicted of, while others have made allegations that have turned out to be false. (Which is not the same thing as an allegation that is not proven, or even one that’s not provable).

Which brings me to another, somewhat vexed question. In the UK any alleged victim of a sexual offence is entitled to privacy in the sense that their identity cannot legally be disclosed in the media unless they explicitly waive this right.

This right seems to be justified in as much as sexual offences still appear to be woefully under reported and if anonymity will encourage victims to come forward, without significantly undermining the rights of the accused, then it seems little enough to offer.

Some, often those who have been accused of sexual offences, have supported the idea that this right to anonymity should be extended to the accused until, or unless, they have been convicted.

This idea has some justification. An allegation of sexual offences can be incredibly destructive and, while this may be no less than the perpetrator of sexual offences deserves, it can’t be deserved in the case of someone who is not, in fact, guilty.

The opposing view is that publicising the fact that someone has been accused of sexual offences can encourage others to come forward with further allegations. This has to be a good thing if those new allegations help to secure the conviction of a sexual predator, a point that seems to be particularly relevant when the accused already has a high public profile. (Jimmy Saville again provides a useful example, even if he was, regrettably, dead before the allegations could be tested in a court of law).

On the other hand, there is also the case of John Leslie.

Put briefly, Ulrika Jonsson wrote about having been raped early on in her career. She did not name the perpetrator of this alleged attack, but inevitably rumours began to circulate. John Leslie was named, albeit inadvertently, as being the subject of these rumours (although not by Ms Jonsson, who has never confirmed or denied whether or not he was the person she was referring to). And the fact that Mr Leslie was named publicly seems to have been instrumental in several other women coming forward with allegations. John Leslie was charged in relation to these new allegations, but later the charges were dropped.

Now, whatever the actual facts underlying any of these allegations, and I do not care to speculate on this subject, the fact remains that, John Leslie was never convicted of these alleged offences and remains innocent in the eyes of the law. But in spite of this, he has still paid a price simply for being accused.

And this brings me, at some length, to Pyrrho of Elis and to Pyrrhonism.

Pyrrho of Elis was initially a painter who later diverted to philosophy. He wrote nothing himself and what was recorded of his doctrines by his pupil, Timon of Phlius, has been lost.

Pyrrhonism could be summarised very briefly as the doctrine that nothing can be known for certain and therefore the only viable conclusion is that we should suspend judgement.

Pyrrho was apparently held in very high esteem, both by the Elians and the Athenians and the reason for this would seem to be the courage and integrity with which he sought to live by his doctrines. (No small feat, as a matter of fact. In the early 1600s a number of European intellectuals suffered from a ‘pyrrhonist crisis’ and although opinions differ (appropriately enough) it has been alleged that Robert Boyle, the Anglo-Irish polymath, may have been brought close to suicide over pyrrhonism).

So pyrrhonism is tricky.

Doubt is disturbing for most people and not everyone can cope with it.

Certainty is much easier for most people, even, and perhaps especially, when there is no real basis for it.

So most people will jump to conclusions and, worse still, cling tenaciously to those conclusions even in the face of solid evidence.

Sometimes that doesn’t matter. It makes very little difference on a day to day basis whether or not the average person in the street believes in ghosts or extra terrestrial life. It may not even matter too much whether someone is a creationist or believes in evolution by natural selection.

But sometimes it matters very much what people believe. And that is never more the case than when it comes to apportioning blame.

After all, there is something mean spirited, not to mention arrogant, in the presumption that we can ‘know’ someone’s guilty when they’re never had a fair hearing. Just as it is arrogant and mean spirited in assuming that someone is lying when they make accusations that we find disturbing.

In this context pyrrhonism has its place.

Not Telling Anjem Choudary to Shut Up.

18 Jan

It was recently reported that Anjem Choudary had claimed that Muslims don’t believe in freedom of expression.

My immediate response was to suggest that if Mr Choudary doesn’t believe in freedom of expression, then he should shut up.

I’d like to expand on that a little.

Essentially the argument would run as follows.

Mr Choudary is reported to have claimed that Muslim’s don’t believe in freedom of expression.

If this statement appears to be excessively cautious it is worth bearing in mind two things;

1/ Anjem Choudary is a controversial figure and there is a certain class of journalist who would not be above misrepresenting, or even inventing comments that are attributed to him.

2/ It is stock in trade for controversial figures to make controversial statements and then, when challenged about them, to deny ever having made them. Or claim that those comments were taken out of context and that they somehow didn’t mean what they appear to mean when taken in context.

Mr Choudary would doubtless identify himself as a Muslim.

Others may claim that Mr Choudary isn’t a real Muslim and doubtless there are many Muslin’s who disagree with him on various points. This is not relevant to my argument, however, because what is important for my purposes is that Anjem Choudary would claim to be a Muslim and, as a consequence, the claims he makes about Muslims apply to him.

Therefore, and assuming the above to be correct, Mr Choudary does not believe in freedom of expression.

It is inconsistent (if nothing worse) to exercise a right that one does not believe in.

Mr Choudary, assuming the above to be correct does not believe in freedom of expression.

Therefore it would be inconsistent (if nothing worse) for Mr Choudary to exercise the right to freedom of expression.

(Outside of logic, consistency is not always a virtue, but inconsistencies between stated principles and actual behaviour are seldom commendable).

This brings me back to my immediate response to Mr Choudary’s reported statement, that if he doesn’t believe in freedom of expression, then he should shut up.

Except, of course, that I am not really telling Anjem Choudary (or anyone else) to shut up.

In the first place, my statement was conditional. That is it all hangs on the word ‘if’. It is only if Anjem Choudary doesn’t believe in freedom of expression that he should shut up. If he believes in freedom of expression, then of course he has every right to exercise that freedom, even if he uses if to talk complete and utter crap.

In the second place, I do believe in freedom of expression, therefore, and as a matter of principle, I’m not generally in favour of telling anyone to shut up.

Nor am I greatly in favour of condoning violence as a response to the exercise of the right to freedom of expression, as Pope Francis seems to be.

I do not believe anyone should expect a punch, as the Pontiff apparently does, as a response to anything the say, or write, or draw. And here, the law seems to be in agreement. If I were to act on the Pope’s apparent position and punch someone because they said something offensive about my mother, then I would expect to be charged with assault.

I would also venture to suggest that if I were to punch a hypothetical creationist in response to some comment about the theory of evolution by natural selection that I happened to find exasperating, then I suspect that both Pope Francis and Anjem Choudary, amongst many others, would be incensed by my violent suppression of this hypothetical creationist’s expression of their religious faith.

And this, I think goes to the heart of the whole thing.

No one would try to suggest that I would be justified in punching anyone because they made a disparaging comment about my favourite TV programme. Nor would I expect much sympathy from the Pontiff, or anyone else, if I assaulted someone over a dispute about politics, philosophy or the price of cheese. And I doubt if even Anjem Choudary would object to the freedom to express an opinion about any subject other than religion.

It is only in matters of religion that these men of faith find that freedom of expression is problematic.

(Pope Francis was also reported to have suggested that anyone making an insulting comment about his mother should expect a punch. I would respectfully suggest that this is nothing other than a red herring, however. The Pope may well be deeply protective of his mother’s reputation, but I doubt if he would really punch someone for making a derogatory remark about her. It’s clearly freedom of expression when it comes to religion that he’s talking about).

Of course all this comes in the context of the attack on the office of Charlie Hebdo and what it all boils down to is men of faith claiming special privileges for faith. And incidentally indulging in a spot of victim blaming.

Their position can be boiled down to the following.

Faith is really terribly, terribly important.

Faith deserves a specially privileged position in the world.

Faith is so important, in fact, that if anyone questions, challenges or makes fun of faith then a violent response is not only justified, but even commendable.

The satirists at Charlie Hebdo regularly made fun of religion.

This was an attack on faith.

This is not acceptable.

Therefore it was perfectly all right to shoot them.

Of course, Pope Francis would reject any statement quite this stark, but he was, in effect, saying that the victims of the Charlie Hebdo attack were asking for trouble and that, to some degree, they deserved what happened to them.

One wonders how he feels about Raif Badawi, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for ‘insulting Islam’. Perhaps he would feel that this sentence is excessive, but it is implicit in his position on insulting faith that some degree of violence would be justified. Perhaps a punch, rather than 1,000 lashes, but the difference is one of degree, not of principle.

As for Anjem Choudary?

Well, I don’t know, and don’t care enough to find out, whether or not he has actually condoned the murder of satirists. I respect his right to say what he wants on this or any other subject, even if he does not respect mine, but I also claim the right not to pay any attention to it.

And maybe that’s the point.

I won’t punch anyone for insulting my mother, I’ll probably just ignore them. I won’t punch someone for mocking or disagreeing with my beliefs. I might argue with them, but I won’t resort to violence. I believe in freedom of expression and the price I have to pay for that belief is that I have to put up with people saying things that I disagree with or that I find offensive.

I don’t think that price is too high to pay, but it would seem that some, notably men of faith who would doubtless claim moral and spiritual superiority over an atheist like myself, either can’t, or won’t, pay that price.