45 Years – Film Review

Retirement can be a dicey proposition despite its seductive call.  Advertisements for superannuation companies extol the joys of retirement, epitomising the popular dream people have of a golden age where they blissfully have nothing they really have to do and they can do whatever they like.

Certainly many retirees, who have thrown off the working saddle and who are in a good financial position absolutely love doing whatever they like.  They go on cruises, go traveling and camping, visit art galleries or the cinema with friends or just potter around at home doing the gardening, reading what interests them and at night, turning off the light to sleep until another equally glorious day of their permanent holiday awaits them.

But there is a dark side to this golden dream.  Retirement also means the endgame of a long life and a kind of reckoning with unfulfilled threads of yearnings, actions and events occasioning deep trauma or guilt and painful losses that have lain suppressed, dormant and deep beneath the surface – until now.  What do we do with the last act of our lives?  Many people flounder at the sense of disempowerment and lack of purpose that retiring from a lifetime occupation brings and may suffer depression (at least for a time) as a result.

The beginning of the film ’45 Years’ opens to a bright, sunshiny but cold morning in the country, where a retired couple of some years, Kate and Geoff Mercer, live in their comfortable home.  The landscape is lovely and all is peaceful, but there is a sense of baffled expectancy about the day’s existence as if the people who live in it can do anything they like but they actually don’t do anything much at all.  At this stage of their lives, Kate and Geoff seem to have had had days and days and days like this.

Kate, is out warmly wrapped in a coat, her breath in mist, walking the dog.  She is a lithe, slim, good-looking woman on the verge of old age, all smiles for the young postman, but with the air of a long-term melancholic, locked in polite mode.  They exchange friendly greetings, Kate congratulating him on him and his wife’s new baby.  She tells him to call her Kate, saying gaily in parting ‘we’re not at school anymore!’.

Back home she briskly greets her husband Geoff, white-haired and fragile despite his substantial appearance, who is sitting at the breakfast table of their sunny kitchen with a letter.  She asks him about a song they could have played for their upcoming 45th wedding anniversary celebration, but it soon becomes apparent that Geoff has another and much more serious matter on his mind.

‘They’ve found Katya’ he tells her in his cracked voice, waving the letter ‘You do know who I’m talking about?’.  Kate does and is immediately all solicitous attention, but a cool shadow has fallen over their placid, apparently contented noonday lives.  A shadow that darkens as the film goes on.

Katya had been Geoff’s partner in the days before he met and married Kate.  Like many young people they were backpackers and they had traveled to the Alps in Switzerland.  Somewhere in this icy, mountainous terrain, a tragic accident had happened.  Katya had fallen through a hole in a bridge and plunged to her death in a glacier far below.

50 years later to the day we meet Kate and Geoff, the Swiss authorities had written to notify Geoff that they had located the body, perfectly preserved and suspended in ice.  Rattled, Geoff goes outside for a cigarette despite having given up.  Kate carries on making the arrangements for their upcoming celebration, choosing the venue, going shopping with her friends, looking for something to wear, talking to everybody with that perfectly crafted politeness, but easy self-assurance of a woman long accustomed to receiving compliments for her beauty.

But in the following days, these attempts at normalcy become the stilted facade of a marriage falling into disarray and deep, black, bubbling trouble.  Bit by bit, things about the tragedy that Geoff has not told Kate comes out:  he had been her next of kin and the couple had pretended to be married.  He goes to the library and borrows books on global warming, obsessing himself with the effects of climate change on glaciers.  He keeps going up to the attic, where he evidently keeps pictures and memorabilia of Katya there.  He admits to Kate that he would have married Katya.  Finally, Kate, fed up, draws a line in the sand, telling him that she can’t talk about the subject anymore.

There is more to come, however.  When Geoff is absent, Kate goes to the attic and discovers a secret shrine to Katya’s memory, complete with a rotary projector of picture slides and the most knockout blow of all to childless Kate is the clear evidence of the dead Katya’s burgeoning pregnancy.  The boil lying in the darkness below their happy marriage has surfaced.  Kate’s smooth confidence that she knows her husband absolutely is absolutely shattered.

All kinds of things about the state of their marriage seem to become clear.   The days up to the looming celebration become a nightmare.  Geoff had talked to Kate of having lost a certain sense of purpose he had had when he was young and in love with Katya.  He says that even if they had no idea of what to do in a day, that it would seem just as purposeful as when they set out to do something.  He supposed that people lost their sense of purpose when they got older, but had he, in all the adult years after Katya’s death just been in a somnambulistic state of suspended animation?

Kate and Geoff had met some five years after the tragedy.  ‘You were a bloody knockout!’ Geoff tells her in a rare moment of fun.  ‘You were so cool!’ replied Kate.  But somehow over the years Geoff had shed his beatnik ways and donned convention, having worked for years as a manager at a nearby manufacturing plant.  He had tempered his dislike for Kate’s bourgeoisie friends with the occasional grumble.  Their life together was strangely uneventful.  Neither of them in conversation can remember anything much about it out of the ordinary.  They didn’t even have photos on the wall.  In a failed attempt at lovemaking, Kate asks him to open his eyes.  Had he been imagining Katya in Kate’s place all this time?

And what of Kate?  Since Geoff’s heart attack some years before, she seems to have taken over the role of nursing Geoff and all her relations with him appear stilted with an affected display of civility and solicitude concealing a nervous over-eager desire to please.  She jumps instantly to his aid when he cuts his hand mending the toilet, but she talks to him with her mouth still full.  She tells him what he can’t do – smoke, return to mountainous Switzerland, read Kierkegaard past the second chapter.  And yet she struggles to have a creative life of her own.

As Kate sees it, Geoff for his part clings to her like a drowning man.  Not, that she is the love of his life, but that he has never been able to cope with the cataclysm of losing his first love.  She had been merely a distraction, a substitute.  In an explosive confrontation the day before their celebration, Kate bitterly tells him that she knows she has never been enough for him, but that she could not bear the pain and humiliation of other people knowing that as well.

So they go to the celebration, Kate smilingly accompanying her husband hand in hand, only looking death-like for a few moments of privacy in the restroom mirror.  But can she really endure playing the part of the loving wife, receiving Geoff’s stumbling, pathetic, platitudinous speech and dancing together to the banal song that played when they first met and see him going through that whole grotesque act of faked adoration before her, as he had always had the whole length of their marriage?  Could she really take it anymore?

Four stars!!!!

Advertisements

A PJ Harvey Concert

It was a Friday night a week ago when we went to the much anticipated PJ Harvey concert, my husband John, his friend Glen and myself.  Midsummer in Sydney it was a warm, inky twilight as we ate a dinner at a Chinatown restaurant and then walked on towards the International Convention Centre near Darling Harbour.  Our tickets on our mobiles were scanned by a bevy of security guards, one of who told me that my innocent steel water bottle had to go to the cloak room for the night.

Seated inside the vast auditorium with its subdued lighting and misty swirling air, we were a just a few of a mighty swarm of bees buzzing with a low, but powerful tone in the rows and rows of seats that slanted upwards from the stage and the crowded mosh pit.  Much of the audience were Gen-Xers in their forties, greying, but still defiantly young, dressed in jeans, moderately radical shirts and tees, tattoos and the women, some in gothic inspired dresses fluttering here and there bearing plastic cups of beer or other alcoholic beverages down the stairs to the concrete floored mosh-pit and back again chatting animatedly amongst themselves and occasionally embracing a friend.

Nick Cave was due to play at the same venue the next night, John remarked.  PJ Harvey and Nick Cave had had an affair.  I wondered how they would work together and here is their beautiful and melancholy duet Henry Lee.  But the affair ended.  PJ said later that she was so upset that she was going to give up making music and become a nurse.  But somehow she went on playing and composing music, the anti-war ‘Let England Shake’ and now the ‘Hope Six Demolition Project’, where hope in mankind’s future seems just about dead on the ground – to judge from the lyrics.

Not that I knew anything about this new album when the lights went dark and the band began to file onto the stage drumming, PJ Harvey amongst them brandishing a saxophone.  John said it was ‘Chain of Keys’.  The ten musicians took their places, PJ fronting the audience with her microphone, dressed in flowing, gauzy black robes, her fine straight hair loose, crowned with a black head-dress.  The rest of the band wore somber, dusty and rumpled looking black jackets and trousers.  At this juncture, John pointed out Mick Harvey, the musician at the keyboard, and said he was really good and had previously worked for some time with Nick Cave.

PJ has a distinctive voice.  On her albums, it is soft, silvery and so fragile it almost appears ready to break.  It is a two-coloured voice, veering from a deeper set of keys to a higher octave and very tunefully at the same time.  But live, at the concert, her voice sounds very powerful and rides above the band’s wave of music with perfect confidence.  Too, she sings with great feeling as she moves in complete accord with the rhythm, her hands delicately drawing and weaving the meanings of her music into a unity of sound, beat, voice and drama.

She moved with grace, like a muse or even a priestess, gliding quietly every now and then to the back of the stage near the drummer to take up a saxophone and play in company with the other saxophonist.  She has said she likes to keep challenging herself with learning how to play new instruments, which illustrates not only her creative energy, but also her respect for the other players in her band.

Much of what she played came from her new album the ‘Hope Six Demolition Project’, with songs such as the opening ‘Chain of Keys’, ‘The Wheel, ‘River Anacostia’, ‘Medicinals’, ‘The Orange Monkey’, ‘The Ministry of Social Affairs’ which sounded compelling, emotive and powerful on the stage although she also sang songs from other albums like ‘The Words That Maketh Murder’, one about taking a child home and another about doing black deeds for love.  And I have to marvel at how she seemed to utterly best the comparatively subdued and rehearsed studio performance of her album with the crashing waves of her live act.  It was dynamite.  No danger of having a diva lip-synching here.  This was the real deal.

‘How good was the band!’ Glen exclaimed when the concert ended and the sated swarm of people were moving back out into the city night, twinkling with lights reflecting in the calm, black waters of the harbour.  Throughout the performance, PJ and the band emanated a sense of quiet and harmonious co-operation and camaraderie, she fading in and out to become one of them.  Three-quarters of the way through, PJ had introduced the musicians to the audience to applaud one by one, the drums, electronic keyboard, saxophone, guitars, before they all nonchalantly dipped into the last of the set for the night.  They had a standing ovation and after a while were back with two more great songs before they finally bowed out and filed quietly backstage and the lights went back on.

The lyrics of her new album are dark and pessimistic of human nature, echoing perhaps what she saw on a trip through third world countries, as well as the US she took with a photographer Seamus Murphy between 2011-2014, which appeared in The Guardian (never mind some of the rude reader comments).  Amid such wastelands as Afghanistan and also Washington DC (the US is a wasteland of a different kind), she appears to wonder whether humans have a future at all with lines like:  ‘…hey little children don’t disappear. (Heard it was 28,000)’ and ‘they’ve sprayed graffiti in Arabic/And balanced sticks in human shit’.

The music she sets her lyrics to can be comforting, but only to remind us of what we’ve lost in the scramble for ‘advanced’ civilisation – as in the song ‘Medicinals’.  She juxtaposes the ancient healing herbs that grow wild in America that say ‘we are always here’ against the image of an indigenous woman in a wheelchair at a shopping mall drinking alcohol.  This song suggests that the loss of the natural environment is a loss to humanity, to culture and causes a mental sickness that nothing can cure.

Her occasional traditional tunefulness amidst broken but strong rhythms that veer between blues, reggae and rock and roll form a kind of unique and off-beat chaos that is PJ Harvey.  For instance, ‘The Words that Maketh Murder’ has a compelling rhythm that changes tempo in odd ways and it is this rhythm that underlies the utter gravity of this anti-war song.  Her gentle, fay, but infallible voice rides above her music and in the drumming energy, there is a kind of fatalistic sadness and deep emotion, as in the chorus ‘…and watch them fade out…’ of ‘The Wheel’.

In an interview with the Irish Times, the eponymous man of science Professor Brian Cox wonders whether the human race may destroy itself before it gets any further:  ‘Cox believes it all hinges on “our ability to take global decisions”. Civilisations “get to the point where they can destroy themselves, they will get to the point where they can change the climate by industrialisation – and that requires your civilisation to be global in decision making. In 2016, we’ve gone backwards.”.

Perhaps we ultimately may not be able to reconcile our superior intellect, and complex reasoning and moral faculties with our essentially animal and warlike nature.  Are we doomed?  With the Doomsday Clock ticking another 30 seconds towards midnight, PJ Harvey just goes on making and playing music, underlining injustice, waste and inhumanity in the extraordinary energy of her songs.  There are many who are listening and over the megalomania and war and pollution roiling in the world today, our collective voice of reason may yet prevail.

Back in the 1970s when ‘The Bomb’ was a foreboding term echoing the cadence of the end of the world, I saw a cartoon with the caption:  ‘Man demonstrates his superiority over animals’.  Before an animal, a man with his great brain was in the act of detonating himself with a remarkable piece of technology that he had made.  The great artist and inventor, Leonardo da Vinci saw hundreds of years ago that mankind would one day hold the power of life or death over every living thing on earth.  That day has arrived.

Eat Pray Love: A Book Review

Monday morning spent in company with my mother, who in the gently deepening twilight of her years is afflicted with Parkinson’s Disease. So she totters here and there, her arms and hands waving uncontrollably like a battalion of lobster legs. Each effort to move is now an act of conscious will. My father had gone for a while to attend an exercise class. We had had morning tea of coffee and raisin toast and now, with father gone, we were at leisure to sit on the ramp outside the house in the sunshine overlooking a garden thick with native trees and shrubs.

 

The weather was mercifully mild as it is after a couple of days of steady rain, being sunny with patches of fluffy clouds still inky and heavy but nonetheless harmless and not bound to cover the sun with for any length of time soon. Mum had brought out an old book she had written of a family holiday in 1973, rich with photos of wildlife, forests we had trailed through, mountains we had climbed and rivers we had boated along. She wanted to know how old my cousin Geoffrey, with his broad shoulders, his mooch and his wild, blond-streaked surfer’s hair had been at that time. She had always had a great love for him, his wit and his imaginative, bizarre and often hilarious drawing and writing. I suppose he had been the son she had never had, having had three daughters.

 

We saw a couple of Cuckoo Shrikes, elegant birds like large, svelte pigeons with their black faces and grey-blue plumage and Mum heard the call of the Pied Butcher Bird. Currawongs cried their lilting cadence somewhere in the airy space beyond the sight of the houses in the street. This sunny patch of time was a place where nothing in particular needed doing. The rest of the world was going about its business, working and building, always building with some distant sounds of sawing and hammering echoing in the air and just the two of us were left, skylarking sedately on the landing.

 

I have finished ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ by Elizabeth Gilbert and briefly discussed what bothered me about it with Mum. Mum believes that we are not born with a purpose in life. Maybe she is right, that we are free to just sit and observe the roots of the large, slat-barked cypress tree in front of us hung with festoons of pale grey lichen and to feel that one’s life is not just a means to an end, but an end in itself. Amidst all this chaos of plant life, sunlight and birdsong there is surely plenty of time for whatever purposes one is inclined to, to take root and grow.

 

We of course could do whatever we wished beyond the necessary chores revolving around the business of keeping ourselves alive. With this capacity for aimless observation and pleasure in the mere fact of existence in mind, why do we need lessons on making the most of life at all?

 

‘Eat, Pray, Love’ appears to be about the author’s search for some kind of deeper meaning in her life. Elizabeth is a thirty-something, successful writer living in New York, earning the kind of income many people could only dream about, with a mortgage to a lovely house and a husband eager to start a family. Only Elizabeth just isn’t happy. The prospect of a happy marriage and children fills her with dread. In fact she is almost suicidal, crying all the time. Something from deep within her is desperate to make a break, but to what and to where?

 

I can relate to that feeling of being in the wrong life, of feeling my life unfold before me while I went through it in a state of living death. Only for me, these catastrophic feelings preceded a psychotic breakdown from which I emerged 7 years later, broken, traumatised, but nevertheless determined to get myself a regular job. After years of tormenting delusions, controlling phantoms and voices from nowhere, it was a relief to finally see that a chair and a table was just that and nothing more and that psychiatric counseling and medication could actually help me live the normal life that I wanted.

 

At that time, running around with fellow pizza-eaters in Italy was far from my mind, as was heading for an ashram in India, or blissing out and falling in love in Bali, which is basically what Gilbert goes ahead and does in the book. This is after her divorce, (which was messy, painful and acrimonious) and a doomed love affair with some arty, yogic man in New York that leaves her apparently more confused and upset than ever.

 

Much as Gilbert honestly tries to portray the culture of other countries in this book, which has some interesting snippets of information and reflections on things such as the Italian language, a brief history of the Balinese people, or the mystic, labyrinthine beliefs and customs of her Balinese friends, I can’t get away from thinking how much of a tourist she is, whilst seeking to steep herself deep into the by-ways of foreign cultures.

 

There is a temptation to declaim how these Americans cherry-pick the philosophies, cultures and ways of other people’s lives in foreign countries and treat them like pawns on the chessboard of their easy and affluent existences. But I don’t want to type-cast all American people, especially when it isn’t just the Americans that are doing it.

 

Hindu and Buddhist mysticism, Yoga and meditation are fruits on trees that entrepreneurs in the New Age wellness industry have been assiduously picking, packaging and purveying for decades now. Gilbert’s profile on how ‘Swamiji’ brought yoga and meditation to a bored, disillusioned, middle-class, white America in the 1970s was one of the first of them. Nowadays there are yoga, meditation and spiritual therapy courses based on supposedly ancient, mystical Eastern practices everywhere all promising to open the yearning, troubled psyche up to a new and enlightened awareness of life. But maybe all these worried but otherwise well people learn from it is a new language for the same old neurosis.

 

Then there is Gilbert’s relationship with God. I can’t believe she puts so much effort into such an intense and prolonged head trip with this posited deity, when she has more than enough sound New England common sense of her own to use. It’s gob-smacking to me how fortunate people fritter away their perfectly good mental health in silly, borrowed conversations with an imaginary entity.

 

Sorry, I’m an atheist. Really, if Gilbert wants to go swim in a sea of faith, run head-first over a possible cliff and call it ‘a courageous act of humanity’ then let her do it and good luck to her. But when I read passages like:

 

“I’m not interested in the (spiritual) insurance industry. I’m tired of being a skeptic, I’m irritated by spiritual prudence and I feel bored and parched by empirical debate. I don’t want to hear it any more. I couldn’t care less about evidence and proof and assurances. I just want God. I want God inside me. I want God to play in my blood-stream the way sunlight amuses itself on water’”

 

I’m annoyed at such relentlessly navel-gazing guff. Surely just stopping by on a walk to watch sunlight dancing on water is happiness enough. Personally, I never get tired of doing that. Why does the simple appreciation of such a sight have to involve all this intensive (and expensive) labour, guidance and ritual? I wonder why people spend so much more time on this canting, arcane and solipsistic business of spirituality, this fake engagement with a supposed inner self, than they do in discovering the truth and the beauty of the reality that lies outside the human imagination.

 

The traditional dismissal of the outside world as transient and unimportant, so extolled by mystics everywhere, is especially dangerous for a humanity on the brink of destroying the earth and dealing out the threat of death and extinction to every living thing. Thankfully however, India has its rationalists (http://www.srai.org/science-and-rationalists-association-of-india-humanists-association/) too, fighting to stem a tide of superstition and hidebound ignorance that this author has cut a piece of to take home to America and put into a best-selling book.

 

Meanwhile tomorrow, I will be taking a walk down to my local wild-life reserve to watch sunlight dancing on water, maybe even see that Pied Butcher bird again, or observe a flock of maned wood-ducks and other things. I will be voting in the up-coming election to protect the environment. You should too.