Sunday, 20 September 2015

Husbands Are Forever: An Imitation of Christ

What is love? What does true love look like? Paul's epistle to the Ephesians has been on my mind lately and strikes me as something altogether most beautiful. " God in Christ has forgiven us", writes Paul, so too should we do likewise and be kind, tenderhearted and forgiving of one another.
"Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God."
These words are of course echoed throughout the Scriptures and form the very foundation for actively living out our Christian faith. As in Romans 13:14, St. Paul calls for us to "put on the Lord Jesus Christ" and imitate Him throughout our daily lives. Yet this seems to me especially important when it comes to the husband's role in marriage and the family.

Ephesians 5:25 highlights what I call real, beautiful and unconditional love; true love that is rooted in, and perfectly imitates, Christ who "loved the church and gave Himself up for her" on the cross. 
"In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wive loves himself. For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, because we are members of His body." (5:28-30)
St. Paul affirms here the humbling responsibility of a husband (and father) as the head of the family. Although not, mind you, as a violently abusive domestic dictator, as some might have these words mean. Rather, "love your wives and never treat them harshly" (Colossians 3:19). As St. Peter also considers, "above all, maintain consant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins." C.S. Lewis offers an insightful commentary on these passages in The Four Loves:
"The husband is the head of the wife just in so far as he is to her what Christ is to the Church. He is to love her as Christ loved the Church – read on – and give his life for her. This headship, then, is most fully embodied not in the husband we should all wish to be but in him whose marriage is most like a crucifixion; whose wife receives most and gives least, is most unworthy of him – in in her own mere nature – least lovable."
In other words, actions often speak louder than words and true love of this kind, which stems from Christ, goes even beyond the first feelings of attraction to another person. Similarly, Gary Chapman asserts that love, in this sense, "is something you do for someone else, not something you do for yourself." That said, imitating Christ should not, however, be confused with trying to play God. We may perhaps inspire another person to want to change but we cannot actually change them; so there is, therefore, no point in even trying. That is a job for God and we should leave it up to Him. Our job, however, is to love, in all senses of the word. And then some.

There is, then, something almost divine about the unconditional promise expressed in traditional wedding vows; words which, unfortunately, the modern world seems to have taken for granted and almost forgotten the magic of: 'to have and to hold (read, cherish), from this day forward, in good times and in bad, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part' (there may be some slight variation on this wording).

I think it is also worth nothing that a husband's responsibility involves as much love, respect and service to his wife as to God, if not even more so. As Paul reminds us, in order to imitate Christ we must first know Him, and become "rooted and built up in Him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving" (Colossians 2:7). In this way, it makes sense that "a woman's heart should be so hidden in God, that a man has to seek Him just to find her." Perhaps you may even have heard it said that while the husband is the head of the house, the wife is the heart of the family. She has the ability to stir in her husband the desire to build up a firm foundation in Christ; so that the more he continues to grow in his faith, through the Holy Spirit, and learn to love God, so too does he learn how to love his wife. And this, of course, works both ways.

If I may take the liberty of borrowing another chunk from Lewis, who reiterates Paul's message in his discussions on Mere Christianity:
"And now we begin to see what it is that the New Testament is always talking about. It talks about Christians 'being born again'; it talks about them 'putting on Christ'; about Christ 'being formed in us'; about our coming to 'have the mind of Christ'
"Put right out of your head the idea that these are only fancy ways of saying that Christians are to read what Christ said and try to carry it out – as a man may read what Plato or Marx said and try to carry it out. They mean something much more than that. They mean that a real Person, Christ, here and now, in that very room where you are saying your prayers, is doing things to you. It is not a question of a good man who died two thousand years ago. It is a living Man, still as much a man as you, and still as much God as He was when He created the world, really coming and interfering with your very self; killing the old natural self in you and replacing it with the kind of self He has. At first, only for moments. Then for longer periods. Finally, if all goes well, turning you permanently into a different sort of thing; into a new little Christ, a being which, in its own small way, has the same kind of life as God; which shares in His power, joy, knowledge and eternity."

Friday, 12 June 2015

Go Set a Watchman to Kill a Mockingbird

Harper Lee's Pulitzer prize-winning novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, first hit the shelves fifty five years ago to date, and has since become one of the acclaimed literary classics of the twentieth century. It has sold over forty million copies, and was adapted for the big screen in 1962, with Gregory Peck playing the role of Atticus Finch (for which he won an Oscar); a character whose warmth, honesty and loyal commitment to the absolute truth, justice and racial equality, amidst the segregation of the racialised deep south, continues to inspire many readers and be a subject of analysis for numerous dissertations.

Much could be said about the novel, but I must leave that for another time. What is of interest here, however, is that prior to accepting To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee's publishers had at first declined another manuscript which, until recently, was thought to be lost.

Now, after five decades, HarperCollins Publishers have finally signed a deal for the first printing of two million copies of the so-called 'sequel', Go Set a Watchman. Some bookstores, in fact, are set to open just after midnight on July 14th so that you won't have to wait any longer to get your hands on this newly accredited volume, which has also become the top most pre-ordered HarperCollins book.

James Daunt, head of the British bookstore chain, Waterstones, is eagerily anticipating this "thrilling" literary event.
"We open our shops at midnight to queues of excited customers only very rarely – in my career for Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera way back in 1988, then the run from 1999 to 2007 for J.K. Rowling, and now, most unexpectedly and seemingly miraculously, for Harper Lee in 2015."
Yet not everyone appears to be looking forward to what one might describe as a "fascinating new light on Harper Lee's enduring classic". Alleged reports have risen suggesting that the terms between Lee and HarperCollins Publishers have not been fully disclosed. Her biographer asserted that she was "an elderly woman getting poor advice", prompting Alabaman authorities to subsequently launch an enquiry into whether Lee was the subject of abuse. However, although she has not spoken directly to the press, in a statement issued back in February Harper Lee did recall her old manuscript and certainly made it clear that she is delighted with its publication:
"In the mid-1950s, I completed a novel called Go Set a Watchman. It features the character known as Scout as an adult woman and I thought it a pretty decent effort. My editor, who was taken by the flashbacks to Scout's childhood, persuaded me to write a novel from the point of view of the young Scout. I was a first-time writer, so I did as I was told. I hadn't realized it had survived, so was surprised and delighted when my dear friend and lawyer Tonja Carter discovered it. After much thought and hesitation I shared it with a handful of people I trust and was pleased to hear that they considered it worthy of publication. I am humbled and amazed that this will now be published after all these years." 
The sequel, set twenty years after the events in To Kill a Mockingbird, revolves around the familiar protagonist Jean Louise Finch – otherwise known as Scout – and her experiences of returning from New York to her hometown that shaped her. Without having read the novel myself, the title is taken from the book of Isiah 21:6, perhaps in reference to Scout's father: "For thus has the Lord said to me, go, set a watchman, let him declare what he sees."
Go Set a Watchman is also available housed in a dual collector's boxset, together with To Kill a Mockingbird, for $79.99 RRP.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Pellegrinis: That Italian Experience

I took a stool at the counter and gazed up at the photos, posters and cutouts lining the walls and cupboards behind the counter. A chubby baby with a mouthful of spaghetti, bags of coffee, model cars and a small notice reminding you that a 'latte' is only a black coffee. If you want milk, order a 'cafe latte'. Forget your skinny soy decaffeinated vanilla lattes. This is Melbourne's little Italy; a retro coffee bar decked out in such a way that upon entering you are immediately set back several decades and transported to the old charms of cities like Milano. You can't help but say 'grazie mille' and 'ciao'. Even the owners have that distinctive Italian look about them as they move calmly around behind the counter.

Pellegrini's is not your average café nestled amongst all the other folks fighting for business in Lygon street. It is, in fact, situated in the upper end of Bourke street nearer the Parisian section of the CBD, a block down from Parliament House (which, one might go so far as to suggest, is no mere coincidence). Perhaps somewhat on the smaller side and frequented mostly by budgeting students and lunching businessmen, you might be surprised to know that it has been said to hold a place in the hearts of many Melbournians to the extent that it now shares a part in the Good Food hall of fame. Even Heston Blumenthal, father of the Fat Duck, dropped by for a visit during the Melbourne food and wine festival back in 2009 (on another note, that molecular-gastronomy geek is set to open up a restaurant in Melbourne later this year. Chances are the 18-course degustation menu, complete with deconstructed edible theatrics, will run up to $250 per head, so start saving).

Unlike the Fat Duck, however, Pellegrini's will only set you back a few dollars for a great coffee. And it's hot too. Good, freshly roasted coffee that isn't weak and actually tastes like coffee - the way only the Italians can do, as if they have some secret gifted know-how. Slurping away, my fingers wrapped around the glass, savouring that taste and probably looking not unlike an Andrea Bocelli, I was reminded of Milan's famed Zucca in Galleria.

Maybe I sound like a coffee connoisseur, who rolls the coffee around in his glass and sniffs at it suspiciously, before letting the froth warm his tongue. Let us make no mistake - I am nothing of the sort. I drink Starbuck's from time to time, and find that it tastes pretty much the same as most other franchises out there. I don't like instant coffee but then again, flying through the clouds at 30,000 feet in the air, I wouldn't know the difference. My other half curls up her lip in disgust even at the thought of burnt coffee, while I simply wonder and ask, "my sweet, isn't it just a slightly stronger brew they're using this morning?" Nonetheless, I know a good coffee when I taste it, and Pellegrini's does just that.

The cakes sitting on the bench behind the counter looked tempting to say the least. I ordered an apple strudel and watched as long-time barista Paul Pinetta took a plate, placed a slice on it and asked if I'd like some cream to go with it. Well, of course! He opened up the door of an old bar-fridge beneath the counter and withdrew a large, silver mixing bowl full of freshly whipped cream. Armed with a spatula, he plunged it in and whacked a generous pile of cream - splotch! - right on top of the strudel. And, with all honesty, I haven't had an apple strudel as good as that since my younger days at the Durham Alms Houses on the Palace Green almost twelve years ago, where my Dad would sometimes take me after school whilst waiting for Mum to finish work.

And if you're still hungry, or perhaps you would rather leave the apple strudels for dessert, the main meals they dish up here are equally as good. Simple yet hearty, with a good old homemade Napoli and full of flavour, either the lasagne or spaghetti is well worth a lunch stop. Better still, Pellegrini's lies only a few doors up (or down) from two of Melbourne's better bookstores, the Hill of Content and the Paperback Bookshop. So grab a book, pop in for a little quiet time with an early morning espresso or an afternoon spag-bog, and finish up with a stroll through the pleasant Treasury Gardens (or a Spanish-style siesta, if you feel so inclined) to let your stomach settle somewhat.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

The Secret to Finding and Buying Books

In this postmodern age of cyber space everything lies at our fingertips. The power of the internet is such that at the click of a button we can book flights, buy books, watch movies, gather academic resources or stay in contact with distant friends, all while remaining a couch potato. Sure, it's certainly better for one to get out and inhale that wonderful God-given fresh air. But nowadays everything comes down to convenience. Wikipedia? Online forums? IMDB? All the information you could ever want seems to be sitting on your screen staring right back at you. You do, of course, have to Google it and then there are some folks who spend hours doing that sort of thing. It's almost as if they have no life.

Still reading? Still slouched on the couch late at night with lunch stains on your shirt, your eyes going cross-eyed as the words mingle together into a coherent blur? It's about time that you took a break from staring at the screen all days and gave your fingers a workout - read a real book for once. There's something about turning the pages of an actual book which smells faintly of someone's smokey attic that is so much better than squinting at a backlit computer screen.

True, anyone can walk into a proper bookstore and buy the New York Times number one best seller or pre-order J.K. Rowling's latest composition from But what if there's a particular book you seek which happens to be out of print, or if it was a limited edition or perhaps you just want the cheapest copy available? Chances are your local bookstore hikes the wholesale price up by forty percent; after all, they too have to cover their costs and make a living. If not there, then where do you go? To whom do you turn? Well, it's not a who; it's a what... is a marvelously handy website which strangely few people seem to know about (at least those I've talked to). I've tracked down an affordable copy of Bending the Willow (the rare biography of actor Jeremy Brett and his 'last bow'), saved precious money on overpriced textbooks and acquired several enjoyable volumes, all on a single student budget.

It is a rare thing indeed, in fact, and most unlikely that the book you seek will not show up in the search results. Bookfinder, as its name suggests, does just that - the powerful search engine finds your desired book and reveals just where it is available for sale anywhere on the internet. Simple plug in the author's name, a title, the ISBN number or some general keywords to get you started, and it brings up the results in order from the cheapest ex-library paperbacks to the most expensive hardbound tomes lying in the corner of a dusty warehouse in some obscure town in the middle of the USA. With two columns for both new and secondhand books, the prices you see include postage to your selected country of residence and if you hover the little cursor over the listed price you'll see how it breaks down to reveal both the price of the book and how much postage you pay.

The genius of such a website is that it provides convenience at your fingertips and lists in one place the results from across all of cyber space; from Abebooks to Amazon, from Book Depository to Biblio and from all those weird German websites to random American sellers. Sometimes the cheapest deals are not, believe it or not, from Book Depository where free postage is so often quoted as the winner. The only few stores that are not listed are mostly online auctions sites like Ebay or Gumtree.

If you're worried that you need a particular edition of a book (perhaps some newly revised medical textbook for your tertiary studies) then just check the date of publication in the bibliographical details of each listing. For further information, click on the price and you'll automatically be swept along and laid to rest at the listing itself on the seller's website, which should also provide you with the number of that published edition. So there you have it - order the book you've been wanting to read for years, stop glaring at your screen as it glares back at you, and go for a jog out to the letterbox while you wait for that exciting parcel to arrive.

Monday, 3 March 2014

Helpful Hints for the All-New Undergraduate

Across the globe, freshmen and college newbies are beginning their first few days at University, many fresh out of high school. As I got talking to one such girl in the line for the student services office this morning, which stretched away almost to the entrance gate, it suddenly dawned on me just how much I take for granted. This is already my fifth year in the big world outside the safe and comforting surrounds of high school, and ACU no longer feels like the daunting and oversized institution it once seemed back in the days when I too was in my initial year, fresh out of high school without any sort of independence or confidence to my character.

Since those first formative months, a lot has changed. Even the maze of books and dewey decimals in the Bailieau library at the University of Melbourne, not even my home campus, is now familiar common ground. But that has only come with four years of experience; four long years of complaining about the endless piles of essays and assessments; four years of getting to know which lecturers are the really good ones; four years of learning how the online systems work; four years of discovering the better cafés; four years of being an undergraduate.

Four years is hardly any amount of time compared to the likes of my old but wise grandparents, or even my own parents whose various postgraduate studies have settled them nicely into their careers and blossomed their abundance of both worldly and spiritual knowledge. To them I am especially grateful, as also to my friends and other family members, who have aided me in so many ways over the past twenty two years. Even so, however, perhaps it would be no bad thing at all to take the liberty of composing a small sort of list for the benefit of such first-years...

~ It's gonna be different to what you were used to in high school. But fear not, because everyone goes through this transition and floats around for some time in the same boat.
~ Do go along to O-week, because you will discover something helpful.
~ Don’t hesitate to ask questions if unsure about anything. That’s what the folks over at the student services desk are paid for, to help you out. No question is too basic or silly.
~ Most tertiary institutions provide special assistance to those who need it. There might be academic or career advisors on your campus, for example. If you can’t locate a book or are having trouble with your research, another point of call, aside from your own lecturer or course coordinator, are the librarians.
~ Although you may never see the IT guys, they are actually there... somewhere...
~ If it's been a week and still nobody has bothered to reply to your email, send it again. And again, and pick up the phone and send it again and so on and so forth until someone finally decides to answer your question!
~ Likewise, tutorial discussions will not help you learn if you remain in a state of silence, staring blankly at the wall. It may be hard, especially if at first you don’t know anyone in your class, but speak up and add your two cents worth to the discussion. Others might even benefit from what you have to say.
~ Listen carefully to all instructions. There have been times when I wish I had paid more attention, like those moments when the lecturer mentions something particularly important about an assessment.
~ Yes, you can survive for two whole hours during a lecture without logging into Facebook, twitter (surely, that’s just old school by now?) or your email account. If you really must send a text, just wait until the half-time break. After all, what are you paying all your university fees for? You’ll have to pay off your HECS-HELP debt someday and there’s nothing wrong with learning something new.
~ If you are a Commonwealth supported undergraduate student with a loan from the HECS-HELP program, courtesy of the Australian government, don’t worry about that huge debt piling up because just yet. It will - but don’t quote me on this one - just come out of your tax once your annual salary is above a certain figure.
~ Are you unsure about your course? Is this really leading to the ultimate career path for you? I’d say give it a year, because a wonderful lecturer in the following semester can, at times, make all the difference.
~ Don’t fret too much if you’re not at all sure where to go in life. Sometimes the best way is simply to try out different things. If it’s any consolation, at twenty two years of age with a Bachelor of Arts to my name, I’m still not quite sure where I’m headed. Talk to others and seek their advice too; friends, family, teachers... Have a hunt around on job websites and the like, just to see what’s actually out there.
~ Prayer can do wonders.
~ If you’re having trouble fitting in and making new friends, join one of the clubs on campus or go and sit next to that other loner in the lecture theatre and start a conversation. You’ll be amazed at the sort of friendships you can light up.
~ Do start your assignments early, instead of cramming in the final paragraph and attempting to compose a bibliography at 3am in the morning. Sleep is what your body needs, not multiple shots of caffeine or super-high levels of added sugar.
~ Sometimes, you don't have to read the whole text. CLICK HERE to get some tips on the best ways to skim and scan through books and articles.
~ It may be easier said than done, but by being organised you can accomplish so much more. Take advantage of those free diaries which the student association hands out at the beginning of each year, use your calendars and set yourself up so that you know what is due and when. You’ll see things coming well in advance and, hopefully, will be ready for them.
~ There is no right way to study. Find the best method which suits you whether that be at home, in a quiet, secluded spot in the back corner of the library, or whilst scooping out the ice-cream of an affogato in a noisy café.
~ Having said that, when you do pull up a chair (or the floor) to study, try and put your head down and stick at it. It is far too easy to get distracted or start procrastinating, and you want to be able to juggle both work and play. One great day of solid work is better than a lousy week of study.
~ Breathe. It’s not often someone dies of oxygen.
~ There are times when you just have to make a decision and go with it.
~ There are times when you feel like you simply want to give up. Just remember, as C.S. Lewis once wrote, “hardship often prepares an ordinary person for an extraordinary destiny.”

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Mont Blanc: Lines Written in the Vale of Chamouni

Mont Blanc: the highest mountain in Western Europe, the very name of which evokes feelings of passion and fear, awe and wonder in the minds of climbers the world over. A true mountain in every sense of the word, it’s immense natural beauty hides its potential powers of death and destruction. Easily accessible, yet each year during both the climbing summer and the skiing winter, alpinists perish on its slopes.

Through his “Lines Written in the Vale of Chamouni” early in the nineteenth century, Percy Bysshe Shelley weaves a response to the incredible powers of Nature which, for him, are the primary source of inspiration for the human imagination. As he himself once wrote, the poem “was composed under the immediate impression of the deep and powerful feelings excited by the objects which it attempts to describe”. It is essentially “an undisciplined overflowing of the soul, [and] rests its claim to approbation on an attempt to imitate the untamable wildness and inaccessible solemnity from which those feelings sprang.”

In the first stanza he juxtaposes his own imagination and human intellect with a collection of nature imagery, thereby accentuating his notion that the natural world “flows through the mind” and is “the source of human thought”. Shelley’s careful choice of language here suggests that the human thought-process is a continuous procedure, much like the flow of water. “The universe of things” does not simply flow “through the mind”, however, but, in fact, “rolls its rapid waves” in an “everlasting” event.

In this context, perhaps it is inevitable that these “Lines Written in the Vale of Chamouni” become so powerful and dramatic, as they continue to build into the climax that marks the final stages of the poem. The thoughts of the poet’s mind begin, like any river, “as a feeble brook” before his imagination runs wild as the natural world itself:
“Where waterfalls around it leap for ever,
Where woods and winds contend, and a vast river
Over its rocks ceaselessly bursts and raves.”
Yet the “dark, deep Ravine” of Arve, which flows through the very heart of the Chamonix Valley in France, is no ordinary river, for the poet, but a “many colour’d, many-voiced vale”. Shelley senses the presence of some ancient magic here in the “primeval mountains”, in which there were once “ghosts of all things that are”, and questions the existence of an “old Earthquake-daemon”. In the trees, which he describes as the “Children of elder time”, he hears the sound of “an old and solemn harmony.”

The poet seems “as in a trance sublime” and the stunning scenery of the French Alps, which both surround him and in which he appears immersed, fuels his “legion of wild thoughts” which “ the still cave of the witch Poesy”. Shelley returns again, here, to that notion evoked in the first stanza. The image of a witch brewing some magical concoction implicates his own ever-churning thoughts, which come together to construct and shape the poem. In this context, “the witch Poesy” seems symbolic of the poet himself. He may be in the wilderness, “among the mountains lone” and in a place so “remote, serene and inaccessible”, yet still he has access to all the ‘ingredients’ with which to weave a response, in human language, to the natural world. “My own, my human mind, which passively | Now renders and receives fast influencings”. Indeed, it is “the naked countenance of earth”, he writes, which “teach[es] the adverting mind.”

The wild and passionate language of the poet thus transforms the highest mountain in Western Europe into an almost god-like figure, as is especially evident in the use of personification: “Thou hast a voice, great Mountain”. Yet Shelley goes further than the likes of Wordsworth, those who might simply depict the beauty of the natural world, in that he reveals the immense power of nature, and its destructive force. His “very spirit fails” at the extraordinary sight; suggesting that he feels overwhelmed, both daunted and dwarfed, by the presence of the mountain, “piercing the infinite sky”.
 “Its shapes are heap’d around! rude, bare and high, Ghastly, and scarr’d, and riven. - Is this the scene Where the old Earthquake-daemon taught her young Ruin?”
Struck by the remarkable scenery of the Chamonix valley, the poet concludes that the mountain is something to behold in both awe and fear since it has absolute authority over all that is. Indeed, in its capacity for total destruction, Mont Blanc effectuates the joining of both beauty and horror, of life and death: “The power is there”, writes Shelley. “The still and solemn power of many sights, | And many sounds, and much of life and death.” Despite the seeming serenity of the natural world, there remains the presence of something almost ineffable, which gives birth to Shelley’s wild thoughts and fuels his imagination.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

First Lines With a Fountain Pen

It may be corny. It may be retro. It may be downright ridiculous, but I decided to buy a fountain pen.

Nothing expensive of course; simply a cheap Chinese-made Baoer 68, or something to that effect. For years these things have caught my eye on the big screen, in shop windows or even on Google, and they look marvellously 'classique'. Having now filled it with ink from a bottle, written a few lines and got my fingers covered in blue splodges, I have to say that they are pretty fun to muck around with. But are they really that practical? My usual style of handwriting doesn't quite seem to fit and it will take some time before I master the art of writing with a fountain pen. The question is, would I even have the patience to learn this new art? It certainly seems that one's average everyday BIC or PaperMate pens would do the trick without any amount of sheer concentration. Perhaps it remains to be seen whether or not I have become a true convert.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Musings on The Adventures of Tintin as Bande Dessinée

Is Tintin literature? The question continues to fuel constant debate amongst academic scholars who devote themselves to the study, criticism and analysis of Hergé's beloved works. Tom McCarthy's novel, entitled Tintin and the Secret of Literature, is just one of the many contemporary examples within the sphere of academia, in which he attempts to answer such a question.

Yet, perhaps the first question one should ask is not whether The Adventures of Tintin ought to be classified as something of the literary canon, but, rather, what kind of medium is it in the first place? It seems that an agreement has perhaps been reached here in the sense that the works of Hergé's are considered bandes-dessinées; literally, 'drawn strips' or, as they are more commonly known in our English language, comics. I would, however, suggest that there is an essential difference to be made between what we refer to as, simply, 'comics', and the now more sophisticated-sounding bandes dessinées (BDs). In her critical approach to reading French-language BDs, Ann Miller traces a brief history from the more child-like caricatures of the earlier eighteenth century, for example, to the drawn strips which became so popular throughout the twentieth century and which combined both artistic merit and something of mass culture.

One of the most interesting aspects of Tintin is how his character and the series itself slowly evolved over the course of the twentieth century. As Miller notes, Tintin "may be taken as a barometer of ideological consensus over the century as a whole", and it is exactly this notion which Jean-Marie Apostolidès explores in his study, The Metamorphoses of Tintin. As per the publisher's description of the book:

"A figure without origins, [Tintin] turned international hero at the very moment that Western nations were becoming homogenized and transmitting their commodities and values on a global scale. Arguing that the series of albums thus offers a reflection on the whole of twentieth-century life, Jean-Marie Apostolidès traces the evolution of Tintin's character and reveals the unity of Hergé's masterpiece."

Perhaps Hergé's masterpiece is a work of literature, or perhaps it isn't. To attempt an answer in full might take up an entire thesis. In either case, we know that the bande-dessinée evolved with society over the decades and thus, one could argue, with cinema.

As these drawn strips emerged, together with the evolution of modern cinema and 'talkies', they underwent significant change. Rather than sketching a series of "separate tableaux", to use the words of Ann Miller, their creators "decomposed movements, allowing the reader to reconstruct a continuous narrative across the frame boundaries", thereby transforming BDs into an inherently cinematic medium. As Hergé himself once declared, his own style was not simply "a matter of drawing" but equally reliant on "the script and narrative technique".

It would seem plausible to suggest, therefore, that Hergé's strips are examples of both visual media and a literary medium.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Justice and Criminality in Suchet's Poirot

Crime and detection television programs have remained a popular form of media entertainment in recent years, and ITV’s feature-length serial adaptions of Agatha Christie’s Poirot novels, first aired in 1989, are no exception. David Suchet has mastered his portrayal of the quirky yet fascinating Belgian detective and, one might say, is to Hercule Poirot what Jeremy Brett was to Sherlock Holmes. Yet perhaps what lures the viewers in deeper still are the socio-cultural concerns which the series so often touches on. The evocative final scene of Murder on the Orient Express, for instance, raises a variety of questions regarding criminality and tribunal justice within the framework of society's sense of morality. 

The case of the Orient Express is what Welsh et al. might label as one of the far more “complex” and “morally ambiguous portrayals of” criminality and justice (2011, 461). The unfamiliar is made the familiar, for the twelve murderers strongly believe that their victim deserved to die in the name of retributive justice, of which the law itself was unsuccessful. No longer is criminality a distant thing from society. They live out their world, in the words of Streland and Sutton (2010, 163) within a "conceptual framework" of a "belief in a just world... enabling them to proceed through life in the expectation that events" and the "outcomes of life are fair and predictable".

Poirot, then, is developed as one facing a moral dilemma, pondering on whether to execute a form of restorative justice and fabricate the evidence rather than reveal the truth about the murder to the police, since those who perpetrated the crime did so in good faith that they were themselves acting on behalf of both legal and moral justice. The opening with a wide exterior shot of the arrival of the Yugoslavian police in a bleak wintery landscape, the train still stranded in the snowdrift, serves to accentuate the frozen, chilling atmosphere which remains prevalent throughout the episode. The frame then cuts to an extreme low-angled shot of Poirot’s rosary beads before slowly refocusing on him in centre-frame; the combined effect of which is something of the Gothic, and the faint cries of the crows do not detract from this notion. 

ITV 2010

As viewers, we are made to look up at him and the importance of the rosary symbolises his turn to God in moments of moral uncertainty. The minimal use of dialogue and the slow, pensive musical undertones suggest the dissolving of the violence of the murder into a more personal and internal psychological conflict for Poirot. He is, after all, what P.D. James might label a “cerebral detective” (Foster, 2009, 36); a man who approaches justice and criminality from, and thus speaks with, his mind.

"I wanted to move my voice from my own - which is rather bell-like and mellow and totally unlike Poirot. I wanted to raise that voice up into his head because that's where he works from. Everything comes from there. My voice is very much in my chest and in my emotional area, but his is up in his head. He's a brain, so that voice had to be raised and perfected. And then I had to learn to think like him and how to see the world through his eyes. I had to make his mannerisms and eccentricities not as though they had been put on to be laughed at, but as if they had come absolutely from within that person." (Suchet on his role as Poirot).

The following extreme close-up shot of his face, a dark silhouette visually contrasted against the colourless train window, seems symbolic of his mood and internal struggle with conflicting thoughts. Such shots, some semioticians might go so far as to argue, are a perfect example of how meaning is constructed from the lighting and other aspects of the mise-en-scène which complement and reinstate “the drama and intensity of the event” (Zettl, 2011, 38) occurring, in this example, at both the spiritual and physical level; as represented by the two necessities of Poirot’s thought-making process: the rosary (the mind) and the glowing cigarette (the body). As theoretical folks like Berger maintain, in his discussion of semiotic analysis as a technique of textual interpretation, one ‘reads’ characters on screen through their mannerisms, clothes, bodily gestures and facial expressions, which “are all signs that we use to… gain insights into their truthfulness, temperaments, personalities, and values” (2012, 13). Indeed, he later moves on to suggest that television is in fact a more appropriate medium for close-ups than the huge widescreen cinema screens on which we view explosive blockbusters, and is thereby “better suited to revealing character than capturing action” (36). The first half of this final scene, therefore, reveals just how the murder itself has taken Poirot “to the very depths of his own world view and his own sense of right and wrong at a time when he’s already suffering from a sense of his own blood guilt” (David Suchet in European Intelligence Wire, 23 December).

ITV 2010

The tension of such conflicting concerns of justice and criminality brings Murder on the Orient Express to an emotional climax. As Poirot turns towards the camera in a flurry of snow to walk slowly and resolutely amongst the group of murderers towards the police he is aware of his duty as a detective and yet also of the deceitful stunt of fabricating the evidence in the name of morality and restorative justice. The energetic rhythm of the strings in the foreshadowing musical score immediately dissolves to a much darker undertone, marked by a steady clock-like beat which, together with his overtly serious face, the eerie howl of an Arctic wind and the predominant greyscale hues, gives one the impression that he is almost going to his own doom. In this context, the murderers are indeed the twelve jury, as is suggested by the close-ups of Poirot from behind, from their point of view. 

These final shots, perhaps the most moving in the whole of Murder on the Orient Express, reveal Poirot himself has having become  the sacrificial victim who suppresses the known truth for the common good, thereby swallowing his sense of opposing justice as ruled by the letter of the law and participating in the very crime he so deplored. The final close-up shot of his eyes scrunched up in tears, after he moves off-screen, and the acute screech of the strings accentuates the intense climax and remains indicative of his own destroyed sense of justice. 

Poirot's exotic character, brought to life by actor David Suchet, stands as a contrast to notions of criminality which establish a criminal act as something existing beyond ‘normal’ human nature. The famous detective comes to recognise human nature and emotion, instead, as the very catalyst of criminal behaviour. How does, I therefore ask, the controversial stoning of a woman in Istanbul in the opening scenes of the episode relate to the murder of Casetti? And - pause and think a wee while - why is this episode entitled simply Murder on the Orient Express and not 'The Murder on the Orient Express'?

To end such wandering cinematic musings, let us turn to the words of legal ethicist David Lyons (1989) who claims that whilst the rule of law in society “seems to provide a possible framework for just social conditions – a necessary condition of justice in at least some social circumstances”, it only “takes us part way toward[s]” moral standards which are “often more extensive and more demanding than those established by law”. Thus, again to borrow the words of Lyons, the Murder on the Orient Express is indicative, on the one hand, of the conceptual practices of tribunal justice and the law which uses “coercion and direct force to regulate behavior in community”, and, on the other, of morality which “may require generosity and compassion, charity and mercy, that fall beyond the reach of legal requirements”.

CLICK HERE to listen to Margaret Throsby's 2011 interview with actor David Suchet on ABC's Classic FM. 

Friday, 8 November 2013

The End Draws Nigh

This blog has, unfortunately, remained somewhat dormant as of late. However it is by no means a sign that yet another blogger has given up on the idea of putting fingers to keys and run off into the distant lands. As a full-time student churning through my final semester as an undergraduate, I have been finding more than enough to keep me busy over the past few months. Add to this the weekends spent mostly at work serving customers, running around with stock and scrubbing bookshelves, not to mention several short interstate trips to visit a very special certain someone who has become such a delight in my life, and already the weeks have been merging into each other with rarely what feels like a decent break.

Writer's block is certainly not the issue here, for my head remains, as seems never entirely uncommon, in a state of revolving thoughts ready to be put to page and screen. Time is of the essence, hence the expression, and until the vacances arrive and I awake from my slumbers on that first day of freedom from the academic sphere, this little blog, le petit Monde de moi, will remain in its relatively dormant state...