Terry Jones’ Barbarians (Episode 1: The Primitive Celts): demonstration that victors write history to flatter themselves and demonise others

Terry Jones, “Terry Jones’ Barbarians (Episode 1: The Primitive Celts)” (2006)

This droll history lesson delivered by former Monty Python member Terry Jones examines the complicated relationship the Roman empire had with the ancient Celts whom they more or less subjugated and assimilated over several hundred years and finds that this relationship was even more complex than at first appears and the distinction between “civilised” and “uncivilised” all but collapses. Conventional wisdom that says the Romans were civilised and the Celts were barbaric and savage is turned on its head as Jones discovers that the Celts were more organised and cultured than they have been credited with simply because they didn’t have or use writing to the extent the Romans did. They were unable or unwilling to write their history so the Romans did it for them – not in their favour of course.

Visiting museums and archaeological sites in Britain, Ireland, France and elsewhere in Europe, and talking to scientists and other experts, Jones discovers that the ancient Celts had extensive metal-working industries and trade networks extending throughout their territories across Europe from Spain to the Balkans and Turkey, and traded with their Roman rivals. He discovers the Celts had also developed sophisticated road-building techniques to assist their trading. Interestingly the Celts’ trading and road transport networks reveal their societies to be very decentralised, a possible indication that they valued political and social egalitarianism in which no one city dominated and every city and town was equal, in contrast to the Roman civilisation in which all roads and networks literally led to Rome.

A section in the documentary dealing with the burial of a wealthy and powerful Celtic woman in France leads Jones to discover that Celtic societies treated men and women equally; his trip to Ireland leads him to research ancient Irish laws which confirm that not only did ancient Irish women (and by implication ancient Celtic women) enjoy social equality with men, they also enjoyed economic equality in that they could inherit property, divorce their husbands and keep property after the divorce.

A running narrative is the clash between the forces of Julius Caesar (Rome) and Vercingetorix (a chieftain of the Arvenni tribe of Celts in Gaul), presented as a struggle between two very different and polarised worldviews, one of which was to die and to be distorted by the other worldview as bloodthirsty, violent and savage.  Jones points out that it was Caesar who took Vercingetorix as hostage and treated him cruelly, imprisoning him first, then publicly displaying him before having the Celt strangled to death. One group of Celts singled out for demonisation by Roman propaganda was the druids who were portrayed as sinister witch-doctor types presiding over mass human sacrifices that involved burning hundreds of people in wicker-man statues, hanging people or drowning them; the reality more likely was that humans were offered as sacrifices only in extreme situations of famine or hardship, and that the Romans slandered the druids as they were the political, social and cultural elite in their societies and it was necessary to paint them as wicked in order to break the Celts’ resistance to Roman rule and to teach people who were already vassals of the Romans that it was pointless for them to revolt against Rome as well.

The episode makes the point that history is written by the victors to suit themselves and more often than we’d like to think serves as propaganda to stifle rebellion and keep vanquished people psychologically enslaved so that their lands and resources may be seized by the victors for their own use. This message has much relevance for the world today as it stands on the brink of major warfare in the Middle East that may spread to northern Africa and central Asia. People across the world are being exhorted to support US-led NATO intervention in Syria by propaganda that paints Syrian leader Bashar al Assad as a criminal who must be removed and replaced by a new government that will bring democracy and freedom to Syria. Russia and China, which have objected to al Assad’s forced removal by foreign forces, are being portrayed in the Western press as authoritarian societies hostile to democracy and freedom. Uncomfortable facts such as the United States’ past interference in Middle East politics during the 1950s which among other things helped to bring the Ba’ath Party to power in Syria and Iraq and enabled Hafez al Assad (Bashar al Assad’s father) and Saddam Hussein respectively to seize control and rule as dictators are ignored. The fact that Libya remains in chaos and its achievements under Colonel Muammar Gadhafi’s rule (1969 – 2011) have been destroyed or are being run down by Islamists after NATO intervention is also forgotten. If we don’t wish the 21st century to be one of unending New World Order violence, destruction and widespread poverty under a small and privileged elite, then we must resist the Western propaganda and the people, institutions and countries behind it. Unfortunately the BBC which made “Terry Jones’ Barbarians” series is one major institution peddling such propaganda.

Hysteria (dir. Tanya Wexler): a light-hearted giggle that riffs on women’s oppression and choosing between principle and respectability

Tanya Wexler, “Hysteria” (2011)

A romantic comedy very loosely based on historical fact, “Hysteria” purports to tell how Dr Joseph Mortimer Granville invented the world’s first vibrator in 1880. For much of history up until the early 20th century, physicians (mainly male) had been treating various “conditions” in their female patients – conditions that might now be recognised as sympomatic of frustration both sexual and non-sexual, anxiety, depression, menstrual problems or even dissatisfaction with a limited, mostly home-bound role in society, but which were grouped into a catch-all ailment known as female hysteria (from which the film takes its name) – by masturbating them until the women experienced orgasm. The practice was lucrative for doctors since the women usually ended up being repeat patients (ahem!) but clitoral and vaginal massage was taxing for the doctor as the technique was difficult to master and appointments with patients could take hours. Hence there was a need for massage devices that could shorten the time required to treat patients from hours to minutes and during the 19th century, various treatments and devices including hydrotherapy and vibrators operated mechanically or by clockwork were invented. Thanks once again to Wikipedia for the information!

As for the film, the plot is a love triangle of Shakespearean “The Taming of the Shrew”  or Austenesque “Pride and Prejudice” inspiration: a young idealistic bachelor doctor (Hugh Dancy)  in need of a proper medical profession after being sacked from yet another hospital job because his belief that germs cause illness upsets the medical establishment applies for the role of assistant to Dr Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce) whose practice is doing a roaring trade among the desperate housewives of the middle class. Dr Dalrymple specialises in relieving mild forms of hysteria among these ladies. Darcy’s doctor Granville is a hit with Dalrymple’s patients too but quickly develops repetitive strain injury which causes a problem for him in the surgery. At the same time he is pressured by Dalrymple to become his partner, eventually to take over the practice, and marry his younger daughter Emily (Felicity Jones) but older daughter Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal), an activist and prototype suffragette who runs a school and community centre for the poor in London, catches his eye and eventually his heart.

After losing his job because of his injury and sympathy towards Charlotte, Granville together with foster brother Edmund St John Smythe (Rupert Everett), a tech-buff and dissolute layabout, invent what they call a portable electric massager which they test on Dalyrymple’s maid Fannie and some of Dalrymple’s patients. The invention proves a hit and make Granville and St John Smythe rich. Meanwhile Dalrymple learns of Charlotte’s desperate plea to a wealthy couple for money and tries to foil her plan; this dastardly bastardry leads to a shakedown of one of Charlotte’s friends who then seeks her help by gatecrashing Granville and Emily’s engagement party. In the chaos that follows, Charlotte lands a right jab on the constable’s cheek which puts her in jail. She faces a sentence of incarceration in a mental asylum with a forced hysterectomy and Granville finds himself called upon as an expert witness with Charlotte’s life, health and future in his hands.

There’s a message about how women were patronised as infantile by the medical profession and how the problems they suffered from having limited choice and control over their lives and careers were swept into the medical basket to be treated as a physical and mental abnormality. Women like Charlotte who behaved outside the decreed societal stereotype appropriate for their class could be deemed mentally ill or defective and faced imprisonment and drastic surgery that could affect their health permanently and cut short their life span and quality. The romantic comedy format bravely tackles this issue of women’s oppression in a light-hearted though rather superficial  and forced way. The actors play fairly stock characters: Dancy is awkward as Granville and just manages to make the character credible but the others, Gyllenhaal and Everett in particular, acquit themselves. Gyllenhaal  plays a feisty and intelligent socialist feminist and Everett does his foppish gay aristocrat routine. Jones has a demure and obedient Victorian young lady stereotype to work with and makes the best of what she can with the limited role.

The direction is often superb with some wonderful scene set pieces – Pryce, Dancy and Everett donning goggles, as if about to travel to the moon in a home-made rocket, while preparing to use the massager on a portly matron are a hoot – and the plot cleverly juggles two narrative strands into one smooth and giddily paced whole. The script is so light that if one were to release it, it would float to the ceiling (with apologies to Kate Jackson of the old Charlie’s Angels series) and the ending is rather too tidy and predictable. Light farce follows in a finale consisting of a montage of silent scenes in which the massager’s fame spreads far and wide across the green and sceptred isles.

“Hysteria” turns out to be a fun giggle but no more. There’s a danger that in a film of its type, serious issues are reduced to bawdy comedy; “Hysteria” just manages to stay out of that Peeping-Tom / Carry-On zone by deftly presenting its protagonist with a moral dilemma of either being true to his principles or opting for false respectability.

Terry Jones’ Barbarians (Episode 2: The Savage Goths): a subtle criticism of modern imperialism and colonialism

Terry Jones and Rob Coldstream, “Terry Jones’ Barbarians (Episode 2: The Savage Goths)” (2006)

Drolly narrated by Terry Jones, he of the Monty Python’s Flying Circus comedy troupe, this documentary uses a mix of computer animation, live dramatic re-enactments (done with relish), interviews, stills and handheld camera film featuring Jones himself to tell the history of Roman-barbarian interactions. The history stuff, dependent on scholarly research, is done well with Jones putting his own humorous and witty spin on the narrative. As it turns out, the documentary is actually less about the Goths’ dealings with the Romans and more about the Romans’ dealings with the various barbarian tribes to their north and northeast and what is implied by Roman military actions against some of these groups.

The episode begins with Alaric the Goth’s sacking of Rome in 410 CE after his people’s harrying of the borders and then the territories of the Roman empire beyond the Alps, in Germania and Gaul. Omitted is the early history of the Goths when first they arose in Gotland, off the coast of southeastern Sweden in the Baltic sea, and challenging the Svear people in central Sweden for control of southern Sweden in the first 200 years of the Common Era; the two groups had the Mother of all Dust-ups, of which there could be only one set of winners. The Goths’ subsequent history in continental Europe and the fact that the Swedes’ own name for their country literally means “Kingdom of the Svear” leave us in no doubt as to who the heavyweight champs were. No, most of the episode is taken up with the complicated relations that the Romans and Germanic peoples had: the two sides fought a great deal, that’s true, but the Romans also used Germanic warriors like Arminius as mercenaries in their armies, and there must have been peace treaties signed between different Roman provincial governors and bands of Germanic peoples, and trade between them and the Roman provinces when they weren’t fighting. The Roman practice of hiring individual barbarian warriors and tribal chiefs as mercenaries and spies might have been copied from the Greek practice of hiring Scythian warriors and archers as their mercenaries so it wasn’t an unusual custom; for one thing, the mercenaries were one conduit by which the Romans assimilated barbarian groups into their culture and society and rule them as client states or provinces.

The first half of the episode is taken up with the personalities of Arminius (the Latinised form of Hermann), the chief of a Germanic tribe, and Publius Quinctilius Varus, appointed by the Roman emperor Augustus as governor of the Germanic territory. Arminius allowed himself to be assimilated into Roman society and even earned honours from the Romans themselves but plotted to unite the various Germanic tribes to fight and throw off Roman rule. In 9 CE, Arminius led a group of warriors from six Germanic tribes to lure the Roman army, consisting of three legions, three cavalry attachments and six units of auxiliary soldiers, into an ambush and killed the lot; Varus who commanded the army committed suicide and his head was taken by Arminius who sent it on to the king of the Marcomanni, an important Germanic tribe, who in turn sent it on to Rome. This decisive battle (the Battle of Teutoburg Forest) determined the border of the Roman empire between Gaul and Germania along the Rhine river. Years later, Arminius fell out with the Marcomanni and various other Germanic tribal leaders and was assassinated by them.

Most of the second half of the episode is given over to the Roman conquest of Dacia in what is now Romania and in particular Transylvania. Here Jones follows an archaeologist who explains what is known of the Dacians and their culture. Although the Dacians were regarded as barbarians by the Romans, their society and culture were heavily influenced by Greek and Roman culture. Jones investigates the causes of the Roman hostility towards the Dacians: the Dacian religion, based on divine worship of their king, and the Dacian territory, rich in gold and other minerals, prove to be their downfall. A border dispute some time after 100 CE gave the Romans the opportunity to conquer and annihilate the Dacians completely and take over their territory. Dacia remained Roman territory for just over 100 years.

The Goths make their actual entrance under Alaric just under 10 minutes before the end of the episode that’s named after them. By the time these particular barbarians are at the gates of Rome, the Goths have actually been well assimilated into Roman life and culture and become Christians. The reason they came knocking at Rome’s door and barged into the city is that they had been unsettled from their territories by the Huns riding all the way from Mongolia and were thus refugees. Alaric treated the Romans fairly well and continued on to Calabria where he desired to sail to northern Africa but the ships that were to take him and his followers were battered in storms, many men drowned and Alaric himself died in Cosenza.

The point of the episode is that Rome itself was far more barbaric in its behaviour towards its tributary peoples than they towards the colonising power; the coverage of the Roman conquest of Dacia in particular is an example of early genocide. The underlying message is that the Romans were the ancient equivalent of the British in the nineteenth century and the Americans in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries in coveting other people’s lands for their mineral and energy wealth and used the most piffling excuse (a border problem) to completely rout and destroy an entire nation who admired Greek and Roman culture. Not much has changed since the Roman empire fell, the episode implies: it is a subtle slap in the face of those supporting the US-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan in the years before 2006.

 

 

 

Mailer for Mayor: dull documentary of limited historical value

Dick Fontaine, “Mailer for Mayor” (1969)

This BBC documentary was included in UK journalist / film-maker Adam Curtis’s recent post “White Negro for Mayor” on his blog. With a minimal voice-over narrative, the film follows writer and intellectual Norman Mailer on his campaign to stand for mayor of New York City in 1969. Mailer discovers that he needs a huge campaign machine, an army of volunteers and (even in those days, over 40 years ago) shit-loads of money to finance his tireless campaigning. With an original theme (the 51st state), catchy logos and enthusiastic support from young people, fellow intellectuals like Gloria Steinem and an assortment of bohos, culture vultures and hipster types, Mailer tries to make some headway in the general consciousness of sceptical or apathetic New York City voters. Can he actually make an impact on a cynical electorate and become mayor?

The fly-on-the-wall style of presentation and the minimal narration which could have put all the details into a general context frankly made the film an ordeal to follow. Much of it is pernickety on details and viewers outside the United States (and many inside the US) not familiar with the day-to-day routine of political campaigning as it was done decades ago will be totally lost. The film is never clear on what Mailer’s platform was all about and I confess to having to look up Mailer’s Wikipedia entry to find out what it was: he was in favour of decentralising the city in a way such that every neighbourhood would have its own school system, police force, housing progams and philosophy that gave it purpose and direction. Minor issues that he stood for included non-fluoridation of the water supply and the freeing of Black Panther leader Huey Newton who was in prison at the time. While most of Mailer’s supporters were too young to vote, he did get some backing from surprising quarters: the libertarian economist / anarcho-capitalist and political activist Murray Rothbard gave his platform the thumbs-up, believing that Mailer’s decentralisation proposal would be the only answer to solving New York City’s many urban problems.

Not suprisingly, Mailer fails dismally in his campaign and the political right-wing forces he’s up against triumph yet again. If there is any value for contemporary audiences from the documentary, it is to show that life in 1960s NYC wasn’t the free-wheeling, love-is-all-you-need hippiedrome we imagine it was: for most people at the time, life was as strait-laced, conformist and dominated by socially and politically conservative ideologies as in the 1950s. The political machinations of Mailer’s more professional and seasoned opponents are as slick and cynical as ever they were in the days when Orson Welles made “Citizen Kane” and before then; the voters are also as disaffected and unimpressed by politicians and their hacks as their descendants are now. What has changed is the scale on which these things happen: larger amounts of money spent on spin and greasing palms, greater voter alienation, a greater sense that once again an opportunity to reach out to people, listen to what they’re really saying rather than going “I feel your pain” and actually doing something to right the wrongs of society is being wasted.

It should be said that Mailer was no angel: he married six times with five marriages ending in divorce and he is known to have been violent to his second wife at least and unfaithful to his fourth wife. His fifth marriage in November 1980 lasted just a day and was done to legitimise the birth of a daughter in 1971 while he was married to Missus No 4.

Heavy Metal Parking Lot: affectionate look at 1980s metal fans and an innocent world long gone

Jeff Krulik and John Heyn, “Heavy Metal Parking Lot” (1986)

In the wake of news that British heavy metal band Judas Priest will cease touring and will be in the main a studio band, holding some live concerts from time to time perhaps, I thought it would be timely to sneak a peek at this documentary about the band’s fans made in 1986. The film was made in Largo, Maryland, during one of the band’s tours: this was probably just after the band had released “Turbo”, one of its lesser-selling efforts, featuring as it does synthesiser guitars which didn’t go down well with JP fans. The film-makers interviewed a number of concert-goers in the outdoor car-park in the afternoon as the early birds try to get a space and decent spots in the venue to see the band.

Most of the people interviewed are very young, ranging in age from thirteen to the early twenties with a few men in their late twenties and thirties; on the whole they are middle class and very friendly and obliging to the film-makers. They are well-mannered and enthusiastic about Judas Priest and other metal bands popular in the 1980s: mainly Dokken and Iron Maiden, with a couple of youngsters mentioning Metallica who were moving from the underground into the mainstream metal scene at the time. Several kids are sozzled on alcohol but they are well-behaved and colourful language is restricted to the occasional “f” word. Special mention must be made of the mop-topped boy wearing the “DC / 10” T-shirt who looks a little like Hollywood actor Adrien Brody: he excitedly performs an impersonation of JP singer Rob Halford singing “Living After Midnight” and ranks JP and Iron Maiden as first and (very distant) second respectively. Having heard Priest and Maiden myself – once upon a time, I owned four or five Priest albums including “Sad Wings of Destiny”, “British Steel” and “Screaming for Vengeance” and taped the song “Exciter” off the radio – I can’t help but agree with that assessment.

The police shepherding the young people into the car park and venue are gentle and friendly and there’s no sign of any hostility between the two groups. The officers are dressed as if for summer duties in their short-sleeved shirts and there’s hardly a baseball cap or set of bovver boots among them.

Watching this documentary was a real eye-opener: I couldn’t help but think of the 1980s as a joyful time when rock and metal were more innocent than now and the main aim was to party-party-party, get drunk and maybe get laid. As yet there are no songs about alienation, “Fade to Black” suicide, apocalyptic scenarios, depression or repressive governments locking down cities; then again, America in the 1980s was still fairly prosperous and young people aspired to attending college, maybe picking up postgraduate studies, and landing a decent well-paying job. If Metallica was becoming popular, it was more the speedy music and drummer Lars Ulrich’s puppyish Paul-McCartney looks than the lyrics attracting young people. Police and youth relations at least look genial. One might assume that one or two of the older guys were on the look-out for some naive nymphettes but one look at them and it seems obvious the fellas are there for the music and to practise their air-guitar fretboarding.

Perhaps later on when the concert ended and the kids were going back to their cars, there was trouble: I have heard that at one Judas Priest concert in the States during the 1980s (it could also have been in Canada for all I know), someone set the cars in the car-park alight and concert-goers were greeted with a bonfire on their return. Whatever, this is one documentary about the band that the JP men might treasure as part of their history: it’s short but it’s also a very affectionate look at ’80s metal fans, their passion, camaraderie and sense of fun and humour.

The Romantics (Episode 1: Liberty): how revolution influenced English Romanticism

Samuel Hobkinson, “The Romantics (Episode 1: Liberty)” (2005)

This episode introduces the political and cultural background to the explosion of English Romanticist literature in the late 1700s / early 1800s. It goes as far back as the 1750s to France when the philosopher Denis Diderot published his encyclopedia dedicated to reason and disavowing belief in God. He is imprisoned for writing heresy. Fellow thinker Jean Jacques Rousseau posited that feeling and individual will were necessary to unlock the prison of old ways of thinking and structuring society. Across the Atlantic Ocean, the original thirteen British colonies in eastern North America grumbled about perceived injustices visited on them by King George III; in 1774, Thomas Paine arrived in the colonies from England and published “Common Sense” two years later, inciting the colonists to rebel against Britain and found the United States of America.

Presenter Peter Ackroyd does a consistent job explaining how the French Revolution and the ideals and values it espoused inspired the English Romanticist literature of some of its greatest exponents: William Blake, William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge Taylor. Actors playing the poets and the philosophers before them are remarkable mainly for their haggard and worn appearance; even actor David Tennant, playing Rousseau, has a sharp, haunted, even deranged look about his face and in his eyes as he strides through modern-day urban Britain. The cinematography is very beautiful with some computer-generated art in some scenes where red clouds roil across the skies. There is some attempt to match the events of the French Revolution as it progressed through the early 1790s to the lives of the artists to show how major world events affected the poets’ outlook and output but the attempt is fairly shallow.

Along the way, some very fine poetry and prose including excerpts of Samuel Coleridge Taylor’s famous “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” are quoted by the actors as they pass through modern urban scenes, demonstrating that the Romanticists’ work still has relevance for audiences today.

The film passes through the Age of Terror that followed the French Revolution in the 1790s and the effects it had on some of the English writers who followed the events in France closely – some were even living in France, close to the action and writing and commenting on it, at least until the action started threatening them! – and the work they produced: disbelief and disillusionment about the revolution and the ugly behaviour it produced are apparent. Curiously the film stops short of Napoleon Bonaparte’s rise to power through the period of the Consulate and then to imperialism; it would have been interesting to learn what William Blake and the other Romanticists thought of the restoration of monarchy in France – most likely, they would have been aghast and disappointed, and their poetry and other works would have become more focussed on self-development especially as the British government had taken measures, including spying on the Romanticists, to ensure that the French Revolution would not repeat on British soil.

Ackroyd could have made some comment as to how the relationship between the French Revolution and the Romanticists and their work is still valid for society today: literary figures such as poets, novelists, essayists and journalists often end up at the forefront of political and cultural change and question accepted but unquestioned conventions of society; if they challenge those conventions, they find themselves the target of persecution, imprisonment and even death; but struggle they must if their challenge is a moral one. In the eyes of many, these people may fail but in a later age they can provide inspiration to others also fighting for social justice.

The Romantics (Episode 3: Eternity): visually striking portrayal of four English Romantic poets

Samuel Hobkinson, “The Romantics (Episode 3: Eternity)” (2005)

Visually striking installment in the BBC documentary “The Romantics” which traces the work and biographies of significant literary figures in the Romantic movement in Britain during the late 1700s / early 1800s, this episode concentrates on four such writers: Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron. The main themes of this episode are the power of the imagination to open up new ways of thinking and living, and defining one’s identity without the support of religion in an age electrified by the new philosophies and values of the Enlightenment. The poets and writers under focus all sought their own ways of forging new identities, seeking unusual experiences and gaining self-knowledge and enlightenment: Coleridge was inspired by dreams under the influence of opium but became addicted to it; Keats was affected by family deaths at a young age and was plagued by ill health, dying young from tuberculosis; Shelley was an atheist and espoused free love in his affair with Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, author of “Frankenstein”; and Lord Byron sought identity in being a celebrity and pursuing adventures in foreign lands and sensual pleasures as an end in itself. Throughout the film, narrator and writer Peter Ackroyd pops up in scenes of contemporary urban British society and rural landscapes to trace these writers’ lives and relate significant events they experienced to their surroundings where the experiences occurred. Actors playing the writers wander the sites, reciting excerpts of their characters’ important works.

The cinematography is beautiful and respects the featured landscapes where the writers spent their lives. Interiors of houses and other buildings are given a moody ambience. Coleridge is dispensed with quickly and the film shifts focus onto Shelley, Keats and Byron whose destinies are often intertwined. The actors chosen to play the poets have sensitive and expressive faces and the actor who plays Keats portrays the poet’s fragility and melancholy at the knowledge that his life will be shortened severely by disease.

The Enlightenment project challenged the authority of religion and replaced it with the need and desire to find one’s own individuality and relationship to society and nature generally as one form of self-enlightenment among others. Although this had positive results – individual creativity was freed to pursue independent and often daring paths of expression – the negative aspects of individuality and self-discovery could be dangerous, even life-threatening: Shelley was expelled from Oxford University for publicly questioning the existence of God and often faced issues of dark self-doubt; and Lord Byron plunged into a life of excess that included racking up huge debts, tempestuous marriages and various love affairs including a supposed incestuous liaison with his half-sister.

I sense a hesitancy in the program to pursue the effect the Enlightenment had on these men’s lives to its ultimate extent: Ackroyd presents Lord Byron as a mere self-indulgent libertine, no different than, say, the Marquis de Sade who declared himself a child of the Enlightenment no less than Byron was or for that matter, Beau Brummell, and who like them was famous for his life-style. Omitted is the manner of Lord Byron’s demise and the circumstances in which it occurred: he died from septicaemia in an infected wound while participating as a freedom fighter in the Battle of Missolonghi, one of the pivotal battles in the Greek war of independence in 1824. Yes BBC, the search for self-knowledge and using your own brain to question society’s conventions can also lead a person into supporting an oppressed people’s desire for self-determination and independence and that surely is the reason that the Enlightenment was such a revolutionary period.

The Romantics (Episode 2: Nature): a visually beautiful film that ignores the dark side of the Romanticist legacy

Samuel Hobkinson, “The Romantics (Episode 2: Nature)” (2005)

While searching for a Czech documentary “Zdroj” (“The Source”) on Youtube and not finding it there – it probably hasn’t been uploaded yet – I came across this very interesting BBC TV documentary which is part of a series on the Romantic literary movement in late 18th / early 19th century Britain written and narrated by Peter Ackroyd. This second instalment focusses on the importance of nature as a source of inspiration to the leading British writers in the Romantic movement at the time: William Blake, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, John Clare and, some time later, Mary Shelley. All these writers are portrayed by actors quoting their works, appearing as ghosts in modern-day Britain and commenting on the environment they see around them through the poetry of their respective poets: this is intended to bring the poetry alive to a modern audience and also makes it social and political criticism as it was intended to be. The documentary presses its point that the British Romanticists were the social and cultural critics of their day and expressed their often forceful opinions about the issues of their day in a literary mode aimed at rousing the social conscience of the educated classes and ruling elites, in a period when literacy was not widespread or well-developed even among monied and propertied people.

In style and appearance, the film revels in widescreen shots of the British countryside and beyond where required by the subject matter, visiting mountains with their dramatic vistas and mist-shrouded lakes from which an arm clothed in gold fabric might emerge to catch a king’s sword. Ackroyd makes frequent appearances but his portly physique and slight speech impediment don’t detract at all from the proceedings and merely add a slightly eccentric flavour to the film’s proceedings: I wouldn’t have minded if he had visited all the places in the film and declaimed all the poets’ works himself. A documentary such as this, marrying literature to its physical and spiritual sources of inspiration, perhaps needs an idiosyncratic presenter who can turn out to be as timeless as the works s/he champions.

The film firmly establishes the social, political and cultural context of the Romanticist movement: Britain at the beginning of the 19th century is fast becoming industrialised with the routines of the increasing majority of the population becoming more governed by the demands of machines, clocks especially, and by the new values that industry and urbanisation bring: order, discipline, conformity and their strict enforcement by new human masters not allied to religion. The lives of children in particular were under severe control by industry – child labour in those days was common – and certain occupations such as chimney-sweeping were the exclusive preserve of child workers. The Romanticists’ revolt against the city and factory and the values these brought to British life can be seen in both their poetry and the lives they led: both Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth moved to the country to live and William Blake himself constantly railed against the abuse of children as workers and the consequences such work had on their health in works like “Jerusalem”. Sometimes the Romanticists’ work had quite dire results for the poets themselves: while they were never dragged off to jail and tortured there by thuggish police or their early 19th century equivalents, a couple of them did skate perilously close to personal danger, John Clare suffering a mental breakdown after seeing the countryside of his childhood fenced off and enclosed by government authorities so that he was unable to ramble through the open space at leisure (though it’s quite possible that his incarceration in a mental asylum was done as much to shut him up as it was for his mental well-being) and William Wordsworth risking his life when he lingered too long in his beloved Lake District area and had to spend the night exposed to near-freezing conditions similar to what his father experienced and died from years earlier when Wordsworth had been a child.

The film concludes with mention of the 1815 Mount Tambora volcanic eruption in Indonesia which spewed so much volcanic dust into the upper atmosphere that climates around the Earth were affected for a whole year afterwards and temperatures dropped several degrees. The summer of 1816 was cold and often dark (though sunrises and sunsets must have been brilliant in their reds and oranges) and this helped to inspire the birth of Gothic literature, exemplified by Mary Shelley’s novel “Frankenstein”, itself a highly Romanticist work in its plea for all humans to be treated equally, fairly and with compassion, no matter what their origins or background may be. The novel also contains a warning within against the misuse of science and for scientists to take responsibility for their work and the results that ensue. Fittingly the part of the documentary that deals with “Frankenstein” contain archived BBC footage of machines at work and scenes of exploding bombs that might have come straight out of an Adam Curtis documentary.

While the film has much to commend it as a historical document, it ignores the negative influences that the Romanticist reverence for nature might have had for British society and culture. It disregards the possibility that the land enclosures which angered Clare so much and helped bring on his mental collapse were carried out by the government in part to preserve the natural environment for the benefit of the aristocracy and its pleasures as a result of that class’s nostalgia for a pre-industrial Britain, its distaste for industry and its values, and its worry that the lower orders might bring that industry (and with it, democracy and egalitarian values) to rural areas and despoil them. There is no suggestion in the film that the Romanticist poets felt much solidarity with members of the working class other than children whom the poets idealised as angelic innocents and one could draw the conclusion, wrongly perhaps or not, that Blake and others like him were as remote from the Great Unwashed as the ruling classes were and that the poets’ life-styles were still dependent on having servants cook and clean for them.

Seduction in the City: the Birth of Shopping (Episode 2: A Modern Game): film could be sub-titled “A Mug’s Game”

Sally Aitken, “Seduction in the City: the Birth of Shopping (Episode 2: A Modern Game)” (2011)

Continuing briskly and trippingly from Episode 1 “A Genius Idea”, Sally Aitken leads viewers into the 20th century, with frequent jumps back into the 19th century, with her visual history of department stores and their influence on Western culture. Using as before a mix of interviews, fictional dramatisations and archival footage, Aitken casts a sometimes critical eye over various social and occasionally political issues and manages to fit in brief biographies of three major department store founders. The film style is light-hearted, flitting from one topic to another in a way not always logical or natural, but with just enough depth to stimulate coffee-table or next-day water-cooler discussion.

Whereas Episode 1 presented department stores as liberating for women in the 19th century, even as promoters of female political emancipation and participation, Episode 2 casts the same phenomenon as enforcing a new kind of bondage in a myriad ways both physical and psychological: topics touched on include the commodification of women’s bodies via the adoption of standard sizes and the elevation of physical beauty as a major crutch for female self-esteem through the advertising of cosmetics, perfumes and clothing. Department stores become amateur psychologists in developing and promoting desire and social conformity; they also start shaping cultural rituals and values. Through the example of a major US department store founder John Wanamaker, who originally intended to train as a religious Presbyterian preacher, department stores turn religious holidays into opportunities for drumming up retail business and profit, and even create new holidays such as Mother’s Day to encourage more spending. Retailers discover children as a market in themselves to be targeted and play on parents’ anxiety and guilt that they’re not doing enough for their precious bairns by promoting children’s goods as educational or beneficial.

In the process of encouraging and feeding desire, department stores give rise to new concepts and values: instant gratification of material wants, built-in obsolescence in products, the use of season-based fashions and trends, social competition in purchasing and flaunting goods, an obsession with individuality (and at the same time an obsession with being part of the middle class – a concept that might have been created by department stores themselves – and fitting into that class) and growth. The programme unfortunately doesn’t extend its investigation of department stores’ manipulation of cultural values into the consequences of that manipulation: the excessive waste of resources in making products that last only one or two years before they must be tossed aside for new products that self-styled fashion leaders declare by statement or example that people must have; equally, the exploitation of resources, any human labour involved in making new products; and the pollution that results from the manufacturing process or from outdated or superseded products dumped into landfills. It’s probably beyond the scope of the programme to investigate how the particular cultural values promoted by department stores intersect and agree neatly with the values of capitalist economic systems and debt-based / growth-oriented financial systems though there’s a very superficial look at how department stores have played a role in the social acceptance of consumer debt and how that might have led to the current global debt crisis.

A further issue the documentary looks at is department stores’ attitudes to worker rights: department stores have often been leaders in granting their usually large workforces benefits and good working conditions but the reason is not necessarily altruistic – the generosity is usually due to the store management’s desire to prevent workers from forming trade unions.

The emphasis in the film moves away from France to Australia, Britain and the US through brief biographies of major department store founders such as Sidney Myer who fled pogroms in Russia and came to Melbourne, reinventing himself as a patriotic Australian while establishing the Myer chain of stores across Australia; Harry Gordon Selfridge, the American who earned a grand fortune through Selfridges in London but threw it all away on gambling and ended up dying in penury; and John Wanamaker, the pious Christian who turned Christmas and Easter and their respective rituals and symbols into money-making opportunities.

The film does not make any predictions as to the future of department stores or shopping as a cultural activity generally and I think this is a major flaw in the documentary. New forms of technology such as 3-D printing have the potential to allow people to create customised versions of products and send department stores, reliant on mass production and enforcing social conformity, into historical oblivion. There was an opportunity in this second episode for Aitken to look at the dark side of the department store as a cultural phenomenon and how it has shaped our thinking, judgement and morals, and that opportunity, although not missed, is not exploited to the full.

 

Seduction in the City: the Birth of Shopping (Episode 1: A Genius Idea): how department stores both freed and enslaved women

Sally Aitken, “Seduction in the City: the Birth of Shopping (Episode 1: A Genius Idea)” (2011)

Ah, shopping – the bane of modern life or the portal to all our fantasies and aspirations? In this informative and entertaining documentary, writer and director Sally Aitken traces the history of a particular kind of department store from its early beginnings in the mid-1800s in France into the global retail and cultural phenomenon it is today, and how it has shaped Western society and attitudes. In the first episode “A Genius Idea”, Aitken investigates the effect glamorous department stores selling desire and fantasy in the nineteenth century had on the lives of women, especially middle class and working class women, and how these institutions not only gave women financial freedom in the forms of jobs and purchasing power but also the freedom to demand political and economic rights.

The story begins in France with Aristide Boucicart, originally from a poor family in Normandy, who arrives in Paris looking for a job and works his way up in retail with the aim of owning his own store selling a variety of goods. In 1838 he opened “Le Bon Marché” as a small shop; it grew to be a fixed-price department store by the 1850s. After 1855, Boucicart’s innovations in marketing became noticeable: he introduced the idea of customers browsing and touching products in the store, the use of price tags, stunning product displays, discount sales, a place to park bored male companions where they could read newspapers and (in 1856) shopping catalogues. Perhaps the most significant innovation was his targeting of women as the store’s core customers, an idea quite alien for French society at the time.

Traditionally women had been viewed by the Roman Catholic Church, science and academia, and society generally as weak, irrational and stupid, and therefore to be kept at home if possible. At the same time prostitution was rife with most working women apparently engaged in it (and with plenty of male clients to cater for). The general view of women was as either pure and chaste Madonna, content to stay at home, or as lascivious whores of loose morals. The social life of women, especially middle class women, was restricted. Boucicart’s ambitions to create a store that sold desires and catered to women’s fantasies for beautiful things (made available by technologies that permitted mass production), in surrounds of glamour and refinement, dealt a blow to traditional social attitudes. His flagship Paris store grows bigger and bigger: in 1867, the store moved to new digs designed by Louis Auguste Boileau; in the 1870s, the store moved into a multi-level building made possible with the latest building technologies using iron and plenty of glass, courtesy of engineering consultant Gustave Eiffel (yes, the father of the tower). Customers who patronised the store were awed by the sunlight that flooded through glass ceilings and the opulent furnishings and displays of goods they encountered.

In addition, Boucicart employed working class women from the provinces (they were cheap labour) and through him these women gained independence, financial freedom and the opportunity to observe and imitate the wealthy female customers they served. Many such workers who passed through Boucicart’s employ later returned home and opened their own businesses: in this indirect way, these women were the shock troops for the cultural unification of France and its domination by Paris.

Boucicart’s success inspired his rivals to set up equally glamorous stores in Paris and his particular concept spread to the US (where department stores had existed since the 1850s and provided Boucicart with much creative inspiration) and to Britain where Harry Gordon Selfridge, an American retailer, established that country’s first major LBM-styled department store Selfridges in 1909 (Britain having had department stores of a plainer style since 1734). At about the same time, a Russian immigrant to Australia, Sidney Myer, established Myers Emporium in Melbourne peddling Boucicart’s concept, Australia having had department stores of some sort or another since 1825.

The film’s tone is light, entertaining and breezy and dramatised recreations of fictional French shoppers going berserk in Boucicart’s recreated store together with interviews of academics and 3-D computer animations of “Le Bon Marché” enliven the voice-over narration and fact-dropping in the unlikely event that it ever gets dry. Particular social and cultural topics are worked into the narrative: a fun fact is that department stores helped facilitate women’s freedom and improved their health by providing public toilets which in turn reduced the incidence of cystitis (a common complaint partly caused by holding one’s bladder too long due to the lack of privies in private). The provision of toilets outside the home meant that women could spend more time away from home (and the watchful eye of relatives, hubby and the in-laws) and in department stores which in turn gave rise to rumours that women were using department stores as dating agencies or places of secret rendezvous with lovers.

Also worked into the narrative is the role department stores played in democratising society: women of different social classes could mix in the one physical space, enabling lower class women to observe and emulate their upper class sisters, and encouraging an incipient sisterhood that would explode into a drive for political and economic rights and the right to vote. Suffragettes in Britain in the early years of the twentieth century used tea-rooms in department stores to hold meetings and rallies; the male owners of these stores were only too happy to allow such meetings to take place and even to let suffragettes sell pamphlets to shoppers outside stores – after all, their custom depended on making women happy. The campaigners deliberately emphasised a glamorous and elegant appearance as weapons to attract supporters for their cause although they were also aware that women workers in department stores earned low wages and their working conditions were often arduous and involved heavy physical work.

In all, the documentary is a delight to watch, visually appealing, if very fuzzy and vague on the details of who actually founded department stores and where they were first set up: depending on how department stores are defined, Britain, the United States and France can all claim to be the first countries to have these institutions. There is a lot of flitting among different countries and time-lines which can be a little confusing for young viewers. Time quickly raced by while I was watching this documentary, so engrossing and lively it is.