Sunday, February 18, 2007

"Our Myra"

I found it interesting that I was trying to take on the subject of the nature of evil only a couple of hours before the first screening of Longford on my HBO East feed. There are so many paths one could go down in discussing this excellent piece of work by Tom Hooper with a script by Peter Morgan. However, what may be most important for me was the way in which the film reminded me of how much I had learned about text analysis from my mentor, Seymour Chatman, now an Emeritus Professor at Berkeley. It was from Chatman that I first learned about the text types of argumentation, description, exposition, and narrative; and it was also Chatman who brought my attention to how Alain Renais had tried to structure a film around argumentation, rather than narrative.

I say all this by way of prologue because Longford is definitely not your standard cinematic narrative. Indeed, if I accept Chatman's analysis of Renais, then I would like to hypothesize that Longford has taken an expository approach in the same way that Renais' film, Mon Oncle d'Amerique, took an argumentative one. The narrative of the events in the lives of Myra Hindley and the Earl of Longford provide the background for a serious expository approach to the nature of evil. I call this expository because the film really does not take an argumentative position, using those events to warrant the position and defeat counterarguments. Rather, it is an attempt to weave a fabric of context around a small group of individuals and how they react to their confrontations with evil. By refraining from critical judgment in an almost clinical way, Hooper has probably set himself up for the sort of film that receives "critical acclaim," the usual euphemism for the neglect of the general public. Nevertheless, the film is an important piece of work, particularly at a time when so many politicians seem to be staking their reputations on some really sloppy thinking about a really challenging concept. Unfortunately, the lessons to be learned from the Earl of Longford will probably not follow most of us into the voting booths; and more is the pity for that.

Because the dramatic impact of this film may be weakened if one knows too much about the synopsis, let me just reproduce the basic set-up paragraph from the HBO synopsis page:

In 1965, he [Longford, played by Jim Broadbent] begins visiting Myra Hindley [Samantha Morton], a young woman serving a life sentence for murdering children with her lover Ian Brady [Andy Serkis]. Though Longford encountered public outrage, discouragement from his wife Elizabeth [Lindsay Duncan], doubt from his family, and criticism from his colleagues and the press, he continued to visit and exchange letters with Hindley. After learning that she once converted to Catholicism, Longford encourages her to return to the church and ask for God's forgiveness.

If we accept Aristotle's premise that tragedy is about characters who are noble, while comedy is about characters who are base, then the noble characters of Longford and his wife definitely make this the stuff of tragedy. Furthermore, in classical tragedy the non-noble characters are presented to us through the chorus; and it would not be too far-fetched to call Ian Brady the chorus figure who provides a sense of orientation as the events in Longford's life unfold.

This is the point I would like to explore in terms of how Morgan structured his text. The fundamental dilemma in Longford's life concerns the contradictions between the impressions he forms of Hindley and those conveyed to him by Brady. In writing words for Brady, Morgan fell back on a traditional turn of phrase that I had encountered when the lower classes of British society refer to their children: "our ." Brady practically sneers the phrase "our Myra" every time he refers to her in his interviews with Longford; but eventually we discover that he is not merely mocking a somewhat archaic social convention. Rather, in the role of chorus, Brady tries to get Longford to see Hindley as an agent whose atrocious acts were motivated by her character, where the character was that of "textbook hysteria." Brady's argument is that Hindley's only concern was to present herself in a manner that would please whomever she encountered. He could speak first-hand of how she had presented herself to him as an accomplice to a series of ghastly murders; and he tries to convince Longford that she is now presenting a different character to a Lord with a reputation of trying to help prisoners in need. Thus, "our Myra" is not the scornfully ironic use of an idiom but a more literal invocation of the first person plural. Brady's point is that "his" Myra is not the same character as "Longford's Myra" and that this discrepancy is an act of calculated design on Myra's part. Needless to say, making this "work" in a film is no easy matter; but Morgan and Hooper pull it off, due, to a large extent, to the ways in which they employ not only Elizabeth but also one of the first prison wardens we encounter.

It is through this technique that the actual events take a back seat to the expository approach to evil. Gradually, Myra is revealed to us as a "character without character." She is more like a mirror that reflects back to others the images they want to see, whether they are the images of Longford coping with his convictions as a Catholic or the images of Brady the serial killer with nothing but contempt for the society that spawned him. Indeed, because she can never do anything other than reflect the images of others (in some blend of the literal and the metaphorical), she lacks all capacity for self-reflection; and that is where this exposition of the nature of evil leads us. We are left with the hypothesis that evil amounts to this uncanny detachment from the world-as-a-whole, thinking only of one "other" in the "immediate present" and never reflecting on one's acts, neither what they are nor what their consequences may be. That hypothesis is not resolved for us. It remains with us as we read the documentary evidence of the deaths of the major characters in this story before the final credits roll, but Hooper and Morgan have planted the hypothesis in the consciousness of anyone who takes to trouble to view their film. They should be honored for this achievement, even if it is never backed up with any of those awards associated with the glamour of their trade.

1 comment:

Peggy Minnis said...