Repetition

Memories of people, times and places, responses to books, to films, to scenes of everyday life.

I would love to hear from readers—from old friends, from anyone who stumbles on these pages.

 

Repetition and recollection are the same movement, only in opposite directions; for what is recollected has been, is repeated backwards, whereas repetition properly so called is recollected forwards. Therefore repetition, if it is possible, makes a person happy, whereas recollection makes him unhappy.

—Søren Kierkegaard

Turner

Turner, Snow Storm (1842)

Turner, Snow Storm (1842)

Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner has been universally praised. Were we missing something? Would we think better of the film in recollecting it, or seeing it again? Possibly.

The film starts out with a problem, or rather several problems, from the point of view of dramatic interest. J.M.W.Turner as a subject. Only imagine an incredulous old-time Hollywood mogul listening to the pitch: What you have here (it would have to go) is the story of a man successful from the beginning, rich, honoured by his professional peers, having no unfulfilled or ill-starred romantic passions we know of, no serious rivals, who never seems to have been blocked in a prodigious output of art works, or done anything he did not choose to do, and died in bed in domestic comfort, mourned and revered, a national treasure.

Since there is no conflict to speak of, the film doubles down on two other staples of cinematic technique. One of which is acting, or perhaps we should say Acting. Timothy Spall’s Turner puffs and grunts, squints and waddles, stabs and spits, he gropes and nuzzles and rogers, he mostly frowns but sometimes twinkles and now and again chortles. Turner’s housekeeper, played by Dorothy Atkinson, contributes a supplementary gallimaufry of moues and angular postures. This perpetual motion of deep but largely indecipherable inner commotion has the effect of substituting for plot. It also sucks up all the available oxygen, the rest of the film stranded in the parallel universe of a mediocre costume piece. It invites us to think that when Turner acts badly he is being misunderstood, as only a man of such profound absence of social skills and repellent aspect can be misunderstood. We are being offered an intuition, rather than an explanation, of Turner’s greatness as an artist. It must have to do with the temperament.

The other staple, which Mr. Turner deploys in abundance, is atmosphere. The sun is here, the sun is there. Glowing through mist, burning brazenly on a molten sea, in calm and in storm, setting clouds, smog, industrial fire and smoke, alike ablaze with inner transcendental glory. So this is how those late masterpieces—The Fighting Temeraire (1838); Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying) (1840); Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth (1842); Rain, Steam and Speed (1844)— came to be! Turner painted what he saw! But sumptuousness in cinema is ultimately the enemy of understanding that requires stillness, comparison, thought. The film achieves the trick of diminishing the pictures it is presumably celebrating. Why visit the Tate when you can go directly to Margate?

There are hints of Art History. Mr. Turner gets off between grunts that Claude Lorrain was a genius. A twinkling squint appears to express contempt for the Pre-Raphaelites. The figure who could sort this all out for us, however, the greatest critic of the age, John Ruskin, is represented in the film as lisping, camp dilettante, a fool.

Bartleby

helenapérezgarcía_bartleby

Helena Pérez García, Bartleby

Penny designs all our web-related projects and we have recurring conversations—arguments would be too strong—about suitable analogies in thinking about blogs. These conversations arise, I freely admit, because I experience bouts of resistance, distaste, impulses to run the other way, whenever the formal requirements of the web-as-medium threaten to impinge, to control, to divert, to govern. At some deep level I refuse the logic of the medium. So, when confronted with the need to think about, and apply, categories, tags, key words, and the like, I am likely to say, with Bartleby the scrivener, I would prefer not to.

At which point Penny adduces the analogy of the library. What sort of library would it be, she will say, for which there are no search tools, no indexes, no cross-references? I think about this, or make a show of thinking about it, and reply that the library is the wrong analogy. The blog—my blog, that is to say—is not like a library at all. One should think of it instead as a collection of essays in a book.

What I have in mind, of course, is a battered Penguin picked up in a charity shop, by an author one has never heard of, with no more in the way of search tools than a table of contents, which one anyway ignores in favour of turning over pages until arrested by a turn of phrase or a reference to something interesting. I am saying that this is how I want readers to stumble on my blog. As I warm to the subject I will ask who anyway wonders what S.K.Johannesen might have to say about Scorsese’s films, say, or Norwegian Pentecostals. Nobody. That’s not how it works. No, my blog is a slim paperback, left behind in a bus shelter, as it were, picked up and handed around as a find, in a small circle of readers, a select company it goes without saying.

But this is all bluster, as Penny perfectly well knows. She does what needs to be done, with grace and efficiency. I am more grateful than I can say.