The epigraph to Ralph Fiennes’s The Invisible Woman, adapted from Claire Tomalin’s biography of Ellen Ternan, is naturally taken from Charles Dickens, of whom the latter was mistress during the last years of his life: “A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other.” The context, in A Tale of Two Cities, is of love and death. The “profound secret and mystery” is another way of expressing the individuality that we love, when we love, and that we mourn in those we love after their death — at least partly because the elusive promise of discovering the secret and plumbing the mystery must now be acknowledged as forever to be unfulfilled. How far that opinion was held by Dickens the man and not as a narrative or thematic convenience for the author is, perhaps, his own mystery, taken with him to the grave. But a fascination with and a need for secrecy itself becomes for Mr.
After only six weeks in release, Lone Survivor is closing in on the box office record set last year by Zero Dark Thirty for movies about our post-9/11 wars. Yet it has received little publicity compared not just with Kathryn Bigelow’s film, which courted controversy with scenes of torture that portrayed the torturers sympathetically, but also with the string of anti-war flops that came before it. Hollywood and the media desperately wanted people to like those movies for the sake of their political agenda, but people didn’t like them and didn’t go to see them. Zero Dark Thirty at least looked to people like it was pro-American.
Bodies are optional — and therefore dispensable. That has been the subtext of the utopian dream of rationalists from Descartes to the present day. The trouble is that we know it isn’t true. We need our bodies. Without them, we are nothing, at least so far as we can know. The rationalists nowadays, however, have become so confident about the advance of technology, and especially the technology of artificial intelligence, that they tend to take for granted that it is only a matter of time until “science” — perhaps, as disembodied as its future creations — is able to synthesize humanity itself. To be up front about it, I don’t think so. Humanity is embodied and, the advance of technology notwithstanding, it always will be. That is part of what humanity means — along with all that bodies imply about the inevitability of pain and loss and failing faculties and death, which are among the bugs that the rationalists seek to eliminate from our human software.
The best line in American Hustle comes in an exchange between Bradley Cooper’s FBI agent, Richie DiMaso, and Irving Rosenfeld, the small time crook played by Christian Bale who is bargaining with him to get a reduced sentence by helping to entrap several U.S. congressmen in what was to become known as the Abscam bribery sting. In the spirit of post-Watergate self-righteousness that must have affected the FBI almost as much as it did the media and the political Carterism that played to it, Richie tells Irving that he is the kind of person who is ruining America. Irving replies in high dudgeon: “No, you’re the one who is ruining America. People just got over Watergate and Vietnam and you’re going to s*** all over politicians again!”
You know how, sometimes, when somebody says something really funny or clever and you want to tell somebody else about it but you can’t quite remember the exact words or what it was in the context that made it so funny or clever? Anyway, when you say it, it doesn’t sound so clever or funny as when the funny or clever person said it, and you add, rather lamely, “You sort of had to be there”? Well, some such form of words as that ought to have been appended by the Coen brothers to their new movie, Inside Llewyn Davis. They seem to have been counting instead on an audience that was there, or at least that thinks it was there or wishes it had been there, and so is willing to come more than halfway to meet them in their half-hearted attempt to re-create the alleged magic of Greenwich Village in 1961.
During the two very long hours of Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, I think I chuckled three times. Meanwhile, all around me were cracking up. They, obviously, were more in tune with the general audience responsible for (at the time of writing) the $100 million in box office receipts earned by this sequel to the equally dreadful Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004). Not that I’m not used to being in the minority in my view of popular movies, but I can’t help asking myself why so many people think this one, which is by the same creative team of Will Ferrell and Adam McKay that produced the original, is funny when I do not. I don’t think it can be because I lack a sense of humor, or that it has atrophied with age, since I do laugh at quite a lot of things.
You may find that you have, as I do, a slight problem with Stephen Frears’s Philomena, which is in many ways — chief among them the fine performance of Dame Judi Dench in the title role — a lovely and a touching film about a mother’s search for her lost child 50 years after being forced to give him up for adoption by the sisters of an Irish convent who had taken her in. The problem can be summed up in the words of Martin Sixsmith, who wrote the true-life “human interest” tale on which it was based at the urging of the true-life Philomena. Writing in the Daily Telegraph, he notes that her secret, kept from even those closest to her until she finally decided to reveal it, was that she “had been a teenage single mother in Ireland at a time when sex outside marriage was considered a sin.” Believe it or not, Martin, it still is considered a sin. It’s just that, nowadays, neither the Church nor anybody else appears to think that this particular sin is anything to get very upset about.
Everybody’s second favorite quotation from the great 20th-century British poet Philip Larkin — the favorite is obviously “They f*** you up, your mum and dad” — is the final line of “An Arundel Tomb,” and it is almost invariably quoted out of context. “What will survive of us is love” is placed in its emphatic, concluding position, I think, just in order that we may forget, for the moment, the severe, heart-breaking qualifications of the penultimate line: “Our almost-instinct almost-true.” In other words, it feels like an instinct, but it isn’t; and, in any case, it isn’t true. This is a revealing and typical rhetorical trick on Larkin’s part, but I wonder if a better, though a more banal truth doesn’t lie in a different qualification: what will survive of us is (at least some of) our “loved ones” — assuming that we have any, and that the term is understood in its fully euphemistic, funeral-directorish sense.
One of my favorite recent Guardian headlines — right up there alongside “Why do normal men turn sexist when they get in front of a barbecue?” or “Snowden's revelations must not blind us to government as a force for good” — is this one, to an article by Nick Dastoor: “A single man's guide to seeing Blue Is the Warmest Color.” As self-parody, that could have topped even Julie Bindel’s “What straight men don’t understand about lesbians” of a couple of years previous except that, unlike her piece, Mr. Dastoor’s turned out to have been a deliberate self-parody. I find that a hopeful sign.