They Shall Not Grow Old: Remembering The Stories That Shape Us

Much of human life can be understood as an attempt to keep something alive in the face of the reality of death. It could be the memories of loved ones, having children, leaving something to our children, achievements that will ensure we are spoken of long after we have died. It could be anything. The older we get the more aware we are of our mortality and we turn attention to what we will leave behind us.

This is one of the unique aspects of being human. We live with a profound awareness of our own death, and with that comes a seemingly inbuilt desire to outlive it. If the Biblical author is right this is in part explained by the understanding that God has ‘set eternity in the hearts of people.’ Other traditions have different understandings of this; but few seem to deny its reality. Societies wrestle with this on a larger scale; a key question is how to ensure that future generations don’t lose sight of the lessons of the past and so repeat the mistakes of their ancestors. In South Africa, for example, as the ‘born free’ generation (the first generation born after apartheid officially fell) grows into adulthood there is an increasingly urgent discussion about what stories and monuments must be kept and which should fall. These are conversations replete with emotion and fear, a sense of the widening gap between generations. Older generations want their stories preserved and learned from; younger generations want their unique voices heard, freed from the shackles of having to do what they’re told by people still perceived to fighting yesterday’s battles.

Global conflicts are perhaps the biggest example of this. How we remember them and keep the stories alive, without glorifying immense suffering or sentimentalisation is an increasingly fraught debate. This year we have recently marked the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, a date that leads to acts of remembrance in many countries involved in that war. As the gap between 11/11/1918 and the present day has widened, so has the diversity of opinions in how to mark these anniversaries. Red poppies? White? None? On football shirts or not? A minute’s silence at sporting events? And so on.

If one’s own family was not – like mine, as far as I know –  directly affected by the conflict, it’s hard to connect with these events. With a Jewish heritage on one side of my family – my Grandmother’s family had a narrow escape from the death camps – I have a more natural connection with the 1939-45 conflict. It seems like part of my story; World War One feels like something more abstract and theoretical.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Enter film-maker Peter Jackson The New Zealand Director (best know for the Lord Of The Rings films), was approached by London’s Imperial War Museum to create something out of their archive material to mark the anniversary. The result is hallmark Jackson – technologically groundbreaking and in many respects completely overwhelming. Film as old as 100 years often operates at a variety of different speeds – sometimes within the same reel – so first of all the selected material had to be altered to be of a universal speed; in itself no small task. Then the images, obscured and clouded over the years, were cleaned up. Then they were colourised. To cap it all, soundless images were given a soundtrack – be it birdsong, an explosion or an actor bringing words to silently moving lips through the work of forensic lip-readers, with regional accents appropriate to the soldiers on-screen. The finished product – which in other hands could have been tacky, laboured or too worthy – is truly remarkable. It is called They Shall Not Grow Old.

The story of the declaration of war, joining up and training is told in black and white, a small television-sized box in the middle of the screen; as throughout the whole 90 minutes, recordings taken of veterans in the 1960s tell the bulk of the story from their own point of view. Then, as the soldiers arrive in France, colour and contextual sound spread to fill the viewer’s senses; the overlaid storytelling continues, with the background noise occasionally breaking through to the foreground. All of a sudden distant black and white faces seem to be peering in the viewer’s eyes – and soul. As the story of attack after attack is told, we see images relating to what the narrators are describing – maimed bodies, stumbling survivors, soldiers puffing on a cigarette. As the loss resulting from one attack is described, the camera pans slowly over a large group shot of soldiers gathering, smiling in a mystified, excited and oh so alive way right back at you; at one point, one of them says something; “We’re going to be on film!” he says. Everyone on-screen laughs; so do you.

It’s not uncommon for a cinematic experience to be described in pseudo-religious terms. Transcendent, an epiphany. This films offers that, and in doing so it seems almost unfair to describe it like one would any other film; it sits apart, a unique act of artistic remembrance that has the capacity to change minds and hearts. To keep the dead alive.

We all want to do that – keep the dead alive. It’s impossible. The idea that an aged relative who served in a war – or experienced something equally unusual – can tell his stories to younger generations so they can understand may be worthy, but it is by nature dying off as the people do. So how do we do so? How do we remember? They Shall Not Grow Old gives us one way; it allows the voices themselves to speak, allowing us to hear and see them for ourselves. At no point are we lectured; we’re not told this is ‘good for us’ or that this is ‘important’. It is not ‘worthy’, in the worst sense of that word. The story is simply told in the first person, and we simply listen and watch.

Remembering  – more helpfully understood as retelling a story – is part of our human identity. Which is why it lies at the heart of our religious worship. For Christians the retelling of the central narrative of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection  – Communion, Eucharist, Lord’s Supper, Mass – is the central act of thanksgiving. We retell the story, we take some of it tangibly in to us in the form of bread and wine, and our thankfulness is renewed. For some of us that is a weekly part of worship, a natural part of our life so familiar that as we grow old we may find that we no longer need a written text to help us say and hear the words; it has seeped in to the fabric our lives. Other Christian traditions see it as such a special occasion as to only mark it a few times a year. For some it is cloaked in ritual; for other it is clothed in profound but relaxed intimacy. Whatever it looks like, remembering is at the heart of our worship.

It would be too much to describe the remembering Peter Jackson’s film provokes in us in these religious terms. There is none of the elevation of the dead as perfect sacrificial heroes that can occasionally seem to accompany other acts of remembrance. Instead our narrators describe how they were lied to about the war, how they were considered “the refuse of the industrial system’; how they ‘weren’t to think for ourselves’. They signed up to heroically serve their country lest the women in their towns and cities adorn them with the white feather of cowardice; they ended up mercifully shooting dead fatally wounded men drowning a slow death in the mud and understanding themselves as ‘like rabbits, hunted by mankind’. There is no glory or heroism; instead individual tragedy is given a name and a face and a voice.

Simply put, the film is not an invitation to do something specific; it is an invitation to listen to a story, and let the story do the work it needs to do in you. As powerful an experience as it is, it will keep doing so days and weeks and months and years after you’ve seen it. In doing so, it has added mysterious layers to my awareness of what I am doing as I participate in the retelling of the 2000-year old story that stands as the pivot of history. It questions afresh the myth of redemptive violence and entices thankfulness that I, and my children, do not have to sign up to what these young men signed up to. It leads me to a rededication to retelling the story that shapes my life, that we all locate ourselves in that story.

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The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies

I saw this film in IMAX 3D HFR format.

Some people are never satisfied. Granted, there’s not a single one of Peter Jackson’s six Tolkein adaptations that isn’t in some way flawed. To listen to some talk about the Hobbit films you’d think, however, that he was guilty of mass murder or at least the Transformer films. I remain convinced that from the perspective of history this set of six will be widely-loved and cherished. Frankly I want him to keep making films like this for the rest of my life.

If the first Hobbit was a film that spoke to me of grace and the second was one that spoke to me of joy, then this third instalment induces in me somewhere between childlike wonder and awe. Like the rest of this trilogy, it’s too little narrative stretched over too much screen time. Like The Return Of The King the large-scale battle sections overwhelm character and nuance. Like all the other films, Orlando Bloom is still phoning it in. Unlike the 3rd LOTR film, this one decides that one ending will suffice; and it’s a beautiful, funny and entirely apt ending that moved me to a slightly moistened eye behind my annoying 3D glasses.

Like the other films, and true to Jackson’s film-making roots, there’s some tough stuff in here. Picking up right where the previous film left off, it opens with Smaug laying waste to the nearby city; the attendant action scenes are fantastic, and the footage of ordinary people turned to refugees in fearful panic is chilling and contemporary. There then, essentially, follows a series of sequences of various characters being foreboding about oncoming war, plus a little sneaking around and double-dealing. Richard Armitage as dwarf king Thorin takes centre stage wrestling with ‘gold sickness’ as much as Frodo will later wrestle with the Ring’s power and temptations. It doesn’t quite have the Ring’s chilling relevance but it’s powerful stuff nonetheless and still a fine performance.

It’s all marking time, to be honest, for the titular battle. A masterfully presented battle it is too. There’s a few moments where there’s too much CGI (Legolas running up some falling bricks sticks in the memory in a bad way); other than that, it’s stunning. There are five armies, and for us to be fully involved in personal skirmishes as well as large scale conflict and still be able to keep a handle on the story and who is fighting who and why is no small achievement. There are moments of liquid beauty too – elf armies aligning, especially; and some truly memorable weapons and creatures … a large troll-thing with a stone thing round his head being a funny but still powerful highlight.

As mentioned, occasionally the computer imagery takes over too much, which is an unusual fault in these films. Mostly the human wins through, but here the artifice is occasionally too obvious. For me this was exacerbated by the artificiality of HFR; all be it that IMAX remains the best format for large-scale films like this. By movie’s end, however, it was only my diary and the late hour keeping me from diving straight into the LOTR trilogy.

I rated this film 8/10 on imdb.com and 4/5 on rottentomatoes.com

The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug

Middle chapter of trilogies are notoriously hard to make as fully satisfying experiences. You need to leave the narrative hanging enough to keep the audience coming back for more, but you need to provide enough narrative closure to not send audiences away frustrated and feeling let don. In the case of this 2nd instalment in The Hobbit trilogy, the job is made all the harder by stretching a 400 page book out to what will work out as somewhere around 7-9 hours of film over the three. Another problem faced by this film is that the first alienated some; it was felt by many to be too long with too little actually happening.

I was aware of those faults in the first one, but that didn’t mean I enjoyed it any less. I experienced the film’s real faults as a strange kind of grace – it felt deep and rich and poured over with love. It felt as if this was made by someone who actually cared. If the first film for me was an experience of grace, then this second was one of joy.

The same faults were there – it’s too long, too baggy, though there’s plenty of action in this episode the story is still stretched thin to breaking point. Then there’s Orlando Bloom, revisiting his role from the Lord Of The Rings, which makes some kind of narrative sense but does mean we have screen time with one of the dullest actors I’ve ever come across.

This episode is just so much fun, though. There’s shocks, scares and excitement. There’s some staggeringly thrilling and varied action set-pieces; even one which is clearly inspired by a fair-ground ride, but gets away with it through some wonderful cinematographic flourishes and some proper combat thrown into the mix. Where the first episode hit a real high with the Bilbo/Gollum scene, here there’s an equivalent in a wonderful Bilbo/Smaug (the dragon) interaction, brilliantly voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch. There is real entertainment and fun to be had here, a sense that this is a film that has been made with a grin on its face and a laugh in the belly.

If there’s a disappointment it’s in the amount of CGI – the computers worked overtime on some of this, and whilst it’s mostly good quality it’s just a little too much. On one key scene, the quality dips, a lake of molten gold clearly unreal and fabricated to the point that it’s momentarily distracting, pulling us out of the excitement of the moment at an important juncture.

Still, though, joy is joy despite faults and problems. This film has joy in abundance. It could have easily lost 30 minutes running-time; the romance sub-plot is pointless; Orlando Bloom is a dull actor; there’s too much computer work. It’s deliriously entertaining, though, made with a rich kind of deep care that speaks of people who love what they’re doing and want to make something more than money. It’s easy to say that in making 3 films of such a slim source this is an exercise in making money; instead think of it as adding depth and texture to a world that Peter Jackson as director and his team have made as much their own creative universe as Tolkien did.

Part 1, grace; Part 2, joy. Part 3 … ?

I rated this film 8/10 on imdb.com and 4/5 on rottentomatoes.com

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Peter Jackson, director of this new set of Hobbit films as well as the Lord of The Rings films, seems to like to make life difficult for himself. Lord Of The Rings had long been considered an un-filmable book; technology allowed Jackson to have a good go, but even the trilogy of extended editions had to leave large chunks out. There’s only so long a film can be, really. I loved those films, and I love the books, but I know the detail and the style can alienate. Popular as these films were, it’s hard to imagine they won over any new fans to the genre. Now he’s taking on The Hobbit; a much shorter text, aimed at children, written and set long before Lord of The Rings. So it will be a short film, right? Wrong. Three parts, each around 3 hours in length. In 3D. A lucky few with access to compatible cinemas will see it at the revolutionary High Frame Rate (HFR), supposed to enhance the 3D experience considerably. I didn’t have that option, so I saw this first film in regular 3D – a format I don’t like.

There’s a huge risk in taking what will amount to 9 hours to tell a less than 400 page story; that the plot will feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread (as someone once said). It’s an inescapable accusation – with back story filled in, songs sung at length, battles re-enacted instead of just described by characters – all the meanderings and details mean we don’t always feel tension. The story loses some dramatic momentum for the sake of painstaking detail. Add to that the dashes of childlike humour, even at crisis moments in the narrative, and the film often lacks a sense of danger  – something you could never accuse the Lord Of The Rings films of in their action set pieces.

Much of the film could have been lost, probably at benefit to the story. Did we need so much set-up to the conference in Bilbo’s home? Did the songs really have to stay? Did we need so much flashback?

With this in mind, I had a dawning realisation as I watched this film. It was this: I was very, very happy. Why? Many reasons. In no order … there are moments of genuine visual beauty, even with ‘normal’ 3D’s usual loss of light. There was one shot of a battle of such clarity, such involvement, such depth that I suspect I audibly gasped; another shot of characters walking through a forest in the rain was similarly beautiful – in that case I know I said so aloud. Another reason for my happiness was the acting – which was more consistent than in the previous trilogy. Special mention must go to Martin Freeman as Bilbo: his craft learned on British television (most notably The Office and Sherlockhe can suggest much very economically. He has brilliant comic timing, and can move from farce to pathos without breaking stride. He’s brilliant, and he owns the film. Equally brilliant is, of course, Andy Serkis as Gollum. He and Freeman share a long scene together, and it’s hypnotically enchanting – you could watch twice as much of them together and still not have enough. Ably backed by a largely British collection of primarily television actors, the ball is hardly dropped – which couldn’t always be said of the Lord Of The Rings trilogy (Orlando Bloom, I’m looking at you.).

My happiness was really all about one thing: grace. It may seem an over the top word, but I felt I was being given a treat I didn’t deserve or expect in an adaptation of  a children’s book. This is made with care and love – it could be shorter, and that would have benefits … but it would forfeit so much. The sense that this has been poured over and crafted by a team who care, deeply; the visual gags that keep surprising – the animals in the forest scenes, the insects rising and falling from a beard as a character sleeps, the careful lighting drawing the eye to the otherwise unseen nooks and crannies of a shot. This is a grace dusted film – inessential details lifting the heart and soul, inessential but there to make the heart and spirit sing if you have eyes to see. All meaning, that with all that detail the plot (though lacking momentum) never has the sense of being ‘on rails’ as it does so often in adaptations of poured over texts (see the early Harry Potter films especially, and the Twilight ones). It feels free, loose, unstructured where it could have felt controlled and predictable.

It’s far from perfect – that was inevitable, really, given the limitations of the story. A shorter adaptation would have garnered more praise, and been a safer bet. Peter Jackson, though never wants to play it safe; he even risks an unhelpful comparison by echoing Fellowship Of The Ring‘s structure – narrated flashback, arrival in the shire, feasting, decisions, sudden leaving, opposition, Elves, underground battles, final battle outside, finish on the brink of a new stage. In fact there’s more similarities than that suggests; in doing so it risks unfavourable comparisons, pointless repetition and short attention spans. What it ends up being, though, is like a symphony echoing an earlier musical theme – drawing, even subconsciously, associations in the mind which give depth and weight to the sense of building history to the world and the characters.

Maybe a film regarded as more faithful would be more child-friendly. That’s no doubt true. Instead, it’s more than that – child like in ambition, fun, wonder and a sense of what could be. If it fails to be what some long for it to be, it does so magnificently.

I rated this movie 8/10 on imdb.com & 4.5/5 on rottentomatoes.com

District 9

There was a time when it was felt that every American film made was really about Vietnam. Such was the scar on the national psyche, there was a time of shock and denial when it couldn’t be broached as a subject; then it became clear that even many of the films that weren’t about Vietnam were, in fact, about Vietnam. The same has happened in recent years regarding the Iraq war.

Imagine, then, the choices facing South African film makers. At what point do you stop making films about the traumas, struggles and issues of prejudiced and apartheid? Opinion within the country is divided – some say move on. There are other issues to talk about. Other say we must, as with the Holocaust, constantly find new ways to tell the story to new generations. We must never forget.

Along comes District 9, a South African film produced by Peter Jackson, telling the story of an alien ship stalled over Johannesburg, from where the derogatorily nicknamed ‘prawns’ (aliens) are taken and housed in shanty towns, and then, years later, forcibly relocated. They are not welcome in town, there are aliens rights groups, there’s misunderstanding and misinformation.  In one especially brave touch, the alien language is comprised of clicks  – one character even tells an alien to ‘slow down with the clicks’, eerily reminiscent of how some respond to the Xhosa language. This is a film about it’s country’s history and prejudice  – but (and here’s the film’s ambiguity, which may feel suspicious) what’s not clear is exactly what’s being said about this history.

It’s important to say this is a really good, intelligent and well put-together film. It’s exciting, the special-effects on a budget work well, the characters are engaging and there’s a nice line of dark humour.  I especially like the fact we don’t get explanations for everything – why’s the spaceship there in the first place, not least. It’s put together in the hand-held camera traditions of Cloverfield, using a documentary device; and that device works in a nice, unforced way. Like all good science fiction it does have concerns for issues wider than the story – not just South African history, but issues of immigration, gun-running and identity. The problem the film has, though, it uses those issues, it doesn’t do anything with them. It doesn’t say anything other than use them as a backdrop – which is at best careless or at the (highly unlikely) very worst, in danger of its own encouragement of prejudice. Given the inflammatory nature of these issues, that’s more than a little careless.

I’d like to think the inevitable sequel will go deeper, but I can’t see it. This is still one of the better films of the year, but it could have been even more.