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Archive for April, 2010

David Bond has an article in yesterday’s Evening Standard about the extent of surveillance in Britain at the moment.

He goes through the usual list of governmental and commercial tracking that goes on, often unacknowledged, from the low-level surveillance of supermarket loyalty cards and freely shared social networking information, through the new NHS database, to the 250 CCTV cameras that populate his neighbourhood in Hoxton, London.

London has been the world’s test bench for a range of tracking gadgets. We have more CCTV than any other city – there are 250 cameras alone within a mile of my house in Hoxton. Again, convenience was at the heart of the sales pitch, this time to the police. Imagine, no more trudging the cold streets. Sit in comfort and watch the crimes unfold. You only need to get out there when there is a problem. And to citizens, the systems are sold by fear. Crime is too widespread to catch on foot, we were told. We need to use the all-seeing eye. So why did the recent House of Lords report conclude that CCTV has had little or no effect in preventing or detecting crime? The massive industry that sells CCTV to government had a ready answer — because it is not really good enough yet. The images are too blurry. There are not enough cameras. Or perhaps they need to be fitted with more advanced software (now being installed in central London stations) that can recognise your face, or even how you walk. Once the technology is perfected, then it will really start to improve our lives. Or will it?

What made the article particular interesting was that he went underground, tried to live a hidden life away from the tracking technology, and hired a firm of private investigators to see how long it would take them to find him from publically available information.

I wanted to know what other people can know about me. What is out there in the public domain? Can it be used to profile me to the extent that a determined investigator, identity thief or stalker, could know what I am likely to do in the future — and catch me?

Within an hour of searching for me (all they had to start with was my name and a recent photo) the private investigators had ordered my wife’s, my own and my daughter’s birth certificates, and my parents’ and my marriage certificates.

They ran my name through a number of profiling systems to give them my credit rating, details of property I owned and my employment history. They also ran a quick profile of me on social networking sites. I had tried to remove myself from Facebook (you can never really remove yourself from Facebook) but they were able to find a good crop of my friends. I am not particularly vulnerable, by the way, anyone could do the same to you.

Before running away, I wanted to find out what data is out there about me as an average Londoner. I compiled a list of 80 organisations — companies, government agencies, social networks — that know about me. I made subject access requests under the Data Protection Act to all of them.

The results were staggering. My desk disappeared under a mountain of paper. It turns out that the DVLA still had records of a driving offence I committed in my late teens. I am 38 and they are supposed to be deleted after 10 years. Amazon provided 120 pages of orders, friends to whom I send presents and even things that I might be interested in, based on my previous browsing.

Transport for London reluctantly sent me a terrifying log of every crossing in and out of the congestion charge zone I have ever made. I had bought a low-emission car to avoid the charge, but they track it anyway. When I called them to ask why, the bemused manager said that the police might need it if I got myself in trouble in the future. “It’s not a police state or anything,” he reassured me.

My bank sent me records of my phone calls. It had lost a cheque in 1997, and the transcript read like a Stasi file. “Mr Bond seems angry. His voice is raised. And he is considering leaving the bank.” Tesco knows what food I like. I suppose that’s not a surprise. But it also has me pegged as, among other things, a new dad, who buys beer on a Friday, and sometimes a little more than average …

In itself, this data was unsettling but what really gave me the fear was when I called these people back and asked them to delete the data. “Do what?” was the standard response. “Delete it, please.” “Oh no, we don’t do that.”

And the penny dropped. Knowledge is power. For governments, this means control, for companies, profit. Once we give this stuff up, we are never getting it back and it sits around forever.

You can see the TV documentary on More4 at 10pm on Tuesday. And look at the website here.

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If my greatest films of all time list had gone up to twenty, I would have added Annie Hall. Rev Robert E. Lauder is a Catholic priest and professor of philosophy in the States who is an ardent admirer of Woody Allen. He’s also written a book I haven’t come across that looks very interesting: Magnetized by God: Religious Encounters through Film, Theater, Literature, and Paintings (Resurrection Press).

Last month Fr Lauder got the chance to interview Woody Allen. He spent much of the time fishing for religious ideas, hoping that Allen would give at least a hint of reaching for the transcendent through his cinematic artistry. No such luck. Allen’s take on life is remorselessly bleak, despite the humour:

RL: When Ingmar Bergman died, you said even if you made a film as great as one of his, what would it matter? It doesn’t gain you salvation. So you had to ask yourself why do you continue to make films. Could you just say something about what you meant by “salvation”?

WA: Well, you know, you want some kind of relief from the agony and terror of human existence. Human existence is a brutal experience to me…it’s a brutal, meaningless experience—an agonizing, meaningless experience with some oases, delight, some charm and peace, but these are just small oases. Overall, it is a brutal, brutal, terrible experience, and so it’s what can you do to alleviate the agony of the human condition, the human predicament? That is what interests me the most. I continue to make the films because the problem obsesses me all the time and it’s consistently on my mind and I’m consistently trying to alleviate the problem, and I think by making films as frequently as I do I get a chance to vent the problems. There is some relief. I have said this before in a facetious way, but it is not so facetious: I am a whiner. I do get a certain amount of solace from whining.

RL: Are you saying the humor in your films is a relief for you? Or are you sort of saying to the audience, “Here is an oasis, a couple of laughs”?

WA: I think what I’m saying is that I’m really impotent against the overwhelming bleakness of the universe and that the only thing I can do is my little gift and do it the best I can, and that is about the best I can do, which is cold comfort.

RL: At one point in Hannah and Her Sisters, your character, Mickey, is very disillusioned. He is thinking about becoming a Catholic and he sees Duck Soup. He seems to think, “Maybe in a world where there are the Marx Brothers and humor, maybe there is a God. Who knows.” And maybe Mickey can live with that. Am I interpreting this correctly?

WA: No. I think it should be interpreted to mean that there are these oases, and life is horrible, but it is not relentlessly black from wire to wire. You can sit down and hear a Mozart symphony, or you can watch the Marx Brothers, and this will give you a pleasant escape for a while. And that is about the best that you can do…. I feel that one can come up with all these rationalizations and seemingly astute observations, but I think I said it well at the end of Deconstructing Harry: we all know the same truth; our lives consist of how we choose to distort it, and that’s it. Everybody knows how awful the world is and what a terrible situation it is and each person distorts it in a certain way that enables him to get through. Some people distort it with religious things. Some people distort it with sports, with money, with love, with art, and they all have their own nonsense about what makes it meaningful, and all but nothing makes it meaningful. These things definitely serve a certain function, but in the end they all fail to give life meaning and everyone goes to his grave in a meaningless way.

This is so depressing it makes me want to go and watch Annie Hall and a whole clutch of Woody Allen classics to cheer myself up.

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Radio - 92/365 by morberg.

This is so funny I had to post it:

On Good Friday 1930, the journalists on BBC radio news did not know what to put in the evening bulletin. The country was on holiday. The world economy appeared to be recovering after the Wall Street Crash of 1929. Few guessed that the revival was a suckers’ rally that heralded a global depression. Europe was quiet — Adolf Hitler was still an obscure opposition politician — and although Britain ruled a great empire, nothing much seemed to be happening there either.

Stumped by a slow news day, the BBC delivered the most honest broadcast in the history of journalism. “Ladies and gentlemen, there is no news tonight,” proclaimed the announcer. “So here is some music.”

There is a serious point to Nick Cohen’s article “Curmudgeons of the world unite“. He is writing about how news stories today have to be reported with the same intensity – whatever the subject. The ‘frame’, quite literally, is always the same (my image not his): the border of the newspaper, the edge of the TV set, the casing of the computer screen. So that every piece is flattened or heightened to the same level, given the same spotlight. [Too many metaphors...]

Deceit in the modern Radio 4 — and in the rest of the media — does not always lie in journalists’ biases. The pretence that there is always news worth reporting can be equally deceptive. Whatever has happened — or rather, whatever has not happened — the Today programme must always run for three hours, the news pages of the press must always be filled and, like Old Man River, the rolling news channels must keep on rolling along.

The result is media without discrimination in which a parochial argument about the allocation of resources in the NHS on one day is put on a par with the deaths of hundreds of thousands in Haiti the next.

Broadcasters deliver every lead story at the same tempo and pitch. However bold they are, you will never hear John Humphrys or Jeremy Paxman admit, “We’re leading with this piece because we haven’t got anything better to air. On normal days, we would never have bothered you with such a trivial item.

He goes on to sing the praises of Radio 5 Live for being the only station that is ‘suicidally candid’ enough to tell you that the matter in hand (usually a football game) is abysmally boring and not actually worth listening to. He encourages even those who hate football to tune in so that they can savour this experience of journalism in its purest form.

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I live on the site of St Thomas More’s home in Chelsea. It was here that Holbein drew the sketches for the celebrated More family portrait. The sketches survive; but Holbein’s finished image, sadly, is lost. It was not a canvas or board, but a huge linen wall-hanging, about nine feet high and twelve feet wide.

In the 1590s Rowland Lockey made various copies of this image, with sometimes major adjustments in the composition. The best of these ‘reinterpretations’, from 1593, now hangs at Nostell Priory in West Yorkshire.

Margaret, Thomas’s favourite daughter, sits at the front of this group, holding a book in her lap, with her fingers pointing very precisely to some specific lines. There have been two puzzles. Were these lines present and given such prominence in Holbein’s original (if so, presumably on More’s instructions)? And what would their significance be?

John Guy, in his book A Daughter’s Love that I referred to a few posts ago, thinks he has the answer:

What Margaret holds up to view is no less than Seneca’s classic defence of the ‘middle way’ or unambitious life, the passage in which he counterpoints the security of a lack of ambition with the dangers of a public career.

His message is about the relationship of human beings and fate. No one can predict what will happen to those who enter the counsels of princes. Fate is an irrevocable series of causes and effects with which not even the gods can interfere. Rather than urge an honest man to take the plunge, Seneca points out to him the perils of high office and the inevitability of fate.

Using Plato’s metaphor in The Republic of the ship of state, he says if he were left to his own devices, he would trim his sails to the light westerly winds: ‘May soft breezes, gently blowing, unvarying, carry my untroubled barque along; may life bear me on safely, running in middle course.’

Most compellingly, Seneca cites the example of Icarus who, attempting to escape from prison with his father, Daedalus, flew too close to the sun so that the wax melted on his wings and he fell into the sea, where he drowned. And it is to the very line in which Seneca describes how Icarus ‘madly sought the stars’ that Margaret points with her finger. [175]

I’m not discouraging people from going into politics – far from it! But it is fascinating to discover the coded warnings given by someone as astute and involved as More to those who seek high office.

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No-one would pretend that religious life in Britain is booming. Religious congregations are greying; most of them are closing individual houses here and there; and many are winding up their presence in this country altogether, unable to sustain the numbers to keep a province going. This is true for both enclosed and apostolic religious life.

None of this negates the amazing witness and work of religious brothers and sisters in recent generations, but it raises questions about the meaning of religious life and its place in Christian culture.

So it was particularly inspiring to be at the profession of a young sister at the weekend. Despite the travel chaos that kept a number of guests away, Sister Clare Ruvarashe of the Cross made her final profession in the Poor Clare community at Arundel.

Assisi -  Italien - Italy - Monastery - Kirche - Church - "Franz von Assisi" by Ela2007.

Assisi and the Basilica of St Clare

What made her join? Well, it’s not my job to speak for her, you can read her story here. For a shortened explanation, she chose to have these words from the prophet Jeremiah printed on the back of her booklet:

O Lord, You have seduced me, and I have let myself be seduced. Your word in my heart is like a consuming fire burning deep within my bones. [Jer 20:7]

It made me reflect on all the positive signs of religious life in Britain, and how it is not all one tidy story of ageing and exile. Just in my own random experience as a priest over the last few years I have known young women, in this country, who are in formation as Poor Clares, apostolic Franciscans, Benedictines, Assumptionists, Missionaries of Charity, Sisters of the Gospel of Life, Carmelites, the Community of Lady of Walsingham, and as three different ‘types’ of Dominicans. And young men in formation as Franciscans, Benedictines, Dominicans, Salvatorians, Missionaries of the Sacred Heart, Norbertines, Carmelites, Fransalians, Jesuits, as two ‘types’ of Augustinians, and as Oratorians (not strictly ‘religious’). I’m sure there are many others who have slipped my mind, and I know there are many other congregations and communities with new members that I just don’t happen to know.

It’s not an avalanche, but it shows the continuing attraction of religious life for many young people, and it must be an encouragement to all those religious men and women who have been so faithful to their vocation over the years, and given so much to the Church in this country.

Here are the questions that Sister Clare was asked on Saturday by Bishop Kieran Conry. It’s poweful stuff!

By baptism you have been consecrated to God. Following St Clare, do you wish ‘to love Him totally who gave Himself totally for your love’?

Do you wish to follow the way set out by Clare – ‘to observe the Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ, by living in obedience, without anything of one’s own and in chastity’?

Clare said to her sisters: ‘Love one another with the love with which Christ has loved you, so that all the sisters may always grow in love for God and for each other’. Do you wish to open your heart to the whole world in this way?

Clare wrote to her friend Sister Agnes in Prague: ‘As a Poor Sister, embrace the poor and crucified Christ, gaze at Him, think about Him and desire to imitate Him’. Do you, by renouncing every kind of possession and privilege, wish to talk along the way of poverty by living with nothing of your own?

Clare says in her Rule: ‘May the sisters desire above all else to possess the Spirit of the Lord, and to pray always to Him with a pure heart’. Do you wish to welcome our Saviour in prayer and silence?

And to each question Sister Clare answered:

Yes, by the grace of God and with the help of my sisters.

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Beneath the election froth, there is a genuine debate going on within British politics about the role of government, and particularly about the distinction between the state and civil society.

It’s not just David Cameron’s pitch for a ‘Big Society’. It connects with recent discussions about faith schools, adoption agencies, universities, the right of government to impose a particular form of sex education, and much more.

Is the government responsible, top-down, for every form of social provision? Is the relationship between government and the institutions of civil society one of ‘contracting out’ services that it cannot itself provide? Or are these civil institutions constitutive parts of society with their own particular motivations, purposes and values?

This is what the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales wrote in their recent document Choosing the Common Good:

Have we allowed ourselves to be seduced by the myth that social problems are for the government to deal with? Politics are important but there are always limits to what any government can achieve. No government can solve every problem, nor make us more generous or responsive to need. The growth of regulations, targets and league tables, which are tools designed to make public services accountable, are no substitute for actions done as a free gift because the needs of a neighbour have to be met.

Acts of willing generosity to help others are not taken because the rules and regulations say so, or because money can be made out of them. Both regulation by law and market forces have a role in modern society. But what has been increasingly overlooked is this third form of motivation, the offer of time, energy and possessions out of the spirit of good citizenship and genuine neighbourliness. If we are to have a society worth living in, this third form of motivation is crucial. Local institutions expressing good citizenship and neighbourliness, which are not beholden to the government, form a vital part of civil society. Without solidarity and the friendships that express it, many of those living alone – now Britain’s most common form of household – become still more lonely and isolated.

Many factors lie behind the decline in this spirit of solidarity of one with another, without which society starts to break down and life becomes intolerable. An excessive emphasis on each person simply pursuing their own interests is no doubt one such factor. This flows from a limited understanding of ourselves as human beings. Far from being self-contained individuals, we are, in truth, always mutually dependent. We are made for one another. This is verified by the sense of fulfilment and satisfaction we experience when we act in generosity and solidarity with those in need. We are not isolated individuals who happen to live side by side, but people really dependent on one another, whose fulfilment lies in the quality of our relationships. [p.7]

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Given that cinema is the highest form of art and the very summit of human civilisation, I have a bit of a blind spot for opera. But ever since I saw the film Koyaanisqatsi as a teenager I have had a love for the music of Philip Glass, who wrote the soundtrack.

So it was Philip Glass who drew me to the ENO a couple of weeks ago to see Satyagraha, his opera about Gandhi’s formative years in South Africa.

Much of the opera is about Gandhi’s particular form of non-violence, which is described in an article in the programme by Mark Kulansky.

Nonviolence is not the same thing as pacifism, for which there are many words. Pacifism is treated almost as a psychological condition. It is a state of mind. Pacifism is passive; but nonviolence is active. Pacifism is harmless and therefore easier to accept than nonviolence, which is dangerous.

When Jesus Christ said that a victim should turn the other cheek, he was preaching pacifism. But when he said that an enemy should be won over through the power of love, he was preaching nonviolence.

Nonviolence, exactly like violence, is a means of persuasion, a technique for political activism, a recipe for prevailing. It requires a great deal more imagination to devise nonviolent means — boycotts, sit-ins, strikes, street theatre, demonstrations — then to use force.

And there is not always agreement on what constitutes violence. Some advocates of nonviolence believe that boycotts and embargoes that cause hunger and deprivation are a form of violence. Some believe that using less lethal means of force, rock throwing or rubber bullets, is a form of nonviolence.

But the central belief is that forms of persuasion that do not use physical force, do not cause suffering, are more effective; and while there is often a moral argument for nonviolence, the core of the belief is political: that nonviolence is more effective than violence, that violence does not work.

Mohandas Gandhi invented a word for it, satyagraha, from satya, meaning truth. Satyagraha, according to Gandhi, literally means ‘holding on to truth’ or ‘truth force’. Interestingly, although Gandhi’s teachings and techniques have had a huge impact on political activists around the world, his word for it, satyagraha, has never caught on.

3-D MANIAC MAHATMA GANDHI -- Sitting Around Looking at Stereoviews....of Pretty Japanese Geisha Girls ??? by Okinawa Soba.

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I’m just back from a week of silent retreat. (No, I wasn’t blogging while I was away! The last two posts were on the timer: written before I went and then scheduled to post automatically, just in case any readers were going to get withdrawal symptoms.)

I’m not going to debrief about my spiritual life online, but I can share just one experience that forms part of the ritual of going on retreat each year that gave me pause for thought: emptying the pockets. I arrived in my room at the retreat house, put the suitcase on the bed, and without much reflection started to empty my trouser pockets onto the shelf in the wardrobe, knowing I wouldn’t be needing all this stuff for the next week.

And what was this ‘stuff’? Car keys, house keys, room keys, cupboard keys; mobile phone; wallet (cash, credit card, debit card, driving licence, celebret, Marks and Spencer vouchers, Oyster card); electronic organiser (diary, contacts, to do list, memos – yes, I am dinosaur enough to still have a Palm PDA; much better designed software, by the way, than an iPhone); loose change.

All of this, I realised perhaps for the first time, I have on me all the time, in three trouser pockets – ‘on my person’ as the phrase goes. All of this, normally, I’m afraid to leave the house without it. It’s part of who I am, and it’s hugely symbolic: I ‘am’ the possibility of connecting, communicating, calling, remembering, driving, travelling, entering, opening, unlocking, spending, borrowing, organising, meeting, doing. And all of this, for just a few days, I could put in a cupboard. It was so strange and liberating to go for a walk each morning without it all; not just into the garden, but out into the surrounding streets and the ‘real world’.

my pocket watch rules by chrisdlugosz.

Of course my pockets weren’t actually empty! I kept on me my room key and a watch. In other words, I was happy to let go of all the stuff for a week, but I wasn’t prepared to renounce it completely and take the risk of it being stolen. I’ll put it down, but I won’t give it up. And above all else, the watch: I didn’t want to lose track of time and miss my lunch…

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VLA radio telescopes by stephenhanafin.

I’m dying to read Paul Davies’s new book The Eerie Silence: Are We Alone in the Universe? I know it’s a bit cheeky just pasting the the blurb from Amazon here for a book I haven’t read, but it does summarise the fascination of the whole SETI project:

On April 8, 1960, a young American astronomer, Frank Drake, turned a radio telescope toward the star Tau Ceti and listened for several hours to see if he could detect any artificial radio signals. With this modest start began a worldwide project of potentially momentous significance. Known as SETI — Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence — it is an amalgam of science, technology, adventure, curiosity and a bold vision of humanity’s destiny. Drake has said that SETI is really a search for ourselves — who we are and what our place might be in the grand cosmic scheme of things. Yet with one tantalizing exception, SETI has produced only negative results. After millions of hours spent eavesdropping on the cosmos astronomers have detected only the eerie sound of silence. What does that mean? Are we in fact alone in the vastness of the universe? Is ET out there, but not sending any messages our way? Might we be surrounded by messages we simply don’t recognize? Is SETI a waste of time and money, or should we press ahead with new and more sensitive antennas? Or look somewhere else? And if a signal were to be received, what then? How would we — or even should we — respond?

Bryan Appleyard had an article in the Times recently about Jill Tarter, who is the scientist on whom Jodie Foster’s character in Contact was based. He writes about Drake’s work:

He came up with the Drake Equation, a way of calculating the number of intelligent civilisations in the Milky Way, our galaxy. To solve the equation most of the terms have to be guessed. But making, he says, reasonable assumptions, Drake reckons there are 10,000 alien civilisations in our galaxy.

“I’m not being super-pessimistic or super-optimistic when I say that.”

Unfortunately, 50 years on and in spite of the odd wow moment, Seti has found none of them.

In the institute the equation is everywhere — on T-shirts, posters and even on a plaque at reception. It ties together everything they do, which means not just scanning the skies but investigating Mars and meteors, planets and protozoa.

Only a small proportion of this place is actually devoted to Seti proper, the rest is a specialist science operation. But everything feeds into the equation. And all the other projects bring in money in the form of research grants, primarily from the nearby Nasa Ames Research Center.

The equation seems to say life is out there, probably in abundance, that the Milky Way is more like a cocktail party than a desert. So where the hell are they all?

The scientist Enrico Fermi once said that if we hadn’t heard from the aliens, they weren’t there. The universe is so old — 13.7 billion years — that a single intelligence would have had time to colonise the galaxy. At the institute they step round this. Nobody here doubts there is life out there. “I bet everybody a couple of Starbucks that we’ll find ET within a couple of dozen years,” says the gleeful and buoyant Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the institute.

“I cannot imagine a scenario in which life on Earth is unique,” says Mark Showalter, expert on planetary rings and discoverer of three new moons and three new rings, principal investigator.

All say the real miracle would not be ET but the complete absence of intelligent life. “If there are aliens out there,” says Shostak, “that’s miraculous; if there aren’t, that’s a miracle.”

No aliens would mean that in our entire galaxy — 100,000 light years across (for perspective, the moon is 1.3 light seconds from Earth), 1,000 light years thick, 100 billion stars, countless planets — and in the entire universe, 170 billion galaxies, 14 billion years old, humans were a one-off. Would that make us feel special or lonely? It should certainly make us feel weird.

For me, the alien questions go hand-in-hand with the early hominid questions – hence my fascination with them both. Is there something unique about human intelligence, imagination, creativity and freedom? Were we ‘alone/unique’ even in the time of the Neandertals (and the two other possible contemporaneous hominids: more posts to follow)? Are we alone now?

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I promised a few days ago that I would post about my own favourite film scenes. And I feel it is time to push back the boundaries, to embrace new genres, to boldly go where no blogger with any self-respect has gone before. So here is my first quiz.

Here are the fifteen greatest scenes from the fifteen greatest films of all time (in my humble opinion). The clues are not cryptic – they are more-or-less factual descriptions of what goes on. So you either know them or you don’t.

Autoritratto come in un fotogramma di FILM by hidden side.

If you think you know a few answers, then post them in the comments section below. I will leave the comments secret for the first week, just to give everyone a chance to compete with a level field. Then I’ll make them public and anyone clever can try and fill in the gaps. There is a major prize for anyone strange enough to recognise all fifteen films in the next week (the prize being: public recognition on the comments pages of this illustrious blog).

Here they are:

[FINAL UPDATE, 16 April 2010: So I have added the answers in below. Congratulations to Neil for getting the best score (10/15), to Berenike for giving the Polish language version of no. 1 (although was it first screened under the French title at Cannes? - only nerds need reply), and Radha and Fr Martin for mopping up the more obscure auteur films at the end.]

  1. A woman catches a glimpse of her double in a Polish square. (The Double Life of Véronique)
  2. A boy pretends he knows how to cast a bell. (Andrei Rublev)
  3. A spaceman discovers he’s not who he thought he was. (Toy Story)
  4. The mother of the saviour escapes from a psychiatric hospital. (Terminator 2)
  5. A man catches sunburn in the night on one side of his face. (Close Encounters of the Third Kind)
  6. An early hominid flings a bone into the sky. (2001: A Space Odyssey)
  7. A woman deals with the cops and escapes down a phone line. (The Matrix)
  8. Two men flee into the rush hour chaos of Waterloo Station. (The Bourne Ultimatum)
  9. A woman is transformed into the woman he once loved. (Note: I had scruples about giving this clue after I had posted it. As regular readers will know, I hate it when people give away twists and crucial bits of plot; and although this isn’t a direct piece of plot information, it could ruin what is one of the greatest ever moments in cinema. I count it as one of the great blessings of my life that when I saw this film at the NFT I had no prior knowledge about the twist and didn’t twig it until the last moment when it is revealed. And it blew me away with the force of an almost existential revelation. This is my convoluted way of saying that, in conscience, I can’t tell you which film this is! But if you have really never seen it, and really want to ruin it then go to this website and look for film number 65 . Yes, I’m making it difficult on purpose – to help you save your cinematic soul.
  10. Snow falls on snow at the end of the evening as the carriages pull away. (The Dead)
  11. A camera falls from the sky and a radio programme announces that it’s just some aircraft debris. (The Truman Show)
  12. A man wakes up to discover that today is yesterday. (Groundhog Day)
  13. A woman weeps on the top deck of a night bus as it takes her back to South London. (Wonderland)
  14. A French chef in exile delights the taste buds and lifts the hearts of her Puritan hosts. (Babette’s Feast)
  15. A hermit leaves his cell after his fall and finds redemption. (See note from no. 9. Click here and look for film no. 7 if you are desperate to know).

[UPDATE at 15 April: I've unhidden the replies in the comments section. Neil gets the prize with ten answers. I'll put all the answers together in a few days, but just to see if there are any film geniuses out there: No one has got the following four films yet (very difficult, so I have added some clues) - 9 (not Orlando; a classic, always in the Top Ten), 10 (not It's a Wonderful Life; the swan song of one of the great directors, who also has a daughter who is a famous actress), 13 (by a prolific contemporary British director with a film coming out soon), 15 (Italian directors).]

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I’ve just finished John Guy’s book A Daughter’s Love, about Thomas More and his daughter Margaret.

It’s much more than the story of their relationship — fascinating though that is. It acts as a double biography of two remarkable people, and sheds new light on Thomas More’s personality and sanctity. I would highly recommend it simply as a way into the life of Thomas More if you have never read anything about him before.

This is what John Guy writes in an appendix about how he came to write the book:

My research in the archives had shown me that the Mores weren’t the cosy, happy extended family that has come down to us in history, grouped around the fireside toasting muffins as if in a Victorian painting.

In reality, they were often divided by money and religion, just like most other Tudor families. Thomas More’s early life, not least his sojourn in the Charterhouse in his early 20s, and his Utopia show us what values he held, but despite his asceticism and iron will he found confinement in the Tower very difficult to handle. For all his outward assurance and murderous wit, he was prone to fears and doubts. ‘I am,’ he candidly confessed to Margaret, ‘of a nature so shrinking from pain.’

Margaret always knew that her father’s most endearing characteristic was his gregariousness and love of his children. He was himself among the first to admit that he was too emotionally dependent on them to face Henry’s wrath alone. After his quarrel with the King came out into the open, Margaret became his principal human contact. She was his rock, his anchor, his true comfort in tribulation, and without her help he didn’t know if he would manage to hold out with dignity, or at all…

In Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons, adapted in 1966 as a feature film directed by Fred Zinnemann and winning six Academy Awards, Thomas More is supremely confident about the stand he makes against Henry’s tyranny. Bolt blots out even the tiniest allusion to More’s fears and doubts, and Margaret is airbrushed out of the story. She, however, fully understood what it was that her father went through, and why.

The poignancy, the tragic irony of her story is that, as a teenager, she had yearned for her father, who was constantly absent on Henry’s business, to return home. She wanted to see him every day and was eager for him to tell her all that he did in the exciting, alluring world of the Royal Court. He, for his part, told his family as little as possible to spare than risk, since politics under Henry could be deadly.

Then, after he collided with the King, he yielded and shared his innermost thoughts with Margaret. ‘You alone,’ he told her, ‘have long known the secrets of my heart.’ And she, for her part and despite her anguish, knew that she must now steel herself to give him over to a higher cause.

Their final embrace on Tower Wharf, a few days before his execution, is one of the most moving encounters in British history.

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The Passion of Christ

Somehow, they got permission to stage a Passion Play in Trafalgar Square yesterday afternoon (Good Friday). I went to the dress rehearsal at noon. It was a wonderful production. The rain held off until the trial of Jesus; and by the crucifixion the deluge was biblical in its proportions. I was perishing with five layers, a woolly hat, and an umbrella. I dread to think what it was like for the half-naked actors playing Christ and the two thieves.

Scenes from the Passion of the Christ German Boppard-am-Rhein Carmelite Church of Unscere Lieben Frau 1440-1446 CE by mharrsch.

Anyone who follows this blog will know that I particularly enjoy those moments of ‘liminality’ (being at the threshold), when two worlds meet or when two lives overlap; borderlands, bridges, piers. Three moments like this have stayed with me.

At the Last Supper scene, Jesus broke a huge loaf of bread; and as soon as the tables were cleared away a great flock of pigeons descended to fight over the crumbs. Trafalgar Square reasserted itself, and the historical play was brought right into the present moment.

Then, in the chaos of the walk to Calvary, with the actors and spectators already moving amongst each other, one of the soldiers seized on a man from the ‘audience’ and forced him to carry Christ’s Cross. An ordinary looking guy with a rucksack and a pair of white trainers. He was an obvious plant, but it worked. It pushed the story-telling over the threshold of the ‘stage’ and into the real world. Like that Woody Allen film when someone steps out of the screen into the cinema. (Or is it the other way round? Help please!)

And right at the end, after the Resurrection, Jesus stepped through the crowd in his white garments as the audience was applauding. He didn’t take a bow. He walked up towards the National Gallery, across the top of Leicester Square, and into the streets beyond. I followed him, while the post-production congratulations were taking place in the square behind us.

That image of Jesus turning the corner into Charing Cross Road is what made the whole play for me: the figure of Christ, walking into the madness of London; without the protection of a director, a cast, a script, an appreciative audience; fading into the blur of billboards and buses and taxis; an unknown man walking into the crowd…

In case anyone is interested, here is my (very short) homily from the Good Friday liturgy yesterday:

We spend our whole lives trying to find a way out: out of the difficulties, the darkness, the uncertainty, the pain. And we forget what is happening at the heart of Holy Week: that Jesus has found a way in.

He is still the High Priest. But instead of waiting for us to bring our gifts to him, he leaves the Temple and comes to us. He wanders the streets, like a relative scouring the ruins of a devastated city, looking for loved ones. Coming across a home, he doesn’t just stop at the front door and listen. He goes into the kitchen, out to the backyard, up to the attic, and down into the cellar. And finding someone, he crouches beside them and says, ‘It’s okay. You’re not alone. I’m here.’ So the terror is over even before the rescue is complete.

Good Friday is not the end of the Christian story. But Jesus can’t take you to heaven unless he has first taken you to himself. This is the Cross: That he has stepped into our world, into our lives, into the depths, in order to bring his light.

No one, ever, can say ‘He is not here’. No one, ever, can say ‘I have gone too far’. No one, ever, can say ‘There is no way out’ — because Jesus has found a way in.

You can see the same company perform a fuller version of the Life of Christ at Wintershall this summer. Details here.

Happy Easter! (Our Vigil Mass is not until 11pm this evening…)

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Czech Hitchcock - The Birds + Pyscho by Dave & Bry.

We think and talk a lot about films, but not as often about individual movie scenes. Philip French writes about the first time he saw the shower-room murder in Hitchcock’s Psycho, and then asks eight people from the industry to choose their favourite scenes of all time. These include the subway chase in The French Connection, the final mystical moments from 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the moment when Jimmy Stewart first looks out over the dwellings behind him in Rear Window.

People judge a movie by the strength of its story and overall impact, but ultimately what they remember are individual moments and sequences. This perhaps reflects the very nature of film, which is a rapid succession of still pictures that provide an illusion of motion. And until the coming of cassettes and DVDs, few of us were able to see a picture over and over again or re-view a sequence. So we had to replay it in our minds, and naturally we’d often get it wrong. Which is how “Play it again, Sam” entered the language instead of: “Play it, Sam, play ‘As Time Goes By‘.”

James Stewart seems to have been thinking of this approach to cinema when he talked to Peter Bogdanovich about his craft: “What you’re doing is… you’re giving people little… little, tiny pieces of time… that they never forget.” This is echoed by Walker Percy in his 1961 novel The Moviegoer. Some people, his narrator says, “treasure memorable moments in their lives: the time one climbed the Parthenon at sunrise”, but “what I remember is the time John Wayne killed three men with a carbine as he was falling to the dusty street in Stagecoach, and the time the kitten found Orson Welles in the doorway in The Third Man. Likewise Jean-Dominique Bauby, the paralysed French writer, describes in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly how he’d lie in the hospital recreating favourite scenes from Touch of Evil, Stagecoach, Moonfleet and Pierrot le fou. Canny film-makers have cottoned on to the idea, like James Cameron, who says: “You try to create one or more emotional, epiphanous moments within a film.”

These moments come in many forms – simple, complex, lyrical, violent, gentle, witty, romantic, revelatory – and, if they stick, become as real as any other memory. They can range from the split-second close-up of the suave spy’s missing half-finger in Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps to the protracted pursuit of Cary Grant by the crop-dusting plane in North by Northwest, from the in-your-face eye-slicing in Buñuel’s first silent movie, the avant-garde Un Chien Andalou, to the puzzling sequence of the Chinese businessman’s mysterious box in the same director’s mainstream success Belle de Jour 40 years later. Like your favourite jokes, your cherished movie moments reveal something about you and, if shared, they can be the beginning of a beautiful friendship, especially if one of them is the final sequence in Casablanca that features that line.

When I get a moment after Easter, I’ll post about my own favourite scenes.

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