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Posts Tagged ‘fate’

Many discussions about freedom try to push you to an extreme position: you are either completely determined and in denial about this, or radically free to determine what you will do and who you will become. [WARNING: minor plot-spoilers coming up]

The film The Adjustment Bureau, based on a short story by Philip K. Dick, has a nice take on this. The visible, historical world – our ordinary reality – is watched over by members of the Adjustment Bureau. Their job is to make sure that the Plan unfolds as it should – a Plan for human civilisation as a whole, and for each individual. But instead of pulling every string, like Ed Harris sitting in his control room in The Truman Show, they let things take their own course, and step in every now and then to make minor ‘adjustments’, carefully planned interventions that nudge our lives in one direction or another, without causing too many ‘ripples’ that might cause us to think we are in hands of a higher power. We experience these adjustments as accidents or chance events, but they are the workings of an invisible fate giving shape to our lives. The plot turns on a wonderful scene when one member of the Bureau misses his cue, and someone doesn’t spill a cup of coffee as they are meant to, so that the Plan unravels.

The film illustrates a simple truth: that the whole course of our lives depends on chance events and unplanned encounters. It takes up these themes from those wonderful films Wings of Desire and Run Lola Run. We think we are, to a certain extent, in control of our lives; yet we are not in control of the insignificant happenings that have most significance for our lives. Is it Fate? Providence? Chance?

It’s a light-hearted thriller-cum-comedy-romance, beautifully executed, with one or two weighty ideas from Dick. It has the feel of a Magritte painting come to life. If you like sci-fi, Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, or casual musings about human freedom, you’ll enjoy it. And if you like all four, as I do, you’ll have a ball.

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It starts as a cute romantic comedy and ends with a vision of the coming apocalypse. This is part of Alfred Hitchcock’s genius, that he can address vast existential themes in films that seem to deal with trivia.

[Warning: Plot spoilers coming!]

It was good to see The Birds again – another film that should have made my ‘greatest films of all time’ list. I saw it years ago, and it shows how deceptive memory can be. As I remembered it, the final shot showed the four protagonists (Melanie, Mitch, his mother, and his young sister) standing on the porch, watching the birds fly off into the distance, with a sense of relief that they had gone. But of course it’s the opposite: the birds themselves stand on the porch, having taken occupation of the house, and Mitch and the others tip-toe through them, start the car, and drive away. Strange how something gets transposed in that way.

I was reading about the longer ending that was written up and story-boarded, but never shot. Mitch drives away, into the town, and they witness the devastation caused by the birds: mangled bodies, burnt-out houses, etc. Classic horror film territory. As they leave the town, the birds gather above them and swoop down upon the car. Mitch accelerates, the birds keep pace with the car, they tear through the soft roof of the convertible, but eventually he speeds away from them. The tough guy saves the day. Refined sports car technology beats the savagery of nature. Human courage and ingenuity overcome the apocalyptic threat symbolised by the birds.

That’s why Hitchcock’s real ending is so much more powerful and unsettling. There is no victory. The stars don’t outrun or outwit the birds. It’s the birds who let them go. There is no apparent meaning to the original attacks; and there is no obvious reason for this hiatus that allows them to ‘escape’. The birds, at every moment, are completely in control. They flock. They attack. They take control of the boat, the school, the petrol station, the house. They take control of the circumstances in which Mitch and the others are allowed to leave. We feel a sense of relief as the car pulls away, but we have absolutely no idea what it means or what is going to happen in the future. It’s a moment of respite and not of resolution. The birds have not gone away.

That’s why, as a parable of human vulnerability and existential menace, The Birds is such a masterpiece. Whether you interpret that menace in psychological or political or evolutionary or religious terms, the chaos is always just beneath the surface, threatening to overcome us, biding its time. It’s not the whole story of human life, but it’s one part of it that Hitchcock was particularly good at telling.

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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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