Friday, March 28, 2008

If this be madness...

These thoughts are meant to be provocative.  Can we define what is meant by madness as all?  Can we even define what we mean by sanity?  As these two terms are polar opposites like any other such pair one might care to mention the problem lies as to where one might draw the line between them.  An apt and perspicacious quotation that readily jumps into my mind is one from John Dryden which runs:

Great Wits are sure to Madness near alli’d
And thin Partitions do their Bounds divide...

(John Dryden (1631–1700), British poet. Absalom and Achitophel)

Here Dryden suggests the close proximity of genius to madness.  Perhaps he was right.  However, like tolerably good philosophers or even tolerably good scientists, we shan't be too quick to rush to judgement on this moot question for the moment.   It is here that the thorny questions of Power and the Abuse of Power come in.  In other words who is qualified to make the judgement between what is madness and its polar opposite, sanity anyway?  Psychiatrists, sociologists, philosophers, doctors or family members? 

What inspired these rather strange and bothersome thoughts?  Well the answer is a film - yes a film.  I have long felt that good films like good literature should set us thinking.  If a book annoys or disturbs us perhaps it has achieved something important.  Likewise, I suggest that a film that shakes us up somewhat and sends us out into the night air somewhat chastened has achieved something of no little importance.

The film in question is There Will be Blood directed by Paul Thomas Anderson and starring the inimitable and extraordinarily talented Daniel Day-Lewis.  This film is nothing short of brilliant in a magnificent and disturbing way.  The cinematography is superb and brings us face to face with a landscape that is brutal, brutish and harsh but grand, vast and mysterious as we have always imagined the West of the American continent to be.  In fact it is so good that one can imagine immediately that one is actually back in the West from 1898 through to 1927. It is a film about greed and power and money and oil, that blackest of gold.  The film is about more indeed.  It plumbs the darkest recesses in the soul of man, those dark areas of hate, greed, jealousy and envy.  Daniel Day-Lewis is in practically every scene in the film and like Shakespeare said of Julius Caesar he strides across the screen like a colossus.  The character he plays, called Daniel Plainview, will do anything to succeed in this world: he will walk on others, he will hurt, maim and murder.  He believes in revenge and very readily gives into anger and allows it to drive his success. He sees the world as a hard, bitter and cruel place where you have to be hard, bitter and cruel to succeed.  The only other person on the planet he loves is his son  (adopted from a fellow worker who was killed in an accident early in the film) – but even there, he uses the image of his son to just gain the trust of others. He needs them to see him as a family man, because it’s easier to trust a family man.  So even his love is superficial. 

Daniel Day-Lewis's character is counterbalanced brilliantly by the sly, slippery con-man of a minister whom, needless to say, Plainview sees through.  Paul Dano plays this part wonderfully and is a fitting foil for the leading actor's mighty talent.  Here  again, this character Eli Sunday is only using religion as a means of making a profit.  In a sense he is a prophet looking for profit if you forgive the pun.  Robert Elswit's photography is breathtaking. Then the score is hauntingly beautiful and disturbing and is brilliantly created by Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood.  Without a doubt we can say that this score is a direct echo of Daniel Plainview's soul.  At times the music is classical and quaint and comforting; at other times it is experimental and atonal and contrapuntal - symbolizing the noise in Daniel's soul or echoing the pounding of the drilling for oil.

So much for this fine film.  Just go and see it.  In fact go and see it a few times and ponder... Yes ponder on it.  It got me thinking about sanity and insanity, madness and more madness.  It also got me thinking about power and how men use power to crack and crush the weaker among us.  And power can be found in all spheres of life.  It wears many types of clothes as it were - a soldier's, a policeman's, a priest's, a prophet's, a teacher's, a doorman's, a bouncer's or any other character's uniform you care to mention.  Power really does go to the head and it corrupts all from the lowliest to the highest.  And madness and sanity, what are they at all?  Who defines them?  Who says where one begins and the other ends?  Perhaps those making the decisions are corrupt and are signing committal papers to asylums for those they do not really like and for whom care little.  I'll finish with a quotation which is always my wont.


And what is an authentic madman? It is a man who preferred to become mad, in the socially accepted sense of the word, rather than forfeit a certain superior idea of human honour. So society has strangled in its asylums all those it wanted to get rid of or protect itself from, because they refused to become its accomplices in certain great nastinesses. For a madman is also a man whom society did not want to hear and whom it wanted to prevent from uttering certain intolerable truths. - Antonin Artaud

[Antonin Artaud (1896–1948), French theatre producer, actor, theorist - in Selected Writings, ed. Susan Sontag (1976).]

Above I have placed a picture taken from the cave as one looks up from its depths towards its mouth, June 2003

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