06/06/2018

The Wind That Shakes The Barley - Change & The Presentation Of Death

Thoughts On: The Wind That Shakes (2006)


Made by Ken Loach, this is the Irish film of the series.


In any historical film, more often then not, there is one major moving force and goal of narrative: the documentation of change. The change that is so often presented through the historical film concerns a significant shift in a society's direction forward. It is for this reason that historical films so often deal with war and great leaders--just think of the likes of Selma, Schindler's List, The Pianist, Braveheart, All Quiet On The Western Front, Gone With The Wind, The Battle of the Algiers, etc. In addition to this, there are films that, whether they do or do not feature war or a huge social change directly, depict individuals caught in the fray of historically significant transmutation; films such as Titanic, Saving Private Ryan, Amadeus, Bicycle Thieves, etc. Whether the focus of such cinematic narratives is the individual or a society changing, there is always a bigger picture to be sensed in the historical sense - hence the genre's name. Without this, I do not believe a historical film will find much success in speaking to its audience. Or, rather, it will be considered a costume, fantasy or action picture - we see this with many of the Greek and Roman epics, films such as Gladiator, Ben Hur, Clash of the Titans, 300 and more, but also period piece romances like Sense and Sensibility, The Piano, Atonement, The Age of Innocence, etc.

Whilst, on the most surface level, this reveals something of interest about historical films, what I find more fascinating is how this motif of significant change so often boils down to a dichotomy of life and death. In such, many of the great historical films are entirely enveloped in death as a theme signifying change, and so it is how death operates in a cinematic space that so often dictates the meaning and substance of drama. In such a regard, one needs to only think of how death affects the soldiers of All Quiet On The Western Front to speak about the film's pacifistic, anti-war use of change via WWI; to see how death tears Scarlett O'Hara between her worst and better self, how it reveals her incapability, her strength, and yet also her self-consumption in Gone With The Wind; to recognise how death invigorates protest, yet also becomes a harbinger of futility, in the likes of Schindler's List. There is much more that could be said in regards to a comparison of the presentation of death via drama in a selection of historical films. Alas, this topic came to me through Loach's The Wind That Shakes The Barley.

Like no other historical film that comes to mind, The Wind The Shakes The Barely is a film that perceives death as a moral function - which is to say, it is always a product and affecting agent of both an individual's and a collective's moral constitution.

Death often fits into the drama of a narrative as an explosion of sorts. The intensity that death provides is then utilised to foreshadow and/or complete a cycle of change; to show that a character must venture across an arc of change or are about to complete it. The most classical and fundamental incarnation of such an idea is the murder of a protagonist's family that goes on to see them seek revenge. In such a narrative, death ignites change and it solidifies it. However, the death/murder scenes of such films are so often presented with screams and incoherence that are abruptly ended by a loud bang and painted with strokes of melancholy and tragedy; if they come at the end of the narrative and so see a protagonist secure revenge, the overture is one of triumph and melancholic resolve. Recognising this, one may sometimes criticise a narrative for its cliched nature and simplicity, but, dependent on character development and theme, this melodramatic presentation of death can be more than justifiable. This is due to the fact that theme and character can introduce photogénie, which is to say, moral substance. As a result, the introduction of morality is not a rarity in films with questions of the purpose of revenge and the capacity for one to kill so often being centralised.

With that said, there is an equally dominant presentation of death in cinema (which, quite possibly, would overwhelm all if it drew attention to itself) which concerns the meaningless death of minor bad guys or unknown characters. Of recent times, we have seen big blockbusters made by Marvel and DC have to entirely rethink their presentation of such deaths. It is then now more common than 5 or 10 years ago to see the idea of a battle near civilians weighed down by questions of how many innocent people are dying. Marvel and DC movies, however, are completely bypassing this predicament nowadays with battles taking place in abandoned airports, desolate or rural towns that can easily be emptied of civilians or in fantasy realms where questions of how many civilians are getting hurt are seemingly not relevant. We need only compare these sequences to scenes in slightly older Marvel and DC films that take place in major cities and overlook how many people are dying to realise the significance of this. Alas, whilst the mass murder of innocent people became pretty prominent in superhero films and has been fought against more recently, there has and will always be the henchmen who are shot in the head and are only ever paid attention to if they play a part in the development of spectacle - but almost never are they attached to morality.

I will not directly criticise the meaningless presentation of death in movies as they so often play a part in narratives whose goals and functions do not necessitate such a debate; I believe this to be true in, for example, melodramatic action films. But, whilst such a topic can be debated type by type, genre by genre, movie by movie, there nonetheless exists two major categorisations of the meaningless and the hyper-meaningful death. Both, in my view, are potentially valid forms of death in movies because they (how successfully is always up for debate) present two perspectives of death from the real world.

What one realises about death, especially when they see someone else deal with the passing of a loved one, is that the concept that dying is so often a test for others; it challenges who those around a death bed are and are about to be. And, though this may seem contradictory, in such circumstances, death as a concept overlooks he or she who is about to die and highlights those who are closest to it. This is especially true in a funeral; a function that is more so for those who have lived close to the recently deceased than the deceased themselves. Realised as such, a seemingly harsh truth arises, one that neglects and de-centralises those who are dying, taking meaning away from their body and psyche and having it emanate outwards into the social ether. As a result, one can so easily conceive of how death, as presented by cinema, is reduced to one of two things; it is either unrecognised entirely or given value through its affect on the audience. In the former circumstance of negligence, the meaning that evaporates from one's body as they begin to die is lost; the henchman drops dead as a form of, at best, spectacle. In the latter circumstance in which the meaning of another's life is signified only through the emotional manipulation of the audience, the evaporated meaning is caught before it escapes. It is very rare that he or she who dies is seen to have meaning themselves; and such is rather true beyond cinema. The process of dying, whether you believe in an afterlife or not, is a rather meaningless event; inherently, I would argue, it is not a magnet of moral judgement. Moral judgement proceeds death or is given to the process of dying. And this implies that death has no universal meaning because, when you die, you no longer matter for you are not there to directly effect the world. It is only how you mattered that lives on, and it does so through other people. And so, by relinquishing one's body, one relinquishes the meaning they had; it becomes the responsibility of others--if they are willing to pick up such a responsibility--to recognise who you were and how you mattered - to carry fourth the memory of your meaning.

It is from this point that one comes to understand the function of morality in the presentation of death. To subtract moral constitution from death in, for example, an action film, is to reveal the real shadow of dying; to show it as a process of only losing the ability for one to affect and effect. If that is all death is, and if one has no good effect on the world--or is at least presented as such--then the evaporation of their meaning calls little attention to itself and, in turn, has no affect - even on he or she who murdered them. This symbolic presentation of death embraces chaos and nihilism; it pokes at the fact that people do not, cannot, see all life as divine and/or precious; it also asks the audience to give death a name, to assign it meaning - this is what we saw when audiences reacted negatively to the mass death of innocent people in Marvel and DC films: they saw that it was they who were in the crumbling apartment block, the crushed city or the exploding tower. No one sees themselves as a henchman, however, so death as a meaningless process perseveres. Alas, such a morally contentious realisation is combated to an extreme and ironic degree in highly melodramatic death scenes in which death is given meaning by the impact it has on others. In such circumstances, the extremity of the presentation of death is in the melodrama, and the irony is in the fact that the dying person still isn't given meaning, rather, the meaning that the person had is entirely consumed by he or she who witnesses death.

Again, I find it hard to criticise these two kinds of presented deaths in cinema; they so often serve a symbolic function and are not as simple as I describe, alas, even if they are, they reveal human nature in a somewhat honest light that makes their symbology a little more complex than I have described. Alas, whilst there does not seem to be an abundance of films that offer an alternative view of death that exists far beyond this binary, you can find an example in The Wind That Shakes The Barely.

Many films begin to escape the two extremes of hyper-meaningful death and meaningless death with injections of photogénie and moral questions, but, it is only The Wind That Shakes The Barely that delves into the moral quandaries surrounding death so consistently that its presentation becomes, not necessarily an emotional or existential question, but just a moral one that doesn't attempt to contrive meaning around death via drama, but rather recognises the meaning in death through a wider idea of change. And so this is what links together the two discussed ideas of death in cinema and change in the historical film. The Wind The Shakes The Barely is very much so a film that attempts to document a moral change in society at a rather macroscopic scale. It does this by allowing the meaning that a body loses as it dies to float through those who surround it and up into an ether where it is not lost, but caught by a net of theme. The end result of the culmination of death in The Wind That Shakes The Barely, as I experienced it, was then not emotionally evocative. It revealed the nature of who people were to a degree, but, more so, revealed who they were trying to be and how they were trying to act out what they believed in. Morality is introduced by the latter revelation to a degree that is far more intense than many other films as we actually see recounted, not just an impulsive reaction to injustice, but a moral revolt made and debated as it is made.

It is having emphasised this idea that I will note that I do not think that The Wind That Shakes The Barely is a masterpiece, nor did I find it to be personally affecting. However, it remains fascinating for its atypical presentation of death. And so what I want to leave you with are question of how death is presented in films, how my analysis may be lacking, how cinematic deaths affect you and how, maybe, they should be presented.

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