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Saturday, April 30, 2011

Raging Bull (1980) Directed by Martin Scorsese


Astrid: 
Raging Bull is great cinematic storytelling. It is visual narration at a high artistic level. It is admirable dedicated acting. Its cast and makers are all the best, most creative and professional people around.
It's black and white, it knowingly situates itself in the history of cinema while producing something entirely new out of a Hollywood favorite; a true story. Raging Bull is so good, it almost becomes boring.

It is a narrative storytelling classic to take an unsympathetic character and tell a story portraying him without judgment to any direction. There used to be an unpronounced preference for these stories because as we know, life is often ambiguous and art is the place to deal with that. Right now I feel there is a needed shift in arts taking place towards a more openly subjective work. Endless ambiguity can be distancing and uninvolving. Never-ending acceptance and understanding can be damaging to our sense of self.

This time I watched Raging Bull and hovered between being entertained, bored and disgusted. Jake La Motta, as played by De Niro, is a disturbing, controlling and violent person. I could not find anything to like in him. I don't have to like him – that's my realization. I don't even have to empathize or try to understand. There was entertainment: plot turns, great acting, fabulous period detail, admirable movie-making. Yet, I am left with the question SO WHAT, and that is not a very great mental place to be in after a film.



Nick :
I recall walking home from an evening at a friends house many years ago (I was barely 20 years old). It was late, gone one in the morning. The streets were bare. All of a sudden a figure appeared walking towards me. In a flash, the stranger was thumping me in the face. He hit me quite a few times, very hard. Standing in shock, I heard a voice behind him telling him to go. Without a word or explanation for the attack, he left and I was left with a sore head. There was no reason for the attack, no provocation (as if that would justify the strangers actions).This kind of casual violence I've experienced a few times in my life. I've come across the type of person like the boxer Jake La Motta. A scary, no-messing, psychotic, paranoid, obsessive violent thug. Oh yeah, and I still like watching violent movies. Go figure?

Raging Bull is a deceptive film. The first few times I saw the picture, I was mistaken into thinking it was a real-life bio-pic. But as I've grown older, I've realized that along with Robert De Niro's fake nose, everything in this picture is super-stylized, almost superficial. The celebrated fight scenes, orchestrated and overblown. You'll find as much genius editing, interesting camera angles, and Scorsese's usual arsenal of tricks as in any one of his other pictures. De Niro as La Motta is a grotesque, both as a young lean boxer and as the middle aged man who has lost everything apart from his sense of humor. Yes, he is good in this role, but again, every word and action is exaggerated. Playing the part of his brother Joey, a restrained Joe Pesci matches De Niro here.

But that exaggeration and over-the-top performance from De Niro is what makes Raging Bull work. Yes, it's like Rocky with grit. It's still a soap opera. One of the powerful aspects of Scorsese's bio-pic is that we rarely see a character like La Motta dominate a film nowadays. Raging Bull stands up to scrutiny, it's one of the celebrated films that deserves its reputation. I've always found new things in the picture whenever I've seen it. Was it deliberate for Scorsese to record the dialogue so quietly? Was the reason to enhance the sound of the violent scenes? Or was it just bad sound? Or my last thoughts this time around adhere me to consider that this school of machismo and male dominance as portrayed on screen in Raging Bull is verging on parody and dated.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Super, hyper and possibly even-larger-still injunctions

Published in Halsbury's Law Exchange here.

It used to be said that there was no such thing as bad publicity. One would have thought that in the present day of much looser public morals - and an even looser definition of the word “celebrity” - that saying would be rather more appropriate than ever.

Yet an increasing number of public figures are now spending large sums of money using up the precious public resource of the courts in order to suppress details of their private lives and misadventures. Over the past decade we have seen the growth of an actionable right to privacy, and the ability to protect that right by ever more draconian injunctions. Both developments have been highly controversial, to the point where the Master of the Rolls has set up a committee to review the use of media injunctions. Its report is due shortly.

The modern legal right to privacy is grounded in art 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). In terms of press revelations it comes squarely into conflict with the right to freedom of expression as guaranteed by art 10. The ECHR has made clear that where both articles are engaged they are to be treated as of equal weight, and it is therefore necessary to balance them according to the facts of each case. Relevant factors in that exercise include whether the act in respect of which privacy is sought is a matter of public interest, and whether any innocent people (such as an applicant’s children) will be harmed by its disclosure.

One additional factor in the UK is s 12 of the Human Rights Act 1998, which provides for a heightened importance of freedom of expression. That suggests that arts 8 and 10 should not in fact be of equal priority, but rather in favour of the latter.

The first significant modern privacy case was that of the supermodel Naomi Campbell, who fought a high profile action against a newspaper over whether the latter had breached her rights by publishing pictures and stories about her visiting a drug treatment centre (Campbell v MGN Ltd [2005] 4 All ER 793). In her favour was the point that the clinic had provided her with a form of medical treatment, something quintessentially confidential. On the other hand, taking drugs involves the commission of a criminal offence, which one might have thought should weigh against any right to privacy on the facts of the particular case.

Campbell has been followed down the legal catwalk by a string of other “celebrities” including Max Mosley, who famously sought redress after pictures of a lurid encounter with prostitutes were published without his consent. Ribald details notwithstanding, it was a private occasion and most people would object to someone filming their sexual encounters without their knowledge or consent.

There are accordingly occasions in which a right to privacy (over and above traditionally confidential information such as commercial secrets, medical details and the like) is justifiable in principle, despite the erosion of free speech that it necessarily entails. It has to follow that interlocutory remedies to preserve that right are also justifiable – the right to privacy would be meaningless if anyone was free to print something prior to trial.

Moreover, there are also circumstances in which justice demands absolute confidentiality, such as where it concerns an ongoing criminal investigation, or issues of national security, or legitimate protection of commercial interests. This post is not concerned with any of those three situations but rather the developing notion of privacy for one’s private life.

In that respect there is cause for disquiet. Can it be right that footballers are able to clog up the courts by trying to suppress the fact that in dressing room parlance they have been indulging in one too many away games? The right to freedom of expression and the principle of open justice are fundamental to an open and democratic society. They should not lightly be interfered with. While the extra marital affairs of celebrities might (and should) be a matter of supreme indifference to anyone not personally involved, it does not follow that the law should intervene to silence the press. At the least the burden should be firmly on the applicant to show why the state should intervene on his or her (usually his) behalf.

In JIH v News Group Newspapers Ltd [2011] 2 All ER 324, the Court of Appeal set out principles to be applied in such cases. These are eminently sensible and need not be set out here again. I would however endorse the per curiam statement of the court that a lot of the concerns about injunctions from the point of view of open justice would be addressed if courts complied with the principle that judgments and orders should be made publicly available, and those judgments and orders should disclose as much as possible about the case.

As to the fact of making injunctions at all, however, I would offer the following observations.

First, there should rarely be a right to silence details of personal immorality, still less criminal activity such as drug taking. Scarce public resources such as the courts ought not to be expended on a wealthy few hushing up their own moral misdemeanors, which are the result of their freely chosen actions. Freedom of speech needs jealous guarding, and there will be casualties.

Injunctions suppressing sexual misadventures would not likely occur in the US, with its robust tradition of free speech under the First Amendment. If President Clinton could not claim privacy to keep his extra-marital activities out of the press, it would seem unlikely anyone else would stand much of a chance.

The argument in favour of freedom of speech is all the stronger where the conduct in question involves a breach of trust, such as an employment relationship (as indeed in Clinton’s case). Certainly there is an argument that children of the parties should be protected, but that may not be decisive; the state does not guarantee parental infallibility in all respects.

The second point concerns Parliamentary privilege. Under art 9 of the 1689 Bill of Rights, free speech in Parliament is absolute. That priceless jewel in our Constitutional crown exists as the ultimate protection of Parliamentary supremacy and, of course, democracy itself. Recently such protection was invoked by an MP in order to reveal the fact that Fred Goodwin, former head of RBS, had obtained an injunction which went as far as to prevent Goodwin from being identified as a “banker”. (Various wits on the internet promptly observed that Goodwin’s performance as such did not merit the description in the first place). It has been suggested that a “hyper injunction” would preclude a member of public telling an MP about the existence of such injunctions in the future, lest the MP then render the injunction worthless by disclosing it under the protection of art 9.

If that is the case (rather than media misreporting) it would seem clearly wrong. The right to discuss something with an MP in the strictest confidence should be unfettered. If the MP then wrongly discloses anything outside Parliament then, rightly, he or she will face the full legal consequences. Within either House, however, the protection of art 9 is absolute and it is for Parliament itself – and the electorate – to censure an MP who abuses it. The member of the public who disclosed the information should be able to claim the protection of privilege, akin to legal privilege which would apply if he or she had discussed something with a solicitor. Parliamentary Privilege is not confined to actual words spoken in the Houses, but extends to actions that advance or are ancillary to proceedings in the Houses (see eg Pepper v Hart [1993] 1 All ER 42 at 67–68).

The final point is one which applies to many of the classic debates concerning free speech. To put it bluntly, all of the above discussion may be rendered largely irrelevant by something out of the hands of the courts and Parliament. I refer of course to the internet. The English courts can issue contra mundum injunctions, but the reality is that since the law (for present purposes) has no reach beyond these shores, it has become – for better or for worse – very much harder indeed to suppress information than ever before. Someone outside the jurisdiction might publish something on the internet that is then easily accessible to British citizens. It would still be an offence for a British citizen to download and disseminate the information, but readers will need no elaboration of the reality of such a situation.

The only recourse for the government in those circumstances would be to try and censor internet search engines, in the manner of a few largely non-admirable totalitarian regimes elsewhere. I trust such a step is not likely to occur in this country.

The Fortune (1974) Directed by Mike Nichols


Nick:
Can you smell it? It's steaming? It's on the pavement, just over there, don't step in it!...oh...yes, it's a turd. Of course, if you excuse the shit analogy, I'm really talking about expectation. The cruelest way to refer to a failure or a let down, is to bring out the turd. This year, I've experienced a few. The new Cut Copy album, the Finnish election results, Spurs' collapse against Real Madrid and the book I'm currently reading; Star : The Life & Wild Times of Warren Beatty by Peter Biskind. I've enjoyed Biskind's gossipy tales in the past, but 400 pages into his Beatty tome you realize Biskind has got no real idea who Beatty is and why, occasionally, Beatty was a cinema zeitgeist. To be fair, it piqued my interest enough to revisit The Fortune, a film that has had over the years a reputation akin to that steaming pile of...oh you get the idea!

You won't find much zeitgeist in The Fortune. When I first watched this film a couple of years ago, I was forgiving. It was hard to find, a neglected New Hollywood picture that featured Beatty and Jack Nicholson, both in their respective primes. It's directed by the often good Nichols, so why was this picture so not rated? In a clearer frame of mind it's fair to say that farce, combined with hammy hysterical acting and jokes that fall flat (although there are a few laughs) just add to the general feeling that everyone was lost making The Fortune. Nichols shoots from a distance, we never get close to the characters. Beatty and Nicholson try to find some comic chemistry, but both are cast against type, so they struggle for empathy. Worst of all, you never believe that either Lothario would waste their time on the pretty yet plain Stockard Channing, even if they are trying to swindle her out of her fortune.

Saving graces here, as in most Hollywood pictures at this time is that it looks good, and the period feel (1920's) is well evoked. But an hour into The Fortune you wonder how any of the principles didn't begin to feel how flat all this over acting was going to be and if they all lost interest. A curiosity at best, sadly The Fortune's reputation is deserved. A missed opportunity still.


Astrid:
I like Mike Nichols and I love Jack Nicholson and I grimace and admit to liking Warren Beatty. I really love the 1970s cinema. And the 1970s as the romantic chaotic decade before I was born into this world. Yet, somehow The Fortune fails to impress me.

The Fortune is a hostile movie. I'm not certain how much of it is in the script and how much of it is in Warren's and Jack's performances (they cannot hide their disappointment at the looks of the leading lady). Anyhow, what is supposed to be funny and satirical turns into an embarrassing and serious story. It's Jack already playing his usual crazy hair-sticking-up jerk and Warren stiffly portraying a controlling and flawed lover boy. There were a few times that I chuckled though, and Stockard Channing was alright.

I guess the hostility of the film is in its narrative: how to kill a woman for her money and get away with it. That's the question of the film. When I write it down it becomes clear that it's a simplistic and boring subject matter. Well, at least she does not die that easily. Amongst all the fresh new feminist rhetoric and the joys of the freed Western woman, the 1970s was boiling over with open hatred towards women. The Fortune is a reminder of that.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) Directed by Wes Anderson

Astrid:
The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou has been one of my favorite feel-good movies since I first saw it six years ago. I have not seen it for many years though, and this time around I realized it's not really a feel-good film. What does that say about me? What kind of a person feels comforted and happy watching a strange twisted story about a mid-life crises, dysfunctional relationships, dying loved ones and a father-son relationship, which is based on not knowing each other? A not very conventionally happy person I guess. Someone who feel familiar with dysfunction in relationships. What about the mid-life crises? I was 23 when I first watched this movie.

I still know nothing about mid-life crises. But I love Bill Murray as Steve Zissou. I also love him as the washed-up actor in Lost In Translation, a film published a year before The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, in 2003. It feels as if Murray is pretty much a continuation or an expansion of the same character here. As someone notes on the extras to The Life Aquatic, it is difficult to know where the role begins and Murray ends. Feeling lost and uncomfortable, pressured and distanced from one's own life is not of course only a privilege of the mid-lifers. The Life Aquatic has a pregnant journalist who is separating from her married lover while drifting at sea with Zissou's gang, it has a long-lost son who shows up after his mother has died, and it has a host of other characters equally struggling for a place in their changing lives.

Life is always changing in the movies. Static existence does not make good narrative and it is unrealistic too. The reason that must have weighed heavily on The Life Aquatic gaining its status as one of my feel-good movies in the mid-noughties is Wes Anderson's aesthetics. He does detail, he does color and style. Another reason why I had a special relationship to this film is that it was one of our first DVDs that we actually owned. Owning things creates repetition. Repetition is safety.

Nick:
As a child in the school playground, I would peruse my fellow student's satchels and duffel bags for any signs of badges or iron-on patches. Strange behavior you might think, but any badge or such notice of fandom would invariably be unique and belong to an exclusive fan club. I remember distinctly at the age of eight my mate Andy having the coolest Planet of the Apes badges, only available to fan club members of the TV series. Abba, Evil Knievel, Starsky & Hutch and quite possibly Jacques Cousteau were all ripe for fan club indulgence. I was too poor to subscribe to any fan clubs, but I did manage to trade comics for Planet Of The Apes, Abba and The Fonz from Happy Days badges. All boys' own stuff if you like (except the super girly Abba). I mention Jacques Cousteau as he was the underwater explorer of the era (early 1970's) and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou pays homage to Cousteau, although, in reality it's a bit more complicated than that.

Wes Anderson always has a strong sense of family and relationship in his films. From Rushmore through to The Royal Tenenbaums and onto The Darjeeling Limited, dysfunctional, lost family members reunited under trying circumstances dominate his films. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou continues these themes under the backdrop of the life of undersea explorer and documentary film maker Steve Zissou (played by the effortless Bill Murray).  Steve's life, far from going well is in a rut. His legend is fading, his movies flop, his best friend has been devoured by some new species of shark and his marriage is a sham. His vessel, The Belafonte needs replenishing and his crew, although loyal are weary. But into Steve's life appears his possible son from a previous relationship (Owen Wilson as Ned) which belatedly ignites Steve's sense of fatherhood whilst against all odds pushing him to new deep-sea adventures.

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is eccentricity incarnate and often very funny while keeping the emotional tug strong. Anderson supplies great support for Murray and Wilson, with a reverent portrayal of Angelica Huston (Anderson remembers how Huston should look on screen), Willem Dafoe, Cate Blanchett, Jeff Goldblum and Michael Gambon all delightful. Color co-ordination of every amazing set is exquisite, photography richer than a 1970's copy of National Geographic. The soundtrack, as usual with an Anderson movie, is knowing and uplifting. This is a rich feast for the senses. But Anderson doesn't stop there, because not only is The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou an original in almost every sense, it reminds us that nothing pulls and tears us apart quite like the inner or outer turmoils of families we all strive to be part of. Just watch and wonder.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Kids coats

Making garments for little kids is very liberating.  You can test out new skills and techniques and the recipient, if little enough, appreciates the end result (or at least can't refuse to wear it) and always looks cute.


This is a pattern I bought when my son (now almost 21) was an infant.  I made many little jackets for him until he grew out of it.

Here's one I made when he was 2 years old.  I realized that on little kids' clothes, I could combine colours that really popped - here, purple and green.  I'm not a big embellisher but I had fun making the dragon appliqué for the back of his jacket.

The dragon design was lifted from a strange little stuffed object, which you can see at right.  I have no idea what its origins might be.  I think it was mainly red on the other side.










I traced the shape from the original and cut it from some sturdy green fabric.  I must have interfaced before applying the eye and machine stitched decorative zig-zag pattern since there is no puckering at all.  The teeth and nails were little folded pieces of white fabric, and the tufts were made from some white yarn.  The eye is a black button.

I balanced the back's fanciness by making up a star and moon for the front pockets.

The coat itself is super simple.  For the shell, I used an outerwear fabric called Commander (according to the MacPhee Workshop site, it's a 75-25 poly-cotton blend).  To line, I used a 200 weight polar fleece.  With a pair of bib-front overall snow pants (from a Kwik-Sew pattern, also much-used) in the same fabric, the suit kept my two-year-old warm and dry all winter.

The following winter, my toddler had turned into a little boy who was pretty interested in fire trucks.  He told me he wanted a snow suit that looked like the uniforms then in use by Ottawa firefighters.  I found the guys on the trucks quite willing (after they had verified the call to our street was a false alarm) to talk about the features of their suits so was able to take notes and sketch the details, including the distinctive pattern for the retro-reflective tape.  It's different for the front and back which is useful in a dark and smoky environment.   The hardest part was locating yellow retro-reflective tape but somehow I did it.

Again, the outer shell was some sort of cotton-poly water resistant stuff.  This coat was insulated with Thinsulate.  The collar is black corduroy, apparently traditional.  The matching snow pants have red elastic shoulder straps, repurposed from a pair of men's braces.














The year after that, dinosaurs were the all-consuming passion.  You've already seen his Hallowe'en costume.  Well, his winter jacket had dinos on it too, but they were pretty subtle... (click to enlarge).

This coat also incorporated retro-reflective features - piping at the collar, shoulder and forearm.  I probably put some in the back too.  It's a really great safety feature during our long dark winters.

If you have a little one, experiment and enjoy!






Thursday, April 21, 2011

Erin Brockovich (2000) Directed by Steven Soderbergh


Nick:
Let's leave the sentimentality at the door. It's a trait that can effect the best artistic endeavors. Lets not confuse sentimental feelings for real emotion. What's impressive about Erin Brockovich is it never brings sentimentality to the table. Erin Brockovich could be one of the last great American mainstream films.

This film deals with class, sexism in the work place, human rights, big corporate corruption and anything else you want to throw into the kitchen sink. Yes, it's a political beast with a David & Goliath bent. But what make Erin Brockovich work is that Soderbergh never forgets to entertain. The script is sharp and foul mouthed. Erin as portrayed by Julia Roberts is an old-school New Hollywood turn. Roberts is an actress I've not particularly enjoyed on screen (although she seems to save her best work for Soderbergh), but this is one of the least self-conscious turns by a mainstream actor I've seen. Yes, she carries the film.   

Albert Finney is perfect as the head of the law firm that employs Erin. Finney has rarely been so well used in recent years. All the bit parts are well cast and as is typical with Soderbergh there is a lightness of touch which seems effortless. He's a director when on form, as he is here, never feels like he intrudes on the storytelling. You don't feel there is heavy moralising going on. The fact that this is a true story only confirms the injustice we already know exists amongst the world of big coprporate business. If you've shied away from this picture in the past, thinking of it as just more maintream fluff, leave your prejudice at the door and check it out. Smart and vital cinema such as this is rare these days.

Astrid:
I wonder if the True Finns (Perussuomalaiset) party who just marched in force into the next government of Finland see themselves as a kind of Erin Brockovich phenomenon? Mr. and Mrs. Avarage saving the world from the evils of corporate power? Who knows what they plan at this point...

Although I have long since missed out on becoming the next Erin B – I am over-educated, fearful and I don't have Julia Roberts' looks – Erin Brockovich is still an entertaining and strangely empowering movie. I love its claim on reality, because Erin really does exist and has won her fight against an evil corporation. Once in a while it is nice to know that the stories of cinema have a connection to our non-movie-like realities. And sometimes something positive happens in life, not only in movies.

Erin Brockovich says: you can have prominent boobs, know it and still be able to think, fight and argue for yourself. I guess something in that statement continues to be revolutionary to some of us.
 The film also shows that even though a woman has three children, it can be crucial to her to build an identity through her work, be recognized for her influence in society. Also, this movie does not claim that Erin would be happiest if she listened to her motorcycling boyfriend/neighbor and quit her job to play house with him. He fades away because her priority is her work.

Erin Brockovich is a call for common sense. I'm worried though that sometimes common sense can be hijacked by hillibillies and then it becomes oversimplification.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Appointments to the Supreme Court, or the Assumption of Sumption's Ascension

Published in Halsbury's Law Exchange here.


 
 
I was not in favour of the establishment of the Supreme Court, for the simple reason that there was nothing wrong with the old Appellate Committee of the House of Lords. Quite the opposite: it was one of the most esteemed judicial institutions in the world.

Nevertheless, the Supreme Court is permanently with us and it is therefore imperative that we make the best of it. Provided the standard of the actual judgments is maintained - which so far it has been - one can expect the court to enjoy the same global respect as its predecessor.

In fact, in one significant respect at least - the requirement of open justice - the court represents a tangible improvement on its predecessor. Moreover, despite having the same constitutional position as the Appellate Committee, the court has hinted at a greater willingness to assert itself against Strasbourg. At the same time, however, there have been some teething problems, which betray the haste with which the court was established.

First, there has been some thoroughly needless and confusing chopping and changing of the titles of judges. Secondly, the government seemed for a short time under the illusion that the court was nothing more than a department of the Ministry of Justice, which could be freely tinkered with according to the whim of the moment (though I suppose we can put that down to ignorance on the part of the relevant civil servants rather than a fault with the court itself). The third problem, and the subject of this post, concerns the process of appointments to the court.

Traditionally of course the bench has been drawn from the bar. In the lower courts there are two sound (but not necessarily decisive) reasons for this: the need for the judge to make findings of fact and also to determine issues of procedure. Both those roles are part of advocates stock in trade but are not an area of expertise for other legal practitioners. Neither forms part of the Supreme Courts function, however, and therefore the likes of solicitors, employed lawyers or legal academics could in theory have equally suitable experience.

It would be unusual but not entirely unprecedented to appoint candidates directly to the highest court: one of the finest twentieth century law lords, Lord Reid, had never been a judge before joining the House of Lords. Neither had Lord Radcliffe nor Lord Carson.

Perhaps because of those factors, early in the Supreme Court's history a story emerged in the legal press that the well-known barrister Jonathan Sumption QC was to be appointed directly from the bar.

Mr Sumption is one of the country's leading silks, with a towering intellectual reputation. Rumour has it that he was once introduced in court by his opponent as the most intelligent man in England (the third counsel appearing in the case was then introduced as ipso facto not the most intelligent). Before reading for the bar he was a history don at Oxford, and in recent years has found time in addition to running a leading commercial practice to produce a weighty multi-volume history of the Hundred Years War.

Details of What Happened Next are set out in this article from the Times. Apparently Mr Sumption's proposed appointment was strongly opposed by the Court of Appeal judges, on three grounds. First, it was unfair: instead of working his judicial passage as they had, he had enjoyed the much higher income of the bar for much longer. Secondly, if he was permitted to leapfrog all the other court divisions it would be a disincentive for other top practitioners to apply for the bench, as they might hope to do the same. Thirdly, Sumption was obviously untested as a judge, although he had sat at first instance on the odd occasion as a deputy High Court judge.

Some Supreme Court justices also considered that the appointments process might be unlawful, which was expressed in a submission to the Lord Chancellor by Lord Mance. That was seen by some as unfortunate given that Lord Mance is married to Lady Justice Arden, a leading candidate for a Supreme Court appointment herself (both as a leading judge and, being female, a way of making the court more representative).

In the event, Sumption withdrew his candidature, despite having incurred the personal inconvenience of winding down his practice.

It now transpires that Mr Sumption is to be appointed after all. On this occasion it seems he has not found time to clear his desk; instead he has apparently asked for his appointment to be delayed to so he can finish the substantial litigation between two Russian tycoons in which he is instructed. The lucrative nature of that particular brief has not gone unnoticed, and is being cited as another example of Mr Sumption enjoying the money of the bar rather than undertaking the public service of the bench. Perhaps it might be a quid pro quo for Mr Sumption having cleared his desk for nothing last time. Either way, he is scarcely out of pocket if one considers the amount of extra time he has had at the bar compared with other Supreme Court justices.

There are several observations to make about what we might call the assumption of Sumption's ascension. First, although he will not alter the demographic composition of the bench himself, his appointment straight from the bar might be a modern precedent for others who would.

Secondly, if he had been told originally that his application would be successful, only to have it withdrawn, it would not reflect well on those responsible.

Thirdly, missing in all the discussion is the point that when it comes to developing the law, the Court of Appeal is in fact more influential than the Supreme Court, because it hears far more cases. It follows that the very best legal minds ought to spend at least some, if not most, of their judicial careers on the Court of Appeal, unless perhaps they lack the requisite expertise in procedural law (which as a practising barrister Sumption does not).

Fourthly, the controversy should not have happened before and should not be happening now. The process of appointments should have been one of the foremost questions when the Supreme Court was being devised. Issues such as those concerning Sumption should have been identified and resolved before the doors on the old Middlesex Guildhall on Parliament Square were ever opened.

Finally, however, one is relieved to be able to say that Sumption's ability to do the job is beyond question, as one of England's finest legal minds. Therefore, despite the unsatisfactory history of his (so far non-)appointment, no lasting damage to the institution will be caused if and when he finally begins his tenure.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The exception that proves the pressing rule

Mary left a comment on my last post asking why I don't press the seam (attaching the garment piece to facing or lining) before understitching.  Isn't this inconsistent with the usual rule that you must press every seam before going on to the next step?

Great question!  Like Ann (Gorgeous Things aka The Pressinatrix) I am a firm believer in pressing.  During construction.  Pressing while you go makes a HUGE difference to the look of the finished project.  Not pressing will 100% guarantee that your finished garment will look home made in the worst way.  This is why I've invested in a great iron, a ridiculously expensive ironing board, and a lot of pressing equipment.

So yes, Mary, always press a seam before doing anything else to that seam.

Except ... experience tells me that you get a better result if you do not press before understitching, and that in this specific situation, pressing is a waste of time.  They say an exception proves the rule...

Why?  Well, bear with me as I return to the goal of understitching, which is to exactly preserve the shape of the sewn seam by allowing you to easily fold the two pieces along their curved edge.  The finished edge will ideally be perfectly curved with no rippling, unevenness or other distortion, and it will lie perfectly flat with no bulk.

The problem is that the cut edge inside a sewn oval (such as the neck or arm opening) is always smaller than the seam line, as illustrated.  This means the seam allowances have to be stretched (distorted) to be folded back, and will always want to unfold themselves.  They will take the thinner (lining) or shorter (facing) edge with them.

Pressing this edge without understitching just doesn't produce as good a result.  Understitching is more aggressive with the pesky seam allowances than pressing.  It sews them down flat in their stretched position, rather than just folding them back.  Sewing the seam allowances to the lining or facing also firms up the curved edge.

OK, so why not press first and then understitch?  Well, because you just don't need to.  It's an inferior way to achieve your ultimate goal.  And pressing first does not help you understitch.  In fact, it tends to make the job a little bit more complicated.  It's hard to press this type of opening without building in some distortion.  This can be from stretching the fabric as you try to open the curved seam exactly, but more typically in my experience you will find that you have pressed in a fold which is not precisely along the stitching line.  If you are going to understitch (always!) you end up having to correct this fold as you understitch.

So pressing (but ONLY in this one situation) is (1) unnecessary as well as (2) difficult and (3) counterproductive.

Clear as mud?

More about the sheath dress

Thanks to those of you who signed up to follow my blog (now at 209 210, woo hoo!), and for all the very nice comments on my last post!!  Getting your comments and feedback is the nicest part of blogging so please keep them coming!

 I was going to write a tutorial for how I finish a facing around a zipper.  However, there are several excellent tutorials already illustrating this technique on Sigrid's sewing tutorial site (which is a superb resource, if you don't already know it), so I decided not to reinvent the wheel.  

In particular, I recommend Sherry's clearly-illustrated tutorial.  This technique can also be used to finish the top of any zipper opening.  Kathleen Fasanella has published a great set of instructions for finishing a lapped zipper and centred zipper in the same basic way.  Another variant is the faced fly front zipper - I shamelessly recommend my own tutorial for that, which is also linked at Sigrid's site.

To the left, you can see how neat and clean the inside is, as a result of this easy technique.

The zipper looks as clean from the outside.  This photo also shows the fabric from my sheath better.  At least on my monitor, the colours are accurate.  The fabric is slightly tweedy.  It's got the extremely dark coffee colour of my leather jacket embedded in it along with a tan and a rich reddish brown.  The fabric is a suiting weight wool, with a tiny bit of lycra (not useful in this sheath, since I underlined it with silk organza).



Here's another detail from my dress.  Understitching at the neck and arm hole edges ensures that the lining never shows.  (Topstitching does the same thing, but understitching is invisible from the public side of the garment.)  If not understitched, the inner layer, especially if made from a light-weight fabric as here, would roll to the outside.  Once understitched, the seam attaching the lining to the dress fabric naturally rolls instead to the inside, as you can see at left.  Understitching is also great for a faced edge, since facings also tend to roll to the outside.

Understitching securely attaches the enclosed seam allowances to the inside layer.  To understitch a curved edge like the neck or arm opening of my dress, first trim and grade the seam allowances.  I'm not a fan of clipping because little corners may form where the clips release the tension.  Trimming results in a smooth curve.  If you trim aggressively (leaving about .7cm or .25", or even less) the seam allowance will easily stretch enough so that the edge won't pucker or refuse to press flat.  If you are understitching, there is no reason to worry about the small seam allowances compromising the strength of the seam.

The secret of understitching is to keep the lining or facing as flat as possible on the bed of the machine, forcing the seam allowances underneath to stretch into the curve.  Don't sew straight ahead.  Instead, rotate the piece as you sew around the curve, keeping the stitches close to the seam (and checking to ensure that the seam allowances lie under the inside layer so they will be caught in your stitching). In the photo at right, as I sew I am spreading the lining flat with my left hand, and guiding it through the needle by rotating the garment clockwise.  I do not press the seam at all before understitching.  While sewing I keep spreading the lining away from the garment fabric to ensure the lining isn't folding over on itself.  The goal is to ensure there is no distortion in the curve.


I used the triple stitch zig-zag on my latest sheath dress.  This stitch really ensures that the trimmed seam allowances are well-attached to the lining.  Of course it's a pain in the neck if you have to pull it out (ask me how I know!!).  You can also understitch with a straight stitch, ordinary zig zag, or by hand if you are so inclined (as I apparently was when making my 2nd last sheath, shown to left).

If you don't already use this technique in your sewing, I highly recommend it!

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Four Lions (2010) & Dead Man (1995)


Astrid:
I know I should write about death here, but somehow I want to talk about the beauty of young men.
It took me a long time to appreciate Johnny Depp for his looks. I do now, I don't deny that. The way young men look used to be of no appeal to me because I mixed youth with unreliability, arrogance, disconnection between expression and intention. When I was the age of young men, I simply found men uninteresting. I was absorbed in women of all ages and older men. Maybe the problem was that I wanted to be a young man. I envied their place, their freedom, I saw a lot of freedom out of my reach.

The other night when we watched Dead Man, I was in pain and through the discomfort I lost myself and felt I looked exactly like Johnny Depp in Dead Man. I was also experiencing his discomfort on screen as if it was happening to me, so we had to stop for the evening. The next day I no longer felt such affinity. I was a woman watching a kind of rock'n'roll lost soul in a western. Beauty wasting away. Nick said he was lost and that was the point. I thought the point was the way he looks, but I didn't say anything.

Young men seem to have the freedom and naivety to act on completely short-sighted plans. It's a gendered privilege. Some can afford to play with their lives and die, they like the idea of war. Yes, many still do. There's always the talk of justification through necessity. Four Lions is a story of young men who plan a bomb attack in London. Their plans go wrong, the deaths that follow are not the right kind of death. How bizarre. I felt uneasy watching Four Lions. Comedy has a piercing way of highlighting the ideological contradictions that we continue to live with each day. Also, the stupidity of beautiful young men can sometimes be a tragedy in itself.

Nick :
For me it's a taken that people consider their mortality on a far deeper level in Finland than in other countries I've visited or lived in. I feel this on a spiritual level, not just on a depression level (although I think the harsh winter contributes to a certain level of contemplation in these matters). Death, either pending or delayed, is a common theme that links Four Lions and Dead Man.

Chris Morris acquired hero status for me many years ago through his work on The Day Today, Brass Eye, Blue Jam (Jam) and the only partially seen Nathan Barly. You could call him a black-humored satirist, but that simplifies matters. I'm sure Four Lions upset a lot of people who support the War On Terror with its subject matter:  the film follows a group of British Jihads' attempt to blow themselves and something up. I love the fact that Morris humanizes his Jihadists, they have a sense of humor about themselves and their religion. Amongst the laughs (there are many) Morris' film ultimately leaves a feeling of sadness and outrage. It's a crazy messed up world out there and even the birds have got to go come the final reckoning.

Is Johnny Depp any good? Before he hit his payday with the Pirate franchise, he was the doyen of many an art house picture.

 In Jim Jarmusch's abstract Western Dead Man,  his face, or more accurately, Robby Muller's cinematic capturing of his face brings so much to the film. Depp is pretty lost as the accountant on the run, intentionally I'm sure. Jarmusch adds a roll call of inspired bit players who drift in and out of this slow meander and make up for any lack of thespian craft: Robert Mitchum, John Hurt, Gabriel Byrne, Alfred Molina, Iggy Pop, Crispin Glover and Lance Henriksen to name a few. Gary Farmer as the Indian Nobody almost steals the film. Depp's face in black and white close up is a dream, as is the whole picture. Neil Young supplies the music, probably his last great work. Dead Man lives on in the subconscious, spiritually evoking a true sense of one's mortality mixed with dream like wonder. The last great Western?

Another sheath dress

The Sewing Lawyer cannot have too many sheath dresses, since she has a pattern that fits.  For years, a simple dress with no waist seam that fit everywhere was an elusive goal, given a hip measurement that is about 2 sizes bigger than the waist or bust.  PatternMaster Boutique to the rescue.

PMB produces a pattern that is a decent but not excellent fit.  It needs tweaking in the pattern editor (CAD) component of the program.  My goal for the program is to produce basic blocks, like this dress and my princess seamed skirt, that I can make over and over as is, or adjust for different styles.

For this sheath, I started with a princess seamed dress.  This is a simple shape that as originally drafted, had both a shoulder princess seam and a second seam that corresponds to the second waist dart in front and back.

To the right are the finished pattern pieces.  One of the standard changes I make is to take a little wedge at the CB waist, since PMB drafts with a dead straight CB seam.  I'm not straight there, are you?  As you can see, I converted the second princess seam back to a fisheye dart in the front.  In the back, it's a long dart that ends in the armscye.  The hem is also slightly pegged so it looks less blocky.

So this is at least the third sheath dress I've made from the pattern.  You last saw it here.


Here are the pictures of my most recent iteration of this dress.  So comfortable!  It has about 2" or so of ease at the hip.  

I think it looks pretty good with my leather jacket.  

I wore this to the Haute Couture Club of Chicago luncheon and fashion show last Sunday.  But I had not correctly anticipated the weather.  It was 85 degrees F (29.5 C)!    

Friday, April 15, 2011

Just one more?

I know those of you waiting for more sewing news, or perhaps pictures of my fabric purchased in Chicago, will just be annoyed by this but I can't help myself.

Look to the right of your screen.  How many followers do you see?

I see 199.

Just one more will make 200, a nice round number don't you think?

I promise to post something more interesting soon!!

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The burqa ban in France



Published on Halsbury's Law Exchange here

On 11 April a new law took effect in France, banning the wearing of the burqa in public. Though there are no plans for any equivalent law in Britain, it would be idle to pretend the controversy has no relevance here.

At first sight it seems absurd that the state should regulate what clothing people choose to wear. Freedom of expression and freedom of religion require – as a strong starting point at least – the ability to display religious symbols and comply with religious tenets as to dress in public.

As ever, things are not that simple. The British state already regulates what people wear in public, for example by precluding indecently exposure. The limits of that regulation are always disputed but there is no argument for it to be repealed in toto. Further, wearing clothes with racist or otherwise offensive slogans might attract a public order prosecution. Accordingly, banning the burqa in public would not be a wholly unprecedented measure.

Whilst many might wear the burqa voluntarily, both by way of adherence to their religion and perhaps also a rejection of the oversexualisation of women in Western society, others may be forced to wear it. The new French law acknowledges the difference between the two situations: the wearer will face a fine of €450 and/or a course in “citizenship”, but a man who forces a woman to become a wearer will incur a fine of €30,000 and imprisonment. One would presume in the latter situation that there would be no prosecution of the woman.

It is not relevant that very few women (under 2,000 according to this report) actually wear the burqa in France (though if anything that is a reason in favour of the ban). Nor is the French government’s actual motivation for the ban (the subject of some speculation) relevant to whether it is morally justifiable or not.

All that said, I see no case at present for a ban in the UK. The main problem is that there are no cogent statistics showing how many women wear the item voluntarily as opposed to under duress. Given the inherent difficulties in compiling any such statistics (someone in an abusive relationship will probably not feel able to answer freely, even in an anonymous survey) it would seem unlikely there ever will be – though if anything that lends support to a ban. More importantly, however, anyone in an oppressive relationship will not be saved from abuse simply by the law preventing her from wearing a burqa in public – indeed, it risks making her a criminal as well as a victim. There is certainly a justification for the state acting against an oppressive husband who forces his wife to wear the burqa, but a burqa ban will not of itself release anyone from oppression and in any event there are already laws against domestic abuse, as well as private and public forms of assistance for its victims.

Arguments about whether the Koran really does mandate the wearing of the burqa or whether the item is simply a manifestation of extremism or a non-religious cultural practice do not settle the issue. The state is not in a position to adjudicate theological disputes, and freedom of religion precludes it from doing so in any event.

In essence, if a woman has been forced to wear the burqa by an oppressive husband she should have the right and the means (provided by the state) to leave that relationship if she wishes. If she has chosen to wear it voluntarily, her motivation – religious, cultural, fashion or other – is no-one else’s business. The resources of the state should be directed at identifying and addressing domestic abuse, not arresting people on a speculative basis because of their clothing.

Notwithstanding the above conclusion, there are particular circumstances in which both the state and private entities can and should ban the burqa (and various other items of clothing, both religious and non-religious). First, state schools should be permitted to ban religious clothing as part of the separation of church and state.

Secondly, banks, airports and other places with serious security concerns should be entitled to require burqas to be removed on their premises, as they do for anything else covering the face such as motorcycle helmets.

Thirdly, the rule of open justice – a cornerstone of the common law – should trump the right to wear a burqa. Accordingly, a witness may not insist on wearing the burqa whilst giving evidence, nor should the court be cleared whilst she is doing so. The present guidance to the contrary is, I suggest, unlawful.

Finally, I would hesitate before condemning the French, despite disagreeing with the ban. There is much to be admired in the French concept of laïcité, as foreshadowed by what I have written in earlier posts about law and religion. As a manifestation of that concept a ban may well be more justifiable.


Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Prisoners' voting rights and Britain's relationship with Strasbourg

Published in Criminal Law & Justice Weekly, Vol 175, 9 April 2011, p 229

Frances Crook, the (superbly named) Director of the Howard League for Penal Reform, has argued passionately on prisoners’ voting rights and the European Court of Human Rights (the ECtHR) (CL&J Vol 175, p82). Both issues, still regularly appearing in headlines, deserve further comment.

Ms Crook describes the right to vote as “fundamental”, without defining the term. Yet no-one suggests that children or the clinically insane should have the franchise. "Fundamental", therefore, cannot mean "universal".

The rationale for withholding the vote from children or the insane is that both lack the intellectual maturity to make any meaningful contribution to the democratic process. One could anticipate a chaotic result from the aggregate of their votes. Further, children acquire the vote when they become adults (as would the mentally ill if cured), so it is wrong to consider them excluded as a class.

What then of prisoners? Obviously, commission of a crime does not of itself rob one of the intellectual capacity to vote. Nor is disenfranchisement a necessary component of imprisonment. We have moved on since the days in which prison constituted “civic death”. Moreover, allowing prisoners the vote would assist them in developing the notion of participating in society, a key step in rehabilitation.

As against that, prisoners already have the right to vote – before they choose to become criminals. They will regain the right once freed. To call them “vulnerable” as some have sits uneasily with the fact that many are imprisoned to protect the public. Rehabilitation may be the ideal outcome of prison, but there has to be some element of punishment as well.

The notion of the social contract entails accepting the protection and benefits conferred by the state, but in exchange for duties on the part of the citizen. Rights should not exist without responsibilities. Foremost among responsibilities is the criminal law. Having chosen to break that law, prisoners are on shaky grounds demanding the right to have a say in making it for everyone else.

Then there is the ECtHR’s compromise in Hirst, which precludes a blanket ban but not necessarily a more limited restriction (although the ECtHR has arguably gone further since). The main point, however, is that the issue of prisoners’ voting is far from clear cut. That being so, we come to the second question, namely whether Parliament or the ECtHR should ultimately decide.

Ms Crook argues “the law is the law”: Parliament agreed to the ECtHR’s jurisdiction and is therefore stuck with it. To pick or choose which rulings to follow would clearly breach the rule of law.

With this I agree, but that is not to deny that there are serious questions about the ECtHR. Its appointments process has been criticised as too political, with some judges insufficiently experienced and some not even fluent in the relevant languages. It is also a triumph of tokenism over logic that small political enclaves have equal representation with the likes of Germany and Britain.

The ECtHR was established to be a check on national governments. But what if the ECtHR itself starts exceeding its authority, or regularly produces decisions of unacceptably poor quality? It may become so aggressively expansionist – or simply incompetent – that the UK has to leave if it is unable to persuade fellow members of the need for reform. There is already cause for concern given that the ECtHR’s critics include someone of the reputation and standing of Lord Hoffmann. A “living instrument” the Convention might be, but it should not be a licence for the ECtHR to micromanage national legal systems.

Nevertheless, those are reasons for reform, not excuses to pick and choose which currently binding rulings to follow. The fact is that Britain has to accord the ECtHR’s decisions the authority conferred by the appropriate constitutional documents which it has willingly signed, unless and until it unsigns them.

This involves some niceties regarding the doctrine of Parliamentary supremacy. As with membership of the EU itself, the most satisfactory analysis would perhaps be to say that Parliament has, for the duration of Britain’s membership, delegated sovereignty to the necessary extent, or accepted a restriction on its own powers – although it still retains the power to withdraw at any time and reassert its former constitutional position.

Currently the Supreme Court is trying to resist another of the ECtHR’s decisions in the Horncastle case. It seems improbable that it will be in a better position to do so than Parliament, but it is another indication that the controversy over Britain’s relationship with Strasbourg is set to increase.

As divisive as the issues are, one can be against enfranchising prisoners but in favour of complying with the law as it presently stands. Equally, one can be in favour of allowing prisoners to vote and of demanding reform of the ECtHR – indeed, logic suggests that the ECtHR’s supporters should also be the strongest advocates for its reform.

Chicago! (the weekend, not the movie)

The weekend has already been written about. We descended upon Chicago from far and wide - Nebraska, New Mexico, Boston & Ottawa.   I was curious to meet Liana, Ann, Nancy & Patti in real life after corresponding on e-mail and reading blogs and pattern reviews.   I had the best time!  Good food, good company, good weather, and great sewing-related activities.  Who could ask for more?

One highlight of the weekend was a walking tour in downtown, guided by Patti's friend Harry, a docent with the Chicago Architecture Foundation.  The day turned out gloriously sunny but still cool in the shade.  Perfect for a couple of hours on foot.


The warm air and cold water produced an ethereal mist, up high.   
Throughout downtown, planters featured painted branches - too early for flowers, though we saw some of those too.  
 This building will look familiar to anyone from Toronto
 - the Federal Center designed by Mies van der Rohe.  
 And the Flamingo by Calder.
In the background, the Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower).  It's still the tallest building in Chicago.
Our group studies a Chagall mosaic.
  Formerly the home of Carson, Pirie & Scott.

The El.  A great way to get downtown.  


Overheard (teenaged girl):  "I love the bean! I want to hug the bean!!"

It turns out everyone wants to hug the bean!!


 The mist vanished but the ethereal quality of the day remained.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow (1963) Directed by Vittorio De Sica


Nick:
It can cause snickering. People start looking at you in a different light. Once, you could walk on air, then all of a sudden, everything you do is analyzed and evidence for the prosecution. A fall from greatness can be painful and irrefutable. Last night we watched the latest Woody Allen film, You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger. This along with Vicky Cristina Barcelona are two of the most vacuous films I've ever watched by anyone, let alone Allen. He seems to have forgotten what made him great. First clue: it starts with the script. In many respects, by the time De Sica got to Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow (Italian title : Ieri, Oggi, Domani), the same fate had befallen him as Allen. De Sica, once such a shrewd narrator of the Italian working classes on screen, descended into caricature, cliché and, worst of all, sentimentality.

It is easy to think De Sica saw Marcello Mastroianni and Sophia Loren and was starstruck. By now they were Italy's biggest screen exports, international superstars. With Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow, De Sica casts the two as the principle actors in three different stories which cover the post-war Italian class system from top to bottom. You could look at this film as being about the three different women that Loren portrays and her relationship to men. A pre-1960's life in Naples selling cigarettes in the street and conceiving to keep the roof over your head and avoid prison, a millionaire woman driving around Milan picking up artisans to relieve her boredom, a flirtatious upper class hooker in Rome. Loren is very good in these roles, Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow shows us something she rarely gave in English language films.

Mastroianni feels wasted in all of these stories, you miss his cool presence from his earlier Fellini movies. In short, all three stories are farces and here lies the problem. De Sica, still sees these gentle comic tales as a means to make comments on class distinctions, but the edge had gone from his commentary by this stage. Was he too comfortable? Probably. There's still a lot to admire in the look of the film, especially in De Sica's nod to the French New Wave of the Milanese set road story. Loren's strip in the third part is the highlight here, her sensual playfulness shows a daring missing in most of this three-hander.

Astrid:
Sophia Loren is a goddess. There is a sense of humor in her and it works wonders for perfection. It humanizes the inhuman beauty. I once had a neighbor who liked quilting and breeding. She was extremely beautiful so it was not difficult for her to arrange new pregnancies. It was her influence that I learned to read Vogue – I fell in love with the vacuousness of the presentation. It was also my first encounter with the privilege of having money. I was a child, impressible and eager to turn into a swan and let go of the awkward rubber duck inside me.

But what about the fact that this beautiful emancipated neighbor seemed to make mothering her main purpose in life? Should this be a question about sex or babies? In Yesterday, Today, & Tomorrow Sophia Loren plays three different women: a mother, a whore and a crude lost rich woman. The Italian stereotype of women as either mothers or whores is alive and well in this piece of cinema from 1963.
I'm not sure if the film offered any special perspective into the stereotyping of women.
At the same time, I'm convinced that De Sica is splitting his work into three sections like this and keeping the same actors in tow, precisely because he wants to portray them as sides to one woman. So, the perspective must be somewhere. Perhaps it holds no power of subversion and thus evades me completely.

Feminine beauty in its 20th century splendor requires endless work and reconstruction. The resulting aesthetic has been passed on to me via literature as well as the above mentioned neighbor and cinema. The novel Wonderful Women By The Sea by Monica Fagerholm was another early influence on my personal feminine aesthetic (in good and bad, obsession and health). The novel by Fagerholm and Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow share a time context. They take place in the 1960s. That's important. It is around then that the yearning for a personal freedom becomes a requirement for beauty, it changes and complicates the purpose of beauty. It questions reproduction as the end result. It renders Marchello Mastroianni a helpless clown.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Religion and the law: squaring the circle

Published in Halsbury's Law Exchange (in slightly diluted form) here.

Mr Aiden O’Neill QC has written a counterpoint to recent developments in law and religion, a subject on which I have written several recent posts. His view deserves a response.

Mr O’Neill summaries the present state of the law as follows:

The courts analyse such cases from a discrimination law perspective by asking whether a person without religiously based views would have been permitted to act in any of these ways. If both a religious and a non-religious person would not have been permitted to do these things, then there is no discrimination on grounds of religion or belief.”

He criticises this approach on the basis that there is a distinction between informed religious beliefs and secular beliefs; the former, he argues, are “intimately tied into the moral values to which [the religious] would adhere, by word and deed. Failing to act on those beliefs is not an option for the religious, because a failure so to act expresses for them a denial of their beliefs.”

There are several responses. First, it would be of small consolation to someone on the receiving end of what would otherwise be unlawful discrimination to be told that the discriminator was sincerely following a prescribed moral code. I doubt, for example, whether someone deemed untouchable by hardline adherents of the Hindu caste system, or excluded by followers of the former Dutch Reform Church, would have any sympathy for Mr O’Neill QC’s views. That those are extreme examples does not change the fundamental principle of non-discrimination.

Secondly, while it is true that some religious people who have been in the courts recently may have been genuine adherents of a mainstream religion who were acting according to deeply held beliefs, others seeking a religious-based exemption from anti-discrimination laws might simply be religious adherents of convenience, who offer a religious belief as a straw defence to justify bigotry held on other grounds. The courts are ill-equipped to judge anyone’s piety.

Thirdly, one would also have to define a religion, another exercise courts are not well placed to undertake.

Fourthly, there would have to be a list of acceptable or unacceptable religious beliefs for the purposes of legal exemption. No-one would support on religious grounds stoning someone to death for adultery, or withdrawing a female child from education, or forced marriages, or female genital mutilation. But compiling such a list would be an invidious task and bound to be over or under-inclusive. Alternatively, some principles would have to be formulated for the courts to implement on a case by case basis, which would likely lead to unacceptable uncertainty.

Mr O’Neill argues that, on his analysis, being religious is akin to having a disability: the law requires that account be taken of disability and appropriate measures taken to place the disabled on an equal footing with those without that disability. He says the same should occur for religions. The analogy is false. For a start, there is no choice about having a disability, whereas people often abandon or otherwise modify their religious beliefs.

Mr O’Neill would doubtless respond that for many it is not at all possible to change their beliefs, still less is it reasonable for the law to require them to do so. Yet the analogy still does not hold up: there is nothing about having a disability which affects anyone else’s rights, still less anyone else’s right not to be discriminated against. One person having a disability is totally irrelevant to anyone else’s right not to be discriminated against on the ground of race, gender, age or sexual orientation, for example – no reasonable adjustment would have anything to do with those grounds.

Underlying Mr O’Neill’s thesis is the assumption that religious beliefs are of a different nature to secular beliefs of any form and, he inevitably has to argue, somehow more deserving of the law’s protection. He contends that “there can be no proper comparison between those who would discriminate on grounds of a religiously informed conscience, and those who so act simply from unthinking incoherent prejudice or bigotry.”

This argument is not sustainable. Some religions might constitute deeply held belief systems with centuries of provenance. Others might be bizarre and extremist offshoots. Recent cases have shown the difficulties inherent in distinguishing one from the other. Moreover, someone might write a scholarly thesis on the dangers of religion and seek to exclude religious people from their public establishment accordingly – not all who discriminate on secular grounds are unthinking bigots.

The overarching principle regarding religion and the law is that one is entitled to respect for the right to hold beliefs, but not those beliefs themselves. Just because a person is entitled to hold a belief does not mean that another person has to pay for it, or suffer unlawful discrimination because of it.

Mystery Train (1989) Directed by Jim Jarmusch

Astrid:
I know I am someone who is supposed to have watched the Jim Jarmusch catalogue of movies a long time ago, but this was my third ever Jarmusch film. Mystery Train speaks in a visual and narrative language I find easy and inspiring to relate to. It finds outsider perspectives to the insider identity. The story breaths letting the viewer feel, interpret and analyze however much or little they want. The most powerful cinematic tool, the visual images are telling most of the story. That's rare in 1989 and it's rare today.

There is a lightness and a kind of nonchalant rock'n'roll attitude to the Jarmusch films I have so far experienced – Mystery Train definitely has it too. Even though bad things happen in life, you can always take off, change the scenery, still wear the red lipstick and keep your dignitity. Or if you can't hold on to dignity, maybe your life is enough. Maybe that's the message.

I've never been to Memphis or that southern part of the USA, but I'll be satisfied in seeing it in pictures and through the eyes of others. I'm afraid the reality would be somewhat different to the Jarmusch version. The Memphis pilgrimage time has passed me by. I hate finding myself in tourist crowds and I have already tasted pancakes with syrup and blueberries and banana and cream. Now I'm going to fix myself a bowl of ice-cream with canned peaches and I'll give some to my panicked boyfriend too.

Nick :
I write this review under duress. My football team (Spurs) play in the Champions League this evening. It could be our biggest moment yet in the modern football era. On top of this, we just finished watching the whole of Deadwood. Yes all three seasons. A big hole has now appeared in our lives from today onwards. How will we cope with the withdrawal symptoms? I just have to convince Astrid that The Prisoner box set sitting on the shelf is of equal quality (it certainly is) and hopefully we can get our TV series fix back under way. Music creativity is afoot in our house too, on multiple fronts. It makes sense to visit a film that pays homage in some way to the origins of popular music.

Rock'n' Roll iconography doesn't get any bigger than Elvis Presley. Mystery Train is drenched in Elvis (and named after an Elvis song). Elvis is in the hotel rooms, the street corners of Memphis, the smalltalk and the background noise that fills Mystery Train. Three stories, which occur simultaneously, often in the same seedy Memphis hotel makes up the premise of Mystery Train: The Japanese couple who visit Memphis to see the historical landmarks (Sun Studio, Graceland). Then there is an Italian woman transporting her husband's coffin back to Rome and who is visited by Elvis' ghost. And finally the crazed, gun-popping Englishman everyone knows as Elvis (a lean and mean Joe Strummer). Their lives are entwined in the slow everyday grind of Memphis real life and folklore.

Mystery Train deals with the Other, especially the foreigner in America (one theme that unites all three stories). Cultural differences amid the frank squalor in which Jarmusch depicts Memphis are the order of the day. Jarmusch's film reminds me of a time when American independent cinema was a unique voice and you never quite knew what you were getting. Jarmusch was at the forefront of a new breed of like minded film makers, what happened? Mystery Train still breathes a healthy sigh. All aboard...