FILM FORTNIGHT: The History Boys

OK, back to films this time, specifically The History Boy. Something of an old favourite of mine, the kind of thing I occasionally catch myself running through in my head. And with the death just a few weeks ago of one of the film’s stars Richard Griffiths, it seemed only right to turn my gaze to it now. So…,

There is a particular type of film that attempts to be compelling by getting rid of almost all the distractions of plot in favour of plundering the rich resources posed by character, behaviour, context and emotional development. The storyline of such films tend to be based around small scenes that mean very little on their own but serve largely as a framework for the important parts of the film itself to play out around them; a nice idea, if it can be pulled off. Done wrong and we are left with two hours of tedium whilst a bunch of theatrical hipsters pretend to hold the emotional and intellectual high ground, and a lot is left down to the sheer ability of the actors concerned to execute their roles; it’s one of the reasons why reading Shakespeare out of a textbook is so much less compelling than a well-executed live performance, and why so many schoolchildren get turned off by it. That, combined with the overly florid Elizabethan language, and the fact that they have to study Twelfth Night.

The History Boys is, thankfully, burdened by neither of the latter two issues, but its format makes the former a major point of potential worry; set in a Sheffield school in 1983, our story opens with eight history student getting their A-level grades, and very well they’ve done too. For this reason, the school (and its rather ambitious headmaster, Clive Merrison’s Felix) encourages them to apply to read history at Oxbridge, for which they need to take an entrance exam that will require another term’s schooling and revision. The other main players are their teachers: history teacher Mrs. Lintott (Francis de la Tour), specialist exam-preparation teacher Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore) and the colourful General Studies teacher Hector (Griffiths). “General Studies” here being taken as a rather loose term.

The teachers are the main source of the film’s drama; Irwin, recruited at the start of the film, offers up a totally different approach to the boys’ previous teaching style and, indeed, a different perspective on history itself, which results in one or two moments that strike a little close to the bone for some. Then we have Hector, who doesn’t teach so much as mess around in a classroom for a couple of hours, before offering the boys a lift home on his moped and casually groping them along the way. Whilst the boys have an amicable relationship with him over this, it’s kind of obvious to see that this isn’t going to end well.

It should be pointed out that all of this is established within the first 20 minutes of the film, and indeed there is practically no plot movement in the centre of the film; it is all left open purely for character interaction and development. This ‘interaction’ is frequently rather risqué in nature, but for such a serious, deeply emotional film it’s surprising the extent to which the film seems determined to have fun and enjoy itself; credit must go to Alan Bennett (the writer of the original play) for managing to inject so much humour into the piece. The actors also appear suffused with the spirit of the thing, and turn out some wonderful performances; special mention must go to Dominic Cooper for a starring turn as the sexually-charged, rather aggressively bright Dakin, and Griffiths, who at no point in the entire film looks like he’s acting rather than just doing what comes naturally. However, none of that changes the fact that this is a film built around practically nothing happening, and looking back now I struggle to visualise how the rather confused web of scenes fit together, and how indeed the film manages to make any sense at all.

However, no matter how much I try to apply fridge logic to the situation, the fact is that it simply does; it’s just that well done. Nicholas Hytner’s film is so engrossing and insidiously enthralling that everything becomes just about the characters, as if one is in fact part of this eclectic little group and this is your life playing out around you. These are your friends, your mentors, the people you laugh with, the people you cry over; it’s a slice of life at its most real yet most compelling, and most beautiful. 99 times out of 100 this sort of thing surely wouldn’t work, but by its being sit at a point in these boys’ lives that is so pivotal, and by framing it in such a fantastically well-executed manner, the realism of the event manages to feel purposeful rather than meandering. There’s something deeply satisfying, like watching an old friend come good, about watching the way these characters develop and grow over 100 minutes’ screentime, and it’s all very… right, somehow. And that’s even before we get to the ending; a tear-jerking third act that manages to hit every point on the emotional spectrum before cascading into a bittersweet crescendo of beauty and hope that would strike dumb even the most loquacious of critics. I could spend all day analysing every little intricate moment of these few minutes, every emotional tug and every moment of simultaneous hope and pain, but am restricted by both my wish not to spoil anything and my wish not to write something 5000 words long.

The History Boys is many things; relatively slow, rather lacking in plot and based around a decidedly unconventional idea being among them. But it honestly doesn’t matter; when a film attempts to mean this much, and pulls it off with such spectacular aplomb, any attempt to degrade it somewhat misses the point. If you haven’t watched it yet, then you’re missing out on something special.

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What the @*$!?

WARNING: Swearing will feature prominently in this post, as will a discussion of sexual material. Children, if your parents shout at you for reading this then it is officially YOUR PROBLEM. Okay?

I feel this may also be the place to apologise for missing a week of posts; didn’t stop writing them, did stop posting them. Don’t know why

Language can enable us to do many things; articulate our ideas, express our sorrow, reveal our love, and tell somebody else’s embarrassing stories to name but a few. Every language has approached these and other practicalities of the everyday life they are designed to assist in different ways (there is one language I have heard of with no word for left or right, meaning that they refer to everything in terms of points of a compass and all members of the tribe thus have an inbuilt sense of where north is at all times), but there is one feature that every language from Japanese to Klingon has managed to incorporate, something without which a language would not be as complete and fully-fabricated as it ought, and which is almost always the first thing learnt by a student of a new language; swearing.

(Aside Note: English, partly due to its flexible nature and the fact that it didn’t really develop as a language until everyone else had rather shown it the way, has always been a particularly good language for being thoroughly foul and dirty, and since it’s the only language I have any degree of reasonable proficiency in I think I’ll stick to that for the time being. If anyone knows anything interesting about swearing in other languages, please feel free to leave them in the comments)

Swearing, swearwords and bad language itself generally have one of three sources; many of the ‘milder’ swearwords tend to have a religious origin, and more specifically refer either to content considered evil by the Church/some form of condemnation to evil (so ‘damn’, in reference to being ‘damned’ by Satan), or to stuff considered in some way blasphemous and therefore wrong (the British idiom ‘bloody’ stems from the Tudor expression ‘God’s Blood’, which along with similar references such as ‘Christ’s Passion’ suggested that the Holy Trinity was in some way fallible and human, and thus capable of human weakness and vice- this was blasphemy according to the Church and therefore wrong). The place of ‘mid-level’ swearwords is generally taken by rather crude references to excrement, egestion and bodily emissions in general (piss, shit etc.). The ‘worst swearwords’ in modern society are of course sexual in nature, be they either references to genitalia, prostitution or the act itself.

The reason for these ideas having become sweary & inappropriate is a fairly simple, but nonetheless interesting, route to track. When the Church ruled the land, anything considered blasphemous or wrong according to their literature and world view was frowned upon at best and punished severely at worst, so words connected to these ideas were simply not broached in public. People knew what they meant, of course, and in seedy or otherwise ‘underground’ places, where the Church’s reach was weak, these words found a home, instantly connecting them with this ‘dirty’ side of society. Poo and sex, of course, have always been considered ‘dirty’ among polite society, something always kept behind closed doors (I’ve done an entire post on the sex aspect of this before) and are thus equally shocking and ripe for sweary material when exposed to the real world.

A quick social analysis of these themes also reveals the reasons behind the ‘hierarchy’ of swearwords. In the past hundred years, the role of the church in everyday western society has dropped off dramatically and offending one’s local priest (or your reputation with him) has become less of a social concern. Among the many consequences of this (and I’m sure an aggressive vicar could list a hundred more) has been the increased prevalence of swearing in normal society, and the fall of Church-related swearwords in terms of how severe they are; using a word once deemed blasphemous doesn’t really seem that serious in a secular society, and the meaning it does have is almost anachronistic in nature. It helps, of course, that these words are among the oldest swearwords that have found common use, meaning that as time has gone by their original context has been somewhat lost and they have got steadily more and more tame. Perhaps in 200 years my future equivalent will be able to say dick in front of his dad for this reason.

The place of excrement and sex in our society has, however, not changed much in the last millennia or two. Both are things that are part of our everyday lives that all of us experience, but that are not done in the front room or broached in polite company- rather ugly necessities and facts of life still considered ‘wrong’ enough to become swearwords. However, whilst going to the loo is a rather inconvenient business that is only dirty because the stuff it produces is (literally), sex is something that we enjoy and often seek out. It is, therefore, a vice, something which we can form an addiction to, and addictions are something that non-addicts find slightly repulsive when observed in addicts or regular practitioners. The Church (yes, them again) has in particular found sex abhorrent if it is allowed to become rampant and undignified, historically favouring rather strict, Victorian positions and execution- all of which means that, unlike poo, sex has been actively clamped down on in one way or another at various points in history. This has, naturally, rarely done much to combat whatever has been seen as the ‘problem’, merely forcing it underground in most cases, but what it has done is put across an image of sex as something that is not just rather dirty but actively naughty and ‘wrong’. This is responsible partly for the thrill some people get when trash talking about and during sex, and the whole ‘you’ve been a naughty girl’ terminology and ideas that surround the concept of sex- but it is also responsible for making sexually explicit references even more underhand, even more to be kept out of polite spheres of movement, and thus making sexually-related swearwords the most ‘extreme’ of all those in our arsenal.

So… yeah, that’s what I got on the subject of swearing. Did anyone want a conclusion to this or something?

Some things are just unforgettable

What makes an amazing moment? What it is that turns an ordinary or mundane event into something special, something great, something memorable, something that will stick in the mind long after countless other memories have faded, and which will be able to conjure up emotions that, for years and years to come, will send thrills of excitement shivering down your spine? What, precisely, is it that makes something unforgettable.

Is it the event itself? Sometimes, yes, that could be enough. Every so often there are moments so amazing, so surprising, so out of this world and different, that it is burned into one’s soul for evermore. The feat of athletic ability and genius, the trick or feat of skill that just seems completely impossible, the speech or book whose mere words can force themselves through the rigid exterior of the mind and imprint themselves permanently into the soft, pliable core of the soul itself. But… are these moments truly unforgettable? At the time, they may seem so, and for a while afterwards they may become something of a mini-obsession- telling all your mates about it, linking it on Facebook or Twitter, but will these moments continue to inspire and delight however many years from now? On their own… I don’t think so.

Is it the context? To take a favourite example, Jonny Wilkinson’s drop goal to win the 2003 Rugby World Cup for England. The clock was in the final seconds of the second half of extra time, Jonny was the nation’s golden boy, beloved by all, it was against old rivals Australia, in Australia, with the home media having slaughtered England in the previous few weeks. England had been building and building for this moment for four long, hard years, and it all came down to one kick (his speciality), by one man, with the hopes and fears of the entire rugby world on his shoulders… if that context wasn’t special, then I don’t know what was. This is but one example of a moment made by context- there are countless others. The young Chinese man who stood up to the tank in Tienanmen Square is one, the Live Aid concert another. But… is it everything? Is a moment being poignant on its own enough to make a moment affix itself in your memory? Or, to come at it from another direction, is a moment excluded from being special simply by virtue of not being worth anything major? Just because something is done for its own sake, does that mean it can’t be special? Once again, I don’t think so.

So… what is it then, this magic ingredient, what is needed to make a moment shine? For an answer, I am going to resort to a case study (aka, an anecdote). A few of my mates are in a band (genre-wise somewhere near the heavy end of Muse), and there is one particular gig that they have now done two years in a row. I should know- I was at both of them. Both times, the crowd was small (around 70 people), and the venue was the same. Last year, the event as a whole was a great laugh- a few of the bands were received a bit coolly, but several others had the crowd going mental- joke-moshing, pressing against the barrier, and generally getting really into the music. My mates’ band was one of the well-received ones, and their set would have been one of the highlights of the night, if the headline act hadn’t blown everyone else completely out of the water.
This year, however, things were a little different. I can personally attest that, in the intervening 12 months, they had improved massively as a band- singing was better and more coherent, music itself was flawless, and they had even gained in confidence and charisma on stage. The music itself was infinitely better, but the actual set… lacked something. Through no fault of the band, that moment just wasn’t as special as it had been a year ago, and the evening as a whole was actually pretty forgettable. And the difference between the two events? In a word: atmosphere.

The previous year, the headline act had been a… well I don’t know enough about music to genre them but suffice it to say it was on the heavier end of the spectrum, and as such the crowd were fairly wired up generally, and especially for anything involving heavy guitar-playing. This year however, the headliners were acoustic in nature- while their music was far from bad, it didn’t exactly inspire surges of emotion, especially to such a small crowd, and this was reflected in the crowd and their preferences. Thus, the whole night just did not have the same atmosphere to it, and just didn’t feel as special (there were other reasons as well, but the point still stands- the lack of atmosphere prevented the moment being special).

This, to me, is evidence of my point- that, to make a moment special, all that is required is for the atmosphere surrounding it, wherever you are experiencing it, to be special, because it is the atmosphere of a moment that enables it to bypass the mind and hit home straight at the emotional core. There are countless ways of giving a moment the required atmosphere- appropriate music can often do the trick, as can the context of the build-up to it (hence why context itself can have such a big impact), or simply the stakes and tension that the moment inspires. However it is inspired though, what it means is simple- to make the most out of a moment, go out of one’s way to make sure the atmosphere you experience it in is the best it possibly can be.