‘Kingsman: The Secret Service’ as conceit

In schools we are trying to help young people to to develop the skills and desire to serve their communities. We hope they will avoid simple caricatures, and seek to develop a deep understanding of people’s histories, beliefs and motivations. We hope they will enjoy learning and take on the challenge of improving things in a sustained fashion. We hope they will be creative, and not conceited.


Matthew Vaughn’s latest film Kingsman: The Secret Service carries within it all that is ugly about the edges of Epicurean thought.

As I exited the cinema I had the overwhelming impression that the response I was supposed to have was that the director is really brave and clever. Violence used as a comic art form. Violence for the connoisseur. A redemptive Pygmalion of violence.

And the purpose of the film? Repeat after me: All admire Matthew Vaughn.

Perhaps in a world where we can now view real Isis violence online, or can conceive, oh too easily, that it might come from someone else’s ideology to our city, Vaughn might think that we need some violent catharsis in in our cinemas. Perhaps to help us cope. To relieve the stress.

Yet this film is a Hamlet of violence. There are so many people that the viewer is supposed to hate that the film just ends up equivocating about the value of being human altogether. Consider the various groups upon which one is permitted to lump one’s scorn:

  • Students of prominent British universities
  • Working class men
  • Middle American church goers
  • Politicians
  • Scandinavian social progressives

And, in the end, when the prodigal son saves the world by mass murder, his reward is (spoiler alert) anal sex with a princess. Well done Matthew! As the Principal of a school dedicated to building agency and equality: ‘thanks’ for depicting sexual power over young women’s bodies as the prize. Oh, and yes, she is blonde after all.

Yes there is a code of treating each other with dignity among the kingsmen. They are knights of the Round Table. In the first half of the film this notion shows lots of promise. But in my cinema the audience was silent during the carnage in the church. I felt like Vaughn wanted me to be entertained by Rwanda in the 1990s, like he was saying maybe the Hutu broadcasters of hatred had a point.

Contrast the actual approach of forgiveness and reconciliation in Rwanda with the visceral ugliness of Kingsman.

I believe Kingsman is on the cultic edge of Epicureanism. In the West now a significant proportion of our television shows are about us living the good life: eating for flavour and pleasure, building for status and style, the pursuit of our happiness now.

We want to depict our little dramas over food choices and house building as worthy of large emotive responses. Let’s all cry when someone is voted out. These things are within our control. Our televisions show little of the world’s actual issues. Who has heard of the Assyrian Genocide? Who has heard of the Justice Mission? Poverty and exploitation are for occasional consideration on SBS.

Even with China’s growth, we know that only a relatively small portion of the world shares the possibility of this ‘good’ life. Thus we have huge issues world wide with immigration, violence and political instability. Vaughn’s answer: make a new art form that enables us to cope with the violence. Make the violence a form of entertainment.

And have the people the Director doesn’t like getting it in the neck. Don’t try to understand the huge variety of thought and contribution of religious people: just have them smash each other. Don’t appreciate the research coming out of Cambridge and Oxford – just vote them out of The House.

Yes, I know, I am reading it too literally. It is a farce. It makes fun of itself. The joke is on the person who watches it too seriously. The joke is on me.

That’s OK. Then I say I would love to see us creating art that firstly seeks to understand the bigger issues we face, and secondly, seeks to assist us to serve each other to address them.

Oh yes, and I recognise escapism has a place. But  Kingsman is a perverse escapism.

And finally, if there are ‘A’ List actors, doesn’t that mean that a chief purpose of the film is so that we can admire them? Doesn’t the choice to have them mean that the film is ‘OK’? Its values are mainstream. They are beyond the hatred ascribed to other groups. Where is the film where the ‘A’ list actors all slaughter each other for being greedy?

I confess to being angry about this film. Perhaps my response is what Vaughn wants. Better to get a response than to get boredom.

Well I won’t be rushing back to one of his films.

I have to conclude that Kingsman is really a form of filmic conceit. It creates us as a chattering class. Its purpose is to make us smug that we can be so clever as to create such art.

In that way it is the opposite of a good education. It creates caricatures, it has little to no nuance. It is its own admirer.


But I really love being married…comments on ‘Gone Girl’

‘Gone Girl’ is a gripping film. Quite the farce. Its duplicitous characters act out their attraction and pain in a community that bases its raw emotional responses on the fickle and self-serving concerns of the media.

Yet when I exited the film I wanted to say to the other cinema goers ‘But I love being married’, as an act of affirmation of the trust I feel towards my wife even though the characters in the film generalise their agony to all those who are married. I wanted to rebel against its ‘farcical realism’.

The film could be seen as a parable on the dangers of trust.

Perhaps Ben Afflick plays both an ironic Christ and a deceitful Hamlet. It was Harold Bloom who claimed that Hamlet is the new Christ of literature. The West has replaced, in some of its literature, the man who acts out of sacrifice and love with the man who ponders his own fraught circumstance and then acts with equivocation and occasional senseless violence.

It is questionable if Afflick ever really ever loved his wife. Love itself is questioned as even being possible. There is lust, and insecurity and obsession. But does anyone love? Perhaps the twins do. Perhaps the policewoman. Any ultimate devotion Afflick has to his wife is proof that he has no virtue, no moral courage. It is in this that he is an ironic Christ. All he can do is ponder moral questions, and make vain and soul-sapping attempts at resolutions. It is in this that he is a deceitful Hamlet

And Rosamund Pike’s character leaves no justice, or even vengeance, to God. The pain she feels, she inflicts. She is victim and perpetrator, victim and perpetrator.

And as I watched the film, and found its narrative strength drawing me into it, enjoying its twists and moral pain, I found that I could not conclude that it was just a sophisticated narrative of the sins of the world. Yes, it delves deep into the ‘heart of darkness’ in both genders. It evangelises a misogyny and misandry at the centre of the human heart.  It smears away any pretense that the viewers might have that they can act with love of their own accord. It is a mirror to our own equivocation.

Is there therefore no redemption?

I note that if there was no artistic memory of the Christ that Afflick’s character is not, or no sense that love is possible (possible even in the sad milieu of their lives), then it loses its dramatic tension as a film.

Love remains extant.

And there is hope that the director thinks so too. I think again about the sister and the policewoman. Even the Defense Attorney. The policewoman is true to her vocation. The sister is true to her brother. The Attorney, whilst ostensibly chasing the dollar, believes in uncovering the truth. These are acts invoking justice and altruism.

Ironically, even in the heart of darkness, the idea that ‘God is love’ can’t be undone. It is out of the bottle.

And yes, despite my desire to rebel as I exited, I enjoyed the film.

Conversations with my Daughters (5)

It is this deep sense of unworthiness that has brought me apparent clarity of thought.

Yesterday one of my daughters and her husband invited Susan and me to the cinema to see the film The Railway Man.  I knew nothing about it and watched it without introduction.

I have to confess I felt a significant reluctance to be in the cinema when I discovered it was about the Thai-Burma Railway. I don’t know quite why. But I do know I tend to avoid books and films about this era.

Perhaps it was because my father served the Australian army in the war, in Moratai. He had a portrait of himself painted by a Japanese prisoner of war – a person of whom he spoke with great respect. It hangs now in my sister’s home, the primary physical proof of all of those months in the tropics, awaiting possible cruelty, processing soldiers and prisoners of war. How much he praised the Americans for their victory in the Coral Sea. How little I appreciated as a young man in my twenties the personal nature of his gratitude.

Perhaps it was because my father spent so many hours in his aviary, watching the finches flit and scoot between the foliage. Like the Railway Man with his train timetables, he too was a man with a deep but quiet interest, a man of solace. He kept books on birds from all over the world. Was it a type of proof of civilisation? A way of guaranteeing that he fought for something important? Was it a way of keeping his mind in order?

Perhaps it was because he never disciplined me in a physical manner, even if I was rude.  He was such a gentle man. Once, when I was obnoxious, he threatened to take off his belt. That was enough to make me a pool of tears, writhing on the floor. I am certain he would not have hit me. I remember there was a deep regret on his face – he feared his response more than he was impatient with my childishness.

In the film I dreaded that they would depict the torture. And later I dreaded that the British soldier would enact revenge. I held my hands over my eyes and ears more than once in the film.

And yet, when the British soldier accepted the apology of his persecutor, when he forgave him, I had the sense that I was hearing the deepest of truths about life. To not excuse the cruelty, to not offer a cheap grace. But to stare at the horror of it in the face and to forgive it. To find friendship in it. To have redemption. I was hearing the Apostle’s Creed, the Westminster Confession, the Parable of the Prodigal Son, the Sermon on the Mount.

And I was hearing again properly the truth of how unworthy I am.

I felt so very conceited watching the words come up at the film’s close. There was nothing to do but weep.

I am very grateful to my daughter and her husband. It is a magnificent film.

They didn’t talk much about the film afterwards. My behaviour was of the awkward kind, the kind not expected of a father at a family outing. In particular, the kind not expected of a father who has never been to war, who has read about it only in books and who has listened to a few small tales from his own father.

Yet I am so grateful to have been invited, to have recalled again my own father’s tales, and to have been reminded of the substance of my faith.

Whatever happened to the Arab Spring?

Australian politicians are concerned that our ranking in education is slipping.

PISA tests measure aspects of numeracy and literacy.

These are, of course, very important, but there is an other important element that I would like to hear being discussed more often. We need students who can think. And to think, they need to have access to a broad range of views on a matter.

I have just finished reading an excellent book by Platinga, Thompson and Lundberg called An Introduction to Christian Theology. I particularly enjoyed its structure. It covered the primary topics, then relayed a narrative that surveyed the range of viewpoints on Christian theology across history.

It was a survey.

After reading it I gained a broad understanding of the history of thought about theology in the major Christian churches. The authors provided their own editorial comment from time to time. This was clearly marked, making it obvious that they were entering into editorial voice.

There are voices in the Australian media that identify themselves as celebrating diversity or providing a comprehensive coverage.

Yet I rarely find anything approaching a thorough survey.

Consider for a moment the term ‘Arab Spring’. It was a very popular catch-phrase in 2011-12. Revolutions in North Africa were depicted primarily as people’s movements. Oppressive dictators were apparently being overthrown by popular movements with democratic ideals. Now it is obvious that the rebel groups had a wide range of motives. There were also numerous minority groups who were caught in the cross-fire. It is interesting how little the phrase ‘Arab Spring’ is used today. The term suggested a Hegelian inevitability about democracy. If the coverage had looked at the whole picture, the mainstream media wouldn’t have created a easy to digest picture of what was happening. It is undeniable that there were democratic forces: I am saying the picture was far more complex.

I noticed the size of this shift whilst listening to the radio this morning. I heard a BBC perspective on Syria that took the point of view of a citizen who supports the current regime and who described the popular movement as terrorism. What surprised me was not the words of the interviewee, but those of the reporter. Far from this being an ‘Arab Spring’ it was depicted as an opportunity for ideologues to bring their own agendas. The reporter was no longer celebrating people power but was despairing about chaos.

I don’t know all of the motivations for unseating Gaddafi, nor the range of political viewpoints in Egypt or Syria or Tunisia, but I know enough to realise there were a significant range of views. I have heard in local meetings in Sydney representatives from the Christian churches in Syria and Egypt speak and they each provided insights that I have only heard glimpses of on late night religious programs on the ABC. As of about mid 2013 the BBC started telling these stories as part of mainstream reporting, but the references on the ABC mainstream are rare.

Why doesn’t a public broadcaster give time to different views?

I long for the time when simplistic progress metaphors don’t guide the structure of science spots on ABC radio, or when easy catch phrases like ‘Arab Spring’ don’t guide our thinking in political affairs.

I recognise that the ABC does provide access to different voices. My concern is that there is rarely a survey across the full range of views. Either one voice is presented as the commentator or two groups are set up as binary opponents. Shows like Q & A are a grab bag of quips and short points – they are not set up to provide a thorough understanding.

Schools are places that can make a difference. We have more time than the media, and it is our task to provide depth and breadth in reading. If we alert senior students to the range of viewpoints that are on offer in regard to an issue of history or science or language, and if we are transparent about our own presuppositions, then students will have a chance to really be accomplished in developing an understanding of matters that affect their citizenship of this planet.