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Gravity poster

In the previous post, I explained the allusive nature of film, and the fact that films can be open to more than one way of reading them. The first way of reading Gravity is to see it as an impressive, but straightforward action movie with no deeper meanings – that is, reading it denotatively. The second is to see it in naturalistic terms as the triumph of the human spirit and the denial of any spiritual dimensions to reality. This views some images as not merely denoting exactly what they show, but connoting additional meanings.

The third main reading of Gravity views the religious images and language connotatively, but views the final escape sequence more denotatively. On this view, Ryan’s lament, while trapped in the entangled Soyuz capsule, about no one having taught her to pray – which she repeats, underlying it’s importance – is itself an act of prayer. This is a woman without spiritual background who is at the very limit of her resources; she longs to reach out to God, but has no clue how.

Ryan has a vague sense of life after death, but no confidence of attaining it. She mourns the fact that no one will pray for her soul and hopes Aningaaq might do so – though of course he doesn’t understand a word she’s saying. She is communicating with him ‘in the blind’ (that is, communicating in the knowledge that the transmission may not be heard or understood) as so many of the transmissions to Houston are. Her expressions of hopelessness are explicitly spiritual; are they communicating with God in the blind? Indeed, Kowalski earlier explains the need to keep transmitting in the blind by saying, ‘If someone is listening, they might just save your life’.

Sandra Bullock © Warner Bros. Used by permissionSandra Bullock © Warner Bros. Used by permission
One small image at this point is very powerful. Dr Stone has shed tears, one of which is floating in front of, and moving away from, her. At the point at which she grieves that she has not been taught how to pray, the focus shifts to this tear. Denotatively, it’s just a tear in space; connotatively, it can be seen as a potent symbol of her inarticulately reaching out to God.

On this reading, the appearance of Kowalski (in a bright white space suit, in contrast to Ryan’s grubby grey one) appears to be in response to her expression of spiritual need (which was focused on her apparently inevitable and imminent death, not of resources to survive). Whether he is a dream or an angel doesn’t really matter.

It is worth reflecting on the way in which Kowalski functions as some kind of Christ figure within Gravity. He has a wonderful love of life, and is profoundly moved by the beauty of earth and space. His role as a self-sacrificing rescuer is obvious. During the rescue, he repeatedly instructs her to let go of, or detach from, the things which she instinctively clings to for safety. He also tells her that she needs to learn to let go of her ideas that she can rescue him as he drifts away.

The religious symbols on the two escape craft, on this reading, are not merely denoting the cultures of the crew, but connote the existence of a spiritual reality (it’s important to recognise that it is not suggesting a Christian understanding of a spiritual reality, or even a theistic one; the shot of the Buddha on the Shenzhou suggests a pluralist view). The St Christopher icon is framed very explicitly right after the appearance of Kowalski at exactly the moment when Stone says, ‘right, let’s stabilise you.’

Sandra Bullock © Warner Bros. Used by permissionSandra Bullock © Warner Bros. Used by permission
Now, while the second (naturalistic) reading of Gravity views the religious imagery and language denotatively and the final escape from the Shenzhou connotatively, the third (spiritual) reading does the opposite, seeing the escape from the submerged capsule denotatively.

That is, on the third reading, the frog is just a frog – it is not evoking Darwin, but making clear to the viewer that she is in a freshwater lake rather than the sea (it is also briefly possible to see this before the capsule touches down). The fact that the radio picks up both mission control and a snippet of an American radio station with a weather forecast for the Midwest shows that she has returned to a place not far from her home by Lake Zurich.

Ryan Stone crawls onto the beach and struggles to her hands and knees before cautiously but determinedly standing up. Is this really denoting the evolutionary process, or simply a reflection of how hard it would be for an astronaut, having been through such an ordeal, to find her feet? It is certainly an explicit reference back to something that Matt Kowalski says to her in the Soyuz craft: ‘You’ve got to plant both feet on your ground and get on with living your life.’ Her struggling to her feet – with the camera then fixed on her feet and legs – communicates both her achievement and her new determination to live, not merely work and drive.

Gravity can be read in at least three radically different ways, then. Is one of these the correct reading, the only allowable reading? Not at all. If you want to see it simply as an action movie without deeper layers of meaning, you can do so. Alfonso and Jonas Cuarón had metaphorical ideas in their minds as they wrote it, but they have not said ‘this is what it means’. Like all good filmmakers they have left it to us to interpret the elements, but because of the nature of metaphor and the allusive nature of film, viewers will not agree on what it means. The Cuaróns know what they were thinking about, but all we can do is weigh up the evidence to come to our conclusions on how to read it.

At the start of our discussion at the Keswick Unconventional Film Club, the audience was about three or four to one in favour of the film pointing to some spiritual reality. I doubt that will have changed much during the interaction, though I forgot to take another straw poll at the end to see. You can probably guess easily enough which way I lean. Having now watched it four times – twice in the last three days – I have become even more convinced of the third reading. But that still doesn’t make it the ‘right’ way to read it.

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This post has been delayed as I’ve been away and without internet access for the last week. Part two will be published in a little while.

Gravity poster

The final day of the Keswick Unconventional Film Club was, for me at least, the most fun of the week. Having found myself in a little Twitter debate about it a day or two ago, I was already reflecting on at least one of the directions our discussion was likely to go in. But more of that shortly. First, it’s worth a comment or two on the nature of film.

Images in films can create meaning in two ways – they can be denotative or connotative. The denotative meaning is the obvious, surface level meaning. An image of a punch in a film denotes exactly what it shows, even though we know that one actor has not really hit the other. Connotative meanings arises because images can represent other things – they are symbols or signs which represent other things to us.

Connotative meanings play a very significant role in films. At its best, film is an allusive medium. That is, film tends to refer to things indirectly rather than being explicit about them. That’s why an oft-quoted adage of film-making is ‘show, don’t tell.’ Film is brilliant at hinting at things, and juxtaposing them so that the viewer can make the connection without actually saying ‘look, this links with that.’ When film-makers start being too explicit, viewers find it clumsy, heavy-handed and artless.

This inevitably means that films are often open to multiple readings. Two people may well infer different connotative meanings from images within a particular film. Some people may see an additional connotative meaning to an image or shot which has a clear denotative meaning.

© Warner Bros. Used by permission© Warner Bros. Used by permission

What has this to do with Gravity? Alfonso Cuarón is a director who very much works at the connotative level, rather than the merely denotative. Gravity has a number of images, shots and scenes which can be read in more than one way. This results in at least three substantially different readings of the film as a whole.

The first is to read it purely denotatively: Ryan Stone (played brilliantly by Sandra Bullock) finds the mental and emotional resources, experiencing a hallucination along the way, to overcome immense challenges and get home. Nothing in the film points beyond itself to a deeper level of meaning. Cuarón, and his son Jonas who co-wrote the film, have said enough in interviews to make clear that they intend it to be understood at a metaphorical level. In particular, Cuarón has said that outer space is a metaphor for inner space. That doesn’t mean you must read it in that way, though.

The second main way of reading Gravity is to see it as a story of the triumph of the human spirit and a statement of the indomitable will of the species to survive. This reading is a step beyond the denotative reading of the film as a whole, but still reads many of the images in that way. The two explicitly religious images – the icon of St Christopher in the Soyuz capsule and the Buddha figure in the Shenzhou capsule – are simply objects that happen to be there because of the particular cultural backgrounds of the Russian and Chinese crews. They mean nothing more than the Marvin figure in the shuttle or the table tennis bat in the Tiangong.

On this reading, when Ryan despairs of life in the Soyuz and laments that nobody taught her how to pray, it is an expression of the futility of religion. The surprising appearance of Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) is a figment of her imagination. As she subconsciously reflects on his words to her, she is able to figure out a solution to her problem and is re-energised by the hope which that gives her.

The end of the film is then sees as Darwinian symbolism: as Ryan escapes from the submerged capsule, the frog reminds us of the evolutionary process. She collapses onto the land, then crawls on all fours before standing on her two feet: a triumphant human.

The third main reading of Gravity will need to wait for a second post.

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Beasts Of The Southern WildBeasts Of The Southern Wild

Day four of the Keswick Unconventional Film Club found us watching Beasts of the Southern Wild, Benh Zeitlin’s extraordinary magic realist film, which is unlike any other I can think of. During or after our discussion yesterday evening, one person compared aspects of it to Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, and another compared it to Lord of the Flies, yet as a whole it is radically different from either of those.

Six-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis plays the central character of Hushpuppy, who lives with her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), in extreme poverty on an island, which they call the Bathtub, in a Louisiana bayou. There is a debate to be had over whether the film romanticises poverty or celebrates human dignity even in the most deprived circumstances. On the latter view, Beasts of the Southern Wild portrays Hushpuppy’s world as immensely rich in the things which matter most: friendship, joy, freedom, a close relationship with the natural world.

Yet there is a darker side to life in the Bathtub: alcohol abuse is clearly rife (which seems to be portrayed in a positive, often humorous light) and we never see a complete family. Hushpuppy and her father have a particularly dysfunctional domestic set-up. Her mother left some time ago and Hushpuppy lives in one squalid house while her father lives in another. Much of Wink’s communication with his daughter comprises of shouting. Life is not as harmonious as we’re meant to think.

Quvezhane Wallis and Dwight Henry in Beasts of the Southern WildQuvezhane Wallis and Dwight Henry in Beasts of the Southern Wild

We had some interesting discussion about the way writer-director Benh Zeitlin included the local community in his film, using entirely first-time actors and employing locals as crew. It is, arguably, a holistic approach to film-making which genuinely values these people. At the same time, some people felt a little uncomfortable, arguing that the screenplay still has a very middle-class perspective, and was not truly representing the community.

Nevertheless, Beasts of the Southern Wild raises interesting questions about brokenness and death. Hushpuppy’s world may already look very broken to us, but she doesn’t see it that way. So when, in an angry outburst she expresses her wish that her daddy was dead, and hits him on the chest causing him to collapse, she believes that she is responsible. She doesn’t understand that he is ill, presumably with some heart condition. Nor does she understand that the rumble of thunder and the announcement of a coming storm are unconnected with her actions. In Hushpuppy’s mind, everything is connected and she has broken the world.

The approach of the strange, fierce aurochs from their millennia-long frozen imprisonment in the Antarctic symbolises the approach of Wink’s death. Hushpuppy is scared of them both – until she and some friends swim out to a strange boat, the skipper of which tells the little girl that it will take them wherever she needs to go.

Quvezhane Wallis in Beasts of the Southern WildQuvezhane Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild

The place they end up in – called Elysium Fields – seems to be some kind of bar and brothel. The time there is filmed very dreamily, and Hushpuppy encounters a woman who, we cannot help wondering, could even be the little girl’s mother. We are never told this, but the woman’s working of ‘magic’ (with fired gator) and her tenderness towards Hushpuppy, as well as her warning that life is not easy, somehow empowers Hushpuppy to return to the Bathtub and face both the aurochs and her daddy’s death with courage.

Was this strange encounter in the Elysium Fields a truly magical experience, or just how it seems to a six-year-old? Is she strengthened spiritually, or merely encouraged by human love? It could be read either way. Are the aurochs simply in Hushpuppy’s mind, or do others see them too (and if so, what do we make of these creatures which have never existed)? It’s a film which raises many questions, and makes a straightforward and certain interpretation difficult.

In her Film & Bible Blog article on Beasts of the Southern Wild, Sophie Lister makes a fascinating connection with the Bible. Hushpuppy rejects her father and the whole world seems broken as a result; the Bible story is that humanity rejected its father, God, and the whole world was broken as a result (see Genesis 3 and Romans 8:19–25, for example). Hushpuppy’s world is put back into some balance by a new depth of understanding the world; the real world – and the fundamental problem facing humanity – is only fixed through the death and resurrection of Jesus. This, Paul tells us, makes possible the reconciliation of everything (Colossians 1:19–20) – which is, I suspect, what Benh Zeitlin is, without realising, longing for.

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Son of Rambow quad poster
Day three of the Keswick Unconventional Film Club had smaller numbers as Son of Rambow is nowhere near as well known as Blue Jasmine and Philomena. Written and directed by Garth Jennings (his directorial debut) and released in 2008, this eccentric gem of a movie is one of the best films about growing up.

I’m going to cheat with this blog post as I’m really too tired to write something fresh tonight, and I won’t have time in the morning. So here’s something I wrote on the film several years ago for Culturewatch. If I was writing this now, I would focus more on the centrality of imagination and creativity in the story. Will (Bill Milner), one of the two boys at the centre of the narrative, has a wonderful imagination and draws incessantly. His creativity becomes the catalyst for change in several other characters, not least the other protagonist, Lee Carter (Will Poulter). Indeed, it becomes the means for some kind of redemption. But now I’m getting into writing something new, so I’ll leave it at that and let you reflect on that for yourselves.


Secondary school can be a difficult place when you’re a shy, weedy, but bright child with a vivid imagination. Encounters with the toughest boy in the school are always fraught with danger. It’s hard to know how to react: stand up to them or go along with their unreasonable demands? It’s a dilemma I remember all too well, though I was never in such a difficult position as Will Proudfoot (Bill Milner) in Son of Rambow. Will is not only almost painfully puny, his father has recently died and he’s part of a rigid, separatist Christian group known as the Exclusive Brethren. These days, the Exclusives run their own schools, but in the early 80s, when this film is set, their children attended normal schools. It was often a difficult experience for them. Television is banned, so when Will’s geography teacher shows a programme in class, Will must leave the room.

Bill Milner in Son of Rambow. © Optimum Home EntertainmentBill Milner in Son of Rambow. © Optimum Home Entertainment
While he’s sitting outside, doodling as always in his notebook, another boy is thrown out of his lesson by a furious teacher, to cheers from the rest of the class. The boy is Lee Carter (Will Poulter), a troublemaker who has no respect for anyone else and who is determined to have as much fun as he possibly can. When Lee gets hold of the notebook in which Will doodles incessantly, a scuffle results in a fish tank crashing to the floor. Both boys are sent to the headteacher, but Lee offers to take the rap for both of them – in return for Will’s watch. The watch had been Will’s father’s, and he wasn’t supposed to have it, but he is so scared he reluctantly agrees to the deal. Later, Lee imposes a further demand on Will: he is to be the stuntman in the film which Lee is filming for a competition.

Lee Carter’s film is ‘Son of Rambow’, inspired by First Blood, and Will is soon dressed up like Rambo and rampaging around in the woods doing death-defying stunts. It’s a surprising turn of events for an Exclusive Brethren boy, but he has been transformed by his first encounter with film. When he first goes to Lee’s home, he sees a video of First Blood, and the intense combination of image, sound and action opens up exciting new imaginative possibilities for him. His doodles become filled with explosions, and he imagines himself as part of a Rambo-like adventure.

In his daydreams, and soon in the film too, Will becomes ‘Son of Rambow’, heroically rescuing his father from his evil captor. What First Blood seems to have given him is a way to begin using his imagination to process the loss of his own father. This is one of the film’s key themes. Will is desperately missing his father, and he faces the prospect of Brother Joshua (Neil Dudgeon) taking his place. Joshua visits Will’s mother (Jessica Stevenson) often, and becomes increasingly directive in how she should bring Will up. He clearly sees himself as a proxy father.

Will Poulter and Bill Milner in Son of Rambow. © Optimum Home EntertainmentWill Poulter and Bill Milner in Son of Rambow. © Optimum Home Entertainment

Lee Carter is also lacking a father figure: his parents live abroad for much of the time, leaving him in the ‘care’ of his much older brother, Lawrence (Ed Westwick). Although Lawrence treats him as a slave, Lee worships him and tells Will that Lawrence is ‘all I’ve got’. So while one boy has lost the father he loves, and sees him being replaced by a very unsatisfactory alternative, the other boy feels abandoned by his father and has only his self-centred brother as a substitute. For Will, Rambo becomes an ideal father: brave, resourceful, strong and very exciting.

How sad that Will finds a father figure in Rambo when he is part of a community that claims to know God as father. Joshua presents a very negative view of fatherhood as stern, repressive and totalitarian. If this group really understood the Father, they would be expressing his deep concern for widows and orphans. Jesus’s brother James wrote, ‘Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you’ (James 1:27). These people, however, have focused all their attention on the latter, and failed to think through what the former should really look like. In fact, they have not thought through the latter requirement either: refusing to let the world corrupt you is not a matter of separating from it, but of being integrated in it while not living by its values.

No wonder Will is so exhilarated by his new-found freedom. Without the restrictions of his fundamentalist sect, he is discovering the joy of play, imagination and real friendship. The implication seems to be that ‘a rich and satisfying life’ (John 10:10) is found by turning away from religion. In a sense that’s true: when Christian faith is twisted into mere religious observance, rather than being a life-transforming relationship with God as Father through faith in his Son, then it becomes a travesty and should be rejected. Rejecting authentic faith, however, is missing out on the most vital dimension of life. Nevertheless, this funny, sometimes touching story about growing up affirms that life should be lived within the context of relationships based on an accepting, giving commitment to each other. Will and Lee Carter both grow up a little through discovering just how important this is.

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Shaming the wise

29 July 2014 — Leave a comment

Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in Philomena. © Pathé, 2013. Used by permissionJudi Dench and Steve Coogan in Philomena. © Pathé, 2013. Used by permission

Day two of the Keswick Unconventional Film Club was absolutely packed for watching and discussing Philomena. Directed by Stephen Frears from a screenplay by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, it’s a film which is loved by audiences and critics alike. It won a BAFTA for best adapted screenplay, but lost out on the four Oscars for which it was nominated.

Coogan first came across the true story of Philomena Lee in a 2010 Guardian article by Martin Sixsmith. The journalist and former government spin doctor had written a book, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, about a single mother who, in 1952, had her illegitimate child taken away by Irish nuns and sold to an American family.

When her pregnancy was discovered, she was sent away to the convent in Roscrea to have her baby. Like other ‘fallen women’, she was effectively a slave in the convent laundry, working seven days a week for the next four years. Philomena was allowed to see her son, Anthony, for just one hour a day. Then without warning, when he was just three years old, he was taken away by an American couple who had paid to adopt him. She never saw him again and kept his existence a secret for fifty years.

During our discussion, it was moving to hear one lady – communicating via sign language as she is deaf – share how she had been put in a children’s home as a toddler and then one day was taken away having been adopted by a Canadian couple. Another lady, who grew up in Dublin, told us how true the film’s representation of Philomena’s story was to the Ireland of her childhood. Personal perspectives like these make film discussions very special.

Sophie Kennedy Clark in Philomena. © Pathé, 2013. Used by permissionSophie Kennedy Clark in Philomena. © Pathé, 2013. Used by permission

Despite what had happened to Philomena (Judi Dench), she remained a devout Roman Catholic. Martin could hardly be more different: an educated, cynical atheist, he dismisses religion as ‘blind faith and ignorance’. He seems to be as driven by anger at the injustices as by needing to have his article published. When Philomena wants to go to confession, Martin bursts out, ‘The Catholic Church should go to confession, not you! Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. I incarcerated a load of young women against their will, used them as slave labour, and sold their babies to the highest bidder.’

Martin finally comes face to face with Sister Hildegarde (Barbara Jefford), who was responsible for much of the cruelty Philomena endured in the convent. He accuses of her ‘not being very Christian’ towards Philomena and her son, but Sister Hildegarde claims that, ‘The Lord Jesus Christ will be my judge, not the likes of you.’ Martin angrily challenges her understanding of Jesus’s values: ‘Really? Because I think if Jesus was here now he’d tip you out of that f****** wheelchair and you wouldn’t get up and walk!’

I’m convinced that Jesus would not tip an old woman out of her wheelchair, but the Martin the atheist seems to have a much better understanding of Jesus’s values than the nun. Jesus’s strongest words were directed at the Pharisees – self-righteous religious people, who ‘crush people with unbearable religious demands and never lift a finger to ease the burden’ (Luke 11:46, NLT).

Judi Dench in Philomena. © Pathé, 2013. Used by permissionJudi Dench in Philomena. © Pathé, 2013. Used by permission

When Sister Hildegarde says, ‘Self-denial and mortification of the flesh – that’s what brings us closer to God,’ she completely misunderstands what Jesus said about his disciples needing to ‘deny themselves and take up their cross and follow’ him (Mark 8:34). According to Isaiah, ‘all our righteous acts are like filthy rags’ (Isaiah 64:6). He dismisses their fasting as useless for coming to God (Isaiah 58:1–5) and says, ‘Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?’ (Isaiah 58:6–7). Sister Hildegarde understands nothing of this.

Philomena’s understanding of her faith seems a little muddled, but she does know that it is about grace and forgiveness, not condemnation. John Risbridger commented in our discussion that in some ways, Philomena is about power: that of the Church on one side and that of the media world on the other. Neither come off well. The one that is positive is the power of forgiveness. In Martin’s mind, it is a weak thing, but in fact it is transforming. Philomena insists that forgiveness is ‘hard for me. But I don’t want to hate people. I don’t want to be like you.’ Hate and anger come easily to us, but forgiveness is real self-denial. Having been forgiven through Jesus’s sacrifice, we go the way of the cross when we put our desire for self-justification to death and forgive those who have sinned against us.

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Money Blues

28 July 2014 — Leave a comment

Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine; © Gravier Productions, Inc./Warner Bros., 2013. Used by permission.Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine; © Gravier Productions, Inc./Warner Bros., 2013. Used by permission.

I’m running the Keswick Unconventional Film Club at the Keswick Convention this week. It’s the first time we’ve run it, though we did have a one-off film discussion one wet afternoon last year. I’m planning to write a brief blog each day about the films we’re watching and discussing together. Our first film was Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine.

Woody Allen’s best films have always combined both humour and a bleak view of reality. Think, for example, of Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) or even Annie Hall (1977). Blue Jasmine is, for my money, one of his Allen best (though this article shows that every one of his films back to 1993 has been hailed as a return to form by some critic of other). So there is plenty of humour, but it’s the bleakness which makes the bigger impression – not so much the bleakness of life generally, but of one life in particular.

The life in question is that of the title character, who is played to perfection by Cate Blanchett (a deserving Oscar and BAFTA winner, though personally I’d have liked Judi Dench to win). Jasmine had everything – or so it seemed. Her devoted husband, Hal (Alec Baldwin), was an extremely successful businessman, and she enjoyed a luxurious lifestyle among New York’s upper classes. But this glittering edifice was built on sand: Hal’s financial dealings were fraudulent and his devotion to Jasmine was a sham. When it all fell apart and Hal was arrested, she lost everything – homes, jewellery, friends, husband, step-son – and had to resort to moving to stay with her working-class sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), in San Francisco.

Jasmine feels the loss of both wealth and status acutely, and can hardly bear the thought of ending up living like her common sister. She has managed to hang on to some of her glamorous wardrobe and a few items of jewellery, as well as her set of Louis Vuitton luggage, and she flies first class, despite the exorbitant cost. She dream of reinventing herself, but with no skills or qualifications to speak of, other than a good eye for style and design, the path to rejoining the wealthy social set will not be easy.

Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine. © Gravier Productions, Inc./Warner Bros., 2013. Used by permission.Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine. © Gravier Productions, Inc./Warner Bros., 2013. Used by permission.

Her mental state is fragile and she relies heavily on Stoli Martinis and Xanax to control her anxiety. Throughout the film, she keeps thinking back to the life she has lost – both to all the beautiful things that she laments losing, and to the rottenness that she refused to see, though it was staring her in the face. She cannot let go of the idea of being wealthy, and repeatedly lies to hide the facts of her reduced circumstances. It’s a strategy doomed to fail.

Several other characters also practice deception at some point or other. It always has negative consequences, but it’s debatable whether Allen is suggesting that honesty is the best policy, or that the problem is being found out. In many ways, Blue Jasmine feels like a morality tale, but given Woody Allen’s views about the meaninglessness of the universe, perhaps it isn’t.

Is deception Jasmine’s fundamental problem, or is it her desperation for wealth? In her case, at least, the two are intertwined. As the apostle Paul says in his first letter to Timothy, ‘the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil’ (1 Timothy 6:10). The love of money corrupted Hal; the desire to make an easy profit prompted Ginger and her then-husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) to hand over their lottery winnings to Hal rather than invest it in an honest business.

Sally Hawkins and Andrew Dice Clay in Blue Jasmine. © Gravier Productions, Inc./Warner Bros., 2013. Used by permission.Sally Hawkins and Andrew Dice Clay in Blue Jasmine. © Gravier Productions, Inc./Warner Bros., 2013. Used by permission.

Jesus said some strong things about the dangers of wealth. When someone asked him to tell his brother to divide up their inheritance, Jesus told a parable about a rich man who had an abundant harvest. He decided to pull down his barns so he could build bigger ones in which to store his surplus. Then he would be able to ‘take life easy; eat, drink and be merry’. But, says Jesus, ’God said to [the man], ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself? This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich towards God’ (Luke 12:13–21).

Jasmine yearns to once again take life easy, eat, drink and be merry. Instead, she struggles through life, drinks too much and is full of anxiety. What hope is there for her life, with her deteriorating mental health and lack of anyone to love her, other than Ginger? Her life is a tragedy because of her addiction to wealth and status, despite no longer having them.

Jesus advised a rich young man that the one thing he still needed to do in order to get right with God was to get rid of all his wealth and give it to the poor (Mark 10:17–30). The young man wouldn’t do it. Like Jasmine, he couldn’t imagine leading a good life without wealth. Jesus observed, ‘How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! … It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’ Wealth blinds us to our need for rescue. If Jasmine was ever to recognise that all this world’s means of support had proved themselves inadequate, she might find herself in a place where turning to God would finally make sense.

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The next few months will see a significant change in my work. After almost eighteen years of working with Damaris, I will be finishing at the end of July. The decision to leave is the culmination of a very long process of reflecting on my gifts and passions and a growing sense that I need to focus primarily on various areas of my work which lie outside Damaris. Or at least, outside of Damaris UK.

One of these areas is developing strategy and resources for engaging with the media within the Lausanne Movement, with which I have been involved for some time. The Lausanne Senior Associate for Media Engagement is Lars Dahle, who heads up Gimlekollen School of Journalism and Communications in Norway where I go to teach each year. He is keen for me to be able to give some time to developing the network which came out of our Global Consultation on Media and the Gospel last year, and producing resources to help the global church engage with media more effectively. We are exploring the possibility of me becoming a team member of Damaris Norway for 50% of my time, to provide a framework for the Lausanne work. This would include doing some more teaching in Norway – but we’re not planning to move there!

I have always been involved in a number of things outside of Damaris UK; these would continue in the other 50% of my time. This would include my speaking engagements. In the last year I’ve spoken at the Keswick Convention, the IFES Graduates Network Bible & Culture course, Word Alive, UCCF staff conference and team days, the School of Missional Disciple-making at Above Bar Church, L,’Abri, and a number of churches. New opportunities for speaking also seem to be opening up. As I write this, an invitation to speak at a university mission has just arrived. The other 50% of my time would also include time to write, which has been squeezed out in the last few years, and I would hope to continue investing a decent amount of time in church.

I am very grateful for the support, advice, and encouragement of my trustees (Peter and Fiona Hudd, Valerie Sewell, and Roger Eldridge) through this long process, as well as a few other wise friends. It is good to know that Nick and Carol Pollard are very supportive of this change, having encouraged me in my Lausanne involvement (we were involved in the Cape Town Congress together in 2010, along with Lars and his wife Margunn).

We would very much value your prayers for this new phase of life and ministry:

  • for my last ten weeks at Damaris (I’m away speaking for two of those weeks – at Bible and Culture in Berlin, 6–11 July, and at the Keswick Convention, 27–31 July)

  • for us to make right decisions about whether or not Damaris Norway provides the best framework for 50% of my time

  • for planning and prioritising of the Lausanne work, and balancing of all the different elements of my work

  • for me to protect my writing time and use it well

  • for our support levels – as with my work with Damaris UK, I will not be paid for the work with Lausanne or Damaris Norway (though I am paid for any teaching I do). We have lost some supporters over the years, of course, but Jane’s employment as Head of Children’s Work at Above Bar Church has balanced this out; we expect to have increased travel costs with the Lausanne work

  • above all, for the Lord Jesus Christ to be glorified in what I do, and that his kingdom would grow through it

If you would like to know more, please ask me. I will write something more detailed for my website in the next couple of weeks. I will also start sending out a monthly email of news and information for prayer from September. If you would like to receive it, please let me know, or sign up using the form on the right of this page.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work by Tony Watkins is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at www.tonywatkins.co.uk.

Richard Curtis is almost an icon of British romantic comedy, thanks to Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), Notting Hill (1999), and Love Actually (2003). About Time is very much a comedy in the Curtis style, and love is the central ingredient, but ultimately it is not so much about romantic love, as the love between a father and son. It is only about time in that the days, months and years we have are valued for how we express and experience love during them.

When Tim Lake (Domnhall Gleeson) turns 21, his father (Bill Nighy) lets him in on a strange family secret: the men are able to travel in time. By simply stepping into a dark place, clenching their fists, and concentrating, they can return to a chosen moment in their own past. He warns Tim of the dangers of using this power unwisely (time-travelling to get rich, for example, is asking for trouble: Tim’s dad has ‘never met a genuinely happy rich man’), and urges him to think about what he really wants from life. For him, it has been all about books, creating time to read ‘everything a man could wish to — twice’. Right from the start, Tim knows that there is one overriding goal: ‘For me, it was always going to be about love.’

First, Tim sets about correcting a moment of awkwardness with a girl at a New Year’s Eve party: he could only bring himself to shake her hand, rather than kiss her, at the stroke of midnight, and he had been acutely embarrassed. By stepping back in time, he could practice his social skills until he was able to kiss with confidence. Over the summer, a friend of Tim’s sister, ‘Kit Kat’ (Lydia Wilson), is staying with the Lakes in their rambling seaside home. Tim is instantly smitten with the beautiful Charlotte (Margot Robbie), and replays a number of moments with her in an attempt to make the path of love run smooth. However hard he tries, though, he never succeeds in seducing her, and he learns ‘big lesson number 1: All the time travel in the world can’t make someone love you.’

Tim moves to London where he encounters Mary (Rachel McAdams) and falls hopelessly in love with her. He quickly discovers that time travel creates its own problems: going back in time to avert a crisis for his cantankerous landlord, Harry (Tom Hollander), results in him not meeting Mary. Tim is determined not to let her slip through his fingers, but it takes considerable effort to engineer a new way of meeting her. Eventually, he succeeds in inviting her back to his flat — a remarkably ill-judged scene of Tim replaying their first time of having sex together over and over until his sexual performance is good enough.1

As Tim and Mary settle down, get married and start a family, he constantly uses his time-travelling abilities to make their little world a better place. But he discovers that he can’t account for everything, and reflects that, ‘The real troubles in life will always be the things that never cross your worried mind.’ When Kit Kat is struggling with major issues, Tim wants to fix her, but no amount of time travel will allow him to change who someone is, and every journey into the past has consequences for the life which he values dearly. He realises that he cannot return to a time before the birth of his baby without it resulting in a different child being born. All the days leading up to that point are lost for Tim, just as they are for everybody else.

The relationship between Tim and his father is the emotional centre of About Time. However much Tim loves Mary, his love for his dad forms the fulcrum for his life. So when his father is diagnosed with terminal cancer, he is devastated. He wants to know what bit of history could be rewritten in order to avoid this, so his father has to disabuse him of the belief that time travel can resolve every problem: ‘I never said we could fix things. I specifically never said that. Life’s a mixed bag, no matter who you are. Look at Jesus: he was the Son of God and look how that turned out.’

This is Tim’s defining moment, as he realises that, even for a time traveller, life is transient — sometimes heartbreakingly so. His father tell him his secret formula for happiness, based on the realisation that our most precious recollections are not often momentous, life-changing events, but rather the ordinary moments of love and joy in ordinary days. Part one of the plan is to, ‘just get on with ordinary life, living it day by day like anyone else.’ Part two is to ‘live every day again, almost exactly the same. The first time with all the tensions and worries that stop us noticing how sweet the world can be, but the second time noticing.’ It becomes an immensely fulfilling strategy. The soundtrack at this point is Ron Sexsmith’s ‘Gold In Them Hills’:

I know it doesn’t seem that way
But maybe it’s the perfect day
Even though the bills are piling
Maybe Lady Luck ain’t smiling

But if we only open our eyes
We’d see the blessings in disguise
That all the rain clouds are fountains
Though our troubles seem like mountains 2

Tim’s final lesson from travelling in time came from ceasing to do so altogether:

I just try to live every day as if I’d deliberately come back to this one day — to enjoy it as if it was the full, final day of my extraordinary ordinary life. We’re all travelling through time together, every day of our lives. All we can do is our best, to relish this remarkable ride.

This is a wonderfully heart-warming attitude to life, and the delightful portrayal of the love between Tim and his father makes us want to live with this same degree of intentionality. One would need to be a very cynical viewer not to be somewhat moved by the prospect of finding beauty, joy and love in the ordinary moments of life, lifting the daily grind to an experience of near-transcendent delight. The writer of the book of Ecclesiastes also suggests that we should value what we have while we have it:

Eat your food with joy, and drink your wine with a happy heart, for God approves of this! Wear fine clothes, with a splash of cologne! Live happily with the woman you love through all the meaningless days of life that God has given you under the sun. The wife God gives you is your reward for all your earthly toil. Whatever you do, do well. For when you go to the grave, there will be no work or planning or knowledge or wisdom. (Ecclesiastes 9:7–10)

Curtis is often criticised for his almost unrelentingly positive spin on life in his comedies: everybody is fundamentally nice, and despite some pain along the way, things turn out well. Peter Bradshaw concludes his review of About Time by saying that, ‘Curtis is a director who likes his spoonful of sugar, and isn’t shy of breaking out Arvo Pärt on the soundtrack to make sure we recognise the sad bits. . . . You’ll need a sweet tooth for this film, but it’s heartfelt, with a fragile sort of sincerity.3 When Laurie Taylor interviewed him, he asked about what Curtis once referred to as a critical fallacy’ — ‘the prevalent cultural idea that anything that is harsh or violent is inherently true to life, whereas anything that is warm and positive is inherently false.’4 Curtis replied:

I really do believe that there is a tremendous amount of optimism, goodness and love in the world and that it is under-represented. But if you do feel it and experience it then you should write about it. The dark side is always dominant. What is the nastiest thing that has happened to me? What is the worst thing I can imagine happening to me? What were the worst three days of my life? Ah. I shall write about that. It is a sort of sentimental conspiracy about violence.

The question which this value-every-moment approach to life raises, though, is whether or not it is adequate. Is it enough to simply see the beauty all around us, to brighten people’s day with a smile, to be consistently kind? These are, without question, things which we would all benefit from making part of our daily lives. Although Curtis is right that there is ‘a tremendous amount of optimism, goodness and love in the world’, it is also true that we encounter pessimism, self-centredness, and unkindness. There is beauty all around us, but there is ugliness too. The problem is that the ugliness and brokenness of the world is found in every human heart, just as goodness and love is. This is the Bible’s view of human beings: we are wonderful because we’re made in God’s image, yet terrible because we’ve rejected him and his rule in our lives.5 Tim may have had a unique opportunity to train himself in living positively, but the unrelentingly decent Tim is as much a fiction as the time-travelling Tim. A real Tim would not be able to sustain it constantly because he could not root out from within his heart the basic instinct to prioritise his own interests ahead of those of other people. He could suppress it much of the time, but he would be fighting a constant battle within himself.6

Richard Curtis rejects this biblical understanding of human beings because he completely rejects the idea of God. This does not make him a bad man; he is clearly a very good one, and is rightly acclaimed for his extremely hard work for charity. But he must be as aware as anyone else of how imperfect he is, and of how he falls short of even his own standards. The writer of Ecclesiastes may urge us to enjoy what we have while we may, but it also says that we will not really make sense of life until we recognise our creator:

Don’t let the excitement of youth cause you to forget your Creator. Honour him in your youth before you grow old and say, ‘Life is not pleasant anymore.’ Remember him before the light of the sun, moon, and stars is dim to your old eyes, and rain clouds continually darken your sky. (Ecclesiastes 12:1–2)

God has only given us one life, one set of ordinary days, in which to choose our path. We can live without him and attempt to overcome the darkness all by ourselves, or we can accept his offer of redemption through the death and resurrection of his son Jesus Christ, and experience both forgiveness for our failures and a new inner dynamic for appreciating the world’s beauty and showing self-sacrificing love to others.

Footnotes


  1. For a very strong critique of this scene, see Ryan Gilbey, ‘The Sexual Misdemeanour That Casts a Long Shadow Over Richard Curtis’s About Time‘, New Statesman, 29 August 2013. 
  2. See lyricsfreak.com 
  3. Peter Bradshaw, ‘About Time — Review‘, The Guardian, 5 September 2013. 
  4. Laurie Taylor, ‘Laurie Taylor’s Interviews: Charity Balls: Laurie Taylor Interviews Richard Curtis‘, Rationalist Association, 29 June 2007. 
  5. See Genesis 1:26–28; 3:1–19. 
  6. Compare with Romans 7:15–25. 

Creative Commons LicenseThis work by Tony Watkins is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at www.tonywatkins.co.uk.

Film & Bible Blog Article

The Past Comes Flooding Back

The SeaImage © Independent Film Company, 2013. Used by permission.

Art historian Max (Ciarán Hinds) is grieving after the recent loss of his wife, Anna (Sinéad Cusack), to cancer. Against the advice of his daughter Clare (Ruth Bradley), he goes to stay in a boarding house on the Wexford coast for a time while he tries to make progress on a book he has been struggling to write. It’s a place full of both joyful and painful memories of a childhood summer, and Max seems to think that revisiting them will help him process the bittersweet memories of his wife. Clare is sure that it’s a ridiculous idea because ‘The past is the past.’ The Cedars boarding house is run by Miss Vavasour (Charlotte Rampling) and has just one other resident, the elderly Colonel Blunden (Karl Johnson) who quickly gets on Max’s brittle nerves. Like Max, Miss Vavasour also has a connection to that fateful summer of five decades previously, and clearly knew the Grace family who owned the house.

A series of flashbacks replay moments in Max and Anna’s marriage and her final months after being diagnosed with terminal cancer. Anna, a photographer, and Max had quite different personalities, but the tensions in their marriage are more hinted at than spelt out clearly. Anna had a much brighter, more open disposition than Max. While he was preoccupied with writing about artists, she was one. While he investigated the past, she was busy capturing the present. While he was brooding about the exact nature of her relationship with another man, she was just getting on with enjoying herself. Nevertheless, the love between them was real, and Max has a very hard time watching Anna’s health failing. Fine performances by Hinds and Cusack make these scenes the most emotionally powerful of the film.

Image © Independent Film Company, 2013. Used by permission.Image © Independent Film Company, 2013. Used by permission.

As he returns to locations where he first encountered the Graces, the more distant past comes flooding back. A second series of flashbacks reveal how intoxicated he was by the family from the moment he first saw them on the beach. Carlo (Rufus Sewell) and Connie (Natascha McElhone), and their children, Chloë (Missy Keating) and her mute twin brother Myles (Padhraigh Parkinson), were different from his own family in almost every way. While his family was restrained, conventional and not well off, the Graces were exuberant, bohemian and affluent. As he fell under their spell, he became infatuated with Connie and then with Chloë before becoming aware of some disturbing currents under the surface, which have tragic consequences.

Ciarán Hinds describes Max as ‘a man discombobulated or unbalanced, living with grief and confused as to what he can do and how he should deal with it. He’s not very good at dealing with it.’1 Grief is, of course, an immensely powerful, sometimes crippling, emotion which can knock anyone off balance. It is very often a dreadfully isolating experience. As Ella Wheeler Wilcox famously wrote, ‘Laugh and the whole world laughs with you, cry and you cry alone.’2 It can be particularly lonely for someone who has lost a spouse after many years of sharing life together; suddenly it seems impossible to share those experiences with anyone else. Banville says:

It’s such a strange thing (death) we’re all here and suddenly one of us is gone, it’s a strange and disruptive occurrence. He obviously still loves his wife and she loves him in that strange way that people do that have been married for decades.3

Image © Independent Film Company, 2013. Used by permission.Image © Independent Film Company, 2013. Used by permission.

It is entirely understandable that Max should feel lost and alone, surrounded by things that bring back so many memories. Some time away from it all could seem very attractive, but Max evidently fails to allow for two very significant factors. The first is that he has a daughter who loves him, who is herself grieving and who both needs the support of her father and who needs to give her support to him. Grief may often make people isolated, but it should not: it is something that should be shared. Wilcox’s famous line is not a prescription, but a sad observation: people can struggle to know how to help a grieving person so they keep their distance. But family and close friends are experiencing grief themselves, and one of the best things they can do is share it, weeping together, laughing about the good times, being together, valuing each other. But Max abandons her because he is so self-absorbed. Judging from the flashbacks to his time with Anna, he has been for a very long time. John Banville says, ‘When we’re children, we’re locked inside ourselves. We’re totally self-centred.’ But Max still is. In a very important sense, he has not really grown up.

The second factor that Max fails to allow for is that going somewhere full of memories will make him more, not less, mindful of the past. Living in the past is clearly a tendency for Max anyway — he is an art historian (though whether that is a cause or a symptom is less obvious). Soon after he arrives at The Cedars, Miss Vavasour asks him why he has come back. He supposes that it is to escape, but she observes, ‘Fleeing one sadness by revisiting the scene of an old one. Doesn’t work.’ She is quite right, as Max soon discovers. He cannot leave his grief behind in Dublin, for he carries it within himself. And if he thinks that it will be easier to be away from a place that is full of memories of Anna, he has forgotten that memories can be prompted by the smallest of things, which superficially appear unrelated. Back in a place of happy memories of a fun-loving family, he is reminded that his marriage to a fun-loving wife had its tensions; in a place where he was first confronted with the horror of death, he cannot help but think about Anna’s premature departure from the world. Max increasingly flounders as the currents of his recollections sweep over him, and he soon sinks deeper into drunkenness and despair.

Image © Independent Film Company, 2013. Used by permission.Image © Independent Film Company, 2013. Used by permission.

Nevertheless, returning to the scene of intense childhood joys and pains does do something for him. Producer Luc Roeg says, ‘The Sea is a film about a man who reaches a point in his life when he has to go back and discover a time in his past that reveals himself. . . . It’s the unfolding of those events that unlock his present.’ They do so because Max finds himself compelled to re-examine the events of that far-off summer, perhaps for the first time as an adult. As he looks back, he sees that he was not the only self-centred person on the beach; the Graces may have enfolded him into their midst, but they were each intent on fulfilling their own desires and agendas, without a great deal of thought to others. It is not clear whether or not Max had carried some sense of guilt for the tragedy that unfolded, but as he calls to mind the turbulent relationships within the Grace family, and with the children’s nanny, Rose (Bonnie Wright), he eventually realises that he was essentially an onlooker: there were already strong currents at work. The memories remain powerful and painful, but there was little, if anything, he could have done.

That is even more true in relation to Anna. At home in their kitchen after hearing the gloomy prognosis, Max expressed the wish that he could do something. Anna reacted scornfully: not only was there nothing to be done, but in her mind, Max was not someone who does things, but constantly operated in a passive, reactive mode. He is well aware of his failures and weaknesses, but when he reconsiders the two tragedies which have blighted his life, he finally accepts that they were not his fault. Shortly before he leaves The Cedars, he discusses the grieving process with Miss Vavasour. ‘You learn that the march of time is relentless,’ she says. ‘That helps.’ Things happen — sometimes within our control and sometimes not — and the world moves on regardless. Living in the past doesn’t help; eventually, in some way or other, one must continue on.

The most fundamental problem for Max, though, is that he is a man grieving without hope. God is notably absent from this film. That is not at all to say that God should be present in every film, but the experience of death is one of those times in life when many people reflect on spiritual matters — even those who never give God a moment’s thought in less painful times. So the fact that neither Max nor Anna even bring the subject up is revealing — perhaps all the more because the setting is Ireland where religion remains a significant aspect of the culture. Max’s silence on the matter suggests that he has a thoroughly naturalistic view of human nature: we are born, if we are lucky we love for a time, we die, and that’s the end. Like sandcastles on the beach, we will all be swept away, leaving no lasting trace and finally forgotten.

Image © Independent Film Company, 2013. Used by permission.Image © Independent Film Company, 2013. Used by permission.

The Bible recognises the apparent futility of our brief lives:

Surely the fate of human beings is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; humans have no advantage over animals. Everything is meaningless. All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return. (Ecclesiastes 3:19–20, NIV)

While the book of Ecclesiastes explores in depth the apparent meaninglessness of a human life, the writer is driving home that the meaning of life is not found within the material world. He emphasises that we should enjoy it while we can, but the real meaning will only be found by factoring in our creator while we still can:

Don’t let the excitement of youth cause you to forget your Creator. Honour him in your youth before you grow old and say, ‘Life is not pleasant anymore.’ Remember him before the light of the sun, moon, and stars is dim to your old eyes, and rain clouds continually darken your sky. (Ecclesiastes 12:1–2)

In the New Testament, Jesus Christ claims that it is possible to have a hopeful attitude even to death by virtue of his own death and resurrection, because that is what opens up for us the possibility of eternal life: ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying. Everyone who lives in me and believes in me will never ever die’ (John 11:25). This wonderful possibility is not part of Max’s thinking, nor was it part of Anna’s, so he is left ‘without God and without hope’ (Ephesians 2:12). All he can do, then, is to continue on with time’s relentless march, finding what comfort and pleasure where he can until his sandcastle, too, is swept away. With no real hope for the future, perhaps living in the past is the best he can do.

Footnotes


  1. Unattributed quotations, which are not from the film, are taken from The Sea production notes
  2. Ella Wheeler Wilcox, ‘The Way Of The World’ (1983). 
  3. Richard Purden, ‘Interview: John Banville Talks The Sea, Writing & BBC Series Quirke‘, Irish Post, 10 August 2013. 

Creative Commons LicenseThis work by Tony Watkins is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at www.tonywatkins.co.uk.

Easter Cross - geograph.org.uk - 287067
Image by Les McClean, used under a Creative Commons (CC-BY-SA-2.0) licence

John Dickson, one of the founders of the excellent Centre for Public Christianity in Australia, wrote a rather good list of tips for atheists. It has a lovely combination of provocativeness and humility. Dickson says that Christianity has had a big head start over atheism so he offers these tips ‘in the interests of a more robust debate this Easter’, pointing out fundamental flaws in common atheist arguments as well as admitting to some potential vulnerabilities in the Christian argument. Number 8 – ‘Persuasion involves three factors’ – is particularly interesting to me in the light of Peter S. Williams’s material on ‘apologetics in 3D’.

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Digital missions

17 April 2014 — Leave a comment

Phil Cooke says, ‘I believe it’s time to shift from primarily thinking about missions in terms of geographical boundaries, and start thinking in terms of digital boundaries. What do you think? From my perspective, that’s a massive country just waiting to hear our message.’

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work by Tony Watkins is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at www.tonywatkins.co.uk.