Here it is, finally, after all this time. The thing absolutely no-one – literally not a single soul – asked for: The great big How To Be A Liberal film marathon. I’ve included one or two films per chapter, for you to watch after you read it, or maybe all at once at the end of the book, or anytime you fancy really. Fuck, I can’t control you. YOU MUST BE YOUR OWN PERSON. EXPRESS YOUR AUTONOMY. HAVE YOU LEARNT NOTHING FROM THE BOOK?
This originally popped into existence because the missus and I were going to watch a film which touched on one of the elements of the book, and then decided – fuck it, we’ve got nothing on – what if we actually put together a series of films which spoke to the events and themes of each chapter? That led to her repeatedly falling asleep while I nerded out hard over some extremely obscure films about 17th Century politics.
Believe me – there’s some heavy lifting behind what’s on here. We’ve sat through some proper shite (Cromwell, The Patriot and Marie Antoinette are particularly noteworthy examples which you must never watch) but kept it well away from the list. Every film here has something powerful to recommend it, and some of them are truly extraordinary. Only one of them is objectively bad – Cartesius – but even that is still oddly impressive in its sense of commitment. Although after a couple hours of it, you may admittedly disagree.
The missus’ review is included after mine, for reasons of full disclosure. As you can imagine, she is in the process of re-assessing some of her life choices. Parts Two and Three will be up soon.
Eric Darnell and Tim Johnson, 1998, available for free on Amazon Prime
It’s curious – but deeply reassuring – how many children’s films are imbued with liberal messages. More will figure later on in this list, but Antz is arguably the most radical of all of them. Its central messages are astonishingly on-point – question all orders, think for yourself, be an individual, choose your own life. The final lines of the film are – and I know this is ridiculous, but it’s true – a near perfect summary of Harriet Taylor and John Stuart Mill’s autonomy principle. It’s not on this list just because it’s lovely or satisfyingly fable-like way to begin, although it’s both of those things. It’s here because it’s hard to think of another film – for any audience, in any genre – which does a better job of introducing basic liberal ideas. The fact that it then tries to inspire them in children and encourage them to question authority is just a very big plus. Those ideas are explored not just in the plot or the script, but in the architecture of the story. The portrayal of a dumping ground, complete with a lushly depicted rotting fish, as an insect utopia is really quite beautiful – and a reminder that different people have different visions of the good life.
Missus review: Quite boring. Sex jokes for adults in a cartoon? The 90s were so naff.
Roberto Rossellini, 1974, available on Criterion Channel (VPN required)
Yes that’s right, we start as we mean to go with a two-and-a-half hour 1970s Italian made-for-TV film about Rene Descartes. To make things even more exciting it’s almost impossible to find. The only place I could get it online is on the Criterion Channel, which, unfortunately, does not allow subscriptions from the UK. You can get around this with a VPN – Hotspot has a free version which’ll do the trick. Once that’s accomplished you have the tribulations of the film itself, which has no narrative structure to speak of, but instead consists of painful set-ups for philosophising between Descartes and a host of figures, always conducted in the same manner and proceeding in the same way. There are no struggles for our hero to overcome or characters to populate his story. So yes – this one is for the hardcore only, but all is not lost. The film is brilliantly researched and thorough, giving you a very efficient overview of the entirety of Cartesian philosophy. Ugo Cardea is oddly fitting as Descartes – rarely smiling and wafting around full of his own self-importance, much as you might imagine the man himself. Charles Borromel makes a perfect Marin Mersenne, with a smile constantly playing on his lips. The rest of the acting is several steps down from that which you get from side characters in a video game or a 70s porno. This is best watched by turning it into a drinking game where you have to do a shot every time someone wakes up Descartes in bed and tells him it’s late. There is also a tremendously weird scene involving an automaton. Is it easy? No. Is it fun? No. Is it good? Honestly, no. But it is genuinely informative and there’s a real charm to watching a film which is so committed to laying out the history of ideas on screen.
Missus review: I fell asleep several times due to the monotonous tones and every time I woke up it was the same two men talking about mathematics.
The Wachowskis, 1999, available to rent online through streaming services
Before the Matrix, philosophy professors had to explain the notion of the Cartesian demon. After the Matrix, that was no longer necessary. Now they could just say: Prove you’re not in the Matrix. In fact the whole film acts as some kind of fever dream playing out in Descartes’ head on the night of the three dreams. “You ever have that feeling where you’re not sure if you’re awake or still dreaming?” Neo asks, in one of his first lines. If Descartes had philosophised through the medium of slow-mo gun fights and kung-fu, this might well have been the kind of thing he’d come up with. The film has barely dated at all, and that is not just about its special effects. It’s that it perfectly melds philosophy and action in a way which is seemingly effortless and yet utterly original. Of course, it’s been adopted by dimwit conspiracy theory red-pill lunatics online, but watching it gives you an idea of just how universal questions about certainty and objectivity are in Western thought. And that helps dramatise why Descartes’ discovery of the individual was so striking: the only certainly true thing in a world you can’t rely on.
Missus review: I remember the film being cleverer than it was but maybe I was dumber in the 90s.
A Field in England
Ben Wheatley, 2013, available to rent online through streaming services
Ok, so let’s be clear. This film is messed up. It is messed up in ways you will have never thought possible, including one scene that disorientated me so badly I thought for a moment I might throw up. There’s no point going into it expecting it to make sense, or indeed that any of the events which unfold during it will be explained. You just have to sort of let it wash over you. It’s an uncompromising piece of film-making with a singular vision. One of the things I love about it – there are too many to list individually – is that at some point a group of people decided to make a black and white hallucinogenic horror film set in the English Civil War. What kind of audience is there for that? None. But they did it anyway, and fuck may God bless them for that. There are certain key moments in this, including specifically the shot of a man emerging from a tent – you’ll know it when you see it – that might just haunt you forever. They do me. I kept finding myself undone by memories of them days after watching it. It is not included here for the political points it makes, if indeed they can be discerned. It’s more that its whole approach – the affront to sense – seems to channel what the civil war period represents, of age-old certainties undermined, of suddenly anything being possible, of violent and shocking change. It doesn’t so much address the civil war as try to encapsulate the psychological impact of living through it.
Missus review: I want to forget I ever watched this film please.
Fanny Lye Deliver’d
Thomas Clay, 2020, available to rent online through streaming services
That same sense of strangeness and uncomfortable change is present in Fanny Lye Deliver’d, which makes a good double-bill with A Field in England, although by Christ you’ll be fucked by the end of it. The two even have almost identical film posters. Here the sense of weirdness and fluctuation is described as “an England now adream”. The sense of historical accuracy here – especially in the housing, clothing and instruments for the soundtrack – is second to none. What starts as a seemingly quite inspiring story suddenly takes a serious turn for the worse and things become really quite monstrous and uncomfortable. The main focus here is on sexual relationships, and in particular the treatment of women, during the civil war period, but it’s noticeable how many aspects it shares with A Field in England, including the ingestion of psychedelics in a crucial scene. Mushrooms in both films induce the personal experience of a grander social revolution taking place around the characters. Taken together, these two films give an indication of just what an unsettling impact the English Civil War still has on the English psyche and how it is capable of inspiring filmmakers’ best work.
Missus review: I want to watch the civil war Thelma and Louise flick that happened in the last five mins ie. a completely different film.
Chapter Three – Part One: Glorious Revolution
The Man Who Laughs
Paul Leni, 1928, available to rent online through streaming services
Not an easy sell this. A silent black and white film, made nearly a century ago, by a German expressionist. But if you give it a shot you will find wonders which are simply not possible in talkies, not the least of which is the creation of a deeply disturbing – almost suffocating – hypnotic dream-space. Set during the rule of King James II and carrying on into that of Queen Anne, The Man Who Laughs tracks the life of a child whose face has been disfigured into a permanent grin. As it happens, he was the inspiration for the Batman villain the Joker – a fact which will be obvious the moment you lay eyes on him. The film is an examination of false smiles, of the relationship between seriousness and laughter, and nearly every central moment in it emerges from that dynamic. Visually, it is a masterpiece. In terms of its place in this list, the fact it occurs during Glorious Revolution years is ultimately quite superficial. It’s included because, at its heart, it is a liberal story. It is about a man discarded as a freak by society, to be laughed at and mocked, who then establishes his own life. Conrad Veidt, in a masterclass of acting, guides us through every feeling he experiences through his eyes while his mouth is fixed in its grim permanent smile, culminating in an extraordinary and deeply moving set piece in the House of Lords. Notice the way that he is always silent, but you can hear the mocking laughter of the crowds gathered around him, or the cruel irony that when someone is finally willing to accept his deformity, it is as a sexual kink which serves to actually undermine his desire for acceptance. A truly beautiful and unforgettable piece of film-making.
Missus review: Fell asleep.
Chapter Three – Part Two: The American Revolution
Thomas Kail, 2020, available for free on Disney Plus
Hamilton is less a musical than a cultural phenomenon, and a tremendously valuable and healthy one at that. This isn’t simply because of its racially-blind casting, but also artistically, for the melding of hip hop and musicals – a mix that proves so potent you presume it’ll become its own genre. This film of the New York show avoids the usual stale and distant effect of theatrical performances on screen, due to a dynamic camera and elegant, effective editing. It provides a useful overview of the American war of Independence and the struggles which came afterwards to assert the character and structure of the new nation. But more than that, it carries within it a liberal argument about the figure of the immigrant, encapsulated in the moment in which Hamilton and Lafayette stand together and exclaim: “Immigrants. We get the job done.” Beautiful, evocative and vigorously alive: there’s no better film on this period of history.
Missus review: Good songs, naff lazy sexism for a musical made in this century. We can believe in a black Washington but women are either saints or slags.
Chapter Three – Part Three: The French Revolution
Andrzej Wajda, 1983, available for free on YouTube
One of the finest films on this list. Wajda’s portrayal of the last days of Danton, played here intelligently by Gérard Depardieu, is a piece of properly mature film-making. He assumes his audience are highly intelligent – there’s no attempt to fill you in on the events leading up the period in film. In a way, it doesn’t matter. You have what you need in the story. One of its most extraordinary accomplishments is to assume the political realities of the period instead of criticising them. This makes the Terror feel like a working political reality, like an event you are really living through rather than one seen through a window from the future. What appears insane from the outside actually becomes perfectly comprehensible inside the film, as all the main characters operate according to its logic. It’s gripping, knuckle-whitening stuff, and through it all you have this terrible sense of a crunching inevitable sense of doom. Wojciech Pszoniak’s performance as Robespierre is genuinely terrifying: his cold, dead eyes staring pointedly around him, softening only for those rare cases in which he can still feel empathy. Note the way that the Polish director had all of Danton’s allies played by French actors and all the allies of Robespierre played by Poles. He was making a comment on the Solidarity movement’s struggles in Poland as much as he was the French Revolution, and in doing so showing the persistent danger of ideas around the ‘general will’ through the ages.
Missus review: Fell asleep.
Part Two of the great big How To Be A Liberal film marathon will be published soon.