Monday, June 19, 2006

Calendar Girls

One of our next door neighbours lent us the 2003 movie Calendar Girls, which we watched last night. It is a beautifully-made piece of cinema, a fine example of just how good the British film industry is.

The story is based on true events (such films always include a large element of artistic licence, which I always hope is in order to protect the privacy of the individuals involved rather than to make the story ‘better’ – such a celluloid face-lift would be particularly ironic in this case). When her husband dies of cancer, a widow and her closest friend enlist the help of some of their friends in the local Women’s Institute (a national institution, popularly associated with middle-aged, middle-class, Middle England, women making home-made cakes and jams) to create a charity calendar to raise money to do something for others living with cancer in the family. The women would pose for the camera doing stereotypical WI activities; but – and this is as far from stereotypical as could be imagined – they would be nude. The project captured the national (and beyond) imagination; and took off far beyond their wildest dreams…

Here are six things that struck me watching the film:

1) In the film, the husband – whose wife does not yet know he has cancer – is asked by his wife to give a presentation at the WI, on the basis that he must be more interesting than most of their guest speakers. Though he does not live to give a presentation in person, he writes a talk on his passion for wild flowers, which is read out to the meeting after his death. In it, he writes of his favourite flower, the sunflower – so-called not because it looks like a sun, but because its head tracks the sun over the course of the day, turning on the stalk so that the flower is always facing it: “…if there is any light, however weak, it will find it. And that is an inspiring way to live.” I love that idea of seeking light, however weak it shines, in the community; and pointing to it, so that others are inspired to look to the light and turn their back on the dark themselves.

2) The women are willing to step out of their comfort zone in order to make a difference to the lives of others. These were women some of whom were uncomfortable about being seen naked by their own husband, let alone anyone else – with a camera. That’s no small step. But they took it. And it made a big difference to the wider community, ultimately raising enough money not just for a new sofa in the relatives waiting room (the original intention, in the film at least) but to provide an entire new cancer wing.

3) There is both radical continuity and radical discontinuity with the traditions and values of the institution to which they belonged. Continuity alone would have been irrelevant and ineffective (the previous, traditional, charity calendar had raised about £75); discontinuity alone would have been meaningless. Both elements were necessary in order to create life (which thrives when held at the edge of chaos), to ignite the public imagination.

4) In a society that idolises youth, and insists that its citizens should do everything possible to defy all signs of aging, the Calendar Girls are refreshingly, wonderfully counter-cultural. Skin that has made room for the person living inside it fits better – and so feels better, looks better – than the taut skin of those who haven’t yet lived very long…or have had a face-lift.

5) The captured naked female body, if no longer taboo, still sits uncomfortably within British culture. What counts as art (which is life-affirming: in all its voluptuous, tummy-tuck free, botox free, air-brush free glory), and what counts as pornography (which is life-destroying degradation)? As with so many things in life, issues of motive and of context, rather than absolutes, determine whether something is ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ ‘clean’ or ‘dirty.’

6) In the film, when the project takes off, takes on a life of its own, the woman who had the idea in the first place – the widow’s best friend – loses sight of why they were doing this in the first place; starts to think in terms of sustaining the project for its own sake. And this takes a terrible toll on her relationships – with her teenage son; her (supportive) husband; the dear friend in whose husband’s memory the calendar (and film) was made. I have no idea whether this element in the story has any grounding in actual events – it makes for a plot tension culminating in repentance and heart-warming reconciliation all round – but it would be fair to say that ‘success’ and sudden outside interest, especially when fuelled by the (courted) media, often appears to come at a price. Only a fool courts exposure (no pun intended); and it takes a wise community to handle it well.

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