I remember seeing this unlikely video of a Chinese pickpocket last year. Despite looking incredibly obvious, it reminded me of Philip Jones Griffiths pictures of Vietnamese kids picking the pockets of lumpen GIs - the Vietnamese have a touch more elegance though.
So I forgot about pickpockets for a while then saw two films last week. The first was Robert Bresson's Pickpocket.
The hero of Bresson's film is perhaps the most uninteresting character ever. His conceit is that of the existentialist hero, that certain people are outside the rules and so can do anything they like - namely go on the Paris metro, pick pockets and generally be miserable about things. There is supposed to be some kind of redemption through love, but really there isn't and the female character through whom the redemption will come has so few dimensions that you'd have to roll back String Theory to work out where she came from. My God, it was a pointless film and a pointless character, pointlessly directed to the highest controlled degree to no visible end except for a few delightful pickpocketing vignettes.
So then I saw Jack Wild in the musical film version of Oliver!
The song's introduced with one of the great lines of any movie, one that gets replayed in our kitchen near every dinner time.
Boy: These sausages are mouldy!
Fagin: Shut up and drink your gin!
How much better was this affirmation of narrative through song, dance, crime and life; from the discourse of the auteur to that of entertainment.
And from there I swing round to a final pickpocket picture from Ernest Cole. Ernest Cole was a South African photographer whose book, House of Bondage, is an angry indictment of apartheid era South Africa ( and in terms of tone and layout, it also seems to be very much of an inspiration for Griffiths' Vietnam Inc.). It was photographed at about the same time as Billy Monk took his nightclub pictures - but Cole's pictures are rather different, presenting the nasty underbelly which are the foundations on which Monk's work is built.
I know lots of people who have no clue about South Africa or what apartheid is, or the Orwellian language and legal games that were used to uphold it. I don't know of a better visual and verbal explanation of what apartheid is than House of Bondage.
I read the intro to House of Bondage and was stunned to hear that such a thing as 'boysmeat' existed - 'boysmeat' was the low-grade meat that was sold at butchers to be given to domestic servants in white households.
House of Bondage goes through the litany of injustices that made up Apartheid-era South Africa; land rights, the mines, commuting, the pass laws, domestic servitude, education, alcohol, hospitals right the way through to banishment to the homelands and the effect this removal of rights had upon a society ( in many ways it's very similar to Griffiths' Vietnam Inc., which was published 4 years later, in that respect).
To make House of Bondage, Cole got himself reclassified from 'black' to 'coloured' so he had more freedom to shoot. The people who ran the Classification Board of The Bureau of Census and Statistics had a number of tests to check on if you were really 'black' or really 'coloured'; one was the 'pencil test' - "If a man is black, according to the theory, his hair will be so wiry that it will be impossible to run a pencil through it. If he is merely brown, the pencil will pass."
The final challenge was the height question. Joseph Lelyveld tells the story here:
""How tall were you, " he asked, "when you were eight?"
A Colored asked this question does what any Westerner would do - that is, stretches out his hand to the appropriate level, palm down. Africans indicate height with their palms up. The examiner assumed that this esoteric piece of information was know only to the Classification Board. But Ernest had been waiting for just that question. "I took all the time in the world to answer," he says when he tells the story. "I stood up so I could really do it properly." From that moment until he left South Africa, Ernest Cole was a Colored, palms down."
Here's the pickpocket - and there's no subtlety or elegance here - along with some other Ernest Cole pictures. This is the discourse of information, anger and wit and I can't think of anything better to tell people, even today, how information, language and power conspire to control, humiliate and disempower.