Sunday, November 28, 2010

Returning Evil for Evil

You have been kidnapped by some strange men. Without harming you or threatening you in any way, the men place you alone inside a room and lock the door. Before they close the door, one of the men shows you a calendar on the wall and points to a date many weeks in the future and tells you that on that day they will kill you.

As the days pass, you are fed regularly and allowed to read books and magazines that the men provide for you. But you are kept in the locked room and when you ask some of the men about the upcoming date on the calendar, you are told that it is true, that on that date you will be killed, and that there is nothing you can say or do to change their minds. When you ask them how they will do it, they tell you that one of them will be chosen to choke you to death with a rope.

And, just as you have been told so many days in advance, the day arrives and the men appear at the door of your room in the morning. Hands bound, you are taken outside to a small platform where an odd-looking chair has been erected. You are made to sit down on this chair and a metal brace is placed around your neck. Without ceremony, after the brace is in place, a rope is tightened around your throat . . .

There are crimes, and then there are what people have called "heinous" crimes. But I cannot think of a murder conducted more heinously than the one I have just narrated. And yet it is what takes place every time, all over the world, when a man or woman is killed through a state-sanctioned execution. The manner of the killing varies from country to country. The manner I described is a very old one called "garroting," which is still practiced in countries like Indonesia.
Hanging, electrocution, or firing squad are some others. In the United States, which is one of only five countries in the developed world that continues to execute convicted criminals (1), the most common form of execution is now lethal injection, which was created because it is considered the most "humane" technique, based on medical opinion which sometimes conflicts with the facts. But in every case, it is undisguised and self-proclaimed killing.

The lethal injection, just like releasing the trap door or throwing the switch, is administered by a human being. Yet no one would accuse an executioner of being a murderer. Why? Because he is only performing his appointed duty to the state. He is not acting in his own interests, but in the interests of the court, of the law, and of the men and women who wrote those laws. And in whose interests do these statesmen, these administrators and legislators, act? In a democracy, they act in the interests of the people who appointed them, of the ordinary citizens. But how can the state, which is an agent of the people in a democracy, reserve for itself the right to kill? Who has given them such power to settle matters of life and death?

Thomas Aquinas was adamant, if rather defensive, about the authority of the state to execute convicted criminals (2): "Another kind of lawful slaying belongs to the civil authorities, to whom is entrusted power of life and death, by the legal and judicious exercise of which they punish the guilty and protect the innocent. The just use of this power, far from involving the crime of murder, is an act of paramount obedience to this Commandment which prohibits murder. The end of the Commandment is the preservation and security of human life. Now the punishments inflicted by the civil authority, which is the legitimate avenger of crime, naturally tend to this end, since they give security to life by repressing outrage and violence. Hence these words of David: In the morning I put to death all the wicked of the land, that I might cut off all the workers of iniquity from the city of the Lord."

We are no longer so confident of divine sanctions for our acts, and we are no longer subject to the eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth rule. So why should we still answer evil for evil when it comes to murder? According to legend, when the Marquis de Sade was relieved of his job as a judge after the French Revolution because of his refusal to sentence anyone to death, he said, "To kill a man in a paroxysm of passion is understandable, but to have him killed by someone else after calm and serious meditation and on the pretext of duty honourably discharged is incomprehensible."

It is my sad conviction that some of the most crucial social advances will come to every country in the world before they come to my native country. People all over the world watched last year in disbelief when the debate over universal healthcare raged in America. What could possibly be wrong with the idea that everyone should have access to inexpensive standardized healthcare? And yet American conservatives are poised to repeal the healthcare bill that President Obama pushed through Congress.

Similarly, a majority of Americans have shown their approval of capital punishment in numerous surveys. While no longer used in federal cases, it is still being implemented in 35 states. Some of the arguments in favor of capital punishment are that it is cheaper than incarcerating a criminal for life and that it is a deterrent - despite ample evidence to the contrary. The fact that people sentenced to death average more than a decade awaiting their executions (amplifying the element of torture that I outlined in my opening narration) and that this waiting period is getting longer proves the extent to which the system is broken and that states implementing the death penalty are losing their nerve to do so. How long will it take these states to understand what nearly every civilized nation on earth has long since learned?

(1) The other four countries are - not surprising to me - in Asia: Singapore, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan.
(2) Murder is, of course, only one of many "capital offenses" (Latin "capitalis", "regarding the head"). In 18th century England there were 222 offenses that were punishable by death, including cutting down a tree or stealing an animal.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Determinator

"A preventive war is a crime not easily committed by a country that retains any traces of democracy." George Orwell wrote these words in an essay called "Towards European Unity," published in the July-August 1947 Partisan Review. It was at the beginning of the Cold War, when the two superpowers remaining after the destruction of Europe squared off for a conflict that never, thankfully, materialized. Orwell was pessimistic: "If I were a bookmaker, simply calculating the probabilities and leaving my own wishes out of account, I would give odds against the survival of civilization within the next few hundred years."

At the time, the U.S. was in sole possession of the atom bomb - or so everyone thought. When Orwell considered the prospects for future world conflicts, he ruled out the possibility of a preventive attack by the U.S. on Russia. But what Orwell did not foresee was that, even after Russia acquired the bomb, the idea of a preemptive, or preventive, war would become an important feature of nuclear strategy.

During the Cold War, one of the questions on people's minds that could never get a straight answer was: would the U.S. ever consider carrying out a preemptive nuclear attack on the Soviet Union? (1) Although there were occasional denials, such an attack could never be realistically eliminated as an option. As a deterrent, it was vital that the Russians understood that it was a possibility. It sounds almost insane to us today, but it was only a part of the general insanity of the nuclear arms race, in which redundancy of power was a factor.

For a man with famously clumsy language skills, George W. Bush has managed to add a number of new terms to the English lexicon, and seriously tested the precise meaning of some old ones. Bush's memoir, Decision Points, was recently published, and many have looked at it with predictable distaste. Bush wrote it, with help (2), with an understanding that in many countries, including his own, he is not held in high esteem. The book is proof that this disapproval bothers him, and that he anxiously wanted to tell his side of the story. One of the most significant passages from the book deals with the nonexistent WMDs in Iraq, which were the primary motivation for our preemptive invasion in 2003. In his interview with Oprah, Bush said "When we didn't find weapons I felt terrible about it, sick about it and still do, because a lot of the case in removing Saddam Hussein was based upon weapons of mass destruction."

The real question is not how we could have gone to war based on such faulty intelligence, but even if those weapons had materialized would they have justified the invasion? (3) Some have argued that a more democratic Iraq (it isn't quite there yet) is a good enough justification - except that it was not what sold the war to the American and British people. Regime change would have been a hard sell, raising questions of legality as much as of morality. Invading another country without a provocative reason would, I believe, have been unacceptable to Americans, even when their bloodthirst was fresh after September 11.

On November 17, 2010, a jury handed down its verdict in the trial of Ahmed Ghailani, who was accused of involvement in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam. Of the 285 counts against him in the indictment, he was acquitted of all but one - conspiracy to commit murder.

Ghailani's was the first trial of a former Guantanamo Bay detainee in a civilian court, and opponents of the closure of Gitmo claim that the verdict is some kind of vindication of their opposition and proof that President Obama's insistence on its closure and the abandonment of military-style tribunals is a grievous mistake.

When hundreds of Muslim fighters, or "Islamists," were captured after American forces entered Afghanistan in November 2001, a decision had to be made about what should be done with them. George W. Bush, as the "decider," determined that calling them "prisoners of war" would entitle them to Geneva Convention rights. So he tried to circumvent them by classifying the Islamists as "enemy combatants." (4) These enemy captives were then subjected to the CIA's "enhanced interrogation" techniques in "black" prisons outside U.S. territory, before being "detained" at Guantanamo Bay without being formally charged of anything.

Many of these detainees (enemy captives) have been held at Gitmo for several years. Why has it taken so long to process them through Bush's military tribunals, if they are such great threats to our national security? The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are coming to their sad ends, so a state of war with those countries is about to end as well. The usual thing to do with prisoners of war when the war is over is to repatriate them to their home countries. This has already been done in some cases. There were two particular decision points that distinguished the Bush presidency(5): going to war based on astonishingly mistaken intelligence and submitting prisoners of war to barbaric mistreatment.

I was honorably discharged from the Army in October 2000, with little more to show for my eleven and a half years of service than flat feet and no idea what to do with the rest of my life. I felt no genuine sense of relief that I was out until after 9/11, not because I was afraid of getting shot at in Afghanistan or Iraq, but because I knew that I could not have conscionably taken part in Bush's boondoggles. I was happy that I was out, even if I was sorry that so many good men were going to be called upon to defend the indefensible. To their eternal credit, they fought for one another and not for some ill-conceived and unattainable new order.

(1) By definition, a "preemptive" war is somewhat distinguishable from a "preventive" war in that, according to Wikipedia, "a preventive war is launched to destroy the potential threat of an enemy, when an attack by that party is not imminent or known to be planned, while a preemptive war is launched in anticipation of immediate enemy aggression." I find the difference to be an altogether convenient one as an excuse for armed aggression.
(2) From his former speechwriter Christopher Michel.
(3) Pakistan has genuine WMDs - a nuclear arsenal that the U.S. helped them develop during the Cold War as a regional deterrent to Soviet-backed India.
(4) Despite the fact that they ceased being combatants once they were captured.
(5) Let's put aside Bush's two big indecision points for now - ignoring the intelligence that made September 11 possible and doing nothing while New Orleans drowned.

Friday, November 19, 2010

A Piece of Steak

Last Sunday, the Philippines came to a standstill as their national hero, Manny Pacquiao, boxed his way to a record 8th title against Mexican opponent Antonio Margarito. Pacquiao made a bloody mess of Margarito's face, to the delight of fight fans everywhere. In 2009, after another Pacquiao fight, I wrote that I wanted boxing to be banned for its blatant brutality, not just in the ring but in the apparent bloodlust it inspires in its spectators. Last Sunday I was thinking about a Jack London story published in 1909 called "A Piece of Steak." It possesses some of the same characteristics - a celebration of cruelty for its own sake and a powerful anti-poverty message - that can be found in much of London's writings. London was a much better writer than his reputation suggests. I offer it here as a tribute to boxers past and present.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


On November 10 I watched the BBC announcement of the death of Dino De Laurentiis, which reported that the great Italian film producer's credits included Flash Gordon and Dune. NBC's report wasn't much better: they mentioned some of his Hollywood productions, like Three Days of the Condor. The writers of the reports, bless them, likely consulted the IMDB website and scanned the De Laurentiis' list of credits and singled out the titles that they recognized.

If they had taken the time to go a little further down the list, they might have noticed titles like Bitter Rice (1948), La Strada (1954), Nights of Cabiria (1958), and The Stranger (1967) - films that De Laurentiis produced at the start of his career in Italy, the films that were financial risks that paid off for him and for his co-producer Carlo Ponti. These films made De Laurentiis world famous because they were brilliant and challenging works of art. He realized that one of the few ways that a producer of Italian films can make a name for himself abroad was by backing films that could potentially get critical attention and win awards at international film festivals.

He studied to be a cinematographer in the '30s, and produced his first films before the war. Like Ponti, who married Sophia Loren, Di Laurentiis married another great Italian bombshell, Silvana Mangano in 1949. Their marriage lasted nearly forty years and he had four children with her, including Raffaella, who also became a successful film producer.

Di Laurentiis left Italy in the '70s to produce exclusively in America. Always taking risks, one of his first efforts was Sidney Lumet's superb Serpico (1973). Death Wish (1974) made him a boodle, as it should have. Orson Welles once famously remarked that any film director who didn't talk about money was an idiot. As a businessman, De Laurentiis knew the prime directive: what sells is good. But he also knew that what is good sometimes sells.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Sagrada Familia

On his current visit to Spain, Pope Benedict XVI consecrated Antoni Gaudí's gingerbread cathedral, Sagrada Familia in Barcelona as a Roman Catholic basilica. Ever since Gaudí left it unfinished at his death (1), the city has had to come up with various plans for the use of the structure, including its transformation into a train station. The Pope's consecration has raised hopes that the cathedral will be finished by the centenary of the artist's death in 2026. Many artists have commented on its strange beauty, but when George Orwell saw it on leave from the Republican front during the Spanish Civil War, he had this to say:

“For the first time since I had been in Barcelona I went to have a look at the cathedral—a modern cathedral, and one of the most hideous buildings in the world. It had four crenellated spires exactly the shape of hock bottles. Unlike most of the churches in Barcelona it was not damaged during the revolution—it was spared because of its 'artistic value', people said. I think the Anarchists showed bad taste in not blowing it up when they had the chance, though they did hang a red and black banner between its spires.” (2)

(1) The story of Gaudí's death is perhaps better-known than his life: when crossing a street he was hit by a tram and, unconscious and because of his poor attire, taken to a pauper's hospital where he laid unrecognized until some friends found him the next day. He refused to be moved, however, stating that he belonged with the poor, and he died there three days later.
(2) Homage to Catalonia, London, Penguin Books, 1962, pp. 179-180.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Hurt Locker

Directors of war films used to have to guard against the overwhelming temptation to abandon the individual's perspective and give us a bird's-eye view of the battlefield instead - with hundreds of men all going about the business of killing one another. At least since the Vietnam war, war films no longer feature pitched battle scenes involving large groups of men in a fixed location. They have been forced, for the simple sake of being true to the experience, to limit their attention to skirmishes, to small groups of men confronting one another in unlikely places like jungles, deserts, or even city streets. While the personal element has increased in films, armed conflict itself has become a more confused, unjustifiable exercise.

Winner of six Academy Awards last March, including Best Picture, The Hurt Locker is not half bad. It is remarkable for its concentration on its subject - an explosive ordinance disposal team in the thick of the latest war in Iraq. I had to take their tactics, which make up much of the film's action, on trust - despite the fact that, mutatis mutandis, I was a combat arms-trained soldier myself. What I found most interesting was the presence of everyday Iraqis in the film - standing around watching the soldiers doing their job. Which ones are their enemies and which their friends becomes an often startling problem for the soldiers closely followed throughout the film.

There is an otherwise effective scene in which these soldiers encounter some British mercenaries and become engaged by Iraqi snipers a great distance from them. In one shot, the director (Kathryn Bigelow, who became the first woman to win a Best Director Oscar) indulges in some trickery when she shows us the magnified eye of a sniper as seen through the wrong end of his telescopic sight. I have seen this trick shot in several films lately, but it is, of course, a deliberate fake. As any child can tell you, if you were to look through the wrong end of a telescope, objects would be considerably reduced in size rather than magnified.

But this is the whole problem with Bigelow's film. It spends so little time dealing with the soldiers in garrison, off duty, that we have insufficient time to discover just who they really are or what, if anything, they are making of their close encounters with death. A political agenda - in place of a message - is driven home in the film's last scenes, but it fails to provide us with any sense of where we have just been or where we are going next.

When I first saw Jeremy Renner in that Jesse James film a few years ago, I mistook him for one of the Belushi brothers. He has a lived-in face that has been lacking in American films for awhile. It was a little of a surprise to see Ralph Fiennes in the scene with the British mercenaries, but he is killed off within minutes by a well-placed sniper bullet. The cinematography, by Barry Ackroyd (who did a lot of work with Ken Loach), has that annoying, television-influenced nervousness that has become de rigeur in action films lately. It must eliminate a lot of unnecessary set-ups and simplify the actors' blocking, but it doesn't add up to much. Shot in Jordan, the locations are used sparingly but quite effectively.

When our EOD team goes off the map to inflict a little revenge on some suspected insurgents near the film's conclusion, the film, like our soldiers, gets lost in a labyrinth of alleys and doorways, each one holding potentially lethal hazards. If the best film metaphor for the Vietnam war was the Russian roulette game created for The Deer Hunter, I suppose that the nightmare of soldiers running through the nighttime streets of an Iraqi city in The Hurt Locker, with Iraqis in every doorway, on every corner - each one a potential enemy - might as well stand as a working metaphor for "Shock and Awe." Still, I wonder what a friend of mine who committed suicide a few months after his return from Iraq in 2005 would've thought of it.

Monday, November 8, 2010

A Sad Commentarian

A few days ago, an old friend who would like to remain anonymous left a comment on a post I published last March. The post was about a possible replacement for Stanley Kauffmann, who has been the film critic at The New Republic since 1958 - the year of my birth. Kauffmann is 94 years old and is still the resident film critic at that venerable magazine.

I noticed how Kauffmann was no longer writing about mainstream film releases, opting instead (or so it seemed to me) to restrict his energies to films that mattered. My friend, who has always shown a preference for the popular - popular films, popular fiction, popular music - over the particular, believes that this preference has something to do with quality. Since more people read Stephen King than Flaubert, he once suggested, King must be the better writer.

My friend's comment was too good to leave at the bottom of my barrel. Unlike him, however, I find it a sad commentary on the condition of everything that is unpopular.

"I don't think that most people know enough about film history or have seen enough examples of what you call film art to actually give a damn about them from a serious standpoint. If you were to tell them that you knew of films that were as good as Hemingway or Faulkner, they would either not believe you or they would shun them because they hated Hemingway and Falkner on the last occasion when they were forced to read them in high school. Deep down in places they don't like to talk about, most people simply don't want films to be works of art. It would spoil all the fun they're having watching Avatar and Spiderman. Sorry, but most people would rather eat a Big Mac than filet mignon."

Friday, November 5, 2010

An Unravelling

One of the problems of publishing in general - and publishing online in particular - arises when no one reads what one has written. A website can keep track of how many "hits" has occurred there, but it cannot give one any idea of what happened when the "hit" occurred, if it happened in error, if anyone actually reads what is posted there, etc.

When I reported in Senses of Cinema three years ago that a two essays in a book published in 2004 had been copied, almost word for word, from an essay published more than twenty years before by another writer, nothing happened. Or so I thought.

It seems that others have noticed such resemblances involving writings published by the same author. A comment posted by William MacAdams on Richard Brody's blog at The New Yorker, "About 'Truffaut's Last Interview," reads as follows:

"Dear Richard Brody: A few years ago I was curious to see if there were any books in English on the greatly neglected Vittorio De Sica. The only study of him I knew of was Stephen Harvey's monograph (in English) published by Cinécitta in 1991. I discovered there was a new book by Bert Cardullo. When I began reading Cardullo's "Vittorio De Sica: Director, Actor, Screenwriter," it seemed very familiar. I compared Stephen Harvey's and Cardullo's texts to find that they were virtually identical. Cardullo had added the occasional snippet of information, which required alterations in Harvey's text, but otherwise the two books were the same. Cardullo included Harvey's monograph in his bibliography but called it a "brochure." Stephen Harvey was dead when Cardullo published his plagiarism in 2002. I had never heard of Cardullo at that time and only knew Harvey slightly from MoMA, where he was a curator in the film department. I contacted the University of Michigan, where Cardullo was then employed, and referred them to Harvey's monograph (which hardly any libraries in the U.S. had copies of, and at that time there were none to be had from Shortly thereafter, I received several threatening e-mails from Cardullo, advising me that his lawyer had been informed and that if I continued to repeat the allegation of plagiarism he was intending to sue. He also demanded to know my home address. I didn't reply to his e-mails and never heard from him again. Months later, I was contacted by the University of Michigan to inform me Cardullo had been dismissed. For some time after that, Cardullo's publisher, McFarland, kept the book in print. A while later, a friend who was teaching at N.Y.U. told me that Cardullo had been hired to teach there! Yours, William MacAdams ps I am an admirer of your superb book on Godard."


This is an ongoing nightmare for some, including myself. Singling out a writer for, albeit qualified, praise has made me somewhat proprietary of his work. This is what happens with all great critics - they are so hard to find that following them is a kind of ritual, an act of faith in criticism and in literature (since even movie critics are writers). Such critics are what is now known as "niche domains."

So it is all the more upsetting to see the work of one such critic unravel before my eyes. I suspected that there are probably more suspect texts by Cardullo around. This is the latest.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010


Annus Mirabilis

Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) -
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles' first LP.

Up to then there'd only been
A sort of bargaining,
A wrangle for the ring,
A shame that started at sixteen
And spread to everything.

Then all at once the quarrel sank:
Everyone felt the same,
And every life became
A brilliant breaking of the bank,
A quite unlosable game.

So life was never better than
In nineteen sixty-three
(Though just too late for me) -
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles' first LP.

-Philip Larkin

November 2nd is the fiftieth anniversary of "the acquittal of Lady Chatterley," the infamous obscenity trial against the publication of D.H. Lawrence's unexpurgated Lady Chatterley's Lover in London. The impact of this "trial of the century" is still being felt by everyone who reads or writes, and by just about everyone else for that matter.

Originally published in Italy in 1928, copies entering England the following year were seized by customs. This prompted Lawrence to issue another edition in France. At one point, he even considered editing it to please British censors: "So I begin to be tempted and start to expurgate. But impossible! I might as well try to clip my own nose into shape with scissors. The book bleeds." (A Propos of Lady Chatterley's Lover, 1930)

In 1930, Lawrence died of tuberculosis, and obituaries in England snidely suggested that he was nothing more than a pornographer. A few fellow authors came to his defense, including E.M. Forster and Aldous Huxley.

By the time Penguin books attempted to publish an unexpurgated Lady Chatterley's Lover in 1960, existing obscenity laws promised difficulties, even though they had never been enforced. A full-page ad was published in a trade paper reading: "To mark the thirtieth anniversary of the death of D.H. Lawrence Penguins will publish in June 1960 a further group of seven books including the unexpurgated Lady Chatterley's Lover."

The likelihood of proceedings against the publication prompted the solicitor for the defense, Michael Rubenstein, contacted more than 300 contemporary writers, academics, and celebrities to give their opinions of the novel's merits. The jury took a little more than three hours to return a "not guilty" verdict. The first printing of 200,000 copies was sold out in England on the first day. By the end of December 1960, two million copies were sold. The sales persuaded Penguin to become a public company the following year.

When asked to give his opinion of the book, Evelyn Waugh was delighted to express his low opinion of it and of Lawrence in general: "Lawrence had very meagre literary gifts," he wrote. Robert Graves wrote of Lawrence that "I won't have a book of his on my shelves." Waugh and Graves were not being very good (or useful) critics when they wrote their unkind words. Whatever their own merits as writers, which were sometimes considerable, neither had, and probably did not care to have, what a critic most needs, which is the faculty of seeing past their own likes and dislikes, aesthetic and political, to the qualities in every work of art.

Reading about the trial 50 years later leaves me astonished that so many people would be so worked up over a mere book, particularly a good one. Philip Larkin, who was no stranger to obscenity (he was fond of bondage magazines), found the whole affair to be a rather obscene statement on the stupidity of society, that thinks it can stop human behavior by stopping creative representations of it, and that the publication of a novel, no matter how frank, could have any effect whatever on people's sexuality.

50 years ago, people were privately no different from us. We may have freer access to pornography today thanks to the Penguin case, and writers no longer worry about using 4-letter words (the specific words Lawrence used in Chatterley were "fuck" and "cunt"), but people are just as fucked up as they ever were, as the recent teenage suicides in the U.S. demonstrate. Once again, Larkin was right:

This Be the Verse

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.