Saturday, June 25, 2016

The Isles of Unwisdom

According to the Cambridge Dictionaries Online, a "hick" is a "disapproving" noun defined as follows:

American English: "a person from a rural area who has little knowledge of culture and city life".
British English: "a person from the countryside who is considered to be stupid and without experience".

I live on a tiny island - one if the 7,107 islands that make up the Philippines. You cannot get very much more remote from what is commonly called civilization unless you were in an Amazonian backwater, sub-Saharan Africa, or Antarctica. The Bounty mutineers chose an island called Pitcairn as their ultimate hideout because it had a latitude on the maritime navigational charts of the time (probably those made by Captain Cook), but no accurate longitude. To find it, they had to reach the north-south line and sail east until they finally reached it in 1790. Knowing there was nowhere else to go without being discovered and certainly hanged, they burned the ship. In 1808, an American sealer called the "Topaz" found the sole survivor of the mutineers, John Adams, living amongst a small population of Anglo-Tahitians, the most that the tiny wild island could support.

I didn't burn my ship when I reached my island, but I might just as well have. Census takers have visited my house a few times over the years, making sure not to count me among its inhabitants because I was a "porriner" and proud of it. The islanders among whom I live are, strictly speaking, hicks. They were born here, raised here, and, even if they are lucky enough to find a job somewhere else, they will most likely die here, since Filipinos traditionally seek out their place of birth when they feel the approach of death.

These islanders are somewhat less isolated than they were before the bridge connecting their island to a much bigger one to the south was constructed, and they have certainly become interconnected by the insidious proliferation of cellphone communications. But they retain their status as hicks, in my opinion, because they remain "probincianos" - provincials in a physical as well as a psychological sense. All they know or care to know is the extent of their tiny island, its volcanoes and surrounding waters, and the limited view of the world that their horizon presents to them.

These people live in a kind of darkness that I have written of before. Instead of hearing a rumor about an impending tropical storm and checking the internet, which is available here (how else am I writing this to you, dear reader?), or perhaps checking a weather channel on cable TV (which I regard as a necessity), they will join everyone else they know and hurry into the nearest town to stock up on provisions like rice and canned goods. The source of the rumors along what we porriners call the "bamboo telegraph" is never divulged.

So these islanders cannot be blamed if their view of the rest of the wide world beyond their horizon is a little distorted or downright false. Their very isolation from the outside world exonerates them from the responsibility of making sense of it. For example, most of my neighbors call all expats, whether they are European, American, or Australian, "Canos" (short for Americanos) and believe that Berlin and Toronto and Sydney are all cities in America.

I have been writing film criticism since my first year of college, when I submitted examples of my critical acumen, such as it was at the age of eighteen, for extra credit in my English 101 class. The kinds of films that I chose to write about (exclusively at the time) exposed me to the charge of reverse-provincialism - a term Stanley Kauffmann coined in reference to writers like Graham Greene, who deliberately sought out the most exotic locations for their stories to attract readers in humdrum places like Des Moines. I wrote about what were once known, somewhat contemptuously, as "foreign films," but now fall under the equally contemptuous moniker "art films."

The reason why I wrote about films from places other than Hollywood was because of the resentment that was aroused in me, and that I still feel somewhat, when I discovered Federico Fellini's La Strada at the age of thirteen and learned something that no American film I had seen by then had taught me: that film was an art, that it could be a medium as profound and as rich and as deeply moving as a Hardy novel or a Mahler symphony. In the years following this discovery, I found many other films of equal value - a whole world of films that I had not known existed. And it was these films that inspired me to write criticism.

I suppose that I am guilty of the late Mr. Kauffmann's accusation of reverse provincialism. He was guilty of a provincialism of his own - a New Yorker who looked out of the world, and on the rest of America, with a sense of superiority, whether or not it was earned. But I am rather happy that this attitude has also affected my politics. My understanding of both Liberalism and Conservatism - Progressives and Reactionaries - is broader and more complex than the attenuated versions practiced in America. This is both an advantage for Americans and a disadvantage. While Americans have never faced the extremes of the Left and the Right - Communism and Fascism - they are ignorant of politics any more extreme than Walter Mondale or Ronald Reagan.

This election year, however, Americans have been treated to greater political extremes - a bonafide Socialist who has come in second for the Democratic nomination and a anti-immigration, isolationist neo-fascist who has won, or so it seems, the Republican nomination. If this means that the average American voter is better educated than he once was, it has done nothing to quiet the nerves of many observers (including myself) who fear a victory in November for the presumptive Republican who is prepared to do what America has never done in its history - pull back from its international commitments, put the brakes on legal immigration, deport millions of undocumented immigrants, and build a BIG wall all along the border with Mexico. All these things are indications of a serious withdrawal from the world back inside well-demarcated and well-enforced borders - the borders of an insular and isolationist America. It looks to many Americans like the party of Abraham Lincoln is about to hand over its nomination to a man who would bring back slavery if he could.

Yesterday, the citizens of the United Kingdom voted by a small majority in a referendum for exiting from the European Union for alot of the same reasons why the American presumptive Republican nominee is running for president. A new provincialism, resistance to immigration, a reversal of globalization (which many voters, mostly working class, feel has betrayed their interests) is driving this political trend. In a real sense, they are right to feel betrayed because their governments have failed to push forward fiscal reforms that can counterbalance the loss of jobs. As politicians have let go of their control of their economies, they somehow believe that, by relegating their authority, they can also relegate their responsibility. None of this is a reason for abandoning or dismantling the process of globalization, if using the money and power of developed nations to help lift backward countries (like the Philippines) onto their feet is what it is really about. But the motive behind globalization may not be entirely noble. I don't believe for a second that it's altruism that wants to lift people out of abject poverty. It may be nothing more than an attempt to create markets where they didn't exist before. But ending poverty, for whatever reason, is a positive good from which every one of us on the planet can benefit.

The people I live among on my island are genuine provincials. Their view of the world is severely limited. But they have an excuse for living in the dark. No one who lives in Europe or the U.S. - not even residents of the remotest Romania or in backwardest Mississippi has such an excuse. The people who voted for Brexit and who support Donald Trump are too sophisticated to pretend that they're as stupid as they seem. Something else motivates them. A hatred of politics, of the responsibilities of citizenship, of people who don't look like them or think like them. They feel extreme nostalgia for simpler times, when it was acceptable to be uninformed and excusable to be wrong. Most of them, we're told, have never voted before. But if they care so little for being right, for doing what they know in their guts is the right thing, then the right to vote and every other right of citizenship in an advanced, successful nation is wasted on them. They should be exiled, as ancient Rome once did, to an island such as mine, far from the pleasures and advantages of their culture.

The Isles of Unwisdom (stupidly retitled The Islands of Unwisdom for those Americans who maybe weren't aware that an "isle" is an "island") is an historical novel by Robert Graves, published in 1949 - a highly fictionalized account of an ill-fated Spanish expedition that sailed from Peru in 1595 bound for the Solomon Islands and the diamond fields rumored to be there, ripe for the stealing. After sundry misadventures, the expedition, sans its captain and most of its conquistadors, makes it only as far as the Philippines, not far from where I write this.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Run, Walk or Crawl

A friend I have not seen in the flesh in perhaps twenty-five years, but with whom, nevertheless, I am a Facebook "friend," posted something this past week to the effect, "If you comment on the events in Orlando with your agenda on either side of the gun debate, you're kind of an asshole." I "liked" his post. But what I wanted to reply was "Spoken like a true American!" So, at the risk of being an asshole, let me dredge up my agenda.

Over the past few days, people have been quietly observing the first anniversary of the mass shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, in which a young man, his head filled with white supremacist hate, went on a shooting rampage inside a historic black church in the middle of a prayer meeting. Federal prosecutors recently announced that they are seeking the death penalty in the shooter's trial.

The Charleston anniversary was completely overshadowed by yet another mass shooting, this time in Orlando, Florida the weekend prior, in which an apparently conflicted gay Muslim man took out his own self-hate on a crowd of revelers inside a gay nightclub, killing forty-nine of them. Since he chose not to surrender to police and was shot to death by them, at least there won't be a trial or a prosecutor seeking the death penalty.

American progressives (like me, dear reader) always have to pinch themselves just to be reminded that they're living in the 21st century. When it comes to certain aspects of American life, the intransigence of some of its citizens makes the idea of progress seem like an illusion.

Two issues that have clung tenaciously to life in 21st century American life, issues that were settled in the 20th century by every other nation in the West, are capital punishment and a citizen's right to bear arms. Evidence that the first issue is gradually going away is piling up in state after state. The extremism and apparent paranoia, like a species of "siege mentality," of proponents of the Seconnd Amendment is an indication that they, too, are losing their nerve.

Because the issue has sometimes seemed unsolveable, some gun control advocates have begun to look for ways of "owning" that Americans are an especially violent people and that guns, which now number more than three hundred million in America, are never going to go away. But I think the debate now runs deeper among Americans.

As I recognized in a post on this blog some months ago, Americans are now grappling with the proposition that the right of gun ownership is more important than human life. I hope that this statement sounds outrageous to most people, but it makes perfect sense to others. If there were multiple mass killings every day, if the death toll were multiplied exponentially - which it is likely to do before something is at last done about it - there would still be this tacit agreement that a citizen's right to bear arms is more important than the thousands who have been slaughtered in its name.

Such an outrageous proposition is not at all unprecedented in America - and everywhere else in the world for that matter. Almost a hundred years ago modern civilization arrived at a similar agreement when automobile accidents started to take their toll on drivers, passengers and pedestrians. Speed was the culprit. Human errors behind the wheel could only be controlled when an automobile's speed could be controlled. But nobody really wanted automobiles to be made slower. So a conscious choice between speed and human life had to be made, and life lost. Every year, the staggering numbers of automobile fatalities are published, along with civic leaders demanding that something should be done about it. And every year nothing is done, and the argument is shelved. Perhaps driverless cars will be the solution?

Maybe I am kind of an asshole, but I believe in progress. It may always be a struggle of two steps up and one back, with reactionary forces always trying to pull us in the opposite direction. "It is quite possible," George Orwell, playing the devil's advocate, wrote, "that man's major problems will never be solved. But it is also unthinkable! Who is there who dares to look at the world of today and say to himself, 'It will always be like this: even in a million years it cannot get appreciably better?' So you get the quasi-mystical belief that for the present there is no remedy, all political action is useless, but that somehow, somewhere in space and time, human life will cease to be the miserable brutish thing it now is. . . There is nothing for it except to be a 'short-term pessimist,' ie. to keep out of politics, make a sort of oasis within which you and your friends can remain sane, and hope that somehow things will be better in a hundred years."

I cannot believe that it will take that long for the gun lovers to come around and see that the right that they celebrate has become oppressive to everyone else who does not want to own a gun. Is it constitutional for the majority of Americans who don't have any use for a gun to continue being threatened into submission by the minority that do? It may take another generation for our gun culture to see it this way, but I must believe it will happen. I believe it because, by now, progress is built into our social system. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote "If you cannot fly, run. If you cannot run, walk. If you cannot walk, crawl. But you must keep moving forward." It's forward, not backward.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

The Art of Witnessing

While researching material for my last post on the Alain Resnais film La Guerre est Finie, I read the Paris Interview of the Spanish writer Jorge Semprún (1) and came across a controversy involving Semprún and the French documentary filmmaker Claude Lanzmann. I touched on Lanzmann's criticism in my last post. He sharply criticized Semprún's treatment of the Nazi concentration camps in his "novels," Le Grand Voyage (1963) and Literature or Life.

In her introduction to the interview, Lila Azam Zanganeh wrote:

"Semprún published the book [Literature or Life] as a memoir, but in it he declares that 'the essential truth of the concentration camp experience is not transmissible.' His literary solution is to introduce fictional scenes and details whenever his own memory is too faint, too incoherent, or when it simply fails to evoke what he feels to be the truth of his experience.

"Semprún's decision to meld fiction with memory in recounting his concentration camp experience sparked heated debate in France, where critics accused him of calling all memory and eyewitness accounts into question. Semprún's fiercest critic was Claude Lanzmann, the director of the epic documentary film Shoah, who argues that his own approach to recording the experience of survivors - through direct testimony - is the only legitimate method, and that art and imagination can have no part in such an endeavor.

"Semprún allows that testimony is vital to historians, but he notes that testimony, too, is not always precisely reliable, and that historians, alas, are never quite effective as novelists at conveying the essence of experience. 'Horror is so repetitive,' he says, 'and without literary elaboration one simply cannot be heard or understood.' Hence he argues, 'The only way to make horror palpable is to construct a fictional body of work.'"

Coming from someone who was not a survivor of the camps, Lanzmann's criticism sounds almost puritanical in its insistence on scrupulous factuality rather than a more elastic or imaginative recounting of events. In the body of the interview, Semprún went further in the defense of his own work and even mentioned something that at first sounds nonsensical:

Interviewer: "The book you're working on now, 'Exercise de survie,' is made up of memoir as well as reflections on memory. Is this a response to your critics who objected to your adding fiction to your memoirs of the camps? Claude Lanzmann went so far as to argue that the use of fictional detail renders the narrative of the deported entirely counterfeit."

Semprún: "I think it is very difficult to enter into a discussion with Claude Lanzmann. Once he said, All Semprun does is literature! Shoah is indeed a remarkable film, but he would like us to believe that it is not a film composed partly of fiction? The disturbing truth, the great paradox of the gas chambers, is that it left no surviving witnesses. And that changes everything. All the other massacres of history have left a few survivors who could serve as witnesses. But no one survived the gas chambers. We have never been inside the gas chamber because had we been there, we would be dead. There are a few cases where someone was pulled out at the last minute, but then that person did not experience the gas chamber, just the entrance into the chamber. We only have the testimony of those who ran the gas chambers and dragged out the bodies of the dead. So in a sense, Lanzmann's film is also fictional. It takes place years later, and people are telling their stories with the measure of artifice it necessarily entails. I find this approximation both artistic and fascinating, but it is a strict reconstruction of the truth."

In an essay I posted on this blog in February called "In Shoah's Shadow," I asked what I thought was a valid question: "If [in a fiction film] the representation of a man being shot to death is somehow acceptable realism - even if everyone accepts that no such act actually occurred - why would an attempt to represent the moment, inside one of Auschwitz's gas chambers, when the Zyklon cyanide pellets are dropped into the air vent and the naked people inside are shown perishing be unacceptable?"

There appears to be an unwritten agreement among filmmakers to avoid staging scenes inside the gas chambers. The American film The Grey Zone, which is a fictionalized account of the Sonderkommandos - Auschwitz prisoners enlisted to haul the bodies of the dead out of the gas chambers and transport them to the crematoria, takes us all the way up to the doors of the gas chamber, through which Jews are shown entering, the doors closed, the German soldiers on the roof opening the can of cyanide pellets (which vaporized when coming in contact with the air), pouring the contents into an air vent, and even letting us hear the screams coming from within. Despite the somewhat unsettling presence of a number of familiar American faces in the film (John Cusack, Steve Buscemi, and Harvey Keitel), the film refrained from taking us inside the gas chamber doors.  

To hear Lanzmann describe his films, you would think they are nothing but the raw testimony of Holocaust survivors. But they are, of course, so much more than that. Lanzmann was, first of all, a filmmaker. And he set for himself a quite difficult precondition: he completely ruled out the use of preexisting newsreel film. But how could he record several hours of eyewitness testimony without his film being unbearably static? He was, after all, interested in making his film watchable. Presented with the simple technical problem of finding a solution to the "talking heads" - the monotony of people in front of the camera looking at someone just off camera and telling them what they witnessed - Lanzmann found various creative solutions that make his film not only watchable but sometimes impossible to look away from. As anyone who has seen the film knows, it is often difficult to take one's eyes off the screen. Shoah has become an artifact of the Holocaust in itself.

Unlike a film documentarist, writers like Semprún and Imre Kertesz, Auschwitz survivor and author of the novel Fatelessness, are artists, novelists. As Kertesz stated in his own Paris Interview: "I am somebody who survived all of it, somebody who saw the Gorgon's head and still retained enough strength to finish a work that reaches out to people in a language that is humane. The purpose of literature is for people to become educated, to be entertained, so we can't ask them to deal with such gruesome visions. I created a work representing the Holocaust as such, but without this being an ugly literature of horrors."(2)

In 2005, Kertesz's novel was adapted to film by the Hungarian director Lajos Koltai. Kertesz approved of the film, which was a dramatic re-creation of a semi-autobiographical novel about a boy's experience of the death camps. The possible permutations of the Holocaust are only as limited, it seems, as the creative vision of the artist.

(1) "The Art of Fiction No. 192," The Paris Review No. 180, Spring 2007, Lila Azam Zanganeh, interviewer; translated from the French by Sara Sugihara.
(2) "The Art of Fiction No. 220," The Paris Review No. 205, Summer 2013, Luisa Zielinski, interviewer.  

Saturday, June 4, 2016

La Guerre n'est pas finie

"When one thinks of the cruelty, squalor, and futility of war - and in this particular case of the intrigues, the persecutions, the lies and the misunderstandings - there is always the temptation to say: 'One side is as bad as the other. I am neutral.' In practice, however, one cannot be neutral, and there is hardly such a thing as a war in which it makes no difference who wins. Nearly always one side stands more or less for progress, the other side more or less for reaction. The hatred which the Spanish Republic excited in millionaires, dukes, cardinals, play-boys, Blimps and what not would in itself be enough to show one how the land lay. In essence it was a class war. If it had been won, the cause of the common people everywhere would have been strengthened. It was lost, and the dividend-drawers all over the world rubbed their hands. That was the real issue; all else was froth on its surface." George Orwell (1)

In the first feature films of Alain Resnais, the past and the present seem to occupy the same space. The characters in Hiroshima Mon Amour, Last Year at Marienbad, Muriel, and La Guerre est Finie cannot forget the past - they are as much defined as they are impeded by it. They move through the present as if by inertia, in a direction and at a pace determined by the past.

Diego, the hero of La Guerre est Finie, is a soldier fighting in a war in 1966 - despite the fact that the war was offically over in 1939. The Spanish Civil War, in which half a million Spaniards died, ended with the usurpation of the democratically-elected Republican government by the forces of Fascism led by Francisco Franco. The many thousands of Spaniards who fled across the border into France before Franco could seal it, either resigned themselves to living in exile or organized into resistance groups. For many of them, whether they engaged directly in the resistance or not, the war never ended.

Resnais relied on the integrity of his scripts, which were written by leading writers of the period: Marguerite Duras, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Jean Cayrol (who had also written the script for Resnais's short film Night and Fog). For his fourth film, Resnais commissioned a script from Jorge Semprún, who had recently been expelled from the Communist Party of Spain (PCE). Born in 1923, Semprún was the son of Spanish exiles living in France since the fall of the Spanish Republic, and, after the German invasion, joined the French Resistance to the German Occupation.

Captured by the Germans and tortured, at the age of 19, Semprún was sent to Buchenwald where he spent eighteen months. On his return to France, he joined the Spanish Communist Party in exile, while using his work as a translator for UNESCO as a convenient front. Between 1957 and 1962, using the nom de guerre Federico Sanchez, Semprún began crossing into Spain clandestinely, dividing his life between Madrid and Paris. (If one didn't know how perilous his work was, his replacement, Julian Grimau, was arrested in 1962, tortured and executed.)

In 1964, Semprún was expelled from the communist party for his open criticism of Stalin. He had already published his first novel, Le Grand Voyage, which tells the story of his five-day journey to Buchenwald, mixed up with his memories and with incidents that took place during his imprisonment. His narrative style mixed autobiography with fictional elements, which made some critics (like Claude Lanzmann, creator of the landmark documentary Shoah) cry foul. In 1988, a Socialist government in Spain asked him to be the country's Minister of Culture. I wonder if he recalled the moment near the end of La Guerre est Finie in which a French police inspector who is looking for Diego tells Nadine, "Anyway, politics are always a tricky affair. Some of the underground characters turn up one day as cabinet ministers."

The hero of the film is Diego (Yves Montand, looking his hangdog best), a beloved veteran of the endless war. His life is constituted almost entirely of subterfuge. He is either arriving or departing, never in one place for more than a day or a night. Most of what we see in the film is his comings and goings, a few rushed encounters with fellow communists or those who are in sympathy with their cause. Even the love scenes that Semprún gives him, artfully staged and shot - as always - by Resnais, are fugitive, surreptitious. Diego acts throughout them like there is somewhere else that he needs to be, always somewhere else. The two women, the loving mistress Marianne (a radiant Ingrid Thulin) and the young partisan Nadine (a fiery Genevieve Bujold), seem alluring reminders of the private life he had long ago forsaken. In their lovemaking scenes, time and space seem suspended.

If you are going to make a film on such a subject, Resnais's approach is by far the most sound. His distillation of all action into its fleeting elements, with the more violent moments consigned to brief, soundless shots shuffled throughout the passing narrative like tiny shocks, is fascinating, if somewhat antiseptic. Nothing is sensationalized by Resnais, nothing is given undue emphasis. La Guerre est Finie is not a thriller - nothing like the two films Semprún later wrote for Costa-Gavras, Z and The Confession, despite the reappearance of Yves Montand in both of them. Resnais isn't out to thrill us. He wants only to show us. The film reminded me of Antonioni's The Passenger, in which a reporter on a sleeveless assignment in North Africa finds the man in the hotel's next room dead, and switches identities (for no apparent reason). He discovers that the identity he's assumed is much more interesting. On the way to the film's murky conclusion, Antonioni is diverted by the beauty of the physical world through which his hero moves (the North African desert, a baroque German church, Gaudi's Barcelona). To his credit, Resnais's imagery is more functional.

But I think La Guerre est Finie is impaired by its obvious love for Diego. The love scene between Diego and Marianne is staged like it's the centerpiece of the film, a lovely idyll toward which all of the action of the first half of the film seems to push us, and away from which the second half drags us. It's certainly worth it to see Ingrid Thulin in the altogether, especially since Resnais deprives us of Genevieve Bujold's nude beauty by his strategically-framed shots during the earlier love scene.

Diego meets with the Spanish underground in Paris, who are hungry for news of events in Spain. He is introduced to a group of young fighters who are plotting a terror attack. But when he tries to talk them out of it, that, based on his experience, it will probably end in their capture, they dismiss him as a has-been. Diego is ordered back to Spain, but the French police already know his identity. The film's last moments gently suspend the fate of Diego, on his way in a speeding sports car to the border, toward a trap that the agents of Franco have already set for him. We see his face through the windscreen, superimposed with Marianne's face as she runs to catch a train bound for Madrid to warn him. Semprún was clearly telling his own story - else why did he choose to speak the first-person narration himself? At last freed from the life of fear and suspicion, of loyalties and betrayals, of always being on his guard, it was perhaps his way of saying goodbye to a war that could never, and perhaps will never, end.

[Postscript: Richard Blair, the adopted son of George Orwell, recently voiced his support for a museum of the Spanish Civil War proposed for a location in Barcelona ahead of the 80th anniversary of the start of the war in July. On behalf of the Orwell Society, Blair said: "We are wholly in favour of this and wish the project every success. Many young people in Spain have not been taught in depth about the civil war and don't really have an understanding of what happened from 1936-39 or of the dictatorship that followed." The Guardian, "Campaign for Barcelona museum to tell at last full story of Spain's civil war," by Julian Coman, May 29, 2016.]

(1) George Orwell, "Looking Back on the Spanish War," [1942?].