Thursday, May 20, 2004

Othello in the Middle East: An Imaginary Dialogue

A friend of mine, Sebastian Greiman, has made a name for himself on the Charlottesville theater scene by "queering" Shakespearean drama. His last production, a same-sex reworking of Taming of the Shrew, was the hottest ticket of the 2002 LiveArts Summer Theater Festival, and he's adapted Othello as a comment on Gays in the military, to be staged in July. Although I'm not exactly looking forward to "Othello, the Queer," I'll probably see it anyway.

When I first heard about this project, I realized that Othello could be uncommonly timely, even in its original, "un-queered" form. I found myself wondering what it would be like to read, see, or hear about the play as an Arab "man on the street," the sort of everyday guy on whom we've all pinned our hopes for eventual democracy in the Middle East. One could imagine such a person talking with a young State Department employee, who begins the following conversation:

"Shakespeare. The Bard of Avon. You've heard of him?"
"Of course. We know Shakespeare well in my country. He wrote a good play about the Jew."
"You mean The Merchant of Venice?"
"Even so."
"I've always loved the speech that begins 'Hath not a Jew eyes?' It's basically where Shakespeare says that Jewish people are just as human as anyone else."
"You have been deceived by Jew propaganda, my friend. I do not recall that Shakespeare wrote such an outlandish thing, myself. But there is a very good scene in which the Jew demands that a debt be paid with a pound of Christian flesh. The true bloodthirsty nature of the Jew has never been shown better onstage, I think."

"There's another drama of Shakespeare's that we perform in our country."
"Is it about the Jew?"
"No, but the first act is also set in Venice."
"I am informed many Italians share our sentiments concerning the Jew."
"But there are no Jews in this play. In this play, the main character is a Moor, named Othello."
"Many Moors are faithful servants of Allah."
"This one might not be so faithful. He converts to Christianity before the play begins."
"This man -- you said his name is Othello? -- he should not have done this. Some would say he should be killed. But at the very least, God would punish someone who acts in such a manner."
"You might say that, in a way, He does. The play is a tragedy, you see, and Othello commits suicide at the end."
"I am not surprised. A man who denies the true faith would be capable of anything."

"Perhaps. As the play begins, Othello marries a Christian woman named Desdemona."
"Already this is not good for him."
"What's wrong?"
"Muslim girls make a good bride, but Christian girls do not. Muslim women are strong, and their purity makes them strong. Christian girls are not pure. They deceive their fathers and their husbands."
"Well, Desdemona does deceive her father when she marries Othello."
"You mean she marries without permission?"
"She must be killed. then. She has destroyed her honor and soiled her family's name. She does not deserve to live."
"The father goes to the Senate -- not like the American Senate, but more like a council of elders."
"Do they permit the father to kill his daughter, as the Law demands?"
"They don't. They let Desdemona marry Othello, as she wants."
"Christians are a curious people. But how does Othello come to kill himself?"

"I'm getting to that. You see, Othello is asked to guard a far-off military outpost against Turkish attack."
"The Turkish were also servants of Allah, and many are still. Surely Othello would not fight them?"
"Actually, he does."
"A Muslim who fights his own people invites God's vengeance. Especially if he does so on behalf of the Christians."
"A man named Iago also guards this outpost, and he tells Othello that Desdemona has not been faithful to him."
"You see? Christian women are not to be trusted. Now God will shame Othello for his transgressions."
"Yet Othello asks Iago to furnish more proof."
"Othello is a very generous husband, but such proof is hardly necessary."

"But Iago is lying. Desdemona has not been unfaithful to Othello."
"Then Othello must punish Iago. He may beat him, perhaps."
"Except that Othello believes Iago may be telling the truth."
"Then God must have clouded Othello's judgement as punishment for abandoning his faith and choosing a Christian wife. If Desdemona were a good Muslim woman, Othello would have no cause to believe his lies."

"He doesn't believe them at first. That's when Iago talks to his wife. He tells her to get a handkerchief from Desdemona."
"Does she do this?"
"Yes, as a matter of fact."
"That is good. A wife should be obedient to her husband. She would make a good Muslim bride."
"She is not submissive, though. She has a sharp tongue."
"A good husband would know how to take care of that, I think."
"Then Iago gives the handkerchief to Othello, saying that he got it from Desdemona's lover."
"More lies from Iago, then, and not just about women. Is this man a Jew, by any chance?"
"Not to my knowledge. But he does convince Othello that his wife has been unfaithful."
"Under such circumstances a husband must act to preserve his own honor."
"He does. I suppose. He kills Desdemona by smothering her with a pillow."
"Again Othello is merciful, but he does not go about this in the proper way. The law tells us that the correct way to punish an adulterous wife is by stoning her to death in public, where all may see her shame."
"Except that Desdemona has never been unfaithful to him."
"Even so."

"But after Othello kills Desdemona, he learns that Iago has been lying to him all along."
"How does he learn that?"
"Iago's wife tells Othello herself."
"I see what you mean about her lack of submission. Surely this woman is punished for her presumption in speaking to another man?"
"Iago kills her."
"As would be his right, lying Jew though he is."
"I don't believe Iago was Jewish."
"All the same, this Shakespeare knew that Christian women are not to be trusted. Even the ones who seem obedient."

"However, Othello still blames himself for having killed Desdemona."
"He should not do so. He has only done what her father should have done, and no more. The shameless harlot received her justice in the end."
"Yet Othello is so distraught that he kills himself, too."
"That is a foolish thing to do over a woman, especially a Christian woman. But you have yet to tell me about the fate of Iago and his Jew lies."
"Othello stabs Iago before he kills himself, but Iago does not die. Iago is taken away to trial as the play ends."
"It is good, I think, that Iago does not die. He does not deserve to die, at least not for what he does."

"Yet Iago has killed his wife, lied about a woman's honor, and caused a man to kill himself. What do you think should be done to him?"
"Iago's wife dishonored her husband by speaking to men as if she were their equal, and saying evil things about him. If such a woman is killed by her husband, surely the man could be excused. But if this does not satisfy you, as I see it does not, perhaps the man could return some portion of his wife's dowry. We need not be uncivilized about these matters, I think."
"And Desdemona?"
"Iago should not be punished for telling Othello his wife is a whore, for that is what a woman must be to marry without her father's consent. In this respect, at least, Iago has spoken the truth, no more. Yet for falsely implicating another man in her dishonor, Iago should, I think, receive some lesser punishment befitting a liar. He might be branded, for example. Or he could have a finger cut off. Such punishments would be for a judge or a cleric to decide, someone more knowledgeable about the Law than I."
"And Othello's death?"
"Iago cannot be held responsible for a man God has already cursed."

"I don't know if you've already seen Merchant of Venice, but perhaps you would like to see Othello performed in your country."
"There is very little time for such things now, but perhaps someday my people can see more of this Shakespeare. It sounds as though he understood Christian women and traitors to Islam, as well as Jews. And I think it is good to talk with outsiders about values that are ... what is the word you Americans always use? Ah, yes: universal."

Update (5/25): In today's National Review Online, Steven Vincent discusses the status of women in post-Saddam Iraq.

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Michael Moore: A Primer on Propaganda

"Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast." -- Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass

People who have never analyzed propaganda usually see it as a method of audience manipulation that eschews all subtlety. It's true that most propaganda -- especially of the cinematic variety -- appears ridiculous on close inspection. But that doesn't mean propaganda isn't subtle. Far from it, as the career of Michael Moore demonstrates.

As Nazi minister of culture Goebbels knew, propaganda fails when it's too overt. In Moore's film The Big One, the filmmaker gives his talking points directly to the camera. Most of the film consisted of lectures at colleges and bookstores; this was basically a "concert film" albeit lacking the visual dynamism and almost anthropological observation Spike Lee brought to this overworn genre with his Original Kings of Comedy. In The Big One, Moore preaches to the left-wing choir, and the fact that I sang in that particular choir when I saw this film didn't keep me from noticing that it was basically a stand-up comedy routine, and not a particularly well-filmed one at that. Though I felt Moore was sort of right-on about evil greedy Corporate America, I didn't think he made his case persuasively.

With his next feature, Bowling for Columbine, Moore used images to make his largely tacit argument: He argued that guns didn't kill people, some inherent evil in America's soul killed people, and although taking away America's guns might be a good start, nothing short of a socialist revolution could put an end to America's murderous rampage. Had Moore stated his thesis directly, most Americans would have laughed him out of the cinema.

Fortunately for Moore, by this time he had become a master of left-wing propaganda. Any rational argument that the film was misleading, distorted, or downright wrong collapsed like two large steel towers before the Bloated One's relentless assault. His inexorable use of montage piled lie on top of lie with such irrefutable visual logic that audiences actually left the theater believing up was down, black was white, and Moore was right. What's more, they believed they had made up their own minds on the subject, instead of being led skillfully and subtly down the primrose path.

Of course, this is what good propaganda can make you do -- it can make you believe things that simply aren't so, and convince you that you've arrived at this conclusion all on your own. In Moore's case, even the title of his film was a bare-faced lie: Moore claimed that the teenaged killers at Columbine High School went bowling on the morning of the massacre, a report which local police had repudiated years prior to the film's release. But thanks to Michael Moore, the "bowling myth" has lodged in left-wing America's consciousness, and will not budge for truth. Then again, Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin depicted the nonexistent "Odessa Steps" massacre with such conviction that even reputable historians were taken in by his ruse, speaking of this event as if it had really happened.

I've often thought that many Americans liked Bowling for Columbine because they didn't understand the horrible things Moore said about us, and that the French loved the film because they understood Moore perfectly well. From what I'm told, his latest, Fahrenheit 9/11, offers more of the same facile America-bashing that made Bowling an international hit. Rumor has it that Fahrenheit is Moore's best (and vilest) work to date. It's mentioned on a short list for this year's Palme d'Or, and TV critic Roger Ebert has nothing but praise, for the moment. Do red-state Americans know just how far to the left Ebert leans?

I wonder how many impossible things he can believe before breakfast.

Update (5/22): Well, at least we know how many impossible things the French can believe before breakfast. Fahrenheit 9/11 just won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Not so long ago, this festival was a truly serious event in world cinema. Even in 2002, the festival's top award went to Roman Polanski's The Pianist, a great film that reveals new secrets (and fresh horrors) with each viewing. But with Van Sant's lumbering Elephant last year, and now Moore's Fahrenheit, the top award seems to go to whichever film can bash America hardest.

Tuesday, May 18, 2004

DVD Watch: Weird Movies

Two very strange films came out on DVD this week -- or at least, I think they did. In one case, the DVD is in my player now, so I'm certain it's widely available. With the other ... well, who knows?

Samuel Fuller: Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street

Samuel Fuller's 1972 Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street has one of the best movie titles of all time, and most Fuller fans who've been lucky enough to see it count it among his wilder, more amusing efforts. It was produced for German television and never had a theatrical run in the States. Rumor has it that in Dead Pigeon Fuller pays homage to all the French New Wave directors who had already paid homage to him. I'm also told that it features a shootout in a maternity ward, which ought to be worth seeing (and is typical of the ballsy, edge-of-bad-taste action that was Fuller's trademark). More about this film when or if deigns to deliver the thing.

For those looking for a quick Fuller fix, Criterion has already released the gritty crime-thriller masterpiece Pickup on South Street, made for Daryl Zanuck and 20th Century Fox back in 1953, as well as his one-two mid-'60s combo of Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss. Since the last two films are early Criterion releases (from the late '90s), transfers are only so-so. But with Pickup Criterion really outdid itself: The black-and-white photography is crisp and clean, and you can see Richard Widmark sneer and snap with the best of them.

Critics seem divided as to whether Pickup is an anti-Communist film. Liberal critics wishing to defend the work from charges of McCarthyism tend to paint the film as subversive. Some argue that Communism as such is irrelevant to the film's plot, and merely provides a stock "bad guy" for the plot; these critics usually mention that when the film was released in France (where the Communists held considerable power and were always ready to lead a street riot), the dubbing was reworked so that the villains became drug dealers. Other critics argue that Pickup is actually anti-capitalism. On the surface these critics would seem to have a point, since the defenders of capitalism in this film are whores, stoolies and pickpockets. They're members of the very criminal underworld that Bertoldt Brecht (for example) portrayed as emblems of the capitalistic economy.

I'm inclined to argue that Pickup is a profoundly anti-Communist film, though it's extremely unconventional in its tactics. Fuller concedes that his lowlife crooks are, in some sense, entrepreneurs. They act in their own interests, as any good businessman would. Fuller doesn't romanticize these people: They're not good guys, and they betray each other at the drop of a hat. But Fuller's capitalist crooks merely rob their victims. The Communists kill them.

In Pickup, Communists exist in a literally shadowy, noirish world of conspiracies and lies, and they refuse to do anything for themselves. This makes them remarkably faithful to their real-life counterparts, as Whittaker Chambers helpfully informed us. The primary Communist agent in the film is Joey, played by Richard Kiley. The first thing most people notice about him is that he always sweats. And he has good reason to sweat, too. For Joey, the profit motive has been replaced by naked physical coercion: He knows that if he makes even the smallest mistake, some higher-up in the Party will kill him. This constant fear makes Joey an inept crook, an easy mark, and a cold-blooded killer. On the road to serfdom, this man has gone the full distance.

Contrast with Skip McCoy, the capitalist pickpocket played by Richard Widmark. He's vain and unpleasant, amoral, even cruel, not a guy you'd want for a friend. But he's no killer. He doesn't hold a grudge against a woman who informs on him, stating that "She's gotta eat." (Midway through the film, Joey kills this same woman.) Above all else, though, McCoy is self-possessed: Unlike Joey, he never seems to sweat. McCoy is self-possessed in another, more important sense as well. He's his own boss, free to create his own destiny, follow his own orders, do as he chooses. This enables McCoy to use his talents to maximum advantage as he outwits, outmaneuvers and outfights the serflike Joey. Fuller's message couldn't be clearer: Even if we were to take everything Brecht said about capitalism at face value, the capitalist system of work-for-profit would still be morally superior to the murderous ethos of Communism.

Some Fuller fans classify Pickup as Fuller's masterpiece, while others go for Naked Kiss, Underworld U.S.A. or his mangled WWII epic The Big Red One. But for my part, I'm inclined to go with a little-known film he made in 1952 with his own money: Park Row is a marvelous period piece about the newspaper wars in 1880s New York. It's a bit disjointed (as what Fuller film is not?) and Mary Welch's dialogue is pure corn, but no movie has captured the dubious joys of newspaperdom, or the frisson of danger that comes as one reports a terrific "scoop," like this one. The film's most memorable moment is a street riot, depicted with a tracking shot along the cobblestone streets: The camera bounces over every paving stone, so that the image looks as if the cameraman had been drinking way too much caffeine. Martin Scorsese mentions this shot all too briefly in his Personal Journey ... through American Movies. Unfortunately, Park Row is not available on video or DVD, though the indispensable Turner Classic Movies has shown it once or twice in the wee hours.

Walt Disney: Victory Through Air Power

The Disney studio has just released a fascinating compendium of the studio's work during WWII as part of its "Walt Disney Treasures" series. Walt Disney on the Front Lines: The War Years contains some of the earliest examples of "limited animation" -- stylized figures and actions that moved only within a two-dimensional plane. Limited animation lacked the element of depth that full animation possessed. But it was cheap, fast and easy to crank out -- all virtues when you're making propaganda films for the government, or educational films for the military or the schools.

The 1943 film Victory Through Air Power is one of the Disney studio's oddest products ever (and yes, I'm including "Our Friend the Atom" and Charlie the Lonesome Cougar). It is, for all practical purposes, an animated feature: Live-action footage is used for only twelve of the film's sixty-five minutes. Disney was so committed to presenting the ideas of Alexander de Seversky's book of the same name, that he put up his own money to film it. He even enlisted Seversky to explain his book during the film's live-action segments. The result, as James Agee noted, proves there's a very fine line between educational filmmaking and outright propaganda:

I only hope Major de Seversky and Walt Disney know what they are talking about, for I suspect an awful lot of people who see Victory Through Air Power are going to think they do .... I have the feeling I was sold something under pretty high pressure, which I don't enjoy, and I am staggered by the ease with which such self-confidence, on matters of such importance, can be blared all over a nation, without cross-questioning.

Seversky's ideas are explained as concisely as they can be, but they still come off as something of a mixed bag. Some of them, like the large bombers with dozens of rotating gun turrets, appear silly and impractical. But most seem at least plausible, and a few would prove influential. Seversky's advocacy of long-range bombing played a major role in America's endgame with Japan, and Disney always claimed that his film version of Victory convinced Roosevelt to develop new long-range bombers for America. Yet Seversky's air strategy of "bombing the enemy into submission" and making no distinction between military and civilian targets led to undeniable atrocities: the shelling of Dresden, for example, or the incendiaries dropped on Tokyo's "paper city." The ultimate extension of this strategy -- bigger and bigger bombs, dropped from greater and greater distances -- was the atomic bomb attack on Hiroshima.

Perhaps these were necessary to prevent the loss of American lives; perhaps, too, they saved the lives of the enemy, if only by shortening the war. But with the benefit of historical hindsight, the film's rousing optimism seems difficult to defend. In 1943, Agee took the film to task for refusing to show any war dead, on either side. Modern viewers with a post-Vietnam attitude toward war are probably more inclined to notice the absence of bodies than WWII audiences were -- but the constant depersonalization of Disney's warfare is difficult to ignore. It's one thing to see a battle line on a two-dimensional map: We know that the line represents armies, and troop movement, and that when the line moves, people are fighting and dying. But when the film dissolves from a map to a picture of (presumably) the terrain on that map, we don't see those armies and troops, fighting and dying. Instead we see precisely the same "battle line" we saw on the map. It feels a bit too schematic, as if the film were in denial over the simple fact that human beings get killed in war. Disney -- in denial? How shocking.

Yet the film is mostly successful on its own aesthetic terms, mixing caricature in early segments with increasingly realistic drawing toward the end. In between are the animated charts and graphs, which look like a sort of PowerPoint presentation from World War II. Agee himself cites a scene in which green arrows (representing Allied troops) attempt to pound their way into a red-spoked iron wheel (Nazi Germany). (The film is very deliberate with its color scheme, always depicting the enemy with "hot," aggressive colors, sharp lines and harsh black shadows.) This image of a red wheel explains in visual terms why defense is a stronger position than offense, and how bombing attacks industry can assist a ground offense; the "squash-and-stretch" principle applied to these arrows give them just enough rubbery cartoonishness to convince an audience of their impact. These chart-like graphics are always clean and crisp, with a minimum of background or detail; in this respect Victory is typical of Disney's pared-down wartime animation. Minimalism and limited animation aren't just cheap to produce; in the right hands, they're as artistically satisfying as the most elaborate, detailed effects can be. Victory uses limited animation as well as any feature film ever has. Only a handful of early UPA shorts ("Rooty Toot Toot," "The Unicorn in the Garden," "Gerald McBoingboing") have managed to surpass its achievement.

Camera angles in Victory tend to be either low and melodramatic, or high and abstracted. The combination works well with the stripped-down mise-en-scene and the limited animation; if nothing else, this film is an ingenious work of graphic design. Its depiction of a hypothetical bombing raid against Japan is full of visual tension and excitement. The chiaroscuro light is harsh, and blues and blacks predominate; the palette and the harsh shadows suggest a noirish mood -- not what one would expect from a Disney cartoon. Yet this style was not atypical for the studio during WWII; dark colors with harsh shadows even found their way into a few postwar "package films." At the same time Disney worked on Victory, he was preparing a feature film based on Roald Dahl's stories about the "gremlins" that plagued the British RAF. Since Disney could never figure out to his satisfaction what a gremlin looked like, he decided against the project. Still, the brief flying sequences in Victory indicate the potential tone of this abandoned "gremlins" project. Such a film would have signalled a major change for the studio in both style and subject matter.

In any case, Victory is a nifty little oddity for Disney completists to own, and well worth a rental for the rest of us. Perhaps the History Channel could show the film sometime, with commentary.

Sunday, May 16, 2004

Craptacular Troy: Even Homer nods

Wolfgang Peterson's Troy is the worst film I've seen this year. Worse than Connie and Carla, you ask? Worse than Passion of the Christ? Worse than Dogville, even?

Oh yes, gentle reader. Much, much worse.

If you've read The Iliad, The Odyssey and/or The Aenead, you'll find plenty of head-scratching moments here. Among other things, Paris challenges Menelaus (Helen's husband) to single combat -- Menelaus wounds Paris, and Hector kills Menelaus. None of this happens in any account of the Trojan War, but no matter: Hector also kills Ajax in a one-on-one duel -- the one which ends in the Iliad with the onset of evening, an unexpected truce, an exchange of gifts and the resolve to fight another day. As for Hector's fight with Achilles, there's no battle and no chase around the city as occurs in the Iliad: In Troy, Achilles just drives his chariot to Troy and calls Hector's name a few times, upon which the gates open and the horse-breaker just walks out to meet him.

One poignant gaffe occurs when Priam (Peter O'Toole, whose voice now quavers like Katherine Hepburn) asks Achilles if he can take Hector's body back "for burial" -- yet in the next scene O'Toole cremates the corpse, as any self-respecting Trojan would have done. Another marvelous mistake occurs when Odysseus tells Agammemnon that if he turns back from Troy, he would make himself vulnerable to attacks from the Hittites. (Yes, Hittites, from the Middle East.) For a grand finale, Achilles emerges from the bowels of the Trojan Horse so he can reclaim his true, Trojan lady-love, a virgin priestess of Apollo who also happens to be a royal princess. (By the way, Achilles' love interest -- the woman, not Patroclus -- stabs King Agammemnon to death inside the city, thus saving his wife a lot of bother.)

No, I am not making any of this up.

Obvious anachronisms appear in the production design, too. When Greek troops make camp on the Trojan coast, they set up dozens of canvas yurts. As Troy's devotional statues hit the ground, they break into tiny pieces as if they were not stone, but plaster of paris. (I suppose "plaster of Paris" would be appropriate, in a twisted way.) But Roger Ebert may have found the funniest mistake of all: Scroll down this page until you see Helen and Paris riding beneath a pink parasol of distinctly Victorian design.

Then there's the script. Words fail me when I try to describe how bad it is, so permit me to quote some representative dialogue instead:

Paris: Father, this is Helen.
Priam: Helen of Sparta?
Paris: No, Helen of Troy.

Occasionally the rosy-fingered screenwriters of Troy steal a line from the Iliad, and it glistens like a diamond in a dung heap. As for the rest of the film, monkeys with typewriters could do better. When you consider that, for most of the teenagers in the audience, this will be their sole exposure to the glory that was Greece (as Gladiator is all they know of the glory that was Rome), you can't help but feel deeply depressed. I wonder how this movie will play in Europe, where people still read Homer's epics: Surely they will realize how crass and cretinous it is.

Troy is a long movie. It is not as long as the Siege of Troy itself (which in this film lasts merely a few weeks), but it's certainly long enough. With two hours and forty-five minutes of unremitting awfulness, even the worthy Homer could be excused for nodding, though he might prefer to fling curses and execrations at the thing were he alive to defend himself. For my part, initial open-mouthed disbelief gradually gave way to an incurable case of the giggles, and I guffawed helplessly through the final half-hour. I also knocked my head against the theater wall several times to deaden the pain. It didn't work.

Some of my loyal readers may have heard that the film's "Trojan Horse" resembles a large rabbit. Alas, the rumor is all too true. Doubtless Monty Python fans will be pleased.

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