Saturday, February 11, 2006
... except for this.
Thursday, February 09, 2006
The New World, an impressionistic retelling of the Pocahontas legend from director Terrence Malick, will probably end up on my ten-best list for 2006, despite the deep misgivings I might hold toward the film itself. For die-hard cinephiles, any film from Malick demands our undivided attention, and New World rewards it amply, with beautiful cinematography, stunning sound design and a thoughtful approach to film narrative. The problem -- and it's a doozy -- lies with its storyline. The New World is the first Malick film to address the politically charged issues of race and colonialism -- and it addresses neither one particularly well.
Over the past thirty-three years, the reclusive director has made only four films -- a neo-noir (Badlands), a melodrama (Days of Heaven), a war picture (The Thin Red Line) and now a historical romance (The New World). As filtered through his unique sensibility, each of these films breaks the bounds of genre, and perhaps of traditional cinema, to stand as a unique experience. I find Malick alternately exhilarating and exasperating, deeply insightful and hopelessly naive. But whatever Malick's shortcomings, his films are always unmistakably his: No one has created cinema quite like this before, and it is entirely possible that no one will again.
Malick's debt to documentary filmmakers (and especially to "nature films") has become something of a critical cliche. Still, all his films do feature loving depictions of "wildness," from shots of quail hiding in the grass in Days of Heaven, to a snake slithering through a WWII battlefield in The Thin Red Line. Conventional wisdom holds that Malick treats nature -- or rather, Nature -- as a "character" in its own right. I'm not certain I entirely agree with that statement: Frankly, The New World doesn't seem interested in "characters" per se. Top-billed Colin Farrell, as John Smith, is the only demarcated personality in the film. In contrast, the ostensible protagonist Pocahontas (newcomer Q'Orianka Kilcher, only fourteen years old at the time of filming) goes unnamed for the first two-thirds of the film, and John Rolfe (played by Christian Bale), is never named at all.
So perhaps it's more accurate to say that Malick treats his principal photography and his "second-unit" footage in roughly the same manner. All the images in The New World, regardless of their relationship to the narrative proper, take on the status of "found artifacts" -- things that were discovered instead of arranged. The entire film takes on a quasi-improvisatory feel: What we see on the screen doesn't seem composed or arranged on the set, or predetermined by a script. Instead, Malick seems to have discovered this film during the editing process, long after shooting has stopped. (Malick famously trimmed 15 minutes from The New World after its premiere in New York. The edits may come quicker now, but the film continues to move at Malick's own pace.)
The New World does tell a story, to be sure, but in such an offhand, unconventional manner that it's almost beside the point. (It should be noted, however, that the film deals with the myth of Pocahontas: Historically speaking, it's not much more "accurate" than the Disney version from the mid-'90s.) Malick tends to ignore conventional film grammar and syntax, along with traditional sequences and scenes. Even shots and reverse shots fail to match, which would ordinarily be a sign of rank incompetence. At its best The New World feels rather like a photo album, suggesting events which have transpired in the space between one isolated image and the next.
Malick's intuitive, seat-of-the-pants approach to filmmaking has its downside, by the way: Actors in his projects are often chagrined to find themselves edited out of the final cut. The most notorious and egregious example so far has been Adrien Brody's complete excision from The Thin Red Line. For The New World, Wes Studi, Noah Taylor and Ben Chaplin all felt the impact of Malick's busy scissors: Studi's major role became a glorified cameo (as was the case for nearly all the Native American actors), and Taylor and Chaplin were reduced to extras. Meanwhile, nonprofessional Q'Orianka Kilcher's non-performance was amplified through editing into a genuine star turn. One gets the sense that someday Malick will dispense with actors altogether, and make a movie starring ducks and geese.
It's easy to identify other influences on Malick's fractured storytelling sense -- Chris Marker's avant-garde short La Jetee, for instance, suggests a narrative by combining still images and voiceover narration, and thus shares key formal characteristics with Malick. Like Marker, Malick deals in images that do not "match," and he frequently relies on voiceovers (along with viewers' familiarity with the type of story told) to provide his images with a semblance of coherence. But the outlandish, apocalyptic character of Marker's narration defamiliarizes and calls attention to his montage. Malick is much too earnest for a stunt like that: His films are intended as transcendental experiences, not reflexive ones.
Some three decades ago, then-film critic Paul Schrader offered one theory on "transcendental style." Ever the Calvinist, Schrader claimed that the spiritual qualities in cinema must be attained through stylistic austerity -- a sort of "anti-cinema," if you will -- which compels the viewer to see beyond or "through" the mundane imagery onscreen. Malick, more a pantheist than a puritan, rejects this notion outright. His version of transcendence runs much closer to Ralph Waldo Emerson's "transparent eyeball": Through contemplation of Nature, one experiences a moment in which the self is lost in a sort of cosmic reverie. In a way, cinema seems the ideal medium to evoke such an experience: The camera, after all, is the ultimate "transparent eyeball," and through its lens any patient viewer can eventually "see all."
In the cinema, one can "hear all" as well. Malick's sound design is every bit as lush as his imagery, with voiceover narration, ambient noise, pre-existing classical music (often chosen without regard for historical period) and a limited amount of original musical scoring, all stitched together in an elaborate design. Badlands and Days of Heaven provided extensive expository narration from a single character, although the voiceover narration for Days of Heaven seemed more like a counterpoint to the imagery than a complement. The voiceover for The Thin Red Line would be more radical yet, emanating from no fewer than eight characters who are impossible to tell apart. In this film, Malick's "band of brothers" refuse to narrate the action per se; instead, the voiceovers bind them together as a single human consciousness.
Of all Malick's films, The New World uses voiceovers the least, and does so in a very different manner from his other work. The New World retains the multivocal approach from The Thin Red Line, at least where the English are concerned. John Smith, John Rolfe, and possibly Captain Newport (played by Christopher Plummer) recite passages from the literature of first contact, promising a utopian existence in the New World which Malick's visuals slyly undercut. (Of the three major English characters, Colin Farrell's John Smith probably bears the least resemblance to historical reality, right down to the "I LOVE / NO MATTER" tattoo prominently inked on his chest. Far from idolizing Native Americans, Smith claimed that they worshipped the "Divell," and there seems to have been no love lost between him and Pocahontas.)
It's interesting to note that of all the Native characters, only Pocahontas -- the figure caught between Native and English cultures -- is given interior monologues, most of them pertaining to her search for a spiritual Earth Mother. Other Native Americans in the film are motivated largely by the desire to protect their territory, and they seem oblivious to the spiritual properties of their land. Malick doesn't seem particularly interested in their subjectivity, or perhaps he doesn't believe it requires as much explanation. Then again, Native Americans get short shrift throughout this film: For instance, Malick focuses on Pocahontas's romance with John Smith (which probably never happened) while completely ignoring her marriage to Kocuom (which we know occurred, and which complicated her eventual "English marriage" to John Rolfe). In this film, Pocahontas has no Native suitors or husbands: She simply moves from John to John.
As it stands, The New World is mostly a chronicle of questioning and self-delusion. Attempts by the English to "make a new start" in America go disastrously wrong. The hope that society might be free from class or caste devolves into a standard feudal economy with English masters and Native serfs. Religious fundamentalism rears its ugly head: English government becomes increasingly authoritarian in the face of a constant Native threat. Native Americans' attempts to "drive the English into the sea" end in their slavery. At every turn, human interference -- of both Native and English varieties -- corrupts the purity and beauty of Malick's wilderness. It's no coincidence, then, that the music The New World uses most often to evoke the dawning of America is the prologue to Wagner's Das Rheingold: The ongoing E-flat major chord suggests a beginning of epic scope, but its placement in the Ring cycle also indicates that something is about to go wrong, or perhaps has already gone wrong, and that for the descendants of these early settlers, a Gotterdammerung cannot be too far off. (Malick's script for New World was written in the late 1970s, and one can detect Carter-era anxieties over American malaise and self-destruction.)
The most interesting part of the film comes near the end, as Pocahontas voyages to England. Here, Malick's title acquires a curious double meaning: The Old World becomes "new" in our eyes, while the New World seems old and tired in comparison. Ironically, Pocahontas's great natural epiphany -- her Emersonian moment of connection to the cosmos -- occurs not in the untrammeled wilderness of America, but in an English country garden. The moment is tragically undercut by John Rolfe's narration, in the form of a letter to his son: As Pocahontas turns cartwheels in the garden (and Wagner's prologue to Das Rheingold resumes in the background), Rolfe informs us that she has died of smallpox. Has Pocahontas experienced genuine transcendence, or is she suffering the onset of fever and delirium? Malick seems to suggest the former, but the latter is a distinct possibility.
On the whole, The New World, a film seemingly assembled from found artifacts, feels rather like an artifact itself -- an historical epic from the late-1970s (when respected directors could make such a deliberately noncommercial project) that was kept on a shelf for more than twenty-five years. Probably the film's most troublesome feature is its attitude toward Nature (which in this case, also includes human beings): Malick's new world may be aesthetically pleasing and exotic, but it offers little beyond pictorial delight. The film is an inadvertent reminder that Emerson's "transparent eyeball" is a narcissistic project: In seeing all, it begins by seeing itself. Unfortunately, in Malick's case it can never quite look away.
With two new articles in today's edition, Salon has finally made its stance clear, and "appeasement" is the word of the day. Perhaps this is precisely what we should have expected, once Bill Clinton compared the Jyllands-Posten cartoons to Nazi anti-Semitism: Where Clinton goes, the Left will follow. This development should delight partisan Republicans, and it puts a nasty kink in the Left's alleged support of a free press.
Juan Cole's new article on the "cartoon jihad" makes no mention of the various outrages perpetrated by Islamist thugs and hooligans -- the burning of embassies, threats against foreigners, attempts to impose religious censorship on Western Europe, a 24-hour police guard around the Jyllands-Posten offices, the attacks on NATO troops. Instead of focusing on what is actually occurring, Cole chooses to blame two people for this entire affair: George W. Bush and Danish newspaper editor Flemming Rose.
That Cole would blame George W. Bush is no surprise: Salon never strays from the belief that whenever something goes wrong in the world, Republicans are responsible. It's a stretch in this case, since Bush himself has been fairly hands-off about the whole affair. But Cole claims that Bush's invasion of Iraq demonstrated gross insensitivity to Islamic culture and brought radical Islamist anger to a "boiling point." (Never mind that radical Islamist anger has been at this same boiling point for the past quarter of a century.) If Cole had his way, presumably the radical imams who call for the destruction of the West would be much happier today.
Flemming Rose is a less likely target for Cole's wrath, but again, the man has his reasons. He chides Rose for conducting an interview with American neoconservative Daniel Pipes in October 2004. For Cole, Pipes is simply beyond the pale: Pipes, after all, has dared to criticize professors of Middle Eastern studies -- like Juan Cole -- for failing to recognize the importance of the radical Islamist threat (which Cole seems to dismiss as anti-Muslim racism). The mere fact that Rose would speak with someone who supports the "War on Terror" and Israel's policies toward Palestinians -- and not to Juan Cole -- surely proves that the Jyllands-Posten has a racist agenda. Why, the editor was practically begging for a fatwa. (In feminist circles, this is known as "blaming the victim.")
Mark MacNamara's genuinely charming dispatch from Morocco also manages to miss the point, focusing as it does on an area of the world that has not erupted in violence. He does establishe that academics in Morocco are more likely to support freedom of the press than academics in America (like Juan Cole and Jytte Klausen). But in Morocco there is no freedom of the press per se, and even freedom of speech is a bit dicey: Newspapers are controlled by the government, and so to a great degree is religion.
It seems altogether likely that the Americans who so recently flocked to the cinema in support of Edward R. Murrow have suddenly defected to the side of press censorship. Good Night, and Good Luck, indeed.
Wednesday, February 08, 2006
The "cartoon jihad" rages on throughout Europe and the Middle East, and it looks as if left-wing e-zine Salon might at last be taking a definite stand. Unfortunately, it's the wrong one -- in favor of thugs and rioters who have burned European embassies to the ground and call for unilateral veto power over the free press. (To be fair, a few days ago Salon also published a brief interview from Der Spiegel with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somalian emigrant and member of the Dutch Parliament. Ali co-directed the film "Submission" with Theo Van Gogh, who was subsequently murdered by extremists.)
Most of you will remember that this fracas began with the publication of a set of twelve cartoons in the Jyllands-Posten, a major newspaper in Denmark. Several of the cartoons, though not all, were visual depictions of the prophet Mohammed, and thus violated a taboo of Islam -- a taboo which, by the way, has never been consistently enforced. The worst cartoon of the lot depicted a swarthy Arab man -- who is, to be fair, not identified specifically as the Prophet -- with a bomb nestled in his turban. Other cartoonists lampooned Islamic fundamentalists' repression of women, though only one of these offered an explicit depiction of Mohammed (who urges his terrorist followers to "Stop!", albeit for an ironic reason). But the majority of the twelve cartoons contained no editorializing, positive or negative, on any form of Islam -- and a few even attacked the Jyllands-Posten exercise as a silly publicity stunt. But regardless of the cartoonists' intentions, they are all in hiding now.
The twelve cartoons were first published on September 30th of last year, some three and a half months before protests erupted. You may not have heard what happened in the interim, because media outlets have been fairly slow to break the story. While Islamic groups in Denmark tried (unsuccessfully) to sue the Jyllands-Posten for hate speech and blasphemy, a few radical-fundamentalist imams took the cartoons on a grand tour of the Middle East. Mysteriously enough, during that time three additional graphics appeared in their portfolio, pictures that were far more inflammatory than the Posten's mostly harmless doodles. (The picture of a dog sodomizing a Muslim in prayer, for instance, was clearly intended to rile the faithful.) One of the graphics wrongly attributed to the Jyllands-Posten turned out to be a photo from a French hog-calling contest, which had nothing whatsoever to do with prophets, religion, or for that matter Denmark.
Whether this matters to the folks at Salon is, at this point, anyone's guess. But Jytte Klausen, a professor at Brandeis University, writes that as a result of these cartoons, "my country of birth, Denmark, has fallen from grace. The modern myth of 'the little tolerant people,' rooted in a group of Danes who risked their lives to save Jews from Nazi deportation in 1943, has died." Klausen claims that the Jyllands-Posten engaged in bigotry and religious intolerance of the rankest sort, and that "religious toleration and reverence for human rights have been sorely lacking in Denmark" for a very long time . Although Klausen believes the vandals in the Middle East and the Islamist radicals in Denmark are overreacting, she claims that their grievance against the West is essentially justified: Denmark, apparently, is a horrible, racist place.
It doesn't help that Klausen misinterprets some of the cartoons she purports to describe: She claims, for instance, that two of them "portray the Prophet much the way Jesus is usually drawn, but darker and with a halo that has turned into horns." As far as I can tell, only one of the cartoons shows the prophet with a "halo" at all -- but the halo is in the shape of an Islamic crescent, and the face is not dark at all. The drawing is a visual pun on Christian iconography, identifying the figure in the drawing as special and holy while expressing ambivalence. The crescent around his head serves as halo and horns at the same time, which seems to express the uneasiness many Europeans feel toward the large, unassimilated Islamic populations in their midst, but the point, such as it is, is that the cartoonist is not necessarily privileging either reading. However, one of the "unattributed" cartoons linked to the demonstrations does depict a horned Mohammed. If Klausen is referring to this particular drawing, she should be aware that the Jyllands-Posten never published it, and that -- as far as anyone can tell -- a few imams drew the thing themselves, thereby violating their own taboo against images of Mohammed.
Klausen also claims that the Jyllands-Posten has a spotty record of standing up for freedom of speech. Three years ago, for instance, the paper refused to print a sacrilegious cartoon on the resurrection of Jesus, which for Klausen proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that the paper gives preferential treatment to Christians while singling out Muslims for disparagement and humiliation. Of course, one of the twelve cartoons that began this scandal offers less-than-flattering caricatures of Jesus (complete with halo), a hippie, Buddha, and a Danish journalist -- all featured in a police lineup. It would seem, then, that in this instance the paper was willing to be an equal-opportunity offender. But even so, I'm not certain that Klausen's tu quoque argument justifies her conclusion that something is rotten in Denmark (or at least, with the Danish people). Nor does the handful of anti-Muslim politicians she cites (some of whom are not anti-Muslim but pro-tolerance) strengthen her argument about pervasive racism in Danish society.
Not so long ago, Salon was more consistent in defending the freedom of the press -- even as the e-zine failed to recognize other, equally vital economic and personal liberties. Of course, Salon's position was largely a matter of political expediency: Leftists have long claimed that George W. Bush has stifled diversity of opinion in America, so what better way to establish liberal bona fides than by proclaiming the importance of speech and press freedoms as loudly as one possibly can? Oddly, Salon suffered no reprisals, official or unofficial, for its "Documents of Freedom" series, which might indicate to a neutral observer that Bush never was the censorious ogre people thought he would be. The same holds true for the George Clooney film Good Night, and Good Luck, which has enjoyed remarkable success among left-liberals as an indictment of "neo-McCarthyist" policies of suppression presumably prevalent among conservatives.
I wonder why leftists are suddenly having second thoughts. If the waffling at Salon indicates a general trend, it's deeply disturbing (except, of course, for partisan Republican hacks who would like nothing more than to see the GOP in power for eternity). Leftists supported the freedom of the press when they believed the Right was against it, but now that right-wingers appear to favor it, Leftists are discovering the watchwords of "caution" and "restraint." This latest shift can't be entirely due to multicultural sentimentality, or to a lingering belief that the Other, by virtue of Otherness, is always correct. Besides, if you happen to support social tolerance (as most Leftists claim they do), Derridean difference will only get you so far.
It is possible that Salon will take a stronger stand for freedom of the press in the next few days, and I hope for its own sake that it does. For the moment, though, we'll have to wait and see.
Postscript: I know I'm going to receive a few letters from angry Muslims who will claim that Islam is a religion of peace, that the Jyllands-Posten cartoons really were offensive, that Denmark earned the bad publicity it got, that the Danish newspapers should be shut down or censored, and perhaps even that I am either ignorant or bigoted for suggesting a point of view that differs (however slightly or greatly) from their own. They have the right to think as they wish: It's a free country, after all. For my part, as a recovering Christian and cheerful agnostic, I'm in no position to evaluate benefits (or problems) of the Islamic faith in any of its myriad forms. My focus here is not on the soul, but on the world.
One point, however, I can make with certainty: The overall perception of a faith -- any faith -- is determined by the actions that believers choose to perform on its behalf. When Christian-fundamentalist extremists blow up abortion clinics in Jesus's name, other Christian fundamentalists must step in quickly and decisively to condemn their actions, lest unbelievers get the impression that this is what Christianity really means. (And to their credit, they do condemn these actions, though not always convincingly.) When a pedophilia scandal breaks in a Catholic diocese, and priests labor to cover up the matter, Catholics and non-Catholics alike begin to wonder whether Mother Church actually sanctions such monstrous activity. Likewise, if followers of Islam fail to condemn acts of terrorism and hooliganism promptly and unconditionally whenever and wherever they happen, then people like me will not accept the claim that Islam is in fact a religion of peace. This may not be completely fair, but in an imperfect world, it's the way things must be.
Update (7:30 p.m.): As a companion (or corrective) to Klausen's article, Salon has now published an interview with Daniel Dennett, an atheist philosopher who claims that the idea of religion is evolutionarily programmed into human beings, in a manner comparable to, say, the actions of a virus or a parasite. Here's the closest thing to an outright condemnation of the "cartoon jihad" that Salon is likely to give us, at least for the time being:
We cannot let any group, however devout, blackmail us into silence by their expressions of hurt feelings whenever they feel that we are getting close to the truth. That is what con artists do when their marks begin to get suspicious, and that is what children do when they can't have their way, and it should be beneath the dignity of any religious group to play that card.
Well, this statement earns the sound of one hand clapping. It would be much improved if Dennett would offer a few specifics about these groups -- or even note that with some religious groups (most of them Islamic) these "expressions of hurt feelings" are violent terrorist acts rather than legitimate speech. Of course, the real agenda behind this interview is to condemn the religious rhetoric of George W. Bush, not to respond to rioters abroad. Dennett notes that "[Bush's] religiosity seems quite sincere, but it may be more of a political display than a real commitment. I hope he's smarter than he seems! I'd rather he be faking than be deadly earnest about his conviction that God tells him what to do." See, in the eyes of Salon, a terrorist isn't a dangerous fanatic -- at least, not compared to the guy who happens to be leading the fight against terrorism.
One must admire the charming tenacity with which the folks at Salon cling to their message (Bush is stupid, Bush is a fanatic, Bush is scary). But at what point will American leftists state -- unequivocally and unapologetically -- that riots, arson and murder in the name of Allah are bad?
Monday, February 06, 2006
Via Andrew Sullivan, a defense of Munich from "Wax Banks" (a.k.a. Wally Holland), a media-studies grad student at MIT. [Correction (7:30 p.m.): He's not a grad student any more.] I like his blog on the whole, but I think I'd find it much easier to respond to Banks if I could figure out what he actually thought of my piece. One moment, it's "well-written and occasionally serious," the next it's "not particularly insightful beyond a couple of small legitimate grievances," and finally it's "an idiotic political reading of the kind one would expect to find in, say, a first-year literature grad student's reading of Conrad." The goalposts keep receding. (Well, I suppose my post still beats Peter Jackson's remake of King Kong, which contained a first-year undergraduate's reading of Joseph Conrad. But I digress.)
Banks's basic point seems to be that Tony Kushner is a writer of genuine moral seriousness, and that therefore we ought to take what he says seriously, even when it's a piece of bottom-drawer agitprop like Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall Be Unhappy. Banks rather likes this playlet, and I'll concede that unlike most of Kushner's work, it has the advantage of brevity -- it gets its point across in under half an hour, as opposed to the typical three-and-a-half to four-hour running time of Kushner's full-length works. But where Banks sees Dostoevskian ambiguity and existential exploration, culminating in a profound moral choice, I see Kushner riding on a better author's coattails in order to score cheap political points against George W. Bush. The conceit of Only We ..., by the way, involves First Lady Laura Bush reading The Brothers Karamazov (reportedly her favorite book) to a gathering of dead Iraqi children in Heaven -- which seems like an anti-war variation on those morbid "Precious Moments" baby-angel figurines that little old ladies in Kansas like to collect. (Sorry, Kansas.)
No word, by the way, on whether Kushner's Heaven has been rebuilt after Angels in America: Perestroika left it in ruins. Perhaps it has been, since Kushner's angels in Only We ... possess much greater authority than they possessed in Hydriotaphia or the Angels cycle. Worse, the angels of Only We ... seem to have converted to Christianity in our absence: They're the bloodlessly perfect beings of the New Testament, not the wild creatures of Genesis that you could catch in a good headlock or sleeper hold. So, like a patient teacher, the mild-mannered angel of Only We ... explains to Ms. Bush that she is reading to dead babies, that her country is ultimately responsible for their deaths, and that she must make a choice between the good they represent and the evil her husband and her country represent. Of course, because Laura Bush is a Republican, she willfully chooses evil, forsaking Heaven for husband. Thus the tragic irony of conservatism, or something like that: Like the Grand Inquisitor of Dostoevsky's story, we opt for evil because the good costs us too much. (Talk about an undergraduate reading -- assuming that undergrads still read Dostoevsky.)
Banks notes, quite rightly, that I've taken Homebody/Kabul a good deal more seriously than I've taken Munich -- which I would say is because Homebody/Kabul is an interesting drama in a Shavian vein (and the only substantive work Kushner has written to date), while Munich is a fairly mundane, inert spy thriller with a few well-directed suspense sequences and a deeply questionable moral agenda. At least Homebody/Kabul had ambitions, even if they went largely unrealized: It was Kushner's first play not to feature angels or demons in its dramatis personae, and more importantly, it refrained from sorting out "good" and "bad" characters, opting for a humanist approach in which characters develop over time. But since that led to ideological impurity, it had to be shelved. The process began, ironically enough, with the afterword to Homebody/Kabul, and has continued more or less unabated into Munich.
Banks wishes to establish Kushner's moral "seriousness" in Munich by noting that "Kushner deplores violence" [emphasis his]. Which is true, sort of. But this leaves open the question of whether all violence to Kushner is equally deplorable (which would constitute moral relativism of a Gandhian/pacifistic sort), or whether some violence is better than other violence -- and if so, under what conditions. Here, unfortunately, Kushner has left a paper trail, and his pronouncements on the subject are considerably less than Dostoevskian. To Israelis Kushner apportions "a greater share" of the responsibility for peace; to Palestinians, then, a lesser share is due. It's easy to see what Kushner would have Israel do in the name of peace. Mostly it involves giving the Palestinians what Kushner believes they want, "statehood and autonomy," then ceding their sovereignty to an international "peacekeeping force." But one struggles in vain to find Kushner's thoughts on what Palestinians could do. It would be nice, for instance, if Kushner could say that Palestinians should stop blowing up Israeli children, or that as a gesture of good will they might stop talking about pushing all the Jews into the sea. He can't, or won't, say this -- in any case, I've seen nothing to suggest that he has -- because this would require him to acknowledge that on some level, Israel's own "War on Terror" is justified, in the way that he suggests the Palestinians' war on Israel is justified by Israeli aggression. (Let's not forget that Israelis are building a wall around their territory specifically to keep Palestinian terrorists from blowing up their children, while the Hamas-led government of the Palestinian Authority has proposed attacks on Israel with surface-to-surface missiles.)
One perceives a similar imbalance in Munich, with the way Kushner treats Palestinian terrorism and Israeli counterterrorism. With the notable exception of the Black September attacks, Palestinian terrorism is only discussed, never shown; Israeli counterterrorism, on the other hand, is displayed in grisly detail. (The film's depiction of the Black September attacks pulls most of its punches, as Kevin McDonald's harrowing documentary One Day in September makes clear.) In the cinema, there's a world of difference between showing an action and merely talking about it: Cinema derives its greatest power from what audiences see -- and if what we see is only a shadow that implies something larger or nastier just beyond our view, the power of suggestion is still derived from what happens on the screen. In this respect at least, director Steven Spielberg must be implicated along with Kushner, as a largely silent (and I would say unwitting) partner in this pro-terrorist whitewash. Munich does not hesitate to show the horrors of Israeli counterterrorist activity in graphic detail, but when it comes to Palestinian attacks, it is reticent. The death of one Palestinian man is a tragedy (and for Spielber, an elaborate setpiece), but the deaths of 130 Israelis on a train platform -- men, women and children -- are mere statistics, mentioned briefly in one scene and then forgotten. So Banks is absolutely correct, I think, to say that "we're not supposed to cheer for the Arab terrorists in Munich." We're supposed to ignore them instead.
To be fair, Kushner is not staunchly anti-Israel. In his various interviews and forums on Munich, he has stated that Israel has a right to exist, and in his afterword to Homebody/Kabul, he puts the point more forcefully: "Israel must not be destroyed." (If Kushner has to clarify a point like that, he's already lost this debate.) But an affirmation of Israel's right to exist begs the question of what Israel can or should do to keep existing. Is Israel, for instance, allowed to defend itself against an enemy that would wipe it off the face of the earth? Is Israel even allowed to go on the offensive, and kill terrorists on foreign soil before they strike the homeland? And if "Israel must not be destroyed," surely someone must protect it against threats of destruction. Should an international peace force be appointed to this end? (Since we know what most of the world thinks of Israel, we can't exactly consider the UN a neutral party in this dispute.) Or is Israel allowed to defend itself -- in which case Kushner's moral agenda in Munich disintegrates completely?
These questions also pertain to the United States and our own "War on Terror." We face adversaries whose stated purpose is to destroy us, and no true discussion of America's counterterrorism efforts can omit this basic fact. I doubt Kushner is quite so deluded as to think that peace can be achieved with Al Qaeda by giving them land. But then we're left, ironically, with the very question Kushner poses at the end of his play Slavs!: "What is to be done?" Kushner means the question as a post-Cold War echo of Chernyshevsky's nineteeth-century cry for a socialist revolution: What is to be done, is to develop a moral economy beyond "the blind anarchy of capitalism" (a old-school Marxist phrase that finds its way into Munich, naturally enough). But Islamist terrorists don't seem any happier with dictatorships of the proletariat than they are with democracy.
Although Kushner claims that Israel has the right to exist, he won't go so far as to say that it has the right to defend itself against an enemy who would destroy it. Hence, the liberal-guilt stance of Munich, and hence my own claim that the film's moral agenda is a blueprint for national suicide. Kushner cannot appropriate any reponsibility for peace to Palestinians themselves, nor can he condemn their attacks outright. Banks, I think, considers this a mark of Kushner's nuanced thinking: Kushner refuses to see the Palestinian/Israeli conflict in terms of good and evil, refuses to give us heroes to cheer or villains to hiss. To his credit, Banks does not agree with Kushner's conclusions, but he does see Munich as an antidote to jingoism and moralism in our counterterrorism efforts.
I, on the other hand, would claim that a little jingoism and moralism are precisely what we need. If killing 130 men, women and children who are waiting for a train isn't evil, if murdering eleven athletes in cold blood for no reason beyond their nationality isn't evil -- or if flying an airplane into a skyscraper and killing thousands of our own countrymen isn't evil -- then we have to throw up our hands and say that evil does not exist. We cannot claim that terrorists and terrorism are not evil if we wish to stake our claim in a genuine moral debate. What's more, when nations like Israel, Denmark or France are victimized by terrorist activity, common decency requires persons of good will to proclaim common cause, even if it requires a little flag-waving bravado: Nous sommes tous Israeliens, if that's what it takes. And there's a big difference, I would claim, between understanding terrorists (something we must do if we are ever to defeat them) and excusing or ignoring their actions (which we must never do). Alas, after a brief, fascinating flirtation with the former course in Homebody/Kabul, Kushner has at last fixed his sights on the latter. His moral stance in Munich is delusional at best, reprehensible at worst.
And now, I suppose, Wax Banks and I are "engaged in a dialogue."
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