Thursday, November 29, 2007

Jim Emerson on No Country for Old Men

One of my favorite writers about film is Jim Emerson, who edits Roger Ebert's site and also runs his own blog called scanners. Since the Toronto International Film Festival in September, he's been raving about the Coen Brothers' latest movie, No Country for Old Men (based, of course, on Cormac McCarthy's novel). I've always loved the Coens (even if their last couple of movies didn't thrill me), so his excited advance word on this movie had me practically salivating in anticipation. Well, we were able to see it last weekend, and it's fantastic.

With the Coens, there always seems to be a body of reviewers who accuse them of being "smug" or "condescending", or who criticize them as "technical wizards" but "emotionally cold" or something like that. I've never had much use for these criticisms, and Emerson isn't having any of it. He is frustrated with the tendency for some critics to talk about the movies without reference to supporting elements in the film. Over the course of multiple posts (one, two, three, four, five) he has spent some time reviewing the reviews of No Country for Old Men, trying to tease out what certain reviewers are really talking about when they make claims about what the movie "means". His most recent post on the film is the best yet, and comes after a second viewing of his own. He brilliantly discusses the various images in the movie and how the Coen Brothers achieve what they achieve. He is concerned with how the film works as visual storytelling, with an emphasis on getting past the tendency we still have to consider "style" as existing independent of "content". This comes from early in the post:
"No Country for Old Men" has been called a "perfect" film by those who love it and those who were left cold by it. Joel and Ethan Coen have been praised and condemned for their expert "craftsmanship" and their "technical" skills -- as if those skills had nothing to do with filmmaking style, or artistry; as if they existed apart from the movie itself. Oh, but the film is an example of "impeccable technique" -- you know, for "formalists." And the cinematography is "beautiful." Heck, it's even "gorgeous." ...

But what do those terms mean if they are plucked out of the movie like pickles from a cheeseburger? How is something "beautiful" apart from what it does in the film? (See uncomprehending original-release reviews of "Barry Lyndon" and "Days of Heaven," for example, in which the "beautiful" was treated as something discrete from the movie itself.) When somebody claims that a movie overemphasizes the "visual" -- whether they're talking about Stanley Kubrick or Terence Malick or the Coens -- it's a sure sign that they're not talking about cinema, but approaching film as an elementary school audio-visual aid. When critics (and viewers) refer to the filmmakers' application of "craft," "technique," and "style" (can these things be applied, casually or relentlessly, with a spatula?) without consideration of how these expressions function in the movie, we're all in trouble. A composition, a cut, a dissolve, a movement -- they're all manifestations of craft (or skill), technique (the systematic use of skill), style (artistic expression).

It's really a great post, with an excellent comment thread. I highly recommend reading it if this kind of thing interests you in the least. (One other thing. There are some elements in the movie that are not fully resolved, to the apparent frustration of many. Emerson quotes Joel Coen, circa Barton Fink, on this: "The question is: Where would it get you if something that's a little bit ambiguous in the movie is made clear? It doesn't get you anywhere.")

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Some Further Thoughts on Trust (if not On Trust)

The new issue of Harper’s has an admiring review by John Lukacs of a book by Bryan Cartledge titled The Will to Survive: A History of Hungary. Overall, I found the review strange and weirdly off-putting (repeated invocations of squishy notions like “national character” tend to make me itch), but towards the beginning of it Lukacs says something that interested me. He writes:
The great Jacob Burckhardt once told his students in Basel that history has really no method of its own. But, he added, "You must know how to read." Bryan Cartledge knows how to read. Here is a professional diplomat who spent less than four years in a country, who has no personal ties with it, but whose interest was acute enough for him to learn its difficult language and read volumes and volumes about matters in which many of his predecessors, especially political historians, were not much interested.
This passage made me think of a couple of things. First, I had a Romantic, daydream vision of The Scholar, doing the difficult research, the close reading, the thankless work, following leads down alleys and potential dead-ends. Second, I was struck by this phrase: "whose interest was acute enough for him to learn its difficult language". This made my mind wander, thinking about how much we trust in the written word and in translation.

There is some irony in this, of course, in the context of my ongoing engagement with the work of Gabriel Josipovici, and in particular his book On Trust. After all, I've been writing about how "we" lack trust in tradition, in society, in institutions. I've been reading, and reading about, writers who feel this lack of trust keenly--writers who have doubted the value of writing, questioned the entire project of novel-writing, while at the same time feeling an urgent need to write. These struggles resonate with me. I feel it at the level of my own creative impulse: it is difficult for me to allow myself to even recognize an urgent need to write. (I fear that makes no sense at all.) I suppress the creative impulse. I relate this struggle with my own sense of what is wrong with society. It seems self-evidently true not only that our institutions cannot be trusted, but that most people lack this trust on a most basic level--and yet we desire it, do we not? We want desperately to trust in the institutions we have.

We latch onto things to trust in, however fragile that trust may be. I'm not talking here about religion or anything like that. I’m talking more about our basic trust in the written word. We may think that the media is not doing its collective job (as we see it—that it may be doing its actual job perfectly well is not clear to as many people as it might be)--we may, if pressed, claim to distrust the media as being full of shit, as pandering scandal-mongers, as obfuscators—as agents, finally, of widespread confusion and misinformation about our political process and the most important issues of the day--and yet, when it comes to the basic content of the news, how often do we simply believe that it’s basically true? It takes a lot of work to sift through the crap. Some of us do it more or less successfully. But when it comes, say, to the text of a world leader’s speech, how often does it occur to us, immediately, to question that the content is correct? That the very words can be trusted as accurate? For unless the leader gave the speech in English (or some other language we know), we inevitably encounter the words (out of context, most likely) in translation.

You'll have likely worked out that I've referred here to the oft-reported content of a speech from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in which he is said to have threatened to have Israel "wiped off the map". When this speech was first reported, my first instinct was to groan, because despite knowing better, I did probably trust, without even realizing it, that the content had been reported accurately. I groaned because it seemed likely to be the kind of thing that could only hurt efforts to prevent an American attack on Iran. But I don't take Ahmadinejad's pronouncements seriously, so other than bemoaning the speech's possible rhetorical value, I didn't pay much attention to it. Then when I read reports that he had been mistranslated and misunderstood, well, this was more interesting. Here we could pretty easily talk about the uses of propaganda by warmongers and the lock-step reporting by the media on the path to war. But even here, I was trusting that these counter-reports were accurate, wasn't I? I have no choice, ultimately, right? When it comes to translation issues like this, I have to trust somebody--after all, I don't speak or read Persian or Farsi (or, really, anything outside of English; my lame smattering of French hardly counts for much). But, of course, people earn our trust. We decide who to credit by weighing various factors. I'm not inclined to believe what the United States government says, so that's one factor. I believe I first learned about the mistranslation issue through Juan Cole. I don't read Cole's work religiously, but I read enough to know that he's a serious person. I don't agree with everything he says, but he doesn't seem to bullshit. He doesn't write outlandishly stupid things about topics that I do know something about. So, in this context, I was inclined to believe Cole's account of this business. That's another factor. I read subsequent articles from various Middle Eastern sources (probably translated, naturally), which tended to support Cole's arguments. A third factor.

Ok, I've sort of gone far afield. I started talking about how we trust in translation and in the written word. In the case of the Ahmadinejad speech, I've had to do some minor work of my own deciding what to believe about the basic elements that had been reported in a particular story. Too often, we don't do the work. We're less likely to notice the more subtle shadings in the news, even when trained to expect it. We have a strong tendency to want to see the newspaper as a portal to objective reality--we think that this is the role of the newspaper, that it should, in fact, be this portal. Certainly The New York Times cultivates this view--"all the news that's fit to print". It presents itself as the factual record, and generally it is trusted as such, even as it is attacked from right (often inanely) and left (more fruitfully). A lot of us criticize the Times and other media outlets--often, I sense, we feel that our trust has been violated. The media has been entrusted by us, we think, to provide us with the information we need, and it fails at this task spectacularly. And yet we go back for more: maybe this time we'll find that that trust will not have been given in vain. Maybe our trust, already given in advance, will be earned. Maybe.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Methodists and Anarchists, together at last

I've mentioned Red Emma's and the event space at 2640 a couple of times in the past. The space is, in fact, an active church. Today, The Baltimore Sun has a nice article about the partnership that has developed between the anarchists of the Red Emma's collective and the Methodist congregation of the struggling church:
The partnership was born out of necessity. Last year, the congregation at St. John's needed an influx of money and ideas to keep it from putting the space on the market. Though more people attend the weekly service now than did several years ago, there are still not enough to fill the building's main space - let alone pay the utility bills.

"We'd gotten to a place of financial desperation," said pastor Drew Phoenix. "Some people wanted to just sell and leave."

Meanwhile, members of the Red Emma's anarchist collective started hunting for a larger space. They had outgrown their cafe and bookstore at Madison Avenue and St. Paul Street and needed another home for their progressive events.
Read the whole thing.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Waggish on The Book of the New Sun

I read Gene Wolfe's series The Book of the New Sun earlier this year, and I made a lot of noise about how I intended to write something extensive about it here. Well, alas, I don't see that happening. (Really, we'd all be a lot better off if I refrained from making predictions about what is or is not going to be happening around here.) But Mr. Waggish has now posted something of his own about the series. He was "less than enthusiastic"; he criticizes the prose as "clunky" and identifies various plot elements that remain problematic, but
where the book most seriously fails in its ambitions is on a more fundamental level, which is that in the stability of the text itself. We know that Severian is a liar quite early on. We also know that what he is writing is destined for public consumption by people in his world, and that Wolfe claims to be acting as a translator of Severian's manuscript which has traveled long and far, without knowing anything about that audience. These two facts cause the book to be underdetermined with regard to Severian's motives and to the purpose of the text itself. Because we do not know what intent may be behind Severian's lies, we can't derive from the whole what the meaning of any particular piece is, because we do not have the whole context. If Severian were known to be telling the truth, we could inductively grasp the meaning of his history in the world. But because both are uncertain, the book loses sense structurally. This is not a matter of obscurity; rather, it is an intentional choice that indicates a serious failure on the part of Wolfe to push his book past the realm of entertainment. Without our being able to grasp the deeper sense of Severian's words other than as a maybe-true story, he reduces the book to decontextualized apocrypha, a gnostic gospel without an accompanying authoritative text.
I don't really have much to say against this, except that I wasn't bothered by this kind of thing in my reading of the books. With respect to the plot-problems he lists earlier in his post, Waggish observes that "People argue that Wolfe can be enjoyed without answering these puzzles". I might say that I quite enjoyed the series without being terribly troubled by either of these (the plot-puzzles or what Waggish sees as the undeterminedness of the series). Why? Well, I liked having Severian around; I found his voice engaging and thoughtful (and, besides, I didn't think the prose was especially clunky). But then, I didn't really think of him as a "liar", though it was clear enough that his narrative was not altogether reliable (to say the least). I thought of the novel as a kind of Borgesian picaresque, the various set-pieces in the novel reminding me of some of Borges's stories, with Severian wandering among them. Certainly I tried to keep track of the events, to understand who the characters were and the role they played in the story, but I admit that I wasn't overly concerned if some things didn't seem to add up (though, in fact, I can't quite recall whether such a thing ever occurred to me while reading). I did ask myself what Severian's purpose was in telling the story he was telling in the manner he was telling it, and I wondered about the implications of his unreliability, but finally even these questions lost some of their urgency in the face of my enjoyment of his telling.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Michael Albert video

Check out this video (at Jonathan Schwarz's blog, A Tiny Revolution) of Michael Albert speaking at an event promoting his new memoir, Remembering Tomorrow: From SDS to Life After Capitalism (looks good!). There's some great stuff about the differences between the 1960s and today; about why the working class distrusts the professional, or coordinator, class (and how this relates to the problems with Marxist-Leninism and Maoism and so forth); about his consciousness-raising experiences rushing fraternities at MIT; about the failure of the left to come up with a compelling vision; etc. . . . It's fairly lengthy (1 hour, 17 minutes), but I think it's well worth taking the time to watch the whole thing (and not just the bit about the fraternities, which is all that Schwarz highlights). (Thanks to Joe at American Leftist for the link.)

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Antigone (i)

We recently saw a production by the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival of the Bertolt Brecht version of Antigone (which was originally based on Holderlin's translation of the Sophocles play). As it happens, a discussion in Josipovici's On Trust led me to a book by Martha C. Nussbaum called The fragility of goodness: Luck and ethics in Greek tragedy and philosophy, which has a chapter devoted to Sophocles' Antigone. In anticipation both of reading this chapter and of seeing the production of the Brecht play, I was moved to read the Oedipus plays of Sophocles. I'll have more to say about Nussbaum's book later, but for now, Brecht's Antigone.

Here are some passages from the dramaturgical notes for the production, written by Tony Tsendeas:
The basic argument of Antigone is easy to state, but enormously difficult to resolve. Simply put Antigone is concerned with the . . . needs and rights of the individual vs. the needs and power of the The State.

The liberal populist spirit that has been the hallmark of Western culture since the eighteenth century age of revolution, leads us to readily place our sympathies with Antigone. However, Sophocles is even handed. . . .

. . .Kreon represents centralized authority. To his worldview the alternative is anarchy. Indeed we have borne witness to what can happen when centralized authority rapidly crumbles, creating a vacuum which is all too often filled by ethnic rivalry. The Balkan conflict of the 1990’s (where our production is set) and Iraq of today are vivid examples of what Kreon most fears. . . .

When Sophocles wrote Antigone in 442 BC, Humanity had already been grappling with the conflict between the rights of the individual and the power of the state for quite some time. . . .
There is a lot that could be said about this, but for now it suffices to say that I disagree that the problem of the Sophocles play is so "easy to state", and I disagree that it's about a simple matter of the individual rising up against the state, at least not in the way that we understand that idea today. The notes do say that "Sophocles is even handed" but otherwise they don't make much distinction between the Sophocles version and the Brecht version.

Bernard Knox says this about Brecht's version (in his introduction to Antigone, from the Penguin edition of The Three Theban Plays, translated by Robert Fagles):
The prologue is a scene in a Berlin air-raid shelter, March 1945, and it is all too clear what Creon is meant to suggest to the audience: he has launched Thebes on an aggressive war against Argos, and Polynices (conscripted by Creon in Brecht's violent reworking of the legend) has been killed for deserting the battle line when he saw his brother Eteocles fall. At the end of the play the tide turns against Thebes as Argos counterattacks; Creon takes Thebes down with him to destruction rather than surrender. Against this Hitlerian black, Antigone is all white; she is the image of what Brecht longed to see--the rising of the German people against Hitler, a resistance that in fact never came to birth. the poem Brecht wrote for the program of the production, an address to Antigone--

Come out of the twilight
and walk before us a while,
friendly, with the light step
of one whose mind is fully made up. . .

--reminds us that Brecht was a lyric poet as well as a dramatist, but it is a dream poem, a lament, a regret for the rising of a whole people against fascism, which Brecht's political creed urgently demanded but which never came "out of the twilight."
Brecht's play is unabashedly political and is much more black and white than was the Sophocles play. Antigone is unquestionably in the right; Creon is a tyrant. We admire her resistance to him, against his evil. Simple as that. But in Sophocles, the matter is much more complex: both Antigone and Creon have defensible claims. In his version, we learn before it starts that Polynices has fought against Thebes, Etoecles on behalf of Thebes. They kill each other in battle. Creon decrees that Etoecles shall be buried with honors as a hero, whereas Polynices shall not be buried at all; in fact, no one shall be allowed to bury him, for he was a traitor. Antigone buries Polynices, incurring the wrath of Creon. Antigone argues that she is following custom, favored by the gods. Creon cannot imagine that the gods would look kindly on anyone honoring a traitor to the city. As mentioned, in the beginning of the play, both Creon and Antigone hold defensible positions. When Creon argues that the welfare of the city is of paramount importance, this argument is not unreasonable. In fact, the Chorus agrees with him at first, and Knox reminds us that the audience was likely to recognize the validity of Creon's claim (even if it were uneasy about the injunction against the burial of the dead). by the end of the play, Creon has learned that much of the city did not approve of his injunction, or his banishment of Antigone. The Chorus ultimately sees the rightness of Antigone's decision (though critical of her as well). Creon realizes, too late, that he's lost everything. (This, of course, is just a sketch; there is much more to it than that. Nussbaum will argue that, while both Creon's and Antigone's positions are defensible, their positions are simplistic, and that, in part, this is what the play argues against.)

Thus Sophocles; but, we were at a production of the Brecht version, not the Sophocles. What did we think of it? We found ourselves discussing Brecht's ideas and the play's obvious political subtext (Bush, Iraq, etc.). The performances were strong, and some of the costumes were distracting (we wondered whether this was intended to be a Brechtian distancing effect, designed to draw us out of the play). Overall the play was entertaining, interesting, at times stirring, though we wondered at the purpose. Who is this play for? Why perform it now? Political art always risks being accused of “preaching to the choir”, and it was hard to miss the parallels with Bush and Iraq. Kreon was clearly a tyrant, and Antigone was an almost angelic individual voice of conscience. This lack of difficulty is a potential problem. Where is the drama, where the tension? We noted that the production was based on a translation by Judith Malina, who wrote her translation from prison in 1967, against the backdrop of the Vietnam War. (Malina was a founder of The Living Theatre, which viewed theatre as political agitprop, and was heavily influenced by Brecht.) So you have layered analogies: Bush/Iraq over the Balkan conflicts over Vietnam over Brecht's post WWII German context over Sophocles.

It's interesting that, for Brecht, the purpose of the theatre was to teach. Though it may be true that many of Brecht's ideas have been absorbed (I wouldn't know firsthand), this particular idea is unpopular today. We rail against the politicization of art, against didacticism--we don't want to be lectured when we consume our entertainment--in favor of art for art's sake. I've made such arguments myself (arguments I'm not so sure about anymore). But the interesting thing here is that the purpose of Greek tragedy appears to have been didactic as well. It was concerned with goodness--how to live the good life, how to achieve practical wisdom in the face of uncontrollable contingency. Sophocles' plays were much more nuanced than Brecht's version of Antigone appears to be, and the complex lessons involved might not have come off as a glorified lecture to his audience. In any event the audience was large and contained and would have likely had shared knowledge of the play's background and subtext. Today, there is little chance that we share any such common store of knowledge. One person's moving drama about real life is another's tedious smug lecture.

But if we remember that the Chorus in Greek tragedy in part acts as the audience's proxy, we might be better able to approach even Brecht's blatantly didactic play, performed today, with Kreon obviously meant to represent Bush (even if Kreon is necessarily more coherent and articulate than our fearless leader). For, through most of our production, the Chorus is firmly with Kreon, cocky about military victory, all but strutting about in the midst of war and ruin. By the end of the play, when it's evident that things aren't going so well after all and that the public is increasingly against Kreon, the Chorus turns on him, attacking him and his "stupid war" (this line in particular felt to me tacked on, possibly by Malina, in the context of Vietnam). But Kreon will have none of it. He is going down, but not before he reminds the Chorus that it was their war, too. This accusation rattles the Chorus a bit, and then, more or less, the play is over. Even here, it is all too easy for us to see the Chorus as the Democrats to Kreon's Bush. This is slightly better than simply a one-note dumping on Kreon/Bush would have been, but not by much. It isn't a terribly trenchant political point to make, that the Democrats were just as implicated in the invasion of Iraq as was Bush and the neo-cons. Everyone knows this now: who really needs convincing? (And if viewers would need convincing, odds are they aren't at this play--again, the perils of political art.) But, recall that the Chorus actually stands in for us. We are responsible. We wanted blood, we wanted oil, we wanted video game carnage, we wanted revenge, we refuse to recognize the implications of the invasion and the occupation. This is better. But, here, too, there is a difference. Because remember that at no time in this version of Antigone is the audience encouraged to sympathize with Kreon, so the idea that the audience, through its proxy the Chorus, might be implicated sort of falls apart. And we're left with the obvious criticism of Bush through Kreon (and possibly the Democrats through the Chorus), and a weaker--though entertaining--production.

“We are the upholders, not the violators, of international law”

The decade-long dissolution of Yugoslavia is one of the most widely misunderstood cluster of events in recent history. The cynical manipulation of local political problems by the United States under Clinton, and Western Europe, through the UN and NATO, helped set the stage for the wars under the Bush Administration. Liberals and erstwhile leftist intellectuals have a lot to answer for when it comes to misinformation about these years, as well as the general acceptance of the idea of "humanitarian interventions", which can only be seen as a grotesque comedy. I've previously recommended Diana Johnstone's excellent book Fools' Crusade: Yugoslavia, NATO, and Western Delusion. Let me now urge you to read "The Dismantling of Yugoslavia: A Study in Inhumanitarian Intervention (and a Western Liberal-Left Intellectual and Moral Collapse", at the Monthly Review, by Edward S. Herman and David Peterson. The article is very long, but I think it's absolutely crucial reading. (And, hey, it's shorter than Johnstone's book.) (The quotation in the title to this post is attributed to NATO spokesman Jamie Shea, commenting on the relationship between NATO and the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) --the former having "established" and being "'amongst the majority financiers' of the tribunal".) (Thanks to Stan Goff at Feral Scholar for the link.)

Speaking of deluded Liberals and confused Leftists, let me also point you to CounterPunch, where Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair recently posted a three-part series on Hillary Clinton (one, two, three). Sometimes Cockburn can seem contrarian just for the hell of it (cf. his views on global warming) and here he and St. Clair occasionally overstate the credibility of certain sources, but these pieces are worth reading, especially for those who still cling to the idea that Clinton would be any kind of "progressive" leader, or even better than other candidates on issues specifically affecting women, as many otherwise sane commentators still argue.

Finally, I am happy to link, as many others have, to Ronan Bennett's article in the Guardian, "Shame on Us", about Martin Amis' recent idiotic comments (but there are so many!) about Muslims and Islamism, and the shameful lack of outrage they elicited. And I note, as does Steve Mitchelmore, that Ellis Sharp takes issue with Bennett's contrasting praise of Ian McEwan in the same piece.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Josipovici elsewhere

Since I've been focusing so much on Gabriel Josipovici around here (click below on the Josipovici label for the whole lot), I'd be remiss if I didn't point you to the recent flurry of web activity about him and his work:

Tales from the Reading Room on Everything Passes.

Imani at The Books of My Numberless Dreams has three recent posts (one, two, three) on re-reading Goldberg: Variations. (Again, here are my review and follow-up.)

At ReadySteadyBook, Ismo Santala discusses Josipovici's novel, The Air We Breathe (published in 1981). Just a couple of months ago, also at ReadySteadyBook, Santala had reviewed Josipovici's early novel, The Inventory (published in 1968). These are tantalizing glimpses into novels that are out of print and thus very difficult to find (especially here in the States). It seems to me that Josipovici's fiction is a reissue program waiting to happen.

Finally, and arguably gratuitously, I note that Patrick Kurp asked in passing last week whether Josipovici had "ever liked anything worth reading?" I guess it depends on whether one thinks the Bible, or Dante or Shakespeare or Kierkegaard or Kafka or Proust or Beckett are worth reading, to name only those writers about whom Josipovici's written with love and insight in The Book of God or On Trust, which is to say nothing of Joyce or Nabokov or Bellow or Thomas Bernhard or Muriel Spark or Peter Handke or numerous others. Kurp's post begins like this: "Guilt by association is not always unfair. When certain readers and critics trumpet a book, it amounts to the opposite of an imprimatur: You can assume it is error-ridden and a waste of your precious time." True enough as a general principle, I suppose, but in this case comically misapplied. If anything, the exact opposite is the case with Josipovici. When he shines his loving, critical eye on a writer I'd previously not considered, I then go out of my way to read that writer.