Foxtrot and Contingency

Let me be perfectly clear. Samuel Maoz’ film Foxtrot, that won eight Ophirs in Israel, the Silver Lion Grand Jury Prize in Venice and was a runner-up to the shortlisted nominations for the Academy Award for the best foreign film, is superb. I, however, do not recommend that you see it. The film is just too heart wrenching, just too painful to watch. When physical self-harm is used to inflict pain on oneself in order to distract from the far more ominous and inescapable emotional pain, then you get some idea of the depth and breadth of the pain aimed at the audience. We cannot feel the self-inflicted physical pain. Extraordinarily, that is a relief. For we cannot escape feeling the emotional pain.

And there were so many times I wanted to escape, to just get up and leave the theatre. Admittedly, the pain for me might have been doubled because I watched the film yesterday with my youngest son and the film is about the loss of a son. Admittedly, that pain might have been doubled again because of a trauma of death that my son went through that was not that dissimilar to the one in the movie. Nevertheless, when I awoke this morning after going to bed early because I had been so emotionally rung out, I still felt like a dishrag that had been wrung dry. I slept seven hours in total instead of my usual 4-5 hours.

I will tell you the opening of the first 60 seconds of the film, but no more. After a seemingly unrelated frame of a truck driving down a lonely and dusty road, an Israeli soldier appears at the door of an upper middle-class family in Tel Aviv. Daphna Feldmann (Sarah Adler), the mother of a 19-year-old Israeli soldier, Jonathan (Yonaton Shiray), faints. Michael (Lior Ashkenazi) is stunned into silence. This is all in the first minute. Little is said. Little needs to be said. And the emotional impact simply grows from there. Reflecting and thinking about the film, rather than reliving it, is itself an escape.

What started as a dance to the syncopated ragtime music of composers and performers like Scott Joplin, the foxtrot was translated by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers into a dance with elegance and fluidity in a 4/4 time signature rhythm. The foxtrot dance alternates between two rhythms – slow-slow-quick-quick and slow-quick-quick. The quick-quicks are reduced to punctuation marks in the movie.

Instead of a free-flowing rhythm, the foxtrot in the film is reduced to a stilted and rigid exercise of squares in which the dancer returns to the original point. According to Maoz, “We thus enter the Foxtrot dance of traumatic circle: no matter what you do, you always end up where you began.” However, instead of going around in circles, the movie actually travels in rigid and repetitive squares. And when illustrated in the film, instead of a close dance, the individual performer moves in isolation. Right, back, left, return. Yamina, sig, smola, shub. The movie moves in a straight line, yashar, yashar, only between the corner points of the square, each time after a radical ninety degree turn.

The term “foxtrot,” reduced to very selective essentials, is ironic. There is never a trot. And the movement is so sluggish as to be paralyzing. As we watch each parent separately from a bird’s eye view in the claustrophobic intimacy of a washroom in the beginning act, we suffer from vertigo, but not from movement, but from lives that literally have come to a dead stop even as their bodies painfully curl up in foetal positions.

The film has four acts, though the director insists that there are three. “The three-act structure enabled me to offer an emotional journey for my viewers: the first act should shock them, the second should hypnotize, and the third should be moving. Each sequence reflects, by using various cinematic tools, the character that stands in its center. The first act, featuring Michael, is sharp and concise—just like him. It consists of detached compositions. The third act is loose and warm, just like Dafna. It floats a few inches above the ground. The second act takes place in a surrealist outpost, occupied by four soldiers and an occasional wandering camel…This act is uniquely non-verbal (in) its wry sense of humor and surrealism.”

It is not as if there is no relief from the emotional pain of Act One. There is. The relief even includes some gentle humour in the second act as Maoz describes it. But the main relief in the film in that second act is boredom, the alternative enemy of human happiness to pain. We choose to be bored, even in the most boring context, precisely because we blame the boredom on externalities. We do not choose emotional pain. Further, boredom is painful in a very different way than emotional pain. For boredom messes with our heads, not our hearts. Boredom results from being disengaged from another (in a Freudian slip, I first typed “from amother”); emotional pain is a product of intimate engagement. We become bored when we are cut off from both internal and external stimuli. We experience the greatest emotional pain when internal and external stimuli combine to whack us in the solar plexus. With emotional pain, there is no one to blame. When people are bored, they always blame their surroundings rather than taking responsibility for their own circular obsession with being bored.

For the German 19th century philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, “the two enemies of human happiness are pain and boredom.” Life is an oscillation between pain and boredom, between torment and repetitive actions without meaning, such as Sisyphus rolling the rock up the hill daily only to see it roll down again just before he reaches the summit. Which is the worst hell? In Schopenhauer’s pessimism, to the degree we escape one, to that degree we are thrust into the arms of another.

However, Schopenhauer inverted the experience of each. Boredom is largely a product of external and objective conditions, but that eminent philosopher believed that boredom comes from the inside. Emotional pain is a product of the internal and subjective, but Schopenhauer attended only to physical pain and attributed it to be a product of poverty and the absence of external conditions that would have allowed us to thrive and prosper instead of feeling pain. The movie tells an opposite story to that of Schopenhauer, of inner emotional pain and external boredom.

But the main philosophical concept underlying the powerful impact of the film is contingency. Contingency has two very opposite meanings. It refers to what may happen. The movie is an exercise in imaginative possibility rather than a depiction of reality. The controversial scene which aroused the ire of Israeli politicians is not a depiction of how the IDF behaves, even though this is what some viewers and commentators thought, but an extension of circumstances to make what is possible plausible. As Maoz said in an interview, “This is not a film about the occupation or the Palestinians. It is a film about Israeli society. Second, a work of art should not aspire to imitate and recreate reality; it should interpret, illuminate, or unravel its hidden aspects. And this is exactly what Foxtrot is trying to achieve.”

The second very different meaning of contingency refers to something liable to happen rather than simply a mere logical possibility. If we take the film to be about contingency as a likely existential liability rather than a remote logical possibility, then from my knowledge of the ethics governing the Israeli army, what is depicted may be a logical possibility, but is also a calumny in portraying the IDF. As Maoz himself said, “I was doing something that seemed right and logical. I wanted to deal with the gap between the things we control and those that are beyond them.” He was not depicting an existential reality.

The second act is a stylized surreal portrayal, a depiction that attracted the wrath of some leftist Israeli politicians for that stylistic quality and the wrath of right wingers because of the content. In spite of the detailed and heightened reality of the first and third acts, the power of the film comes, not from its existential portrayal of reality in the first and third acts, but from the logical sense of inevitability.

For Immanuel Kant, teleology, the end purpose and meaning of everything, is regulative; it is not a depiction of actuality. It serves as a guide, not as a depiction. Hegel argued that teleology served as such a guide only because of an instinct built into reason itself to bring everything together into an actual whole that appeared to constitute reality. That propensity would end up leading people to believe that they understood the absolute truth of the present when a belief in the absolute was precisely what had to be disaggregated in each age. The great philosophic irony is that most commentators took Hegel to be an advocate for the absolute and not someone who described its all-embracing and claustrophobic but inevitable propensity to characterize life that way.

Is the film about self-knowledge, the whole humanistic effort since the Enlightenment and even the Socratic foundations of philosophy? Or is the film a critique of the militarism that infects Israeli society? Is it a fearless autopsy on human emotions in general and Israelis in particular much more than a social critique? Certainly, Maoz’s first film, Lebanon, belonged to the latter category. “Lebanon, was based on my experience as a 20-year-old gunner in one of the first Israeli tanks to enter Lebanon in the 1982 Lebanon War. That film helped me to try and understand what it means to kill other human beings, as I did during my military service at the IDF. I had no other choice, and yet the notion of taking lives is an excruciating burden I am forced to live with. Foxtrot was born from a different place. After Lebanon was released in 2009, I was overwhelmed by the stories other Israelis with PTSD have told me. I realized I was not alone. There are endless variations of my story and the kind of pain and guilt it germinates.”

Maoz actually offers the same answer in the film. The son of the parents, Jonathan, is a sketch artist. The last drawing he made hangs on their wall. Each parent offers an opposite Freudian interpretation of the drawing. Neither takes it to be about reality. Is the irony that they presume a deep psychological meaning – however opposite for each – when there is none, or is the irony that most members of the audience will believe the parents missed the point – that this was an actual portrayal of a horrific reality?  The audience is then invited to laugh at the parents rather than examine why they do this instead and what such an interpretation says about themselves. Why do commentators and members of the audience tend to interpret the sketch to be about the son’s effort to externalize his trauma rather than a surrealist element in the movie intended to provoke self-examination? Is the weakness of the film, and its limited box office appeal, a result of this ambiguity, when there is one intended outcome but the opposite actual one?

I do not take the film to be primarily a critique of the IDF and the extent to which it does or even could engage in literal corrupt cover-ups that infects and makes complicit the lives of individual soldiers in the IDF. I do not interpret the film, as the Israeli Minister of Culture, Miri Regev, did, as offering a “searing, for her, unjustified, critique of Israeli militarized culture.” As Maoz declared, “If you choose to see this narrow picture (that of Regev), it will be your choice. But I will do anything to force you to see the bigger picture.” Does the film attempt to provide an understanding of military reality or is it primarily an exposure of inner psychological reality? The overwhelming focus of the film on the parents and their internal emotional pain suggests that the latter is the case, that the film is primarily about self-understanding and is not a critique of society, however depressing the external narrative concerning the perpetual nature of the external conflict.

Maoz said, “I needed to find a dance that you can do in many versions, but you will always end at the same starting point. This is the dance of our society. The leadership has to save us from the loop of the foxtrot dance, but they’re doing the opposite.” However, he also said that, given the Holocaust, “we couldn’t complain, we had to repress, and we became a second generation of traumatized victims.” Sometimes he seems to describe the film as a social critique, at other times as a socio-psychological inquiry into the Israeli and human soul. Is the terrible scene in the film’s second act and depicted in the drawing an ewar, death,ffort to describe political reality or is it a metaphor, as Maoz said, “a microcosm of our apathetic and anxious society”? “For me (Maoz), this was the climax of an unhealthy situation that gets more and more crooked. We prefer to bury the victims rather than asking ourselves penetrating questions.”

 

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