Sacrifice

Yom HaZikaron begins at sundown. This evening and tomorrow some of us memorialize those fallen in war and as victims of terror in Israel. Note two points. First, it is not a holiday about Jews who have died, but about any soldiers who have died on behalf of Israel. Though the vast majority have been Jewish, some of those who sacrificed their lives for the country were not. Second, the day is also defined as a memorial for the victims of terror as well, and these were mostly civilians. Though most of the publicity refers to fallen soldiers, the full and proper name of the memorial day is: Yom Hazikaron l’Chalalei Ma’arachot Yisrael ul’Nifge’ei Pe’ulot Ha’eivah (יוֹם הזִּכָּרוֹן לַחֲלָלֵי מַעֲרָכוֹת יִשְׂרָאֵל וּלְנִפְגְעֵי פְּעוּלוֹת הָאֵיבָה) “Memorial Day for the Fallen Soldiers of Israel and Victims of Terrorism.” Originally, the day commemorated and was a “General Memorial Day for the Heroes of the War of Independence.”

23,645 deaths of soldiers were commemorated, up 101 from the year before, and the deaths of 3,134 terror victims were also commemorated. The solemnity of the day is hard to convey to those outside Israel. The one minute of silence this evening and two minutes at 11:00 a.m. tomorrow morning are but a small part of the ceremonies. Normal broadcasting stops. Traffic totally stops when the siren for silence sounds. Throughout the land, there are memorial services, intimate family ones, communal ones, mostly in synagogues, and large civic and military ones.  The day commemorates the sacrifices made to establish and maintain an independent state of Israel. You cannot have the latter without the willingness to give one’s life as a sacrifice.

For example, the American Declaration of Independence (tomorrow, I will compare the Israeli and American declarations) ends with these words: “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honour.” In many nations, independence is only achieved because of the willingness to sacrifice. However, in Israel, sacrifices of one’s possessions – animals and grains in an agricultural society (korban  קָרְבָּן) – are radically distinguished from self-sacrifice. The former is intended to bring man closer to God; korban means ‘be near’. The latter are in service of bringing humans closer to one another in forging the spirit of a nation. The former takes place to compensate for sins; after the destruction of the temple the second time, worship, prayer and philosophic reflection replaced such sacrificial acts. The latter take place even though sins may be entailed.

 As Golda Meir once said, “We can forgive the Arabs for killing our children. We cannot forgive them for forcing us to kill their children. We will only have peace with the Arabs when they love their children more than they hate us.” To take the life of another is a sin, whether in self-defence or in murder. That is inscribed in the flesh of every male Jewish child. Nahmanides taught, and it is widely believed among Jews, that the near sacrifice of Isaac memorialized replacing all human sacrifices with animal sacrifices. I believe that the near sacrifice of Isaac is memorialized in the token cutting away of the prepuce of the male penis to signify that for some causes, such as that of a nation, fathers are willing to sacrifice their children. The circumcision inscribes into the body that fathers, to some degree, cannot be trusted for they are willing to sacrifice their children in war to achieve a greater horizontal nearness among men.

As I indicated in a blog several days ago, some evangelical Christians believe that they sacrifice themselves in service to a pagan Trump because Trump will serve God’s purpose in bringing about a believed restoration of the Christian (white) nation. Trump is turned into a mere instrument for a higher purpose and for the past. However, sacrificing oneself for one’s nation is not a higher purpose, but a future purpose. It has a time dimension. It says that the sacrifice is necessary for the future of one’s nation and for your children’s children.

What about when God sacrifices humans? In last week’s portion, He did precisely that. And before an altar. After a very long description of the various modes of sacrifice, their purposes and rituals and the very lofty ceremonies installing Aaron as the High priest and his two sons as priests, God incinerates those same two sons.

א  וַיִּקְחוּ

 

 

בְנֵי-אַהֲרֹן נָדָב וַאֲבִיהוּא אִישׁ מַחְתָּתוֹ, וַיִּתְּנוּ בָהֵן אֵשׁ, וַיָּשִׂימוּ עָלֶיהָ, קְטֹרֶת; וַיַּקְרִיבוּ לִפְנֵי יְהוָה, אֵשׁ זָרָה–אֲשֶׁר לֹא צִוָּה, אֹתָם.

1 And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his censer, and put fire therein, and laid incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them.
ב  וַתֵּצֵא אֵשׁ מִלִּפְנֵי יְהוָה, וַתֹּאכַל אוֹתָם; וַיָּמֻתוּ, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה. 2 And there came forth fire from before the LORD, and devoured them, and they died before the LORD.

 

The only clue that God had a rationale is the reference to a strange or alien fire that Nadab and Abihu used in the sacrifice. Were they killed because they were innovators and did not adhere absolutely strictly to the regulations set down by God? That is the main interpretation of Moses’ rationale in verse 3. “Then Moses said unto Aaron: ‘This is it that the LORD spoke, saying: Through them that are nigh unto Me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’ And Aaron held his peace.” This and a myriad of other rationales were offered over the years by commentators – the two brothers had come to their jobs tipsy; their garments were not in immaculate order. Many others using more twisted but somewhat ingenious hermeneutics.

But the verse can be read in a very opposite way – the two sons were not unintended contrarians too distant from God’s precise commands, but, rather, the sacrifice of the two boys by God’s fire was intended to bring humans even closer to God. Just as later it would be said that it is through the sacrifice of Jesus that humans can become one with God, so his portion of Leviticus it is through the incineration of the priests one time, and one time only, that man can be brought nearer to God. That is why Aaron was silent and neither protested nor lamented the loss of his two boys.  That is why the whole nation was commanded, not to bewail the loss, but to “bewail the burning which the Lord hath kindled.”

God planted fire in the human body in the image of the Lord. It is a passion which can lead humans to create. Or it can turn into an alien flame that will end up incinerating oneself.

Over the last two days I saw two more films. In Phantom Thread, a movie directed by Paul Thompson Anderson, Daniel Day-Lewis brilliantly plays a very creepy couturier (Reynolds Woodcock – the name is meaningful) who is an obsessive compulsive mother’s boy who uses women as doormats and designs dresses that, with rare exceptions, are terribly ugly, but are viewed as the epitome of high style taken to be expressions of beauty and the pleasures such beauty brings. What they really illustrate is that fashion taken as art is really a fad of a specific time and place, a trick performed by an artisan to take women in, just as Woodcock does on the interpersonal level. Woodcock takes movement and form and encases it in so much material and so many restrictions that the dress turns into a method of reifying a woman. That is the real secret of the messages he sews into the linings of the dresses he makes.

Another movie I saw last evening contrasted this pretense of exquisite sensibility to overcome the grubbiness of materialism and possessive individualism with a different approach. For it was a bi-op of J. Paul Getty rooted in the drama of his grandson’s 1973 kidnapping by Italians for a ransom.  In Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World, Christopher Plumber – who replaced Kevin Spacey in the first effort – in his own way is as brilliant as Daniel Day-Lewis, but he plays a more one-dimensional figure, a scrooge who will not even pay a ransom for his grandson, John Paul Getty III (Paul played by Timothy Hutton). Far less creepy than Woodcock, but perhaps even more repulsive, Getty worships reified art and artifacts and despises people. Getty is as fine a dresser as Woodcock, but he uses his grubby possessive materialism to acquire exquisite works of art for their “eternal” beauty. If Woodcock longs for the warmth of his mother’s arms, Getty simply wants to stick it to his dad who never thought he would amount to anything.

The foil for both men are two very independent women, Alma (Vicki Krieps) who is a waitress raised up, in spite of small breasts, wide hips and broad shoulders, to become the muse and model of Woodcock, but who turns out to be an independent force in her own right unwilling to take Woodcock’s efforts to diminish and demolish her while Woodcock only offer sideways glances of recognition and flattery. Gail (Michelle Williams), Getty’s daughter-in-law, married to his dope addict son, is devoted to her children. She is a very different mother than the one presumably Woodcock had, for she is nurturing, caring and self-sacrificing, but not suffocating, even though she personally has almost nothing material to give.

Phantom Thread is a baroque gothic “romance.” All the Money in the World is an action film portraying a real rather than fictional character and an archetypal real-life former C.I.A., Fletcher Chace spy played by Mark Wahlberg .  But the two movies are both about men interested only in sacrificing others, especially women, for themselves, rather than sacrificing themselves for others. Getty is an avatar of possession while Woodcock is an avatar of obsession, the first to use infinite wealth to purchase great art, the second to use his relatively modest wealth to turn a dress into a work of art and his interpretation of aesthetic perfection that is as weird as he is.

The creepiness of both major male figures in the two movies and their foils can be summed up from the women’s point of view by a poem of Mary Carolyn Davies that I used in a play I wrote almost sixty years ago:

Women are door-mats and have been

The years those mats applaud

They keep their men from going in

With muddy feet to God.

There is an ironic note. The one item of obvious fiction in the Getty film is about fire. Gail’s son and Getty’s grandson, Paul, was supposedly an arsonist who got kicked out of school for burning it down and then uses fire to escape his captors near the end of the film. Both initiatives and actions seemed totally out of character because Paul seemed incapable of the initiative to counter God’s fire with his own independent and alien fire. Instead he burned up the rest of his life with heroin smoke until he became a paraplegic. A little historical research goes a long way in helping with interpretation.

Self-sacrifice is to be revered when it serves to knit humans together but when it is used to run away from oneself, the path of destruction follows. It may, however, and often does mean running into the line of fire. And when that happens, we do well to commemorate the sacrifices.

The Dance Macabre

I received three communications directly or indirectly concerning Israel’s Yom HaZikaron or Memorial Day. The only direct one follows and is self-explanatory:

ONE

Greetings from Jerusalem. We are here witnessing what Yom HaZikaron really means to Israelis. Spending yesterday at Mount Herzl and being there with so many young Israelis paying a tribute to those who have died on behalf of Israel, has been a very emotional experience for both of us, myself and my wife. It shall and must be shared with our young diaspora generation in Canada and the States. Seeing, feeling the pain of parents, family members and an entire nation can be only understood when you hold the moment close to your heart as your hand is reaching to touch and feel and to understand.

I am very much honoured to be part of this Israeli’s Memorial Day and experience the indescribable true spirit of the nation.

TWO

The second communication was oral. Like the third, it was a response to the film Foxtrot. This reader of my blog went to see the film even though I had indicated that I was not recommending readers see the movie. She did see it and walked out two-thirds through. But the reason was very different than the source of my advice. I did not want to recommend that the movie be seen because I found the emotional tearing to be just so great in the depiction of how parents feel about the loss of their son in the IDF. This took place in the first and third acts. My reader responded to the second act. (SPOILER ALERT!)

In that act, four Palestinians in a car are inadvertently killed by gunfire from Israeli soldiers. Under their commander’s orders, an excavation machine is brought to this remote and desolate army checkpoint, a large whole is dug and the whole car with the four dead young people inside is buried and the earth scraped back over the hole.

My reader left because what she saw on the screen was a calumny aimed at the Israeli army. She knew the Israeli army would never do anything like that. She thought that this act of the movie would only serve anti-Israel propaganda.

I agreed with her than many if not most viewers would interpret Act II literally instead of as a hyperbolic metaphor for Israel engaging in a cover-up concerning the effects of the occupation on the soul of Israel. Nevertheless, I defended the right of an artist to engage in poetic licence in such surrealist writing and dramatization. My reader remained unconvinced.

THREE

A third reader saw the film, read my review and wrote his own brilliant analysis of the symbolic meaning of the film. He, too, was jarred by the second act, but for very different reasons than myself or my other reader. As he writes, “Act two is a variation on the theme of the fog and chaos of war that does not work for me.” (AGAIN, FULL SPOILER ALERT!) With minor edits, that feedback follows:

At the end of your review of the film, Foxtrot, you invited comments. Here are a few thoughts.

We are glad we went to see the film. We are also glad that none of our friends joined us. It is a difficult film to watch, particularly as a parent, as you indicated.

In your review, you emphasized the metaphor of the foxtrot dance. I am not a dancer and had to look up foxtrot on wiki. A foxtrot was a dance which minimized the chance of inadvertent physical contact. The foxtrot was respectable in earlier days. As such, the foxtrot was the anti-tango.

Who was dancing the foxtrot in the film? I would suggest that, in the first act where the parents receive the news of the fate of their son, the dance is between the young soldier’s family and the bureaucratic apparatus of the state. The agents of the state are trying to be empathetic in the synthetic manner of civil servants who are just doing their job. If they do not know the answer to a question, they say it is not in their job description to know. Beware of clergy and, in particular, chaplains who are working from a manual of administration and related policy directives. In this dance, the civil servants do not do a good job of respecting physical boundaries.

As I recall, they inject a drug into the mother who had fainted without first asking consent of the husband or advising him of the action they are taking. They push the father to drink water and fiddle with his cell phone, without permission, to prompt him to hydrate himself every hour. Has he been medicated too? Water appears to be another important recurring metaphor in the film. In the first act, it is restorative and helps one regain equilibrium.

In the second act, the soldiers know the word foxtrot from the international phonetic alphabet for radio communications: alpha, bravo, charlie, delta, echo, foxtrot, etc. One of them casually mentions that foxtrot is also a dance. There is a scene where a soldier does a little dance on the roadway. I would suggest, however, that the real dance in the second act is between the soldiers manning the checkpoint and the travellers on the road. Each group is careful not to touch the other. That dance changes when a beer can rolls onto the dance floor.

There is a lot of water imagery in the second act. Although the soldiers are in the desert, water appears to be a threat to them or at least a significant nuisance. They slog through pooled water by their makeshift encampment; the metal box in which they live is slowly sinking into the waterlogged ground. They do not appear to be stationed in a life-giving oasis. Water adversely affects their work. There is a storm one night when they check the documents of the couple whom they compel to wait outside their vehicle in the downpour. The abundance of unwanted water makes the desert setting surreal. (my italics)

The camel, itself a water symbol, ambles through the checkpoint from time to time and reinforces the impression that the desert is an unreal place. It is ridiculous to see the barricade be raised and lowered each time to let it pass. Of all the travellers through the checkpoint, the camel also turns out to be the dance partner who was, literally, the only real threat on the road. The other dance partners are pretty well indistinguishable from the soldiers. The various occupants in the vehicles they stop do not dress in ethnically different or identifiable ways. One merchant appears to be carrying a load of garish toys. A robotic toy soldier is left behind to goose step on the highway until it falls over by itself still kicking. Every detail in the second act reinforces the feeling that the desert checkpoint is surreal. (my italics)

In the third act, I would suggest that the dance is between the father and mother of the soldier. At the outset of the act, they are beyond the touching stage. They are not living together. They are still parents, together. They reminisce. The father mentions a couple of times that he was the happiest when they were living by the sea in earlier times. In the third act, water is again a positive, life-affirming image. Although grounded in bitter reality, they are unable to agree on the ultimate meaning of their son’s last sketch from the desert. They are entering a softer reality of individual projected thoughts helped along by a bottle of wine and their son’s stash. Still, the parents’ dance is the only one of the three that conveys hope. The last dance represents more than just the movements of people who are playing out their roles – and represents more than a formal social dance between hostile strangers.

So, should one applaud after the music finally stops?

Act one suggests that when the dance is real, things get surreal. The very real news of the death of the son is followed by a banal, but also surreal, bureaucratic process. Ultimately, the news becomes unreal too. I would have clapped my hands after the first dance.

Act two suggests that when the dance is surreal, very real things can happen. The need for a barricade and dance of inspection in the middle of a wet spot in the desert appears bizarre. The reality is, however, that death wants to cut in and dance too. Act two is a variation on the theme of the fog and chaos of war that does not work for me. I would have refrained from clapping after the second dance.

Act three suggests that one can dance by the sea at sunset with the one who used to love you. I would not clap after this dance either unless it was in a Hollywood musical.

Regardless, in my opinion, Foxtrot does work as a sum of its parts. As I mentioned at the outset, I am glad that we went out in the ice storm to see the movie. lt is just difficult to know to whom to recommend this film.

A FOURTH ACT OR AFTERWORD

First, as a foreword, I offer a brief, and possibly controversial, potted history of indulgences that at first may appear totally unrelated and even far-fetched. The institution developed over two successive and distinct phases, with a number of mutations within each phase during the Middle Ages. The practice continues into the present. For example, almost ten years ago, the Apostolic Penitentiary issued a decree granting indulgences to those who undertook a pilgrimage during the Pauline Year to the Basilica of Saint John outside the Roman walls.

Indulgences were instituted to relieve parishioners of penances. The first phase of their development began with the Crusades and the wars between Christendom and the advancing militant Muslim faith. The Muslims had a clear psychological advantage in their war with the Christians. If one of their warriors died in battle for their faith, they were considered martyrs and guaranteed a place in heaven. In contrast, Christian soldiers who died in battle without confessing and receiving the final rites, not only lacked such a guarantee, they went to purgatory. You can readily see why this posed a morale problem for the Christian armed forces.

The Pope issued a decree which said that any soldier who died in battle for the Christian cause had acted as if he had confessed his sins and would be automatically forgiven without any formal proceeding. The initiative, though welcomed by soldiers, was also greeted by widespread criticism. What about the wounded? What about those permanently handicapped? What about those who lost legs or arms or their very wits? Why should they not be blessed with an indulgence? In response to the criticism, the application was broadened. During the First Crusade in 1099, Pope Urban II expanded the scope even further and remitted all ecclesiastical penance for any armed pilgrim setting off for the Holy Land.

Many civilians who went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land were also martyred by “terrorists.” The application was broadened again. Many Christians lacked the strength or the ability to fight. They were handicapped in some way. For many Christians, the hardships of life, the risks to the flesh and the punishment for sins, were far more onerous than anything that happened to a Christian going to war. The application of the first type of indulgence was changed again. First extended to civilians martyred on the crusades, it was extended to those who were, for some reason, unable to volunteer in the Christian struggle against Islam and paid for a proxy to go to war on his behalf. Thus, did the Indulgence of the Cross mutate into a form that not only raised morale in the religious wars, but raised a good part of the money needed to fight those battles.

The Crusades ended. But the taxation system in the church had come to rely heavily on indulgences as a source of funds. Further, the Church had changed its focus and shifted its energies to building the enormous ornate cathedrals of the Middle Ages. The development of the Indulgence was now detached from the Crusades. You could earn an indulgence by making a pilgrimage to Rome every hundred years; the Jubilee Indulgence.

The Church, however, ran through the money raised for the centenary in only 23 years. The application was changed again. The Church instituted a pilgrimage every 25 years instead of every 100. This Jubilee Indulgence was once again modified to allow it to be a reward for pilgrimages to a myriad of sacred sites and institutions. Soon, one could buy oneself out of or limit the effects of punishment in purgatory for indulgences could be earned in return for purchase of a “sacred” trinket or even for a donation to a “good cause.” As Martin Luther charged, the Church had become corrupt to its core in the process of raising funds to erect its great edifices.

Initially, the 95 theses that Martin Luther had nailed on the church door in Wittenberg was simply an academic disputation. Such was the case when Martin Luther first traveled outside Wittenberg to Heidelberg on 25 April 1518 to defend his theses before the German General Chapter of the Augustine monks. There was no scandal. There were no protests. It was simply another theological academic debate. However, half way between the six months between the event in Heidelberg and those in Augsburg, a momentous event took place that had nothing to do with intellectual debate and everything to do with political hysteria.

But first Augsburg. Last year, Augsburg, Germany, marked its 500th anniversary. Far from being a remote outpost in the desert, Augsburg was central to the Reformation. Many historians argue that the long religious war in Europe between Catholic and Protestant began in Augsburg rather than Wittenberg. In contrast to the proceedings in Heidelberg, Martin Luther was summoned to the free imperial city of Augsburg by the Cardinal and papal legate, Cajetan, to face charges of heresy. In the papal trial for heresy between 7-20 October 1518, Luther refused to deny his Theses as demanded by Cajetan. Luther instead challenged the morality of indulgences and questioned the Pope’s authority.

This moment is very famous in history. Between Heidelberg and Augsburg, a far less well-known event took place in July 1518 in the free city of Strasbourg where grain and grapes met in an economic marriage. The event was the Dancing Epidemic. In that communal psychosis, 400 people in the end participated in day and night dancing so that many, exhausted and dehydrated, died from the strenuous exercise. This was not, as widely conveyed at the time, a punishment from God, but was the culmination of built-in resentments developed over years at the penury of the peasantry and the gerrymandering and restrictions of electors in a period of weather turmoil. Freezing rains in April followed by a scorching summer of drought alternating with torrential rains ruined crops and possibly resulted in new fungal diseases, associated with LSD, that infected the local crops. (CF. Carlos Bracero, “The 1518 Plague of Strasbourg: A Dancing Fever,” 2013) Ergot poisoning from moldy rye seeds was a possible initiating event. Alternatively, encephalopathy associated with streptococcal infection- Sydenham’s chorea – was another possible health issue among young people that could have set off the craze.

While canons, monks and nuns lived in luxury and paid neither taxes nor with their lives to defend the city – very similar to the position of the plutocrats of today – Martin Luther’s 95 theses had set the downtrodden masses on fire to express their outrage at the Church in wild and frenzied physical displays. This hysterical mania followed from earlier greater restrictions on and repressions of the working class and, when some planned a revolt, the participants were beheaded and hung for high treason. The madness of the masses now threatened to disrupt the whole social order and the political leadership responded with new forms of indulgences – opening community centres and outdoor sites to hopefully contain the frenzy.

No more polite and controlled dancing, but a wild frenzy would adumbrate the widespread revolt against the Church set off by the events at Augsburg. In the wild dance of the soldier on that barren outpost in the desert in Foxtrot, is Samuel Maoz being prescient about the outcome of the mad and seemingly unprecedented times through which we are passing? Does the metaphor of the dance have even more political and social significance than my reader brilliantly pointed out in the film?

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

Isle of Dogs and Dogs of War (Layla M)

 

Almost two years ago, fake news reported that leaflets had been distributed by Muslim fundamentalists in Manchester, Britain, calling for a public ban on dogs to keep the area pure for Muslims. I am technically unable to reproduce the poster in this version of the blog, but after a sign showing a dog crossed out in a circle, and presumably the same reference in Arabic, the poster reads:

FOR PUBLIC PURITY

This area is home to a large Muslim community. Please have respect for us and for our children and limit the presence of dogs in the public sphere.

About Us

Keeping the purity of the public space enables the (sic!) Muslims remain untainted and without blemish.

As part of this effort, we have chosen to address one of the aspects that can have a detrimental effect on the purity of public space, with the aspect being the presence of dogs who are considered impure in Islam.

PublicPurity                                          4PublicPurity

This might have been the impetus for Wes Anderson to write Isle of Dogs since he devised the script for the movie before the 2016 U.S. election, the rise of anti-immigration populism and Christian nationalism as well as the election of Spanky as a proto-fascist president. Or perhaps Wes Anderson was simply prescient in tackling themes like refugees, xenophobia and intolerance.

The dogs, whose barks are dubbed into English while the Japanese characters speech is incomprehensible to better capture the emotional punch, are sent into exile to Trash Island and eventually an intended genocide. The heroes include a Japanese 11-year-old “little pilot,” Atari (Koyu Rankin) and representatives of four different dog species (Rex – Edward Norton, Boss – Bill Murray, King – Bob Balaban, and Duke – Jeff Goldblum) and one outlier to the outliers, a stray named Chief (Bryan Cranston). There is also a love story (Scarlett Johansson is the voice of Nutmeg). In this superb parable of our time, instead of hatred even for the Machiavellian dictator who hates dogs, we are taught trust, love, empathy and the benefits of democratic procedures.

The core of the story is a corrupt politician who spreads false news, assassinates scientists, spreads fear and persecutes minorities. The taiko drums are merely the introduction and finale to a brilliant score that provides the propulsion more than the simplistic plot of this stop-motion phenomenal innovative animation film rooted deeply in contemporary Japanese pop culture and iconography. Archetypal comic fight scenes of swirling clouds with only “Xs” and exclamation marks emerging from the mist and imported Lauren Bacall – Humphrey Bogart dialogue bring into the movie Hollywood nostalgia.

The second of the excellent films that I saw yesterday, the just released Dutch film Layla M on Netflix, is rooted in realism rather than fantasy. Like possibly Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs, this movie was, I believe, based on a series of 2014 news reports in the Dutch press of European and Muslim teens recruited and radicalized by ISIS who were lured to become jihadi brides. The marriages very often failed as the husbands turned out to be domineering, patriarchal wife beaters. Yusra Hussein was a 15-year-old Somali girl in such a situation. In the film, Layla is a 17 or 18-year-old Dutch-born very intelligent and spirited girl from a Moroccan immigrant family who turns to religion and is gradually radicalized. Unlike the typical explanations for the susceptibility of teenage girls to such lures, Layla is not motivated by a search for excitement or adventure or to give meaning to her life, but as a reaction against Dutch stereotyping and a sincere search for meaning from her religion.

In Act 3, Scene 1 of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Mark Antony shouts, “Cry ‘Havoc,’ and let slip the dogs of war.” This is what the corrupt mayor does in Isle of Dogs; he exhorts the Japanese citizens of his city to reject and throw out of the city the dogs. Mark Antony wanted to use Julius Caesar’s assassination to urge revenge. In the havoc stirred up, the mayor and his criminal cohorts can seize the wealth of the nation. The dogs, though pets, but originally trained for war, are to be released from their leashes and their master’s love and control to create mayhem. Only in confining them to an island, they organize themselves, revolt and come back to conquer the hatred and fear stirred up. In Layla M, in spite of the irony that religious Muslims regard dogs as unclean, it is radical Islam that cries havoc and releases its young men to become dogs of war totally subservient to the dogmas of their new masters.

If Anderson’s film is full of slapstick, Mijke de Jong’s Dutch film is chock full of deadly slaps. If Anderson manages to craft an allegory about genocide by the use of huge mounds of garbage that have a strange ethereal beauty, de Jong’s relatively squalid Dutch suburbs offer only a hint of all the hidden ugliness. If Anderson’s film is surreal, de Jong’s is real. If Anderson employs humour and levity, the rare moments of levity in de Jong’s film quickly sink into the bog of radicalism.

I did not intentionally watch the two films back-to-back, but they told the same story from opposite perspectives and using opposite techniques. Layla M is a very good film, good in its ethos and good in its execution. Anderson’s film, however, belongs to a very different order of brilliance.

The overcoat: a musical tailoring – a review

Just over 57 years ago on a cold winter evening in 1961, I sat with Herb Whittaker, the theatre critic for the Globe and Mail, in a basement theatre on 47 Fraser Avenue created and developed by George Luscombe’s new theatre company, Workshop Productions. Herb Whitaker was a genteel, positive reviewer, an enthusiastic supporter of theatre even as he appeared so conventional. I even wondered as I watched the overcoat: a musical tailoring last evening whether the main character, Akakiv, performed by Geoffrey Sirett, had been modelled on Herb since Herb’s first job had been an office clerk with the Canadian Pacific Railway in Montreal’s Windsor Station. Herb’s review of Hey Rube which we saw that evening over half a century ago, in contrast to my own unboundaried enthusiasm, was gentle and uplifting, full of plaudits and supports, but without my emotional excess.

Workshop Productions in 1961 was not the Bluma Appel Theatre. Nor was it the Royal Alex on King Street or even the Crest Theatre, that had been the only professional theatre in Toronto on Mt. Pleasant north of the tony area of Rosedale; that theatre had just gone broke. This was a theatre put together out of industrial leftovers, not with a curtain or proscenium, but a thrust stage. It was the precursor to the flowering of theatre in Toronto led by Theatre Passe Muraille, Factory Lab Theatre and the Tarragon.

Workshop Productions was set in the heart of Toronto’s old industrial district made up of factories and spillovers from Toronto’s garment district just east on Spadina Avenue. I had worked for several years in the early fifties as an apprentice cutter in Hollywood Children’s Wear just north of that theatre. When I reviewed Hey Rube, I was a graduate student in philosophy at the University of Toronto and the junior drama critic then writing for the Toronto Daily Star under the supervision of the entertainment editor, Nathan Cohen. There were two other patrons in the bleacher seating, both friends of the cast who had been given free tickets. As tiny as the theatre was, it felt totally empty.

Both Herb and I wrote rave reviews. Hey Rube ran for months with full houses every evening. The play blew my mind, even though the only actors on stage that I recognized were George Sperdakos and Joan Ferry. At the University of Toronto as a young pre-med student, Sperdakos had recruited me as part of a small band of students in the fall of 1956 to volunteer to re-fight the Spanish Civil War in Hungary, this time against the Soviet empire rather than a fascist one. Fortunately for us, the Russians had been very efficient in crushing the uprising and our romantic gesture went up in a whiff from one of George’s then ever-present cigarettes.

Hey Rube was a very different type of revolutionary experience, one inspired by the left, but in the realm of art and theatre. Strongly influenced by Joan Littlewood’s experimental theatre in London in Britain, George had returned to Toronto to introduce a form of theatre that avoided the drawing room dramas of Anton Chekhov and Henrik Ibsen or even the kitchen sink theatre of the new upstart playwrights in London such as John Osborne. This was theatre more focused on movement than on words, on feelings more than ideas, on acrobatics more than Shakespearian enunciation, and on visual creativity more than auditory stimulation. It seemed to have more to do with the circus and vaudeville than the plays I had learned to read. Hey Rube was heavily influenced by the commedia dell’arte Italian tradition of theatre.

The theatre notes in the Canadian Stage co-production with Tapestry Opera of the overcoat: a musical tailoring which I saw it the Bluma Appel Theatre last evening made no mention of that tradition or any influences from it. Yet in its movements, in its use of mime and the traditions of the world of clowns and circuses, in its swift and sudden changes of perspective, it is strongly linked to these roots. Most of all, the overcoat avoids subtlety in favour of word play and tricksters. It is minimalist theatre in its design, but very intricate yet overflowing with exuberance and gusto in its staging.

Unlike Hey Rube, which was a rough work, ragged on the edges though full of vitality at the core, the overcoat is a bespoke production, an intricately detailed piece of material artistry, an operatic play. Instead of being based on the premise that, “I think therefore I am,” cogito ergo sum, the clear and distinct idea at the core is emotional rather than cognitive. It is based on physical theatre of movement more in tune with Cirque du Soleil. The production insists that since I sing and move, therefore I am.

But it asks a basic question. What am I when I sing and move? A zero, a nothing, someone who does not count at all, who cannot count and put numbers in order and does not count because he is not recognized as a person by anyone else? Am I a zero suited only to live in a loony bin? Or am I a one? Can I even be a two or even a three and rise, not just above the ordinary worker, but to the raised walkways of the upper middle class? To answer that question, we in the audience have to see and hear and get beneath the tailor-made outerwear that both disguises the self and transforms it into an artistic artifice.

This is an example of physical theatre as the lining of an opera, but it is still primarily a well-crafted opera. Usually I hate opera, though this is a judgement based only on attending three, a judgement made though two of my best friends were ardent opera buffs and one was an opera critic. But I have too much of a tin ear. Even last evening, as enthusiastic and entranced as I was by what I saw and heard, in my ignorance I am sure I missed the playfulness, the patchwork of the tapestry, that borrowed and layered from a history of music. For the first time in my life, I deeply regretted that I was a musical ignoramus, though I could at least pick up the repeated melodies associated with and allowing identification of the different characters.

Jill Lepore’s first lecture in her Priestley series that I wrote about recently was called, “Numbers.” The keynote speaker at the Walter Gordon symposium addressed the issue of counting. But the topic Deborah Stone addressed and analyzed was the ethics of counting. The opera on stage last evening dramatized a time in the industrial revolution in the nineteenth century when the foundation stones of modernity were established in the dual supports of numeracy and being counted, being recognized. If I just count, do I count? Do I matter?

The opera opens with a mime playing off Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker as he offers a brief plaintive tune on an accordion that ignites the stage with its perkiness. Immediately, I snapped to attention and remained mesmerized for the whole production. I was reminded of Joan Littlewood’s dictum that if you have to choose between god and the clowns, choose clowns. At first, I thought the setting would be an asylum, but that simply framed the opera. The centrepiece was the office of bookkeepers working in the industries of the nineteenth century.

In the simplicity, there was never a moment of confusion where you had to think about what anything meant. In a whirlwind of athleticism counterpoised against rigid men working as accounting clerks in the nineteenth century of Nikolai Gogol, the predecessors to men in grey flannel suits, we encounter both loneliness and alienation of the central figure in the production evoked by what my untrained ears heard as a pitch-perfect score. (Nathan Cohen had taught me to write theatre criticism with full conviction even if I was ignorant, but I have been too steeped in the Socratic philosophic tradition to follow suit.)

It was as if I were watching an adult and musical version of a Dr. Seuss book written where the rhymes are fantasy-filled and full of kinetic energy. The clerks may ride to work hanging onto the straps and bars of their tram or subway cars, but they are forced to move together to reflect and express the rhythm of the era, operatic music brought onto the stage of a music hall. In part agit prop and Charlie Chaplin, in the scene where the main character, Geoffrey Sirett, a baritone singing the part of Akakiv, gets totally drunk and wasted, probably for the first time in his life, I was taken back to the days of Brendan Behan and his plays, The Quare Fellow and The Hostage written under the inspiration of Joan Littlewood’s ideas. The Irish poetry of these plays of everyday speech were undercut by Behan’s alcoholism. A year before he died in the mid 1960’s from his drinking, I remember when he stayed with us – or really did not stay for he was always about town carousing – and I went looking for him. His pessimistic vision of the world, unlike the false optimism of the hero of the overcoat, turned him into a zero instead of the great artist that I believed he had been destined to become.

Thank goodness that Morris Panych, as the director and writer of the libretto, and James Rolfe, as the composer, have been more disciplined and have been able to turn out such a bespoke overcoat to make any member of the cloth trade on Spadina Avenue proud. The work is simply brilliant, enhanced by a wonderful set by Leslie Dala that evokes the steel rigidity of the iron gating of those old nineteenth-century original “skyscrapers” with the mobility and flexibility of a three-ring circus. Together with the lighting director and other talented musicians and actors, instead of witnessing the destruction of well-ordered and considered complacent middle-class theatre, we experience traditional middle-class theatre raised to a whole new level. And the audience with its standing ovation expressed their absolute delight with such a wonderful work of art. The pathos and wit were clever without being ribald. Grandiosity and down-to-earth story-telling, gentility and a satire of that gentility, exuberant energy and repressed and mechanical motion, poetic verse and music, had been combined without any need to dip into vulgarity.

In an era of celebrity politics where the main concern of the president of the United States is his ratings even as his personal character is revealed to be more deplorable even that anyone expected, where counting becomes more important than being counted for what you do and achieve, where selfies become more significant than recognition by others, the overcoat is a rendition which goes back to the roots and foundations of our current disorder, in counting in order to be counted. When presented with such poetry and music, with clever versifying and impressionistic costuming, vitality and intelligence, the nuttiness of the contemporary world is given depth, beauty and resonance. Wit and zaniness are grounded in a critique of reality and we see and hear magic.

As Jill Lepore opined in her lecture, the essence of the world of numbers and counting is discernment.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri – Guilt and Vengeance

DO NOT READ THIS BLOG UNLESS YOU HAVE SEEN THE FILM. The film is brilliant, but even more brilliant than most critics perceived.

How would you feel if you, a mother, had an argument with your teenage daughter, Angela – not exactly an archetypal angel – about whether to let her use your car to go out on a date on a Saturday evening? What if your daughter stormed out of the house saying she would walk and if she got raped it was your fault? What if you, as she fled out the door, called after her in anger that she should get raped for the foul language and insults hurled at you? What if you said this really to get back at her because you had just learned that she was exploring moving out and moving in with her father, Charlie, who used to beat you and whom you divorced when he ran off with a 19-year-old bimbo?

And then she was raped that evening. Not only raped, but murdered. Not only murdered, but raped while she lay dying. Not only murdered and raped, but her corpse burned. As much as you might live in a modern world and knew that, in this case, what happened was not a consequence of your words, the guilt you bore would go so deep and be so mutilating that you wanted, that you needed, to displace any responsibility onto another. What do you do with the ugly and agonizing pain, with the weight of that ton of guilt, with the deep burning embers of a searing grief? What better place to displace that responsibility but onto a club of cracker cops unable to find the murderer and rapist?

This is NOT a film about an enraged, unrelenting, uncompromising woman of steel, determined to ensure justice for the murder and rape of her child. It is not even a film about righteous vengeful fury. There is no righteousness whatsoever. And there certainly is no desire for justice. When Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) insists that she wants the government to set up a database with the DNA of every male so that it can be matched with the DNA on her daughter’s burnt corpse, it is not to obtain and exact justice, but to obtain and exact vengeance.

“Be sure and kill ‘em.” She is a hard-hearted woman so deeply frozen and dead on the inside and so full of fire and brimstone and steely edges on the outside, that we as the audience are sucked into applauding her devil take all attitude if only because the language of both sympathy and bureaucracy is so cold that we welcome, indeed applaud, someone who talks without thinking and fires away with little if no concern for or empathy with her targets. What magic when a writer/director can make such a detestable woman so tremendously likeable that we offer her our deepest sympathies. The chief target of her rage is Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), a man of affection and sensitive attachment, like his predecesor in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. He is intelligent, sensitive and conscientious rather than an indifferent oaf.

The film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, begins with a distraught but very determined mother bent on displacing that guilt in the ostensible pursuit of justice, with which we as viewers easily identify. Especially since her method of embarrassing the police is so public. She pays for putting up signs on three obsolete titular billboards to express her rage and frustration. The motive is unbeknownst to everyone, except her son who witnessed the altercation between mother and daughter. The billboards are used to displace that deep and very painful guilt. Critics who look at Mildred as “morally unimpeachable” are truly blind and deaf.  She is a harridan, immensely likeable and sympathetic, but still a vicious harridan.

Gradually as the film unfolds, we learn of the source and depth of that guilt. But we learn much more. For Ebbing is a town where the use of foul language is the norm, where the mistreatment of Blacks is the norm, especially by one police officer, Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell) who has never been held responsible for his violent and outrageous behaviour. It just so happens that this violent cop is a mama’s boy, his mother is a virulent bitch and he is probably a repressed homosexual. He gradually wins our sympathy.

It is a town in which a happy family of a couple, a police chief (Willoughby), his wife and two children, play a game by a stream whereby the two young girls are required to fish for stuffed animals around the blanket on which they are sitting without leaving the blanket, while the parents go off for some nookie. But the instructions to the girls are delivered in the foulest language imaginable. As Mildred says at the beginning of the film when discussing the wording with her son on the proposed billboards, you may address your children in the foulest language, but on public billboards you “can’t say nothin’ defamatory.” It is a world of deep hypocrisy.

The sin permeating this town goes much deeper. When a priest, Father Montgomery, comes to the home of the distraught mother to try to persuade her to take down the billboards that are causing such stress to the popular police chief, the mother kicks him out, but not before reducing him to quivering silence by accusing him of complicity for doing nothing, just as he did nothing when his altar boy was seduced or raped by another priest. And in guilt, we sit silent in the theatre oblivious to the fact that this is a tale of raw vengeance and shame rather than of justice and guilt. The male secretive self-protective clubs of the town are now under attack by one enraged woman and her wild jeremiad. And the moral universe is inverted in McDonagh’s view when priests become priests and cops become cops because they want to do good, but are perceived now as sinister simply because of the costumes they wear, whether a clerical collar or a police uniform.

Unequivocally, Ebbing is a town in which sin has raged like a wildfire so that it permeates the language and behaviour of ordinary citizens and officers of the law alike. It is a town where the rule of impulse outweighs the rule of law. It is a town in which any efforts to purify the town had fallen by the wayside and became as obsolete as those billboards did when the new highway was built to bypass the old road. Bad behaviour had become the norm in this town in the heartland of America and sin is everywhere. The town is morally polluted. Not even the torching of the billboards and then the police station, and the scorching of the dumb and distasteful racist Constable Dixon, can even expurgate the sin. Dixon is, of course, the antithesis of Dixon of Dock Green (Jack Warner), the archetypal London bobby of the twenty-year long-running BBC series about a police officer full of common sense and empathy,

But that is just the background, the setting, very important but not the central theme of the movie. The town ceremonies and rituals and rites provide no opportunity any longer to expiate that sin, to cleanse the society of its moral pollution. Moral pollution has become the norm. There is no ritual whereby the town, its leaders and its ordinary citizens can acknowledge their responsibility for the sins. Everyone is complicit. Everyone “stands by.” For the movie is about guilt transmuted into shame, and sin transformed into vengeance.

Guilt goes deeper than sin. It is at the root of sin. It is the failure to take responsibility for one’s actions. At the end of the film, the most vicious police officer becomes a burnt offering and seems to repent (following the guiding note of his now deceased chief of police to learn about guilt, confession and love), owning up to one’s responsibilities and learning to love oneself and others as a good Christian should. It is clear that the members of the town, especially this police officer and his ardent accuser, the mother of the raped girl, go off to possibly murder a suspect who they now know could not have killed the daughter. The town and the people of the town have no rite, no ritual, no religious practice through which they can expiate their guilt and accept responsibility for what they did and what they do. For the fundamental moral code of the town has become displacement of responsibility. The town is awash not only in sin but in guilt. There is no act of reparation available to them. Instead, they get a rifle and ostensibly set out possibly to murder an innocent man. They will decide en route whether they will do it.

There is no redemption. There is no means of redemption. Guns and violence as the answer to problems have so permeated the value structure, have so displaced any real moral code, that the only answer to any action is revenge, not understanding and certainly not any acceptance of responsibility for what has taken place. There is no mechanism to sharpen any individual’s conscience. Paganism has returned to occupy central stage in the heartland of America. It is a Manichean world in which demonic forces seem to continually defeat any divine force. It is a world which has lost most of its humanity where each human, every male and every female, assumes responsibility for him or herself to ensure a divine presence on earth and the expulsion of the demonic.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri is about the demonic taking control of a town in the heartland of America just as it has taken over the White House. Any rituals to contain and dispose of moral impurities have largely been sacrificed to cowardice, to ambition and to complicity. We have returned to an age in which a young teenage girl is raped, is murdered, is raped while dying, is offered as a burnt offering, but not to a divine order of a healthy, responsible life, but to a demonic order of guns and irresponsibility, of anarchy rather than the rule of law, of impulse rather than thoughtful consideration. It is a world in which the police station as the central symbol of the rule of law has been burnt to the ground. It is a world in which we who watch cheer this act of revenge and pseudo expiation, thrilled at the violence rather than discomfited by the phenomenal moral deterioration in our human moral code.

God is death. Humans must be wedded to life. The rituals of death, of sin and guilt need a place, a temple, where they can be disposed of. If a rabbi reminds me of the sensuousness, the incense and the smoke, the vibrancy and the flavours of a place of temple sacrifice, then that rabbi is totally out of touch with the function of the temple and the meaning of its absence. For without a temple, all responsibility rests on each and every one of us to be accountable for the commissions of sinful acts that thrust shards of guilt deep into our souls. The destroyed temple does not simply belong to a more primitive past in the sense of appealing to our basic sensuality as if it is simply an outdoor food market.

Why do we need to significantly reduce and limit a gun culture? When do we need blood prohibitions – when the police chief vomits up blood from his cancer, we must recognize the symbolic significance. After all, as McDormand says, “When you croak, the billboards won’t be as effective.” When the sadistic dentist is forced to drill into his own fingernail rather than into the not quite frozen tooth that needs removal, we get a glimpse of a place where inflicting pain has become a way of life and not a place where we try to make pain as painless as possible. So even the police chief’s self-sacrifice to minimize the pain to be inflicted on his family comes across as a positive but largely meaningless gesture, for the core meaning of what this hero did for the town is lost in a miasma of meaningless vengeance totally detached from justice.

Death is now totally intertwined with life instead of hived off and restricted so that life can thrive and blossom. The billboards ask a question intended to embarrass the police. But they are a sign of a society reduced to a shame rather than a guilt culture, a society in which out of helplessness and hopelessness conflicts are resolved by either coercion or shaming rather than by acknowledging guilt and assuming responsibility.

When a movie can put such a profound theological and social commentary before our eyes, and do so with humour and wit, when it so deliberately and cleverly misleads us into a failure to recognize who the hero and who the villain is, when a movie takes us into the bypassed rural routes of the heartland of America to unveil the miasma of sin and the absence of guilt and the rule of law that pervades the town, and when the acting by Frances McDormand , Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell are all so brilliant, the writing and direction of Martin McDonagh so nuanced, the movie deserves every reward it received even though it appears that most commentators missed its religious and social profundity.

The land needs to be cleansed, especially the heartland Only then can positive mitzvot and proper ethics once again rule in the land of milk and honey.

Totem and Taboo: A Movie Review

 

Christopher Nolan (2010) Inception

Warren Beatty (2016) Rules Don’t Apply

What do these two films have to do with the series of blogs on the nature of the university? More particularly, what do they have to do with the transformation of the university from a Sanctuary of Truth to a Sanctuary of Method? The overall theme of the essays on the university focuses on power, influence and authority. In my last blog, I used the material from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks to explicate his thesis of power, influence and authority when offering a structural analysis of the Book of Exodus.

In his account, Sacks made reference to Sigmund Freud’s Totem and Taboo to insist that in the chiasmic pattern linking the design of the sanctuary with the construction of the sanctuary in Exodus, the story of the Golden Calf was the pivot point. Most importantly, the story of the Golden Calf was not about idolatry, but about the longing for an absent father and, out of this longing, giving one’s allegiance to a tyrant as a substitute. As the reader will see, on this subject, I take a traditionalist stance and argue that the story of the Golden Calf is indeed about idolatry, is about taking a material valuable entity as a substitute for a spiritual entity.

Are the two interpretations mutually exclusive? I will return to answer that question, but I first want to show the link to the two films. I did not choose to watch these films specifically on Saturday night. Inception was just what was on TV when I entered the den. Rules Don’t Apply followed, so I stayed to watch that film as well. As it happens, a dominant plot element in each was about an absent father. A key prop in Inception was explicitly a totem. It is a wonder how serendipity can play a part in the understanding and explication of a position.

In Freud, a totem is a primeval prohibition as well as a protection. In contrast to Inception, a totem for Freud is not self-generated, but is chosen by another or adopted by a whole tribe. The source is characterized as an authentic authority. The totem protects the individual from his or her most powerful longings, but the desire to violate persists in the subconscious. Thus, the totem is both a prohibition against surrendering to temptation and committing a transgression, and a protector that provides boundary conditions.

In both films, at the centre of the plot is a key character who suffers considerably from his relationship with his father. In Inception, he is the son of a very rich man who recently died; the young man is in the process of inheriting the old man’s extensive corporate holdings. This is a psychological heist movie in which a usual heist team, each member with complementary skills, gets together, this time not to rob a physical safe, but a psychological one. The team plans to invade the subconscious of the young heir and influence him to believe that, on his own, he must dismantle his father’s holdings. That will serve the interests of a rival tycoon who hired the heist team because they have developed the techniques for getting inside the safe of memories of an individual in order to manipulate those memories and, thereby, control his mind.

In Rules Don’t Apply, Warren Beatty plays Howard Hughes who is obsessed, not with rosebud (Orson Welles in Citizen Kane, 1941), but with his father, with ensuring the Hughes name is preserved on his father’s company which he inherited, just as bankers and shareholders of TCA close in on him as an eccentric incapable of managing a huge company. A subsequent psychological post-mortem argued that he was not so much driven to his madness by that obsession, but that his anxiety and retreat into isolation were yhe result of a very over-protective mother obsessed with the cleanliness of her child and protecting him from polio. The father is gone. Inception picks up the same theme. Powerful fathers who are absent from the films nevertheless play dominating roles.

Neither plot worked to support Jonathan Sack’s thesis about choosing tyrants to rule over you as a substitute for the longed-for father. In Inception, the son remains under the thumb of his father. The whole effort to “capture his mind” was to plant an idea that will hopefully dominate his conscious life that he needs to free himself from his father at the same time as he remains true to his father. This is to be accomplished by implanting the idea that the father was not disappointed in his son for failing to emerge as a strong leader in the mold of his father, but for failing to emerge as an independent thinker and doer who would not be under the thumb of anyone. With such a new mindset, instead of clinging to the assets he inherited as a way to cling to his father who showed him no affection as a child, he would dissolve the corporate assets to free himself and become an independent man.

Cutting across this theme is another father-child story, that of the role of the leader of the heist team, Cobb, who has mastered the art of penetrating a third level of depth to the unconscious. However, Cobb, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, is the absent father. He has been cut off from contact with his children as part of his mind remains stuck in the underworld of the unconscious attached and obsessed with his wife and mother of his children whom he used as an experiment to explore the very great depth of the subconscious, but in the experiment was unable to return to earth. Guilt submerges him. The only route back to his children is by going back, both to regain access to the United States, the government of which suspects that he killed his wife, and his children.

According to that narrative, guilt can operate in multiple dimensions and in different directions just as time and experience can. The key always to preserving one’s sanity is by possession of a totem, in this case, a dreidl, a spinning top, that can be grasped and used to prevent being sucked totally into the vortex of the subconscious and to test whether you are in the real world or a world of dreams. In “primitive” societies, a totem defines the perimeter of the tribe and identification with it ensures the protection of the member. In Nolan’s film, the threat is not simply another tribe, but an extinguishing of any spatial and temporal reference points altogether. The totem becomes the the protective marker of a boundary which guards the spirit of the tribe, this time, of the whole human species.

In Beatty’s film, the totem is not explicit, but it is Howard Hughes who serves as the substitute father figure for both Maria Mabrey, a devour Baptist aspiring starlet played by Lily Collins, and her unconsummated knight, Frank Forbes played by Alden Ehrenreich, another repressed Protestant type. Both are in thrall to Harold Hughes. He dictates that there is to be no sexual involvement of his employees. Both are tied to Hughes as the god who will deliver them into stardom or magnificent wealth as an entrepreneur. They reveal themselves to be both consecrated by Hughes but also dangerously passionate about one another. Hughes in the end is right. He does not simply have an obsession with cleanliness and a fear of being defiled. Pollution lurks everywhere.

Both films are about power and the use of wealth, of material influence, to affect the behaviour of others. Power as creative energy, as enterprise and innovation, is expressed through the heist team and particularly the DiCaprio character, who in scene after scene must fight off the apparitions of Cobb’s subconscious who are determined to kill the members of the heist team. Coercive power is used as a defence, but the core tool of the offence is influence, to gain control over the mind, not through drugs, but by entering the subconscious of the other. This is not influence via information, analysis and education. But neither is it simply about tyrannical coercive power, though that is a necessary ingredient in the mix.

The Golden Calf as both a real phenomenon and an idol that dominates the imagination and character identity to promise freedom to and deliver someone from bondage and slavery to a subconscious tyrant, in this case, a father, who controls behaviour even from the grave and reduces the heir to a puppet rather than an independent autonomous being. Warren Beatty’s Citizen Kane as Howard Hughes never achieves that freedom, even though his life appeared to be that of a star lighting up the heavens as it crossed the sky and burnt itself up in the quest for free expression.

The casting couch is not portrayed in Rules Don’t Apply as a fly trap but as a prison of the woman’s own imagination – in this case, a star-struck deeply Christian young lady – driven subconsciously by her own desires to be a star in the firmament.  And for her forlorn lover and satrap of Howard Hughes, it is much more clearly a dream of becoming the author of his own initiatives in wealth accumulation. Tyranny in the case of both films is more a problem of self-identity than one of external coercion, but the desire, the longing, is not narrowly cast as a pursuit simply for a substitute father. The problem in Inception is about cognitive dissonance, is about what is real and what is a product of one’s own imagination, is about what others should be held accountable for and what is your own responsibility. As in Exodus, freedom is only attained when you actually break free and construct your own sanctuary.

In both films, God is a visible absence. There is no source of divine authority, no source of authentic being, except, and in both films, the love of a parent for a child. That is the ultimate source of authenticity. This is the repeated pattern of the tale told in Genesis about the family rather than the making of nation in Exodus. The error in Inception is that DiCaprio left his children behind, not to climb to the peak of a mountain, but to get to the valley of the third level of the subconscious on the ocean floor. The route to freedom in this film is about self-making and freeing oneself from irrational ties – father, mother, wife – in order to bond with a child. It is a Rousseau fantasy. The issue is not so much freeing oneself from a father-figure who protects, guides and supports, as becoming a father figure who protects, guides and supports.

Becoming a settled nation with boundaries, with recognized authorities and rules, requires leaving behind the nomadic life, whether that roaming takes place in the heavens above, as in the case of Howard Hughes as a pilot, or in the subconsciousness of other lives. And that means accepting responsibility for accumulating wealth without succumbing to the worship of it. In the pastoral world, yearning and desire offer fatal attractions that lead to war and violence. The object is to construct an alternative settled world in which roaming will take place in the imagination and in intellectual inquiry rather than in a quest for riches.

The job of the university is to help facilitate that process. So why must it change all the time, change the idea behind it so that the idea itself creeps in to control the mind and prevent precisely what its purpose was intended to fulfil? Why must humans return to converting a rich and flowering institution into the fatal attraction of the nomad for the consolation of a desert? What lies behind the compulsion for self-destruction and all in the name of re-creation and renewal? How and why do the horizon-struck dreamers, whether in the arts or Hollywood, whether into the unconscious or nature, end up turning the rich life of a jungle into an arid place for both the mind and body?  Where and how does the parting of the waters lead to the construction of a Golden Calf, a treasured inert object without an ounce of spiritual creativity?

In the Torah, how do the Israelites overcome the heroic world of pastoral nomads to seek an oasis in a city of stone like Jerusalem (or Amman)? How did the Israelites, transformed by forty years of desert life from slaves into alert warriors with the endurance of camels, with wells of courage, loyalty, and openness both to strangers and to new ideas at the same time, become a nation that builds walls of stone within which they find a sanctuary? What role did the portable sanctuary of the desert play in that transition?

That is the key question. The university reinvents itself as a sanctuary, transforms itself from one type of sanctuary into another, only to eventually destroy its own walls. Why? And how? Why was it necessary for the university to leave faith behind so that both faculty and students are left bereft, feel it, but largely do not recognize what they feel? Is civilization necessarily intertwined with discontent and can salvation only come from an escape from hidebound institutions and well-defined roles to return to the clean air of the desert with waters lapping on an unseen shore?

Certainly, many of the prophets believed that corruption came with civilization and all effort must be made to engage in intellectual and imaginative nomadism where rules do not apply and the power of fire guides one towards the promised land which, when reached, has already revealed itself as a betrayal of its vision of clean air and an austere landscape guided on its path by a pillar of fire to an austere desert. Has the university waxed fat and gone a whoring as Hosea declared?

Settlers are governed by rules and laws as are universities that prepare people to live in a civilized culture. But the latest rebellion is all around. The people want to worship at the feet of a Golden Calf, even those strongly rooted in a religious tradition and, perhaps even more so, for they want to return to a world of faith rather than one grounded in scepticism, forgetting that the desert world is a place of discord and feuds rather than an imaginary place of magnificent calm at one with the peace of God.

 

To be continued: From the Sanctuary of Truth to a Sanctuary of Method

A Potpourri: On Jewish Aliens, Populism and Intellectuals

A Potpourri: On Jewish Aliens, Populism and Intellectuals

by

Howard Adelman

One of the joys of writing my blog is the responses of readers. Many are insightful and even brilliant. Others are informative. Some are more interesting than my originals. Of the many I receive, a small assorted selection, though incongruous, offers a mixture of very recent comments by readers of my blog that offer a very complementary blend suitable to bring forth a sweet new year.

Flowers (Spoiler Alert – best read after seeing The Shape of Water)

 “One way to look at a sci-fi or horror film is to try to identify who is the Jew. The mute girl, Elisa’s first name is a variant of Elisha who was a prophet who performed miracles of healing. Her last name, Esposito, is not from the Hebrew. It is from the Latin and means an outsider or, more interestingly, a foundling. In the film, we learn that Elisa was found beside a river and that she had neck wounds which rendered her mute. Is there is a gender reversal theme in the film? Elisa may be a faint echo of Moses. He was rescued from the river and grew up to have a speech impediment.

Usually, it is the monster in a sci-fi or horror film who represents the Jew – the misunderstood alien or other outsider who is to be feared. In this film, the monster or “Asset”, as he is called, is an amphibian who can live in two worlds. That is very Jewish. The Asset, however, is a problematic Jewish metaphor for me. First, he eats cats and cats are not kosher. More importantly, he has godlike attributes and there is only one G*d. I suppose that it is okay for the Asset to perform miracles, such as hair restoration, which are similar, in kind, to the healing miracles by Elisha the Prophet. It is not okay, for me, that the Asset seemingly performs an act of creation when he tranforms Elisa’s neck scars into gills in order that she could become his consort back home in the river.

The third possible Jewish figure in the film is the scientist at the OCCAM research institute: Dmitri Hofstedtler aka Robert. Hofstedtler could be the name of a Russian Jew. He has sensibilities for life and knowledge not possessed by either his thuggish Russian handlers or by his American boss Strickland, the bigot. The film alludes to a Russian/Jewish connection when Strickland examines the explosive Dmitri used to cause the power failure in the OCCAM complex. Strickland deems it to be of Israeli origin and evidence of a Russian operation. He says something similar to: “The Russians hate the Jews but love their toys.”

I thought that Hofstedtler was the Jew in the film until I read your review, Howard. In your first paragraph, you stated:

‘To my surprise, this movie that I saw last evening is also about recognition, about a mute but not deaf woman, a “princess without a voice” who is as alien to her fellow humans (except one of her fellow cleaning partner, Zelda, played by Octavia Spencer) as the alien amphibian, neither centaur nor satyr, with whom she falls in love.’

I had not pushed the idea of Elisa’s being a Jew as alien far enough. She is the monster not the Asset. She is the one to be reclaimed to her people in the South American river. Why was she abandoned by the river side originally? We do not know. Maybe she was abandoned because she looked like a monster in appearance to her people by accident of birth. Maybe her people damaged her gills so that she could not return to the water world. Maybe her people were threatened as were Moses’ and their abandoning her, presumably on dry land, by the river, was a desperate attempt to let her survive.

Second, you pointed out about the research facility’s being named OCCAM. I had missed that clue which is also a Coenesque joke. The lab is a giant, sprawling, rule bound, and incompetent bureaucracy. Dmitri and Strickland bicker and joust about the proper protocol to be followed in the workplace. Dmitri is not to enter his boss’s office directly without permission, and Strickland is reminded to use the proper honourific “Doctor” when addressing Dmitri. As an aside, the man who is responsible for the facility, General Hoyt. is a reference to the historical General Hoyt Vandenburg who was an early CIA Director.

The clue that you provided is that the Asset is the real Occam of the film. He literally uses his teeth and, more importantly, his claws to make the razor cuts that both startle us and serve to advance the plot. At the end of the film, the combination of his claws and his healing hands appear to open up and restore Elisa’s gills. The Asset may not have been more godlike than a prophet after all. He does not create or transform but merely heals and restores to the original. He is a plot device. The movie is about Elisa.”

Herbs (On the Rise of Populism in Europe)

Populism: The Common People in Modern Politics,

2 November – 14 December 2017, University of Michigan

A Selection from the Program

Populism: The Common People in Modern Politics Populism is a type of politics that some would contend existed as long ago as Ancient Greece and the Roman Republic. In the modern democratic era, populism has become a political style that has emerged in many nations throughout the world. Political figures or mass movements labeled as populist generally claim to champion the ordinary citizen or common people against a powerful elite. The lectures in this series will explore varieties of populism historically and in contemporary politics. European, South American and U. S. populism will receive the most attention. In addition to describing specific features of populism in individual countries, the lectures will attempt to capture the essence of populism, because it is frequently viewed as a concept that is vague and elusive. The very recent outbreaks of populism in the United States (e.g., Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders), Europe (e.g., Le Pen in France), the Brexit Referendum in the United Kingdom, and South America (e.g., Hugo Chavez) will be analyzed and placed within the very long tradition of populist politics.

November 2 DEMOCRACY DISMANTLED: HOW POPULISM IS A PATHWAY TO AUTOCRACY Erica Frantz

Erica Frantz is an Assistant Professor in the Political Science Department at Michigan State University. She studies authoritarian politics, with a focus on democratization, conflict, and development. She has written four books on dictatorships and development, and her work has appeared in multiple academic and policy-oriented journals.

Speaker’s Synopsis: Populism is spreading across the globe. Various causes lie behind the populist upsurge, ranging from increased economic hardship to frustrations with globalization. The consequences are worrisome. Today’s populist wave is paving the way for competitively elected leaders to subtly dismantle their countries’ democratic institutions. This form of transition to dictatorship in which incumbents slowly chip away at constraints on their leadership is also associated with the initiation of personalist rule, the most pernicious form of autocracy. November 9 WHAT POPULISM IS Elizabeth Anderson Elizabeth Anderson is John Dewey Distinguished University Professor of Philosophy and Women’s Studies and Chair of the Philosophy Department at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. She has taught at UM since 1987, specializing in moral and political philosophy, especially on democratic theory, egalitarianism and its history, and the roles of experts and citizens in democratic policy making. Speaker’s Synopsis: This talk will explain what populism is and trace its origins to tensions in democracy going back to Rousseau. The speaker will show how populism can be either left-wing or right-wing, highlight the characteristic messages of populist leaders, and argue that populism, although cast as a fulfillment of democracy, is a threat to it as well as to sound public policy formation.

November 16 POPULISM AND ONLINE POLITICAL CAMPAIGNS: THE CASE OF NARENDRA MODI Joyojeet Pal

Joyojeet Pal is an Assistant Professor at the School of Information at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. His research focuses on the use of technology in the Global South, including accessible technology for people with disabilities and social media use by politicians.

Speaker’s Synopsis: This talk outlines the role of social media in populist electoral campaigns, and highlights the case of the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, whose 2014 general election victory was aided by a very effective social media presence. This talk examines strategies of political attack, innuendo, and personal insult in online political speech. Populism: The Common People in Modern Politics Populism is a type of politics that some would contend existed as long ago as Ancient Greece and the Roman Republic. In the modern democratic era, populism has become a political style that has emerged in many nations throughout the world. Political figures or mass movements labeled as populist generally claim to champion the ordinary citizen or common people against a powerful elite. The lectures in this series will explore varieties of populism historically and in contemporary politics. European, South American and U. S. populism will receive the most attention. In addition to describing specific features of populism in individual countries, the lectures will attempt to capture the essence of populism, because it is frequently viewed as a concept that is vague and elusive. The very recent outbreaks of populism in the United States (e.g., Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders), Europe (e.g., Le Pen in France), the Brexit Referendum in the United Kingdom, and South America (e.g., Hugo Chavez) will be analyzed and placed within the very long tradition of populist politics.

November 30 POPULIST POLITICS IN LATIN AMERICA Robert S. Jansen, Ph.D.

Robert Jansen is a comparative-historical sociologist of politics and culture. He is the author of Revolutionizing Repertoires: The Rise of Populist Mobilization in Peru (University of Chicago Press) and has published various articles on Latin American politics in academic journals. After receiving his Ph.D. in sociology from UCLA, he spent three years as a junior fellow in the Michigan Society of Fellows. He is currently an assistant professor at the University of Michigan.

Speaker’s Synopsis: Recent political events in the U.S. and Europe have brought renewed attention to the problem of populism. But what exactly are we talking about when we talk about populism? And what do we know about its social and political causes and consequences? This lecture provides some provisional answers to these difficult questions by considering various moments in the political history of Latin America—a region that has long been susceptible to populist mobilization and claims-making.

December 7 THE FUTURE LIES EAST: POSTCOMMUNIST EUROPE’S NEW MODEL OF POPULISM Kevin Deegan-Krause, Ph.D.

Kevin Deegan-Krause, Professor of Political Science, Wayne State University, received his B. A. in Economics and History from Georgetown University and his Ph.D. in Government and International Relations from the University of Notre Dame. His research focus is on political and governmental systems in Central and Eastern Europe. He has authored or co-edited books and journal articles on a variety of political topics. His current research focuses on political party system transformation, populism, and the sources of electoral support for authoritarian leaders.

Speaker’s Synopsis: We have come to associate the word populism with the right in Western Europe and with the left in Latin America, but in Eastern Europe new political movements advance not from the left or the right but from the outside, as dissatisfied citizens rally around non-political celebrities to challenge what they see as a corrupt status quo. As the trend-setter in this new political style, Eastern Europe offers insights into an increasingly widespread variation on populism.

December 14 EUROPEAN POPULISM: SIMILARITIES AND DIFFERENCES WITH THE PAST Andrei S. Markovits

Andrei S. Markovits is the Karl W. Deutsch Collegiate Professor of Comparative Politics and German Studies and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. His many books, articles, and reviews on topics as varied as sports, dog rescue, and many aspects of European and comparative politics have been published in fifteen languages. Markovits has received many prestigious prizes and fellowships. He has also won multiple teaching awards, most notably the Golden Apple Award at the University of Michigan in 2007. In the same year, the University of Lueneburg in Germany awarded Markovits an honorary doctorate. In 2012, the Federal Republic of Germany bestowed on Markovits its Cross of the Order of Merit, First Class, one of the highest honors given by that country to its citizens or foreigners.

Speaker’s Synopsis: In Germany, France, Austria, Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Russia, and a number of other European countries, populist movements have appeared in many guises altering these countries’ politics and policies. While sui generis, these constructs have displayed characteristics that are reminiscent of thought decidedly not identical with developments of the 1920s and 1930s. The lecture will highlight the current situation, analyze its causes and manifestations, and look at similarities and differences to events that contributed to a very turbulent history on that continent.

Spices (A warning about the dangers of intellectuals as politicians)

I discovered this author just recently: he was an English Studies professor in Germany, who also wished to found a theatre in Shakespeare’s style in a former pub.  He was found dead in this theatre room (apparently due to hypothermia – he was suffering from Huntington’s and may have not been able to leave the place in time).  He wrote a bestselling novel in 1996, about sexual harassment on campus (Der Campus. Goldmann Taschenbuch, München 1996) that is at the same time hilariously funny and tragic, showing the ugly side of university politics and how such situations are often much more complex than what today’s media hype makes them out to be; an excellent analysis on European anti-Semitism (Das Shylock-Syndrom oder die Dramaturgie der Barbarei. Eichborn, Frankfurt am Main 1997); several books on Shakespeare, and on culture in general; as well, a most interesting book on men (Männer: Eine Spezies wird besichtigt. Eichborn, Frankfurt am Main 2001).  He is funny, but fair, and quite knowledgeable.  He unveils human weaknesses in a Wittgensteinian style, being an insider and at the same time an unbiased meta-observer, with much humour and understanding.  Sadly, not many of his books have been translated into English.  Here is a little sample I translated myself, from his book about men (warning: tongue in cheek, but he means it)

Dietrich Schwanitz: The Intellectual, in Männer: Eine Species wird besichtigt (pp. 169-175)
Translated from the original German
by Bea Sara Goll © 2017

First, we have to clear up an unfortunate misunderstanding:  Even if it seems natural, the concept “intellectual” has very little in common with a superior intellect, just like the Austrian “Genietruppe” [engineer corps] with geniality. Genius used to be an old-fashioned word for engineer. Likewise, “intellectual” does not mean that this person is more intelligent than another; rather it means that such a person makes it his life’s task to publicly ponder societal matters without thereby serving anybody’s interests.  Thus, among intellectuals we find free authors, journalists, commentators, artists, writers, editors, satirists and all those who focus on the state of the entire society. A geology professor who writes only for a small group of experts is not an intellectual, even if his IQ is over 160.  But a professor of the theory of culture whose writing could influence the public’s ability to understand itself is.  An intellectual must be free in order to comment critically on society.  That’s why we used to speak earlier of the liberal professions. Members of this group were the ones to participate in the public discourse.  Their close connection to politics was reflected in the French expression “république des lettres”.  Only a republic allows public discourse.

Society for an intellectual is like the husband for his disillusioned wife: subject to ongoing efforts to reform and to critique.  He cannot let the society go, but wishes it were a different one.  He has a love-hate type obsessive relationship to it.  He must change it, replace it, rebuild it or re-educate it. He must criticise it, reproach it and preach at it.  He disagrees with it, yet he feels like he is its guardian.  He protects the fire that society no longer possesses, in order to rekindle it after society’s rebirth. He is the type that depends on the horde albeit totally unhappy with the one he belongs to.  Thus, he spends his whole life looking for his own tribe.

This is nothing special actually. Most men do the same when they are unhappy with their reference group.  Or they try doing so at least.  If they don’t like their colleagues, they look for another job.  If they cannot stand their friends anymore, they move in another city.  If they want to change the type of group they hang with, they look for a different activity and switch from journalism to politics, and from politics into business.  So everybody is looking for his own horde that suits him.

But to the reformer, the entire society is his group. He cannot exchange it.  There is no alternative. Thus, the reformer wishes to reform society to suit him.  In his mind he changes it so that he can find his ideal place in it.  His societal dreams originate in his wish to find his proper place in the group. In order to accomplish this, however, the group must first learn to see things with his eyes.

Such a type may be an outsider or even a total misfit.  He has a conflict with common values.  He is a critic and an oppositionist.   He appears therefore quite independent.  Perhaps he really is that, in several aspects.  He serves his own grandiosity by regarding the entire society as his group.  Since he, in his phantasies constantly rebuilds the society, he imagines himself as its government.  When he speaks, he develops ideas that could function as a declaration of the government.  When he discusses an issue, you would think he is preparing for a cabinet meeting.  His world is the world itself.  Nothing escapes his attention, be it the issue of global warming or computer supported training.  He could become the president from one minute to the other and he would know what to do.

All else pales in comparison when he goes about his historic mission.  He is like the creator of a new world.  Unbeknownst to himself, he derives his own self-importance through the importance of the issues at hand.  His principles are supported by the weightiness of it all. He represents the interests of the entire humanity.  He feels like a parliamentary representative for the whole world.  That’s why he loves terms with “world” in them: worldwide, world politics, world peace, universal measure, world economics, world population, etc..

Whenever it is about politics, the situation among intellectuals is like in soccer: the clubs create competing teams as opinion clubs. Professional intellectuals only play in the top-level leagues. The ones below them are amateurs.  They all live in a society to which they wish there were an alternative.  Some of them actually call themselves “alternatives”.

To the man who is into a grand historic mission a woman can acquire only a low level and only a temporary importance – mainly when and as long as she strengthens him in his mission.   His focus is on his vision of the ideal group.  In that he is a typical male.  As a representative in the public discourse he represents the sphere of men itself.  He is the living opposition to intimacy.  Every woman who attempts to drag him off the stage of public discourse will be unsuccessful.  This would be akin to cutting him off from the source of his self-love.  She only has two options: give up or play along.

Should he be required to take care of the family or household, he views the individual situation as a universal problem: therefore he cannot do it in small measures.  Is he to find a flat, he will found a whole real estate agency.  Is he to find a placement in a kindergarten, he writes an article about the mistakes in family politics.  Whatever he encounters, he uses as an example in support of the necessity for reform.  If he gets into trouble with his wife or girlfriend, first thing he does is to lecture her about her objective interests vs. her subjective errors.  His actual medium is the debate.  Here he finds himself on familiar territory.  He has led at least eighty-thousand debates in his life so far.  He is well trained and unbeatable.  Not one person has ever encountered the situation in which he would have let himself be convinced or persuaded by another.  The more amazing is his imperturbable belief that he in turn could convince another.  Then again, it has been often observed that his opponents became exhausted, frustrated, and flew.  But for him to change his opinion – no, nobody has ever witnessed that.

Before a woman wishes to share her life with an intellectual she should know: the debate will continue lifelong.   If she has problems with taking it for 45 minutes, let alone for three days, she should give up right away.  Otherwise, in three weeks she will be exhausted, after three months she will tune out, and after three years, she will flee.  Or, she will learn to hate his never-ending debate.  When he announces his theses in company, she will smile contemptuously to let everybody know that she has already heard these ideas four hundred times.  Or she will deliver a direct put-down:   She will say: “Let him talk” meaning: “totally worthless”.  And she will indicate that she views all that talk as a form of impotence and that she secretly lusts for a man with action.  She will see through all his phantasies of grandeur, and even more despise him for them.  And since he is too busy dealing with the election reform to notice this, she will increase the dosage until all their friends notice it, except for him.

But if someone wants to sign up for lifelong debates, she should know a few things about the debating style.  The intellectual claims, based on his own social theory, that the opinions of an opponent are not valid, they are just a cover-up for his dark intentions.  So, he refutes an argument never in the context in which it was developed, instead, he considers it as a totally different idea. And then shoots it down.  If someone does not know this and does not know the rules of the game, she will soon become extremely frustrated.  While the opponent has made a lot of effort to work out the argument that lead to the conclusion – the intellectual does not listen to her at all.  It is like the Maginot-Line of the French.  All engineering effort had been fully in vain when the enemy found a way around it.  If however one understands the strategies, the debate might be quite enjoyable which improves the relationship as well; though she will never convince him.  But it is not at all about convincing anyway.  It is more likely that she will impress him. She will be respected by him.  He will even become aware of her existence. Since the art of the debate functions like a sensory organ, he will see her much better.

She will succeed in achieving this more often, the more she beats him in the debate.  But such will rarely happen through a simple confrontation.  He will have set up his arguments already from the start in such a way that whoever holds the opposite opinion will encounter defeat.   Much better she deploys the famous three-step method: sidestep-analogy-moral discrediting.  The whole thing is like a swift fight move to shove the opponent into the morass of becoming morally discredited.   Such morasses are clearly marked on the maps of morality.  The intellectual also knows where these are and will try to avoid them.  The art of warfare is in the surprise of suddenly driving him into the morass when he least expects it.

For example, the intellectual says: “This pompous academic style is abominable. Nobody gets it: it is like Chinese.  Why do they have to use so many foreign terms? Why cannot they write in proper English?”

This statement is a multi-tasker.  In a talk-show it would get applause.  It is safely removed from the moral morass.   But watch: here come the side-step and the analogy: “He who is against foreign terms, is also against foreigners!”  You should see how fast the intellectual will disintegrate here.  Nobody would want to be in the company of the enemy of foreigners.  And then you move in for the kill: “Foreign terms are the Muslims of language!”  One more side-step and you can portray him as a neo-Nazi, a hater of foreigners, wishing to perform a veritable ethnic cleansing in exterminating all foreign terms from the language – while he was merely arguing for a more comprehensible style.  So is the art of debate among intellectuals.

One recognizes a couple where he is the intellectual based on the way how he distributes the responsibility for decision making.  He makes the really important decisions, for example the proper attitude about nuclear energy or about the Third World.   She decides about the unimportant details such as school, home or money.  This is the way the couple shares what is close by and what is afar.

While she is wondering why he cares so much about the overpopulation in India instead of taking care of the broken tap in the bathroom, he does not understand why she does not get this.  The broken tap is not something about which one can make himself look great.  He needs a grand stage for that.  One ought to get the UNESCO involved! In his mind he is already giving a lecture in front of the United Nations.  He is rehearsing in front of his wife.  She does not want to listen? So, then he will go over to Brigitte next door.  Though she is only a sales clerk, she is interested in such things.  The bathroom tap?  What am I, a plumber? She should call the trades.  I have more important things to care about.  Like the population explosion on the Indian subcontinent.  If we are not careful… Brigitte, I worry about the population explosion on the Indian subcontinent.  Have you read the article?  No? Come, I’ll explain it to you…

The media feeds the intellectual with a daily provision of news, about which one can opine.   The media connects him with his imaginary stage, the world.  The media maintains his phantasy room daily where he appears in the parliament, reads the Levites to the government, impeaches the president and reduces the taxes.  Here he receives foreign diplomats, finds the right words to greet them and governs for the good of the country and the entire planetary circle.  The media enable him to turn his back to the narrow domesticity of his home, and reach for the skies in his mind.

Then his girlfriend notices his strangely vacant gaze.  She has no idea that just this moment he is participating in the cabinet meeting advising the minister.
 

The Shape of Water – a movie review

The Shape of Water – a movie review

by

Howard Adelman

When I wrote my last blog on last week’s Torah portion, I said that the parshah was about recognition. To my surprise, this movie that I saw last evening is also about recognition, about a mute but not deaf woman, a “princess without a voice” who is as alien to her fellow humans (except one of her fellow cleaning partner, Zelda, played by Octavia Spencer) as the alien amphibian, neither centaur nor satyr, with whom she falls in love. It is also about the loneliness of the Josephs of this world who not only interpret dreams, but live their lives in a semi-permanent dreamy state.

This movie is La La Land on LSD, a paean to the power and magic of movies and dreams over the rational, the manipulative and controlling powers that be. Recall the lyrics of The Fools Who Dream:

My aunt used to live in Paris

I remember, she used to come home and tell us

stories about being abroad and

I remember that she told us she jumped in the river once

Barefoot

She smiled

Leapt, without looking

And She tumbled into the Seine!

The water was freezing

she spent a month sneezing

but said she would do it, again

Here’s to the ones who dream

Foolish, as they may seem

Here’s to the hearts that ache

Here’s to the mess we make

She captured a feeling

Sky with no ceiling

Sunset inside a frame

She lived in her liquor

and died with a flicker

I’ll always remember the flame

Here’s to the ones who dream

Foolish, as they may seem

Here’s to the hearts that ache

Here’s to the mess we make

She told me:

A bit of madness is key

to give us new colors to see

Who knows where it will lead us?

And that’s why they need us.

So bring on the rebels

The ripples from pebbles

The painters, and poets, and plays

And here’s to the fools

who dream

Crazy, as they may seem

Here’s to the hearts that break

Here’s to the mess we make

I trace it all back

to then

Her, and the snow, and the Seine

Smiling through it

She said

She’d do it, again.

 

This a fusion film of a potpourri of modes – farce and melodrama, tragedy and comedy, horror (think Creature from the Black Lagoon) and cold war spy thriller (think of The Manchurian Candidate and its story of cold war conspiracies), cartoon-coloured amid the predominant film noir bleakness, a movie about a gaggle of inept misfits and a coldblooded (literally) square-jawed professional CIA agent with an electric cattle prod, “an Alabama howdy-doo,” that sparks memories of the sheriffs in the deep south reinforced when we catch a glimpse of news on the TV. But most of all, it is a romance and an alien movie for adults, a very different version of Beauty and the Beast, for the maiden is far from a beauty on the outside, but, on the inside, this Chaplinesque heroine has a heart of pure gold.

Sally Hawkins, who plays Elisa Esposito, lives a lonely life with a gay next-door neighbour Giles, played by Richard Jenkins. Appropriately enough, both live above a dying movie theatre where together they watch romantic musicals on TV. But this is a feminist age. Elisa is not only lost in her dreams; she is both resourceful and courageous, calculating and down to earth. She masturbates in her bathtub every morning to an egg timer. She lives in Baltimore and never jumped into the Seine. But on a cold rainy night, she ends up in the Patapsco River.

The cameo on homophobia and racism in the second diner scene may be viewed as odd, but it fits in – if only because everything in the film is odd. Guillermo del Toro, who wrote and directed Pan’s Labyrinth, wrote, produced and directed this romantic fairy tale set in Baltimore in the early sixties at the time of the struggles against Jim Crow in the southern U.S. The movie is as relevant today as it was more than fifty years ago, even though “the times they are a changing.”

It is a film of beauty and pluck, of dark shadows and pastel coloured daylight. Reality is said to be the domain of rules and responsibilities in a crabbed and paranoid world, but the authentic realism belongs to the dreamers whose imaginations sore beyond the narrow strictures that could suffocate us all. For it is the primal and animalistic married to grace rather than gravity, wed to the sensual rather than the intellectual, that offers salvation. The enemy of beauty, the enemy of dreams, the enemy of the imagination turns out to be Occam’s Razor, for OCCAM is the name of the massive and secretive spy complex where the CIA agent worked. (Look for the huge sign on the front of the complex.)

Occam’s razor was a principle penned by an English Franciscan philosopher in the fourteenth century who insisted that simplicity was to be preferred in understanding the world to complexity. This movie turns Occam’s razor on its head and insists that complex realities are far more important than simplistic theories; the imagination is richer than uncomplicated but dogmatic heuristic guides.

Heraclitus wrote that we cannot step into the same river twice. Everything changes. But that does not mean we should not leap into it once, that we should not embrace change and difference rather than marry the stolid and the solid. In this movie, the devil is the CIA agent, Strickland, played wonderfully and menacingly, but comically, by Michael Shannon, while the divine role goes to the amphibian creature from the Amazon played by Doug Jones. Of course, the latter, like Jesus, can heal wounds with his touch – and even grow hair.

Here’s to the ones who dream

Foolish, as they may seem

Here’s to the hearts that ache

Here’s to the mess we make.

 

The Square – a movie review

The Square – a Movie Review

by

Howard Adelman

Yesterday, because of vociferous urging by our youngest son, we finally broke the bad habit we had slipped into of not going to the theatre to see movies. We saw the Swedish film, The Square. The film was the first Swedish film to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year and swept the European Film Awards with six wins in all the categories for which it was nominated – Best European Film, Best Comedy, Best Script, Best Director (Ruben Östland), Best Actor (Claes Bang) and Best Production Design (Josefin Asberg). I thought that it was one of the very best films that I had ever seen.

Yet no other star in the film, such as Dominic West and Elisabeth Moss, was nominated for an award. In the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, Critics Choice Awards representing 300 critics, and said to be the best predictor of Academy Award winners, the film received only one nomination, for best foreign film. There were 17 films nominated for more than one award ahead of it, only one of which I had seen, a terrific film directed by Dee Rees called Mudbound. But the latter did not even get one nomination. The Square was also nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film, an almost sure thing if it is selected for predicting the winner of the Academy Awards Best Foreign Film Category.

Given that record, how can I insist that The Square is one of the best, not just foreign films, but one of the best films that I have ever seen? Further, for this year’s nominations in both the Critics Choice Awards and the Golden Globes, though almost all the films nominated are on my list of must see movies, I have viewed virtually none of the top ranked films. How can I be trusted to rank what is “best” when I have not seen the vast majority of the nominations? That is the cost of getting out of the habit of going to see films in movie theatres. I lose status and credibility as a film commentator. Look at the magnificent list ignoring for the moment possible errors in the compilation:

Film                                                               Nominated

Critics Choice Awards             Golden Globes

The * indicates the films that I have seen.

The Shape of Water                  14                                         7

The Post                                        8                                         6

Three Billboards Outside

         Ebbing, Missouri                 6                                        6

Lady Bird                                       8                                        4

Call Me By Your Name                 8                                        3

The Greatest Showman                                                          3

I Tonya                                            5                                        3

Battle of the Sexes                         2                                        2

Coco                                                 2                                        2

The Disaster Artist                        1                                        2

Ferdinand                                        0                                        2

Get Out                                            5                                         2

Molly’s Game                                  0                                        2

*Mudbound                                     2                                        2

Phantom Thread                            3                                        2

All the Money in the World          0                                        1

*The Florida Project                      1

Churchill                                         0

Darkest Hour                                  1

Dunkirk                                           8

Blade Runner 2049                        7

The Big Sick                                    6

Phantom Thread                            1

*Logan                                             1

Downsizing                                     1

Thelma                                            1

A Fantastic Woman                      1

BPM (Beats Per Minute)              1

There are four other films Submitted for Oscars for Best Foreign Film that I have also not seen: In the Fade (Fatih Akin – Germany), Loveless (Andrey Zvyagintsev – Russia), First They Killed My Father* (Angelina Jolie – Cambodia) and A Fantastic Woman (Sebastíán Lelio – Chile).

Further, if I can throw more distrust your way about my commentary, when it comes to assessing the character and content of the film, I, as you will see, seem also to be off base. The film is advertised as a critique of postmodern art and postmodernism in general. It is that, but only in a minor key. A judge for an award said: “This is an intelligent, subtle and funny film that raises important issues: how to help the poor, how to deal with the media and attract them by creating a shock factor. And I also fell for the lead actor!”

The film is subtle, sometimes uproariously but also mordantly funny, and Claes Bang is both terrific and handsome as the lead actor, but for me it was a horror film. Further, though it dealt with a number of themes, including the tension between art for its own sake and the marketing of that art, it provided no help as a how-to-do-it film about dealing with the poor, the media or, for that matter, minorities, the opposite gender, sexual harassment, and a number of other topical issues. The Square is not a message film. It is a comment certainly on what is bad, but offered no hint about the good, only dilemmas, such as choosing between free speech versus sensitivity to others.

The Cannes jury president, none other than Pedro Almodóvar, described the movie as follows: “The film looks at the dictatorship of political correctness. It offers several examples of this. It is a very funny film, the actors are excellent and we considered giving the lead actor a Best Actor Award.” All of this is true. But none of it touches the greatness of the film. Even Ruben Östland’s comment that he tried to make a movie that tackled serious subjects but was also entertaining goes nowhere near the significance of the movie. Perhaps he was being modest. Perhaps he did not truly recognize the greatness of his art.

I am not going to write about the acting – which was terrific – nor the long takes and crisp cuts of the cinematography, a superb script capturing both everyday speech and highfalutin nonsense, the brilliant score and alternating background harsh noises, or the major and minor plot lines woven through the film. I will write only about the theme, a bonus since I will not introduce any spoilers.

Except for one. But it takes place in the first minute as an opening prologue to the film. The director comments on how he came to make the film by, with a friend and colleague, imagining that they could create a safe space where people can meet and not only not be harmed, but protected by others. Just as a crosswalk provides a safe place where pedestrians can cross a road and cars will respect (largely) the social contract that allows the space to function for its intended purpose, they envisioned creating a square with an inscription that declares the marked-off square to be a place of trust and caring: people passing would be encouraged to offer protection rather than to be indifferent to someone being victimized or simply in need of help.

This suggests a very large vision, and, as I shall soon indicate, a paradoxical problem at the centre of all the themes raised. In the film, “The Square” is the name of a contemporary art piece installed in front of a famous museum of modern art in the capital of Sweden, Stockholm. “The Square is made up of square stone blocks very little different from the rest of the plaza in which it is installed, except it is bounded by a continuous white light band with a bronze plaque defining the nature of the space.

But this is the paradox – a boundaried space that is safe and protective for everyone within that defined square but is extremely dangerous for those outside the boundaries. The Chinese monster film, The Great Wall with Matt Damon and directed by Zhang Yimou makes that point. But the square does more than a wall. For the boundary marks off trust inside and distrust outside, safety inside and high risk outside, caring for one another inside and indifference outside, high civilization inside and barbarism outside. Further, the space is very small relative to the vastness of the occasions for risk, danger, physical harm and social shame.

To make that point, the author dreams up a number of relatively trivial incidents set off by a scam asking for help, but turning into the obverse, victimizing the one offering help then followed like a repeating pistol directly or indirectly set off by the repercussions of the first act. Once civilization is displaced by chaos, it is very difficult to put the genie of chaos back into the bottle. Every effort to atone for the initial failure by owning up only bounces back to victimize the “liberal” bleeding heart once again.

Of course, this is about daily life where on street corners and outside grocery and drug stores we are asked for funds and cannot escape the trap of victimizing the helper of goodwill because of the daily spam messages we receive in our email, with all of the misspelling and grammar errors, reflecting either a poor education in English or a deliberate effort to sound authentic.

“Forgive my indignation if this message comes to you as a surprise and may offend your personality for contacting you without your prior consent and writing through this channel.

“I came across your name and contact on the course of my personal searching when i was searching for a foreign reliable partner. I was assured of your capability and reliability after going true your profile.

“I’m (Miss. Sandra) from Benghazi libya, My father of blessed memory by name late General Abdel Fattah Younes who was shot death by Islamist-linked militia within the anti-Gaddafi forces on 28th July, 2011 and after two days later my mother with my two brothers was killed one early morning by the rebels as result of civil war that is going on in my country Libya, then after the burial of my parents, my uncles conspired and sold my father’s properties and left nothing for me. On a faithful morning, I opened my father’s briefcase and discover a document which he has deposited ($6.250M USD) in a bank in a Turkish Bank which has a small branch in Canada with my name as the legitimate/next of kin. Meanwhile i have located the bank,and have also discussed the possiblity of transfering the fund. My father left a clause to the bank that i must introduce a trusted foreign partner who would be my trustee to help me invest this fund; hence the need for your assistance,i request that you be my trustee and assist me in e

“You will also be responsible for the investment and management of the fund for me and also you will help me get a good school where i will further my education.
I agreed to give you 40% of the $6.250M once the transfer is done. this is my true life story, I will be glad to receive your respond soonest for more details to enable us start and champion the transfer less than 14 banking days as i was informed by the bank manager.

“Thanks for giving me your attention,

“Yours sincerely,
Miss. Sandra Younes”

Of course, the movie is about postmodernism in general and postmodern art in particular. The most horrific but also most hilarious scene is one of pasty-white Swedes dressed to the nines at a formal luxury dinner of donors to the museum. A performance artist for the delight and the enlightenment of the audience is on offer as a prelude to the dinner. They had clearly not understood the meaning of the boundaries of the square described at the prelude to the movie, for as soon as one strays outside or invites the primitive within, the very thin patina of civilized behaviour is put at grave risk. Is that reality or merely a reflection and projection of their own fears?

The simplicity, the repetitions and variations of the different sketches all loosely tied together by the main plot, are all exaggerated by the cinematography that stresses minimalism and alternates between long shots and close ups – the most horrifying perhaps than even the dinner, the scene of sweaty but emotionless and vacant sex. Order is a chimera. The greater reality is of chaos and the principle that the flapping of a butterfly’s wings can send waves that disturb the order in a radically different realm. In this one, the disturbances come from the suburban Swedish equivalents to the Parisian banlieues. Modernism is about order and predictability. In art, Jackson Pollock destroyed the reign even of minimalism’s focus on line and colour and shape and opened the door to performance art and the mounds of earth and gravel piled up like well-ordered rows of pyramids in an art gallery.

As babies disturb conference meetings, as chimpanzees are owned as pets in one’s apartment, as children accompany dad to work, as the boundaries between work and home, between privacy and the public world, between what is liberal that morphs into a strain a fascism, all break down, as the line between the lecture and the press conference, between a detached objectivity in art and an involved and engaged subjectivity, between using words and images for communication and their use for arousal of fundamental passions in order to gain the attention of a very jaundiced audience, all break down, as borders are traversed, crossed and they disintegrate like the continuous strain of sound of demolishing structures in the background sound track, we are all put at risk.

At the base, there is the breakdown of the boundary between art and science, between subjective expression and empathetic involvement, between subjectivity and objectivity. The Swedes are the embodiment on this globe of the latter that percolated into an ethics of engagement and commitment that meant a higher percentage of refugees relative to the existing population than even in Germany were allowed entry through the new humanitarian sieve of aid to refugees. There could be no better place to locate such a movie.

It is expressed in the effusive and tangled apologetics for concept art that itself questions the idea of art framed in a boundaried space and in a boundaried place like an art gallery, that even makes a claim that art itself is the expression of the destruction of boundaries even when the main piece of art on display is a simple boundaried two-dimensional plane of supposed safety and security, but which erupts like a volcano out of nowhere into three-dimensional so-called reality. It may have been science that let chaos out of its cage, but it becomes the duty of art to put it on display in all its wondrous glory. How do you do it without either adopting a modernist stance of portraying it all with a camera detached and at a distance while engaging the audience’s fears and fantasies?

Chaos theory may have been imported in daily life metaphors to emphasize disruption rather than predictability as the norm, to brand outright lies as the only truth and to make the claim that news organizations aiming at objective truth are the foremost purveyors of “false news,” thereby making room for the coverage of lies to dominate the news cycle. For what is important is not what people say about you, but that they talk about you. Chaos theory in science may emphasize the importance of non-linear connectivity as a foundation for understanding complex behaviour, but art is left with the responsibility of making sense of this detritus.

Hence an art movie that is terribly, literally “terribly” entertaining, while, at the same time, both delivering a profound message and laughing at the message itself. Misunderstandings, misrepresentations, mis-communication all become the “order” of the day in which even the purely scientific idea of chaos theory is turned into garbage as it is translated into so-called art and metaphor and the theory itself is twisted beyond all recognition.

Jean-François Lyotard in chapter 8 of his volume, The Inhuman: Reflections on Time, entitled, “Something like: ‘Communication …without communication,” raised the question about communicating to a public a theme that displayed and put on view the atomization of modern society to the point where it became postmodern and it became an absurdity to create art, the subject matter of which was non-communication. Immanuel Kant in his Critique of Judgement had stated a basic premise of modernist aesthetic theory. Taste is “the faculty of judging what renders our feeling, proceeding from a given representation, universally communicable without the modulation of a concept.” What if there is no way to determine a “given” representation? What if every representation has been modulated to death by concepts? What if the only thing universal is not understanding and not communicating but misunderstanding and non-communication? How then can an artist portray such a situation without him or herself becoming trapped in the square of safety that has now become a centre of chaos and disruption?

In the movie, the real chaos is set in process when the marketing people take control with the categorical imperative of getting people to pay attention to an effort at communicating the essence of the high priest of ethical modernism which dictates that we are all to treat others as an end and not merely a means. We are all commanded to protect and care for one another. But when the ethical end itself explodes in our face because of the effort to communicate the message widely, the creature of chaos has been let out of its cage and barbarism has been permitted entry into the refined sensibilities of the world of high art.

If in my reading of Hegel, we have been taught that we can never escape the dictatorship of concepts that percolate through all our thoughts like a rat infestation. Then there is no ethics that can grasp grace. There is no art that can escape the conceptual, and all art becomes conceptual art. How do we illustrate and represent Christian, the CEO of this modern art museum who is a Christian at heart, how do we portray, represent and communicate a message of brotherly and sisterly love when Christian morality seems to have no place in the world of art, in representation, in communication, and, therefore, in its logical conclusion, in society at all? Everything turns to dust which can then be ordered into regular pyramids in a gallery, line after line, row after row, only to be disturbed and be remade by the cleaning technology of a modern sweeping machine and its operator.

If there is no beauty left as the touch point of art, if beauty has been destroyed as the necessary a priori condition of all art whatsoever, if there is no universal principle behind art and art has become the display of the absence of such a principle, how can we be made to be present in the face of an absence? Why have museums of modern art, let alone museums of postmodern art which undermine the whole role of museums altogether? How can we pretend to have art that is even about a community of feeling, even in a very symmetrical and relatively very small square in front of our museum? If the message is to communicate the absence of communication, the dissolution of a community of empathy, and the theme that we have permitted the barbarians through the gate that protected art, and beauty and goodness as an aristocratic privilege in society, how can that be represented? The lineal and the figurative are all swept up in the dustbin of history by the cleaning staff and their mechanistic monsters that remake art beyond recognition.

For the ultimate question raised in the film is how and where we can give to one another when we are so bereft of the concept of grace, when grace itself cannot be grasped except as an abstract idea rather than a basic emotion, when Christ has become but a name for a postmodern art curator who is at heart a hapless Charlie Chaplin creation? When the immediacy of attachment has been driven off the surface of our planet, how can there even be mediated attachment? When everything becomes the calculation of the marketer, of public relations entailing neither a public nor any relations, but only manipulation, it won’t matter whether we drive an electric car, try fruitlessly to atone for our mistakes or make meagre efforts to contribute to the well-being of the world. Chaos and barbarism have become all the rage.

When we try to define space and a time for safety and security, but the place is here only in this place and only for the moment that it is on display, the here-and-now are essentially lost and there can be no grace – only representation of it as a vanishing cloud of smoke above an explosion. When there is no reality to reference, everything becomes smoke, but only with mirrors that cannot reflect even the smoke, even as it tries in scene after scene to offer variations on that representation. When the sensible, when the apple is an apple is an apple, has been driven from the screen, so too follow the sensitive and the sensible into the fiery storm of sensation. And there is no sublime – only the ridiculous.

 

The Promise – a movie review

The Promise – a movie review

by

Howard Adelman

I am not breaking my summer silence, merely taking a recess. The cause is a movie I saw on television last night called The Promise. It is about the Armenian genocide. If I was a true film aficionado, I would know about the film, whether I had seen it or not. But I not only did not see it when it was released, but I had not heard of it. I initially thought I had an excuse because the release date that I read was 27 May 2017. However, the actual release date in Canada was 21 April 2017. Further, it was at TIFF in 2016. In any case, my lame excuse had been that I went north to my island for the rainy and cold month of June and did not return fully until July.

Before I begin the review, a few, and perhaps too many, words about the Armenian genocide. As is well known, successive and very different Turkish regimes have denied the existence of any intentional slaughter of the up to 1.5 million Armenians killed in that slaughter. The Armenians were killed, the Turks claim, because they allegedly started a civil war. Civilians were killed in the crossfire. They were casualties of war, not deliberately murdered. In any case, the Turks insist, the numbers that died is grossly exaggerated.

They are not. The genocide took place as depicted.

I became a secondary scholar of the Armenian genocide when I was asked by the Toronto School Board to sit with two other academics, experts on the Holocaust, to adjudicate whether the story of the genocide should be included on the curriculum for high school students in Toronto. Deliberately, not one of asked to serve on this voluntary judicial advisory committee because we had published on the Armenian genocide. The Board of Education wanted expertise without offering grounds for the formal Turkish government complaint to subsequently declare a prior bias.

This was, of course, not entirely possible. All three of us were familiar with Holocaust deniers. I certainly knew of Rwandan genocide deniers, or those who try to mitigate that tragedy, though the latter position was virtually impossible to sustain. Instead, in the case of Rwanda, deflection is used – a practice with which every reader is likely to be extremely familiar since the election of President Donald Trump. The claim is that President Kagame of Rwanda has been systematically slaughtering Hutu since the Tutsi-led rebels invaded Rwanda and initiated the civil war in 1990. The numbers killed on each side, these genocide distractors imply, are about equal. This past month, I was asked to review a research paper that edged in this way towards apologetics. However ruthless President Kagame may be as an elected dictator in Rwanda, any fair examination of his record, positive and negative, would not declare him to be a genocidaire.

However, the Turks, and their successive governments of very different stripes, have been united perhaps on only one topic for over one hundred years  – the persistent and insistent denial of the Armenian genocide.  A Turkish graduate student of mine – not an Armenian – wanted to write a thesis on the Armenian refugees in WWI. Somehow the Turkish government heard of it. A representative of the Turkish embassy in Ottawa paid me a visit when I was the founding director of the Centre for Refugee Studies at York University. He asked generally whther any student was writing about refugees, particularly from Turkey, during I disclosed nothing but informed my student. That student, fearing punishment on any return to Turkey, switched topics.

On the committee, I read much of the scholarly literature on the Armenian genocide as well as the Turkish propaganda denying its occurrence. What was distinctive from the Jewish and the Armenian genocides is that, in this case, there were two reputable scholars who denied that a systematic government-led effort to slaughter and forcefully relocate the Armenians had taken place. The vast majority of scholarly conclusions – as the committee claimed in its report to the Board of Education – supported the claims of genocide. Though the committee did not find that the evidence for the Armenian genocide taking place was incontrovertible or unassailable – there are very few historical events in which this is the case – the committee concluded that the overwhelming preponderance of evidence, and the logical flaws of the deniers, made it unquestionable that the Armenian genocide should be taught as a segment of actual history on a high school curriculum and without providing any necessity to make room for the literature of deniers. The evidence was as indisputable and indubitable as one can find in historiography. Yet two films appeared relatively recently that bordered on genocide denial – The Ottoman Lieutenant and Russell Crowe’s Water Diviner.

All this is to say that when I watched the film, I had no distraction or concern that the genocide had taken place. However, I was bothered somewhat by the implication that Turkey during the dying days of the Ottoman empire and even the beginnings of the Young Turk takeover in the aftermath of the disastrous Turko-Russian War largely waged in the Balkans in 1912, was simply a prosperous multicultural society. It certainly had that appearance. But just as there had been early warnings of a genocide in Rwanda with some trial efforts at mass slaughter, the warnings in Turkey were far clearer with the slaughter of 100,000 to 300,000 Armenians in the massacres of 1894-95 by the paramilitary Hamidye (the Interahamwe militias were used in Rwanda) and the 10,000–30,000 murdered by units of the armed forces in the Adana massacre of March-April 1909. However, as most scholars point out, a pogrom does not constitute a genocide. But pogroms can be precursors.

Thus, the film is correct in dating the formal start of the genocide to 24 April 1915 when several hundred Armenian professionals and intellectuals were rounded up and interned, with the vast majority eventually being killed. Second, the film depicts the second stage of the genocide when young Armenian (as well as Assyrian and Greek Christian) males from their teens to their forties were arrested, subjected to forced labour and murdered en masse in the process. The third phase of the slaughter portrays whole Armenian villages and towns put to the torch and Armenian older men, women and children set out on a forced march to Syria, where, on route, the vast majority perished in the desert which they attempted to cross with inadequate supplies of food and water. In the finale, the film portrays the brave and victorious Armenian 53-day self-defence by the Armenians from the villages of Kabusia (Kaboussieh), Yoghunoluk, Bitias, Vakef, Kheter Bey (Khodr Bey) and Haji Habibli  at the mountain, Musa Daği (ironically, Moses’ Mountain) recorded in Franz Werfel’s  novel, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, until over 4,000 Armenians were rescued by the French navy.

The genocidal scenes are handled with mastery by the director, Terry George, and constitute a complement to the beauty and variety and richness of Constantinople before the war. Terry George entered this project with a stellar reputation from directing Hotel Rwanda and, before that, Some Mother’s Son (1991) about the 1981 IRA prisoner hunger strike, In the Name of the Father (1993) and The Boxer (1997), the latter two both starring Daniel Day Lewis. Unlike these depictions of the troubles in Northern Ireland, The Promise is directed on an epic scale with wonderful crowd scenes varying from the throngs in the markets of Istanbul to the forced labourers to the mass deportations in cattle cars and the forced march of the Armenian inhabitants of towns and villages. The leads portrayed by Oscar Isaac as Mikael Poghosian, an apothecary with a determination to become a doctor, Charlotte Le Bon as the vivacious and vibrant Ana, and Christian Bale as the famous American journalist, Chris Meyers.

So what is wrong with the film? Why is it not the Armenian equivalent to Schindler’s List? It is certainly not the cinematography which is gorgeous – perhaps all-too-gorgeous, even in the scenes about the flight. Unlike Atom Egoyan’s 2003 imperfect movie Ararat, also on the Armenian genocide, the flaw in The Promise is in the script co-written by Terry George and Robin Swicord. The weakness is not because they used a romantic triangle among the three to anchor the film in the personal, but because the triangle remains too central when the belated portrayal of the genocide begins. Further, it turns into a contrived and cloying series of segments through the latter half of the movie. Finally, and I could not figure why, there is almost no sexual chemistry between Ana and Mikael.

Some reviewers that I read this morning found this simply to be a distraction. For other reviewers, it spoiled the film. While I agree with the consensus on the sentimental and manipulated personal narrative at the core of the film, the power of the portrayal of the genocide, the brilliant directing and cinematography, and the wonderful acting, even though the character of Mikael Poghosian is too much of a goody-two-shoes for me, the events and their portrayal more than make up for this lapse so that I was mesmerized by the film and would have rated it much higher than the negative and barely positive reviews that I read.

However, do not read the reviews before you watch the movie. I did not, and very rarely do, for, in this case, review after review egregiously offer an account of the plot in great detail. A script which allowed reviewers to be distracted from the main and very important subject matter can be blamed on the screenwriters, but reviewers are as much to blame for allowing their narrative sensibilities to detract from the power of the movie.

It is a must see. And it does not cost nearly as much to watch on TV as in a movie theatre, though I desperately wish I had viewed the panoramic scenes on a large movie screen.

 

with the help of Alex Zisman