Daily Archives: Sunday, July 30, 2006

  • Same Difference?

    Same Difference? by Tom Jennings
    [Essay on cinema representations of European Asians & Muslims, published in Variant, No. 23, May 2005]
    [see also Part Two: ‘Breaking Cover’, Variant, No. 24, September 2005 – discussing documentary representations of British and European Muslim women]
    Same Difference? by Tom Jennings
    [essay on film representations of British and European Asians and Muslims, published in Variant, No. 23, May 2005]

    “The media and politicians don’t talk about Christian extremism, fundamentalism or terrorism – but everyone who considers themselves a Muslim feels tainted due to the propaganda use of 9/11” (Paul Laverty)1
    Adding to the abiding casual cruelty of skin prejudice, people of Asian descent in Britain have faced a panoply of extra pressures in the last three years or so as a result of government panic based on ‘intelligence’ concerning external and internal threats of international (unofficial) terror – handily projected into the ‘strangeness’ of diasporic Islamic culture, in concert with displacing the blame for the withdrawal of welfare onto migrants and refugees instead of needing to feed the greed of corporate gangmasters. However, from recent current affairs and documentary exposure of the dishonesty and duplicity of mainstream institutional and megabusiness interests,2 it is becoming more widely understood how political ideology in the age of hyperreal spin routinely manufactures history in ways fictional genres hitherto scarcely imagined. Narrative construction and the elaboration of fantasy with contemporary visual technologies clearly resonate with media-saturated publics at levels of effectivity different from the more traditional reliance on dispassionate journalism and intellectual integrity. In any case, given the age-old capacity of stories to appeal to our deepest feelings and to change perceptions and behaviour, fiction may also have a role in subverting the patterns of domination in late capitalist governance – just as the hidden transcripts of folk culture and common vernacular have always sustained the oppressed and confounded power.
    So, this essay reviews two high profile fictional film representations of the lives of British Muslim people. Their production was motivated by a wish on the part of non-Muslims to set the record straight with realistic portrayals of men, women, families and social networks just as complex and multilayered in morality, ethics, problems and behaviour as any other groups within a modern multiracial, multicultural society. Readings of these films are then set against a work of European cinema released at the same time to similar levels of acclaim but with no such issue-led raison d’être – but whose subject matter might offer comparable if contrasting depth in this respect. Finally, the closing section assesses the significance of these and other popular cultural representations of Asian or Muslim Westerners, attempting to sketch out the grounds upon which a recognition can be nurtured of the presence of conflictual diversity in us all. Acknowledging how differences between us necessarily and irrevocably cohabit and mingle with our similarities may undermine the us-and-them crusader rhetoric of Islamophobia along with the deeper-seated (conscious and unconscious) white racism lurking behind it – as well as in the long run eroding the further horizons of all cultural/ethnic and biological essentialisms too.
    Family Matters1. Home and the Broken-HeartedDirector Ken Loach and scriptwriter Paul Laverty changed tack for Ae Fond Kiss (2004) – their third collaboration set in the West of Scotland following My Name Is Joe (1998) and Sweet Sixteen (2002) – in response to the dehumanising vilification of Muslims whipped up by the media and politicians since 9/11, and the consequently heightened everyday hostility experienced by British Asians. Laverty felt obliged to “do a story that saw Muslim people as rounded human beings; and family life as family life is everywhere, with its tensions and jealousies and guilts and the rest of it.” Similarly, to Loach: “Families are families; the surface details change but the emotional blackmail is the same … and there’s always rebellion”.3
    Ae Fond Kiss sees the comfortable Khans from Glasgow’s southside arrange marriage between a distant cousin from Pakistan and their only son Casim (Atta Yaqub). He intervenes in a fracas between his sister Tahara (Shabana Bakhsh) and classmates when meeting her from her Catholic school, and a mutual attraction with Irish music teacher Roisin (Eva Birthistle)4 leads to them becoming lovers and a short break in Spain. They split over his impending marriage but reconcile when he comes clean with his parents. Then she is sacked because her priest (Gerard Kelly) denounces her for living in sin with a Muslim. His older sister Rukhsana (Ghizala Avan) plots to wreck the relationship to save her own marriage plans, and parents Tariq (Ahmad Riaz) and Sadia (Shamshad Akhatar) plead with Casim for family honour, offering as collateral the house extension built for him. His friend Hammid (Shy Ramzan) lives with a white woman but keeps it secret, and advises against sacrificing the entire family for a girl.5 Their final ploy flies in prospective bride Jasmine (Sunna Mirza) plus family behind Casim’s back, contriving Roisin to witness the scene. She storms off but when Tahara tells him all, he rushes to Roisin’s side …
    The narrative arc of the story depends on Tariq’s insistence on ruling the Khan roost. Starting as effective comedy,6 this increasingly turns to pathos and farce as he refuses to acknowledge the limits of his power, culminating in hysterically smashing up the extension. Unfortunately his tragic experiences during the 1947 post-imperial partition of India7 are declaimed like a sermon halfway through the film rather than being woven into the story, which short-circuits any audience sympathy won by Riaz’ ebullient performance. Similarly, in the early sequence where Casim and Roisin first meet, Tahara makes a political speech listing her many conflicting loyalties and identifications.8 But while her intelligence and determination are heartening, we can’t appreciate the context of her (or her siblings’) development in and outside the family. Unexplained individual traits are forced to extremes in recognisably Loachian melodramatic fashion, and the chances of resonance among those whose families are “the same everywhere” correspondingly recede.
    Variously lined up in traditional family structure positions – a device to represent diversity among UK Muslims – scant depth is shown in the Khans’ personal relationships, and we struggle to sense their feelings for each other. Worse, Roisin’s biography (including a failed marriage) is only mentioned in passing, so no parallels can be imagined between the lovers in terms of the demands of the past, the development of self in the family or its influence on present orientations and decisions. Birthistle is a strong and convincing actress playing a resolute character, whereas Casim’s dissembling makes him a rather unconvincing lover for her – seeming morally cowardly in concealing his concerns. But Yaqub is a novice actor and fails to convey ambivalence – unfairly matching the disproportionate pressures forming Casim’s character against her scripted mystery and fortitude – and we are further unable to interpret her surprise at the trouble their relationship causes among his family.9 Roisin’s apparent lack of connection to her ‘roots’ may indicate a decline of family values compared to their importance among those of Pakistani descent, but the erasure of her backstory makes it impossible to compare strategies of negotiation under varying terms of parental control. Plus, if the filmmakers’ preferred culture clash was in fact regressive conservatism versus secular modernism (in Islam/Rome disguise), then equity would surely require showing the kinship of both.
    Seen as an unremarkable classic romance, Ae Fond Kiss unbalances the middle class aimlessness of its personable lovers with Casim’s ‘issues’, rather than critically examining these.10 Their future indeed seems full of hope; however, we learn nothing either about Roisin’s or the Khans’ class backgrounds. The nearest we get to economic threat is her priest’s “Tom, Dick or Mohammed” prejudice complicating Roisin’s career, while the Khan seniors’ intransigence revolves around social, cultural and economic capital – and Casim’s accountancy degree and college DJing coalesce in entrepreneurial nightclub ambitions, Rukhsana aims to maintain family integrity and achieve happiness in her arranged marriage into higher social status, and Tahara intends to escape to train in journalism. However, in lower class contexts family honour may be felt as a more desperate matter – where, given the prevailing institutional and everyday white racisms, the status at stake is that of survival and acceptance as part of society/humanity rather than stratifying superiority. Poorer young British Asians who find economic autonomy more problematic thus face different “fetters on their choices”11 in responding to generational and official control. Perhaps Yasmin (2004), grounded in West Yorkshire’s more downmarket provincialism, could contemplate some of the commonplace socio-economic realities that Ae Fond Kiss ignores.12
    2. Marriage of InconvenienceYasmin was developed by director by Kenny Glenaan because “There’s an invisible war happening in Britain which British Caucasians may or may not see, but for the Muslims of our country, it’s similar to being Irish in the 70s and 80s – guilty until proven innovent”; with the intention of giving “a positive portrayal of British Muslim experience, post 9/11, as a way of almost putting your fist through this notion of Islamophobia that’s grown up since”.13 The eponymous local authority care worker (Archie Panjabi) drives from a terraced house on a Keighley estate in traditional Muslim hijab and burqa and en route changes into casual Western gear for work and pub sessions with colleagues – including John (Steve Jackson), with whom friendship may develop into intimacy (though she confides nothing of her home life). Then she reverts to dutiful unpaid caregiving for her strict father (Renu Setna) and teenage brother Nasir (Syed Ahmed) – who also defers to custom in morning prayer duties at the mosque, but otherwise indulges in petty drug dealing and consorting with local girls.
    Yasmin’s respect (though not, perhaps, ‘love’) for and loyalty to her father has even stretched to agreeing to unconsummated marriage to rural Pakistani goatherd Faysal (Shahid Ahmed) until his UK citizenship is assured, but she barely tolerates his presence or parental authority – and her increasingly caustic tongue suggests she’s marking time. Then after September 11th the uneasy local equilibrium goes sour, with increasing hostility at work, abuse in public, and a complex range of fear, confusion and anger on the home front. Faysal’s regular international phone calls to relatives lead to SWAT teams swooping on him, Yasmin and John; but rather than seize the chance to get shot of her spouse she stands vigil till he’s finally released and falls into her arms. Meanwhile Nasir’s seduction by recruiting jihadis sees him preparing to leave for training in Afghanistan.
    Yasmin may capture the outrageously arbitrariness of Blunkett et al’s blind bungling sweep through Muslim neighbourhoods. But shoehorning in so many urgent domestic ramifications of the War on Terror means that the thoroughness required to portray the details of how Yasmin’s personal situation has developed get squeezed into perfunctory signposted moments and backstory references to make time for the menacing armed police thriller farce.14 At least the denouement is left open when she visibly begins to reorient to her marriage and future and the place of Muslim customs in her life – Ae Fond Kiss also refused to foreclose on any options, though in woolly optimism compared to resignation here. But, again, what is sacrificed is the emotional ebb and flow of individual growth amidst the seductions of Western lifestyle and consumerist fulfilment as against submersion in or submission to whatever illusory or real comfort and security home and community can promise. The former offer little beyond her second-hand cabriolet, given Yasmin’s white Keighleyites’ implausibly unanimous cruel indifference shading into violent hatred – apart from one elderly shopper chastising youths throwing milk over Muslim women in the street.15 Before and after being banged up, John also far too easily succumbs to basic prejudice for Yasmin ever to have taken him seriously.
    In fact all her work, family and neighbourhood relationships are rendered in cursory cartoonish sketches16 – yet it is precisely the fine-grain of these that would have encouraged genuine understanding of and empathy with her choices (such as they are), especially when both script and Panjabi’s superb acting illuminate a forceful, imaginative and highly intelligent, as well as believably impatient, ambivalent and troubled, personality.17 Not that weak, boring, stupid simpletons like Faysal deserve their fate either, but the unintentionally victimological nature of Yasmin’s diagnosis squashes any agency for local British Muslims beyond surrender to the righteous proponents of violent jihad parachuting in to regiment their confusion. Its most effective exaggerations reflect the shifting local tectonics after 9/11 whereupon everyone’s complacencies are shaken – but the orchestration of collective neurosis in the background hum of Bush/Blair’s banal ‘peace and freedom’ bullshit are mirrored in the film’s subsequent lazy hyperbole. Nowithstanding the alibi that “everything in the script actually happened”,18 the question of what might happen next eludes active viewer involvement almost as much as the cast’s heavily circumscribed capabilities.
    Furthermore, both Yasmin and Ae Fond Kiss unnecessarily situate their young protagonists’ dilemmas predominantly against the stark demands of first-generation immigrant parents trying to sustain dignity in the face of massive dislocations in their lives, translated into a determination to bequeath to their children the emotional and cultural resources that have kept them going. Obviously this has been a central unifying dynamic in most British Asian family histories; but its defensive, backward-looking construals have for at least two decades been overlain with the desire and practical orientation to explore the fullest range of possibilities available in UK society. Put briefly, second, third and fourth generations increasingly grow up with a phenomenological ‘knowledge’ of being British – blurring into  an immense diversity of other entangled individual and social identifications.19 Regrettably, the structural imperative in these two films to instruct ignorant white viewers of the historical underpinnings of Asian traditionalism leads to oversimplistic opposition rather than complex interaction – implying that acknowledgement and incorporation of Asianness inevitably compromises Britishness and vice versa.20
    This crude dichotomising of lived spectra extends most damagingly in Yasmin to Nasir’s unlikely lurch from general Western adolescent decadence into Al-Qaeda training21 – when lifestyle, cultural, economic and political developments are infinitely richer even in the grimmest parts of West Yorks.22 Yet again the material expressions of the white liberal imagination show accidental affinity with explicit far-right racism in reducing their objects to cardboard stereotypes.23 In the process, centuries of radical humanist and internationalist Islamic philosophy and practice24 – as well as recent British Asian mobilisation in grassroots labour militancy, Black anti-racist politics and contemporary multicultural interplay25 – all disappear into the medievalist fundament. But surely, even if casualties of integration and assimilation must be seen at the purely individual level beloved of UK social realism, their putative tragedy should still be capable of imaginative moulding into some manner of positive potential without disavowing the potency of poisonous circumstances. The German film Gegen die Wand relishes this task and tackles it Head-On.
    3. DIY Arrangements Although chronicling the self-arranged marriage, separation and love of two Turkish-German misfits and family exiles via a variety of traumatic vicissitudes, Head-On’s writer and director Fatih Akin26 had no intention of engaging in social critique: “I never thought much about the cultural environment; that’s really from my subconscious … The media focused on the background; the audience beyond the media see the love story and not the culture clash”.27 Like the two UK films, Head-On hysterically ratchets up the melodramatic excess arising here from the psychically fragile main characters’ self-destructiveness. Thus no one could mistake them as representative of anything other than human distress in extremis – so if their struggles to live and love are to be interpreted in terms of social, cultural and political reality, this will have to be a deliberate conscious exercise rather than any spoon-fed pat contrivance.
    Starting in the working class Hamburg district of St Pauli,28 young Sibel Güner (Sibel Kekilli29) notices middle-aged potman loser Cahit Tomruk (Birol Ünel) at a psychiatric hospital, after he drove into a wall when debilitating depression overtook the palliative of drink and drugs. She has slit her wrists (again) to escape the traditional family suffocation ordered by father Yunus (Demir Gokgol) and violently enforced by brother Yilmaz (Cem Akin) – while her mother Birsen (Aysel Iscan) is sympathetic but helpless. Intrigued by Sibel’s spirit and passion for sensation, Cahit agrees to her proposal of sham marriage, and his old friend Seref (Güven Kiraç) helps fool the folks.30 After the wedding he gradually falls for her despite her reckless promiscuity, and gets her a hairdressing job with occasional girlfriend Maren (Catrin Striebeck). But when he’s jailed for the manslaughter of one of her more misogynist flings, her furious family patriarchs rumble the deception thanks to the media coverage. Fearing for her safety she flees to yuppie cousin Selma (Meltem Cumbul) in Istanbul after pledging to wait for him.
    Crop-haired, devoid of ornamentation and drained of zest, she confides in a letter to Cahit that she is “the only lifeless thing in this city”. Abandoning drudge work as a chambermaid at Selma’s hotel, she roams the streets in a chemical haze and is raped by a barman at a disreputable club. Her downward spiral culminates in trumping the insults of three thugs with florid speculation about them, their wives and mothers, and she is found in the gutter beaten to a pulp and gutstabbed – apparently fatally. On leaving jail Cahit borrows Seref’s savings to reach Istanbul, and patiently seeks to link up with her. Eventually she comes to him and they make love for the only time. Though now living with her taxi driver saviour and their son, she agrees to consider starting afresh with Cahit in his ancestral family village. However, she doesn’t turn up at the bus station rendezvous, so Cahit embarks alone …
    The film segments are separated by scenes of a traditional Turkish band playing gorgeously haunting love songs to camera on the shore of the Golden Horn (the Asian side of the Bosphorus) with Istanbul’s St Sophia over the water. This foregrounding of Turkish cultural aesthetics grows in satisfying effect, meantime recalling Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Brechtian use of narrative dislocation to enhance emotional intensity.31 Conversely Cahit’s somewhat naff (despite Ünel’s valiant efforts) punk posing is reminiscent of the amour fou of the fashionable French cinema du look. If yet another influence was the uncompromising grit of (the far from black and white) La Haine – itself referencing nouvelle vague and new African American cinema – and the ghettocentric cinema du banlieue cycle that film inaugurated, 32 the sense grows of a postmodern existentialism where many popular and artfilm roads cross.
    Head-On’s unique and truly innovative cinematic culture crash envisages the past, present and future – as well as ethnic identification, pride and straitjacketing – as utterly and intrinsically inseparable. Each tangle layers, filters and deepens the significance of events; in the process rendering as redundant all simple or absolute moral judgements. Generational and gender conflict, the exigencies of class and social status and tragic romance also blend, but in this film conventional characterisations are utterly upturned while the chances of personal redemption depend on the sharing of love, pain and hope between men and women in social networks they shape according to their own biographical, family, friendship and cultural accidents. All chime inwards and outwards and can be mobilised – in turns or simultaneously – for narcissistic, cathartic, affectionate, defensive or altruistic purposes. Choices made are provisional and ambiguous – including the ending where utopia of love fails to transpire; but hope is not lost.
    The prodigious volume of blood, guts, death and darkness on show (though annoying most critics) refers steadfastly to all the mortifying wounds both of history and of the spirit – representing social-psychosomatic resources which belong to the protagonists to deploy on their own account, whether purposively or on autopilot. When Cahit muses, “Without her, I could not have survived”, the film is so characterising all of the poignant, magical and dangerous uncertainties in life, including the cultural materials available for reclamation by personal and collective selves. Similarly there is absolutely no hypocrisy in Sibel resisting male street hassle by declaiming her protected status as a married Turkish woman. The performative subversion of identity in the languages of institutional discourse and discipline allows liberation to be conceivable if the future is destabilised – or it can be fixed in reactionary stasis.33 Even the major structural lacuna in the final cut – Sibel’s uncharted conversion to loyal partner and mother – can be interpreted as Akin’s respectful bow to the ‘unknown continent’ of femininity; or as an acknowledgement of the limited capacity of Eurocentric knowledge, Occidental genre or liberal capitalism to orient to the mysterious Orient in everyone.
    Collisions, Collusions, Conclusions British cinemagoers now have twenty-years of cross-cultural romance under their belts since director Stephen Frears and writer Hanif Kureishi started the ball rolling with My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987) – and their detailed imbrications of class, race, gender and sexual orientation in dynamic domestic political contexts continued with Isaac Julien’s Young Soul Rebels (1991).34 However,  it wasn’t until Gurinder Chadha’s marvellous Bhaji on the Beach (1993) that a British film could treat these themes by adopting a perspective wholly within the social network of a specific ‘ethnic minority’ community – whose characters, furthermore, weren’t primarily concerned with the condescending vagaries of either upper middle class sensibilities or lower middle class aspirations.35 Since then the range of Asian experiences and contexts depicted comically, melodramatically or tragically has broadened, though problematic and/or forbidden love is still usually a key narrative driver.36
    The exploration of comic potential has also been exhaustively mined, finding its most effective expression in television comedy’s time-honoured antecedents in music hall vulgarity and the deflating of pretensions and the sitcom preoccupation with class and family respectability. The BBC2 series Goodness Gracious Me and The Kumars at No. 42 partook of both old and new generic markers,37 and its affectionately exuberant skewering of British Asian stereotypes succeeded in appealing to unprecedentedly large audiences while consistently exploding the one-dimensional attributions that white racism (and ‘well-meaning’ liberal efforts) typically doles out to British Asian men, women and children.38 Capturing with such flair the intimate fluctuations of warmth and callousness common to ‘quality time’ in most families of all backgrounds may have been the crucial stroke of genius here. And whether the viewer’s connection to narrative hinges on laughter or pain, it’s striking that relationships between the generations provide the most poignant tensions in virtually all of the fictional families so far discussed.
    Generational conflict embraces the expectations, hopes and aspirations for children which stem from the parents’ own experiences of being parented in specific circumstances, but now reversing roles in new contexts, environments and more or less pressurised conditions. The offspring’s responses further vary according to the degree of cognitive, emotional and material autonomy carved out so far, and the relative amenability of parental authority to reinforcement in the extended family, neighbourhood, culture, religion and patterns of government. Economic constraints are, as always, crucial in that the comforts and agonies of home life derive their most powerful significance depending on the choices available or withheld – and the physical, spatial and psychic room there is to come to know about and reflect on these possibilities as well as in ascribing responsibility for them.
    In particular, the interplay of gender and generation inflects responses to masculinism, in British Asian families just as for other groups despite the massive divergences of historical and biographical particulars. Gender differences are especially acute in poor areas, where macho orientation and camaraderie provides differential access to the public sphere for men39 – while also allowing the reproduction of imperious male rule irrespective of religion; whereas middle class education, career and mobility horizons offer a spectrum of escape routes for both sexes. No doubt this helps sustain myths of the passive victimhood of Muslim women, but the arrogant class and race blindness of some feminists only adds insult to injury40 – blaming the primitive sexual politics of medieval cultures which the women in question understand as a defensive haven in a heartless world. Even if the latter is a private hell, blanket condemnation simply reproduces the heartlessness and practically ossifies the isolation. Nowhere is this clearer just now than in the absurd characterisation of the Muslim hijab as symbolic of the fundamentalist crushing of women’s individuality – unless miniskirts and makeup as modernist Western female disguise are to be interpreted as the complementary Christian test case.41
    Nevertheless, the integrity of Asian women prevents them from publicly blaming their men or masculinist aspects of culture or religion for the same reason that Black womanists and working class white women repudiate feminisms which treat machismo and patriarchy as singular transhistorical law rather than overdetermined symptoms of wider malaises of domination.42 Once the concept of social class is postmodernised to engage with the cultural diversity we now see clearly all around (and within) us – enriched with the vestigial hangovers of feudal divine rights (of whatever creed) and the ethnic absolutism of caste familiar from the Indian subcontinent and South Africa, for example – the political utility of the notion of postimperial decolonisation thus begins to seem more than a metaphor. Instead of merely the tragedy and farce of proletariat and alienating money; a complex set of dominative dispositions of human resources is glimpsed – by men over women, powerful geographical forces over external populations, and internally in a society via ethnic and  economic enslavement.43
    Be that as it may, British culture has always been decisively hybrid throughout its recorded history since the Romans (and probably before).44 This should come as no surprise given that even the language is a hopelessly irrational melange – even more mixed when lower class and regional dialects are considered. Ironically, the resulting linguistic flexibility and openness of English is a logical justification for its candidature as ‘world language’ – rationalism as usual being the handmaiden of imperialism. So it’s no accident that James Kelman, for instance, feels little affinity with high-British or Scottish literature but more between African postcolonial writing and the existential prose materialisastion of his own Glasgow vernacular.45 Nevertheless, in cool Britannia a national cuisine of chips, curry and pizza, sweatshop-produced sweatsuits, Chinese consumer goods and the melting pot of teenybop pop look like the far horizon of liberal capitalism’s capacity to nurture a lasting tolerance of difference that extends further than  exchanges of fond kisses.
    Multiculturalism in school education can do little more than enumerate and exacerbate the surface diversity of culture, because the liberal consensus requires the playing down of the cruel origins of lived practices (at home, abroad or in diasporas) in situations of oppression and suffering. Neither history curricula nor citizenship classes are likely to honestly assess the past, present and future certainty of dislocation and desperation accompanying the exigencies of colonial, capitalist and globalising economics that the political elites are currently implementing. Similarly, the institutional embrace of equal opportunity excuses for inaction or PR leads to the invention of oppression everywhere, leading concurrently to vicious victimisation and the imposition of victim status on those who otherwise, off their own bat, were getting on with the slow depressing drudge of dealing with and transcending it.46 This is why portrayals which mention only the most unfortunate examples of state- or religion-sponsored racial and cultural terrorism are so spectacularly unhelpful (to say the least).
    So, the multicultural recipe-mongering which isolates each ethnicity in separate entries on a list of oppressions or identities not only cannot avoid but insists on the reification of essential otherness to be the root of conflict, rather than the denial of one’s own unbearable experiences and conflicts projected into convenient others and misperceived as their attributes or responsiiblity – thus preventing the recognition and acting-upon of affiliation. Fantasies of the heroic progress of civilisation, industry and science likewise feed into a simplistic complacent ideology of transparent social worlds with no room for reflection on shared experiences of suffering across culture, race, geography and history – forcing ‘difference’ to appear as cause in the defensively monolithic reaction of ‘faith schools’ and the equally nonsensical religions of rationalist liberal secularism.
    The only route to genuine solidarity (if and where required and requested) – and hence to worthwhile political movement with any potential to transcend oppression (including in the politics of identity and representation) – is to take one’s cues from those bearing the brunt. Dictating to people how it is they suffer and what they should do about it – whether from abstract principles of law or philosophy, legal or bureaucratic rights or rules of governance, the profitable careers of market commodities and capitals, or the entrenchment interests of academic or professional experts – turns the tactics of freedom on their head into the patronising removal from above of patterns that the victims have had no agency in knowing or defining. This can only ever perpetuate dehumanisation and detract from the social self-determination and liberation from below that is so urgently and universally felt and sought.47
    Notes1. interviewd by Demetrios Matheou, Sunday Herald, August 2004.
    2. in particular Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 and Adam Curtis’ groundbreaking BBC 2 series The Power of Nightmares (both 2004) – see my reviews respectively in: ‘Extracting the Michael’, Variant, No. 21, and ‘A Pair of Right Scares’, Freedom magazine, Vol. 65, No. 22 (<www.tomjennings.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk>).
    3. James Mottram, ‘In the Mood For Love’, Sight & Sound, March 2004, p.23.
    4. Roisin was scripted as Scottish, but Birthistle was a Catholic girl at Protestant school in the north of Ireland. Preferring actor proximity to role, Loach points out that, “then the question is: who’s the immigrant?”. Laverty: “When Catholics first came to Scotland 150 years ago they were seen as aliens with a loyalty to something foreign to the indigenous population … And now we’re demonising asylum seekers” (Mottram, note 3).
    5. Atta Yaqub had kept a white girlfriend secret from his family/community, again facilitating role immersion (Diane Taylor, ‘Up Close and Personal’, The Independent, 6th August 2004).
    6. The Daily Record billboard headline outside his shop reads: ‘Church tells Celtic fans no nookie in Seville’. One dog too many urinates on it, so Mr Khan wires it up and the next dog gets a nasty shock.
    7. Loach: “He isn’t just a repressive father. His own history has been traumatic, and he has to live with it every day. That’s why he’s so keen to keep hold of Casim”; Laverty: “Partition left a shadow of massive suffering. It’s sectarianism, in another continent and in another time, but it still has a deep resonance in the personality of the children’s father today” (Sukhdev Sandhu, ‘When Sex Meets Sectarianism’, The Telegraph, 17th September 2004).
    8. “I am a Glaswegian Pakistani teenage woman of Muslim descent who supports Glasgow Rangers in a Catholic school …” Another Laverty and Loach teenage encyclopedia instructed Robert Carlyle on Nicaragua in Carla’s Song (1996).
    9. or the pedagogical clumsiness using Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’ soundtrack to a slide show of racist lynchings – ringing true as vacuous multiculturalism, but hardly connecting with her or her pupils’ daily lives.
    10. To Loach this is “a situation where the circumstances are evolving … Essentially there will be a good outcome. The people of Casim’s generation are integrating into the rest of society, however it’s defined, and bigotry and intolerance, particularly on the Christian side, will fade … people will assimilate and learn to live together well … We are who we are now, but God knows what we will be like in 30 years’ time. The film challenges the whole idea of monogamy, of permament marriage that is either arranged or a love match” (Taylor, see note 5). The title’s more melancholy origin – Robert Burns’ poem, ‘Ae Fond Kiss And Then We Sever’ (1791) – includes the lines: “Had we never lov’d sae kindly / Had we never lov’d sae blindly / Never met or never parted / We had ne’er been broken-hearted”.
    11. Loach: “The young protagonists are all graduates and they’re not from broken families. But for reasons of culture, language and religion there are fetters on their choices” (Mottram, p.22, see note 3).
    12. Not surprising, despite Ken Loach’s track record, given his membership of the National Council of the Respect Coalition, whose electoral novelty – cosying up to ‘community leaders’ – resembles police tactics when legitimising ‘race relations’ PC/PR. Those at the sharp end may by default defer to conservative patriarchs or arrogant careerists of respectable church, business and local government agencies when busy defending themselves against outbreaks of the persistent UK anti-Asian prejudice (see, for example, succinct commentary on the pre-9/11 Bradford ‘race riots’ in <www.muslimnews.co.uk> 27th July 2001, or the recent Birmingham Sikh controversy), but surely no one imagines they represent any community’s multiply conflicting interests. This Left pandering to elites combines a Stalinist disposition and Leninist opportunism, with predictably alienating effects at all grassroots levels (as in the SWP’s regularly discredited fronts and u-turns, from Anti-Nazi League days through to recent anti-globalisation incarnations – see coverage of the European Social Forum, London, October 2004:  <www.enrager.net/features/esf/> or SchNEWS, no. 470).
    13. Yasmin (2004) screened on Channel 4, 13th January 2005. Quotations are from the production notes <www.yasminthemovie.co.uk /iframes/synopsis.php> and Alan Docherty, February 2005 <www.culturewars.org.uk> respectively. Glenaan also made Gas Attack (2001, an even more sensationalist ‘docufiction’ about Kurdish asylum seekers in Glasgow) and the forthcoming Ducane’s Boys (about neo-colonial exploitation in contemporary football).
    14. also rushed onto television after European cinema success and acclaim, when UK cinema distribution and exhibition faced years of market-cowardice delay – see Stuart Jeffries, The Guardian, 13th January 2005.
    15. one of two such unscripted moments where passersby were unaware that a shoot was underway (see Jeffries, note 14).
    16. comprehensively nailed by Munira Mirza in <www.culturewars.org.uk>
    17. including a proclivity for class/caste-based racial insult. Darcus Howe’s Who You Calling a Nigger? (Channel 4, 2004) gave rare public insight into this subject. Conversely, the film’s most moving moment comes at the end – encapsulating its heroine’s ultimate dignity, integrity and humanity with a close-up of Panjabi’s face as Yasmin comforts the husband she’s previously so maligned.
    18. The script was written by Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty) after exhaustive research and workshops with Northern Muslim groups, drug rehabilitation programmes, university lecturers and many others.
    19. just as in the rest of us, showing the inadequacy of conflating disparate generations – for example my own industrial working class ‘English’ family has ancestry from Wales, Ireland and Southern and Northern France (just to start with), and as little as two generations ago included itinerant agricultural workers roaming against destitution.
    20. For comprehensive discussions of hybridity and diaspora, see Barnor Hesse (ed.) Un/Settled Multiculturalisms, Zed Press, 2000. Incidentally, both Ae Fond Kiss and Yasmin are interesting, enjoyable and/or affecting on many levels; not least in their different fusions of generic realism, naturalism and fiction, and some outstanding cinematic and acting skills on show. For the purposes of this essay, though, it’s mainly in struggling to meeting their predetermined artificially partial and formulaic aims that they get messed up.
    21. left over from the issue-shopping concept (scuppered by 9/11) of Glenaan and producer Sally Hibbin (who previously worked with Ken Loach on Riff-Raff, Raining Stones, etc) of a young Yorkshire suicide-bomber (production notes, see note 18).
    22. though Yasmin tells him “I preferred you as a drug dealer”.
    23. taking a lead from Kilroy-Silk, BNP fuhrer Nick Griffin publicly characterised Islam as a “vicious wicked faith” before proclaiming his parliamentary candidature in Keighley. Note, though, that the far and libertarian Left fare little better in terms of “universal bigotry towards Muslims” and the ambivalently progressive potential of religious culture in general – see Adam K’s scattershot ‘Anarchist Orientalism and the Muslim Community in the UK’, and Ernesto Aguilar’s wise US perspective in ‘Winning the Grandmas, Winning the War: Anarchists of Color, Religion and Liberation’ (both 2004) at <www.illegalvoices.org/knowledge>.
    24. see for example: S. Sayyid, ‘Beyond Westphalia: Nations and Diasporas, the Case of the Muslim Umma’ (in Hesse, see note 20).
    25. Contemporary ‘urban’ music features increasing numbers of Asian performers and producers (see Dis-Orienting Rhythms: The Politics of the New Asian Dance Music, Sanjay Sharma, John Hutnyk & Ashwani Sharma (eds.), Zed Press 1996). Since the 1980s bhangra renaissance working class Asian youth have also been staunch supporters of local R&B club scenes (racist door policies and clienteles permitting), rather than the more upmarket trendy student-yuppie venues Ae Fond Kiss’ Casim probably envisages. On the marketing of UK Asian culture, see also Kaleem Aftab, ‘Brown: the New Black! Bollywood in Britain’, Critical Quarterly, Vol. 44, No. 3, 2002, pp.88-98.
    26. Gegen die Wand translates as ‘Against the Wall’ (UK release as Head-On, 2005). Akin has also directed Short, Sharp, Shock (Kurz und Schmerzlos, 1998; lauded as the German Mean Streets), the road movie In July (Im Juli, 2000), and Solino (2002). Head-On has won innumerable film festival Audience Awards and was voted the European Film Academy’s Best Film of the Year 2004 (ahead of Ae Fond Kiss, Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake, Pedro Almodovar’s Bad Education and Theo Angelopoulos’ The Weeping Meadow, among many others).
    27. quoted in Kaleem Aftab, 11th February 2005 <www.bbc.net.uk/dna/collective/>
    28. famous for militant anti-racist SHARP skinheads and a radically community-oriented professional football team. Akin – a dual-national child of Turkish immigrants – hails from Hamburg’s Altona district, and is a veteran anti-fascist, former DJ (hence the outstanding soundtrack which accounted for much of Head-On’s budget) and hip-hop MC (he gave up the latter to attend film school). With Germany’s drift rightwards nationality by blood is now increasingly reasserted, and dual status is no longer available to the progeny of gastarbeiter (‘guest workers’) – noted in Head-On’s Istanbul taxi driver deported as a teenager for a petty drugs offence to a country he’d never seen whose language he didn’t speak.
    29. cast from an encounter at a supermarket checkout; and giving a superbly nuanced performance. Her only prior acting experience had been in a couple of gonzo pornos – allowing the tabloids to controversialise Head-On preceding Kekilli’s disowning by her Turkish family (see Ahmet Gormez’ solidaristic celebration: ‘We Love You Sibel Kekilli’, 8th March 2004 <www.counterpoint-online.org/>). This prurient bad faith is itself mirrored within the film text in Yilmaz’ invitation to Cahit (which he declines) to join the men of Sibel’s family in a brothel session.
    30. such DIY arrangements are not uncommon, according to Akin: “A Turkish girl once asked me to marry her … A lot of Turks marry very early, just to get away from their families and have legal sex”. Perhaps surprisingly, Akin receives more criticism from younger (rather than older) generations of Turkish Germans for the film’s sex, nudity and drugs: “It is a mirror of their own double morality and they don’t like what they see” (interviewed in Sheila Johnston, The Telegraph, 11th February 2005).
    31. thereby connecting with his landmark anti-racist tragedy Fear Eats the Soul (W. Germany, 1973) with its middle aged German woman and young Moroccan lovers (see Asuman Suner, ‘Dark Passion’, Sight & Sound, March 2005, pp.18-21).
    32. La Haine was written and directed by Matthew Kassovitz (France 1995). The first cinema du banlieue flush included Raï (Thomas Gilou, 1995), État des Lieux (Jean-François Richet, 1995) and Bye Bye (Karim Dridi, 1996).
    33. and, quoting a 96-year old German reminiscing on his resistance against the Nazis (“It’s our duty every day to change the world”), Akin concludes: “I want to do that with my life, too” (Sheila Johnston, note 30).
    34. Frears has recently turned in an equally nuanced response to contemporary UK immigrant life in Dirty Pretty Things (2002; written by Steven Knight). Young Soul Rebels was written by Paul Hallam, Derrick Saldaan McClintock & Isaac Julien (see Isaac Julien & Colin McCabe, Diary of a Young Soul Rebel, BFI, 1991).
    35. Chadha has since embarked on a fascinating populist trajectory, progressively weaving in various aspects of the scramble for cultural capital on the part of those whose background lacks it, in Bend It Like Beckham (1999) and Bride and Prejudice (2004) – the latter a Hollywood/Bollywood hybrid drawing “parallels between the class differences of Jane Austen and the cultural divisions of India, which are fuelled not just by caste difference, but by the globalisation caused by air travel [among Non Resident Indians]” (Kaleem Aftab, ‘A Marriage of Two Minds’, Independent on Sunday, 8th October 2004).
    36. for example in Brothers in Trouble (dir. Udayan Prasad, 1995; written by Robert Buckler); My Son the Fanatic (dir. Udayan Prasad, 1997; written by Hanif Kureishi), and East Is East (dir. Damian O’Donnell, 2001; written by Ayub Khan Din).
    37. Of the latter, the Kumars’ sitting room chat show format stands out. Both series were conceived by Anil Gupta, screening between 1998-2001 and 2001-03 respectively.
    38. The new Lancashire-set film comedy Chicken Tikka Masala (dir. Harmage Singh Kalirai, 2004; written by Roopesh Parekh) also ticks many pop-cultural crossover boxes – culture-clash, arranged marriage, North v. South, gay v. straight, Carry-On-style soap opera farce, trendily inept DV DIY aesthetics – and has promptly been critically savaged as more of an all-round turkey on the basis of its cretinous reproduction of stock characters complete with thoroughly regressive connotations. For another European corrective, see Only Human, dir. Teresa de Pelegri/Dominic Harari, Spain/United Kingdom/Argentina/Portugal 2004 – a Jewish/Palestinian family farce with a “tragi-comic final row in which the lovers blame each other not just for the events of the night but for the whole history of the Promised Land” (Liese Spencer, Sight & Sound, May 2005, p69). Or, for more sophisticated postmodern and Islamic ironic referentiality, see Kamal Tabrizi’s Lizard (Iran, 2004) – poking fun at clerical government and breaking box-office records  in Iran before being banned –  with its escaped con disguised as a mullah, and describing Quentin Tarantino as “The great Christian film-maker” tackling “salvation in ultimate darkness” (John Wrathall, Sight & Sound, May 2005, p.65).
    39. for meticulous analyses respectively of the white working class masculine habitus and the political effectivity of conjoining gender and racial discourses, see: Simon J. Charlesworth, The Phenomenology of Working Class Experience, Cambridge University Press, 2000; and Claire Alexander, ‘(Dis)Entangling the ‘Asian Gang’, 2000 (in: Hesse, see note 20).
    40. see the writing of bell hooks for comprehensive discussions in the context of African America (for example: Yearning: Race, Gender and Cultural Politics, Turnaround Press, 1991; Black Looks: Race and Representation, Turnaround Press, 1992; Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations, Routledge, 1995; Killing Rage, Ending Racism. Routledge, 1996). Note also the contradictory US emergence of modern ethnic cultural distinctions at around the same time as racial identification and skin privilege – for example, in that the first waves of Swedish immigrants were not included in the category ‘white’ (see Noel Ignatiev & John Garvey (eds.), Race Traitor, Routledge, 1994; then fast-forward to 1950s Little England guesthouse signage (‘No Blacks, No Irish’).
    41. Actually bothering to ask those who wear it about the hijab’s significance tells as many different stories as there are respondents.  See, for example: for the UK, photographer Clement Cooper’s Sisters (The Gallery Oldham 2004/5; also published in book + CD form); or the BBC2 documentary about the French government’s school ban on veils, The Headmaster and the Headscarves (written and directed by Elizabeth C. Jones, 2005).
    42. Here, the experience of mixed-race love relationships can illuminate the dense co-entanglements of class and gender within and between individuals and families. For deep reflections from divergent positions on these matters, including the implications for practical negotiations around racism and societal meetings of cultures generally, see: Timothy Malinquin Simone, About Face: Race in Postmodern America, New York, Autonomedia, 1989; and Yasmin Alibhai Brown, Mixed Feelings: The Complex Lives of Mixed-Race Britons, Women’s Press, 2001.
    43. The conjunction of charity corporations, international aid and humanitarian ‘just war’ may perhaps be an especially disabling contemporary coalescence complementing the rather straightforward neoimperialism of global capital.
    44. not to mention wider question of Western Europe’s cultural, religious and philosophical origins in prior cultures – see the controversies surrounding Martin Bernal’s Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilisation, Vols. 1 & 2, Free Association Books, 1987/1991; and Black Athena Writes Back: Martin Bernal Responds to his Critics (ed. David Chioni Moore), Duke University Press, 2001.
    45. for some of the ramifications Kelman forges, see ‘Oppression and Solidarity’ and ‘On the Asylum Bill’ in Some Recent Attacks, Essays Cultural and Political, AK Press, 1992.
    46. true, for example, of the police in their modern liberal guises just as much as the old-fashioned fascism – see The Secret Policemen’s exposé of police trainee racism (BBC1, October 2003); and Munira Mirza, ‘Debating the Future: Living Together’, September 2001 <www.culturewars.org.uk>. The same, in principle, can easily apply to the equal opps. agencies and professionals who police us elsewhere in the social fabric.
    47. This essay’s delineation of the concepts needed to express such a political ‘polylectic’ are necessarily vague. But the notion of dialectic is also completely inadequate to do justice to human history on God’s – or anyone else’s – earth; and any sensible deconstruction of Hegelian philosophy (and thus Marxism) will doubtless reveal its core Enlightenment problematic of religion as the Emperor’s New Clothes, with scientific materialism as an intelligible (but only provisional) poor man’s two-step beyond. So, I console myself with the ancient Eastern saying to the effect that pondering which are the appropriate questions may sometimes be more productive than prospecting for the (politically) correct answers.

  • 9 Songs, dir. Michael Winterbottom

    Going Through the Motions by Tom Jennings

    [published in Freedom, Vol. 66, No. 8, April 2005]

    9 Songs is the ‘dirtiest film ever shown in Britain’.1 If so thought must be dirty, as that’s all it aroused in Tom Jennings.Going Through the Motions by Tom Jennings
    [published in Freedom, Vol. 66, No. 8, April 2005]
    9 Songs is the ‘dirtiest film ever shown in Britain’.1 If so thought must be dirty, as that’s all it aroused in Tom Jennings.
    Maverick director Michael Winterbottom’s demystifying of genre has yielded an unparalleled range of highly distinctive films.2 His latest innovation is that 9 Songs’ sex scenes are not simulated, featuring the full hetero hardcore checklist in fly-on-the-wall anatomical close-up – given an ‘18′ certificate uncut by the BBFC and striking a blow for what art can dare to project into the pub(l)ic realm. Through impeccable handheld digital video photography, appropriately dingy lighting and muted colour, effectively brisk editing and valiant acting, the waxing and waning of a love affair is depicted in flashbacks of sexual activity interspersed with concert footage, in an attempt to capture the way memory prioritises iconic moments and intensities.
    So, following a one-night stand after a Brixton Academy gig, fun-loving American student Lisa (Margot Stilley) regularly fucks with academic Matt (Kieran O’Brien), but becomes increasingly frustrated by his hidebound cultural, social and erotic routines. She tries to awaken sensuality and enchantment in him (musically via salsa moves and sexually in sado-masochism-lite), but his tender trump cards (earnest cookery, icy seaside skinny-dipping, Christmas tree decoration) barely touch her. Lacking all conviction as a meditation on love, and laughably pretentious as existential philosophy, 9 Songs somehow does convince despite also falling so far short of entertainment or engagement.
    Thanks to straightforward realism, the film implies that sex itself is actually no big deal, either as misguided aspiration for personal fulfilment or grounds for complaint. The mechanics of bodily connection fascinate us because physical pleasure can point beyond present disappointment towards meaningful possibilities of intimacy and exploration. However, as Michel Foucault observed in The History of Sexuality, the contemporary injunction to obsess about sex as the centre of identity displaces attention from both personal ethics and the overarching social and political disciplining of bodies. Base sexual urges scarcely represent the ultimate horizon of human yearnings for growth, even if twentieth century capitalism’s masturbatory individualism and narcissistic culture is exemplified by the pornography industry dressing them up for instant gratification. The tragedies of misogyny, homophobia and paedophilia testify to the damage done in falling for that illusion; and 9 Songs gestures at what consumerism promises but is constitutionally unable to deliver.
    Going Through the MotionsThe film overturns this overvaluation of sexual behaviour – whose mediated forms embellish fantasy in a hysterical ‘frenzy of the visible’, ignoring anything heartfelt in the most fleeting throwaway consumption. Their seductiveness obliterates the less-thrilling reciprocal altruisms of shared solace and affectionate companionship which enrich mature sexual love and non-erogenous sensuous engagement with the world. Conversely, childish playfulness and polymorphous perversity are justifiably cherished in sexual or any other creative activity. Rather than any ideal integration of these unlikely bedfellows, perpetual reworkings of the dialectics of desire seem inevitable when danger, tragedy and farce circumscribe the human condition.
    Absolute safety, security and purity are guaranteed only in death, where moral judgmentalism also leads. Healthy relations in any social sphere require continual pragmatic renegotiation of intention and consequence – but not, as here, among those sleepwalking their way through someone else’s script. The excerpt from Michael Nyman’s sixtieth birthday concert as one of the nine songs now seems less incongruous among the drearily derivative indie dirges. Along with the choice of profession for the male lead as glaciologist, Nyman’s stylistic variations on death-knell orchestral minimalism echo the film’s sterility, the pathos of the protracted decay of rock and roll, and the ironic desperation of postmodern culture.
    More specifically, Winterbottom accidentally deconstructs humdrum mainstream masculinity as tediously adolescent and soul-destroying, and the smug flush of young middle class ‘enlightened’ courtship as so much shallow self-delusion. The hardcore conventions aren’t tarted up with titillation, the unexplained complicity of women and other trappings of the self-important patriarchal male gaze which work to conceal porn’s fundamental lack of respect. But images can’t convey fleshly force, heat, textures,  pheromones or feelings, and with no psychological complexity rendering the characters real to each other or prompting identification among viewers, their sex acts seem irrelevant.
    The director’s negativity governs this show, and, hey presto, it’s cold out there in the unknown/unknowable continent of Antarctica/feminine desire – even if (as we’re told in the voiceover) the history of life on earth is tantalisingly fossilised therein, and which furthermore retains the capacity to thaw out and flood us all. But not in this scenario.
    And if all this feels far-fetched – well, it’s pretty chilly in the bedroom, too, when the rich traces of bodily biography are reduced to hapless couplings by people displaying only the merest hints of awareness of self or other. So Matt resignedly (and fancifully) ascribes selfishness, wildness and impetuosity to Lisa in a denial and projection of his own imaginative failure to rise to the occasion and offer her anything she wants. Distracted ennui sees her turn from provocation to bitching about how boring he is, preferring a lapdancer or vibrator to his sexual presence, and eventually abandoning him altogether to stew in his own juices. It remains unclear why it was supposed that real sex between partners who don’t care for each other might be better than, for example, simulated sex between those who do.
    9 Songs goes through the necessary motions of its supercool exercise in calculated miserablism – quietly rubbishing the preposterous  Four Weddings, Bridget Jones and all those other sorry antiseptic upperclass excuses for passion, but with absolutely nothing fabulous or of significance to offer in their place. Generically an (anti-)romance, it is undoubtedly an interesting experiment in critiquing both the fairy-tale complacency of love stories and the ridiculous pneumatics of porno. Unfortunately it fails to grab you by the attention (or any other parts, despite the shock-horror headlines) – and will really only exercise those who prefer to not be moved.
    Notes1. according to the tabloids, anyway.
    2. including Wonderland’s meditative ensemble tapestry of the intersecting lives of various Londoners, In This World’s quasi-documentary journey with a young Afghan refugee, Code 46’s speculative fiction, and 24 Hour Party People’s docufictional honouring of Madchester as well as more downbeat period dramas (Jude and the forthcoming version of Tristram Shandy).

  • Fahrenheit 911, dir. Michael Moore

    Extracting The Michael and Slurs & Stereotypes by Tom Jennings

    2 reviews of Fahrenheit 911: essay published in Variant, No. 21, Autumn 2004, pp.7-9; review published in Freedom, Vol. 65, No. 15, August 2004]EXTRACTING THE MICHAEL(Variant 21, 2004)

    Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 has attracted frenzied debate among right-wing, ‘quality’ liberal and radical and alternative media and critics alike – all trying to enlist the meanings mobilised by the film into their own discourses of politics, journalism, and the ‘reality’ of the world. Fair enough, as far as it goes. Somewhat surprisingly, given its enormous commercial success and an audience already many millions strong, its significance as a film has received much less attention – as a commodity circulating in a popular cultural environment which articulates with, but cannot be reduced to, current affairs and documentary genres. So, though it may be necessary to carefully scrutinise the levels of accuracy and logic and to judge the status of the information and arguments presented, analysis of F911 so far has been reluctant to imagine what its impact might be on the attitudes of cinemagoers seeking spectacular entertainment, and what relevance this might have to its potential political resonance. From this angle, it may be impossible to disentangle the complicated presence of the director as author and film star, and his taking the piss out of power, from other substantive effects of the film. Nevertheless, what follows attempts to sketch out what would be needed to begin that task.
    Reference to the song lyrics ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ ends the film, with George W. Bush attempting a quotation and, as per, getting his lines wrong. Counterposed to a line from Orwell (1984) – “the war is meant to be continuous … a war of the ruling group against its own subjects” – Moore aligns himself simultaneously with the US ruling elites and with the general populace (‘us’). Both are  counterposed to ordinary lower class Americans (‘them’) who, he asserts, join the armed forces to preserve freedom because ‘we’ ask them to. “Will they ever trust us again?” (my emphasis) is Moore’s rhetorical question. The slippage of agency is curious given F911’s demonstration of all the different ways the Iraq war and its policy corollaries have damaged nearly everyone involved both at its sharp end and in the distant ‘heartlands’. Meanwhile, as comprehensively and convincingly documented in the film (including with their royal Saudi and Bin Laden family business associates), the war’s biggest beneficiaries have been the same US corporate profiteers who bankrolled the 2000 presidential election campaign.1
    This rather different kind of scandal is the film’s starting point. Even here, it wasn’t enough for the rabid neoconservative clique who engineered the Bush/Cheney victory to mobilise the usual panoply of seedy Republicans, fundamentalist Christians and other moral fascists against such an obviously pathetic yuppie pillock (Al Gore). To get their latest moronic puppet into the White House, they still needed media manipulation courtesy of Dubya’s cousin at Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News, blatant vote rigging in Florida presided over by his brother Governor Jeb Bush, and the final (and most revealing) farce of the Supreme Court and Senate lining up to slavishly protect ‘the institutions of State’ from any serious investigation. According to Moore’s hype machine, Fahrenheit 9/11 was intended to cut Bush’s cowboy gang off at the pass in the next presidential elections in November. If successful, this will allow upper class Democrat John Kerry to pander to corporate interests instead, just like Clinton did, but presumably without being quite so brazen about it.2
    Star Strangled BannersUnfortunately, the fascination with figureheads and personalities is no aberration. Moore’s efforts in this direction in the past included the mantra of ‘Tweedlebush or Tweedlegore’ in his active support for Ralph Nader (who seriously eroded the Democrat vote last time) and, apparently in all seriousness, trying to kickstart a campaign to persuade talk-show host Oprah Winfrey to run for president. On the other hand, this track record does indicate that F911’s patronising conclusion about lower class kids and their parents duped into enlisting then being betrayed by their leaders, is no accident. Presenting himself as so right(eous), in opposition to those who are both wrong and evil, leaves him no real alternative but to portray his audience as hapless marks at the mercy of power and needing enlightenment from his bluff and bluster. Through what is, in effect, his (unconscious) identification with the powerful, Moore blends strategies drawn from homegrown populist political traditions with the emotionally resonant narrative and structural devices of popular culture genres. As a music-hall master of ceremonies, carnival huckster or rabble-rousing demagogue, his underlying motivational pattern is to inflate and project his own ego through his work, resulting in a concealment of intellectual deficiency under a blanket of narcissism and paranoia, energised with appeals to sentiment focused on his self-deprecating ‘ordinary guy’ charisma.
    It certainly works as entertainment, as testified by the record-breaking box office of F911 particularly among working class audiences and in conservative mid-West and armed forces towns, who normally turn out for melodrama served up in standardised Hollywood dressings and who may shun worthy documentaries. Moore thus raises his stock in the media markets and boosts his personal star profile and mythology as a ‘working class rebel’. From this angle, inspired parallels are drawn between the economic destruction of Western urban/industrial wastelands and the military havoc wreaked in Iraq, along with the depression, desperation and grief suffered by both sets of inhabitants. This is set against the sinister prowling of armed forces recruiters and the cynical dishonesty of their patter; reproduced and attenuated later in the abuse of Iraqi citizens by those recruited. On their return home in both physical and psychic torment, Iraq veterans then learn that their government is enthusiastically cutting back the already pitiful levels of medical and welfare aid due to them. It’s not even deemed necessary to remind us of Vietnam.
    Rarely are arguments like this put together so effectively on screen in front of such huge audiences. Better still, they are interspersed and augmented with a wide range of highly salient and suggestive information which, although already in the public realm and theoretically available to anyone with the resources required to collect it, is scrupulously suppressed, skated over, or (at best) detached from all context in mainstream current affairs reportage. So the press managed to spin into a semblance of coherence the thoroughly spurious and contradictory explanations and justifications over Iraq offered so hamfistedly by the government.3 If part of the project is to propel into a widespread consciousness elements of the kind of critique normally associated with meticulous scholars such as Noam Chomsky (whose readership is relatively tiny in comparison), then F911 has to be judged a triumph.
    Likewise, plenty of footage is uncovered demonstrating the utter irrelevance of political processes purporting to protect against executive excess. First the top judges and senators (Democrat and Republican alike) refused to invalidate Bush’s election in the first place – better to disenfranchise a few thousand mainly poor Black Florida voters (and that’s just the ones known about) than question the integrity of the electoral system. Then the 2002/3 Patriot Acts legislated unheard-of degrees of surveillance and interference with ‘civil rights’, supposedly to facilitate anti-terrorist policing. Congress voted these bills through without anyone even reading them, but this was no regrettable oversight in a moment of panic. Instead we are assured by one put-upon Congressman that he and his colleagues never have time to examine what they vote on. The film’s failure to consolidate and interpret these demonstrations of the meaninglessness of liberal democracy’s institutions has to be its greatest missed opportunity. It mirrors the  comparably craven disregard for all those routinely excluded from the flag-waving decency of white Middle America, as various non-white and muslim people suffer heightened harassment – unofficially from neighbourhood racism and as terrorist suspects for the official kind. Moore looks the other way because he daren’t ask his main target audience any of these really searching questions.4
    Less, Moore, Too MuchNote, though, that while characters, variables and phenomena in the political realm are the explicit nuts and bolts of the text, F911 doesn’t work as political analysis. Moore makes no pretence of providing any conclusions regarding the history and nature of the US state and the pivotal contemporary role of the media in its reproduction. Worse, those of a forensic disposition will be able to find many inconsistencies and dubious assertions in his innuendos. In those rational terms, what he often does is to collage verifiable information with found footage, in order to highlight correlations which are very pertinent to questions of various vested interests. Going over the top to insinuate direct causal relationships is mischievous, but doesn’t necessarily intend to be taken so seriously.5 As part of the narrative, this kind of trick milks humour from our intuitive awareness of the decadence of power, which can then be mobilised as grist to the mill of outrage. As such, his material is well worth projecting into the public realm – whatever the framing –  because there is just too much to be papered over. It defies easy answers; refuses pat cliches; shatters conformist homilies; and overflows any neat, naff attempts at conventional containment. The result is therefore intensely ambiguous, as with much of the director’s previous work.6
    Moore’s tactic is to take an issue of contemporary concern and uncover 57 varieties of cans of worms in true muckraking gonzo journalism style and fashion. The material is then woven together with crescendos of hilarity, rage and horror, orchestrated by Moore the Magician into revelations of innocent individuals (and families) beset by the disgusting twin towers of organised money and power. The viciousness of the satire in the first half of F911 is undoubtedly effective in reinforcing the class hatred necessary to anchor any clear-sighted rational response in passionate engagement. Here the film is content to allow this tide to flow and ebb around the only piece of restraint on show – the blank screen of September 11th signalled only by sound effects from Ground Zero. Once the focus shifts to the diverse personal tragedies of communities and lives shattered by the war on terror, however, satire turns to sanctimony. The energising momentum of laughter is lost, as is the increasingly threadbare plot. Overkill centres on the choice of a single family from Moore’s home town as the prism through which to understand the effects of war. Lila Lipscomb from Flint, Michigan, whose son died in Iraq after she urged him to enlist, has to stand in for the global degradation of humanity that this chapter of US imperialism represents.7
    Perhaps to many ordinary Americans this clinches his argument that Bush is a traitor, if feeling for the bereaved parent captures those who previously voted for him.8 But when it comes to the complexities of history and politics, and the collective reflection needed to work out what to do next, Moore always fails to deliver. Structural change never makes it onto his agenda, despite being clearly implied by the sorry mess of corrupt incompetence throughout the ruling elites, state institutions and tame media in the past four years. Here, the Bush administration’s foreign (and domestic) policy has amounted to war (full stop) – not on terrorism but employing it in Afghanistan, Iraq and the more or less low-intensity propaganda and repression aimed at opponents at home (also painted as un-American and thus, in effect, as ‘foreigners’) Furthermore this was always the neoconservatives’ explicit agenda, starting from outright opposition to any kind of peace process in Palestine. But without historical context in F911, this pattern is presented as somehow exceptional, rather than a particularly virulent example of business as usual.
    The closing admonition to not be fooled again now sounds like a vain hope – simply the latest in a long line of failures of the popular will – which Moore can’t acknowledge without threatening the putative efficacy of the decency of ordinary folk in a narrative trajectory which depends on its appeal to an acceptance of the nobility of the ideals and traditions of the American political system supposedly disrupted by the Bush clique. F911’s downhome moralising, cheap jibes, exploitation of sentiment, and even its casual xenophobia, can then be understood as symptomatic of Moore’s failure of nerve. He cannot attack the myths of American ‘freedom’ and the history of this discourse in stitching together America’s diverse constituencies into a patriotic unity – which is not only every bit as fraudulent as Bush et al’s conduct but which has always underpinned the ‘manufacture of consent’. It’s a major part of the problem, rather than the reassuringly familiar wellspring of resistance that the film invokes.
    The director imagines that, through its sheer rhetorical power, his cinematic rollercoaster can help transform the reactionary defensiveness of middle America into a movement for change. But on the face of it, and according to his PR, his desired outcome of voting out Bush would merely recuperate all of the energy generated back into the miserable electoral game, thereby re-legitimising what the film has already shown to be irredeemable. This does no justice to the visceral euphoria occasioned by the expert editing and structuring of images, sound (bites) and story arc in F911 create the expectation of a satisfying climax – according to Hollywood conventions, for instance. Whereas the film ends with (in no particular rank order): an appeal to human decency; an assertion of that decency’s gullibility; the stupidity and duplicity of leaders; and a faith in future, better leaders. Is Moore taking the piss, pissing in the wind, or just full of piss and wind?
    The Power and the VaingloryMany have concluded that F911’s inadequate ending therefore confirms the judgement that it is a bad film, despite their acknowledgement of its power. But although it’s not difficult to show that the political analysis is unconvincing and the quality of the journalism questionable, these are hardly criteria of cinematic excellence. The reasons for its power thus seem more difficult to pin down. Even cinema critics – who might be expected to appreciate the blockbuster provenance and deal with the effectivity of its fictional universe accordingly – found themselves suspending their professional judgement and watching instead an unusually long party political broadcast.9 There appears to have been a widespread cognitive dissonance arising from the mismatch between the denouement and what has gone before. Many viewers (present author included) reported reactions of raw but conflictual emotion on emerging from the cinema – simultaneous distress and exhilaration, for example – along with a thoroughgoing confusion as to what the film has done to us, and what it might mean.
    In contemporary cinema, though, singular linear narratives have for some time been out of fashion. Since the 1970s the formal structures of postmodern art films have seeped into the mainstream, with alternative endings, unresolvable red herrings, and playing with time, memory and perspective virtually the norm.10 F911 stirs up a whole mess of dormant and suppressed emotion, and rhetorically nails it onto the specific reality of this chapter of the New World Order via the cathartic power of cinematic audiovisual montage. No simple readings or conclusions are provided, actually, and the director as trickster almost delights in preventing these from arising. In responding to such experiences, the conflictual and contradictory elements of the audience’s psychology and everyday understanding interact to some extent with those of the image stream. We tolerate, and even seek this out, at the multiplex. In other situations which seem to require it, we gear ourselves up to be serious, rational beings. Here, strenuous effort may be made to resolve such chaotic fracturing – whenever awareness of it can’t be avoided – because it is so uncomfortable. Masquerading as documentary, F911 simultaneously prompts both these orientations.
    If such a juxtaposition of fantasy and current affairs seems outlandish,11 it can be thought of in the context of the rise of many new visions of documentary in independent and alternative media. A growing awareness of the inadequacy of liberal notions of journalistic ‘balance’ has fostered dissatisfaction with the limited understanding possible of current affairs within this paradigm – given the stranglehold of commercial integration and monopolies of media programming.12 Similarly, in the recent renaissance of cinema documentary, other filmmakers concentrate on a more careful balance of information and narrative, inviting viewers to contemplation rather than reaction.13 Those of the newer UK ‘faux naif’ school place their subjective involvement in the discovery process and their personal social responses to their subjects more at centre stage. Nick Broomfield14 embarks on quests to understand controversial celebrities and events, encouraging interviewees to open up in response to his persona of a bumbling amateur investigator with an amiably naive liberal worldview.
    Other such documentarists on television exercise their fashionable cynicism more openly in exoticising ‘minority’, ‘weird’ or ‘subcultural’ scenes, either from perspectives of superior knowledge and taste, or a more well-meaning secure upper class nerdy fascination.15 All the above maintain liberal detachment, so that the results amount to  tourism through worlds which – however threatening – remain forever bracketed off; never really meaning much to them, let alone fundamentally affecting or changing anything. The gathering of information, and any consequent enlightenment, therefore merge in the amusement of the protagonist and the entertainment of the viewing audience – neither of whom are ultimately touched by the experience. Their fundamentally complacent premise and conclusion is that, in practice, alienation and dissociation in cynical stasis are the only achievable values.
    Shock, Horror – News as FarceBut Moore, though he may be smug, is neither liberal nor detached, and his expertise lies in provocation rather than scrupulous exposition or the search for an all-embracing ‘truth’. His method, using comedy conventions as a starting point, is to directly implicate the anguish and pain that is a fundamental ingredient of his audience’s own lives in illuminating and enlarging upon ‘objective’ situations about which we are usually only ‘informed’ by the cool authority of the news. Most of the debate about the value of F911, like views on the dwindling trust in mainstream current affairs on the part of the general public, or of tabloid power, assume that engaging the emotional response of the audience must be suspect, if not wholly negative – thus failing to appreciate our increasing orientation to the world through the lenses of our cultural literacy.
    Before the last few decades of media diversification, remember, News was monolithic and monovocal – and generally understood as the singular voice of power. It could therefore be ‘trusted’ in that very specific and limited sense. Now the news anchor and star reporter stand in, but with the proliferation of images and gazes and postmodern splintering of our selves and societies we hear many versions and nuances of what used to be distilled into the one absolute word. The nature and modus operandi of propaganda have moved on, and the petty squabbling, internecine manoeuvering and decadent baseness of the ruling strata and those scrambling up the ladders of status are now visible for all to see. Overloads of trivia multiply the complexity of explanation – but then the world is complicated. The opportunities for satire are also vastly improved – through means which are always also inevitably partial, whether face to face, in local public fora and stagings, grass-roots publishing, or in making inroads into mainstream media in comics, animation, TV and film.
    Comedy is potentially an extremely effective tool in savaging pretension and false authority.16 True, Moore flirts with the other end of the comic spectrum, displacing his audience’s unacknowledged self-disgust onto shared objects of prejudice – where the balm of laughter converts sorrow into hatred. Neurotic pride and vanity prevent such performers from extracting the michael from themselves – a far more effective ploy. The honest pathos of one’s own abjection generates genuine and conscious empathy – which, when handled with the requisite skill, facilitates analogy with the wider tragedies of the world. These too render us abject, but collectively so, and the puncturing by the satirist of the bad faith of the powerful takes the hilarity beyond catharsis. In the route from tame court jesters to carnivalesque subversives, and to the French revolutionary pamphleteers, for example, this becomes overtly political with an increased readiness to take action in the world – when it chimes with pre-existing tendencies for a wider clamour for change. But the comedy itself can’t create or lead anything, so our only option is to laugh uneasily at (not with) Moore for his delusional grandeur.17
    One example which transcends most of the aforementioned problems with Michel Moore’s approach and that of the newer documentarists is Channel 4’s Mark Thomas Comedy Product – whose title immediately signals a self-conscious acknowledgement of the limitations of cultural commodities. Nevertheless the structure of the programme takes us back to the intimacy of club stand-up routines, and the studio and television punters are always invited to laugh at as well as with the comedian. The quest for answers to admitted naivete and ignorance means that methods are developed in practice, and a range of pragmatic forms of action advised. The emphasis throughout is on collective work and discussion, with the front man a delegate rather than leader. Overall, a dynamic sense of change implicates the audience too, rather than retreating to the complacency of existing beliefs. No perfect solutions are ever offered as a sop to satisfy the passive recipients of uplifting performance.18
    Beyond a JokeTo sum up, regarding F911 as primarily a popular cultural product enables us to reverse the terms of debate about its qualities. The political intervention it proclaims is, in fact, part of its commercial promotion – not the other way round – and Michael Moore’s primary motivation, in practice, is to enhance his position (in terms of both economic and cultural capital, because these have become so closely entwined nowadays in the realms of public media). F911’s success has been engineered by a commercial strategy (or simulation) of ‘guerilla’ marketing using the convenient excuse of the political career of a more obviously tainted than usual US president.  It is an example of the persuasive potential of media and popular culture genres having entered the body politic through their saturation of our daily lives, from infancy, in the discourses embodied in cultural commodities – just as in the past it made sense to analyse folklore, mythology and religion in terms of the limiting and limited narrative possibilities offered there.
    At home in his high-profile environment, Michael Moore can neither be extracted from his unconscious alignment with (other) celebrities in the star system, nor from other planets in the political universe – any more than current affairs are usefully considered to be analogous to hard-nosed theoretical physics (chaos, charm and entropy and all). As an individual Moore is far from an intellect of genius, has any number of prominent and visible ideological and personal warts, and wouldn’t pass muster in the real world as any kind of salesman let alone a politico (you’d be too busy laughing). But the egomania and drive needed to bring together large volumes of human and financial collateral in translating his vision onto celluloid probably also provide the entrepreneurial savvy to persuade investors to cough up. To them he’s doubtless considered a safe bet, in the established cinema tradition of paranoid mavericks prone to hysterical posturing. Some of these, such as Oliver Stone, also consider their work as ‘subversive’ – and it may be so, though rarely in the ways they imagine.
    On balance, despite its many shortcomings and even its frankly reactionary overtones, I, for one, am happy that F911 is out there in the world and that so many millions of us are seeing it. Of course it’s important to be clear about the film and its director – the cowardice as well as the bravery, clangers and bullseyes, clarity and befuddlement. Further, it’s no bad thing to acknowledge that this is also a fair description of the human condition in general. In universalising the moral decency of common folk (Moore) and natural human common sense (Chomsky),19 we will always be found wanting.There’s little point bemoaning the fact that we are human animals with hearts, guts and minds; or that it’s a dirty world and we are in a mess. The mobilisation of emotion fosters an appreciation of the world and its people that both punctures the purity of power and avoids paralysis from imperfect knowledge.
    The hints are also all there in F911that the imagined community of nation is the most profound con of the present era, with its mouldy cement of voting for leaders as liberal democracy’s feet of clay. A less opaque perception is possible of the close-knit globalising networks of domination and suffering disappearing over the on-screen horizon – from the complementary regimentation and abuse of underclass enlisters and Baghdad residents to the harassment of white US respectables and invisible internal ‘others’. Few show signs of fighting back in the film, but the implication is that any or all might. So might the audience; and more belligerently than by meekly lining up to vote or paying to be thrilled. Out of pain can come laughter, and there are many kinds of both. One laughter, one pain; one love, one blood – these are unlikely slogans at hustings for the lesser corporate-military evil. But they might begin to make sense to those viewers of F911 not prepared to sweep their gut reactions back under the carpet-bombing of presidential election news. Therefore our conclusions and interpretations can usefully converge around what active political use to make of all this – not trying to enforce as authoritative any of the many possible readings of what is, in the end, only a film.
    Notes1. And although Moore himself might get even richer, thanks to the film, he is at least urging its internet pirating and distribution.
    2. Cue a video outtake showing Bush addressing a fund-raiser gathering as “the haves and have-mores; I don’t call you the elite, I call you my base”.
    3. Cue Secretary of State Colin Powell emphatically denying two months before September 11th that Saddam Hussein had any capacity for WMDs.
    4. In his book What Next: A Memoir Towards World Peace, Serpent’s Tail, 2003, Walter Mosley stresses that, from their centuries of hard experience of noble US humanism in action, many Black Americans weren’t at all surprised that the country could be hated so much. Thus F911 could easily have found resources for such discussion very close at hand.
    5. Interesting critiques which accept the f ilm in those terms can be found in: Todd Gitlin ‘Michael Moore Alas’, www.opendemocracy.net/themes/article-3-1988.jsp; and Robert Jensen ‘Beyond F911′, www.counterpunch.org/jensen07052004.html.
    6. in television series such as TV Nation and The Awful Truth, bestselling books like Downsize This!,  Stupid White Men and Dude, Where’s My Country? and the films Roger And Me, 1989, and Bowling For Columbine, 1992.
    7. She works as a employment counsellor to the jobless, so Moore’s rare appearance on camera hounding national politicians – only one of whom has offspring on Iraq active service – ironises as it humanises.
    8. The matching shots of a grieving Iraqi mother impotently railing at American barbarism, however, are just as likely to reinforce depressive apathy.
    9. So, for example, Mark Kermode (‘All Blunderbuss and Bile’, The Observer, 11 July) mistakes his lack of engagement with Moore’s vulgar exploitation of real grief and horror as based on Britishness; whereas B. Ruby Rich (‘Mission Improbable’, Sight & Sound, July, pp.14-16) is seduced by the Cannes Festival PR into discussing F911’s emotive power only in terms of swingometers.
    10. see my ‘Class-ifying Contemporary Cinema’, Variant 10, 2000, pp.14-16, for further discussion.
    11. despite the title being borrowed from a Ray Bradbury science fiction novel.
    12. Two forthcoming documentaries tackle the significance of these developments in the present context: the independently distributed critique of Fox News, OutFoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism, dir. Robert Greenwald (see article by Don Hazen, www.alternet.org/story/19199/); and The Control Room about Arabic cable channel Al Jazeera, to be broadcast on BBC2.
    13. For example Errol Morris reveals the inevitable partiality of perspective of his subjects in their particular fields, using expressionistic visuals, filming styles and editing to emphasise gaps and uncertainties in the stories told – in , for example, Gates of Heaven, 1979, The Thin Blue Line, 1988 and The Fog Of War, 2003 – the latter revealing the pomposity and shallow self-delusions of Vietnam war architect Robert McNamara.
    14. e.g. in documentaries about Thatcher and South African fascist Eugene Terreblanche, two about serial killer Aileen Wuornos, and Biggie & Tupac, 2001.
    15. e.g. Jon Ronson and Louis Theroux respectively.
    16. despite most ‘alternative’ comedians preferring to assert cool distinction by sneering at the cretinism of ordinary people.
    17. and at others who reveal their (stars and) stripes in thrall to leadership cults – such as the Socialist Worker review calling on Moore to stand for office. For a corrective, see the No Sweat campaign’s more prosaic take on F911 (www.nosweat.org.uk).
    18. Clearly inspired by Michael Moore’s TV work, disappointing tendencies sometimes cross over too, such as occasional hints of  little Englandism – but not too often. Respectability is decisively rejected in Mark Thomas’ insistence on retaining his own effing and blinding vernacular – which works for me, even if ensuring the show’s relegation to a minority schedule slot.
    19. attributions which also seem to be transhistorical in their mythical persistence.

    Slurs & Stereotypes by Tom Jennings (Freedom 65 (15), Aug 2004)
    Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 has catapulted into the mainstream US media an overwhelming shitheap of crucial and revealing information about contemporary American politics which has otherwise been largely falsified, trivialised, buried in ‘quality’ programming, or ignored altogether. The film is also exemplary in the energy and passion with which the contrasting effects of the Bush government’s foreign and domestic policies on their corporate US and Saudi friends, and on ordinary US and Iraqi people, are catalogued and decried. Best of all, several pivotal examples are given of the way political institutions (Supreme Court , Senate and Congress – both Democrats and Republicans) instinctively protect themselves rather than admit failure – however tragic or (literally) earth-shattering the outcome. These are no negligible achievements given that, for example, millions of us watching the film possibly had not found the time to read Chomsky, may not previously have contemplated taking any radical or alternative propaganda seriously, nor even got round to questioning the precepts of patriotism, democracy and ‘freedom’. We may now.
    F9/11 covers the period from the Florida vote rigging which allowed Dubya into office through the administration’s dodgy business practices and political slackness up to September 11th, and then into Afghanistan, the Orwellian domestic fear tactics, and the latter-day Vietnam of Iraq. Via a jumble of meticulously stitched together found footage, outtakes, soundbites and mischievous associations, the film mercilessly lampoons the lies, evasions, contradictions, vested interests and all-round general farce of government conduct. Around the fulcrum of the fall of the twin towers (signalled by an audio-recording from Ground Zero and a blank screen), the focus inexorably shifts from the complacency and duplicity of the victimisers to the grief and desperation of the victimised – in a brilliant paralleling of the wastelands and wasted souls left in urban America and Iraq by the corporate-military onslaughts.
    Breaking cinema box office records even in traditional mid-West and armed forces towns, F9/11 succeeds partly because it mobilises so effectively a range of popular cultural traditions – from music hall comedy to Hollywood melodrama, for example – to engage and involve its audiences. Over here, too, many multiplexes have shown it in several packed auditoria at once to those who often turn out for action thrillers and other blockbusters, and whose emotional responses have been similarly intense. The key device used by Moore in all his work in television, books and films has been to solicit identification with his persona of the little man up against big finance and corrupt government. A staple of populist political traditions, this strategy has similar drawbacks and dangers – such as facilitating the careers of charismatic charlatans. Indeed, now a multimillionaire with formidable PR backup, Moore could be said to fit that profile. But then he’s only an entertainer, right? …
    However, poking fun at incompetent, greedy and self-serving leaders as a prelude to outrage at the liberties they take is only a first step. Unfortunately, the force of polemic is not matched by rational analysis – either of the history and nature of the US political system or of the iniquitous role of the media and intellectuals in legitimising it. So, having dredged up the reserves of depression, apathy and reactionary defensiveness of middle America, and fashioned them into anguished hilarity and furious indignation aimed squarely at the status quo, F9/11 squanders its rhetorical power on a feeble reiteration of the inherent decency of the people, who are urged to choose better leaders next time. Such a false and miserable climax left many viewers stumbling out of the cinema in confusion.
    In a sense this dissonance of thought and sentiment may mirror Moore’s own. After all, our gut-level understanding of the significance of the rich and powerful in the world and in our lives often is impeccable – even if it receives very little confirmation from official discourse. But it doesn’t translate directly into intellectual understanding, especially when it comes to working out what to do next. Being humble, we don’t expect it to – that takes collective work and struggle. Whereas Moore inflates his narcissistic ego in order to play the carnival huckster delighting us in his performance – where admitting ignorance and error would ruin the illusion. But political activism is rather more permanent than the temporary subversions of carnival, in which case a puffed-up ego easily succumbs to the hubris and paranoia of demagoguery. Come to think of it, film directors have been known to be megalomaniacs too.
    And F9/11 is only a film. On one level an effort of memory and suggestive interpretation, the scope is  too short term to convince. In the end it retreats to a recuperation – complete with commercial pitch as controversial electoral revelation – into the same old political game that it has already mortally undermined. The really useful insight it offers is in presenting so much compelling material in a way that resonates emotionally with so many of us and our desired audiences at once – predisposing them to engage with the ideas. This is a method we would do well to study.

  • The Edukators, dir. Hans Weingartner

    Moral Politics at Play School by Tom Jennings

    [published in Freedom, Vol. 66, No. 11, June 2005]

    Hans Weingartner’s The Edukators has some interesting angles despite its sneering at childish idealism, finds Tom JenningsMoral Politics at Play School by Tom Jennings
    [published in Freedom, Vol. 66, No. 11, June 2005]
    Hans Weingartner’s The Edukators has some interesting angles despite its sneering at childish idealism, finds Tom Jennings
    The Edukators surf the new wave of smart, sophisticated and popular German language cinema which – even better – tackles ticklishly controversial social and political subject matter.1 Here Jan (Daniel Brühl), Peter (Stipe Erceg) and Jule (Julia Jentsch) manifest their revolutionary zest in a postmodern pastiche of cod-situationism, terrorising the upper classes by rearranging their furniture to prefigure revolution turning the world upside down. The ethics of violence loom once their playful innocence turns sour in the crucible of realpolitik (symbolised by Burghart Klaussner’s yuppie tycoon), and the spectres of Baader-Meinhoff and all the other spectacular disasters of modern ‘propaganda by the deed’ cloud the horizon. Tackling far too many complex levels at once, excessive ambition here inevitably trivialises and patronises much more than it edukates.
    True, most cinematic treatments so far have conceived the Western urban guerilla purely in terms of personal conflicts and inadequacies fully determining political motivation, consciousness and action – with attention to character depth and ideology in the context of involvement in real struggle omitted in the unseemly haste to ram home the message that all resistance is futile.2 This film sidesteps such conclusions, while flirting with them – for example the only genuine activism we see is an earnestly inoffensive anti-sweatshop high street demo mopped up by the riot squad. And, whereas many of the hundreds of thousands descending on meetings of the G8 and other organs of the New World Order have already moved robustly beyond the celebratory passivity of ‘Feed the World’ charitability, concrete agendas resonating with the everyday concerns of ordinary folk have yet to crystallise. If you can stomach its contempt (and total ignorance of current radical politics), this is an enjoyable and entertaining contribution (of sorts) to such debate.
    Co-writer (with Katharina Held) and director Hans Weingartner claimed to want to depict the quandary facing contemporary European youth in embracing revolutionary politics – given the death of communism, decline of the Left and neoliberal triumphalism. He didn’t specify exactly which youth he meant, and the social background and present position of his protaonists are somewhat lost in translation. Worse – and with a significance unnoticed by the critics – the film’s title mutates from the evocatively ominous ‘Die fetten Jahre sind vorbei’ (‘The fat years are over’) to the vaguely uplifting progressivism of the English release. As one of the slogans graffitied on yacht club members’ walls,3 the original emphasis appears to identify the trio’s targets, but actually refers to their political discourse itself – the edukators’ relentlessly (and tiresomely) moralising judgmentalism representing conversations with the ruling classes rather than any autonomous sentiment of what might be done about them.
    The only glimmer of strategic savvy is Jan and Peter’s relish at newspaper coverage of their growing notoriety, anticipating a copycat epidemic of enforced feng shui infecting the private spaces of power.4 This is an amusing (if unthreatening) fantasy of a ‘revolutionary situation’ – though which historical agents might foster the transition from home makeover to insurrection are similarly unclear. The plot enlightens us in this respect in the transition from student pranks to serious matters of life and death, where Jule’s experiences as a downmarket femme fatale undermine the Boys Own adventure. Her humiliation by the boss and patrons of a posh restaurant compound her outrage at the ‘injustice’ she suffers, having been diverted from aspirations for a comfortably useful life as a teacher by her uninsured collision with Hardenberg’s Beamer. The ensuing ‘oppressiveness’ of damages payments leads to her dead-end waitressing, and then further blunders – hitting his pad on a whim, the kidnapping, and subsequent shilly-shallying disarray.
    Moral Politics at Play School
    Put bluntly, the ‘fat years’ are certainly not finished for the rich – and given their propensity for rapid-fire condemnatory statistics, the edukators would hardly be unaware of this. But the good times are precisely over for the contemporary new middle classes facing the rapid proletarianising precariousness of their previous privileges.5 Read through conventional Freudian spectacles, these late babyboomers are rebelling against the world bequeathed to them by their parents. In routine middle class adolescent fashion, their moral disgust clothes itself in rhetoric of the global poor, but its emotional force derives more from self-pity and criteria of taste and lifestyle. These are values inculcated in them by, and showing their complicity with, consumer society – reproduced also in the camera’s loving fascination with those sumptuous but emotionally frigid mansions. Meanwhile, the older generations grew up with utopian dreams of a better society, but went with the flow trying to get by – only to get slapped in the face by the infantile tantrums and highminded self-indulgence of their kids.
    Then, when the power relations are reversed, so too is the conventional ‘Stockholm Syndrome’. Secluded with fat cat hostage in the mountains, our heroes are seduced by his self-effacing fatherly realism and personal charm, forking out for provisions and disclosing that, back in the day, he too was a revolutionary hanging out with the Berlin class of ’68 SDS leadership. The pace of The Edukators slows to a standstill as the utter bankruptcy of their oppositional project becomes clear – most fatally flawed from its dependence on the enemy to provide tactical momentum. At the end they waken from their hypnotic trance in thrall to bourgeois power, having learned that comradeship can transcend Oedipal complexes and the complexities of love. Again, their decision to break properly from their roots is precipitated by Hardenberg’s entirely predictable betrayal, but the upbeat denouement shows the newly adult edukators outwitting the government. And who knows, if they get round to formulating worthwhile aims external to their insecure egos, they might yet proceed to genuinely radical shenanigans …
    1. including the good humour of Goodbye Lenin (dir. Wolfgang Becker; also starring Daniel Brühl), Michael Haneke’s savage dissections of  bourgeois mores, and Fatih Akin’s subversive genius – all reaching beyond the various austere modernisms, elitist arrogances and existential angstiness of Herzog, Wenders, Fassbinder et al.
    2. Recent examples being Marco Bellocchio’s Good Morning, Night (Red Brigades) and Robert Stone’s Guerilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst (Symbionese Liberation Army). Manuel Huerga’s forthcoming Salvador (yet again starring Brühl) may or may not buck the trend in portraying anarchist bank robber Salvador Puig Antich (the last Spaniard garrotted under Franco).
    3. along with strictures such as ‘You have too much money’ (duh!).
    4. the results of which suggestively resemble so much contemporary installation art.
    5. see contributions to Mute, issue 29, which usefully outline European ‘precarity’ theory and practice so far (www.metamute.com).

  • Dogville, dir. Lars von Trier

    Dogville Rendezvous by Tom Jennings

    [published in Freedom, Vol. 65, No. 7, April 2004]

    In some ways a marvellous film, Dogville is at root a con trick – which neither its director nor the critics acknowledge, argues Tom JenningsDogville Rendezvous by Tom Jennings 
    [published in Freedom, Vol. 65, No. 7, April 2004]
    In some ways a marvellous film, Dogville is at root a con trick – which neither its director nor the critics acknowledge, argues Tom Jennings
    In Dogville, Lars Von Trier claims to tackle big themes – (among others) religion and humanism; a community’s treatment of refugees; forgiveness and revenge; and the nature of modern (US) society. If that wasn’t enough, we’re saddled with various devices and genres – a starkly-lit, minimal, Brechtian set with white outlines painted on the floor instead of walls and roads; Dickensian chapter titles and all-knowing European voiceover; the American tradition of literary fables and parables, and its cinema of small town life (from the Western and Frank Capra through to David Lynch); all filmed in jerky digital video with realistic sound effects bearing little or no relation to the visual aesthetic. Despite vast overegging, the pudding’s artifice unexpectedly works, in the sense of fully engaging viewers with emotional power and immediacy for all three hours – justifying Von Trier’s ambition in artistic terms at least. In the calibre of its philosophy and politics, though, the film narrative suffers a similar fate to the mainstream bourgeois culture parodied – barely even raising the questions it purports to explore. But, unlike the director’s previous pretensions to profundity – e.g. Breaking The Waves (1996), The Idiots (1998), Dancing In The Dark (2000) – this heroic failure still gives more food for thought than most entertaining provocations can aspire to.
    A glamorous Grace (Nicole Kidman) seeks refuge from a carload of heavies in a bleak Rockies village where a selection of stock stereotypes eke out an impoverished living. Middle class Tom (Paul Bettany) persuades the town meeting to grant her sanctuary in exchange for her communal labour, as part of his omnipotent fantasy of fashioning noble meaning in his life. The superb ensemble acting (particularly Kidman’s open-hearted humility) makes believable the defrosting of Dogville’s chilly conformist piety into something like loving collectivity, making its subsequent cruelty to her when the authorities close in all the more shocking. Once Grace exposes Tom’s motives he grasses her up, and after a lofty confab with her bigshot father his henchmen massacre the townspeople.
    In effect, the structural trickery and cliched characterisation conceal Dogville’s underlying dishonesty. Grace is no outsider of equal status – she is not only posh, but specifically represents those historically responsible for the townspeople’s miserable grind. The twists and turns of the melodrama hinge on their response to this history – displaced onto her since active struggle against oppression has long since disappeared from their consciousness, just as the elite and their money have absconded over the mountain passes. This comprehensively compromises all talk of faith, arrogance and redemption among ordinary people, leaving the film merely as a meditation on the duplicitous malevolence of institutions whose pious pontification is ably backed up by their cultural lapdogs – in this case the megalomania of cinema, recalling Paul Virilio’s metaphor of it as a (class) ‘war machine’.
    It certainly isn’t the anti-American tract many have supposed – it could have been set anywhere, although local idiom and provenance were obviously necessary; and box office returns would have suffered if it had been set in the director’s native Denmark. So, the harrowing final credits sequence of photographs from the 1930s US Depression documents the contemporary reality of Dogville’s period, with the clear implication that its contrived horror can in some way illuminate or explain the human condition and the real tragedies of history. But the hysterical hubris of the director, along with the great cultural traditions he references, merely exemplify the ascription of evil to the weaknesses of us lesser beings, which it is then the godlike responsibility of power to clean up (the state, capitalism or other gangsters in the political economy; and their religious and artistic apologists in the imaginative realm). Like many former New Left utopians, Von Trier delights in focusing his misanthropy on the potential for solidarity among us hapless ordinary dogs and bitches – which fails miserably due to our venality. Whereas in their moral superiority, the rich and powerful create spectacular havoc. Responding to this pessimism, we might intuit that the former is to a large degree (whether by accident or design) sedimented and structured into our lives precisely by the activities of the latter – and, adding insult to injury, subsequently interpreted as evidence of our unworthy status. OK, so we’re reminded what a vicious doghouse we’re in, but how we get out is trickier still. Unfortunately, amongst its other agendas and subtexts – which are accomplished most impressively – this is a tale that Dogville refuses to wag.

  • Cock and Bull Story – Michael Winterbottom UK 2005 – Steve Coogan Rob Brydon

    Cock and Bull Story – Michael Winterbottom UK 2005 – Steve Coogan Rob Brydon

    Viewed – Tyneside Cinema – Newcastle-upon-Tyne – Gala screening for Northern Lights Film Festival – 24 Nov 05 – complementary ticket.Cock and Bull Story – Michael Winterbottom UK 2005 – Steve Coogan Rob Brydon

    Viewed – Tyneside Cinema – Newcastle-upon-Tyne – Gala screening for Northern Lights Film Festival – 24 Nov 05 – complementary ticket.

    A Cock and Bull Story(C and B) is Michael Winterbottom’s(MW) film rendition of Tristram Shandy, an eccentric eighteenth century English litterary work written by Rev. Laurence Sterne as a notional autobiography. The driving concept of MW’s piece as it appears on screen is to produce a filmic approximation of this work by thematically shooting it as a film about the making of a film. This genre is typically exemplified by films that use their own original material rather than movies deriving from book adaptations as is the case with C and B.

    The ‘We’re making a movie theme’ was possibly derived from a reading of the book that picked up its detached language when describing intimate and close details, Tristram Shandy’s consciousness of itself as a literary product, and its persistent wanton determination to disregard the rules of sequential prose by inventing itself as a form of long digressions, lists, asides and punctuation’s in time. Tristram Shandy deconstructs long before Derrida coined the phrase.

    But Tristram Shandy is more than an exercise in style. Its style is always secondary to its voice, and it is this voice that one can hear over the two centuries since it was writtten, and it is this voice that as a reader, you come to love. Because it is a brave voice, a brave voice that is committed to truth. A voice that tells the truth. It is an intelligent voice that faced with the chaos and pain of life has discernment awareness and discrimination. If this were not the case Tristram Shandy would long ago have been discarded.

    It is this voice, the central character striving with humour. for truth, that is the defining core of Tristram Shandy, not its style. Its style defines its superficial form. This superficial form is critical, artful and necessary for its success, but not sufficient. If Tristram Shandy had been all form and no voice, it would have gone the way of a million magazine articles and films.

    A voice seeking to express truth is what is missing from a Cock and Bull Story. It feels from beginning to end that the director, MW, is absent. MW has nothing to say either in or through the characters that people his film. And having nothing to say MW as a compensation has recourse to a purely stylistic rendition of his Tristram. But A Cock and Bull Story is not even superficially in style a coherent film. It looks and sounds like a mish mash of different influences: Fellini’s 8 ½; Hopper’s the Last Movie; the Office; and sketch driven Python derivative TV. C and B fails to exert over its disparate elements any form of stylistic unity; which is of course precisely Sterne’s achievement.

    C and B opens with a sequence in which the two male leads exchange persiflage about actor stuff. In the opening sequence the subject of their talk is Rob Brydon’s yellow teeth, which conversation sets up a recurring motif of actor rivalry that is intercut through the film. But the trouble with actors talking actor stuff is that a little goes a long way. The egotistical concerns of actors without any anchoring in plot or structure or character, are vacuous and fail to hold audience interest. Another ingredient in C and B pudding, are sequences from the production script meetings. These like the actor sequences tend to use hand held roving camera to sign that they are unscripted impro. These production group inserts like the actor sequences are uninspired and ultimately uninteresting(why should the audience be interested in the minutiae of an uninteresting film). It is during one of these sequences, a discussion about the why and the how to film the sequence of the Siege of Namur, that the film finally gets bogged down and lost.

    Interstitially placed between the actor and production crew sections, MW films pieces to camera by Tristram( with picture inserts), sections of filming the film itself and the filming of sequences of the book mainly dominated by the funny sexy bits and the birth of Tristram. These sections look to have been shot by MW without resolve as to what kind of film he is making. He seems to be trapped by the otherness of eighteenth century prose and a demand to play the book for laughs: the result is an uneven unconvincing farrago of slapstick and formality.

    Without a strong clear concept and ideas about how to film Tristram Shandy, A Cock and Bull Story is a movie adrift. It is hard to see why Michael Winterbottom took it from project to realisation. It is possibly a measure of the paucity of directorial talent in UK feature film production that he was able to get backing for a film that turns a literary conceit into an act of filmic arrogance.
    adrin neatrour

  • Hidden (Cache) Michael Haneke – France – 2005: Daniel Auteil; Juliette Binoche

    Hidden (Cache) Michael Haneke – France – 2005: Daniel Auteil; Juliette Binoche

    Viewed 12 Feb 2006: Tyneside Cinema: Ticket price £6-00
    Hidden (Cache)  Michael Haneke  – France – 2005:  Daniel Auteil; Juliette Binoche
    Viewed 12 Feb 2006: Tyneside Cinema: Ticket price £6-00
    It’s all in the frame……
    Michael Haneka’s film is a forensic investigation beneath the skin of bourgeois life, a surgical incision into the hidden inner body that is history.   The thesis of the film is simple: the life of a wealthy bourgeois couple, Pierre and Anne, both working in the media, is disturbed after a nondescript video showing surveillance of their apartment, is anonymously sent to them. As the archetypal successful couple, Juliet Binoche and Daniel Auteil sleepwalk through a series of locations and situations in which events finally focus   attention back to the 1960’s and the personal consequences of the massacre of hundreds of Algerians by the riot police in Paris, during a peaceful demonstration for Algerian independence.
    In effect, ‘Hidden’ is a mirror in which past present and future  become lucidly clear.  Haneka makes a pun out of  ‘time’  by using  the nature of video to fuse the past and the present. As the successful couple watch images of the past(surveillance of their flat)  colonise their present, they experience a growing sense of disconcertment and powerlessness. They feel increasing insecurity with the arrival of each tape whose implication one of them Pierre gradually understands.  The intrusion of the videos into their life, into the sanctuary of their home, is immediately perceived as an implied subjective menace.  It smashes their immunity from the middle class time machine in particular in relation to the future of their 12 year old son whose failure to return home from school one day unleashes venomous effects of their middle class insecurity.  But it is the idea of the bourgeois immunity from the effects of time which Haneke lovingly builds into the expressive features of his film – the camera placement and movement, the framing and the sets and settings. In its structure ‘Hidden’ becomes a metaphysical statement in which the ideas of luminance, mirror imaging and eternal recurrence are intrinsic to the action.
    This is a film of interiors, interior states of mind and the interiors of buildings that are both reflections and  projections of those states of mind.  The interior of Pierre and Anne’s apartment is an envelope that contains them and their world.   The rooms – with the exception of the bedroom have a theatrical quality.  It’s space that yearns to be filled by gesture and ritual.  The kitchen, the TV area, the dining area, all assemblages of a taste spectrum, have a quality similar to that of church interiors.   Untouched by time these spaces yearn to be filled with the timeless ritual of bourgeois good manners and those outward markers of bourgeois identity, success and positive self presentation.  The TV area is wonderfully realised with a wide screen monitor set into the gargantuan book case(sic).  The visual effect is that of a baroque altar piece, with the TV taking the place of the tabernacle.  The TV is a portal through which the outside world is filtered in.  The outside world, which exists as a sort of permanently breaking present, is also a construct of power in which Pierre, as a TV celebrity, is complicit.   But this TV, this item of baroquerie, has its normal substantive function subverted by the tape sent to Pierre and Anne.  This tape is raw footage. It’s an unfiltered communication in which nothing in particular happens but in which the exterior of their apartment is depicted as if under surveillance in a mirror.  In present time Pierre and Anne watch the exterior of their apartment as it was in the past when some one was watching them.   Past and present conflate at the altar but the couple have no ritual for dealing with this situation.  They can only bring to it their angst and the state of mind bordering on panic that is the mark of the insecurity of those who are used to living in immunity from the consequences of time.  Fear. Pierre and Ana’s apartment is a reflection of the immunity that is the greatest of the privileges of the bourgeoisie.    The kitchen, the dining table, the study area, the TV altar are assemblages born of  a religious-like belief that time can be tamed by the knowledge of how to organise space and objects.  When this fails the theatre of time collapses and the naked impulses of aggressive and violent control are revealed beneath the surface.  The bedroom is the exception to the way in which space is depicted in ‘Hidden’.  The bedroom is dark in this bourgeois household, a place of sleep and sex.  It’s a  backstage area where the actors can leave the theatre of life and step out of their costumes and roles.  They can be themselves if there is any self to be.  In the encompassing darkness of the bedroom Pierre dissolves into a puddle of moral turpitude before the questioning of his wife about the death of Majid.  In the penultimate shot in the gloom of the bedroom he undresses and his body is without any covering.  It is a shock to see this man without clothes.  All through the film he has been covered less by his elegant casual clothes than by his denial of time. Then suddenly he is before us: naked.  For a moment no longer possessing the conceit of  individuality now an archetypal sinner seeking the forgetful embrace of sleep.  Pierre’s flesh  liquefies as he melts between the bed sheets seeking the narcotic of oblivion.    Seeking the escape from time. Like all of us.
    Haneke’s camera watches his actors.  ‘Hidden’ is mainly filmed with long shots and simple camera movements.  Mostly the camera is still: there is movement through frame and where there is camera movement it is typically a pan(though there are some tracks).  The still distant camera and the simple pans, which build the story out of action in the shot, demand that the viewers become an audience.  If this were a Hollywood film, the shooting would be all tricksy weird angled shots(meaningless but visually arresting) tracking shots, point of view shots: all the usual camera stunts to heighten and intensify visual tension as a psychological state so the film would take on the character of the thriller.  But ‘Hidden’ is about watching and the audience are the watchers.  Their emotions are not wildly manipulated at every opportunity, pulled every which way in the course of the film: for the most part they are simply given the wide picture and allowed to construct out of the events the story that they see.   The simplicity of the framing also allows Haneke to work the film as an objective mirror and insinuate the idea and structure of time, past present and future, as it permeates the film, the sets, the TV, the video, the dream.  Time as expressed in ‘Hidden’ becomes an objectivity that the viewers can apprehend – not a subjectivity, the mere function of a state of mind or a point of view.
    The framing of ‘Hidden’ is also critical to its expressive intent.   The luminance, the source and direction of  light in the framing of the shots in Hidden, layer into the film a metaphysical dimension.  The scenes comprise a mixture of artificial and natural light, but  for those scenes in which there is a natural source of light, it always feels that when Pierre in shot that he is occluding the light.  When Pierre is present he blocks the light.  He prevents the inflow of light, the streaming intensity of grace illuminating the point that he occupies.  In Bresson’s films characters are in light.  Pierre is a reagent turning light to darkness.  A black hole.   And in order that we may see this the more clearly, the framing of ‘Hidden’ is kept very clear and clean.  The shots are composed within uncluttered clean frame lines,  giving the film a mirror like quality and telling the viewer that one thing you see if you look in the mirror is yourself.  Unless you are tricksy and angle the plane of the glass away from yourself
    The ‘hidden’ of the film’s title points to what lies beyond the mist of forgetfulness that shrouds the legacy of wealth that determines our way of life in the West.  The amoral haze, in particular in relation to the West’s colonial past, that defines our life styles, our personal relations, our structures of work and play, our architecture, our homes. This is a film about us.
    The strength of Haneke’s film is that it is never polemic.  Theme is negotiated through the personal, through strips of action in which the connections between the forces that mould our responses and the way in which we react to events in our life are sketched out and finally connected to the direct issue of personal honesty.  As Majid’s son says to Pierre after Majid has committed suicide in Pierre’s presence, its about being able to look at yourself in the mirror with good conscience.  But Pierre doesn’t look in the mirror.  He chooses unconsciousness: takes a couple of pills.  When he wakes up it will probably be too late for him to remember.    But there are others who will not forget, even if they do forgive.
    Adrin Neatrour

  • Shadows – John Cassavetes -USA 1958 Ben Carruthers Lelia Goldoni Hugh Hurd

    Shadows – John Cassavetes -USA 1958 Ben Carruthers Lelia Goldoni Hugh Hurd

    Viewed Side Cinema: 13 November 2005 – dvd – ticket price £3-50Shadows – John Cassavetes -USA 1958  Ben Carruthers  Lelia Goldoni Hugh Hurd
    Viewed Side Cinema: 13 November 2005 – dvd – ticket price £3-50
    Like a bomb going off…..
    The first hit is the most intense.  Shadows is Cassavetes’ first film and its like he’s mainlining on some potent essence.   Shadows is the rush of the real through the veins of consciousness.   He’s the poet who captures the crazed and phased world of New York.  As visionary he knows that the shadows that bleed through his lens are a true imprint of the times as they enfold him.
    Like a bomb because this film is shot by compressing as tightly as possible the highly volatile elements of New York in the 1950’s.  This city-society was the crucible of the modern.  The beat ethos was redrawing the psychic map breaking down the defining social stratifications of sex class race and age.   Poetry art music film drugs suddenly become central to the parameters of the self as the new consumer driven communication industries took shape.  But in a crucial sense these industries hadn’t yet taken on a defining shape.  So Shadows begins at the beginning, a time when everything seems young, possible and full of liberating potential.  To the wail and burr of the jazz sax new personality types develop – the cool – the detached – the emotionally distanced –  sexes races developing attitude to survive the new processes of  radical individuation.  And Cassavetes sees all this.  And probes for the veins with the needle of his movie.    
    Shadows like a bomb, a hit, because the film is shot almost entirely in close up to capture the generation of these New Yorkers.  Very few long shots, the opening club scene, a couple of street scenes, the sculpture garden, the rest is up close: very big close-ups of the faces of his characters. Cassavetes packs these faces and piles them into his frames.  One face two faces three faces four faces five faces squeezed togather as unstable gassious particles, compressed explosive charges that will detonate at the slightest provocation.
    Cassavetes understands that it is through the faces of his actors, his living exemplars of the City that the fault lines and the vulnerabilities as well as th energy of this world will be seen.   The film can only be the film it is as a living laboritory because the actors played roles close to themselves – self projections – and within these roles found many of their own lines.  Within the encompassing embrace of Cassavetes, this is a film founded on individuation and all the acting has this quality.
    The individuality of American society had been given a new edge by the beat ethos.  At an overt level there is a measure of solidarity shared values and attitudes in relation to the embracing of the hip and the rejection of the square.  But there is also a heightened competitive assertiveness in  a neo-Hobbsian war of all against all.  The rictus and the laugh define most of the close-up interaction.  The characters josh kid and joke with one another.  But subjected to the harsh light of Cassavetes’ lens the aggression underlying most of the relationships is laid bare.  Behind the smile and the bared teeth of the laugh lie the snarl and the growl.   And to formally express this reality Cassavetes makes radical use of framed space.    Loading his faces into frame, Cassavetes understands that this world is a milieu where personal space and body distance as segregation devices have been abolished.  Everyone sits very close in this world.  Cassavetes shoots in cabs in booths in compartments and packed club settings – all spaces designed to compress without discrimination.  And as he squeezes his people together he uses space as an intensity amplifier.  Denied physical space his characters spar and fight for psychic space, for that momentary instant at the top of the pile.  A continuous writhing heap characterised by the outward expression of conviviality and humour but underwritten by aggression that at any point may explode into violence.  And it does.  Brief unimportant interludes that permit regroupings.
    Shadows is world – the hip world.  No story but incidents with individuals and groups working their way back and forth through the frame defining and redefining the action.
    And why Shadows?  Impossible not to think of the idea of Plato’s cave.  Cassavetes making a point. Having his joke.  Shadows.  In the Platonic cave the prisoners sit in front of the fire and watch the shadows made on the wall by objects behind them. It is the only reality they know; they have no notion of the real world; they are deceived by shadows.  One of the prisoners escapes, and in the light of the sun sees the real things, but returning to the cave to enlighten the rest cannot convince them of the truth.  Cassavetes carries warning: however much the hip world thought it was being true to itself, alive on the beat the life, creating new being and new words, people were fooling themselves if they thought they could so easily escape the shadow of American culture and history.
    Adrin Neatrour 25 Nov 05

  • The Silence between two Thoughts – Babak

    The Silence between two Thoughts – Babak Payami – Iran – 2003

    The Other Cinema – London 12 June 04
    The Silence between two Thoughts  – Babak  Payami – Iran – 2003
    The Other Cinema – London 12 June 04
    In Iran they imprison filmmakers for making films and censure and ban their films.  The mullahs confiscated the negative of Babak Payami’s film but he pieced it together from scraps and virtual slithers garnered from one light colour rushes tape and captured fragments.(I remember when the US abandoned their Iranian embassy in 1979 after the Islamic revolution the CIA station shredded all its secret files and the revolutionary guards spent 5 years reconstituting these shards of intelligence back to their complete and revealing substantial form)  Payami’s restored film in a battered and desaturated print shimmers through the projector an assertion of life over death,  voice over silence. 
    Two thoughts – they can only be life and death.  The village has been overwhelmed by a regime, a curse of death which advances as a polyevaporative force sucking out the moisture from life,  leaching the water from the earth.  The camera becomes one with the relentless creep of this spreading dryness tracking and panning with the process of desiccation.
    The village has been duped or tricked in to accepting the religious authority of a prophet called Hadji.  The belief system postpones the execution of a virgin so that she may first be deflowered and with hymen broken caste down to hell. The executioner, the film’s protagonist stays his hand.  “But where is it written ?” he asks of Hadji.   There is no answer. Only silence. Perhaps it is written in the sand.  The executioner becomes silence.  His brain is dried out by the aridity of a theology that can equates hymeneal blood with the blood that is death.   “…where is it written?   There is no reply.  He is turned to stone.  Like the crumbling walls and cracking surfaces. Dry and silenced.  Tongue tied.  No answer to the riddle of the virgin. Tongue tied.   He has no words to say no. He has no lines of escape.  When theological or ideological babble sequester the working of mind silence is the price that is paid.  In the dryness of the silence  death comes and leads the way forward through the half light into darkness.  The riddle of the virgin is necessary.    
    As the film moves over the psychotic landscape from face to wall to earth the dryness lays over the village like a spell in a fairy tale.   Like the impenetrable vegetative growth that surrounds Sleeping Beauty.  The impenetrable babble of dried out theology covers everything.  This is a film of dust.  As with Marx and with fairy tales situations change because of they are unable to contain the forces of their own inherent contradictions.  It is possible to awake from the dream.  The numinous quality of water and women force open our eyes.  In their wild dance at the end of their pilgrimage the village women release a sweated energy which smashes the circuitry of dryness and takes possession of the film.  In the sequence after the dance of the women there is the moment of water.  A moment of magic which breaks the spell of dryness.  We awake from the spell.  The young virgin prisoner stands in front of a fathomless dark container of crystal clear water.  At this point only an action can destroy the silence not words.   Her hands break the surface of the water immersing completely combining with the fluid.  At once the curse is banished the weight lifted.  Too late for those trapped in silence.   Afterwards it is not possible to know if anything has changed, we cannot see that far but dryness has experienced the power of water to germinate and purify.  Adrin Neatrour 21 June 04

  • The Killing of a Chinese Bookie – John Cassavetes USA – 1976 – Ben Gazzara

    The Killing of a Chinese Bookie – John Cassavetes USA – 1976 – Ben Gazzara

    Viewed Side Cinema 27 November 2005 Ticket price £3-50
    The Killing of a Chinese Bookie – John Cassavetes USA – 1976 – Ben Gazzara
    Viewed Side Cinema 27 November 2005  Ticket price £3-50
    From the death of a salesman to the killing of a chinese bookie it’s all a blur….
    America’s trip to the theatre of the absurd.
    John Cassavetes(JC) did not make films because he was paid to do it.  He wasn’t  making films with that sort of arrangement.  The reverse is true – he paid to make his films even if they cost him everything and he had no illusions about the likelihood of them ever making money.  His films represent a pure form of output rare in cinema and he is amongst a small group of film makers each of whose films answer to a specific intent.  Each film that is made by JC has its point.
    The killing of a Chinese bookie is an extraordinary film in which JC has a complete grasp of  his chosen genre and filmic form and a certainty as to how to subvert the conventions that he has adapted as his expressive vehicle.
    The genre that JC chooses (fronted with a stunning performance by Ben Gazzara as Cosmo Vitelli) is the gangster movie.  Certainly after Coppola has had done with it the gangster genre in US cinema  becomes a little more than parody, a mechanical exercise in visual cliché and violence allowing lazy directors to lay claim to all sorts of spurious meaning in their output.
    JC plays the gangster genre as a spoof to undermine itself.  But JC moves beyond this re-active impulse to make use of the genre and the material it releases as a means of pointing straight at the soft underbelly of the American dream. From the Nixon presidency onwards America was transforming itself into the theatre of the absurd, a grotesque Ubuesque spectacle.  And who now gazing on the spectacle of the US led invasion of Iraq would not acknowledge that JC as a seer saw it right?  JC film maker of the absurd has moved from Salesman Willie Lomax to Night Club owner Cosmo Vitelli, from the pathos of the Salesman to the bathos of Cosmo.  Where once the American dream was to sell dreams now the American dream is to consume the dream.  The Dream becomes a Dream of dreaming and we are lost in the Dream and the Dream loses us. 
     In the world of the ‘absurd’ from the players point of view nothing is unusual or wrong.  Everything seems quite natural and as it should be.  In the world of the absurd the players accept the rules and connections of absurdity as a given condition – they are not aware of any other possible world.  Even in the trapped world Arthur Miller creates for Willie Lomax his salesman has some level of self-insight some degree of awareness; Cosmo Vitelli the night club owner(the night club is always called ‘the joint’; ‘I’m the owner of this joint’ – sic) has nothing neither insight nor self awareness.  Cosmo lives the blur.  He lives out a fantasies from the world of movies and popular song which he projects onto his club.  He lives out the disconnections of his existence as if they were connected. Ultimately it doesn’t matter because so does everyone else: the US has become a culture of the absurd without real connection between cause and effect; the connections are all projections of the banality of wish fulfillment.
    The heart, the very core of the film is the night club with its floor show.  The film revolves around the fantasy of this modern expression of Utopia.  An interior world of the night dedicated to escape – and for your delight and delectation a show with beautiful girls and an ugly performing MC (Hollywood Fosse recipe)   In the central sequence of the night club,  the floor show  Mr Sophistication, the MC performs a version of  ‘I can’t give you anything but love…’ whilst the showgirls dance against the backcloth of an exotic location and posture like string puppets and flash titty.  The floor show is terrible.  Its unbelievably very bad.  Not just tatty or just tacky but lousy. Its a poorly performed and executed. It is a mechanically contrived hand-me-down facsimile of whatever it is it’s supposed to be modeled on.(Caberet?)  As is, in fact, the actual reality in this type of  ‘joint’.   Cassavetes doesn’t give it the Hollywood pazazz make-over.   And in the film nobody notices: neither Cosmo, nor the performers not the audience.  The show girls dress and pose with the conventional outward trappings of an accessible sexuality.  The high cut of the costumes and linear demarcation of the tights and boots draws the gaze of the eye to their cunts and tits and with the eye in thrall to the conventions of available sex, audience projection does the rest.  The reality is:  Mr Sophistication is dead: the girls are dead and asexual: it’s a floor show for zombies by zombies.  Cosmo’s dream is that he believes he has created something that gives something a glimpse of happiness to people’s lives.  The reality is he gives the audience death, and of course he gives the Chinese Bookie death.  It is all he has to give.  The floor show bleeds over life in the same way as Cosmo’s wound bleeds over his white shirt.
    In the last long sequence of the film(before the final shot where Cosmo exits the club to stand out in the street) we see and hear Mr Sophistication sing what  becomes the films leitmotif  ‘I can’t give you anything but love baby…’ The way it is sung and delivered and filmed the song feels more like, ‘I can’t give you anything but death baby…’ The audience love it.  The floor show is central to the movie because it highlights the confusion between reality fantasy and filmic projection that is becoming essential to understanding America.  A country that has lost the ability to distinguish life and death.     
    Emotionally from his guts JC believed in the close up – in the big close up.  The face for instance: that the face is the affect per excellence through which every thing can be expressed – not specifically about individuals but about their milieu and their culture.  Faces for JC are not interesting if they are only an individualised melodramatic affect: to be interesting faces for JC have to move into the realm of cultural currency or universalism.
    In Chinese Bookie although the close up of the face or faces is still an important as part of the filmic language, the close up shot of face loses the explosive intensity it accumulates in earlier films.  The filmic articulation of the absurd is interaction of the blur with the long shot.  The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is a blur. A big close up of the blur.   The film is shot – not every shot of course – as a blur of reality.   Characteristic shots are pans across the midriffs of the club performers, shots into the lights, shots out of focus.  Life as a blur.  Cassavetes fills his frames – particularly the club sequences as an inert gaseous blur: the frames possess none of the latent explosive volatility of Faces or Shadows.  But out of the gaseous core of the movie, out of the blurred hazy atmosphere of the joint, comes a  hallucinogenic clarity, life as a dream. Even the Chinese Bookie as he looks directly at Cosmo at the moment before he is shot looks as he thinks what is happening is unreal.
    In The killing of the Chinese Bookie the series of sequences that comprise the Cosmo’s quest to kill the bookie, have a dream like quality – perhaps it is a dream of sorts. The instructions he is given by the gangsters are absurd, as if ripped from a demented fairy tale. Item: Cosmo abandons his stalled car in the middle of a freeway, then turns back remembering something. He walks across back across the busy murderous freeway to the car in order to leave the bonnet up and open which the conventional manner of marking a vehicle as broken down.  Image:  The car now sits in the outer lane of the freeway with its bonnet up cars hurtling past it narrowly avoiding collision with it at the last moment.  But all is well.  Its bonnet is up.  Cosmo is in a dream world.  Whilst waiting for the cab that he has ordered to drive him to the house of the Chinese Bookie, he calls his club to find out how the floor show is going.  The problem is that the barman who he calls who has worked at the club for 9 years has never noticed there is a floor show in the club.  Cosmo finds the conversation strange. It is his hallucination.
    With the Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Cassavetes combines form structure and content to describe the USA.  JC creates an enclosed world comprising of interior space.  Exteriors have become either passage ways to different structures or parking lots mere adjuncts to buildings.  Interior spaces define the horizon and contours of this world, spaces that are essentially plastic and like the night club can be molded  or reformulated to fit any current fantasy.  The natural world, the world of the American range have been forgotten.  The exterior world has receded: once on the sound track we hear a news bulletin about Israel’s foreign secretary tinkling in the background like something that must have been imagined.
    adrin neatrour 30 November 2005
    adrinuk@ yahoo.co,uk

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