Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Ehud is an ace hoodlum; Waltz with Bashir

Holy shit do Israel's mainstream "liberals" bore me, the ones Israelis can wear on their sleeve to rouse only a grimace in response instead of a call for their head on a spike. David Grossman, novelist who milked many tearducts in my parent's house, but from time to time crawls out of his literary shell to make grandiosely ambivalent statements about war, misleading in their supposedly progressive populism but instead laced with the prescriptive ticks of an old hat Jabotinsky-ite. During the 2006 firebombing of Lebanon, he and Amos Oz, other milker of tearducts and stirrer of souls, released a moratorium on the war in intellectual news alternative Haaretz (read by my war is the answer loving uncle and his bomb factory running brother because the yediot and ma'ariv are too sensational). Though, if you read closely it was less a moratorium than a quip about how to run a war, a horrific tally having already bled the headlines they suggested a point has been sufficiently made and therefore they should try and make peace now. Instead of asking questions about the nature of bomb first policymaking they just quarreled with generals about logistics and the number of IED's. Thank you novelists, go back to stirring souls instead of blowing up their cages.

Well, now he's back to make a poetically strained whiskey face over the overextension of what he felt was another sensible blowout, calling it being "too imprisoned in the familiar ceremony of war," but not condemning that familiarity by contradicting it with a statement that at first it was necessary, to show them what a sleeping giant does when woken up, now the peace making can begin. At that point I'd rather Ehud Barak yelling on fox news with the rationale and composure of a third grader who stabbed his classmate for launching spitballs at him.

What's more disheartening is people are still on the gaza withdrawal "phenom" in which the palestinians somehow proved that, with a small parcel of land given to them without Israeli control (cough cough, all along the watchtower), they weren't able to control themselves as well as we were able to control them. That apparently is lack of democratic skill. Despite the fact the Dov Weisglass, working under Ariel Sharon, called the pullout, in a ha'aretz article "The Big Freeze", a method of putting the peace process in formaldehyde.

"The disengagement plan is the preservative of the sequence principle. It is the bottle of formaldehyde within which you place the president's formula so that it will be preserved for a very lengthy period. The disengagement is actually formaldehyde. It supplies the amount of formaldehyde that's necessary so that there will not be a political process with the Palestinians."

I.e. Israel was still building a security wall that expropriated land, changed the facts on the ground for peace negotiations, and disrupted the hell out of civilian life, all the while building more settlements in the west bank. So, in other words, the pullout was symbolic, and symbolically stupid.

Then came the free elections, in which the palestinians were given the option of democratically choosing a party of their choice, and being suffocated financially for making the wrong free and democratic choice. They made the wrong free and democratic choice and were suffocated financially because the party of the people who weren't recognized as Palestinians until 1993 and subsequently dismissed when 1993 fell apart, decided not to recognize the state that won't recognize them, their constituents paid dearly.

Before the latest alpha male Don Makaveli explosion in Gaza saturday morning two things happened. A total of 13 people died in Sderot since 2001 from rocket attacks and Waltz with Bashir opened in New York. I saw the film friday night and already then it served up a penetrating analysis of how the Israeli government gets away with barbarian acts of cruelty. Cognitive dissonance. Then saturday morning happened.

The film, a documentary about its creator and his involvement in the first invasion of lebanon, is animated. Ari Folman served in the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. He was there for Sabra and Shatila. And he can't remember any of it except for a lucid flashback to a night on a blitzed-out beach on Lebanese shores, nude. He interviews friends and former comrades about their experiences, whether they remember him there with them. More likely than not, they do. The decision to animate the film allows Folman to tap into that dreamlike state of crystalline reverie that renders even the most horrific experiences merely an abstract thought, jumbled up in a cognitive framework that has the present and the imagination going on at the same time. There are scenes of harrowing wartime fuck-ups and the rhythm of soon-to-be shellshocked soldiers following orders that are horrifying except for the ethereal beauty in which they're rendered. And it's that beauty that is intentionally disturbing. The reason these images are beautiful is because they are memory, because they are distanced aesthetes in which everything is just a thought, one that you can't think through clearly or put in the right order to it comes out like an installation, a piece of art.

It becomes clear that the reason behind that is because no one asked questions, they took orders. And this is emblematic of the country at large, reliant on conscription to keep its military state afloat, inevitably having to take up arms whenever a politician decides to not solve an issue diplomatically, a certain amount of denial is required. As excellently illustrated in the Gideon Levy article, "I Punched an Arab in the Face," Liran Feurer, a checkpoint soldier who was following orders, no soldier ever comes home to his parents a criminal, a thief, they always come home a hero, or someone whose done their job. To an extent this is because "in a certain sense, there are already two generations of criminals. The father went through it and now the son is going through it and no one talks about it around the dinner table."

He talks about devolving into a cruel beast, taunting, maiming and essentially dehumanizing Palestinians at the checkpoint as it was passed down by the chain of command as acceptable. By the time he got home and went to art school he was a cold shell, completely removed from the inner turmoil he effectively shut down to do "what had to be done." This holds true for war, and army veterans, of which most Israeli civilians are. Yet, as massacres are revealed, as Ariel Sharon is deposed from his position for involvement in a slaughter of two refugee camps, as intifadas break out and homes are demolished, all these events are percieved as necessary acts of survival and are never connected to the events that came before them. Mostly because the stark and brutal realities of the acts required to carry those events out have been forgotten by the perpetrators, or discarded in a defeatist but justified manner by the hands that did the dirty work.

What happens in the film is the events that he was a part of slowly dawn on him when his friends jog their memories. He begins to see the lack of questions asked in the first place. How everyone just shut down to a series of gossipy whispers, or confused onlookers, waiting for the next word, for the next command from higher up. Meanwhile, a group of Phalangist soldiers bloodlusting on the death of their leader, Bashir Gemayel, got the okay to take their revenge out on two refugee camps while soldiers in tanks with binoculars looked on. Both wondering what was happening and waiting to see what would happen next. Indiscriminate slaughter is what happened next. And this wasn't unprecedented. There was already an uneasy truce between the army and the militias before the event, when the Christian Phalangists would take conspicuous Palestinians, or whoever they deemed fit, to torture chambers and hacked away at their limbs. Walking around with them as if it was nothing, while Ariel Sharon deemed them worthy partners in private meetings.

At some point Ari Folman is reminded of his parents in a concentration camp, of the good nazi who just did his job while indirectly and directly having a hand in the fate of millions of nazi targets. It's here in the film where it becomes clear that when drudging up memories of WWII, being the children of holocaust survivors doesn't offer an excuse but a lack of excuses. It might offer a psychological condition, but a particular one you'd want to avoid allowing control of your life.
Perhaps it'll be twenty years before a documentary like this is made on the war on lebanon of 2006, or the destruction of Gaza today, and by then it'll be too late to ask the right questions, by then it'll be too late to make sense out of something you put out of your mind. By then the families of the dead will already be giving Israel "reasons" to do what they do best, never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

Until then, here's another Gideon Levy article about the bomber pilots, and their tenacity to someone else's word, and their cold rationale for something that will never make sense.
The IAF, bullies of the clear blue skies

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Kill the poor (with kindness?): Out at the movies with the people down the tracks!

So I saw the story of Randy "Ram Jam" today and it ended, obviously, and it leaves you dangling but if you feel dangled like an old broken down piece of meat, that means it got you to care. And the whole act of caring for or about Ram Jam is weird in itself. There's a knee-jerk cynicism in film and life criticism (because the two invariably intersect even while sometimes canceling each other out (because how can someone else's criticism totally relate to what just went through your sensory and mental processors?)) that suggests any time a westerner dabbles in the third world it's a form of privileged, condescending tourism with a smug, self-satisfying orientalist grin. Any transgression of class or GDP barriers places the auteur, or whatever, in a precarious balancing act where the hurdle between the point and its audience is the people paid to decide for the audience whether the hurdle is worth jumping. You find cliched but impassioned movies about stuff getting the short shrift from critics but love from festival auds.

Not just east west, though. Rich/poor, bourgie/proletariat. Darren Aronofsky seems like a rich kid from an Ivy who got his legs in shape making art house cheese platters. I obviously don't know him, but every time I wanted to care for decrepit, desolate, destitute old Ram Jam I wondered how can an Ivy brat suddenly create such a genuine, sympathetic portrait of an old junkie wrestler in a trailer park without having been poor? Or unfairly demonized as white trash? And how could I hold him accountable for it if I was never poor or unfairly demonized as white trash? I mean, this film makes poetry out of what etiquette coaches and professionals in blandly civilized discourse would write off as low class communication problems unless told not to do so by austere cultural critics (I have so many targets floating in my head I wonder if all of them are real?).

What's great about The Wrestler is it doesn't give Ram Jam some kind of skill, like piano playing, to make his white trashiness seem totally undeserved. It makes his being human reason enough to make "white trashiness" seem undeserved. More on that later, as I haven't seen Five Easy Pieces or Fingers or Finding Forrester, but there's always some need for a serious film about the poor to have this artistic crutch that all of a sudden allows the main, disenfranchised subject to finally be welcomed into the pantheon of real human beings. "They thought he was the trash he was hired to take out, until they accidentally discovered his maguffin of an arbitrary artistic skill" because they are maguffins, who gives a shit what this person can do or where they're from? As long as they pass the checklist we were wrong for thinking they were poor and stupid, which obviously they would be if they weren't so brilliant at whatever-whatever.

Basically, Mickey Rourke, who's real life is some kind of noxious, lacerating mouthwash of a rock star turmoil, plays Randy the Ram. An old wrestler revered and respected by youngins and upstarts inside and in close proximity to the ring but nowhere else. Locked out of his trailer by a park manager who thinks he's never good for the rent because he only is when pressed, estranged from his daughter because he was too busy being a wrestler to be a father, and barely connected to a stripper (Marisa Tomei) who herself gets derided for her age by slick bro types with ties and engagement rings out for a night of misogynistic objectifiable partying before they have to cut off their bachelorhood for that one eternal black hole (i'm play-acting).

What's weird is how both Rourke and Tomei both fall into their roles like alternate universe versions of themselves. Tomei plays a character who pushes her body for commission, and it's like she's putting a nail in the coffin of the image she's cultivated baring herself in almost every outing of hers i've ever seen. Every moment her body palefaces into motherhood and camel's back you get the meta-heavy heaves of her realizing this is what her life has come to. Rourke on the other hand is lumpen, misshapen scar tissue pumped full of fake cartilege and drugs, his barely beating heart being pummeled by every bad decision he's made in his life at once, and right now. He wants to feel something other than the visceral pleasure and adrenaline rush of ringside pain but his own life keeps on showing up at every shed tear.

The only real asshole in the movie is the grocery store manager, played by Todd Barry, turning his laconic lackadasia into lacerating manageria (it's a disease). Wrestling, which i've always considered a joke, some testosterone fueled melodrama that plays like soaps for fucktards, is totally given it's due here. The wrestlers, in amiable, humorous, and conciliatory manner ask each other how they want the fights to play out. They hug and joke with each other in a totally non-jockish, humbling way. It's almost insane artifice that you have to wonder if it's trumping reality more than capturing it. But it's so sweet! They do it for the crowds, and for the rent, and for each other, because they have this community, too. And when they die a little, it dies a little (a totally devastating scene later on where Ram Jam, post-op, is at some community center convention with barely any show ups, noticing all these other old wrestlers with some kind of disability from their end's gravity approaching like thunder).

Another movie that totally got me was Ballast, made by Lance Hammer, whose blaxploitaiton-baiting name totally threw me off guard when I found out he was white. There was another chasm, another transgressive exploration of another socio-economic status, this one compounded by race! A young white filmmaker making a soulful, sympathetic, and no-bullshit non-condescending portrait of life for broken black family in the mississippi delta. It made my dad throw up, but not because of it's realness, it was all over the shoulder shots that let you lean on the characters a bit, leer and hang out with them while their turmoil figured itself out.

Armond White called it a white and middle class dream dressed up like an exploration of poor blacks. He could be right, but the movie never settles, it's always uneasy, up until its final shot. What's impressive about it is that while it was made by a white filmmaker, is obviously under a white filmmaker's gaze, it was workshopped with the actors. Non-professionals hired based on being who they were, black and Delta poor. I can hear auctioneering! and coercion! being yelled from deconstructionist protests in the back, but really how else can a young white filmmaker get someone from another socially constructed race to represent themselves on camera without being a purposely defeatist occidentalist and giving up?

"It really wasn’t about bringing something out; it was about preventing them from putting something out there that wasn’t them. So my singular goal in the direction of actors, was to have the actors behave as they are at all times…I wanted them. This is straight out of Robert Bresson – you cast people for them. It’s not acting. I don’t want them to act."

The film starts off with two suicides, one successful, one attempted. The attempted suicide is later confronted by his own gun by a kid run afoul of local crack dealers while his mother works a dead end convenience store job. There's long silences, little to no dialogue, and loads and loads of atmosphere and emotion. To suggest it's impressionistic for the sake of artsy exuberance is to miss the point. Apparently: "I ended up in the Delta and was just blown away. I can’t describe the sensation, because it lives in a world that is beyond verbal articulation – and that’s precisely the thing, I wanted to try to convey that, and I knew writing a novel or poetry wouldn’t capture that feeling… I was determined to make a film that somehow captured the presence of this place. It dealt specifically with sorrow, and it dealt specifically with a patient endurance in the face of suffering, and the dignity of this endurance just moved me tremendously."

Ballast, too, doesn't saddle its protagonists with some lame-brained artistic trick to turn for the genteels, it just hangs out with them. Follows them, lets you in on them as far as you can go without being them, or hearing their innermost thoughts. They're heavily guarded, all you've got are binoculars, no x-ray specs. Come down for a day, say a word or two, or pass on through a gas station with nothing but a thank you. It's all good, they'll still be there, maybe.

At the same time it doesn't contextualize them in a torrential stream of abstract polemics about institutions. Impassioned speeches are fine and all, but these characters, as fake-actual real people, have emotions too. Have other affairs. The destitution and structural racism might hang in the air, but it doesn't manifest itself every time black skin encounters white. What's revolutionary about the film and it's character's actions is they somewhat bypass institutional action, the hierarchic, dependency-inducing service industry of charity and social work.

In passing it's mentioned how schools are nothing but concrete shams meants to hold kids for 12 years before dumping them back onto the streets with nothing but reflexive self-loathing and obedience. It's not mentioned explicitly in the terms put to use by John Taylor Gatto's Against School but a decision is made to homeschool the kid instead. It's kind of a decentralization of uplift and recovery, in which each interpersonal reliance, mutual aid, is given the preferential treatment instead of another "economically down on my knees, time to commit unlawful transgression." Which is fine and all, but not everyone's a crack dealer.

Part Two, in which I watch Fingers and Five Easy Pieces and ruminate on movies that need hotel lobby tricks to care about their protagonists, to come whenever I get the ability to write clearly.