#0113 - PLAYTIME IN PALESTINE - Elia Suleiman's Divine Intervention has stuck with me for weeks after I reviewed it, as it only took me a few days to realize that my review was probably inadequate. There's no correcting that now, but a film like Suleiman's deserves to be talked out - in fact, I think that was probably always his intention in making a film so pointedly provocative.
Most reviewers have been enthusiastic, and the director has entered the ranks of talents worth watching, at least in the context of the festival circuit. Some critics, however, were troubled by Divine Intervention, like Peter Bradshaw of the Guardian, who wrote that the film "has a steely and very un-comic retributive political message that's at odds with the dominant tone of gentle whimsy, and it's for this reason I can't exactly join in the chorus of praise that this movie has enjoyed."
Like most reviewers, Bradshaw loved the humour of the opening half of the film, set mostly in the sort of Nazareth neighbourhood where Suleiman grew up, a place of mostly older people, sullenly provoking each other with small, daily outrages against mere civility. He also finds rich comic tension in the sequences where the main character, played by the director, sits at an Israeli checkpoint with his girlfriend, silently watching the daily harassment while they caress each other's hands, unable to meet anywhere else due to restrictions. Scenes like this are, to Bradshaw, "a dainty flower in the gun barrel of Israeli occupation: a flower with dangerous spores."
Suleiman's fantasy sequences, however, truly disturb and even offend Bradshaw, especially a wild scene set on an Israeli gun range. Five Israeli marksmen - Police? IDF? Mossad? - are shooting at pictures of a keffiyeh-clad militant, when the figure suddenly comes to life in the form of Suleiman's beautiful girlfriend. What follows is part dance, part Matrix-style wire-fighting acrobatic action sequence, the high point of which is the fantasy intifada fighter floating into the sky as they fire at her; "the bullets swirl around her head into a crown of thorns as she stretches her arms out, crucifixion-style." There's more after that, involving a shield shaped like a map of a unified Israel/Palestine, the destruction of an IDF helicopter that transforms the ground into a Palestinian flag, and the rebel fighter felling the gunmen with a slingshot.
This whole scene was prefigured earlier in the film when we get our first glimpse of E.S., Suleiman's character, driving along while eating an apricot. He throws the pit out the window of his car and spectacularly destroys an Israeli tank. It's a short, sharp shock of a scene that slaps us out of the bemused groove we might have come to enjoy with the film's previous Tati/Keaton-style visual gags. It's obvious that Suleiman is enjoying his ability to lead his audience along, then shake them up with something unexpected, but Bradshaw isn't amused: "Making sport, subliminally or even unconsciously, with the idea of Jews as Christ-killers is quite a misjudgement for a film claiming the moral high ground of victimhood."
It's a telling sort of comment coming from the film reviewer of the left-leaning, generally pro-Palestinian Guardian, because it assumes that Suleiman actually intended to claim the "moral high ground of victimhood." I never felt, at any point, that pleading victimhood was Suleiman's goal in the film, but rather that, as A.O Scott said in his New York Times review, "His wry, ultimately human fatalism suggests that Palestinians and Jews are, in some respects, not so far apart. Divine Intervention made me think of an old bit of Yiddish metaphysics: man tracht, Gott lacht - man strives and God laughs."
In my search for responses to the film, I came across a review in the French paper Liberation. My French is lousy - a legacy of my country's desultory policy of official bilingualism, and my own laziness, much lamented - so I ran it through a web translator, which yielded gems like this, describing the fantasy fight sequence:
"Same manner, one promised in marriage transformed into Intifada Power Rangers flying in the airs and juggling with road-metals (nail of the foutraque and incredible scene already of Cannes 2002, all confused selections), here a very astounding remake of David and Goliath - where David would be Palestinian. Way for Suleiman of addressing itself to the neighbours, to the zenith of his political paradox: "Us, Palestinians, one is a little Jewish, not? I is insane because I love you, is it that?""
To which I can only say: exactly.
A review of the film on the Islamonline.net site (where, in another featured story, "Gore Vidal tells it like it is") is dismissive despite its praise: "Suleiman plays all the cinematic tricks of cleverness, creating a series of character sketches and mini-movie moments rather than a cohesive story. It's a buffet of intriguing scenes rather than a complete, satisfying dinner. But that seems to be his goal all along."
The reviewer, Dilshad D. Ali, seems a bit perplexed by the film. "What do these scenes mean? What do they have to do with each other? The point seems to be that when you're under constant occupation, the smallest moments of defiance (of flights of fantasy) keeps you going... It's easier to be lost and confused with brief flashes of 'aha!' understanding and humour." Ultimately, though, "for Muslims there's little to gain from the film other than a wry appreciation for what Palestinians endure on a daily basis." In other words, the high moral ground of victimhood.
Suleiman is a Palestinian Israeli, a Christian, not a Muslim, whose father - who built guns for the Arab resistance against the founding of the state of Israel - was shot, beaten, thrown off a cliff and left for dead by Hagana militants in 1948. It's hard to imagine that his feelings for Israel will be anything but conflicted, probably a bit resentful, and probably not indicative of any coherent political stance. His decision to provoke is as much the usual creative abdication of responsibility as it is an honest reflection of his background. If his film wasn't so well done, if it hadn't made me laugh out loud, I probably wouldn't have cut him as much slack as I did in my review. But I'm still abidingly curious about just what he was trying to do with Divine Intervention, and what he might do next.
Or, as the translation of the Liberation review puts it: "They thus dug in full Cannescity where it starts to make a Sudanese heat, a pipeline of cinema by which forwarded a not very common euphoriant gas amounts." Precisely.
An earlier Suleiman film, Chronicle of a Disappearance, ends with a shot of Suleiman's parents at home in Nazareth, dozing in front of the TV as it shows the late-night station sign-off: the Israeli flag waving in the wind while the national anthem, "Hatikva", plays. "It's a total snub," Suleiman explained to the New York Times. "It's the fact that my parents don't give a damn about the Israeli flag, even when it's in their living room. Israeli critics said it was one of the most painful moments in the history of cinema against Israel. And at the same time, critics in Arab countries misread the irony and called me a Zionist collaborator, and I couldn't go anywhere in the Arab world with the film."
Suleiman got some funding from the Israeli government for his first film, which turned into something of a scandal, according to an interview (in this month's issue, but not available online) he gave to Sight & Sound: "...it almost reached the Supreme Court. They blocked the money and wanted to take me to prison. When the film premiered in Venice, I stood in front of the public and said, 'This is what's happening. I just wanted you to know.' Then when the film won the prize for best first feature it became too embarassing and they gave me the money." As for getting money from the Arab world, "No, they don't believe in this cinema."
In a Guardian interview, Suleiman describes how a statement he gave at Cannes, that he "rejected the ideal of an independant Palestinian state", was misinterpreted angrily by both Israelis and Arabs, who regarded his comment as either hostile to the existence of Israel, or endorsing a Palestinian ghetto:
"What I said was that I want an end of occupation. That is what a Palestinian state should mean. I oppose the notion of statehood as it stands for the moment. And yes, I do think that Israel should cease to exist as a state for the Jewish people and commence to be a democratic, secular state for all its citizens, and that includes the one million of so Palestinians living there who are marginalized, with racist practices against them. What I want to see is this: no religion, multi-national, open borders."
Suleiman understands, though, that he may as well be hoping for Jerry Bruckheimer to produce his next film: "But I can see that this probably cannot happen for generations. When all the wounds have healed." Which begs the question: what about the present, and the years between now and then?
Or as the translated Liberation article asks: "What can mean, in your opinion, this old saw voodoo in Palestinian mouth with the address of an Israeli colonist?"
I couldn't have said it better.
Jeff Mandell, reviewing Divine Intervention in The American Prospect, draws a straightforward conclusion from the film's obviously allegorical scenes, such as one where patients unplug themselves from their heart monitors and join hospital staff in a corridor where everyone smokes furiously. "Gifts and opportunities are taken for granted in a single-minded pursuit that can only be described as nihilistic... For the most part...the film depicts a Palestinian society choosing to react to adversity with self-destruction."
Like Bradshaw, Mandell is troubled by the violent fantasies in Suleiman's film, which he thinks fly in the face of the director's obvious desire for an end to the occupation and a new peace. "Yet the vision he presents in this film is one where only violence speaks in a compelling voice, where destruction is presented as the only celebratory human function. That Palestinians are enraged with the state of things is understandable, but without coherent expression, those feelings cannot be engaged, and the conditions that promulgate them will not be altered. It is exactly this gaping silence in Palestinian society that magnifies the voices of political radicals and fundamentalist clerics. That is the kind of divine intervention we all need less of."
If Mandell is hoping for a more conciliatory, humanist sort of film to come from Suleiman or Palestine, he might have a long wait. The director's "filming notes" that come with the press kit for his film include statements like: "We are at war. I just did in an Israeli tank. Father, lie in peace for which they will have none. And there is more to come."
Persecution has the palliative effect of feeding a sense of self-righteousness. Artists, in general, are addicted to self-righteousness, and a sense of romantic marginalization, the sort of thing Suleiman hints at when he writes things like "All that the old Jews had to do was become Israelis, turning in their Jewishness to us and off we went." It helps to nourish a notion of grievance that can feel, for the artist and rebel, like original sin. "I hate my birth town with a vehemence," Suleiman writes, after talking to his mother on the phone. "It's the place that never stops trying to pull you back and suck you dry. Jesus was lucky to have been condemned elsewhere. I moved to Jerusalem wishing at the worst to have a similar fate, when it became 'at best', I left."
I have to assume that Suleiman knows that his world - one of dark irony, beautiful women destroying checkpoints with a sexy sashay, diversity, tolerance, and a respect for individualism that's a particular product of the western enlightenment - is one that wouldn't survive in a Palestine where Hizbollah and Hamas are the ultimate winners. It's an idea, thought, that he seems unwilling to address explicitly, but hints at in agonized, faintly inarticulate passages like this one, discussing the character of Palestinian Israelis like himself:
"It's a fear that our dark side is transgressive to extremities of unknown territories and where that might lead us. It's the fear, partial suspicion and even unconscious uncertainty that it would lead to the black hole: the either we/and or Israel no longer. A grave loss of gravity; a Toho Vavoho as described in the Old Testament, a chaos similar to the one talked about in the beginning of the world. Israel knows that, Israel knows: This, or give up. Or turn truly democratic. Or give Us up. This and that, Israel refuses to face."
For his part, Suleiman has no patience with the style of cinematic impassivity preferred by the left, as he describes it to a colleague of mine in a local weekly. "The action film can be political," Suleiman told him. "this must be said to those ideological people on the left who believe that only a static camera is the truth."
"Think about me as this angry pacifist who's never going to toy with the real weapons," Suleiman says, "who's only toying with the representation of it. And think what to do to prevent further violence instead of accusing me or putting me on the defensive, because I'm never going to be on the defensive."
Suleiman is enjoying a kind of austere luxury right now, the sole voice of "Palestinian cinema" for all intents and purposes, making protest films that feel familiar enough to the cineaste westerners and liberal Israelis who are, essentially, his primary audience, probably much more than the educated minority of Palestinians both in the middle east and the diaspora. He has invented - or partially re-invented - a unique style of moviemaking, and unless some impressive new voice emerges from the West Bank or Gaza, the ball is in his court.
Or, as as Liberation put it, through the mist of translation software:
"Suleiman having more or less the face impavide of Buster Keaton, the theoretical acrobatics of Chaplin, the taste of cherry on the cake of Tati, and the characteristic to have to carry all the Palestinian cinema on its frail shoulders, it is literally in front of the three ages of the slapstick in what is has moreover in vain and devastator, that one can kneel."
(posted 01:00pm | 01.21.03)
#0112 - THE SKINNY - The furor over Kate Winslet's British GQ cover has just started to die down, but it will continue to resonate throughout the winter awards season, as celebrities put themselves on display in what has to be understood as the Hollywood equivalent of the Detroit Auto Show.
For those who managed to miss it, the story is simple enough: Winslet, an actress who has publicly celebrated and agonized over her "slightly more Marilyn Monroe-y shape", appeared on the cover of British GQ looking more like the "model-turned-actress" physical paradigm exemplified by, say, Rebecca Romijin-Stamos. She had, it was known, made an effort to shed the pounds she put on during her pregnancy, but this looked drastic; to dedicated Winslet-watchers, it was as if she'd discovered a miracle diet that actually reduced bones as well as fat.
To the more discerning, it was obvious that the magazine had digitally altered Winslet, in a virtuoso display of Photoshop technique that made you glad that Adobe and G4s weren't around when Stalin's propaganda ministries were clumsily erasing purged party members from group photos. The magazine was only too glad to admit their handiwork. "We do that for everyone, whether they are a size six or a size 12," said editor Dylan Jones. "It hasn't a lot to do with body size. Practically every photo you see in a magazine will have been digitally altered in this way."
Photoshop, more than any other piece of software, has changed the way photos make their way from the camera to the printed page. As someone who uses it every day, I have nothing but praise: it's the best-written, most intuitive, stable collection of code I've ever worked with, and deserves its virtual monopoly on the desktops of art departments. And with each new version, it makes it easier to alter photographs in any number of ways. Retouching was once a laborious craft practiced mostly by expensive specialists. Today, just two or three simple tools in Photoshop's pallette make it ridiculously easy.
The temptation to use the full range of Photoshop's options to "improve" photos is a constant temptation for editors and art directors. At newspapers, there's a code of honour that insists that drastic "photoshopping" must be identifiable, executed in the form of collages, but anyone will tell you that subtle improvements - cleaning up backgrounds and tweaking minor flaws - are done all the time. Magazines - especially lifestyle and entertainment magazines like GQ - are different, though, and the operative aesthetic is the one that has governed Playboy centerfolds for decades. Perfection is expected, so it follows that no one is fooling themselves that they're seeing reality, a slyly philosophical conceit of which the editors and artists who produce these fantasies seem quietly proud.
"These days you only get two kinds of pictures of celebrities," Jones elaborated, "- paparazzi pictures or pictures like these which have been highly styled, buffed, trimmed and altered to make the subject look as good as is humanly possible." It's the sort of attitude that appalls someone like the Guardian's Esther Addley:
"This means that every image of every woman that GQ readers look at is, on some level, a lie. They are no more likely to meet these women down the pub than they are to run into a white horse with a horn and wings. But rather than a normal lady with the odd saggy section and jiggly bit, when a woman takes her clothes off these men genuinely expect to encounter the 50ft Winslet, or the porcelain-faced 50-year-old, or the cellulite-free mother. Is it any wonder that there were 24,336 cosmetic procedures, performed in Britain in 2000, not to mention 96,000 Botox applications last year - £180m a year spent in pursuit of a chimera. It is hard to know which gender the GQ philosophy cheats more."
Jones, for his part, was unrepentant. "Kate saw these pictures before publication and loved them. Various parts have been improved, including her stomach and legs... I'll be very surprised and a little disappointed if she is anything other than completely happy. I don't think we've gone too far - I think she looks magnificent." If anything, Jones' attitude reminds one of the renovation-mad friends and family on "Changing Rooms", talking proudly about the work they've done on their in-laws' dreary basement family room in suburban Hull, now a gleaming, blonde-wood-and-white-walled Kensington bar.
Winslet, for her part, wasn't at all pleased. "The re-touching is excessive," she told the press after the issue hit the stands. "I do not look like that and more importantly I don't desire to look like that." It's easy to sympathize with Winslet against the unctuous-sounding Jones (who opined that the Winslet he interviewed for GQ "was thinner than I had ever seen her, petite and very sexy.") Easy, that is, until you wonder just what Winslet was thinking when she strapped herself into the corset, or squeezed into the pair of sheer black pantyhose she sports on the inside of the magazine.
Did she think to herself: "I'm sure my post-natal belly splashed across the glossy pages of GQ will empower recent mothers everywhere. I wonder if it would be too much to ask the photographer to get a close-up of my cracked nipples?" Somehow, it seems doubtful.
Yet in the interview with Jones, she sings the same line she's been singing since Titanic: "All I know from the men I've ever spoken to is that they like girls to have an arse on them, so why is it that women think that in order to be adored they have to be thin? Very thin?"
"I think when you've been a fat kid, you always see yourself in some way as a bit of a black sheep," Winslet told Jones. This quote seems a bit more significant in light of a recent story that has Winslet meeting one of her adolescent tormenters, now working behind the cosmetic counter at an Oxford Street shop. "I said, 'Hello, how are you?' And she said, 'Oh fine, how are you?' - but a bit panicky because she remembered what a bitch she had been and suddenly I was a bit too well-known."
"So I said, 'Don't you want to be a model?'"
Mrrowww. Hiss. Hiss. The mind's eye pictures a rack full of GQs in the background, the whole incident photographed like an "AbFab" episode come to life.
Winslet's nickname at school, she tells GQ, was "Blubber".
The fat issue - more specifically, the celebrity fat issue - is a confusing one, where the consensus on the street in no way affects the public outcome of the debate. I showed the illustration above to various men who passed my desk last week, with the expected consensus that the hip-py Kate in the red dress was far sexier than the skeletal dominatrix on the GQ cover. In every case - there were no exceptions - the men just shook their heads at the digitized Kate.
"I like a woman to have some padding," said Saul, a freelance photographer. He's in the majority - a Glamour magazine survey proposed three body types as "ideals" to men and women in New York City, where 58% of the women and 50% of the men said that Winslet appealed to them more than Kate Moss (24% women/30% men), or size 14, 175 lb. model Kate Dillon (18% women/20% men).
(Oddly enough, in less-than-cosmopolitan Missoula, Montana, Dillon appealed to 42% of the women, while Moss was an ideal for 56% of the men. Winslet trailed in third for the women with only 22%, and well behind Moss in second place for the men with 32%. You've got to wonder how grim the dating scene is in Missoula.)
Last night, as the photos from the Golden Globes came in, the usual running commentary cast a brutal light on everyone who walked down the red carpet. The men were pleased to see that Jennifer Connolly has put on a bit of weight, bouncing back from the pallid wraith with the concave chest that appeared at last year's Oscars. Nicole Kidman, on the other hand, seems to be hosting a colony of tapeworms. Last week, celebrating her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, she looked like she was getting in shape for the movie version of the popular campground kid's game, Hangman. This week, she's obviously in the running for the lead in a biopic based on the heartwarming story of the Q-tip.
A generous selection of Salma Hayek red carpet photos let us know that Reuters, at least, knows what makes men happy. Quasi-local girl Nia Vardalos showed up looking really great in a fitted black dress with an embroidered corset. Vardalos, no doubt, has been on the celery and Slimfast shake diet since her film became a hit, but at a recent press conference, she took umbrage at the suggestion from a reporter that she could hardly be called fat.
"First of all, you gotta see me in my underwear. Yes, I am. Yet I truly believe that there's a new, curvy look that's 'in', and it's a positive thing, but not at the expense of slim women. Can we just say, 'women are women are women?'"
You get the impression that the skinny girls cornered Vardalos outside the schoolyard and told her what would happen to her if she tried to pretend that she was part of their clique: "Nuh-uh. Not with those hips, bee-yawtch. Like, we will so Photoshop your ass if you and your souvlaki butt gets all high and mighty on us." "You tell her, Nicole."
Winslet has been the most visible pawn in the weight debate since Titanic made her a star. "I had to starve myself for Titanic and it just wasn't me. I'm not a twig and I refuse to be one," she once said. And yet, I remember reading letters in the local papers from men who thought that Winslet was unbelievable as an Edwardian beauty, that she was simply too chunky. Such men have obviously never seen turn-of-the-century porn, and live entirely unaware of the word "Rubenesque" or Renoir's nudes.
To her credit, Winslet has never been shy about showing her body, appearing nude not only in Titanic but in Jude, Hideous Kinky, Holy Smoke, and Iris, providing us with a visual chronology of her body's evolution before and after childbirth. She was obviously pregnant while shooting Enigma, and her weight gain was supposed to identify her as the frumpy, "you know, without your glasses you're actually quite lovely" friend of Saffron Burrows' glamorous, rain-thin femme fatale. For most men, it was obvious that Burrows' cheekbones could leave a nasty cut, and the only thing that the film got right was letting the protagonist find happiness with Winslet, as peace and victory over the Nazis arrives at the end with the vision of a heavily pregnant Kate.
The bitter truth, however, is very different, and Winslet admits to have lost a whopping 27 kilos after the birth of her daughter. As Emma McDonald put it in the Australian Age, "Hollywood isn't exactly famous for embracing overweight 25-year old mothers." Defensively, Winslet called her decision "insane and bloody boring", which only makes me wonder what kind of pressure she had gotten from producers and casting directors, filtered and concentrated to a fine point through her agent. Unable for simple reasons of residual sanity, self-regard, health and simple physiology to shed another pound, it's easy to imagine that she let Dylan Jones and GQ go the last mile for her, selling a final, fantasy version of Kate Winslet that no one implicitly believes, but which at least does the job of sewing a suggestive image in the wind, in the hope that it'll take root somewhere where they grow roles.
It's a tricky game Winslet seems to be playing, one that the Guardian's Esther Addley suspects might "one day turn and bite her on her (slightly lardy) backside." The sour humour of the whole affair is the fact of millions of people contemplating Winslet's backside, no doubt as a distraction to contemplating other famous backsides, like that of Jennifer Lopez, another deceitful paradigm of manufactured "realness". This image of Hollywood leading millions in gazing intently at a gallery of backsides is cruel satire worthy of Hogarth or Cruikshank, the sort of vaguely obscene joke that nevertheless rings utterly true.
(posted 11:58pm | 01.20.03)
#0111 - THEY DIDN'T CALL IT THE TWO TOWERS FOR NOTHING, DID THEY? - The second wave of critical writing about Peter Jackson's The Two Towers has rolled ashore, in the shape of essays about the meaning of Jackson's films and the Tolkien books that inspired them. The first wave - timely reviews of the films printed during the opening weekend - were generally limited to the usual consumer's report mode of reviewing; the second wave aims to tell us just what The Two Towers says about us, our society, and our fate, in the most portentous tone possible.
In Slate, business columnist James Surowiecki takes on the "wistful technophobia" of the latest film, noting at the start the irony of how integral digital technology is to the making of Jackson's films. "The irony," Surowiecki writes, "is that J.R.R. Tolkien was a pure Luddite, a man deeply skeptical of modernity, horrifed by 'mass-production robot factories and the roar of self-obstructive mechanical traffic,' and nostalgic for the English countryside before it had been scarred by the railroad and the car. The sight of the digitized figure of Gollum in The Two Towers would undoubtedly have appalled him."
It's an unusual assumption, based mostly on the idea that Tolkien wouldn't have seen a difference between a GM plant or a superhighway and the eager, whimsically-decorated and guildcraft-like workshops where digital effects people work. Perhaps he might have preferred to see a man in a rubber suit play Gollum, or perhaps he would have hated the whole idea of a series of movies based on his books. By now, I think some Tolkien scholar might have unearthed a quote by the writer giving some idea of his opinion on movies, but since it hasn't yet surfaced, I have to assume mere indifference on Tolkien's part.
For his part, Surowiecki considers Tolkien's luddism to be not only anachronistic - not in itself a charge that bothers most luddites - but illogical. Making the Battle of Helm's Deep as central to his argument as it is to Jackson's film, Surowiecki argues that "Tolkien's reflexive distrust of technology led him to a profound misrepresentation - and misunderstanding - of the roots of Western military success."
Technology, not magic or spiritual purity, made it possible for the English to win at "Crecy, Agincourt, Inkerman, Rorke's Drift (and) the Battle of Britain", Surowiecki writes, thanks to the longbow, the Enfield and Martini-Henry rifles, artillery and radar. "The machine played a central role in every real Helm's Deep in Western history", he insists, and the technophobia of Tolkien is "an attempt to imagine England without the very things that made England possible."
Sci-fi writer David Brin, in Salon, describes Tolkien as a writer on the side of the Romantic reactionaries (Keats, Shelley, Sir Walter Scott and Henry James) against the technocratic and reductively logical Enlightenment. It's a powerful conflict to invoke these days, used as it is to describe the war of the secular, technocratic, post-Reformation West against the tradition-bound, backward, religiously-inspired Muslim world. That the argument is used in completely different ways, often by the same people, gives you some idea of the perils of metaphor.
For Brin, Romanticism is an ideology that appeals strongly to artists, and those with a pretense to the status of a "rebel": "One solitary artist - or entertainer or lost prince or angry poet - loomed larger in importance, by far, than a thousand craft workers, teachers or engineers (a value system shared by the mythic engine of Hollywood)."
As for Brin, he's on the side of the Enlightenment: "Romanticism never made any pretense at equality. It is hyperdiscriminatory by nature. (Have you ever actually read Byron or Shelley?) Whole classes of people are less worthy, less deserving of life, than other classes. The Nazis were archetypical Romantics." As for Tolkien, Brin points out that the imprecise nature of metaphor came back to haunt him when he saw how the Nazis appropriated so much of the Nordic imagery he had built his work upon.
Brin suggests an exercise: starting with the assumption that history is written by the victors, it's not ridiculous to assume that the whole story of Frodo and the Ring was written as an exercise in propaganda, long after the fact. "How would Sauron have described the situation?" Suddenly it's not so hard to imagine why Sauron, while apparently the epitome of evil, was able to gather together a diverse army - one more "multicultural" than the more homogenous forces arrayed behind Gandalf and Aragorn, an army composed of human legions as well as beastly orcs, trolls, ringwraiths and uruk-hai. This army, far from glorying in the crapulence of their evil, "thought they were the 'good guys', with a justifiable grievance worth fighting for, rebelling against an ancient, rigid, pyramid-shaped, feudal hierarchy topped by invader-alien elfs and their Numenorean-colonialist human lackeys."
"Instead of rallying against 'evil'", Brin writes, "try to understand it. That's always been the best way to defeat it." As this season's political interpretations of Tolkien/Jackson goes, it's probably the most interesting and willfully contradictory one I've read.
In the Chicago Tribune, reporter David Ibata takes on the old charge that Tolkien's world is an inherently racist one, a charge gingerly dismissed by Brin with the excuse that "he couldnt' help it, coming from the imperialist and class-ridden culture that raised him." Ibata reminds us that Tolkien has been claimed by a wide variety of fans: academics, Catholics, sci-fi and fantasy fans, luddites, medievalists and, most notoriously, white supremacists who've found a heroic model for their own percieved struggle against races and classes they regard as "lesser" and impure.
The human legions in the army of Sauron make their first appearance in The Two Towers: the Easterlings and the Haradrim and the Wild Men. The latter are "white men", driven from their homes and into the hills by the horsemen of Rohan, while the first two, as described by Tolkien, are unmistakably Asian and Middle Eastern, the Haradrim modelled on the Saracen opponents of the Crusaders. In Tolkien's book, the Wild Men fight alongside the orcs and uruk-hai at Helm's Deep, while in the movie, they're notably absent.
It's not the only anachronism in Jackson's "faithful" adaptation of Tolkien. "It is not explained," Ibata writes, "how Saruman can threaten the demise of mankind when some of his own minions are human. (The human presence will be even more pronounced in the third film, when Sauron unleashes the Easterling and Haradrim upon the West.) Perhaps a more accurate statement would have been that the forces of evil have assembled an army 'to destroy the world of civilized white men.' Of course, Aragorn - and the director Jackson - cannot say this."
Aragorn, or rather Viggo "No Blood for Oil" Mortensen, would not say this, as the actor has joined the long list of celebrities opposed to the impending war against Iraq, while denying fervently that The Two Towers is, in any way, a pro-war film, whose message is eerily in tune with the moment. It's not an opinion shared by Sean Astin who, as Samwise Gamgee, Frodo's faithful companion, was happy to deliver a rousing speech on the necessity of fighting for good in the ruins of a besieged city, a scene apparently added by Jackson last summer, after principle filming was complete. Astin, like most of us, had been told that Tolkien didn't intend his books to be seen as a response to the war against Hitler, but it didn't quite ring true:
"In his letters, Tolkien is adamant that it's not an allegory for the Second World War; that Saruman is not Hitler per se. When I was reading that I didn't believe him. I thought: 'You fought in the First World War and you were writing chapters of the book and sending it to your son who was in trenches during the Second World War. How could it not be about Hitler?'"
Jackson has claimed his faithfulness to Tolkien and his books, but the interview with Astin suggests that Jackson is simply playing his cards close to his chest, unwilling to provoke too much controversy: "The first movie came out a couple months after the September 11 attacks and there was all this American deployment to Afghanistan and the brewing issue with Iraq, and I think they (Jackson and co-writers Fran Walsh and Philipa Boyens) wanted to echo and contend with those issues."
The cat, whatever Jackson intended, is out of the bag, as evidenced by Salman Rushdie's Guardian piece, "Arms and the men and hobbits", a reflection on how films like The Two Towers and Gangs of New York inform and resonate with the moment of their release.
Rushdie isn't particularly overcome with reverence for the literary inspiration of Jackson's films: "Like it's precursor ... Jackson's picture is an improvement on its source material, if only because Jackson's film language is subtler, more sophisticated and certainly more contemporary than the stilted, deliberate archaicisms of J.R.R. Tolkien's descriptive prose and, even more problematically, of his dialogue. (I am a big fan of the book version of The Lord of the Rings, but nobody ever read Tolkien for the writing.)"
As for Tolkien's dismissal of war-inspired allegory, "the echoes of the Second World War, the last just war, are everywhere." The war for Middle Earth is meant to be seen purely as good vs. evil, which can't help but resonate in "a time when all of us are trying to come to grips with the fact of an impending, controversial war, and many people on both sides of the argument, are taking the absolutist line."
As for Rushdie, he supports a war that will get rid of Saddam Hussein, albeit in a qualified, somewhat agonized way: "America may be in less danger from Iraq than its leaders claim, and the war on Saddam Husseinmay have more to do with breaking US dependance on Saudi oil than anyone cares to discuss. Yet it is possible that this flawed war may end up creating a better Iraq for most Iraqis than could be achieved by other means."
He contrasts the Manichean world of Jackson's film with that of Scorsese's Gangs of New York, where it's a challenge to consider one gang more essentially good than another, when the very existence of gangs in the streets of a city is a threat against the safety and security of everyone. And yet, Scorsese insists that these gang wars gave birth to the world we know, good coming out of evil. In box office terms, Rushdie notes, the starker world of Jackson's films is apparently more popular than the ambiguous one of Scorsese, but the novelist hopes that "when the time for the Oscars comes round, the academy will see fit to reward the more profound complexities of the Scorsese film."
There's something disturbing behind Rushdie's attitude, an assumption that, as a novelist, he's invested with a more sophisticated take on morals and world affairs than the masses who find Jackson's story so appealing, the elitist's article of faith that the popular can't be really true, that truth can only be found in the obscure and marginalized. Why he considers Scorsese's big-budget, megastar-packed film to be somehow obscure, and not merely a flawed film that failed to achieve an audience, is never explained. Scorsese is more of an "artist" than Jackson - as evidenced by his recent, hollow protests against the war, it would seem.
In any case, Rushdie ends his piece with the sort of dark premonition required of an artist like himself, bred with a sixth sense for the tragic and the doom-fraught: "...by March we may all be preoccupied by a greater, darker contest than the one for the Academy Awards." The Oscars, Rushdie bravely suggests, are not the mighty trial we think they are; there are things in the real world with greater stakes, it seems. Thank you Salman - it never would have occurred to me.
It's all so confusing, isn't it? Tolkien was a Romantic, and thus essentially sympathetic to the same anti-Enlightenment impulse that inspired the Nazis, yet his work is naturally, if not openly, a metaphor for the war against the "total evil" of Hitler. Jackson's film is - implicitly if not explicitly - a reflection of a contemporary mood, a mirror with which we can glimpse war, and while it would be naive to understand the war we fight now as one of good against evil, good may be it's ultimate outcome. We should support the aims of this war, while decrying its means. Or something like that.
If I may be so bold as to offer my own interpretation, I managed to walk out of The Two Towers struck by a detail of setting and location that made Jackson's films (I can't speak for Tolkien's books - I've never read them; I have not taste for fantasy writing, I'm afraid) suddenly take on a shade of actual complexity.
Much has been made of the genius of Jackson shooting his films in his native New Zealand, an island country with practically every setting required to re-create Middle Earth. Certainly, the films would have failed outright if Jackson wasn't able to evoke the Dead Marshes, the enchanted forests, and the harsh volcanic wasteland of Mordor as beautifully as he has. Every character is on a journey of some sort - almost hilariously so, as in the first twenty minutes of the new film, where Aragorn and his companions chase a band of uruk-hai over an almost endless wilderness, an over-the-top sequence that reminded me of Monty Python's deadly satire of Nordic sagas.
We have gotten, in two films, a better sense of the geography of Middle Earth than of the motivations of many of the main characters. One thing stood out, though - of all of the races of Tolkien's world, the humans seem to have gotten the shit end of the stick in terms of real estate.
The elves live in stunning cities woven in amongst ancient forests and down the sides of silvery waterfalls. Hobbits - the least of all the races of Middle Earth, and regarded condescendingly by everyone except Gandalf - live in the storybook pastorale of the Shire, a supernally quaint little province that, today, would be the next Hamptons, with hobbit cottages being replaced by monster homes built by rap moguls and speculators.
The human lands of Gondor and Rohan, on the other hand, are stark and rough, remarkably free of magic or quaintness. Rohan is a rocky place where towns are built on defensible craigs and hilltops, suggesting that paranoia is second nature to its inhabitants. The capital of Gondor, under siege by Sauron's army as the film ends, might have benefitted from a bit of that paranoia, sitting as it does in the middle of a vast, joyless flood plain. Gondorrians, it would seem, are given to smug convenience and pretentions to grandeur.
At no point do we hear humans talk about their homelands with the same sense of pride as any of the other characters, even the dwarves, who adore their vast caves and mines with the same abiding sentiment that the Hobbits hold for the Shire. Aragorn, the rightful king of Gondor, seemed happy to abandon his kingdom for the company of the elves and their treehouse towns, and who wouldn't?
Humans, it would seem, are attracted to - or perhaps just doomed to - lives of adversity and qualified pleasure. Everything is earned at bitter cost, and easily taken away, and while the enlightened beings of Middle Earth condescend to the hobbits, they seem genuinely uneasy in the presence of humans, who seem to bring trouble wherever they go, but whose resolve and constant striving still earns them a place at every council. Dwarves are stronger, hobbits more virtuous, and elves stronger, smarter, and more divine - both religiously and aesthetically - but we're told from the first moments of the story of the Ring that humans will, ultimately, be the inheritors of Middle Earth.
It's no wonder that Catholic intellectuals are so fond of Tolkien; his vision of a fallen, flawed people fitfully seeking redemption in a world of constant trials and tragedy is eminently and perfectly in tune with orthodox Catholicism. The best that humans can hope for is incremental improvement, a postponement of tragedy and the sort of victories that come with an inherent promise that there will be greater struggles ahead.
Tolkien fans and fantasy literature freaks idolize elves and hobbits the way that Trekkies identify with Vulcans or Klingons - as an idealized version of some aspect of humanity. While Jackson obviously takes great pleasure in depicting the worlds of the elves and the hobbits, but by middle of The Two Towers comes the revelation - no secret to anyone who's read the books - that Frodo will die fulfilling his quest. He's firmly steering our gaze, and our sympathy, to Aragorn and the humans, and away from the increasingly tortured yet ghostly Frodo, whose diminishing physicality is being transferred to Sam and Gollum, who act as surrogate vessels for Frodo's evaporating persona.
Aragorn's love interest, the elven Liv Tyler, has been replaced by a human one, and the next great enemy Aragorn and his allies will face, according to the Chicago Tribune's David Ibata, will be a human one. The enemy is us, as an old Pogo truism, which once inspired the anti-war and environmental movements in the 60s, once went. It's a suggestion that nicely undercuts the idea of any kind of utopia resulting from the defeat of Saruman and Sauron - or Saddam or Osama or Kim Jong-Il or whatever new threat confronts us now or in the future. After all, the next age that followed that of Middle Earth, the Age of Man, is supposed to be our own.
How's that for portentous?
(posted 03:35pm | 01.18.03)
#0110 - WHY HOLLYWOOD IS HELL: EPISODE #2 - Awards season has arrived, which means that almost once a week, the office crowds around the TV or my Reuters FotoStation to jeer at the "looks" celebrities trot out for their public. Granted, we're suffering through the "poverty row" awards this week - the People's Choice and the American Music Awards - but it's amazing to see just what passes for evening wear these days.
Or perhaps not so surprising, in an era where the "de rigeur attire for every trendy starlet, socialite, stripper, waitress and fashionista wannabe" in Hollywood is something called the Juicy Couture tracksuit. Janelle Brown in Salon details the brief but red-hot phenomenon behind what is "for all intents and purposes, a sweat suit, unless the intent and purpose is to wear it in Los Angeles."
You have, no doubt, seen the item in question. "Nelly Furtado and Jennifer Lopez have worn them in music videos; Lopez loves hers so much that he J. Lo line knocked them off, as did Banana Republic and Old Navy." Other celebrity purchasers of the Juicy line include Gwyneth Paltrow, Cameron Diaz, Britney Spears, Kirsten Dunst, Lara Flynn Boyle, Gwen Stefani and, both depressingly and inevitably, Madonna. For two hundred bucks, you can get the standard velour model; for double that, the "coveted cashmere version" can be yours. Customizing touches include embroidering your boyfriend's name (as Sharon Stone has done) or initial (as Sarah Michelle Gellar admitted) across the back or chest, proof that, for celebrities at least, the style avatar of the day is the spoiled and promiscuous 15-year old daughter of a rich but distracted Long Island contractor who won the custody battle because his ex was in detox.
The Juicy tracksuit is a simple enough design - a two-piece hooded top and drawstring pant combo, soft and fuzzy and available in a variety of colours. I remember, back at the dawn of the 80s, girls in residence at college wearing nothing but baggy tracksuits, day after day, turning the classroom and the cafeteria into an extension of their dorm room. The Juicy Couture version is very different, according to Brown: "The Juicy line is cut for the body of a 14-year old supermodel (or, say, Lara Flynn Boyle)." The top is tight and ends inches above the waistline. "As for the drawstring bottoms, they hang low on the hips, so low in fact that one can often tell whether the wearer of said bottoms has shaved her pubis and left her Cosabella thong at home." The last line is a masterful detail, the sort of exquisite observation that sells a novel on the first page, don't you think?
"Those without jutting hipbones and concave bellies need not apply", Brown writes, as if the point needed to be made, though the temptation to enable the implicit self-parody in the whole Juicy phenomenon can't be resisted: "Juicy tracks are often emblazoned with the word 'Juicy' across the rear end, thereby enabling the wearer to be both a label whore and a cock tease at the same time." Fantastic.
"Because of celebrities' lifestyles, it's the perfect thing to wear between their trailer and filming," Juicy Couture co-owner Gela Taylor (her husband was, or is, in Duran Duran - a minor detail, I'm sure) told USA Today. "It's the perfect downtime thing to wear." Brown jumps on this quote: "The key words in Taylor's description are, of course, 'celebrity', 'trailer', and 'filming'." For Hollywood women, Brown asserts, the point of the Juicy tracksuit is to look like a movie star, but not the way, for instance, our mothers understood the term.
It seems, these days, that the quintessential state of the celebrity is one in transit, from trailer to set, for instance, or from home to gym and back. At work, in other words, caught by the long lens of the paparazzi, water bottle in hand, or glimpsed in the street by passersby. No one is trying to fool themselves anymore that they'll ever have an occasion to look like a star on the red carpet, except on a prom date, or match the impeccably made-up, digitally enhanced perfection of the glossy magazine photo shoot.
The only star persona within reach is that of the star engaged in the hard work of being a star, religiously maintaining their body, or fulfilling the tedious contractual duty of actually making a film. Those other provinces of glamour, it would seem, are simply too fantastic, too unreal, especially since the only times you see a movie star in evening wear or couture is at the Oscars or in In Style or Vanity Fair. We have all dressed down past the point of no return, so far that a velour tracksuit can be as desirable and status-rich as a Balanciaga gown or a Chanel suit once was.
And we're painfully aware of it. Try spending Oscar night at my office, or at any Oscars party, where everyone suddenly becomes Mr. Blackwell, coming over all viperish as the stars clump down the red carpet, or as the latest paragon of womanly glamour gingerly picks their way up the stairs from the auditorium, obviously unfamiliar with the intricacies of walking in heels and a gown, galumphing across the stage to present an award so gracelessly that you suddenly marvel at the Astaire-like step of Ving Rhames. Someone as thoroughly drab as Julia Roberts can be considered a fashion icon only when her nearest competition is something like this:
Brown puts it nicely: "My mother's objection would be that it is unseemly to wear a cross between lingerie, pajamas and workout clothes in public. But Taylor would probably remind her that times have changed - sweats work as dress-up clothes. Or do they? When Playboy Playmates are accessorizing their sweats with $400 heels and spangled bras to go out dancing, perhaps it's a sign that too many fashion boundaries have been crossed, and it's time to reconsider the circle pin and no white shoes after Labor Day."
Frankly, I can't help but admire the era when the preferred outfit for plane travel was a well-cut wool suit, not a rustling nylon shell suit. Is this an elitist concept, inherently and unforgivably undemocratic? It's easy to assume that it is, until I remember the way my mother and aunts and almost every woman in the working-class neighbourhood where I lived dressed up for every occasion, and insisted that almost everything that happened in the evening, from church suppers to parish fashion shows to dinner and shopping downtown, was an occasion to dress up.
"You look like a movie star" was something you said sincerly and unironically, to a mother of three with thick ankles and crow's feet, in her fur stole and gloves, checking her makeup in the mirror by the door. There's something more inherently democratic about that kind of sentiment than looking at a stick figure in a cashmere sweatsuit, knowing that not even daily trips to the gym or thousands of dollars spent under the surgeon's knife will give you the hope of looking like a rich schoolgirl at the mall.
(posted 09:45am | 01.15.03)