Human Conflict, or the legacies of superfluous men: Hotel Rwanda, The Merchant of Venice, Bad Education, The Woodsman, and Notre Musique
Godard and Terry George, Shakespeare and Susan Sontag
Each of us is human and has value, but we are not equally valuable—our resources (knowledge, skills, talents, and monies), and relationships to others, determine the extent of our value. Sometimes we feel inferior because we are. The work of people such as Plato and Shakespeare is not important because they are Greek or English but because of how they illuminate the human condition, an illumination not limited by language, national borders, or time. The respect we sometimes have for physical strength is a holdover from earlier times, when a man’s survival or laboring power depended on it, especially if he was a servant; but physical strength is less important in the modern world, in which much of the work to be done is the work of mind or machines (and physical strength has now merely a symbolic or erotic force)—and yet, thoughts and feelings are respected most when they can be made into a commodity and sold, as in books or films. Hotel Rwanda and William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice are two films that look at the trouble that can come from social differences that are believed to be essential; and they feature good performances by their leading actors (Don Cheadle in the first, Al Pacino in the second). “When one is able to follow an actor in continuity, one is leading him, in spite of himself but thanks to him, towards public confession,” said film director Jean Renoir in conversation years ago with Jean-Luc Godard (Godard on Godard, DaCapo, New York, 1986; 145).
The actor Don Cheadle has appeared in Devil in a Blue Dress (1995), Rosewood (1997), Boogie Nights (1997), Bulworth (1998), Out of Sight (1998), The Rat Pack (1998), A Lesson Before Dying (1999), Mission to Mars (2000), Traffic (2000), Swordfish (2001), The United States of Leland (2003), and Hotel Rwanda (2004). Cheadle was a loyal but dangerously (and comically) crazy friend to Denzel Washington in Devil, a country-music loving porn star in Boogie Nights, a criminal with radical thoughts in Bulworth, and a teacher of a young man he initially was not sure was worth his time in Lesson Before Dying. What Cheadle, intelligent, slim, dark, funny, brings to his characters is a sense of authenticity. Don Cheadle, born in Kansas City in 1964, graduated from the East High School in Denver, Colorado, and received a fine arts baccalaureate degree from the California Institute of the Arts, where he studied theater. By the mid-1980s, he was in films, appearing in the American Film Institute’s thesis film Punk (1986) by Carl Franklin, who would later direct Devil in a Blue Dress, One False Move (1992), One True Thing (1998), and Out of Time (2003). Cheadle appeared in Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead in 1995, and ten years later could be seen co-starring with Sean Penn in The Assassination of Richard Nixon (it opened in December 2004). Don Cheadle, who has said that he would like to make a movie focusing on Miles Davis or jazz, is currently preparing his film-directing debut, Tishomingo Blues, based on an Elmore Leonard novel. In Hotel Rwanda, Don Cheadle plays a luxury hotel manager in 1994 Rwanda, Paul Rusesabagina, a Hutu married to a Tutsi, Tatiana (acted by Sophie Okonedo, who appeared in Dirty Pretty Things), at a time when Hutus begin killing Tutsis. The Belgians dominating Rwanda years before used a divide-and-conquer strategy, and made the minority Tutsis allies while the Belgians ruled; and when the Belgians left Rwanda they gave power to the majority Hutus, a fact that seems odd until one learns that the Hutu dethroned the ruling king, a Tutsi, in 1959, three years before the Belgians officially relinquished control in 1962. There was civil unrest for decades; and when the Rwandan president, a Hutu, was killed in a plane crash, the Tutsis were blamed and massacred. The hotel manager allowed Tutsi refugees in the hotel, and despite the great massacre he managed to save more than one thousand of them. About three-hundred-thousand Tutsis were killed in April 1994, and almost a million were killed in a little over three months, by July 1994, when the killing stopped (and stopped thanks to a Tutsi-led military group, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, that invaded Kigali, Rwanda, from Uganda, where they lived in exile). Someone in the film, a camera-man played by Joaquin Phoenix, seeing a Hutu woman and Tutsi woman together, says he cannot tell the difference between the two, that they could be twins. While there is some resemblance between the women, there are also differences (a womanizer such as the cameraman might not notice); and the Tutsis were known for height and lighter complexions, while the Hutus, the larger population, were thought to be often darker and stocky. (During a second viewing of the film, I actually thought that the woman identified as Tutsi looked like what I expected a Hutu to look like and vice versa. After the film was over, a blonde woman sitting behind me said she did not understand the conflict as she couldn’t tell the difference between the two peoples, as if discernible differences would have justified slaughter, as if biology is the same as culture or politics.) In Rwanda, as in much of Africa, differences, real and imagined, misunderstood as essences, were emphasized or obscured, by both Europeans and Africans, for various reasons. I do not believe in essences; I believe in change, choice, complexity, consciousness, and correction, though much of the world seems to prefer that character and existence be defined by certain common categories, such as age, appearances, attitude, class, gender, race, religion, and politics. Whether what one believes is substantiated by evidence and logic—and can be called then a fact or truth—is another matter; and even then, it may be difficult to know what has actually moved a man or woman to act. Why does one man kill; and another attempt to save a life?
Paul Rusesabagina attempts to maintain not only an air of civility, decency, efficiency, and professionalism, but their practice, while all about him are losing their heads, figuratively and literally. I think that the professionalism of the hotel manager hero—cordial, polite, subservient—may be especially amenable to westerners, who fear and disapprove of the irreconcilable rage that often comes from intolerable conditions. However, it is odd to me that this hero never articulates or utilizes his own political interpretation of African history and how the (then) current events fit within that history; nor does he consider violence—the possibility of arming with whatever tools (knives, hoes, hammers) are in the kitchen or gardening shed. There would be not enough tools to defeat an army but there might be enough to save a few more lives; and yet it is also true that the attempt at such defense might have antagonized the killers further. Paul Rusesabagina experiences a crisis when he is told by the United Nations’ peacekeeper (Nick Nolte) that he and his fellow citizens are seen as having even less value than American niggers, and Rusesabagina realizes that the things he believed in—culture, style, and the competence and cordiality of his professionalism—are meaningless to affect his current state: they have not rendered him more valuable in western eyes. (Someone in the film will say later that the Africans are not worth a single vote to the Americans, British, or French. “We sent many faxes to Bill Clinton himself at the White House,” Paul Rusesabagina is quoted as saying in Philip Gourevitch’s book We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families: Stories from Rwanda, Farrar, Straus, New York, 1998; 132.) Paul and the other Africans are to be sacrificed. I imagine that many black men have undergone this same crisis (a disillusionment: personal pursuits have not invalidated social caste—what, then, to think, feel, and do?). A more personal crisis occurs when Paul decides to let his wife and children go ahead of him in a United Nations convoy, while he plans to stay in the hotel with the Tutsis he hopes to continue protecting. The convoy is overtaken and turned back; and his wife is angry with him, as he had promised never to leave her. That he managed to help one-thousand, two-hundred and sixty-eight people, and eventually move himself and his family to Belgium are unpredictable and rare.
Hotel Rwanda begins with a report about United States president Clinton’s concern for Sarajevo, and a Hutu radio announcer describing why he hates Tutsis (he says they collaborated with the colonizing Belgians and stole land) and ominously telling his listeners to “watch your neighbors.” Paul Rusesabagina is the hotel manager of the Milles Collines hotel (pronounced: me co-leen); and he goes to a Kigali airport to retrieve Cuban cigars, which he often uses as gifts to guests and business associates—he gives one to a vendor, who invites him to a Hutu power rally. “It’s time for you to join your people,” the vendor tells Paul. A large box of machetes falls open and the vendor tells Paul he got them for ten cents each from China, but will sell them for more. Paul’s assistant Dube (actor Desmond Dube) talks about a radio program he heard encouraging murder of the Tutsi, another indication that the killing the film will detail is no surprise. Linda Melvern’s Conspiracy to Murder: The Rwandan Genocide, published by Verso, London and New York, in 2004, recounts the United Nation’s representative Major-General Romeo Dallaire’s rejected proposals to conduct a raid on a weapons cache, to establish a radio station in the country, and to do more to actively protect Rwandan citizens. Embroiled in Sarajevo and Somalia, the United Nations, and specifically the United States, did not want to take on a new burden, and refused to endorse Dallaire’s recommendations before or after the massacre began.
Paul Rusesabagina has trouble with another of his employees, Gregoire (Tony Kgoroge), whose appearance in the film will be villainous; lazy and contemptuous of others but attractive to women, he will be shown as sympathetic to the killers, then as a collaborator; and that may be because the film required someone—other than a radio announcer, major weapons supplier, or general (men distinguished by prominent public roles)—to embody the banality of evil. More than one-hundred-thousand people would be arrested for participation in genocide, and it’s helpful that most of the murderous people we see, such as Gregoire, are either physically handsome or likable: they are not made to look like devils in appearance or mannerisms—they are human beings, not monsters, doing wrong.
The hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina’s home life is the center of his concerns, and at one point he says that he hopes the favors he does others will benefit his family one day if they need help. He lives in a nice house in a modest neighborhood with his wife, son, and two daughters. He is unwilling to get involved when a neighbor is beaten. After the Rwandan president, Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu, signs a domestic peace treaty, which some Hutus consider a betrayal, there is a United Nations event at Paul’s hotel (Hutu military men toast the president—“may he find peace,” which sounds more like a death wish, but when the president’s plane is shot down, the Tutsis are blamed). Paul’s brother-in-law tells him that he has been told that the Tutsis will be murdered and “cut the tall trees” is code for kill the Tutsis, but Paul doesn’t believe what the man fears will happen. Paul later drives home and cannot get anything on the radio (we hear a strange murmuring—some of which sounds like chants of kill, kill), and as he drives we see burning houses and trucks of soldiers going by. Paul’s worried neighbors have gathered at his house; and his wife Tatiana tells him that he is the only Hutu his neighbors trust. His son, worried about a friend, goes next door and is covered in blood, which his parents see and become hysterical over until they realize it’s not his blood (the boy, in shock, does not speak). The radio message is sounded: cut the tall trees, and soldiers arrive at Paul’s house. They want his help to enter Hotel Diplomates, pronounced Diplomat, where he used to work, and it is his wife who suggests the family go with him in the Milles Collines hotel van (and she includes her various neighbors as part of the family; and they all will take staff rooms in the hotel). We see guns and machetes held by ordinary people on the street; and the killers are jubilant.
Later Paul, after being hit by one of the soldiers, is left in charge of the hotel where he works, but he has to get a letter from the hotel’s parent company in Belgium to get his black colleagues to consider him their boss. While the hotel becomes a refuge, the United Nations colonel (Nolte) says that his men are peacekeepers, not peacemakers; and the United Nations will begin to pull out once some of the force are killed protecting the lady prime minister. There is a scene in which white westerners are evacuated, some leaving in relief, some with hesitation, and some in shame, leaving behind the Africans, a scene that says a great deal. Paul’s brother-in-law and sister-in-law are missing and presumed dead; and their girls, Paul’s nieces, are with an old lady, beyond the walls of the hotel (Paul and his wife Tatiana much later will find and adopt the girls as their own. We are not told if Paul has parents or siblings). When Paul, dismayed by the betrayal of the west, tells his wife that he has been a fool, his wife Tatiana says, “You’re no fool—I know who you are,” and it is one of several poignant moments between them, as are his preparing rooftop candlelit refreshments for just the two of them, and his reassuring her at various times despite his doubt. She, at one point, suggests that he, a Hutu, take their children and go; and that’s when he says he’ll never leave her. His professional contacts pay off when he gets the hotel’s Belgium management to call the French suppliers of the Rwandan army’s weapons to postpone an execution of the hotel’s inhabitants; and then Paul encourages the hotel’s refugees to call their international contacts and shame them into helping, which yields some exit visas. Paul also keeps the killers out of the hotel with bribes and disinformation. “Your white friends have abandoned you,” a Rwandan general, far from surprised or disturbed, says to Paul, the kind of thing many blacks with white friends hear sooner or later (betrayals do occur; and people who do not believe in cross-cultural contact like to note that). When Paul asks the machete-supplying vendor about the elimination of the Tutsis, “You don’t believe that you can kill them all, do you?” He is answered, “Why not?” Paul and Gregoire leave the supplier’s shop with food for the hotel, drive through fog, and find the road very bumpy and learn it’s bumpy as it’s full of dead bodies, a gruesome, nauseating site, hellish (and in the distance I saw a landscape of trees, rocks, and waterfall—heavenly; and the contrast was suggestive. Who transforms the earth into hell?). When Dube asks why people do such things, Paul answers, “Hatred, insanity, I don’t know.”
It would be interesting to know more about the particular grudges the Hutus bore; and to know what mundane deprivations, fears, and rages the Hutus had that would require a scapegoat. (The Hutu executioners first began by killing well-established Tutsi political and business people, and also moderate Hutu government officials.) I’m somewhat wary about citing Philip Gourevitch’s We wish to inform you or Linda Melvern’s Conspiracy to Murder, as I did not come to those books until after I had seen Hotel Rwanda twice and had composed more than two-thirds of this essay, nor have I read all of either book. I, then, was surprised to see what I wanted to consider my own thoughts already there in Gourevitch, in his sense of how acceptable many Rwandans found ethnic prejudice, and the logic of genocide. The Rwandan situation would be of interest to anyone interested in civilization and its limits; and it might be of special concern to an Irish man (Terry George, the film’s director), a Jew (Gourevitch), a woman (Melvern), or an African-American (me), individuals who recognize situations in which myth and power are turned against a people. Such common recognitions are made with consciousness of history and circumstance, and after social observation and personal experience, not as the result of biology. If I were to deny Gourevitch, would I have to deny as well the more distant echoes of others that might occur in my work, whether I know their work well or slightly—Heracleitus, Socrates, Diogenes of Sinope, Marcus Aurelius, William of Occam, Hobbes, Locke, Voltaire, Thomas Paine, John Stuart Mill, Charles Peirce, William James, John Dewey, Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche? Part of what it means to be human is to have a shared patrimony, and part of what it means to be civilized is to know it: and the Rwandans had a shared history but forgot it. Gourevitch writes that it’s believed the Hutu people came from the south and west of Africa and the Tutsi came from the north and east to Rwanda after the Twa, a small group of cave-dwellers, had already settled the land; and it’s known that the Hutus and Tutsis shared language and religion and married each other and lived together—they shared place, power, and culture. The two groups were thought distinct however in light of their principal methods of sustenance—the Hutu maintained agriculture and the Tutsis herded cows. (Germany colonized Rwanda in 1885, and Tutsi leaders betrayed a popular uprising in 1911. Belgian fighters defeated Germany’s in Rwanda, taking over in 1916, according to Melvern’s book.) Belgian racism—finding the Tutsis more European looking, and a smaller group that could be used as a tool for their rule—encouraged division. The Biblical curse of Ham—the son who saw his father naked, talked of it, and was cursed to serve his brothers—was invoked as a justification for disinheriting the Hutus. When the Hutus came to power, the Tutsis were vilified and discriminated against in education and work—to prevent a return of Tutsis to power; and Hutus who married Tutsis were thought of as traitors. “If parents had really made their children understand that Tutsi have the same flesh as them and that their blood is the same as them, they wouldn’t have dared to kill their fellow men in such a cruel manner” (192), said Dismas Mutezintare Gisimba, a Kigali Hutu man who helped four-hundred children and adults in a Nyamirambo orphanage survive the massacre, quoted in Linda Melvern’s Conspiracy to Murder (and before that, quoted in a book, produced by the organization African Rights, of nearly three-hundred pages, Rwanda: Tribute to Courage, which documents people who acted honorably). One of the startling things in the film is how casually people talk to Paul Rusesabagina about the likelihood that they will kill or spare Paul’s Tutsi wife.
Don Cheadle’s Paul Rusesabagina is a believable hero. After falling into a pile of corpses on his trip back from getting food supplies, Paul returns to the Milles Collines hotel, showers, changes clothes, and has trouble putting on a necktie—the last touch in his professional appearance—and he weeps. It is a small but significant revelation: the fragility he reveals seems without age, gender, or race; his fragility seems pure. Paul, at the end of the film, locks up the hotel and joins all the refugees in a United Nations convoy to a refugee camp, from which buses will take them across the Rwandan border. One of his daughters asks him where they are going and he says, “Some place safe.” Those are the hopeful words of a loving father. (Cheadle, who met the real Paul, described him in the 2004 year-end issue of New York’s Time Out magazine as humble and proud, with a gregarious love of life.) I am tempted to consider the film great on the basis of the film’s significant subject and Cheadle’s performance. I appreciated certain details: Dube, early in the film, looks at Paul to see if they are both seeing the same thing, the trouble to come; children dance and run together at the Milles Collines hotel, just being children; distant night-time explosions occur while Paul and his wife, on the hotel’s rooftop, try to have an intimate moment; and Paul, going to get food supplies, sees a pen of half-naked girls and women, who are described to him as prostitutes (about two-hundred-and-fifty-thousand females were raped in Rwanda at the time). There were other details I questioned—when Paul first goes in to look at the small orphan children in their room, they are seated quietly around the room (I question behavior); and when the hotel is evacuated of whites there is rain and I could see sunshine beyond the rain (I question technique); and there’s a uniformity of conversation in the film—no one seems to talk about anything that doesn’t relate to the film’s themes (I question—what? realism? richness of the life portrayed?). Yet, I think it’s a very good film. I was surprised, after the second time I saw the film, to observe an East Indian man attempting to explain to a black woman the politics of the film, as we walked away from the theater. He, aware that Indians and Pakistanis, Hindus and Muslims, people who look like cousins, can go to war, was trying to explain a complexity to someone who saw the world in only black and white. It was a complexity she could not see, even when it had been right in front of her for two hours. Hotel Rwanda, directed by Terry George, who wrote the screenplay with Keir Pearson, is a depiction of massacre involving two black African peoples, the Tutsi and the Hutu; and by focusing on a man whose professionalism became empathy, it demonstrates the value of individual conscience wedded to practicality.
The film’s director Terry George previously wrote or co-wrote the screenplay for In the Name of the Father (1993), The Boxer (1997), and Hart’s War (2002); and he directed Some Mother’s Son (1996). Some Mother’s Son deals with the troubles in Ireland, and a hunger strike involving Bobby Sands and people who believed in him; and Hart’s War focuses on mid-century, wartime discrimination suffered by African-American soldiers, the Tuskegee Airmen, one of whom is played by the very talented Terrence Howard, and the film is set in a German prisoner of war facility and centers on a trial for the murder of a traitorous bigot. Hotel Rwanda, financed by several countries, the United Kingdom, Italy, and South Africa, won an audience award at the American Film Institute Festival, which showed films from forty-two countries. Distributed by United Artists, with Lions Gate, in the United States, the film has been compared to Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List and it has received impressive reviews for its actors. The New Yorker’s David Denby wrote that the “fascination” of the film was in observing the lead character’s use of his intelligence: “The film turns into a triumph for Don Cheadle, who never steps outside the character for emotional grandstanding or easy moralism. In all, I can hardly think of another movie in which sheer intelligence and decency have been made to seem so attractive or effective” (New Yorker, December 20/27, 2004). Scott Foundas called Cheadle’s performance exquisitely crafted in Variety, after reviewing it in September 2004 at the Toronto Film Festival, though Foundas found some of the film’s action monotonous. Cheadle has been quoted as saying that part of his preparation included asking Paul Rusesabagina questions regarding his preferences of books, food, and music, suggesting he was interested in perceiving the man’s inner life. AboutFilm.com’s Carlos Cavagna wrote, in a review accessed December 5, 2004, that actress Sophie Okonedo as Tatiana “shares a natural chemistry with Cheadle and has some of the most beautiful reactions I’ve ever seen on camera. She is a revelation.” The December 20, 2004 Newsweek review by David Ansen also called her a revelation.
Hotel Rwanda, a collaboration of talents, is an eloquent warning about the choices individuals and nations may make again. Armond White, in his December 22, 2004 AOL Black Voices review, wrote that, “You wonder how can black people be this cruel to each other.” I thought that was very funny: I do not wonder, have no reason to wonder, having seen various kinds of cruelty between blacks all my life, precisely the kind of cruelty that optimists, ideologues, and murderers of spirit as well as flesh do not want us to acknowledge. (A few examples of public proof: an ongoing civil war in the Congo is responsible for the deaths of about four million people; and in America news reports about black gang violence, as well as domestic abuse, go back decades. Such brutality has existed all along, though it may be considered part of larger stories. The African-American experience is in some ways epic, involving the struggle for education, culture, and political rights, exemplified by people such as Alexander Crummell, W.E.B. DuBois, Ida Wells Barnett, Alain Locke, Jean Toomer, Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Bunche, Mary McLeod Bethune, Ralph Ellison, Lorraine Hansberry, Bayard Rustin, Angela Davis, Andrew Young, Toni Morrison, Charles Johnson, August Wilson, Cornel West, Henry Louis Gates, Bell Hooks, Orlando Patterson, Derrick Bell, people who by their work create a genuine and accessible tradition, and whose names are nearly talismans to ward off cynicism—and a repudiation of the idea that African Americans are members of an oral tradition, which was mostly an excuse for the lack of literary production. The Arabs have an oral tradition—which means that long intricate poems were composed and passed from mouth to ear for generations during hundreds of years, not that there were no poems produced. Why is that important? Beauty and knowledge are shared; and the wheel does not have to be reinvented. The oral and written literature of Rwanda includes histories and myths about royalty, and poetry about royalty, hunting, and pastoral life, and also proverbs, riddles, and songs; and literature in Rwanda, like the much more developed literature in Germany, did not prevent genocide.)
In Charles Taylor’s Salon review, also appearing December 22, 2004, Taylor speculated about the film’s presentation of the cause of the killing and wrote, “George and Pearson understand that no explanation can ever fully account for an outbreak of the irrational on as massive a level as the Rwandan genocide. In essence, they are saying that evil took over in Rwanda.” I do not think that is what the film is saying nor do I think it is what any viewer should believe—unless we are to accept evil as part of ordinary life. What happens in the film is a fulfillment of cultural logic: just as hundred of years of persecution of Jews prepared the way for Hitler’s large-scale murder of them, and modern technology assisted him (the huge gas chambers and crematoriums and the trains to get people to them), the years of discord cultivated by the Belgians between Hutu and Tutsi, and the resources of modern technology (boxes of machetes and guns arriving by international airway, and the radios cheerleading the killing) created a logic that was hard to dismantle. We often see people not like us as other, as not fully human; and our ordinary prejudices lead directly to mass murder (if we see a group of people as the cause of social turmoil, or of our personal pain, why wouldn’t we want them dead?). When and where in human history were there no murders of one group by another?
Family members can be cruel to each other, as can people living within the same culture; but it is easier to be cruel to someone for whom one expects to have no kindness, no commonality—a stranger, a member of a different group, as in The Merchant of Venice. William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, directed by Michael Radford, is a film of beautiful images, a film of dynamic people, well-appointed rooms, and lovely landscapes—a genuine world; and it begins in 1596 Venice, with men in boats, men burning books, and men persecuting Jews in the liberal city. Jews are locked in a ghetto at night, forced to wear a red hat during the day to mark their religion, and are prevented from owning property. While Christians were forbidden by law from loaning money for interest, Jews were not. The moneylender Shylock loaned money to people (Jewish lenders in Italy of the time were known to charge fifteen percent as fee); and sometimes the merchant Antonio helped to redeem their debts to Shylock; and when the film begins, we see Shylock (Al Pacino) call to Antonio (Jeremy Irons), and Antonio spits on Shylock. The open hostility is part of the time, as are women in long dresses with exposed breasts, day and night, possibly whores (though such a fashion did stand among women of various European classes for a time). Antonio has a friendly relationship with a nobleman, Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes); and we see the two men smile at each other, as Bassanio passes in a boat.
There is a religious observance—with Jewish men near the rebbe (teacher), while women watch from the synagogue balcony. It would be interesting to see more of this religious practice, to know more about what it means to be Jewish. Jews honor the Old Testament, which is called the Torah (torah means teaching), and is based on texts believed to have been given to Moses by divinity (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy); and Jews honor the Talmud, a collection of commentary dealing with holy days, agriculture, food, festivals, marriage, contracts, laws, sacrifices, and ideas of purity. One thinks of Jews, and thinks of land (Israel, Eastern Europe), language (Hebrew, Yiddish), food (unleavened bread, matzos, soups, potato pancakes, and not mixing milk and meat), music (traditional songs, classical music, klezmer), humor (a socially-aware, pretension-puncturing dark comedy; and a self-mocking wit), and sensibility (a mix of skepticism, acknowledgment of suffering, liberalism, sympathy, and investment in progress, with humor, attributes that, in various quantities, can account for both conservatism and modernism). It is easy to assume Jewish difference without explicating it; however, cultural forms have grown out of a particular religion and history and they are what have to be thought about if one wants to begin to know what being Jewish means. I have read that the religion forbids cruelty and being unforgiving, but that it also excuses a man for not forgiving transgressions involving financial claims that can be pursued in a court of law—and both of these ideas could have some bearing on The Merchant of Venice.
In Frank Kermode’s January 6, 2005 London Review of Books review of the film, Kermode commented, “Meanwhile the most intelligible behaviour and the most understandable melancholy are Shylock’s, though even his story is not as simple as it might be. One thing is clear: the play’s interest in the legality of usury. Shakespeare gives this matter a strong claim on the attention of the audience with the static early conversation between Shylock and Antonio (cut in the film, as often on the stage) concerning Jacob’s tricking of Laban in Chapter 30 of Genesis. Was Jacob cheating when he ensured that he got most of the lambs? The conventional answer was no: after all, Laban owed him at least as much as he got by the trick. But he took more than was due under their specific agreement. Shylock thinks this fair dealing and a good return on Jacob’s ingenuity. Antonio denies that the passage was ‘inserted’ to justify interest. On his view what Jacob did was something not within his own power; his success was ‘fashioned by the hand of heaven.’ The breeding of gold is not analogous to that of sheep; Jacob’s profit came not from interest but a legitimate venture.”What is the relationship of the Jewish man or woman to others? In The Merchant of Venice, Lorenzo picks up a lace handkerchief dropped by a young Jewish woman, Jessica, Shylock’s daughter. This seems at first as if it might be a matter of no importance, but we will learn differently. We are not told what became of Shylock’s wife, or if he had help rearing his daughter, or may have neglected Jessica in any way. A child becomes Jewish through its mother; and women have been often part of disputes between men, accompanied by fears of sexual betrayal and tribal disloyalty. Such concerns may involve Jessica, who is flirting with the Christian Lorenzo.
Antonio, the merchant, is sad, and says he does not know why. Is it business, friends ask, or love? As he is asked about love, we see Bassanio arrive by boat. There is a conversation between Antonio and Bassanio near a bed, a suggestive locale (they end up there as if it’s the most natural place for them to talk; and the film director Michael Radford has said that the crowding of the times turned bedrooms into reception areas). Joseph Fiennes as Bassanio speaks his lines beautifully—clearly, deeply, with feeling and understanding—but he lacks the lightness and sensuality he had in Shakespeare in Love. Bassanio talks about his debts; and Antonio says his purse and his person are open to his friend, who talks of Portia (Lynn Collins) and his rivals for her. Portia, coy, rich, sensuous, shrewd, and bound by circumstances, is having trouble choosing a husband. There is a contest her suitors must win, devised by her now dead father, utilizing three caskets, one of which each man must choose, and only one of which, the winning one, contains her photograph. Bassanio talks about the money he needs to travel to her, in order to win her hand. Antonio gives Bassanio a bill of credit; and Bassanio gives Antonio a kiss on the lips. Bassanio asks Shylock for three-thousand ducats for three months, and Antonio is to guarantee the loan. (Michael Radford has said that three-thousand ducats are equal to three-quarters of a million dollars.) Shylock—near scales weighing meat he is purchasing—talks of Antonio’s various business ventures. Antonio says that he does not borrow or loan money with interest (he is inclined to make an exception for Bassanio). The men—Antonio, Bassanio, and Shylock—go to Shylock’s office for usury rates. Shylock brings up the past insults he has received from Antonio; and Shylock says that for the loan he wants friendship—and if the loan is forfeited, a pound of Antonio’s flesh. For Shylock, the matter is personal, as well as professional, as his identity is tied to his religion and profession and he has been disrespected for both. Shylock is insisting that the matter be personal for the two men, personal not merely in their terms, as Bassanio and Antonio are already friends, but personal in Shylock’s terms (that is, that he be included in what is personal for the two men). The bargain is sealed at a notary; and that makes this matter one of law.
Other aspects of cultural difference: Shylock’s daughter, infatuated with Lorenzo, is willing to become a Christian. (Many Jews did not accept Jesus Christ as the promised messiah during the life of Christ, nor after his death—they saw him as a teacher, not a savior. Both Jews and Christians share belief in one god; and I suspect that belief in one god encourages rigidity of thought, while a belief in many gods, with each god representing a principal or life force, might encourage a certain tolerance for diversity of experience and expression.) One assumes Jessica’s love for Lorenzo is greater than her love for her father or her religion—and it is difficult not to read that as a betrayal, though she certainly has a right to love and an independent life. Disbelief—in inherited ideals—is both a liberation and an exile. One of Portia’s suitors is black, a Moroccan prince, who, somewhat comically chooses a box, the wrong one. (In the theater seated next to me, a white gay man gasped, seemingly at the prospect of the dark man winning fair Portia.)
Shylock is treated to dinner at Bassanio’s, before Bassanio leaves for Portia; and Shylock seems uncomfortable. (I suspect he sees he has not missed much; and that this is a waste of his time.) Meanwhile Lorenzo and his friends wait outside Shylock’s house, beneath Jessica’s window. Jessica is dressed as a boy—she seems to be taking money and a jewel box to elope with Lorenzo (the money and jewels, it will turn out, are not hers but her father’s). Lorenzo comments that Jessica looks good as a boy; and says he might suggest that other girls dress as boys.
Antonio gives Bassanio a send-off, for his trip to see Portia. Shylock arrives at his empty home, and weeps at the loss of Jessica and his property. Gentiles overhearing his lamentation mock him. There is news of sea disasters involving merchant ships—Antonio’s expected cargo—going down, making it unlikely that Antonio can pay his debt to Shylock. In Shylock’s speech—of pain and rage—he asks if he and his people are not as human as anyone and should not expect revenge as anyone might. Shylock says, “I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?—fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?” That statement is an affirmation of a common humanity, and its details suggest a significant intelligence. Shylock continues, “If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.” He is asking why Jews should respond with more forgiveness when injured than others who do not forgive. It is an understandable question in most circumstances; but it is less understandable when revenge is a question for someone who claims to be led by a moral religious practice, such as a Jew or a Christian. Of what spiritual good is religion if it does not help people to be better, to be more sympathetically human? Isn’t this where religion often fails, in not aiding practical application of one’s own morality? Shylock asks, “If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge! If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why revenge! The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.” (The lines are spoken in the film, but these quotes are from William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, Signet Classics, Penguin, New York, 2004; 49.)
Shylock hears that Jessica is said to have spent much money in one night (and Shylock cannot expect to retrieve his loss). Bassanio, meanwhile, chooses one of the caskets for Portia’s hand; and chooses well. Portia, acted with intelligence and sensuality by Lynn Collins, makes a speech of love and submission, heard by her friend Nerissa (with Nerissa’s hands over her own mouth, as if surprised by Portia’s intensity). Portia gives Bassanio a symbolic ring, a ring of binding, of engagement; and she asks him not to remove it from his finger.
Jessica, with Lorenzo, is in Portia’s house; and Lorenzo, being a friend of Bassanio, is a friend of Portia. Antonio writes to Bassanio of the upcoming legal case involving the penalty for the unpaid debt, but releases Bassanio of his debt to Antonio. Bassanio wants to go to his friend. Portia insists on marriage with Bassanio before he goes to attend Antonio (does she sense a conflict between friendship and love; or is she just excited by her love?). Portia is willing to repay the money owed to Shylock. She gives Lorenzo the run of her house in her absence: she and her attendant and friend, Nerissa, who has married one of Bassanio’s friends, Gratiano, go with a money chest to Venice.
Antonio is glad to see Bassanio; a smile of relief and love breaks through his torment. Shylock, who requests the execution of the penalty, is insulted and jeered, and spit upon by a court observer. Bassanio brings forth a chest of six-thousand ducats. Shylock insists upon his pound of flesh. Antonio is tied down in a chair; and asks for his friend’s hand. Bassanio says he would sacrifice wife and all for Antonio, not realizing that Portia, in disguise, as a law clerk, hears him. Shylock is allowed to take flesh, provided he does not take blood (blood is not prescribed in the signed bond); and the law is turned against him by Portia and he is made to forfeit his own property and made to convert to Christianity. Antonio proposes that Shylock maintain use of the property the state has won, but that Antonio use the portion of Shylock’s property that Antonio has won until Shylock’s death, at which time it will go to Jessica and Lorenzo. (Jews considered the laws of the land binding, as long as those laws did not conflict with religion—and one might imagine that a forced conversion is such a conflict, not to be honored, though here it is honored.) In gratitude for the legal decision, and with Antonio’s questionable encouragement (Antonio knows not the binds or bounds of marriage and cannot imagine the trust involved; he sets friendship against love), Bassanio gives up his ring to the law clerk, the disguised Portia, the ring he said would not leave his finger. When Bassanio and his friend Gratiano arrive at Portia’s island estate, both men ringless despite their promises to their new brides, there is a comic interrogation and resolution, before the film ends, in Venice, with Shylock outside the door of the synagogue, his own part in the play a tragedy.
Stanley Kauffmann, in his January 24, 2005 review of The Merchant of Venice, noted various obvious differences between theater and film (such as language versus image), and wrote that “The Merchant sets the harrowing story of Shylock against the romantic comedy of Bassanio and Portia. In the theater the contrast can be affecting. On screen those comedic elements simply look phony.” I understand what Kauffmann means but I do not agree, as I think much in the play—not only the contest of caskets, and argument over the engagement rings, and Jessica, Portia, and Nerissa’s masquerading as males, but also Shylock’s pound of flesh—is metaphorical, is a theatrical presentation of ideas and feelings. The symbols and signs in the play represent choice, taste, wisdom; fidelity; the fluidity of gender, the flawed perception of men; and a life held in the balance of personal and legal decisions. One might see Shylock as passion and Portia as reason, or see Shylock as business and Portia as sympathy; or Bassanio as the self-centeredness of youth and Antonio as the generosity of age—and the whole story as an allegory. (One might see also certain aspects of Shylock’s story as black comedy—his boredom as he dines with Bassanio, his promising to excel at and exceed the lesson of vengeance he has learned from Christians, and his surprise at the judgment he gets in court at the end: expectations are mocked.) What is real in the play are amusement, joy, friendship, infatuation, cruelty, suffering, and rage; and a pervasive, sumptuous intelligence. Kauffmann maintained, regarding the possible anti-Semitism of the text, that “no amount of wishful thinking can shift this play from the social attitudes of the author’s day into Shylock’s tragedy. The best that can be said here in defense of the greatest writer who ever lived is that he gave his Jew a character and a rationale.”
It is not only Shakespeare’s talent that renders Shylock, Othello, Hamlet, and Macbeth memorable; it is also that we recognize the unique vitality—the energy, feelings, ideas, and will—of these characters, as they embody drives and conflicts we see around us or feel within us. Shakespeare’s characters want acceptance, love, knowledge, money, power, justice; and they want to defeat their enemies, who are simply those who obstruct them. Further, we often see our own errors—ethical, intellectual, political, or practical—as deviation from our fundamental intention or purpose, as not representative of our value or potential, as not symbolic of who we are, while being inclined to see the mistakes of others, especially of strangers, as expressions of or fulfillments of their character. Is Shylock an evil man, or a man who wants a thing that seems evil? Whether we see Shylock as a villain depends on what we assume to be his basic character and philosophy. I did not see Shylock as a villain, though he is referred to by other characters in Shakespeare’s play as a villain and a fiend and has been interpreted and played on stage and film that way in the past. Shylock, as performed by Al Pacino, is a man who has been forced to be practical about most things; and practicality in certain matters is brutality (a brutality to self and to others). Shylock was relentless and unforgiving, but that I understood: years of mistreatment, and the pain of losing a daughter, enraged him—and he wanted to see the laws of society act on his own behalf against one of its privileged members. It was rather refreshing to see this urge made bare, and a shock to see him lose so much, though if he had gotten his pound of flesh that would have been terrible and unforgivable. I left the theater thinking about how the ways of society were against Shylock, and how this made it difficult for Shakespeare to produce a scenario that would be received as unrealistic, a scenario that would gratify Shylock, the insulted businessman, the abandoned father, the persecuted Jew. Shylock is alone at the end of the play, without family or community, nor secure property: and that seems more than anything the image of a willful man who followed his own anger to folly.
The dominance of General Francisco Franco (1892-1975) in Spain—Franco became head of state in 1936 and he was dictator by 1939—was considered culturally and politically repressive. Pedro Almodovar has said that he wanted to make films as if Franco had not existed—and one can believe that of What Have I Done to Deserve This? (1984), Law of Desire (1987), and others of Almodovar’s early anarchic films. (Those two films named, and 1999’s somewhat somber All About My Mother, are my favorite of Almodovar’s films.) Almodovar’s Bad Education is a trip back in time; and it is a story of young love, sexual exploitation, personal ambition, family unhappiness, and fatal immorality. The story, involving pedophile priests, boys in love, an amoral actor, a self-indulgent director, and several transvestites, follows the retelling of childhood incidents and their influence on contemporary lives. The selfish sexual desires and tormenting emotional doubt that can color relationships are dominant. What is real; what is fiction? The film becomes most compelling toward the end, when the nature of reality is revealed as strangely conventional, a film noir, a film about ambition, lust, guilt, and death. Bad Education stars Gael Garcia Bernal, beautiful, creative, instinctive, and transgressive; and it is possible to believe Garcia Bernal will be a Spanish-language Johnny Depp (Garcia Bernal has been quoted as admiring Marcello Mastroianni, Klaus Kinski, and Daniel Day-Lewis). Gael Garcia Bernal, the son of stage actors, grew up in Guadalajara and Mexico City; and he studied film in New York, Cuba, and London’s Central School of Speech and Drama. Garcia Bernal, who also starred in Amores Perros (2000) and The Crime of Father Amaro (2002), can be silly (Y Tu Mama Tambien, 2001) or serious (The Motorcycle Diaries, 2004), and look handsome or ordinary; and his performance here has many dimensions. Intelligent, well-informed, and politically aware, Garcia Bernal said that some of his Bad Education collaborators, in Spain, had attitudes that seemed colonialist and patronizing (it’s important to note that Almodovar has unexamined ideas about Mexico and sexual identity). Garcia Bernal has spoken of his dedication to Latin American film, and has begun his own film production company with actor Diego Luna, his childhood friend. In Bad Education, Gael Garcia Bernal plays an actor with a story he wants told; and he makes being a chameleon a seductive danger.
One of the more troubling characters in Bad Education is a transsexual, who embodies the mistakes of the past, and a private shame that is sometimes used, publically, as a badge of pride, as a sign of a queer freedom: and here, dishonest, manipulative, drug-addicted, ugly, this figure is, appropriately, repellent. I think the only real basis for pride is one’s own accomplishments, the only basis for shame one’s own mistakes. (It’s odd that intemperate and ideological men sometimes assert pride in same-sex love in one breath, and in the next argue that homosexuality is not a choice but a natural compulsion: how can one feel pride in compulsion? The figure we see in Bad Education has been ruined by his compulsions.) The ugliness of this character is rooted not simply in personal failure but in his introduction to sexual experience before he had a sense of self: he was violated. Unable to defend himself as a young male, and having sexually submitted to a man, he seems to have been seduced by a myth of femininity, a myth he wants to embody, as real world difficulties often inhibit agency and mobility and encourage fantasy. That may seem too predictable an analysis regarding a character in the work of a director whose films may be no more than perverse fantasies—defiant of logic, whether that of philosophy, politics, psychology, or narrative, but that analysis is what I would think if this were a real person rather than a fictive one, that he had been crippled.
Another character also defies predictable logic, a boy-loving priest who leaves the priesthood, marries and fathers children, and goes into the publishing field, only to become involved in an extramarital relationship and participate in a crime. (Fascists are notoriously concerned with order; and one can argue that the things that occur in this film are the results of social and personal repression—though there are exploitation and transgression in many of Almodovar’s films, with the difference here being one of tone. In What Have I Done to Deserve This?, a comedy, for instance, a young boy is involved with an older man, something that raises no significant concerns or problems, not even for his mother. If Franco had not come to power, would the Spanish have given themselves more quickly, more thoroughly, to chaos of mind and habit? Fascists aren’t the only ones concerned with order; it is something that concerns decent, intelligent people too. I would define decency and intelligence, for the moment, as whatever leads to achievement, happiness, and security without intentionally causing unnecessary distress to self or others; although a broader definition of good character traits could include honesty about one’s goals, compassion or at least understanding directed toward others, and active citizenship and critical thinking to ensure a conscientious and healthy society.)
Bad Education is a profoundly vulgar movie, concerned with base urges and motives, and featuring various kinds of confusions. Almodovar’s ambiguities are grotesque. I do not think homosexuality is real, if by that term one means a rigid category that defines sexual imagination, impulses, and experience and from which one never strays, nor do I think heterosexuality is any more real (sexual energy can become attached to any person or thing, even to a place or idea); but there is a difference between complexity and contradiction, and a difference between contradiction and chaos. In Almodovar’s Bad Education, a film in which Gael Garcia Bernal’s amoral actor wears clinging wet underwear and distracts and entices a gay director and the audience watching Bad Education, a transsexual character, who is seen only from the outside, someone who gets only a moment or two of sympathy and that from his mother—after he has stolen family money and is not welcomed in her home—is presented in a story that becomes a rationale for his murder. For Almodovar, desire, pain, rage, and impulse are all.
Bad Education presents the molestation of a boy by a stranger, a scenario we are inclined to believe, though families have greater access to children than strangers (yet incest is not as much discussed). Pedophilia is also a subject in The Woodsman, a carefully made film, featuring a performance by Kevin Bacon shaded with shame, guilt, loneliness, and deep-seated and strange sexual desire (for little girls): Walter, the pedophile Bacon acts, did not penetrate the girls, but had them sit on his lap while he moved his legs in a way that sexually excited him. The film, by Nicole Kassell, based on a play by Stephen Fechter, is one of the strongest of the contemporary moment. The film also features David Alan Grier as a compassionate company manager who hires Bacon’s character Walter, the rapper Eve Jeffers as a nosey secretary, and Mos Def (also known as Dante Terrell Smith) as a jeeringly skeptical policeman, with key performances by Kyra Sedgwick as a co-worker, Vickie, who becomes involved with Walter, and Benjamin Bratt, who plays Walter’s friendly and well-intentioned (but somewhat distrusting, and limited) brother-in-law Carlos, all giving performances marked by feeling, thought, and believability. The film focuses on Walter’s attempts to become part of society again, and to resist his sexual impulses toward girls. Worse than pedophilia are the instances of incest the film notes; instances that few have remarked on when discussing this film (an instance of incest was mentioned, and went undiscussed, in Women, Thou Art Loosed—and is that because such incidents call into question the sanctity of family, the power of adults over children?). It seems likely that Walter’s childhood idealization—or fetishsizing—of his young sister is a key to his impulses (now adult and disappointed in him, she resists seeing him and doesn’t want him near her own daughter). There are potent sex scenes between Bacon and Sedgwick, and one in which Bacon’s character seems to be attempting to live out his fantasy with an adult woman. In many ways, the portrait this film provides of a man attracted to the young is one most of us never before have seen, an important view. It takes courage, discipline, honesty, intelligence, patience, and sympathy to see and understand another person, especially someone who has violated a taboo. It’s important to remember that rules of conduct and laws exist in light of human inclination to break every rule—if men weren’t likely to have sex with children, or to kill, there would be no need to have laws prohibiting such acts.
Having seen such serious films, one might draw comfort from The House of Flying Daggers and Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. Zhang Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers features Zhang Ziyi and Takeshi Kaneshiro, two of the finest film presences ever, and images of traditional Chinese costuming and settings (interior decoration, architecture, and landscapes). Zhang Ziyi previously appeared in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), and Hero (made in 2002, with Christopher Doyle as cinematographer, it arrived in the United States in 2004); and Takeshi Kaneshiro appeared in Chungking Express (1994), Fallen Angels (1995), and various Chinese and Japanese films. House of Flying Daggers focuses on attempts by security forces to track down rebels, and they investigate an entertainment palace and the blind girl who works there (two military men are infatuated with her). Unfortunately, for all the film’s visual dazzle (cinematographer: Zhao Xiaoding), the dialog as translated is often melodramatic and simplistic. The action in the film is fantastical, thrilling but unbelievable. (The flying daggers seem equipped with a homing device.) The last scenes, involving a long battle between two men, seem to span seasons and involve a resurrection. Lemony Snicket, directed by Brad Silberling, is actually three films if one counts the imaginative beginning and end credit sequences. The central narrative involves children whose parents die in a mysterious fire, and their subsequent guardianship. Jim Carrey plays a vain, exploitive uncle who takes the children in for a time, before his venality compels their removal from his house, though not from his life. (When Carrey tells the children’s legal representative that the man looks good, a non sequitur, I wondered if this was intended to imply homosexuality, a demonizing of desire, or intended to be a preemptive nullification of a possible motive for a proposal the uncle makes to the oldest girl. The uncle is “flamboyant,” to use a cliché; and in his flamboyance Carrey has a more sexual presence than he had as a somewhat depressed character in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a surrealistic treatment of the hope, idiosyncrasy, and bitter anguish of love and its memory.) Lemony Snicket looks great; and some of its scenes are like the illustrations in certain children’s books, some are like abstract paintings, and some like fantasies of wealth or squalor. Lemony Snicket’s episodes are engaging, though there were points of weak logic, involving a frightened woman’s inexplicable decision to eat at the wrong time and the surprising impermanence of an unusual marriage. However, even such bright entertainments as House of Flying Daggers and Lemony Snicket—in their false contrivances—can be more demanding than a philosophically rewarding film, such as Notre Musique.
Jean-Luc Godard’s Notre Musique (Our Music) begins with a visa number, cast names, and other credits. We see a ship on fire, and the title Hell. We see a penguin in water, men in water, explosions, and a battleground; war. There are glimpses of Native Americans (misnamed Indians by American history), and Nazis. Many of these film clippings are old; and some are documentary, some are fictions. We see scenes of Arabs and Israelis, and the bulldozing of corpses and a lake of fire. The American flag recurs. We see children playing at fighting. There is a prayer asking mutual forgiveness. We see prostrate nuns. (The full-bodied prostration of the nuns is formally beautiful, spiritually humble, and politically reprehensible; it is a striking image.) In Sarajevo, we see marchers and burning buildings. Sarajevo is the Bosnian city Serbs attacked in 1992 after Croatia and Slovenia and subsequently Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia declared independence from Yugoslavia, following centuries of conflict between Serbs, Croats, and Muslims; and Sarajevo’s marchers and burning buildings end Notre Musique’s section on hell.
The images that Godard presents are forms of consciousness, aspects of a cultural past—and they may be called facts of consciousness, evidence. “Proof is a mode of argument that is, by definition, complete; but the price of its completeness is that proof is always formal. Only what is already contained in the beginning is proven at the end. In analysis, however, there are always further angles of understanding, new realms of causality,” wrote Susan Sontag forty years ago (1964), when discussing Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie (My Life to Live), a film about a woman whose emotional and economic life lead to desperation and death (Sontag, Against Interpretation, Picador, New York, 2001; 198). I found few of the images of war in Notre Musique beautiful (there is beauty in the destruction that Apocalypse Now and The Thin Red Line shows); and although sharing a theme, the images are fragmented. Sontag wrote that Godard refuses “to form a total sensuous whole. Godard makes no effort to exploit the beautiful in this sense. He uses technique that would fragment, dissociate, alienate, break up” (200).
Purgatory. We are in an airport, possibly Air Bosna, there for the beginning of a European literary conference in Sarajevo, where Godard is to give a talk on text and images. European Literary Encounters is the name of the conference, a name that almost seems a parody of academe (except that this is an actual conference to which Godard was invited, giving him an opportunity to make a film in Sarajevo, almost ten years after a peace treaty was signed in 1995). One of Godard’s associates is a man who seems to have had Egyptian and Israeli parents and who has found work as an interpreter. There’s a large yellow question mark on a signboard in the airport, possibly marking the information center. Next we see the writer Juan Goytisolo get in a yellow cab. Godard rides in another car. “Why aren’t revolutions started by humane people?” someone asks; and is answered that humane people start libraries—and cemeteries. We follow Goytisolo, a Spanish modernist writer known for a trilogy of books including Masks of Identity, Count Julian and Juan the Landless. (He is also known for his interest in Islamic culture, and treatment of sexuality.) I think it is Juan Goytisolo who says that killing a man to defend an idea is only killing a man. And that each of us can become a danger for others—that in knowing where we are harmed, we know how to harm others.
At a reception in which drinks are served amid the conversation, apparently a welcoming party for the conference, a man and woman dance, and he is more interested than she is in dancing. We see a car ride through bombed out areas—then bourgeois surroundings, apparently ambassadorial rooms. The movement from broken to beautiful buildings is not awkward or rough; rather, it—and all of the purgatory chapter—is elegant, that is, if one accepts that very different realities can co-exist.
A young woman writer, Judith (Sarah Adler), is visiting those lovely ambassadorial rooms and wants to facilitate a dialog between two men, old friends, one of whom saved the other, a Jew, during the twentieth-century’s second world war. One of the friends is the ambassador; and the other, the Jew, is her grandfather. The ambassador has serious reservations about participating. I think that the young writer is told that she resembles Hannah Arendt, who herself was told that looking at her face was like looking at a group of synagogues.
We hear the hum of traffic. We see Goytisolo among huge stones, rock slabs. Then, we see a pile of books in an abandoned building while fire burns in barrels. (The building is, I’m told, the ruins of the Sarajevo public library.) There are Native Americans, a man and a woman, in modern dress—jacket and slacks; and the native man says to a seated European man, possibly a librarian, “Isn’t it time we met face to face in the same age?” (If I recall, the native woman tries to speak, but the native man prefers he talk.) I thought that was an interesting, but melodramatic occurrence. Though the conference is European, Europe (like Godard) is haunted by America, as America was once haunted by Europe—by its cultural and political force; and what Godard is doing is reminding us that American history is complex and unresolved. (Godard was reported to have said, in an early 2005 issue of Film Comment, that he saw the Native Americans as analogous to Palestinians.)
Mahmoud Darwish, a poet and journalist, is the author of A Lover from Palestine, The Music of Human Flesh, The Adam of Two Edens, and he appears in the film and affirms victims—in literature, and in life; and he, a Palestinian, is told that he sounds Jewish. He asks, “Can a people be strong without having its own poetry?” Poetry is an embodiment of culture—of sensibility, of feeling, of skill, of history. Palestinians, he says, are famous because of their relationship to Israel, not because the world is interested in Palestinians.
To see and hear Darwish is to call into question the usual image of rock-throwing, bomb-exploding Palestinians. One is compelled, with gratitude, to think of how Palestinian identity has been defined by people other than Palestinians. Edward Said wrote, “What has enabled Israel to do what it has been doing to the Palestinians for the past fifty-four years is a carefully and scientifically planned campaign to validate Israeli actions and, simultaneously, devalue and efface Palestinian actions. This is a matter not just of maintaining a powerful military but of organizing opinion, especially in the United States and Western Europe, and it is a power derived from slow, methodical work where Israel’s position is seen as one to be easily identified with, whereas the Palestinians are thought of as Israel’s enemies, hence repugnant, dangerous, against ‘us.’” That was part of a 2002 article published in the Arab and French press, and collected in Said’s From Oslo to Iraq (Pantheon, New York, 2004; 169-170). The presences of Darwish and Goytisolo are grave, contemplative, documentary, and weighted, like Godard’s, with an important but far from absolute cultural power (even Godard is not now known by the average American).
I have seen photographs of the young Godard, and never thought of him as handsome, but now he is a beautiful old man. Slim, with mostly white hair, he has an air of dignity and thoughtful engagement. The tone of his interviews is often smart, mocking, arrogant, and provocative, dense with intelligence and full of odd insights, puns, rhymes, and insults. The more one likes someone, the more details one is aware of—and the less able he seems to fit into a category. He is, simply, Godard; and in Notre Musique he seems a gentle master.
Godard shows a photo, and asks his small audience to identity it. They guess—Beirut, Sarajevo—but it is of a town in Virginia during the American civil war, another reference to a complicated American past (by implication to a conflict democracy could not resolve; a conflict regarding race, sovereignty, and the competing economic industries of north and south; a conflict leading to war).
Godard says that a principal aspect of cinema is the search for and presentation of light, a statement that resonates in reference to both technique and wisdom. Godard seems to use a natural light in his films (I have read that he also uses artificial light); and the scenes—those set in a mansion and in an abandoned building, and those showing the flow of a stream or of champagne—manage to suggest both nature and civilization, the consciousness of what concerns and compels us.
It is said that Jews are the stuff of fiction and Palestinians the stuff of documentaries. I think this means that Jews have attained the distance and resources to interpret and recreate their own existence, while Palestinians still struggle to survive, still struggle to define who and what they are and what they need. This becomes a more nuanced distinction when one recalls the high regard that Godard, who studied ethnology, has always had for documentaries. Godard might be saying that the Palestinians have more reality. More than sixty-five percent of the Palestinian labor force is unemployed, and about sixty-five, almost sixty-seven percent, of all Palestinians live below the poverty line, according to the December 2004 Washington Report on Middle East Affairs (the article by Samah Jabr, a Jerusalem-born doctor, also states that Israel has three-hundred and seventy Palestinian children in detention).
The purgatory section is meditative, with little change in tone or mood. Godard in an old Cahiers du Cinema interview said that French films are usually consistent in tone, with comedy unlikely to be seen in a thriller or a film about politics, whereas Americans mix forms. Godard’s late 1960s Weekend, a satire of the murderous impulses of civilization, intentionally mixes tones, as have others of his films.
One of the themes of Godard’s talk (and of Notre Musique) is duality, or opposites and opposition, in film, in thought, in life: such as shot/reverse shot, negative/positive, dark/light, and man/woman. Despite the genuine relationship, the genuine and sometimes inevitable or necessary relationship, that particular things bear to one another, we define things as opposites and by their opposite; and often this is the beginning of conflict. I think that is an insight that, although neither new nor much respected, is worth considering. It has the resonance of wisdom, as do many of the things said in the film; and it is the kind of thought that one usually has to withdraw from the world to find (these often are called big thoughts). However, the kind of conversation that keeps the world going is very different from this, and is small talk—and involves talk of business, sex, sports, and comments about family and the weather, and also includes jokes, exaggeration, sympathy, gossip, mockery of others, and other drollery. It is small talk that says, I mean you no harm; and big thoughts that indicate, I want to change the way you think and live, which is threatening to people. Is that an inaccurate comparison and conclusion; and is there any way to have relationships and culture in which we define ourselves by what we are, positively, rather than negatively, by what we are not?
In Notre Musique, we see snow, demolition, and a sixteenth century Ottoman bridge, called the old man, below which runs the greenest water in Europe. A second young Jewish woman, one who attended Godard’s lecture, Olga (Nade Dieu), has some physical resemblance to the first, Judith, and Olga visits the bridge, which is being rebuilt. Whereas Judith is made hopeful by the reconstruction of the city, as she is by her grandfather’s being given shelter during the war, Olga is not reassured, but remains disturbed by reality, especially regarding the Palestinians, and she is not comforted by symbols, even those coming out of daily life and history. Olga’s unhappy speculations, spoken to her uncle, made me wonder about her private life, as usually private life and its friendships and its pleasures can offer balance to public or political life. Olga says that suicide—is life worth living? is it acceptable to take a life, even one’s own?—is the only philosophical problem.
We see the Native Americans in traditional dress—a fantasy, or preparation for an event at the literary conference? I see such clothing as time-bound; and think that Native Americans have a right to claim the present and the future, not merely the past: in fact, that’s the way I heard the question, “Isn’t it time we met face to face in the same age?”
Someone says that isolated from other aspects of life, politics is totalitarianism.
Godard is given a digital video disk of the conference’s events made by someone. I thought that someone was the young woman journalist, Judith, but have read that it was the lecture attendee who was contemplating suicide, Olga.
We see Godard tending flowers, an image of a surprisingly luxurious and tender solitude. He receives a call; and is told that a young woman entered an Israeli theater and said she wanted to blow herself up in a demonstration for peace and asked for volunteers, allowing people to leave if they chose. They left; and she was shot by civil security men to prevent the bombing—and it was found that her bag continued only books. The caller thinks she was the young woman, Olga, from the conference. (Did the conference give her any comfort or guidance—or agitate her further; or have no effect?)
Heaven. We see a girl walking through the woods. Olga? There’s a stream, with water rushing over rocks. The woods are fenced, and patrolled by armed men in sailor suits. We see a young man reading a book. People frolic.
In the brief part of the film devoted to hell, we have facts, images, histories, all mostly of war (proof). In the long section exploring purgatory, we have discussion (analysis); and as consciousness, ethics, logic, and cultural achievement are aspects of this, it seems itself a kind of ideal, though it could be also embodiment of the torment of knowing conflict without being able to ease it. Purgatory is life, as many of us know it. In heaven, there is comfort, pleasure, and serenity, though that is a state that requires protection—and in heaven there is, possibly, resolution and transcendence.
The film is spiritual if one thinks that care of others and care for the world are spiritual matters. The film concerns religion if one thinks of it as being about the crisis of the young Jewish woman in the film, Olga—she is aware of Jewish vulnerability in early to mid-twentieth century Europe, and misuse of force against the Palestinians, in late twentieth-century Israel, and now. It’s interesting that some of the people who find Shylock’s murderous intent an aspersion against Jewish character do not condemn Israeli Jews’ execution of German war criminals or their long and varied mistreatment of the Palestinians, suggesting they take public image more seriously than lived morality. The young woman’s problem is that she has a genuine conscience and cannot reconcile the contradictions.
In early February 2005, it was announced that following the death of Yasser Arafat (1929-2004), Israelis and Palestinians (Israel’s prime minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas) were in talks to advance the prospect of peace, and The New York Times February 13, 2005 edition reported that Israel would allow now several hundred Palestinian laborers to leave the Gaza strip, where many Palestinians live, to work in Israel (there is a planned summer withdrawal of Jewish settlers from the Gaza strip). The Israeli government approved the release of five-hundred Palestinian political prisoners. The Palestinian Authority claims that Israel is holding seven-thousand, six-hundred Palestinian prisoners.
Notre Musique concerns religion if one thinks of the violent uses to which religions have been put, and of how sacred texts have been used to authorize the punishment and suffering of others. (Godard, reared a Protestant, but interested in Catholicism, inspired international controversy among Catholics with his treatment of Christ’s mother in Hail Mary, which was considered irreverent, as Godard tried to imagine what Joseph and Mary talked about, and Godard’s Mary, apparently, played basketball.) Hell, purgatory, and heaven were always metaphors for spiritual states, though they have been accepted by many as actual places, and believed in as part of the magic and superstition that people attach to the institutionalization of spiritual belief we call religion. Godard, in Notre Musique, gives us contemporary definitions of hell, purgatory, and heaven, definitions that a humanist—someone who values, above all, human existence, knowledge, and laws—can accept.
The Paris-born Swiss director Jean-Luc Godard, a former critic-contributor for Cahiers du Cinema, a man who has called France his first and last homeland, has a filmography that includes Breathless (1959), A Woman is A Woman (1961), My Life to Live (1962), Contempt (1963), Band of Outsiders (1964), Pierrot le Fou (1965), Masculine Feminine (1966), and more recently Every Man for Himself (1979), Hail Mary (1985), King Lear (1987), Forever Mozart (1996) and In Praise of Love (2001). Godard, whose films have been called revolutionary, the foundation of a new wave, has said, “I’ve managed to shoot some successful sequences, but rarely films that hold up from beginning to end” in Jean-Luc Godard: The Future(s) of Film; Three Interviews 2000/01 (Verlag Gachnang & Springer AG, Berlin, 2002; 21). Godard has said that film projects are created to give a man focus, a form in which to explore images, ideas, feelings, and situations, but that film is a collaborative art, and a popular art thanks to mass distribution (Jean-Luc Godard: Interviews, ed: David Sterritt, University of Mississippi, Jackson, 1998). Godard once said that the real word is not the word of men of power but of philosophers and lovers.
Godard received a degree from the Lycee Buffon in Paris, and studied at the Sorbonne (and the Cinematheque Francaise); and with friends such as François Truffaut, Eric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol, and Jacques Demy, he talked and wrote about film. He wrote about Alfred Hitchcock and Jean Renoir; and he also liked and helped raised the profiles of Howard Hawks, Ben Hecht, and Sam Fuller. It’s funny to think that, like many young people, Godard and his friends made much of the popular culture that happened to fall their way. Godard described the evolution of ideas of film authorship to Emmanuel Burdeau and Charles Tesson in The Future(s) of Film, saying that in the beginning scriptwriters were thought of as auteurs (or authors of films), then producers were considered auteurs, and finally directors, who previously had been mere employees (28). Godard made a documentary about a Swiss dam in 1954, a film short based on a Guy de Maupassant story in 1955, and a comic short in 1957 based on a Rohmer script. Godard began making films inspired by his love of cinema. His associates and collaborators through the years have included Agnes Varda, Albert Maysles, Jean-Pierre Gorin, Jane Fonda, Anne-Marie Mieville, Woody Allen, and Marguerite Duras. Isabelle Adjani and Gerard Depardieu, at different times, walked away from Godard productions after filming had begun. Godard has worked also in television and video, though he has made many criticisms about each medium.
Susan Sontag once wrote that Godard treated cinema as an exercise in intelligence. Her comprehensive essay on the work of Jean-Luc Godard, an essay simply called “Godard,” was first published in 1968 and subsequently collected in A Susan Sontag Reader (Vintage, New York, 1983). She began by describing many cultural heroes as ascetic destroyers, one of whom was Godard, whose work included a “mixture of tonalities, themes, and narrative methods” (236), with the results being “sometimes harmonious, plastically and ethically engaging, and emotionally tonic” (236). Godard, a producer of films that embodied consciousness and criticality, a light-hearted polemicist, wanted to reorganize the audience’s entire sensibility. Sontag’s recognition of that aim may seem a banality—artists do want to change minds, and affect emotions—but that observation is only the beginning of her detailed explication of how he achieves his effects. “Godard,” she wrote, “has disclosed a new vein of lyricism and pathos for cinema: in bookishness, in genuine cultural passion, in intellectual callowness, in the misery of someone strangling in his own thoughts” (238). Sontag named Godard’s cinema as not poetic but essayistic, noting that he had been criticized for not doing things that disinterested him. (He may provide story but not plot, and he may suggest motive rather than explain cause.) Godard had been inspired by various plot-driven popular American genre film directors, but his understanding of the influence of the United States in the world led him to see America as a cultural and a political problem, something for which he was criticized when In Praise of Love was released after the 2001 World Trade Center attack. Sontag, decades ago, had observed, “Inevitably, Godard broaches the menace of the bastardization of culture, a theme most broadly stated in Contempt in the figure of the American producer with his booklet of proverbs” (248). Godard’s cinema is one of investigation and interrogation. Sontag discussed Godard’s direct literary quotations, and use of real world artists and thinkers. It seems inevitable to conclude that fiction is part of reality; and reality is part of fiction. Sontag remarked on Godard’s embrace of abstraction, shifting points of view, co-existent time schemes, and even comments spoken to the camera (the viewer); and she said that his art is a cinema that devours cinema.
Godard, a filmmaker who allows improvisation and is open to accident, shares something of a jazzman’s sensibility, just as his own serious intellectual explorations bring him near to a scholar’s world and his concern for political events make him something of a journalist of advocacy. “Godard is, nevertheless, involved in an extremely purist venture: the attempt to devise a structure for films which speaks in a purer present tense” (257), stated Sontag, who also perceived the coolness—the detachment—of Godard’s films, works of language, image, and sound; a coolness that exists despite the pain and pleasure that are events in the films. Susan Sontag, with apparent approval, wrote, “Godard himself still appears a partisan of that other cultural revolution, ours, which enjoins the artist-thinker to maintain a multiplicity of points of view on any material” (248).
“I think a true intellectual is never at home. To me, being an intellectual means seeing things in a complicated way. One lives on the boundary, one is aware of many claims, many alternatives, and that precludes being at home, in the simple sense. I’m not so interested in being at home. I accept being uncomfortable, I also don’t know how else to be,” said Susan Sontag (1933-2004), the novelist and essayist, in a 1987 conversation with Marithelma Costa and Adelaida Lopez (Conversations with Susan Sontag, ed: Leland Poague, University of Mississippi, Jackson, 1995; 235). Susan Sontag, a citizen of international culture, directed four feature-length films: two in Sweden, Duet for Cannibals (1969) and Brother Carl (1971); one in Israel, Promised Lands (1974); and one in Italy, Unguided Tour (1983). Sontag appeared in several films, Agnes Varda and Susan Sontag: Lions and Cannibals (1969), Town Bloody Hall (1971), Improper Conduct (1984), and Woody Allen’s Zelig (1983). (“Whoever one films is growing older and will die. So one is filming a moment of death at work,” said Jean-Luc Godard in an interview in Godard on Godard, ed: Tom Milne, DaCapo, New York, 1986; 181.) Susan Sontag wrote about filmmakers Ingmar Bergman, Robert Bresson, Rainer Fassbinder, Alain Resnais, and Jack Smith. Godard told journalists Emmanuel Burdeau and Charles Tesson in The Future(s) of Film that he thought film criticism should come from within the film—from what the film is—and not be imposed from outside; and that is the kind of appreciation Sontag gave, serious and delighted, abstract and sensual, respectful and understanding.
Susan Sontag, who liked Emerson and Poe, claimed as models Nietzsche, Kafka, and Van Gogh, and also Walter Benjamin and Roland Barthes. Sontag admired, as well, the two Simones, Weil and de Beauvoir. A cosmopolitan thinker, Susan Sontag grew up not in New York or Paris but in Arizona and California; and, an energetic child and an avid reader, she was excited by a biography of Madame Curie by Curie’s daughter and Les Miserables, before turning to Thomas Mann, James Joyce, Eliot, Kafka, and Gide. She graduated high school at fifteen. She attended the University of Chicago, where she studied with Kenneth Burke and Joseph Schwab. Sontag, who did graduate work in philosophy, literature, and theology at Harvard and Oxford, dreamed of writing essays that would be appreciated by informed readers; and that is what she spent her life doing. The philosopher Sartre said that freedom has no essence; and that there are descriptions that aim not at essence but at existence; and, with this in mind, I would say that Susan Sontag sought, found, and lived an exemplary freedom. While bombs fell on Sarajevo, she staged Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, sustaining culture, expressing solidarity with a besieged people. The play’s production lasted about two months, but Sontag—as she told interviewer Evans Chan, and also wrote in Where the Stress Falls—was in Sarajevo for two and a half years.
Is there an antidote to our desire for conflict, our appetite for war? asked Sontag in a chapter on the value of seeing, knowing, and remembering, in her last book, Regarding the Pain of Others (2003). Some critics try to establish the appeal of their subjects by emphasizing how those subjects correspond to contemporary trends or prejudices, but Susan Sontag, an essayist more than a critic, did not do that. She believed in drawing attention to neglected ideas and artists, while aware that publicized evaluations could inhibit the work of the people being discussed (her essays could be described as cerebral celebrations; and they in turn became celebrated cerebrations). Many people do not know that when she wanted to write an essay that would describe a sensibility, her first choice was not “camp,” but “morbidity.” In conversation and in her work, she communicated as if for an ideal audience, people for whom pandering was unnecessary. Her essays have been collected in Against Interpretation (1966), Styles of Radical Will (1969), and Where the Stress Falls (2001). Where the Stress Falls contains articles on Machado de Assis, W.G. Sebald, Adam Zagajewski, Robert Walser, Danilo Kis, Witold Gombrowicz, Juan Rulfo, Jorge Luis Borges, Lincoln Kirstein, Richard Wagner, and Robert Mapplethorpe, as well as the prose of poets, bunraku puppets, gardens, travel, and painting. Some of her sentences offer new shapes, and some of her essays come in new forms in Where the Stress Falls. That last collection has a lightness her earlier collections cannot match; and that does not signify inconsequentiality but rather the boundless and relaxed nature of her joy, of her transcendence. Sontag’s books include the novels The Benefactor (1963), The Volcano Lover (1992), and In America (2000). She said that her films and novels came from a more spontaneous, less conscious, part of herself, but she wasn’t inclined to be autobiographical, and found freedom in invention.
Susan Sontag’s personal life was private. Sontag married Philip Rieff, who she described as the first person she could really talk to, when she was 17, and they had a son, David, and the marriage lasted from 1950 to 1958. She told a British newspaper, The Guardian, in a May 27, 2000 interview that she had been seriously involved with about five women and four men; and others have named playwright Maria Irene Fornes, dancer-choreographer Lucinda Childs, and photographer Annie Leibovitz as having been among her intimate companions. Sontag wrote about Fornes and Child as artists and collaborated on a photography book with Leibovitz. Sontag, whose face had eyes and bones that conveyed intellect and strength, a face on which pleasure, melancholy, pride, and concern moved, a handsome face, said that she liked young men, but that as she got older it was women who found her attractive. Susan Sontag was a Jew, a woman, and a lover of women and men, but it is her work that is paramount and permanent, work that is no accident of birth or history, work that is thoroughly concerned with classical, modern, and international themes. It does not take genius to have an erotic relation to someone of the same sex, but genius, attended by hard work, is required for writing Illness as Metaphor (1978) and Regarding the Pain of Others (2003). Sontag once said that the secret of her productivity was that she didn’t let other people’s expectations dictate her actions (for instance, she ignored personal slights to her gender; and while she considered herself a feminist, and advocated equal rights and opportunities for women, she refused the feminist demand for ideological simplicity). I would rather have her essays on John Cage, Roland Barthes, and Glenway Westcott than have her contributions to gossip and political jargon, to the triviality of our time.Susan Sontag, known as a warm and loyal friend, and given in her longer interviews to acknowledging how she had changed and grown, and what her limitations had been, was a great person, a greatness attested to by Steve Wasserman (Los Angeles Times), Tim Rutten (The Los Angeles Times), Gary Indiana (The Village Voice), Ed Vulliamy (The Observer, London), Joan Acocella (The New Yorker), and Hillel Italie (Associated Press). An intelligent summary of Sontag’s life and work was written also by Margalit Fox (The New York Times). I did not know Susan Sontag, though I did see her in New York: browsing at the St. Mark’s Bookstore in the East Village; attending a Film Forum screening of Ousmane Sembene’s Faat Kine, at which she had to stand at one point for her own comfort; and speaking from the podium in Cooper Union’s great hall, where she talked about images of war. I was introduced to the work of Susan Sontag in the early 1980s with A Susan Sontag Reader, which I admired; and in 1990 or 1991 I read AIDS and Its Metaphors; however, it was the few words—direct, eloquent, honest—that she published in The New Yorker about the lies being told about the World Trade Center attack that fully aroused my interest and then I began to study—and to love—her. Sontag, like Godard, like Shakespeare, like any significant figure, must be judged by her best work; and excellence is her most intriguing, most useful, legacy.
Sontag, who spent part of the last year watching Hollywood musicals she previously had not seen, had written about Jean-Luc Godard several times. She once concluded that “Godard is perhaps the only director today who is interested in ‘philosophical films’ and possesses an intelligence and discretion equal to the task. Other directors have had their ‘views’ on contemporary society and the nature of our humanity; and sometimes their films survive the ideas they propose. Godard is the first director fully to grasp the fact that, in order to deal seriously with ideas, one must create a new film language for expressing them—if the ideas are to have any suppleness and complexity” (Against Interpretation, 207).Godard lives in a small Swiss town, and in The Future(s) of Film he admitted, “When I go to Paris, two or three days every two weeks, I haven’t got the free time to go to the movies” (39). Godard does not have time to go to the movies? I read that, thought about Hotel Rwanda, The Merchant of Venice, and Notre Musique, each one a gift, and I went out and saw Istvan Szabo’s Being Julia, based on Somerset Maugham’s novella Theatre and featuring Annette Bening and Jeremy Irons, about an actress, her theater-manager husband, and their associates, most of whom have difficulty separating fact from fiction.