David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: September 2003

The Battle of Algiers, Gillo Pontecorvo

Of all the articles I’ve seen dissecting the decision of the Pentagon to show Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers as a primer in urban warfare by an insurgent indigenous population, none have addressed what I always thought was most interesting, the portrayal of the the triumph of the resistance as unavoidable destiny. The film’s politics are not ludicrous because of factual inaccuracies or one-dimensionally propagandist speeches, but because it’s all played as a game of dialectical materialism, in which a certain outcome will inexorably result.

The Slate article summarizes the movie, but it gives the film too much moral depth. When I watch The Battle of Algiers, Pontecorvo’s attitude is that all the actions of resistance are necessary, particularly the violent ones. The outcome is predetermined, as Colonel Mathieu implies: the proles will rise up against the oppresors, and they will win. Pontecorvo never rejects the idea of “sustained and bloody insurrection.”

(This sort of thing was popular in the 60s, and Pontecorvo is better at it than most. It’s far more politically engaging than Godard’s insane Weekend, which drags two garbagemen out in front of the camera in the middle of the picture to talk about what wonderful progress the revolution is making.)

The movie is still brilliantly effective because it is extremely rare for a movie to portray pawns of historical (Marxist) inevitability with such dignity. Viewers identify with these scared, nervous agitators, who hardly understand their own Hegelian destinies, because they slot into the role of the noble revolutionaries in Pontecorvo’s dialectical framework. They’re made noble by their role in the historical process. It’s not until after the movie finishes that you realize that you’ve bought into Frantz Fanon without even realizing it. Pauline Kael said:

The Battle of Algiers is probably the only film that has ever made middle-class audiences believe in the necessity of bombing innocent people–perhaps because Pontecorvo made it a tragic necessity…It’s practically rape of the doubting intelligence.

The sentiment is right, but I think she was slightly off the mark. Middle-class people would never sincerely believe in the need for their own self-destruction, but Pontecorvo does a good job of tricking them into sympathizing with their enemies. It’s less the tragedy that gets them than the sheer manipulation with which Pontecorvo plays up the revolutionaries and alienates viewers from the middle-classes of the film. Yet he does it in the context of macrohistorical forces, which is an amazing trick.

You have to wonder how effective it was on the Pentagon employees who watched it–probably not at all. But the real irony here, the huge irony, is that the Pentagon would air a movie that privileges ideology over facts, where the straitjacket of Marxist progression is tightly fitted over the messy (and less noble) Algerian resistance, in which the outcome is determined before the action even starts. No matter what the doubts of the individuals carrying out their historic tasks, says Pontecorvo, there was never a chance that Algiers would not be freed from French rule; first principles dictated it. There is no need for pragmatism or realism, nor for compromise, only for a decisive, inevitable show of force, destined to succeed. The distance between that vision and what actually happened in Algeria–decades more of authoritarian rule and poverty–is the real lesson the Pentagon (and the DoD, and Fox News, and the Weekly Standard, etc.) should take from the film.

The Anathemata, David Jones

I’ve read only a little of The Anathemata and understood less, even though Jones provides a commentary that explains a good chunk of the allusions in the text. W.H. Auden’s article on it gives an idea of the scope involved. It also quotes Jones’s eloquent rationale for the many languages and references that he uses:

The poet may feel something with regard to Penda the Mercian and nothing with regard to Darius the Mede. In itself that is a limitation, it might be regarded as a disproportion; no matter, there is no help—he must work within the limits of his love. There must be no mugging-up, no “ought to know” or “try to feel”; for only what is actually loved and known can be seen sub specie aeternitati. The nurse herself is adamant about this: she is indifferent to what the poet may wish to feel, she cares only for what he in fact feels.

The words “May they rest in peace” and the words “Whosoever will” might by some feat of artistry, be so juxtaposed within a context as not only to translate the words “Requiescat in pace” and “Quicunque vult,” but to evoke the exact historic over-tones and under-tones of those Latin words. But should some writer find himself unable by whatever ingenuity of formal arrangement or of contextual allusion to achieve this identity of content and identity of evocation, while changing the language, then he would have no alternative but to use the original form…. It is not a question of “translation” or even of “finding an equivalent word.” It is something much more complex. “Tsar” will mean one thing and “Caesar” another to the end of time.

The artist deals wholly in signs. His signs must be valid, that is, valid for him and, normally, for the culture that has made him. But there is a time factor affecting these signs. If a requisite now-ness is not present, the sign, valid in itself, is apt to suffer a kind of invalidation. This presents most complicated problems to the artist working outside a reasonably static culture-phase…. It may be that the kind of thing I have been trying to make is no longer makeable in the kind of way in which I have tried to make it.

Jones’s self-consciousness here is surprising, given the monk-like description that he usually merits. He seems to presuppose a reasonably objective and specific set of “historic over-tones and under-tones,” then admits that the objectivity is a product of a “static culture.” He wants access to the signs of multiple static cultures of the past, but says, I think, that he is not certain that he can recontextualize them because he does not feel he himself exists in a culture with enough constant (static) signs. It’s debatable whether this dislocation is the product of his own willful alienation from contemporary culture, or whether his aims are fundamentally incompatible because culture is truly losing the reference points that he needs for his work. (I intuitively lean towards the former, but I haven’t read the whole book….)

But if he’s right that his book is not actually “makeable”, if The Anathemata is not only anachronistic but pointless, the result is trivia of the sort that fills the books of Marguerite Young, William Gaddis, and so many modern poets. Very high-quality trivia, but, in Jones’s view, devoid of the required resonance with the static signs, because they don’t exist in the necessary quality and quantity. Trivia of the type satirized by Stanislaw Lem in “Gigamesh”, a fake review of a Joycean monster of a book containing its own commentary twice the length of the novel:

Hostile reviewers say that Hannahan [the author] has produced the largest logogriph in literature, a semantic monster rebus, a truly infernal charade or crossword puzzle. They say that the cramming of those million or billion allusions into a work of belles-lettres, that the flaunting play with etymological, phraseological, and hermeneutic complications, that the piling up of layers of never-ending, perversely antinomial meanings, is not literary creativity, but the composing of brain teasers for peculiarly paranoiac hobbyists, for enthusiasts and collectors fanatically given to bibliographical digging. That this is, in a word, utter perversion, the pathology of a culture and not its healthy development.
Excuse me, gentlemen–but where exactly is one to draw the line between the multiplicity of meaning that marks the integration of a genius, and the sort of enriching of a work with meanings that represents the pure schizophrenia of a culture? I suspect that the anti-Hannahan group of literary experts fears being put out of work.

“I Am Sitting in a Room”, Alvin Lucier

I am sitting in a room different from the one you are in now. I am recording the sound of my speaking voice and I am going to play it back into the room again and again until the resonant frequencies of the room reinforce themselves so that any semblance of my speech, with perhaps the exception of r-r-r-rhythm, is destroyed. What you will hear, then, are the natural resonant frequencies of the room articulated by speech. I regard this activity nnnnnot so much as a demonstration of a physical fact, but more as a way to s-s-smooth out any irregularities my speech might have.

This is the text of Alvin Lucier’s “I Am Sitting in a Room,” and it describes what he does over the forty minutes of the piece. The piece is described by Christopher Burns as “conceptually rich, sonically beautiful, and…achieved with an extraordinary economy of means.” Beyond the pure sonics, it’s the elegance that’s most impressive. The “score” is more of an explanation; the basic score is contained in the text itself.

Lucier didn’t have to use speech; any sound would have done. His use of speech, however, gives him the natural irregularity contained in speech rhythms. By the end of the piece, they are more apparent than they were at the start, since listeners take the arrhythmic nature of speech for granted. When the spooky, echoing resonances are left at the end, phasing in and out without any obvious organizing principle, the arbitrariness of the source material is evident.

Lucier slurs and stutters at several points, to generate more jagged and variable sounds and emphasize said “irregularities” in his speech. These too become difficult to pick out by the end. Their initial presence serves mostly to alert the listener to the disintegration of organization that is coming.

Yet Lucier talks about the irregularies being “smoothed out.” From a tonal perspective this is true, as the non-resonant frequencies disappear, but the experience is not that of reduction to a purer substance, but of turning up hidden content inside of speech. Compare it to Steve Reich’s “Different Trains” (or Rene Lussier’s superior “Le Tresor de la Langue”), which imitate the inflections of human speech very carefully with instruments. (The general tradition goes back further than I know.) The sensibility there is to emphasize an intrinsic musicality in speech and manipulate it as one would an instrument. With Lucier, the distillation decontextualizes, as the originally dominant content disappears. The process provided by the room “destroys” as it smoothes out.

Though I didn’t perceive it this way originally, that destructive effect stems from a conflict Lucier identifies between speech and the environment it exists in, one in which the environment slowly triumphs.

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