David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: April 2006

Stephen Hero

Stephen Colbert, that is. His White House Press Correspondents’ dinner performance excoriated the crimes of the administration and the complicity of the media (except Helen Thomas, who was deservedly praised). My favorite bit:

I mean, it’s like the movie “Rocky.” The president is Rocky and Apollo Creed is everything else in the world.

Watch the video. Like most bullies, Bush can’t take a joke unless it’s Skull and Bones old boy network joshing:

Those seated near Bush told E&P’s Joe Strupp, who was elsewhere in the room, that Bush quickly turned from an amused guest to an obviously offended target as Colbert’s comments brought up his low approval ratings and problems in Iraq.

Dino Buzzati: The Tartar Steppe

The Tartar Steppe is not a Great Existentialist Novel, as it’s sometimes billed, but it is an anomaly in Italian literature, owing little to its historical epics or its folklore, nor to the Alberto Moravia strand of literature that came up after it. It’s the story of Giovanni Drogo, whose first assignment as a soldier is a dull fort overlooking a vast, empty desert, beyond which there may be Tartar forces. Very little happens: Drogo misses out on his chances to escape the post, and slides into the robotic monotony of the rest of the soldiers. His career slides by quickly (Buzzati adopts an accelerating time scale like that of Mann’s The Magic Mountain), his dreams die, he is left behind as other officers escape. One day, however, the Tartar forces appear on the horizon en masse…but Drogo dies before anything else happens, and the book ends.

Buzzati is too plainspoken and mundane for the book to stand as an examination into boredom or existence. The situation as presented is not a metaphor for life or existence. It’s just a particularly frustrating and uneventful environment, one among many, that our hero happened to get dumped into. For all its lack of narrative satisfaction, the novel is still funamdentally realistic.

Buzzati’s most impressive tactic is one of narrative drift: Drogo is the center of the novel for its first third, but as he sinks into the routine of fort life, Buzzati starts to bring other soldiers into the foreground and push Drogo back, so that midway through, he is just one among many, no longer the star of his own story, and you forget just what it was that was so special about Drogo that made him the protagonist–if indeed there was anything. When he returns to prominence towards the end, Buzzati has vexed reader identification, because the one thing that had made him special–namely, that he was the star of the book–has been negated.

It’s an odd, modest little book, but nowhere near as perverse as the movie. There are no shortage of narratively damaged movies about miltary life that focus on drudgery or repetition: Beau Travail and The Red and the White are two superior examples, and Godard’s Les Carabiniers has its place as well. But none that I can recall pretend to be anything other than they are. For the 1976 film version (more accurately translated as The Desert of the Tartars, director Valerio Zurlini commandeered an all-star cast: Vittorio Gassman, Philippe Noiret, Jacques Perrin, Fernando Rey, Jean-Louis Trintignant, and Max von Sydow, among others. Not only are they stuck in a movie in which nothing happens, but none of them do anything to distinguish themselves as actors, and many of their roles (Rey and Noiret in particular) are calculatedly negligible. Perrin, as Drogo, gives an especially stiff performance; if I hadn’t seen him in Z, I’d think that he was simply untalented.

It’s not just the actors that are anomalous. Zurlini shoots the film in epic Italian style (think The Leopard and other movies in which things actually happen), with beautiful, expansive shots of mountains and brilliant color. Ennio Morricone contributes a dramatic, suspenseful, and wholly inappropriate score. (Would you ask him to score a Beckett play?) In short, the actors and the film present themselves as though it were a Lampedusa epic and not Buzzati’s novel. Everything is ready for a personal or military conflict that never arrives, and there’s not only the sense of the soldiers’ wasted lives, but of the actors’ wasted talent as well.

I hesitate to pass judgment on the film: I think Zurlini knew what he was doing, but what he came up with is one of the grandest (and most expensive) trompe l’oeil‘s in cinema. But the film is so wrapped up in confounding expectations, where the book is rather clear-cut from the start, that to call it satisfying or unsatisfying on any level seems to miss the point.

Ilya Khrzhanovsky: 4 (Chetyre)

The allegorical idea of the movie is simple: how we treat each other like meat, and how we procreate to generate more meat to exploit. Cloning, piles of rag dolls, dogs, and large warehouses of frozen meat are some of the ways it expresses it. Writer Vladimir Sorokin, who also used clones in his novel Blue Lard (as well as the conceit of Khrushchev and Stalin having sex) , is a superior scenarist, and Khrzhanovsky directs his grotesqueries with disjointed flare. Incidental noises are painfully amplified, camera movement is shaky, and colors are all wrong. It’s not profound, but it’s one of the most inventive and exuberant depictions of nihilism in recent years (though it ends with a somewhat anomalous, albeit hopeless, affirmation of individuality).

Khrzhanovsky is so aggressively creative that I would trust him to adapt a Celine novel; I think his visual–and moreover, his physical–senses would mesh. Moreover, Khrzhanovsky never overdoes it. There is never the sense that he is merely trying to shock or induce squirms, as with so much recent J- and K-horror and exploitation panderers like Gaspar Noe and Michael Haneke. It all fits together, and for such a gonzo movie, it’s uncharacteristically controlled.

But the reason for this entry is that Khrzhanovsky and Sorokin have planted many references to Andrei Tarkovsky in the film. Here are the four big ones I caught:

  • A careening, high-speed car ride through partly-lit tunnels, shot from the dashboard. (The hypnotic, silent car/train ride in Solaris, shot from the same perspective. 
  • Long scenes in damp subterranean rooms. (The various “trapped” rooms in Stalker, filled with water.
  • After the doll-maker daughter dies, her mentally deficient boyfriend announces, “I know the secret!” of how to make the faces for the dolls out of stale bread chewed by older, damaged clone women. (The bellmaker’s son in Andrei Rublev announces that he knows his dead father’s secret of how to cast the bell without it breaking.)
  • The dolls go up in flames at the end as a gesture of disgust with humanity and the world. (The old man’s conflagration of his earthly possessions at the end of The Sacrifice.)

Whether the two mean to create a gospel of flesh to contrast with Tarkovsky’s spiritual leanings, or if they are merely parodying him, the scenes are effective revisions. They underscore how carefully 4 was assembled despite all surface indications to the contrary. Sorokin used the technique in Blue Lard as well, in which he created imitation passages of various Russian writers ostensibly written by their clones. I suspect it indicates some latent idealism in Sorokin: a thread of reverence for artistic achievement, even as he condemns its constant exploitation. (The futurists, Mayakovsky especially, and Daniil Kharms are antecedents.)

A Note on Hierarchy

What sticks with me most from Paradise Now is the image of the slick, assured Jamal, dressed in a tweed jacket and casually assuring his two suicide bombers of the heaven that awaits them and the nobility of their actions. His first action in the film is to tell Said that he has been chosen; later on, after Said has gone missing, he speaks of nothing but the problem Said has caused, portraying him only in terms of his utility to the militant organization. Leaving aside all the politics of the film (nothing I say below should be taken as any political or moral statement of my own), Abu-Assad’s presentation of Jamal is not sympathetic and constitutes one of the more unambiguous criticisms of the militant movement in the film.

Contrast Jamal to the militant leaders in Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers, who are as involved and at risk as any of their lieutenants. The Algerian militants lead by example, underscored in how the film shows their rise from the absolute bottom of society, while the leaders in Paradise Now are secretive, smooth, and manipulative. Said and Khaled, the two bombers, are mostly pushed around by forces that they hardly understand.

It’s not just that Jamal is manipulative, but that he represents “the management.” The exploitation and dehumanization of the peons of an organization by its management is such a seemingly universal situation that it makes the members of the militant organizations understandable–no longer the inhuman “other” that the viewer is a tourist amongst–and this is a significant achievement. The Battle of Algiers is far better as propaganda, but its realism only goes as far as the historical level; its characters are hollow in comparison. It is the greater film, but it does not provoke the shock of recognition that Paradise Now does.

Likewise even with Al Qaeda, where the Los Angeles Times underscores the obvious in describing nepotism, micromanagement, and rhetorical hot air:

Yet Mohammed describes a terrorist outfit fraught with the same conflicts and petty animosities that plague many American corporations. Mohammed describes himself in particular as having to fend off a chairman of the board who insists on micromanaging despite not knowing what he was doing.

Had Mohammed not insisted on such security measures, he suggested, Bin Laden might have endangered the whole mission. That’s because Bin Laden, an exiled Saudi multimillionaire with a huge trust fund, apparently had a knack for forcing Mohammed to take operatives who couldn’t follow directions or keep their mouths shut.

These are patterns that I have seen in every hierarchy I’ve been a part of, from academia to corporations to newspapers to the arts. The most comprehensive portrayal I’ve seen remains The Wire, where the bureaucratic and organizational details of both police department and drug dealer alike ring eerily true: empty suits at the top, political exploiters in the middle, manipulated peons (or frustrated rebels) at the bottom.

Many terrorist leaders have had western educations, so I hesitate to say that the microstructures of these hierarchies are universal, but there is still something uncanny about how the patterns of exploitation and mismanagement repeat themselves with such regularity across diverse situations. I’ll have more to say after I read Albert O. Hirschman’s Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States.

Stanislaw Lem (1921-2006)

Lem’s obituary is not as unhappy one to write as many, because he more than accomplished his life’s work. Having identified the issues he wished to examine, he synthesized them wish vigor and brilliance, and to quote someone or other, if he did not exhaust them, they exhausted him. He had a long, productive, successful career, and he never wrote the same book twice. Under the guise of fiction (and sometimes not), he became the speculative master of two issues: evolution and technology. I cannot think of another writer who dealt with the essence and possibilities of these subjects better than Lem.

From both, Lem acquired a resigned pessimism. The limits and flaws expressed in humanity (and via humanity, in technology) were not ones of some nebulous human essence, but the product of a process–evolution–for which individuals and society were meaningless side effects. Lem’s recurrent, thrilling ploy was to play technology off of evolutionary fatalism, and to show the sparks when technological ambition runs up against the epistemological limits that bound a species. It made for concentrated stories with novel ideas, and a rigorous approach to potential technologies and societal trends. His Summa Technologiae (1964) still puts most so-called “futurism” to shame.

Politically, he could fall prey to an cold anti-humanism. His enthusiasm for Vladimir Putin (“He’s what the people want,” he declared), his sexism, and his indifference towards issues of race and class except in the most general anthopological sense all bespoke an unwillingness to be engaged in normative ethical debates. This is not unusual for science-fiction. Just as war historians celebrate the tactics of generals while ignoring those who got it in the neck, the sweep of (imagined) future history has led many science-fiction authors to embrace a cruel stability or ignore the collateral damage of establishing galactic empires–or both. These conservative instincts, pace Ellis Sharp’s belief that science fiction is mostly progressive, have in fact driven the main currents of science-fiction even at its best, from Wells to Cordwainer Smith to Mark Geston. The opposing sf trend that includes such people as Delany, Joanna Russ, and the also sadly departed Octavia Butler is so drastically different in its focus from the dominant trend that it might as well be another genre. But this is a topic for another time.

But Lem, more than many of his peers, could show compassion about human suffering, as he did, albeit ironically, in “Altruizine” and His Master’s Voice. “Altruizine” especially stands out as a sad allegory about a race of super-beings’ last attempt to bring about universal happiness, the previous 64,000 having failed. It is not the stuff to inspire polities, but it is a very human satire for any of us who have gotten frustrated at people’s constant inability to act in their own best interests.

I wrote a callow appreciation of Lem many years ago, but I still agree with a lot of it; you can see it below the fold. I would change my assessment of Lem’s ultimate message and his philosophical attitudes (see above!), but the explication of his work still seems reasonable to me. And I still think that Lem deserves a place next to Dante, Borges, and Stapledon in the pantheon of pure imagination.

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