David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: film (page 2 of 13)

History’s Bunk Pt DCVII

From the October 15 TLS. Michael Whitby quietly undermines the anthology he’s reviewing, Makers of Ancient Strategy, which purports to relate strategy then and now:

Inevitably, some essays work better than others. In part this arises from two issues noted by Victor Davis Hanson in his introduction, namely that we have very few explicit contemporary discussions of strategies in Antiquity, and that for some of the topics we have little evidence at all and few modern discussions. Hanson’s own contribution, on Epaminondas’ invasion of the Peloponnese in 370-69 bc as archetype for a preventive strike, is particularly problematic in this respect.

We know very little about the events of this expedition and less about its motivation, so that debate as to whether this was a preventive or pre-emptive strike becomes circuitous; the 2003 Iraq war may, or may not, be relevant. Presentation of Epaminondas, who was regarded in Antiquity as a highly principled and effective leader, as an analogue for George Bush’s Iraq war may cause unease. Another difficulty is the contestability of the presentations of some ancient scenarios.

Although Pericles might appear a rare example of an ancient leader whose imperial strategy we can actually grasp, thanks to the assessment of his younger contemporary Thucydides, the problems in the Thucydidean portrait of Pericles are not acknowledged in Donald Kagan’s treatment of soft justifications of Athenian imperial power: many would now question Thucydides’ sharp distinction between Pericles and his successors, with the major difference being the challenge of pan-Hellenic conflict, which Pericles’ financial policies had left Athens ill-equipped to sustain, whereas the rigour of imperial control as experienced by the people of Samos and Lesbos represents continuity.

For Adrian Goldsworthy on Julius Caesar the most relevant modern parallel is Napoleon; it might also have been interesting to explore Ho Chi Minh or Robert Mugabe.

The most illuminating discussion, which provokes thoughts about alternative perspectives on the classical topic, is the first, on Persia. We are inevitably brought up, at least in the West, to view the empire of Darius and Xerxes from the perspective of our Greek sources. Marathon is one of the crucial battles in world history that ensured the triumph of liberty and democracy over authoritarian slavery, and Thermopylae a demonstration of the superiority of free warriors obedient to their country’s laws unto death over a mass of impressed soldiers with no personal stake in their cause. Tom Holland, however, reminds us that an equally valid interpretation sees the Greeks as a terrorist threat to the established order of the Near East, obstinate fanatics who thought nothing of destroying important public buildings with substantial loss of life. On this view, the 300 at Thermopylae are comparable to suicide bombers in their unreasonable attachment to a minority interest that conflicted with the international stability espoused by the cultured and tolerant Persians. The Persian ambition was to bring security and stability to a remote mountainous and impoverished region, but geography and climate were against them, while their opponents also claimed that divine support guaranteed their success. Unfortunately for the Persians, it was the Greeks who composed the historical accounts so that their interpretation prevailed; as a result films such as 300 (2006) introduce further distortions and depict the Persians as precursors to contemporary Middle Eastern bogeymen.

I’m sure Whitby knows Hanson and Kagan’s neocon agenda. He’s more subtle than Gary Brecher, who wrote in 2005 about an earlier Hanson book:

The grimmest joke in the book is that there really is one parallel that holds up when you compare the Peloponnesian War to America’s military history. You bet there is. But here’s the kicker: it’s the one connection Hanson would never, ever allow into print. I’m talking about the creepy way that our Iraq disaster resembles the Athenian invasion of Sicily. When Hanson says, describing the preparations for the expedition to Syracuse, that the Athenians’ “[i]ntelligence about the nature of Sicilian warfare, and the resources of the enemies was either flawed or nonexistent,” you can’t help thinking of Bremer, Perle, the “cakewalk,” and the WMDs. When Hanson talks about how the Persians sat back and watched their enemies to the west bleed each other, you can’t help thinking about the way Iran helped draw us into Iraq by feeding the suckers at the Bush administration fake intel via Chalabi. Then they settled down patiently to watch. And they enjoyed every minute of the war, cheering when we blasted Saddam’s guys and cheering even harder when the insurgents started blasting our troops—with the help of new IED designs straight out of Tehran. When Hanson talks about the way the Persians just reabsorbed the Greek colonies in Asia Minor after the Peloponnesian War had drained the whole Hellenic world of power, you can’t help but imagine the way all of Shia Iraq will be smoothly absorbed into a Greater Iran when we face facts and cut and run.

Laszlo Krasznahorkai and Max Neumann: Animalinside

(I recently wrote an overview of Krasznahorkai for The Quarterly Conversation, which may help give some context to the themes here.)

Animalinside, a short work which is published as part of the Cahiers series on writing and translation, is a formal experiment for Krasznahorkai. Krasznahorkai wrote a text to accompany a drawing by Max Neumann, and Neumann drew over a dozen more in response, and Krasznahorkai wrote a short text for each one. There’s an obvious unity to it all: the pictures all feature the (usually) black silhouette of some sort of feral animal poised to jump, and the texts are all about some sort of beast or beasts, usually written in the first person singular or plural. (Notably, the first text is in the third person and quotes the beast.)

The interaction of images and text is not new for Krasznahorkai, as he collaborated with Bela Tarr on at least four films, including two based on his novels. Those last two films diverge significantly from their source texts, and Tarr has said that modifications were made throughout the filming. So here again, despite appearances, I tried not to make too literal a tie between the images and the texts. The affiliation feels more thematic than literal. The beast’s silhouette is usually black, but occasionally white or gray. These shifts make themselves felt in the beast’s attitudes in the text for each picture.  The color as well as the use of space is treated metaphysically. Neumann’s subsequent drawings after the first seem to bring out themes already present in the first text, which Krasznahorkai then elaborates on. Whether they form an actual narrative is ambiguous, but they certainly form a whole.

The beast is angry, but helpless. The beast rants about how he is beyond any constraint that can be put on him by thought or concept. He is unique and beyond comparison: “It is impossible to confuse me with anyone else.” He is within you, caged in one picture, but he is struggling to break free. And so another of Krasznahorkai’s conceptual contradictions emerges: the beast that is at once free beyond everything and yet trapped.

The beast is beyond imagination, beyond containment, beyond conception…but not beyond language. At first, his rantings about chaos and the destruction of anything and everything call to mind The Prince, from The Melancholy of Resistance. But The Prince himself spoke gibberish which was then translated by a Factotum. (In the movie version, however, he speaks Slovak! Thanks to Gwenyth Jones for pointing this out to me.) Our beast here speaks for himself, and in doing so he reveals a weak spot. When the beast faces infinity in the picture accompanying the ninth text, he must rail against it too:

I hate all that is infinite, there burns within me an unspeakable hatred towards the infinite…the infinite is a deception, the infinite is a deception in space, the infinite is a deception in measuring, and every aspiration to the infinite is a trap, but the kind of trap that has to be walked into again and again by him who, just like myself, is searching for the end of a direction, for I have no other aspirations.

Is the beast railing at the infinite itself, the inadequacy of the concept of the infinite, or the representation of the infinite (as in this picture)? I’m not sure. This tension is the same one that occurred in Krasznahorkai’s earlier From the North by Hill, from the South by Lake, from the West by Roads, from the East by River, which contained a book by a mad Frenchman ranting against Cantor’s mathematical conception of infinity. Perhaps the idea is that the conception traps us while simultaneously facing us with its inadequacy, and this is unbearable because, as with the ideas of mortality and immortality, neither side is a conceivable solution.

Because the text is more rarefied and abstract than Kraznahorkai’s other work, it seems to resemble Beckett at times. But Beckett never portrayed such a vicious antagonism. His personae always collapse into themselves. Even their assertions of antagonism are hopeful but futile gestures against solipsistic nightmares. That is not the case in Krasznahorkai. I do not think it ever is. His characters and voices are always struggling within a larger cosmos of forces and others.

Anyone who has been reading me knows that I think Krasznahorkai is one of the greatest living writers, and as I’ve read more, his work hooks together in an increasingly revealing way. I know that a translation of Satantango is due out next year, and hope that more is on the way.

Update: Daniel Medin points me to an article by the translator of Animalinside, Ottilie Mulzet. She analyzes the work in the context of the apocalyptic imagery of the Bible, an approach similar to that which I saw in The Melancholy of Resistance. The key line in the essay for me is “The form that this End would take remains unvoiced, perhaps even too ghastly for articulation. [emphasis mine]” Also notable is this instruction that Krasznahorkai gave Mulzet:

…there are many repetitions in the text, and this is very important; repeat everything exactly as it is in the original regardless of what the English language WANTS…

After the Sophomore’s Work

This doesn’t really bother me emotionally, but I think it’s a pretty dangerous fallacy to say that as you get older, things don’t hit you the way they did when you were younger. I hear this so frequently from all angles (lit, music, film, you name it), and to me it seems like nothing other than encouraging complacency. As I’ve aged, I feel the thrill of discovery less frequently for all the obvious reasons: I’ve seen similar things, I’ve seen better things, I have more context, etc. But I don’t suddenly find myself thinking that something or other would have affected me so much more deeply had I encountered it when I was a teenager. It might be associated with more traumatic memories, which has a certain indelible effect on the scribing of memory, but I don’t think the aesthetic experience was any more or less intense.

So I can only figure that people who say that they’re cut off from the intensity of early aesthetic experiences have either had their horizons narrowed sufficiently that they no longer are open to that which is novel to them, or, more likely, they’ve just become lax about finding those new things. And yes, it does get tougher, not just because deeper digging is required but because the criteria for fulfillment evolve, and it takes a fair bit of work to satisfy the absence of what Robert Musil describes in this passage:

Just as in dreams we are able to inject an inexplicable feeling that cuts through the whole personality into some happening or other, we are able to do this while awake–but only at the age of fifteen or sixteen, while still in school. Even at that age, as we all know, we live through great storms of feeling, fierce urgencies, and all kinds of vague experiences; our feelings are powerfully alive but not yet well defined; love and anger, joy and scorn, all the general moral sentiments, in short, go jolting through us like electric impulses, now engulfing the whole world, then again shriveling into nothing; sadness, tenderness, nobility, and generosity of spirit form the vaulting empty skies above us. And then what happens? From outside us, out of the ordered world around us, there appears a ready-made form–a word, a verse, a demonic laugh, a Napoleon, Caesar, Christ, or perhaps only a tear shed at a father’s grave–and the “work” springs into being like a bolt of lightning. This sophomore’s “work” is, as we too easily overlook, line for line the complete expression of what he is feeling, the most precise match of intention and execution, and the perfect blending of a young man’s experience with the life of the great Napoleon. It seems, however, that the movement from the great to the small is somehow not reversible. We experience it in dreams as well as in our youth: we have just given a great speech, with the last words still ringing in our ears as we awaken, when, unfortunately, they do not sound quite as marvelous as we thought they were. At this point we do not see ourself as quite the weightlessly shimmering phenomenon of that dancing prairie cock, but realize instead that we have merely been howling with much emotion at the moon.

And if it wasn’t an article of faith that the movement to the small yields equally visceral and more meaningful results than the easy transcendence of adolescent (and arrested-adolescent) poetic narcissism…I wouldn’t be writing here.

Bill Douglas: My Ain Folk

This is the second part of Douglas’s three-part trilogy about his childhood, and generally the best known, though the whole thing has now been released on DVD. It’s black and white, stark, restrained, and depressing. I get the sense that there is a particularly Scottish brand of melancholy that Douglas’s film represents, but since my familiarity with Scotland encompasses Alasdair Gray, James Kelman, Postcard Records, and the Dog-Faced Hermans, I find it hard to draw any serious conclusions. But I can’t believe that Lynne Ramsay didn’t have it in mind 25 years later when making her own excursion into dark Scottish childhood, Ratcatcher, a movie so dour I remembered it being in black and white even though it’s not.

But though the experiences chronicled in My Ain Folk are ghastly and grotesque, the style is more remarkable than the content. Though our boy hero is oppressed, abused, and abandoned, there’s not much to distinguish his adventures from those of the young children of Pialat, Bresson, and Truffaut. But I don’t know of any English-language movie of the time with a style like Douglas’s.

My Ain Folk

Though there’s some visual spillover from the Angry Young Men movies of John Schlesinger (Billy Liar and its run-down, dead village especially), Douglas goes for a much chillier and detached continental tone, and he’s remarkably successful. With next to no camera movement, he tends to shoot static tableaux from high and oblique angles. There’s minimal action, quite literally. Even when people are speaking, they do so holding themselves very still. So the movie reminds me of Bresson, of course, but also of Antonioni and Pasolini, even though the base material is drastically different. Bresson never shot such a filthy, working-class film. And Douglas adjusts his style to bring out the most of the cramped quarters he shoots in. The 4:3 ratio really helps this; this film and its visuals would not have worked in 16:9 at all, so I greatly credit Douglas’s eye.

Freeze, Die, Rise Again!

Its closest sibling might be the Vitali Kanevsky’s amazing Freeze, Die, Rise Again, which creates a similar claustrophobia around its wretched Siberian mining town. But Douglas shies away from the direct empathy that Kanevsky provokes, and so removes all catharsis and a great deal of apparent realism. I think this is an achievement, but it makes for a cold movie that resists easy empathy…which I assume was Douglas’s point. It shouldn’t be too easy to identify with or love the unfortunate–or else they wouldn’t be unfortunate. These characters are far harder to love than Mouchette or any of the Dardennes’ protagonists. I’m surprised the “slow film” aficionados haven’t picked up on Douglas yet (hi Lars! hi Steve!), because I think Douglas deserves a place right up there with Tarr (there’s an uncanny similarity, in fact) and the rest.

Jules Feiffer: Backing Into Forward, A Memoir

There is no mention of I Want to Go Home in this book.1


1 As much as I love Feiffer’s drawing, The Great Comic Book Heroes, and Little Murders, there has always seemed to be an emptiness in his writing, or maybe not an emptiness but a pointlessness, the same pointlessness found in Philip Roth or William Gaddis. Feiffer’s self-anointed position is that of truthteller, the man who excoriates hypocrisy and reveals the unconscious anxieties of society. Call it the Yaddo mindset. The problem, on display in the memoir, is that when the same standard isn’t applied to one’s self, it’s rather embarrassing. By burying the worst (I hope) thing that he was ever associated with (“It could have been a lot different, a better movie, if I had been present,” he says in his Onion interview), Feiffer seems to be practicing nihilism in the service of self-aggrandizement, a forgivable sin in all but the self-anointed truthteller. He has always been at his best when at his most visceral, in Tantrum and Little Murders, and at his worst when in the role of a condescending observer, as with Carnal Knowledge and, alas, much of his own strip.

Attention truthtellers: do not write your autobiography!

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