Friday, December 21, 2012

The Unbearable Awkwardness of Being a Korean Filmmaker, Part 2: The Awkwardenning: Hong Sang-soo’s In Another Country


2012 has been a big year for Hong Sang-soo.  The prolific Korean director released two feature films, The Day He Arrives, which was one of the first films I reviewed on this blog, and In Another Country, which I just watched this evening.  Now, like Ozu before him, Hong basically has one movie in him, which he remakes with slight variations every time he directs a new movie.  As I believe I described in my review of The Day He Arrives, the basic Hong plot works like this: a semi-successful Korean filmmaker, who’s also something of a dick, travels to [the beach/some tourist spot/some bar he used to frequent/some combination thereof] where he meets up with old friends, and they all drink excessively, and they all say hurtful things to each other.  Then somebody usually has sex with someone.  Now, he’s tweaked this framework to varying degrees in some of his films.  For instance, in Night and Day, the action is transplanted from Korea to Paris, where the exact same premise plays out.  But the plot is generally pretty consistent.
For In Another Country, Hong’s variation is the introduction of a foreigner (Isabelle Huppert) into the milieu.  We start out with a frame story, in which a young screenwriter finds herself stranded in some backwater seaside town with her mother, who appears to have squandered the family fortune by cosigning something for a disreputable uncle.  To calm her nerves, the young screenwriter decides to write a screenplay, or more precisely, three screenplays, each of which stars a Frenchwoman named Anne (Huppert) and a cast of reappearing actors as they play out slightly different scenarios in the seaside town.  And this is the movie we see.  In the first scenario, Huppert is a famous French director visiting a Korean director and his very pregnant wife, and all sorts of cringe-inducing awkwardness ensues between her and the director and a really, really enthusiastic lifeguard who flirts with her aggressively (he lives in a tent on the beach, and when she praises it, he offers to give it to her).  She also looks for and fails to find a lighthouse that’s supposed to be a local landmark.  In the second piece, Huppert is a Frenchwoman who has arrived in the town to meet up with her lover, who may or may not ever actually show up, as this scenario seems to be a dream nestled within a dream.  We have the same lifeguard, who’s really excited to be meeting a foreign woman.  And once again, the search for the lighthouse (to the lighthouse!)  In the third and final scenario, Huppert’s husband has abandoned her for his Korean employee, and Huppert has come to the town with a Korean professor (played by the same actress who plays the mother in the frame-story) to try to escape from her problems.  Once again, the lifeguard.  Once again, the search for the lighthouse.
One of the things that most distinguishes this film from Hong’s previous movies is its heavy use of the English language.  Huppert’s character doesn’t speak Korean and the Koreans don’t speak French, so English serves them as a lingua franca.  In Another Country is similar in this respect to Johnnie To’s Vengeance and Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s Last Life in the Universe, both of which feature heavy use of English as a means of communication between people who don’t speak it as a first language.  As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, this seems to be a good compromise for Asian directors who want to make an English-language movie (for some misguided reason) but who also want the movie not to be awful (for Asian directors who didn’t take this lesson to heart and packed off to America to produce movies that no one liked, please see: Chen Kaige, John Woo, and Wong Kar-wai).
Huppert is a wonderful actor, and it’s refreshing to see her in a movie where her character isn’t being physically or emotionally destroyed (as tends to be the case in her collaborations with Michael Haneke).  Huppert’s presence as a foreigner introduces a new variable into the Hong matrix and he explores it with his usual tenacity (he once again explores his theme of Korean sexual anxiety around foreigners that he first raised in Woman on the Beach).  As for In Another Country’s place in Hong’s larger oeuvre, his delicately observed and cringe-inducing depictions of painful social relations continue to fascinate.  He may only have one story to tell, but like Ozu, it’s a story worth telling and approaching again and again from different angles.  He already has a movie in the works for 2013—it’s called Nobody’s Daughter Hae-won—and I for one eagerly anticipate another story of drunken Korean film people being terrible to each other.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

On Yoichi Nishiyama’s Gurozuka and the Inherent Creepiness of Noh Masks


Apparently it’s Noh month here at Say a Prayer for the Octopus, because I have another Noh-related post for your delectation.  I have just seen Yoichi Nishiyama’s cheap but pleasurable 2005 horror film Gurozuka, about a group of young women in a movie club (university students of some sort, I think, it was vague on this score) who go into the woods (because why not?) to make a film about a crazy woman wearing a Noh mask who kills people.  This will be the movie club’s first project since its reformation following a seven-year hiatus.  The previous movie club broke up because its members went into the woods to make a movie and one of them disappeared and one of them went crazy.  Oh, and the filmed record of their trip depicts a crazy woman in a Noh mask killing somebody.  And the members of the new film club have seen movie.  And it’s sort of like they said to themselves, “I really want to live and die in a horror movie. Let’s make this shit happen.”

Now, for years I’ve found Noh masks to be intensely creepy (and I’m sure I’m not alone in this), so you can imagine my pleasure in discovering a Japanese horror movie that exploits their inherent creepiness (although now that I think of it, I’m pretty sure the demon mask in Kaneto Shindo’s 1964 film Onibaba was a Noh mask, but still, Noh-mask-themed horror movies are few and far between).

What is it about Noh masks that makes them so damn creepy?  I think the crux of the matter lies in the fact that they’re simultaneously deeply inhuman and highly expressive.  I say inhuman for the simple reason that human faces tend to move (Nicole Kidman excepted), whereas a Noh mask has only one fixed expression.  But despite this unnatural fixedness, the Noh mask can still look profoundly human and, when worn by an expert, can convey far more meaning—can be far more expressive—than one would ever think possible.  We’re probably in “uncanny valley” territory here, with the masks looking very human but just inhuman enough to be deeply unsettling.
Creepy.
Maybe I’d find them less creepy if I had the opportunity to see them in action, but I’ve never been to a Noh performance (America) and I’ve only seen bits of them in movies.  My experience of the Noh comes mostly from reading the plays, and there I tend not to picture the characters as masked.  I have also been informed by William T. Vollmann’s excellent book, Kissing the Mask, the full title of which runs as follows: Kissing the Mask: Beauty, Understatement, and Femininity in Japanese Noh Theater: With Some Thoughts on Muses (Especially Helga Testorf), Transgender Women, Kabuki Goddesses, Porn Queens, Poets, Housewives, Makeup Artists, Geishas, Valkyries, and Venus Figurines.  Thank God for William T. Vollmann.

So, to return to Gurozuka, let it be said that if a person wearing a Noh mask is already creepy—and creepy in the uncanny sense—then you can imagine how that person only becomes creepier when she’s wielding a meat cleaver and rampaging through the woods.  Young Japanese film students must exercise an abundance of caution when venturing into the forest, and Gurozuka can serve as a cautionary tale for all of them.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

A Few Observations on Akira Kurosawa’s Sanshiro Sugata, Part II


One of the first “Westerners” (and I don’t approve of these civilizational terms, but it’s easier to say “Westerners” than “Europeans and/or Americans”) to see a production of a Noh play was Ulysses S. Grant, of all people.  This would likely have been after his presidency, when he went on a world tour and made a generally positive impression on people, so much so that, upon his return to the United States, there was talk of him running for a third term.  Nowadays, Grant tends to get described as one of America’s worst presidents, but I’ve heard that this trend was started by Southern historians who wanted to besmirch his reputation.  But that’s neither here nor there.  What’s relevant to us right now is that, in the 1880’s, Ulysses S. Grant travelled to Japan and saw, among others things, the production of a Noh play.  I do not know which play it was, nor do I have any idea what Grant could have gotten out of it.  It would have been in Japanese, a language he certainly didn’t know.  The staging would have been completely alien to all “Western” theatrical conventions.  But Grant was apparently deeply impressed by it, and after the play, he is said to have walked up to the producers and said, “You must preserve this.” I believe I read this anecdote in one of Donald Keene’s books about Japanese literature.

Akira Kurosawa’s 1945 film Sanshiro Sugata, Part II is set in 1887, roughly around the same time as Grant’s visit to Japan, and the film is positively crawling with “Americans.” Or at least “white people” (I’m also one of those leftists who doesn’t approve of racial classifications, forgive me) who are meant to sound kind of American-y.  In 1887, the industrialization and modernization of the Meiji Era was in full swing, and the Japanese were in contact with the outside world in a way that they hadn’t been since the 1500’s.  And this meant American sailors, American merchants, and American adventurers (like Grant) swarming all over the place, from the harbors of Nagasaki and Yokohama to the heart of Tokyo.  The old samurai order had been eradicated, and this is one of the reasons that Grant said that Noh needed to be preserved, because in the Meiji Era, it was in real danger of dying out.  Noh was never a popular entertainment (unlike Kabuki and Bunraku) and was dependent upon the patronage of the elites of the old order.  With them out of the picture and society in dramatic flux, Noh had lost its support base.

The protagonists of Kurosawa’s Sanshiro Sugata, Part II (and Sanshiro Sugata, Part I, from 1943, which was Kurosawa’s first film), aren’t interested in the theater, but they are deeply engaged with preserving Japan’s traditional martial arts.  In the first Sanshiro Sugata film, the focus was on the eclipse of jiu-jitsu by judo (of which the eponymous Sanshiro becomes a master).  In the sequel (made in early 1945, as American bombs incinerated whole Japanese cities and the Japanese army was losing Okinawa), one of the main plot lines concerns the conflict between traditional Japanese martial arts and the recently imported American practice of boxing (a bloody and barbaric sport, staged for entertainment and money).  It’s up to Sanshiro to defend the honor of Japan (and remember, it’s 1945) by using his judo skills to defeat William Lester, “the greatest boxer in the world!” (Who spends the entire course of the film hanging around in Meiji Japan for reason).

So we have several scenes at the boxing arena, and the halls are packed with white people, and where do they come from? Are these all German expatriates?  White Russians and their children? Surely they didn’t take American POW’s and draft them into their movie? (Had they done this, I suspect that the “Americans” wouldn’t have spoken with such weird, vaguely British accents).  These “Americans” in Japan in 1945 are just as out of place as William Lester in 1887.

Now, from at least the 1960’s onwards, the Americans in Japanese movies tended to be real-ish Americans, and a few, like Chico Roland and Kathy Horan, made careers for themselves as “professional Americans” in Japanese cinema.  They were terrible actors, but to a Japanese audience reading the dialogue in Japanese subtitles, it probably didn’t make much of a difference.  I’ll stop this digression here, as I plan to devote a future blog post to the unlikely Japanese film career of Chico Roland, who is thus far in the Criterion Collection on five separate occasions.

Oh, and hopefully this won’t come as a spoiler, but Sanshiro wins the fight against William Lester, thusly redeeming the honor of Japanese martial arts.  This movie, along with 1944’s The Most Beautiful, constitutes Kurosawa’s only foray into the propaganda film.  I have not seen The Most Beautiful, but Sanshiro Sugata, Part II certainly transcends its propagandistic elements to and is an enjoyable film in its own right.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Fucking Deros, How Do They Work?: The Shaver Mystery, Takashi Shimizu’s Marebito, and Carlo Ledesma’s The Tunnel

If you don’t know what a Dero is, then clearly you’ve never been abducted by one and taken into its underground lair and subjected to unspeakable tortures.  So good for you, I guess.  But as those homophobic boy scouts like to say, “Be prepared,” and it is in this spirit that I am providing a brief guide to the Dero phenomenon.

The existence of the Deros was first revealed to humanity by the great American hero Randy Shaver (1907-1975). In 1932, while working in a factory job, Shaver discovered that one of his welding guns, by a process inexplicable to him, gave him telepathic powers and allowed him to hear the thoughts of his co-workers.  More disturbingly, the psychic welding gun allowed him to hear, according to Bruce Lanier Wright, according to Wikipedia, “the telepathic record of a torture session conducted by malign entities in caverns deep within the earth.” Now, some would have us believe that Shaver spent the next ten years of his life “in a mental institution,” but a far more likely explanation is that he spent that period exploring the labyrinthine tunnels of the hollow earth and uncovering the secrets of the Deros, which he reported to Amazing Stories magazine in 1943.  Shaver explained that (shades of Lovecraft) a super-advanced race had once occupied the Earth, but that they were forced to abandon it because of their inability to tolerate the radiation of our Sun.  The vast majority of this ancient race decided to abandon the Earth, but they left behind (in tunnels and caverns, where they presumably would be sheltered from the Sun’s radiation) a group of their descendents.  Now, some of these descendents remained benevolent and pure like their ancestors, and Shaver calls these figures Teros.  But the bulk of the tunnel-dwellers, however, became degenerate and sadistic, and these he calls Deros, which is short for Deleterious Robots (I don’t think “Tero” stands for anything).  It’s important to note that the Deros aren’t actually robots, but Shaver uses the word “robot” to convey the cold and inhuman aspect of the Deros.  Now, the Deros, it turns out, are responsible for every single unpleasant thing that has ever happened to anyone (remember William S. Burroughs’ line on the subject: “In a magical universe, there are no accidents.  Nothing happens unless somebody wills it to happen.”) Did you sprain your ankle? Deros did it.  Did you die in a plane crash? Deros did it.  Were you kidnapped and dragged into a subterranean labyrinth and subjected to inhuman (and frequently sexual, Shaver had a thing for that) tortures? Deros did it.  Fucking Deros.

Now, for whatever reason, Deros have yet to capture the popular imagination in quite the same way that werewolves or vampire have (imagine Twilight, except Edward isn’t a vampire, but rather a sadistic, mentally impaired troglodyte.  Sexy, am I right?) But nonetheless, I have seen Deros in at least two movies (I say “at least,” because in some movies it’s hard to tell if the underground monster is a Dero or just some other garden variety nightmare).  The movies in question are: Takashi Shimizu’s Marebito (2004), in which the monsters are clearly identified as Deros, and Carlo Ledesma’s The Tunnel (2011), which doesn’t explicitly identify its monster as a Dero, but I’m pretty sure that’s what it is.

So, cinematically, what do the Deros get up to?  Shimizu’s Marebito takes the “Shaver Mystery,” as it came to be called, and integrates it with Lovecraft’s Cthulu mythos.  It follows a man named Masuoka (played by actor/auteur Shinya Tsukamoto) who views a video of a crazed man who emerges from the Tokyo Underground and commit suicide by driving a knife into his eye, so as to escape the horror of whatever he saw down there.  Masuoka, who clearly has issues, and is evidently “into” viewing this sort of material, decides to venture underground to see whatever it was that the deranged man saw.  Well, he quickly finds that there’s much more than a subway system beneath Tokyo, and soon he’s going deeper and deeper underground through a complex system of tunnels.  Along the way, he meets a homeless man who asks him if he’s heard about the Shaver Mystery and warns him about those fucking Deros, but that doesn’t deter Masuoka.  Our hero eventually reaches the Mountains of Madness (from Lovecraft), which are apparently located under Tokyo, and in a shallow depression in a rock wall, he finds a beautiful naked woman chained therein.  He does the rational thing and, after freeing her, takes her back to his apartment to live.

Now, what makes this movie so effective as horror is that everything works by implication, including the Deros themselves.  Because even after he’s rescued the woman, the Deros are out to get her, but we almost never get to see them.  We get maybe two fleeting glimpses of them, and they’re these quadripedal, albino white things (and troglodytic life tends to be albino) with creepy eyes.  And without going into any “spoilers,” let me just say that the Deros begin a discreet campaign of harassment against Masuoka and the woman (because again, they’re Deros, and that’s what they do), that will lead Masuoka to confront a horror so unspeakable that it’s worthy of Lovecraft himself.

The second “Dero” movie that I’ve seen—and which I just watched this evening—is an Australian “found-footage/pseudo-documentary” called The Tunnel.  A TV reporter and her crew are investigating the apparent disappearances of homeless people in the abandoned subway system beneath Sydney.  The local government doesn’t want to talk about the issue, and so the news crew sneaks into the abandoned system at night to do an investigation.  Well, as generally happens in these situations, they soon find themselves fighting for their lives because they’re being attacked by—you guessed it!—Deros (or at least by a Dero).  Now, they never explicitly identify the thing as a Dero in the movie, but it clearly is, if only because it looks like one.  It’s sadistic and violent, it lives underground, it’s albino, its eyes are fucked up (because if you live underground you’re either blind or your eyes are amazing).  The only reason they don’t just call a spade a spade and declare the thing to be a Dero is because evidently these poor Australians aren’t familiar with the Shaver Mystery.  Well, good for them.  I’m sure it will save their peace of mind.

Now, there are probably other Dero movies out there, but these are the only two that I’ve seen thus far.  I’ll keep you posted if I come across more.  Oh, and NB: if you ever get kidnapped by a Dero, you’re basically fucked, but you can always hope that (a) some benevolent Teros will come to your rescue (which they occasionally due, even though the Deros outnumber them) or (b) that Shinya Tsukamoto is poking around in your local cavern system and will set you free.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

God Damn These Vampires: An Exploration of the only two Mountain Goats Songs I’ve ever Heard

The title and the premise of this piece may not sound very promising, but neither did the premise of Nicholson Baker’s U and I, in which Baker explores his experience with John Updike despite having read very little of Updike’s work.  Now, granted, I haven’t actually read U and I, because I have a probably unfair prejudice against John Updike—Gore Vidal told me I should hate him—and I’m somewhat skeptical of Baker because Geoff Dyer, in his essay “Unpacking my Library,” which is a reference to the Walter Benjamin essay of the same name, comes across a copy of Baker’s mid-90’s novel Vox and speaks disparagingly of it, and this alarmed me, because Vox is one of the few Baker novels I’ve read, and I liked it at the time, but maybe I shouldn’t have? What’s wrong with me?  Does liking that book reflect poorly on me? Because you know who else liked it?  Monica Lewinsky.  She thought it was sexy and she allegedly gave a copy to Bill Clinton (and it would have been in one of those hideous Vintage Contemporaries editions, too).  Now, surely Monica Lewinsky is not a paragon of good taste.  But why not? Why shouldn’t she be?

But all of this is really neither here nor there, because it is not my intention to speak of Nicholson Baker right now, but rather of the two Mountain Goats songs that I know, and those songs are: “Lovecraft in Brooklyn” and “Damn these Vampires.” Here is "Lovecraft in Brooklyn":


I first became aware of “Lovecraft in Brooklyn” (and, by extension, the Mountain Goats), in 2009.  I was out with some friends, celebrating one of our birthdays, and one of my companions decided to purchase the Lovecraft-themed “Arkham Horror” board game at a game store in the Uptown neighborhood of Minneapolis.  This naturally sparked a conversation about H. P. Lovecraft and one of my friends said to me, “Have you heard of the Mountain Goats?” I wanted to say, “Those bearded, hill-bound, cuckold creatures? Yes, certainly,” were it not for that little article, and so I said, “No, no I haven’t, who are the Mountain Goats?” And I was told that (a) they were a band I might like and (b), they had a song called “Lovecraft in Brooklyn.” Now, already I had a good idea of what this song must be about, because I knew what had happened to Lovecraft in Brooklyn, thanks in large part to Michel Houellebecq’s monograph, H. P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life, which is a wonderful title, and which I read in 2006, and clearly information about Lovecraft is always current, because this knowledge came to my assistance in 2009 when my friend told me about the Mountain Goats and it is assisting me now, in late 2012, as I write this blog post.

You see, in 1924, bug-eyed proto-Nazi H. P. Lovecraft (God bless him), left the rural New England haunts in which so much of his fiction is set and tried to establish himself in Brooklyn, where he sought to get a “real job.” The task of “getting a real job” proved remarkably hard for Lovecraft, whose bookish knowledge and literary proclivities apparently didn’t recommend him to work in a stock-broker’s firm or a lawyer’s office, or whatever the fuck kind of white-collar work someone like him could have expected to get in 1920’s New York.  Houellebecq notes that the typical Lovecraft character almost never has an actual job; either they have an inheritance of very old money to sustain them, or economic questions are so irrelevant to their (and Lovecraft’s) interests that they’re just overlooked altogether (I am reminded of the protagonist of Boris Vian’s novel Mood Indigo (or Foam on the Daze, or Froth on the Daydream, there is no consensus on how to translate the title), who has at his disposal a large supply of gold doubloons that spare him the hassles of conventional employment, and the origin of which is never mentioned (or if it is, I don’t remember it; certainly it doesn’t matter).

So, when Lovecraft was in Brooklyn, he was unemployed and this pained him.  What also pained Lovecraft in Brooklyn was the presence of different people.  The families who populate the crumbling estates of Lovecraft’s stories may be decadent and inbred, but there’s an aristocratic element to that inbreeding, as well as one of racio-ethnic purity.  Those debauched in-bred New Englanders are Anglo-Saxons, God damn it, or at least old Dutch families of long standing, and that’s almost the same thing.  In New York, it being New York, Lovecraft came into contact with people of every conceivable racial and ethnic background.  Here there were Italians, Jews, and Asians (the people he referred to in a letter home as “Italo-Semitico-Mongoloids”), black people, Polynesian sailors of the sort who would play such a prominent role in “The Shadow over Innsmouth.” On a related note, he would also find people of mixed ethnicity and mixed raced, and these people, along with the black people he despised so much, would provide the source for so many of the monsters and half-human-half-alien hybrids of his best fiction.

So, to feel like “Lovecraft in Brooklyn” means, first and foremost, to feel really, really racist.  In analyzing Lovecraft’s racism and its relationship to his work, Houellebecq perceptively traces it all back to a common origin: fear.  In Lovecraft’s case, there was the fear of poverty and the fear of the inadequacy that would be represented by his inability to get a job, and Lovecraft translated this fear into an animus against the different people he was encountering in New York, or perhaps it was merely magnified against people that he hated already.  His life is falling to pieces, and here he is surrounded by strange people, many of whom have jobs, and if these “inferior people” have jobs while Lovecraft doesn’t, well, then what does that say about Lovecraft?

Now, Houellebecq’s analysis doesn’t justify Lovecraft’s racism, but it does explain it with sensitivity.  And the Mountain Goats song, while focusing on a more generic depiction of the city as chaotic and loud and distressing to a person on edge, certainly allows for the discerning Lovecraftian to pick up the racial component involved.  The menacing people in the song, what color are they? Now, we progressive men and women of the 21st century, of Barack Obama’s America, we know that it shouldn’t matter, but the Lovecraftian knows that these are “people of color,” and that in Lovecraft’s warped and crumbling mind, that’s a part of the fear.

Well, I liked this song when I listened to it in 2009 (yay, a song about Lovecraft, I must have thought), but evidently I didn’t like it so much that I felt compelled to seek out the rest of the Mountain Goats’ music, or any of it, for that matter.  No, it was not until 2012 that, following a series of YouTube recommendations, I came upon a Mountain Goats song called “Damn these Vampires,” and, as that is an excellent title, I listened to the song immediately: 
 
And thematically, I found that it was remarkably similar to “Lovecraft in Brooklyn,” but tempered more by compassion and suffering.  Whereas the protagonist of “Lovecraft in Brooklyn” is on the verge of falling apart, we get the impression that his counterpart in “Damn these Vampires” already has, and on multiple occasions.  In the chorus, he sings, and with great pathos, although the vocal style is in that “almost-talking” register that you get with Death Cab for Cutie and similar bands: “Crawl til dawn / On my hands and knees. / God damn these vampires / For what they’ve done to me.” And if you want to see these songs as connected (and, as these are the only Mountain Goats songs that I know, it’s hard for me not to do so), the suffering protagonist no longer betrays evidence of racial animus.  He’s just a man who’s suffered terribly (at the hands of “monsters,” mind you, but at least they’re vampires, and vampires are typically white, Blacula not withstanding) but still has within him the strength to revolt and curse his persecutors.  There is great satisfaction in hearing him say, “God damn these vampires.”

And his sufferings must have been numerous and, in the nature of vampiric assaults, they sucked him dry.  It must have been a steady drip-drip-drip of persecution and harassment that wrecked him inside and out, for he goes on to say, “God damn these bite marks / Deep in my arteries.”

In the Jamaican context (or at least in the context of Jamaican music, which is the aspect of Jamaican culture with which I’m most familiar), to call someone a vampire is a supreme insult (well, almost supreme, I suspect the worst insult that homophobic Rastas have in their arsenal is batty boi, which is their slur for a gay person).  Lee “Scratch” Perry famously attacked Bob Marley’s producer Chris Blackwell for being a vampire and Peter Tosh, explaining his iconic guitar shaped like an M-16 assault rifle, said he used it to “scare all vampires.”

And so perhaps Tosh, were he not long dead (shot in the head during a home invasion in 1987) would join (somewhat ironically, no doubt) with H. P. Lovecraft (also long dead) and the Mountain Goats (still living, according to Wikipedia), in saying God damn these fucking vampires.  God damn them.

So apparently my take-away from the Mountain Goats can be summed up as, “Christ, fucking vampires.” But surely anyone who’s ever felt him or herself sucked dry by the vagaries of life (to which Houellebecq found Lovecraft thoroughly opposed) would agree with the sentiment, “God damn these vampires for what they’ve done to me.”

Post-script:

And just a reminder, in case someone has to have this explained to him, no, I don’t approve of Lovecraft’s racism and anti-Semitism or the homophobia of pretty much every Rastafarian musician who’s ever expressed an opinion on the matter.  The art and the life are two separate things, and if they weren’t, we’d be fucked.  Take English literature, for example.  With a few examples, virtually every British writer of the twentieth century was a casual anti-Semite up until World War II.  Now, does that mean we can’t read the anti-Semitic British writers of that period? Because that’s basically all of them (the same goes for nineteenth-century Russian literature; here’s a fun drinking game: read Turgenev’s Sketches from a Hunter’s Album and take a shot for every story that somehow finds a way to disparage Jews, even if they have nothing to do with the plot).  So no, no, of course it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t read them.  If you’re an adult, then you can hopefully make the adult distinction between a work of art and the life and opinions of the artist who created it.

Monday, November 5, 2012

The Apocalyptic Style in American Politics; or, who would T. S. Eliot Vote for?; or James Spillane’s Handy Presidential Election Guide

Americans, I have bad news: You’re fucked.  You’re really fucked.  Obama doesn’t know how to fix your economy and his administration is full of the people who fucked it up to begin with and, in case you’re forgotten, he believes it is his right as president to carry out extra-judicial murders around the world, including the killing of American citizens.  So it will be terrible to vote for Obama.  On the other hand, if you vote for Romney (and his Objectivist side-kick, Ryan), you’ll be electing people who are basically caricatures of American Republicans.  They’re right, white, wealth-worshipping plutocrats who openly hold poor people in contempt.  They would gut what’s left of the welfare state in the US (Medicare, Medicaid, social security, disability coverage) while carrying on Obama’s overseas killing spree.  And who knows, maybe worse.  Romney seems hell-bent on starting a trade war with China (on his first day in office, no less), a new cold war with Russia (the greatest threat to America, he says), and possibly a hot war with Iran (although everybody boasts about going to war with Iran, they’ve wanted to go to war with Iran since at least Bush and probably since Carter, it hasn’t happened yet).

America is economically and politically fucked.  American government barely functions because the right is actively trying to obstruct it and the center (the Democrats) lack the willpower and the skill to do anything about it.  There’s nothing to stop another economic crisis from taking place, of the sort that we had in 2008 or far worse.  It is quite conceivable that the next US president will have to contend with the collapse of the eurozone and the global economic turmoil that that will entail, and the American government that brought us the 2011 let’s-almost-default-on-our-national-debt-just-because fiasco isn’t up to the challenge.  These times require visionary leadership.  There is none.  We need a Roosevelt and all we have is an Obama.  And we might get a Romney.

Now, to my foreign readers, this is why you’re fucked too.  Because if the US is going to suffer catastrophic decline, I can’t imagine its brilliant political and military leaders won’t try to take with them as many foreigners as they can.  For a lot of Americans, Obama just isn’t aggressive enough when it comes to blowing up Muslims, and this from a president who has blown up thousands of them, many of them civilians, many of them children, many of them outside warzones.  Obama’s drones sometimes carry out “double-tap” attacks, in which the drones hover overhead after an initial massacre and then open fire on the people who show up to render medical aid or at least try to recover the bodies.  He’s also launched attacks on the funerals of drone victims, based on the logic that “militants” are likely to be in attendance at the funerals of militants (along with their wives and children, of course).  I put militants in scare quotes because we know that the Obama administration considers any military-age male that they kill to be a militant unless they are presented with a posthumous vindication of the victim.  So they’ll concede that you weren’t a militant, but only after they’ve killed you.  It should be noted that it was this logic—that all military-age males are inherently military targets—which provided the impetus behind the Srebrenica massacre of 1995, in which Bosnian Serb forces murdered some eight thousand Bosnian Muslim men and boys.

So Obama has killed an enormous number of Muslim civilians, but for so many bloodthirsty Americans, that just isn’t enough (or something, I don’t understood how these people can believe that Obama has been “appeasing” Muslim militants when he can’t go a day without killing a bunch of them and anyone who happens to be standing nearby).  Jesus, if Romney gets elected, how many Muslims will he have to kill before his supporters are satisfied?  Certainly he’ll kill a lot.  The result of Obama’s drone war will have been to make these sorts of assassinations and extra-judicial murders the bipartisan norm.  America’s so-called Left won’t have a platform from which to criticize Romney, because he’ll be doing the same thing as Obama, and they didn’t object to it when Obama did it (it’s almost as if… they’re hypocrites!)

It’s become something of a cliché by this point to dismiss the entire American political class as a bunch of corrupt, power-hungry assholes, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true and it doesn’t mean we can overlook it.  If America continues down the path of economic decline and lawless imperial warfare and murder, nothing good will come of it.  America’s increasingly militarized police forces are already getting their hands on drones, and it won’t be long before the tools of imperial oppression, honed on recalcitrant natives overseas, are brought back to the US.   Historical examples abound, but for considerations of space, here are just two of them.  This is exactly what happened near the end of the Roman Republic; the Generals Marius and Sulla went off to fight a foreign war in Libya and they ended up bringing their armies home with them and plunging the country into civil war.  More recently, the French Fourth Republic was brought down by the threat of a coup from soldiers trying to suppress the Algerian Revolution. 

Now, I’m not saying we’re necessarily going to see tanks in the streets in the US; far from it.  Americans are an acquiescent bunch and they would gladly sacrifice their freedoms on the altar of “security” (in Zbigniew Herbert’s elegant little book of myths, The King of the Ants, he describes a fictional Roman deity that he calls Securitas, to whom one sacrifices everything).  Tell the Americans that the Wikileakers are making us vulnerable to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (or al-Shabab, or Ansar al-Sharia, or whatever the Islamists in northern Mali are calling themselves), and they’ll gladly sacrifice their freedoms (of speech, of dissent, certainly of religion if that religion happens to be Islam).  And the American republic will end not with a bang, but with a whimper, with a whimper (to continue my trend of incorporating famous T. S. Eliot lines into my blog posts).

And speaking of bangs versus whimpers, this brings me to my tepid and deeply reluctant of endorsement of Barack Obama.  The election of Mitt Romney would destroy America with a bang (death to social services, death to the poor, death to labor unions, government control of women’s reproductive systems, war with Iran, war with the Muslims in general), whereas the election of Obama will continue America on the path to a slightly quieter but no less irreversible decline.  He will kill Muslims, but fewer of them.  He probably/hopefully won’t go to war with Iran, unless Netanyahu does something stupid, in which case any American puppet-president would jump at the opportunity to attack Iran if it first attacks Israel.  On the economic front, we’ll see the same stagnant non-recovery that Japan has been experiencing ever since the bursting of its “bubble economy” circa-1990.  And as for social issues, this might be Obama’s only redeeming point.  Obama does not hate gay people, he does not think women are stupid and incapable of making decisions about their own reproductive health, he doesn’t hold poor people in contempt.  So that’s nice and it’s in marked contrast to the Republican position on these issues.

This endorsement of Obama is not a glowing endorsement.  In my heart of hearts, I want to vote for Green Party candidate Jill Stein, who holds genuine leftist positions and probably wouldn’t bomb anyone.  But when it comes down it, I’m afraid I’ve accepted the logic that a vote for a third party candidate by a leftist like me is like a vote for Romney.  And I really don’t want to see Romney elected.  I would much rather see the American republic end not with a bang but with a whimper.

Post-script:

Also, in case anyone was wondering, T. S. Eliot, were he still alive, would probably vote for the Constitution Party’s Virgil Goode, because they’re both arch-reactionaries.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Manny Pacquiao Presents: Ghost Cars!: A Filipino Religio-Domestic Police Horror Tragedy in Three Acts: Yam Laranas’s The Road

I want to start by saying that the title of this piece isn’t composed (entirely) of smartassery.  Manny Pacquiao really did promote this movie in the United States, according to Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir.  This convoluted horror movie was supposed to be the Philippines’s first big international blockbuster (and as O’Hehir wryly notes, Pacquiao probably wouldn’t have been out there promoting the queer indie films of his compatriot Brillante Mendoza, whose Serbis (2008) is the only other Filipino movie I’ve seen).

So, having gotten the Pacquiao business out of the way, what is The Road? The Road is a big-budget horror movie with generous helpings of cop drama (one of the first lines spoken in the film comes from a police chief reprimanding the hero for not following protocol), crazed slasher movie, and cautionary tale about the perils of religious fanaticism.  The film is broadly divided into three sections, taking place in 2008, 1998, and 1988 respectively.  In 2008, three teenagers (a girl, Ella, her cousin, Janine, and the cousin’s boyfriend, Brian, idiots all of them) sneak out in the middle of the night to drive around in Janine’s mother’s car.  I have no idea why Janine and Brian bring Ella along, because they clearly want to fool around and Ella’s judgmental, cock-blocking presence doesn’t help.  Also, Ella clearly hates Brian, so why would she go with them?  Also, what’s the appeal? “Come on, Ella, we’re gonna go drive a car!” Is this an aspect of adolescence that I just missed? But it’s a horror movie, and if the teenagers weren’t stupid, we wouldn’t have a film.

So they go out driving, and it becomes rapidly apparent that they’re all shitty drivers, and they end up passing through a gate onto some deserted side road (the road of the title) where, to their horror, they find that (a) they can’t get out, (b) no matter how far they drive, they keep passing the same trees on the side of the road, indicating that they’re caught in a time space-time fuck-up of some sort and, (c) they’re being stalked by driverless ghost cars!

Well, not surprisingly, this ends in disaster, and the police show up to investigate, including Luis, the cop from the beginning of the film (played by Filipino television star TJ Trinidad).  And as the film proceeds along with Luis’s investigation, we see how the events of 2008 connect back to events in 1998, which in turn can be traced back to 1988 (I’d quote that Faulkner line about the past, but apparently his estate is currently suing Sony for Owen Wilson’s use of it in Midnight in Paris, so I’d like to see how that resolves itself before I expose myself to such a terrible legal risk).

In general, this movie looks really good (although I don’t know why 1998 has a sepia-tint to it.  Such coloration is usually reserved for the 1920’s, not the 1990’s).  Everyone gave decent performances, even the teenagers, and teenagers in horror movies tend to be terrible actors.  I think my problem with this movie is that it was just content to do everything competently without breaking any new ground.  For the most part, there are only a few basic plots floating around for most horror movies and if a director is going to rely on one of those plots (or several of them, as Laranas does in The Road), then he or she needs to do something special with them.  Now, perhaps Laranas’s use of several different horror plots in the same film is unique, and I think he is to be commended especially for his handling of the numerous flashbacks and flashforwards that we find in this movie.  But again, the bulk of The Road is nothing we haven’t seen before, and many times at that.

But for the Philippines, this didn’t have to be a ground-breaking film in terms of style or content.  I think its impact lies in the fact that it got made and internationally distributed.  It is hopefully a sign of the growing strength of the Filipino film industry on the international stage, and more creatively daring films will come (Yam Laranas certainly knows what he’s doing from a technical perspective; he just needs better material to work with).  Looking back from a historical perspective, The Road may come to occupy a position in the Filipino cinematic cannon comparable to that held by Shiri (1998) in the body of Korean cinema: there’s nothing particularly new or aesthetically remarkable about Shiri, but it was South Korea’s first blockbuster (and, at that time, the most expensive Korean movie ever made, with a budget of eight million dollars; compare that to the 120 million dollars that were pissed away on James L. Brooks’ unseen romantic “comedy,” How Do You Know [sic, there should be a question mark, there isn’t].)  And if Shiri wasn’t terribly impressive in the grand scheme of things, Park Chan-wook’s 2000 film JSA: Joint Security Area certainly was, as were so many of the Korean films that followed.  Shiri helped to kick-start a new golden age for Korean cinema, and hopefully Yam Laranas’s The Road will do the same thing for the Philippines.

Post-script:
I just saw a Romanian movie called Elevator (2008).  The film depicts two teenagers stuck in an elevator at an abandoned factory.  It takes place almost entirely within the confines of the titular elevator.  The movie had a budget of 200 euros.  Not 200 million, not 200 hundred thousand, just 200.  Think of how many movies could have been made with the money James L. Brooks squandered on the actors’ paychecks for his stupid movie.  Hell, the budget for Reese Witherspoon’s hair could have given us half a dozen Romanian movies that were significantly better than How Do You Know (which, again, apparently is just a weird statement, because where’s the fucking question mark?)  Just something to keep in mind the next time Hollywood bitches about how no one’s seeing their shitty movies.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Language is a Virus from Outer Space: William S. Burroughs and Pontypool


I don’t know if I’ve said this before, but I love William S. Burroughs (1914-1997).  I think he is without a doubt the greatest American writer of the post-war period, maybe even of the twentieth century (which perhaps indicates that I don’t have a terribly high opinion of a lot of American writers, but that’s neither here nor there.)  For those not in the know, Burroughs became a heroin addict, shot his wife, moved to Tangier in Morocco and there wrote Naked Lunch and after that he wrote a bunch of other delightful books, but the books that concern us here are the so-called “Cut-up trilogy.” You see, Burroughs was convinced that—and I’m quoting him verbatim here—“language is a virus from outer space.” Language alienates us from reality.  We are trapped in language.  It is impossible to express things outside the confines of language (Wittgenstein had already reached this conclusion, but he left out the outer space component).  Furthermore, language insists upon itself.  As he says at some point in The Ticket that Exploded. “Try halting your subvocal speech.” And you, my reader, try it.  Try sitting there and enjoying a minute of silence in your own head. 

Eh? How’d it go?

It was Burroughs' contention that language was a virus of a type not yet isolated by science.  He asserted that the language virus had lain dormant in man for millennia before something flipped the switch and this dormant, benign viral infection suddenly became hostile and inflicted language on us (his solution was to “cut up” and randomly rearrange language so as to rob it of its ability to dictate meanings to us).
The name's Burroughs.
Now, as a Burroughs fan, you can imagine my delight to find this same notion of “language as virus” front and center in Canadian director Bruce McDonald’s 2009 horror film, Pontypool.  Now, I don’t want to go into too much detail here, because the plotting of this movie is delightful and the explication of its central premise brilliant and very Burroughsian.  The premise is this: A pissed off radio host—Grant Mazzy, played with relish by Stephen McHattie—whose career has entered a downward trajectory is working a new-ish job at a small-scale radio station in the Ontario town of Pontypool.  He has with him a producer and technical assistant and the three of them are isolated together in this radio station.  A blizzard rages outside.  Virtually the entire film takes place within the radio station.  (This could easily be a stage play.)

Well, wouldn’t you know it, but something of a zombie apocalypse breaks out in the small town of Pontypool.  The townsfolk are infected with a strange “virus” that turns them psychotic and violent and causes them to babble and repeat whatever spoken language they come into contact with (this tendency to imitate is reminiscent of the Malaysian “culturally-specific syndrome” known as latah, in which a person struck with terror begins to mindlessly imitate someone else’s movements; it was a concept in which William S. Burroughs was deeply interested).  They also, being zombies, have a hankering for human flesh.  And I’ll leave it at that, in terms of my plot synopsis, but suffice it to say that the narrative plays out expertly and that the linguistic implications of the film will delight Burroughsians and non-Burroughsians alike (most people, I suspect, are non-Burroughsians).

I also noticed an interesting parallel between the role of language in this film and its role in Scientology.  In Pontypool, it is posited that specific words have been contaminated and are the carriers of the language virus.  A similar concept obtains in Scientology, in which certain words in a person’s history (and this history spans many incarnations) have come to carry with them traumatic associations.  These words are called “engrams,” and one of the purposes of what the Scientologists call “processing” is to identify these words and then repeat them until they become drained of all meaning, not unlike the concept of “exposure and response suppression” that plays such a large role in cognitive behavioral therapy.

And as for the merit of Pontypool, don’t just take my word for it.  A movie with the tagline, “Shut up or die,” pretty much markets itself.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Horrible People Meeting Horrible Fates: Some Comments on the V/H/S Omnibus Film


Most young American men don’t know how to talk.  I’ve seen them, I’ve befriended them, I’ve watched movies starring them, and they just don’t know how to talk.  Or they don’t know how to not sound like douchebags.  They have this strange affectless grunting way of talking, like they’re consciously afraid of putting too much emotion or inflection into their voice because they think it would sound effeminate.  Every other word is some variant of “fuck” (and don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of “fuck,” but I use it creatively).  We are a nation of homophobes who don’t know how to talk.

This is just one of the take-aways from V/H/S, a horror omnibus directed by Adam Wingard, Ti West (The House of the Devil), Joe Swanberg (LOL, Bagheads, Hannah Takes the Stairs, and like ten other movies with Greta Gerwig), and some other people I’d never heard of before.  Actually, I’d never heard of Wingard either, but he gets top billing and it looks like the whole projected was his idea.

I rarely watch American movies, much less review them, because I’m pretentious and I think I’m better than you.  But I have a certain weakness for the “found footage” horror genre (the first two Rec movies—I haven’t seen the third one, I hear that it’s a travesty—and Koji Shiraishi’s The Curse being personal favorites), and all six of the films in this collection were made in that format.

And it’s excellent.  This is the first horror movie I’ve seen in a long time that left me feeling uneasy afterwards (the first one since Valhalla Rising, actually, which is definitely a horror movie, even if it’s not usually classified that way).

Oh, what’s V/H/S about? The frame story is this: four horrible young white men (I call attention to this because there were zero people of color in this movie) who go around assaulting women and smashing houses and filming themselves doing it, because they’re awful, are offered a large sum of money to break into a house and steal a certain VHS tape.  Obviously, they decide to film themselves doing this for some reason, because if they didn’t, we wouldn’t have a movie.  And when they get into the house they discover (a) the owner of the house dead in his chair in front of a bunch of flickering television monitors and (b) there are a bunch of tapes, and they don’t know which one they’re looking for, and so they end up watching several of them, and these are the other films in the omnibus.

I don’t want to discuss too much about these films, as they offer pleasures best experienced without knowing what to expect, but here are some premises: douchebags at a bar who pick up the wrong demonic entity; Joe Swanberg as an idiot husband with his wife on a road trip so banal that it has to end catastrophically; a final girl returning to the scene of a previous massacre; an excellent Swanberg-directed film about a girl in a seemingly haunted apartment who tries to document the paranormal phenomenon via webcam chats with her boyfriend; and four male idiots (a trend emerges) who show up at a haunted house on Halloween only to discover—shock of shocks—it really is haunted (and that’s not a spoiler, that’s just glaringly obvious).

One could argue that these films are often misogynistic, but the men perpetrating the misogyny tend to get theirs, and in spades.  Like, if you want to see a sexually predatory bro get some of his organs ripped out, then you really need to see this.  They’re misogynistic only if you think depicting misogyny is inherently an endorsement of it.

Finally, there’s the pleasure of watching how each director makes use of the film medium itself (ostensibly the old-school VHS tape) to tell his story.  And, to their credit, I think they all use it; none of these movies are made in such a way where it looks like a normal movie except one of the characters is carrying a camera around for no fucking reason.  And it has the look and sound of VHS; this is the only horror movie I’ve ever seen that could conceivably be confused for a lost episode from Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoire(s) du Cinéma.

V/H/S is found footage horror at its best and should serve as a model for how to do it right (because God knows there are so many ways to fuck it up).  I hope to see more horror movies like this in the future.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Christopher Hitchens' Brain, and how 9/11 Broke It

I suspect that 9/11 is like Hamlet, in that every conceivable thing that could ever be said about it has already been said.  So I want to say right from the get-go that I do not expect any of my observations about 9/11 to possess even a shred of originality.

When looking at the victims of 9/11, we find two obvious categories: those who were killed or injured in the attacks, and their family members, left to grieve or nurse a wounded loved one back to health.  But there’s a third category, which—to put it bluntly—consists of those who escaped 9/11 physically unscathed, but of whom it can nonetheless be said that 9/11 broke their brains.  My primary example of this type of 9/11-induced damage is the late Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011). 
Hitchens in 2007, as photographed by José Ramírez.
(There, I did the attribution.  Are you happy, Wikimedia Commons?
Prior to 9/11, his career was a long series of attacks on imperialist bastards, demagogues, and hucksters of one type or another: Henry Kissinger, Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu (“Mother Teresa”), Bill Clinton.  He wouldn’t let up on the criminality of the Nixon administration and the catastrophic American wars in Southeast Asia, he called attention to American meddling in Chile and Cyprus, he co-edited a book with Edward Said about the plight of the Palestinians, he demanded the return of the Elgin marbles to Greece; he was just an all-around good, solid left-winger.

The first signs of illness in Hitchens could be detected in 1989, when Ayatollah Khomeini issued his death sentence on Salman Rushdie and a lot of British leftists who should have known better either said that Rushdie was an attention whore and he’d brought this on himself (A. Alvarez, John le Carré) or even went so far as to say that Rushdie was in the wrong for offending the sensibilities of the Muslims (looking at you, John Berger).  And so Hitchens described in his own words how the tepid response of the British left to the Rushdie affair was the first crack in his commitment to leftism (and he had every right to be disappointed in these individual leftists, although I hardly think that discredits leftist ideas in general).  But throughout the 90’s he generally stayed the course: he wrote his book attacking Kissinger, he went after Clinton for a being a reactionary liar, he wrote his screed against Mother Teresa (tastefully entitled The Missionary Position).  

It was in 2001 that he published The Trials of Henry Kissinger.  One September 10th, 2001, the day before the 28th anniversary of the American-backed coup that overthrew the Allende government in Chile and brought in the Pinochet dictatorship, the family of Chilean general Rene Schneider, who was murdered at Kissinger’s instigation in 1970, brought suit against the aging “elder statesman” in the United States.  And then the next day 9/11 happened, and we would never here about that again.  And Christopher Hitchens’ brain imploded upon itself, and emerging from the rubble of his leftist intellect was a gung-ho supporter of George W. Bush and his brand of American militarism.  Any trace of Hitchens’ skepticism of American power had been wiped away, and the Bushies could do no wrong, as long as they set about the noble mission of killing Muslims around the world, first by launching the catastrophic attack on Afghanistan and then by launching the even more appalling invasion of Iraq (I suppose Hitchens would have said that he just supported the killing of Muslim militants, but he didn’t seem to disturbed about the tens of thousands of innocent Muslims who would inevitably be killed in the process).  Christopher Hitchens, despite his much vaunted intelligence, appears to have believed the bullshit going into Iraq, and when it became clear (as it already was beforehand, to those who were willing to apply even a little skepticism to the subject) that Iraq did not in fact have weapons of mass destruction (and that right there should have been enough to force Bush to resign in disgrace for bringing the US to war under patently false pretenses, but sigh, this is America) and furthermore that Iraq did not have ties to al-Qaeda (surprise, surprise, the secularist government of Saddam Hussein had not allied itself with religious fanatics who had made it clear that they hated him), I say, once all of this shit became undeniable, Hitchens wasn’t ruffled.  He just retroactively changed the justification for the war.  Suddenly it wasn’t about WMD’s or al-Qaeda, it was about liberating the Iraqi people from Saddam Hussein.  And if the American military committed atrocities along the way, they didn’t really count (he was famously dismissive of the Haditha massacre, because it wasn’t nearly as bad as the My Lai massacre, which Hitchens had once vociferously condemned).  And even as so many other nominal leftists who had supported the war came to repent once the extent of the disaster became clear (what with the civil war and the communal cleansing and the daily suicide attacks), Hitchens stood his ground.  And he remained an unrepentant supporter of one of the most catastrophic (especially for the Iraqis whom the US had “liberated”) US military actions in history right up until his death.  And that’s the tragedy of Christopher Hitchens.

Now, I’m aware that he had other flaws too (lots of casual sexism, an inability to distinguish between being argumentative and just being an asshole), but there’s just something really distressing about such a large-scale moral and intellectual failing as Hitchens’ support for the neo-con agenda post-9/11.  One wonders what the Christopher Hitchens of the 1980’s would have made of his Bush and Obama-era counterpart.  I recall the appendix to Tariq Ali’s Bush in Babylon (2004), which addresses the question: “What the hell happened to Christopher Hitchens?” (And that’s only a slight paraphrase).  After all, Hitchens and Ali used to share the same generally far-left publisher, Verso (they have a “V” logo, which I should imagine would be a bit confusing in Britain, where Vintage has a slightly more stylized “V” logo, but I digress).  And Verso continues to carry the “classic” Hitchens texts, like The Trials of Henry Kissinger, but it would have been inconceivable for them to carry his pro-Iraq War polemic, A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq (2003) (the “short” in the title presumably refers to what must have seemed like the “short” duration of American combat activities in Iraq when the book was published).  In the introduction to the book, Hitchens cites Ahmad Chalabi, the Iraqi huckster whose lies and manipulations played a key role in convincing the Bushies that they would be “greeted as liberators” and that, while they were at it, they should probably put Chalabi in power after Hussein had been removed.  Again, how someone of Hitchens’ intellectual prowess failed to see through a con artist like Chalabi is almost inexplicable, unless one concludes that Hitchens had been absolutely blinded by 9/11.

As I conclude this rather pessimistic 9/11 piece, I should mention Hitchens wasn’t the only one to go morally bankrupt after 9/11.  The entire American political “left” (by which I mean those “leftists” with actual political power, and in scare-quotes because they’re hardly leftists), all the Democrats rallied around Bush and enthusiastically supported his curtailment of civil liberties in the United States, his invasion of Afghanistan, and his invasion of Iraq under completely bullshit pretenses, which were so absurd that they make the so-called Gulf of Tonkin incident look like Pearl Harbor.  And Obama didn’t support the Iraq War, but that’s because he was a state senator in Illinois at the time and his opinion on the war didn’t matter.  Upon coming into power, he’s done all sorts of evil shit of his own, including maintaining the “tropical gulag” at Guantanamo Bay (that’s not my original description of it, but I don’t remember who to credit [maybe Harold Pinter?]), continuing the detention of people that his own Justice Department has determined to be innocent, blowing up scores of innocent people in Pakistan and Yemen, ordering the extra-judicial killings of American citizens in Yemen, and all of this with bipartisan support, thusly establishing the precedent that this shit is ok to do.

So everybody in the American political class (with a few choice exceptions, of course: Kucinich-Sanders 2012!) is a morally bankrupt sell-out.  They have all caught the Hitchens syndrome.

Oh, also, if anyone thinks it’s in poor taste to speak of ill of the dead, as I have done here with Hitchens, you should remember that (a) he’s been dead for almost a year now and (b) he spoke ill of the dead all the time.  His attack on Jerry Falwell in the immediate aftermath of that hateful bigot’s death was one of his finest moments.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Really Troublesome History: Rob Lemkin’s and Thet Sambath’s Enemies of the People


I like to think that no historical event, no matter how horrific, is unexplainable.  There are those who say that certain horrors—the Holocaust being the one where this comes up most frequently—defy explanation, but I don’t buy that.  The Holocaust may be the worst of all the historical things, but it’s the result of historical processes and these can be understood, more or less.  But when they say that it’s “unexplainable,” they’re generally referring not to the historical processes in question but rather to the moral question: How could people do this?

It becomes especially troublesome when the participation in the slaughter in question is on a large scale; during the Rwandan genocide, thousands upon thousands of ethnic Hutus butchered their Tutsi neighbors.  And to speak bleakly, the Rwandan genocide required mass participation in a way that the Holocaust didn’t.  The Holocaust was mechanized, industrialized slaughter, whereas the Rwandan genocide was perpetrated in one of the poorest countries in the world, by a Third World army and militias armed with machetes.  It was very low-tech killing, but in the one hundred days or so during which the Rwandan genocide took place, they actually managed, by some calculations, to kill more efficiently than did the Nazis.

The Cambodian genocide that took place during the relatively brief regime of the Khmer Rouge (1975-79) is comparable to the Rwandan genocide in terms of the low-tech methods of slaughter employed.  First, there’s just starvation, which doesn’t require any positive action on the part of the killer, but merely his willingness to inflict deprivation on his victim.  But it seems like much of the killing, at least as it was discussed in Rob Lemkin’s and Thet Sambath’s Enemies of the People, (2009) was perpetrated with knives and sharpened bamboo poles.

Lemkin’s and Thet’s documentary follows Thet as, over a period of years, he carries out filmed interviews with perpetrators of the Khmer Rouge atrocities, many of whom are free and carrying on with their lives; Thet’s interviews range from the lowest-ranking of killers all the way up to Nuon Chea, the so-called “Brother No. 2,” whose authority in the Khmer Rouge was second only to that of Pol Pot himself (Pol Pot was Brother No. 1).  Thet—whose parents, brother, and sister all died under the Khmer Rouge—gives these people a platform in which to explain themselves and it’s in these interviews that we face the question that I raised at the beginning of this post: How could people do such things?  Amongst the lower-ranking killers, Thet and Lemkin focus on two men named Suon and Khoun, who probably killed dozens of people combined, if not more, during their time in the Khmer Rouge (neither of them produces a specific number of victims, although Suon evidently killed enough people that, as he explains it, his hand grew tired from slitting throats, and he switched over to just stabbing people in the neck).  And when we see them now, in late middle age (for so many of the killers and torturers of the Khmer Rouge regime were young, even in their teens, during that period, a fact emphasized in Rithy Panh’s equally exacting and depressing documentary, S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (2003), which is worth watching), they don’t look like bad people, nor do they look like murderers.  Thet demonstrates an amazing restraint with these men, given that they’re the same type of people who killed his family.  But I suspect he’s struck by it too, that these men may once have been killers, but they’re not anymore.  Now they’re just trying to live.  And to Suon’s and Khoun’s credit, they both seem genuinely remorseful for their crimes (Suon especially; he says he feels desolate and he fears he’ll be reincarnated through many levels of Hell before again obtaining a human rebirth; his large eyes carry an enormous pathos and one could definitely say of him that he “looks” hunted and haunted.) But every time one feels inclined to sympathize with them, we hear more of their terrible crimes, including the killing of children and the practice of drinking from the gall bladders of their victims (Khoun explains how a higher-up told him that human gall could cure dengue fever).

Nuon Chea is not nearly as repentant.  Apparently Thet spent years gaining his trust and establishing a rapport with him in numerous conversations over time, before he finally got Nuon to speak openly about the Khmer Rouge regime and its crimes (the first time that a Khmer Rouge leader had ever done so, according to Thet).  Nuon appears to be something of a true believer; if not, he’s very good at faking it.  When he begins to talk of the killings, he speaks of the necessity of protecting Cambodia from Vietnamese and American spies who were trying to sabotage the party (I have never heard an explanation for how the Khmer Rouge reconciled the cognitive dissonance necessary to sustain a belief in the machinations of a Vietnamese-American anti-Cambodian alliance).  Nuon says quite chillingly that if he had to choose between the well-being of the nation versus the well-being of an individual, he would always choose the nation.  He expresses regret over the innocents who were murdered (he makes the doubtful claim that he and Pol Pot were unaware of what was going on in the rural areas), but it never enters his head that everybody who was killed was undeserving of death.

There’s a remarkable scene in which the septuagenarian Nuon watches footage of Saddam Hussein’s execution on the news and asks Thet, “Is this real?”

Thet’s relationship with Nuon is fascinating, because there clearly exists some kind of camaraderie between the two.  Thet describes his years-long relationship with Nuon in terms of a collaborative process, as they’re both working towards Thet’s goal of documenting the confessions of Khmer Rouge murderers (the extent to which Nuon would have seen their relationship in these terms is more dubious).  At the beginning of the film, Thet states explicitly that he has lied to Nuon about his family, stating that his parents died in the 1980’s of causes unrelated to the Khmer Rouge regime.  It is only near the end of the film, as Nuon’s indictment on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity looms, that Thet chooses to reveal to Nuon the truth about his family.  Nuon seems to be rendered almost speechless, and then he says that he’s terribly sorry for what happened to them.  And then shortly thereafter, Nuon is arrested and incarcerated for his trial, and that’s the end of his interviews with Thet.

Perhaps we cannot fully understand or “explain” how events like the Cambodian genocide can happen, but we can at least describe them.  And looking back on this post, I think I’ve done more describing—“Thet said this,” “Nuon said that”—than explaining.  And I think I find myself at something of a loss here for what to say about the matter.  Thet seems to have done so as well; near the end of the film, he says (and I’m paraphrasing): “I guess I feel bad that Nuon was taken away, even though I know I shouldn’t.” And of course I know that Nuon Chea has committed horrible atrocities.  But when we seem him in this film, he’s an old man, dandling an infant grandchild or great grandchild on his knee, harming no one.  I feel compassion for him despite myself (or rather, despite himself), and so does Thet, who has far more reason to hate Nuon Chea that I do.

I am reminded of a line by William T. Vollmann, in his essay detailing his liberation of a child prostitute in Thailand.  He goes to see the girl’s father, who literally sold her into sex slavery, to essentially “buy” her away from him, thusly securing her freedom.  And he goes into it ready to hate and revile the father, and its starts out that way, but he concludes by saying, “He didn’t seem like a bad person.  Most people aren’t.” Nuon Chea doesn’t seem like a bad person either; but I know that he is.

It is difficult, in forming moral judgments, to deal with the fact that nobody is evil all the time.  The man who once committed murder must later sit down and eat breakfast.  In describing Adolf Eichmann, Hannah Arendt coined the phrase “the banality of evil,” which has become such a cliché that it has almost been entirely drained of meaning.  But what I think she’s trying to convey by it is that very few people who do bad things are spectacular monsters.  They’re just normal people who have it in them to commit the most atrocious and unforgivable crimes.

At present, I have nothing else to say on the matter, other than to note that Nuon Chea and several other high-ranking Khmer Rouge figures are currently on trial in Phnom Penh.  All of them are in their eighties.  It is hoped that they will live long enough to receive a verdict (rather than trying all the charges at once, eat charge will get its own trial, the idea being to make sure that they live long enough to be convicted of something; I suspect the examples of Milosevic and Pinochet, both of whom died during their trials, have not been lost on the Cambodian prosecutors.)  Anyway, I don’t doubt that Khmer Rouge leaders on trial deserve to be there.