Discussed in this post: 4 Books (Caliban and the Witch; Exile and the Kingdom; Roughneck; and Alone); 3 Movies (The Lure; Innocence; and A Cure For Wellness); and 4 Documentaries (Kids for Cash; Kedi; All These Sleepless Nights; and The Memory of Justice).
1. Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation by Sylvia Federici.
There are some books you read that open your eyes to things you’ve never considered before and give you a fuller, more vibrant, more exciting, and more solid understanding of the world and how we got to where we are now. These are things that, quite literally, make sense. Caliban and the Witch is a book like this, and I’m very glad to have read it. In it, Federici brings a feminist critical perspective to Marx’s theory on primitive accumulation and the rise of capitalism and Foucault’s related theory of the body. It’s brilliant and fantastic and fills a significant gap in Marxist and Foucauldian scholarship. Essentially, Federici argues that the primary way in which propertied classes were able to shatter the solidarity of the lower classes and appropriate the commons was by fracturing the oppressed along gender lines, devaluing the work, knowledge, and power of women, transforming them into machines designated to reproduce labour, and making their bodies the new commons available to all men (hence, the now dated term for a sex worker as a “common woman”). The witch hunts, which killed a very large number of women across Europe and which then became a partial model for the justification of the genocides of Indigenous peoples on Turtle Island, were thus a war waged against women who resisted this transformation and who, therefore, had to be exterminated so that capitalism could be born. Federici builds a convincing case (I don’t do the book justice here) and helps to shed light on how patriarchy, capitalism, and colonialism are all intimately connected. This is highly recommended reading.
2. Exile and the Kingdom by Albert Camus.
I stumbled upon Les Justes half a dozen years ago and it quickly became my favourite work by Camus (The Plague was one of my all-time favourite novels back in my early 20s) so I was curious to see what it would be like to read this collection of short stories. I can’t say itdid much for me. “The Silent Men” was my favourite story in the collection but a number of others appeared to engage in a fair amount of orientalism — even when trying to be sympathetic to the Other. I was somewhat surprised by this (although, perhaps, I shouldn’t have been surprised?) given Camus’ Algerian upbringing and subsequent resistance work (although, perhaps, I am expecting too much from a French man of letters in the early twentieth century?). To be honest, I struggle with the short story genre. I almost never read short story collections and, when I do, I generally have trouble getting into them. That’s probably a significant factor here.
3. Roughneck by Jeff Lemire.
Graphic novels seem to be a genre of literature particularly well suited to presenting biographies and autobiographies. One of the stand-out best works in this genre is the Essex County trilogy by Jeff Lemire (others that are among the very best include Blankets by Craig Thompson, Maus by Art Spiegelman, and Epileptic by David B.). I have tried to follow along with Lemire’s other work and so I was excited to see that he had picked up on some familiar themes while also incorporating some other themes (like how some Indigenous peoples in territories occupied by Canada have experienced colonization, although Lemire doesn’t quite use those words). Lemire uses the pictures to tell a lot of his story and words are sparser here than in many literary graphic novels and, with Lemire, this works very well (a lot of literary graphic novels are pretty word heavy although, again, Craig Thompson comes to mind as an exceptional example of someone who uses quite a lot of words without sacrificing the extraordinary art that fills his books). As with most graphic novels, Roughneck reads very quickly, which makes one wonder about the price tag on it, but I enjoyed the story.
4. Alone by Chabouté.
Given that I had been away from graphic novels for so long, I thought I’d pick up another award winner by a renowned French cartoonist who, I think, uses words even less than Lemire (what’s with the French and cartoons, comics, and graphic novels?). I didn’t find the story about a semi-monstrous looking fellow living alone in a lighthouse to be all that compelling but I did enjoy thinking about how Chabouté uses his medium to tell his story.
1. The Lure (2015) directed by Agnieszka Smoczynska.
It’s not every day that you get the chance to watch a Polish horror musical about killer mermaids (yes, you read that correctly) but, when that chance comes along, you probably want to jump on it. This is Smoczynska’s feature length film début but, apart from some skips and jumps and gaps in the general trajectory of the narrative, she really does a fine job (apparently she is now working on a science fiction opera set to the music of David Bowie – perhaps she was a little inspired by the vampire muppet opera in Forgetting Sarah Marshall?? — and I’m looking forward to watching it if it ever comes to fruition). This is very much a contemporary appropriation of the classic fairy tale genre and, more specifically, of Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of the little mermaid (although it takes us awhile to get to that). This isn’t some bleached out Disney version of fairy tales – it’s the darker, more true to form, classic fairy tale with violence and tragedy and Homeric Sirens mixed in for good measure. I have been thinking why I am so drawn to fairy tales (over many years, I have been reading folk and fairy tales from various places around the world) but I think it has something to do with the manner in which they combine a vision of an enchanted world with the recognition of both horror and wonder existing side by side, and even woven through each other, in the nature of things. And there is humour somewhere in all of that (and music!), even if there are also blood and tears and things taken that can never be returned. The Lure captures this very well, although it certainly won’t be for everyone. It does a good job depicting many things – the thrill and devastation wrought by love (and not just romantic love but also the love that exists between two sisters), the way in which beauty is preyed upon and often must become predatory in order to survive, oh and also the culture of “musical restaurants” that apparently existed in Poland twenty or so years ago. Actually, come to think of it, based on the Polish movies I’ve been watching lately (The Tribe, On The Silver Globe, and now The Lure), I’m starting to get a bit concerned about Poland in general. But maybe that’s not fair, as if one can judge France based upon the movies of Gaspar Noé or something like that. I’m sure Poland is fine.
2. Innocence (2004) directed by Lucile Hadžihalilović.
Speaking of Gaspar Noé, the French, and fairy tales, Innocence is a different take on the contemporary fairy tale dedicated “to Gaspar” by Lucile Hadžihalilović (Noé’s partner at the time). It is a tale about a girls’ residential school, of sorts, out in the woods (all the buildings are surrounded by a forest which, in turn, is surrounded by a wall) and while the children act innocently enough there is a creeping sense of dread suffusing everything. Worse, one even gets the sense that something perverse may be happening — if not on the grounds then through the lens of the camera. And yet… nothing dreadful or perverse happens. Granted, there are certain unexplained things that happen that contribute greatly to the sense of all this – the separation of the girls from their families, that each new girl arrives in a coffin, and the sudden uncontrollable weeping of one of the matrons followed by the panicked consolations of the other matron, all add to this feeling (and are all never explained) – and other things could add to this if interpreted a certain way – the underground tunnels that permit unknown men to come and watch the dance recitals of the older girls, the rumours that go about among the girls as to how the staff members end up staying on at the school, the strict enforcement of rules, the use of violence by one girl against another (possibly a learned behaviour?) – but, and this is important, none of these things actually are hard evidence of anything dreadful or perverse. Even the ending, fraught as it is with imagery related to sexual awakening (two teens meeting in a water fountain) need not be interpreted in that way (honestly, the reading of the film that I came up with that makes most sense of the events of the film, rather than reading sexual meanings into the innuendos filling the film, is that the film operates within a semi-Catholic universe where unbaptized children are assigned to limbo and only age out [to paradise] after their designated time runs out [the escapees – one that climbed the wall and ran and one that presumably drowned – then, being children who descended rather than ascending, which is why they are neither pursued nor ever spoken of again]). However, what I think Hadžihalilović is doing, in her exploration of innocence is more subtle than the narrative which doesn’t make a ton of sense and which, I think, isn’t supposed to make a ton of sense. I think what she is trying to do is to have the viewer reflect on their own loss of innocence – i.e. the feelings one brings to the film (the dread, the fear of something perverse taking place, the discomfort of just, well, watching a group of girls play or swim together given all the fears we have and things we are aware of in how we police the posting of images of children on social media and so forth). These are things that we are importing into the film (although I think Hadžihalilović stacks the deck a little). What I think she is trying to suggest is that we are so far removed from innocence that we cannot even look innocently at innocence. I think Gaspar Noé would approve of this message. And that alone makes me uncomfortable.
3. A Cure For Wellness (2016) directed by Gore Verbinski.
It seems a lot of contemporary horror movies are doing their own twist on classic horror themes. In this case, Verbinski reinterprets Frankenstein through what I take to be an computer game aesthetic (I didn’t know Verbinski was a key Director in the Pirates of the Carribean series but it makes sense after seeing this film). A Cure for Wellness, along with his pirate movies, seem to owe a lot to the angles, shots, colours, and contrasts one would see in a computer game rather than what one actually sees when, for example, traveling through the mountains or going to a spa). I don’t like this style very much. Unlike a Director like Yorgos Lanthimos who poses shots like modern art, or Andrei Tarkovsky who is more into Renaissance paintings, or Anna Biller who is a campy period piece set perfectionist, Verbinski wants to use special effects and filters in more gaudy, hyperreal (quintessentially American?) manner. I also thought the storyline didn’t hold up very well and skipped a good chunk of the ending since Verbinski decided that, unlike the original Frankenstein, he had to work a sexual assault scene into the climax to make it really live up to the standard of whatever he was going for (maybe just trying to distance himself from Disney? which I didn’t think he needed to do since he also directed The Ring? who knows? who cares?). Not recommended.
1. Kids for Cash (2014) directed by Robert May.
A few years ago, acouple of judges in the USofA were convicted for making a lot of money handing out severe prison sentences to youth who had committed very minor offenses. They ruined a lot (a lot, a lot) of lives and got very rich doing it. One, I think, was a nearly psychopathic zealot who firmly believed that harsher sentences were going to make the world a better place (although, once his abuses were brought to light he seemed to have trouble understanding where he fit within that world) and the other, I think, was much more of a very intelligent, charismatic narcissist who was manipulative enough to get everyone into the mess and to also come out with a lighter prison sentence. Still, I think the Director gave too much attention to the judges, especially the zealot Mark Ciavarella, and permitted them to frame too much of the narrative and control too much of the content (the other judge, Michael Conahan, it smart enough to be able to manipulate the camera into presenting him in a fairly positive manner and, even though those involved in the prosecution seem to think of him more as the ringleader, he doesn’t get nearly the critical attention that Ciaverella – who, admittedly, is much more of an obvious, straight up, fucking asshole – gets). I think May would have done better to focus more on the children and their loved ones, who went through the courts. And so, although I had pretty high expectations for this documentary, it didn’t meet them.
2. Kedi (2017) directed by Ceyda Torun.
This is a documentary about half a dozen of the hundreds of stray cats living in Istanbul. It’s like watching a 90 minute hi-def cat video with spectacular backgrounds on youtube. Needless to say, Jess loved it. Some of the cat lovers also came across as lovely people. It made me think I should go to Istanbul before the city is completely transformed by gentrification but I suspect it’s already too late.
3. All These Sleepless Nights (2016) directed by Michal Marzak.
Marzak understands that the only way to tell a truth is by lying and that documentaries are fictions, like mathematical equations painted on the side of a building or like a novel by Sebald. This does not mean that they are untrue but it does mean that truth is surreal and that some lies come honestly. It makes sense, then, the the protagonists wander through the streets of Warsaw at night in a dreamlike state, searching for something they don’t know and can’t find but whose absence they feel in the midst of the drugs, and loneliness, and euphoria.
Part of what makes All These Sleepless Nights great for a North American viewer is the way in which it blends the exotic with the universal. Post-communist Warsaw is a very different world than North American urban centres (although I’m sure that is all changing as we speak), but the existential struggles, conversations, triumphs, and losses of the protagonists are all familiar to any who have wandered the streets smoking and drinking and fighting and fucking and watching the moon and then the sun rise. It reminded me of nights I had forgotten and I felt, once more, the romance of the kind of self-destruction practiced by those who refuse or cannot live the day-to-day life of of mortgages and bullshit jobs. Every self-immolation is both tragic and glorious.
It’s not surprising that a lot of reviewers have compared Marzak’s work to Malick – “the greatest movie Malick never made” and so on. However, whereas after The Tree of Life, a lot of Malick’s work has started feeling derivative and forced, All These Sleepless Nights feels authentic. Authentic is not a word I use often or easily (especially in relation to something like a documentary) but what I mean is that, even if it is surreal, it feels honest and unforced. This may speak to Marzak’s editing talent, but observing that the film is Polish may contribute to a North American viewer feeling that way about it. I’m not sure one could create the same sort of feeling with an English film set in more familiar (to us) environs. Be that as it may, I enjoyed the film quite a lot and (as it is on Netflix at the moment), I would be keen to hear what others think after viewing it.
4. The Memory of Justice (1976) directed by Marcel Ophuls.
I persist in thinking that the films of Marcel Ophuls are the most relevant films for our time. They are long (consistently running 4.5hrs apiece) but they are worth watching if you can find them. In The Memory of Justice, Ophuls examines the Nuremburg Trials and makes comparisons to what the Americans were doing in Vietnam as well as what the French did in Algeria. However, the focus remains mostly upon Germany and, specifically, how people can (or much more commonly) cannot cope with notions of collective guilt and responsibility. Germans in their early twenties struggle to understand how their parents could have participated in the Nazi regime and even as they condemn their parents inability to resist they still find ways to excuse themselves or Germany as a whole of culpability. The are keen to assign the past to the past and start themselves off with a clean slate.
I have been thinking a great deal about this refusal or inability of people to accept guilt or responsibility for actions not committed by their own hands, which is essentially a refusal of any kind of corporate identity. I have been thinking about it, in part, because I believe that refusal played a large role in the rise of Hitler after WWI and the imposition of the Treaty of Versailles on the Germans. Many Germans felt condemned by victors and assigned a level of guilt (and punishment) that they considered unreasonable but they had been defeated and so they accepted it begrudingly. Then Hitler came and spoke (multiple times) about the need to “make Germany great again” and told the Germans that, not only were they not guilty, but they were a chosen people and that Jewish financiers were to blame and so forth. We all know how that played out.
I think this is a common pattern. I think we see it playing out right now with white people in the USofA. After the Black Lives Matter movement has brought an emphatic new awareness to the ongoing presence of violence directed at racialized members of the population in the USofA, after an increasing awareness of the new Jim Crow and the increasing recognition that the bleached out and pacified memory of the Civil Rights Movement is a lie, white Americans, rather than acknowledging their corporate guilt and working towards restitution and justice, have doubled down on their whiteness and violence when presented with a saviour who says he will “make America great again.”
But things are not so different in Canada where settlers and people of European descent occupy territories stolen from Indigenous peoples who continue to face genocidal policies and laws. These settlers and colonists also refuse to recognize their culpability and complicity and are quick to blame and dehumanize Indigenous peoples while also rushing to proclaim their pride in their Canadian identity.
And, of course, the rich are not different when it comes to discussions of wealth. Just as one of the young Germans talks about the Nazi period as a “skeleton in the cellar” which is just not mentioned in polite society, in part because people are unable to face it, so also the wealthy consider it improper to have anything close to a public conversation about the soources of their wealth or the ethics of wealth accumulation (this is well illustrated in the documentary Born Rich which you can watch here).
The rich cannot discuss the sources of their wealth, settlers cannot discuss the dispossession and genocide which permits them to persist, white people cannot acknowledge their ongoing racism, just like most Germans refused to take responsibility or be held accountable for the actions of most other Germans and the result of this is always, always, always violence and death on a massive scale.
My question, then, is this (given that all these people of whom I speak are my people and I am one of my people and I must take responsibility for my people and myself): how might one go about opening a space for people to acknowledge their guilt, culpability, responsibility and participation in such things as mass theft, war crimes, and genocide in order to stop these things from persisting? What rituals, what ceremonies, what memories, what discourses can we appeal to that might open up the door for this?
Some may wish to argue that an inability to acknowledge these things is a symptom of living in a secular age where religious rituals that made room for things like confession have been left behind but I’m not so sure this is the case. Christianity, after all, has gone hand-in-hand with every single type of violence I have mentioned in this review. And Christian confession all too often is a tool used by abusers that permits them to continue to be abusers while simultaneously feeling as if they are not. So, it is not so much confession I am after as repentance understood in the proper Greek sense (the word “repentance” comes from the Greek work metanoia which refers to a changing of ways; it is an action word referring to a dramatic shift in one’s entire way of life rather than simply feeling bad about something), although, of course, repentance is often premised upon some kind of acknowledgement, awakening, or confession. Sadly, I cannot think of anything that will bring this about. And if that’s the case, then Dessalines shows us the way forward. Woe, then, to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. And woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. And woe to you who are laughing now for you will mourn and weep.