I closed out 2018 by knocking off several lingering texts and films and so there are a few more reviews than usual this month. Some pretty decent ones though (if I say so myself). Here’s what caught my eye: 12 Books (Popul Vuh; Madness and Modernism; Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini; Aspirational Fascism; How the World Swung to the Right; Gore Capitalism; Re-Enchanting the World; All About Love; The Invention of Morel; Signs Preceding the End of the World; Open City; and The Pure and the Impure); 8 Movies (Roma; A Gentle Creature; I Am Not a Witch; Mandy; Annihilation; Bird Box; The Lodgers; and Thelma and Louise); 4 Documentaries (Shoah; The Last of the Unjust; The American Meme; and Shirkers).
1. Popol Vuh: The Sacred Book of the Ancient Quiché Maya. English Version by Delia Goetz and Sylvanus G. Morley (from the translation of Adrián Recinos).
The ideology of divinely sanctioned violent conquest seems much more integral to Indigenous nations on the tail end of Turtle Island than to those further north. Reading the Popol Vuh (i.e., The Book of the Community) felt more like reading the Aeneid or the Bible or the Qur’an than it felt like reading teachings from the Indigenous peoples colonized by my nation. That said, there are some points where Goetz’s and Morley’s translation seems to facilitate this in unfair ways. For example, the original text appears to speak equally of divine creators as both masculine and feminine, and to equally emphasize the founding importance of both grandmothers and grandfathers. This is noted in an early footnote but then the translators regularly shorten these references and use the gendered term “Forefathers” as an umbrella term that eliminates the feminine. So, on this point, is seems the Mayans are closer to others on Turtle Island who developed non-patriarchal modes of structuring life together, and the translation is to blame for obfuscating this.
That said, creation narratives are fraught with meanings that often do not come through on a first reading but require multiple careful re-readings, study, and explanation from those who are invested in them. I found it quite interesting that the Popol Vuh spends considerable time talking about the lives of those who came before humanity, even if the significance of all that, and how it influences the Mayan social imaginary, is not immediately apparent to me (perhaps, among other things, it helps to mitigate against anthropocenricism?). I also thought it was fun how humanity is only successfully created after three tries (people made from earth/mud are too easily dissolved by water; people made from wood don’t provide sufficient attention to the gods; only people made of corn end up being just right).
Anyway, although a few pages were as dull as sections from pretty much any sacred text (lists of names… blah…), I found this to be an enjoyable read.
2. Madness and Modernism: Insanity in the Light of Modern Art, Literature, and Thought by Louis A. Sass.
I remember when I was in high school and I had read all the books I knew were good books (I discovered classic literature because my dad had a series of “Classic Comics” which were based on the great European novels and once I realized this, I went and read the novels themselves), I found myself thinking: “there are a lot of books out there – how can I know where to turn to in order to find another book I will like?” One of the ways I have solved this problem is by paying attention to bibliographies and books or authors mentioned in books that I really enjoy. So, when I saw that Iaian McGilchrist had dedicated The Master and His Emissary to Louis Sass, I thought, “Ima read me some Louis Sass.” I’m glad I did. Sass is brilliant and the ways in which he links key elements of modernism to key symptoms of schizophrenia is totally fascinating. By the end of the work, it is clear that there are striking parallels between the two. What is less clear, and what Sass leaves it to the reader to determine, is how we are to evaluate these parallels, their development, and the trajectory they establish.
McGilchrist tries to develop Sass’s work in three ways. First, he tries to give a neurological basis for Sass’s analysis by arguing that modernism (which also includes postmodernism) helps to develop and then perpetuate a self-reinforcing feedback loop that favours the dominance of the left hemisphere of the brain and that neglects the perspective of the right hemisphere. Second, McGilchrist tries to extent this analysis back through the history of civilization (with fairly mixed results, in my opinion). Third, McGilchrist suggests that we can conclude that the trajectory of modernism is worrisome because of the way it fractures our understanding of the world, adopts a strictly utilitarian perspective, and lacks empathy (among other things).
This then reinforces Roger Griffin’s work, Modernism and Fascism, which intimately links the rise of fascism to key elements in the development of modernism. It seems to me, if there is a political ideology that fits with the schizophrenic symptoms Sass explores, and the left hemisphere dominance McGilchrist examines, it is to be found at the nexus between fascism and capitalism. This, then, helps to explain the resurgence of fascism we are experiencing today, especially in the territories occupied by the USofA.
That said, there are two provisos I want to add in relation to this resurgence: (1) at the end of WWII, the USofA took a number of prominent fascist figures – from aeronautical engineers to Klaus Barbie, the Butcher of Lyon – and used them to their own imperialistic ends, so Nazis and Nazism have been a part of the USofA for a long time (and, really, McCarthyism was just another version of Hitler’s fear of the bestial Asiatic Slavs and their poisonous Jewish-Bolshevik ideology, which is why so many Nazis who joined the USofA saw themselves as simply continuing the same war they were already fighting); and (2) the USofA has spent many years funding neo-Nazi or fascist groups in both Europe and South America in order to undermine their enemies and because they found them to be willing friends. Consequently, it could be argued that this resurgence may be less a resurgence and more of an unveiling – and apocalypse, in the proper sense of that word.
This takes us rather far afield from Sass, who focus much more on modern arts and literature, but I think it fits. Sass is recommended reading.
3. Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini: Totalitarianism in the Twentieth Century by Bruce E. Pauley.
In my readings about fascism, totalitarianism, communism, and what not, I have tended to favour scholars and sources quite far to the Left. I have generally found mainstream liberals to be uninspiring, deficient, or highly problematical in their analyses and proposed solutions. This has been especially the case in liberal responses to contemporary anti-fascists whom, liberals have claimed, are indistinguishable from the fascists because of their willingness to violate the Law’s exclusive claim to violence and because of their willingness to exclude fascists from public discourse or other public spaces (hence, for example, the recent story of an American university telling students to take down a sign that said “Fuck Nazis, you are not welcome here,” because it violated the school’s policy about inclusion). However, for all their solidarity with current fascists, liberals have never spoken highly of Hitler and so I thought I might see what I could learn by looking at some of their studies of fascism earlier in the twentieth century.
I found Bruce Pauley’s book to be a fairly basic primer about the regimes of Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini. I most appreciated the sections on Mussolini because: (a) the origins of Fascism proper (with a capital “F”) are found with him; and (b) I knew the least about Mussolini going into this text. That’s all well and good, but if this is a study of totalitarianism in the twentieth century, then I feel like a whole lot was neglected – especially the complicity of both democratic liberals and democratic conservatives in the development of the Chicago school of economics, its imposition on several nations, and the ways this developed in the a globalized neoliberalism under the regime of capital. In fact, at times it seemed that Pauley was reveling in how different (and cruel! and brutal!) Nazism, and Fascism, and Stalinism were, in order to other them and celebrate the fact that liberal democracies and free markets are nothing (nothing at all!) like them. I think he is mistaken about that. So, yes, this is a decent start at understanding some forms of totalitarianism that existed in the twentieth century but it is inadequate because it is blind to the form that won.
4. Aspirational Fascism: The Struggle for Multifaceted Democracy under Trumpism by William E. Connolly.
As the title makes clear, this is another liberal source I picked up this month, this time hoping for a more detailed analysis of Trumpism and its relationship to fascism. Of all the books I read this month, this one was probably the most disappointing. I felt like I didn’t glean anything from it that I hadn’t already picked up from reading various online articles on this topic. I also thought that Connolly’s proposed solution to aspirational fascism – like celebrate diversity and vote and stuff – seemed naïve and not super helpful. This was also my frustration with Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything. She constantly falls back on the need for government to do stuff differently and, yo, of course it would be really great if governments did things differently but they’re not about to change and our prior efforts to change them haven’t been hugely successful so what do we do in that situation? Neither Klein nor Connolly have much to offer in that regard (and I say this as a huge fan of the analysis Klein does in The Shock Doctrine and, to a lesser extent although it influenced me a lot at the time, No Logo, so I feel Klein, unlike Connolly perhaps, should know better). I’d give this one a pass and just google Trump and fascism and see where you end up.
5. How the World Swung to the Right: Fifty Years of Counterrevolutions by François Cusset.
Funny story about this book: when it was delivered to my house, someone swiped the package out of my mailbox. Then, after opening it, they decided it was of no value to them (it contained this book by Cusset and Gore Capitalism by Valencia). Consequently, they stuffed the opened package into someone else’s mailbox and, because my phone number was on the package, the person at that house called me to say they had my mail (a Christmas miracle!). However, she said she had looked at what was in the package and had actually started reading this book because she could tell, so she said, that I must be super Conservative like her if I was reading stuff like this! I thought it was amusing to play along with this idea (plus I wanted the books back!) and so we spent some time talking about
our her favourite Conservative American radio pundits. I then went and picked up the package and promptly read this book.
It’s a good but quick overview of the development of the political alt- or far-Right in the Occident over the last fifty years. I do wish it had a bit more of a detailed analysis of some of the provisos I mentioned above in relation to the resurgence of fascism today (and, on that note, how feedback loops between funding fascist groups in the East and South and the occupied Palestinian territories now seems to have bounced back to the USofA as fascist groups in the Ukraine, for example, have been training fascist militia members from the States). However, what I especially appreciated about Cusset’s analysis is his attention to the financial crisis of 2008, the ways in which governments plundered people and the commons to bailout the banks, and the ongoing impact this has had in Europe (and, to a lesser extent in Cusset’s analysis, across Turtle Island). Also essential to this was Cusset’s exposition of how the so-called Liberal Left was critical to hammering through the transformations that ended up fueling the rage, cynicism, and hopelessness of those who then lined up to join the alt-Right (i.e., if it takes a Nixon to go to China, it takes a Clinton to smash welfare supports for single moms).
Within this text, I appreciate Cusset’s attention to the white working poor (and lower middleclass who are rapidly joining the ranks of the poor). However, I think there are two things that need to be said about this. First, white folks living in poverty have also frequently joined the radical Left instead of the reactionary Right – from the Battle of Blair Mountain to the contemporary Redneck Revolt network, we see that poverty and whiteness need not result in white supremacy, disaster capitalism, and fascism. Second, while a lot of people who voted for Trump were white and poor, a lot of white and rich and powerful people (including the majority of white women from all classes) also supported Trump. I wonder how much white Liberals who criticize poor whites are simply exhibiting their class bias and trying to virtue-signal and say, “we’re not like those whites over there!” (even as they then go on to support decreases in affordable housing, increases in police budgets, and the incarceration of people who punch Nazis). All in all, I thought Cusset’s book was good but had some notable gaps.
6. Gore Capitalism by Sayak Valencia.
Valencia is a really big fan of neologisms. On almost every page of this book, there is at least one word that Valencia has made up (although she very carefully explains what they all mean to the reader). I’ve always been inclined to view writers who love neologisms, especially in the domain of philosophy or social theory, to be writers who feel insecure and want to look really smart. Nine times out of ten, there is a way of communicating exactly the same point with simpler language. Of course, that an exceptional one of ten times exists (say, for example, in the writings of Heidegger who truly was a genius and so who struggled to shape the language he had received to convey concepts that language was not crafted to communicate), should not make any given theorist believe that they are the exception. This is why I mostly (but not always!) avoid neologisms or other five dollar words. It can be fun, and can make you feel good about yourself, but it’s kind of ostentatious and really limits your audience (most likely to other people who want to appear smart rather than people who want to actually do anything about anything). However, Valencia uses neologisms for a very different reason (which she mentions about three quarters of the way through this short book). According to Valencia, the world is fucked. Like really fucked (she can’t even drive down the road in Tijuana without seeing a decapitated and de-limbed human torso burst out of a garbage bag that falls out of the pickup truck in front of her). In this world, old discourses, concepts, and words, cannot be an avenue to liberation. Thus, because words make worlds, we need to find new ways of speaking if we are to find new ways of living. So, yeah, I can respect what Valencia is trying to do, even though I question its premises (in general, I think that theorists and other word-smiths give too much importance to language… but it’s hard not to when it’s your bread and butter).
Valencia uses the terms “gore capitalism” to describe the form of politics (understanding “politics” as an umbrella term used to refer to the comprehensive way in which we go about sharing life together with others) that has arisen in border spaces that exist between the wealthy and the dispossessed, or the West and the rest. Tijuana, which exists at the border between Mexico and the territories occupied by the USofA, and which is also Valencia’s home town, is taken as a paradigmatic example. Valencia notes that the dominant discourse of capitalism – which treats anyone from Tijuana as disposable, as Agamben’s homo sacer, as those who are living although left for dead and given over to death – and Lefty celebrations of liminal spaces – as fundamentally creative interstitial spaces where traditional hierarchies cannot operate with the same force, thereby open the door for a new politics of liberation practiced by the rhizomatic multitude – are both misplaced and neglect the gore capitalism that forms and gives rise to “endriago subjects” who are both excluded by capitalism and enamoured by what capitalism claims to offer, and who come to embody and practice an economics rooted in hyper-masculine uber-violence (as demonstrated in very brutal and very public cartel killings and the masses graves of murdered women that surround border towns). Within this context, violence itself has become a commodity. And, given that borders are porous, and given that the roads between centres and margins are never one way, this gore capitalism influences mainstream capitalism, even as it is, itself, a response to mainstream capitalism. Like everything else, it exists within a feedback loop and the longer the loop persists, the stronger it becomes. Hence, Valencia’s desire to find new ways of thinking and speaking so that we can rupture this loop and begin to find ways of doing politics that are not dominated by Death but which, instead, serve Life. As such, despite its wordiness and its tightly woven argument, Gore Capitalism is a cry from her heart to anyone who will not only listen but act.
7. Re-Enchanting the World: Feminism and the Politics of the Commons by Silvia Federici.
This being the third text by Federici that I’ve read in the last twelve months, I think it’s fair to say that I’ve turned into a bit of a Federici groupie (this was also one of the texts we are looking at in the Feminism for the 99% reading group I’ve joined—next up, Social Reproduction Theory edited by Tithi Bhattacharya). To me, Federici demonstrates all that is best about the unapologetic and boldly Marxist stream of feminist scholarship. She reminds me of how I felt when I first become fascinated with political theory. That said, I personally sometimes struggle with books that are series of short, semi-connected essays (I recognize that many others prefer this kind of text, but I’ve always been a sucker for longer, more sustained works). The essays examine e ways in which the globalization of neoliberal capitalism is leading to new enclosures of the commons which tend to target women in the golbal South because women tend to be at the front-lines of alternative politics that express different visions of what it means to share life together. My favourite essay in the book is “Re-enchanting the World: Technology, the Body, and the Construction of the Commons.” In it, Federici argues against the seductive appeal of technology and urges us to engage in a re-sacralization of the world so that we can recover both a sense of our interconnectedness and an idea of what we are losing in our current fractured political economy. All in all, a decent collection of essays but, if you haven’t read her magnum opus Caliban and the Witch yet, read it already!
8. All About Love: New Visions by bell hooks.
I have been a fan of bell hooks for quite some time. The Will to Change is one of the best books I have read about masculinity and gender (and this analysis, as in all of her work, is always informed by matters related to race and class). In this intimate and tender reflection on love, hooks made me think of what Henri Nouwen might sound like if he had developed an intersectional lens (which, alas, he never really did, even after spending time with liberation theologians in Latin America). Of course, as hooks recognizes, love is a difficult think to define – the language of love is used in many competing, contradicting, and overlapping ways – and so, drawing on the work of Erich Fromm, she settles on the following definition: “[love is] the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.” Now, I understand hooks’s motivation in deploying this definition – she wants love to be more than a feeling, the one we all get when we say we have “fallen in love,” and she wants a concrete definition that relates to how we act towards ourselves and others – but I still found it surprising. It surprised me because it seems like exactly the kind of definition that many abusive Christian patriarchs have embraced. The problem is that the notion of what it means to “extend one’s self” and the notion of what “spiritual growth” entails, are both far too vague. Thus, the man who beats his child can say both that, “this hurts me more than it hurts you” (this is the extending of the self) and “I beat you because I love you” (this is the commitment to the child’s spiritual growth). But this is total bullshit. Of course, hooks would be totally appalled by this application of her definition, and I enjoyed most of what she subsequently had to say about love (the stuff about angels and god being the exception to that), so the definition doesn’t drag down the rest of the work. It does have me thinking about my own definition of love. I’m not immediately convinced that such definitions are desirable or attainable but I’ll see if I come up with anything.
9. The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares.
There are some reviewers you learn to distrust. I think the NYRB is fairly unreliable (I think it mostly wants to sell books – so if a review from there catches me eye, I look to see if reviewers from other sources are saying similar things) and I suspect that Žižek revels in writing absurdly glowing reviews for every single book placed in front of him (not every book he has read can be the best book he has ever read…), but Louis Sass spent some time talking about this book and his analysis captured my interest. Then I discovered that Borges had described it as perfect, and I was sold. So, what is The Invention of Morel? It is something akin to a classic adventure novel, with post-gothic technological elements (the title is a play on Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Island of Doctor Moreau and the similarities between the two texts do not stop there). It is like a Borgesian precursor to cyberpunk (before the internet), and it is very, very clever. It reminded me of Infinite Jest because I suspect you could keep reading it on an endless loop, but it is as though Casares was able to take all the smarts David Foster Wallace needed 1,000+ pages and 388 endnotes to develop, and was able to compress it into 100 pages. That’s quite the feat. The Invention of Morel is the best novel I have read in this genre. Strictly in terms of plot, I agree with Borges’s conclusion.
10. Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera.
Signs Preceding the End of the World is, however, the best short novel I read this month and perhaps the best short novel I have ever read. It is astonishingly good. Yuri Herrera’s voice – and Lisa Dillman’s award-winning translation thereof – struck me like a song I have never heard but always loved. No word is out of place and the story grips you and does not let you go from the very beginning to the very end. Looks like I have found the first author I will read obsessively in 2019. Very highly recommended.
11. Open City by Teju Cole.
It was very interesting to read Teju Cole’s award-winning book because, after my own blitz through the works of Sebald, I had contemplated writing a very similar project about a melancholic walker whose foray into the little known histories of the places he visits ends up shedding a new light on larger historical themes and the surprising points of contact and overlap and influence that exist between nowhere and somewhere, the particular and the universal, the beautiful and the devastating. Only, whereas Cole uses New York, Belgium, and Nigeria as his locations, I intended to use London (Canada), Iceland, and the nations where the Royal Canadian Regiment(which is based in London) fought and killed and waged peace. I would still like to finish the project. In light of this, reading Cole was both pleasurable and instructive. It’s a good book. Not quite up to Sebald’s standard but, then again, who is?
12. The Pure and the Impure by Colette.
I found myself reading Colette for two reasons. First, because I was curious about her life and she claimed this text was the most autobiographical of her work. Second, although I did not find her presentation of the themes of sexuality, deviance, power, and gender performances to be particularly striking (in part, I suspect, because the text was so heavily edited given the time in which she was writing), every now and then Colette writes a really well put together sentence. I found myself turning pages looking for those sentences. I’m not sure if there were enough of them to make me recommend the book to others, but I’m still glad I checked her out.
1. Roma (2018) directed by Alfonso Cuarón.
I came to Alfonso Cuarón’s latest film as a fan. I thought Children of Men was a clear-sighted vision of the world that was just around the corner and I thought a lot of the praise for Y Tu Mama También was well-deserved (although the technical prowess and acting chops demonstrated in Gravity weren’t enough to make it float my boat). So, yes, when also paired with the high praise from the critics, I came to Roma feeling quite excited and, yes, it is a beautiful film—a piece of art. The acting is superb (so much so that, unless you’re paying close attention, I doubt you will notice the absence of a score). At times I forgot that I wasn’t watching a documentary.
Of course, criticism arising from the Left about the class-biases involved in this fairly autobiographical story about the servant of a wealth Mexican family in the ‘70s, are mostly on point. There is no doubt that the fairy tale of the “servant who is really a part of the family and is loved like family and finds her fulfillment and belonging there” needs to be deconstructed by accounts that arise from those who have actually done that kind of work. In this regard, I feel that Roma pairs really well with Lauren Greenfield’s The Queen of Versailles. But, even more than countering it with another film, I think it would be best for people to heed the voices ofmigrant workers who advocate for themselves and other migrant workers.
That said, I still think there is room for a more subtle reading of the protagonist, Cleo. That is to say, Cuarón may wish to present Cleo as fully incorporated into the family but the way in which Cleo is played my undercut a completely critical reading. For example, when Cleo discovers that she is pregnant (presumably because of the casual boyfriend she recently acquired), she undergoes a medical exam and the doctor asks her how many sexual partners she has had. Cleo doesn’t answer the question, and so the Doctor asks/states that she thinks Cleo has only had one sexual partner. Cleo does not object to this, but she does not quite fully verify this either. One the one hand, it is possible to see this as an expression of Cleo’s general reticence to speak about personal matters, especially with authority figures. However, knowing how widespread sexual abuse is in domestic services (and the laws governing these services, at least in Canada, are designed to facilitate this abuse; thus, for example, a foreign domestic worker must receive a positive reference from her employer if she makes it long enough to become eligible to apply for citizenship), and knowing that the husband of the household Cleo serves is something of a playboy (abandoning his family for his younger lover), I was left thinking that Cleo may have remained silent because, in fact, the husband could also be the father of the baby. Of course, there is nothing that happens later in the film that would verify this interpretation and it is just assumed that the (now absent) boyfriend is the father. But still, I can’t help but wonder. The same ambiguity applies to the blank slate Cleo generally presents when it comes to discussions about the colonization of her land, the (further) impoverishment of her family, and the advance of the capitalist class in Mexico. What exactly does Cleo think about these things? It’s really hard to say and I feel that Yalitza Aparicio’s presentation of Cleo is fraught with a subtle ambiguity that may actually subvert Caurón’s classism. Indeed, in relation to this point, even if Cleo is caught up, to some extent, in the fairy tale of belonging to the family of her bosses as a member of the family, what young person far from home and surrounded by people who are both wealthy and charismatic would not feel this temptation (again, see The Queen of Versailles for more on that)? What, I wonder, would Cleo think of it all ten years from now? Twenty years from now?
Thus, even in light of Caurón’s obvious mastery of his medium, I think it is Yalitza Aparicio’s performance that really makes this film exceptional. She is the reason I keep thinking about it.
2. A Gentle Creature (2017) directed by Sergei Loznitsa.
A stunning presentation, with a series of perfectly staged vignettes that effortlessly move between those in the background and the heroine in the foreground, as it builds a world that is fantastically mundane, dreadfully funny, and utterly devastating. I watched the first two hours with my mouth agape, feeling transported to Russia (even if the film wasn’t shot there!), but the last ten minutes punched me in the stomach and left me gutted for days. I do want to be clear – the final ten minutes are extremely violent and difficult to watch. For this reason, I find it impossible to recommend this film. Watch at your own risk. But, having said that, I think it’s genius and I immediately looked up every other film Loznitsa has made and added them to my “to watch” list.
3. I Am Not a Witch (2017) directed by Rungano Nyoni.
Given that I both intended to watch more African films this year and that I spent some time in December reading Silvia Federici’s essays about the use of witch-hunting in Africa (witches there, after all, only existed as a thing after the coming of Christianity, capitalism, and colonialism), this film seemed like a great way to wrap of the year. I think Rungano Nyoni does a good job of connecting the phenomenon of witches with the spread of colonialism, Christianity, and capitalism (the holy Trinity of our world). This is shown more than it is preached from a pulpit (as such, I think reading Federici helped me to identify persistent environmental elements that I might have overlooked otherwise). Nyoni shoots a masterful film of another world or, rather, of a place where multiple worlds are overlapping leading to new arrangements of the exploiter and the exploited (even if things like the class and gender of both parties remain mostly constant). I enjoyed it a lot and the ending made me laugh out loud.
4. Mandy (2018) directed by Panos Cosmatos.
Woh. Wooooooh. WOOOOOOOH. This is one heckuva film. It’s Heavy Metal meets Carl Sagan on acid and Nicolas Cage pulling of one of his best performances since Leaving Las Vegas (and if Jóhann Jóhannsson hadn’t crafted the perfect soundtrack, I imagine Danny Carey would have been all over it). Mandy has all the stunning visuals that Cosmatos showed off in Beyond the Black Rainbow, but it also has a more coherent story line (Beyond the Black Rainbow was too fractured for me to be able to completely enjoy it). So, despite the violence (and it gets hella violent), I think this is a superior work. Watching it, I am reminded of an old Garfield comic, where Garfield finds a pair of glasses, puts them on, sees an utterly strange (but still recognizable) world, and concludes the glasses belong to Picasso. Watching Cosmatos’s movies, I feel I am getting a glimpse of what it is to see the world through truly Other eyes. It is hard not to be hypnotized by that experience, no matter what it reveals.
A lot of critics have talked about how Cosmatos’s vision and Cage’s performance as Red propel this movie beyond a standard horror-revenge film and turn it into a devastating presentation of love and loss. Fair enough. However, when one contrasts Red with Jeremiah, the ring-leader of the murderous Jesus Freak love cult (or whatever you want to call them), I think Cosmatos is saying more about love than that. Red experiences love in his companionship with Mandy. They are a pair and it is together-with-her that he loves, is loved, and is (quite literally) in love. Red doesn’t say a lot, but he knows love. Jeremiah, on the other hand, wanted to sing about love but was rejected and mocked as a musician and so became the founder of his own Christian cult (at least in the way that David Koresh and Jim Jones were leaders of Christian cults). He pursues love through power and possessing others (rather than being together-with others). The violence intrinsic to Jeremiah’s pursuit of love is more obvious, yet when Red loses his love (just as when Jeremiah’s love offering – the one he first made with his music, not the offer he makes to Mandy, which isn’t an offer at all – was spurned) he becomes just as murderous and violent as Jeremiah and his crew. In fact, shortly before Red kills Jeremiah, Red’s voice changes and becomes the same as the voice one is accustomed to hearing from Jeremiah. In an analogy that seems appropriate to this film, it seems that Luke kills Vader in this one.
Where, then, does this leave us when it comes to love? For Cosmatos, it seems that the loss of love (or the spurning of love offered) is not survivable. If it doesn’t kill you, it transforms you into the opposite of what you once were or what you might have been. What then is the solution? A stoic detachment or a war of all against all, where the strong survive and take as they see fit? I mean, shit, this is all starting to smell a lot like toxic masculinity. After all, Mandy loved, too, and she refused to walk away from her love and she laughed in the face of danger… and she died a terrible death. What we come down to is this: men need to learn how to deal with loss and how to deal with rejection. If not, we’re all fucked.
5. Annihilation (2018) directed by Alex Garland.
I can only think of one other occasion when watching a movie prompted me to go and read the book upon which it was based (I have watched many movies based on books I had already read, but prior to Annihilation, it was only Let the Right One In that prompted me to do this). But Annihilation was so creative and tantalizing that it (along with David Driedger’s mention of the books) prompted me to pick up Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy. I’m glad I did. Unlike the novel version of Let the Right One In (a rare instance when the movie is quite a lot better than the book), Vandermeer’s books are drawing me in very quickly. However, the movie also holds up on its own – and I really like how all the lead roles in it are women who are leaders in their scientific fields (and none of them have to take their shirts off in the film – a rarity in this genre, as far as I can tell!). It did leave me with a few unanswered questions that look suspiciously like plot holes (given that Garland has stated that he has no intention of making a sequel), but this are acceptable given that Annihilation is attempting to venture into the domain of the utterly alien and truly unknown that remains (and always will remain), in some ways, alien and unknowable.
While reflecting on this movie with Jess, she suggested that the film is an exploration of the consequences of being unable to face our own deaths (i.e., death anxiety) and how this, paradoxically, leads to a death drive that, while not being explicitly suicidal, is certainly consistently self-destructive. We cannot fathom the idea of our death. Despite the ways we circle around it, despite the ways we witness it take place in the lives of others or at the end of the lives of others (depending on where you situate death and life in relationship to each other), we collectively have an inability to experience death without an alien or unknowable element. And this terrifies us, even as it leads us in. Thus, we study it, we attack it, we throw our best at it, but always we are overcome by it.
And yet, what does Annihilation suggest? Surely, that there is nothing so natural as death. In fact, death is not nearly so fearsome as we believe it to be because to die is to remember what we have forgotten – that we are a part of everything else and that everything else is a part of us. We are connected. We move in and out of one another, in and out of the earth and water, in and out of the plants and animals. Is this not the lesson of the mutations, the transfer of a tattoo from one person to another, the mixing of genetic materials, the bear that cries with the voice of those s/he consumed? Thus, it seems to me, Garland suggests that our fear of death is driven by our hubris and desire to set ourselves apart from and above everything else. For as long as we see ourselves in this way, death will terrify us. Consequently, it comes as no surprise that the one truly suicidal person – the woman who slashed her wrists many times in her past – who does not fear death and who accepts her transformation into a flowering tree that looks like a woman. Good film. Recommended viewing.
6. Bird Box (2018) directed by Susanne Bier.
Susanne Bier, an award winning Danish film director (and once a part of the Dogme 95 circle), moves high on my list of Directors to watch with her production of Bird Box (it doesn’t hurt that her most famous film, After the Wedding, stars Mads Mikklesen).
In many ways, the post-apocalyptic genre has been done to death and whatever comes after that (zombies, nuclear wastelands, climate disasters, aliens…), and yet it doesn’t take much of a twist to bring us back to it. Its cultural relevance and appeal persist in our time. In the case of Bird Box, I think Bier accomplishes the kind of clever twist that John Krasinski was aiming for (but didn’t quite hit) in A Quiet Place. I also greatly admire Bier’s ability to resist the temptation to show the monster-demon-spirits and leave them entirely up to the imagination of the viewer. When it comes to the monstrous, we are almost always more horrified by what we cannot see, by what lurks just out of range on the fringes of our nightmares or our daydreams, than we are by what we can see and which, by being represented, becomes limited and finite and, ultimately, something that can be overcome (of course, this fear of the unseen is only true of imaginary monsters; for people who do monstrous things in real life it is often simply a mundane presence or reminder that triggers the worst terrors).
However, there are two points where Bird Box left me somewhat puzzled. First, why did people not think about deliberately blinding themselves or, at least, their children? I can see pros and cons to this approach but surely it’s the kind of conversation people would have (since they are essentially teaching their kids to go through life blind anyway)? Second, and this one really drives me bonkers – why didn’t Mallory park the boat before the rapids and walk the last two hundred meters down the river along the shore?? Seriously! I thought maybe they stayed in the boat because they had awhile to go downstream but they ditch the boat immediately after the rapids! Then I thought maybe the banks were too steep or something before the rapids, but I watched the scene again and it would have been possible to get out and walk. The only thing rationale I can provide for this nonsense decision (which comes at a climactic moment in the film) is that Mallory is pretty much completely losing it by this point and barely holding on to basic functions. I reckon that’s about the state I would be in.
Anyway, if one was looking to impose a less-literal reading onto Bird Box (as many people have done with theories about race or social media), I reckon it could be read as a metaphor for learning how to be a parent when you never had a parent (or other adult) show you the way. Mallory’s father, from what we can tell, was a total fucking asshole and so, when her child comes along, she goes into parenting completely blind and very scared (she won’t even admit that she is in labour until others force her to do so). Based on her experiences as a child with horrible parents, the world seems fraught with peril and so she doesn’t want to let the kids out of her sight, even though she is also scared to bond with them because, it seems to her, it is only a matter of time before everything goes terribly wrong (and she becomes like her father and her children end up feeling what she felt as a child). And yet, when forced out into the world, Mallory learns two things – kids are resilient and she does not have to be like her father. She can be loving and tender and hopeful. And when these realizations take place the blindfolds are removed and the world is suddenly a much less scary place. How about that, eh?
7. The Lodgers (2017) directed by Brian O’Malley.
A pretty standard haunted house/cursed family type of ghost story with a bit of local and historical flavor thrown in to try and make it distinctive but which really added nothing of significance to the story. The Lodgers was fairly ho-hum.
8. Thelma and Louise (1991) directed by Ridley Scott.
It was interesting to go back and watch an early Ridley Scott film (which also has Brad Pitt’s break-out role – something I had completely forgotten!). I like Susan Sarandon, recalled my high school crush on Geena Davis, and thought Harvey Keitel was decent, even if the characters felt somewhat one dimensional. The question I have been asking myself since watching the film is how much it fits the hype it received as an empowering or liberating angle on women and where they are situated in American society. On the one hand, sure, both the leads are strong women and, yes, both of them are initially oppressed by, on the one hand, a bullshit job that falls far below their talents and abilities and, on the other hand, an abusive and controlling and far more stupid husband. Furthermore, it shows how women who try to liberate themselves from patriarchal constraints are then considered “fair game” by predatory and misogynistic men who are eager to sexually assault women out alone at night. And there is something important about the choice to take the Law into one’s own hands in rejecting these dynamics (the Law, after all exists to serve people and if we get that backwards, and suggest that people exist to serve the Law, all kinds of things go terribly wrong). But, yeah, in their efforts to escape these things Thelma and Louise become more and more trapped, even by those who seem to feel a sincere desire to help them (thanks, saviour men), until the only free option left to them is death. So women can either be dominated by men or be free and dead. I’m not sure that this is a totally liberating message…
1. Shoah (1985) directed by Claude Lanzmann.
It is hard to know how to speak about Claude Lanzmann’s masterpiece. It took me about eighteen months to watch all 9.5 hours of it. Watching it, I felt like a moth circling a flame. I couldn’t go too close because it was burning my wings and I didn’t want to give up flying (if only for the sake of my children), and so I needed to move away from it. But I kept finding myself drawn back. The resurgence of fascism in our context suggests an urgent need to bear witness to all that Lanzmann reveals.
The question I often ask myself is this: when can a person say, “I have seen enough”? I have watched Lanzmann and Ophuls and Resnais. I have read Levi and Wiesenthal and Wiesel. I have looked, I have listened, I have witnessed. I don’t claim to have seen or heard or witnessed it all, I don’t claim to be an expert, but I don’t know how much more I can see or hear or witness. It is awful, awful, awful (and the Shoah is but one element of the holocaust and the holocaust itself, despite what makes it distinct, is but one genocide among countless others), but when the dead cry out and say, “Look! Listen! Do not forget us! Do not forget this! Every one of us! All of this!” then how do the living honour this without also dying? Because part of the horror of all of this is the ways in which the sacredness of each person was annihilated, mocked, and destroyed. But how do the living journey with not only the dead but the murdered, the butchered, those who were slaughtered en masse, in a way that does not annihilate the life that remains in the living? I have long struggled with questions like these. I am not sure if they have easy answers. So I stumble and jolt and approach and withdraw in fits and starts and, over the years, I have learned to accept that, although this is not enough, I can accept that I am not enough. I understand and accept that this problematizes what side I am on. And I have learned to be okay with that.
2. The Last of the Unjust (2013) directed by Claude Lanzmann.
Speaking of sides, Claude Lanzmann’s final film, released almost thirty years after Shoah, is a 3.5 hour examination of the person and work of Benjamin Murmelstein, the only Jewish Elder (head of the “model ghetto” at Theresienstadt) to survive the war. Much of this is relayed through interviews and lengthy conversations that Lanzmann had with Murmelstein in Rome in 1975 when he was working on Shoah.
Before being shipped to Theresienstadt, Murmelstein was a leader of the Jews in Vienna and worked very closely with Adolf Eichmann and Eichmann’s efforts to deport the Jews from the (ever expanding) German territories. Eichmann was also very involved with Thersienstadt which was presented, through propaganda films and staged visits with the Red Cross, as a model ghetto where Jews thrived and lived very well, in order to try and deny any claims that were being made about the death camps. So, I found Murmelstein’s rejection of Hannah Arendt’s presentation of Eichmann as a banal paper-pusher who was just following orders (as per Eichmann in Jerusalem) to be quite interesting. This, Murmelstein claims, was not at all who Eichmann was. Who was Eichmann then? Murmelstein practically yells his response: “He was a devil!” And here’s the thing – I don’t think he’s wrong. Evil may be banal but, sometimes, that banality should not make us forget that it is evil. Consequently, negotiating our response to the banality of evil is a more complex things that parties on all sides seem to want to allow. Those who emphasize the banality of evil, tend to humanize evil-doers or challenge our conception of how we frame evil to begin with. Often this is a good thing (given the ways in which people are stigmatized and branded as immoral or terrifying or subhuman simply because they are different or deviant). Lord knows, I have often done this in my own work with groups of people whom society treats as monsters but who, in fact, are far from being anything close to monstrous. This, of course, is the mistake made by those on the other side who emphasize the evilness of evil – they tend to spiral ever deeper into fear and a process of othering those whom they fear in order to justify the use of all kinds of terrible violence against those whom they fear (as the Nazis did with the Jews and the Bolsheviks).
Therefore, we need to emphasize two things. First, that not all things that we call evil are evil and so we must constantly question ourselves when we start thinking in those terms (and if we think we have moved beyond good and evil to a more scientific or objective discourse given that public policy is increasingly shaped by community health concerns, we should remember that the Nazis annihilated the Jews precisely because they were taken to be a community health concern). Secondly, however, we need to accept that evil does remain in the world and, even if it is banal (and it often is), it is still evil. As such, we must fight it in whatever way our context requires. The contemporary resurgence of fascism makes this point especially important. So, if people are now keen to recall Hannah Arendt’s work, we also need to be remembering the work of Georg Elser.
That said, I find it especially interesting that Murmelstein speaks about Eichmann in this way because Murmelstein, himself, narrowly escaped prosecution in Jerusalem because he was viewed as a collaborator with the Germans, a cruel and heartless taskmaster who regularly met the quotas of people to be shipped from Theresienstadt to Auschwitz-Birkenau (whereas his two predecessors were executed because they tried to mess with those quotas – and, it should be noted, Lanzmann never presses Murmelstein on the methods Murmelstein used to select people to fill those quotas since that task was left to him), and who, some claim, only survived the end of the war because he served the Germans so well. In his own defense, Murmelstein points out that Theresienstadt was never wiped out (like the Warsaw ghetto) or emptied for the death camps (like countless other ghettos), and so if helping Nazi propaganda efforts was the price he had to pay in order to save the lives of those in his care, then it was a price Murmelstein was willing to pay. If people thought he was heartless, well, he argues that a surgeon who begins to weep over the plight of the patient on whom he is operating will be no good to the patient and will, in fact, probably end up killing the patient. Of course, Murmelstein downplays the extent of his collaboration and, I think, flat out lies about the extent of what he did or did not know about the death camps but, still, roughly 19,000 Jews from Thersienstadt apart from Murmelstein survived after the end of the war.
Now, as far as I can tell, both presentations of Murmelstein – Murmelstein the Nazi-collaborator who deserves to die and Murmelstein the noble but tragic hero sacrificing his personal purity in order to save as many as he can within a context that severely limits his options – are accurate (and so I sympathize with reviewers who love this film and with reviewers who are enraged by it). Where does one set the bar for measuring guilt and administering justice in cases like this? In a very real way, simply finding a way to survive a situation like the one facing Murmelstein, requires a person to do things they would not otherwise do. To survive, to live, to not do that which will get you killed or which will cause you to die, makes you guilty. This comes through especially strongly in the writings of Primo Levi—one does not survive the Lagers by being kind. To live, therefore, is to accept a level of compromise and a level of guilt. However, I think that many survivors may be guilty but they are not to blame. It is not those interred in the camps who are responsible for creating the situation where they must choose: “either die or be cruel—you have no other option.” So people make their own choices (many die, some live) and they are responsible for their own choices (hence they are guilty) but they are not responsible for the context that forced this choice upon them (hence they are not to blame). This is more obvious the further one goes away from positions with any kind of power. The further away one goes from power, the more one tends to emphasize that people cannot be blamed. The closer one gets to power, the more one tends to emphasize guilt. So, the average person interred in the camp is exonerated. But the position of the Sonderkommando working the ovens is more complicated. And the position of the kapo is more complicated than that. And the position of the Jewish Elder overseeing a ghetto is even more complicated. It’s a bit of a question of where you choose to look from. If you look at Murmelstein from the perspective of a Jew broken by labour and sent to be gassed at Auschwitz then it looks like he sure had a lot of power and deserves to die as a collaborator. But if you look at Murmestein from the perspective of the average German civilian, or even from the perspective of Eichmann, then the difference between Murmelstein and all the others at the Lagers is all but eliminated. He’s just another Tuberculosis Bacillus (to use one of Hitler’s favourite analogies). I think that Murmelstein himself understands this parallax view, which is why he refers to himself as “the last of the unjust.” As for me, it is not for me to judge.
Furthermore, if Agamben is correct in viewing the Lagers as a concentrated representation of the modern Nation-State (and I think there is much that is correct about Agamben’s perspective), then I am hard-pressed to see how survival in our context – especially the survival of members of dominant populations – is not also something that automatically assigns guilt. Massive amounts of death-dealing violence are structured into all the ways we go about structuring our life together. By participating in this life together, even if I attempt to do what I can to serve Life and resist Death, I am guilty. I will always be guilty for as long as I survive (and seek to thrive) here. What I don’t know is how much I am to blame. It is not for me to make that judgment. I cannot possibly have the perspective required to make it. That judgment can only come from those who suffer under the violence that structures our world. Even then, I don’t know if their judgment is accurate, but it feels like the only judgment I can accept.
3. The American Meme (2018) directed by Bert Marcus.
I have spent many years working with youth, I think I’m somewhat in touch with pop (and other) culture, I have some guilty pleasures I really love (like watching reality TV shows), but despite all that, I felt old, old, old while watching The American Meme and thinking, “holy fuck, the world is becoming almost unrecognizable to me.” It’s hard to evaluate what Bert Marcus offers to us in his presentation of people who are famous for being famous, because so much of this world feels alien to me. I mean, sure, some of the people shown here, like Kirill (aka slutwhisperer), are fucking despicable—and I distrust the human-edge Marcus tries to put on Kirill by showing his lonely, suffering side. I mean, as the New York Times learned the hard way, you may present a Nazi in a sympathetic way but a Nazi is still a fucking Nazi. So, yeah, maybe Kirill is sometimes miserable but, as any follow-up research quickly reveals, he’s still a fucking misogynistic rape-apologist (see earlier comments on the banality of evil…). He’s like the white supremacists who try to claim they aren’t racist because they like to fuck black chicks, or like the bros who try to claim they actually really love women (so long as women exist to meet their emotional and physical needs).
But bringing a moral discourse to this world seems like an imposition. This is not to say that the people involved have no values. Clearly, people value fame and wealth and distraction and pleasure and entertainment, but these values are divorced from any kind of concerns that were traditionally classified as “moral.” Not that the people involved are unaware of what we refer to as morals – Kirill emphasizes that the women involved at his events are all doing what they want to do and that he does nothing without their consent (hence, he refers to himself as a feminist who empowers women to live out their fantasies and what not – thus, after giving a girl a champagne facial and dunking her head in the toilet, he is keen to point out her thank you email to him). He also emphasizes that he cannot fall asleep alone unless he is drunk and utterly exhausted because he doesn’t want to be alone with his thoughts. Likewise, The Fat Jew initially tries to hide that he is stealing content from a lot of other people online (he also has no problem given cred to people once he is called out for this but, at this point, it doesn’t affect his brand status). Similarly, Paris Hilton feels incredibly hurt and wronged by those who posted her sex tape online. Morality, it seems, is not so easily banished.
Now, don’t get me wrong here, I’m not a huge fan of a lot of traditional morals and norms. I agree that many of them have been oppressive and violent. However, I do believe that certain moral questions and categories are important. So, if we are in a situation where fame, wealth, pleasure, distraction, and entertainment are what we value most – and if our proximity to these things is also at the core of what forms us as subjects and shapes our sense of self-identity – then I want to ask: why these things and not other things? And why so easily, naturally, or compellingly these things and not others? And why are more people not asking these questions?
Watching The American Meme, I was reminded of some of the young men with whom I have worked. These are young men who were abandoned by their families and literally raised by the streets – many of them were somewhat adopted, or at least had their basic needs met (if we accept Maslow’s hierarchy of needs), by gangs because of their usefulness as drug runners (an eight year old isn’t going to do time if he’s busted with a couple of grams of meth on him… although generally an eight year old isn’t going to be caught carrying meth). But then some of these young men get into their early twenties and they have no idea of which way is up or how to even approach notions like “right” and “wrong” or, given the way they have been abandoned and treated by mainstream society, why notions like that even matter. They kind of try to figure out what’s what but they have been so long without any kind of guide that things frequently go horribly wrong. These are lovely young men… who often end up committing very violent crimes and don’t end up feeling much remorse. They’re not sociopaths or psychopaths (I believe I have only worked with a very few people – far less than most people might imagine – who qualify for those labels), there’s just something they were never given, something like a moral compass, and they don’t know how to find it. The American Meme suggested to me that this has now become a mass phenomenon. Shit. What a time to raise kids.
4. Shirkers (2018) directed by Sandi Tan.
Shirkers fall into the genius-work-of-art-that-almost-was-but-then-wasn’t category of documentary that’s pretty buzzy these days (see also, Jodorowksy’s Dune, that Netflix one about the Polish artist, Szukalski, and They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead/The Other Side of the Wind). The difference here is that it wasn’t any vice on the behalf of the Director, any too expansive vision that was impossible to actualize, or any shortcoming of funding, that ended up killing the project. Here, it was a betrayal. The creepy old white dude, helping the young Singaporean girls film their genius film, steals the whole thing and then ghosts them. Turns out this guy is something of a dream vampire. Given what we’ve long known about Hollywood, but have been vividly reminded of in light of the #metoo movement, this dude seems like a pretty good stand-in for most powerful, old white men in that industry. Or any industry. Or most white men. So, Shirkers is a bit bleak, but it is the present relationships that exist between the girls involved in that project that struck me as the most interesting and subtle element of the film. Fun but, in my opinion, somewhat over-hyped.