Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Funny Games

Are what Austrian director Michael Haneke likes to play. He's a sick fuck. I like that in a filmmaker. That said, Haneke's work is far from gratuitous. Funny Games is no Saw. His latest, Caché is his most infuriating so far. I like that too. I like being thwarted by a film. I like not knowing what's going on. I like not getting what I want. Maybe I'm a masochist. It helps to be a masochist if you intend to watch Haneke's films.

Yes, Haneke is a sick fuck, but there's method to his sickness. He appears to have a very low opinion of the human race, and he would like to punish it. Why does that make my heart sing? I guess I'm a sick fuck too. All I can say is, after watching one of his films, I want to scream I feel you, dog! I guess that makes me as much a misanthrope as Haneke. I consider Humans are an accursed lot a step up, as a moral position, from Those humans over there are an accursed lot, but we are blessed. The latter view, and not the love of money, is the root of all evil. Haneke chucks in the distinction, sketching nasty portraits of the class - the European bourgeois - most likely to cling to it, and sets about kicking their teeth in. It's fun to watch, but only if you like seeing people who richly deserve and are long overdue for a thrashing receive one. I do.

K. and I went to see Caché last night. Afterward we couldn't stop talking about it. It's never easy getting a handle on allegory (usually because the writer isn't sure what he's trying to say) which is why I tend to avoid it, but as we were hunting for the film's hidden meaning, the "real meaning," which we naturally assumed was political (I blame Hollywood for its infantilizing tendencies, yet I desperately seek refuge in the literal!) I remember saying, "It's so fucked up. He accuses this poor guy whose life he ruined of attacking him. Then he fucks his life up some more and all the while acts like he's the aggrieved party. That is so-" We both sort of looked at each other. "Oh... That's what it's about."

Yeah. THAT.

Everything is Connected

Some very interesting questions raised in this New York Times article on Quantum Physics. The key paragraphs:

...Many of those who care to think about these issues (and many prefer not to), concluded that Einstein's presumption of locality - the idea that physically separated objects are really separate - is wrong.

Dr. Albert said, "The experiments show locality is false, end of story." But for others, it is the notion of realism, that things exist independent of being perceived, that must be scuttled. In fact, physicists don't even seem to agree on the definitions of things like "locality" and "realism."

"I would say we have to be careful saying what's real," Dr. Mermin said. "Properties cannot be said to be there until they are revealed by an actual experiment."

Now this is fascinating, a recapitulation among physicists of the whole argument between Berkeley and Hume about whether reality exists outside the act of our perceiving it.

Are scientists suggesting the physical universe sits in reserve, waiting for the moment when we observe it to come into existence? In other words, the question isn't: If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? The question is: Is there a forest at all? Isn't that the meaning of "Properties cannot be said to be there until they are revealed by an actual experiment."

This would answer many of the questions I never received a satisfactory answer to as a child (and later, as a college student) like: What lies beyond the Big Bang? Because if the universe is expanding, there is a limit to the expansion. What lies beyond that limit? Nothing? Are the far reaches of the universe being created as the Big Bang expands into them? Wouldn't that mean that the universe exists and doesn't exist at the same time? How can that be?

It doesn't matter, these experiments suggest, because what doesn't yet exist won't exist until we look for it. Then it will. (Is that what Jesus meant when he said "Seek and you shall find." Was Jesus more than a rabbi? Was he one of the first quantum physicists?)

There's a potential explanation for the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle here as well, although I can't completely grasp it, other than to picture time and space as a single sheet of matter in which we all form constituent, as opposed to discrete, parts. Make sense?

Well, it's like the tagline from the Syriana poster: Everything is connected. Literally.

Saturday, December 24, 2005


K. and I went to see Munich at BAM last night. The house was packed, and we were forced to sit off center left. When I go to the movies, do I enjoy being forced into a seat that mirrors my politics? I do not. Enchanted at a very young age by Ptolemy, whose flawed cosmology placed the earth, and therefore man, at the center of the universe, seduced by the perfect symmetry of Palladio, whose buildings are best appreciated from their central axis, I've got to see a movie from the middle of the middle of theatre. Like Woody Allen in Annie Hall, I've got to see the movie from beginning to end, including credits. Finally, like God, I require silence. The cinema is after all a cathedral projecting our dreams and nightmares. Last night the parishioners' observance was far from golden. The guy behind me verbally close-captioned the movie for his historically challenged companion: "That's Golda Meir." Asshole.

I explained to K. some of the right wing bloggorrhea preceding the movie's release. As we were leaving K., who is Jewish, said, "I don't get it. The movie made everyone look bad." Exactly. People hate that. You want to remain a member in good standing of Team America, you've got to hate all the right people. Politics becomes more like high school with each passing day.

Here is what some people hate: making a Mossad agent look like a cold-blooded killer, even when he's killing in cold blood; making a Palestinian terrorist look (almost) human, even though he is. To the Manichean, good and evil are always pure. When the bad guys make war, it is bloody, cruel and intolerable. When we make war, it's a bake sale. Our warriors - on the right side of God and History - bake cookies and cupcakes. If they have to blow off a few heads now and again, well that's just the icing on the cake.

A quote I will never forget came in response to scattered criticism in the world press of the brutality of the US-led assault on Fallujah. A young Marine (who reminded me a lot of my brother after he returned from the first Gulf War) spoke with canny cynicism and a hint of regret about the things they were called on to do (like Bartelby, they would prefer not to, but that is up to the politicians, whom they universally despise):

What do they think we do? Marines don't shoot rainbows out of our asses. We fucking kill people.

He went on to say that if people had so many qualms, maybe next time they shouldn't rush [into war] so much.

But what I appreciated most was Munich's unflinching portrayal of the cost of violence on the men who perpetrate it, regardless of what side they are on, regardless of how justified the cause. One thing utterly lost on most politicians and pundits, entirely on the media and those members of the public without a relative serving on the front lines, is any sense that American men and women who return from Iraq alive and physically intact are still casualties of war. The psychic cost of killing another human being is one we prefer not to tally.

What is more human than seeing yourself in the the man facing you? It takes a lot of training to get a soldier to set aside his humanity and see another person - even his enemy - as worthy of death. This training, perfected by the military and by intellgence agencies, does irreparable harm, and the men and women who do the killing are well aware of it. One of the saddest scenes in Munich is when Avner finally returns home to Israel and asks his mother if she wants to hear what he did for his country. She says no, and we understand it is as much to spare herself as him. How many times will this scene be played out in the wake of Iraq? Soldiers will return home to loved ones eager to "spare" them any recounting of the horrors they have seen, and those warriors will understand that they are to shut up. We who have been spared do not wish to be infected by the inhumanity of those who have not.

One last thing: all the wingnuttery, the pre-release attempt at a takedown of the movie, has been carried out by people who haven't seen it. (It opened only yesterday.) How are they any different from the mullahs who condemned The Satanic Verses without having read the book? How do you condemn a work of art in advance? Are they that afraid of what the movie might say, what it might make people feel? The critics pay this work greater respect than it perhaps deserves. As Artaud said, The theatre never saved a man from starving so let's not get our panties in a wad (I'm paraphrasing). Still, Munich's critics are right about this: a work of art in its complexity (and yes, ambiguity) offers a picture of the world that mere ideology is powerless to control. It might make us think anything, that revenge is futile, that the cycle of violence must be broken, even though our enemies started it (and they did...didn't they?). So the attempt is made to kill it in its crib. For past successes of this type, see: Moses.

One of my favorite proverbs, from the Middle East as it happens, states: Whoever tells the truth is chased out of nine villages. You'd think Munich's critics would be too busy chasing al-Qaeda out of ninety-nine villages to go after Steven Spielberg, but then again, look what they did when they had Osama trapped in the mountains at Tora Bora. They went after Saddam. At last, their strategy begins to make sense.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Merry Friggin' War on Xmas

Maybe I'm being obtuse, but what's with all the gnashing of teeth over Christmas? I don't care if there is or isn't a war on Christmas, because Christmas is a holiday created by Department Stores to get a bunch of sentimental saps to confound the meaning of the birth of the proto-communist Prince of Peace with an annual consumer orgy, the better to get them to go out and spend their hard-earned money on highly unspiritual, I might even say material possessions, all this in supposed celebration of a guy who thought the best thing you could do with money was give it away to the poor.

And even if you don't buy that, none of it matters anyway, because there's one fact all the nattering nabobs of givitivity forget: Jesus was a JEW! Jesus never owned a fucking Christmas tree! Jesus never celebrated Christmas, and he doesn't care if you do. Hell, Jesus never even celebrated Hannukah. (It hadn't been invented yet.) So will all the eager practioners of Christian self-victimization who are currently too busy wailing about their favorite Jew being taken out of Christmas to get into the proper holiday spirit, will you please shut your pie holes and have yourselves a Merry Little Xmas?

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Good and Evil

In discussing the Iraq situation with a friend recently, I commented that America, in my opinion, was on the brink of moral collapse. (Why be reasonable when one can be dramatic.)

I felt afterward that I owed my friend an explanation of the insidious, unstated philosophy - or more simply put, the attitude - that I personally believe lies behind our current foreign policy, an attitude slowly taking hold of the American mind and endangering us all.

I was immediately reminded of Nietzsche, that acid-tongued lover of aphorism, who famously warned: Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you.

"How could George Bush answer Nietzsche?" I wondered. With all that has happened, all that has been disproved (WMD, an al-Qaeda connection) and proved (torture, the use of white phosphorus as an anti-personnel - aka chemical - weapon), how could our Commander in Chief justify this war? But he's George Bush, so you just know he'd try. Then it came to me:

When we torture and kill we do it for the right reasons. We are good. When they torture and kill they do it for the wrong reasons. They are evil.

I suppose a morally bankrupt individual - a chancre of a man, a malignant tumor in human form - could argue that there is a tissue thin difference between the two and that the former is preferable, but then you'd have to be...well, you'd have to be the President of the United States, or the Vice President of the United States, or the Attorney General of the United States, or the Secretary of Defense. That's what we have come to. That is our position, the final justification for this immoral misadventure measured in human lives. When we kill we do it for the right reasons. We are good. It has about as much chance of succeeding as a moral distinction as the Germans did of reaching Paris during the Battle of the Bulge. (That's a double entendre, for you non-war buffs.)

So my merry thoughts were raging when I came upon Harold Pinter's recent lecture accepting the Nobel Prize in Literature (a prize richly deserved, I might add, with all the authority of a dusty BA in Drama backing me up) and he wiped the floor with my one liner. The theme he descants upon is the same - that of moral distinctions that aren't, particularly ones that happen to favor the US - but he is far more eloquent and far more angry than I - as you might expect from a man who is dying.

Conventional wisdom states that those on the brink of extinction find, at long last, their way to the truth and the courage to speak it without fear of consequences. And there are always consequences. As the Turkish proverb says, Whoever tells the truth is chased out of nine villages. No doubt a certain gun-loving law professor from Tennessee and a certain paranoid, fawning babydaddy from the upper Midwest are even now preparing to attack this ailing genius, but since they have yet to volunteer for the war on which our very existence hinges, according to them, they've not been issued rifles and can only fire digital blanks at their enemies.

Here is what Pinter had to say. Read it and weep.