Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Review of 'Hannah Arendt'

Watching this film reminded me of all the things that I liked, and hated, about reading 'Eichmann in Jerusalem'. The film focuses on the critical response, especially by New York Jews and Israelis, to the book; Arendt has to deal with the fact that lots of people, including some of her close friends, hated the book and thought that she was making excuses for Eichmann.

In that regard, the point she was making seems itself to be a bit banal nowadays. We understand that racism does not require that individual racists hate with a passion; we can conceive of a system that is racist without the necessity for personal hatred. Arendt made the same point about Eichmann; he wasn't a personal anti-semite. Lots of people seem to have misinterpreted this, some of them wilfully.

We also see her making the point about the complicity of some Jewish leaders in helping to facilitate the organisation of the holocaust. In the film this is presented as a personal accusation that she has made; in reality it was observation of what happened at the trial. The book makes unhappy reading for those that want the story of the Holocaust to be a straightforward morality play with evil persecutors and wholly innocent victims. But the historical facts and not really in dispute, only how they should be thought about.

Indeed, much of this had already been raised by the 1954 Kastner trial, which revealed how much Jewish leaders, including Zionist leaders, had been compromised by the decisions they made about who lived and who died. This is very uncomfortable reading for many (if not most) Jews, who would rather just not think about this. Part of the negative reaction to Arendt, and then to the various anti-Zionists writers like Jim Allen who brought this up as part of a critique of Zionism, is down to this.

Not all, mind; there is a degree of moral sadism in the way that anti-Zionists raise the issue in the wilful absence of an understanding of the context, as if the Jewish or Zionist leaders in question made these awful decisions in comfort. It is almost as if they want to make some sort of equivalence between the responsibility of the Jewish leaders and the responsibility of the Nazis.

Arendt, to her credit, never did that, and the film makes this point very eloquently, not least in the set-piece lecture at the university, where a young female student asks her about this. But what is doesn't do is to highlight the tone of the book, especially the earlier parts, where Arendt writes with distaste about the histrionics of the trial; why are the Israelis allowing witnesses to testify about their experiences of the Holocaust when this can have no bearing on the guilt or innocence of Eichmann as an individual? That bit of the book really stank for me, and the film doesn't seem to notice that it happened.

The film does convey that Arendt was part of a small elite of very German Jews, who felt themselves to be part of the great sweep of German culture. It doesn't explain that most Jews in the West, and in Israel, are not part of that small band.

Review of 'Boyhood'

A nice-ish coming of age sort of film...a bit shapeless, and sort of long, really, like real life. The remarkable thing is that the film-makers managed to get the actors, including the main actor (the eponymous boy) to stay with the project while the character aged from 8 to 18. Other than that nothing very exciting happens; the mom gets divorced a few times, moves in with some crap men and then moves out again, the boy does some alcohol and some weed. Normal life. Watchable, but not especially moving; it ends with the boy just going off to college and meeting his room-mate and next girlfriend.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Review of 'The Wind Rises'

A film that is both beautiful and a bit vacuous, like the central character – the real-life aeronautical engineer Jiro Horikoshi, who spent his life designing military aircraft even though, at least in the film, he is portrayed as unenthusiastic about the military aspects of aviation. But this doesn't translate into much of a conflict; he just gets on with it, though he is occasionally wistful about making weapons of mass destruction.

It's a pleasure to look at, and to listen to – I really enjoyed the music. It's Miyazaki's last film, apparently, and is also based on a manga book that he created on the same subject. But it is a bit flat emotionally, and even a bit boring sometimes.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Review of "Rushmore"


This is obviously pulling out all the stops in an effort to be 'quirky', and not quite achieving it. Well, it's Wes Anderson, that's what he is for.

The central character, the 15-year old Max Fisher, is a remarkable young man with many extraordinary and frankly implausible achievements; but he is also a fantasist with a propensity to self-delusion (not least in the belief that he has a romantic relationship with a young female teacher at the school); and the film doesn't want to decide how much it is about the self-delusion and how much about the remarkable achievements. The fact that the first sequence, about young Max solving a very difficult problem in geometry, is quickly shown to be a fantasy/dream, but that almost none of the other equally implausible things in the film are meant to be taken as fantasy, adds to the confusion. 

Incidentally, there is almost no politics in the film at all, and nothing about revolution, despite the poster. This looks like a poster for the subsequent and slightly better film 'The Trotsky', which does feature a high-school kid who believes himself to be a revolutionary, and is also quirky but...well, you know.

It's got good actors and characters, an interesting scenario, but the premise doesn't quite work.

Monday, August 04, 2014

Review of Mood Indigo


Well, that's 90 minutes of my life I'm never going to get back. Actually not quite that much, because I slept through some of it, so that time wasn't entirely wasted. The time spent watching the film was, though – pretentious self-indulgent rubbish. A number of people walked out, and I might have, but I didn't want to wake up the two people with whom I'd gone to see it.

The fact that it was so bad was made worse by the fact that every so often there was a genuinely striking visual element. I liked the rows of people typing at moving typewriters as an image of the Fates, and the insect-like doorbell.

I really liked Gondry's “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”, which I thought was genuinely clever and enjoyable. But I should have remembered that he also made 'The Science of Sleep', which was as dire as this.

I am beginning to suspect that Audrey Tatou is a film indicator; if she's in it then it won't be any good. Not an entirely reliable one, mind, because Amelie was enjoyable and A Very Long Engagement was really good.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Review of “The Gatekeepers"



I watched this last night. I'd been avoiding it for a long time, as I avoid most things to do with the Israel-Palestine conflict. Why put yourself through the misery of engagement when it has so little chance of achieving anything positive? I haven't taken part in any of the discussions on Facebook or elsewhere, I haven't attended any of the demonstrations or shown solidarity with anyone, aware that I am censoring myself because I no longer have the energy to confront or even discuss.

The film reinforced me in my views, as I am sure it reinforces others, even with different views. The interviews with the six former heads of Shin Bet (the Israeli internal security service) are very candid – much more so than their British counterparts would be. They talk about operations they have planned and been involved in, the briefs they were given, and most of all their opinions about the politicians who should have been directing them – but mainly weren't.

Like most real people, their views are a mess of contradictions. At some point they condemn their own actions and those of others as unethical, at other times they despise the idea that ethics or morality could ever enter into counter-terrorism. They all view their political masters as weak, duplicitous and devoid of ideas – except for Yitzhak Rabin, who nobody seemed to have a bad word for.

The treatment of the Rabin years was the most unbearable part of the film to watch, because it reinforced my view that the Oslo Process could have worked. For a short window there was real will among the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships to achieve a way that their respective peoples could live together; maybe not Justice, but Peace. Many of my friends think that Oslo was always doomed because it didn't address the fundamentals, but I have never agreed with this. I think the film backs me up. It might have been possible to get Israelis and Palestinians living together, and invested in the absence of war, without addressing the really hard issues straight away.

Oslo was destroyed by the Israeli religious and nationalist right, and by Hamas and Islamic Jihad, very deliberately, because both believed that time was on their side and war would bring them a better outcome than peace.

And both war parties had the ideological high ground in their communities. The vicious murderers of the 'Jewish Underground', whom the Shin Bet initially targeted and neutralized, were pardoned and released as 'our own flesh and blood' by the mainstream Israeli establishment. Hamas – equally murderous, and equally committed to destroying the Oslo agreements -- were able to present themselves as the continuation of the Palestinian resistance, when Fatah and the PLO had 'sold out' to Zionism. By targeting buses in Tel Aviv, Hamas were striking directly at those most likely to be the Israeli supporters of Oslo – not at the settlers, or the military, or the nationalist right. When Hamas and its supporters talk about civilian casualties in Gaza, it's worth remembering that this was their chosen tactic to destroy Oslo.

It was truly unbearable to watch this film now, as Israeli bombs and missiles fall on Gaza, and my friends and family in Israel for the most part fall over themselves in their efforts to line up behind a strategy that is as cruel as it is stupid. The worst part is the missed opportunity, which all the heads of Shin Bet seemed to have appreciated. As John Cleese said in a rather different film, I can take the despair. It's the hope I can't stand.”


Thursday, July 17, 2014

Review of "The Saragossa Manuscript"


Watched this yesterday, as part of the 'research' for the sequel to One Shoe Tale – last saw it at Sussex University in 1976, when it was shown by the Film Society. Then, I thought it was magical, and I was not disappointed this time.

Mystical, surreal, beautiful, and still a good yarn – or rather an increasingly complex sequence of nested good yarns. Not terribly PC; Edward Said would doubtless take offence at the orientalism, and I'm sure that some viewers might not enjoy the rather charged eroticism.

But it is just great, and I feel validated that in the time since I last watched it Martin Scorsese and others have funded the creation of a new print. They obviously like it too.

Oddly, the book on which it is based is really short, and the film does not cover everything that is in the book, and yet it's a really long film. And also oddly, though most of the nested stories are resolved so that we go back to the story in which they are told, the film ends inside the first level of nesting; we don't go back to the original frame tale, in which the manuscript is found. Does the fact that I find this mildly annoying say more about me than it does about the film?

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Why I take pictures of war memorials


Why I post pictures of war memorials

I find war memorials really poignant. I take pictures of every one that I come across; it's become a bit of a tic. It's my tiny way of honouring the people – usually young men – who died, like leaving a little stone on the grave; but it's also a way of making a statement about war and the pity of war.

Most memorials are about the First World War – WW1 or the Great War, if you prefer. There are few hamlets in Europe so small as to not have a memorial to soldiers who died in this war. Since I've tuned in to them I am struck by just how many memorials there are – in schools, colleges, workplaces, railway stations, gardens. Part of the point of taking and posting the pictures is to mark the sheer volume of the memorials. By taking pictures of every one that I encounter I try to convey some sort of comment on the sheer volume of the slaughter. Like the end scene in 'Oh What a Lovely War'; one memorial might glorify war, but hundreds or thousands can't.

Most Western European monuments have a little add-on for WW2, and sometimes for subsequent wars; for Britain and France, the casualties of WW1 far outstrip those who died in WW2. But I've also found memorials for the Crimean War and the Boer War, with great columns of names of young men who died. In Italy I've found Risorgimento memorials, and in Milan railway station there is a Fascist memorial to the young men who died subduing Ethiopia; it is right next to a memorial to young Italian anti-fascist partisans, concretizing the way that Italy manages to have it both ways.

I've seen some unusual ones – there's a memorial to Portuguese soliders who died on the Western Front in Brussels, and I didn't even know that Portugal had been in the First World War. In one small town in Italy I found town with a plaque commemorating the fact that all the young men who had gone off to the war had returned safely.

I take the pictures because they help me to resolve something of a contradiction in the way I feel about the wars. I am, for the most part, against war – though not all wars. I have little sympathy or admiration for the politicians who send young people off to fight and kill. I don't much like the institutions of the military. But I respect the soldiers, and their bravery and their comradeship, even if I don't always think much of the purpose for which they were sacrificed. What can we feel about the Crimean War now, except sorrow for the young men who died in it?

Taking pictures and posting them helps me to resolve this. Partly I think it's because the memorials inevitably subvert their own purpose. The point of the memorials is to commemorate the sacrifice of the soldiers who died in the memorialized war, and thus to make that sacrifice – and future sacrifices – seem glorious.

But the permanence of the memorials, and the long list of names of dead boys which outlast any personal commemoration can't help but remind the onlooker that their names don't live for evermore. The world goes on, the war dead are for the most part forgotten. Those who survive get on with their lives, apart from ritualized remembrance. The first picture I ever took, of a war memorial on a small church in Elsworthy Road, Swiss Cottage, summed it up perfectly; the head of the surmounting angel had come off, and it bore the motto 'Their names liveth for evermore', but the names themselves had been eroded by pollution and were unreadable. It has since been restored, but it was the unrestored one that had the most poignancy and meaning for me.

So the war memorials actually constitute – for me, anyway – a statement against war. So I'll keep taking and posting the pictures.