MOONLIGHT***** Stunning


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“MOONLIGHT’ IS AN extraordinary portrait of a world, personified by a -gay – Black man, Chiron. Chiron is trapped by his environment and forced into living up to the way he is defined by society, while harboring – under layers of silence and resentment – his real sense of self that, out of self-protection, he dare not reveal.

We are both, the movie suggests, how we’re perceived – how society defines you – as well as how we perceive ourselves.
The portrait is structured in three movements. In the first, we meet Chiron as a lonely kid (Alex Hibbert). He’s bullied and taunted by his peers and his drugged out mother, Paula (Naomi Harris in a raw, tremendous performance). In his world, with its specific code of (Black) masculinity – tough, fearless and straight – Chiron doesn’t fit in. He’s nicknamed “Little” (a reference to his size, his timidity and maybe the size of his penis). His mother calls him “faggot”, a name he doesn’t even understand. This is his perceived identity, the way he is defined: Little. Cowardly. Faggot.

Into this shattered existence rides his knight in shining armor and the neighborhood drug dealer, Juan (Mahershala Ali – best know from “the House of Cards” – in a defining performance). He’s a swaggering, confident figure of Black masculinity who, along with his partner, Teresa (Janelle Monáe, now in “Hidden Figures”) protectively takes Chiron into his home (an oasis of peace) and becomes a father figure of sorts. He offers Chiron both sage advice (to forge his own path in the world) and the tenderness this abused kid so desperately needs. There’s a tremendous scene in which Juan teaches Chiron how to swim (or, symbolically, how to give in to others as well as how to stand on his own two feet). This moment of gentle, parenting love is, in their joint worlds of aggression, pain and pretense, almost shockingly ordinary…simply a father taking care of his son.

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This first movement ends with Chiron’s deepening sense of identity confusion. Is he a faggot (whatever that is; Juan tells him it’s “…a word used to make gay people feel bad”), and how is he to know? How can one, quasi, parent (Juan) who offers such gentle care be the source of such harm to his real parent, Paula? Where does the need to assert yourself and resist the definition of being “Little”, as he’s counseled by his only friend, Kevin (Jaden Piner) intersect with the advice to forge your own path? How do you emerge from how others define you to the definition you choose for yourself?

These questions find the beginnings of answers the time we meet Chiron again (now Ashton Sanders), several years later as a lanky adolescent. By then his isolation and silence have only increased. His mother’s addiction has further degenerated and the bullying taunts have only escalated. But with adolescence, his identity has shifted. The definition of “Little” can no longer contain his pent-up but repressed sense of self. Eventually, and only for a moment, Chiron, the real person, emerges in a moment of love and sexual catharsis with Kevin (now Jharrel Jerome). Two Black boys in love and making out under the cover of darkness. This catharsis is a violation of any acceptable Black man’s sense of self. But there is another, darker Chiron that also emerges: the one who, perhaps living up to his new nickname, “Black”, refuses to be intimidated by the class bully, who, in another catharsis, he beats the shit out of.

The final movement introduces us to the adult Chiron (Trevante Rhodes)…who ‘remains’ in hiding, having become his nickname, “Black”. He’s bulked up, confident, in charge and has assumed the identity of his father figure, Juan. Like Juan, he’s also a dealer (…and so the cycle continues). But in the end, the essence of who you are… the loves and the longings that bind… are deeper than the constructs you present of yourself. And for all his -newly acquired- tough, Black, he-man bravado, Chiron finally seems to acknowledge that his still repressed but genuine love for Kevin (now André Holland) and, despite it all, his mother, truly define his real sense of connectedness and self.

Little. Black. Faggot. Gay man. Loving son. Drug dealer. Ex con. Black man. Lover. They’re all Chiron. In the moonlight, perhaps though all identities are not the same, they appear to be the same colour.

This is a movie that’s note perfect. Every performance- and they are unaided by the helpful prop of (say, “Fence’s”) sparkling, articulate dialogue – resonates with an honesty, a kind of contained fury. In their silences, their macho inarticulateness, the characters express whole worlds of hurt and pain. Here is Black angst, the African-American (or British or European) condition, forever self-servingly defined by their White societies, laid bare. In “Moonlight”, Director/writer Barry Jenkins manages to give voice to the unvoiced terrors, the longings, the agonies so often bypassed, dismissed or turned into a cartoon (yet another Black drug dealer living in a world of prostitutes and cons) by the larger society.

The brilliance of the movie is that he has managed to invest in a single and very tangibly human character, so much more than the outward story of how people connect with each other; more the cri de coeur of an entire race.

 

MOONLIGHT: Dir: Barry Jenkins. With Mahershala Ali, Janelle Monáe, Alex Hibbert, Naomi Harris, Jaden Piner, Ashton Sanders, Trevane Rhodes. Cinematographer: James Laxton. Composer: Nicholas Britell (“The Big Short”)

 

LION*** Not much of a roar


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“LION” IS A pleasant enough, reverential, inoffensive weepie. The acting (it’s almost exclusively Dev Patel’s movie) is credible, but certainly not Oscar-worthy; fortunately, though the story sometimes veers toward sentimentality, it retains just about enough bite to keep the gag reflex under control.

It’s another true story (this we know, as it uses the rapidly aging device of showing video of the real people as the credits roll). Saroo (Dev Patel) was the younger brother (played as a kid by charming newcomer, Sunny Pawar) of a dirt poor family, living happily, if in squalor, in the slums of Central India. One day, having begged him to, he is taken by the brother, Guddu, on a nocturnal search (for whatever they can find to add to the family’s meager fare). But Saroo wanders off, away from the brother’s line of sight and, having fallen asleep in a nearby parked train, awakens to find himself locked in, and hurtling toward he knows not where. He ends up 1600k away in a teeming, alien city (Calcutta) where they don’t even speak his dialect.

He’s five years old.

Saroo is eventually adopted (Nicole Kidman – as compelling as always – is Sue Brierley, the adoptive mum) and grows up, along with another, mentally challenged, adoptee, in beautiful, bustling Tasmania.

The emotional guts of the movie centres on Saroo’s sudden awakening to the life he once lived and a suffocating sense of loss. It drives him obsessively (trigger images of an un-tonsured, somewhat deranged looking Patel, staring blankly at a wall of maps) to find his estranged family.

The whole enterprise is so respectful, so focused on the easy linear obviousness of familial separation that, despite a few subtle hints here and there, it eschews all the issues that could have lifted the story above its anodyne setting. We’re told that the movie is dedicated to the 80,000+ kids in India who disappear every year, and there are suggestions of pedophilia and the unlawful sale of kids; but the movie veers away from this darker side. Saroo (Spoiler ahead) eventually returns to his home village after various vignettes of “emotional stress”; he’s now a well- fed Australian who no longer has the language with which to communicate with his still poor, Indian family. He’s a being from an alien world. But this ‘slight’ barrier is glossed over. The orgasm of tearful and tear-inducing reunification neutralizes all further creative investigation. Maybe the movie’s deep thought is that, in the end, “love is all you need”.  There are hints that the adoptive parents are decidedly weird (and Saroo’s head banging fellow adoptee may be accurate but remains an entirely unexplored world in this family). But, out of respect, this storyline goes nowhere. And the, initially cute, romance between Saroo and Lucy (an under-utilised Rooney Mara) is really no more than an aside, relevant only for matters of historical, not creative, veracity.

In an age of great, thoughtful, emotionally robust TV, “Lion” feels like a throwback. Despite, the A-caliber star power, it lacks the ‘size’ to feel like the major movie it longs to be; the production feels cut-rate (the cinematography by Greig Fraser -“Foxcatcher”- isn’t even particularly good); and it never aspires to the subtleties and nuance we now come to expect of the best of TV.

Less a lion, more a pussycat

 

LION. Dir: Garth Davis. With: Dev Patel. Nicole Kidman, Rooney Mara. Screenplay: Luke Davis (a well regarded Australian poet) adapted from the book by the protagonist, Saroo Brierley.

 

HOCKNEY AT THE TATE*****


Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy 1970-1 David Hockney born 1937 Presented by the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1971 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T01269

WHEN YOU STAND -in awe- in front on any of David Hockney’s magnificent paintings, that have morphed from abstract to naturalist over the sixty odd years covered by the Tate’s well curated retrospective, two, interrelated, aspects stand out. Every painting seems to be the end result of the artist’s triumph in problem solving…just how much information does the artist need to offer; how should the perspective be treated, in order to make the viewer complicit with his point of view?

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These seems to me to be two of the elements that make a Hockney, a Hockney. That contrast between the fussy chiaroscuro of one element, say a shag carpet, where you can almost feel the bristles under foot, or the almost photographic landscape that contrasts with the very ‘painterly’ patterned images of the pool, or that droop of flowers that seem to be the only living element in the room, with the almost casually drawn brushstroke indicating a furrow in the English countryside, or the patterned flatness of the swimming pool. His images deliver with precision just the right amount of visual information to communicate. The subtle balance of styles express a quality of very deliberate emotionless-ness. His blank figures are placed in the frame of the paintings like objects (had Hockney moved the man an inch to his right the mood of tranquility and harmony – seems like a cold if well-balanced relationship – would have been shattered). They create that very distinct Hockney world. It is a world of stillness and silence; one that’s not a frozen moment in time, where there’s a past and a future, like say the frozen turn of the girl with the pearl necklace, but one that’s outside of time itself.

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(Hockney is preoccupied with the role of time in art, from these moments of timelessness to some of his earlier art-faxes, when he faxed an entire exhibition from LA to Brazil whose idea revolved around the passage of time…and the problem/solution of how to show it…to the last room in the exhibition in which we see his -pad drawings in the process of being constructed in time)

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It’s as though these paintings are invitations to both ponder the meaning of time and to leave its flux… to lift away from time-bound ‘reality’ to enter into a world where all that matters is the relationship of the elements within the painting. It is the artist’s seductive siren call to draw us out of ourselves into his head…into, as it were, his frame of mind.

There’s no question that he constructs his works so that you’re guided, very deliberately in how to view the work. Every painting is part of a mission in helping viewers learn how to observe…freed from the distractions of ‘life’ and the destructions of time.

Let’s look at some of his work.
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This is one of his latest, and much heralded, massive paintings of the countryside near his home and studio. At first glance, it’s pretty clear that it’s an inviting country path…the light plays upon the leaves in such a way to suggest not only the time of day, but even the season and temperature. The artist has worked out how to communicate this in the most efficient manner (there’s no pretence of photographic realism here…the bold pop art brush strokes and primary colours  do just about enough). It’s very easy and tempting for an artist to be defeated, overwhelmed by the landscape before him so that all the viewer sees is the landscape. Hockney breaks the painting into six quadrants. He could have simply stretched a large canvas. But the solution to the problem facing him, and his choice, was to present the massive scene in smaller frames; and each frame has its own visual integrity.

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The artist’s invitation isn’t to ‘look at a pretty landscape’; it’s to stop and think about how we see things…how we observe the outside world and how our (Hockney) guided observation of this painting creates a kind of symbiosis with the artist’s own observing eye. John Berger in his famous series of essays, “Ways of Seeing” noted, “The relationship between what we see and what we know is never settled”.

To Hockney, to see is to know. But to really “see”, you can’t be overwhelmed…you have to take control. Hockney takes control by breaking up his line of sight into relevant interacting quadrants.

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Take this one. Here the artist is suggesting multiple, almost cubist perspectives, distorting the perspective and dramatizing the colour contrasts, to ‘get the full picture’. It’s as though the visually garrulous artist wants to cram as much into the frame so that you can experience with him the excitement, the sensory overload, the chaotic jubilation he must have felt standing on that gallery.

Hockney, David; Man in a Museum (or You're in the Wrong Movie); British Council Collection; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/man-in-a-museum-or-youre-in-the-wrong-movie-176794

In one of his (not dissimilar) earlier, more abstract works, he arranged multiple elements across a deliberately blank looking canvas. Here’s a barely sketched, almost anecdotal image of a young man walking away from some sort of drawing of an Egyptian icon above which two green stalactites of paint hang down. Just what do they all mean? Are they symbols that we need to understand to ‘get the full picture’? Maybe. What we experience when we engage with this painting is an insight into the artist’s own interior monologue, his own scatter of thoughts and images. This is a painting that, to me, tries to pin down memory.

As indeed, they all are. Perhaps more so than many other artists, a retrospective of Hockney feels like an intrusion into a private diary…from his hot, horney homosexual portraits in LA to the later reimagined, modernized romanticism of his visually lyrical landscapes. Clement

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Greenberg wrote that painting was “ineluctably about painting”. With Hockney, you can’t separate the man from the painting…from the life lived in time, to the observation and introspection of that life outside of it.

And as we learn to observe through Hockney, we learn to observe ourselves

HACKSHAW RIDGE***There Will Be Blood


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IT’S LITTLE WONDER that “Hackshaw Ridge”, Mel Gibson’s war-porn new movie, is on the Oscar hot list (up for Best Actor, Best Director, Film Editing, Best Picture, Sound Editing and Sound Mixing). Its mix of religion, romance, raw violence and (Mel’s) restitution, makes it a sure-fire Hollywood hit. From Ben Affleck to Matthew McConaughey, Hollywood just loves a good comeback, that quintessential American second act.

The tale is centered around the true story of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), a conscientious objector, who, shouldering bullying and taunts of cowardice still went unarmed into the heart of hell with the aim not to kill but to heal. As he says at his Court Martial trial, “With the world so set on tearing itself apart, don’t seem like such a bad thing, to me, to want to put a little bit of it back together”. And so, even as his fellow soldiers were shot, blown up and eviscerated by hoards of Zombie-like Japanese descending on them like a merciless killing plague, Doss worked at keeping the wounded alive. His prayers, his courage and his determination to help saw him overcome insuperable odds to save – in the line of fire, armed only with his bible (ahem!) – seventy-five soldiers. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, he said he felt personally attacked, forcing him to join his fellow grunts in what for him was an act of pacifist revenge.

He’s also a superhumanly GOOD, unblemished man. No wonder the gentle, caring, sympathetic, loyal town beauty (Teresa Palmer) fell so head over heels for him.

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This isn’t a subtle and nuanced story. And Mel underlines its contrasts in heavy (blood red) ink: love v war; pacificism v violence; God v the devil (as the Japanese are referred to); winner (America) v loser (The Japanese); cowardice v heroism. And in even heavier ink, he ensures that you are left in no doubt as to goriness of war. We see limbs blown off, heads exploding, entrails squelching underfoot and gushing fountains of blood. But through it all, Doss and his convictions hold steady. IT’S A TRUE STORY. So no need to underline too heavily (in the script) that you-know-who had wrapped a protective field, call it halo, around our hero. In one of the last scenes, our hero is lowered on a stretcher into the waiting arms of his colleagues. It’s the descent to earth from heaven.

Another incarnation.

Many years ago, the mother of all film criticism, the American Pauline Kael, dammed the incredibly popular Dirty Harry genre as a kind of Hollywood right wing fascism (Mark Wahlberg is one if its latest incarnations). She condemned its simple-minded narrative of macho justice, its fetishization of the gun and its clear binary code of right and wrong. To many artists (Spielberg for instance) WWII was a moment in history whose investigation could ferret out subtle and profound truths. To others (Mel and “Hackshaw Ridge”) that war (when the enemy was so heinous) has become an easy excuse for triumphalism and posturing…when a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do… and a nifty slight of hand excusing all those other wars. Under its fog, so many other less glorious wars lie hidden.

But there’s no denying it. Mel, like Clint Eastwood and Peter Berg, is a ruthlessly efficient director. There’s no flabbiness in the storytelling; the script is spare and to the point. The tear-jerk emotions are dialled up to just the right pitch. And nobody does death better. Gibson and production designer, Barry Robinson create a visual theatre of death and destruction that’s tangibly frightening. He’s also squeezed some fine performances from his actors, especially that of Garfield (so good in “99 Homes”). As Doss, Garfield is engagingly charming; his performance morphs convincingly from aw-shucks country boy to unrelenting and steely superhero (Clark Kent?).

The problem with the enterprise is that, despite the muddy, bloody faces and spinning, splitting bodies, nothing feels honest. This movie about God and pacifism still seems to revel in the macho glory of war; Garfield’s character is a one note propaganda hero and his fine acting is, in a movie like this, no more than another form of collateral damage; the viciousness of the battle scenes feels storyboarded to the point of aesthetic preciousness. It all appears just a mainstreaming of Gibson’s esoteric Aramaic obsession

 

HACKSHAW RIDGE. Dir: Mel Gibson. With: Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington, Teresa Palmer, Hugo Weaving, Vince Vaughn. Screenplay: Robert Schenkkan (“The Pacific”) and Andrew Knight (“The Water Diviner”). Cinematographer: Simon Duggan (“300: Rise of an Empire”). Production Designer: Barry Robinson (“Million Dollar Arm”)

 

RAUSCHENBERG AT THE TATE MODERN*****


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ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG STARTED his life as an artist as a student at Black Mountain College, where he studied fine art under the tuition of former Bauhaus teacher, Josef Albert. The College, which encouraged its students to experiment, to break through the encrustations of status quo thinking, and – tellingly for Rauschenberg – to work with everyday materials, was an extraordinary place. Its alumni include a number of powerhouses who helped wrench art into new and exciting directions: de Kooning, Gropius, Kline, Motherwell, Buckminster Fuller…the poets Charles Olesen and Robert Duncan.

Not unexpectedly, Rauschenberg, wrestling away from what he saw as the painterliness of the likes of Mark Rothko, pushed (his own) art into a whole new physical realm. The artist (who would have seen himself as painter, photographer, set designer, printmaker, sculptor, scientist) constantly experimented with new techniques and new ways to realize his governing ambition: to bring the outside world into art.

As you walk through the Tate Modern’s sprawling retrospective of his work, the puzzling aim becomes clear.

The big breakthrough was in the 50’s – in a genre he called his Combines – when he merged found materials (umbrellas, ladders, old shoes, a functioning light, an old suitcase, etc.), almost disdainfully smeared with broad aggressive strokes of paint, into his vast canvases. The Combines were by no means confined to the canvas, and one of his defining (or, at least, most recognizable) works was a sculpture (object? thing?) shown above, called Monogram.

This is a stuffed Angora goat that he found, and which he has encircled with an old tyre. It’s standing on a slab of wood covered with muted daubs of paint, random letters and planks, like the detritus of a city.

So this is art?

The big deal with the use of a stuffed animal (or a urinal for that matter) lies in an understanding of where the art of art takes place. Rauschenberg said that his art operated in the gap between art and life. Indeed, art exists really in the space between the object (or performance) and the viewer. It is in this abstract space that the layers of empathy or illumination or antinomial identification (art’s magic journey to take us out of ourselves – our norm – and into the sensibility of the artist) take place. This is what the art critic Clement Greenberg refers to as “the aesthetic experience”. It’s where the object’s meaningful-ness (not what it means, or how we interpret it – a dodgy and unhelpful perspective – but rather how it reshapes our perceptions) becomes apparent and transformative. This is what Arthur C. Danto refers to as “the transformation of the ordinary” in that what separates art from non-art is its “aboutness”. Art, unlike, say a spade or a beautifully hand-crafted chair, is about something.

What matters then is not so much what has been referred to as “skilful making” (the craft of art) – the object per se – but that mid point where daubs of paint, or stuffed animals, assume an enigmatic ontological significance. Because the object that we see, and which we refer to as art is really an expression of a kind of insight, an acuteness of observation in which the barnacles of emotional cliché and triteness are scraped off only to be reimagined as an unique, esoteric idea. When last did you see an Angora goat stuffed into an old tire?

It’s an image as personal and as unique as a fingerprint.

For every work of art is an ‘idea’ that we’re invited to share. And this isn’t a murder mystery you have to solve. Sometimes the idea may well remain elusive. It doesn’t matter. Art confronts us with the thrill of being in the presence of something as intangible as the abstractness of an idea…made tangible.

The semiotics of ‘Monogram’ is interesting: This is not simply a stuffed animal glued to an oval frame. It’s not a cow or a cat. It’s a goat. A horned goat at that. As if the discontinuity of layering the actual (a stuffed animal) with the imaginary (the abstract imagining of New York that forms the base) isn’t thought-provoking enough, the use of the goat is Rauschenberg’s wonderfully irreverent, anarchic statement about art in a museum…or life. For after all what you’re looking at here is the act of penetration. Here is the power of the horny, the unashamedly masculine, thrusting itself through the vaginal (or maybe, since he was bisexual, anal) “O”. Here in the middle of the hushed, genteel Tate Modern is the ever-so-respectful intimacy of copulation. And the whole work is cheekily called ‘Monogram’. This is Rauschenberg’s self-portrait. His fingerprint (or maybe his cock).
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There are two aspects of his work that fascinate me. The first is his incorporation of found materials into the works…his refusal to isolate art from ‘reality’ as if ‘art’ lived in some plane superior to the real. Of course museums (our secular churches) tend to fetishize art. They suggest that these hangings on the wall are sacred objects to be worshipped; patrons must keep their distance, take no photographs, whisper with bowed reverence.

Rauschenberg encouraged people to add to the art; for if art only really exists (like electrons) once there’s a viewer with whom ‘it’ is conversing, the more physical engagement there is, the richer the experience (and, by extension, the art). This isn’t literally possible of course; too many iconoclasts would seek destruction rather than hold conversations.

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And in the example shown here, the object both knows its place – on the wall and, through its embedded mirrors, reflecting its viewer – and also rebels against its place – on the floor with the viewer. At its initial exhibition, Rauschenberg asked people to take from and add items to the box below…a whimsical suggestion that makes tangible the effect of art, the memory and the experience that we all take away (it was closed on my visit…too many people took; none added). And, equally whimsically, or perhaps critically it’s called “Black Market” (for such fraternization with the revered object can only exist in a black market)

But in a sense, the incorporation of the outside (the box, the license plate etc. newly de-familiarized and now rendered useless) into the ontology of the art not only democratizes the ‘hands off’ art object; it shifts the ‘meaning’ and role of art. For art is not there (only) to be admired. It’s there to challenge and engage and offer its viewers a lens through which to view their own realities (that witty placement of mirrors). Is the juxtaposition of an umbrella in a painting an expression of kidnap and capture (viewers browbeaten by the imperiousness of Culture), or an expression of harmony and diversity or a comment on the artist’s need to wrestle reality to fits his/her own perspective…with the sad acceptance that our eyes will always be seduced by the reality, by the known and simple, over the unknown and complicated (which is why name recognition always defeats policy at the polls)?

The second fascinating aspect is that Rauschenberg’s works defy the classical dictates of focus and form. This piece seems to have no central focal point. The artist forces our eyes to rove at will, left to right, up and down, lingering here, darting there, wondering why this arrangement, why not something else. The work will not tolerate a passive viewing…because its ‘idea’, like life itself, is not one-dimensional. The semiotics of the objects tell one story; but what fascinates me is the precision of every object, every seemingly random splash of paint in the energized anarchy of the piece. Greenberg again: “The importance of the sense of the decisions the artist makes is a vital, differentiating factor. Art that is academic is art that has had its decisions made for it”. Everything in the piece ‘fits’ perfectly, and – that miracle of decision-making – despite the segmentation and layers of the piece, it all works as a single holistic whole.

Why?

It’s not unlike the unthinking structure of our daily grammar. We’d describe the art as “Rauschenberg’s large, colourful, multilayered paintings” not “Rauschenberg’s colourful, multilayered, large, paintings”. The latter simply feels wrong. A grammarian would give you very specific reasons for this, but we (at least most of us, most of the time) use grammar correctly intuitively. So too do artists…so too does Rauschenberg. And when you the viewer engage with one of his works, you enter into his own grammatical frame of reference. The brilliance of Rauschenberg is that he has not only wrestled ‘reality’ (the umbrella, say) into an expression of his idea, he has also wrestled you into the grammar of his world.

For what is art if not the artist’s acquisition of new ‘words’, whole new grammars with which to discover and articulate whole new undiscovered, never before observed worlds of feeling and consciousness?

 

THE SHIPWRECKED MIND AND THE AGE OF ANGER: AN INTELLECTUAL FRAMEWORK OF ‘NOW’


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IS THERE A link between the rise of Trump (“making America great again”), Brexit (“taking back control”), the resurgence of the European right wing…and ISIS? Two recently published books suggest perspectives from which to view and understand these world-defining trends…this new populist zeitgeist. American intellectual Mark Lilla (“The Shipwrecked Mind”) and Anglo-Indian scholar Pankash Mishra (“The Age of Anger”) both seek to offer up interesting – and interlinked – frameworks that chart the arc of history that have led us to where we are now. Lilla examines the phenomenon from the perspective of the thinkers who underpin the intellectual framework of these new nativist Right Wing movements; while Mishra’s approach examines the mindset of the people…from the enfranchised, disenchanted public who voted against the status quo (of Clinton and Cameron) to the disenfranchised youth radicalized by millennial dreams of the Caliphate.

Lilla’s proposal is that what we’re experiencing by the tactics of these newly popular autocrats is a rise not in conservatism, but in reactionary aggression (“Reactionaries are not conservatives”, he writes. “Millennial expectations of a redemptive new social order and rejuvenated human beings inspire the revolutionary; apocalyptic fears of entering a new dark age haunt the reactionary”. Or to put it another way; it’s a comparison between Obama’s Hope and Merkel’s EU visions for that “redemptive new order” v Trump’s and Le Pen’s followers’ apocalyptic fears of Mexicans, Muslims, and the jihadist Barbarians at the gate).

What with these reactionary fears of “the other” leading to an acceptable demonization of multiple religions and peoples, what with its open racism, xenophobia and social media-fuelled misogyny, we’re living, Mishra concludes, in an age of anger. His interpretation identifies what, quoting Nietzsche, he calls ressentiment (the wild anger arising from feelings of humiliation, powerlessness and invisibility).

The world we live in is one of fear and panic, where anything can happen to anyone, anywhere anytime; add climate change to this, and this age of anger is being lived out in a world which, to many, is spinning out of control.

Reactionary leaders feed off their publics’ ressentiments in a world these publics no longer understand.

Lilla explains the underlying narrative to the reactionary world-view: There was once a pre-lapsarian well-ordered state, when a clear moral imperative and a sense or hierarchical order existed. All then was bliss. Alien ideas (say the acceptability of homosexuality or interracial marriage) were introduced by intellectuals, artists and writers (always the first group to be demonized…think of Trump’s recent tweet about Meryl Streep and his virulent opposition to the media). What followed was the abandonment of the status quo by the elites (the second group to be demonized). These new liberal ideas led to a false consciousness (such as the acceptance of “diversity” as the norm, the demands of gender equality, or for the French alt-right, banning smoking and accepting halal in schools etc.), and the imminent collapse of social cohesion. Only those with the preserved memories of the old (It’s no coincidence that the Tea Party fanatics frame their cult around an historical event) can provide the appropriate resistance or the reactionary energy necessary to regain and rebuild the society as it once was…whether this be an all White America of white picket fences where women (“pampered by modern ideas” as Nietzsche wrote) and Blacks knew their places and America was great, or a Britain still emboldened by a memory of the Empire and a sense of its imperial role in the world, when it had control; or an ideal of an Islamic Caliphate when the destruction of the Crusades can simply be imagined away.

For these thinkers, the present, not the past is a foreign country.

The deepest need (the revolutionary nostalgia) is to shake us from the stupor of our despair and take revenge on the beast that sundered this glorious past from our inglorious present. To do that, we can either build a new future, as Hitler sought to do (you’ll note the strong emotional empathy of so many of the Far Right with Hitler and Nazi glories) or return more directly to the past (as, say the American Cubans’ ideal of a Miami without Castro, or Putin’s desire to resurrect the USSR, or Hinduism’s need through Modi to rediscover its lost glories or, as one journalist wrote recently, British PM Theresa May’s mission to build a bridge to a better yesterday).

This “militant nostalgia” is a force more powerful than hope: “Hopes can be disappointed. Nostalgia is irrefutable”

(And the nostalgia can certainly be evidenced in the UK where, it seems, whole segments of pop –TV-culture, from “Endeavour”, a 50’s police drama, to the multiple war-themed shows, are dedicated to reminding audiences of the time “when we were great”).

For Mishra, this paradise lost was no mere mythic place. The traditional ties of the past, the well honed structures of church, family and community with “…their assurances about a person’s self-worth and identity” (de Tocqueville) or what Rousseau saw as the “restraining traditions of a virtuous society” were shock absorbers that protected the individual in the face of wars, hunger, poverty etc. These traditional bonds gave meaning to life…engendered strong social ties and the self-worth of being part of a greater whole

In their drive to regain this lost collective sense of order and moral clarity, the reactionaries co-opted the ideas of a number of –often quite obscure – thinkers to legitimize their tactics. One of these was Eric Vogelin, a prolific Austrian scholar in the 40’s/50’s who, in a pamphlet called “The Political Religions” blamed the modern secular West for the rise of Nazism.

Vogelin noted that post-Augustinian Christianity (St Augustine’s “City of God” – his philosophical interpretation of Christ’s “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; render unto God the things that are God’s” – became the foundation stone of Catholic thinking) made it the first religion to separate divinity from governance…revelation from reason. This meant that man could govern himself, run his own affairs, liberated from the word of God. In Vogelin’s words, Christianity “decapitated God”. Thus liberated from God, as reason increasingly held sway over revelation (from the Reformation and the Enlightenment on), man began to conceive of himself in divine terms…as a Prometheus capable of anything. Mikhail Bakunin, the Russian anarchist noted, “The awakened intellect, freed from the swaddling clothes of authority, was no longer willing to accept anything on faith…”. Voltaire sought to crush that ‘infamous thing’ (the Catholic chirch). God, Vogelin noted was replaced by the new political religions of Marxism, Fascism, Capitalism, nationalism etc. “When you abandon the Lord, it’s only a matter of time before you start worshipping a Furhrer” [or Trump or Putin for that matter]

Lilla points out that another thinker, Leo Strauss, a student of Martin Heidegger, was also a key person whose writings shaped the thinking of many of today’s Right wing think tanks and media foundations. Strauss’ views of history were co-opted by them to show that America had been slipping into nihilism since the 1960’s; and that there was the need for the collusion between right-wing populism and religious fundamentalism (the desired reunision between reason and revelation…or the birth of the theoconservative) to help the nation recover its basic sense of right and wrong.

Because (the thinking is) the demonstrable fuzziness between right and wrong in this modern, lapsed world has resulted in what the polemicist Brad Gregory (“The Unintended Reformation”) calls the advent of Wal-Mart Capitalism: ideological correctness and cultural relativism. The historical paradigm he mapped out suggests that the fundamental goodness and sacraments of the church (the foundation of ancient shared values and ambitions) were corrupted – historically- by the excesses of the church itself, resulting in Luther’s conservative rebellion. But this rebellion itself got out of hand by groups of “spiritual Jacobins” (or simply intellectuals and artists…Mishra also notes that “intellectuals and artists rose as a class for the first time to lend a hand in the making of history, and locate the meaning of life in politics and art rather than traditional religion”) and resulted in a kind of corrosive pluralism, where, without a clear set of moral and theological doctrines, any and everyone felt that they could become their own St Paul (and just how many sects and churches are there now in the US?).

The conflicts that naturally arose from this chaos, along with what Gregory calls the “ossification of Catholic dogma” resulted in the institutionalization of toleration as the highest moral virtue…leaving “the rest of us to sink ever deeper into the confusing, unsatisfying, hyper-pluralistic, consumer-driven, dogmatically relativistic world of today”. A “today” when everything is relative: you may or may not accept homosexuality as ‘deviant’; you may or may not accept the need for gender and racial equality…you may or may not accept the ethics of abortion…morality becomes fluid and plural.

This mythos of the earthly God-fearing paradise leading to its fall and corruption through alien ideas and leading to the need to steer away from moral relativism and regain the paradise led by the righteous few (Remember George W Bush and his messianic leanings?) is mirrored in fundamentalist Islam.

Before the days of the prophet, it is suggested, there was an age of ignorance and pagan immorality (jahiliyya). Mohammed, the vessel of God’s revelation, led to the formation of a new society based on divine law (no separation between revelation and reason here). But success led to luxury, decadence and stagnation; and the will to impose God’s sovereignty died. The crusades only added insult to injury, forcing increasing secularism and a new jahiliyya. The aim of the new jihadists is the defeat jahiliyya and the regaining of the purity of Mohammed…the new caliphate. Inshallah.

As we noted, Mishra’s emphasis is less on the intellectual framework that describes our age of anger, but on the events that led to this angst…from the ordinary unemployed youth who feels that his only hope is to take up arms in Syria to the underemployed white American who feels bypassed by generations of self serving politicians and who turns in desperation to a racist demagogue for help.

At the heart of this rise in anger, the ressentiment is a relatively modern phenomenon: the evolutional of the person as an individual. Mishra notes that there has been a massive shift worldwide: people see themselves in public life primarily as individuals, freed from the old hierarchies of class and caste (and gender and race), longing for wealth, status and empowerment. The desire for self-expansion via material success, he suggests, directly replaces spiritual ideas of traditional religions and cultures; with (as a result) a heightened sense of social discrimination and gender inequality. To this you can probably add Lilla’s insight into “plural moralities”, effectively alienating the modern individual from those cushioning cultural anchors.

The problem is that growing inequality – the unequal distribution of wealth and power – political dysfunction and for many, economic stagnation (with the realization that there really is no better tomorrow) has created what Hannah Arendt calls “negative solidarity”. The promise of individual freedom therefore remains a promise that will forever be unfulfilled, resulting in “an existential resentment of other people’s being”…an intense mix of envy, humiliation and powerlessness (the recipe for ressentment).

The only out, the only catharsis for the anger lies either in fantasies of revenge (the proto jihadist) or, and here he quotes both de Tocqueville, “…a desperate longing for a master” and Max Weber “…the modern world is an iron cage from which only a charismatic leader [Trump, Putin. Ben Laden, Modi, le Pen etc] offers escape”

Lilla’s book is a far more balanced, academic study of these philosophical strands that web and suffocate the modern far right thinking; Mishra’s book, though endlessly interesting, menders here and there with the often glib flabbiness of a pop journalist. The focus of neither of them replaces the endless navel gazing into the immediacy of “what happened in the election?, the role of fake news, the reasons for the failure of globalism etc. But their value lie in the broad historical perspectives they offer; that endless savannah of philosophical insights that underline so much of the gestalt of our lives

 

DENIAL*** Grippingly Relevant


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THIS IS AN absorbing, highly relevant, brilliantly well-acted movie about Holocaust denial. The story (from her book, “Denial: Holocaust History on Trial”) pits the American historian, Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz affecting a very credible Jewish American – Queens – accent) against Holocaust denier and bogus academic, David Irving. (Timothy Spall; as usual, outstanding… as a showy, media savvy, cunningly intelligent populist). It’s the battle between fact and the denial of fact (or, in Trump-speak, “alternative fact”).

Not too long ago (about fifteen years or so), Irving sued Lipstadt and her publisher Penguin Books. His suit claimed that Lipstadt’s book, “Denying the Holocaust” (in which she called out Irving’s pro-Hitler, Holocaust denials as bogus academia, distorted history and anti Semitic lies) defamed his integrity and maliciously caused his loss of reputation. The suit was lodged in the U.K. courts, which unlike the USA courts, demand that the defendant (there not “innocent until proven guilty”) prove the plaintiff wrong. In other words, Lipstadt, who until then had refused to debate the actuality of the Holocaust with its deniers (As she notes in one of her lectures, “I also won’t debate that Elvis still lives”), was forced to prove Irving wrong…forced to prove that the Holocaust did actually exist.

The movie makes clear that the price of her failure to do so would open the door to Nazi sympathizers and deniers everywhere. To those survivors still alive and their families, it would be a tragedy.

English playwright and “Denial’s” writer, David Hare, no doubt overly cautious of not simply penning a polemic, lays out the story in classic courtroom drama style. He charts the twists and turns of the court case…in particular, he emphasizes the strategy developed by Lipstadt and Penguin’s two ferociously intelligent, arrogant, no-nonsense lawyers: solicitor, Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott…the devious civil servant and Bond’s nemesis in “Spectre”) and his barrister, Richard Rampton (Tom WIlkinson). The strategy they chose, was to deny Irving the grandstanding oxygen of the public gallery by hearing the case in front of a judge, not a jury. And their tactic was to focus not on the actuality or not of the Holocaust (much to the chagrin of Lipstadt) but on the deliberateness of the deception; that Irving willfully lied and willfully distorted the facts of history to suit his own racist agenda.

The focus was on the nature of and the intent behind the act of denial.

Director Mick Jackson (“The Bodyguard”) and writer Hare build the movie as meticulously as they would a case. They balance the private dramas of a testy Lipstadt (whose relationship with her legal team was often fraught, distrusting, and confrontational ) and the arcane intricacies of the law.

Weisz is outstanding. She’s a very subtle actor; and even though her character is quite the showman (as you’d expect of many a great presenter), it’s in her almost imperceptible facial twitches where she manages to communicate such an array of emotions. For she is the story: the heartfelt sense of loss and agony, the fierce determination to resist and win, the public persona of defiance, the private tremble of doubt and anxiety…they belong both to the person and to the history she represents.

But in the end, though thoroughly enjoyable, the movie feels constrained within an imagined Proscenium. It remains too faithful to its historical topic. It’s about Holocaust denial, not the (so achingly immediate) pathology of denial. The alt-right have successfully managed to conflate facts with opinions; so the denial of fact is presented simply as a difference of opinion. Indeed, if it’s one conversation this movie has stimulated (OK, it’s only a conversation with myself) it’s the link between the denial of the Holocaust (essentially rooted in anti Semitism and, as the movie suggests, its close family: racism and misogyny) and the denial of Climate change (rooted in the fake -Fox-news campaigns of the profit threatened oil industry).

Certainly the role of denial, once the harmless tactic of cheating spouses (and now that we have a denier in chief running the US) has gained a new, and much more sinister twist. No wonder Irving, whose career was ruined after he lost his case, is back in the limelight. We’re thirty-three years after 1984…and doublespeak, never quite gone from political discourse is baaaaack with a vengeance.

It will simply not be denied

 

DENIAL. With: Rachel Weisz, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Spall, Andrew Scott. Dir: Mick Jackson. Writer: David Hare. Cinematorgrpher: Haris Zambarloukos (“Eye in the Sky”)