Thursday, November 29, 2007

Rattle and Rattle

Okay, it's official. Journals are ruining my life. I'm sitting in the Kimmel Center, listening to Simon Rattle conduct a performance of Schumann's Das Paradies und die Peri and all I can think about is journal submissions. Because cut out the overblown romanticism and the 'mystical East' trappings, and that's basically what's happening. You want to get into Paradise (a journal). You offer them the blood of a slain hero. They send back a polite note thanking your for your submission but regretting that it doesn't meet their current needs. You offer them the sighs of true love. Still they reject you. Finally, in despair, you offer them the tears of the true penitent and they relent. You're in! Hurrah! Break out the trumpets, bring on the choir!

And speaking of journals, the new issue of Rattle arrived today, including, among others, this delightful little sonnet by Joseph Bathanti:

Jesus Meets the Women

They bump into Him shopping in Bloomfield.
It's how many years? He's skin and bone.
The hair. The beard. Some kind of radical.
But still He shows respect, kisses each one,
inquires about their health, tells them to pray,
ask anything in His name and it's theirs.
They laugh. He's probably on drugs, they say.
His poor widowed mother. Thirty-three years
old, a grown man, and still can't settle down.
The little bit He makes He gives away,
while poor Mary sits in one room downtown,
practically on welfare, day after day.
They don't mention the thorns or bloody cross.
He's not a bad kid, just a little lost.

- Joseph Bathanti

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Poor Nietzsche

"Poor Nietzsche in Turin, eating sausage his mother
Mails to him from Basel."

- Robert Hass, 'A Supple Wreath of Myrtle'

Yes, poor Nietzsche. First his own life let him down, then history. A being betrayed by existence.

All that survives of him now is what survives of any mind - trivia - pieces of evidence the clerks have kept not because they are conclusive, but because they are shiny. The package of sausages, the beaten horse.

Beyond the human, beyond tragedy, beyond good and evil, what remains is anecdote. Like the story of the man who stood at the base of a great mountain, laughing at the shapes of the fallen stones.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Time and Materials

Feeling a little tired today (7.45 am breakfast meetings are just plain inhuman) so will content myself with posting a poem from Robert Hass' National Book Award winning collection Time and Materials. Not perhaps the best poem in the collection, but probably the most political.

A Poem

"You would think God would relent," the American poet Richard
Eberhardt wrote during World War II, "listening to the fury of
aerial bombardment." Of course, God is not the cause of aerial
bombardment. During the Vietnam War, the United States hired the
Rand Corporation to conduct a study of the effects in the peasant
villages of Vietnam of their policy of saturation bombing of the
countryside. The policy had at least two purposes: to defoliate the
tropical forests as a way of locating the enemy and to kill the enemy if
he happened to be in the way of the concussion bombs or the napalm
or the firebombs. The RAND Corporation sent a young scholar
named Leon Goure to Vietnam. His study was rushed by the air force
which was impatient for results, but he was able to conduct interviews
through interpreters with farmers in the Mekong Delta and the
mountainous hillside farm regions around Hue. He concluded that
the incidental damage to civilian lives was very considerable and that
the villagers were angry and afraid, but he also found that they blamed
the Viet Cong - the insurrectionist army the U.S. was fighting - and
not the United States for their troubles, because they thought of the
Viet Cong as their legitimate government and felt it wasn't protecting
them. Seeing that the bombing was alienating the peasantry from
the enemy Vietnamese, Robert McNamara, the secretary of defense,
General William Westmoreland, the commander in charge of
prosecuting the war, and Lyndon Johnson, the president of the
United States, ordered an intensification of the bombing. In the end,
there were more bombs dropped on the villages and forests of South
Vietnam than were dropped in all of World War II. The estimated
Vietnamese casualties during the war is two million. It was a war whose
principle strategy was terror. More Iraqi civilians have now been
incidental casualties of the conduct of war in Iraq than were killed
by Arab terrorists in the destruction of the World Trade Center.
In the first twenty years of the twentieth century 90 percent of war
deaths were the deaths of combatants. In the last twenty years of the
twentieth century 90 percent of war deaths were deaths of civilians.
There are imaginable responses to these facts. The nations of the
world could stop setting an example for suicide bombers. They could
abolish the use of land mines. They could abolish the use of aerial
bombardment in warfare. You would think men would relent.

- Robert Hass
You can see Dan Chiasson's review of Hass' new book over at the New Yorker. I tend to agree with Chiasson's view that "Hass’s work of the past twenty years, culminating in “Time and Materials,” is his best, and its strengths derive entirely from that impulse to ransack his own lyric gift", except that I found Time and Materials fairly uneven, and can't help feeling it's more a weakening than a culmination. There are some glorious poems here - 'Then Time', which Chiasson mentions, is lovely; 'Bush's War' (with it's almost Neruda like opening) is powerful; 'I am your waiter tonight and my name is Dmitri' is hilarious; and I really like 'The Problem of Describing Color', 'Envy of Other People's Poems' and 'Art and Life'. But some of his more experimental poems get a little too clever for me (see, for instance, the title poem of the collection here) while some of the later poems (such as 'State of the Planet') feel a little too preachy, as if Hass hadn't quite recovered from being Poet Laureate.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Cheaper by the dozen

Todd Haynes' I'm Not There

Vite! est-il d'autres vies?

- Arthur Rimbaud

Becoming an artist, we're told, is about finding your voice. But what if you have not one voice, but many? What if you grope about in the darkness of the creative psyche and come up with not one persona but half a dozen? This, Todd Haynes would have us believe, is the secret of the enigma that is Dylan, and his new movie I'm Not There attempts to unmask this persona by placing not one but six mirrors around the great man, in the hope that at least one of them will catch his true face. So we get a guitar-toting, blues-singing African-American boy on the run from a correction home who calls himself Woody Guthrie (Marcus Carl Franklin); a folk singer turned preacher named Jack Rollins (Christian Bale), complete with a mock documentary of his life, hilarious mock covers of Dylan albums and Julianne Moore as a Joan Baez stand-in; a philandering actor called Robbie (Heath Ledger); a folk-musician turned rocker named Jude Quinn (Cate Blanchett) in England for a concert at the Albert Hall (yup, that one); the interrogation of a poet named Arthur Rimbaud (Ben Whishaw); and, well, Richard Gere.

Bewildered yet?

It's an intriguing and courageous idea, but the end result of all this triangulation is not so much a composite portrait of the artist, as a trip through a series of distorted and grotesque images, a carnival house of mirrors that leaves you entertained and weirded out, but no nearer a sense of what you're supposed to be seeing than when you first went in.

What Haynes does get right is the impossibility of pinning Dylan down. Because it's not just, as the BBC reporter played by Bruce Greenwood says in a mock telecast in the movie, that Dylan's sneering, trademark sound conveys a certain sincerity, a certain attitude to life. The truth is that Dylan's songs are a kind of peripheral poetry - profound and meaningful when seen from the corner of the eye, but rarely able to survive being looked at straight on. You can stare at a Dylan song as hard as you like, and (unless you're seriously stoned) you'll find yourself wondering what the hell you ever saw in it, but you won't be able to shake the feeling that something very beautiful just went down here; and you won't be wrong. It's this will-of-the-wisp-ness, this sense of (forgive me) blowin' in the wind, that makes Dylan, well, necessary, if only because life is like that too. The fleeting poetry of Dylan's best songs evokes the rhythms of travel and heartbeat, a nostalgia for the ephemeral, a heightened sense of the self that connects us to the imagination of a generation, makes the everyday seem somehow timeless. That's why we love the man's music.

It's a free-wheeling quality that Haynes film shares. There are moments in this film where you think you detect a hint of Godard [1], but then it vanishes; moments when you think you get what Haynes is trying to say, only then you don't. I'm Not There says very little, but what it almost but doesn't say is a lot.

Which is not to say it's a good movie. Oh, there's a wealth of Dylan trivia in there, dozens of clever little in-jokes, reams of dialog that quotes Dylan lyrics, and dream-like sequences inspired by (among others) Visions of Johannah and Desolation Row. Plus there's that unforgettable moment when the voice from the audience shouts "Judas!" and Dylan (here Quinn) responds "I don't believe you / You're a liar". And of course there's the music, and plenty of it.

But all of that isn't really enough to evoke Dylan. As Haynes switches back and forth between his six stories, what you sense is not vision, but desperation. The Heath Ledger story seems to come straight out of a standard-issue Hollywood romantic drama, the Richard Gere 'western' number, meant to be a homage to Dylan's Billy the Kid phase, comes across as a B-grade period western that has about the same amount of relevance to the rest of the movie as that scene with the naked Japanese girl had to Babel, both the 'Woody' and 'Arthur' sequences seem arbitrarily tacked on, despite a lovely performance by Marcus Carl Franklin, and a guest appearance by Richie Havens. The Jack Rollins spoof is fun for a bit, and Christian Bale certainly looks the part, but then Haynes goes and makes him a preacher, in what must be the worst decision in the whole film. Overall, the problem with much of the film is precisely that Dylan's Not There - there isn't a glimpse of him to be seen, and you sit there wondering why you're being put through this.

What saves this movie, what makes it worth the watch (and yes, it IS worth watching [2]) is Cate Blanchett. Her performance as Jude Quinn, and the Quinn sequences in general, are the dynamo that power this film, give it all its true momentum. It's 1966, legendary folk singer Jude Quinn has shocked all his fans by suddenly going electric, he's in London for a concert and has an extended, part-hallucinogenic face-off with a BBC correspondent about the 'meaning' of his work. What we see, in hypnotic black and white, is a soul in torment, a tortured genius wrestling with the twin demons of self-definition and public perception, an artist spent, exhausted, insecure, mindblown on drugs and cigarettes, trying desperately to break free of the definitions society is imposing on him and find his creative way forward. It's exquisite to watch, particularly because it's also my favorite phase of Dylan's career. This part of the film has the snappiest dialog, the clearest insight and the most cleverly conceived sequences, and Cate Blanchett does an incredible job of bringing it all to life. It's as though Haynes knew that in her he had his most talented, most hard working actor, and he deliberately gives her all the real meat of the film. It's movie making at its finest, and if only Haynes had had the courage to cut out everything else, this would have been one hell of a biopic.

I suppose it makes sense that a movie about a public figure as impossible to define or label as Dylan should be prove to be unsatisfactory. Haynes could certainly have made this a better film, but no matter what he did it's unlikely that he would have been able to capture the essence of Dylan on film. In the end, perhaps the best comment on I'm Not There comes in the film itself, in what is, for me, the high point of the movie, a surreal rendition of Ballad of a Thin Man where Blanchett (playing Quinn / Dylan) looks straight into the camera and says "You know something is happening here, but you don't what it is. Do you, Mr Jones?". Dylan, as always, has the last word.

[1] I'm convinced that at least one scene - the bit where Quinn follows Coco along a wooded path is inspired by a scene in JLG's Sympathy for the Devil.

[2] See, see, I can do random switches back and forth too.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

If I had a war of my own

If I had a war of my own I would decorate it in purple salvos, red poppies of bullet holes in the mud of uniforms, skulls white like planters, awaiting earth. I would paper the walls with maps so you'd never know where you were and instead of windows I would have anthems and instead of faucets I would have a stove. And I would fill these rooms with foldable people, the kind you can slip under the bed when you don't have company, the kind you can leave behind when it's time to go, because taking them with you would be too easy.

If I had a war of my own I would keep it in the doghouse and take away its bones, let it howl at the lucid moon till it realized she was a friend. I would teach it to lick the hand of thirst, and raise one paw like the statue of Liberty, growling at the beggars who came to our door.

If I had a war of my own I would keep something in it, like bread, or marbles; or maybe the buttons from the shirt that I lost, just in case it comes back. I would pluck grenades from the trees and leave them out to ripen. I would stick a label on it just to tell you what it meant.

If I had a war of my own I would keep it in good repair, cut the flag into little pieces to patch up the tears, sitting all night at my machine gun, stitching, till my big sister Dawn came and cut the thread.

If I had a war of my own I would keep it all to myself. I wouldn't share it with anyone, or only with you, my beloved, only with you.

On Anthologies

Courtesy Don Share (via Equivocal), here's Randall Jarrell on anthologies:

"...the average reader knows poetry mainly from anthologies, just as he knows philosophy mainly from histories of philosophy or textbooks: the Complete Someone--hundreds or thousands of small-type, double-column pages of poetry, without one informing repentant sentence of ordinary prose--evokes from him a start of that savage and unreasoning timidity, the horror vacui, with which he stares at the lemmas and corollaries of Spinoza's Ethics. Those cultural entrepreneurs, the anthologists, have become figures of melancholy and deciding importance for the average reader of poetry, a man of great scope and little grasp, who still knows what he likes--in the anthologies."
Personally, I think anthologies are to poetry what radio is to music. They're a good way of checking out what's out there, and catching the new voice or two that you haven't heard before, but if they're all you read then you're not really interested in poetry.

Of course, there are anthologies and there are anthologies, and it's useful to distinguish between them. Off the top of my head, I can think of at least three reasonably distinct types (though admittedly the line between them can get blurred): anthologies of 'new' poetry (Best American Poetry), anthologies of poetry from a particular region / language (The Book of Japanese Verse), and 'theme anthologies' (100 poems about horses) or anthologies that recycle the canon in cutesy ways (100 best-loved poems of all time). The last one of these I dislike as well, but the first two can be useful.

Where Jarrell's wrong, I think, is in his assumption that the anthology is a way of coping with massive volumes of poetry by a single author. For me personally (I probably read about three or four anthologies every year), the anthology is more a way of coping with the endless volume of new poetry that gets published every year, as well as the almost infinite wealth of poetry that exists in languages other than English. Obviously, the filter of an anthology means that this work loses much of its flavor, so that reading anthologies is an imperfect way of becoming acquainted with it, but it's better than not getting to know it at all, and probably better than whatever haphazard sampling of it I could manage on my own. Without Paterson and Simic's New British Poetry, for instance, it would probably have taken me a lot longer to discover Sean O'Brien and Gwyneth Lewis - not because I wouldn't have heard of them, but because the chance that I would have gone to the library and issued out their books without having read (and enjoyed) half a dozen of their poems first is incredibly low.

Not, of course, that anthologies are the only way of expanding your poetic horizons. Literary journals are another way of getting to know new work, but there's such a bewildering variety of those, that you've got almost the same problem there that you do with books themselves. Blogs and poetry websites are useful as well, and I can see the argument for them eventually substituting for the anthology role, but that doesn't mean anthologies aren't valuable in their own right.

In the meantime, the problem is not so much with anthologies per se, but with the potential decision of a reader to restrict himself / herself only to anthologies. If the only poetry you read is in anthologies, or if you stop your exploration of a particular set of poets with their anthologized work, you're missing out on a lot. But there's no reason why, as readers, we have to stop there. The fault, then, is not in our books - it lies with us.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

If Hemingway can do it, why can't I?

Once, long ago, I wanted to be a writer. Now all I want to do is write.


Thoughts like fish that I catch and release. The faint trace of their escape in the water lasting only as long as my raised heartbeat, a splash rippling the silence that no one else hears.

Many years from now, perhaps, someone else will catch this fish, someone more skilled, more sincere, a true fisherman, who will know what to do. (It won't really be the same fish by then - it'll be older, plumper - but never mind). He will gut it, clean it, do all that is necessary, and hang it among the other trophies above his mantelpiece, memories with gills, a bookshelf of ideas no longer in swim. It is his right; he is entitled to his kill. It takes nothing from his merit that I got there first.

Sometimes it troubles me to think that no one will ever know this, no one will remember my catch, because a fish set free does not count.

Sometimes I look at other people's fish - the dead eyes, the gasping mouth - and think they look familiar.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Proof that the Universe is conspiring against me

"Although I never became a teetotaler, I knew - especially when I woke up the next morning with a hangover - that I would cast my lot with caffeine, not with alcohol. Why would I wish my senses to be dulled when they could be sharpened? Why would I wish to forget when I could remember? Why would I wish to mumble when I could scintillate? Of course, since even in those days I was a loquacious workaholic who liked to stay up late, you might think I'd pick a drug that would nudge me closer to the center of the bell curve instead of pushing me farther out on the edge - but of course I didn't. Who does? Don't we all just keep doing the things that make us even more like ourselves?"
Not even two weeks since I gave up coffee and the Guardian has to go and publish this essay from Anne Fadiman's latest book. What was it Dante said: "There is no greater sorrow / than to recall our time of joy / in wretchedness".

Thursday, November 22, 2007

His Master's Voice

When the soldiers left, he moved in. The house was a ruin, gutted by shelling, rubble everywhere. Still, a few of the rooms were more or less intact and three walls are better than none. There was food left over in the pantry and potatoes in the garden behind the house. There was even a well in the backyard - a little brackish, but it would do. There was no electricity, of course. He used the furniture for firewood, breaking it up with an axe he found in the basement, and when that ran out he hacked down the doors. He would have gone to the forest but he wasn't sure he had the strength. Besides, there were wolves out there - he heard them howling in the night, had even seen their dark shapes moving on the edge of the wood. It was a long, bitter winter, and they were hungry.

When fuel for the fire ran out they came for him, as he had known they would. He took all that he needed - water, blankets, some food - and shut himself up in a room upstairs, one that still had a door. They came at night. He could hear their claws clattering up the staircase, the snuffling of their breath under the door. They knew he was in there. It was only a matter of time before they attacked, before they broke through to him. It was a flimsy door, it would give way easily enough. He would have pushed some furniture against it, but he had already burnt it all. For three days they came and went, while he cowered in his room. They seemed afraid of the day. They would come a little after dusk and head back to the forest at dawn.

On the third night, overcome with despair, he decided to play the gramophone. It was an old wind-up set, and there was a fine collection of recordings to go with it. Whoever lived here before had clearly been a music enthusiast. He had avoided using it till now - afraid that someone might hear, afraid of drawing attention to the house. But it hardly mattered now and besides, it had been weeks since the front moved on. There probably wasn't another human being for miles.

So, on the third night, using a few minutes of his precious candlelight, he put a record on the gramophone. Dvorak's Cello Concerto. The 1937 Casals recording. The music both heroic and ruined, flooding the night with its savage cry. Half way through the second movement he realized he could no longer hear the wolves. He went over to the door, pressed his ear against it. No sound. Carefully, summoning all his strength, he pulled himself up to the ventilator, looked down. No sign of them. What had happened? Where had they gone? Then he realized. It was the music. It must be. It was scaring them off. Listening to the opening strains of the third movement he felt a lightness starting to sing in his heart.

After that, he sat up every night, playing records. All the masters of his youth. Beethoven, Schubert, Dvorak, Sibelius, Brahms. Even some Wagner - why not? The Germans would approve. He played symphonies mostly, some of the grander concertos, keeping Chopin for the daytime, afraid it may be too tender to keep the wolves at bay. Sleepless and starving, he listened to these masterpieces over and over, the tears running down his eyes, while outside the wind raged and, far away, a wolf howled.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

No way

In other news, the NY Times claims that denial is good for relationships.

See, this is where I've been going wrong all along. When someone asks "Do you love me?" I tend to say something simple and faithless like "Yes, of course", when what I should really be saying is "Love? Who said anything about love?".

Actually, I find this kind of upsetting. I've always blamed my constant state of being in denial for the fact that I'm not in a relationship. Now it seems that can't be it. Maybe I'm not in denial at all. Maybe I'm just in denial about not being in denial. It's all so confusing.

P.S. Not that I have a problem with not being in a relationship, of course. Oh no. Absolutely not.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Faking it

Brian De Palma's Redacted

There's no doubt about it - Brian De Palma's new film, Redacted, is a deeply disturbing watch. Disturbing not so much because of its content, which is shocking in a yes-that's-terrible-but-don't-we-already-know-that kind of way, but because it's incredible to see one of Hollywood's better directors making a movie so terribly bad it could be the work of a too-clever talentless first timer. You know how when you're really angry, you should take a deep breath and count to twenty before you react? De Palma should have counted to about 5,000 before he made this film, because he's ended up making a botched mess of what could have been a really powerful movie.

Redacted is a fictionalized retelling of a real life crime - the rape and murder of a 15 year old girl by US troops in Iraq. The central conceit of the film is that it's made up of 'footage' pieced together from a variety of sources - chief among them being the video journal of a buddy of the rapists, a soldier named Angel Salazar who is trying to shoot an account of his time in Iraq as a way of getting into film school. These videos, we are to assume, have been redacted - censored by authorities looking to avoid another scandal.

It's an interesting enough idea, and one that, done properly, could have made for great cinema. Unfortunately, De Palma does it extremely badly. Since most of the action is supposed to be shot by a soldier with his handheld we're expecting a lot of jerky camera movement, poor cinematography, and shots of real people (or actors doing a really good job of coming across as real people) having real, everyday conversations, right? Wrong. De Palma gives us the exact opposite. His camera work is a little jerky, true, but no more than, say, the average episode of NYPD Blue, and if Angel Salazar can really shoot like that with a tiny little video recorder (not to mention a camera clipped onto his helmet) he doesn't just deserve to be in film school, he deserves an Academy Award. Instead, where the amateurishness comes in is with the actors (many of them first-timers) who deliver performances that come in somewhere between exploitation flick and high school drama company. And if it isn't them hamming away at their lines, it's the lines themselves - didactic, stereotypical exchanges that have all the realism of a Commando comic. De Palma's idea seems to be (he also wrote the script) that as long as you use fuck in place of punctuation marks, you'll manage to convey gritty, anguished realism anyway, so why bother actually making your characters sound human? It doesn't help any that the characters are caricatures - stock figures familiar to viewers of B-grade movies about the Vietnam war. If it weren't for the seriousness of De Palma's message I'd say he was making a spoof of the genre, but evidently he means us to take this stuff seriously.

The problem, I think, is that De Palma seems driven by a compulsion to spell everything out. There's isn't an ounce of subtlety in this film - every single thing that happens needs to be shown on screen, every single message has to be placed in someone's mouth. This would be bad enough if De Palma were making a more traditional war flick, but with his 'found footage' approach the meticulousness of his documentation defies all credulity. Is it really likely that every single interaction leading up to the rape was captured by some camera or the other, shot from the perfect angle and with crystal clear sound to go with it? And conversely, do we really need to be shown every little side conversation between the soldiers in order to understand what went down here? Does De Palma really credit us with no imagination at all? Even in a more orthodox format, this film would have seemed over-theatrical. Purporting to be a quasi-documentary put together after the fact it looks obviously phony, a needlessly gimicky piece of film making that ends up trivializing the very horrors it is meant to document.

Not that the film is all bad though. Where Redacted works, I think, is in some of the early scenes, where a) the action is supposed to have been shot by news cameras, and actually looks like it has and b) the action is more general - not focussed on a particular character or a particular crime, but documenting the reality of the situation in Iraq. There is a scene early on, for instance, where we are shown a car speeding through a checkpoint set up by the US forces. The soldiers open fire on the vehicle, following procedures, and end up killing a woman in labor (and her unborn child) who was being rushed to hospital by her brother. There is more genuine impact in those five minutes than in the rest of De Palma's film. If everything else in Redacted had come close to that sequence, this would have been a great movie.

As it is, it's a forgettable film - the latest in a long series of failed endeavors to make 'the war film' about Iraq. If you want to watch a gritty, angry film that documents the harrowing violence of war in general and atrocities committed by soldiers more specifically, go watch Flandres, Bruno Dumont's award winning 2006 film that is both infinitely more gruesome than De Palma's film, but also infinitely more realistic.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

A fire that was once singing gold

Irene Nemirovsky's Fire in the Blood

Let it be forgotten, as a flower is forgotten,
Forgotten as a fire that once was singing gold,
Let it be forgotten forever and ever,
Time is a kind friend, he will make us old.

If anyone asks, say it was forgotten
Long and long ago,
As a flower, as a fire, as a hushed footfall
In a long-forgotten snow.

- Sara Teasdale

Two years ago, while working on a biography of Irene Nemirovsky (the early twentieth century French-Russian author whose Suite Francaise - published in translation last year - was, to me, the best book of 2006), Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt stumbled upon an important find - the missing manuscript of Nemirovsky's Fire in the Blood, a novel believed to have been left unfinished by Nemirovsky's death at Auschwitz in 1942.

Newly released, and now available in an English translation by Sandra Smith (who also translated Suite Francaise), Fire in the Blood is, at just under 130 pages, a delightful if somewhat insubstantial read. If Suite Francaise was a grand symphony of a book, Fire in the Blood is more like a lilting etude, an elegaic slow movement scored for piano and cello, every bit as consummate in its artistry as the greater work, but on an entirely different scale. Go in expecting a second Suite Francaise and you'll be disappointed; but read it expecting a longish Flaubertian short story and you'll come away entranced.

At the heart of the book is the Heraclitean idea of the essential separation between our old and young selves. Time, Nemirovsky argues, divides us forever from the people we once were, and while our memories may cling to the facts of those bygone times, it cannot hold on to the spirit of being young - the fire in the blood that gives the book its title. We may romanticize the past or disown it, laugh it off, but in either case what we are left with is necessarily a reinterpretation, and a reinterpretation, moreover, that requires the complicity of others to make us whole, so that we can only truly reclaim our old self (or whatever version of it we choose to believe in) if the others who shared that past with us will go along with the deception. Where they will not, where their version of things contradicts our own, we are set adrift on a sea of uncertainty, trying to make sense of our lives anew. This is why, perhaps, we seek out others to love and cherish - not to share our future with, but for the security of knowing in that future, that we have a shared past. For the porousness of memory divides us not only from our own past, but also from the present of the generations who come after us, who know us only as we are now - correct, proper, secure - and cannot imagine us ever sharing the excitement and abandon that torments and bewilders them.

As the narrator, an aging bachelor named Sylvestre remarks, watching young people dance at a wedding:

"I went into the marquee and watched them; I listened to their laughter. I wondered how they could get such enjoyment from prancing around in time to the music. For some time now, when I'm with young people, I feel a kind of astonishment, as if I'm looking at a species utterly different from mine, the way an old dog watches the comings and goings of little mice. I asked Helene and Francoise if they ever felt anything similar. They laughed and said I was nothing but an old egotist, that they weren't losing contact with their children, thank God. So that's what they believe! I think they're deluding themselves. If they could see their own youth resurrected before them, it would horrify them, or else they wouldn't recognise it; they would stare and say, "That love, those dreams, that fire are strangers to us." Their own youth...So how can they possibly expect to understand anyone else's?"

It's an interesting notion, but one that developed as insistently as it is here, soon comes to feel programmatic and a little too pat. The interactions through which these ideas are laid out seem, at times, a little too contrived (writing about the idea for the novel in her diary, Nemirovsky notes that "a play would be better" and some of that theatricality shows) and the conversation has a tendency to wander into cliche. Consider this exchange:

"Ah, dear friend, when something happens in life, do you ever think about the moment that caused it, the seed from which it grew? How can I explain it...Imagine a field being sowed and all the promise that's contained in a grain of wheat, all the future harvest...Well, it's exactly the same in life. When I saw Francois for the first time, the instant we looked into each other's eyes, so much happened in that makes me feel faint to think of it. Our love, our separation, those three years he spent in Dakar, when I was someone else's wife, and...everything else...Then the war, the children...Happy things, but sad things as well, the idea that he could die, or I might, and the desperate unhappiness of the one left behind."

"Yes", I said, "but who would bother sowing his fields if he knew in advance what the harvest would bring?"

"But everyone would, Silvio," she replied, calling me by the name she hardly ever used now. "That's what life is all about, joy and tears. Everyone wants to live life, everyone except you."
There's a great deal of movement under the surface of this exchange that makes sense only in context, but the dialog itself, with its shop-worn Old Testament metaphor feels so artificial. If this were all there were to the book, then it would be a meager book indeed. Three things, however, add just enough richness to Fire in the Blood to make it rewarding.

The first is the warmth and tone of Nemirovsky's prose (or at least, of Nemirovsky's prose as rendered by Sandra Smith), her ability to evoke mood and landscape, the delectable flavor of sentence after sentence that rolls off your tongue like fine burgundy.

The second is Nemirovsky's ability to bring to life, not just the individual characters in her book, but an entire society, the attitudes, norms and lifestyle of a segment of the rural middle-class, captured as surely and as vividly as in a painting. In her writing, Nemirovsky combines a poetic sensibility with the insight of a sociologist, so that the long vanished culture her story is set in seems familiar, almost lived. The finest scenes in this book are not the ones involving the main protagonists, they are the exquisitely done descriptions of the marginal figures - the farmers gossiping among themselves at a village in, the miserly old man confronting death, the shallow mix of curiosity and propriety that makes these people both petty and noble.

The third is the way Nemirovsky subtly undermines her own narrator, making us doubt his witness and leading us to suspect him of both insincerity and self-delusion. This is an old trick (though, in all fairness, perhaps less so in 1940 than today) but it is done superbly here, and the effect of it is to cause the novel to open up towards the end into a variety of perspectives, each of which, casting new light on the story from its own angle, makes what is otherwise a short, simple tale, seem like a rich palimpsest of emotional and moral choices. The point is not that the facts are unclear - this is not a murder mystery - the point is that the 'truth', when applied to things as ephemeral as feelings, is both subjective and retrospective, and therefore, like Nemirovsky's narrator, impossible to pin down.

Overall then, Fire in the Blood is a fascinating book - not quite in the same league as Suite Francaise, which is a true classic - but an accomplished work by a writer of great skill and insight.

Friday, November 16, 2007

All it needed was a little Vodka

Broad and yellow is the evening light,
The coolness of April is dear.
You, of course, are several years late,
Even so, I'm happy you're here.

Sit close at hand and look at me,
With those eyes, so cheerful and mild:
This blue notebook is full, you see,
Full of poems I wrote as a child.

Forgive me, forgive me, for having grieved
For ignoring the sunlight, too.
And especially for having believed
That so many others were you.
- Anna Akhmatova (translated from the Russian by Lyn Coffin)


It's been a very Russian-themed evening. First an hour spent reading Brodsky, then some Akhmatova, and finally a Philadelphia Orchestra concert featuring performances of the Stravinsky Violin Concerto (which turned out to be an object lesson in the folly of pitting an indifferent soloist against an exquisite wind section) and Tchaikovsky's serenade for strings.


I'm beginning to think, by the way, that I've been cruelly underrating Tchaikovsky. You know how it is - you listen to endless repeats of the Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy and the rest of the vanilla-ness of the Nutcracker, spend years enduring the programmatic bravura of 1812, and before you know it you've forgotten that Tchaikovsky was ever anything more than a composer of exquisite scenery. But revisiting his symphonies and piano concertos recently I'm beginning to realize there's more to the man than soundtrack - he's not likely to displace Beethoven or anything, but when it comes to writing a tune the man is every bit as good as, say, Mendelssohn. And that's high praise, really.


The real high point of my evening, though, came earlier. There I am, sitting at a coffee shop outside the Kimmel Center, reading in peace, when this elderly guy stops by my table and asks me what I'm reading. I'm a little annoyed and tell him it's Akhmatova. He says that's great, though he's never really got into Akhmatova himself. We get into a conversation about her. I ask him what translation he's read. He can't remember. I tell him he should try the one I'm reading - which is the one by Lyn Coffin. I get him to read a couple of poems from the book. He's impressed. He says maybe he should revisit Akhmatova after all. Then he apologizes for troubling me, says goodnight, and pushes off.

Sometimes life feels worth living.


[1] Some of you are probably wondering what I'm doing in a coffee shop given my recent resolution to give up coffee. They do serve tea in these places too, you know.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

No role for the old man

[warning: spoilers]

Watched No Country for Old Men over the weekend - Joel and Ethan Coen's impressive but ultimately unsuccessful adaptation of the Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name to the big screen.

The problem the Coens have with No Country is the problem any film maker trying to adapt a book more intelligent than, say, Harry Potter, has - how to portray the inner life of the novel's characters? And McCarthy's book, for all its pulpishness - the soaring body count, the stolen cars, the cheap motels, the cattle gun - is, in the end, a deeply contemplative, even meditative novel. Much of the real action of the book takes place in the minds of its two central protagonists - Llewelyn Moss and Sheriff Bell. Minds that the Coens, despite the occasional exclamations from their characters, don't really give us access to.

What the Coens do do is a marvelous job of bringing the more violent elements of the book to life, capturing precisely the stark but down to earth brutality that we've come to expect from the makers of Millers Crossing and Blood Simple. Forget Tarantino, if you want to see violence done right, depicted not just in its savagery but in its seedy casualness, its throwaway banality, the Coens are the people to watch. The Brothers also succeed in improving on the book in one way - they make it funny, adding the little comic touches that we remember from Fargo and Raising Arizona, polishing the dialogue to the point where horror meets humor.

Where they fail is in doing justice to the two central characters of the book, and, as a consequence, in bringing out the sense of struggle, of confrontation, that the book fairly reeks with. The Llewelyn Moss in the book is sharp, quick-thinking and practical, a skilled ex-sniper who may, just may, have a shot at beating the bad guys. The Moss in the movie comes across as a hapless tough guy in way over his head. One could argue that the movie's view of Moss is the more accurate one, especially given how things turn out, but that's irrelevant. By placing us inside Moss's head, by showing us the way he analyzes each situation, plans ahead, reacts coolly and efficiently in a crisis, McCarthy is making us share his hopes and delusions, is convincing us that the odds against him are not as small as everyone else believes, that the chase Moss leads his opponents on is a genuine running battle, not a rabbit hunt. Without that perspective the hunting down of Moss becomes a question of how and when, not a question of whether.

But the greater loss here is the character of Sheriff Bell. In the book, Bell is a center of reluctant gravity in a world rapidly falling apart, an Old Testament Elder trapped in an endless wrestling match of conscience with demons both old and new, a man of contemplation who opposes, to the almost messianic violence of Chigurh, the slow wisdom of his own tiredness. In the movie, he's just a good-natured, folksy and somewhat rambling Sheriff who has a panic attack when the big boys come to town. Bell's past - and the crisis of memory that Chigurh's actions trigger - is left out of the plot entirely, his deductive sharpness blunted. We get one lengthy monologue from him right at the start, and a couple of serious dialogues in the end, but for the most part he's a vague, somewhat flaky figure, just clowning around. Yet without Bell's presence, McCarthy's novel becomes an out and out crime thriller, with none of the larger themes of a nation haunted by a history of violence it can no longer deny. No Country for Old Men is not (or not just) a novel about a drug deal gone wrong, it is a novel about the way bloodshed never ages, never grows old, is passed down, like sex, from generation to dying generation, with each age convinced that they have invented it anew. The realm of murder is no country for old men because the elderly need to believe that they have outlived the violence, that they have fought and defeated it, made the world safe for their children; while the present reminds them that violence survives and breeds, and it is they who are outlived.

For all that, No Country for Old Men is an exhilarating film. With Moss and Bell turned into caricatures, the figure of Anton Chigurh - already the most memorable character in the book - is allowed full reign, and as played by Javier Bardem emerges as the archest and most terrifying of villains, an inexorable psychopath who considers himself the instrument of fate, a man who kills at the drop of a coin, the anti-christ with a bad haircut. But Bardem is not the only one who turns out a great performance here. Despite the limited role he is given, Tommy Lee Jones is spectacular as Sheriff Bell, radiating, with every gesture, every expression, the soul-weariness of an authentic old-timer. Josh Brolin turns in a fine performance as Moss, and Woody Harrelson, though a little outclassed by all the talent around him, manages to have fun strutting and preening as Carson Wells.

In the end, perhaps the best tribute I can pay to No Country is this - that at a little over two hours running time, it still felt way, way too short.

[cross-posted on Momus]

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

I can take it

Sunday night I decided to try an experiment. I decided to give up coffee. It's no big deal, I told myself. I drink two, maybe three cups a day. I can take it or leave it.

Ya right. 48 hours later I'm a wreck. I feel blurred, lethargic. I feel like I used to have a superpower and it's been taken away from me, like I can vaguely remember being able to leap from one tall conclusion to another, but just now I couldn't jump over the intellectual equivalent of a dead gerbil (see - I'm reduced to making Scott Adams jokes). I feel blunt. Worse, I'm starting to turn religious. This evening, I tried reading Dante and ended up watching Monty Python. If that isn't a return to the true Faith, I don't know what is. Before long I'll be having visions where I'm wandering through the desert, desperately seeking mocha from heaven.

The worst part of this is that the worse my cold turkey jitters get, the more I'm convinced of the need to break the habit. So if blogging is infrequent this week, or even more morbid than usual (yes n! Wristcutters is on my to-watch list - though given the Imamura retrospective in town I may not get to it till the weekend) you know the reason why.

Meanwhile, over at Harriet, don't miss A.E. Stallings' 'Snark and Blurb: A dialogue' - it's luminous, brilliant, urgent, liminal, radical and, well, necessary.

Monday, November 12, 2007


"quell' ombre orando, andavan sotto 'l pondo,
simile a quel che talvota si sogna"

The backpack is too heavy for him.

Bent under its weight, he keeps his eyes fixed on the road, watches the wheels of the cars whiz past. Cars he cannot see, but imagines stopping for him.

He makes no sign, does not ask for a lift. He is a hitchhiker stranded in his rejection of himself.

Why doesn't he put the backpack down?

Because he won't be able to take it up again.

Why doesn't he abandon it then?

Because it is all he has.

He is going nowhere.

He has nowhere to go.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

God as network effect

"That infinite and ineffable Good,
which dwells on high, speeds toward love
as a ray of sunlight to a shining body.

It returns the love it finds in equal measure,
so that, if more of ardor is extended,
eternal Goodness will augment Its own.

And the more souls there are who love on high,
the more there is to love, the more of loving,
for like a mirror each returns it to the other."

- Dante, Purgatorio, XV 67-75 [1]

Brilliant. Just brilliant. Literally.

Once you get past the sheer perfection of the metaphor, it's worth reflecting on (heh) the fact that Dante, unwittingly perhaps, has lighted upon an argument that is as true sociologically as it is metaphysically. Organized religion is, after all, all about network effects.

[1] Translation by Jean & Robert Hollander. The original reads:

"Quello infinito e ineffabil bene
che la su e, cosi corre ad amore
com' a lucido corpo raggio vene.

Tanto si da quanto trova d'ardore;
si che, quantunque carita si stende,
cresce sovr' essa l'etterno valore.

E quanta gente piu la su s'intende,
piu v'e da bene amare, e piu vi s'ama,
e come specchio l'uno a l'altro rende."

Friday, November 09, 2007


"Papa! Papa! I want bomb!"

The wizened old man behind the makeshift counter gave the boy what he hoped was an encouraging smile. That's right, little boy, nag your father till he buys more fireworks for you. Let's see. Urban professional, upper middle class, early-30s. Not too rich. Probably lives in one of those apartment complexes nearby, the kind where everyone has to go up on the roof or down in the street to light fireworks because no one has balconies big enough. Perfect.

The argument between the father and the son seems to have reached a stand-off - the father saying "No" in his most authoritative voice, the son stamping his little feet and repeating "I want! I want!". Time to intervene.

"Sahab, why not let Baba have a few more fireworks if he really wants? See, I have this special item, very latest, Super Tiranga Bomb, only Rs. 200." He retrieves a cylindrical object from under the table, places it in front of the father. "What does it do?" the father asks, peering at it suspiciously. "Three explosions, sahab, three big explosions accompanied by sparks of orange, white and green - like a tiranga anaar - very loud, very patriotic". "Hmmm...and just Rs. 200 you said?". "Yes, Sahab, very latest item. First time this year. All children are having." "So, Rohan, what do you say? Do you want this?" The child nods his head vigorously. "Okay, then, but no more, all right - we've already got more than enough."

Ten minutes and some further negotiations between father and son later, the two leave. Watching them climb into their car and drive off, the fireworks seller can barely suppress a shudder. Oh, the ugliness of it all. Still, that's one family that will be getting their come-uppance soon.

Dr. Shyam Prasad has always hated fireworks. The noise, the smoke, the rowdiness, the bad manners; the sheer idiocy of the whole thing really, with its atavistic fascination with fire. And the risk. It was a miracle more people didn't get hurt during Diwali, more property didn't get burnt. Every time Diwali came around Dr. Prasad would lock himself up in his flat, switch off all his lights and bury his head in a pillow, nursing a headache brought on by loud noise and suffocation, trying to drown out the artillery of sounds outside.

For a while, it had seemed that things were getting better. Work by child labor and environmental activists had triggered a downturn in firework use and a few Diwalis in between had seemed marginally quieter, but the madness seemed to be coming back. And Dr. Prasad couldn't take it anymore.

That's why he'd come up with this scheme. It was ridiculously easy when you thought about it. Putting the explosives together hadn't been hard - he had a PhD in Chemistry, after all, and the basic materials were freely available. Once the bombs were ready, disguising them as firecrackers had been simple too - just a lot of tacky wrapping paper and a cheesy label he'd peeled off a consignment of genuine fireworks. As for selling, he'd simply caught the train to Delhi, bought a cheap folding table to set up his stall, paid some hafta to the local police, and he was all set. Every day he moved to a new location, so as to spread out the impact of the blasts, spending the entire week leading up to Diwali at it. The real fireworks, which he'd had to buy large quantities of, so as to make his stall into a bona fide operation, had been rather expensive, but he'd managed to sell most of his stock, and besides, it was worth it.

The risk of his being caught was miniscule. Not that it mattered much now that Mrinalini was dead. No one was going to suspect a 66 year old chemistry professor of being behind a series of bomb explosions in the city. They were sure to blame some terrorist outfit or the other. And even if some of the people who'd bought the 'firework' remembered who they'd brought it from (and that was unlikely enough), how would they ever trace him? He had no fixed location, there were no records. He didn't even live in the city, so it was unlikely they'd ever see him again, even by accident. And besides, who paid attention to fireworks sellers anyway? Who remembered the vendor's face, his features? And who would be able to recognize, in a dignified University professor, the semblance of a shabbily dressed street merchant? There was a small risk that someone may set off one of his bombs early, before Diwali proper, and the news may get out, but he figured by selling it as a 'special item' he would ensure that most people would save it for the big night.

As he sat back and waited for his next customer, his mind dwelt on the father and son who'd just left, imagining them lighting fireworks two days from now. Imagined the eagerness of the child, the father's laughing acquiescence, the mother's trivial cautions. Imagined them taking out the cylinder of high explosive he'd just sold them, setting a match to its wick, then drawing back, but not far enough, never far enough. Imagined the bomb going off, shrapnel everywhere, the blast taking out not only the family itself but also the other people playing with fireworks nearby. Imagined the screaming voices, the shattered limbs, the blood. And imagined the same scene playing itself out again and again, all over the city. Who would realize? Who would notice? All the city would hear would be another loud explosion. And even when they saw the damage they wouldn't believe it was a bomb at first. They'd think it was some kind of freak accident. It would be hours before someone would piece it together, figure it out. And then what? No one was going to be sitting indoors watching the news on Diwali night. How long before the news spread, before people were warned? How many people would find out in time? How many of the 200 bombs he'd sold would never be lit? How many would be lit but would fail to go off? Say half of them worked - say a 100 bombs, each killing or wounding, say, three people on the average. Say half of those 300 people were children.

Leaning back in his chair Dr. Shyam Prasad smiled in satisfaction. There would never be fireworks for Diwali again.

P.S. Happy Diwali Everyone!

Thursday, November 08, 2007

The importance of rudeness. And crowds

Have you ever noticed how scrupulous politeness can be annoying, even alienating? You know what I mean - when the person you're talking to is being breathlessly civil, apologizing for every second thing they say, couching every statement in ways carefully calculated not to give offense, as though your ego were made out of porcelain and you were just sitting there dying to take things the wrong way. I don't know about you, but I see this as fundamentally unfriendly. For one thing, all this mincing and tip-toeing stresses me out; plus, precisely because the other person is trying so hard, I end up thinking of all the ways I could construe what they're saying to me as offensive - ways that would never have occurred to me otherwise. But more than that, it just feels like a way of establishing / emphasizing one's otherness, a way of saying "you're not like me - I neither understand you nor like you, and so if I have to deal with you I'll do it by holding you at a formal distance". I don't know. Maybe it's just because that's what I do - when I really dislike someone but have to interact with them, I'm always chillingly correct. Do other people feel this?


And while we're on the subject of things you can have too much of - you know how you always walk into a coffee shop and think, "God! why is this place always so crowded!"? Well. The other day I walk into a Starbucks (one of those big ones, mind, with a dozen plus tables) and there's NO ONE ELSE there. At first I think, oh wow! No annoying teenagers discussing their clothes and boyfriends, punctuating every second word with like; no idiot in a suit talking self-importantly into his cellphone; no hapless customers gawping at the menu as if they'd never heard of a latte before, and spending fifteen minutes trying to decide whether they wanted a tall or a grande. Even the sofas are free! At last a chance to sink back with my book and a cup of coffee and read away in peace.

Two minutes of doing this and the silence is beginning to creep me out. I look up from my book and there are four people behind the counter, all standing around with nothing to do, looking at me. I try to sip my coffee more appreciatively, as though savoring each mouthful. I try to look more contented. Is it closing time? Am I keeping these people from leaving? No, the coffee shop's open till 10.00 and it's only 7.30. Why is there no one else here then? Is there something wrong with this Starbucks that I don't know about? Do they put knock-out drops in your coffee and then drag you into the back and saw you into little pieces? Is there some kind of health alert out? Is it national No-Coffee day? I feel like I'm trapped in a Hopper painting.

Oh my god, one of them is coming over. What does he want? Maybe he's going to throw me out. What's that in his hand? Careful now. Okay, that's far enough buster. What's that? Is my coffee good? It's standard Starbucks brew, for christ's sake - oh, forget it. Yes, yes, it's fine. Would I what? Would I like to try a strawberry frappucino? On the house? Ah, couldn't get coffee to mask the taste of the poison, eh? Had to use strawberries (Yech!). No, no thanks. Just what kind of sucker do you take me for?

After a while, the folks behind the counter start talking - just kidding around with each other. At last, I think. Now they're not paying attention to me. Now I can relax. Except - have you ever tried ignoring a conversation when it's the only sound in the room? It's hard, believe me. Pretty soon I know all about Amanda's corns, am nodding along to Steve's suggestion that she bathe her feet in warm water when she gets home, my book still open in front of me but almost entirely forgotten. I keep trying to shut this conversation out, but I can't - it's too clear, too insistent.

Five minutes later, two loud-mouthed twenty-somethings walk in, go sit on the table on the other side of the coffee-shop start off a high-pitched conversation along the lines of "Then I was like, "Oh my god! he is such a jerk", and then she was like..".

I beam at them in gratitude.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Playing Devil's Advocate

Having God, her conscience, and these bars against me,
And I no friends to back my suit at all,
But the plain devil and dissembling looks,
And yet to win her! All the world to nothing!

- Shakespeare, Richard III I.3

There is a scene in Terror's Advocate, Barbet Schroeder's tantalizing new documentary of lawyer-to-terrorists Jacques Verges, in which Verges, describing the trial of Klaus Barbie (in which he appeared for the defendant), speaks with delight of the way the trial pitted him alone against 39 lawyers for the prosecution - implying, he suggests, that he was worth 40 of them. It's a rare glimpse into a carefully guarded inner life, and, for me, one of the most illuminating moments of the film, which, despite its two hour plus running time, fascinates more than it satisfies.

I say illuminating, because that quote, and the discussion of the Barbie trial that follows, illustrates what seems to me the central reason Verges does what he does. At heart, I would argue, Verges is a thrill seeker, a man who loves to take on impossible odds and thumb his nose at the establishment, a man addicted to his David-vs-Goliath role, to the spotlight that comes with being on the 'wrong' side of a high profile trial. For Richard III, in Shakespeare's play, wooing Anne matters not because he truly cares about her, but simply because it is an impossible courtship, a test requiring every ounce of creativity and perverse intelligence Richard possesses. Verges' addiction to defending the indefensible is driven, I suspect, by similar motives. How else to explain a man who happily refers to himself as 'the bastard' and exults in his inability to come up with some new surprise to throw his opponents off track every day of the trial?

This, I hasten to add, is merely my interpretation. Schroeder's documentary in no way champions this interpretation. In fact, for all its meticulous research and rich material, Terror's Advocate never really provides a coherent viewpoint on Verges at all, remaining (like the man himself perhaps) elusive and fragmentary.

Three things make this a deeply frustrating film. First, so focussed is Schroeder on examining Verges' defense of proven terrorists that he more or less ignores Verges' role in defending war-criminals and despots (his clients have included Slobodan Milosevic, Tariq Aziz and a whole string of African dictators). Verges' friendship with Pol Pot does get a fair amount of air time (too much, in my opinion) but since this amounts to little more than rumor and supposition, and the movie itself seems to question, if not deny, the persistent rumors that Verges spent three years in the 70's in Cambodia, it seems a little pointless. What is fascinating about the Verges story, I think, is the way he starts off defending FLN fighters in Algeria - a group of women who, though certainly terrorists in the strict sense of the word, were fighting for the independence of their country against a brutal occupation by the French - seemingly motivated by a concern for justice and sympathy for the anti-colonial struggle, and ends up defending war-criminals and mercenaries like Carlos the Jackal. Early in the film, Verges justifies his work in Algeria by pointing out that public opinion was behind his clients - the people of Algeria saw Djamila Bouhired (his first high profile client, later his wife) as a heroic figure. This is a tricky argument, but even if one accepts it, it raises the question of how Verges explains his decision to defend many of his later clients, whom public opinion was clearly against. It is a question the documentary never really asks, and a progression never really explored.

The second thing that makes Terror's Advocate frustrating is that Schroeder seems to assume a high level of familiarity with the history of terrorism in Europe, as well as with the trials being discussed. Again and again, the movie seems takes for granted that you know the central facts of the case: who was arrested, what were they accused of, what came out of it, etc. and simply fills in some additional detail on what Verges was doing / thinking and / or the political machinations behind the trial. This is intriguing material, but for someone whose knowledge of the main events being discussed is fairly sketchy, it can be bewildering. You constantly feel that you should have read about half a dozen books before you sat down to watch the movie. Some of this, I suspect, is because the film's primary audience is French, and would almost certainly be familiar with the material. But a little more background information for audiences outside France would have been helpful.

Most of all, though, Terror's Advocate is frustrating because it never quite coalesces into a coherent work. There are, I suspect, at least three full-length documentaries to be made around the material in this film. The first is a genuine profile of someone who has made a career out of defending the infamous - the factors driving him to choose such a career, his feelings about his clients, his justification for his actions, etc. The second is an investigative piece into the question of whether Verges, in the course of his career, has overstepped the line between attorney and accomplice, serving as a key go-between for the Carlos gang and others, and becoming, in a sense, a terrorist himself. The third is a documentary on the roots of the global web of terror, the connections that tie not only seemingly disparate groups all across the world, but the way these connections stretch back into support from Nazi-ism on the one hand and the imperialist policies of the Western countries on the other, as well as the way student groups around the globe have been drawn into and used in the service of terrorism. In attempting to cover all three at once, Schroeder takes on too much, and fails to fully deliver on any one, leaving us with a film that, for all its shocking and insightful moments seems haphazard, almost schizophrenic.

Of the three, the one Schroeder does perhaps the best job of is the second. The film dredges up a great deal of evidence that seems to suggest that Verges had long-standing and illicit ties with the Carlos gang (a claim that he denies - claiming that he had no interaction with Carlos until he became his client) as well as with a shadowy Swiss Nazi named Francois Genoud. The implication is clear and damning - Verges, Schroeder strongly suggests, is not merely a respectable lawyer with a penchant for taking on the cases no one else will touch; he is in fact a man deeply involved in the very network of terrorist activity whose protagonists he defends in court. The trouble with this story is Verges himself - a man who is clever enough to have spent a lifetime successfully avoiding being implicated in any illegal activity involving the clients he represents, is hardly going to be nailed down by a documentary film maker. Accusations and insinuations roll off Verges' back like water off a sly duck, and you're left with an unsatisfactory and smirking portrait of a man whose motives and actions remain, despite Schroeder's best efforts, obscure.

That said, this is a film well worth watching: the initial section around Verges' work in Algeria is engrossing, especially to viewers familiar with The Battle of Algiers (Schroeder's documentary includes scenes from that film, as well as interview footage with Yacef Saadi) and the second half of the film is insightful if only for the way it shows you how little you really know about terrorist politics / the evolution of international terrorism. And if you don't have the opportunity to see the film, you can at least check out the film's website, which, though obviously less high-impact than the film, is, on the whole, much clearer and more informative.

The hilarity of evil

Watching Sidney Lumet's Before the Devil Knows you're Dead yesterday (an entertaining watch, btw, though a tad overdone, especially in the acting department), I found myself thinking about how thin the line between tragedy and comedy really is - how both are constructed out of the grotesque and the unlikely, how both rely on irony and paradox and how both are, often, just a matter of timing. All our pathos carries within in it the seeds of the ridiculous and evil is frequently nothing more than human silliness run amok. Can you imagine anything more cartoonish than Hitler, or, in retrospect, more chilling? Is a mass-murderer anything more than a buffoon with power?

Watching the US bend over backwards to justify their continuing support of a military dictatorship, even after Musharraf's Emergency, I find myself repeating a phrase that comes up much too often now: "It would be hilarious, if it weren't so fucking sad."

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Les is more

Feeling too lazy to put up an actual post, so as a special treat, here are a couple of extracts from Les Murray's new collection, The Biplane Houses:

The Kitchen Grammars

The verb in a Sanscrit or Farsi
or Latin or Japanese sentence
most frequently comes last,
as if the ingredients and spices
only after collection, measure and
even preservation might get cooked.
To all these cuisines renown attaches.

It's the opening of a Celtic sentence
is a verb. And it was more fire and pot
for us very often than ingredients.
Had we not fed our severed heads on poetry
final might have been our fame's starvation.
Upholding cuisines for us are the French
to be counting in scores and called Gallic.

In English and many more, in Chinese
the verb surrounds itself nucleus-fashion
with its subjects and qualifiers.
Down every slope of the wok they go
to the spitting middle, to be sauced,
ladled, lidded, steamed, flipped back up,
becoming verbs themselves often

and the calm egg centres the meatloaf.


from The Nostril Songs

The kingdom of ghosts
has two nostril doors
like the McDonald's symbol.

You are summoned to breathe
the air of another time
that is home, that is desperate,
the tinctures, the sachets.

You yourself are a ghost.
If you were there
you are still there -

even if you're alive
out in the world of joking.


When I was pregnant,
says your sister, my nose
suddenly went acute:
I smelled which jars and cartons
were opened, rooms away,
which neighbours were in oestrus,
that approach of death in sweat.
I smelled termites in house-framing
all through a town, that mealy taint.
It all became as terrible
as completely true gossip
would be. Then it faded,
as if my baby had learned
enough, and stopped its
strange unhuman education.


from Twelve Poems

Lying back so smugly
phallic, the ampersand
in the deckchair of itself.


Creek pools, grown top-heavy,
are speaking silver-age verse
through their gravel beards.


A spider walking
in circles is celebrating
the birthday of logic.

Saturday, November 03, 2007


In the end, loneliness is a thought he cannot complete.

A whiff of cigarette smoke hangs in the air, unmoving, as though the room were holding its breath. He puts Nina Simone on the stereo, the music crushed and purple, staining the walls. Somewhere between the third and the fourth drink celebration and forgetting start to taste the same - the flavor of old whisky, like a language he is learning to speak.

He flips through the magazines looking for news of himself, but there is none. The world seems impossible to belong in. Advertisements filled with impossible people, news articles filled with impossible acts. He tries to pour himself another drink, but the bottle is empty. Seen through it his hands seems very far away.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

The last couple

They are standing at the door of the bus. He tall, proud, back straightened, one arm curled protectively around her shoulder, eyes staring defiantly out at the sidewalk, as if daring it to draw near. She half-turned to him, leaning, her head nuzzling into him, her face hidden by her hair. As though the world had perished and they were the only the survivors, a twilight Adam and Eve awaiting banishment from life. As though they stood on the sinking deck of the last ship and watched the sun of mankind set in the West.

21st street. The doors fly open. It is time. Slowly, as though moved by some distant music only they can hear, they step off the footboard, side by side, and are swallowed by the night.

P.S. My apologies for the poor quality of the video clip (see link above). It's the best recording of that scene I could find online.