28 November 2006

Addendum to Quo Vadis?

As it turns out, I'm still thinking about this book. I don't think I said much about this in my original post on it, but one thing that's really incredible about the text is the way in which it portrays, and gives a context for, early Christianity. The vivid contrast between the debauched, hedonistic ethics of the Roman world and the ethical worldview of Christianity is quite poignant. There is also a subtle critique of later developments of Christianity, most strongly of the fire and brimstone variety. The emphasis is on faith, love, and forgiveness. But where the text is really remarkable is in the way in which it illustrates the radical force of the "turn the other cheek" idea. And provides a political context for it. This has really stuck with me, and the force of it hit me even more last night as my friend Sean and I were discussing Christianity in America and the war in Iraq.

Christianity began as the faith of an oppressed minority, a small group pitted against the absolute power of the Roman Empire. That it rose to become one of the world's major religions is something of a miracle, and it seems to me that it put a bit of a strain on the ideology, in that what was originally the faith of the meek suddenly became the faith of those in control, and now what? I was thinking about this in the context of the War on Terror, or rather, the war against Islamic Fundamentalism. I mean, it's a tired cliche, but what would Jesus do? Would he be out hunting for Osama bin Laden? Well, if we're going from Quo Vadis, no, he most certainly wouldn't. When the soldiers came to arrest Jesus, did he resist? No. When the Christians were thrown to the lions, did they fight? At least in Quo Vadis?, they knelt and prayed and got eaten. In this text, at least, Christianity is presented as the ultimate power of passivity. They turn the other cheek like mad. This passivity, of course, ultimately wins them converts and proves to be quite the weapon in itself, but still. It's not a project of going out and righting the world, or fighting evil, it's a highly individual moral code. And obviously Quo Vadis? is a work of fiction, but still, I mean, the Bible explicitly states that THOU SHALT NOT KILL. It's pretty clear, no? So how does a Christian justify American foreign policy?

So what happened? What am I missing?

Well, here's one thought. The "turn the other cheek" ideology is all well and good in an age where you have to face a man to kill him, but it doesn't quite pan out in an age where the push of a button can exterminate a few million. The scale of violence possible these days, and the estrangement facilitated by technological development, make such a strategy untenable. And the shadow of the Holocaust looms large - turning the other cheek has become an ethical outrage.

Furthermore, there's been an increase in competition. At least in the Quo Vadis world, your options are basically Christianity, Judaism, and Pagan. Paganism is somewhat scattered, and severely lacking in moral fibre. Judaism is dark and mysterious and not exactly welcoming to strangers. So Christianity is quite the upgrade. Note that in the novel, one never sees any Jews converting - it's only the faithless pagans, who don't really have a religion to speak of anyhow. So Christianity never has to mount an argument as to why it's superior to a comparable faith.

In any case, it is a really fascinating aspect of the book, this view of Christianity on its home turf, so to speak.

25 November 2006

The Departed

This is one of the best bad movies I’ve ever seen. It’s fabulously entertaining to watch up to the last 20 minutes, where it takes a serious nose-dive. But amusing as it is, upon leaving, you start to think back on it, and with a bit of poking, the film completely falls apart. I think, actually, that this is why the last 20 minutes are so disappointing – the film is so poorly constructed that the ending can’t help but be an attempt to lamely tie up loose ends.

But first, the virtues – the dialogue is phenomenal. Fast-paced, witty, often hilarious. The acting is largely brilliant (though I was less impressed with Jack Nicholson than I expected to be), with Mark Wahlberg and Alec Baldwin in particular delivering absolutely stellar performances. The two leads, Leonardo Dicaprio and Matt Damon, weren’t quite as strong, but this is due more to poor writing than poor acting, I think. In any case, the movie is a real blast to watch. Fast-paced and funny, it’s a real treat. You’re borne along in the excitement, and don’t invest too much energy considering the plot – until it begins to draw to a close, at which point, the other shoe drops.

The story itself is fairly compelling – two double agents working for opposite sides, tracking each other. Unfortunately, it’s not handled with enough grace. The parallelism is often clumsy, and the psychological exploration that would have made the movie really intriguing is foregone in favor of cheap suspense. That both of them are sleeping with the same woman, for instance, adds some thrill perhaps, in that there’s a chance that they could find out about each other, but in fact, the buildup goes nowhere, and it ultimately feels totally contrived. How much more interesting it would have been to watch each in a relationship with a different woman, and thus get a more nuanced glimpse into their minds! Alas.

It’s odd, in that the movie seems to want to be subtly probing, but ends up being alternately vague and ham-fisted. Thus, repeated symbolic hints clue you in to the fact that Matt Damon’s character is impotent, but gives you no good reason to give a shit. The characters aren’t sufficiently developed to be truly sympathetic (in the fellow-feeling sense, not the nice guy sense), thus the development we do get serves largely to bog down the storyline, or to seem like a crude caricature. There’s some attempt to introduce the question of what truly separates cops from criminals, but again, the question is raised and then left hanging, without enough material provided to make it truly thought-provoking.

But having said all that, allow me to reiterate how much fun the movie is to watch. The individual scenes are, for the most part, great – it’s just that they don’t add up to a coherent, satisfying whole. For example, in the middle of the movie, there’s a somewhat mysterious scene where Jack Nicholson is tossing handfuls of cocaine onto a bed where two young ladies are writhing about. What’s the point of that scene? No idea. But you’ve got to admit, it’s pretty fucking hardcore. Likewise, why does one of the mafia dudes, upon his death, inform Leonardo Dicaprio that he’s figured him out, and then, with his last breath, challenge Dicaprio to explain why? Is it because he’s he’s also an undercover cop? Is it because he just happens to have a soft spot for Leo? Is it because he’s had a change of heart and is actually hoping that the crime ring will get busted? Who knows! But it makes for a pretty intense scene.

Oh, and a sidenote – the movie is pretty intensely gory. This has been remarked upon in many reviews with some shock, as though this were the first movie to come out with this kind of violence. Have these people ever seen a Tarantino flick? Did they go to Sin City? Brutal, splattering, visceral violence is the new black, folks. People don’t just get shot in the head anymore, they get their brains sprayed onto the wall behind them, with big gooey drops of blood flying through the air. I’m not sure why this is, but I find it kind of interesting. A guy I was talking to at the bar about the movie told me that he found it really disturbing, which honestly kind of surprised me. Perhaps I’m just part of a younger, desensitized generation, I dunno.

In conclusion then, I wholeheartedly recommend this movie. It’s a great time. You’ll have fun watching it. Just don’t think about it too much afterwards.

14 November 2006

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

You've probably heard a lot about this movie already. It apparently holds the record for biggest box office opening for any movie that has opened in less than 1,000 theatres. There's already a lawsuit in motion from some of "victims" of the hoax. But none of the articles about this movie, that I've seen anyhow, discuss what a totally bizarre phenomenon it is.

So, as I understand it, the way the movie was made is that Sacha Baron Cohen posed as Borat and then travelled the US, tricking people into thinking he really was Borat, and filmed his encounters with them. These encounters, however, are partly staged. For instance, the frat boys who are suing him were allegedly taken to a bar, provided with copious amounts of liquor, then placed in a trailer home, whence Borat was dumped. The time they spent together was filmed, but their conversation was unscripted. So what you have is a meta-clusterfuck. You are watching a movie that is the story of a fictional character making a documentary, and you're seeing both the process of making it, and the actual footage filmed. The footage filmed is both staged and genuine, basically like an improv routine, where you're given a scenario and set free to act it out. The Americans of the film are aware that they're performing for a camera, and think they're being put in a documentary about the US - which is, in fact, exactly what is happening, except that the guy interviewing them is a fictional character, and the documentary is for the (comedic) benefit of the Western world rather than the cultural enlightenment of Kazakhstan. The blend of fiction and reality here sort of blows my mind.

Let's not forget that part of the humor here is that Borat is a ridiculous character, an outrageously offensive guy from a caricature of Eastern Europe. Now, some of the humor here is to be derived from the fact that these Americans he encounters don't recognize him as a fake, and are apparently willing to believe that Kazakhstan in really this backwards. But is the joke there really on these gullible Americans? Is it that the Americans are just that gullible/ignorant, or is it also that there's a ring of truth to this caricature that allows it to be toeing the line of believability? Are we laughing at how gullible Americans are when we laugh at Borat french kissing his sister? I don't think so. We're laughing at Eastern Europe. Is the fact that the Kazakhstan caricature is a veritable collage of Eastern European traits meant to rope in all of Eastern Europe as fodder for humor, or just to further ridicule the Americans? The phrases such as "jak sie masz" that Borat uses are, in fact, Polish. Most of the "Kazakh" he is speaking is Hebrew with a heavy Russian accent. Azamat is speaking Armenian. The music is mostly Russian, recognizable to some because it's in the Gameboy version of Tetris, though some Goran Bregovic tunes make an appearance as well. I mean, I'm Polish and I find it hilarious, but still, I couldn't help but feel that the vitriolic edge of the film's humor is directed not at Americans, but at Eastern Europeans.

Now, here's where I get dizzy. Let me pause here to say that a friend of mine, as we were en route to the movie, complained about the fact that the reviews of the movie read it as some kind of ethnographic project, cultural commentary on America, etc. "He's just doing this shit because it's funny", claims Sean. So, what's curious to me about the film, which I suppose inclines me to Sean's view, is that at no point in the film is it made clear that the Americans in the movie are not acting. The movie never explicitly states what it is most known for - that these people really did react to this guy in this way. Secondly, everyone knows from the get-go that Borat is a fictional character. So if the film really meant to be hard-hitting cultural commentary on the US, it'd need to be more real, right? For instance, the woman playing the prostitute would have to actually BE a prostitute. Fun fact - she played in So I Married an Axe Murderer. Anyhow, my point is, the fact that the movie doesn't flaunt its semi-documentary aspects leads me to think that it isn't actually meant to be a cultural slap in the face. Rather, it's amusement, albeit with a political side. Now, the final dizzying aspect is the American audiences who are falling over themselves rushing to see this movie, and laugh at how stupid Americans (and Eastern Europeans) are. My friend Ligaya speculated that perhaps this is a key feature of being American - this sense of "Americans are such idiots, but I, an American, am totally unlike them". But the cruel twist of it is that, of course, they kind of are. I mean, even some of the people who are throwing fits about being duped admit that the movie is funny. So...

But, you may be thinking, did you LIKE the movie? So here's the thing - moments of it were hilarious. Incidentally, here's another question - does the hilarity of, for instance, Borat yelling at the rodeo, "May George Bush drink the blood of every man, woman and child in Iraq!" have anything to do with the fact that he's *actually* doing it at a real rodeo in front of people who don't know he's fake? See, because I think that most of the time, what I'm laughing at is the caricature of Eastern Europe, or just the general absurdity of the set-up - it has nothing, for me, to do with whether or not it's scripted. The fact that it's kind of real doesn't really make it funnier. But anyhow, so yeah, moments of it are very, very funny. But honestly, for a lot of it I was just bored. It dragged. The plot was shaky, which would be fine, if it weren't so very developed. I think Borat is really at his best in short bursts, as he appears in the tv show. I wouldn't really recommend the movie if you're just looking for some stupid humor - rent the dvds of the show instead. They're much funnier, I think.

Incidentally, another thought to ponder - the difference between Stephen Colbert's interviews and Borat's... Look, for instance, at Colbert interviewing Congressman Lynn Westmoreland (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hWCJetVdaWo). Hilarious, and incisive political commentary. Doesn't involve any deception, and sends, basically, the same message that the Borat movie is getting at, unless you buy my argument (which is sort of buried in this post) that Borat's real target is Eastern Europe.

This blog is basically a place where I collect my thoughts, buckaroos. So apologies for the scattered-ness of it. If I were to write something on Borat now, having just written all this out, it would likely be something more like this:

Intro: intriguing aspect of Borat film, undiscussed by most reviews, is blend of fact/fiction. Works in very odd ways. So what is the real purpose of Borat movie - humor or political commentary? Who is the real target?
1. doesn't make a point of telling you that the american scenes are unscripted - in fact, parts are totally fake. Prostitute, for example, is an actress. So the reality factor seems less important than people are tempted to claim.
2. humor doesn't entirely depend on reality of these encounters (though this may just be my impression - i'm curious what others think)
3. borat as a character, and plot surrounding him, is actually more developed than the american cultural encounter aspects of the film
4. the real humor of the movie is borat just being a wacky guy, and watching people interact with this wacky guy
5. who is borat? eastern european caricature, collage of various stereotypes, languages, music, etc
6. the anti-semitism aspect. quite obviously a critique of anti-semitism, portrayal of anti-semites as idiot barbarians. yet (sadly) this very kind of anti-semitism does still exist, and especially in eastern europe.
7. in fact, while the americans represent themselves, and are invited to good-naturedly, for the most part, laugh at themselves, the eastern europeans have no opportunity to represent themselves in a better or worse fashion - they're being ruthlessly stereotyped and caricatured. and while it's outrageous, and obviously exaggerated, it's also obviously grounded in some kind of reality. at very least, one can say that eastern europe has largely failed in producing a more positive image of itself in the west.
Conclusion: the real target for humor, somewhat vicious humor no less, in the movie, is eastern europe, not america.

12 November 2006

Quo vadis? by Henryk Sienkiewicz

I finished reading this book about 2 hours ago now and I'm still reeling. Rome has fallen. Hard.

Sienkiewicz's novel depicts the decline of Rome and the rise of Christianity, primarily through three characters - Markus Winicjusz, Petroniusz, and Nero. The centerpiece of the text is the love affair between Winicjusz and a young woman named Ligia, and his resulting conversion to Christianity, but as the text progresses, its scope widens, and events start occuring on a more cataclysmic scale. The tone shifts subtly in the work as the Roman perspective grows increasingly foreign and barbaric, and the Christian worldview becomes more familiar. It's impressively done. The ideology of Christianity is introduced from without in a clever way; first in a sort of speculative fashion - "Have you heard anything about this Christianity thing? I hear they eat babies!" and then indirectly - as people explain the teachings to Winicjusz, the reader encounters them as a foreign idea that gradually becomes more familiar. The reader, initially immersed in the Roman worldview, likewise experiences Christianity as something unknown, new and different. And gets in on the ground level, because after all, the people preaching have personally hung out with Jesus, which is really kind of novel and exciting. It's kind of interesting, in that Winicjusz's conversion happens in a fashion that I imagine is somewhat backwards from the way that people convert nowadays - he is fairly easily persuaded that Jesus was a real, living guy who died and was resurrected, but the teachings themselves are a bit harder to swallow. He's willing to buy the whole resurrection bit - why not, strange things happen all the time, and Paul seems like a trustworthy guy, so if he says it happened, ok, but this turn the other cheek, love your neighbor business, that's a whole other can of worms.

And yet, the logic of the novel inexorably insists on the wisdom of these ideals, and by the end of the text, there is simply no other way to see the world. It's pretty incredible. At page 200, you're right alongside Winicjusz, being completely baffled by these new, strange ideas, totally unable to understand them, and by page 500, you simply can't see how one could think differently. Which isn't to say that the work is polemical. Actually, what's somewhat surprising, to me, is that the text ends more on a note of eulogy for the world that is left behind than the triumphant kick one would expect. The climactic scene, more than anything, is the death of Petronius. With Nero's death, the evils of the Empire are laid to rest, but with Petroniusz, a particular way of loving beauty is lost. Though Petronius originally appears as a rather amoral aesthete, by the end of the work, he actually seems like the one who has things figured out, more so even than Winicjusz and Ligia, who, one must admit, get a bit dull. Petroniusz seems to be able to claim the best of both worlds - the ethical rigor of Christianity but the grace of the Ancient view. Christianity, he says, teaches that one must love everybody, and he's just not capable of loving what is ugly. If the Lord meant him to love everything, why couldn't he have made it all beautiful? Good question Petronius, and one that the text doesn't really answer. Whereas Nero's love of the beautiful makes him a monster (the burning of Rome again reminds me of Benjamin's claim that man has become so estranged from himself that he can appreciate his own destruction as an aesthetic act...), Petroniusz seems to be a good middle ground...

Epics are so neato. We don't often think of things on such a grand, sweeping scale these days - we have too much a sense of relativity, I think. It's just incredible to watch an empire topple, to see a new movement gathering speed and ultimately setting a new world order. People like to compare the US to Ancient Rome and project doomy doom - they have no clue. You start thinking about what it would really take, these days, to unleash that kind of apocalyptic sea change, and it seems like nuclear holocaust would be a bare minimum. And the charm of the historical novel is its ability to somehow encapsulate changes of this scale through a telescoping view, with a scant few characters. True, there may be some compromise in terms of psychological complexity, but one doesn't have a sense that the people are totally flat. Perhaps this is because the interest of the work is in the mental shift that's occuring, the clash of two systems of ideas. So the key moments are generally sights of human interaction rather than physical events. It's not Glaukon burning alive, it's the moment he forgives Chilo, and the ensuing change in Chilo. Though it must be said, the burning alive thing is pretty impressive. The brutality of the Roman world is actually pretty mindboggling. I don't think the reality of the Coliseum and the gladiatorial games had ever really hit home for me, but my god. It's terrifying.

All in all, wow. Quite a book. No wonder they gave the man a Nobel prize.

I passed this on my way to school today: