'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Friday, November 05, 2010

The Imperialist School of Film Criticism 

Oh, you say that it doesn't exist? That I have become so paranoid that I see imperialist demons everywhere? Well, consider this review of the recently released film, Outside the Law, by Stephen Holden in the New York Times:

Some might describe Outside the Law as a historical revenge film.

The 138-minute movie begins with an emotional sledgehammer: an inflammatory prologue set in 1925 in which the French Code de l’Indigénat is applied to a poor Algerian family, summarily evicted from its ancestral home to make room for French colonists. This land was my father’s! I was born here! cries the patriarch (Ahmed Benaissa), who can produce no documents to prove that the land is his.

The story leaps ahead 20 years for an even more infuriating scene. As France is celebrating V-E Day and the surrender of Nazi Germany, Algerian nationalist marchers in Sétif are massacred by French soldiers stationed on balconies and rooftops, who open fire without warning. These scenes of French colonial oppression are portrayed without any background or shading.

Now, I haven't seen the film, so I have no idea whether it is worth seeing or not, but isn't it rather odd that Holden is infuriated by the visual representation of an event, the massacre of nationalist Algerians in 1945, that no one questions? Isn't it even more peculiar that Holden is infuriated by it because the filmmakers show it without background or shading? I mean, what would that entail? How does one provide background or shading to a massacre?

Of course, we have a pretty good idea what Holden really means. He is implying that the French troops may well have had good reason to fire indiscriminately upon a group of marchers, because, after all, as we all know, they had probably been fired upon, like the Pentagon has asserted, without any evidence, about the US troops who fired upon Iraqi protesters in Fallujah in late April 2003. It is essential to understand that Europeans, Americans, and Israelis are justified in responding to any act of violence by Muslims, or merely the fear of it, with excessive force against the populace, assuming one believes that there was any such violence, which is a huge, frequently unwarranted assumption. Any film that fails to acknowledge the legitimacy of this perspective, at least by having it related sympathetically through some of its characters, as part of a range of subjective experiences, is artistically and ideologically suspect.

In effect, Holden has culturally internalized the values of the war on terror and begun to retrospectively apply them to past episodes of imperialism. One wonders what he would say about Spielberg's film Amistad if he watched it today. Would he now say that the slaves' attack upon the crew of the ship transporting them to a US plantation is deficient because it has been insufficiently contextualized? Beyond that, there is Holden's covert sympathy for the Israeli settlement project in Palestine, as related in his description of the eviction of a poor Algerian family in 1925 as inflammatory. It is doubtful that Holden is suggesting that there was no French policy of property and land seizures. He can't be that ill-informed.

Instead, Holden objects to the exposure of the human consequences of the eviction, because it may cause the audience to question the legitimacy of French colonialism in Algeria, and analogize it to Israeli seizures of land in Palestine. His lack of any empathy with the victims is remarkable, but, then, they are Muslims. Such ruthlessness is better left concealed away from the general public, contained within the antiseptic debates of academics. Note his emphasis upon the father's failure to produce any documents to establish proof of ownership of the home. Here, we have a powerful echo of the notion that if indigenous people don't have any legally recorded private property interest in their land and home, it is perfectly legitimate for others to seize them and establish title, which must thereafter be respected. Combined with the belief that indigenous peoples are grossly economically inefficient, it justifies both the French seizure of the home as dramatized in the film, and Jewish seizures of Palestinian land. Not surprisingly, he characterizes the father's response as hysterical, bringing to mind a recent report in the occupied territories wherein the Israelis claimed that a young child's distraught response to being separated from his father was staged. Such human emotions are solely within the province of the colonizers, apparently.

Indeed, if one is compelled to attempt to summarize Holden's objection to Outside the Law, it is the insistence of the filmmakers upon melodramatically humanizing the lives of the people who resisted the French colonization of Algeria. He finds it aggravating, the cinematic equivalent of someone dragging their nails across a chalkboard. Post 9/11, I have had a sense that there has been a degradation of US culture and cultural criticism as it relates to things like art, literature and film. The free ranging curiosity that was such a prominent feature of the neoliberal 1990s is no longer so much in evidence. Instead, there has been a move towards only accepting works that criticize the US relationship with the world within limited boundaries, and maligning those that do not, as Michiko Kakutani did in her hatchet job on John Le Carre's 2004 novel, Absolute Friends. In the first sentence of the review, she described it as ham handed and didactic. I guess that's what happens if you write a novel, as Le Carre did, that finds redeeming qualities in the Berlin New Left of the 1960s and presents a US intelligence operation centered around a manufactured terrorist incident as plausible. Serving in the role of cultural gatekeepers, people like Holden and Kakutani try to bury works that insist upon being so impolite as to hold a mirror to the war on terror with the condescension of those who purport to appreciate the arts: inflammatory, infuriating, ham handed, didactic. But we know better.

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