Archive for the ‘France’ Category

After Charlie Hebdo

January 11, 2015


The men who carried out the attack on Charlie Hebdo are dead. The discussion we need to have at this point is how do we keep the political right from capitalizing on this tragic event. (This would be a more useful discussion than arguing about whether or not the cartoons in Charlie Hebdo were racist.) Already the right is on the march. The media mogul, Rupert Murdoch has tweeted:

    Maybe most Moslems peaceful, but until they recognize and destroy their growing jihadist cancer they must be held responsible.

So, 1.5 billion Muslims should be held responsible for the actions of three (maybe four) people. This is grandstanding, of course, but it shouldn’t be regarded as harmless or inconsequential. The idea of collective punishment has a strong emotional appeal for some people. And there are people who would really like to see the US invade another country, preferably a Muslim one.

And then there is the “liberal” “comedian”, Bill Maher, who recently announced that “tens of millions” of Muslims supported the Charlie Hebdo attack. As with many of his ideas, Maher pulled this out of his ass. Whether or not he realizes it, Maher is helping to recreate the atmosphere of fear and hysteria that preceded the invasion of Iraq. (The fact that Maher says that liberals have turned the US into a “pussy nation” perhaps indicates what his real intentions are.)

We must confront and condemn advocates of prejudice and drum-beaters for war.

Diana Johnstone and the Politics of Memory

January 26, 2014


The January 24-26 edition of CounterPunch contains an article by Diana Johnstone entitled Blasphemy in Secular France. The article is about the French comedian, Dieudonné, who has been accused of anti-Semitism, and who is a political ally of the far right National Front. Dieudonné has made jokes about the concentration camps and has expressed admiration for the Holocaust denier, Robert Farrison. Discussing the criticisms of Dieudonné, Johnstone writes:

    For his fans and supporters, those accusations are false and absurd. The most significant result of the Dieudonné uproar so far is probably the dawning realization, among more and more people, that the “Shoah”, or Holocaust, functions as the semi-official State Religion of France.

Oh. Really? Really?

Johnstone goes on:

    In addition to history courses, teachers organize commemorations of the Shoah and trips to Auschwitz. Media reminders of the Shoah are almost daily. Unique in French history, the so-called Gayssot law provides that any statement denying or minimizing the Shoah can be prosecuted and even lead to prison.

    Scores of messages received from French citizens in response to my earlier article (CounterPunch, January 1, 2014) as well as private conversations make it clear to me that reminders of the Shoah are widely experienced by people born decades after the defeat of Nazism as invitations to feel guilty or at least uncomfortable for crimes they did not commit. Like many demands for solemnity, the Shoah can be felt as a subject that imposes uneasy silence. Laughter is then felt as liberation.

Under the Vichy government, 76,000 French Jews were sent to concentration camps. Some would see the willingness of the French to discuss a shameful episode of their history as something admirable. Here in the U.S., some people get upset whenever one tries to talk about the genocide of Native Americans or the horrors of slavery. Johnstone, however, believes such discussions can only make people feel guilty and depressed. What’s more, she believes that they are based on a false view of history:

    The sacred nature of the Shoah is defended by the argument that keeping alive the memory of the Holocaust is essential to prevent it from “happening again”. By suggesting the possibility of repetition, it keeps fear alive.

    Nothing proves that repeated reminders of an immense historic event that happened in the past prevent it from happening again. History doesn’t work that way. As for the Shoah, gas chambers and all, it is quite preposterous to imagine that it could happen again considering all the factors that made it happen in the first place. Hitler had a project to confirm the role of Germans as the master “Aryan” race in Europe, and hated the Jews as a dangerous rival elite. Who now has such a project? Certainly not a Franco-African humorist! Hitler is not coming back, nor is Napoleon Bonaparte, nor is Attila the Hun.

Johnstone attacks an argument that no one makes. Nobody really believes that the Third Reich is going to happen all over again. Hatred, however, can take many forms, not just the form of a concentration camp. There were 614 anti-Semitic attacks, including physical and verbal attacks, recorded in France in 2012. In March of that year, three children and a rabbi were shot to death outside of a Jewish school. Given this context, it should not be surprising that some people do not find Dieudonné’s jokes about the Holocaust “liberating”.

Paths of Glory

April 3, 2013


Stanley Kubrick’s 1957 film, Paths of Glory is one of the greatest war films ever made. Indeed, I would rank it as second only to Renoir’s Grand Illusion.

Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) is serving in the French Army during World War I. His commanding officer, the ambitious General Mireau (George Macready) orders him to lead his regiment in a suicidal attack on a heavily fortified hill. When Dax shows reluctance to do this, Mireau questions his patriotism. An incensed Dax tells Mireau that he will lead the attack. The next day, Dax leads his men into battle, but an intense artillery barrage forces them back into the trenches. Refusing to admit that the attack was a bad idea, Mireau claims that it failed because the soldiers were cowards. He orders that one soldier be picked from each battalion to be tried for cowardice. Dax, who was a lawyer in civilian life, announces that he will defend the men in court. The trial turns out to be rigged, however, and despite Dax’s best efforts, the men are condemned to death.

This film is filled with powerful images. There is, for example, a long tracking shot of Dax walking through the trenches just before the attack. The soldiers are lined up along the walls, and shells are exploding outside the trenches. We can see from the expression on his face that Dax has convinced himself that he can somehow make this insane plan work through sheer willpower. The scene is a striking depiction of the self-willed bravado that make war possible.

Paths of Glory is about bureaucratic corruption and incompetence. It makes the point that the military system actually rewards cynicism and ambition rather than courage and honor. (One can see this in the Army’s treatment of Bradley Manning.) In a scene between Dax and General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou), the latter assumes that Dax has opposed Mireau because he wants the latter’s position. When Dax tells him that he was actually trying to defend his men, Broulard reacts with a mixture of surprise and comtempt.

Paths of Glory is based on a novel by Humphrey Cobb that was inspired by an actual incident in the First World War. This film wasn’t shown in France for many, apparently because members of the French military objected to its portrayal of French army officers. (I guess these guys were a little touchy after their less than stellar performance during World War II.)

A great film.

Jean Bricmont and Gilad Atzmon

October 3, 2012

Gilad Atzmon

Jean Bricmont has written an article defending Gilad Atzmon from his numerous critics on the Left, who accuse him of, among other things, being an anti-Semite. (Personal disclosure: I am one of them.) You can read the complete article here. (This links to Atzmon’s website. If you are unfamiliar with his work, you will be amazed at some of the things you will find there.) The first thing one notices about this piece is that it is extremely long-winded. You could cut out at least half the verbiage in it, and it would say the same exact thing. I consider that to be bad writing (although I realize some may not agree with me about this). I find this disheartening. I have always liked to think that theoretical physicists must also be good writers. Einstein wrote well. Carl Sagan could express himself clearly and succinctly. Yet another one of my illusions in life has been shattered.

After nine mostly long paragraphs, Bricmont finally gets to his main argument:

    This movement often gives the impression that its “solidarity” with Palestine takes place above all over there and requires more and more missions, trips, dialogues, reports, and even sometimes “peace processes.” But the plain facts of the matter are that the Israelis do not want to make the concessions that would be needed to live in peace and that a main reason for that attitude is that they think they can enjoy Western support ad vitam aeternam. Therefore, it is precisely this support that the solidarity movement should attack as its priority. Another frequent error is to think that this support is due to economic or strategic considerations. But, at least today, Israel is of no use to Western interests. [This is plainly false.] It turns the Muslim world against us [this is only partly true], doesn’t bring in a single drop of oil [man does not live by oil alone, Prof. Bricmont], and pushes the United States into a war with Iran that the Americans clearly don’t want [some, such as Norman Finkelstein, have argued that Israel is bluffing about this]. The reasons for this support are obvious enough: constant pressure from Zionist organizations on intellectuals, journalists and politicians by endlessly manipulating the accusation of anti-Semitism and the climate of guilt and repentance (for the Holocaust) kept on artificial life support, in large part by those same organizations. As a result, the main task of the Palestine solidarity movement should be to allow free speech about Palestine, but also to denounce the pressure and intimidation by various lobbies. Which is what Atzmon does. Far from rejecting him, the solidarity movement should make it a priority to defend the possibility of reading and listening to him, even if one is not in total agreement with what he says.

Look, so far as I and other leftists are concerned, Atzmon can write whatever bullshit that happens to float his boat. All we’re asking is that we at least acknowledge that what Atzmon writes is bullshit. Bricmont’s unwillingness to admit this raises serious questions about his intellectual honesty. Moreover, Bricmont makes so many dubious assertions here, that one must wonder whether he actually has any idea what he’s talking about. I think I should also point out that the “Israel is useless to the West” argument is often made by right-wing critics of Israel, at least some of whom are almost certainly anti-Semites. That fact should give Bricmont pause.

    By his all-out attack on Jewish “tribalism,” Atzmon’s essential contribution to solidarity with Palestine is to help non-Jews realize that they are not always in the wrong when conflicts with Jewish organizations arise. The day when non-Jews free themselves from the mixture of fear and internalization of guilt that currently paralyses them, unconditional support for Israel will collapse.

If I may speak for my fellow non-Jews, I don’t feel one shred of guilt about what happened during the years 1933-45. Again, one has to wonder whether Bricmont has any idea what he is talking about. What’s more, the second sentence is obviously nonsense. Bricmont apparently considers it a matter of principle to ignore the political and economic forces that drive the West’s support for Israel.

In all fairness to Bricmont, I should point out that he seems to be partly motivated by concerns about laws recently passed in France that prohibit certain types of speech. Although I don’t pretend to be an expert on French politics, it seems to me that the problem there is that France has no equivalent of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, which guarantees freedom of speech. (This is a problem in many other countries as well.) I realize that this argument may be too idealist, but I think there is at least some truth to it.

With all due respect, perhaps Bricmont should stick to particle physics. There is no shame in that.

Dr. Ismail Salami and the “Clash of Cultures”

September 26, 2012

Ismail Salami, Shakespearean scholar, author of children’s books, spouter of gibberish.

Dissident Voice has recently posted this cracking good article by Ismail Salami, entitled West Braces for Clash of Cultures. (No one I know is bracing for a clash of cultures, but then maybe I just don’t move through the right social circles.) The article begins:

    With the publication of the profane pictures of the holy Prophet of Islam in Charlie Hebdo magazine, the West seems to be consciously moving in a direction where chaos will dominate the international arena and a clash of cultures will inevitably run deeper for an indefinite period of time.

A literary agent once said to me, “You’ve got to grab the reader by the throat and lift him out of his chair.” Dr. Salami (I’m trying hard not to go for the obvious joke here) has clearly accomplished this with this extraordinary paragraph/run-on sentence. But what exactly does it mean? In the first half, he seems to suggest that Charlie Hebdo is published by somebody named “the West”. In the second half, he seems to be saying that a “clash of cultures” will “run deeper” (like a submarine?).

Clearly, Salami is a master of the Nietzschean aphoristic syle. However, he can be shockingly blunt when he puts his mind to it:

    There are abortive attempts by western analysts to interpret the two baneful incidents in the light of freedom of expression and thereby explain away the emotional hurt of the Muslim world.

That’s right, 1.6 billion Muslims will not be able to sleep tonight because of some cartoons in an obscure left-wing newspaper in France. If you believe that, I’ve got some property in Florida I’d like to sell you.

    However, to an intellectually trained mind, this seems more than just an insult to Islam and the Muslims.

Of course, those of us without intellectually trained minds just have no idea what the fuck is going on, do we? (By the way, someone needs to explain to Dr. Salami that “intellectually trained mind” is redundant.)

    The calculated move of the French magazine [sic] in publishing the insulting cartoons immediately after the blasphemous film indicates a united front forming against Islam in the West.

Damn right. As soon as the right-wing Christian producers of Innocence of Muslims had finished filming, they immediately called up their left-wing atheist comrades in France and said, “It’s your turn, bros!” Tag team style.

    On the one hand, the move can be seen as an attempt to help escalate the crisis in the Middle East region and on the other hand to plunge the world into a vortex where a clash of civilizations is imminent.

“… plunge the world into a vortex where a clash of civilizations is imminent.” This may not be worthy of Shakespeare, but it’s almost worthy of H.P. Lovecraft.

    Should we naively believe that the anti-Islam film which has caused much uproar and intellectual chagrin in the Muslim world is the work of a Coptic Christian Egyptian fraudster, a small-time porn director and a bunch of extremists who harbor deep hatred against Islam?

Uh… yes? Is this some sort of trick question?

    This is a good question and it deserves an answer.

As my Aunt Bea used to say, “Every good question deserves an answer.”

    Still, the answer seems to be found in the incident which followed the film i.e. the publication of the blasphemous cartoons.

Uh… what?

    Seen from an analytical point of view, the entire scenario apparently tilts the scale in favor of the Zionists who capitalize on a large-scale fracas between the Muslim countries and the rest of the world. In fact, they are the ones who will catch the bigger fish in these trouble waters.

Bigger than whose fish?

    Amidst this craftily authored plan [yeah it’s fucking brilliant, isn’t it?], Israel has commenced a series of war games in Golan Heights, the biggest the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) has conducted in the six years since the second Lebanon war on Hezbollah in 2006. Military sources say the war game looks like a real war with tens of thousands of soldiers and senior officers, including the artillery and the air force taking part. Israeli officials have announced that the situation in Syria is precariously volatile and that the country is in possession of a huge arsenal of chemical weapons which they fear might fall into the hands of wrong people stockpile if President Bashar Assad is ousted. This is the excuse which they use to justify their military show-off. In point of fact, Israel is readying itself to wage a military encounter in the region by using the anti-Islam scenario.

Perhaps I’m nitpicking, but the last two sentences seem to contradict each other. If Israel can use an alleged chemical weapons stockpile as an excuse to intervene in Syria, why would they need to use “the anti-Islam scenario” (whatever that is)? (By the way, the Israelis have never needed an excuse to do anything.)

One can clearly see why the editors of Dissident Voice thought this article was worth posting. What better way to understand what is currently happening in the Muslim world than by reading gibberish?

I feel inspired to write my own article for Dissident Voice. It will be a learned dissertation on why the sea is boiling hot and why pigs have wings.

Watch for it.


August 14, 2012

Jean Luc Godard’s 1965 film, Alphaville, is a mixture of film noir, science fiction, and surrealist fantasy. At some time in the future, Lemmie Caution (Eddie Constantine) is sent as a secret agent to a city called Alphaville. Although Alphaville is located on another planet, Caution is able to drive there in his Ford Mustang (identified as a “Galaxie” in the film). Caution’s mission is to find a man named Leonard Nosferatu (Howard Vernon) and bring him back to Caution’s home planet. This task turns out to be harder than Caution anticipated, for it turns out that Nosferatu, who has changed his name to Prof. Von Braun, has taken over Alphaville, which he runs using a super computer called Alph 60. Von Braun has outlawed emotions such as love, as well as art and poetry. The government is continually eliminating words from the language, so it has to continually issue new dictionaries without the proscribed words. Von Braun believes that he is making the people of Alphaville into a “superior race”, who will be able to conquer the universe. Caution meets, and falls in love with, Von Braun’s daughter, Natacha (Anna Karina). She ends up risking her life to help him.

Alphaville is Godard’s protest against what he sees as the coldness and cultural vacuity of modern life. It is also an attack on totalitarianism. (These three things are apparently interrelated in Godards’s view.) The talk of a “superior race” is clearly meant to remind us of Hitler. The outlawing of words is meant to remind us of Stalin. (It’s also similar to Orwell’s notion of “newspeak”.) Von Braun is obviously named after Wernher Von Braun, the engineer who designed rockets first for the Nazis and then for the United States. He was seen by many people as the epitome of the amoral technocrat. For Godard, such a person acts an enabler for the political and social forces that are destroying our world.

My one criticism of this film is a lack of continuity in the character of Caution. In some scenes, he behaves like a cold-blooded killer, as well as a bit of a misogynist. Yet in other scenes, he talks about the power of love and of poetry. This inconsistency may due to the fact that the film was largely improvised.

Alphaville is prescient in some ways. Randianism, which calls for a world of self-interest without human connections, is becoming the unofficial philosophy of the U.S. ruling class. Welcome to Alphaville.

Chris Marker (1921-2012)

August 1, 2012

The legendary filmmaker, Chris Marker, died on July 29, which happened to be his birthday. (It also happens to be my birthday.) His real name was Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve. He once said that the reason he used the name Chris Marker was because he traveled a lot and he wanted to use a name that people could easily pronounce. He served in the French resistance during World War II. After the War, Marker was one of the founders of the influential journal, Cahiers du cinéma. Marker worked in different media, but his best known work is the short film, La Jetee, in which he uses a series of black & white photographs to tell a haunting story about time travel. It is often shown in college art courses as an example of how simple images can be used to convey complex ideas and associations.

Marker’s other best known work is Sans Soleil, which is often called a documentary, although it would more accurately be called a cinematic essay, or perhaps a cinematic meditation. A woman narrator reads a series of letters sent to her by a fictitious cameraman named Sandor Krasna (presumably the letters were written by Marker himself), while film footage shot by Krasna is shown on screen. The film is structured in a non-linear, free-associative manner. It touches upon a vast array of ideas ranging from Japanese religious ideas to anti-colonial struggles in Africa to Hitchcock’s Vertigo. The film seems longer than its hour and forty-four minute length. I actually mean that in a good way; one of the film’s ideas is that our perception of time can vary. Here is the full film:

The Kid with a Bike

May 12, 2012

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s The Kid with a Bike received the Grand Prix, the second highest award at the Cannes Film Festival. It is similar to Truffaut’s The 400 Blows in that it is about a child confronting a cold and brutal world, although its story is less harsh than Truffaut’s masterpiece.

Cyril (Thomas Doret) is a twelve-year-old boy whose father (Jérémie Renier) places him in foster care and then disappears. Cyril can’t believe that his father would leave him. He escapes and goes to his father’s apartment, but he finds it empty. Cyril also learns that his father sold his bicycle. By chance, he meets Samantha (Cécile de France), who is moved when she learns of Cyril’s predicament. She finds the bicycle and buys it, then she returns it to Cyril. He asks her if she will take him in on weekends, and she agrees. Samantha helps Cyril look for his father. They eventually find him working as a cook in a restaurant. He tells Cyril that he never wants to see him again. Cyril is emotionally crushed, but Samantha comforts him.

One day Cyril’s bicycle is stolen by a boy who is a gang member. Cyril pursues him to the gang’s hideout and fights him with him. The gang’s leader, Wes (Egon Di Mateo), is impressed by Cyril’s fierceness. He gives Cyril his bicycle back and makes friends with him. He eventually persuades Cyril to carry out a violent robbery for him. Samantha becomes alarmed when she learns that Cyril is involved with Wes. The night the robbery is supposed to take place, Samantha forbids Cyril from going out. They get into a fight. Cyril cuts her with a knife and runs away. Cyril carries out the robbery, in which he injures two people with a baseball bat. He then goes to the restaurant where his father works and offers him the money he stole. He literally tries to buy his father’s love. His father rejects him once again. Cyril returns to Samantha and asks her forgiveness. She does so. She then takes him to the police, so he can take responsibility for his crime.

The Kid with a Bike is a well-made and moving film about a troubled child. My only criticism of the film is that we never really get a sense of what motivates Samantha. She is unwaveringly devoted to Cyril, even though he only causes problems for her. She seems almost too good to be true. Cyril, on the other hand, comes across as complex and believable. We sense the agony he feels at his father’s coldness.

Two Films about Dance: Pina and Crazy Horse

April 19, 2012

A scene from Pina.

I recently saw two documentaries about two very different approaches to dance. I find it very hard to write about dance, since I don’t know very much about it, though I like to watch it. Last year, I saw a production by the Eugene Ballet of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. I found it deeply moving, but I don’t know how to explain in words why it affected me so much.

I’ve never been very good at dancing. Many years ago, I was, for a brief time, a theatre major in college. The department head told me that I was required to take a dance class, so I would “know how to use my body”. So I signed up for a ballet course. There were 25 people in the class, and I was the only male, besides the teacher and the piano player. I learned how to plié and stretch. I got to be pretty good at it, or so I thought. One day the teacher made us do this exercise, in which one by one each of us would run across the room and jump in the air. After I finished my turn, the woman behind me started to follow, but the teacher immediately stopped her, saying that she wasn’t moving in time to the music. She protested that she was following my moves.

“Oh, don’t pay any attention to Austin,” he said casually. “He follows his own beat.”

I dropped the class.

The people we meet in Pina clearly had happier experiences with their first dance classes than I did. This documentary by Wim Wenders is about Pina Bausch, who was the choreographer for the Tanztheater Wuppertal. Bausch died while this film was being made, so it is really a memorial to her. The film starts with an amazing performance of The Rite of Spring. Later, we see members of the troupe dancing in the streets of Wuppertal, as well as on the city’s elevated railway, the Schwebebahn. (Now, why can’t they build something like that in LA?) There are also interviews with the dancers, who come from all over the world. They all talk about how Bausch inspired them. They describe a woman who was patient and understanding with them. This is in striking contrast to the popular notion of dancing masters as barking autocrats. (An idea that is vulgarly portrayed in the critically acclaimed potboiler, Black Swan.)

I highly recommend seeing this film.

Crazy Horse, a documentary by the legendary filmmaker, Frederick Wiseman, is about the famous club in Paris that features nude dancing. This place is not like your ordinary strip club, however. The people who work here all take what they do very seriously. They regard their work as art, just like the dancers at the Tanztheater Wuppertal. (The artistic director says that the government should require everyone in France to visit the club.) As with his previous films, Wiseman has no narration. Instead, his camera follows people around as they carry out their business, leaving it to the audience to draw their own conclusions from what they see. Of the various people we meet in this film, the one I found the most affecting was the head costume designer. She agonizes over every detail of the skimpy outfits the dancers wear. Crazy Horse seems to take us into another world, where things like wigs and g-strings acquire enormous importance.

This is another film I highly recommend seeing.


April 14, 2012

In Tomboy, the French director, Céline Sciamma, has created a touching and sensitive film about children. Laure (Zoé Héran) and her family have just moved to a new town one summer. Laure decides to make the children she meets think she is a boy named Mikael. Her masquerade is highly successful at first. She becomes romantically involved with a girl, Lisa (Jeanne Disson), who thinks she is a boy. However, her imposture is inevitably revealed.

Tomboy is an examination of how ideas about gender shape children’s sense of identity, as well as their sense of self-importance. It also touches upon how children pick up homophobic ideas from society. After Laure’s real sex is revealed, a boy tells Lisa that it is “disgusting” for girls to kiss one another. Lisa feels compelled to agree, even though she kissed Laure in an earlier scene.

The story is told through a series of quiet vignettes involving either Laure playing with the other children or dealing with her family. The scene in which the other children confront Laure about her deception is emotionally wrenching, but Tomboy never veers into melodrama the way all too many films about childhood trauma do. I found all the child characters in this movie completely believable. Sciamma must be a highly skilled director to be able to get such unaffected performances from children. I highly recommend seeing this film.