Sunday, February 19, 2006

Gravity Always Wins

I like Nick Cave. In fact, I'd go so far as to say I like Nick Cave a lot. He has turned the fact that he can't really sing to his advantage by developing this kind of hectoring, barking style of declamation which fits excellently with the Old Testament, southern Gothic subject-matter of so much of his music. What he and the Bad Seeds are really good at is creating a sense of menace, of physical and spiritual or moral violence kept at bay by a series of unconvincing chinese walls, of a world of predestination and unavoidable fate, yet drawing on a series of traditions to provide that ultimately rather unappealing account of the world with an aesthetic if not quite a moral compass. The music lurches, stumbles and crashes, swayes uneasily, explodes, a queasy adaptation of various demotic forms, and Cave himself overacts gloriously as the freakish, marginalised, and dispossessed who populate his jealous God imaginings. Although they do it particularly well, are attuned in the necessary way to the horror of the picture he presents to use it to create the contrast needed to give it its grandeur, the appeal of violence, of a hardness in the face of a world that is not only unresponsive but apparently vindictive, is not only widely known but widely used.

There's a recurrent image in Schindler's List which I've always had problems with. The clearance of the ghetto is shot in black and white, except for a single young girl, wearing a vividly red coat, around whom all the violence of the forcible removal of thousands of desperate people occurs. She re-appears in one of the death camps, as I remember, when children are separated from their parents to be sent to the gas chambers, again, I think, picked out in colour in a shot otherwise full of muted greys. As if we couldn't understand the horror of these events without recourse to the sloppy and unsophisticated embodiment of it in the figure of a perfect moral innocent. As if Spielberg didn't trust his abilities enough to try and wring sympathy out of characters who were human, fallible. As if he didn't trust the viewers to be able to sympathise with such characters, as if he thought that we felt pain was only pain when it was inflicted on confused little girls or other similarly prelapsarian icons.

Sam Mendes' recent first Iraqi war film, Jarhead, is in part driven by a narrative about the boredom of hyperpower warfare: the sniper unit of which the star Jake Gyllenhall is part never fire a shot in anger, and Gyllenhall and his spotter have their opportunity to use their skills frustrated by the decision of an officer to, on a whim, obliterate an airfield with high explosive rather than give them the order to assassinate its commander.

There is a Nick Cave song on the album Murder Ballads called Stagger Lee. Although it is not quite in central Cave territory, lacking as it does any reference to the motivational power of guilt and fate, the theme of the quite irresistable transcendent force of violence, as well as the utter gratuitity of the whole thing and the reinterpretation and radicalisation of a tradition, make it quite recognisably part of the landscape. It begins with a repeated stuttering guitar chord that sounds just like a gun being cocked and gets better from there on in, with the exercise of power through extreme violence always an end in itself. As the description of Keyser Soze's act of radical self-creation in The Usual Suspects puts it, he showed these men of will what will really was.

I saw the first episode of the Spielberg-produced TV series Band of Brothers, about American airborne troops involvement in the invasion of France in 1944, a couple of days ago. It is very professionally done, and to damn it with faint praise like that is in a way to be cruel. It is part of a tradition though of the glorification of the Atlantic Alliance participants in the quasi-industrialised slaughter of millions that was the Western Front of the Second World War. That casts it in terms that, again, are perhaps unfairly critical. However, the beatification of what Americans have for some time being referring to as the Glorious Generation is, I think, in a way of a piece with Spielberg's crude attempt at emotional manipulation in Schindler's List. It is a rejection of ambivalence, of contingency, of unpredictability, of unmanaged conflict. The first episode deals largely with training, and has a plot line about a disciplinarian officer who, despite having made the company under his command incredibly fit, cannot command them because he is essentially utterly incompetent: he gets hopelessly lost on exercises, and in the end is removed and sent back to put recruits through their paces because his non-commissioned officers resign en masse.

Other than the officer, though, played as a camp, nervous yet quite butch New York Jew by David Schwimmer, the whole thing is remarkably consensual. Schwimmer is removed, and sent back to doing what he does best, as soon as the protest is made and thus the information received by the benevolent dictatorship of the higher-ups, while the relationship of the other officers to the ranks seems totally untroubled. Even Schwimmer is not vindictive, but a well-meaning victim of the Peter Principle. There is no exultation in the phenomenology of the exercise of power, but rather a grave sense of responsibility. The picture presented is not quite of the US Army coming as close to a perfectly oiled machine guided by morally perfect men as is possible, in the sense that Schwimmer is obviously imperfect, and there is, in an aside, reference to Western anti-semitism, but the plot is of the suppression and smoothing out of these imperfections, these conflicts, and of gliding on, a paternal hand at the tiller. Nothing, for example, is made of the total absence of blacks from the unit, of the presence of racial segregation in the armies which invaded Europe to destroy a racist state.

None of this is to say that I didn't enjoy it: I did, although I still think the most eloquent comment I have ever seen on the experience of the Second World War is in David Lynch's The Straight Story, where, in an otherwise empty bar, two men in their seventies, both of an age to have fought, are sitting talking, having, gingerly, a solitary beer, and one of them says to the other, a lot of men who came back drank. Nothing else on the subject is said. The restraint of it is wonderful. That comment, in a film about an elderly man travelling on a lawnmower to see his estranged sister, has more awareness of what institutional violence on a massive scale does to a person than an hour of Spielberg's mini-series about the largest war the world has ever seen. It is open about the transformations it makes, the brutalisations, and yet does not condemn: there but for the grace of God go I.

Cave's attitude towards violence, not of war but of the social order in general, shares this awareness, even if it is expressed quite differently. Cave's depictions depend for their strength on the appeal of the idea that violence has the power to transcend, to cut through and open, mundanity, that to be a man of will is a noble aim, that the violence of the social (dis)order ought to be met in kind, while in The Straight Story it is equally the escape from regularity and practice that is identified as the distinctive mark of violence, although it is the disorientating, shocking, disturbing effects that are highlighted. Both of those strike me as considerably more honest, more clear-eyed, than Spielberg's contribution to myth, where violence effectively disappears. Jarhead, I am not sure how intentionally, begins to illustrate the difficulties associated with this conjurer's trick. Just as Cave's characters cannot escape from violence and its costs, cannot totally transcend the practices in which they are embedded, in Jarhead attempts for power, for violence, to become utterly disentangled from actual human actors, to transcend them, only result in petty acts of disobedience, in violence bubbling back up. A social order without violence is shown to be impossible, and it's denial a diversion. The queston becomes where is the violence exercised, and how much of it.

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