Sunday, February 22, 2009

On Not Speaking Italian

After reading Peter Bradshaw's review, I decided against going to see The Reader: he articulates, how accurately I don't know, a worry that the film is unacceptably exculpatory of one of its main characters, a Nazi extermination camp guard; if not no poetry after Auschwitz, at least no poetry about Auschwitz. Having not seen the film, I suppose I'm in no position to judge whether that's fair or not; Bradshaw makes it sound fair, at least, and for all his predictable foibles, I think he's usually pretty good. Apparently a complaint in the same kind of area has been made about Waltz With Bashir, the thought being that the more or less total absence of the victims of the Sabra and Shatila massacres or of the context in which those massacres took place makes the film's attempt at reconstructing the details of the narrator's (limited) participation in those massacres a denial of the wrongs done either in the massacres or in Israel's 1982 invasion more broadly. For example here, the film is described as first "an act not of limited self-reflection but self-justification" and then "striving towards working through qualms to restabilize the self as it is currently constituted... [and not] asking challenging questions that would destabilize that self".

I'm not quite sure about this kind of claim: although it's right that the film is not primarily about the suffering of the victims of the Israeli invasion, it seems to rely on that suffering and, more, the wrong of that suffering to generate its narrative force. If it couldn't have been wrong to do what the narrator did, then his attempts to understand and come to terms with it would be adolescent pieces of self-obsessed introspection, tedious and whiny. The absence of the Palestinian victims at Sabra and Shatila, although perhaps not always of the victims of the conflict more broadly, is then a presence looming over much of the film. The figure of the psychiatrist, for example, seems much more ambiguous than the piece linked to above suggests. As well as saying that memory takes us where we want to go, and hence positing a kind of therapeutic effect for the narrator's nightmares reliving his experiences in Beirut, he tells an ancedote about how easy it is to plant false memories: apparently, doctored photos of themselves as children are almost inevitably assimilated into their recollections of their childhood by adults. Memory then might be hiding something much worse than the mere lighting of flares. Similarly, the apparent self-absorption of the reference to 'the other camps' is hardly exculpatory: presumably the last thing an Israeli of all people wants to justly compared to is a Nazi.

That may not get the film off the hook as far as ignoring the rest of the conflict goes, although it's worth noting that the songs about bombing Beirut are accompanied by scenes of Israeli soldiers being bored and boorish; it's not like the film endorses that act. But then, films may choose their own subjects, and one can easily imagine that Israeli attempts to conceptualise what has been done in their name would be seen as patronising and self-serving. What absence, then, is doing in the film could even be seen as a kind of respect: a refusal to try to capture what something must have been like for someone else can be a tribute to their subjectivity, rather than a denial of it. The use of the real footage at the end of the film, rather than Othering the Palestinian victims, seems to me to bring the question at the heart of the film back into sharp focus: what the hell did we do to do this to someone? Everything else becomes a shadow-play, a kind of paper screen which is eventually ripped aside to reveal what was really going on, which was the creation of figures of almost pure grief.
Arabic is notoriously difficult to learn, while most of us can become fluent in violence in just under a semester indeed.

1 comment:

Paul said...

The Reader is TERRIBLE. Bradshaw's review was generous.

Another utterly AWFUL film of recent months was Doubt.

Avoid, on pain of death.