Thursday, September 15, 2011
As I was once the Board Chairman of the Humanitarian Media Foundation, The MIPJ will also explore of mass media (web and print journalism, photojournalism, information dissemination technologies, social media, etc.) and its role as a dynamic stakeholder in the international sphere.
Stay tuned, and we'll see how this new version of the site takes shape.
Wednesday, July 15, 2009
Being a proponent of human rights and humanitarian subject matter of any kind, and in particular the reflections or influence of these tenets in the media--whether in literature, journalism, photojournalism, art, film, television, new and social media and beyond--these last weeks in Iran have been inordinately important, even despite the near-tabloid coverage of Michael Jackson’s death. Michael Jackson did touch many people, and for important reasons, and I by no means disparage that. But what I am concerned about is that other important issues are being ignored because of it.
Something that has been truly evident by anything I have written in past months has been the importance of certain freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and now, as evidenced by the events in Iran following their elections, freedom both of assembly and the importance of fair and free elections.
Those who saw the clip which has become viral of Neda Agha-Soltan, the young Iranian woman shot to death in the streets of Tehran for demonstrating against the election results, perhaps can feel the visceral sense of what it must have meant to be one of those demonstrators, feeling first-hand the heart of the adage we as Americans have come to take for granted: freedom isn't free. As those who have demonstrated are attesting, and something, again, which we may have forgotten, there are times when it demands struggle and sacrifice.
As Frederick Douglass once said from personal knowledge from once having been a slave and as an advocate of suffrage and human rights:
Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are people who want crops without ploughing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, or it may be both. But it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand; it never has and it never will.
Nowhere has this been more evident in these past weeks in the news than in Iran, just one of many places around the world struggling for rights, again, which we truly have more often than not taken for granted. Sometimes it takes a situation like that in Iran to revive that sense of humanity in seeing others who are being subjected to violence, fear and tyranny by their own governments. We feel for their struggle. We are outraged by the limits placed on the press and on demonstrators. We are moved to tears by those whose pain is almost palpable. We are rebellious on their behalf by subverting the Iranian government's blocks on mobile and internet access however we can--offering international proxy server addresses or setting our own addresses to Tehran to overload their systems. Any subject at the moment that includes basic human freedoms is now at the forefront of discussion—provided we are not distracted, then, by the media, by something else.
What is also blatantly true is that the power of the media, including by virtue of mobile technology and social media, has never been more relevant, nor more demonstrated. We are now reminded of what it is we had forgotten in terms of basic human tenets, and as some--not all--are finding ironic--using the tools of the modern age to bring such issues back into focus.
However, even older forms of media are making sure that some of these issues remain strongly poignant.
Not too long ago, I received a book to review from the HarperStudo imprint of HarperCollins, titled BURN THIS BOOK, edited by Toni Morrison and including such writers as John Updike, David Grossman, Francine Prose, Paul Auster, Orhan Pamuk, Salman Rushdie, and Nadine Gordimer.
The book, which was published in conjunction with PEN American Center, is a collection inspired by a speech given by Morrison at the PEN International Festival dinner in 2008, in which she discussed the idea of censorship of writers and the price paid in certain part of the world when their voices are silenced. Every writer within the pages of BURN THIS BOOK has been subjected to censorship in one form or another, and each has had to bear the consequences--whether personal, professional, or in terms of being stymied from expressions that should always have been a natural right.
In going through my notes and the pages I had underlined several days ago, one sentence in Toni Morrison's introduction struck hard, and again, because of the current issues in Iran, seemed devastatingly relevant:
... the historical suppression of writers is the earliest harbinger of the steady peeling away of additional rights and liberties that will follow.
Where freedom of the press and freedom of expression are blocked, you can be sure that further rights will soon be systematically obliterated. The press can either be a source of information or propaganda; often times, unfortunately, it is both. But when writers are not allowed to write truth in favor of the promulgation of state-sanctioned or state-dictated information, it can either be tolerated, or when tied to the future of a nation, as with Iran, it can become yet another factor in a deafening rallying cry which may change such a country irretrievably, and hopefully for the better--should the protester's vigilance maintain its intensity until leaders are either forced to listen or are overthrown. Revolution has happened before over such issues, as it did in our own country, and it can happen again in others. There's nothing wrong with Revolution when it's for the right reasons--even our own Founders kept it as an option built into the founding documents of our republic should our own country ever forget itself to the point of no return. This is indeed what we celebrated in the United States last weekend on July 4th.
In BURN THIS BOOK, there are different ideas expressed in terms of a writer's expression--and I almost wish that the book had been separated between American and international writers. There would be a point to this, as became unfortunately clear, as there is a distinct demarcation between two factions in this work: the writers of North America, and specifically the United States, and the writers from other countries who are included in this collection. I was truly disappointed that with the exception of Morrison, the aforementioned American writers do not have the deep, existential fire of the others--but then I understood why; the others are ones for whom writing has been or could potentially be an inherent--and potentially lethal--exercise in rebellion, having come from areas of conflict, subjugation, and tyranny--where such ideas of censorship come with much higher stakes.
Sometimes, however, it takes another country’s struggle to remind us this simple and poignant reality. Such has been demonstrated by the events in Iran over these last couple of weeks, and most recently in China (thankfully still eking out some kind of presence in the media, though for many of us, not nearly enough). But devoid of such reminders, it seems our revolutionary fire is in a persistent state of appeased slumber. As a friend on Facebook wrote several days ago, quoting Franz Kafka: "You are free and that is why you are lost." Some would consider that the inherent argument for subjugation; instead, I see it as suggesting one is lost until he or she understands what it is we have in the first place. Without something to buck against, we do become apathetic enough sometimes to not know who we are.
In this sense, some of the American writers included in BURN THIS BOOK (which actually came to me in a package filled with promotional matches) might indeed have needed a reminder about the true spirit of what it was they were supposed to be writing about. This was to be a book about censorship. Instead, some of these writers seem as though they were approaching this as they would any writing assignment about writing; expounding upon the creative and personal aspects of being a writer--the inspiration and the literary personality which are indelible in one who in general has the audacity to write down his or her ideas amidst what might somehow be considered personal angst, and the universality of such angst among other writers, some of whom turn to the political.
Where I find this approach troubling in a book of this kind is when the supposed subject matter was ignored or treated with irreverence. Either that, or writing in general is seen as a function of general audacity, one borne of, again, the general rebellion of the "creative soul" amidst the clichéd teeming automaton hoards of Western society. And, it is apparent that these authors are speaking from a place of relative literary comfort. They may have had works banned in libraries or schools in the United States and elsewhere, but their trauma is more about wrangling with the Muse or about an inherent internal complexity than it is about issues of human survival and writing as a means of rebelling against any literal existential threat. And even amidst censorship in the United States, when it happens within our borders, we do rouse defiantly from our collective slumber and take it very seriously, leaping quickly to the defense of authors without question--even if we don't like the works under fire. We here in the United States, courtesy of the American Library Association, even have "Banned Books Week."
To exemplify this particular idea of the general personality of a writer, John Updike states in his bland selection, "Why Write?":
The artist's personality has an awkward ambivalence; he is a cave dweller who yet hopes to be pursued into his cave.
This is about the writer and self-consciousness over what he or she writes. Compare this to a passage from "Writing in the Dark" by David Grossman, as translated by Jessica Cohen, in describing the reality of "living in an extreme and violent state of political, military, and religious conflict" (and feeling like Kafka's mouse in "A Little Fable" in which the world is always growing smaller and more narrow).
The stakes are profoundly different:
... The constant--and very real--fear of being hurt, the fear of death, of intolerable loss, or even of "mere" humiliation, leads each of us, the citizens and prisoners of conflict, to dampen our own vitality, our emotional and intellectual range, and cloak ourselves in more and more protective layers until we suffocate.
This comes, Grossman writes, out of self-protection, "a diminished ability and willingness to empathize with all other people in pain."
Given a situation so frightening, so deceptive, and so complicated--both morally and practically--we feel it better not to think or know. Better to hand over the job of thinking and doing and setting moral standards to those who are surely 'in the know.' Better not to feel too much until the crisis ends--at least we'll have suffered a little less, developed a useful dullness, protected ourselves as much as we could with a little indifference, a little repression, a little deliberate blindness, and a large dose of self-anesthetics.
This has been the argument of many suffering under oppression--and the boon of regimes which take advantage of this conflict and its inevitable effects upon its population, to clamp down and "liberate" people from the responsibility of independent thought that might lead to action. When in incredible pain, better to forget--better to "anesthetize" one's self to alleviate suffering, even if it comes at the cost of certain freedoms. To this, the oppressive government will say, "you don't need such freedoms when we will take care of you."
But as is being shown now in Iran among other places in the world where censorship is rampant, when "cloaked" from reality by the State, when that cloak is forcefully removed, and/or when truth is known or somehow suspected, and the population has hit a collective boiling point, the only reasonable reaction is anger, a feeling of betrayal, and a will toward combating the usual propaganda with the forceful imposition of truth--pushing and rebelling until the old system cannot function underneath a mass amount of pressure. Freedom is a human instinct. There is no being that if it knows it is enchained, will not somehow make every attempt to break free until he or she either is free, disheartened to the point of apathy, or dies.
"In this reality," Grossman writes:
…we author and poets write. In Israel and in Palestine, in Chechnya and in Sudan, in New York, and in the Congo. There are times ... after a few hours of writing, when I look up and think: Now, at this very moment, sits another author, whom I do not know, in Damascus or Tehran, in Kigali or Dublin, who, like me, is engaged in the strange, baseless, wonderful work of creation, within a reality that contains so much violence and alienation, indifference, and diminishment.
I have a distant ally who does not know me, and together we are weaving this shapeless web, which nonetheless has immense power to change a world and create a world, the power to give words to the mute and to bring about tikkun--"repair"--in the deepest, kabbalistic sense of the word.
Compare this sensibility of a man grappling with writing truth--with being a representative voice--trying to achieve something which in certain ways might seem wholly impossible when faced with the realities of his world--one which is marked by violence—with one for whom violence appears only on television or in a violent urban area with which such an author has little contact. For the former, the implications are enormous, as is his sense of responsibility. This is a hell of a lot different than grappling with the proverbial Muse that refuses to come out of his cave—the avatar of the writer him or herself—whose primary struggle is one of what the Romantic poets would have considered the solipsism, or “self-consciousness” that keeps a poet or artist from seeing the Sublime. Death is not the threat; writer’s block is, or the self-consciousness that comes from writing about what is primarily personal amidst the peace of his or her immediate outside world.
Let me be clear, however—I have great respect for anyone who grapples with the Muse, as well as with the personal—including when the personal is difficult, for various reasons, to express. That has been a struggle which has been documented throughout time and from many different traditions—literary, artistic religious, etc.. But there is a context for that struggle in which it makes perfect sense and it has its place. A book about the kind of censorship that can come with death if challenged makes the stakes inordinately higher. This is why, with all due respect for Toni Morrison as the editor of this book, and my love of much her work, work which has been challenged for its harrowing nature at times by critics as much as lauded for its truth, I wish she had kept in mind her own speech before the PEN International audience, choosing works here not for the notoriety of the writers, which it seems was true in some cases, but giving such space for a whole group of writers—perhaps some more unknown—whose rebel fire could further have been unleashed for all to see. That would have been a book that would have, if you’ll forgive me for continuing the metaphor, burned the proverbial house down.
Some may believe I’m being hard on many of the revered American writers in this book, but my purpose here is to demonstrate, again, that either works could have been chosen differently (and not just for their name value on the book cover), and/or to perhaps prod American writers to better hearken back to our own history and better remember where we came from, if only to re-ignite that particular revolutionary fire. That revolutionary fire is worth it, because, as some of these writers, primarily those from other parts of the world, suggest, it is the only thing that will provoke lasting change. And in this world, there is no question that change is needed.
Below are some passages, one from each essay, as an example of what can be found within the book in question. Again, some here are about censorship; others are not. In some, primarily those of the Americans, I had to actively seek the essay for a suitable passage, or at least one in the general realm of the proposed subject matter. In others, there was a wealth of passages from which to choose. Those are ones in which I could feel the passion and an almost palpable defiance which can only come from harrowing experience, and these voices were markedly different from the others. By virtue of what I have chosen, and even in the voice of the writer, what is passionate and what is perfunctory can perhaps be sensed. But as always, it is up to the individual reader to judge what he or she believes, and others may find charm and/or undoubted writing skill appropriate where I perhaps would have preferred something more deeply relevant.
From “Peril” – Toni Morrison (American), the speech given before the audience at the PEN International Festival dinner, and the inspiration for this book:
Authoritarian regimes, dictators, despots are often, but not always, fools. But none is foolish enough to give perceptive, dissident writers free range to publish their judgments or follow their creative instincts. They know they do so at their own peril. They are not stupid enough to abandon control (overt or insidious) over media. Their methods include surveillance, censorship, arrest, even slaughter of those writers informing or disturbing the public.
From “Why Write?” – John Updike (American) answers his own question with a worthy examination of his personal reasons for writing, but which had little to do with censorship:
Pascal says, “When a natural discourse paints a passion or an effect, one feels within himself the truth of what one reads, which was there before, although one did not know it. Hence one is inclined to love him who makes us feel it, for he has not shown us his own riches, but ours.” The writer’s strength is not his own; he is a conduit who so positions himself that the world at his back flows through to the readers on the other side of the page. To keep this conduit scoured is his laborious task; to be, in the act of writing, anonymous, the end of his quest for fame.
From “Writing in the Dark” – David Grossman (Israeli) (translated by Jessica Cohen) is driven by the idea of expression during conflict toward the force of change, the result of the prevention of that expression, and the inherent value of liberty as a fundamental aspect of the human experience:
I can tell you about the void that slowly emerges between the individual and the violent, chaotic state that encompasses practically every aspect of his life. …This void does not remain empty. It quickly fills with apathy, cynicism, and above all despair—the despair that can fuel a distorted reality for many years, sometimes generations. The despair that one will never manage to change the situation, never redeem it. And the deepest despair of all—the despair of human beings, of what the distorted situation ultimately exposes in each of us.
From “Out from Under the Cloud of Unknowing” – Francine Prose (American) in a rather pithy essay written in the form of a rather irreverent list, rather than addressing censorship, juxtaposes the very general idea of the political with the role of the artistic:
Maybe that is the problem that politics has with art. It’s the problem of mystery, which politics (constructed in a narrow sense) doesn’t like, or perhaps, more accurately, doesn’t feel comfortable with. …The polemicist, or the theorist, or the strategist would have trouble with the stance that Chekhov indentified as basic for the artist. That is, the notion that writers must admit they understand nothing of life, that nothing in this world makes sense, so all a writer can do is try to describe it.
From “The Man, the Men at the Station” – Pico Iyer (British/Indian), writes his account as a tribute to one man whom Iyer met in Burma as an examination of the effect a totalitarian regime—one which favors censorship—has on those who live within its borders, as well as those who come to know those individuals affected:
I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I was on blacklist in Burma, perhaps because of writing about people like himself, suitably disguised. A colleague had seen my picture up at the airport, as a criminal to be arrested if he ever showed his face. The important thing was that we had contact at last, and a window, a tiny window, had opened again where before there had seemed no hope. …For all the derelictions and brutalities of this government, though, Maung-Maung is still waiting at the station, and we are the only freedom he knows. Without us—the stories we take to him, the stories we bring back from him—there wouldn’t be anything, except years and years of further struggle, and then nothing at all.
From “Notes on Literature and Engagement” – Russell Banks (American) does not address censorship except in passing, as shown below. Instead he addresses the conflict inherent in works which have, in the end, fostered change:
…one hopes for as long as human beings tell stories to themselves and one another, the novelist is at bottom committed to a life of opposition, of speaking truth to power, of challenging and overthrowing received wisdom and disregarding the official version of everything. This is why so many novelists have been censored, imprisoned, exiled, or even killed.
From “Talking to Strangers” – Paul Auster (American) writes about the general importance of storytelling itself:
We grow older, but we do not change. We become more sophisticated, but at bottom we continue to resemble our young selves, eager to listen to the next story and the next. …human beings need stories. They need them almost as desperately as they need food, and however they might be presented—whether on a printed page or a television screen—it would be impossible to imagine life without them.
From “Freedom to Write” – Orhan Pamuk (Turkish) (Translated by Maureen Freely) writes about the personal importance of freedom of expression, in which he first remembers Harold Pinter and Arthur Miller coming to Istanbul to meet with writers and their families who had been imprisoned for what they had written, to better offer them support, and to bring their stories to the rest of the world :
…freedom of expression has its roots in pride and is, in essence, an expression of human dignity. I have personally known writers who have chosen to raise forbidden topics purely because they were forbidden. I think I am no different. Because when another writer in another house is not free, no writer is free.
From “Notes on Writing and the Nation” – Salman Rushdie (Indian/British), writes about nationalism and the novel, including both political censorship and nationalistic writers who ignore the truth and instead corrupt it:
When the imagination is given sight by passion, it sees darkness as well as light. To feel so ferociously is to feel contempt as well as pride, hatred as well as love. These proud contempts, this hating love, often earn the writer a nation’s wrath. The nation requires anthems, flags. The poet offers discord. Rags.
From “The Sudden Sharp Memory” – Ed Park (American) aptly chooses the structure of a psychiatric session transcript for his essay describing the reason I am the Cheese has been banned in certain communities:
“I mean it’s stupid, right? Of course it is. But it’s interesting how the book they chose to ban, I am the Cheese, is about forbidden knowledge. What gets covered up, distorted. What we pretend does not exist. Today I read that absence into those gaps between the different narrative sections, and into those silences that blossom in the interview transcripts. It’s like the censors had unconsciously found the perfect mirror to their censorship.”
From “Witness: The Inward Testimony” – Nadine Gormier (South African), in one of her customarily intellectual essay (with footnotes), begins with the effect of 9/11 and describes the importance of writer as witness, and, in certain cases, the self-censorship of events and truths witnessed but unspoken:
The duality of inwardness and the outside world: that is the one essential existential condition of the writer as witness. …I accept, from Proust, a signpost for writers in our context: “The march of thought in the solitary travail of artistic creation proceeds downwards, into the depths, in the only direction that is not closed to us, along which we are free to advance—towards the goal of truth.”
Described in the press release for the book as being “a book of essays that would explore the issue and impact of censorship on the world,” some of these essays were relevant to the proposed subject matter, others were not. Again, I just warmly wish more of the essays had the same relevance, depth and gravitas as the few.
But, like what Neda has become to many of the Iranian people, and others like her in many corners of the world, the basic human right of freedom of expression, as BURN THIS BOOK in its best moments suggests, certain human freedoms shall not die, no matter where they are subjugated, as long as there are those who believe in their power, and in the inherent rights of all, they shall remain alive, whether censored or not.
And, with the recent example of Iran, as in other parts of the world, it will take, as Frederick Douglass suggested, the expectation of struggle before change occurs. That expectation should not be something we or anyone else should be afraid of. For we have, as human beings in many instances, met that challenge with ultimate courage. And it is a courage that recognizes truths that go beyond the individual—it is truth which we recognize is a basic aspect of humanity itself. As long as we remember that, no matter how free or free we may not be, we are indeed not lost at all.
_______K.J. Wetherholt is a former media executive and currently a writer, producer, and Co-Founder/Board Chairman of The Humanitarian Media Foundation (HMF). Her book, The Illumination A Novel of the Great War (2006) will be released in paperback next year and is currently being packaged as a feature film out of Europe for future production.
Thursday, June 25, 2009
In the United States, since World War I, the national remembrance holiday in May, which was once known as “Decoration Day,” has been known as “Memorial Day.”
While many will be setting up their grills, weather-permitting, and fixing barbeque for friends and family alike, or gathering with friends at restaurants, or in whatever location, thankful for a long weekend and looking forward to the summer, numerous journalists will also be making commentary on what this day means. They will be talking about our soldiers, and whether one is for or against the two wars in which we are currently embroiled, they will be reminding us that those who have fought and died for us, our country, and our freedoms, should be foremost in our minds.
I agree with this wholeheartedly, for whether one is for war or against it, no one should take issue with our veterans themselves and only have inherent respect for an experience none could imagine unless in their shoes. My great-grandfather, a veteran of the Spanish-American War, and WWI on the Western Front, is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. He is buried with others who have marked our country’s sacrifice in the midst of conflict.
But I would also like to make commentary on something that we should also be thinking about on this day. Let me amend that to say this day, and perhaps on every other, particularly for those of us who live in the West.
Earlier this month, on May 3rd, was World Press Freedom Day. It was a day that came and went to little fanfare. Even in this day when Iran is limiting or ceasing people’s access to Facebook during elections—where they should be able to communicate freely and exchange information about candidates—to the arrest and imprisonment of an Iranian-American journalist, Roxane Sabieri, who was accused of spying against Iran (who sang the American anthem to give herself strength during the ordeal), freedom of speech and freedom of the press have never been such important issues as they are now. Now, in this information age, this age of instant communication via varying means from SMS, email, Facebook and other social networking sites, IM, Skype, mobile phones and video conferencing, freedom of information has never been easier and more immediate. However, in most countries around the world, it is still limited.
On World Press Freedom Day, Freedom House released its assessment of world press freedom and found that it was on the decline. The current economic crisis has only caused further endangerment to media sustainability, not just here in the West, but to the developing world. And unlike in the West, and particularly in the United States, it is there, in the developing world, that such freedom is more consciously precious, because, indeed, it is often more rare.
As reported on CNN.com in its reporting of Freedom House’s findings, this marked the "seventh straight year" of deterioration, even in such countries as were once deemed "free," now only to be considered "partly free" because of political pressures and the yoke of governments which do not want their citizens to know what is happening both within and without their borders. To know, as a recent CIMA/NED report also stated, that only 20% of the world’s countries have any recognizable freedom of the press, is something that most would respond to with a certain degree of disbelief. We are so used to the freedoms we have that sometimes it shocks us the extent to which others do not have them.
On this Memorial Day weekend, here are two ways in which we can truly commemorate this holiday outside of spending time with friends and family. We can appreciate our veterans, for whom this holiday is supposed to be a celebration, and we can also celebrate the freedoms former generations have fought for, from the Founders of the United States on. I’d like to suggest that this isn’t “hokey” or idealistic. It’s necessary.
We, more than anyone in the world, could perhaps be seen as taking our freedoms for granted. We’d rather be cynics and talk about how we as Americans are hated by many around the world, and how many problems that has caused. The election of Obama may have changed public opinion among many Americans—and the world—to a certain extent, but still, some, rather than withstand criticism, will still often mitigate any pride over our nationality, as though to beat others to the punch, while lambasting those fellow Americans whom we consider responsible for our mistakes before others do in the international sphere. We can’t pretend to be who we once were, some say—or perhaps never were, if we think about only the abuses and never those aspects of which we should be proud.
We do need to recognize our mistakes. But to insert some context, there has been no civilization, no nation, no group among humanity—with few if any exceptions--which has not perpetrated some atrocity, some war, some moment in history about which it could beat itself to a pulp if it chose to. That is not the point, and truly, that is, unfortunately, far too easy an exercise. We have made ourselves a massive target in the public sphere, and not just based on the natural tendencies toward picking at hegemony. In terms of mistakes, we sure as hell have made them, sometimes on a grand scale. But lest we forget, the point is in recognizing mistakes, but also embracing what is true and good as its natural counter when the time comes to do it. That includes holidays such as Memorial Day, when we should be remembering the best of who we are, as embodied in those who have been willing to lay their lives on the line for the freedoms we often do take for granted, even now, amidst the two wars we’re currently fighting.
In the case of our own country, the ideals which the Founders—as flawed as the Founders may have been personally in certain respects—still deserve absolute respect for having created something never before seen—the implementation of ideals during the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment, when Natural Law reigned supreme in human philosophy. And the ideals about which they argued, debated, and ultimately fought a Revolutionary War, and about which wars have been fought wars since, are ones of which we should be proud. This is true moreso because 80% of the rest of the world to this day does not have similar freedoms.
On April 4, 2009, I did a posting on the RdS/HMF blog about George Orwell's 1984. This is a book that is often taught in high school here in the United States, but in this post-Cold War age, sometimes the reasons for teaching it are less pronounced than they were when the Soviet Union still existed. (For anyone who was not live during or who does not remember the Cold War, and its relevance to 1984, see the film, The Lives of Others).
Among many of my friends who are teachers, they teach it in terms of the Dystopian novel—as it indeed is. When I taught, I had a whole Dystopian Unit, which included novels, essays, psychological tracts, journalism, and film—everything from 1984 to the graphic novel and film of V for Vendetta. The themes have continued to prove inordinately important, and moreso in this information age, when information is inherently ubiquitous, but as we have seen from recent events internationally (China, Sri Lanka, Sudan, etc.), still subject to propaganda.
As with much literature of any merit, its messages are told, like many of our best films, through the story of others. Such stories teach students that it’s usually the force in power that will try to convince everyone else that they are actually in or striving toward a utopia—which is their surreptitious psychological means of maintaining control--consigning everyone else, often by force, to the dystopian reality to which it appears only a few are awake. Those who are apparently awake usually form some kind of resistance or rebellion to awaken others to a previously unseen reality. Many others may be awake as well, but they’re not willing to risk torture, murder, imprisonment or other subjugation to stand before that dystopian power and challenge it. They must wait for others who have the courage of their convictions—and are willing to risk torture and death—to free them, should their plight for freedom succeed.
In preparing to write the RdS post, I could feel the hairs on the back of my neck rise as I was watching the trailer for Michael Radford's film version of 1984, filmed in and around London during the very time period in which the novel originally took place. The control of media, wars fought about which the truth might never be known, terrorism being used to control the public and act as an excuse to limit rights and freedom of expression--"thought police" and those who commit "thought crime" when not bending to party line.
What becomes true as things swing more and more to the extreme ends of the spectrum, is that the higher the stakes get, the more issues are seen as black and white, right and wrong, to the detriment of dissent. Control is seen as a necessary means of mitigating whatever potential damage might come from someone actually having his or her own thought--and acting on it. It might not be good for the masses. It might prove to be subversive. Heaven forbid there be such a thing as freedom, for in 1984, "Big Brother" loves you, and only wants to protect you--not just from others, but from yourself. For that protection, one must therefore believe that 2+2=5. And one must believe that with all his or her heart. And one must not question when the clock also strikes "13."
Remember, from 1984, those famous slogans:
"War is Peace; Freedom is Slavery; Ignorance is Strength."
In other countries, including in the remaining 80% of the world, including where violence is being perpetrated, any such questioning of the status quo, instead of debate and a subsequent vote, would come with instant arrest, and perhaps loss of life. There are places right now in the world, where "Big Brother" is a despotic government which will subjugate a population, rape and murder anyone who objects, or in the cases of cultural and ethnic violence, rape and murder any human being who has committed the objectionable act of even being alive. Freedom of the press and freedom of speech are laughable pipe dreams. Basic human survival is at issue among millions—if not billions—of people. And those slogans from 1984, which we as Americans would inherently consider ridiculous, may as well actually be the slogans used by various regimes whose brutality is just simply the beginning of a true reign of terror.
Seeing the world as it is, including our own country, it is pretty apparent we do not live in a utopia. We even point out on a regular basis how far we are from it. But we here in the States also scream bloody murder should any of our rights be impeded. The Patriot Act caused endless debate—as it should have—and the rights of any who are subjugated are written about or covered by the media to the nth degree, even when we’re tired of hearing about it. Any conflict is inherently a story covered from every imaginable angle—and cynicism, as much as we may hate it at times, does have its uses—it assures that we aren’t swallowing whatever b.s. is being forced upon us by some faction in the government. There is always someone who will chortle, whether pundit or American citizen, who will shake his or her head after reading the paper or hearing something blatantly absurd on CNN, Fox News, or one of the other networks, and with typical impertinence toward “the system,” and ask, “Are you kidding?”
But in remembering the other 80 % of the world, we do take that right even to be impertinent for granted. We forget that such impertinence to whatever system in other parts of the world may be a death sentence.
And we need to remember something else. Whether we realize it or not, and however unpopular we are in certain parts of the world, there are those who still look to us as the ideal of human freedom. They look at our Declaration of Independence, our Constitution, which even some of our own citizens have never read, and can talk about the Founders place in the Enlightenment and their use of Natural Law in the language of these documents. They even talk about the difficulties the Founders had grappling with these ideals during the difficulties of their time—including holding the natural rights of humanity aloft, while nearly tearing themselves apart over the issues of slavery. But they tout, sometimes more than we do, the fact that our Founders challenged themselves and future generations as a first step toward bridging the chasms between such philosophy—such higher ideals—and politics, in which those ideals were either subverted or upheld in practice. They did something with those ideals, and a new country was built in the wake of that willingness to create something that had never been known before, and based on ideals that would, perhaps, have otherwise only existed in the ether.
For those who do not have our freedoms, there is often the fragility of hope, and where it exists, the necessity of it to live another day, and the necessity to fight for its very protection. For those who have no hope, a single light shone in the darkness allows for even a single moment of belief, and the recognition that despite all the horrors of this increasingly complex world, any among the subjugated is inherently human, and there are others who give a damn about that very humanity, and the right not just to exist, but to live with that humanity intact, including rights which are—and should always be—inherent as human beings. And whether we realize it or not, they look to us, seeing where we started as a nation-state, what values we continue to uphold, and what we were willing to fight for. For we do need to realize, that when the time comes, there are things worth fighting for.
It is my hope that we will never forget, even when it is unpopular to recognize in casting a look askance at war—whatever war—which others fought for our right to be who we are. They fought for our right to disagree—to dissent—and to define ourselves, however we might, as human beings and as a nation. Even those areas in which we have not perfected our own freedoms, we at least have the ability to fight for them, knowing, in critical moments, woe betide the force that would ultimately keep us from them. At heart, we are the Americans everyone who believes in us believes us to be, for our history, and are forebears, however flawed, are a part of us whether we choose to recognize them or not.
So, as I eat my share of Memorial Day barbeque, I will be thinking about the following: my great-grandfather, a veteran of the Spanish-American War and WWI, buried at Arlington National Cemetery, and about my father, who was a veteran of Korea. I will be wearing a red poppy, and reading both “In Flanders Fields” and Siegfried Sasson’s poem, “Aftermath.” And as importantly, I’ll be damned proud to have been born in a country that while imperfect, still allows for views different from mine—and yours, whoever you may be reading this—thanking my father, great-grandfather, and others who put their lives on the line so that I might truly be one of the fortunate to know such freedoms—and hope and work toward the freedoms of others.
Again, this is not idealism. This is saying thank you.
Friday, February 27, 2009
This was originally published on August 27, 2007 on the previous blog site of the HMF. In light of Darfur, the DRC, and numerous other humanitarian crises, including those of present instances of genocide and human rights abuses, this is being reprinted.
Many have never read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, (adopted and proclaimed by General Assembly resolution 217 A (III) December 10, 1948) nor know of its history. (See http://www.unhchr.ch/udhr/lang/eng.htm, courtesy of the UNHCHR) I think, perhaps, it is time to remind everyone the tenets which are involved, which ostensibly guarantee basic humanist principals in terms of international relations and policy–not to mention how it should–even if it hasn’t in many cases–filtered down from the UN through to national, regional and local populations among all countries of the United Nations.
The United Nations indeed has its problems–one of them has always been the difficulty found in trying to form even the most basic consensus among its member nations–the others being what means it has and should use to implement its policies, necessary oversight of its commissions, and the ultimate authority it has to act–particularly in terms of the sovereignty of other nations.
I believe we should always embrace the best of ideals–but my warm hope is that most would embrace enough pragmatism to see that idealism in the vacuum of debate is not enough. If one believes in something enough, he or she should be willing to act on those beliefs, and moreso in the midst of crisis. The same should be true of countries which have embraced the ideals of this Declaration and yet when the time came to act, were too concerned with politics–and distracted by the inherent squabbling among nations as to the means of action–to the point where the crisis reached the point of no return. As the old adage goes, even those who refuse to make a decision have decided something. One cannot be congratulated for idealism when such idealism leads to nothing.
Know that even in action, not everyone will agree. Know that you may anger another faction or nation in the process–nothing worth doing is ever done with true, unequivocal consensus. Know that mistakes may be made in the process of righting what can justifiably be seen as an obvious wrong. Hindsight is indeed 20/20. But know this, too–had action taken place on many distinct occasions, the horrors of many human holocausts–and/or the fallout from certain crises–would never have happened. As long as humanity is made up of men and women whose personal preferences–or ego for that matter–outweigh the common good, or agree to disagree on some more minor matters but still cannot see the proverbial forest for the trees when it comes to a situation in which action is paramount, such an impasse will continue to mar the best of intentions.
The United Nations–in terms of both the Security Council and the overall General Assembly, and in terms of this Declaration which it indeed itself adopted by resolution in 1948, right after WWII when such nations by virtue of such adoption, professed that they would never forget–is inherently responsible to all of its member nations–and to those populations which are most vulnerable. As we have seen, debate can go on indefinitely. Resolutions can be passed. But again, at which point will the United Nations choose to live up to its convictions and with one smooth, uncompromising motion act on them when the time comes. Right now, any humanitarian organization worth its salt could name ten different current or impending disasters. (Even the Humanitarian Media Foundation (HMF) even prior to launch has a Humanitarian Crisis Index.) When will the UN choose to make the human beings under its auspices–and the inspiration of its Declaration–more important than maintaining a growing organizational behemoth which in certain critical moments talks more than it acts?
Know, too, this is not meant for those on the front lines–including many of the tireless people who work for the various offices and sections of the United Nations–who are there every day filing reports which state–categorically–that action should be taken. These are the ones who, like others on the ground–the countless NGO’s and aid agencies–are all screaming at the top of their lungs for action.
This is for those who are appointed to rarefied positions in the General Assembly and the UN Security Council who may at the moment forget what it is they’re supposed to be fighting for.
And indeed, understand that I am talking again about particular crises that had every hallmark of a foreseeable humanitarian disaster. Every great power has been responsible at one time or another for such inaction. None can be seen as exempt. We here in the United States have been beaten to a pulp by nations around the world over these past years for various reasons–but we are not the only ones to whom the finger should be pointed. But at this point, too, we should be damned tired of pointing fingers when the only thing that results is further conflict.
In the age of deconstruction–and I am not so thankful for this among Derrida’s notable contributions to human philosophy–it seems we have perhaps deconstructed our own basic morality down to nothing. We no longer are willing to take responsibility for ourselves or to one another. “Passing the buck” has gone from a laughable line to a mode of philosophical belief. And I think those on the humanitarian front lines have had enough.
There is more to be said on this topic and in more detail, and no doubt, this as subject matter will find its way into further posts. But in the interim, again, take a look at the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is a wonderful document. It is perhaps time, after almost sixty years, that it be implemented.
Monday, February 16, 2009
In finally being able to see movies–and read material–that I’ve wanted and needed to get to for some time, last night I watched the DVD of The Lives of Others, which I wanted to mention here, having been both extraordinary, and a film which talks about the power of what it means to be a good man–and fully alive–in the atmosphere of Communism in East Germany before the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and in fact, the Iron Curtain itself.
There are those alive now who do not remember the Cold War–the constant strain of East versus West, the arms race, and a world inhabited by two distinct superpowers whose every movement, every action was a means of ostensibly flipping the proverbial bird (anyone remember that scene in Top Gun?) to the other side–and holding the very sense of life on the planet in the balance. Everything was about influence–financial, political–and in terms of the propaganda which flew in trying to create leverage on a strained and exhaustive quest for political advantage. The United States and the Soviet Union were both in what seemed like a war which would yield one of two things: either the perpetual continuity of a powerful stalemate until one side broke, or at some unknown fork in the road, a path to ultimate destruction. The Nuclear Age was a palpable presence–it hung in the air like a dense, ominous fog, and the stakes were truly high. Those of us who remember can still hear in our minds the newscasts or some “Special Report” when in some part of the world, the United States and the Soviet Union went head to head, usually under the auspices of our support for some other country, but which had the capacity to explode into the potential for nuclear conflict. We all remember the significance of DEFCON (i.e. "Defense Condition" ) 1.
In this world, East Germany--or the German Democratic Republic (GDR), in German, Deutsche Demokratische Republik (DDR)--in being a sattelite of sorts of The Soviet Union (despite being considered sovereign in 1955, it still had Soviet troops ensconced by virtue of the Potsdam Agreement), was under the fist of Communism, and their henchmen in keeping the DDR in control were the secret police known as the Stasi (Ministerium für Staatssicherheit (MfS / Ministry for State Security). Their job was to keep watch on the citizens of East Germany and single out any one or any organization which would be considered a threat to the state. This included–as any communist regime would–artists, actors, writers, directors, playwrights, musicians–anyone who could surreptitiously influence the thinking of the public, and whose influence might indeed be considerably powerful were they also to be particularly successful–including were they successful enough to be an influence outside the DDR. In such cases, those with that kind of notoriety and influence might feel enough audacity–and have access–to perhaps be tempted to reveal the actual conditions under which they and other citizens were forced to live. Such people, like intellectuals and professors–who are always targeted as well in such regimes–were potentially very dangerous to the overall stability of the communist state and its hold over its citizens. Give anyone a whiff of freedom, and watch how quickly they are apt to become agitators, on some human level somehow believing freedom is a human right.
The Lives of Others, written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, depicts this reality with the starkness of how life in the DDR must truly have felt–all colors are shown in muted, gray or earth tones depending upon what faction is being shown–the Stasi, or the artistic community made up of the writers, directors, actor and playwright who are bending to the point of breaking under the system and the inability to speak, write, or act unless it is according to the will–or consent–of the state. All DDR scenes–in the temporary detention center–in the home of the Stasi officer who is one of the people at the center of the film–are bleak, gray, flat and institutional. Among the artists, there is the warmth and–importantly, the texture–of earth tones which seek to break out of the gray –a metaphor, perhaps, of the natural will of humans who are forced into submission. Like the gray of winter, spring will come–the inevitable will of the human soul, like the earth, warm and soft, and ready for the seeds of whatever can most grow in fertile soil. In this case, there is no more fertile soil than that of the warm, powerful mind of an artist who finds himself succumbing to the natural will to express truth–and such truth, as the old saying goes, will out…regardless of the personal cost.
In the midst of this struggle is Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler, played by former East German actor Ulrich Mühe, who is charged with keeping eyes–and ears–on the playwright Georg Dreyman, whose play he has just seen, and whose lover, actress Christa-Maria Sieland (shortened by the Stasi in their reports as CMS) is the object of desire by Minister Bruno Hempf, whose influence, and lascivious greed, makes Dreyman a target. He is both an influential playwright and a supposed “believer” in the state–but that means nothing in the face of the lust of a government official used to getting–and posessing–anything he wants. The Stasi–and Wiesler–are to find something on Dreyman–whatever it takes. These people’s lives mean nothing in the balance, and perhaps can even be used, Wiesler is told, to advance his career if he succeeds in finding some means for Dreyman to be implicated of any crime against the DDR.
Such are the priorities of a communist state–implicating another, or subjugating someone with less power, has its privileges. And if one won’t cooperate, what better means than fear to cause one to conform. Whether the threat of surveillance, of being taken to interrogation for days without sleep, or being kept from doing the one thing which makes you feel human–even if it means offering someone you love in a Faustian bargain, one will be forced to submit. One must also never forget the threat of years of imprisonment–even death–at even the slightest political, creative, or personal affront. One need only look the wrong way at a Communist party member, and your name goes on the list. More evidence, and unless you have something to offer, you may never see the light of day again.
It is in this reality, and in becoming a secret part of the lives of Dreyman, Christa-Maria, and their circle of friends, that Wiesler is given a glimpse into another world. They are unknowingly under constant surveillance–every word is being heard–every movement documented. Their world even amidst the oppression of everyday life in the DDR is somehow alive. The depth of friendship, the love between man and woman, the true emotion expressed in the word and actions of these men and the one woman among them–awakens the humanity which has been subsumed by years of constant propaganda and the life of a Stasi officer–in which one may as well be a machine–never showing emotion–never betraying vulnerability, and instead are taught to manipulate the emotions and vulnerabilities of others. No personal connection–no emotion–is sacred. Anything can be used to break a human soul who has been targeted, and to do so, one cannot be seen as human.
The act of listening–truly listening–is an intimate action. Wiesler is a man whom we can see is strung tight–and seemingly almost imperviously so. And perhaps because he is so stoic we must reasonably assume that there is much emotion there–even if it is unseen. Those who will not bend at some point must break. That emotion would find catharsis somehow–and whatever human being–whatever man hiding underneath the severity of his Stasi facade is at first almost subconsciously drawn to the poignancy of their lives–and later, ultimately to the point where he is willing to sacrifice the necessity of his role–and his job–to keep some semblance of the power of these people’s souls intact. Once one feels that freedom–and the truth of such emotion–he can never go back. And this is paralleled by Dreyman’s personal arc–the celebrated playwright who has willingly supported the idea of the state. Where once he could find expression within the limitations of the system, with the subjugation of his dearest friends–including one’s suicide after having been implicated–to the subjugation of his own lover–he comes to realize that the system under which he has tried to work is a behemoth whose means of existence are dependent upon the destruction of others. This destruction has touched him on the deepest personal levels to the point where he, too, cannot go back.
This is one of the more powerful films I have seen in some time–with the true depth of what again should not be forgotten experience. Many of us may see the Cold War as an afterthought–but in looking at the bigger picture, we also have to remember that there are still regimes under which people are kept from what should be considered natural freedoms–and who are under subjugation by governments which view certain activity as a threat. Our own included, which I pray will never allow herself to go too far in terms of believing the security of the state is worth denying the most basic of freedoms.
In terms of performances, the two men at the heart of this film have given two of the most powerful performances I have seen in any film–domestic or international–this year. Where Pan’s Labyrinth showed the magic of an alternate reality which could be found by a little girl forced to deal with unmitigated brutality, The Lives of Others depicts the choices we as adults must make when faced with a similar choice, in a world whose brutality is just as great, and, similarly, in which we have the power to express truth, whatever the cost, and should we have the courage.
It is only when the stakes are truly great that the true character of a man will be known–and this is shown, heart and soul, by Mühe as Weisler, and Sebastian Koch as Dreyman. For two characters who have never formally met, their lives are inexorably linked, as is the power of the choices they have chosen to make, each of which, in a rather poignant metaphor in the film, shows him to be a good man. And for a Stasi officer to make that transition, one must see that to not have made the transition would have been unbearable once he allowed himself to be human–whatever the cost.
As an additional note, and worth mentioning, Koch can also be seen in Paul Verhoeven’s WWII film Black Book, and I warmly believe he is one whom the international–and American–film industries will begin to seek after soon with a vengeance. If they haven’t already, they should. Like Mühe, this is a man whose power as an actor is extraordinary, and in his case, with a soul which is almost incandescent. As Dreyman, every emotion could be felt powerfully, as though exuding from deep within and being surreptitiously transferred to the audience. He played the epitome of the true artist, whose art is a reflection of the tension between the warm power of joy and the poignancy of suffering, making truth the ultimate holy grail–whether in terms of professing love or exposing the blackened heart of a corrupt, dangerously mercenary government. Mühe’s arc was just as powerful–and moreso in terms of the emotion which needed to be seen through the stoicism of a powerful, Stasi facade.
The Lives of Others won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, and it will be truly good to see what those involved–from the writer/director to the actors, do next. This is one of those films which others talk about, but perhaps some will not see–whether because of subtitles or because one feels he or she can always get to it in time. My suggestion would be to see it sooner rather than later. Films like this are warmly worth seeing.
Wednesday, December 24, 2008
Considering my past posts, this particular review may seem beside the point. But instead, I would hazard a guess that it could be considered relevant--and moreso when it comes to the film industry and what it chooses to make, and what overall themes damned good filmmakers--and actors--most often choose.
In this case, I just saw James Mangold's latest (the director responsible for Walk the Line, the nuanced biopic about Johnny and June Carter Cash), 3:10 to Yuma, starring Russell Crowe, Christian Bale, Peter Fonda, and Ben Foster. This is definitely a film about the shades of gray found in the continuum between right and wrong--and where a man's sense of decency can either be corrupted or supported by the choices he chooses to make, including when faced with pride and/or desperation.
Most Westerns have been invariably set up as a morality tale--in rugged, often desperate circumstances, you choose between right and wrong--you're either a hero, a bystander, or an outlaw. Some event has set the hero and villain both on their course toward their ultimate role in the tale--and it's not hard to spot which is which.
This is a film which is not so different on its face. Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) is an outlaw. He's a thief, a murderer, and the leader of a group of outlaws who follow his every order, for he is the best in the business, and between being one of the quickest draws we imagine one has ever seen, also has the loyalty of his men and the intelligence which makes it inadvisable to cross him. Crowe as Wade is a nefarious, charming, bible-quoting scene-stealer, and as his second in command, Ben Foster plays Charlie as an equally brutal character sociopathic enough to have taken over, if he weren't apparently so rapt with an almost loving hero-worship. Between the two, it would seem no one has a chance--moreso with the group of nameless thugs who seem to be primarily there as mercenaries, bolstering the force--and number--of outlaws. At this point, Wade and Charlie almost seem to look upon any of their opponents with a sense of pity, and Wade, with a wry chuckle and a raised-eyebrow shake of the head, as though anyone unwise enough to come against him has it coming.
Countering this force of veritable "badmen" are Peter Fonda and Christian Bale. Peter Fonda has been gaining a resurgence over these last years--shaky in Ghost Rider, here, he has found his calling as a character actor, and being the son of Henry Fonda, it's no surprise. It would almost seem to be in the blood. The crags in his face, the gray hair, leathery skin and crystalline blue eyes are at home in the dry, atmospheric red rock of Arizona. Hired to protect the money being transferred by the railroad from one town to another--particularly from men like Wade--he and Wade are natural antagonists, each tough and stubborn, as well as prone to varying pronouncements, insults, and one-liners which are as dry as the earth between the two Arizona towns in the film, Bisbee and Contention.
Christian Bale once again plays a more than convincing American--and again, one with a mind as well as a darker past. Like Crowe, Bale has the talent to depict multiple emotions at once, as though no matter how hard one were to try, no one would ever be able to decipher the myriad thoughts which seem to be visibly flowing through his mind from one moment to the next. As Dan Evans, he is a Civil War veteran, a sharpshooter who lost his leg in the war, and having moved west for the drier climes for the sake of his younger son (suffering from what then would have been called "consumption"), is trying his damnedest to make a go of it as a rancher, only to be faced with losing his ranch if he can't come up with enough money to cover his note within days. If he can't, the note-holder, who was kind enough to burn his barn as a reminder, will sell his land to the railroads for a profit. Evans is a man who is facing the threat of losing what matters most--not just his land and his prospective livelihood, but the respect of his wife and his sons, who at this point have begun not to trust him. It's an anguish which Bale holds in, seen in his eyes, but still held back just enough by a proud stoicism, as though the only thing he can do at this point is force himself onward, when lesser men would have given in. He refuses to be one of those men. Who, then, would his sons remember, and what would they have learned to see him surrender?
The film, then, is less a battle between the outlaws and the "good guys"--if in any film these days any man can be seen as such (even Peter Fonda's character is lambasted by Wade for killing Apache women and children, as though such actions could ever be considered righteous), than a character study between, ultimately, two men--Wade and Evans, and what makes a man good, especially in a film where actions, and the reasons behind them, indeed determine character. Wade and Evans throughout the film build a grudging admiration for one another--Wade has more freedom to admire Evans--Wade as an outlaw is already at an advantage, as he already knows himself to be the "bad guy," so what does it cost him to admire a good man? Evans, in contrast, begins with an almost emotionless contempt, and only at the end does it warm--however slightly--to a grudging respect for Wade--which to him is less important than getting him on the train, the 3:10 to Yuma prison, which will afford him the ability to save his ranch. That's his objective--there's too much at stake to think about anything else--and nothing is going to keep him from damned well doing it, come hell or high water. Not even any inducements Wade might finally offer him to look the other way as he escapes. In a reality in which you're about to lose everything--the one thing you hold onto is the task you've taken on. Nothing else is important. The willingness to complete that action, whatever the cost, is the only thing you have left.
Bale makes this a viable reality for Evans--and Crowe makes a good potential foil, then ally, as he's taken by Evans' single-mindedness, and for what he soon realizes are unassailable reasons. Given the same circumstances, Wade might have done the same thing. But as his circumstances are different, and as he sees life through a famous outlaw's lens of perception--enough to make his view of good and evil somewhat relative--all he can do is take on the role almost as observer to this task. It seems almost inevitable that Wade will one way or another find his way out of this--even if he is put on the train--so why not take advantage of his circumstance and challenge Evans' mettle. A great foil doesn't just shoot his gun--he can get inside the psyche of his opponent and figure out what makes him tick. Then it's just a matter of time before an opportunity will present itself, and he can manipulate such men to do the dirty work for him, or otherwise adeptly sidestep any feeble attempt to contain him. On some level, it seems Wade is almost pleased he has a real opponent--someone whose depth of commitment to his task--and again for reasons Wade himself respects--makes him have the very kind of rare character Wade almost hates to destroy. In a world where men seem unfailingly predictable--they're either too lily-livered to ultimately stand up to a fight--or they otherwise are greedy enough to fold at the right price--here is one man who won't succumb to inducement. Even Peter Fonda's character, McElroy, has become "boring," according to Wade--after enough years of the same damned contemptuous presence--always with the same damned commentary--it's about time someone different comes along who can stand up to him. That presents an entertaining challenge, once the irritation has worn off.
With a simple plot, a film like this needed actors like Crowe and Bale to make this as much of a rare pleasure to see as it was. There's nothing like seeing two incredibly nuanced actors up against one another--and each took the bit if not in his teeth than with one hell of a wry and knowing toss of the head. And once again, I have to say, there is no smarter actor than Russell Crowe. The combination of intelligence and instinct was at its peak, and moreso when able to take a character which could have been the usual flat, brusque depiction of an outlaw and make him into a thinking man. Not only that, but a charmer. And Bale, whose intensity is one of his hallmarks, has chosen the kind of character in which his own intelligence is less important--however present--than it is an afterthought. Even smart men sometimes have to choose survival--and Evans could give a damn about anything but saving his ranch--and making sure his wife and boys survive.
In an industry where studios are more and more pandering to what they believe to be the lowest common denominator among audiences--and sure as hell underestimating their intelligence--films like this give all of us who love the medium hope when it comes to what is being chosen to finance, and hopefully it's a trend about to make a punctuated resurgence. What could have been a B-list Western if it were in anyone else's hands, instead was thankfully taken on by a director like Mangold, and was given enough substance to attract actors like Crowe and Bale. Had this been made by the major studios instead of made by smaller production companies and distributed by LionsGate, I can only imagine the "notes" Mangold would have received from production executives who would have insisted upon dumbing down the dialogue and cutting character development in favor of a film top-heavy with violence to the point--if you'll forgive the pun--of overkill. I don't mind violence in these cases--hell this is a Western--but this was one of those films which balanced both beautifully. Had any such production executive screwed with it, I could have imagined sitting here writing that it was too bad Crowe and Bale's talents were wasted.
And in terms of why this is relevant here--instead of the usual films these days where technology, slick production, pithy one-liners, and new up-and-comers are hired for iconic roles which may very well be beyond their scope as actors--this proves that it takes men of substance to show the more relevant and important shades of gray which make up a substantive human being--and in this case, even an outlaw. In a Western, what is an outlaw but a man or woman with a certain past who chooses badly in terms of conscience--knowing damn well right from wrong? Indeed, in our present world, that definition is different depending upon where you're standing. Hero and outlaw are interchangeable, depending upon which side of a border, who is a champion for what group of people, and what actions are seen to constitute bravery. Right and wrong, apparently, have no meaning, as long as you have an arguable justification. And character is something rarely found, except in rare cases that cause us to lament the past.
In this film, character is palpable. In the end, even the outlaw found reason to exhibit some kind of honor, when faced with a good man who was doing something almost impossible, but for the right reasons. A boy who had no respect for his father found reason to love him in the end. Goes to show--you don't have to be a milquetoast to show substance. As a film, you can be gritty, use rough language, even show violence in context and both give substance and still entertain. I'm less entertained by high-tech light shows with wafer-thin characterizations than low-tech films with proverbial meat on their bones, which deserve the acclaim every time. And this was indeed one of those cases.
On the human front--I'll get to that again in other ways another time. It's good enough to sometimes just see something good, and be thankful, even in the realm of entertainment, there is good to see.