London riots, 2011, we need more conjecture, not less.

This is the second personal post I’ve made on this blog, and there probably won’t be too many, but given the unprecedented situation in London at the minute I think it’s worth writing something about it.

Yesterday morning I walked down to Brixton from my home in Clapham, in South London, which has (apart from a few broken windows on the high street) so far managed to avoid any serious violence. Brixton Road had been completely wrecked and was closed off, as was the tube station, and there was broken glass everywhere. Last night we listened to the constant wail of sirens and sat up for hours checking the Guardian live blog to see where the trouble was spreading next. There was reports of rioting in Clapham, but thankfully this turned out to be in Lavender Hill and around Clapham Junction station, which is actually in Battersea and at least a bus ride from here.

The official response so far has been fairly woeful. A Cameron/Clegg/May or ministerial minion will show up on television with the usual pointless clichés to ‘deplore’, or ‘utterly condemn’ what is happening, followed with a lot of grandstanding talk of ‘you will be caught’. The police have been equally vocal in their threats to catch the perpetrators, perhaps even more unjustifiably considering the criticism they have faced for their slow responses to looting. In the case of Brixton, residents told reporters that looting just 100m from the police station was allowed to continue for over half an hour. And in the East End, shopkeepers and residents have formed vigilante groups to protect their homes and businesses, having given up on the police.

The general response from the public has been mixed. There are those complaining that the police are restricted in their actions and scared of seeming too aggressive in dealing with looters, mostly because criticism they have been under recently for their heavy-handed policing of the student and TUC protests earlier this year, and their handling of the G20 protests last year that led to the death of Ian Tomlinson. I don’t buy this; given the amount of criticisms levelled at the police over the years for their policing of public order situations, as well as the shooting of Jean-Charles de Menezes and subsequent half-arsed cover up, they are unlikely to suddenly learn their lesson now and go softly-softly as half of London burns.

Others, including a few overzealous MPs and UKIP’s Nigel Farage, are going further still and calling for the military to be deployed. This is unlikely to happen, and would be virtually unprecedented in British history excepting a few occasions, notably the Rhondda riots in South Wales in 1910, and the 40-hour strike in Glasgow during the Red Clydeside era. On a practical level, the military is already incredibly overstretched, and as one military officer from South London said in a message that featured on the BBC’s live blog this morning,

‘As an Army officer, please do not go on about bringing the military in. More or less all the army has been in a warzone within the last two years, they have been fighting literally for their lives. I would have great concern that our troops are too prepared for using lethal force to be placed into an environment of violence on British streets.’

I’m inclined to agree with him.

The explanations for what has been happening also seem a little inadequate. The shooting of Mark Duggan was obviously the catalyst in Tottenham, but its more difficult to use his death as an explaination for rioting all around the country. It’s fairly pointless to speculate on what happened when he was killed, or what kind of man he was, as a thousand different theories have been thrown about in the last few days, and the Independent Police Complaints Commission is being as weirdly mysterious and non-communicative as it always is. As with Jean Charles de Menezes and Ian Tomlinson, the truth will appear eventually. Many on the left are claiming that the riots are the result of poverty and the governments cuts to public services and welfare, and while I’m sure these play a part, this is by no means the complete picture.

Some are going further and painting this as a political protest, which, although it may have begun as a demonstration against the police, has now taken on an entirely new character. And the support of what is going on as a political protest now seems bordering on the ridiculous, with the obvious fact that people’s homes are being burned down, and the multiple muggings and stabbings that have occurred during the riots. To think that people are looting outlets of JJB sports for a new pair of trainers are doing it for political reasons is laughable.

But equally ridiculous is the attempt by others to completely disengage what is happening from any kind of analysis, political or otherwise, seeing it in some way as being ‘sympathetic’ to the rioters, or attempting to ‘understand’ them. It’s not, and the reasons behind what is happening need to be discussed.

Events have definitely gone beyond the death of Mark Duggan, and it is hard to reconcile the idea of a sincere protest over perceived police brutality with looting widescreen TVs from a burning Curry’s outlet. Unemployment and social deprivation obviously have a part to play, but it’s hard not to place some blame on the political culture that many people my age (in their early twenties) have grown up with. Namely, the culture of complete individualism that has been actively encouraged by the political class in this country for the last thirty years.

Under Thatcher, we were essentially told, in the words of Gordon Gekko, that ‘greed is good’, and actively encouraged to see people like Gordon Gekko, albeit tamer versions, as role models. The message carried on under Labour through the boom years of the late 90s and early 2000s. And although they didn’t say it quite so crudely as a red-blooded Tory would, the ‘no such thing as society’ doctrine was carried on through the glory years before the crash of 2007-2008. Make as much money as you can was the message, and damn the effects on wider society. When generations are taught to aspire to be like the successful businessmen to semi-illiterate millionaire footballers that are treated like gods in the media, and when, as has happened since the 2007-2008 crisis, these aspirations turn out to be a cruel joke with no chance of fulfillment, there are consequences.

We were encouraged to be greedy, and selfish, and it was exactly this greed that led to the worldwide economic crisis, and you can see exactly the same greed now tearing through the high streets of Tottenham, Hackney, and Brixton in these last few days. Decades of state-encouraged selfishness have their consequences, and last night those consequences were looting and burning a Debenhams on Lavender Hill.

It’s 14:09 and the sirens outside my window are getting more frequent. BBC news has just reported that the riots have now claimed their first life, and there are reports that there has been looting in Hackney already. It’s going to be another long night, but let’s not confuse discussing the reasons for what is happening with sympathy with those who are doing it. They are not the same, and the calls for ‘going back to normal’, as if nothing had happened, are pointless, and will lead to nothing but a repeat of this violence in years to come. We can’t shy away from discussing the causes of what has happened; we need more conjecture.

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Summer With Monika: Pre-sixties youth revolt in a changing Europe

Summer With Monika, directed by Ingmar Bergman, tells the story of two Stockholm teenagers, Harry and Monika, who fall in love and agree to escape from the drudgery of their lives by running away from home and living a nomadic existence sailing around a series of deserted islands. It takes the form of a classic runaway film, with a pair of young lovers fleeing from the responsibilities of adulthood, but also reveals a truth about life in post-war Europe, and the prospect of changes to come.

Monika ostensibly runs away from home to escape the oppression of her family life. She lives with her violent and alcoholic father, her mother, and her loud and mischievous younger brothers. Their apartment is cramped, the children all sleep in cots in the kitchen, and their poverty is emphasised by the excitement generated when the father can afford to bring home ‘a bottle’ one evening.

When Monika first meets Harry, it is in the setting of a workman’s cafe near to their respective workplaces. Later, see see Monika sexually harrassed by her workmates; she is the subject of lewd jokes, and several times she is touched inappropriately, leading her to break down in tears. Harry, working nearby, also has a hard time at work, and seems to despise his boss and the general drudgery of his life. He is also subjected to bullying at the hands of a cruel foreman. When Monika and Harry first meet, they both fantasise about escaping from the drudgery of their lives, signified in their boredom and harrassment at work, and the oppressive nature of Monika’s family life.

Later, after her father hits her, Monika runs away from home and arrives at Harry’s apartment, suitcase in hand. Fearing the watchful gaze of his visiting aunt, Harry sets them both up in the cabin of his father’s boat. Monika quits her job, and the next day Harry does the same after an arguement with the bullying foreman. They both meet back at the boat, and Harry says,

‘Remember what you said about travel? Well, to hell with the others now. Let them slave away, what do we care.’ To which Monika answers, ‘I’d like to kill all those who want to hold us back and make us crawl.’

They agree to leave, and sail away on the boat to begin a summer of roaming adventures, sailing to and living on various deserted islands in the seas around Stockholm. They have run away from the world of work, obligations, and have chosen to disengage with society. It is here that we see Summer With Monika in its curious historical epoch. Made in 1953, and, strangely for a country that remained neutral during the war, Summer With Monika presents an almost perfect vision of the post-war melancholy and malaise of Europe, personified in its two main protagonists. Stuck between the old world of war and ideology of the first half of the 20th century, and the ‘new world’ of individualism, consumerism and uprooted social attitudes of the 1960s, we see both the history of the old world and the future of the new.

Their decision to flee the world is a basically individualist one; they are alienated from society (work, family, their own poverty) but instead of attempting to change these conditions, they merely commit themselves to voluntary exile to live a life of blissful isolation. They invert their alienation from the world and completely disengage from it. This attitude shows us the future; that it has been a hallmark of alienated Western youths in the latter half of the 20th century to form subcultures to try to create a world separate from society itself. Harry and Monika’s breaking away to live their own nomadic existence resembles most easily one of the central concepts of the hippie movement, which would have been in full flow only fifteen years later. But while hippies disengaged from society and travelled, or founded rural communes, it was usually framed in the language of a vague spirituality. Their reasons were given as esoteric or metaphysical, as manifested in the slogans to ‘find yourself, and ‘return to the Earth’. An interesting, if unintended indication of the new freedoms and changing social mores of the 60s can be seen in the controversy surrounding Summer With Monika on its release, namely its frank depictions of sexuality and nudity. Controversial at the time, the depictions of nudity would probably not have raised an eyebrow a decade later.

Harry and Monika’s motivations are different, and strikingly materialist; they have left their lives in Stockholm because they experienced poverty, the daily drudgery of their lives at work, and the fraught problems of family life. Here we see the past; the base problems that the ideological battles that pre-war Europe sought to resolve. In 1953, most of Europe was still rebuilding and coming to terms with the legacy of the war, and being pulled East or West in defense of opposing geo-political interests in the burgeoning Cold War. Whatever idealism had existed in the socialist movement of the first half of the century was gone, buried by the Stalin years and the transformation of European Communist parties into mere proxies for the Soviet state. It is easy to see, in a hypothetical Summer With Monika made twenty years earlier, Harry and Monika’s complaints against society and their own poverty being absorbed by the socialist and trade union movement, which formed a strong Europe-wide opposition for working-class people throughout the first decades of the century. Or for the more dramatically inclined, an action film where our protagonists join cells of a leftist terrorist group, a Swedish Narodnaya Volya.

Like many who now look back on Europe in the 1950s, Summer With Monika, feels like a film trapped in the remains of the past and the seeds of the future. Harry and Monika’s alienation from society is purely material, but lacking the ideology of the pre-war era, they cannot confront them, but instead choose the path of escape to lead a nomadic existence, something more suited to the esoteric motivations of post-war youth subcultures. These subcultures, whose opposition to society was clear (and remains to be), saw that attempts to change society were useless, and, lacking the language in a post-ideological world to express this frustration, merely formed their own socieities outside of it, often based around things like music or fashion, with corresponding values.

Harry and Monika’s response is individualist and non-political, and if the film were made in later decades we could imagine them becoming hippies, or punks, or a member of any other pyriad of subcultures in Western Europe. As it is, Harry and Monika exist in a kind of time warp that reveals the changing world of Europe in the 20th century, one that could never return to the past, and had only a bright, brave future to march towards, leaving Monika to wander somewhere between a picket line and a muddy field of bongo enthusiasts.

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Shakespeare and conspiracy: the prospect of Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous

“What if I told you…that Shakespeare never wrote a single word,” plainly states Derek Jacobi at the beginning of the trailer for Roland Emmerich’s upcoming Shakespeare film, Anonymous. Shakespeare has made surprisingly few appearances on film, the last being 1998’s Shakespeare in Love,  a sort of Notting Hill-era Britcom with codpieces. It is, therefore, a shame Anonymous is not a film about Shakespeare, but takes as its subject the most peculiar aspect of Shakespeare’s legacy, the conspiracy theory that ‘the man from Stratford’ did not write the plays attributed to him.

The ‘anti-Stratfordian’ movement, as it is known, dates back to the mid-19th century, and the reasons behind the claims that somebody else wrote the plays are numerous. They frequently rely on reading the plays as autobiography, denial of evidence, and bizarre codes and ciphers believed to be hidden in the plays themselves, as well as a good dose of snobbery towards Shakespeare’s background. For a comprehensive debunking of the anti-Stratfordian myth, it is worth reading James Shapiro’s excellent book, Contested Will, or alternatively simply viewing the surprisingly clear Wikipedia page.

As for the candidates themselves, there are currently over fifty contenders, including Christopher Marlowe, Mary Sidney, Francis Bacon, Walter Raleigh, King James, and Elizabeth I. No less eclectic are their supporters over the years, who count among their ranks Mark Twain, Charlie Chaplin, Malcolm X, and Sigmund Freud.

Two prominent contemporary figures in the anti-Stratfordian camp are Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance, who, in 2007, issued a ‘Declaration of Reasonable Doubt’ that features the signatures of several high-profile doubters, as an attempt to rally the anti-Stratfordian cause. In recent years the Shakespeare authorship conspiracy has gained greater mainstream interest:  the fact that Rylance even served as Artistic Director of Shakespeare’s Globe theatre between 1995-2005 reflects this. Jacobi and Rylance will both appear in Anonymous, and director Roland Emmerich’s signature featured on the 2007 declaration.

While favoured candidates for an alternative author swap positions fairly regularly, the current frontrunner is Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, an aristocrat, adventurer, playwright, and literary patron. Anonymous intends to fight his corner – with a few embellishments, namely that de Vere was also the illegitimate son of Elizabeth I, and had an incestuous relationship with her. Even in anti-Stratfordian ranks, this is a fringe theory, and one often met with derision.

By showcasing this dramatic and controversial theory, Anonymous could prove to be an own goal for the anti-Stratfordian camp. Oliver Stone’s JFK , released in 1991, is the daddy of conspiracy cinema. It succeeded in cementing the idea of a conspiracy in the public mind; following its release, more people were convinced of a cover-up and the US government even reviewed their records of the assassination. Its success lay in the simplicity of the plot, and the fact that it followed established and prominent theories of the Kennedy assassination, the ‘magic bullet’, the ‘second gunman’ etc. Could it be that Emmerich’s desire for blockbuster success via the most controversial and bizarre plot possible has overridden the anti-Stratfordian desire to maintain an image of legitimacy? Anonymous runs a serious risk of exposing them to ridicule.

In fact, the choice of such a bizarre theory seems so poorly considered that an intriguing, and just as unlikely, conspiracy of its own could be considered. What if Roland Emmerich is in fact a Shakespeare supporter,  is deep undercover in the enemy camp, and has gone to the trouble of shooting a multi-million dollar film that contends that Shakespeare did not write his plays, but with the most preposterous storyline possible – all as some kind of cunning ‘false flag’ operation to discredit the anti-Stratfordians. But, like the conspiracies themselves, this is an unreasonable theory based on zero evidence.

Belief in conspiracy theory in the modern world is widespread, a 2003 poll indicated that 75% of Americans believe in a JFK cover-up, a 2006 poll found that nearly half of all Britons believe the death of Princess Diana was not an accident, and we have only to look at recent conspiracies surrounding the 9/11 attacks and Barack Obama’s citizenship to see that the appetite for conspiracy remains strong. Not to mention the images of ‘Da Vinci Code tours’ that appeared in the wake of the book’s popularity, ferrying hundreds of Dan Brown enthusiasts around the Vatican to conduct their own examinations of the Sistine Chapel for hidden codes.

It is difficult to understand the current widespread appeal of conspiracy theories. In explaining his opposition to the Shakespeare conspiracies in Contested Will, James Shapiro writes, “No doubt my attitude derives from living in a world which truth is too often seen as relative and in which mainstream media are committed to showing both sides of every story…I don’t believe that truth is relative or that there are always two sides to every story.” This can seem a strong statement to make in our tolerant age, in which giving a fair hearing to every argument is highly placed. It is also a refreshing indictment of the very postmodern notion of treating every opinion as equally valid, often rejecting any notion of objective truth, even when such truth is provable.

In an extreme example, the devastating consequencies of this policy were made clear in the UK media’s reporting of the possible link between the MMR vaccine and autism. The scientific paper that made the link in 1998 was widely discredited by the medical community as ‘fraudulent’ and ‘dishonest’, and the scientific consensus is that there is no link between the MMR vaccine and autism, yet, in its mission to present both sides of the arguement equally, the media rejected the possibility of objective truth and carried on reporting the link as either possible, factual, or at least as important as the other arguement, leading many parents to deny their children the vaccine and thus leaving them exposed to potentially harmful infections.

Recourse to conspiracy theory can also be an act of desperation, or a response of collective hysteria to a profound event for which ready explainations are not forthcoming. They can also be interpreted as a response to what the anthropologist George Marcus termed a ‘crisis of representation’, or the widespread disengagement and disillusionment from political structures in Western society. Here, a direct connection is made between the disappearance of meta-narratives – ‘grand explanatory schemes’ – or the decline of ideology in an postmodern and post-political age (the idea that politics no longer offers positive ideas to improve the world, but merely sound administration through crisis, of which we are almost always in a permenant state of), and the need to seek answers elsewhere, often in conspiracy. The crisis of bureaucratic democracy becomes a crisis of truth. It is an outlet for frustration, where the majority no longer sees any real ‘choice’ in the political process, to quote Slavoj Žižek,

‘The political frustration of the majority is thus understandable: they are called to decide, while, at the same time, receiving the message that they are in no position effectively to decide, i.e. to objectively weigh the pros and cons. The recourse to “conspiracy theories” is a desperate way out of this deadlock, an attempt to regain a minimum of what Fred Jameson calls “cognitive mapping.”‘

Compared to these grand speculations, the world of the Shakespeare question is an almost insignificant one, but suspicion of Shakespeare has followed the general trend of more widespread acceptance of conspiracies, and the alternative theories have recently gained a degree of respectability. At the beginning of the trailer for Anonymous, when we see his ‘Shakespeare never wrote a single word’ speech, Jacobi is not hunched beside a fire in the back room of some dingy pub, but in a packed and professional looking auditorium, minus any kind of tin foil headgear. It is indicative that having once been a mark of eccentricity, the debate has become respectable, and despite the ridiculous storyline, Anonymous has the opportunity to re-energise the debate. And it intends to do this aggressively: in a press conference last year, Rhys Ifans, who will play Edward de Vere, mentioned that the character of Shakespeare will be presented as an ‘illiterate drunk’, a reference to the more snobbish aspect of the conspiracies: that Shakespeare was too poorly educated and un-gentlemanly to have written the plays. The inclusion of the incestuous royal relationship storyline could be a coup for Shakespeare loyalists,  but the real test of the film’s success will be whether it legitimises questioning the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays, or marks a return to the days of the tin foil hat.

A shortened version of this post appears at blogcritics.org – http://blogcritics.org/video/article/shakespeare-and-conspiracy-the-prospect-of/

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II. James Joyce, the fawning biographer, and the cult of the writer

Having had a few weeks of downtime from Anthony Burgess by Roger Lewis, and having re-read James Joyce by Edna O’Brien, my attitude towards Lewis’ book has softened. This is despite the fact that I still don’t like it. It doesn’t work as a biography, Lewis’ commitment to providing the story of Burgess’ life and work is minimal and a very distant second to the priority of attacking his subject. As I wrote in my last post, it is messy, unreadable in many places, and by the end the attacks on Burgess are unrelenting and bizarre.

Lewis’ book did, however, make an attempt to humanise its subject and deconstruct the aura of self-mythology that Burgess made a habit of building around himself through romanticisation and fabrication of aspects of his life and work. Cutting through the myth, de-romanticising, noting the fabrications, converting a godlike figure to a fallible human being is all part of writing a critical biography, and this is where Lewis momentarily succeeds. It gives us a clearer view of the subject’s works. The problem was that, given the savageness of his attacks on Burgess, Lewis’ efforts were self-defeating. The figure of Burgess is bought down from his heavenly pedestal to Earth, only the deconstruction is so personal and merciless, that Burgess passes through the zero-point of the earthly human, and is flung down into Hell under the weight of personal attack, unsubstantiated insinuation, and bile. We are left with a Burgess who consists of nothing but negative traits who, having been humanised momentarily, has now been mythologised again at the other end of the spectrum as inhuman. We start with Burgess as God, by his own mythologising, and are left at the end with Burgess as Satan, by Lewis’, and both are as unreachable as the other. But as made as Lewis seems, his book is a refreshing break from the kind of adoring adulation displayed to her subject by Edna O’Brien.

James Joyce is one of the most mythologised writers of the modern age, although, as opposed to Burgess, this can more easily be ascribed to those who write about him than the man himself, although Joyce was by no means a modest man. Confident of his abilities from a young age, he seemed, through years of poverty living in Trieste and Zurich, slowly building the book that was to become Ulysses, to know that one day he would be regarded as one of the greats. O’Brien goes through the motions of describing Joyce’s well-known early life in Dublin, through to his realisation so thoroughly documented in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, that he must live a life committed to art. The description of Joyce’s formative years veers between either paint-by-numbers biographical writing, and being sucked into and repeating the mythology of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man itself. What is repeated could easily be a rehashed version of the novel, told through Edna O’Brien’s words.

We have Joyce drinking himself silly in pubs, taking walks along Sandymout, and cavorting with prostitutes in the grubby back streets of Dublin. All acts that were later to find a place in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man or Ulysses, and O’Brien’s descriptions of Joyce’s encounters with prostitutes bear significant resemblance to Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom’s hallucinagenic experience in Bella Cohen’s brothel in Ulysses.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is obviously autobiographical to one degree or another, but the danger here is in letting Joyce’s own works form his biography. Joyce did visit prostitutes in Dublin, and of course drank himself silly in pubs, but O’Brien’s retelling of these stories are told in the same romanticised manner as the books themselves. She is merely playing along with the image of the mythologised artist. She repeatedly describes Joyce as a ‘genius’, something which may not be in doubt, but which always sits uneasily in a work a biography. It shows that there is little critical distance being maintained between writer and subject.

O’Brien’s habit of describing Joyce as a genius may not be so bad in itself, but it gets worse. She quotes Richard Ellman from his biography on Joyce, ‘Joyce had read everything by the time he was twenty’. Obviously not a claim to be taken too literally, Ellman merely means that Joyce was well-read. O’Brien then supplements this with,

‘Who can blame him if in that spate of high-hearted youth and virtuosity he likened himself to Parnell, Hamlet, Dante, Byron, Lucifer, and Jesus Christ? Gravity and despair were for much later on. The Golden Fleece was his. He had snatched it unbeknownst to his literary friends and he himself would be the dragon to guard it against all predators’.

So, from being merely well-read in the eyes of Ellman, to O’Brien he is now (in her words, not Joyce’s) comparable to Jesus Christ. And apparently this is fine. The reference to the ‘Golden Fleece’ is an interesting one, what better way to mythologise the author than through tales of antiquity that are tied with concepts of divine mission and singular greatness.

Joyce leaves Dublin for Zurich in 1904, and after having grappled with a family holding him back, he now must contend with his demanding wife. While not as abusive as Lewis’ descriptions of Burgess’ first wife, Lynne, O’Brien treats Nora Barnacle with just as much animosity, displaying what at times seems like an odd jealousy. When they first leave Ireland, Nora is criticised for being homesick, mopey, inept at learning new languages, and a permanent whinger. All unexceptional emotions for somebody who has left their home country for the first time. Joyce belittles her, and at times treats her rather badly, but this is apparently ‘his way of asking forgiveness’. When she becomes pregnant with their first child, Joyce makes plans to leave her, which are justified on the next page by her irritability and mopiness ‘sapping his natural cheerfulness’. Later it gets more personal,

‘Many have been baffled that a man of Joyce’s daunting intellect chose and remained constant to this peasant woman. It is beyond these letters, it is beyond propriety, in remains inexplicable as the Eleusian mysteries’.

Joyce’s marriage is then ‘beyond propriety’. O’Brien seems to think it offensive to her sensibility that the ‘genius’ of Joyce could have been wasted on a woman that she clearly designates as inferior. This is sucking up to the subject on a different plain, and reading these words you start to long for Roger Lewis to burst onto the page and issue expletive laden insults at Joyce, if only for a bit of variety. It begins to seem like O’Brien is positing herself into the book, as the only person, from a father who didn’t understand him to a stupid wife or a jealous brother, who is capable of understanding his troubled genius.

Of course, O’Brien it not alone in mythologising Joyce. He has a legion of adulators and hangers-on unrivalled compared to the memorialisation of other writers of his time, from the popularity of ‘Bloomsday’ celebrations in Dublin to books positing Lucia Joyce, his troubled daughter who spent most of her life in mental institutions, as an unrecognised genius of modern dance, (see Lucia Joyce: Dance in the Wake by Carol Loeb Schloss). Joyce’s family has also been instrumental in keeping the mythology of Joyce alive, notably through the bizarre actions of his grandson and literary executor Stephen Joyce, who refuses academics the right to quote from Joyce’s work and vigorously pursues those who do through the courts. Even more shockingly, he apparently burned thousands of Joyce’s letters upon receiving them after the death of Lucia. An excellent essay by DT Max in the New Yorker a few years ago  details Stephen Joyce’s bizarre resistance to Joyce scholars.

Given this, it is not surprising that Joyce has been mythologised to the extent that he has. But James Joyce takes this to a different level, not only is it uncritical, it often seems bordering on adulation. It also makes yet another contribution to the tiresome habit of some writers to mythologise their own work or life. For a recent offender, we can look at the most tediously inept self-mythologising example of James Frey, a man apparently unaware that in an age where privacy is on the wane, if you write a purportedly autobiographical book detailing years of harrowing drug addiction, which is in reality based on being arrested once for drug possession and spending one night in the cells, the truth will come out, you will look stupid, and you will be forced to make a cringing appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show to apologise for it.

O’Brien plays along with this attitude, adulating the profession of writing to that of a superior race, for whom we can excuse everything. She writes, ‘Do writers have to be monsters in order to create? I believe they do’. No, of course they don’t. And as mad as his book is, Roger Lewis’ attitude towards Burgess is at least a break, albeit a disturbing one, from the sycophant biographer, and the boring dynamic of the myth of the writer. And in the same way that it is worth putting up with the existence of the films of Alex Cox to maintain the tradition of a director having control of his films away from the hands of studio executives, maybe it is worth suffering a biography that goes too far, like Anthony Burgess, to maintain a wider critical perspective in biography writing.

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I. Anthony Burgess and the psychopath’s guide to biographical writing

Burgess1In the past year I’ve read a few literary biographies, the strangest of which was Roger Lewis’ attempt to dissect the monstrosity of Anthony Burgess. Over the course of twenty years of researching and writing his book, Lewis grew to hate Burgess. He recounts how he first discovered Burgess in a bookshop while he was on his honeymoon on the island of Gozo, there apparently being little else to do on Gozo, and became an idolator, explaining how he consumed as many of Burgess’ books he could find in second-hand shops with religious fervour. He even began a PhD on Burgess. However, some time later, apparently coinciding with middle age, the break came, and Lewis decided that Burgess’ grandstanding prose was something ‘pathetic’, and that with all his apparent learnedness, the ‘grand old man of letters’ reputation Burgess had was all construction and facade.

Thus begins what is basically a 400 page break-up letter. And at this point I’ll include an observation that continues my (apparent) mission to not write a post that doesn’t mention either Francois Truffaut or Jean-Luc Godard – the break was a bitter one, and the caustic recrimination built up over the previous friendship, in Lewis’ case that between reader and writer, has an echo of the bitter 20 page letter Truffaut penned to Godard at the break of their friendship. The comparison is true in two ways; in the same way that Truffaut accused Godard of becoming a radical-chic hypocrite, Lewis’ book is one long accusation of Burgess being the grand old man of intellectual-chic, and for his lack of sincerity as a writer, and apparently, as a human being. The second reason is that both of these accusations against Godard and Burgess are probably valid in one way or another, and Lewis explores this on the level of an attack that takes ‘getting personal’ to an entirely new level.

Burgess was undoubtedly a literary showman, and possibly a literary conman. Recounting their first meeting in the late 80s in the first chapter, the reader really comes away with an impression of Burgess that is as negative as Lewis’. He is completely self-absorbed and uninterested in anybody but himself, and just sits around rattling off obscure literary references and reciting poetry completely out of any context. At first I wasn’t sure if the style of Lewis’ writing is meant to be a parody of Burgess. Each page is filled with diversions and a multitude of literary and cultural references that often verges on name-dropping for the sake of it, much like Burgess himself, and often a single footnote will take up half the page. Not having read anything else by him, I don’t know.

As a biography, it is a complete mess. For anybody looking for a complete biographical picture of Burgess’ life, this is the last place to come. Every now and then we get a reference point, either Burgess is in Gibraltar, Burgess is in Malaya, Burgess is writing A Clockwork Orange or a book about Shakespeare suffering syphilis and penning his best work because of it, but this quick biographical note soon becomes yet another rant over Burgess’ lack of sincerity/faux-intellectual status/treatment of his wife/treatment of co-workers/treatment of family members/general disagreeable nature. At least two-thirds of the book is taken up with this kind of vitriol, often repeating itself and covering the same ground. It could have lost at least a hundred pages in editing.

Lewis’ book has a couple of plus points, firstly for exposing Anthony Burgess as the showman and consummate bullshitter that he was. The habit he had for mythologising his own life, especially that of his early life growing up in Manchester, and his reputation of being something resembling a polymath, which of course he wasn’t. But all this, as with Eric Blair’s transformation into George Orwell, lies within the usual dynamic of the construction of the infallible literary alter-ego. At one point Lewis discusses Burgess’ claims to be able to speak fluent Malay, and then recalls a BBC documentary from the 80s which followed Burgess as he returned to Malaysia, and his being unable to order a drink in a restaurant.

However, by the end of the book you feel as if you’re being beaten round the head with Burgess’ deficiencies, and along with it oddly savage criticism for anybody who apparently ever met Burgess, among others, his second wife, Stanley Kubrick, Martin Amis, and Clive James, who are, in turn – ‘an obscure translator’, ‘piss-poor’, ‘a writer with nothing to say’, and, ‘a prat’. The criticism of his first wife, Lynne, an alcoholic and very troubled woman, is the strangest, and every time she is mentioned she is abused in some way, something usually along the lines of, ‘that nymphomaniacal alcoholic’. And along with Burgess being everything that Lewis hates about him, he is variously accused of racism and xenophobia, homophobia, as well as harbouring paedophilic and incestuous thoughts, at one point Lewis practically tells us that Burgess would have pounced on his daughters, had he had any. He then calls him a ‘complete fucking fool’.

For somebody who was so enamoured with his subject matter, Lewis’s hatred, and it is hatred, for Burgess seems by the end of the book just very strange, and very exhausting. Did Burgess refuse him an autograph? Anthony Burgess was published in 2002, and came in for a pretty savage time in the review columns. The Guardian did an interview with Lewis earlier this year to promote his new book, and at one point he says of Anthony Burgess, ‘I think we sold seven copies last year worldwide’. I can believe it; I picked it up in a discount book shop opposite the British Library for £2.

When Lewis first met Burgess, he was with Richard Ellman, writer of definitive biographies of Oscar Wilde, WB Yeats, and James Joyce. I wanted to read a biography of Joyce, but not quite ready to commit to Ellman’s, which stands at 887 pages, I chose instead to read Edna O’Brien’s James Joyce. And as self-absorbed, weird, and pathological as Roger Lewis’ book may be, it can be quietly applauded for the fact that it is a biography by a writer who is critical of his subject (although, to a mental degree), which Edna O’Brien completely fails to be, and her discussion of James Joyce often verges on the sycophantic. Both Lewis and O’Brien are literary stalkers, but while Lewis would have been sending Anthony Burgess bullets in the post, O’Brien would have been breaking into Joyce’s house and stealing his toothbrush. As a demonstration of two very different attitudes to writing biography, the differences between the two is an interesting one, and I’ll write something about James Joyce soon.

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Sidney Lumet and Dog Day Afternoon; politicising everyday life

Sidney Lumet died last month, and although this is a little late for a ‘tribute post’, I thought I’d write something on what I consider one of his most interesting films, Dog Day Afternoon.

Released in 1975, Dog Day Afternoon is a fictionalised account of a bank robbery that occurred in 1972 in New York City. On a boiling August morning, John Wojtowicz, a former bank teller, and two accomplices walked into a branch of the Chase Manhatten bank in Brooklyn with the intention of robbing it. It went wrong. One of the accomplices got cold feet and fled the scene when he saw a passing police car in the street, they held a number of hostages for 14 hours, and there was a botched attempt at a negotiated escape (a classic hostages for helicopter scenario) which ended bloodily, but Wojtowicz survived.

In the film, John Wojtowicz is substituted for Sonny Wortzik, who is played by Al Pacino (interestingly, Wojtowicz later stated that he based aspects of his plan on scenes from The Godfather, which he had watched earlier in the day), and aside from several minor aspects that Wojtowicz later stated were embellished for the film, the actual robbery itself is mostly an accurate representation of what happened.

In his recent tribute to Lumet on Salon.com, Matt Zoller Seitz wrote that the film, ‘politicises everyday life in ways that modern films wouldn’t dare do’, and this is the film’s main appeal; that the motivations behind an act that most films would take at face value, a bank robbery, along with the political atmosphere of the time, are spelled out and form the backbone to the film. Instead of a film that is just about a bank robbery, Dog Day Afternoon presents an uncompromising insight into the society in which Sonny lives. At the present time, there is a tendency in film and literature to follow the cue of a depoliticised society, where social problems and acts are personalised and diluted of their political significance, Lumet’s films, notably Dog Day Afternoon, Network, and his excellent 2006 release, Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead, treat everyday occurrances with the political significance an overreaching post-political, and post-ideological culture denies them. Lumet is the enemy of what the documentary maker Adam Curtis has called ‘oh dearism’, the spectacle of an event that has been removed from its political context, and therefore not understandable or possible to analyse through any meaningful political discourse. The example he used was the Rwandan Genocide, which, deprived of its political context by a media now confused by its inability to use the good guys-bad guys dichotomy of the Cold War, which had recently ended, was reported solely through a constant barrage of awful images with little political explaination, to which the only possible response from the viewer can be a neutral and helpless ‘oh dear’.

The film begins as it means to go on. To the tune of Elton John’s Amoreena, we are presented with a four-minute long montage of shots that we typically associate with 1970s New York. Long traffic jams, litter-strewn streets, open fire hydrants, people sitting on benches and talking the day away, dogs eating out of bins, all conducted under exhaust fumes and a boiling summer sun. Then the camera focuses in on the bank, and we see the prospective robbers arriving. The first part of the robbery plays out like black comedy. We have Sonny wrestling with the box he has hidden his gun in, unable to get it out, his accomplice panics, asks Sonny if he can leave, and nearly drives off in the getaway car so he doesn’t have to walk home, and a general series of unfortunate events that eventually lead to the police turning up. Then, after the shots of the massive police presence descending on the bank, barriers being erected, and snipers settling on rooftops, Sonny begins to communicate with the negotiators, and the political side of the film begins from where the initial montage introduction took off.

Sonny eventually goes outside to remonstrate with the police, and with the camera acting as his eyes, he is faced with the overwhelming nature of his situation in wide shot, complete with jittery cops pointing guns down the camera lens. The local residents are another important aspect of the film; as the police turn up, so do the locals. As the police surround Sonny and the bank, the local population surround the police, constantly pushing against the barriers to catch a glimpse of the action, and the relationship between these three sets of protagonists is explored throughout the film. When Sonny goes outside for the first time, this is when the film reveals its political nature.

Sonny talks with the negotiator, and, failing to be convinced by the usual ‘you’ll get off lightly’ arguement, he then fires up the crowd with shouts of ‘Attica! Attica!’, invoking the name of the infamous 1971 Attica prison riot, where prisoners staged an uprising after the death of George Jackson, an inmate and Black Panther Party member, at the hands of prison guards. After four days of rioting and negotiations, the riot was put down by force, at the end of which 39 people were dead. A New York State Special Commission on Attica, set up after the riots, concluded that,

‘With the exception of Indian massacres in the late 19th century, the State Police assault which ended the four-day prison uprising was the bloodiest one-day encounter between Americans since the Civil War.’

The crowd are soon heard shouting in support of Sonny’s anti-police speech. As Sonny is under siege in the bank, the police are under seige in the neighbourhood, and when the camera ventures outside, we usually see the crowd surging against barriers and pouring scorn on the police.

The invocation of Attica renders the anti-police atmosphere obvious, and another exchange between Sonny and an FBI negotiator, who has replaced his police counterpart, makes an equally pertinent political statement. Sonny asks the agent if he would be willing to kill him, and the reply is ‘Yes, but I would only be doing my job’. A familiar response from an authority figure (and one that I heard countless times from those policing the student protests in London in the winter), it is interesting to remember that the FBI’s notorious Counter Intelligence Program, or COINTELPRO, as it was known, had recently closed in 1971, and was very much still fresh in the public mind when Dog Day Afternoon was released.

Established in 1956 by J Edgar Hoover, the aim of COINTELPRO was to, ‘expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize’, ‘subversive activity’ in the United States. It did this through smear campaigns, wrongful imprisonment, illegal surveillance, violence, and even assassination, against targets such as the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Panthers, left-wing groups, anti-war activists, and even monitored the activities of Albert Einstein. Implicated most notoriously in the murder of Fred Hampton, a radical black activist, the existence of COINTELPRO was dramatically and publically revealed after the burglary of an FBI field office in 1971. At a time when law enforcement agencies in America had just been found to have committed political assassinations, Sonny’s reply to the negotiator, ‘I hope if someone kills me it’s because they hate me’, is a powerful negation of the ‘only doing my job’ arguement, the attempt to divest yourself of personal responsibility by deferring responsibility to somebody else, in this case, your superiors, or your ‘job’. And unless the FBI solely consisted of completely barbarous individuals, we can assume that in the immediate post-COINTELPRO years there were many guilty people moaning about ‘only doing their jobs’.

For most of the film, however, we are trapped in the bank with Sonny, Sal, and the hostages. Again, when the camera reverts back to the inside of the bank, the dynamic between the hostages and hostage –takers is almost comedic. The hostages don’t condemn Sonny, they mostly see the episode as an inconenience, and almost treat Sonny with the familiarity of a boy from the neighbourhood ‘gone wrong’. We see them chatting together, and in return Sonny is more than willing to indulge their demands for food, bathroom breaks etc. This dynamic cements the political aspect of the film to the extent that when we see the hostages interacting with the police outside, usually through Sylvia, the head teller who has a maternalistic attitude towards ‘her girls’ (John Wojtowicz referred to her as ‘The Mouth’), she is usually shouting at them or upbraiding them for some oversight. Subverting the dynamic of traditional bank robbery films, and introducing the political atmosphere of the time not as background to the story but as a central feature of it, we are more inclined to view the hostages, Sonny, and the neighbourhood on one side, and the police, the representatives of traditional authority, on the other.

This is something that recent cinema has often failed to do. When we see the apocalyptic ‘last days of Sodom’ madness of seventies New York through Travis Bickle’s eyes in Taxi Driver, we are well aware that his reponse to it is psycopathic, but we understand his motivations, as we sympathise with Sonny, who in essence is holding a group of innocent people hostage in a bank. Compare this to Martin Scorcese’s The Departed,which is in many ways a film of ‘oh dearism’, and the differences are obvious. The criminals are sweary, violent, selfish, one-dimensional characters, the policemen mirror them almost exactly, and the story requires no further thought beyond, ‘crimes are being committed in this film, oh dear’. Where we sympathise with and understand the motivations of the morally dubious actions of Sonny, and the morally dubious and downright psychotic actions of Travis, there is no such depth of theme, or understanding required in a film like The Departed.

Soon after Sonny’s ‘Attica!’ speech, the media arrives, and are treated with the same deserved cynicism that was developed in another Lumet masterpiece, Network, released a year later in 1976. Network tells the story of unhinged news anchor Howard Beale, who, after finding out that his ratings are plummeting, announces on air that he will commit suicide live on television. This accouncement causes his ratings to spike, and as he uses the show to deliver increasingly deranged rants to his audience, he is exploited by a ruthless television executive who uses his madness to further her own professional ambitions.

The message in Dog Day Afternoon is a similar version of this, as Howard Beale is exploited in his madness, Sonny becomes a minor celebrity overnight as his situation is exploited as light entertainment for news channels. He sees himself on television, and is telephoned by reporters, who conduct a live interview with him while he is in the bank. Sonny is baffled by the inane questions; he is asked why he is committing the robbery, and after a moment’s stunned silence Sonny answers, ‘cos they got money here, I need money’. He is asked why he doesn’t get a job, and Sonny runs through the reasons why he can’t find a job, which, given the dire financial straits of New York City during the seventies, is justifiable. He then turns the conversation around, asking the interviewer how much he earns a week, introducing a class dynamic, and further entrenching the idea of ‘us and them’ which is apparent throughout the film, which places Sonny and the hostages in much the same social situation.

By looking at the state of New York City during the 1970s, it is impossible to imagine how Lumet could have made the film without the political thrust that it has. Deindustrialisation as a consequence of a slowdown in the post-war boom, along with mass emigration of affluent city-dwellers to the suburbs, combined to lead to an almost perfect storm of social disintegration. The decade saw an estimated million people leave for the suburbs, taking their jobs and businesses with them. As a consequencce, unemployment rocketed, leaving over a million people living on welfare, property prices dived, crime increased rapidly, and entire districts became slums. Strikes, blackouts and rioting became endemic, and many landlords took to burning down entire apartment buildings to claim insurance on now mostly worthless property, leading to the term ‘Dresdenised’ being coined to describe block-upon-block of burned out buildings in slum areas. One South Bronx fire station in the mid-seventies was recognised as the busiest in America, having to deal with arson attacks of this nature daily. And if this wasn’t enough, in 1977 the city came within hours of financial collapse after defaulting on its loans, and in that summer experienced one of the worst blackouts in its history, which led to massive rioting and looting over the course of two days, during which 4,500 people had been arrested.

Through the context of these events, the social setting of a film like Dog Day Afternoon, or the claustrophobic atmosphere of Taxi Driver, where we see the madness of the city through the dirty windows of a taxi speeding through a ghetto, are all the more important.

In the crowds of Dog Day Afternoon, swarming around and goading the police, we see the expression of this environment. This braying crowd is made up of the slum dwellers of mid-seventies New York, and their threatening nature and vehmently anti-establishment feelings are an obvious result of their dehumanised conditions, and this is spelled out clearly in the film. Christopher Null said that it, ‘captures perfectly the zeitgeist of the early 1970s, a time when optimism was scraping rock bottom…John Wojtowicz was as good a hero as we could come up with.’ The character of Sonny is the desperate individual consequence of these conditions, and it is this emphasis on social and political relevence where Dog Day Afternoon succeeds, and where many films that are consciously de-politicised fail.

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Danton and the French Revolution; between DW Griffith and Soviet Russia

In his introduction to Robespierre: Virtue and Terror, a collection of Maximilien Robespierre’s speeches and writings during the French Revolution, published in 2007 through Verso Press, Slavoj Žižek quotes the dictum ‘every history is a history of the present’. He is right to quote it; few historical events are as likely to be interpreted through the prism of prevalent political consensus as the French Revolution.

‘Our story is of two little orphans who suffer first through the tyranny of Kingly bosses, nobles and aristocrats. After the king’s government falls they suffer with the rest of the people as much through the new government, established by the pussy-footing Robespierre through Anarchy and Bolshevism. Strange that both these evil rulers were otherwise highly moral men except that they saw evil in all who did not THINK AS THEY DID. The lesson – the French Revolution RIGHTLY overthrew a BAD government. But we in America should be careful lest we with a GOOD government mistake fanatics for leaders and exchange our decent law and order for Anarchy and Bolshevism’.

So states the intertitles at the beginning of DW Griffith’s silent epic of the French Revolution, Orphans of the Storm. As a statement, this is about as bold and unequivocal as a filmmaker can be about the political intent of his film. Released in 1921, Orphans of the Storm is a remake of the lost Theda Bara film The Two Orphans, released in 1915. Lillian and Dorothy Gish play two orphans who find themselves in Paris during the Revolution, running afoul variously of lecherous aristocrats and characters of the revolution, including Robespierre, who eventually sends Lillian Gish and her lover to the guillotine.

The referral in the intertitles to ‘Bolshevism’ means that as much as it is a film about the French Revolution, it is equally a film about what Žižek calls the ‘most traumatic event of the 20th century’, the October Revolution, and personalities and events from France in 1789 are manipulated and made to resemble those of Russia in 1917.The last sentence of the intertitle already forms a connection between the proponents of revolutionary terror in France and the Bolsheviks of Russia, warning against any attempt at ‘Bolshevism’ in America.

Griffith was not a mad voice in a crowd. In the years immediately following the October Revolution, Americans were seized by an almost constant fear of a repeat event in their own country, spurred on by the overenthusiastic paranoia of Alexander Mitchell Palmer, Attorney General of the United States from 1919-1921. An earlier incarnation of Senator McCarthy, and a far more succesful one at that, Palmer fanned the flames of what is now known as the First Red Scare, initiating mass searches, arrests, and deportations of suspected radicals. Where McCarthy blacklisted obscure screenwriters and classified Charlie Chaplin as a threat to national security, Palmer was shipping hundreds of radicals, mostly guilty of nothing other than ‘being’ radicals, including the famous anarchists Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, ‘back’ to revolutionary Russia. Through the French Revolution, Orphans of the Storm shows us the violent birth of 20th century communism, and at the same time expresses the early paranoia of ‘reds’ that America was to suffer for the next century.

If Orphans of the Storm is the birth, Andrzej Wajda’s 1983 release Danton documents the death, and the host for this allegory is Georges Danton, Jacobin and revolutionary leader. Once an ally of Robespierre, the film documents Danton’s unease with the excesses of the Terror, his eventual opposition to Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety, the de facto government of France during the Terror, and his execution because of it in 1794. Wajda is as bold as Griffith in telling the audience that what they are watching is a political allegory of a modern issue, that the film is not about Paris in 1794, but Poland in 1983. We can safely say that Danton, played spectacularly by Gérard Depardieu, represents the Solidarność movement struggling against the Soviet-backed Polish state, which is represented in Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety, who, symbolically, are portrayed by Polish actors who spoke Polish during filming, and were later dubbed into French.

In Danton, characterisation reflects the popular struggle against the Polish state. If history exists so that one day cinema can be made of it, Danton would have existed for the sole reason that Depardieu would play him. Danton is hulking, larger than life, full of bombast, an insurrectionary bon vivant with a taste for good living and fine dining, in comparison to the stern, prim, mathematical and cold Robespierre, the personification of austere Socialist Realism, and his wild-eyed and fanatical ally Saint-Just. Robespierre’s pre-revolutionary background of a country lawyer gives a mirror image in 1983; had there been no revolution (1789) or revolutionary crisis (1983) we could easily see him being still a quiet country lawyer, or a factory accountant in some industrial backwater of socialist Poland, extolling the virtues of rationing to his fellow workers. Robespierre is always the man summoned by history. If Danton is the freedom loving Polish people, Robespierre is the cold bureaucrat of the Polish state, while Saint-Just could equally be a young, unhinged ideologue of the Party of 1983.

In a marvellous scene we see this chasm mapped out; Danton has invited Robespierre to dinner, a first meeting between the two since his brief retirement from revolutionary Paris, which we see him return to at the beginning of the film. Danton intends to convince Robespierre that if the Terror is continued, the people will rise against the revolution, and that it should be ended so that they may continue with a less-bloody revolution as allies. We see him nervously flapping around various intricate dishes that have been prepared for Robespierre, upbraiding his supporters for having put the wrong flowers on the dining table, ‘He only likes blue flowers’, eager to impress his old friend. Robespierre arrives late, treats the meeting like a political mediation instead of a meeting of old friends, and declines food, leading Danton to fly into a rage and upbraid him for his coldness and unmanliness, and his distance from the people – ‘They say you’ve never had a woman’, he shouts, ‘You know nothing of the people’. Danton is the colourful freedom fighter, a man of the people, while Robespierre is the distant bureaucrat of the state machinery. This is Danton as a doomed version of Solidarność, who instead of perishing on the guillotine in Paris as Danton did, are rotting in the Soviet prisons in the depths of Krakow in 1983. But, as the communist states eventually fall in 1989, so too do Robespierre and his allies, executed after the coup of 9 Thermidor in 1794.

Žižek sums up the modern liberal attitude to the French Revolution as ‘1789 without 1793’; an appreciation for the overthrow of a despotic monarchy and aristocratic class, and for the values of modern democracy that the revolution gave birth to, but an abhorrence of the revolutionary excesses of the Jacobins and the Terror. He argues that without 1793, the ‘zero level of Jacobinism through which the fundamentals of democracy are established’, any talk of the democratic plus-points for liberals of 1789 becomes invalidated, as the revolution would almost certainly have failed, or been defeated. Then, the revolution becomes a product without its vital essence, or devolved of its harmful ingredient; like non-alcoholic beer, a ‘decaffeinated revolution’.

Orphans of the Storm is without a doubt a product of this attitude, albeit in the harsher climate of a rabid American anti-communism. Griffith’s intertitles talk of the exploitative and despotic nature of the monarchy, but also condemns Robespierre and the Jacobins. Danton also plays a major role in Griffith’s film, and in an attempt to find a plausible figure to represent his middle-ground, a completely fictional Danton is manufactured and created as a character who is a sober opponent of oppression, be it Royalist or Jacobin, opposed to both Kings and Terror in equal measure. Early on we see him chinwagging congenially with Thomas Jefferson, who is apparently in France as a diplomat, and the Marquis de Lafayette, a moderate royalist during the revolution who argued the case for a constitutional monarchy. A more historically accurate meeting between Danton and Lafayette would have been on July 17 1791, when Danton led a crowd against the National Constituent Assembly after they had decreed that the monarchy would remain in place, which was fired upon on the Champ de Mars on orders from Lafayette, leaving dozens dead.

What we get in Orphans of the Storm is a Danton twisted and distorted almost beyond recognition. Later, he is referred to as the ‘Abraham Lincoln of France’, and at one point witnesses a benevolent aristocrat distributing bread to the poor, and sadly tells him, ‘If more of the aristocrats were like you, things would be different’. Paralleling the dominant ideology of our times, whereby liberals may acknowledge the unjust nature of capitalist society, and have been handwringing over it since the economic crisis of 2008, but believe any fundamental shift in the structure of society to be unrealistic, and prefer instead tweaking reforms; Griffith believes that France would have been safe in the hands of a reformed and paternalistic aristocracy.

In the midst of exploitative aristocrats and marauding, fanatical sans-culottes, Danton is Griffith’s stabilising factor in the midst of chaos. He has equal distaste for both the aristocracy and the brutality of the fanatical sans-culottes who we see rampaging over Paris, fighting with soldiers, and wielding oversized butcher’s knives and sickles. Equally condemned is the figure of Robespierre, who in Griffith’s interpretation  we can take to represent Lenin.

When not leading a revolutionary crowd in Orphans of the Storm, Danton is quiet and reflective, not quite the bombastic ‘tribune of the people’, a thundering one at that, we see in Wajda’s film, which presents an overall more truthful version of Danton. When finally charged and dragged before the Revolutionary Tribunel in Danton, ostensibly for financial misdeeds, but equally for his opposition to Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety, Danton is reminded, and acknowledges, that he himself had been instrumental in forming the Revolutionary Tribunel the previous year, which had been used to try and and send to the guillotine countless political enemies. This acknowledgement is important, and leads us to remember that Danton was no political innocent, he was a Jacobin, he had voted for the execution of the King, he sat alongside his friend Robespierre and the bloodthirsty Jean-Paul Marat as a member of The Mountain, the most radical group of the National Convention, so-called because they would occupy the high benches of the debating chamber, he had participated in the suppression of the moderate Girondist faction, and he had been instrumental in founding the Committee of Public Safety and had served as its first President.

Danton has long been a staple of literature, he has featured in as many novels, poems and plays as Robespierre himself, and the reason for this could be that he is one of the few figures of the French Revolution who fulfill both the aesthetic, and especially Romantic, ideal of the passionate revolutionary, the crusader for the people, and a safe ideological figure, free from the stain of tyranny in his eventual opposition to Robespierre and the excesses of the Terror. Other figures of the Revolution are unpalatable for various reasons and have been defined as such; the Girondins and other moderates are passionless, dull, and compromising, Lafayette was disgraced, Jean-Paul Marat is a psychopath, Saint-Just is the bloodthirsty fanatic, and Robespierre the calculating tyrant. Danton, or a whitewashed version of his character, ticks all the boxes for a literary ideal where others do not, and it is this version we see in Orphans of the Storm. In turn, when he is designated the ‘Abraham Lincoln of France’, a preposterous comparison if there was one, Danton is again manipulated to represent the figure of the pure and just American democracy, standing up against the revolutionary excesses of the young Soviet Russia.

Žižek recounts a popular anecdote about the Chinese prime minister, Zhou Enlai, that when asked his thoughts on the French Revolution, he answered, ‘It is still too early to tell’. It is now thought that he was misquoted and was instead referring to the 1968 upheavels, and this is a shame, not only for the loss of poetry from the statement, but because it is true; in 1921 the French Revolution is interpreted through DW Griffith and America’s anti-communism as a warning against ‘Bolshevism’ and the spread of communism, its 1983 version is that of the fall of Robespierre mirroring the eventual fall of the Soviet-backed Polish state, and in the West, in our time, we see it interpreted through the liberal democratic prism of ‘1789 without 1793’. The French Revolution continues to be twisted and manipulated to reflect the dominant ideology of the present, it is the ultimate ‘history of the present’.

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