Anita -- Journalisms -- Unconditional love -- 07.21.03

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Fathers are depressing
–Gertrude Stein

“Sometimes the Arabs in this part of the world will fight in Nike air shoes”
–CNN broadcast, Sunday March 23, 2003.
And this the same day that over and over, commentors commented ad nauseam on U.S. military personnel’s (a category which from here forward implicitly includes journalists) surprise at sighting an NYPD (was it NYPD Blue?) sticker on the windshield of an Iraqi vehicle. Variously quoted as “these are the surreal / incredible / uncanny ironies of war...” As if their own basic training—having been forced by collective humiliation to first swallow and then disseminate by liberatory, charitable force-feeding—is not predicated on exactly this basis—that the Whole World aspires to the ethics and problem-solving methodologies of network prime time. After all, isn’t NYPD exactly the word they are deployed to spread, or uh, defend? Isn’t Rudy Giuliani the world-class consultant on establishing urban population compliance, the benevolent Catholic father who claimed eternal redemption as he rose us from the ashes? An encore of sorts for his decade of piecemeal destruction of our beloved city’s infrastructure. Our mayor, self-styled Fiorello LaGuardia, who gritted his teeth, squared his jaw, and threw out that first pitch at a home game in Yankee stadium in October 2001? Was that not unconditional love? The surprise of U.S. forces encountering NYPD logos en route to Baghdad must have been that the word had reached Iraq before they did, a place which they had been taught, squinting lessons through weapon sights, was either pre- or a-history, outwardly manifest as pre-TV. Raising the alarming concern that these mercenaries, opportunistically defending their own country, might be equipped with other tricks learned from American television.

Several days after U.S. forces reached Baghdad, the stills aired repeatedly on major U.S. news networks were precisely too good to be true—shots from the interior of Uday’s palace in Baghdad, post-bombing, ceilings fallen, interior laying in pieces, covered in dust and wreckage. But luckily for TV viewers, the high-impact explosives had not disturbed the pin-up nudies propped precariously on low dust-covered furniture, all facing the same direction (predicting a camera!) accompanied by ziploc bags of heroin or coke–white powder in any case. Cheap indeed, but proof nevertheless, in an invasion arrogantly short on material evidence of its purported motivations, that this son of Saddam stands guilty of such habits as downloading internet porn and drug-taking, indisputable proof of the degenerate state of Saddam’s lineage, signalling the natural end of his reign. But one couldn’t help wondering—fundamentalists in which country was this particular spectacle intended to incite to further justification for violence? Since it seems that it is the strict adherence to their religion that homegrown fundamentalist U.S. Christians find most intolerable about Muslims; logically following, such displays of inveterate sinning should logically prove grounds for identification or pity. All pointing up to the inarguable lesson that fantasies of Son are as noxious, and calculable, as those of Father.

Handwritten signs from New York’s March 22 anti-war demonstration included such apparently unremarkable slogans as “Jesus wouldn’t bomb Iraq” and “what would Jesus do?”—either expressing simple Christian sentiment or consciously challenging the Bush administration’s hypocritical claims to faith. An unwillingness to bomb Iraq as a freedom-spreading gesture hardly distinguishes Jesus from the rest of us—as has been proposed by the most heterogeneous and geographically-dispersed focus group (implausible by definition) ever simultaneously assembled. Biblically-documented strategies for occasional peaceful negotiation aside, Jesus and his father, God, are more than indirectly implicated in this system of handing down of revenge, control of public office and deeds to property through male bloodlines—a system which we used to refer to as patriarchy, before such simplifications became passé. Of the countless slogans and strategies borrowed from the feminist movement, your five thousand years are up may be well worth dusting off for the next ‘election’. Colin begat Michael, secretary of state begat FCC chairman, ad infinitum. Each of these otherwise tawdry behaviors and grossly individual actions do, in fact, sum up to a systemic coercion to excuse sons in the name of father, or vice-versa, which is after all the exact same thing. From lofty notions of legacy down to each shamelessly nepotistic contract being awarded for nation re-building (and not only in Iraq) to each of the declarations of omnipotent fathers in the protection of their guaranteed succession—in these most cynical of interests, and for the sustenance of this particularly filthy, and ubiquitously invisible institution, that we are to choke down wildly gross compromises to hard-won rights to express and document dissent, not to mention access to public archives and government records.

Open Letter to the President of the United States of America—
Good morning sir. Like you, I am a father and an American. Like you, I consider myself a patriot. Like you, I was horrified by the events of this past year, concerned for my family and my country. However, I do not believe in a simplistic and inflammatory view of good and evil. I believe this is a big world full of men, women, and children who struggle to eat, to love, to work, to protect their families, their beliefs, and their dreams. My father, like yours, was decorated for service in World War II...
– Sean Penn, full-page ad in The Washington Post, October 28, 2002

How distant and remote such sentiments seem—a half-year after they were issued, facing the appointment and quick replacement of perhaps the most obviously unqualified of benign patriarchs, Jay Garner—all thumbs-up and expanded waistline of the dissipated American business class, and pressed khakis, grinning guest at the sunny oil company picnic. Facing another full page ad in the Times by Penn, describing his trip to Iraq, and his moments sitting in the car eating fries with his on an otherwise fab day. And how back to our justice-meting homeland we could not have been blamed for feeling, still cameras of panoramically-exploding Baghdad having been immediately reframed around Scott Peterson, the blank-faced and orange-jumpsuited alleged killer of his young and attractive, white, middle-class, pregnant wife, shuffling into a California court, awaiting trial. Securely back to our nation and its hooded defenders of white womanhood.

It is said that in the ensuing months Sean Penn lost a lucrative role as a result of his vocal opposition to the Bush administration. As one enters the political arena through alignment with sustained political conviction, what one says matters, and has quantifiable consequences. In itself, this is hardly counter to democratic principle. When one finds oneself sufficiently invested in altering a system to risk individually (in any number of ways) in the service of goals of collective justice and transformation, does this not mark the beginning of one’s political life? In this time of deportations and unconstitutional detentions nearby in Guantanamo and in Brooklyn, this is probably not the worst lesson for U.S. citizens to learn by direct experience. As there has been much posturing since Seattle in the circles of the U.S. left about the use/performativity of the body in street demonstrations, before ennobling our claims to sacrifice too severely we might remember the far more comprehensive risks and repercussions that nearby Latin American and other third world bodies have long-endured, and who continue to organize, in spite of far steeper sentences and physical, material, and judicial recriminations. Though the gap is closing—in the U.S. the consequences we face are no longer constitutional; their severity, as always, increases exponentially for non-citizens.

None of this is as incongruous as it might first appear with Sean Penn’s continuing appeal to Bush’s paternal compassion. Yes, he distinguished himself from much of his milieu when he took a vocal stand against Bush. However, more than strategically, it is rather unfortunate that he followed the exclusive, and limiting, impulse to legitimize his concerns through socio-biological identification with Mister President (all jokes aside). Apparently, it was as fathers that the two of them were to find mutual appreciation for each other’s positions and concerns. Fathers of sovereign nations, it seems, address each other (and each other’s progeny) by transnational ultimatums. Fathers and sons terrorize their own populations, and issue get-out-of-town orders to parallel fathers and sons for terrorizing their own populations; and it is through this economy that we are made nation. Fathers are depended on to worry about big things like the world, and for the bearing of this burden are uniquely invested with rhetorical license in grandiose political landscapes. Understandably, their just compensation is unchecked power to watch over us, to manage and rule on our labor conditions, our reproductive functions, our access to property, the countliness of our votes, et cetera. While the gratefully childless among us (for women this marks the globally-and locally-shrinking privilege of access to contraception, abortion, or sufficient socio-economic freedom to have avoided the whole mess in the first place) have no offspring to hold up as the undeniable illustrations of our commitment to abstract claims for justice, no personal collateral to validate our insistence on the basic safety and survival of other people, whether organized by biological or other principles.

Of course, it is hardly unprecedented for fathers to have arranged, strong-armed, rigged, or flat-out bought presidential elections for their sons, for brothers to have counted votes for brothers, or for sons to have squandered trans-national resources addressing the unfinished business of the father. Ferociously rubbing salt into those exact wounds was the late April 2003 release of the film It Runs in the Family (Fred Schepisi, 2002), the tangled mass of Douglases—Michael and Kirk, Cameron and Diana, etc—playing the tangled mass of a New York law family, in which, true to form, the characters’ roles reflect their off-screen relations. According to Stephen Holden’s April 25 New York Times film review, Michael’s character “continually grumbles that his hard-bitten father, a feisty, scowling World War II veteran recovering from a stroke has never demonstrated his approval or declared his love.” (despite a speech impediment – quick, wake the psychoanalysts!) Thus it is the non-love of the “cantankerous patriarch” that drives the insufficiently-nurtured son to “unlock the reserves of festering resentment in a high-strung household whose male members are infused with the same hyper-competitive success ethic that echoes what we know about the Kennedys.” Would anyone even deign to ascribe a success ethic to the Bushes; profit-margin pathology is not quite the same thing. There is apparently the requisite “devoted spouse, a super-competent matriarch and caretaker” who “like her son, has suffered from Mitchell’s benign emotional neglect, although her husband is completely dependent on her.” (why although?) All of which sounds nauseatingly and suspiciously orchestrated to ultimately not only cement this flock together, which would be pitiable but would also be their own problem, but to excuse the farther-reaching abuses and transgressions that such a familial structure enables.

The virtually inviolable lesson of U.S. cinema is that in life, no one survives, in any meaningful sense, a comprehensive confrontation with the patriarch. As bookends, veering into the truly banal, we can consider Thelma and Louise and—bear with me on this one—Miss Congeniality. Even Martin Sheen, notable Hollywood father and anti-war activist, has verged on losing his role as POTUS on The West Wing. Sure, they can screw, taunt and belittle him all they want in the meantime – if they eventually agree to die, get married, or give up the goods. Or learn to enjoy the beauty pageant, in the case of Sandra Bullock, the formerly-cantankerous, undersexed detective of Miss Congeniality. Unless to be valorized by natural and/or heroic death, Father is not tossed out of the family; the totalizing, paralyzing, pop-psycho-babble of co-dependence assures us that none could exist without the other, as that very breath sustaining wives, lovers, and children is whatever constitutes His exhale. Like corporate sponsorship, this is an over-arching munificence which we are expected to believe we need even more than it needs us.

For a moment in the 1990s, there seemed to be a deepening scratch in the buffed sheen of North American fathers. Kevin Spacey unwittingly exposed the tawdry and unfulfillable promise of Lolita, whose lurid re-enactment in the Clinton White House turned out to be but the sucker punch for election 2000. In fact, there were numerous weak and pathetic, if harried fathers, overwhelmed with the responsibilities we have always unknowingly placed on them. There was, after all, Tony Soprano, the ultimate homicidal yet depressed schmuck, distrusted by his wife, endlessly disgusting to himself and his kids. But then there were also reactionary films like Affliction (Paul Schrader, 1997), wearily trailing a tortured Nick Nolte, whose inherited violent tendencies find their fiery redemption in the burning of his father’s body, his own life laying wasted and destroyed, teaching the ultimately conservative lesson that if you beat and abuse your son, and/or your wife in front of your son, you can rest easy that he will grow up and do the same. And in his career equivalent to Kubrick’s 1999 Eyes Wide Shut, (sans the excuse of having died before the film was finished), Martin Scorsese managed to reduce the history of the Five Points gangs and the New York draft riots to a Leonardo DiCaprio-as-Michael Corleone- avenging-his-murdered-father scenario.

On the other—undoubtedly the sinister—hand, the Dardenne brothers most recent film, The Son (original title: Le Fils, 2003), inspires a litany of inquiries—firstly, whether its cinematographic style and fundamental sensibility were an intentional affront to their U.S. counterparts. The Son is a tale of a lone carpenter (!) in his late thirties, confronted by the challenge, in his position in a vocational program for delinquent boys, of training the teenage boy who has been in detention for involvement in the killing of the carpenter’s teenage son. The Son gradually unfolds into a complex and understated study of the father, who utters no more than a handful of revealing lines in the whole film; his ambiguous gestures and consistently dull glances exude ambivalence and unchartable isolation. In effect, it is far more subtle and querying than Nanni Moretti’s heavy-handed portrayal, in The Son’s Room (original title: La Stanza del Figlio, 2001), of a psychiatrist and family whose teenage son drowns while scuba-diving in the first third of the film – a contrived yet traditional narrative ostensibly proposed more as a vehicle for lamentation on the wayward status of the Italian left.

In effect, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have set spinning a deeply and inherently un-American film, sparing us the ceremonious batting about the head with volleys of derivative questions and derogatory answers to which audiences in the U.S. have apparently become immune. Its elegance and transcendent possibility lie precisely in approaching such a subject without asking any questions or proposing a single answer, and, most critically, without demanding that the father assimilate the young killer back into any Order of Family. In fact, the protagonist is not initially presented, or thereby legitimized, as Father. Before the opening of the first shot, his child is long-dead, wife is long-gone, and his domestic routine is that of a resigned loner. Both characters are similarly reticent of disturbing the wall that separates them; from neither side is it clear whether this is even consciously related to the violence preceding (but not predicting) their acquaintance. Both are equally suspicious of and fascinated by the inexpressible intentions and blurry proximity of the other.

Although the disturbing relation between them is not revealed until well into the film, we are thoroughly relieved of any urgency or suspense—the abstracted oddities of their alternating attraction and repulsion reveal the film’s simmering intensity, and its unwavering integrity. Illustrated by the difficulties in communication and negotiation with his ex-wife, the carpenter seems comprehensively disturbed and paralyzed by the vague obligations of his paternal role as mentor, not to mention as son-less father. These elements are neither reduced to simplistic feel-good Christian fables of turning the other cheek and loving thy enemy, nor of becoming the surrogate father to the killer of one’s son out of sheer loneliness and mutual desperation. The sublime fascism of the U.S. family model is its indeterrable ability to vigorously disinfect and then re-absorb any subversion it encounters; in some related and uniquely Congressional logic, male homosexuality has just in the last months been informally subsumed into incest, and tangentially into bestiality, none (or all) of which are endorsed by the Party! Party on! What is so unassumingly radical about The Son is in its humble refusal to exploit biology; the father neither forces the throwaway to become his grateful son or his justifiable victim. His ultimate refusal to participate in the primacy of blood—either to redeem his loss or to avenge it—signifies nothing short of a disavowal of the responsibilities and rights of his position. Redemption, we can surmise, might be the ultimate population control.

Similarly resistant is the recently-unemployed French family man in Laurence Cantet’s Time Out (original title: L’emploi du temps, 2001), based on the actual story of a fired executive spending his days driving a minivan, sleeping in rest stops in the afternoon, and going to absurd lengths to hide his unemployment from his family. Eventually engineering a scheme of a new job offer for a UN initiative in Africa, borrowing money from unsuspecting associates and former co-workers—led to believe that they are insiders in private investment schemes he is privy to as a result of his new position. Unlike the actual story upon which the film is based, Cantet’s father does not wrap up by killing his family when his game is up; fiction deprives him of such an escape. Trained on exhaustively by the camera through the relative desperation of the loss of each of the protections previously afforded him; despite the accoutrements—suits, minivan, demeanor, insider repartee, wallet, shiny black shoes—this is hardly an adaptive creature, this late-global-capitalist father. He has no apparent skills other than whatever highly-specific ones we should believe he utilized in his former employments, and which prove a hindrance upon finding himself shut outside their exclusive and watertight arena. The petty violence and family aggression to which he incrementally sinks are presented as their own pitiful evidence of failure, rather than frustrated but justifiable responses to the emasculation of head-of-household unemployment.

The lethal irony in Cantet’s choice of his protagonist’s false position in a non-specific development initiative in Africa, replete with shiny brochures and appropriately generalized lingo, is not to be underestimated. That this scheme is met with such unquestioning glee on the part of his parents and wife begs the question of how desperately we desire, if partially by necessity, to believe in the ever-tawdry activities of the business-class father, and similarly in abstract parallel notions of NGO initiatives in Africa. How easily we are comforted by his provisional benevolence is measured in exactly how eagerly we still open the door to his business-suited presence after the work day is through, in spite of our suspicions about the provenance of the money he supplies. With Time Out, Cantet sounded a death knell for any residual fantasies of a kinder, gentler European Union. As Arundhati Roy reminded us, speaking in New York on May 13, after all the moralistic and impassioned speeches on the floor of the UN, in fact, western European governments lined up to wish the U.S. success in its invasion, in word or deed – by handshakes or by opening airfields, in pragmatic anticipation of the contracts each expected to be honored after the bombs stopped falling. “Only the naive,” she said, “could expect old imperialists to act otherwise.”

Time Out may turn out to be the 21st-century’s Salesmen (the Maysles’ and Charlotte Zwerin’s 1969 documentary about door-to-door Bible salesmen in the U.S.) for the EU, incisively search-lighting the white Euro-business-family man of indiscriminately young age. Young age reminding us only of the decades of worldwide mergers and contracts prostrate before him, as well as the surreal distance between his agenda and that of the mildly idealistic youth. With little visible talent or compelling interest, this is the father who leaves for work in the morning.

Bible salesmen in the south and mid-west in the 1950s and 60s carried briefcases in the hot summer sun, knocking on doors, each rehearsing and updating his sales schtick to maximize his chances at the demographic jackpot – to be invited inside, to make small talk, to compliment the lady of the house on its decor and cleanliness, and to fill out the order form. We’ve since been relieved of the necessity of opening the door to let him drain our bank account, see what’s on our bookshelves, or read our correspondence. As Verizon insisted on the phone when I aggressively declined to let them deliver the New York Post to my home ‘free’ for two months, “You won’t even have to call to cancel it.” Which only means that you can’t. Those dutiful, believing chad-punchers among us who ‘qualified’ both to vote and also to have our vote ‘counted’ all ended up filling out the same old order form—including its complimentary subscription available for export only—the Beltway-bedfellow Arabic-language Middle East-broadcasting division, Grace Digital Media—grace as in Grace. Now we’re subsidizing its printing, binding and distribution, and still sending free copies to our non-Christian neighbors, all without even opening the door.






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