Saturday, December 31, 2016

Moonlight – Coming of Age in the Ghetto

This is a violent film.  Not as overtly violent as the reluctant wife feared - though there are powerfully, intimately violent scenes and it was no surprise to discover that Brad Pitt, who starred in the even more violent film Fight Club that addresses similar themes, is a producer – but there is a great deal of implicit violence.  It is a film about identity – about how we build an identity and how, in the process of doing that, we preserve our core identity – one that may be at odds with the identity that we construct.

The film is billed as a film about the development of a gay identity within contemporary American Black culture – and it has been billed as a coming of age film about African American Men in the Ghetto (heck, I even referred to it that way in my title).  Each of these characterizations is problematic.  It has been hailed as a great film – and I think it is, at the very least, a very good, if flawed, film; and, in so far as it is a great film it is because it deals with universal themes by dealing very directly with a particular culture – and the flaws seemed to me at least partly motivated by political wishes to change a culture rather than to acknowledge it, while simultaneously closely articulating it.

This movie follows the development of a small, rail thin and very dark African American kid as he grows up in and eventually moves away from the ghetto of Miami to the ghetto of Atlanta and then, ultimately, his brief return to his earlier haunts.  The cinematography is surprisingly uneven for a big budget American film; the herky-jerky quality of the film – the raw, unfinished quality of some scenes – seems to be articulating the internal experience of this isolated, lonely and sensitive boy.  We first meet him when he is being pursued by a pack of bullies after school.  They chase him into an abandoned apartment building where he locks himself into an apartment to be discovered by Juan (Mahershala Ali), the Cuban drug lieutenant who oversees a distribution network of crack cocaine through street dealers that he mentors.  He refuses to talk to Juan, who feeds him and then takes him to his girlfriend, Theresa (Janelle Monáe), where he is fed again.

We discover there, in this weird family configuration with a kind of random father figure and a very sexy maternal figure, two of the three names of our hero.   He acknowledges that he is called by others “Little”.  This leads Juan to tell a story about being seen while playing in the moonlight by a woman who noted that all blacks look blue in the moonlight.  Little asks if his name, then, is Blue.  Juan responds by saying that you should not let someone else name you – your name is your own and his name is Juan.  Little, we then discover, is actually named Chiron.  Soon we discover that he has another name.  His friend Kevin calls him “Black”. 

The film is divided into three sections.  The first section is titled Little; the second Chiron, and the third, obviously, is Black.  The hero is played by three different actors – one for each section (Alex Hibbert is the young Little, Ashton Sanders plays the teenage Chiron, and Trevante Rhodes plays the adult Black).  Similarly, his friend Kevin is played by a similarly aged trio (Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome, and André Holland).  The titles, and the reference to who should name you underscore that this film is about identity.

We are introduced to Kevin when Little wanders away from a game of what was called “Smear the Queer” when I was raised in South Florida a generation or two ago and Kevin follows him.  Kevin encourages Little to stand up to the bullies in order to get them to stop tormenting him.  He and Kevin then wrestle in a friendly way and run together across a field – the best of friends.

Kevin is a spot of light in another wise dark life for Little.  Not only is he tormented by bullies, but his Mother (Paula played by Naomie Harris) tanks more and more deeply into a world of crack, turning tricks to afford it, and ultimately taking Chiron's money to pay for it – crack that is provided indirectly by Juan – who, when Juan confronts Paula about how unavailable she is to Little, acknowledges that the crack she gets through Juan is partly to blame for that, but also alludes to Chiron's increasingly apparent (to her) sexuality – something that she wants to know how Juan will handle telling him that this is why he is picked on.  So, in what I think is one of the politically motivated and therefore incredulous moments in the movie, Juan responds to Little’s question about what a faggot is by telling him that it is a name of derision for someone who is gay – as if someone asking about faggot would know what gay is – but more fundamentally problematic is that Juan, as a lieutenant in an army that is notoriously homophobic (When Little becomes Black he enacts this homophobia, as if to underscore how aberrant this supportive moment is) would be able to provide this much needed support.  So the moment is both tender and feels oddly instructional – as if we drug dealers are being told how to parent a gay child…(Post Script:  In his next release, Brad Pitt takes all the air out of an important movie, War Machine, by preaching instead of letting the story tell itself)

The tender moments for Chiron peak in a moment when he, driven from his home by another crazy night with his mother, finds Kevin at the beach.  He and Kevin kiss and, almost incidentally, also have a sexual interaction.  This scene is a moment of respite that is both sweet – Kevin can respond to him in the way that he most needs – and brief – Chiron is besieged by his mother, the chief bully at school (Terrel chillingly played by Patrick Decile), and by the loss of Juan, who dies, presumably violently.  He remains connected with Juan’s girlfriend Theresa, but he is haunted, even when he retreats to her house from his mother’s craziness, by the knowledge that Kevin is having sex with a girl – Samantha.  The final blow occurs when the bully, circling the school play yard in truly scary state of shark frenzy, enlists Kevin to be the instrument of both physical and psychological pain in an unbearable intersection of what would be a betrayal were Kevin not so clearly torn by the role he is forced into. 

Chiron, this shy, retiring, skinny and vulnerable child, has had enough.  He becomes enraged, and his rage ends the Chiron chapter.  We meet Black – a carbon copy (pun unintended but applicable) of Juan, functioning as a drug lieutenant – a Trap – who is apparently hardened by a stint in prison in the wake of his rage, has rebuilt himself in the weight room. 

A friend of mine – an athlete – refers to the weight lifting that football players do – the weightlifting that increases not just strength, but bulk – as building body armor.  And we have a hard time seeing Charon through the person that he has become as Black.  He is defended against the world.  He has taken on street dealers, just as Juan did, and he mentors them with the same tough love that Juan offered.  He has grown through the ranks and learned the trade, but also learned the values of the trade – including the homophobia referred to earlier.  He is, like Juan, still warm – but tough.  He has mimicked him in surface ways: the car, the shaved head, the head gear, and we almost see Juan in front of us – and the question is how deeply that mimicry goes.

In psychoanalytic terms, Black has identified with Juan.  He has emulated him – internalizing aspects of his psyche as a means of augmenting or enhancing his identity.  But we, like Kevin when they have a reunion, wonder whether he has used Juan as a means of obliterating himself in favor of becoming someone else.  Kevin asks him repeatedly – “Who are you?”  After having fed Black (as only Juan and Theresa have done before), in the final scene, in what is a true tour de force of acting, we discover that Black is the persona that has allowed Chiron to be – not annihilated – but preserved deep within the armor that Black/Juan provide.  He is there – tormented, vulnerable, and able to be open with Kevin – the Kevin that he has stayed true to through all that has transpired since the moment when Kevin served as the instrument to open the door to Black.

Wow.  How do we preserve that which is most true, most central, most key about who it is that we are in the most brutal environments – and what allows us to access that part of ourselves when we have learned over and over that it is not safe to do that?  The Reluctant Wife, who has worked effectively on an inpatient drug and alcohol unit, has seen that this occurs, consistently, when there is, indeed, a sense of psychological safety – that the buried self – the self that we connect with in our childhood friends and, sometimes in embarrassing ways, with our parents and siblings, the people that we knew before we and they built our armor – the self that they know we can see – and our own self that we know that they can see – when we live as ourselves again in the moments of being together again – for good and ill – that hidden self comes to the surface again.  This is part of why family reunions at the holidays can be simultaneously so joyful and complicated – we “regress” to being who it is that we more essentially are.  We play old roles.  And this is both good and bad – Little was incredibly vulnerable.  To see that vulnerability bubble up - to be visible through the armor that Black has created - is a powerful moment.  Wow.

In this film, we are brought up short by Black.  What happened to our lovely, shy, retiring Little?  Where did the sensitive Chiron go?   I think the second political intent of this film is to say something greater about the African American Male that we, as culture, have created – the angry and dangerous Black man who will wreak vengeance for the ways in which what it is that he has been has been stolen from him.  The Dangerous Black Man who needs to be imprisoned - to be kept at arm's length and under control.  The Black Man whom James Cone, in an alternate narrative in the The Cross and the Lynching Tree, maintains that the African American Man is a true Christian who can be understood as the oppressed Jew that Jesus was in the Roman Empire.  This same Black Man whom Ta-Nehisi Coates, in yet another alternate narrative, maintains has built our country – paying our Revolutionary War debts by picking cotton and paying through taxes for a system of social services that he had no access to under segregation.  This film, in its own narrative, maintains that, despite the tyranny of those African Americans like Terrel who have become like the Roman Empire/White American Sharks, despite being abandoned in a dangerous ghetto, despite being betrayed through death, drugs, and coercion, by those the he most needed to rely on, that there is a preserved goodness.  

And I think there is psychoanalytic credence to this narrative.  Little/Chiron/Black did not get much - but we don't need to have a perfect world to sustain us, to help protect the person that we are, we need a world that is, as pediatrician turned analyst Donald Winnicott maintained, good enough.  L/C/B's mother was far from perfect - and, despite her manifolds faults - she loved L/C/B.  Juan - who would not live to see Little's transformation into a version of himself - was available in ways that he needed (even without the softening of the word faggot - an unnecessary moment) and Theresa served as well.  But it was Kevin - and the power of his friendship - something that seemed almost puzzling to L/C &B - that seemed, ultimately, to be the thing that allowed him to both preserve and to express something fundamental - something heartrending and viscerally real about who it is that he is and always will be - despite his muteness - despite his isolation - and despite the armor that he has built to protect it.

L/C/B's goodness is not clean any more than yours and mine is.  It is polluted by all that has taken place.  But it is still present.  On the way to Kevin’s apartment at the end of the film, L/C/B notices the beach at the end of Kevin’s street.  He and we are drawn to it – to the time on the beach with Kevin – and the time before Kevin appeared when Chiron breathed in the Ocean air – salty, clean and cleansing – and he felt – What? – that in spite of all that had happened that day – that week- that month – that year – and despite all that was to transpire – in this moment, he felt – what?  Centered?  Relaxed?  Hopeful?  Alive?  He still yearns to be there – to be on that beach – to be in touch with the ocean – where Juan taught him to swim -  among the waves that come in and carry away all that is bad, the waves that constantly replenish the coastline – with new sand, washed fresh by their action. 

Would that this movie ended with a clear picture of how the preserved Little and Chiron were able to be expressed under the watchful eye of the powerful Black.  It ain’t that simple.  And leaving things up in the air the way that it does is necessary.  We cannot tie up the complicated ends of a person this complex – and simple – so easily.  The friends that I have known well – the people who have given me access to their essential (and good) selves – either by virtue of our shared innocence (we were both young and stupid) or as the result of intimate relationships as adults – have complex and complicated interactions with others – and with me - and I with them – it ain’t easy being an adult.  Even – or especially – adults of relative privilege who have a difficult time leading lives of integrity.  I don’t know how Kevin and Little/Chiron/Black are going to move forward.  But they, and we, are better for the connections that they have made.  And we as individuals and as a country can move forward, muddling our way through and out of the convoluted messes we have made – we will act as new waves who will come in and help us clean things up.  It won't be pretty and it won't be easy, but we will move forward - if by fits and starts.

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Saturday, December 24, 2016

Das Boot - How Necessary is Good Government?

A number of years ago, I visited a favorite Aunt and Uncle in Houston while I was on vacation.  My aunt and I took a trip to NASA’s Mission Control.  At the end of the tour, I noticed that there were some local news guys interviewing people on the grounds and convinced my aunt to go talk to them with me.  The President (I think it was Ronald Reagan) had announced that day that a teacher would be sent into space on the space shuttle and they were interviewing people who had come to tour the center about how they would use their profession in space.  My aunt, much to my surprise, was up to talking with them and talked quite eloquently about how what duties she would perform – I was convinced she should go.  She was erudite and clear and had interesting ideas about performing domestic functions especially on a long space flight.  When they turned to the camera to me, I had nothing so deep or profound to say – I simply stated that there was no way they could get me into space inside a tin can.  Well, guess whose answer they chose?  Yup, the mouthy one – not the thoughtful one - was on the six and the eleven O’clock news.

The school teacher who would ultimately be chosen to take the trip was Christa McAuliffe and my words had a prophetic quality that I never intended.  I think they also spoke to the reverence that we have for heroes who, despite the risks, decide to engage in potentially deadly activities that will make the world a better place – “I wouldn’t do that necessary activity no matter what you offered me, but I’m glad that someone is willing to do it.”  Das Boot, a movie about heroes of the German Navy who sailed on U-boats became interesting to me again after reading the book Shadow Divers about the discovery and exploration of a U-boat wrecked off the New Jersey shore.  I had wanted to see it when it first came out in theaters many years ago, but it came and went and I was never driven enough to pursue my continuing interest.  It is a very long film – but the director’s cut that we watched on Friday sustained our interest – indeed the reluctant wife found herself drawn into it in spite of herself (she was humoring me by watching it) and, at the two hour mark as it became clear we were only half way there she enthusiastically stated that she wanted to keep at it.

So, what is entertaining about watching a film in German with English subtitles about men cooped up in a submarine?  On a surface level (as it were), the movie is tautly and consistently thrilling.  In a war where the U-boats have been the hunters, they are now turning into the hunted, and the sense that they could be destroyed at any moment kept us near the edges of our seats.  Of course, it helped a lot that we liked the guys.  We were introduced to them at the beginning of the film as they prepare to leave on their voyage.  They are celebrating in an orgy of wine, women and song at a nightclub or a bordello.  The captain stands out as the sober one – and the one who appreciates the need for this exuberant expression before they go – while not participating in it.  He is also respectful of the captains who have gone before him no matter how much they have been dissipated by their duty.  We are drawn to him as a charismatic, but very self-contained leader of a group of very young and green boys who will serve under his command.

While the sailors capture and hold our attention, Das Boot itself – the boat of the title – is at center stage.  It is a technological wonder.  Powered by a diesel engine that by today’s standards would be considered clunky, it is hard to believe that this vessel has been produced only 50 or so years after the first self-propelled cars – and less than a hundred years after the first iron clad ship was launched.   It is modern – sleek – and deadly.  Thank god there is no smell-o-rama.  Not only is there only one bathroom for the crew, but they are stuck together, with that smelly diesel, underwater for extended periods of time. 

The boat is both a hunter and the hunted.  The first ship they see is a destroyer and, against the wishes of some of the crew, the captain thinks they might take it.  Before he can act on that, they spot his periscope and we are suddenly aware of how vulnerable we are as depth charges resound around us and we head to the limits of the depths the submarine can reach in an effort to hide – and we fear that having escaped one terror another awaits as the sea threatens to crush the ship around us – the bolts are literally beginning to blow out.

Having survived an attack, it is odd to take pleasure in the opportunity that then occurs to take out another ship.  The crew imagines the damage that their torpedoes cause to the supply ships that they hit with glee.  Later, when they surface to finish off one of the ships, they are horrified to discover that there are still crew members aboard who jump into the sea and they, with one of them openly weeping, back away from the dying men; unable to take them aboard, they leave them to their fate, cursing the other ships that should have come by then to rescue their fellow crew members.

With a change in plans, they head to Gibraltar to make a run for an Italian target that seems to all aboard to be a suicide mission.  After getting supplies in nominally neutral Spain, where German officers hail them as heroes, while they, disheveled and pale and harrowed by the surviving storms and being hunted and having killed, eat at a weird buffet of haute cuisine that seems to belong to completely different world.  The starched officer's requests for tales of heroism seem absurd - they have no sense of what is involved in true heroism - and don't recognize it when they see it.

At this, the two hour mark, with the reluctant wife fully on board, we plunge back into the sea and the suicide mission.  To save some suspense if you haven’t seen it, there is plenty of harrowing stuff still ahead.  Suffice it to say that this tin can, the captain who is commanding it and the men who are serving on it will be tested.  OK, one piece that is just so harrowing – sonar gets invented and they are staying as silent as they can so that the ship hunting them at the moment can’t find them, but they hear the pings of the sonar bouncing off of them – ouch!  They are marked men.

So this film is delicious on multiple levels.  At the top, it is clear to me that this is a movie about the guilt of the Germans for their role in the Second World War and the atrocities that they inflicted. Unlike the movie Cache, which I also recently saw, the guilt here is hard to expiate not so much because it is apparent to the objective viewer, but because there is subjective pride in the accomplishments of the U-boats, the captains and their men.  This movie says, “We did many incredible things in this war.  We didn’t all agree with our leaders (the dissolute captain of the other boat in the scene at the beginning denounces both Churchill and Hitler and our own captain has no love for this administration), but we are proud of the engineering feats we have created, the strategies we employed, and the strength of character exhibited by our men (and women – there are women who love these men and wait for them to return).” 

This film is both a testament to the men and machines, but also a morality play in that they get their just deserts.  Despite the truly heroic activities – which, by the way, are much grittier than the comic books would ever have us imagine – gritty, smelly, and depleting – not energizing – despite the heroic performances of both the men and the boat – we know throughout the movie that they are damned.  The war will be lost – and the German people will be, rightly, vilified – though there are heroes among them.  How do we retain pride when we have done wrong?

The boat, then, becomes a metaphor for – what?  Well for many things.  First it is a metaphor for an individual fighting to survive in life – something that is hard enough in peacetime and infinitely more difficult in war.  In war we are besieged.  The most life giving entities – water itself – the very stuff that is sustaining and supporting us is also threatening to us; as are people and their machines – peril is literally all around.  And we have to rely on our captain to steer us through these perilous waters – and our captain – the part of ourselves that steers us – is capricious.  It gets caught up in the fun of running us full steam and doesn’t think, in that moment, of how we are using up resources or exposing ourselves to the eyes of the enemy and we cringe while we push forward - while he enjoys flying at full speed through dangerous waters.  And, even more centrally, even our finest moments can cost us dearly.  In doing what we intend to do – sinking cargo ships – we also kill people – we put them into the positions that we most fear – we expose them to the elements that will, surely, kill them – bring the kind of death to them that we most fear for ourselves – and we feel badly about it, and we do it – and endanger ourselves to do it.

The boat is also a metaphor for the state.  We are led by a person who directs our actions.  He or she may or may not be open to information from others about how best to do that.  He or she may put us into very dangerous waters.  Hopefully we have a crew, and a vessel – the state, whatever that is – that can withstand the ways in which that leader will test us.  It is hard not to think, as we prepare to inaugurate a president who is totally untried in governmental and military affairs, and who seems to be intent on driving us in directions that we have worked hard to avoid – someone who scoffs at the very idea of governing – as if freedom means that he can do what he wants to without having to think through the consequences (at least that is how it appears to this observer in the peanut gallery), will the boat be able to survive its captain?  Are the waters as treacherous as we imagine them?  What do we need from a captain and his closest advisors?  How long before, under the strain of pushing us outside of who we imagine ourselves to be, we implode under the weight of pressures that we weren’t built to survive?

Fortunately, on all of these levels, there are checks and balances that are put in place to prevent even a sober minded captain from pushing us too far.  At one point in the movie, we have to rely on divine providence.  And certainly I have benefited from that time and time again – whether when my attention was diverted at an important moment in driving and someone else was, fortunately, paying attention, or at moments when I wanted to go off half-cocked and those around me encouraged me to be more temperate.  While Trump is neither surrounding himself with people who will bridle him nor does he appear to be particularly open to listening, I do think that we have mechanisms that can contain some of what he may attempt – though I fear that we may end having to deal with collective guilt for the pain that we may cause the many who are dependent on us – both within our borders and throughout the world.

The weird thing is – I think this election has given me an ability to get some empathy for those who have voted for Trump.  As I find myself attending to things that I never attend to – who the president elect is nominating for cabinet positions – I wonder how closely they may have watched when people they disagreed with – people they feared as much as I fear Trump – took office.  While I simply trusted them to nominate people who would wisely govern, they may have felt that these individuals would steal from them or throttle them in ways that would be problematic.  They may have seen each assignment as evidence that the governor was putting us in harm’s way.  This vote for Trump has more the feeling of a mutiny than of a change in direction.  Even if we disagree with the captain of the U-boat’s command, which we question at times in this movie, if we remove him we need to install another captain.  Government is necessary – even if we believe it to be evil.  Nowhere is that more evident than when we are stuck in a tin can.

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Sunday, December 11, 2016

The Movie Caché: An Austro-French take on hidden guilt.

There are lots of papers to grade and clinical work to do and we are having house-guests tonight, but I have to write about the movie I saw last night, Caché (2005).  There is some irony here.  The movie was shown at a gathering at the Psychoanalytic Institute and the reluctant wife chose not to go because so many movies shown there are, as she says, like watching paint dry.  She qualifies that by saying that it is frequently interesting paint, but paint none the less.  And this movie qualified.  Nothing happened for long stretches.  And when things did happen they were disorienting.  It was unclear for a long time who the characters were and what was going to happen.  And there was no sense of urgency for a very long time.  So my urgency to write is somewhat ironic.

My hurry to write is also likely doomed to failure.   In a quick scan, there are many who have seen the film who cannot solve the riddle of how the plot works (and yet it is considered one of the best movies of the 2000s).  Roger Ebert and many others have tried.  And the Director, Michael Heneke, an Austrian master filmmaker, revels in the fact that the movie is insoluble.  So, with the help of the hour and half conversation we had in the wake of the film, I am going to wander where I should probably not tread.  I am going to do this in an unconventional manner – of course this is an unconventional film, so maybe I will get where I intend to go.  But I won’t be describing the film’s plot – at least not initially – per se.  Instead I will describe what I think is being portrayed by the film – with the intent of discovering why the confusion about the plot that is at the heart of watching it is integral to the success of it as a movie.

This is a film that centers on at least two and maybe three family groups and their responses (guilt, shame and anger) to hidden secrets - caches.  The first is Georges (Daniel Auteuil), his mother (Annie Girardot) and his now deceased father.  This family was one of means.  They lived in a large French Farmhouse and two of their field hands – Algerian Muslims – went to Paris in October 1961 to protest the French Government’s treatment of the Algerians.  They were apparently killed in a massacre.  They had left their son with the family and Georges’ parents decided to adopt the child – Majid (Maurice Benichou). 

Georges was angry that he now had to share a room with Majid (this must be metaphorical - the farmhouse was huge).  Further, Majid had blood coming out of his mouth.  I also think – and I certainly could be wrong about this – I have not obsessively watched the film five or more times as others have done – that in the confrontation between Majid and Georges, Georges intimates that they had an ongoing relationship that involved something about which they might both be implicated, or that he would still be vulnerable to.  We know that Georges told Majid that his father wanted him to kill one of their roosters and that when he did that, Georges told his parents that Majid had killed the rooster to scare him and they packed him off to an orphanage.  So the surface guilt is that Georges prevented Majid from having the life that he might have had as the adopted son of the landed gentry.  But I think there is more here.  I think that Georges and Majid may have had a sexual relationship – or maybe they played aggressively in ways that caused Majid to bleed – or who knows what?  And I think that Georges may have a suppressed reservoir of guilt for a bunch of stuff that gets reduced, in the film, to his guilt for removing Majid from the family.

Now this first family has a shadow family – the country of France.  The murder of Majid’s parents was ordered by Maurice Papon, the chief of French Police and the only Frenchman to be convicted for deporting Jews to German concentration camps during the Second World War.  So in addition to Georges’ hidden guilt we have France’s hidden guilt around putting both masses of Algerians (in retaliation for individual terror attacks) and before that Jews in concentration camps and then suppressing the Algerian demonstrations against the illegality of this, killing Algerians and covering that up.  And the person who is going to help us unravel this knotty guilt (or not) is an Austrian director – a man from a country that knows a thing or two about guilty complicity.

The second family is Georges’ family.  He is now an adult and has married Anne (Juliette Binoche).  He is the leader of an intellectual discussion group on public television.  She is a successful editor in a publishing house and the author’s book that she is promoting is doing very well.  They live behind a  hedge in a small nondescript house whose center is a book lined room that seems to insulate them from the world.  They live here with their 12 year old son, Pierrot (Lester Makedonsky), an adolescent who is psychologically remote - verging on sullen. The poster of Eminem in his bedroom hints at generational chasms in aesthetic interest.

When videotapes of their house which record their comings and goings show up on their front porch, Georges and Anne feel tremendously threatened.  It is as if a simple record of their lives would incriminate them.  Now, don't get me wrong, it is creepy to have someone watching - it verges on stalking - but the reaction seems stronger.  It is as if if people were to observe what we really did, we could not defend our actions.  And the odd thing is that as viewers, we buy into the threatening nature of these packages.  We believe that there is hostile intent behind recording comings and goings.  Now, of course we are watching a movie, and we expect some action to occur, but the weird thing is we spend the first five or six minutes of the movie watching this footage and it could not be more innocuous.  Nothing happens.  There isn’t even any paint drying.  After about four minutes a car goes by so that we know we are actually watching a movie, but to that point it could just have been a photograph;  with no sound, no music.  Wow.  And this – when Georges emerges from the house – ah – that is the action that has been recorded.  There is nothing in the bag.  No message.  There is just this incriminating tape – of nothing.  A man leaving his home on the way to work...

This creates a rift between Anne and Georges.  And the assumption is that Georges has done something wrong.  And the assumption grows into it being something illicit – perhaps an affair is what I think as I watch.  Anne is frustrated – indeed increasingly rightfully angry that Georges won’t tell her what is going on.  She is frustrated that he won’t trust her.  Across time, Georges creates a hypothesis – we later know that it is that Majid is behind this – but he won’t share it with Anne because, he states, it is only a hypothesis. 

All of this directing blame towards George throws some shade because we learn, much later in the movie, that the sullen son suspects that Anne is having an affair with her boss Pierre (David Duval), a married man who, along with his wife, has a warm relationship with Georges and Anne.   Indeed, the relationship is so warm that, when Anne is disturbed by Georges’ failure to trust and the new tapes that show up, she has lunch with him and we observe his caring response to her crying and they look, to all the world, like lovers – except for one small detail.  She does not ask Pierre if he would deceive her as Georges has – but instead asks Pierre if he would deceive his wife.  I think they are not lovers.  But Pierrot (the son) does – and neither Anne nor Georges consider the possibility.  Perhaps Anne’s conscience is clear – but Georges assumes his own guilt and that clouds his ability to see broader possibilities.  On the other hand, as the movie progresses, we match up the material from the tapes (additional tapes arrive, including one of his childhood home), and the crude drawings that he, Anne and Pierrot receive - each showing a child's face with red paint coming out of the mouth - and one showing a rooster with a slash of red paint across its throat, with Georges' memories of his childhood and we suspect that Majid is stalking them.

Pierrot, like his father before him, is concerned that his mother’s affections will not remain focused on her family – but that she will betray him by betraying his father.  Georges felt betrayed by his mother’s taking in Majid.  Pierrot is convinced that his mother is in love with Pierre.  Both boys feel that their maternal  foundation is shaky.  Georges felt that he could be replaced – or perhaps he felt that he was being irreparably sullied by Majid – while Pierrot fears that his mother’s affection for Pierre will rob him of his home.  Perhaps this matches Papon's fear about the motherland - that her love for him is fickle and needs to be protected against being directed at the infidel Algerians.

Which brings us to the third family: Majid now has a son.  They may live together – it is not clear.  Majid lives in housing for the poor in a Parisian low rent neighborhood.  Georges discovers him in the apartment where one of the mysterious video tapes leads him.  Georges is frightened but also threatening.  Majid is remarkably calm and centered and, in a very believable way, denies any knowledge of the tapes.  He is curious why Georges is so agitated.  He seems to want to talk to Georges and, only now, thinking about it, I wonder why Georges does not sit down, despite the tapes, and say, “What’s up?  Weird that our paths have crossed…  How did things turn out for you?”  Instead there is the confrontation mentioned before that I think is ambiguous.  It seems to me that Georges may feel guilty for more than having sent Majid off.  That said, it is evident that he is, indeed, feeling very guilty for that – and very scared of Majid.  His reverie about Majid killing the rooster ends with Majid turning on him ax in hand.  Is he scared of Majid?  Or is he scared of what he has done to Majid?  Is he afraid that he will be punished for what he has done wrong?

Georges’ mother can sense his guilt based anxiety when he visits her, and his wife Anne lovingly confronts him about his guilt – we learn about it through her questioning of him.  The Director has hinted, apparently, that this film may just be Georges' dream - and if so, it is a guilt laden dream - one in which he is being pursued not so much by a flesh and blood Majid, but the one that in his mind he has irreparably harmed.  In the movie, his threats towards Majid are recorded on a videotape.  They are delivered to his house after he has told Anne that he did not find anyone at the apartment.  He is caught in a lie and she realizes his guilt.  The tape is also sent to his boss and his boss warns him that someone is trying to ruin his career.  If this is Georges' dream, there is no way out of his guilt - confronting the one he has harmed simply underscores his guilt and he is now more vulnerable than he was before.

Then Pierrot turns up missing.  Anne has a contained kind of franticness to her – but Georges is devastated.  He finds a space to be alone – and he cries the cry of a father for his lost son – he sobs because he feels responsible for him.  As an observer, I am pleased that Georges is human and that he feels as deeply connected to Pierrot as he does - as I do to my son.  But I also am afraid for him.  I am convinced that Majid will (or has) killed Pierrot in revenge  and I fear that Georges will never recover from having been responsible for the death of someone he loves.  He takes the police to Majid’s house, and from there we go with Majid and his son to the jail overnight.  I think it is important that Majid’s son (Malik Afkir) does not have a name.  He is simply Majid’s son.  And he, too, denies that he is involved in the taping (and the kidnapping).

The next day, Pierrot shows up.  He has been at a friend’s and neglected to call.  I am glad you are back and I am so mad I could wring your neck – except that Pierrot’s friend’s mother attempts to absolve the guilt by claiming that  it is her faulty – she was working a late shift and should have made sure that Anne knew that Pierrot was there.  It is apparent that she is from a lower class family and feels guilty for having interrupted the upper class calm.  Pierrot, for his part, confronts his mother about her, in his mind, infidelity, which she denies.

I have gotten bogged down in the plot, something that I very much wanted to avoid.  But I can no more avoid it than Georges can avoid the elements that are now unrolling not as paint drying, but as a crazy barrel rolling down a hill.  The critical plot moment occurs when Georges hears again from Majid who invites him into his apartment again.  George enters only to have Majid tell him that he has called him there to witness his death and slits his throat – enacting the primitive pictures that have been sent.  Majid’s son confronts Georges at his work, ultimately claiming that he wants to see what a man looks like who is guilty of having destroyed another man.  And then we see – from the same still camera position that we saw Georges’ apartment – Majid being hauled off as a child to the orphanage - a heart rending scene.   Georges’ admits his guilt to Anne, goes to work, comes home early, and takes two sleeping pills, closes the curtains and goes to sleep.  

That last paragraph does not tell things as they occurred in the movie.  There are some details that I have inserted, and the order is wrong, but putting it right is not going to fix it.  I, as observer, am now so disoriented that elements cannot be kept straight.  This part of the movie is most reminiscent of the disorder than can be felt in a dream and then in its recall when the order of elements seems to shift in our minds as things don't make sense.  If this is a dream, I think it is the dream of a profoundly guilty man - a man who is so guilty – and so caught up in what he has deprived the other of having – that he cannot recognize the other – especially the value of the other.  I think this may be the dream of the guilty – the nightmare of the guilty.  Whether it is Georges or Papon – the Paris chief of police – or Georges’ parents – or Pierrot’s mother – or the dreams of privileged whites in America – we cannot access the subjectivity of those that we fear we have harmed because to do so – to have a record of what we have done – exposes us to overwhelming feelings of guilt – guilt that leads us to be destructive.  We are destructive of the other – we shoot or kill him.  In our dreams they kill themselves over us – we are that important.  They cannot lead good lives if we don’t create a space for them to do that.  As if they are meaningless without us.  And we, above all, can’t cop to that – to our essential selfishness.

James Cone, on my campus recently, suggests that the way out of this mess is, as a Christian, to identify with the oppressed.  In our culture it would be with the blacks who have been lynched and those who have been terrorized by the lynch mob.  In France, it would be an identification with Majik and the Algerians.  The director of this film, Micheal Haneke, has a grimmer message.  It is that our guilt imprisons us and keeps us apart from those who might offer us salvation.  We hide and fear them.  They must be irrevocably angry with us for what we have done to them.  We can’t be open to them.  We can’t reconcile – our guilt is irremediable.

Who did the taping?  Who sent the tapes?  There are three suspects.  Majid is the first.  He could be as wrapped up in what Georges did to him as Georges imagines.  If he is, he is a damn good liar.  He genuinely seems surprised by the issues of the tapes and genuinely seems interested in Georges, despite his feelings about him.  Majid’s son is the second.  He may feel even more robbed than Majid – but how would he know about all this if Majid had come to terms with it?  Is the son that disaffected that he channels his energies into – what? – confronting his father’s hated nemesis?  But then isn’t he guilty for having brought this terrible fate on his father?  Of course he would deny that, and blame Georges – as he does – but he would still be supporting the centrality of Georges in the life not just of Majid but of Majid’s family.  And Pierrot.  How does he have access to Majid?  How would that work?

The movie ends with an enigmatic image.  For the second or third time, we observe the front of Pierrot’s school as it is letting out.  Parents are waiting for some children.  Other children connect with each other before heading out – whether to get into off-screen cars or buses or the metro or just to walk home.  Each time this scene occurred, I was reminded of waiting for the reluctant son outside of schools or bus stations or airports.  Like in those places, we have a lazy anticipation – we’re watching paint dry.  There is tons of irrelevant information that we don’t care about and that can lull us to sleep because it bores us – but somewhere in the midst of all that stuff is the thing we are looking for – so we have to remain vigilant despite being largely uninterested.  And we – or at least I – am anxious.  Will I be able to pick him out of the crowd?  What is he wearing?  Is he is distinct?  (and truth be told, with the baseball team, when a bunch of skinny boys are wearing uniforms, I sometimes mistake him for someone else). 

After watching for a while, Pierrot emerges.  I recognize him by his distinctive curly hair, but also then by the way he walks - his lean and lanky body.  And it is like picking out the reluctant son (when I am able to), there is a warm spot for Pierrot.  But then something odd happens – he and Majid’s son (Majid’s son? What is he doing here?  Is he going to hurt Pierrot?) drift together and start talking.  Then they drift apart and exit the scene going in different directions.  They are friends?  So the mystery of who did the taping becomes more complex.  Did they collude?  Was this a shared plot?  Were they trying to figure out and intervene in the sins of the fathers?  Did they commit their own sins in doing that?  Are they complicit – have they engaged in some variant of the play that I suspect Majid and Georges engaged in?

Majid said, in the interaction with Georges, that he had seen Georges on TV and, in the time before Georges’ name was announced, when Majid did not yet know exactly who he was, he had this sick feeling in his stomach.  What is that feeling about?  Was it simply about having been displaced by Georges?  Or was it about whatever had gone on between them before that?  Or was it the whole mess?

If Pierrot and Majid’s son have colluded to try to untangle what tied their parents together, they have failed – miserably.   If Anne hoped to help Georges get beyond the guilt that he feels for things long past, she failed just as badly.  Georges is trapped at the end of this movie in a dark room where he needs to take pills to sleep - presumably to deaden the images that haunt him.  Majid, if this isn’t just Georges’ dream, is dead; killed as surely by Georges as his parents were by Papon.  We are left with the sense that this intergenerational killing will not be ended by the guilt, but sustained by it. 

Our forefathers emigrated to this country with the thought that we could leave all of that mess behind – we could build a new place unfettered by the hierarchical difficulties of a monarchical system  (we would just have to bring slaves to clear the land we stole from Native Americans to do it).  We put in place our own hierarchical system founded on the concept that all men are created equal – when we weren’t, including the women among us.  We have spent the past 200+ years working to achieve that equality and, in the process, have built in the same kinds of resentments that fuel the never ending cycles of damage and revenge on the European continent.  We are no strangers to sado-masochistic relationships and the guilt and shame that emerge from them.  We engage in them all too heartily.  And, as a result, we too, just like the Europeans we scoff at, are stuck in intractable trans-generational relationships that undermine our integrity – that keep us stuck.  Recognizing our guilt – something that Cone and Ta-Nehisi Coates would have us do – is easier said than done.  If, however, we, like Georges, keep those feelings at bay, we, like Georges, will find that our walls of books are inadequate to protect us and will realize, at some point, that it is the thoughts inside us that are insidious and, incapable of thinking them, we will numb them and fall into a stupor.

One question is whether psychoanalysis is a solution to this mess.  It may help us untangle the threads of a dream (in the dream, the person who is recording all is Georges - who happens - in dreams - to know things that can't be known - like where Majid is living).  But, for it to be effective, psychoanalysis requires an analysand who is curious about a different solution - about a way out of the situation in which there is no possible solution - because it is me that has to change, not the world.  I have to recognize that others have value - not just me - and this is hard to do when I am at the top of the heap.  Might Majid have had a fine life?  Might Majid have been so disturbed by his parent's death that he was not a fit sibling for Georges?  Did Georges' mother recognize this and take action?  Could it be that Georges was so uncertain of his mother's love that keeping Majid as a brother would have been worse for Majid than being sent to an orphanage?  Georges' mother is still disturbed by what happened, but she has come to some sort of peace - some sort of resolution - something that she can sense Georges has not done.  

Georges' privilege makes him vulnerable.  He fears that owning his guilt - acknowledging it - will lead to everything being taken away - to his being exposed.  I think he is being exposed as human - as filled with powerful and even violent feelings - much like the characters in the books that he discusses on TV - but different - this is a kind of reality TV that he cannot survive.  Were he to have his book lined den taken away it would be as devastating as having his son taken away - and he fears that Majid - or Majid's son - is intent on doing this.  He believes that Majid seeks not justice - not reconciliation - but revenge.  As if all that Majid wants is for Georges to suffer.  When we become locked into that, Freud sees us as Melancholic - something that he contrasts with being mournful.  Mourning can resolve - melancholia - here characterized as being tied into the lost connection in a way that is frozen by guilt - cannot, unless the person is willing to see the situation in new and different ways.  The frozen quality of the videotapes - including watching Majid being taken off to the orphanage from the frozen camera vantage point - suggests that this is something that Georges is not able to do - thus the tragic and dislocated quality of the film - especially as we identify with Georges.  From this perspective, the inability to solve the plot problems points to a bigger problem - that Georges' is incapable of resolving his own guilt in a way that will be generative.  If Majid's son and Georges' son are meeting in a public school - and if they can come to be friends, there may be a glimmer of hope for future generations.

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