How Austerity Killed the Humanities

Not long ago, the Right fought viciously over the teaching of the humanities in American universities. Now conservatives are trying to eliminate them altogether.

BY ANDREW HARTMAN

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Few people are nostalgic for those culture wars because they were a fight between implacable foes. But in retrospect, perhaps we would do well to remember a time when all sides of a national debate believed that a humanities-based education was crucial to the survival of a democracy.

In the 1980s and 1990s, debates over the humanities were a major component of American political discourse. On the one side were conservative traditionalists who believed that all American college students should read the Western Canon—the greatest books of the Western mind since Aristotle—as a foundation for democratic living. On the other side were academic multiculturalists who believed that a humanities education should be more comprehensive and should thus include texts authored by minority, female, and non-western writers.

Those debates of the ‘80s and ‘90s were heated. Indeed, they were a major front in what came to be known as “culture wars” between merciless foes. Yet all sides in these culture wars believed a humanities education—history, literature, languages, philosophy—was inherently important in a democratic society. In short, the humanities were taken for granted. In our current age of austerity, this is no longer the case. Many Americans no longer think the humanities worthy of public support. This is especially true of conservatives, who in their quest to cut off state support to higher education have abandoned the humanities entirely.

Take the state of Wisconsin, for example. In early February, Governor and Republican presidential hopeful Scott Walker drafted a draconian state budget that proposed to decrease the state’s contribution to the University of Wisconsin system by over $300 million over the next two years. Beyond simply slashing spending, Walker was also attempting to alter the language that has guided the core mission of the University of Wisconsin over the last 100 years or more, known as the “Wisconsin Idea.” Apparently Walker’s ideal university would no longer “extend knowledge and its application beyond the boundaries of its campuses” and would thus cease its “search for truth” and its efforts to “improve the human condition,” as his proposed language changes scrapped these ideas entirely; the governor’s scaled-back objective was for the university to merely “meet the state’s workforce needs.”

When a draft of Walker’s proposed revisions to the Wisconsin Idea surfaced, outraged Wisconsinites (including some conservatives) compelled the governor to backtrack. Yet Walker’s actions are consistent with recent trends in conservative politics. Republicans today are on the warpath against education—particularly against the humanities, those academic disciplines where the quaint pursuit of knowledge about “the human condition” persists.

In 2012, Florida Governor Rick Scott proposed a law making it more expensive for students enrolled at Florida’s public universities to obtain degrees in the humanities. As Scott and his supporters argued, in austere times, they needed “to lash higher education to the realities and opportunities of the economy,” as Florida Republican and State Senate President Don Gaetz put it. In other words, a humanities degree, unlike a business degree, was a luxury good. Even President Obama joined this chorus when he half-joked recently that students with vocational training are bound to make more money than art history majors.

Such anti-intellectualism, a strong animus against the idea that learning about humanity is a worthy pursuit regardless of its lack of obvious labor market applicability, has deep roots in American history. President Theodore Roosevelt advised that “we of the United States must develop a system under which each individual citizen shall be trained so as to be effective individually as an economic unit, and fit to be organized with his fellows so that he and they can work in efficient fashion together.” Contemporary conservatives are thus merely following the crude utilitarian logic that has informed many politicians and educational reformers since the nation’s first common schools.

But it was not always thus. During the 1980s and 1990s, prominent conservatives like William Bennett, who served in the Reagan administration as chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities and then as Secretary of Education, argued that every American should have an education grounded in the humanities. This surprising recent history is largely forgotten, and not only because most conservatives now dismiss the value of the humanities. It is forgotten because the arguments forwarded by Bennett and his ilk came in the context of the traumatic culture wars, when left and right angrily battled over radically different visions of a humanities education.

Few people are nostalgic for those culture wars because they were a fight between implacable foes. But in retrospect, perhaps we would do well to remember a time when all sides of a national debate believed that a humanities-based education was crucial to the survival of a democracy.

As a leading conservative culture warrior, Bennett held a traditionalist vision of the humanities. He believed the Western canon—which he defined in the terms of Matthew Arnold as “the best that has been said, thought, written, and otherwise expressed about the human experience”—should be the philosophical bedrock of the nation’s higher education.

“Because our society is the product and we the inheritors of Western civilization,” Bennett matter-of-factly contended, “American students need an understanding of its origins and development, from its roots in antiquity to the present.”

Most academics in humanities disciplines like English and history, in contrast, took a more critical stance towards the Western canon. They believed it too Eurocentric and male-dominated to properly reflect modern American society and thus revised it by adding books authored by women and minorities. Toni Morrison was to sit alongside Shakespeare. As literary theorist Jane Tompkins told a reporter from The New York Times Magazine in 1988, the struggle to revise the canon was a battle “among contending factions for the right to be represented in the picture America draws of itself.”

Many college students agreed with the canon revisionists. In 1986, Bill King, president of the Stanford University Black Student Union, formally complained to the Stanford academic senate that the university’s required Western Civilization reading list was racist. “The Western culture program as it is presently structured around a core list and an outdated philosophy of the West being Greece, Europe, and Euro-America is wrong, and worse,” he contended, “it hurts people mentally and emotionally in ways that are not even recognized.” Stanford students opposed to the Western Civilization curriculum marched and chanted, “Hey hey, ho ho, Western culture’s got to go,” and the academic senate approved mild changes to the core reading list that they hoped would satisfy the understandable demands of their increasingly diverse student body.

A sensationalist media made Stanford’s revisions seem like a proxy for the death of the West. Newsweek titled a story on the topic “Say Goodbye Socrates.” University of Chicago philosopher Allan Bloom wrote a letter to the Wall Street Journal editor in 1989—two years after his book, The Closing of the American Mind, made a rigorous if eccentric case for a classic humanities education rooted in the Western canon—in which he argued the Stanford revisions were a travesty: “This total surrender to the present and abandonment of the quest for standards with which to judge it are the very definition of the closing of the American mind, and I could not hope for more stunning confirmation of my thesis.”

Bloom believed that a humanities education should provide students with “four years of freedom,” which he described as “a space between the intellectual wasteland he has left behind and the inevitable dreary professional training that awaits him after the baccalaureate.” Liberals and leftists might have been sympathetic to such an argument had Bloom not dismissed texts authored by women, minorities, and non-westerners as lacking merit compared to the great books authored by those like Socrates who composed the Western canon.

In retrospect, these culture wars over the humanities are rather remarkable artifacts of a history that feels increasingly distant. Whether Stanford University ought to assign John Locke or the anticolonial theorist Frantz Fanon, a debate that played out on The Wall Street Journal editorial page in 1988, would be nonsensical in today’s neoliberal climate marked by budget cuts and other austerity measures. Now Locke and Fanon find themselves for the first time on the same side—and it’s looking more and more like the losing one. On the winning side? Well, to take but one example, Winning, General Electric CEO Jack Welch’s breezy management book, which is widely read in American business schools. Sadly, even the almighty Western canon, revised or not, seems feeble up against Winning and the cult of business. Conservative defenders of the humanities are voices in the wilderness. The philistines are on the march.

The culture wars over the humanities that dominated discussion of higher education in the 1980s and 1990s had enduring historical significance. Shouting matches about academia reverberated beyond the ivory tower to lay bare a crisis of national faith. Was America a good nation? Could the nation be good—could its people be free—without foundations? Were such foundations best provided by a classic liberal education in the humanities, which Matthew Arnold described as “the best that has been thought and said”? Was the “best” philosophy and literature synonymous with the canon of Western Civilization? Or was the Western canon racist and sexist? Was the “best” even a valid category for thinking about texts? Debates over these abstract questions rocked the nation’s institutions of higher education, demonstrating that the culture wars did not boil down to any one specific issue or even a set of issues. Rather, the culture wars often hinged on a more epistemological question about national identity: How should Americans think?

But in our current age of austerity, Americans are not asked to think about such questions at all. Neoliberalism is fine with revised canons—with a more inclusive, multicultural vision of the humanities. But neoliberalism is not fine with public money supporting something so seemingly useless. American conservatives have abandoned their traditionalist defense of the Western canon in favor of no canon at all.

ANDREW HARTMAN

Andrew Hartman is associate professor of history at Illinois State University and author, most recently, of A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars.

 

http://inthesetimes.com/article/17962/how-austerity-killed-the-humanities

Drone warfare in Good Kill

And a roundtable interview with writer-director Andrew Niccol and actor Ethan Hawke

By David Walsh
13 May 2015

Good Kill opens in theaters in the US on May 15 and will also be available fromvideo on demand. This comment and interview originally appeared September 26, 2014 as part of the coverage of the Toronto film festival.

* * * * *

Written and directed by Andrew Niccol

Drone strikes carried out by the US military and CIA have killed thousands of civilians in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and other countries. The barbaric strikes, which have increased sharply under the Obama administration, are illegal under international and US law and amount to war crimes.

According to Reprieve, the British human rights organization, “To date, the United States has used drones to execute without trial some 4,700 people in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia—all countries against whom it has not declared war. The US’ drones programme is a covert war being carried out by the CIA.”

Good Kill

An April 2014 article in Rolling Stone observed, “The people of Yemen can hear destruction before it arrives. In cities, towns and villages across this country, which hangs off the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula, the air buzzes with the sound of American drones flying overhead. The sound is a constant and terrible reminder… Over half of Yemen’s 24.8 million citizens—militants and civilians alike—are impacted every day.”

New Zealand-born writer-director Andrew Niccol has taken on the subject of drone warfare, with mixed but often intriguing results, in Good Kill, featuring Ethan Hawke, Bruce Greenwood, Zoë Kravitz and January Jones.

Major Thomas Egan (Hawke) is a former fighter pilot and Iraq war veteran, now operating drones over Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere from a trailer on a US Air Force base near Las Vegas. After killing people by remote control 12 hours a day he returns to his house and family in the tidy, slightly unreal suburbs. “Now I’m going home to barbecue,” he explains sardonically after one murderous shift.

Good Kill

His superior, Lt. Col. Jack Johns (Greenwood), is resigned to the endless conflict: “Don’t ask me if it’s a just war. It’s just war.” Two of the four-member team parrot, in an especially vulgar fashion, the US government line, something to the effect that “the ‘terrorists’ hate us because of our freedom and our way of life.” The fourth member, Airman Vera Suarez (Kravitz), is different. She comes to see through a good many of the lies.

The film is set in 2010 and centers on the stepping up of drone strikes by the Obama administration and the transfer of control of the attacks to the CIA, represented by a disembodied voice (Peter Coyote) from “Langley [Virginia].”

The atrocities accumulate. The crew, aiming for a bomb factory, kills two children. “Keep compartmentalizing,” Egan is told. But “I pulled the trigger,” he responds. The CIA, once it takes over, begins ordering “signature strikes,” i.e., bombings based on what US officials believe to be suspicious behavior or simply on the association of the intended victims at some point or another with alleged “terrorists.”

Good Kill

When a strike goes wrong, the CIA official blandly tells the crew, as the US government repeats to the public, “No one regrets the loss of innocent lives more than us.” After one deadly bombing, he orders a “follow-up,” the notorious “double tap,” in other words, a strike on those responding to the first attack. “In our opinion, it’s proportionate.” He explains, “preemptive self-defense is ordered by the administration.” The voice and the commands it gives are coldly monstrous.

Following this attack, Suarez leans over and asks, “Was that a war crime, sir?” She suggests “that’s what terrorists do,” and points out bitterly that this is apparently what “they now give Nobel Peace prizes” for.

In a later scene, the CIA orders the bombing of a group of men near a market. Johns asks incredulously, “You want us to kill a crowd?” The men, he is informed, represent “an imminent threat.”

There is a good deal of this, quite powerful material. As the film’s publicity suggests, Egan starts “to question the mission. Is he creating more terrorists than he’s killing? Is he fighting a war without end?” It becomes increasingly difficult for him to carry on, both at work and at home.

In perhaps Good Kill ’s most moving sequence, out in the backyard at home, Egan asks his wife, Molly (Jones), “You want to know about my job?” He proceeds to describe how he and his crew blew up a house, although the supposed Taliban official was not there. “I watched as neighbors started carrying bodies,” then we “blew up the funeral.” A tear runs down her cheek and she puts her head on his shoulder.

There are weaker sides to the film too. A subplot about Egan’s desire to return to flying actual warplanes is not especially compelling. The crisis in the Egans’ marriage that develops, while no doubt—or perhaps precisely because it is—based on the real-life accounts of military personnel, has something a little formulaic and predictable about it.

Most significantly, the recurring presence of a Taliban-rapist character is an obvious concession to the official propaganda campaign. Opposition to the horrendous war crimes committed by US imperialism is not predicated on support for Islamic fundamentalism or any of the regimes the American government sets out to bring down. Dealing with these reactionary elements is the responsibility of the Afghan, Pakistani or Yemeni people; it cannot be subcontracted to the US government, military and CIA, which have, in many cases, incited and funded such movements or regimes.

Writer-director Niccol’s invention of this Taliban “bad guy” in Good Kill forms part of the rationale for arguing, as he did in the round table interview included below, that US drone warfare has certain “beneficial aspects.”

Nonetheless, it’s to his great credit that Niccol (the writer of The Truman Show and writer-director of Gattaca, S1m0 ne and In Time ) undertook this project, in the face of considerable odds. This is the first major US feature film that has attempted to represent this criminal policy and its consequences both for the targeted populations and for the American people, even if the filmmakers (also see below) are not inclined to work out the full implications of their own effort.

A conversation with Andrew Niccol and Ethan Hawke

I participated, along with a number of other journalists, in a roundtable interview in Toronto September 9 with Andrew Niccol and Ethan Hawke. The following is a slightly edited version of that conversation:

Journalist 1: Was it [Good Kill] hard to get made?

Andrew Niccol at the 2014 Toronto film festival [Credit: WireImage/Getty]

Andrew Niccol: Yes. It’s hard to make a military movie without the support of the military. So it means that all of the machinery you have to come up with yourself. I had drone consultants who I would speak to, and I was very lucky to get those ex-drone pilots.

Journalist 1: So did you approach the US military, and they presumably said, ‘No, thanks’?

AN: They just said no. They were polite, but they politely declined.

Journalist 2: In the film, there are “signature strikes.”

AN: This is well documented. I didn’t make up the language, that’s the language of the CIA. To go, as the character says, from a “personality strike” to a “signature strike.” All that means is, if you’re standing next to a terrorist, you’re most likely a terrorist, so you’re fair game. That’s your signature.

Journalist 3: There is a parallel between his [Egan’s] home and his work. Was there an attempt to show how detached we are from the consequences?

AN: This is the new reality for our pilots, our soldiers. They have this schizophrenic life. We’ve never asked soldiers to do this before in the history of warfare, to go to war from nine to five, and then go home. You have no decompression time, you’re going to get up the next day and do the same thing again. So what that does to a pilot’s psyche is unimaginable to me.

Journalist 1: Did you talk to drone pilots who had done what Ethan portrays in the film?

Ethan Hawke at the 2014 Toronto film festival [Credit: WireImage/Getty]

AN: Yes.

Journalist 1: And what sort of effects did they say it had on them?

AN: There’s an interesting aspect to it. I spoke to one sensor operator [who works in tandem with the pilots] who definitely has PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder], and admits it.

There are others who almost feel ashamed admitting that they’re affected by it. They claim that they can compartmentalize. There are younger drone pilots who would use a joystick, perform their mission over Afghanistan, they’re obviously not in Afghanistan, which is another point, then they go back to their apartments in Las Vegas and play video games at night. How do you possibly separate the two? I couldn’t do it. Then you’re really desensitizing yourself to war.

Ethan Hawke: What’s interesting to me is that this film is about something real. Perhaps the next movie Andrew and I will do together will be a video game. That’s where it’s going.

I’m always very interested in where movies are going, where they will be 30 years from now. And where warfare will be. Will all major countries have drones? Will Obama be scared to walk out of his house? Where is this game going?

No one is talking about these issues. I think it’s a very good moment when Zoe [Kravitz] says, ‘So, they’re handing out [Nobel] peace prizes for this now?’ A very good moment.

David Walsh: I think it’s important you’ve raised these issues. The scene where the CIA official says, ‘These operations never happened,’ that’s an acknowledgement that these are criminal activities, that these are illegal activities.

AN: It’s not necessarily that. The military will say that it’s ‘national security.’

DW: They say that, but your film, whether or not you’ve worked out all its implications, is saying these are or may be criminal activities.

AN: It’s well documented that the US has struck funerals intentionally. For me, that’s a step over the line. Of course, they justify it by saying, ‘Who goes to a terrorist’s funeral except other terrorists?’ For me, that’s beyond. Also, to strike first responders, something the IRA used to do, that Hamas does, is beyond the pale for me. That’s too much.

I try to tread a straight line, because there are also beneficial aspects to the drone program. The fact that they are so precise, we’re not carpet-bombing people any more. If we get the right address, and hit a legitimate target, I understand that.

If you look at ISIS, for instance. There’s probably nobody sitting here that would say that the guy who beheads somebody, if you get the right guy…would you not order a drone strike on him?

DW: But who created ISIS? Who incited Islamic fundamentalism for 50 years, going back to the Muslim Brotherhood?

AN: Right. That’s the other thing that really interests me; Afghanistan is the US’ longest war, 13 years. Vietnam was 10. The Iraq war was eight.

DW: Now there’s a new Iraq war.

AN: Exactly, there’s a new one coming. When are we going to decide that we shouldn’t be in that part of the planet? Or are we ever going to decide that? Is this going to be an endless war? It’s a very complicated question and I don’t have the answer, but at least we will discuss it, which I think is important. To know what’s being done in your name is important.

EH: With the so-called “war on terror” you really get into Orwellian territory, because who’s defining what freedom is and freedom for whom? The people there certainly don’t feel free.

I have a brother who’s in the military, and my mother was in the Peace Corps and she works in Bucharest fighting racism against gypsies, trying to get kids in school. One of the things she often talks about is that if you just took all that money, and you just taught all the kids over there, you’d end terrorism so much sooner than by bombing them. That’s the kind of peacenik dialog that a lot of people don’t want to hear.

AN: When you speak of the “war on terror,” we are terrorizing to achieve those aims. In Waziristan [in northwestern Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan], people won’t gather together in groups, even for town hall meetings, because it could be perceived that they’re plotting against Western interests.

So when Ethan’s character talks about people being afraid of blue skies because that’s when the drones fly, it’s true. People don’t want to step outside, they don’t want to rescue people from a strike… They don’t show up, because they’re afraid they’re going to be hit again.

DW: That raises the question, is it about “terrorism,” or is it about terrorizing an entire population?

AN: Right.

EH: Or holding an entire population guilty for what a few have done, which is oftentimes what people there do to us as well.

AN: Every time you kill one terrorist, if you give birth to ten more, it’s surely counterproductive.

DW: Can I ask, is it difficult to make critically minded films? Is there something emerging, or is it just as difficult as ever?

AN: Oh, it’s probably more difficult. Ethan and I were just discussing Gattaca[1997 science fiction film, written and directed by Niccol and starring Hawke], we couldn’t get that made today at a studio. No way.

EH: No way. You couldn’t even begin to try. It wouldn’t matter who was involved in it.

Journalist 1: Why is it so difficult?

AN: It’s so much easier to make money, big money, by making comic books.

EH: It started with Jaws [1975]. Much has been written about this. They’ve learned how to inundate and saturate… It’s funny, these Transformer movies make a ton of money, and I’ve never met anyone who liked one. There’s a case to be made about the power of advertising, and the power they have to create this sense that this is what we’re supposed to see.

There’s an essay by [Czech writer Milan] Kundera, in which he says during his lifetime he witnessed the birth of an art form and then he saw it eaten by big business. He makes a joke that what qualifies for an art film today is far inferior to what qualified as an art film in 1960.

In 1960, they were pressing the boundaries of realism and storytelling; it was a thrilling art form. Whereas literature has found avenues for this. The film industry hasn’t found a place… I’m a dramatic actor so I’ve almost been feeling run out of the business over the last ten years because there are action movies and there are thrillers. Most studios don’t make dramas any more. They’ll make a drama if they think it might win an Academy Award, if you have [Steven] Spielberg directing it or something.

DW: And yet when I go to the movies, I don’t find a lot of satisfaction in the audience itself.

EH: I don’t either. They all leave the movie unhappy. You don’t feel good after. I have to try to do enough things that make money so that if Andrew wants to hire me for this he can. If Andrew could get the guy who was in the last Marvel [comic] movie in it, he would get more money.

Journalist 1: Have you been offered one of those?

EH: I’ve been doing this since I was thirteen. They’ve offered things here and there. When I was younger, I was incredibly cocky and I thought those offers would always come. If you don’t make people money, they don’t like you.

Projects like this are worth trying. There’s so much pull toward mediocrity your whole life. Everybody just wants you to follow the rules and cash out. It’s worth it to try. We showed the movie at Venice [the film festival] and it was way more work than anybody wanted it to be, but this is the movie Andrew wanted to make and it exists, and it’s hard to get people to want to talk about serious subjects. It’s a lot of work.

There’s a great pull…if Andrew would just use his imaginative mind to have it be, instead of a drone pilot, [someone] who could fly himself and have super-powers… My point being that I feel very blessed and grateful, and I believe at this moment in my life, I believe again, that it’s worth trying. Sometimes the world beats you down, and you feel like nothing could ever work.

Journalist 2: I don’t know if all the drone pilots are in Nevada. Could you tell me something about Las Vegas?

AN: There’s a very practical reason why the military put a military base near Las Vegas. The reason they do it is because the mountains near Vegas look very much like Afghanistan. And that’s how they can train. Also, when you are driving to Vegas from Los Angeles, they actually use your car just for fun, in practice, just to follow it. You can’t see the drone, but they can see you.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/05/13/good-m13.html

“Montage of Heck” captures the contradictions of Kurt Cobain — and the America that shaped him

Smells like doomed genius: 

Yes, it’s Courtney-approved, but this documentary is a moving and powerful portrait of Kurt Cobain’s America

Smells like doomed genius: "Montage of Heck" captures the contradictions of Kurt Cobain -- and the America that shaped him

“Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” (Credit: Sundance Institute)

I remember coming to work on the morning Kurt Cobain was found dead, and feeling puzzled that a younger writer at our San Francisco alternative weekly – who would go on to become a prominent newspaper and magazine editor in New York – was so upset that she sat at her desk all day crying. I could psychoanalyze myself at Cobain-like depth, but the reasons I didn’t get it were basically stupid and defensive. Of course I knew Cobain’s music, and I understood that his death was a big story. But I was also deeply committed to my own disillusionment, to never being taken by surprise. I had already been through the first wave of punk rock, the worst years of AIDS, the deaths of a lot of people less famous than him. I would have rejected Cobain’s status as generational icon even more forcefully than he did – which, in retrospect, looks a lot like deep yearning, thinly wrapped in snobbery. His combination of suburban angst, drug addiction and mental-health issues was an old story, wasn’t it? Just another “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide,” a song David Bowie wrote in 1972. Nothing to cry about.

Fourteen years later, I was with my kids at a beachfront amusement park when my friend Laura Miller, Salon’s book critic, called to tell me that David Foster Wallace was dead. I got out of the roller coaster line to talk to her – Laura knew Wallace, but I didn’t – and one of the first things to swim into my brain, addled as it was by sunshine and a friend’s grief, was Kurt Cobain. At the time, I understood the connection as a personal commandment to have this experience, complete with all the Cobain-like and Wallace-like ironic introspection it might require; I took it as an edict not to insulate myself against the shared emotion, and potential shared meaning, of this moment of collective mourning. It took longer to see that the linkages between Cobain and Wallace go much deeper than that, and that many other people registered the connection in approximately the same way.

For many viewers of Brett Morgen’s extraordinary HBO documentary “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck,” the most fascinating and powerful elements of the film will be found in the intimate home videos shot by Cobain and Courtney Love in the early ‘90s, before and after their daughter Frances was born. (Frances Bean Cobain is an executive producer of the film, and both its remarkable depth and its limitations derive from the fact that it’s an authorized biography, made with the cooperation of Love, Cobain’s parents and various former friends and bandmates.) That footage is absolutely heartbreaking in its depiction of a loving, flawed, high-spirited and essentially normal young family, a long way from the drug-crazed rock-star fiends favored by the tabloids of that not-so-distant era. Yes, rock fans, you do get to see Courtney naked. Impressive as that is, it’s not half as much fun as hearing her ventriloquize baby Frances complaining that her dad’s band are self-indulgent whiners who aren’t as good as Guns N’ Roses. (Footnote for scholars: Cobain’s obsession with GnR frontman Axl Rose is fascinating, but ultimately aren’t they more alike than different?)

But I watched that amazing material with a sense that by that time the die had already been cast. Love and Cobain were famous and their baby, allegedly born addicted to heroin, was famous too. What they were “really like,” as human beings, was irrelevant. As long as they lived they were going to be famous rock ‘n’ roll fuckups, damaged symbols of a damaged generation. For someone with Cobain’s particular set of neuroses, ailments and vulnerabilities, not to mention his philosophical and aesthetic predilections, that might literally be a fate worse than death. I’m not saying that other outcomes, not involving a shotgun blast to the head, were not possible. But there was no easy or painless exit from the prison-house of celebrity available to Kurt Cobain, and he didn’t much like living in it.

Morgen’s title refers both to an extended audio collage Cobain once recorded on cassette tape – just one example of his explosive, unstoppable cultural output – and to the method of the film itself, which assembles an immense trove of public and private material to illustrate a life spent first in obscurity and then in the unbearable spotlight. He has Cobain’s famous notebooks full of lyrics, journal entries, cartoons and momentary observations, of course, but also home movies of his 3rd birthday party, a collection of family snapshots, recordings of early radio interviews and footage of the first Nirvana shows in Aberdeen or Olympia, with a few dozen people in attendance.

He interviews Wendy O’Connor, Cobain’s overly loquacious mother, Don Cobain, his monosyllabic father, and Tracy Marander, who was Cobain’s first serious girlfriend and the first woman he lived with. (He was a total deadbeat, from the sound of things, but Marander doesn’t seem to regret working for a living while he played guitar and watched TV. Here she is in a movie, all these years later.) Oh, and there’s music – a lot of it, the famous tracks and a bunch of lesser-known ones. You will indeed hear “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” in a number of versions and a variety of contexts – and when we finally get the actual Nirvana recording over the closing credits, well, I’m not saying I cried in grief and joy and anger but I’m not saying I didn’t.

Rather than trying to describe all these people who have lived on and gotten older, and who now find themselves sitting on their couches struggling to describe or explain a guy they used to know who became very famous and then died, I would say that “Montage of Heck” paints a bitter but compassionate portrait of the downscale white America that shaped Kurt Cobain. He was born in 1967, which surely felt more like 1957 in Aberdeen, Washington, than it did in the tumultuous climate of big cities and college towns. O’Connor says she remembers Aberdeen as a wonderful place to raise a family, and that her kids had a happy childhood. Not much later in the film we hear Cobain describe Aberdeen, in a recorded conversation with an old friend, as an “isolated hellhole” dominated by moralistic Reaganite conformity. You don’t get the feeling that teenage Kurt was an easy kid to live with, or someone who naturally made the best out of difficult circumstances. But his inarticulate sense that the society around him was fundamentally inauthentic, and his yearning to transform it or destroy it, molded one of the last and greatest voices of what Casey Kasem used to call the “rock era.”

Teenage alienation and rebellion is of course not a new phenomenon, and is not unique to the depressed lumber towns of the Pacific Northwest (although I imagine that lent it a particular coloration). In the animations Morgen’s team has created to illustrate Cobain’s audio montages, we witness the highly familiar quality of Cobain’s childhood and teen years: His parents were unhappy and got divorced, he smoked a lot of pot and had frustrating sexual experiences, he was an intelligent and creative kid who found school to be soul-deadening and found some release in loud music. There may be no comprehensible answer to the question of why he responded so keenly to these stimuli, which were applied with equal force to millions of other kids of the downward-trending ‘70s and ‘80s. From an early age, Kurt Cobain yearned to make memorable art, escape his surroundings and become famous, and from an early age he contemplated ending his life, with the kind of obsessive, repeated “jokes” that are impossible to gauge from the outside.

If Cobain and Wallace worked in different mediums and different registers, and emerged from different sectors of middle-class white suburbia – indeed, you can only call Cobain’s background “middle class” under the postwar convention that all white Americans who have jobs and cars belong to that class by definition – there is no mistaking the kinship of their unnaturally keen responses. They were 1960s babies who grew up amid Vietnam and Watergate and the gas crisis and Whip Inflation Now and Jimmy Carter in his cardigan talking about our “national malaise,” and who were teenagers and young adults as that malaise and turmoil turned to amnesia and denial and the suicidal, delusional counterrevolution of the Reagan years. America has not recovered from the cultural and political whiplash of those years and probably never will.

All of us who lived through that period bear the scars, and we have all tried to react to it and push forward as best we can. Of course Wallace is not the only important writer of their generation, nor is Cobain the only memorable singer-songwriter. But they are joined by the intensity of their response – “Nevermind” and “Infinite Jest” are highly singular works in totally different traditions, but I think they represent the same scale of achievement and possess a similar cultural resonance – and by the way they touched a deep well of passion, hunger and unease that transcended demographic or generational clichés. It’s by no means irrelevant that they were both white heterosexual men who were deeply aware of the problematic nature of the Great Man archetype, and committed to addressing that issue in their work and their private lives. And it’s certainly not irrelevant that they became overwhelmed by the vicious contradictions of fame in our era — or, to put it more simply, that they could not escape the private demons of mental illness and drug addiction and ended by killing themselves.

As I noted earlier, “Montage of Heck” was made with the cooperation of Courtney Love and several other relatives or intimate friends of Kurt Cobain. (The most prominent omission is Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl.) Among other things, that means the movie does not traffic in any of the pathological conspiracy theories around Cobain’s death, or indeed depict his death in any way. It may whitewash some details of Love and Cobain’s relationship – I wouldn’t know, and don’t especially care – and it certainly depicts the reporters who raked up dirt on the couple, especially Lynn Hirschberg of Vanity Fair, as unscrupulous vultures.

I would agree that the media’s vampirical obsession with the Kurt-and-Courtney story was not journalism’s finest hour, and that it reflected profound anxiety about the youth-culture moment they were seen to represent. But that’s too large a problem to unpack here; I think it’s best to take the Courtney-centric area of the film with a grain of salt and draw your own conclusions. Those are minor issues in a masterful and often deeply moving portrait of a volatile American genius, a portrait that goes far beyond one man, one family and one rain-sodden small town. It depicts the society that nurtured and fed that genius, and that made his unlikely creative explosion possible, as being the same environment that poisoned him — and suggests that the rise and fall were inextricably connected. Kurt Cobain was a canary in the coalmine, as was David Foster Wallace. You and I are still in it, and it’s getting harder to breathe.

“Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” opens this week in Los Angeles, New York and Seattle, and then premieres May 4 on HBO.

 

http://www.salon.com/2015/04/23/smells_like_doomed_genius_montage_of_heck_captures_the_contradictions_of_kurt_cobain_and_the_america_that_shaped_him/?source=newsletter

‘We love being Lakota’: native autonomy in Pine Ridge

By Peterson Rasamny On April 12, 2015

Post image for ‘We love being Lakota’: native autonomy in Pine Ridge

‘The Native and the Refugee’ documentary project explores the similarities between the struggles and experiences of Native Americans and Palestinians.

By Matt Peterson & Malek Rasamny, photo by Chris Huber for Rapid City Journal.

In December 2014, we visited the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in what is now South Dakota. We chose to begin our project at the archetypal site of struggle for land, sovereignty and autonomy among natives in the United States. It was the Lakota people, including warriors Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, who put up some of the most historic fights against the US military forces in the nation’s expansion westward.

In the 1876-1877 Black Hills War, the US intervened militarily on behalf of settlers searching for gold in the Lakota’s most sacred site, now known as the Wind Cave National Park. It was in this context that the Battle of Little Bighorn took place, when the Lakota famously defeated George Armstrong Custer’s Battalion of the 7th Cavalry. Pine Ridge was later the site of the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre, in which that same 7th Cavalry killed hundreds of Lakota in its struggle to disarm and forcibly relocate them to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

In 1973, Wounded Knee was the site of a 4-month standoff and occupation organized by the American Indian Movement (AIM) against both the federal government and local tribal council. In 1975, two federal agents were killed in a shootout at Pine Ridge, for which AIM member Leonard Peltier remains held as a prisoner at the US Penitentiary Coleman in Florida. To add insult to injury, the presidential monument Mount Rushmore currently stands within what’s called the Black Hills National Forest.

The traditional Lakota territory includes parts of North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Montana and Wyoming. The Lakota historically were a semi-nomadic tribe that would follow herds of buffalo for food. In order to force them onto reservations, the US military encouraged the wholesale slaughter of buffalo in the Great Plains, resulting in their almost complete extinction.

It was through the destruction of their food supply — and not through any victories in battle — that the United States was able to force the Lakota into a position of economic subservience and dependence. Through a series of treaty violations, the borders of “Great Sioux Reservation” declared by the 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty were reduced to the present situation in which the Lakota are now spread out over a number of non-contiguous reservations including Pine Ridge, Rosebud, Cheyenne River, Standing Rock and Crow Creek.*

The current unemployment rate on Pine Ridge is between 80-90%, and life expectancy is 50 years. Despite being one of the poorest areas on the continent, the Lakota refuse to accept a 1980 government settlement now totalling $1.3 billion in compensation for the theft of the Black Hills. They insist that no amount of money can be exchanged for the return of their sacred land to its rightful inhabitants. They are currently leading the resistance against TransCanada’s proposed Keystone Pipeline, which would be built directly through Lakota territory.

The histories and particularities of the Native American and Palestinian struggles are indeed quite different, but what they share is the experience of settlers moving to take over and control their traditional lands, later assisted by a military force which facilitated and justified the resulting displacement. The reservation and the refugee camp then become the essential sites to locate this history, identity, and struggle for land and sovereignty.

We met with veteran members of the American Indian Movement, and Owe Aku,Bring Back the Way to hear about the present situation on Pine Ridge, and to discuss their horizon for autonomy.

 :::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::

We Love Being Lakota is the first in a series of videos and texts from the documentary project ‘The Native and the Refugee’, which connects the struggles taking place on Indian reservations in the United States with those in Palestinian refugee camps in the Middle East.

In February and March, this video was presented at T Marbouta in Beirut, Lebanon; at the Jordanian Women’s Union in Amman, Jordan; and at the Freedom Theatre in the Jenin Refugee Camp in the West Bank. It was produced in collaboration with Adam Khalil.


We Love Being Lakota
from The Native and the Refugee on Vimeo.

Matt Peterson and Malek Rasamny will return to Akwesasne, Pine Ridge and the Navajo Nation this Spring to continue working on The Native and the Refugee. They are based in Ridgewood, New York.

* For an in-depth account of the Lakota’s struggles to maintain control of its land over the last 200 years, read Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (2014, pp. 186-191).

http://roarmag.org/2015/04/native-refugee-lakota-documentary/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+roarmag+%28ROAR+Magazine%29

The Wanted 18: depoliticizing the intifada?

By Rayya El Zein On April 9, 2015

Post image for The Wanted 18: depoliticizing the intifada?
A new film on the Palestinian intifada provides an interesting perspective — that of a group of Israeli cows (!) — but fails to tell the real story.
Amer Shomali and Paul Cowan’s film about how one Palestinian town hid eighteen cows from Israeli authorities during the first intifada won the Abu Dhabi film festival’s “Best Documentary in the Arab World” in late 2014. The film, after five years in production, is generating a buzz for its light-hearted, feel-good take on this critical period in Palestinian history. But a closer look reveals a missed opportunity in telling an important piece of the history of the intifada.The 75-minute documentary combines Shomali’s illustrations with interviews and re-enactments. The story begins with Shomali hiking in the desert. He tells us how, growing up in exile in Syria, he came across a comic strip about eighteen cows sold to the Palestinian town of Beit Sahour.

The story of the cows begins with their sale from a kibbutz outside Haifa to the residents of Beit Sahour. We follow their perilous journey by truck, their difficult birthing ordeals, their trials with the novice Palestinian dairy farmers who don’t know how to milk them, their pursuit by the Israeli authorities who deemed them a threat, and finally their second and final sale to the butcher, soon after the Oslo Accords.

The intifada in Beit Sahour, or this recounting of its history, thus begins with the sale of the bovines and their forced departure from the land of their birth, the kibbutz. Significantly, we understand this inciting moment through the fears and anxieties of the cows: Goldie, Ruth, Lola, and Rivka. Humanized via voice-over in Shomali’s illustrations, the cows internalize this selling off as a great trauma.

Before we meet the residents of Beit Sahour in any substantive way, we identify with these four female cows as the real victims of the story, sold off against their will to this strange and scary place called Palestine, under the tutelage of the equally scary Palestinians. That the real subjects of the film are the cows and not the Palestinians is indeed a peculiar take on this piece of Palestinian history, especially considering their anthropomorphization as Israeli cows.

“We deserve to have cows!”

Practically, Shomali and Cowan’s story is about a town’s struggle for self-sufficiency in the face of considerable military, economic and socio-cultural oppression. But the weight of this reality is never fully communicated — or at least, it is not sustained. The very real (and still very current) political question about how to counter Israeli repression with Palestinian self-sufficiency is replaced by a comicality induced by the use of cows as the story’s protagonists, their funny sounds, and the absurdity of dealing with one when you have no training to do so.

The music score contributes to this, the editing of the interviews contributes to this, and the animation itself contributes to this. At one point, the town physician is edited into a sound bite saying, “We are Palestinians. We deserve a home, we deserve our land, we deserve our freedom — and we deserve to have cows!” The subtext here is “We have the right to be self-sufficient. We deserve not to pay taxes to an occupying power. We deserve to be able to feed our own children.” But the framing put forth in the initial sequences of the film trivializes all of this into a rather absurd declaration of the right to a cow.

Which is to say that the film is seriously lacking a proper contextualization of the situation in which residents of Beit Sahour found themselves that led them to buy the cows in the first place. This history is summed up in a few minutes which point to the existence at the time (1988) of popular “neighborhood committees.” This historical reality is then inexplicably sidelined throughout the rest of the film. Instead, we are encouraged to identify with the cows and their fears and aspirations. After an initial tempted escape on the way to Beit Sahour, the cows rally themselves and submit to the oppression they face at the hands of the Palestinians. The oddity of this opening framework needs to be emphasized.

Turning names into things

One could forgive the filmmakers if it were simply that: an easy opening into Palestinian history. Indeed, one could almost write it off as necessary, given the dehumanizing and demonizing depictions of Palestinians in the mass media over the past several decades. We need the cows in order to approach the Palestinians: a necessary detour. But it is through the cows that we continue to see their new Palestinian shepherds. And absurdly enough, one of them is even outwardly racist, delivering a steady stream of jabs like “tiny terrorist,” “towel head,” etc., at her human overlords, declaring they are “lazy” and that they “don’t want to work.”

Besides needlessly embedding and normalizing racism against Palestinians (as cute), this imaginative mindset of the cows also essentializes Israelis and Palestinians. The viewer is to understand that even cows can feel a difference between Palestinians and Israelis, between the scary West Bank and the calm and peaceful kibbutz. This sense of irreconcilable difference is finally summed up in an exasperated wish. During a raid in which Israelis are looking for the cows, one cow asks tiredly, “Can’t you all just get along?” The cows never learn, as we might hope an audience might, that the story of conflict between Palestinians and Israelis is political, not cultural or ethnic.

Essentialized difference is enforced in other aesthetic choices. For example, all Palestinians in the film are interviewed, at one point or another, against a black background, usually with two sources of offset light. This gives the impression of shadow around the Palestinian interlocutors. In contrast, the Israelis interviewed in the film, all of them military or ex-military personnel, are interviewed against a bright white background, in very tight close-up.

Without pretending to know the production reasons behind these choices, the stark contrast between the two is striking. The most immediate effect is that it is the Israeli speaker that seems to carry with him truth. We meet Palestinian after Palestinian who explains why it is that they were refusing to pay taxes to Israel. But the point is finally hit home when an Israeli interlocutor, enshrined in white, laughs and concurs, ‘If I were them, I wouldn’t want to pay either!’

Cultural essentialism continues further still. Viewers of the film in Ramallah during its premiere as part of the Qalandia International Festival found the reenactment episode where three Beit Sahouri men turned a kind of daily administrative detention at the hands of the Israelis into a barbecue, funny. They also laughed heartily at a gaggle of older men, each wearing a kaffiyeh, sitting in a sidewalk café and watching calmly as some action or other played out in the street.

It is not that we cannot or should not recognize cultural features and celebrate them when appropriate (here the observation that Arabs seemingly fix everything with food; or that older men sit in sidewalk cafes). It is that the representation of cultural artifacts, or cultural behavior, in the absence of a recounting or contextualization of political activities, reduces the agents involved to stereotypes, and the resistance involved to cultural essence.

Leftist politics and Arab identities

This is a debilitating way to recount the history of a period of intensely collaborative, imaginatively furtive, and actually effective community organizing.This was a political organizing, moreover, that had at least as much to do with overtly leftist political strategizing as it did with the Arab identity of its agents. And it is after all this leftist political activity which is the primary thing we are talking about when we talk about these cows in Beit Sahour.

It is true that without a consideration of how this town deliberated its political strategies and its powerful political stance, the directors show us a united community. They succeed in completely overstepping the difficult and painful history of friction, faction, divide, and ultimately fatigue that beset not only the denizens of Beit Sahour but much of Palestine, and which in fact readied it to accept what would be the debilitating framework of the Oslo Accords.

It is to the film’s credit that, even without carefully exploring the political buildup to Oslo, it does give voice to disappointment with it. Here, in fact, the recollections of the Palestinians in the film resonate powerfully. “Oslo fucked us,” one man remembers. His testimony about how he and his friends ran away to the desert caves outside of Beit Sahour in the days after the announcement of the Oslo Accords, in order to avoid the celebratory car honking of a political resolution they felt even then would not serve them, is perhaps the most revealing moment in the film.

Similarly Shomali’s recounting of the funeral of his cousin Anton, a prominent youth organizer, after being shot by Israeli soldiers, is an equally powerful and necessary part of the story. This latter chapter rescues a film largely celebrating “non-violence” from the trap of failing to consider the human costs of the violence of the Occupation.

Abstracted, diluted, and de-toothed

In the end of the film, the Palestinians sign the Oslo Accords and residents of Beit Sahour sell off the remaining four cows, the smallest of which is a calf named Yara. In the truck on the way to their imminent slaughter, Yara’s mother pushes the youngest off the truck and tells her to run. The young cow escapes into the desert. The depoliticization of violence and of political strategy culminates in these closing sequences of the film. Shomali’s narration tells us nobody knows what happened to the calf, though rumor has it, she lives in a cave nearby.

In a return to the opening sequences of the film, we again see Shomali hiking in the desert. His voiceover tries to sum up the dreams and aspirations of the struggling Palestinians post-Oslo. Some people believe in this; some people believe in that; for his part, he says, “I believe in a white cow.” And with this, he stumbles upon a cave that looks inhabited. Any possible metaphorical tie between the cows of Beit Sahour and Palestinian self-sufficiency or “resilience” is by this point so abstracted, diluted, and de-toothed as to lose any political significance.

It is worth being clear. It is not that a film about the intifada has to be serious. It is not that Palestinian political history needs to be dry. It is not that we have to see Palestinians always in a posture of heart-broken romantic longing, trying to reach across the impossible, inhuman, separation wall. On the contrary, we need stories to shake these orthodoxies, as human histories are not as trite, melancholy, or even as militant as representations of Palestinians in films and in the media would have us believe.

But a film about the intifada, in fact, about one of the most interesting and radical parts of Palestinian history — that is, about how a town came to collectively sustain itself for years via collaborative community organization and the establishment and participation in agricultural, educational, and other committees; via the deliberations and disagreements over divisions of labor, of shared space, and of collective safety, and the difficulties that ultimately led to its unraveling — this should not be reduced to a joke, to a cute but unfortunate ordeal of four scared cows.

“Intifada” in this light loses its very real political history. The phrase “third intifada” has been repeated with sporadic frequency over the past year. What can we hope this intifada will look like? One would have hoped a documentary on this significant period of historical activity would have provided more threads to tug on, as we deliberate its contours, moving forward.

Rayya El Zein is a PhD candidate in Theatre at the City University of New York. Her research explores understandings of “resistance” in contemporary Arab cultural production. She lives in Amman.

“BOYHOOD” THE MOVIE

Boyhood_film

 

I watched “Boyhood” last night. Didn’t think I could deal with a film running nearly three hours focused on the reality-based coming of age theme. I was, however, much impressed by the epic technical achievement the film represents, and I was deeply moved by the genuinely human intimacies shared throughout. The ending was a powerful insight into the human condition.

Got me to thinking about the values of the tech-fueled Bay Area where I live.

I really loath, truly hate, the materialistic, money-fueled tech culture that has enveloped San Francisco. And it’s not the technology per se. I’ve been using and building computers since 1985. It’s the disgusting excess and glorification of same.

Interestingly, watching “Boyhood” last night reminded me that there are other, more appealing, lifestyles and choices still available in the country. The main character in the film was not obsessed with tech. He questions the value of the ubiquitous smart phone. He works after school. Middle class. He doesn’t dream of going to Stanford or MIT, etc., to get a degree in CS and code. Hell, he wants to be an artist. He’s interested in the meaning of life. Like people I used to know in school and throughout my life. He represents my American Dream. Not this SF version with conspicuous consumption and phony hipster culture.

 

 

Chappie: Is the sum greater than the parts?

By Christine Schofelt
21 March 2015

South African-Canadian director Neill Blomkamp’s Chappie is set in a 2016 Johannesburg plagued by violent street crime. Through the deployment of battalions of robotic police, crime rates are cut dramatically and orders for scores more robots are placed with weapons manufacturer Tetravaal, which produces the machines.

Chappie

When the young scientist who developed the robots, Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), brings company president Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver) a program that will render the robots sentient, giving them the ability to think independently and, among other examples he excitedly cites, appreciate art, she flatly refuses to allow him to upload the program or even experiment with it. Bradley declares with barely disguised amusement that he must realize he has entered the office of a “publicly traded” military equipment company proposing to create a robot that writes poetry.

Undaunted, Deon steals a robot that had been slated for the scrap heap. On his way home he is kidnapped by Amerika (Jose Pablo Cantillo), Ninja and Yolandi (Ninja and Yo-landi Visser of rap group Die Antwoord [“The Answer” in Afrikaans], for whom Blomkamp developed the roles), small-time criminals who need the clichéd “one big heist” to clear themselves of debt and get out of crime for good.

The somewhat hackneyed question in all stories involving artificial intelligence (AI) boils down to: Can a robot have a soul? Chappie treats the question as having been answered, and that answer being “yes,” but not in a religious sense. It goes further in its trans-humanistic outlook in stating that this is the next evolutionary step. Life, in whatever form, metal or flesh, is important. What is “inside” must be preserved.

The world the criminals inhabit is brutal. Miserably poor, despite being surrounded by stolen equipment of great value, the group lives in an abandoned industrial complex in Soweto. Ninja is a desperate, angry man, and models this behavior for the resistant, but eager-to-fit-in robot-child, Chappie (Sharlto Copley). Ninja’s coming to grips with a different way of communicating—the robot is frightened off by violence and refuses to commit crimes, due to a promise he’d made to Deon—and his development of a sense of remorse regarding his actions toward Chappie are realistically drawn. The relationship develops unevenly, with setbacks that seem natural and gains that are honestly arrived at.

Yolandi treats the robot as if it were her child. At one point reading it a book, explaining what a black sheep is—how the outside of a person doesn’t matter—and telling the robot she loves it. She is a bright young woman trapped in horrible circumstances, and one gets the sense of someone who belongs to a lost generation, mired in poverty and crime.

Chappie

There is an unexpected innocence to the interactions between these characters, all of whom are well drawn, and the rest of the world. Blomkamp, in several interviews, has stated that the idea of “What if Die Antwoord were criminals raising a robot” provided the genesis for the film, so this is to be expected. Given free artistic reign, though sticking to the script, the group members act with a surprising naïveté, and are in many ways little more than children themselves. These are people who are doing everything they can to survive in a sector of society that has completely broken down. Their loyalty is to each other, but anything beyond that is questionable.

On the other hand, we have Tetravaal and the people who work for it. Here the characters are very clear-cut—to the point of being stereotypes. Deon, the good scientist dreaming of a better future, has an enemy in Vincent Moore (an almost unrecognizable Hugh Jackman).

In an interview, Blomkamp notes that he and Jackman wanted to make the character an outrageous parody of a certain type of Australian, yet—stylistic flourishes aside—the ex-SAS killer turned contractor, hyper-Christian bully is of a social type that could find a comfortable home in many countries. His combination of militaristic bloodthirstiness and reactionary religious horror regarding the advance in AI Deon has achieved is unnerving to watch at times. Weaver’s Michelle Bradley is simply a bottom-line businesswoman primarily concerned with the company’s shareholders.

This is typical of Blomkamp, as we saw in Elysium, in which Jodie Foster’s scheming, fascistic Delacourt was likewise simplistically drawn. In the face of such characters, we are given leave to shake our heads and tsk-tsk, but little light is shed on the conditions and social relationships that give rise to these anti-human elements. To explain “bad” actions through “bad” people is a tautology that explains little.

After Vincent creates a crisis to provoke the deployment of his own rejected killing machine, The Moose, we are treated to scenes of utter mayhem in the streets of Johannesburg. Here there is an element of cynicism—the rapidity with which the criminal element forms a rioting mob on word that the police robots have been taken offline is questionable at best.

Chappie

While it is clear from the portrayal of Tetravaal and its CEO that Blomkamp bears no love for the military industrial complex, far from it, what does he make of the majority of the South African population?

And what is the filmmaker’s attitude toward the massive police deployment—human or otherwise—apparently needed to quell a situation described more than once as the “city eating itself”?

One is struck by the wasted opportunities, or only half-developed themes and material, in Blomkamp’s works. The subject matter chosen for his three major films— Elysium, involving issues of social inequality; District 9, with its themes of immigrants and poverty; and now Chappie with severe poverty, crime and a militarized police force—is obviously serious, but it begs for more profound and critical treatment.

Science fiction is entirely capable of exploring and exposing social problems. When Blomkamp dismisses in interviews the notion that his films have any socio-political intentions or significance and when he takes artistic shortcuts in character and plot development, he devalues his own work, ultimately offering the equivalent of a dismissive and self-deprecating “just kidding.”

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/03/21/chap-m21.html