February 07, 2009

In Cold Blood: Part 1

I'm reading In Cold Blood (Truman Capote's classic account of a group of murders committed at the Clutter Family farm in Kansas in 1959) at the moment- one of the interesting things that comes out of the book (as an immediate impression) is the way that in reality the value of the book stems from the fact that it is a summation of interviews. Capote skilfully interweaves the accounts of various people who were involved into a fictional narrative, composed out of actual interviews about actual events. What he does is perform a reconstruction through fiction of what his interviewees told him. There are real dangers in this approach in that obviously he mediates his evidence through his imagination- and there are dangers in that he does not take an impartial view of his own evidence. However it is worth saying that what he does do is provide a vivid account- which awakes the empathy of the reader. I'm not sure that this mode of writing- a fictional account of non-fictional events- is something that you can rely on purely to get the sense of an event- but it is an important view on an event. It allows us to recapture some of the emotion of the participants- who Capote got very close to- and it allows to understand what the case looked like to an interested and thoughtful observer. The fine writing probably does more to reawake the conservative world of the Holcombe congregation and the killers who came to destroy the lives of one of its leading members more than a number of dusty history books could: I have found in particular the account of the Clutters which forms the first part of the book more interesting than any of the rest. The Clutter family including Herb, the father, teetotal, godly and responsible, the psychologically enfeebled mother, the bright, pretty capable daughter and the physical son are captured wonderfully- and what Capote does is draw us into that world- so strange to him and to us- a world which is more interesting than that of the killers who came to so brutally interrupt it. This isn't rigourous history- but it is useful empathy- and that is a thing that every historian has to develop.

February 05, 2009

The Edge of Heaven

The Edge of Heaven is nothing if not ambitious- it traces the careers of its characters through Germany and Turkey coming backwards and forwards. It traces their interraction with great issues like prostitution, Islamic Fundamentalism, Turkish entry to the European Union, immigration law and immigration. At its deepest though it is a film about immigration- the reasons that pull people away from their societies and the ways that they adapt within those societies. Basically the story involves three groups of a parent and a child. The first is Ali, a Turkish immigrant to Germany and his son Nejat. Ali recruits a prostitute, Yeter, to become his sexual and live in companion- but suspecting she is deceiving him with his son becomes violent. Yeter and her daughter, Ayten, a political activist in Turkey are estranged but are the second of our pairs. Nejat travels to Turkey to find Ayten- who has fled the state because of her politics to Europe where she meets the third of our pairs, Lotte (who becomes her girlfriend) and Lotte's mother, Susanne. The character's lives and deaths intersect from then on- though it is noticable that they never fully intersect (Nejat never finds out who Ayten is- though he meets her using an assumed name- Ayten never finds out what happened to her mother).

The film is successful in some terms. Nurgul Yesilcay as Ayten gives a wonderful performance, alternating between the erotic (with Lotte) and the rebellious (with Susanne) with beleivable alacrity. She is perhaps the best thing about the film. Tuncel Kurtiz is also good as the boorish Ali. But somehow the film as a whole did not work for me. Firstly the fault lies within the structure- because we only have a couple of minutes to identify with each character, it is hard to develop an idea of depth. I had difficulty in understanding these people and their motivations- added to that there is a very realistic style of film making which comes though with an unrealistic attitude to motivation. So for example Lotte picks up Ayten literally off the street and houses her in side her house- Ali does the same with Yeter the prostitute- and yet neither even begin to worry about housing someone with whom they have no relations, no history and of whom they have no knowledge. Realism requires some acknowledgement of why that situation does not happen often and if your visual style is going to be unfailingly realistic, then you at least have to justify why your storyline is not- something the film never really does.

The second problem I had with the film was more fundamental and was about the point it was seeking to make. The film is compassionate- the life of the immigrant is not shown as easy and one of the best bits about it is how it demonstrates that there are both 'push' factors (Ayten's political problems) and pull factors to return (Nejat ends up owning a bookshop in Istanbul because he wants to live in Turkey, his father Ali cannot stop talking about Trebizond). But there is an overhanging simplicity about it all: if only, I seem to hear the film saying, we could all get along then bad things would not happen: Ayten would not get arrested, Yeter would not have to be a prostitute. One particular moment I disliked was when Ayten and Susanne argue about the European Union: yes Ayten is right that Europe in Turkey's case may offer no change, but Susanne is given no arguments in return- she is left looking stonily impotent whereas Ayten has all the power in the scene. We never hear about inconvenient details too: what exactly was Ayten's political cause and what did her 'fight' involve, what does Nejat's university make of the fact that suddenly in the middle of the term he vanishes and goes to Istanbul and buys a bookshop, seemingly without resigning.

The film seems to have been made from the perspective of the children in the pairs of characters above and not the parents. All three parental characters are less well developed than the children- Yeter is the only purely 'good' parental character and she is shown as having more sympathy with the young than either of the other two (until the end of the film). The film ends by implying in two cases- Nejat and Ali's and Ayten and Susanne's a movement towards unity between the child and parent: and yet all the way throughout for me, the child's view of the relationship was more understood and more explained. Ali for example spends the majority of the film offstage in fairly hideous circumstances, but we are never told what he thinks of them or of his son's temporary desertion. Furthermore the script seems to manipulate us into seeing these parents as particularly evil- from incomprehension and neglect to far worse things, they behave in the worst way possible. Given the film has pretensions to political metaphor, I found that single identification with the view of the young and manipulation towards seeing the world through the eyes of the child, concerning. When parents and children quarrel, it is not always the parent that is wrong- nor the child- yet in this film when that happens, the child is always shown to be in the right (either actually or spiritually).

Both cinematagraphically and storywise, I found that I admired the ambitions of Fatih Akin, the director, but could not find it within myself to see the film as a success. Too much was left out- why does Lotte trust Ayten? Why does Yeter trust Ali when she moves in with him? It did not seem clear to me and those kind of questions worried me throughout the film: I like nothing worse than the kind of viewer who cannot suspend disbelief, but sometimes (especially when the film makes claims to realism through its visual style) it is hard to suspend disbelief. This kind of concern married for me to a similar concern about the movie's message- I kept wanting to know what had been left out of the picture that might make me less sympathetic to the line that the film was steering. And particularly in some scenes, the camera seemed to have a naive politics that I saw as unrealistic- ultimately I don't beleive that all Germans are receptive to Turkish immigration, that all prostitutes have hearts of gold and would be safe to leave alone with your valuables, that all Turkish political activists are basically western liberals and that if you opened your door to a tramp, they would instantly fall in love with you and you with them and everyone would be happy ever after.

Perhaps that reflects my failure to comprehend the possibilities of the modern world- perhaps it reflects my Hobbesian scepticism about human nature- but it made this film difficult for me personally to enter into.

February 04, 2009

Where did the Goths come from?

The Barbarians to the north and east of the Roman Empire have always attracted the attention of historians: where did they come from, how long had they sat on the borders of Rome, were they sedentary or moving constantly through Europe? In one case, that of the Goths, there has been a long long story that they came from Scandinavia. The story begins in the history of the Goths written by Jordanes in the 6th Century AD, and his history relies upon a slightly older text written by Cassiodorus in the early 6th Century.

There are plenty of reasons for scepticism. We must understand Jordanes's history in context- he wrote it in the sixth century when Byzantium was on the offensive against the Ostrogothic kingdom of Italy- a kingdom that had claimed a continuity with the Western Empire. Placing the Gothic origins in Scandinavia was a way of emphasizing their foreign status, their untrustworthy position as unworthy heirs of the Roman lands and Italian province. It justified the Byzantine invasion of Italy. Cassiodorus- Goffart argues- may never have mentioned these origins- the origins are Jordanes's and there are no reasons to suggest that he knew anything much about Scandinavia or about the Goths: he confesses himself that his texts were classical and that he had no access to anything from the Gothic side more than 'old songs' and as he does not name them (unlike the classical sources which he does name) we do not know that he actually did have them beside him. Rather Jordanes may well have picked up a story and emphasized it.

More interestingly though is what this tells us about myths of origin and reasons we should be sceptical of such myths when we consider the stories of the people of the plains. The problem with these myths is that they served political purposes often- like the story of the Trojan origins of Britain or the Scandinavian origins of the Goths they were tales which legitimised a particular contemporary political claim. But there is something else- for this is part of a wider understanding whose roots are often unchallenged. We often imagine that the roots of something or someone or some nation explain that thing, person or nation: they do not. Even had the Goths originated from Scandinavia and as Professor Goffart points out the evidence is slight, it would not have meant anything to Goths in the 5th century- no more than in a more literate culture the fact that many Irish Americans originated from Ulster meant that Irish Americans are automatic Unionists.

It is more important to work out where people imagine themselves to have come from, than to work out where they have come from if you want to understand those people: and their imagined pasts (and the pasts others imagine for them) may not be the best guides to their actual pasts.

February 02, 2009


How far back in history do people called the Germans go? In one sense that is an idiotic question- every single human being on this planet is the product of a myriad of sexual reproductions right back to the time when we were not human beings- but in another sense it is a very real question. Afterall, historians of the Roman Empire are quite fond of using the word Germans for the people who gathered on the frontier of the empire- they cite Tacitus whose short volume Germania was the first ethnographic study of the peoples living just over the Rhine. Furthermore linguistic continuities between the Franks and the Goths have been a commonplace of the study of the fall of Rome since at least the 9th Century Carolingian court: but how real are these ressemblances and how useful is the generic term Germans in describing the peoples who came over the boundaries of the empire at some point in the 3rd or 5th Centuries A.D.

Walter Goffart in a recent piece suggests that actually the terms are not particularly useful. What Goffart gets is two important things that we often neglect in thinking about. The first is that the Germans in the particular centuries described did not think of themselves as Germans. Indeed neither did the Romans- Tacitus was not cited often about Germany until the 16th Century- though his text was used as a source about amber in the 9th. The Germans did not preserve a history of defeats or victories by the Roman empire- indeed notable Germans sought to become Roman- they sought inclusion within the Empire and not exclusion without it. There seems no particular evidence of the imposed German identity upon the politics of the upper Rhine in the 5th Century, anymore than it is possible to see an 'English' identity in the invading Saxons. Rather what Goffart argues is that a loose multiplicity of tribes engaged in familiar warfare and alliance with Rome over the period. The Germans do not exist in the 5th Century save in our imaginations.

This has important consequences. I recently read an article where a political scientist commented that it was not the Persians but the Germans who overthrew Rome, and reccomended various consequences for the United States in policy terms from that statement. The problem is that his statement is wrong- firstly the Persians were the enemy Rome feared (the Emperor Julian argued that they were more formidable as a military opponent for example) but more importantly there were no Germans. If we visualise hordes of barbaric Germans across the frontier, being held back by the force of Roman arms then our picture of what the Roman world looked like is fundamentally wrong. Rather we should see the boundary between Rome and the barbarian lands to the north as being a place where treaties were negotiated, trade was conducted, raids happened but also missionaries went in the opposite direction. The Roman Empire ended: but we will misunderstand its end if we think that over the frontier was a monolithic barbaric darkness which eventually engulfed the Empire. Rather there were a multiplicity of tribes- sometimes serving the empire, sometimes trading with it, sometimes converting to its religion, sometimes invading in search for plunder or land- and that the sequence of the events which brought down the empire are much more complicated and interesting than a monolithic frontier against one opponent might suggest.