September 05, 2009

Liberal Fascism?

Keith Flett reviews Jonah Goldberg's 'history' of liberal fascism here. The review is ultimately fair minded- it calls attention to the main flaw and virtue of Goldberg's text. Goldberg is seeking to argue that there is a genetic link between fascism and American liberalism. There are two main problems with such an argument. The first is, as Flett points out, Goldberg is not much of a historian- he is a journalist and an ideologue but not a historian. He is not atuned to nuance, leaves the parts of the past that complicate his theory out of his account and does not really make sense of what happened in Germany and Italy (or even ask whether there is such a thing as fascism). The second that Flett does not draw out is that Goldberg's argument repeats a fallacy: that the genetics of ideas imply influence- the same two people can see what seems to be the same truth at different points in time and not be influencing each other at all. Liberalism may share features with fascism (a strong state) but so does conservatism (a strong nation) and both have shared features with it (a state that can take coercive action in wartime). The two points mean that Goldberg's argument is useless to anyone seeking to establish the historical context of fascism and the historical relationship between LIberalism and Fascism.

But Flett is right to say that Goldberg's book is good political polemic- it is knock about stuff like Goldberg's columns which are fun to agree with or to be outraged by. There is a point that Goldberg does not make but Flett does, that at its best this book defends conservatives from the accusation that they are fascists. Fascists afterall were a lot of things conservatives are not (disrespectful to tradition and religion, to law and the free market)- though they shared certain dispositions (towards the nation, towards the ruling class, against communism). The point that Hillary Clinton is a fascist is laughable if ingenious. Goldberg's position in interviews has emerged as slightly more subtle- implicating all of us in the fascist enterprise rather than in allying his liberal opponents with a boo word. But Flett gets something that Goldberg does not in the book but Goldberg's argument implies- boo words may not be that useful in politics. The book liberal fascism may destroy the argument that liberals or conservatives are 'fascists'- hardly surprising when liberals and conservatives are really 'liberals' or 'conservatives'.

Lastly there is an area in which Goldberg's analysis is dangerous in a European context and an American- and that has to do with the real fascists, people like the BNP who deride a 'liberal elite' made up of both conservatives and liberals. Making the word 'fascist' in any sense a 'liberal' word ends up by empowering the extremes of European politics who would like nothing better than to separate themselves from their pasts. We should have a moratorium on calling people fascists unless their name is Gianfranco Fini, Nick Griffin or Ugo Voigt. Fascism is not a purely idle word: it describes a genocidal reality that exists outside of the boundaries of normal politics- a type of politics that if we do not guard against it, risks plunging us back in some of the worst excesses and crimes of the twentieth century.

September 03, 2009

Mesrine: Killer Instinct

Some films just look good. It is hard not to love the look of Casino with DeNiro and Stone looking fantastic- its hard not to savour the beauty of Grace Kelly and grace of Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief. Films that look good seduce you with their aspect- we all know that we are more likely to evaluate something well if it looks like it is beautiful. In that sense, my bias towards Mesrine should be obvious. Vincent Cassell could stand in for any of the cast in Goodfellas. Cecile de France seductively motions him over in a bar with cool sensuality. Elena Anaya sees through the man but falls for him. The actors are like a list of the great stars of France- Cassel, de France, Ludivine Sagnier, Gerard Depardieu- and the decor is done absolutely right as well with casinos and prisons, the first in opulent style, the second in all its magnificent grimy terror. This is a film that looks as though a million dollars was spent on it and I would not be surprised if it wins awards for cinematography, dress and style. But leaving that aside what is it like as a film?

Jacques Mesrine was a horrible man- he was guilty of murders, thefts and other assorted crimes- there can be no condoning his brand of violent thuggery and as such a film about him has to tread a narrow line. It must make the character interesting enough for an audience to want to spend two hours with, but must also leave you in no doubt as to the real horrors that he perpetrated. You must see the attraction that many people felt but also feel the repulsion of the moral scandal that that attraction represents. To watch a film about Mesrine is to feel a dual impulse- one towards him and a reflective one away from him. Many films about crime are based around this dual impulse- Goodfellas is an example of a film that lures you in, making you see why the gangster life might be attractive but then exposes it for what it really is, brutal and harsh. Mesrine Killer Instinct is not so interested in that dichotomy. It is there: as I commented the film is beautiful and the beauty is attractive. A girlfriend as good looking as De France or Seigner, a suit as sharp as Mesrine's and a mentor as wise as Depardieu are all things that one might look for in life: and the other side too is probed, we see Mesrine's mindless violence and brutality. We see him put a gun inside his wife's throat as their baby son watches- we see him bury someone alive- but the connection between the two is not drawn.

So what is the film really about? This I suppose is where my problem with the film comes in. There were gun battles and sexy dames gallor- but I still cannot work out what the film was saying, what story of Mesrine it was presenting. In part this is because the story was not allowed enough time to develop- in a desire to tell to the full a life which circumnavigated the globe, from Algeria, to Paris and thence to Toronto, the film maker has forgotten to allow his audience to catch up. Mesrine's women were a blur of sexy dresses, his career a blur of shootouts and allies. Hopefully in part 2 of the film whcih covers the last couple of years of his life, the director can slow down, but part 1 definitely felt too fast. The charisma of the actors also detracted from the film. Cassell is wonderful as Mesrine- De France commands a screen as does Depardieu and we could go on, but the problem with commanding cameos is that they leave very little space for the film to develop as a whole. Instead we have little sections- it feels like the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah single, the Intro and Outro, where every band member joined, to Stanshall's commentary, for a bar- 'and now we have Gerard Depardieu as a ganster, and now we have Cecile de France as a whore, the Marx Brothers on the xylophone' etc etc. Films need a consistency and a theme- they need like a piece of music to have a strain running through them that integrates the parts into a whole.

There are ideas embedded in the film. Mesrine might have been the product of his service in Algeria for the French elite corps of torturers. He might have been the product of his relationship with his collaborationist dad and his dominant mother. He might have been the product of a couple of bad friendships but though those ideas are mentioned, they are not developed, once noted they are forgotten. The only strand which holds the movie together is the charisma of Cassell's performance- it provides the continuity. The film ultimately does not have a point because its only point is his magnetism: what it does have though is the qualities of his magnetism and that of the other stars who circle him. Rather than damning its failure, we should recognise what it does have- a smart sheen and good performances- it is no more or less than a pretty film.

Keats said 'Beauty is truth and truth beauty'- in this case the identity does not work, but I don't think it is an unworthy film to see and hopefully a less hurried part 2 will explain and justify the prettiness of part 1.

August 31, 2009

Breathless or A Bout de Souffle

Enough has been said in other places about the way that Breathless (available online here), the 1959 film directed by Jean Luc Goddard and starring Jean Paul Belmondo and Jean Seaberg, changed the direction of cinema. Jump cuts and improvisation were introduced to audiences accustomed to Hollywood and Parisian scripted dramas with orthodox shots. Breathless though would be of little interest if it was merely a set of technical innovations: like Citizen Kane it includes them but like Orson Welles's film the secret of its success is that it does more than that and presents a vision of the world and an idea about it. Breathless is film reduced to its essential elements- the plot is so simple that it is easily caricatured: boy steals car, boy shoots policeman, boy meets girl, girl and boy spend half an hour in bed in Paris discussing art, feelings and French versus American differences etc. The characters are given little history by Goddard (breaking every narrative convention) and little future: they are just there, there in all the glory of two fine performances (an exceptional performance by Seaberg) and that presentness makes a point about life and about the way that we perceive and understand it.

Breathless is about choice. At one point in the film, Patricia (Seaberg's character) quotes William Faulkner about whether you should choose grief or nothing (incidentally importantly she first quotes him in English to Michel (Belmondo's character) savouring the line and then she translates into French). Patricia's world is disturbed by the possibility of choice constantly. Does she actually love Michel? Does she want to sleep with a journalist who might offer her articles? Does she want to pursue a life on the run with Michel? Is she actually in love with the criminal or is she just attracted sexually and provocatively to his persona? These questions are largely unanswerable. Patricia at the end of the film answers them through her actions rather than through her words. A last scene in the film takes on the argument that Michael Frayn was to make later in Copenhagen, that it is only the way that we act that describes the kinds of choices we prefer to make, that reveals our feelings. Goddard suggests that this is not neccessarily true: Patricia's action is a way to force herself to feel a certain way- we cannot be sure, especially in the last frames of the film that she has actually succeeded in governing feeling by action.

Whereas Patricia considers deeply every action she makes, Michel is impulsive. One moment I think suffices to prove the impulsiveness that is the basis for Patricia's attraction for him and for his own criminality. The two are driving along the streets of Paris: Patricia comments that French girls wear skirts that are too short, Michel says that they are fine for pulling up to reveal their legs and proceeds jumping out of the car to do so to a random Parisienne. The scene is unpleasant- almost all Michel's attitudes to women are unpleasant- and yet it is revelatory. Michel doesn't think about the girl's reactions, doesn't think about the possible consequences to himself, he just acts. When he shoots a policeman, the same thinking applies- when he steals cars the same thing applies. The difference between the two characters is that whereas Patricia never makes up her mind, Michel makes it up without thinking. For him action and thought are exactly the same thing- the conclusion is the same thing as the question.

At one point in the film, a student offers Michel a copy of the Cahiers de Cinema (Goddard's own journal) asking him whether he supports youth, he rejects it telling her that I'm old. Michel could not be more wrong in his quip. Part of the joy of breathless is that Michel is uncompromisingly young. He is immature in every sense- singing in the car to himself like a schoolboy on a summer's day, planning to go to Italy whilst expressing his love for France, shooting at trees. Even the way that he treats the revelation that Seaberg is possibly pregnant is immature- he immediately asks her why she didn't take more care. Patricia too is resolutely immature. Neither she nor Michel have much idea of the future: she treats being pregnant possibly as a mere incident, he makes the immediate prospect of jail a moment of self pity to attempt to get her clothes off. Both of them speculate about being in love with the other but beyond their attraction, they have almost nothing in common: Michel is bored by Patricia's literary quotations and treats her enrollment at the Sorbonne lightly, Patricia is affectionate but ultimately she is pragmatic about her relationship with him.

Goddard not only captures characters but also a moment. One of the important points about the film, as we have already seen, is its attitude to time. In a sense the film is a still rather than a story- there are narrative elements but the key scene in the middle of the film is the scene where Michel and Patricia lie in bed together and talk. It occupies almost a third of the film and is important for it concentrates some of what Goddard wants to say particularly about love. In a sense love here is a set of actions: on Michel's side those actions are lustful, on Patricia's they are nurturing- but love is defined less as a feeling than as those actions. After the scene in bed Patricia interviews a French novelist whose fake profundity about the relationships between men and women is supposed to be comic but who also makes clear a point I think Goddard is stretching too, that eroticism and love can be identical. The scene in the bed also gives the film something of its carefree attitude- because it is shot to represent a moment rather than a story Goddard reasserts the importance of lack of constraint. The moment, despite the fact that Patricia may be pregnant and uncertain about Michel as a father and that Michel is on the run, is a joyful one. Neither character are constrained from joy by their futures- and in that sense both characters are truly free.

Goddard was politically motivated and yet this is one of his least political films. Perhaps its only real political point is about the difference between America and France- and yet that difference is more of a difference that Henry James would have understood not Karl Marx. Patricia in a sense is the Jamesian heroine- more innocent and less criminal than the corrupt European Michel. But Goddard is also changing the equation: showing how Michel lives in the shadow of Bogart, immitating his hero's actions and staring at film posters. France is now no longer the centre of civilisation. Patricia may be innocent of crime but in all other senses she is more literary, more intelligent and more sophisticated than her French boyfriend. She embodies the complexities of America- as Goddard saw it. In a sense Breathless is the announcement that America has grown up and ceased to be the new world- in a sense it is also a commentary on European social fads from an American (the comment by Patricia that when the French say two seconds they mean five minutes is apt from a society of mass production- something Goddard, a Marxist would have been aware of).

But it is ultimately the personal not the political that drives the film forwards. The interest in it lies in the discussion of choice and time that it embodies- the freedom of futurelessness and the question of action and consideration. It is a film whose basic language can tend towards sexism- it is a cultural artefact of the leftwing European milieu from which it originated- but it also presents thoughts about universal and important questions. I started this review by talking about the simplicity of Breathless- dig a little deeper and it becomes one of the most complex films ever made- a reason I'd suggest along with its technical innovations that it is still watched and appreciated fifty years after it first came to French cinemas.

August 30, 2009

The contempt of the Roman master

Tacitus's description of Britain is not as interesting as his description of the Britons who lived there. His geography is awry for he believed that Britain was closer to Spain than it is, and that it faced the Atlantic only on the north as opposed to the north and west. Those errors though once noted are not particularly interesting- or are interesting only to the historians of the evolution of geography. Rather than look at his understanding of Britain, a cold country with oysters, I want to look at his understanding of the Britons- for in his introduction to them he brings out two themes which both mean that they have more virtue than the Romans that they opposed but also that they were doomed to be conquered and their lands to be distributed by those Romans. Tacitus here proposes a model for why, despite the fact that the barbarians had more military virtue than the imperial soldiers, the luxurious empire of Rome managed to conquer them.

Tacitus here expands his analysis of the effects of tyranny upon Roman society to an analysis of the effects of empire upon provincial society. He compares the Britons and the Gauls, the former

show more spirit: they have not yet been enervated by protracted peace. History tells us that the Gauls too had their hour of military glory: but since that time a life of ease has made them unwarlike: their valour perished with their freedom. The same has happened to those Britons who were conquered early (Agricola trans Mattingley para 11)

The point is important- imperial power dulls the martial spirit of the provinces. The Britons have been brought to a point on the scale which leads to slavery- they are now 'broken in to obedience but not as yet to slavery' (Agricola trans Mattingley 1970 para 13)- Tacitus's point is that Rome deserves to rule its servile states- its colonies because they have abandoned the mindset of liberty that they once had. Like the ROmans themselves who after Nero were unable to restore the Republic, in his view the provincials are now unable to govern themselves.

The logic is brutal and imperial- but it is also important for Tacitus's analysis linking together national freedom and national mindsets is important in later history. As an idea it provides the explanatory framework to Tacitus's history: firstly by answering the question of how a weakened Rome could keep the empire and secondly by demonstrating why Tacitus is a historian of the imperial centre and its armies and not of the provinces. Simply put the answer to the two questions is the same- the history of Europe turned thanks to Roman imperialism in Tacitus's view from the history of isolated republics and aristocracies into the history of a court in Rome with an enfeebled and servile caste of slaves (provincial and Roman, senator and slave) outside it.