Friday, November 30, 2007

R. J. B. Bosworth - Mussolini's Italy: Life Under the Dictatorship 1915-1945 (2005)

'Fascism' is a term which has taken on a life of its own in polemical discourse (if I see the term 'Islamofascism' one more time...) - but, when we think of Fascism (I'd argue) we're thinking of Nazism, rather than fascism in its original and earliest incarnation in Italy. Bosworth's weighty tome (nearly 600 pages) sets out to map the history of Fascist Italy not in terms of 'isms', 'great men', and what is relevant to the more major powers (although all of these are considered), but in terms of the progress of life under fascism, both that of 'ordinary people' and of the fascists themselves (however defined), the way in which an extreme and theoretically all-encompassing ideology wove itself into the lives of Italians, the ways in which people championed, used, were subjected to the control of, and resisted fascism as a force in their lives.

Bosworth (also author of a lauded bio of Mussolini) leans much more toward social than cultural history, and this means that at times the book is hard going (unusually for me, it took me quite a while and a false start to finish it). From external appearances, I had the impression that this work would be much more a cultural history of the lives of 'ordinary Italians' in this period, whereas, in fact, I'd call it a social history of the Italian nation during the Fascist years. The constant flow of factual information can be overwhelming; but once one gets into the 'rhythm' of the work, it has numerous fascinating insights and is not only entirely worthwhile, but a pleasure to read.

Bosworth is very much concerned with dismantling two major stereotypes: that of Italians as 'brava gente' ('good people') who were incapable of Nazi-style brutality, and that of fascism as a movement helmed by madmen holding sway over a propaganda-hypnotised people. In demolishing these, however, Bosworth confirms a number of other common ideas about Italy: that Italian nationalism is not deeply rooted, so that, for the majority, ties to family, to region, to paese, and the ties of the clientelist/recommendation system by which most Italian business is done, outweigh those to nation and to abstract ideals when it comes to action (notwithstanding the small group of highly ideological fascists, very few of whom became leaders); and that cynical and self-serving maintenance of position, influence and comfort, of 'sistemizzazione' (roughly, working out a comfortable place for oneself) were, most of the time, accorded precedence before ideological self-sacrifice.

For the most part, Bosworth does an excellent job of presenting the ambiguities of a time of deep crisis and hideous human misery in Europe in all their complexity. He also has some excellent insights which I haven't seen before spelt out so clearly: for example, the way in which fascism (particularly the Italian version) is not an ideology (the fascists were politicians employing anti-political rhetoric par excellence) but a need for continuous action and continuous revolution. However, I was troubled by his generalities which seemed to suggest (despite his rejection of this concept in many particular episodes he examines) that fascism was 'imposed' on the Italian people and that their inherent response was to resist this artificial, top-down imposition.

Despite this criticism, however, and despite the tweakings and differences in emphasis that I would've liked to see, I would definitely recommend this work. The individual episodes depicted at every level of the social spectrum are absorbing, ranging from the hilarious to the tragic and cruel; while the material Bosworth covers includes a lot of information, particularly on the Second World War and on Italian colonialism in Africa, which has been considered unimportant and passed over in general histories of WWII and of interwar and colonialist Europe. The material about the connections and contradictions between fascism and institutional Catholicism, and fascism and Nazism, are also fascinating in the way in which they tease out the labyrinthine strands of support and resistance, coercion and co-option, striking at preconceptions while not shying away from conclusions about what is particular in a culture. Also much appreciated is the final chapter, which traces the afterlife of fascism and the vexed Italian relationship to a fascist past - especially attempts to rehabilitate fascism through comparison with Nazism, and the rhetoric of Silvio Berlusconi (the populist and right-wing Prime Minister at the time of the book's writing, at whom Bosworth takes a number of swings, while denying the 'neofascist' label with which some have tagged him). Ultimately, this work is both a fascinating historical narrative, and a much-needed corrective to stereotypes and ellipses in the distorted received knowledge of European twentieth-century history.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Jesus Camp (Rachel Grady & Heidi Ewing, 2006)

I left my 90 minutes or so at Jesus Camp with mixed feelings... This doco, nominated for an Academy Award, follows a group of children as they prepare to go to the 'Kids On Fire' (less exciting than it sounds) evangelical pentecostal summer camp, run by Pastor Becky Fischer, where they will learn to be tomorrow's soldiers of Jesus.

The doco takes a very hands-off approach: no narration, and only a few titles, generally giving factual information. Scenes of the children, Becky and others preparing for camp, and episodes during the camp itself, are intercut with long car-window shots of suburban America, overlaid by an atmospheric soundtrack, which were alright to begin with, but became irritating as they continued without necessarily adding anything to the film. We also cut periodically to a radio show host, who is a non-fundamentalist Christian (Mike Papantonio) who opposes evangelical attempts to knock down the wall between church and state, and who we finally see debate and challenge Becky on air. However, if his presence is intended as a counterbalance demonstrating that not all Christianity is of Becky's stripe, it doesn't quite work - whether you agree with his views or not (I do, as far as the ideal relationship between politics and religion goes) his arrogance and repetition, though perhaps desirable qualities in a radio show host, don't make him a sympathetic or admirable character.

Overall, the doco takes on a number of questions without really answering them. On the one hand, we're presented with American evangelical Christianity in its full, loony (casting out of demons in the electronics, anyone?), unswerving, righteous, morally contradictory glory; but this isn't, I would think, anything anyone doesn't know about - and the same applies to the way in which this religion is passed on to children. So, if you want to be amused and horrified by the fundamentalist Christian Right, you've come to the 'right' film (boom tish).

There are some very interesting questions raised by the film: what's the difference between indoctrination and education? What right do parents have to control the circumstances of their children's lives, particularly in terms of education? What effect does heavy early religious indoctrination have on adult life? Do we need to protect children from the realities of adult life, or teach them what they are and how to deal with them, and, if so, how to do this in a sensitive way? What is legitimate action by a pressure group within a nation-state, where do the barriers start to break down, and whose responsibility is it to police them? But these questions aren't really answered in any meaningful way. To my mind, this is because the doco focusses entirely on acts of religion without putting them into any context (perhaps because the interviewers' role in any interviews is cut out). How did the adults who indoctrinate these children come to their own perspective? What is the background of the participants, adults and children, in terms of class, race, community, life experiences, and how does this relate to their practice of religion? In this sense, although the film is not in any overt way editorially judgemental, I didn't feel that it was in fact any kind of in-depth analysis of the meaning of fundamentalist Christianity, either personally in the lives of its subjects, or on a broader social level, despite some mention of the appointment of Samuel Alito, Jr., which seemed to be a nod to politics, and of course the actual politics which the children are subjected to, particularly around the makeup of government, around global warming and abortion. Context is also a problem inasmuch as we have no idea how these kids got involved in Becky's ministry in the first place, when she set it up, where the physical events of the film are taking place, and other minor but important details.

The doco shows, rather than telling the viewer anything, leaving one (as mentioned above) amused and horrified, but not satisfied. In this sense, the documentary style of allowing the subjects to present themselves 'unmediated' seemed disempowering to the subjects (although to external appearances, at least, they all seem as happily empowered as you can imagine anyone being) - presenting a doco which strives to seem neutral, but in fact has something of the 'look at the freaks' about it. I don't mind a voyeuristic peer and laugh at the freaks, but I'd also like to know why and how they got where they are.

I don't usually watch DVD extras without a good reason, but, being left with this feeling, I watched the outtakes, and found scenes which I'd think were stronger than any included in the film - for example, a young girl talking about her long-term plan to 'take care of' (convert) her friend and next-door neighbour; or a cringeworthily hilarious scene in which Ted Haggard teases the cameraman mid-sermon (the only time in which the filmic fourth wall, the illusion of there being no documentary maker, is ruptured).

Overall, the film certainly has amusement value, and there are also scenes which this viewer at least found disturbing, not because of the dissimilarity between one's own views and those of the subjects, but because of the similarity - for example, I felt a shock of recognition at Becky's description of the world as a 'sick ole world' and her relationship to what she saw as an immoral and decadent society. Ultimately, this is definitely a thought-provoking work - but not so much for what it does right, as for what it fails to do.

Monday, November 26, 2007

30 Days of Night (David Slade, 2007)

These days, any genre horror that doesn't disappoint me I consider successful. That's not meant to damn by faint praise - 3DON is not a film that'll leave you thinking or change your life, but it's an enjoyable little horror confection which stands above its peers, though by no means a classic.

The film is based on the comic book miniseries by Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith, which I haven't read (intriguingly, the comic was originally an unsuccessful script pitch - how postmodern!). It is at times, however, evident that the plot, which is jumpy and jerky, and at times seems written simply for the purpose of advancing the action, is taken from a longer narrative. It is set in Barrow, Alaska, a small town above the Arctic circle where midwinter sees the eponymous period of darkness. As the last day nears its close, Eben Oleson (Josh Hartnett), the town sheriff, is troubled by strange, macabre pranks... meanwhile, his estranged wife Stella (Melissa George) is stranded in town. As the dark descends, we become aware that a gang of vampires has descended to terrorise the town, and our protagonists must play a deadly game of hide and seek for the next month.

These are not the sophisticated vampires of Anne Rice or Poppy Z. Brite; rather, they're brutish predators. The against-type casting of Danny Huston as Marlow, the head vampire, is nicely done; imagine a nondescript businessman become an archaic, blood-drenched fiend. The others, however, are stock-standard horror-movie fare. The script also at times clunks along in horror cliche mode, but there are some unexpected lines, and also some unexpected action, which lift the film above the standard Hollywood horror I-want-those-two-hours-of-my-life-back standard. Indeed, the male characters' reaction to blood and horror plays nicely against film cliche. It's a beautifully made piece, and the bleakly picturesque setting doesn't do any harm either, while George and Hartnett are both on par in their respective roles.

Overall, it won't go on your list of must-see classics, cult or otherwise - but for some entertaining horror that's got a twist more originality than standard Hollywood genre seatfiller, you could do a lot worse.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Murrell, Spencer & McFarlane - Chanting Down Babylon: The Rastafari Reader (1998)

This compilation of works on Rastafari and by Rastas is an excellent example of a sociological work which is nonetheless also 'of' and engaging its subject/s. Rather than a general introduction, this is more a work for someone with a specific interest in depending their knowledge of Rastafari culture generally - though there is an introductory preface, it certainly helps to have some background knowledge of Jamaican history and the development in the 1930s of Rastafari, a belief system centring on the Hebrew Bible and the worship of Haile Selassie I, from its roots in the Jamaican slums to the international spread of reggae and (shallow) knowledge of Rasta culture. As such, the work is divided into four sections: ideology and culture, roots and history, music and film; and theology and hermeneutics.

Some of the strongest, most interesting analysis comes in the early stages of the book, in essays on the Rasta use of language to reclaim English from the Babylonian masters (whites who controlled, and control, the system) - a notable example is in the firt-person joint singular-plural term 'I'n'I' referring both to the individual and his/her connectedness to others and to Jah Rastafari - and on the personal experiences, generalities and specificities of gendered life as a Rastawoman, and of how this has evolved over time, as women negotiated 'outsider' to 'insider' statuses (or failed to do so) under various conditions, particularly as this relates to periods of socio-economic change, as Rasta moved from its heavily patriarchal working-class roots, into the emerging Jamaican middle classes as traditional Western (and therefore also, Westernised) culture was undergoing a huge series of shocks (in the '60s and '70s). Overall, one of the work's strongest points is the use of modern non-Rasta and Rasta academic voices, the voices of non-academic adherents, and the reflections of long-term researchers to allow the material to speak without a unifying voice and representing a diversity of perspectives, both from the 'inside' and the 'outside'.

Material dealing with the historical development of Rasta from one poor, Christian-based theological cult among many in 1930s Jamaica, and particularly its relationship and the Jamaican relationship with Africa, with pan-Africanists, and with African leaders (most notably, of course, Haile Selassie I) is also of real interest, as is the history of the development of Rasta (sub)cultures in diasporic communities and in majority-non-black countries. Equally fascinating is the story of how this 'cult' came to be the foremost known manifestation of a nation, to have a hugely disproportionate influence on world music, and to shape politics and artistic culture within that nation itself.

The third section pays, to my mind, overmuch space on Bob Marley, who has already been represented and discussed ad infinitum elsewhere - more in-depth material on other Jamaican reggae musicians would've been appreciated. Material on the fraught connections between roots reggae and dancehall would also have been appreciated (1998 being, however, before the notorious clash between dancehall musicians and fans, and anti-homophobes, would reach its height). Material on rasta in cinema perhaps takes its subject a little too seriously in the light of negative films (New Jack City, anyone?) which have now completely disappeared from the cultural raidar (not to say that issues of representation are not important and desering of serious consideration).

The final body of material deals with Rasta theology (though there is no formal dogma, Rasta theology draws heavily on the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament, and is ambivalent toward Jesus Christ, but accepts Haile Selassie I as a divinely-prophesied Incarnation). Here, some debate takes place between Rasta and Christian positions, while much is made of the relationship between South American liberation theology and Rastafari. Each appropriates the Bible in the voice of 'the sufferers', challenges 'the system' through politics and lifestyle, and recasts the image of God in that of the oppressed, not their oppressors. In doing so, some interesting commentary is made on anti-White prejudice as originally expressed in Rasta, and whether it still exists in the age of 'one love'. While some criticism is made of the misogynistic and racist texts which have become revered Rasta works (most notably Leonard Howell's The Promised Key, overall I would've liked to see more analysis of the way in which the use of the Biblical text can be counter-liberation, particularly in terms of sexuality (an issue this work unfortunately does not address at all) and gender. The question which kept nagging at me, though it's in some ways the classic question of a non-believer, is: if the Bible is to be reinterpreted so as to wipe out imperialist prejudice, who gets to decide what's valid (the prohibitions of Leviticus, for example) and what isn't?

This issue brings us to a final question about the future of Rasta (already looking somewhat different in 2007, with the rise of many 'Rasta' dancehall singers whose idea of the Rasta way of living or 'livity' would seem very different to that of singers of the classic roots era, than in 1998) - in an era of global religious revivalism and of the swelling strength of African Black christian churches, and since the 'disappearance' of Selassie, will Rasta become simply another denomination among many (some organisations seem to be going down this path, creating formal congregations and churches), in which the political and the spiritual are disconnected or yoked together so as to continue that very oppression (as in conservative religion in the U.S.)? Or will it continue to find common cause with 'sufferers' protests against enslavement and 'downpression', and if so, which oppressed groups of the new century will be able to adopt or be comfortable being heard in a Rasta voice?

Indeed, my only complaint (apart from that it would've been nice to see an entire article devoted to ganja - but perhaps this would've seemed like promoting the stereotype) is that many of these articles implicitly celebrate the liberatory nature of Rasta, without also asking what orthodoxies are thus papered over, not only in terms of gender but in terms of theology, sexuality and other issues relating to minorities within a belief system or organisation, however amorphous. For example, what implications does the fact that rasta in Jamaica is a force much closer to the mainstream than it is anywhere else, have for the 'meaning' rasta there as opposed to elsewhere? Will the opening-up of Rasta to women as autonomous individuals (by no means universal) have liberatory consequences for sexual minorities? What will happen to belief systems as they are negotiated between 'cyber' communities of Rastas in the age of the internet, as well as between physically-located individuals and communities? All these questions remain to be answered. This volume, however, does an excellent job at replying to their preliminaries, giving an insider-outsider perspective on Rastafari as a uniquely influential confluence of religion, community, lifestyle and culture.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Jeff Lieberman - Blue Sunshine (1976)

I've been meaning to watch this film for a long time, because it's referenced both in the title of the album by Robert Smith and Steve Severin's criminally under-known project The Glove, and also in lyrics by The Meteors. However, despite some nice moments, it didn't altogether live up to the expectations I'd had raised...

The narrative follows Jerry Zipkin (Zalman King), who's at a groovy party when his friend rips his hair off, and begins butchering his fellow party goers. Zipkin, under police suspicion, begins to do his own investigation; and, as other bald murderers surface, he becomes convinced that the deaths are related to a batch of bad LSD from their (common) wild student days.

The initial murders, in particular, are done nicely, and the wild-eyed, bald killers are a nice theme (though I did wonder why the men retain strands of hair while the women become egg-bald, and their behaviour starts to become less scary and more farcical by the film's end). However, there were none of the psychedelic touches I was hoping for - genre-wise, this is more or less a straight-up multiple psycho killer story, if such a thing is conceivable, complete with red herrings and a heavy-handed 'Drugs: Just Say No' message.

Zipkin's actions seem more necessary to further the plot, than realistic for someone in his situation (if, for example, you were trying to warn someone that they might turn into a psychotic killer because of some bad LSD they'd once taken, wouldn't you, well, warn them that they might turn into a psychotic killer because of some bad LSD they'd once taken?). The plot itself meanders, and seems to lose its narrative sense as the film progresses, and a psycho-on-the-disco-dancefloor scene, which could've been well played, disappoints. So, although there are some original touches, overall I found the film a let-down.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Tahir Shah - In Search of King Solomon's Mines (2002)

Having recently become interested in Ethiopian history, but at the same time doing a lot of other heavyweight reading, I thought that Shah's ISOKSM, a travel book which recounts Shah's attempts to track down the legendary, eponymous mines, might be a good place to start. I've looked at some of Shah's other travel books with interest, but this is the first I've taken the time to read. However, I wasn't overly impressed.

In any travel book, the personality of the author is of huge importance, and I found Shah quite irritating. His attitude to the local people was patronising and insensitive, which wasn't as amusing as he seemed to find it - and, after some interesting history in the first part of the book, this aspect lapsed and we were left in a culturally interesting but ahistorical present (with the exception of the white colonialist explorers in whose footsteps Shah follows, and whom he seems to hold up as models to some extent). Ethiopian religio-mythology is fascinating: Solomon is said to have been visited by the Queen of Sheba (Ethiopia, according to the story), who returned bearing his child - from this ancestor, the royal line (the final ruler was Haile Selassie I, deposed in 1974 by a Marxist-influenced junta) claim descent. Speaking of Selassie, there are some interesting Ethiopian perspectives on Rastafari which don't often get a hearing; and a poignant scene in the abandoned village of the falasha, Ethiopian Jews who were ultimately evacuated to Israel; though I would've liked more on the contemporary impact of the brutal Italian invasion and occupation of the 1930s.

Essentially, that's my complaint - while there is a great deal of colourful description and Shah puts himself into serious danger and hardship, any depth of understanding of the circumstances, while present, is shallow - which is, perhaps, implicit in any quest for gold, even if it's not for personal profit. Meanwhile, this deficiency is only exacerbated by his self-congratulatory neo-colonialist leanings. So, while there's definitely some interesting material here, and contemporary travel works on Ethiopia aren't exactly thick on the ground, next time I might reach for something a little weightier.

David Cronenberg - Eastern Promises (2007)

While David Cronenberg's works tend, in my opinion, to be flawed gems, I always approach a new Cronenberg feature with excitement and expectation. This was particularly so with EP because the preceding film, A History Of Violence, is one of my favourite Cronenberg films, and, like EP, stars Viggo Mortensen; it also features Naomi Watts, who's a favourite of mine. However, I found EP quite disappointing.

The film, set in London, follows the story of Anna (Watts), a woman of Russian ancestry, who works in a maternity ward. When a Russian girl of fourteen is brought in miscarrying, and dies in giving birth, Anna determines to use her diary to find the baby's family (Anna herself, we are told, has recently suffered a miscarriage). Her search takes her to a Russian restaurant, where she soon finds herself ever more deeply and dangerously entangled with the Russian criminal underworld, the vory y zakone, specifically Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), his flaky and unstable son Kirill (Vincent Cassel), and Nikolai Luzhin (Viggo Mortensen), to whom we are introduced as Semyon's chauffeur.

Though I like Cassell (his rather two-dimensional character here gives him little to work with), and Mueller-Stahl is excellent as Semyon, the Russian accents, to my ears, sound more like caricatures. Mortensen is also good as the enigmatic Nikolai; however, one of my favourite aspects of his character in AHOV was the way in which his rugged all-american-ness played into the deceptive layers of the film, and there is no shadow of this to be found in EP. The film is beautifully made, and, as all the critics have noted, there is a breathtaking fight scene in which a naked, heavily tattooed Mortensen is pitted against two thugs - this scene conveys both the vulnerability, the grace and the human-ness of the male body in a way which is incredibly rare in film.

However, the negative aspects of the film heavily overshadow its strengths. The plot is essentially preposterous, and the narrative veers sketchily into the didactic (explanations of Russian prison tattoos, for example, which is a fascinating subject in itself - I recommend the work Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopedia II, introduced by Anne Applebaum, author of the also-excellent Gulag: A History), and into emotional appeals to cliche, while the characters' motivations are so blindingly obvious as to make the work heavy-handed in the extreme. Anna's naivete, in particular, is difficult to believe, and seems to exist merely to set up a moral contrast between the (good, blond, Westernised) heroine and the dark masculine world of the Russians. I was also troubled by the morality of the work, the Orientalist use of Russia (and the European East) as a place and a symbol of dark barbarism (despite Anna's Russian background), and the way in which we are led to sympathise with the character of Nikolai. Finally, the ending is not only highly unbelievable, but is nothing short of embarrassing - some critics have suggested that this is a purposeful slap in the viewer's face and to the expectations aroused, but if so, it's a failure, at least in this viewer's opinion.

I wouldn't say it isn't a film worth seeing, particularly for Cronenberg fans - the stunning visuals and exploration of human viscerality and malleable identity, themes which run through all his works, are evident in spades - but in toto I expected more from a director with Cronenberg's record of complex, transgressive and thought-provoking works.