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by Bill Gibron

26 Jun 2008

As the old saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. In the case of the horrifying images witnessed by the world as part of the investigation of Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, very little of said commentary centered on context. The acts inferred by the photos were shocking, even more so when placed alongside the Bush Administration rhetoric that the United States was functioning as “liberators” and “peacekeepers” in a nation already haunted by a ruthless, tyrannical dictator. Yet there were photos of American soldiers, seemingly torturing, humiliating, and endangering the lives of so-called ‘enemy combatants’, all in the name of the War on Terror.

Now, Errol Morris, acclaimed director of such fascinating documentaries as The Thin Blue Line, Gates of Heaven, and The Fog of War, wants to uncover the background of this unapologetic policy stain. Via interviews with those involved, those supervising or overseeing the American-occupied Iraq prison system, those charged with prosecuting and/or court marshalling the participants, and those who really were in the country to conduct covert coercion of detainees, a slightly bigger picture develops. What we learn is that some of the rumored atrocities were nothing more than SOP - military slang for ‘standard operating procedure’. While they looked unconscionable, what was depicted was part of a typical war time work method.

That many of these images are excusable is Morris’ first major revelation. The press is branded as premeditated in its automatic denouncement, especially when we learn that some of the stills were staged in order to show brass that action was being taken to retrieve the mandated intelligence. Certainly, not every excuse is plausible, and the frequently featured face of Lynndie England, gaze fixed with a beaming grin and fist constantly poised with a congratulatory “thumbs up” gesture, seems inappropriate for what is happening in the foreground. Yet the ex-soldier, present and accounted for, tries to convince us that her involvement was a matter of juvenile puppy love and personal inexperience.

More times than not, Morris lets his interviewees tap into that ever-popular ‘just following orders’ mantra that means nothing within the concept of human morality and individual ethos. Some literally choke on the words, working them out of their obviously guilty mouths like the bad taste of some long digested disease. At other instances, there is an honesty that ripples across the screen, keeping us from instantly condemning the individual speaking. Sabrina Harman, constantly referenced as the main person responsible for taking the photos, seems stunned that she was even present, her coy on-camera demeanor and telling letters to home (excerpted for voice over narration) suggesting she objected, but also couldn’t contradict a chain of command that ordered prisoners be “softened up” for later interrogation.

Explanation does help here. The sexual nature of the images was a direct response to what the Brass saw as an “Islamic machismo” among the population. As a patently paternalistic society, the emasculating means of mistreated the prisoners had a clear overtone of religious ridicule. Similarly we hear stories of how the detainees threw human waste at their captors and caused violent diversions in hope of escaping. While Standard Operating Procedure barely touches on this, it’s clear that Abu Ghraib had a simultaneous set of problems - those of a typical penitentiary and the addition of a calculated, controlled system of US approved questioning and information extraction. Shockingly, torture is never denied - it’s just argued against within the backdrop of many of the photos.

In some ways, Standard Operating Procedure is too appalling to appreciate. It’s like watching the Nuremberg Trials, Nazis purposefully passing the buck higher and higher up, fully aware that no one above a certain rank is around to take the blame. Equally unsettling is the lack of that one element that President George W. Bush and his Texas troubadours always seem to avoid - accountability. Colonel Janis Karpinski, demoted from Brigadier General, sees the tag placed upon her as political retribution for outing former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his role in approving such treatment. In the end, we feel shocked and saddened that our nation could fall so far from the tenets of humane treatment simply to strike fear into the hearts of men who may or may not have played a part in any pre or post 9/11 attacks on Americans, both at home and abroad.

While disturbing and quite fascinating, the film itself is not without controversy. In trying to illustrate the various points brought out in the testimony, Morris goes back to his tried and true habit of reenacting the atrocities. While never very graphic in nature, these well-executed scenes seem to be spitting in the face of those who argue that the media, and its manipulation of this material, failed to tell the entire story. And no matter how much truth there is, a lens languishing on a pool of blood or the naked body of a dead prisoner, dramatic lighting and music accenting the horror, does little to support or sidestep their statements.

Morris is also been lambasted for paying the participants of Standard Operating Procedure, a notion that again, seems to defy the aesthetic accepted by documentarians around the world. Of course, the filmmaker’s response is matter of fact - if he didn’t pay them, they wouldn’t participate. Still, there is something unseemly about people desperate to clear their name only doing so if there’s a paycheck involved. Sure, many in the Abu Ghraib case seem to have been scapegoated to save a sagging foreign policy that polarizes everything about the Iraq situation, but true innocence is usually argued openly, and for free. A check at the end feels like truth being bought - or even worse - created for the sake of some coin.

No one is questioning Morris’ motives, and he has been quite vocal in dismissing allegations that he’s avoiding certain elements. In the end, Standard Operating Procedure is about the preparation of a set of charges, and an eventual legal defense, against actions that appear to have way too much of the former and very little of the latter. The labeling of certain images - men posed next to each other in the nude, staged suggestions of fictional torture - as simply part of the process may bring about an uncomfortable chuckle as the classification is explained. But there is little to laugh about in this clear military calamity…and while many were jailed, it will be the American people who pay the price for this blunder. It’s a sentence that will last must longer than any time served, or any contextualized illustration.

by Rob Horning

26 Jun 2008

I’ve been on a kick where I’m reading works by outdated Frankfurt School thinkers—first, Eros and Civilization by Herbert Marcuse, then Escape From Freedom by Erich Fromm. (Maybe I’ll move on The Authoritarian Personality next.) Marcuse argues that economic productivity has moved us beyond scarcity as a motive, and therefore civilization should be capable of transcending Freud’s reality principle, which asserts (as Marcuse interprets it) that we need to repress libidinal urges and channel them into alienated labor, into work conceived as a necessary evil. This transcendence, Marcuse argues, would be a matter of ceasing to repressive erotic impulses, a position that is easy to lampoon as a call to free love and orgies and pansexual abandon. (Because he is working in the hypersexualized Freudian context, he practically invites this interpretation.) But if one puts aside the polymorphous perversity, one can see a more useful ideal that Marcuse is sketching out, basically a utopian version of the grail of meaningful work for all: “The free development of transformed libido within transformed institutions, while eroticizing previously tabooed zones, time, and relations, would minimize the manifestations of mere sexuality by integrating them into a far larger order, including the order of work.” If I’m understanding this correctly (the 1960s context of this book tempts me to use the word grok), he’s saying that non-repressed society—a culture that moved beyond capitalism’s repressive reason and no longer mandated the “performance principle”—would not be fixated on genital sex, but would instead suffuse social relations with the positive vibes of love. “The organism in its entirety becomes the substratum of sexuality, while at the same time the instinct’s objective is no longer absorbed by a specialized function—namely, that of bringing ‘one’s own genitals into contact with those of someone of the opposite sex.’ ” That fixation, he suggests, is the product of the repressive culture; in the utopian culture the joy limited to sexual intimacy would be accessible in basically any social activity (and bourgeois fictions like the nuclear family and “falling in love” would fall away). Then we would finally be free, without institutions working to make us repress our libidinous instincts and sacrifice the primal pleasures of sensuousness and free play.

Now, it would be easier to buy into this if it conjured up in me the vision of idealized Fourierist phlanastèries instead of the Manson family. But I get stuck on the dirty-hippie attempt to realize these ideals, shed their hang-ups and unleash free love, an effort doomed by the way it was embedded in a hostile culture and easily coopted and enticed by that culture. The lesson to seems to have been that one can’t will oneself into the post-repressed state, the institutions that shape us—the society in which who we are has meaning—need to be changed before we can change. Efforts to set up alternative, independent societies are useful to the degree that their ideas are absorbed and shift the nature of the hegemonic culture, but in and of themselves, they are doomed to eventual failure.

Why? As Marcuse points out,

Civilization has to defend itself against the specter of a world which could be free. If society cannot use its growing productivity for reducing repression (because such usage would upset the status quo), productivity must be turned against the individuals; it becomes itself an instrument of universal control. Totalitarianism spreads over late industrial civilization wherever the interests of domination prevail upon productivity, arresting and diverting its potentialities.

The methods for doing this? Marcuse lays them out in a passage that seems to draw heavily from Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment:  The “coordination of the private and public existence of spontaneous and required reactions. The promotion of thoughtless leisure activities, the triumph of anti-intellectual ideologies, exemplify the trend…. The individuals who relax in this uniformly controlled reality recall not the dream but the day, not the fairy tale but its denunciation. In their erotic relations, they ‘keep their appointments’—with charm, with romance, with their favorite commercials.” Technology is not helping. In a passage that would please Nicholas Carr, he writes, “With the control of information, with the absorption of individual into mass communication, knowledge is administered and confined. The individual does not really know what is going on; the overpowering machine of education and entertainment unites him with all the others in a state of anesthesia from which all detrimental ideas tend to be excluded.” Think of the internet in this light, and there might be reason to fear Google, which is nothing if not an administrator of knowledge, perhaps the most efficient the world has ever seen.

Marcuse says that the non-repressive utopia will be based on “purposiveness without purpose” and “lawfulness without law”—an ethos of aestheticism. Fromm, too, dreams of human liberation into “an active and spontaneous realization of the individual self.”  But in Escape From Freedom he argues that we often see individuality as a burden, as a state of insecurity and purposelessness that is not pleasurable but intolerable.

Capitalism not only freed man from traditional bonds, but it also contributed tremendously to the increasing of positive freedom, to the growth of an active, critical, responsible self. However, while this was one effect capitalism had on the process of growing freedom, at the same time it made the individual more alone and isolated and imbued him with a feeling of insignificance and powerlessness.

  Capitalism destroys the traditional ways our identity would be anchored, in the class or religion to which we were born, in the duties assigned to us, in our our overall lack of social or geographical mobility. The powerlessness and unrootedness is exacerbated by the rationalization of life in a capitalist society, with all relations between people reified, instrumentalized and marked with alienation and mutual manipulation. People have no value in and of themselves, but only in what they can contribute and sell. So in isolation, they learn that they are worthless, with no innate qualities.

Fromm figured this left them vulnerable to totalitarian movements like Nazism, that promised to supply individuals a purpose in supplication to an authority figure who alleviates one’s feelings of inferiority and insignificance but taking away the burden of individuality. It’s obvious he has Hitler and Mussolini in mind, but Fromm also points to anonymous authority, which reigns while leaving its subjects seemingly free.

It is disguised as common sense, science, psychic health, normality, public opinion. It does not demand anything except the self-evident. It seems to use no pressure but only mild persuasion…. In anonymous authority, both command and commander have become invisible. It is like being fired at by an invisible enemy. There is nobody and nothing to fight back against.

  This analysis presages Althusser’s definition of ideology, in which such dispersed, institutional authority is actually constituitive of the individual rather than a response to developing individualism. In Decoding Advertisements Judith Williamson looks at how that authority manifests specifically in advertisements, which present themselves as common sense and help us call into a being a sharpened sense of identity that we then become reliant on—as though it were the source of our integrity. Ads seem always to be reminding us of what we already know; that is the velvet way they exercise their insidious authority.

Fromm characterizes the seductiveness of ads, as anonymous authority, in a similar way.

It does not appeal to reason but to emotion…. by attracting the customer and at the same time weakening his critical abilities by the sex appeal of a pretty girl; by terrorizing him with the threat of b.o. or halitosis, or yet again by stimulating daydreams about a sudden change in one’s whole course of life brought about by buying a certain shirt or soap. All these methods are essentially irrational; they have nothing to do with the qualities of the merchandise, and they smother and kill the critical capacities of the customer like an opiate or outright hypnosis. They give him a certain satisfaction by their daydreaming qualities just as movies do, but at the same time they increase his feeling of smallness and powerlessness.

That passage touches on a few of my favorite themes—(a) ads and entertainment are indistinguishable, (b) ads turn our insecurity into a feeling of certainty and a possibility for productive action—a purchase, (c) ads work by stimulating fantasies not about the product but about ourselves; they encourage us to consume our sense of ourselves vicariously; to enjoy ourselves through the product the way we would enjoy the details of the lives of any other celebrity—it puts us on their level, particularly when ads feature celebrity endorsements, and most significant, I think, (d) the point of ads collectively is to reduce our objections to non-logic and experience it as liberation.

Of course, Marcuse sees the undermining of reason—of constricting, repressing rationality—as liberation. But ad discourse evokes a fantasia that merely teases us with the kind of non-repression Marcuse sees as being just around the corner in his dialectic of civilization. We “keep our appiontments” with commercials, just like Marcuse noted, but what we experience there is enough of the utopian promise to defuse the possibility of our ever fighting to bring that utopia into being. Ads de-repress us as they exert their authority; they solve our problems with individuality while seeming to reinforce our freedom (our freedom from hang-ups). It seems that capitalism’s systems for entertaining/controlling us can absorb even the rationality-smashing protocol and make it too serve the status quo.

by David Pullar

26 Jun 2008

Most book-lovers will notice at some point that they’re really in the minority.  Even if you work in the book industry or join a book group, you’ll still spend a lot of time around people who don’t read for pleasure.

I was personally hit by this when I saw the social networking profiles of some intelligent hipster-type friends, which included words to the effect of “I hate reading”.  This was a surprise—I couldn’t help but associate loving things like art and music with a love of reading.  The two often go together, but it’s no sure thing.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics just released a publication called Arts and Culture in Australia: A Statistical Overview.  Even if you love reading you’d probably draw the line at statistical works, but there’s some interesting bits in there.

First of all, reading isn’t all that rare in my country.  When asked to rate their favourite pastimes, 61 per cent of people surveyed nominated reading for pleasure.  It’s a hell of a lot more common than synchronised swimming or quoits.

It’s what they’re reading that makes the difference.  Newspapers and magazines are big choices, with 77 and 58 per cent respectively reading them once a week at least.  Books (48 per cent) do much worse, but are still read weekly almost one in two.

The vast majority of people will read a few pages of something for recreation, it seems, but the real book-geeks are still going to feel in the minority because of differences in reading material.  Honestly, if you’ve picked up one of the high-circulation daily newspapers in Australia, you’ll know that it’s not exactly reading—it’s more looking at pictures and large-font puns.  And there’s also a difference between casual readers and book devourers.  The numbers say nothing about how much your average Aussie reads in their average week.

These numbers are from a 2006 survey, so it’s strange that there’s nothing in there about the internet.  After all, it’s a text-based medium and there’s more content and substance in a lot of blog posts than there is in most magazines—not specifically referring to Re:Print, obviously.

For the younger generation, though, so much of our learning and exposure to ideas has been through the web.  And it hasn’t been spoilt for us the way high school English Lit has for books.

by Bill Gibron

25 Jun 2008

When it was first announced that George Lucas, Harrison Ford, and Stephen Spielberg were contemplating a fourth dip back into the Indiana Jones franchise and the character’s wishing well of good will, there were immediate red flags. The first was perhaps the most disconcerting - Lucas had just successful sunk his formerly viable Star Wars series, and most of the prequel problems came directly from the movie mogul’s hands-on approach to the material (scripting, directing). The acknowledged king of the popcorn blockbuster at least guaranteed someone sane - and skilled - behind the lens, but Lucas was still going to handpick the story to be told…and the individual to write the all important screenplay.

In the past, the scripts for the Indiana Jones films were crafted by some fairly impressive scribes. Raiders of the Lost Ark saw Lucas share story credit with Philip Kaufman (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Right Stuff) while Lawrence Kasdan got the nod to polish the plotlines. Temple of Doom had American Graffiti‘s husband and wife team of William Huyck and Gloria Katz behind the typewriter, while the Last Crusade employed Menno Meyjes (The Color Purple) and Jeffrey Boam (The Dead Zone, Innerspace) to bring the trilogy to an end. So of course, the first question many fans had was - who would write installment #4. Oddly enough, the first name tossed around put everyone at ease.

While he is many things, Frank Darabont is definitely a smart, intelligent filmmaker. After spending most of the ‘80s writing genre junk like A Nightmare on Elm Street 3, and The Fly II, he landed a gig helping bring the exploits of everybody’s favorite archeologist/adventurer to the small screen. From 1992 to 1993, he helped fashion the Young Indiana Jones Chronicles into a cult hit. Of course, 1994 saw him finally break out into the big leagues, his adaptation of Stephen King’s Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption turning into one of the most beloved films of the decade (and in some circles, all time). So he seemed like a natural to retrofit the aging character for a post-millennial mindset.

Of course, with all things Indy, Lucas made sure his imprint was all over the proposed plot. Certain elements had to be part of the updated environment. The Cold War would be substituted for WWII, Soviets would stand in for Nazis, Jones would be reunited with a famous face from the past, and the main narrative element would center around ancient astronauts, aka aliens, and the infamous crystal skulls that supposedly suggest that previous civilizations were inspired by (or perhaps started by) these visitors from another realm. It was a tall order, but if anyone could pull these divergent elements together, it was Darabont.

That was back in 2003! Now, five years later, we have the finished film, a semi-successful jumpstart of the entire Indiana Jones universe, with the possibility of more to follow. Strangely enough, Darabont’s name is nowhere to be found. While Lucas and Speed 2/Rush Hour 2‘s Jeff Nathanson are given story credit, it is David Koepp who earns the coveted WGA nod. Responsible for a myriad of projects both good (War of the Worlds, Spider-Man) and mediocre (Snake Eyes, The Trigger Effect), he now sits on the final screenplay, maestro of the character’s move into a golden sunset retirement.

Those uninspired by the Summer hit openly questioned what happened to Darabont’s draft. After all, this is an Ain’t It Cool News world, a place where films are reviewed and critiques confirmed BEFORE casting is even considered. Recent efforts like Rocky Balboa, Rob Zombie’s reimagined Halloween, and Speed Racer all got a going over before the first frame of celluloid could be shot. So the lack of a legitimate Darabont script seemed suspicious. After all, Lucas loves to keep a lid on his process, the better to keep the potential detractors at bay. And the pre-publicity junket provided the brave game face that marketers need to have their movie make money.

But you just knew that, somewhere along the line, Darabont’s version (entitled Indiana Jones and The City of the Gods) would eventually turn up. And supposedly, it has. About three weeks ago, 11 June, G4TV’s The Feed - along with several other sites - ran reviews of what they called “a bootleg copy” of the script. Available for a short while in a PDF file, those lucky enough to grab a look (before it was summarily removed from the web) learned a shocking fact - many of the elements fans complained about in part four were nowhere to be found in Darabont’s draft. Even more disconcerting, Lucas’ money grubbing mitts seem to have guided the film away from its origins and more toward a crass, commercial feasibility.

Perhaps the biggest difference between what Darabont created and the final product is the lack of a certain character named Mutt. The adolescent rebel without a clear creative cause (except, perhaps, to carry on the Jones’ legacy in another franchise of films) is nowhere to be found in City of the Gods, while he more or less dominates the last two thirds of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Many view this character as a pure Lucas contrivance, an unnecessary link to Indiana Jones’ past that exists only to further the series’ future installment prospects. Making matters worse, new neo-teen it boy Shia LeBeouf got the nod, indicating that in action adventure terms, the flavor of the moment defies artistic advantage.

Mutt’s absence aside, the other major element gone from Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is bad gal diva dominatrix Col. Dr. Irina Spalko. In her place - which really is a loss considering that the indomitable Cate Blanchett would be out of the film as well - City of the Gods has a series of unclear culprits, individuals who all want a piece of the glass head action. Even more intriguing, the actual aliens themselves are made into villains by Darabont, evil in their desire to keep the skull’s secrets away from the modern world, if you will. If there is one weakness in this occasionally talky script, it’s the lack of a clear antagonist. Indy always seems to work better when he’s up against a Belloq, an evil cult, or those bedeviling Germans of the Third Reich.

What’s increased in Darabont’s draft is the involvement of Marion Ravenwood. As we learn during Kingdom‘s first act University of Chicago chase, Mutt has a mother named Marion. Much later on, we are reintroduced to the Raiders fave, Karen Allen bringing the same spunk and drive to the part that she did back in 1981. The thing is, as soon as she’s introduced, the new film treats her like luggage, a grinning goon carry-on that simply enjoys basking in her former lover’s presence. Of course, in Koepp’s script, she’s mother material, giving Indy a biological link to the sequel shape of things to come. 

But Darabont actually treats Marion like an important part of the story. She is more sidekick than cast off, back to the original role she played during the hunt for the Ark of the Covenant. She’s determined, not domesticated, a capable partner in this latest hunt. Clearly, Lucas didn’t want nostalgia usurping a potential payoff, so City of the Gods’ take on this material was tossed aside. In its place was a moment of fanboy fodder, followed by little else. Indeed, while reading over Darabont’s script, many of the elements audiences complained about (the A-bomb/frig escape, the giant ants) are present, but handled in a serious, sobering manner (something Spielberg tried to match in his work behind the lens).

The last big difference rests in one of Kingdom‘s weakest subtexted - the notion of Indiana Jones as a potential communist sympathizer. The McCarthy era element within the storyline is quickly shuttled aside for more of Mutt’s Wild One vagueness, and the whole notion that, somehow, during the War, our hero could have turned (especially after helping the Soviets steal the Area 51 secrets) is played as pointless. In Darabont’s script, Indy is actually friends with one Yuri Makovsky from the USSR. It makes the eventual betrayal more plausible, palatable, and the questions of his motives much easier to accept.

Of course, Darabont tosses in the action. There is a wonderful bi-plane scuffle, and a last act denouement which, while not quite the optical spectacle delivered by Spielberg in the actual film’s finale, does provide the requisite send-off. Elsewhere, Indy’s dad makes an appearance, as do other characters missing from Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. If you believe that this really is Darabont’s work (he loved his version so much that when Lucas rejected it, he asked for pal Spielberg to intervene), then what is clear is that, while his boss wanted a way to reinvent the franchise with a new lead (Mutt Jones and the Soda Shop of Death! ) City of the Gods was attempting something far more tenuous - pleasing the fans while finding a way to update the material after 16 years away from the fray.

Many have noted that Lucas, already a pariah among even the most devoted fans of his previous efforts, cleary mandated a certain type of script, one that relied on occasional drops into junk culture juvenilia for the sake of a certain demographic (can you say Jar Jar Binks???).  He never intended the 200X Indiana Jones for adults, believing - rightly or wrongly - that the character remains forever cemented to its Saturday kiddie matinee serial roots. And no one knows if Darabont’s particular vision would stay intact throughout the production process, a system that sees stars, producers, studios, and eventual focus groups adding their trademark two cents.

But one can dream - and in that capacity, Indiana Jones and the City of the Gods by Frank Darabont (or whomever) provides that point of conjecture. It reminds us of how manufactured most movies are, the creative committee stretching far beyond the simple mandates of a wide-eyed aficionado. That anything good comes out of such a struggle seems impossible, and yet the eventual release of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull hit more marks than it missed. Would Darabont have been equally successful? One never knows. But what’s clear is that, in a battle for the final word, there was Lucas’ way, or the highway. All roads lead to his take on this material, for good and for bad - just like the fans worried about way back when.

by Nikki Tranter

25 Jun 2008

“If you’re lucky enough to have even one book gets into people’s consciousness in that way then its fortunate, and the fact that that book (Midnight’s Children ... 27 years after it was published is still interesting to people, I’m very proud of that.”

Salman Rushdie discusses his knighthood on a short, taped interview with the BBC News.

The AFP has a piece on the event here, and India’s Sify news has a brief piece on its site.

Meanwhile, Rushdie’s new book, The Enchantress of Florence, was reviewed by the Philadelphia Inquirer during the week. Reviewer Carlin Romano had this to say:

In some ways, “Enchantress” launches a successor style to now-passe magic realism—call it sardonic exoticism. On top of Rushdie’s customary wryness (one perk in Akbar’s water-park capital is “the best of all possible pools”), Rushdie takes Rabelasian risks here that will please all serious readers: those who expect sentences, and not just plots, to surprise them.

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