Friday, September 12, 2003

Despotic Malcolm finally gets his Ruth Sobotka fantasy 

Though there's quite a diverse spattering of interesting films doing the cut-throat, mincing-machine rounds of recent international film festivals (Venice, Toronto, etc) - for instance, look out for Jane Campian's graphically explicit, lower Manhatten-set serial-killer thriller In The Cut [expected to be this season's "most talked about movie"], Stephen Fry's Bright Young Things [with its Oscar Wilde visits 1930s Gosford Park ambiance], Russian director Andrei Zvygatinsev's The Return [ an intimate, almost metaphysical study of rebellion against parental authority that art houses the world over will pick as one of this year’s favourites], Sokurov's Father and Son [which will undoubtedly bomb in the US due to its uneasy incestual homoeroticism], and Italian director Marco Bellocchio's Good Morning, Night [a psychological study of terrorist group the Red Brigades, and their kidnapping of Aldo Moro in 1978] - here's a total fried lemming from Altman [contrasting unfavourably with his excellent Gosford Park ] that will do for - Chicago - ballet what Pret a Porter did for - nakedly - pregnant panty lines, though at least its got A Clockwork Orange's Alex, though now evolved into a bolshy big burly auld Burgess 21st Chapter bastard ... [I'm imagining Kubrick's second wife, ballerina Ruth Sobotka "dancing in the rain" with a "facile cocky bravura" Malcolm McDowell in a film that Kubrick - though he had considered another collaboration with Ruth after Killer's Kiss - was never to make] ...

The Company

Dan Fainaru in Toronto 10 September 2003

Dir. Robert Altman. US-Germany. 2003. 112mins.

A feast for balletomanes, but with very little else to offer the rest of the audience, Robert Altman’s new film may be a splendid promo reel for Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet Company. But do not expect anything like his brilliant forays into American music in Nashville, or American cinema in The Player, which went beyond the confines of their respective themes to deliver fascinating insights into the American experience as a whole. Consisting mostly of lavishly photographed rehearsals and the subsequent performances of the same pieces before live audiences, with titbits of inconsequential dialogue inserted in-between to provide a semblance of dramatic continuity, the picture will be evidently carried through its original release by the general curiosity generated by Altman films. Neve Campbell’s fans will also be interested to see her realise her dream and become a prima ballerina. But once past the first glow, its dramatic slimness will make it difficult to crossover into a more extensive distribution.

Following a number of stage productions from the preparatory phase to their actual presentation, this typical backstage look at the work of a ballet troupe skims over most of the predictable ingredients of the genre but never really bothers to go into details on any of them.

As expected, there is a genial but despotic artistic manager. Alberto Antonelli (Malcolm McDowell), who runs the company with a fist of iron in a glove of silk, threatening and cajoling, demanding and comforting, sympathetic but ruthless when the need arises, is a man whose vision is clearly that the good of the company is the only priority in sight. And there are the heartaches of the rising young dancer, Ry (Neve Campbell), who is dumped in the first reel by her dancing partner and ends up, by the last reel in the loving arms of an alluring assistant chef (James Franco).

And that’s about all there is, in terms of significant dramatic personae, though, predictably enough, all the classic cliches associated with performing arts occur in the course of the film, from torn ligaments that change career patterns, through tantrums of veterans who fear for their status and are terrified by any change that might alter familiar routines, to budget restrictions, mentioned as a factor but apparently never put into real practice, at least not in this picture.

Tempers flare once in a while, dancers’ agents interfere, stars demand promotion. But there is nothing really serious to endanger the smooth operation of the company and its regular stream of premieres.

Altogether, Altman has chosen, for reasons of his own, to avoid any deeper exploration of many elements that he does bring up in the course of the film. The star system, which exists in the world of ballet as much as in any of the other performing arts, is consistently ignored, or if mentioned, immediately stamped upon as a minor issue. While alluded to, the economic complexities of keeping such a costly, and relatively restricted, art form going are quickly forgotten. The general notion promoted here is that dancers are idealistic dreamers who happily accept the gruelling demands of their profession only for the sake of art and momentary glory, despite the insignificant financial rewards. A bit optimistic, given the public knowledge of what life on the stage is like, anywhere.

The network for the Altman trademark orchestration of multiple story lines is laid down here as expected but never developed, replaced instead by the focus on two characters who have nothing particularly original about them. McDowell plays Antonelli with a kind of facile cocky bravura, bordering on the ridiculous when he is lecturing his troupe on the psychological motivations of a dance, and it is strange to see the character, specifically referred to as an Italian-American, speaking so often with such a distinctive British accent.

As for Campbell, who launched the entire project and is credited as one of the producers, her past training with National Ballet of Canada comes in handy and she acquits herself honourably of the most difficult part in her role, the dancing chores. Franco, one of the leads in Altman’s next project, to be dedicated to the NY theatre scene, is under-utilised as her love interest.

The most impressive and memorable presence in the film is the Joffrey Ballet Company itself, and the most rewarding moments - luckily there is an abundance of them - are the dance scenes, in rehearsal but most particularly on stage. The lively, inventive, colourful and always enjoyable Joffrey productions featured in this film are gloriously served by Altman’s technical crew and it is a pity that no credits were made available in Toronto for the choreography and the production of the stage shows, nor for that matter, of the dancers, many of whom assume small, but significant dramatic parts. Without them, there would be no film at all.

Main cast: Neve Campbell, Malcolm McDowell, James Franco, Emma Harrison
Prod cos: Marly Pictures, CP Medien, Capitol Films, Killer Films, SRO Entertainment, Sandcastle 5 Productions
Int’l sales: Capitol Films
Prods: David Levy, Joshua Astrachan, Neve Campbell, Robert Altman, Christine Vachon, Pamela Koffler
Co-prods: Jane Barclay, Sharon Harel, Hannah Leader, John Wells, Roland Pellegrino, Dieter Meyer, Stefan Jones, Jonas McCord
Scr: Barbara Turner
Ed: Geraldine Peroni
Prod des: Gary Baugh
Music: Van Dyke Parks
Sound: Michael Berry, Eliza Paley, Peter Glossop

Wednesday, September 10, 2003

Protest Comparisons With Vietnam 

An anti-war activist recently wrote:

Soldiers like US marine Lance Corporal Stephen Funk who refused to report for duty in January and has since been sentenced to 6 months in jail, are speaking at anti-war rallies across the States. Obviously the situation is not identical to Vietnam where there was an organised national liberation struggle, but parallels are being drawn.

I can certainly understand why many activists should feel this way, that current efforts are seemingly somewhat lagging behind similar organised anti-war struggles during the Vietnam era, a comparison that is invoked with increasing regularity in protest discourse. However, and rest assured, there is around the world and in the United States opposition to the present wars (Iraq principally, but allied with those in Afghanistan, in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, etc) that is at a level which is completely unprecedented in US or European history both in scope and in the wide diversity of parts of the general population it draws on. Indeed, there appears never to have been a time that I am aware of when there was such massive opposition to a war before it had even started, an opposition that continues to grow as that war now takes its ugly further course into devastating civil war. And it extends itself far more broadly in that it's not just opposition to war but also a fundamental - and disillusioning - lack of faith in the leaderships (Bush, Blair, Sharon, and their lapdog minions), along with their - though still repressed - deeper general malaise with western contemporary, postmodern consumer culture.

So the demonstrations that have occured to date - before the war/invasion, during it, and since Bush announced his Hollywood-film-spectacle virtual/hyperreal victory - that has never happened before. If you compare it with the Vietnam war (again, the US never even declared that illegal invasion as a war, just as a "police action", a defence of South Vietnam etc), the current stage of the war with Iraq is approximately like that of circe, or just after, 1962, with the US bombing of South Vietnam and driving millions of people into concentration camps and chemical warfare and so on, but there was no real protest anywhere at that time. In fact, so little token protest that virtually nobody can even remember.

The serious protests didn't actually begin to develop until several years later when large parts of south Vietnam were being subjected to saturation bombing by B-52s, hundreds of thousands of troops were there [over half a million], hundreds of thousands of civilians and soldiers had been killed, and then even after that, when the protests finally did develop in the US and Europe it was mostly focused on a side-issue - the bombing of north Vietnam [no public knowledge, then, of the secret bombings of Cambodia and Laos] which was undoubtedly a crime, though it was far more intense in the south which was always the US target. And more to the point, the introduction of the Draft, around the time of the Tet Offensive in 1967/68 (though only around 70,000 were ever actually finally drafted) - it's introduction sealed public opinion against the war, once again a very real current possibility in the present US (see this article, for example: Neocons Admit They've Blown It - Is the Draft Next?). By historical analogy, we can also see the effect of Britain's attempt to introduce conscription or the draft in Ireland during WWI: almost the whole population immediately responded by voting for Sinn Fein in the subsequent General Election, in the process wiping out all the existing political parties - and the rest, as they say, is - war of independence then civil war - history ...

Furthermore, as Chomsky has recently stated [I'm collating here from a number of interviews]:

When the first Bush administration came in 1989 parts of their intelligence assessment were leaked, and they're very revealing about what happened in the subsequent 10 years about precisely these questions ... The parts that were leaked said that it was about military confrontations with much weaker enemies, recognising they were the only kind we were going to be willing to face, or even exist. So in confrontations with much weaker enemies the United States must win "decisively and rapidly" because otherwise popular support will erode, because it's understood to be very thin. Not like the 1960s when the government could fight a long, brutal war for years and years practically destroying a country without any protest ... The main attack was against South Vietnam and there was never any serious protest against that ... Not now. Now they have to win. They have to terrify the population to feel there's some enormous threat to their existence and carry out a miraculous, decisive and rapid victory over this enormous foe and march on to the next one.

The more protest there is the more tightening there's going to be, that's routine. When the Vietnam War protests really began to build up, so did the repression. I was very close to a long jail sentence myself and it was stopped by the Tet Offensive. After the Tet Offensive, the establishment turned against the war and they called off the trials. Right now a lot of people could end up in Guantanamo Bay and people are aware of it.

If there's protest in a country then there's going to be repression. Can they get away with it? - it depends a lot on the reaction. In the early 50s in the US, there was what was called Macarthyism and the only reason it succeeded was that there was no resistance to it. When they tried the same thing in the 60s it instantly collapsed because people simply laughed at it so they couldn't do it. Even a dictatorship can't do everything it wants. It's got to have some degree of popular support. And in a more democratic country, there's a very fragile power system. There's nothing secret about this, it's history. The question in all of these things is how much popular resistance there's going to be.

Actually, there is another article in the New York Times that describes how the [current] professors are antiwar activists, but the students aren't. Not like it used to be, when the students were antiwar activists. What the reporter is talking about is that around 1970 - and it's true - by 1970 students were active antiwar protesters. But that's after eight years of a U.S. war against South Vietnam, which by then had extended to all of Indochina, which had practically wiped the place out. In the early years of the war - it was announced in 1962 - U.S. planes are bombing South Vietnam, napalm was authorized, chemical warfare to destroy food crops, and programs to drive millions of people into "strategic hamlets," which are essentially concentration camps. All public. No protest. Impossible to get anybody to talk about it. For years, even in a place like Boston, a liberal city, you couldn't have public meetings against the war
because they would be broken up by students, with the support of the media. You would have to have hundreds of state police around to allow the speakers like me to escape unscathed. The protests came after years and years of war. By then, hundreds of thousands of people had been killed, much of Vietnam had been destroyed. Then you started getting protests.

Mainstream discourse ensures that all of this is wiped out of history, out of the - popular - historical record, because it tells too much of the truth. The historical reality is that the Vietnam anti-war movement involved years and years of hard work among an initially fairly small group of people, mostly young, which finally succeeded in catalysing, orchestrating and expanding an effective protest movement. Clearly, today, it is far beyond that stage. But such people as the New York Times reporter whose article Chomsky cites above cannot even begin to comprehend that particular historical reality. And it is more than likely that the reporter is being genuine [much like the widespread mindset today that somehow, paradoxically, can be anti the Vietnam war ("because "obviously" it was wrong, and shure, didn't we lose anyway?") but pro the Iraq war, oblivious slaves to the status quo of contemporaneous establishment - political and media - norms]. The reporter, certainly, is essentially articulating precisely what I think she, as with numerous others, was taught - that there was a huge antiwar movement - unlike today, of course - because the actual documented history has to be wiped out of people's consciousness. Under no circumstances are you to be permitted to learn that prolonged, dedicated, committed effort can ultimately provoke significant transformations in consciousness and understanding.

As Chomsky concludes, That's a very dangerous thought to allow people to have.