July 31, 2007

From on High

Jennifer Baichwal has again made a film about what photography captures and the contradictions of what it represents. Again, stills are set into motion, their impact as photographs quietly explored through their contrast with the film that houses them. If one left her critique in The True Meaning of Pictures with a greater appreciation for the complexities of encountering a culture through the limits of the documentary, Manufactured Landscapes uses the limits of documentary to illustrate the sublime scale of industry and its corrosive grip on humankind.

Edward Burtynsky's photographs of the industrial process has become a much-used lens through which to feel humankind's creative destruction. Through Baichwal's editing, his large-format scenes slide by one after another, backed by a soundtrack of electronica and chant that, recalling Ethan Rose's relentless compositions, worms its way through one's apprehension of the images. They are portraits of man-made sites the likes of which Robert Smithson, in his most audacious moments, surely dreamt.

Burtynsky's photographs are vast and saturated with their subject matter, just as the subject matter -- the systems of industry -- saturate the landscapes they both inhabit and create. Burtynsky is drawn to the symmetry of strip mines and quarries, the heaps of metals and the ruins made in the madness of progress. We are given the surreal colors of polluted waters, the lush reds of rusted steel, the thick sick blandness of cities drenched in coal dust and new constructions. The people, if they are there, are inevitably small, like some forgotten tribe never properly studied.

The film takes Burtynsky's recent China images for its focus because the changes there are so dramatic and of such a scale that they come to stand for the long history of extracting from land the resources needed to make innumerable goods.  The construction and destruction of the vast ships that circle the globe with that cargo and the appetite to both consume and make, over and over, and through it all, an exhale in the a wake of wreckage that is otherwise always out of sight. And upon it all, Baichwal throws us a furtive glimpse of Burtynsky, with tripod and camera, waiting for the right light, bending, holding his breath for that crucial instant, capturing "it."

The it is never in the photographs, though, for it is the saturation that exceeds any single shot, and it is through that feeling of an inescapable and tragic trajectory that the film achieves its affect: the chilling recognition of a twilight time. There is no eschatology, no threat of an eleventh hour, but rather the Boschesque vision of being overtaken by the plot of history. There there is nothing stilled, no singular images, just the interlacing of weave of the system.

July 19, 2007

1918, 1938, 2008

No ghost is dragged onto the ramparts to suggest a tragic direction more than Neville Chamberlain. Citing the Munich Agreement of 1938 is now a matter of rhetorical reflex, routinely used by those with militarist intentions and sensibilities to defend those intentions and sensibilities as the "evil" necessitated by Evil. Hitler was "appeased" with dire consequences, the argument goes, suggesting at the same time that the true hope for peace in our time lies somewhere beyond the horizon of an endless war.

Chamberlain, upon returning from Munich said, "The real triumph is that it has shown that representatives of four great Powers can find it possible to agree on a way of carrying out a difficult and delicate operation by discussion instead of by force of arms, and thereby they have averted a catastrophe which would have ended civilisation as we have known it."

True enough, the catastrophe came anyway. And that it came with such ferocity has made "Munich!" the great war cry of confrontation. In Israel, "Munich" has long been the potent symbol for enemies of the state: of both the diplomatic ones within and the Arab ones without. In the U.S. this past week, John McCain accused those urging a new direction for the disaster that is Iraq of likewise contributing the U.S.'s defeat, of being aligned with Evil, of ensuring the catastrophes to come. His Republican colleague Lindsay Graham argued for the justness of the war and the importance of its continuation with the chant: "let our soldiers win."

McCain was conjuring Chamberlain to his (and President Bush's) Churchill. Instead of Hamletic anxiety, he was suggesting, we need the resoluteness of Fortinbras, who leads his men into Poland, thousands upon thousands, to fight for a plot of land not big enough to bury them.

Graham, unwittingly, was proving the horrific rightness of another historical parallel. The lesson is also German, but the date is 1918 and not 1938. The Weimar Republic of Germany, which produced Hitler's Reich, was infused with the spirit of vengeance: in 1918 the elites has been betrayed by the masses; masses infected as they were by forces that would have to be rooted out. Defeat in the Great War could be paid for by purging the enemies within. Victory had been denied. If only the soldiers had been allowed to win, the bitter logic goes, Germany would have rightfully prevailed. The dangers of delusion.

At the same time Senator Graham was claiming the possibility of victory in a hopeless pit of death, a conservative commentator on another Sunday morning show, was making the following dire point about such delusion:

"We are in danger of having . . . a Weimar moment in our politics. German politics was embittered disastrously by the belief that they were on the cusp of victory in 1918 and were stabbed in the back by the civilian leadership who didn't understand Germany's military prowess. There is a constituency in this town that believes we're winning in Iraq, that we have at last figured it out, that the indexes of success are there, and that if we pull out and have the kind of disastrous consequences--telegenic disastrous consequences we could have--we're going to have people saying, 'we had it won and threw it away.'"

He did not articulate the consequences. He did not have to. In the carefully managed state of emergency which is U.S. politics, history is called upon to play its role: the first time as catastrophe, the second time as tragedy, always with a difference, and yet always with too many bodies to be taken up off the stage.

July 7, 2007

From our love there will be born poetry

I know the cost in pain, in sweat,
And in burning sunlight on the blazing hillside,
Of creating my life, of giving me a soul:
I shall not be ungrateful or malevolent,
For I feel a boundless joy when I flow
Down the throat of a man worn out by his labor;
His warm breast is a pleasant tomb
Where I'm much happier than in my cold cellar.

--Charles Baudelaire, "The Soul of Wine"

In his famous response to a draft of Walter Benjamin's Baudelaire study, Theodor Adorno takes issue with a critical method he calls "immediate materialism." This "anthropological" approach manifests itself, Adorno says, in Benjamin's reading of Baudelaire's poem, "The Soul of Wine" (L'Ame du Vin). The reading, according to Adorno, moves recklessly "from the duty on wine to L'Ame du Vin," thereby imputing "to phenomena precisely that kind of spontaneity, palpability and density which they have lost in capitalism."

For Benjamin, to read Baudelaire meant finding the "specific gravity" of "intoxication," the thresholds of difference between the realm of commodity and labor, and the acts, gestures, and states of being (be they poetic dream or "hopelessly depleted existence") that mark the modern world. Where Baudelaire writes

For I feel a boundless joy when I flow
Down the throat of a man worn out by his labor;
His warm breast is a pleasant tomb
Where I'm much happier than in my cold cellar.
Do you hear the choruses resounding on Sunday
And the hopes that warble in my fluttering breast?
With sleeves rolled up, elbows on the table,
You will glorify me and be content;
I shall light up the eyes of your enraptured wife,
And give back to your son his strength and his color;
I shall be for that frail athlete of life
The oil that hardens a wrestler's muscles.

Benjamin responds, "The son of the proletarian figures in 'L'Ame du vin' with the words, 'this frail athlete of life' -- an infinitely sad correspondence of modernity and antiquity." Movement and hardening, athleticism and frailty, the faint chorus of hope and desperation, all of it there for the sake of clinging to what is needed for the next day, a frail victory against the measure of loss, medicine for the march of time and its ceaseless present.

Johnathan Nossiter's documentary of wine, Mondovino (2004), can be encapsulated by its balancing of the rightfully critical, but ultimately reductive, impulse of Adorno, and Benjamin's insistence on taking seriously the discrete enigmas of existence as they emerge. Nossiter's wandering-eye camera presents wine as a potent commodity and a symbol of sad correspondences. It is a global product carrying all the complex residues of spontaneity, palpability and density in an age of late capital.

On its face, the film is an indictment of globalization's destruction of craft. Even without the backdrop of the European Social Forum for economic justice, this theme dominates. The age-old vintners are victims of the corporate mentality that markets soil, sensibility, tradition, and family heritage; all of it as shallow as slogans. It is easy to see how the rush to marketability erases the "soul" of the wine, its relation to the earth from which it emerges, or its terroir, which is now no longer discernible to the tongue. Terroir itself becomes an empty term used to sell a region when the wine has ceased to have any properties that tie it to its supposed origin. The idiosyncratic tastes of the deeply influential wine critic Robert Parker dictate the standards, the world-wide reach Napa Valley's Robert Mondavi 's winery helps homogenize the environments of reproduction, and wine consultants like Michel Rolland ensure that the products of France, Italy, Argentina, etc. all fall into the californicated expectations of the buying public. Where new oak casks were never used before, now they are ubiquitous. In another Benjaminian sense, the film might, at first look, seem to be about wine's lost aura.

But if the film is about the smothering sameness bred by capital, it is also about the drama of generations shaped by the best and the worst of inheritances: sun-drenched lands and history, all that beauty part of a world economy that presses fast and hard at the roots. Whether it is the Mondavi boys or the old, European families, it is inevitably the sons who falter, wholly unable to find the beauty of the gift given, made graceless by wrongheaded visions of what is necessary and viable.

Nossiter is absolutely deft in this regard. The Mondavis are shown as the husks of a father's forming ressentiment. At the same time, many of the older families are grotesque caricatures of elite entitlement, so many of those wine-making families having prospered under fascist rulers and now peddling their wine as the spirit of (a tired) authenticity. They betray the pitiful fragility of old aristocratic orders that have seen those entitlements dissolve under the onslaughts of the consultants, the journalists, the market, new ideas.

Still, in it all, the spontaneous possibility of wine as a love object. Adorno said it could not exist. Benjamin asked how it could, and why it would, given the circumstances. Nossiter shows it in brief moments. There is the tired drink of the old French father who may be losing his estate to his son's new methods, but who stands beside his daughter and with her --their sensibilities like trampled halos in a fallen world -- tastes and measures the extraction from his casks with great care. He shows it too in the only time we truly see Nossiter in front of the camera, drinking the homemade wine of an indigenous Argentinian man removed from the economy of labels and new method. He wears an eruptive and enigmatic smile at the taste and the gift.

"Vegetal ambrosia, precious grain scattered
By the eternal Sower, I shall descend in you
So that from our love there will be born poetry,
Which will spring up toward God like a rare flower!"

July 4, 2007

The Ambiguities of Independence

Two legal cases in early July: the commuted sentence of Scooter Libby in the U.S. and the re-incarceration of Mordechai Vanunu in Israel. The former was protected from the consequences of obstructing justice, a reward for helping the state to leak its intelligence secrets and confuse the public about threats beyond it. The latter is again in prison for communicating with "foreigners" after having, in 1986, told the truth about Israel's nuclear capabilities to the Times of London. One helped disseminate mis-information about nuclear threats to invite a war and another exposed the very real existence of a program that was developing them.

Libby will surely be pardoned, and in the meantime feted as martyr, financially rewarded for being the good soldier, and come to be a symbolic reminder of the grace afforded to those who stand steadfast with power. Vanunu was kidnapped in Rome by the Mossad, tried secretly for treason, and spent the better part of the last 21 years -- more than eleven in a tortuous, solitary confinement -- under arrest for betraying Israel's desire to keep its nuclear program and capabilities "ambiguous." It seems unlikely he will be allowed to leave prison and then, as is his stated wish, to leave Israel; the basis for his "freedom" has consistently been that he refrain from any contact with anyone not Israeli, and it is this encampment of his existence that he rejects. Surely there is the wish for some Devil's Island onto which he might be dropped.

But Libby's freedom and Vanunu's sacrifice are in view, reminders of the dictatorial impulses of democracies that forge themselves out of the heat of so-called emergencies.

A year after Eichmann in Jerusalem appeared, Hannah Arendt offered a more general theory of "Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship." She writes there of the weapon of "irresponsibility": a moral act that is responsible not to the law, not the oaths of power, but to the dignity of being human. It is a fine philosophy. The current horrors of the world's power, embodied by those two men passing through the legal systems of the U.S. and Israel, makes it seem as dead as dust.