Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Patriot Game

Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Patriot Game – dir. Arthur MacCaig. 1979. Lincoln Center.

A documentary about the conflict in Northern Ireland from a militant Marxist perspective.

capsule review of the film in the L Magazine points out that the film's main achievement was to reframe the conflict for a sizable public as a rebellion against imperialism instead of as a religious war. This is a good point, although having been raised Catholic, I am always wary of the death-cult mentality Catholicism brings to everything it touches.

Prior to the screening, the son of the filmmaker read a communiqué circulated around Britain's embassies instructing diplomats how to react to the film as it made its way through various international film festivals. The communiqué was obviously one-sided, but its critique of the film's one-sidedness had moments of truth. Not that the Unionist point of view deserves equal consideration, but the film's enthusiasm for the rebellion struck me as at times more libidinal than intellectual. I was resistant to its use of music to manipulate my emotions. I appreciate rebel songs--their propaganda value, their poetic and aesthetic value, their historical interest as the cultural expression of an oppressed people, the "soundtrack" of a moment. But I'd rather watch footage of people singing than have their singing dubbed over decontextualized footage of police brutality.

There is something adventurist about the documentary, which was MacCaig’s final project for film school in France. The voice-over narration emphasized that the IRA "usually" issued evacuation warnings to locations that they were bombing and that their tactics focused on the destruction of property rather than lives. But in instances where lives were taken, the film is somewhat glib. A bombing in which a number of civilians were killed is called a "tragedy," which comes off as insincere since the film declines to examine how this supposedly exceptional event occurred and what its ramifications were. The voice-over describes how in one bombing campaign "there were virtually no civilian casualties"--does that mean that the few deaths or injuries that did result were merely virtual? Another film that played in the Lincoln Center’s “Cinema of Resistance” series, Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance, a documentary about a 1990 standoff between the Canadian military and First Nations warriors over disputed piece of land, was similarly superficial in its passing reference to the death of a police officer in a firefight. My problem is not that I am a pacifist—on the contrary. From my point of view, the Mohawks at Kanehsatake did one thing right—they killed a cop—and then suffered a series of defeats. Maybe the IRA should have killed more people. What does the fact that they didn’t say about their strength, political will, and popular and international support? I suppose I just want to see a more thoughtful consideration of political violence, a more honest confrontation with the act of killing, a militant discourse on murder that would be something other than a sentimental reduction of politics to ethics.

Radical News Reels – dir. various. Lincoln Center.

Two radical news reels from the 1960’s critical of Lincoln Center. The first, a general discussion of the displacement by eminent domain of some 20,000 poor and working class people, primarily Latinos, by the construction of Lincoln Center. Afterwards the curator apologized for accidentally showing the Spanish-dubbed version of the newsreel instead of the English-dubbed one--unnecessary apology, since showing the Spanish-dubbed version was a more effective subversive gesture. I imagine many people there felt like me: put in my place as I strained with my middle-American’s Spanish—that mix of half-forgotten high school lessons and precious cognates kept half alive through the years by the half-unnoticed currents of Spanish print, media, and conversation that are always there in this city, just beneath the surface of English-language cognition—to comprehend the language of the people who sustain and are excluded from the world of luxury in which I dwelled, if only in my imagination, if only for an evening. The second newsreel documented a group of hipsters who protested a trash disposal crisis affecting poor neighborhoods in the city by dumping trash on the Lincoln Plaza. “The old left wanted to solve problems: we want to extend them.” It’s amazing how similar leftist hipsters today are. Then a short film by the Red Channels about occupying Wall Street, Staten Island, made about a month before the occupation of Zuccotti Park. Rife with allusions to Badiou, Tiqqun, communization, and other extremely theoretical strands of negationism and anarchism—interesting as art, seductive rather than persuasive as politics. Then two of Jem Cohen’s newsreels documenting the Occupy movement, probably the most touching and valuable cultural artifacts of that precious moment. One in particular never fails to move me. It captures with a terrible authenticity what it felt like to be there, then—the patience, the placidity, the anxiety, the levity and the weight and the grace. Next was a charming video by and about the people with the high-powered projector you saw everywhere during Occupy, here seen being hassled by the cops in a naked, petty act of politically-motivated bullying. The evening ended with some execrable excerpts from Zoe Beloff’s insipid, self-regarding, site-unspecific public stagings of Brecht’s The Days of the Commune, followed by a feeble Q&A with the various filmmakers that was so goddamn boring I had to walk out.

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