Monday, September 27, 2010

Miral, dir. Julien Schnabel, 2010

For all of the critics'  perceived problems with Schnabel's latest film, Miral is an important film for a number of reasons. Among all the films that are made, at the checkpoints, along the road to Ramallah, in the settlements, is is unusual to find a representation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that goes back in history to 1948 and the occupation of Jerusalem. Like so much of contemporary cinema, films made in and about the region have as their reference points, conflicts of the past ten years. Again and again, they are either set in the past, or more likely, focussed on the impasse of the present. The fact that Schnabel's film is historical, that he appropriates from the archives and gives a historical context to the devastating state of affairs in Gaza makes it unusual and important. As the film travelled through generations of women and men who are held hostage to a gradually worsening situation, I remembered the scathing criticisms of Spielberg's Schindler's List. Like that film, Miral may be filled with fabrication and distortion of the facts, but also like Spielberg's blockbuster, if the film makes its impression on the world stage and it can raise audience awareness of the history of the Israeli-Palestine conflicts then that world will be a better place.
Hiam Abbass as Hind Husseini 

Miral is also unusual when it shows the whole spectrum of life for women in the occuppied territories. The film is based on a biographical novel by Rula Jebreal. We see Hind Husseini, the wealthy, liberated woman who establishes a school for orphan girls in the middle of Jerusalem in 1948. And then there is Miral's mother, Nadia, the young girl who is raped, runs away, ends up a whore and an alcoholic before finding herself in prison for the hitting a Jewish woman in the nose. And Nadia's cell mate, a nurse who sets the Jordanian soldiers free and is caught only to find herself part of a terrorist cell, placing a bomb in a movie theater, and as a result, spending three lifetimes in jail. And Miral, the young idealist who is both narrative vehicle for the film's immense sweep and the ruse through which the humanness of all the other characters is enabled. Thanks to Hind's insistence that her girls take the message of empowerment to ghettoed settlements, Miral sees the injustice and senseless violence against her people for the first time, and with her, we are given insight into the breadth of life for women and girls in the occupied territories. While Schnabel represents the multiplicity of what it is to be a woman caught in the crossfire of these wars and conflicts, he strikes a balance between showing us enough of their lives to ensure its impact and narrative consistency, but not too much that we become lost in the emotional individuality of any candidate. Even Miral herself is somewhat distant from the film's emotional center at times. There is something obvious about the spectrum of women covered by Schnabel, but what really impresses is that he manages the diversities of the cast without overburdening his narrative. Even his introduction of the Jewish girl (in the illustration of the well-worn idea that the Jewish people themselves are not always responsible for the hostilities) a girlfriend of Miral's cousin, a liberated, western and modern in her secularity, even her introduction is, for the most part handled with subtlety. 

That said, I have to agree with critics such as Geoffrey Macnab of The Independent, that the style is, for the most part, overdone. Schnabel's use of the handheld camera, rack focus and out of focus can be, at times, gratuitous, and thereby distract from the sensibility of the film's subject matter. However, I do have to admit, Miral is aesthetically gorgeous (as should be a film from an artist-turned-filmmaker) and it is so unusual to find this kind of style in a film about the Palestinian struggle, that it makes it refreshing.

Miral is far from a perfect film, and is actually filled with flaws. For example, being the admirer of Willem Dafoe that I am, I kept wondering where he went. In a scene close to the beginning he meets Hind Husseini at a Christmas party, comes back to visit her as a UN Colonel and helps her get through the barriers in Jerusalem closed to Palestinians in 1967. Despite their warm embrace and the expectation that something more is going to happen between them, he is never to return again. It is as though he was tied up with other commitments and not able to return to the set for his later scenes.

And then there is the question of the film's bias. Never does Miral concede that the blockades, the violence, the injustice are the fault of anyone but the Jews who came to take over the ancient world, giving them a land of their own, after World War II. This has been tipped to cause a fracas and potentially preclude the film's success in the United States (read: the Oscars). This may well be the case, but then again, I don't ever remember seeing a film that claimed the Palestinians were to blame for their own oppression, and the effective destruction of their lives and culture. So why attack Miral? Because of course, it has the potential for success, and therefore, to have critical impact on the deeply zionist persuasions of the United States. If for no other reason than this, the film must be supported. 

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Exiled in Paris in September

A Theatre Group called "Gypsies" plays on on inhumanity of the deportations

In France I have come to understand, in the words of one of its greatest writers, that I carry my exile within me. In France I have come to understand that my exile is not a discomfort of place or of city, of culture or of language, but that the vexation and dilemma of being an outsider is imagined. It is imagined in the sense that exile is the refuge I choose from those structures that are erected as a matter of survival and self-definition by all societies, not just in France. Albert Camus’ exiles, whether they be painters, Algerians, intellectuals, poor or adulterers oscillate between belonging and exile, being rooted and rootless, between speech and silence against the background of a war in Algeria, the demise of a colonial empire, and intense hostility to the "other." The social structures that offer Camus’ exiles a public identity are, apparently, more immediate, thus more inviting of conflict and aggression than are those of the France in which I live today. And Camus' exiles are, not like me, they are not white, middle-class, educated women carrying Australian passports.
Luigi Loir, La Place de la République, 
And yet, September in Paris began with contention and conflicts that reinforce my sense of estrangement in France. September in Paris reminded me that the Algerian war is not so far from the minds of a country that claims to be a socialist refuge from the politics that breed terrorism, religious extremism, racial depravity, for example. Much as I was frustrated at not being able to go under the bridges along the canal because the thoroughfares had been taken over by gypsy communities, I was horrified when Sarkozy and his cronies expelled them. And like everyone from my neighbors and Human Rights groups to European Commission representatives, I remain disgusted and dismayed at the government’s racism and xenophobia in the very thin guise of “national security.” That said, the government of the passport I carry cannot be held up as in any way different: The ongoing protest against refugees to the vast land of Australia is hardly an example of racial tolerance. Despite temptations to proclaim otherwise, racial discrimination and social prejudice is not a peculiarly French thing. So in September, I have come to realize, that’s not why I continue to identify as an outsider in Paris. Like Camus’ protagonists, it is the turning of imaginary differences into real antagonism against which I struggle in the longing to belong. It is the impossible reconciliation between my beliefs, my language as an individual and the voices of those who frame the community in which I live that keeps me in exile.
A lonely bird on the steps of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France
For all this tension that makes integration impossible, in September I am reminded of what is particularly Parisian, at least, what gives Paris a vitality in the face of such oppression, discrimination and intolerance: the response of the Parisians. It was a response that offers new ways of belonging in September. The city ground to a halt, the metros were running one every ten minutes, and cars were off the road (no small feat for a city in which the car is the privileged form of transport). And the party began. From Place de la République to Place de la Nation, from the landmark that remembers the anticipation of the revolution to the square marking its success, Parisians vociferously protested the absurdity of its government’s latest expulsions. And then, because it is Paris, the demonstrations continued, the following week, while energy was still high, against the raising of the retirement age. If August in Paris is lazy and empty, a city at the beach, this September was heralded by the very opposite. It is this verve, this commitment and conviction to social justice that enables foreigners such as myself to exist between the belief of the people and at the opposite extreme, that of a government that despises the “other.”

Saturday, September 11, 2010

What's New at the Pompidou

Robert Rauschenberg, Oracle, 1962-1965

Georgia and I met for the first of our Friday afternoon art adventures this afternoon. And what better way to begin the new season than with a visit to the Pompidou Centre where much has changed since we were last there. We went to see the Valérie Jouve’s photographs before they come down on Monday, but after about ten minutes we both realized there must be more engaging art in the other galleries. We ended up strolling through the new hanging of the modern art collection on the fifth floor. For the most part, the works don’t look so different in their new context, but there were a couple of things that had us in awe.
Jasper Johns, Figure 5, 1960

For me the most exciting change, has to be the bringing of Rauschenberg’s Oracle sculptures out of the closet. The five piece interactive sculpture is displayed together with one of my favorite grey paintings in the Pompidou collection: Jasper Johns’ encaustic and newspaper on canvas,  Figure 5 from 1960. On an adjacent wall Richard Stankiewicz Panel, 1955, a collection of rusty metal pieces on a panel joins the conversation. Of course this was the room where I felt most at home. In spite of the ice-cold grey art works, this was the room that I immediately warmed to, but not only because of my fascination with artworks in grey. On entering this room, I was struck by how the three works spoke to each other, each highlighting aspects of the other that might otherwise go unnoticed. The everydayness of the objects, the fact that the sculpted metal pieces might have been found in a junk yard, of no use to anyone other than the eccentric collector, forced me to participate in the quotidian, and the elements of bricolage in Johns’ encaustic. The withering of technology and machines as it is expressed in the sculptures, at an historical moment (the late 1950s/early 1960s) when such technologies are beginning to come into their own, also turns Johns’ Figure 5 into a flat, painterly composition that proudly oversees the aging, corroding objects. For the painting has a certainty and a coherence, within its frame it is contained and complete, by comparison. This had never been my understanding of Figure 5 when it was hung outside in the main hall, as it was until now. 

Robert Rauschenberg, Oracle, 1062-1965 (detail)

Each of the five pieces in Oracle apparently has a hidden radio that at one time the viewer was invited to tune to the station he or she desired. The radio broadcasts came together to create a sound environment, a collage of sounds that spoke to each other, not just to us and to Johns’ painting. When it was first assembled — the car door, ventilation duct, a window, a stairway and a water trough all on wheels — the interactive assemblage had a life of its own: able to move, to be heard, manipulated by the visitor, unexpectedly and unpredictably changing the space of the museum at any given moment. Such was for Rauschenberg the impact of these technologies on our everyday lives. Of course, the objects in Rauschenberg’s dynamic sculptural environment were no longer everyday once he exhibited them; they were clearly and carefully engineered for his sophisticated claims about life in a machine age, when machines no longer function as was their manufacturers’ intention.

And despite the dynamism and interactivity of Oracle in its conception and early installations, today in the Centre Pompidou, the piece is static, silent and visual only. It sits in the centre of the room, the visitor kept at a distance by the museum’s security measures. Oracle thus somehow loses its motion in time, becoming a testimony to a moment in the past when artists such as Rauschenberg insisted on bringing art to the public, an era when art created from the objects and phenomena in our midst were made to be integrated into our experience of the world. And then when Oracle reflects back at the aesthetic of Johns’ Figure 5, even that once living, breathing encaustic interacting with scraps of newspaper is also brought to a halt, and becomes fixed within its frame. 

And so the conversation between these works might be set in motion to illuminate and animate each other, but their conversation is also in the past tense. Perhaps I expect too much when I want to be included in that conversation? Afterall, I live in an age when scrap metal and other found objects are deified as art, when the artwork as an oracle of my own everyday world is a thing of the past

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Still Not Looking at Pictures

Peter Bruegel, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, c. 1565
As I sit thinking about not looking, I began my day with with Bruegel's Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, and I am finishing it, as has so often been the case, with Velasquez. Bruegel's peasant is so intent on his daily work that he fails even to look up when the disobedient Icarus first gets too close to the sun, and then falls to the sea. This dramatic and mythological tale is of no concern to the ploughman, as he, like me most of the time, is too caught up in the ordinariness of the work before him to even think about turning to witness the disaster. He is the perfect example of "not looking:" he stands in for our indifference to the death and destruction, to the suffering and injustice of those around us, even as their representation is right before our eyes. And yet, despite the seeming relevance of Brueghel's peasant, it's Velasquez who seems to have the first and last word (or should I say brushstroke) on what it means to look and not look in visual representation.
Las Hilanderas, Velasquez, 1657

Everything I read on the topic, and everywhere I turn, there is Las Meninas, as though the Infanta is calling to me, as though she wants me to look at her, like Icarus no doubt would have liked Bruegel's people to notice him. I saw Las Meninas last summer in Madrid, in fact, I went to Spain especially to see it, and while there got caught in the spell of Las Hilanderas (The Spinners) in the Prado. At the time I was interested in grey – caught up like the ploughman in what lay before me, I was writing my book on grey painting. Before Las Hilanderas I was struck by the background of the picture plane: while the foreground is of a passionate, devastating red, it was the background that drew me, a background in grey. The grey is fascinating because it behaves itself as a canvas which makes possible Velasquez’ lighting of the scene that takes place against it. Seeing for myself how he achieved this was a thrill and made the pilgrimage there worthwhile. But of course, I was meant to be looking at Las Meninas, the painting I had read about, written about, heard about and dreamed about since my days in smoke-filled undergraduate seminar rooms.

Las Meninas, Velasquez, 1656

In his probably canonical essay, "Not Looking at Pictures," E.M Forster catches me out. At least, that's how it feels. Forster doesn't say anything we don’t already know, simply that we spend most of our time not looking at pictures. He says that when standing before a picture, we see ourselves. We look into it as though it were a mirror of our own petty obsessions, our desires, and we start daydreaming, start thinking of our own self-important ideas, and just like the ploughman, all the things that need to be done before day's end. And when we behave like this before an image such as Las Meninas, we shut down and shut off to all possibility of what the picture has to offer.  It’s difficult to argue with that. How many times have I seen and overheard visitors  in museums discussing  the color of a Renoir fabric as the exact same one they want for their curtains? Or the man who sat next to me at the Rothko exhibit in London and pronounced he could paint those canvases. It’s all about me, the viewer. There is a lovely line in Forster’s essay where he quotes a picture, any picture who, dismayed at the viewer’s distraction and daydreaming, calls out to the viewer: “What have your obsessions got to do with me?” …”I am neither a theatre of varieties nor a spring-mattress, but paint. Look at my paint.” Isn’t that what everyone in Las Meninas is doing? the painter? The Infanta? The dwarf? Of course, Velasquez shows and his figures say much more than this because they are, at the very same time, confronting us with "why are you looking at me, you have no right to survey me like that, I will watch you with my roving eye until you leave this room." This double-edge is of course the brilliance of Las Meninas, a painting that can't be pinned down, a painting before which we can never settle. 

Bruegel was painting in the mid-sixteenth century, Velasquez in the mid-seventeenth century, and Forster wrote of our wont not to look at pictures in 1937. It makes me wonder, what is all this talk of distraction and degenerated concentration as a result of information overload and the barrage of images in the digital age? Clearly, practices of not looking, and pictures that are ambivalent about being looked at are a much older phenomenon. Maybe it's not anything to do with our century after all?