News and Features
Long before Carrie-Anne Moss rips open Val Kilmer's shirt and begins pounding his chest, providing him with a version of CPR that she must have learned from a Japanese drum troupe, the makers of Red Planet have resorted to their own thumpings and flailings, as if to resuscitate a film that's gone limp. It's a panic response, coming from people who have realized too late that the hookup of a radio would be a high point of their picture.
Their script has stuck Moss in a stricken spaceship that's orbiting Mars; by this point, her comrades Kilmer and Tom Sizemore have been marooned, incommunicado, on the planet's surface. So when the boys stumble upon an old circuit board in the dust, it's time for high-energy drama. "Let's do it!" shrieks Sizemore, as if he were starting the Indy 500. With a roar, guitars and drums begin pounding away on the soundtrack. Kilmer, in closeup, damn well solders a wire, sending a meteor shower's worth of sparks across the screen--at which point, back on the spaceship, Moss decides to strip down to a sleeveless T-shirt, giving us a much better view of her breasts.
I'm really grateful for the breasts. If not for them, I might have fallen asleep and missed the climactic scene, in which Kilmer performs a diagnostic check on a computer.
If only the makers of Red Planet had trusted in their story's essential schleppiness! Then, instead of giving us this lumbering, expensive beast, they might have realized the small but halfway-clever idea that's still dimly visible within: a story about the heroism-by-default of a spaceship janitor.
The character in question, a fellow named Gallagher, holds the job title of mechanical systems engineer; but to the rest of the personnel on this flight to Mars, that's like saying he's the guy who fixes the toilets. "It's high school," he remarks to a fellow civilian in the crew, after being brushed back by a swaggering NASA pilot. "They're the jocks, and we're the nerds." Just so. When he bumps into Moss--the ship's commander--on her way out of the unisex shower, Gallagher can think of nothing better to do than fumble with his fingers and blush. Later, when the outcome of the mission comes to rest on him, Moss has to give him a pep talk before he'll even get to his feet. Yet he's the guy who must save Earth from destruction and consummate a rendezvous with those breasts. What a role for Steve Buscemi! How the hell did it go to Val Kilmer?
He's good, of course. Kilmer is always good--but he's a guy who previously played Jim Morrison, Elvis and Batman. The only thing that's nerdlike about him is the hairdo he's been given for this picture, which is brushy and yellow and makes him look as if he's in crying need of a conditioner. Mind you, the premise of Red Planet is that all of Earth needs a conditioner. After these many years of environmental degradation, we've burned out our world and must colonize someplace else. Hence the desperate and very expensive project, in the year 2057, of sending Moss and her crew to Mars. Wouldn't it have been cheaper, as well as more practical, to institute a few conservation measures instead? No doubt. But humans, according to this movie, lack much capacity for self-discipline and forethought, and so must splurge on stupid but spectacular stunts. As if to prove this point, the producers have done their own splurging and hired Kilmer--the actorly equivalent of a rocket to Mars, compared with Buscemi's compost heap.
As they cast the lead, so too did they decide to ladle on the excitement: pounding guitars, sleeveless T-shirts, unmotivated shrieks. How were these choices made? I can venture a guess. The credits for Red Planet list three producers and two executive producers. This is a fairly standard aggregation in today's movie business; and with so many big shots keeping themselves busy on the picture, how could a mere idea survive? The story, written by a lone guy named Chuck Pfarrer, was almost sure to be buried alive; and into the dirt with it went a few other notions.
One of them might have involved some sexual role-play, based on the fact that the only females in the story are Moss, the shipboard computer (named Lucille) and a navigation robot called Amee. "She's my kind of girl," Gallagher says of the robot, just before it goes into killer mode. (It was designed for the Marines.) Somebody, maybe Pfarrer, seems to have wanted the nerdy Gallagher to feel ambivalent toward strong women: attracted to them when they shower, threatened by them when they turn into whirring kung-fu machines.
But since the production is at war with its own screenplay--have I mentioned that Red Planet is directed, more or less, by Antony Hoffman?--this kinky little idea is no better realized than the movie's religiosity. As far as I'm concerned, it's just as well that this latter theme gets only lip service. Ever since 2001: A Space Odyssey, Earthlings in Outer Space have sought God, and found light shows. At least Red Planet spares us that final cliché--though it still makes us listen to a lot of spiritual blather.
Those Deep Thoughts are provided by Terence Stamp, who manages to be the crew's world-famous scientist despite having abandoned rationalism. Science cannot provide the answers he craves, Stamp explains to a sweetly patient Kilmer, and so he has turned to religion. Kilmer obligingly spends the rest of the picture looking for a divine purpose--which doesn't seem so misguided, considering the level of scientific expertise around him. When the crew's biologist (Sizemore) discovers a life form on Mars, he cries out, "Nematodes!" Either he's forgotten his Linnaeus--nematodes are worms--or else the solution to God's mysteries is to be found not in Outer Space but in the pages of old sci-fi magazines. These creatures are clearly arthropods: the genre's usual bugs.
Fans of the platoon-in-space movie will want to know that the Mars scenery is furnished with the necessary rocks, peaks and ravines. Fans of Carrie-Anne Moss--meaning the adolescent boys, of whatever age, who admired The Matrix--will want to know that here, too, she gets to fly around. Not every actress is suited to antigravity; and so, until such time as Moss gets the chance to deliver a performance, I will congratulate her on giving good float.
As a memorial tribute to Vincent Canby, the "Arts & Leisure" section of the New York Times recently published half a page of excerpts of his prose, as selected by The Editors. Implacable beings of ominous name! With grim rectitude, they shaped a Canby in their image, favoring passages where he had laid down principles of the sort that should be cited only under capitalization. These were Sound Judgments.
For those of us who admired Mr. Canby (as the Times would have called him while he was alive, and as I will continue to call him, knowing how the style fit the man), soundness of judgment was in truth a part of his merit. A hard man to fool, he could distinguish mere eccentricity from the throes of imaginative compulsion, the pleasures of pop moviemaking from the achievements of film art; and when he was offered sentimentality in place of feeling, his heart didn't warm, it burned. These powers of discernment allowed him to bear with extraordinary grace the responsibility of being the Times critic. They also contributed a lot to his need for responsibility, since it was his sureness, as much as the institutional weight of the Times, that made Vincent Canby so influential.
That said, I confess I read him to laugh. At present, I can give only tin-eared approximations of his wisecracks--correct and ample quotation will become possible when someone smart decides to publish a Vincent Canby anthology--but I can hardly forget his review of Salome's Last Dance. This picture was the latest chapter in Ken Russell's phantasmagorical history of sex in the arts, or the arts in sex. Mr. Canby's lead (more or less): "As the bee is drawn to the flower, as the hammer to the nail, so Ken Russell was bound to get to Oscar Wilde."
I also recall Mr. Canby's description of the used car that Jim Jarmusch peddled to the title characters in Leningrad Cowboys Go America. It looked, he said, as if it had been dropped from a great height. Writing about I've Heard the Mermaids Singing, a film of relentlessly life-affirming whimsy, he claimed he'd been cornered by a three-hundred-pound elf. A typically self-regarding, show-offy performance by Nicolas Cage (was it in Vampire's Kiss?) inspired him to write that other actors must enjoy working with this man about as much as they'd welcome being shut up with a jaguar. And once, when forced to think up copy about his umpteen-thousandth formula movie, he proposed that the only way to derive pleasure from such a picture would be to play a game with yourself, betting on whether you could guess what would happen next. "As you win," he wrote, "you lose."
From these few and random examples, you may conclude that Mr. Canby's principles often emerged with a deep-voiced chuckle, and that they involved matters that went far beyond the movies. Some of these concerns were political in the specific sense, as when he gave a favorable review to Alex Cox's Walker: a film that offered a burlesque insult to US supporters of the Nicaraguan contras, in government and at the Times. His concerns were also political in a broader sense. Witness the 200 words he devoted to a little African-American picture titled Love Your Mama: a heartfelt, thoroughly amateurish movie produced in Chicago by some people who had hired an industrial filmmaker to direct their script. While quietly letting his readers know that they probably would not want to watch this film, Mr. Canby conveyed a sense that real human beings, deserving of respect, had poured themselves into the project.
Of course, the best places in which to seek Mr. Canby's principles were within the films he championed. He would have earned his place in cinema history (as distinct from the annals of journalism) had he done nothing more than support Fassbinder's work. And yet I'm not surprised that The Editors found no space to reprint Mr. Canby's writings on this crucial enthusiasm. Fassbinder, like his critic, was preternaturally alert to political and social imposture, to the bitter and absurd comedy of human relationships, and also (for all his laughter) to the pain and dignity of those who go through life being pissed on. Mr. Canby recognized in Fassbinder's work all these qualities and more (such as the presence, in the person of Hanna Schygulla, of one of cinema's great fantasy objects); but these matters seem to have been judged too unruly for an "Arts & Leisure" tribute.
Now, I've been allowed to do some work for "Arts & Leisure" and have received from my editors nothing but aid and kindness. Surely the people I've dealt with at the Times would have chosen excerpts from Mr. Canby that were funnier, sharper, more challenging. So maybe, when the Times moves to memorialize somebody as one of its own, a higher level of control takes over. It's as if the paper means to show its own best face--or rather the image it wants to see in the mirror, urbane and solid--and never mind that man in the old tweed jacket.
This tendency of the institution to eclipse the individual figures prominently in a new book by another major film critic, Jonathan Rosenbaum. By "major," I mean that Rosenbaum is highly regarded by other reviewers and film academics, and that he's gained a certain public following (concentrated in Chicago, where he serves as critic for the Reader). But if you were to ask him how he fits into American film culture in particular and US society in general, he would locate himself, quite accurately, on the margins. As his friends will tell you (I hope I may count myself among them), Rosenbaum is one of the angel-headed hipsters: a sweet-natured, guileless man, wholly in love with art and wholly longing for social justice. And for these very reasons, he has become the angry man of American film criticism, as you might gather from the title of his new work, Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Conspire to Limit What Films We Can See (A Cappella, $24).
Rosenbaum argues--"argue," by the way, is one of his favorite words--that those American writers, editors and TV producers who pretend to cover film are for the most part hopelessly self-blinkered. It's in their interest to look at only those movies that the big American companies want to promote (including the so-called independent films that have been ratified by Sundance and Miramax). So journalism collaborates with commerce, instead of acting as a check on it; informed, wide-ranging criticism gets shoved to the side; films that might have seemed like news flashes from the outside world fail to penetrate our borders; and everyone excuses this situation by claiming that "the people" are getting the dumb stuff they want. Rosenbaum is enraged that moviegoers should be viewed with such contempt; he's infuriated that well-placed journalists should justify their snobbism (and laziness) by dismissing whatever films and filmmakers they don't already know about; and he's mad enough to name names.
In Movie Wars, Rosenbaum advances his arguments by means of a crabwise motion, scuttling back and forth between general observations (which are newly composed) and case studies (many of them published before, in the Reader and elsewhere). This means that some stretches of ground are covered two or three times. I don't much mind the repetition--even when the material shows up in a second new book by Rosenbaum, his excellent, unabashedly partisan monograph on Jarmusch's Dead Man (BFI Modern Classics, $12.95). I do worry that indignation, however righteous, has begun to coarsen Rosenbaum's tone and push him into overstatement.
When Rosenbaum is at his best, his extraordinary wealth of knowledge about cinema informs an equally extraordinary power of insight into individual pictures; and both these aspects of his thinking open into frequently astute observations of the world at large. You can get Rosenbaum at his best in his Dead Man monograph and in three previously published collections: Moving Places, Placing Movies and Movies as Politics (California). By contrast, Movie Wars is a sustained polemic, with all the crabbiness that implies.
It's a welcome polemic, in many ways. Most rants against the infotainment industry are on the level of Michael Medved's godawful Hollywood vs. America; they complain, in effect, that the movies tell us too much about the world. Rosenbaum recognizes the real problem, which is that our world (filmed and otherwise) has been made to seem small. I agree with much of what he says. But when, in his wrath, he digresses to settle scores or rampages past obvious counterarguments, I begin to wish that he, too, would sometimes pretend to be urbane and solid.
"There's a hefty price tag for whatever prestige and power comes with writing for The New York Times and The New Yorker," Rosenbaum says, "and I consider myself fortunate that I don't have to worry about paying it. Film critics for those publications--including Vincent Canby and Pauline Kael...--ultimately wind up less powerful than the institutions they write for, and insofar as they're empowered by those institutions, they're disempowered as independent voices."
To which I say, yes and no. As bad as the situation is--and believe me, it's woeful--I've noticed that news of the world does sometimes break through. David Denby, in The New Yorker, may contribute to American ignorance by being obtuse about Kiarostami (as Rosenbaum notes with disdain); but then, as Rosenbaum fails to note, Stephen Holden and A.O. Scott in the Times delivered raves to Taste of Cherry and The Wind Will Carry Us. Individuals in even the most monolithic publications still make themselves heard; and the exceptional writer can manage (at least in life) to upstage an entire institution.
Rosenbaum himself has pulled off that trick at the Reader; and Vincent Canby did it at the Times. To the living critic, and all those who share his expansive view of the world, I say, "We've lost a champion. Better stop grousing and pick up the slack." And to those who mourn Mr. Canby, I say, "You can still hear his laughter. Just don't let The Editors get in the way."
The last chapter in Ring Lardner Jr.'s new memoir, I'd Hate Myself in the Morning (Nation Books), is called "Sole Survivor." When Lardner, who died October 31, wrote it he was indeed (a) the last of a family of four boys with a famous father, the humorist and sportswriter Ring Lardner; and (b) the last surviving member of the Hollywood Ten, who gained renown in 1947 when they refused to answer the House Committee on Un-American Activities' question, "Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?" They were indicted, prosecuted and convicted of contempt of Congress and sent to prison-- in Ring's case for a year.
Among the first victims of the great Red purge to come, The Ten, also known as the Unfriendly Ten, are historically important because they were willing to risk prison to help prevent it, putting First Amendment principle ahead of personal convenience.
At the time, Billy Wilder, the witty director, cruelly and unjustly said, "Of the Unfriendly Ten, only two had any talent; the other eight were just unfriendly." Ring, who had already won his first academy award for Woman of the Year, starring Katharine Hepburn, was one of the two. The other was his buddy Dalton Trumbo, the highest-paid writer in Hollywood, who went on to win an Oscar for The Brave One, a movie he wrote under the pseudonym Robert Rich.
At the time, the tabloid press and newsreels did their best to portray the Ten as obstreperous, dogmatic followers of the party line. Each of the Ten was, in fact, following his conscience, albeit they arrived at their decision on how to confront HUAC after collective deliberation with counsel, some of whom were party lawyers, others not.
Lardner's famously elegant response to the committee was a clue to how wrong that image was. "I could answer your question," he said, but "I would hate myself in the morning"--hence his memoir's title.
Even during the blacklist years, when he made his primary living writing under various pseudonyms, he never gave up on his social commitment. Thus in 1955, when Hannah Weinstein set up a production company in London and chose for its maiden effort in the new medium of television The Adventures of Robin Hood, Lardner, along with fellow blacklistees like Abe Polonsky and Walter Bernstein, leapt at the opportunity for, as he put it, commentary-by-metaphor "on the issues and institutions of Eisenhower-era America."
After he was finally graduated from the blacklist--it took twelve years--and able to write under his own name, he gave us M*A*S*H, the black comedy that was, on the surface, about life in a medical unit during the Korean war; but beneath the surface, like Joe Heller's Catch-22, it was about the absurdities and contradictions of war itself.
Although his public positions were militant, privately he was a gentle soul. His main target was often himself. He would delight in telling how he recommended to David O. Selznick that he not acquire Gone With the Wind, the highest-grossing picture of its time, "because I objected on political grounds to the glorification of slave owners and the Ku Klux Klan." When progressives praised him for his principled stand against HUAC he would observe that the Ten did the only thing they could do under the circumstances "short of behaving like complete shits."
The loss of Lardner is a loss for both The Nation and the nation. One part Marxist democrat and two parts humanist-rationalist, he stayed true to his vision to the end. A few years ago he listed in The Nation "some of the strange things Americans believe 200 years after Thomas Paine published The Age of Reason." (Typical entries: "Eating fish is good for the brain"; "There never was a Holocaust.") He felt no comment was called for. But when a reader wrote to complain that "Reason is a wonderful tool, but it is a tiny flashlight shining here and there..." Lardner responded, "What he sees as a tiny flashlight, I call, in the words of Cicero, 'the light and lamp of life.'"
In an introduction to his memoir, I call Lardner "recrimination-challenged." In fact he seemed incapable of bitterness. Although he did once say of Martin Berkeley, a screenwriter who named a record 161 names before HUAC and specialized in writing animal pictures, "I always maintained that was because he couldn't write human dialogue."
LOUIS ARMSTRONG AT 100
In 1927 a young cornetist led his band into a meticulously hilarious version of a classic composition Jelly Roll Morton had made famous, "Twelfth Street Rag." The recorded track sounds like the opening shot of a revolution--except that the revolution had already been in full swing in Louis Armstrong's head and hands for years.
Unlike most revolutions, though, from the first this one displayed an ingratiating, inviting sense of humor and charm. "Dippermouth," as his early New Orleans pals dubbed him, used the rag as a flight vehicle: As his horn fractures the tune's familiar refrains, the precise, cakewalking rhythmic values of ragtime suddenly coil and loop and stutter and dive, the aural equivalent of a bravura World War I flying ace in dogfighting form. Every time Armstrong comes precariously near a tailspin, he pulls back the control stick and confidently, jauntily, heads off toward the horizon, if not straight into another virtuosic loop-de-loop. The cut is from an astonishing series of recordings Armstrong made in 1925-28 that amount to the jazz-creating legacy of his Hot Fives and Hot Sevens, a succession of studio groups that virtually never performed live. And now, in time for his centennial--he claimed he was born in 1900 but wasn't--it's all been reissued.
The relentless joy brimming in the sound of young Satchelmouth's horn, the glorious deep-blue and fiery-red Whitmanesque yawp of it, has an undeniably self-conscious edge to it. Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray first pointed out a half-century ago that it is also the sound of self-assertion, a musical realization of the double consciousness W.E.B. Du Bois posited for African-Americans. Within this compound of power and pain, a racial revisitation of the master-slave encounter in Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, Du Bois explained that African-Americans were inevitably alienated, stood both inside and outside mainstream American culture and its norms, prescriptions, hopes, dreams. Such alienation, Du Bois pointed out, could cripple black Americans by forcing them to internalize mainstream cultural values that held them to be less than human, but it could also liberate the brightest of them. The "Talented Tenth," as he called this group, could act on their perceptions of the contradictions between the high ideals grounding basic American cultural myths (for example, that society believed "all men are created equal," as the Declaration of Independence puts it) and gritty daily reality, where blacks were not exactly welcomed into concert halls, schools, restaurants or the front of buses.
In the bell of Armstrong's barbaric (which means, in the sense Whitman inherited from Emerson, non-European) horn is the sound of a new, all-American culture being forged from the stuff of the social sidelines. In 1957 Ellison wrote to Murray,
I've discovered Louis singing "Mack The Knife." Shakespeare invented Caliban or changed himself into him. Who the hell dreamed up Louis? Some of the bop boys consider him Caliban, but if he is, he is a mask for a lyric poet who is much greater than most now writing. Man and mask, sophistication and taste hiding behind clowning and crude manners--the American joke, man.
Armstrong himself was no naïve artist; he certainly wasn't a fool. From his earliest days he saw race as a key issue in his life, his art and his country, with a wit and understanding evident in his music. As he wrote of the composer of "Twelfth Street Rag" and jazz's self-proclaimed inventor, "Jelly Roll [Morton] with lighter skin than the average piano players, got the job [at New Orleans's leading whorehouse, Lulu White] because they did not want a Black piano player for the job. He claimed he was from an Indian or Spanish race. No Cullud at all. They had lots of players in the District that could play lots better than Jelly, but their dark Color kept them from getting the job. Jelly Roll made so much money in tips that he had a diamond inserted in one of his teeth. No matter how much his Diamond Sparkled he still had to eat in the Kitchen, the same as we Blacks."
In The Omni-Americans, Murray explains how Armstrong's music limned human talents needed in the frenetic, fast-changing twentieth century. Drawn from the pioneer, Indian and slave, the key American survival skill was improvisation, the soloist's ability to mesh with his surroundings. Ellison's Invisible Man uses Armstrong's version of "Black and Blue," a tune from the 1929 Broadway play Chocolate Dandies, to demonstrate the Du Boisian nature of improvising as epistemological tool.
This was the lesson Armstrong started teaching in the Jazz Age, when flappers reigned and sexual emancipation knocked at the door of mainstream culture, when the Harlem Renaissance redefined African-Americans, when Prohibition created a nation of outlaws who, thanks to associating with booze and gangsters and the demimonde's jazz soundtrack, saw that Negroes, as they were called, were subject to legal and extralegal restrictions and prejudices more arbitrary and inane than the constitutional amendment forbidding booze.
The elastic rhythms and fiery solos on the sides by the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens spoke to these people. On tune after tune, Armstrong cavorts and leaps and capers over and around his musical cohorts with the playful self-possession of a young and cocky top cat. Nothing can hold him down. He traverses keys and bar lines and rhythms with impunity, remolding them without missing a step.
"Black and Blue"--originally written as a lament by a dark-skinned gal for her man, who's attracted to high-yellow types--made him a star. Armstrong's brilliant, forceful reading renders it as mini-tragedy, the musical equivalent of Shylock's speech in The Merchant of Venice. "My only sin," he sings in that growl that compounds the earthy humanity of the blues with an unflinching dignity (this is no grovel), "is in my skin/What did I do to be so black and blue?" The short answer: in America, nothing. The color line did it all.
Subversive and powerful, Armstrong's music was the fountainhead of the Jazz Age and the Swing Era, when jazz was America's popular music and the sounds of syncopated surprise filled the nation's dance halls while young folks skittered and twirled and flounced and leaped and broke out of lingering Victorian constraints to loose-limbed beats and blaring horns that emerged from America's Darktowns in New Orleans, New York and Chicago.
One of Armstrong's 1936 recordings is "Rhythm Saved the World." Like many, this banal tune is transformed by his syncopating personality. Its idea still echoes across America's teeming subcultures: Decades later, Parliament Funkadelic sang, "Here's my chance to dance my way out of my constrictions."
If Armstrong claimed he was born on July 4, 1900, who could blame him? As one of America's primary declarers of cultural independence--and interdependence--he should have been. But in his rich biography Satchmo, Gary Giddins (who insists that all American music emanates from Armstrong) proves that Louis's birth date was August 4, 1901. Armstrong and his sister were born in a hard district of New Orleans; their father left before either could remember him. In his early years Armstrong was raised by his grandmother, whom he credited with the Emersonian values--hard work, self-reliance, artistic daring coupled with personal amiability--that guided him. His mother may or may not have been a prostitute for a while; Louis returned to live with her when he was 5.
At 7 he quit school and went to work for a Jewish family, the Karmofskys, and picked up his first instrument--a tin horn. He'd been dancing and singing on the street for pennies with other kids, but working coal wagons with the Karmofsky sons, he learned to blow the cheap horn by putting his fingers together in front of the tube (he'd pulled off the mouthpiece). The boys encouraged him, their clients loved his melodies, and Little Louis, as he was known, had found his calling.
On January 1, 1913, he was busted for firing his stepfather's pistol, and sentenced to the Colored Waif's Home. There he joined the band and got his first musical training, which he characteristically never forgot. According to clarinet great Sidney Bechet, who in the 1920s was Armstrong's only peer as a virtuosic improviser, the cornet-playing young Louis mastered the chops-busting clarinet solo for "High Society" before his teens--an astounding feat that only hinted at what was to come.
Little Louis danced in second-line parades, following cornetist Joe "King" Oliver in the Onward Band as they wound through the Crescent City streets. Oliver was a catalytic force for Armstrong, who always insisted he learned his stuff from Papa Joe. When Oliver left for Chicago, following post-World War I black migration from the South to Northern and Western cities, he left Little Louis his slot in the Kid Ory band, which led the young cornetist to Fate Marable and the riverboats plying the Mississippi in 1920-21.
Marable, impressed by the young hornman's dazzling facility and ear, hired him for his riverboat band, and one of his sidemen trained the youngster to read and write music. What they played was a mix that would confound the Dixieland revivalists who decades later took Armstrong as their figurehead: adapted arias and classical overtures, quadrilles and other dance music, and the like. (Historian Dan Morgenstern has pointed out the suggestive influence of classical music on Armstrong.) At Davenport, Iowa, when the riverboat docked, a white kid named Bix Beiderbecke first heard Armstrong with Marable and decided to make the jazz cornet his life.
In 1922 Oliver sent for his protégé, who kissed his mother goodbye, packed the fish sandwich she made for him and headed north to Chicago. When he got to the Lincoln Gardens Cafe, where Oliver's band was wailing, he looked like a rube and was so shy he stayed by the door to watch. He couldn't believe he'd be playing with these masters of jazz. Yet in a very short time, first in recordings with them, then with his own Hot Fives and Hot Sevens, he would make them all sound like musical relics.
Rube or not--and his mode of dress quickly became Chicago-style sharp--Armstrong got the girl. His second wife, piano-playing Lil Hardin, married him while they were both playing with Oliver. Hardin was conservatory-trained and middle class, and for the next few years her ambition would drive the modest genius she married to make his mark in the rapidly exploding Jazz Age. Convinced that Oliver kept Louis in his band to keep him from fronting his own, Lil persuaded her husband to grab Fletcher Henderson's offer to join his New York-based big band. When Armstrong arrived in the Big Apple in 1924, Henderson's band was, as Morgenstern notes, "designed for Roseland's white dancing public...rhythmically stiff"; when he left fourteen months later, both arrangers and soloists were extending his sound.
It was Lil who persuaded Armstrong to go back to Chicago after scarcely more than a year in New York, and there he joined her band, then Carroll Dickerson's, and rocked the town. The night he returned, he was greeted by a banner she had unfurled over the bandstand: world's greatest trumpet player. Armstrong later told Morgenstern the reason he left Henderson's band was that the "dicty bandleader," college-educated, light-skinned and prone to look down on dark blacks, wouldn't let him sing, except occasionally for black audiences or for novelty and comic effect. Armstrong had been singing before he ever picked up a horn--it was a fundamental part of who he was and what he had to say. Ultimately, his vocals would make him a world-famous star. More immediately, they were another virtuosic tool he used to change jazz and, in the process, American culture.
Armstrong pioneered so many firsts in jazz and America that a list seems implausible. Here's a sample: He invented the full-fledged jazz solo. He invented scat singing. He introduced Tin Pan Alley and Broadway tunes as jazz's raw material. (When Armstrong replaced New Orleans standards and blues with Tin Pan Alley tunes in the 1930s, he forged the model followed by swing, jazz's most successful invasion of American pop music. His model was followed literally: Key arrangers like Don Redman, who worked for many bandleaders, including Benny Goodman, adapted Armstrong's runs and rhythmic moves to section-by-section big-band arrangements.) And Armstrong performed in interracial settings. Once, in New Orleans, when a bigoted announcer refused to introduce his band, he did it himself--so well that the radio station asked him to do it for the rest of the band's stint.
His voice engulfed America. Among his major disciples was Bing Crosby, who called him "the beginning and the end of music in America." His influence rippled across American popular and jazz singing like an earthquake. As he reconfigured pop tunes, the apparently natural force of his voice's cagey dynamics and loose rhythms seized the imagination of talents like Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, Crosby and Frank Sinatra.
With his last Hot Sevens recordings for Okeh in 1928, in which tunes like "I Can't Give You Anything But Love" were issued as B-sides, Armstrong had moved closer to the new American cultural mainstream he was inspiring. When he started recording for Decca in 1935, the impetus accelerated. A couple of interim managers gave way that year to Joe Glaser, a thuggish, mob-connected scion of a well-off Chicago family. He and Armstrong shook hands on a deal that lasted till they both died. As Armstrong put it, "A black man needs a white man working for him." It was the beginning of his big crossover into mainstream American culture--another Armstrong first in undermining de facto segregation in America. And his years at Decca were his workshop in change.
He fronted a big band, which critics hated and fans enjoyed. The outfit was run by Glaser, since Armstrong, who occasionally hired and fired personnel, didn't want to shoulder a bandleader's nonmusical burdens. And he agreed with Glaser on a new musical direction: setting his solos off in sometimes inventive, sometimes indifferent big-band charts; smoothing his blues-frog vocals into a more sophisticated sound without losing their rhythmic slyness--something he was also doing with his trumpet solos, reshaping his early frenetic chases after strings of high-altitude notes into less eye-popping, more lyrical solos.
Physical damage to Armstrong's lip and mouth from high and hard blowing forced the issue. Joe Muranyi, who played with him years later, says, "Part of the change in Louis's style could be attributed to the lip trouble he had in the early thirties. There are tales of blood on his shirt, of blowing off a piece of his lip while playing. This certainly influenced the way he approached the horn; yet what we hear on these tracks has at least as much to do with musical development as with physical matters." Limitation was, for Satchmo's genius, a pathway to a matured artistic conception. As Giddins argues forcefully in Satchmo, Armstrong had never separated art and entertainment; jazz for him was pop music. And if his bands irritated critics, there were plenty of gems, and besides, people loved him.
By World War II, his audiences were more white than black.
The war years broke the big bands. The culture had changed: Singers and small groups were hip. It was the era of a new sound, what Dizzy Gillespie called modern jazz and journalists dubbed bebop. Bop's frenetic, fragmented rhythms restated the postwar world's rhythms, and it deliberately presented itself not as entertainment but as art. The musicians forging it, like Gillespie and Charlie Parker, were fully aware of the stirring civil rights movement. World War II had fostered widespread entry of blacks into industry and the American military. Not surprisingly, after the war, they weren't willing to return to the old values of accommodation and deference. Instead, they demanded equality and freedom. In this context, boppers and their followers saw Armstrong's lifelong mugging and entertainment as Uncle Tom-ism rather than artistic expression.
The Dixieland revival, based in Chicago, occurred at about the same time. The (mostly white) revivalists needed an artistic figurehead. With a healthy historical irony they ignored, they chose Armstrong--the very soloist who blew apart old-style New Orleans polyphony, their idea of "pure" or "real" jazz. By 1947 Satchmo reluctantly abandoned his eighteen-piece outfit for the All Stars, a New Orleans-style sextet that included Jack Teagarden and Earl Hines. Though they often made fine music, the group was seen as a step backward by boppers. They jabbed at Satchmo, he jabbed back, and the split between revivalists and modernists escalated into a civil war that, in different stylistic and racial modes, still divides the jazz world.
Sadly, it was another Armstrong first. And his audiences began to turn lily-white. Giddins deftly shows Armstrong's world-famous onstage persona--the big grin, the bulging eyes, the shaking head, the brandished trumpet, the ever-present handkerchief, the endless vaudevillian mugging--to be an organic conception of the artist as entertainer. Still, from the 1950s until just before his death in 1971, Armstrong had to deal with accusations and slurs.
But if he never forgot who he was, while retaining his characteristically modest manner and only privately protesting how much he'd done to advance black civil rights, he could still be provoked, as President Eisenhower and the public discovered in 1957. Armstrong was poised to go on the first State Department-sponsored tour of the Soviet Union, a cold war beachhead by jazz. He abruptly canceled it because the Southern states refused to integrate schools, and he publicly excoriated Ike and America.
Early jazz musicians often refused to record, because they felt competitors could steal their best licks from their records. This was why the all-white Original Dixieland Jass Band made jazz's first records; black New Orleans trumpeter Freddie Keppard refused, fearing for his originality.
No one knows for sure how many recordings Armstrong made during the course of his half-century recording career. All agree, however, that he helped create both the art and the industry. After all, "race" records, especially Armstrong's hits, were as important as Bing Crosby's in saving the fledgling record companies from collapse during the Depression. (And there was more to it than that. Through the phonograph Armstrong made infinite disciples, shaping what jazz would become.)
During the 1950s and 1960s, when he was largely considered a period piece, Armstrong recorded important documents, like his meetings with Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald. The best thing about them is their apparent artlessness, the easy, offhand creativity that was as much Armstrong's trademark as his trumpet's clarion calls. The pleasure is doubled by the response of his disciples.
Ella fits that description easily, since her trademark scat singing owes so much to Armstrong's. Yet she made it her own, purging scat of its overt blues roots. Producer Norman Granz supported them with his favorite Jazz at the Philharmonic stars--Oscar Peterson, Herb Ellis and Ray Brown. The results: Both Ella and Louis and Ella and Louis Again are incandescent yet low-key, full of generous pearls (from "Can't We Be Friends" to "Cheek to Cheek") that can almost slip by because of their understated yet consummate ease.
The 1961 session with Armstrong and Duke Ellington was hasty and almost haphazard, a simple melding of Ellington into Armstrong's All Stars; and yet it produced a wonderful, relaxed, insightful album. After all, Ellington had shaped his earliest bands around trumpeters and trombonists who could serve up Armstrong's New Orleans flair.
Like most postwar babies, I grew up knowing Louis Armstrong as the guy who sang "Mack the Knife" and, most famously, "Hello Dolly." It was only later that I'd discover the old blues stuff with singers like Bessie Smith, the Hot Fives, Ella and Louis, Fletcher Henderson and--one of my faves--Armstrong's accompaniment on early hillbilly star Jimmie Rodgers's "Blue Yodel No. 9." But even as a kid I felt strangely drawn to the little guy singing and grimacing on TV, wiping his perspiring brow with his trademark handkerchief. Although it all seemed corny, there was something, a hint of irony--though that wouldn't have been what his audiences, black or white, noticed unless they were old-timers who knew the ironic physical language or Satchmo fans or, like me, just a kid.
Why would a white kid in America catch a glimpse of Armstrong's abundantly joyful and potentially dangerous ironies? I'd love to claim precociousness, but it was a lot simpler. I could tell Armstrong was real because he filled the little blue TV screen so overwhelmingly that he made everything around him look, as it should have, fake.
What ought to be read--and why--are questions that have a unique urgency in a multicultural milieu, where each group fights, legitimately, for its own space and voice. In the past couple of decades, battles over the Western canon have been fought strenuously in intellectual circles--one such flash point was Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind and the debates that ensued. These skirmishes have much to do with the fact that America is undergoing radical change. The Eurocentric place once acknowledged as the heart of its culture has ceased to be so. Alternative groups, from different geographies, have brought with them the conviction that public life with a myriad of cores rather than a single one is far more feasible today.
It strikes me as emblematic that the voices most sonorous in the battlefield over the fate of literature are often Jewish, from those of the two Blooms, Allan and Harold, to that of Cynthia Ozick. This is not a coincidence: After all, the Jews are known as "the people of the book." For the Talmudic rabbis, to read is to pray, but so it is, metaphorically, among secular Jews...or, if not to pray, at least to map out God's cosmic tapestry. Among the most deeply felt Jewish expressions of book-loving I know is a letter to the legendary translator Samuel ibn Tibbon, a Spanish Jew of the illustrious translation school of Toledo in the twelfth century, written by his father. In it the elder Tibbon recommends:
Make your books your companions, let your cases and shelves be your pleasure grounds and gardens. Bask in their paradise, gather their fruit, pluck their roses, take their spices and their myrrh. If your soul be satiate and weary, change from garden to garden, from furrow to furrow, from prospect to prospect. Then will your desire renew itself and your soul be filled with delight.
But to turn Tolstoy's Anna Karenina into a companion, to satiate one's soul with it--ought that to be a Jewish pastime? I'm invariably puzzled at the lack of debate among Jewish intellectuals, especially in the Diaspora, on the formation of a multinational literary canon made solely of Jewish books. Why spend so many sleepless nights mingling in global affairs, reorganizing a shelf that starts in Homer and ends in García Márquez, yet pay no attention whatever to those volumes made by and for Jews?
The idea of a Jewish literary canon isn't new. Among others, Hayyim Nakhman Bialik, the poet of the Hebrew renaissance and a proto-Zionist, pondered it in the early part of the twentieth century. He developed the concept of kinus, the "ingathering" of a literature that was dispersed over centuries of Jewish life. Bialik's mission was to centralize it in a particular place, Israel, and in a single tongue, Hebrew. And a handful of Yiddish and Jewish-American critics, from Shmuel Niger to Irving Howe, have addressed it, although somewhat obliquely. Howe, for instance, in pieces like "Toward an Open Culture" and "The Value of the Canon," discussed the tension in a democratic culture between tradition and innovation, between the blind supporters of the classics and the anti-elitist ideologues. But in spite of editing memorable volumes like A Treasury of Yiddish Stories, he refused to see Jewish literature whole.
The undertaking never achieved the momentum it deserves--until now. A number of books have appeared in English in the past few months that suggest the need for a debate around a modern Jewish library. The Translingual Imagination (Nebraska), by Steven Kellman, a professor at the University of Texas, San Antonio, while partially concerned with Jewish literature, addresses one crucial issue: the polyglotism of authors like Sh. Y. Abramovitch, the so-called grandfather of Yiddish letters, whose conscious switch from Hebrew into Yiddish didn't preclude him from translating many of his novels, like The Mare, back into the sacred tongue. The presence of multilingualism in the Jewish canon, of course, is unavoidable, for what distinguishes the tradition is precisely its evaporative nature, for example, the fact that it emerges wherever Jews are to be found, regardless of tongue or geographical location. This complicates any attempt at defining it in concrete ways: What, after all, are the links between, say, Bruno Schulz, the Polish fabulist and illustrator responsible for The Street of Crocodiles, and Albert Cohen, the French-language author of the masterpiece Belle du Seigneur?
Also recently released is a book by Robert Alter, author of the influential The Art of Biblical Narrative and translator of Genesis. It is titled Canon and Creativity (Yale) and attempts to link modern letters to the biblical canon to stress issues of authority. Alter is attracted to the debate of "canonicity" as it is played out in academia and intellectual circles today, but he isn't concerned, not here at least, with purveying the discernible edges of Jewish literature historically. Far more concerned--obsessed, perhaps--with the continuity between Jewish authors from the Emancipation to the present is Ruth Wisse, a professor of Yiddish at Harvard, whose volume The Modern Jewish Canon will legitimize the debate by bringing it to unforeseen heights. For purposes of mitigated objectivity, I must acknowledge up front that together with Alter and Wisse and four other international Jewish critics, I am part of a monthslong project at the Yiddish Book Center to compose a list of the hundred most "important" (the word cannot fail to tickle me) Jewish literary books since the Enlightenment. So I too have a personal stake in the game. But sitting together with other candid readers in a room is one thing. It is another altogether to respond to the pages--at once incisive and polemical--of one of them whose views have helped to form my own.
Wisse is a conservative commentator of the Jewish-American and Israeli scenes and, most significant to me, an intelligent reader of strong opinions whose work, especially her study of Itzjak Leib Peretz and her monograph The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, I have long enjoyed. In her latest work she ventures into a different territory: From specialist to generalist, she fashions herself as a Virgil of sorts, thanks to whom we are able to navigate the chaotic waters of Jewish culture.
Probably the most estimable quality of The Modern Jewish Canon is simply that it exists at all. It insinuates connections to document the fact that Jews have produced a literature that transcends national borders. Albert Memmi's Pillar of Salt and Philip Roth's Operation Shylock might appear to be worlds apart, but Wisse suggests that there is an invisible thread that unites them, a singular sensibility--a proclamation of Jewishness that is clear even when it isn't patently obvious.
This is a crucial assertion, given that Jewish communities worldwide often seem imprisoned in their insularity: Language and context serve to isolate them from their counterparts in other countries and continents. For example, American Jews, for the most part, are miserably monolingual. (I doubt Jews have been so limited linguistically at any time in the past.) They insist on approaching their own history as starting in the biblical period but then jump haphazardly to the Holocaust, and thereon to the formation of the State of Israel in 1948. The Spanish period, so exhilarating in its poetic invocations, is all but ignored, and so is the importance of Jewish communities beyond those of Eastern Europe. Why are the echoes from the Tibbon family to Shmuel Hanagid, Shlomo ibn Gabirol, Moses ibn Ezra and medieval Spanish letters in general so faint? The power of these poets, the fashion in which they intertwined the divine and the earthly, politics and the individual, the struggles of the body and the soul, left a deep imprint in Jewish liturgy and shaped a significant portion of the Jewish people through the vicissitudes of the Ottoman Empire and northern Africa. Even the Dreyfus Affair is little known or regarded, as is the plight of the Jews in Argentina from 1910 to the bombing of their main cultural building in Buenos Aires in early 1994. And where the verbal isolation is not a problem, the insular perspective still applies: For instance, only now is Israel overcoming its negation of Diaspora life, which has deformed Israeli society and resulted in an institutionalized racism against those co-religionists whose roots are not traced to Yiddishland.
Wisse displays genuine esteem for high-quality literary art. She trusts her instincts as a savvy reader and writes about what she likes; no affirmative action criteria seem to apply in her choices--and for hewing to her own perspective, she ought to be commended. The common traits she invariably ascribes to what is a varied corpus of Jewish literature always point to Russia and Europe. Her encyclopedism is commendable in that it surveys a vast intellectual landscape, but it has clear limitations. She is well versed in English, Hebrew and Yiddish letters. But what about Sephardic culture? Ought she to exclude all that she is unfamiliar with?
The study is divided into ten chapters of around thirty pages each, ordered chronologically according to the birth dates of authors. She starts in the right place--with Sholem Aleichem, the author of the most beloved of all Jewish novels and my personal favorite, Tevye the Dairyman. And she ends with Israeli literature. In the interim, she mixes excerpts, critical commentary and historical perspective in exploring the work of Kafka, S.Y. Agnon, Isaac Babel, Isaac Bashevis Singer and scores of other luminaries, some of questionable value in my eyes (Jerzy Kosinski, for instance) and others often overpraised (here I would include Ozick). The contributions of critics such as Dan Miron, Chone Shmeruk, Lionel Trilling and Howe are acknowledged by Wisse in these pages, their perspectives still fresh and inviting.
It may be ungenerous to accuse Wisse of a certain nearsightedness; after all, to capture the essence of a literature written in a plethora of tongues and cultures, a literature that is by definition "undefinable," any potential cataloguer would need to be versed in each and every one of them. But The Modern Jewish Canon suffers another serious shortcoming, entirely within control: It is too dry a read. For a treatise that aspires to connect the various Jewish Weltanschauungen and juxtapose a rainbow of imaginations, each responding to different stimuli, from the eighteenth century to this day, Wisse offers little by way of narrative enchantment. She is a scholar and writes as such. Scarce effort is made to turn words into metaphors, to twist and turn ideas and allow them to wander into unexplored regions. The reader finds himself lost in a sea of "objective impersonality." Too bad, for shouldn't a book about the beauties of a polyphonic literature aspire to that on its own?
Wisse herself announces: "Modern Jewish literature...promises no happy merger into universalism at the end of the day." And yet some form of universalism is what she is attempting to describe, extending connective tissue between literary works where, at least superficially, there seemed none before. In that sense the achievement is impressive. Immediately after finishing the book, I took up pencil and paper to shape a list of what would be my own choice of books. In one of her last pages Wisse, who concentrates on novelists, includes a list of almost fifty titles, "meant to serve as a reference guide." Included are Yaakov Shabtai's Past Continuous, Piotr Rawicz's Blood From the Sky, Pinhas Kahanovitch's The Family Mashber, and Anne Frank's Diary of a Young Girl. But I found myself asking, Where are Marcel Proust, Elias Canetti and Moacyr Scliar? And that, precisely, is one thing a book of this sort should do: force readers to compose a response to the invisible questionnaire the author has quietly set before our eyes.
Future generations will find The Modern Jewish Canon proto-Ashkenazic and hyper-American, a sort of correlative to the Eurocentrism that once dominated American letters. They will kvetch, wondering why the Iberian and Levantine influence on today's Jewish books--from the poetry of the crypto-Jew João Pinto Delgado, to the inquisitorial autobiography of Luis de Carvajal the Younger, to even the Sephardic poetry that came out of the Holocaust--was so minimized in the English-language realm. Kvetch is of course a Yiddish word--or, as Leo Rosten would have it, a "Yinglish" one--but fretting and quarreling are Jewish characteristics regardless of place, and they inhabit the restless act of reading as well. The idea of a Jewish canon, modern and also of antiquity, hides behind it an invaluable fact: that Jews are at once outsiders and insiders, keepers of the universal library but also of their own private ones. Books have always served as their--our--companions for renewal and delight. The content of that private library might be up for grabs, but not its endurance.
The attempt to see Jewish literature whole, as expressing a singular sensibility, has never had the momentum it deserves--until now.
Why must the noble rose
bristle before it blooms, and why
must the frost declare
allegiance to the dew?
Don't tell me the robin's
could not be denied.
I've heard the magpie's lies.
Outside my window,
consort in a cedar tree,
fat and happy to be free
of all desire--ah, but
that's not true! See
how they dance and turn
when I throw out the seed.
Had Samuel Beckett written the script for a mud-wrestling contest, to be performed by the Pina Bausch dance troupe, the result might have looked like the scenes of warfare in Kippur. Co-written and directed by Amos Gitai, based on his experiences in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, Kippur is a vision of rain and smoke hanging above a scarred earth, and of men who are either dead or else staggering about in physical and moral exhaustion.
The picture might almost be encapsulated in the indelible episode--shot in a single, seemingly endless take--in which four members of a rescue team struggle to carry an unconscious soldier out of a sucking, oozing wasteland. The rescuers move forward from an utterly void background, inching their way toward the camera by means of a progressive collapse. They heave the wounded man over their heads, take half a step, stumble, drop the stretcher into the mud, fall over one another trying to pick up the stretcher, stumble, drop the stretcher into the mud, fall over one another, pick up the stretcher, stumble, drop the stretcher, fall, pick up the stretcher, fall. At some point, the wounded man dies; and still the rescuers labor on with their mortal burden, open-mouthed, reeling, streaming with muck. You might wonder whether they're melting back into the earth or are trying to rise from it, to assume human form.
Kippur is long minutes of futile slogging, interrupted by bursts of terror.
Confronted by the film's pitilessly long takes, which are usually shot from the viewpoint of a participant in the action, I'm tempted to say that Kippur tosses the viewer headlong into a direct presentation of war. There's a little more to it than that. First, Gitai provides the buffer of a framing device; at the beginning and end, you see Weinraub (Liron Levo) engaged with a friend in lovemaking, in a ritual that involves their pouring paint onto a white sheet and rolling naked in the goo. Before the war, this pastime seems like a mildly kinky, Israeli knockoff of Yves Klein. After the war, it's more like a re-enactment of that struggle in the mud--which means the image is meaningful and memorable, besides reeking of art. Gitai also provides some respite in the middle of the film by having the rescue crew's helicopter pilot (Yoram Hattab) and its doctor (Uri Ran Klauzner) deliver monologues about their families. You fall back on the comforting illusion, which Gitai seems provisionally to accept, that people can explain themselves.
But these brief diversions are hardly enough to distance you from the principal action, which is conveyed as if through a fixed stare. Most viewers, having been stunned by the impact, will therefore want some context for Kippur. I can offer two frameworks: biography and filmography.
Biography: Amos Gitai, whose middle name is Weinraub, was studying architecture in his native Haifa when the Yom Kippur War erupted. He went off to serve in a rescue team; and after several days' worth of missions, his helicopter was hit by a missile above Tel Ahmal, in Syria. The date was October 11, 1973, Gitai's 23rd birthday. The co-pilot was killed and four other crew members severely wounded. The downed pilot who had been the goal of the rescue effort was never reached; he was to spend five years in Syrian prisons. Gitai, almost unharmed in body, walked away from the field hospital as the survivor and witness.
He completed his degree in Haifa, continued his architectural studies in Berkeley and then, upon returning home, launched a career as the most challenging documentary filmmaker of the Israeli left. After his early projects were funded and then censored by Israeli television, he went into self-imposed exile in Paris, where he circulated among the headiest film intellectuals and decided to expand his prolific output into features. He returned to Israel in 1993. Kippur is (more or less) his twenty-ninth film, and to my mind is the feature he's needed to make.
Filmography: Gitai's early documentaries had a stark, confrontational vigor. House (1980) exposed the various levels of society that overlapped, without meeting, at a house in Jerusalem: from the Palestinian laborers who were bused in from the West Bank each dawn to expand the building, to the present Israeli owner, to the elderly Palestinian doctor who had owned the house and been driven from it by war. Field Diary (1982) took the viewer into the occupied West Bank, in defiance of military authorities; its most common image, repeated throughout the film, was of a soldier's hand clamping down on the lens.
The features, beginning with Esther (1985) and Berlin-Jerusalem (1989), were far more studied. At the time, Gitai was devoted to the slow-moving, anti-illusionistic, playing-dress-up style that was then fashionable in certain art-film circles. I recognized that the style fit his subjects--a low-key restaging of the Book of Esther, using a Palestinian and Israeli cast; a reconstruction of the experiences in Mandate Palestine of the German Expressionist poet Else Lasker-Schuler--and I admired the ambition and intelligence of the work; but I didn't feel I was watching a movie. It was more like hearing about one, after I'd been heavily medicated for a cold.
The fog started to lift with Gitai's three-cities trilogy. In 1995 he brought out the first in the series, a version of Yakov Shabtai's extraordinary novel Zichron Devarim (Past Continuous). The book is impossible to film, and in a sense Gitai didn't try; in effect, he staged a number of tableaux from the story, as if to remind viewers of what they had read. But in doing so, he allowed his actors (including himself) far more freedom than in the past, and he also permitted himself the freedom of looking at Tel Aviv through a fictional lens. He went on to make features set in Israel's two other principal cities. Yom Yom (1998) was an entropic comedy, in which things fell apart around (and in) a Muslim-Jewish man in Haifa. Kadosh (1999), Gitai's first film to achieve commercial release in the United States, was a tragedy about women who struggle to escape--or don't escape--the ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim section of Jerusalem.
Gitai was still practicing a long-take, medium-shot style, with the occasional camera movement (sometimes motivated, sometimes not) used for variety. The effect was distanced, even when (as in Kadosh) a woman was being raped and beaten by her husband. But to look at it the other way around, Gitai was now dealing explicitly with violence (and with explicit sex as well). His association with cinematographer Renato Berta was giving his films a richer, moodier look; and he was assembling a stock company of actors who were brilliantly naturalistic. (Hattab, Klauzner and Juliano Merr all worked with Gitai before their appearances in Kippur.) He had brought himself to the verge of a breakthrough; and I think he's achieved it in Kippur, the first feature with the urgency and immediacy of his best documentaries.
The slog through the mud is not the only scene in Kippur to come off the screen with straightforward power. First comes the approach to the war zone, as Weinraub and his comrade Ruso (Tomer Ruso) make their way north to join their unit. It's slow going in Weinraub's old junker of a car--he won't buy anything flashy or new, having read Marcuse--and it gets slower still when the reservists get caught in a mammoth traffic jam. You get your first view of war as chaos, shot in part from inside the car, in the manner of Abbas Kiarostami.
Then there's the first rescue mission, in which no one is left to rescue. Dropped into a still-smoking entrenchment, the crew discovers that all the bodies are dead--although this fact escapes one member of the team, who rushes about ordering charred corpses onto the helicopter. Much later in the film, after you and the crew have seen a lot of this kind of thing, Gitai provides your only comprehensive view of the war: a long, circling shot from Weinraub's point of view, as he looks down from the helicopter onto a ruined, rutted world, where the dominant life form seems to be the armored tank.
Nor are you spared the aftermath of the war: triage. The drama reaches its matter-of-fact conclusion in the field hospital, where one crew member after the other is examined and then sent off for someone else to deal with.
This is tough-minded, uncompromising filmmaking: the maximum action within the minimum framework. I believe that's always been an ideal for Gitai, as it is for certain other figures of international cinema--meaning the vital (though commercially minor) field of co-production and festival-based distribution that's generally known as "the art film." Now the art film has ventured strongly onto the terrain of the war movie--Gitai specifically credits as an influence Sam Fuller, who was among his mentors--which means that Kippur confirms the vigor not only of Gitai's filmmaking but also that of an entire segment of international cinema, which he represents.
So much for Kippur as art object. As testimony, it is beyond price--and unfortunately without time. Though utterly specific in its details, the film would have been relevant if shown anytime after 1914 and will remain all too meaningful into the foreseeable future. Its release at the present moment is telling, of course; but what it tells us is awful in its simplicity. "Do you plan to settle things by armed conflict?" asks Kippur. "Then this is what you get."
In their 1996 book The Next War, former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and Peter Schweitzer concoct some troubling scenarios they imagine could confront the United States. One is with Mexico: It's 1999, and a radical nationalist comes to power with the assistance of drug traffickers, resulting in a flood of migrants and drugs across the US boundary. In response, the Pentagon sends 60,000 troops to the border region. Tensions between the two countries mount over the next few years, leading to a full-scale US invasion of Mexico that restores law and order within six months. In constructing this nightmare scenario, the authors draw on a long history of depicting undesired immigrants as invading hordes and the international boundary as a line of defense. Peter Andreas recounts this hawkish vision in his provocative and highly persuasive Border Games: Policing the US-Mexico Divide. He argues that predictions of an inevitable march toward greater levels of militarization in the region--of which the Weinberger/Schweitzer vision is the most extreme--ignore the necessity of maintaining a porous boundary because of the significant and intensifying levels of economic integration between the United States and Mexico.
Still, as part of the US government's war on drugs and "illegal" immigrants in the border region, the enforcement regime has grown dramatically over the past two decades, as chronicled by Andreas. The antidrug budget of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, for example, rose 164 percent between fiscal years 1990 and 1997, while the overall budget for the INS nearly tripled between FY 1993 and 1999, from $1.5 billion to $4.2 billion, with border enforcement the biggest growth area. At the same time, transboundary trade has reached unprecedented heights because of the 1994 implementation of NAFTA. This exacerbates the challenge of "enforcement." As a 1999 government report cautioned, "Rapidly growing commerce between the United States and Mexico will complicate our efforts to keep drugs out of cross-border traffic." With a daily average of 220,000 vehicles now crossing into the United States from Mexico--and only nine large tractor-trailers loaded with cocaine required to satisfy annual domestic demand in the United States--the task facing US authorities is daunting.
Given such practical contradictions, it's the creation of an image of boundary control that has been most significant. As Andreas explains--and this is his well-written book's central point--the escalation of border enforcement is less about deterring drugs and migrants than it is about symbolism. In other words, state elites are more concerned about giving a good performance for reasons of domestic political consumption than they are about realizing the stated goals of boundary enforcement. In fact, the political-economic costs of too much success serve to limit enforcement. As one high-level US Customs official cited in Border Games stated, "If we examined every truck for narcotics arriving into the United States along the Southwest border.... Customs would back up the truck traffic bumper-to-bumper into Mexico City in just two weeks--15.8 days.... That's 1,177 miles of trucks, end to end."
To the extent that there is an appearance of success, however (statistics showing more interdiction, for example), it helps to realize a variety of political agendas. As Andreas contends, "Regardless of its deterrent effect, the escalation of enforcement efforts has helped to fend off political attacks and kept the drug issue from derailing the broader process of economic integration."
Thus, in the case of NAFTA, the deceptive image (one carefully crafted with the Clinton White House) that Mexico under Carlos Salinas de Gortari was having significant success in the binational war on drugs facilitated a reluctant Congress's passage of NAFTA. Moreover, the Administration promised that NAFTA would bring even greater levels of transboundary cooperation in the drug war and lead to more resources for boundary enforcement.
NAFTA also intertwined with the Administration's offensive against unauthorized immigration (a matter Andreas does not discuss), which was, in part, the US answer to massive disruption in Mexico's rural and small-business sectors brought about by growing economic liberalization. While Administration officials promoted NAFTA as a boundary-control tool (by creating better, high-paying jobs in Mexico, went the argument, NAFTA would lead to less immigration from Mexico to the United States), they also understood that NAFTA would intensify pressures to migrate among Mexicans displaced in the name of economic efficiency. As INS Commissioner Doris Meissner argued to Congress in November 1993, "Responding to the likely short- to medium-term impacts of NAFTA will require strengthening our enforcement efforts along the border."
For Andreas, specific developments are often the "unintended feedback effects of past policy choices" as much as the result of particular bureaucratic incentives and rewards. The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), for example, led to the legalization of large numbers of unauthorized immigrants as a way of ultimately reducing unsanctioned immigration. IRCA's main effect, however, was "to reinforce and expand already well-established cross-border migration networks" and to create a booming business in fraudulent documents.
These "perverse consequences" laid the foundation for the anti-immigrant backlash that emerged in the early 1990s--most vociferously in California, a state especially hard hit by the recession and feeling the effects of a rapidly changing population due to immigration. In advancing this argument, Andreas cautions that his goal is "not to provide a general explanation of the anti-illegal immigration backlash." Rather, he seeks to show how political and bureaucratic entrepreneurs partially whipped up public sentiment and channeled it "to focus on the border as both the source of the problem and the most appropriate site of the policy solution." While there is much merit in such an approach and the explanation that flows from it, it is insufficient.
First, as many have argued, the backlash of the 1990s was not simply against "illegal" immigrants but, to a large degree, against immigrants in general--especially the nonwhite, non-English speaking and the relatively poor. Moreover, as Andreas shows in a stimulating chapter that compares and contrasts similar developments along the Germany/Poland and Spain/Morocco boundaries, the seeming paradox of "a borderless economy and a barricaded border" is evidenced along boundaries that unite and divide rich and poor in other parts of the world. Given the locales of these developments and their uneven impacts on different social groups, there is need for another type of explanation.
How does one explain the differential treatment of the interests of the rich (enhanced trading opportunities) and those of the poor (those compelled by conditions to migrate and work without authorization)? It is in this area that Grace Chang is of great help. Disposable Domestics offers a refreshingly new perspective on immigration control. Chang's tone is overtly political and more polemical than that of Andreas, but her approach is equally rigorous. Her goal is to make poor immigrant women visible, to humanize them, to highlight their contributions and tribulations, and to show them as actively trying to contest their conditions of subjugation.
Chang argues persuasively that poor immigrant women--largely Third Worlders--have become a central focus of "public scrutiny and media distortion, and the main targets of immigration regulation and labor control" in the United States. To show the continuity between past and present, she provides an overview of the long history of imagery portraying immigrant women as undeserving users of welfare services and hyperfertile breeders of children. In doing so, she makes an invaluable contribution, showing how the regulation of immigration and labor is inextricably tied to matters of gender, as well as to those of class, race and nationality.
The author effectively challenges mainstream assumptions that surround the immigration debate. For example, she argues that studies attempting to measure the costs and benefits of immigration--regardless of their findings or the agendas behind them--ultimately reduce immigrants to commodities or investments. Chang sides with an emerging consensus among immigrant advocates that sees such studies as missing the point, and instead emphasizes the human and worker rights of all immigrants. In this regard, she criticizes immigrant advocates who have fallen into the trap of dividing immigrants between good ("legal") and bad ("illegal").
Chang highlights the folly of this approach in recounting the trials of Zoë Baird, Clinton's first nominee for Attorney General. When it came to light that she employed two undocumented immigrants as domestic servants--a common "crime" among two-career, professional couples--her nomination was sunk. What led to public outrage, according to Chang, was more the "resentment that this practice was so easily accessible to the more privileged classes while other working-class mothers struggled to find any child care," rather than the flouting of the law per se.
Throughout, Chang gives us moving accounts of gross exploitation of immigrant women working as domestics or caretakers, showing that relatively well-off households often look specifically for "illegals" to save money and to facilitate their privileged lives. Indeed, "the advances of many middle-class white women in the workforce have been largely predicated on the exploitation of poor, immigrant women." For Chang, this explains why "the major women's groups were conspicuously silent during Baird's confirmation hearings"--a manifestation of the racial and class privileges their members enjoy.
Recent antiwelfare efforts in the United States, which Chang explores in another provocative chapter, also rely on the exploitation and scapegoating of immigrant women. She compares representations of poor women--native and immigrant--used both in the promotion of welfare "reform" and in efforts to regulate undocumented working women. In both cases, poor women are portrayed as exploiters of the system (to facilitate their hyperfertility) and as criminals--either as welfare cheats or as "illegals." For welfare mothers, the resulting backlash is "workfare"--a program that forces them to work (outside their homes, under the assumption that raising children is neither work nor a benefit to society), but not for a wage. They work for their welfare benefits instead, a remuneration usually far below what they would earn as employees. Meanwhile, government officials, corporate spokespersons and household employers mask their exploitation of low-wage employees as beneficence, purportedly providing them with opportunities, training and preparation, and the ability to assimilate into respectable society.
The war on the poor (welfare reform) and that against unauthorized immigrants are also sometimes functionally tied. Virginia's state office of social services, for example, cooperated with the INS to open up jobs held by "illegals" for workfare participants. This, along with INS raids of workplaces in the midst of unionization drives, according to Chang, is a growing trend. It is far from clear, however--at least on the basis of the anecdotal evidence Chang presents--that such events indicate a long-term, upward trend. Indeed, while anti-union employers have long used the INS to undermine immigrant-worker organizing, with a number of especially outrageous incidents taking place in the late 1990s, those appear to have diminished over the last couple of years, apparently due to the outcry from union, immigration and human rights activists. In part, the discrepancy reflects the fact that Chang wrote the book--more a collection of essays stitched together--over several years, with some of the chapters having appeared in previous publications.
Chang tends to see the factors that create and drive immigration and the mistreatment of low-wage immigrant workers as derivative of an overarching economic logic and a resulting set of intentional, goal-oriented practices. Thus, the workfare/INS-raid nexus illustrates the "true function" of the INS: "to regulate the movement, availability, and independence of migrant labor." More generally, immigration "is carefully orchestrated--that is, desired, planned, compelled, managed, accelerated, slowed and periodically stopped--by the direct actions of US interests, including the government as state and as employer, private employers, and corporations." United States elites keep Mexico and other countries in "debt bondage" so that they "must surrender their citizens, especially women, as migrant laborers to First World nations." And the purpose of California's Proposition 187, which would have eliminated public health, education and social services for unauthorized immigrants, is "perhaps" to mold immigrant children into a "category entirely of super-exploitable workers--those with no access to language or other skills and, most of all, no access to a status even remotely resembling citizenship that might allow them the safety to organize."
Such contentions imply a level of unity within the state and coherency in thought among economic and political actors (who are seemingly one and the same) that simply do not exist. They also downplay the agency of immigrants--who appear to be mere pawns of larger forces--and factors internal to their countries of origin driving immigration. Finally, such economic reductionism is puzzling given Chang's emphasis on race, gender and nationality. It seems at times, however, that she thinks that these are mere tools for highly rational, all-knowing and all-powerful economic elites.
This is why we need to appreciate the autonomous roles of race-, class-, gender- and nation-based ideologies in informing much of the anti-immigrant sentiment--factors that do not always dovetail with the interests of capital. Indeed, those elements are frequently at cross purposes. More than anything, anti-immigrant initiatives over the past thirty years have been the work of opportunistic and/or entrepreneurial elected officials, state bureaucrats and the cultural right--often small grassroots organizations and right-wing think tanks--rather than the business sector. Historically, capital has been generally pro-immigration. As the New York Journal of Commerce gushed in 1892, "Men, like cows, are expensive to raise and a gift of either should be gladly received. And a man can be put to more valuable use than a cow." Today, the Wall Street Journal advocates the elimination of border controls for labor. While this probably does not represent the view of most capitalists, it is significant nonetheless. And in the case of Proposition 187--as Chang reports--California employers, while collectively failing to take a public stand on the measure, generally opposed it for fear that they had much to lose if it passed. That said, the author is undoubtedly right to castigate employers for doing little or nothing to stand up for the rights of immigrants from whose labor, and from whose politically induced marginalization, they profit.
Given the divergent emphases and approaches of Andreas and Chang, very different solutions emerge from their arguments. Andreas criticizes the overemphasis on the supply side of unauthorized immigration and drugs. In terms of immigrants, for example, he observes that among wealthy countries, the United States "imposes the toughest penalties on the smuggling of migrants and related activities yet is among the most lenient with those who employ them." Similarly, he criticizes the scant resources available for enforcing existing workplace rules, which would undermine the ability of employers to exploit unauthorized workers, and he chides Congress for failing to develop a forgery-proof identity card system. (His stand on continued drug policing in the border region is less clear, although he calls for framing the drug problem as one of public health rather than law enforcement.)
Andreas seems resigned to the continued emphasis on border controls, too, despite demonstrating their brilliant failure. As one INS official he quotes explained, "The border is easy money politically. But the interior is a political minefield." Ending the border buildup is also a political minefield--one Andreas seems unwilling to enter. He is decidedly critical of the border status quo and aware of the hardships it causes (a topic to which he gives insufficient attention), but he critiques it on its own terms. In this regard, he does not stray outside the mainstream confines of debate.
A law-enforcement approach to unauthorized immigration is destined to fail. The ties between the United States and Mexico (and increasingly much of Latin America) are too strong, migrants are too resourceful and creative, and Americans are too resistant to the types of police-state measures that would prove necessary, to reduce unsanctioned immigration significantly. A far more effective and humane approach would be to work with progressive sectors of Third World societies to address the breakdown of political, economic and social systems and/or institutionalized injustice that often leads to immigration.
De-emphasizing boundary policing will likely reduce the deaths of unauthorized migrants (almost 600 in the California border region alone since 1994). But increased internal enforcement will create other difficulties, such as increased discrimination against those who do not look "American." It will also cause greater hardships in immigrant households, many of which contain people of different legal statuses. Should the US deport a principal breadwinner (an "illegal") from such a household, for example, leaving behind his or her US citizen children and "legal" spouse to fend for themselves?
Although Andreas argues that "the state has actually structured, conditioned, and even enabled (often unintentionally) clandestine border crossings," he discusses this matter in narrow terms, focusing on how previous "solutions" to the putative problems had an exacerbating effect. Meanwhile, he neglects the role played by the government and US-based economic interests in creating the conditions that fuel immigration. Thus, no issues of moral or political responsibility enter the analysis.
Grace Chang, on the other hand, puts a strong emphasis on the responsibility of the United States in fueling outmigration; it benefits from immigrant women's labor and wreaks havoc in Third World countries through the likes of military interventions and the imposition of structural adjustment programs. For Chang, the question is not one of trying to devise the best policy to control the unauthorized but of bringing about the changes needed to realize the rights of immigrants as workers and as human beings. In making this case, Chang correctly calls upon those of us who benefit from an unjust world order to stand in solidarity with immigrants--especially low-wage, Third World women who enable our privileged lifestyles--in their struggle for social justice at home and abroad.
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