Violence – exemplary and otherwise

February 25, 2010

The brilliant Professor Wanowsky weighs in on the most crucial political question:  evolution or revolution?

My previous post on the film, La cérémonie, evoked some comments on class conflict and violence.  This is an issue that has interested me for some time:  both the serious questions about whether or when violence is justified, or even practical;  and the way that violence is romanticized by political types of various stripes.  I consider the Left and the Right, the bolshevik and the fascist attachment to violence to be romantic, overtly so in the case of most fascists, especially the Italians, and covertly so among the devotees of the cult of terror in revolutionary Russia.  (They liked to think they were always being scientific.)

Pancime’s comment on that post got me thinking once again of an old comic by Robert Crumb – click on the image to see the entire rant by Professor Wanowsky (my italics):

Reading Sartre, Foucault, Ranciere, and current school texts and academic works in this country – all of which celebrate or promote violence – leads me to believe that there is a violent strain of the revolutionist left that is still strong and seeks to depose by violence whoever it constructs as its enemy. In this country that enemy is despised in part merely for its commitment to peaceful change.

Ah yes, the eternal argument between the “candy-assed liberals” and the real radicals committed to change.  The good Professor captures the tone of that split so well!

Pancime also pointed me to the Papin sisters, who were an inspiration to many French intellectuals (what is the matter with those guys…and gals?) and certainly to Claude Chabrol.  Two maids who maimed and killed their employers and were found huddled together in bed in 1933.  For some, there was clearly a ideological frisson to be had if you could stomach the bloodshed.

“In its broad outline, the tragedy of the Papin sisters was immediately clear to us. . .One must accuse their childhood orphanage, their serfdom, the whole hideous system set up by decent people for the production of madmen, assassins and monsters. The horror of this all-consuming machine could only be rightfully denounced by an exemplary act of horror: the two sisters had made themselves the instruments and martyrs of a sombre form of justice… For two bourgeois women hacked to pieces, a bloody atonement was required.   The killer wasn’t judged.  He acted as a scapegoat…” (my italics)

Simone Beauvoir in La Force de l’âge

This intellectual romanticizing of violence, often dissembled as hard-nosed realism, is not foreign to America:

In America all too few blows are struck into flesh. We kill the spirit here, we are experts at that. We use psychic bullets and kill each other cell by cell.

Norman Mailer

Moving along to the right, we have the oft-quoted Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, who put his aesthetic into practice and  became an early supporter of Italian fascism:

War is beautiful because it establishes man’s dominion over the subjugated machinery by means of gas masks, terrifying megaphones, flame throwers, and small tanks. War is beautiful because it initiates the dreamt-of metalization of the human body. War is beautiful because it enriches a flowering meadow with the fiery orchids of machine guns.

And finally, Lenin, in a rare moment of intellectual undress:

I know of nothing better than the Appassionata and could listen to it every day. What astonishing, superhuman music! It always makes me proud, perhaps with a childish naiveté, to think that people can work such miracles! … But I can’t listen to music very often, it affects my nerves. I want to say sweet, silly things, and pat the little heads of people who, living in a filthy hell, can create such beauty. These days, one can’t pat anyone on the head nowadays, they might bite your hand off. Hence, you have to beat people’s little heads, beat mercilessly, although ideally we are against doing any violence to people. Hm – what a devillishly difficult job!

This quote was spoken in full by the heroic Soviet figure skater man-of-ice while Melina, the hot socialist babe, is trying to get him to warm up to her in the fantastic film WR:  Mysteries of the Organism.

Advertisements

Class conflict, anyone?

February 23, 2010

Two women, two misfits, two people with something shady in their past lives.  The maid (Sandrine Bonnaire) cannot read, and is intensely ashamed of it.  She makes herself into a cipher so as not to be found out, but there’s something terrible bubbling beneath, and a criminal deed in her past…maybe.  They couldn’t prove anything.    The postal clerk (Isabelle Huppert) seems to never have been properly socialized – she’s just this side of out of control.  Did she kill her young child by abusing her?  The judge said there was no proof. They fall in with one another, recognizing each other as soul mates, and form a Platonic bond.  Together, their resentment of the local patron, the maid’s employer, and his comfortable bourgeois family becomes something terrible.

Claude Chabrol jokingly called his film La cérémonie, made in 1995,   “the last Marxist film.”  Some of his fans could learn something from his sense of humor.  Consider this exceprt from a review that insists on extracting a class-conscious moral from the story:

In La cérémonie, the characters’ latent sexualities may insidiously be equated with evil, but this evil remains immeasurably more moral than the hypocritical and hierarchical society it attacks.

Chabrol is certainly intensely aware of class divisions, and he weaves  them with great effect into this chilling tale, but his vision is nuanced and subtle rather a simple conflict or classes and relative immoralities.

The title of the film is slang for being lead to the guillotine for execution, a state ritual of justice, adding a further touch of irony and ambiguity as the film moves with heavy stateliness towards its blood spattered conclusion.  The force that drives the violence is not ideology, but evil and happenstance.   The massacre is a crazy stunt that gets out of hand, or maybe it was inevitable, but that is taken in stride once it comes about.  Surveying the bodies, Huppert’s character says, “That’s well done.”  “You know what to do now.  Call the police and say you found them like that. They won’t be able to prove anything.”  The state doesn’t protect the good bourgeoisie from these looneys any more than it protects workers from the predatory owning class.

And what of this bourgois family?  They’re not a bad lot.  They are fair.  They pay well.  They are very loving to one another.  Maybe a bit full of themselves and a bit too used to their great advantages, but not a bad lot after all.  They certainly don’t want to hurt anyone.   Is this hypocrisy?  Does the fact that the father owns the local factory make him a ruthless exploiter?  Nothing would indicate that.  He is almost the ideal bourgeois.  It’s true, however, that servants can be such a pain in the neck!  And they definitely should know their place.

This theme of the bourgeoisie is such a terribly important theme in European culture that it can be puzzling for an American.  Here, everyone is middle-class.  Of course, bourgeois is more than a term for a group with a certain income:  it has very deep and wide connotations in Europe.  They are on full display in La cérémonie.

Another film also intensely involved with class dissection is Bernardo Bertulluci’s Before the Revolution of 1964.  I thought I detected an homage or allusion to that film in this sequence from Chabrol’s:

During a party, the young girl passionately makes out with her boyfriend – the camera pans away to the next room where the boring chit chat among les adultes continues.

In Before the Revolution, pop music blares from the radio, the old man leaves with his newspaper:  Let’s dance, shall we?Ah, look – she’s asleep!

The man and the woman in the extremely sexy passage are aunt and nephew:  after all, the movie is very loosely based on Stendhal’s novel, The Charterhouse of Parma.