In Saving Private Ryan, the film’s ultimate sentimentality, which sets it apart amid all of the hyperrealistic violence that is one mark of the anti-sentiment of the anti-war film,9 is Captain Miller’s dying charge to Ryan to “earn this.” Though Ryan expresses doubt in the final moments by asking his wife if he did, the audience has little doubt of the judgment. It is the purpose of Saving Private Ryan, its raison d’être – it serves not a personal artistic vision but a social good – to validate the suffering and sacrifice of the World War II G.I. and claim that they all “earned it.” It is the purpose of Saving Private Ryan in its public role to “redeem the horror of what [the American soldier] experienced — and, perhaps, as well, participated in — in patriotic honor. This is the purpose of the (pro) war film. Spielberg chose to present war more graphically than any (pro) war film ever had before and still declare that the right, good cause can justify it and expiate the essential human crime of it.”10
Among the minority who vociferously dissent from the general acclaim for Schindler’s List, the objection, beyond other particulars, is to the same sentimental closing affirmation, even about the Holocaust. Most viewers, perhaps some part of almost any viewer, wish to believe that even in the face of the Holocaust, life can be meaningfully renewed, that the full realization of the Holocaust’s occurrence can be integrated into a human existence the moral worth of which does not need forever to be doubted. Even after all that, and that kind of barbarity and death, we – not just we but actual survivors from the list, including Oskar Schindler’s widow Emilie – can pass in procession before his gravestone to the exquisitely emotive music of John Williams, drawn from the violin by Itzhak Perlman, and place a commemorative stone in profound grief and honor and – and what? Have learned? Be deeply moved and made better?
It is commonly claimed by artists that they create for themselves. Wrote Stanley Fish, to whom I respond,”If a reader feels consoled or comforted, that’s all to the good, but it’s not what writing is about.” Fish called the consolation and comfort of art a “rationale for the act that was not internal to its demands, a rationale that could take the form of an external justification.”
“Of course,” said Fish, “the words refer to events in the world, including events I may have witnessed or experienced, but to locate the value of the writing either in its effects or in the verisimilitude it achieves is to grab the wrong end of the stick.”
I challenge this stance, here particularly with regard to three filmmakers whose consideration of their audience is discoverable in their filmmaking. Spielberg is a filmmaker commonly charged with pandering to his audience. Anderson and Haneke may be characterized, peculiarly, by antagonism to their audience. When an artist claims to create only for himself, yet sets his work before a public audience, what is one to make of that? Is it contempt? Is something more complex at work?
The notions of “external justification” and “effects” are complicated by the thought that the reader, viewer, or listener is the artist himself. I think, of myself, for instance, that I write for an ideal reader, and that ideal reader is me, with my sensibility, only smarter, someone who can read – decode – without knowing, as the reader, everything I as the writer write, or encode, and more. I wish, then, to consider with regard to three modern filmmakers and their most recent (at this writing) films – Steven Spielberg and Lincoln, Paul Thomas Anderson and The Master, and Michael Haneke and Amour, all released in 2012 – where they stand, as filmmakers, in relation to “I write because making things out of words is what I feel compelled to do” and “to locate the value of the writing either in its effects or in the verisimilitude it achieves is to grab the wrong end of the stick.” Because the relationship of the filmmaker to his artistic act and also to his viewer is my focus, I wish very briefly to begin with their relationship to my viewership.
Remarkably, for completely different reasons, all three films are works I do not imagine ever viewing in their entirety again. Lincoln is a film I simply do not regard highly enough. I anticipate encountering it on television in the future and pausing to enjoy particular scenes, mostly for the pleasure of watching Daniel Day-Lewis’s extraordinary act of possession. I do not believe in the future that the film will be especially esteemed for more, though certainly its supporting performances are very fine too, and Tony Kushner’s screenplay offers a vivifying extraction of the personalities and politics.
While I have been an admirer of Anderson and think There Will Be Blood a magisterial achievement, I found The Master almost unbearable and nearly impossible to sit through, which I managed only out of cineastic duty. Despite the nearly universal critical encomia, I do not personally know a single individual who did not hate the film.
Of Amour, I can say that my disinclination ever to sit through the whole film again is based tellingly and contradictorily in Fish’s observation that “to locate the value of the writing either in its effects or in the verisimilitude it achieves is to grab the wrong end of the stick.” Toibin’s admiring readers had been profoundly touched by his artistic realization of their painful experiences, which is to say moved both by the artistry of the realization and by the painful fulfillment of the art’s effect. They did not separate the two. Nor I with Amour. My response to its artistry is refined to a form of admiration beyond only aesthetic pleasure, in which the bleakness of the emotional response is inseparable from the “value of the [filmmaking].” The aesthetic pleasure resides in the artistic compulsion of the craft, which is precisely to seek its “external justification” in the profound and painful verisimilitude of its effects.
Whatever Haneke is compelled to do with an image, with mise en scene, in for instance the closing shot of Isabelle Huppert’s Eva entering the apartment of her now dead parents and feeling their absence, the unsentimentalized empty space of their having vanished completely from the world, that compulsion is unfulfilled if the bleakness of Eva’s realization is not stunningly visited upon the viewer just as it is upon her.
On October 18, 2001, five weeks after the 9/11 attack, Noam Chomsky gave a talk at MIT, still available on the web in video and transcript form, entitled “The New War against Terror.” He employed the same slippery rhetorical constructs and argumentative ploys as were on display in his half-hearted but always fully dishonest Nation exchange with Christopher Hitchens. Stringing together several reports from TheNew York Times (both jokingly relied upon and faulted in the same argument, as it suited Chomsky’s purpose), loose references to the World Food Program, and The London Financial Times, as well as both refugees and aid workers cited by the above, Chomsky sought to establish, as an easily accepted premise by his audience, that American plans for action in Afghanistan were resulting in a “genocide” through starvation (though Chomsky actually used the word “slaughter,” not starvation) of perhaps three to four million people.
It was not sufficient, however, for Chomsky to make wanton accusations of genocide; what the U.S. was doing somehow qualified as a “silent” genocide. Chomsky did not elaborate on the modifier. Did Chomsky mean the lack of news coverage? But he was, in fact, relying on reports from various sources, including a major world newspaper. Also, genocides, while they generally produce, ultimately, abundant evidence, are rarely publicized – made visible and audible – by their perpetrators. That is the nature of the crime; relative silence and invisibility to the outside world are the conditions of their occurrence. Given these characteristic circumstances, what could it possibly mean for genocide to be silent? Nothing, as we see, but there is no question that the added “silent” conveys some deeper level of wicked stealth. Since accusations of genocide – like Chomsky’s cry of “racist contempt” at Hitchens – are so freely made by some, the word may appear to have lost some force. Clearly, for Chomsky genocide alone was no longer enough; now he needed need (really, really) bad genocide– it’s secret. Of course, another reason genocide might be “silent” is that it is not, in fact, occurring. Still, Chomsky will stand thin premises on spindly legs, attach them to threads of supposition and tenuous prediction, based on sketchy evidence, and try to make them all fit on the head of an imaginary needle his animus insists is real.
What did Chomsky have to say about this supposed silent genocide nearly two years later? He emailed one correspondent, reporter and culture critic Jesse Fox Mayshark, that
thankfully, the dire warnings of the NY Times, the aid agencies, Harvard U specialists on Afghanistan, and others were realized only partially — how much, of course, we do not know, with no investigations.
Note the levels of disingenuousness here. It was the Times, the aid agencies, Harvard “specialists,” and “others” who were mistaken in their “dire warnings,” not Chomsky for confidently and maliciously attributing to the United States an act of genocide through starvation (“slaughter”) that never took place. Or, according to Chomsky, the – what? genocide? starvation? – did “partially” take place? To what degree? Ninety-five percent? Fifty percent? One percent? And, of course, in Chomsky’s Logic, failure to prove a negative is only – ah, recall this from yesterday and his accusation about Sudan? – failure to investigate. Or, rather, it is to posit an unsubstantiated claim and assert it not disproved by virtue of its being uninvestigated. “With no investigations,” implies something to be investigated, which something should be perhaps Chomsky’s own claim of partially realized – genocide? slaughter? starvation?
There were voices to the contrary. In response to Baudrillard and Zizek and Chomsky, as well as Susan Sontag (who simply refrained from using the precise words “chickens coming home to roost”) and the countless others, Marc Cooper, long of The Nation, decried in the October 14, 2001 Los Angeles Times “the odious whiff” of those nesting fowl. Christopher Hitchens was, by then, completing his Nation debate with Chomsky. The embarrassment grew, and the thoughtful left response to the bloodless left response continued throughout 2002.
Dissent published in its fall 2002 issue Michael Kazin’s “A Patriotic Left.” Kazin pointed out the sadly necessary, that “[w]ithout empathy for one’s neighbors, politics becomes a cold, censorious enterprise indeed.” Of course, American left critics without sympathy to squander had been declaring for months that one could simultaneously regret the loss of life and criticize American policy. The reassuring character of empathy, however, is in its fifty percent perfect bullshit detector: one can be emotionally conned into believing it present, but there is no mistaking its absence when there are only verbal protests to the contrary. In Dissent’s earlier, spring 2002 issue, Michael Walzer had put the questions more directly in “Can There Be a Decent Left?” Wisely, he asked, “Why can’t we accept an ambivalent relation to American power, acknowledging that it has had good and bad effects in the world?” Walzer hopefully claimed,
Many people on the left recovered their moral balance in the weeks that followed [9/11]; there is at least the beginning of what should be a long process of self-examination. But many more have still not brought themselves to think about what really happened.
Nine years after Walzer’s article, the latter observation remains regretfully true, and the former demonstrably false of those who lacked the balance to begin. There has been no examination and no change. The nature of much of the opposition to the Iraq War – mind you, not the opposition itself, or the reasonable arguments for the opposition, but the nature of it, in its rhetoric, its skewed moral considerations, its continuing anti-Americanism – demonstrated yet again that the broad left learned nothing from 9/11 or its continuing governing sojourn in the American wilderness. As Todd Gitlin wrote in the winter 2003 Dissent (of the eminently deserving Gore Vidal),
Anti-Americanism is an emotion masquerading as an analysis, a morality, an ideal, even an idea about what to do. When hatred of foreign policies ignites into hatred of an entire people and their civilization, then thinking is dead and demonology lives. When complexity of thought devolves into caricature, intellect is close to reconciling itself to mass murder.
By September 23, 2002, just over a year later, even The Nation was attempting some analysis of the difficulties the left had encountered over the previous year. By this time, Christopher Hitchens no longer felt at home at The Nation, and Adam Shatz, The Nation’s literary editor, essayed, in the “The Left and 9/11,” a first overview of the ideological and moral disarray. Given that Shatz grouped the Soviets and the African National Congress in the same emblematic ideological category, and notably “never saw [the Soviets] as enemies,” he did a fair job of attempting to consider reasonably the left’s post 9/11 intellectual conflicts. In the end, however, he could not escape the absurdities of his own position on the spectrum. He observed that the left has demonstrated
a highly selective solicitude for the oppressed: “Muslim grievances” are to be heeded when they emanate from Palestine, but ignored or even repudiated when they arise in Bosnia or Kosovo. This has damaged the left’s moral standing ….
Well, yeah, sure, it certainly has, but it isn’t as if decades of rationalizing Soviet and Maoist abuses hadn’t already sullied, just a bit, something that might be referred to as the “moral standing” of one identifiable segment of the left.
Then Shatz gave us Richard Falk reflecting, on Chomsky’s weaknesses, that he is
so preoccupied with the evils of US imperialism that it completely occupies all the political and moral space, and therefore it’s not possible for him to acknowledge that even without intending to do sosome US military interventions may actually have a beneficial effect. [Emphasis added]
One can’t quite know for sure here whether the inability to imagine the U.S. intending to do good is Falk’s or only Chomsky’s, ascribed by Falk, but in any event, the comment speaks for itself. We also got Katha Pollitt musing,
This war is a real crisis for the left…in that finally there is an enemy who has attacked us, as opposed to any enemy that’s in our heads, and one that’s completely unsympathetic to the goals of the left.
It apparently took a year, but Pollitt came to acknowledge a crisis, though one can’t help but wonder what her reaction to the attack might have been – given what it was – had the perpetrators actually been sympathetic to the goals of the left. And then there was Tony Kushner, of recent controversy, stating,
I don’t believe that we’re ideologically committed to do evil.
Ah, yes. Well, thanks for that. What can one call an examination of a crisis in which even the supposed dissents from misguided orthodoxy are obtuse?
As it happens, to bring the divergent threads of The Nation and Dissent together in closing, the latter in its Winter 2010 issue presented a symposium on “Intellectuals and their America,” and of varied interesting voices among them, Katha Pollitt was not one. She did author one of the entries, but only to disappoint that hopeful sentiment of Kazin’s back in 2002 about those on the left who had lost their moral balance recovering it. Oh, sure, she heard the critics of her post 9/11 column.
I’m sure I could have written more carefully and sensitively. The tone of that column was unnecessarily prickly, and I went too far when I identified the flag with racism and jingoism, because of course it has many meanings, including anti-racism and rejection of ignorant chauvinism.
Is it possible for Pollitt to be more clueless even in her attempt to articulate more positive meanings for the American flag? But this is the best Pollitt can offer:
It may be natural to love one’s country, but it’s less a noble virtue than a habit, the way people tend to like the food they grew up with, even if it’s haggis or lutefisk or roasted rats on a stick.
Believing as I do that poets cannot by nature be such unreflective, superficial beings as this thinking suggests, I understand such writing to reflect instead how psychologically and affectively disabling the pronounced ideologizing of human experience can be. It leads one to conclude an essay, after ten years opportunity to reconsider, like this:
I realize that criticizing patriotism generally doesn’t go over very well, let alone telling people they’re not so great and even a bit greedy. But what has all our flag-waving done for us in the end?
If one were to answer that it created, and in crisis preserved, the nation, and saved a good portion of the world from tyranny and death as well, there is reason to believe that these to Pollitt are gifts, like a horse, the opposing ends of which she knows far better than the precious animal between them.