(Pact was originally staged by the New Theatre in Miami as part of the Miami 1-Acts Festival.)
Monthly Archives: January 2016
On Doxing and Anonymity
I have always found that the most effective way to stay anonymous on social media is to be completely open about who you are. That way people will assume you want their attention, and make a point of ignoring you. “Be as invisible as a homeless man on Wall Street,” the Ku Fu master once said. “Extend your begging bowl, and they will avert their eyes.”
Not everybody on the Internet is an unemployed bum, however, a wannabe Charles Bukowski whose every other blog entry is “me, me, look at me.” There are perfectly legitimate reasons why you might want to post to Facebook or Twitter under a pseudonym, to broadcast your ideas to the world while keeping your identity a secret. Some people have jobs, friends, families, a place of honor in this great stinking pile of corruption we call the United States of America. The Internet has allowed us all to express ourselves in a way that was unknown, even in the very recent past, even within my adult lifetime. It has also empowered bullies and gossips, people who are interested, not in expressing their own ideas, but in silencing others with the threat to reveal their real-world identities to the public.
One of these bullies and gossips is Molly Crabapple, about whom I have written previously.
Like me, Molly Crabapple seeks your attention. Unlike me, she’s good at it, her memoir Drawing Blood having become a semi-official account of Occupy Wall Street among the liberal elites. While I would rather have you read Daniel Levine’s excellent Every Time I Check My Messages Someone Thinks I’m Dead, I have nothing against self-promotion. The problem is self-promotion at any price. What compromises has she done to get that book review in the New York Times, that big platform with with to sell her artwork? There have always been rumors that Molly Crabapple, whose real name is Jennifer Caban, has had some sort of involvement with the military–industrial complex, that like the Partisan Review or The New Leader, she’s a left-wing Trojan horse, a rat propped up by the CIA to distract your attention from genuinely revolutionaries. To be honest, I’ve always discounted them. You can accuse anybody of just about anything on the Internet. Without proof, your accusations are worthless.
I also think that a person’s behavior reveals his or her connections. If you’re acting like a snitch, then you’re probably a snitch. I am not a “political ally” of the pseudonymous Tweeter “Emma Quangel.” Although she has commented on this blog in a civil manner, she also belongs to a group of people commonly known as “tankies,” authoritarian leftists with a reductionist view of Marxism that usually amounts to nothing more than supporting Russia, or Assad, against the United States. Nevertheless, unlike me, the woman who posts to Twitter under the name Emma Quangel, has real knowledge of the Middle East. As we have seen many times many times in the past, like the manufactured “evidence” of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, or the story about Saddam Hussein’s troops removing babies from incubators, most of what we read in the American corporate media about the Middle East is propaganda put out by the United States government with little or no basis in reality.
I have no betting interest in the race between the Russian and the United States government in Syria. My official line on the matter is that I’m an ignorant American who should probably avoid commenting on issues I know nothing about. But I do think its worth asking why Molly Crabapple has chosen to “dox” a minor press officer at the United Nations for nothing other than her stridently pro-Assad views. There are thousands of people on Twitter who believe the same things “Emma Quangel” does, and yet aren’t as vulnerable to violent retribution as a woman who actually lives and works in the Middle East. Logic, therefore, would seem to indicate that Molly Crabapple is acting in the interests of the American military industrial complex, that she’s firing a shot across the bow of a low-level employee at the United Nations as a warning to anybody else who might object to American foreign policy in Syria. We’ve all seen this before, the media blitzkrieg against the Dixie Chicks, the firing of Phil Donahue by MSNBC for his views about the invasion of Iraq, the sting operation against former UN weapons inspector Scott Ritter, the trumped-up rape charges against Julian Assange. If you object to anything about American foreign policy, and are likely to have some influence over public opinion, the United States government, and the corporate media, will either find a weakness, or make one up. They will destroy you.
Molly Crabapple, as we’ve already seen, has a soft-spot for celebrity hackers like Andrew Auernheimer. She’s willing to overlook toxic, white supremacist views in exchange for whatever publicity it can get her. For many people on the Internet, a well-known neo-Nazi hacker with enough clout to get an early release from prison, and a ticket to Lebanon, a country without an extradition treaty to the United States, can be an intimidating presence. What’s more, in addition to being a United Nations press officer, the pseudonymous Tweeter “Emma Quangel” made the headlines over the Summer after she discovered the white supremacist mass murderer Dylann Roof’s manifesto, something the corporate media could have done, easily, but chose not to. “Emma Quangel” not only upended the corporate media’s pro-cooked narrative — that white mass murderers act out of mental illness, not political ideology — she undoubtedly made enemies in the white nationalist community. Molly Crabapple has not only threatened Emma Quangel’s employment. She’s exposed her to violent retribution.
I wouldn’t touch Molly Crabapple with a ten-foot pole.
the elm are naked with anticipation,
they have stopped shaking and
everyone is indoors.
there is not much to say these days,
and we are getting nostalgic.
in the street the bodies of lovers
pass, saying nothing.
The Psychology of Distributed Fascism
A similar question makes itself present in almost all junctures and lines of human questioning and refuses to come to neat resolution. This is the recursion problem, the point at which a dam must be artificially erected in order to continue the act of rationalist reasoning. It has many names with slightly different connotations that nevertheless seem more fraternally tied than differentiated-the a priori assumption, the axiom, the absence necessarily implied when Derrida discusses supplementes, and in more specific contexts, both the Big Bang and God. None can be justified except by the negative consequences and loss of forward direction that would come with their not being presumed. We’d lose geometry and a bunch of other stuff.
It seems like a safe initial presumption, given the small sliver of the totality of existence any of us is allowed to live in, the further limitation of our reliance on our senses within the context of this limited sliver and the limitations of comprehension and our own singular consciousness in relation to the processed data of these senses, to put any presumptions to absolute knowledge of metaphysical laws by human beings on permanent probation status. The implied problem in any text with phrases like “Let us presume (x).” There’s a hole behind the presumption, it’s always been there. We can’t really know what we’re missing, that’s the exclusive property and knowledge of the hole, and in order for human society and thought to progress we kinda have to treat it like an outstretched power cord in a cluttered apartment we have to be careful not to trip over.
This problem creates the more practical problem of leaving a certain uncomfortable but unavoidable looseness in the classic questions “How ought I live?”, “What’s right?” and related questions. On the final level, once the logistics and practicalities are considered, or sometimes before they can be considered with any seriousness, this question of when the recursive series of “why that?”‘s ends comes up and can’t be resolved except by ignoring it or cheating; the ultimate Kobayashi Maru, the Gordian Knot that can’t stop unspooling rope on either side, a series of colorful handkerchiefs tied together pulled from a top hat with no bottom. What’s called faith or confidence insists it must come into play; the world and our selves refuse to change without us stepping out of the room momentarily lest we actually see either naked. No one who ever claimed to have peered inside eternity’s trench coat has ever seemed happier for having seen the bared and dangling thing therein.
For the honest person of a severe rational character this can loop around back to a rhetoric of “science” that ends up as circular and self-justifying as the vocabulary set it replaced; that can’t answer the finer questions of culture with any more precision than an allan wrench can drive in a philips head screw. Our tools cry out more and more to us for attention in the manner of children; they desire constant assurances we love them and need them more than they especially care or are equipped for fixing the pressing problems of capitalism’s increasing irrelevance or climate change.
The easiest way to psychologically resolve the deadlock and make way to action, meaningful or meaningless, is in the shape of the oppositional identity.
The oppositional identity works a bit like the archetypal silent comedy mirror routine.
Each side of the mirror keeps making halting gestures, almost recognizing itself but wanting to be sure that the thing on the other side isn’t itself, defining it’s self and it’s course of action in the negative space of the other. Normative identity in the US is very much built around what one doesn’t do, for the reason the (insert “undesirable” element) does whatever this is and usually little other reason. Performative differance. The moments of recognition, the common ground so often sought by ecumenical organizations religious and secular, is in fact the source of antagonism and anxiety and when the energy to antagonize and worry dissipates, the source of peculiar absurdities.
Lacan claimed that the thing the patient actually wants when entering the analyst’s office is a way to hold onto their symptoms, not to get better. While Freud’s thoughts and theoretical work has been applied to group psychological contexts more frequently and substantially, it seems this observation could be overlaid on the current US scene and yield insight.
When the far left wants to defend the far right racists currently “occupying” federal land in Oregon on the grounds that action taken against the Bundy crowd would bode poorly for the left come…the revolution? OWS mach 2? I’m not entirely sure? Possibly nothing? I can only presume such a line of reasoning arises from the shared awkward flirtation with the notion of revolution on both sides, the bared fantasies of overthrow that have their uncomfortable and not just slightly masturbatory existence outside the manufactured structures of ideology, the empty space in the attic that’s still an integral part of the house. The far right wants to protect the abstract fantasy of “revolution” the way many teenage girls would likely cry if Justin Bieber ever got married.
What do these people stockpiling guns want them for if they don’t want to shoot someone? What common ground is desirable with what amount to domestic brownshirts? As a psychological phenomena, fascism is built around the absence of a substantial structure to temper pure oppositional identity; the idea of “decentralized” or “distributed” fascism, what would have sounded like an obvious oxymoron not that long ago, seems very much a possibility, maybe even a reality. The necessary logistics have shifted. As Stanley wrote a couple months ago:
Even though Donald Trump has not yet successfully built up a fascist mass movement, he has something Hitler and Franco didn’t, a mass media based on 24/7 cable news and the Internet. Germany, Spain and Italy in the 1930s had well-developed civil societies, educated populations, and conservative family structures, a traditional culture in touch with history the United States in 2015 doesn’t. An Italian or German in 1930 could turn off the radio. Americans in 2015 always have their smart phones, or their computers. Few Americans have any space at all outside of the corporations and the mainstream media. Ironically, however, it also makes the charismatic fascist demagogue unnecessary.
The thrust of this society, the guiding principle that outstrips the actuality of the large corporations and federal or state governments, is the belief that it’s an innate human right, for some humans anyway, to collect rent on other humans’ labor. There’s been a stewing slaveholder’s revolt in this country that has flared up repeatedly since its initial salvo in 1861. Human slavery of course has no reasonable justification that stands up to any logical scrutiny based in any consistent ethics; at the same time more literature has probably been produced justifying it in one way or another than on any other human question.
If the justification for this eventually has to come to its stark nakedness, public masturbatory displays, open carries, gloppy angry sentimental mush like all nationalism, to expect reason from a class purposely set out to avoid it lest they give up their privileges, we should expect some ugly shit to go down.
So long as this belief exists as folk religion, as the unspoken foundation of peoples’ dreams and the foundation of the wealthy who exist as carrots falsely promising the actualization of this dream to those beneath them, there will be flare ups. We should be actively trying to figure out what to do to curb and seize the massive private stockpile of arms in this country.
Letter from NY to her, the unbeliever in California
The broken Vs of the too-late geese
leave space for the gone ones which
would have blackened the sky.
This is the season of flight.
I did go to California, you know.
More than once
I walked on warm dirt,
up firm mountains which were neither Greek nor tragic
but were blessed with enough rain to let the grass grow
and the salmon run and the fires eat away the dead.
Each time I left for California
I was skeptical that I would arrive there.
Hasn’t it always been the horizon,
almost visible, always distant?
Riding in strange vehicles with strange men and women
I would consider the myths which had encased it in my mind;
free gold, free land, legendary freedom.
How unlikely, I would think,
and begin to plan my escape back north,
where the fog and the chill
and the lonely streets and the silence
were all very real.
We are different, however,
because when I finally set foot on the shocking red earth there
I believed in its mundane reality, knew I had arrived,
however temporarily, however unfree.
This is the season for learning
to grit the teeth with love.
For remaining joyful while solitude is blowing thru;
for coming together in our God-given loneliness.
In California I was alone with the place
and with my love for it.
My mind was clean and stark,
hopeful, and I thought that when I returned
I could bring some of it back,
like an image from a dream carefully penned upon waking.
But the place where we are will not accept sun or sand
or promises which all seem mythical.
So I am glad for you to be there,
disappointed and not surprised that you can’t send proof of its persistence.
That kind of word doesn’t come here this season,
and right there is the question,
and I don’t know the answer.
Field of Dreams: The Oregon Militia “Occupation”
Half or two-thirds or three-quarters of the world could belong to such an organization, and yet you could still have an atomic war. I’m not saying the “Ban the Bomb” campaign would cause an atomic war, but there’s absolutely no proof it would prevent it. If you have people evil enough to lust for an atomic war, they are even more likely to force that war if there looks to be a real danger that they will never have a war.
-Norman Mailer, The Realist Magazine, 1962
Q: In a certain light, wouldn’t nuclear war be exciting?
-Okcupid.com Match Question
When George Zimmerman was on trial for murdering Trayvon Martin, the transcripts made it fairly obvious that the thing that Zimmerman was most mortally frightened of was not a “scary black man” or “being mugged” or whatever else; what he was most afraid of was the possibility he might never get to shoot someone. He needed to psych himself up; he needed to make reality meet his own paranoid fantasies more than half-way so that he could consummate the thing of his desires and fantasies. Desire and fantasy are more often sources of anxiety than relief or joy; they’re little things that nudge one in the direction of their consummation more than they have any particular emotional shading; whatever emotional shading they take just needs to be ramped up to where it can drown out whatever voices in a person’s mind say “don’t do that.”
The current paramilitary occupation of federal lands by three sons of Cliven Bundy and a number of other excessively armed white people is, of course, not actually about getting a better subsidy from the government for land for grazing cattle or arson charges. It is about white privilege and white entitlement, even more blatantly than these sort of news stories usually are. It’s yet another amply magnified case study in what the white privilege is in the United States and how it works. It’s another study of the far end of the gun culture and it’s another opportunity to dwell on exactly what it is these people so dead set on holding onto their stockpile of firearms actually want to do with them.
It doesn’t seem unreasonable to say the militiamen here have actively fantasized about shooting and killing a human being, probably on multiple occasions. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to figure, if I might be allowed to play JG Ballard for a moment, to suggest there was likely a strong sexual component to these fantasies. I’m not saying the psychosexual component predominated, but it would be irresponsible on my part not to acknowledge it. The “thrilling” passages of white supremacist texts from Birth of Nation to The Turner Diaries have always conflated the seizure/”reclamation” of territory with the seizure/”reclamation” of women as sexual property, both from the fear of miscegenation. These texts invariably envision women as property. “They’re coming for our women.” Etc. etc. One of the most foundational American myths that pervades the cinema especially but also genre literature is the “woman as prize won for acts of normative heroism”; the woman is not actually a full person in this narrative but the symbol of acceptance/integration into society, a sort of Boy Scout’s merit badge with implied sexual privileges. It wouldn’t be a stretch to presume that more Hollywood films feature this component than don’t. Action movies almost always have this component; think Bond women, the girl on the train tracks. It’s a narrative archetype so ubiquitous that, as I explored in an earlier essay, is so ingrained that literally just a picture of a man looking at a woman on a beach in a Charles Atlas bodybuilding program is enough to imply the entire rest of the context.
The person on whose “behalf” they’re supposedly holding the occupation doesn’t want them there. But that isn’t especially surprising. The fantasy revolves around the self-they want an armed stand off with the government more than they want to prove any particular point. If I might be allowed to play Ballard again and forgiven an unforgivable double entendre: “If you build it, they will come.”
The greatest fear of gun-obsessed conservative America is that they might never get to shoot someone. To them, on some level, the gerrymandering of ethnic or economic “other”s is a functional mechanism to keep alive the hope that certain human beings still exist as potential hunting trophies through which they can prove valor, much as “white women” and marriage to one represents the barrier to a sort of sexual landed gentry status in this psychomythology.
There aren’t many people actually involved in this occupation, but like Donald Trump, the extent of media coverage has been disproportionate.
Why is the media so concerned with this and not something else going on?
As I’ve repeated on numerous occasions and as Marshall McLuhan pretty much said on the first page of text in The Mechanical Bride, the national news functions as our mythology; that the things involved actually happened tells us very little about how they’re read. And insofar as it functions as mythology, mythology’s function is to be evocative of “universals”; open ended enough for the person to see their own face in a similar way to how you kinda see a face when you squint at the front of a car, but with enough definition they can plausibly deny they were projecting themselves. And in the Bundy family, this particular mojo seems to run in the blood. Same with far right culture generally at this historical juncture. It should’ve been relatively predictable that after the exposure of culture and values as a collection of subjective comfort zones with the more heavily theoretical onsets of the postmodern period there would be the emergence of something so one-dimensionally normative as to cross the border into the parodic and back again into actually existing. And here we are.
A lot of the US population secretly or not so secretly fantasizes about an alternate history of the national downturn that started in 2008 centered more around their own accumulated resentments and fixations than around what actually happened. They wish there was a more coherent enemy. Multiple confused narratives have emerged, tied together as part of a shared social trend in their aesthetic glaze of false nostalgia for earlier, now antiquated, objects and wellsprings of monolithic paranoia.
The right wing fixation on the government, where it doesn’t stem from direct personal interest, takes the shape of antagonistic nostalgia for when the federal government was actually still the large enough entity to traffic in something resembling monolithic repression, or perhaps a nostalgia for figures of monolithic repression generally. There are giant banks, multi-nationals, and bigger and nimbler social blocs than governments to be contended with and the presently stewing and steady rise in anti-government sentiment from the far right is more about attempted scavenging and pecking at political carrion than ideology or principle.
Some Thoughts on “The Implosion of Occupy Wall Street”
Alternet ran an article last week titled “What Really Caused the Implosion of the Occupy Movement: An Insider’s View“. Multiple people asked me to write up a response here. I already wrote a retrospective article for the site a couple months ago, which you can read here, but I do have some comments on this article.
The first part that struck me was that it’s encouraging people are still thinking about OWS this far on. There was a sense as soon as maybe a year and a half later of OWS as something that had completely flashed out; that was going to have its effect on the populace, an undeniable effect if nowhere near the full one that was desired by the occupiers, and become an invisible source of cultural vernacular left to etymologies and dry historical books sold or at least priced and placed on card tables at the Left Forum in smaller quantities each ensuing year.
But the underlying grievances that fueled OWS have only been exacerbated since the encampments were broken up and the starting pistol for the second wave of postmortems after the hasty ones scrawled off in the immediate aftermath may have begun with this article.
The article itself is very much in the style of OWS and particularly the “leadership”, the people who had a definite craving for sitting through long planning meetings, the people who academically couldn’t call themselves leaders but would insistently remind people such to make sure any listeners would know they’d pondered the possibility. I quote:
I’m a leader, and people know it, but no one says it. It’s a strange feeling. I’m not the only leader, of course — there are many. In this room, we’re a wide range of people. Some of the folks go back to the Global Justice Movement, but most of us have met in the middle of the whirlwind, building the kinds of relationships you can only build in crisis or struggle. Some of the room is seasoned and experienced, some very new to this type of thing, but all of us have demonstrated leadership early on (some before the thing even really started) and come in with lots of relationships. Between us we lead a number of working groups, drive some of the major mass actions, play formative roles in much of the media being pumped out, and more.
There’s not a lot of talk about tactics or the nitty gritty of organizing and of course, as I pointed out in my memoir of the movement Every Time I Check My Messages, Somebody Thinks I’m Dead, there was a distinct sense of a split in the park between the people actually running the day to day operations of the park and the people who seemed to think they were running the park operations who were in fact in meetings constantly. Some very important work was done in these meetings, yes, but a lot of what went on was overly theoretical. I stopped going to Info group meetings after two or three of them because nothing was getting done that was important to running the info kiosk at the front; the number of people working the table was always small enough where it was easier to make decisions on the ground with whoever was present and in the case of the info table, most decisions were pretty common sense and because all volunteers weren’t spending equal amounts of time there, any group decisions couldn’t quite account for the finer points of moment to moment operation.
Author Yotam Marom’s analysis in the article hits some of the major issues. Yes, the occupation had no coherent endgame. Yes, the anarchist principles on which the park was organized created problems both of accountability of the people who were, if not leaders, at least in far more privileged positions regarding the financial windfall of the park and still have not released the open books that were supposedly kept of the park’s finances (looking at you Finance and Accounting Working Groups). If I ever met Yotam I don’t remember it, though his description of meetings in apartments sounds like the side of the park, or, perhaps more accurately stuff that wasn’t in the park, that I purposely avoided. The appeal for me was the liveliness on the ground and the almost fully functioning city that arose out of donations and people willing to sleep in public.
The major errors I see in Marom’s breakdown of what went wrong are mostly in omissions. Marom, like most of the people who were going to meetings, missed half the occupation, the half that still exists in small pockets, the public imagination. Because OWS had no endgame, I feel hesitant to call it a success or failure; it clearly wasn’t meant to create a new political party in the US, state eviction from the park was pretty much a foregone conclusion from day one; what was surprising was that we were able to hold the space for as long as we did so we could engage the public in radical politics and break open the sense that the entire US political spectrum ran from Democratic Candidate on the left to Republican Candidate on the right and that the failings of capitalism weren’t the fault of the larger population but of an incredibly small elite-the 1%. This got across to the people who were ever going to pick up on it. Marom makes the mistake of presuming the best possible end result of OWS would involve it extending beyond the benefits of the seized public/semi-private space that were used for outreach to establish the counter-narrative.
This is gonna sound like heresy to the more self-serious folk in the Occupy diaspora, but OWS was the park(s). That was the strength and the thing that meant it wasn’t gonna last forever. There are literally hundreds, possibly thousands of left organizations in the US plotting this thing or that thing that exist on the internet or in small meeting groups. These things exist kinda like Jane Austen book clubs in the larger scheme of things for the most part; people with like interests can meet and indulge themselves away from the public eye. This isolating aspect of the left is unfortunate, but then the functional far left in the US has been decimated repeatedly in ways that the far left in countries in Europe hasn’t. This, however, creates a problem with public outreach. There isn’t a sense in most far left organizations or meetings that the people who show up to meetings have any place there besides to listen to the people with more free time and/or a more obsessive interest in the subject lecture at them. OWS, because of its nature as a pop-up town, gave the people who weren’t verbal intellects or frustrated academics shit to do and a place within the functioning whole; there was a sense of actual community and of something being accomplished. We may not have been able to pay people but we at least were able to offer the dignity and benefits of identity that come with feeling as if the work one is doing isn’t pointless. That was a major component that is missing from all other left organizations that I feel has been left out by the people who were at the meetings all day.
I have said before and I will say again, psychologically what was going to dominate the main OWS encampment if the police hadn’t come was the sense of paranoia the left had at encountering its own relevance like an unexpected blind date, a mounting paranoia that was only partially justified. Some people stepped into the light of sudden relevance with the awkward leap of not having seen a slightly larger drop while descending stairs. The differences between what was wanted by the differing parties and the growing value of Occupy as brand (a growth that has largely dissipated in the interim) would draw in the vultures. Small time hustlers saw crowds and confused tourists who weren’t sure what to do with their vague misgivings about the establishment than to throw money at appropriately branded tchotchkes, not revolution; people who otherwise would’ve had little shot at professions in fields like journalism saw their opening; there are far more of these in America than committed anarchists, communists, or less specifically defined “organizers”. The US, at least at this point in time and probably at least since the end of WWII and earlier, is a community of individuals hoping to “make it”, dominated by an aspirational ideology with an interchangeable center for a culture that exists after sincere belief in the relevance of ideology.
One line in the article seems to suggest a mountain of issues that Karom never quite unpacks fully but that someone like Slavoj Zizek could have a field day with; perhaps the thing that makes the otherwise well written article feel unsatisfying is the sense of something rote and unexamined, a hole covered over with a makeshift thatch rug of explanation. The line:
“We race to prove we are the least privileged, because this is the only way we can imagine being powerful.”
The paragraph surrounding it mostly restates/develops this thesis. The thing left unexamined, probably necessarily: the performance of empathy that revolves around the creation of intellectual portraits of what constitutes victimhood, part of the heart of the left as currently constructed, the thing that creates its basis to claims of moral agency, is of course a Gordian knot. It can’t allow for success without the building block of hipocrisy insofar as any success would diminish the victim identity that the legitimacy of the initial action was founded on.
It’s Christianity through the lens of Nietzsche with all the problems Nietzsche pointed out in The Genealogy of Morals, what Marx would’ve called a contradiction at the heart of Christian morality. The moral fall narrative that accompanies the seizure of power has to be lived in order to make the necessary political changes; the seizure of power is a means of framing debate that seems to supercede other considerations. Power divorced from any other elements, artificially isolated as though it were in a lab, exists most effectively as a tool of aggression against the optimism and notions of egalitarianism that might exist in the minds of the populace. The action of revolution, of establishing the system that will organize everything when this system collapses into turmoil, is being thrown around like the hot potato it is. We haven’t seen enough of history to know the plan to implement but have seen enough to know the early explorers tend not to live very long or end up having to borrow money to buy potatoes as Marx did.
What will the morality after the Christian-Nietzschaen epoch resemble?
Jesus of Montreal (1989)
I do not know if Jesus of Montreal is the best film about the life of Jesus ever made, but it’s the best one I’ve ever seen. If the 1989 film by Canadian filmmaker Denys Arcand is far superior, not only to Mel Gibson’s dreadful torture porn The Passion of the Christ, but also to Martin Scorsese’s well-intentioned but ultimately flawed The Last Temptation of the Christ, then it has a lot to do with Lothaire Bluteau’s performance. Bluteau not only portrays Jesus. He embodies him, physically and spiritually, but the brilliance of Jesus of Montreal goes beyond Lothaire Bluteau. His co-stars Johanne-Marie Tremblay and Catherine Wilkening are almost as good. The writing, the cinematography, the score, the startlingly original concept behind the screenplay, everything about this film comes together to make it not only a profound exploration of the essence of Christianity, but probably the best movie of the 1980s.
That I have to give a “spoiler warning” about a movie that directly parallels the life of Christ, probably the most well-known story in history, will give you an idea of the inventive originality of Denys Arcand’s screenplay. Jesus of Montreal is a film you can watch over and over again, but it’s worth seeing it for the first time without knowing the various ways that Arcand re-stages the key events of the Gospels in Montreal in the 1980s. Perhaps the movie’s best scene, where Lothaire Bluteau flips over the tables of the money changers, reinvents the incident as a declaration of war of the avant guard against the degrading aesthetic of corporatized, mass culture. It also dramatizes the often hinted at romantic feelings between Jesus and Mary Magdalene in a way that’s not overtly sexual. In fact it’s the opposite. Jesus flies into a rage because he loves Mary, because he sees the idea of romantic love being bought and sold on the open market. Arcand manages to say in a few short minutes exactly what Martin Scorsese tried, and failed, to say in the three hours of the ongoing relationship between Willem Dafoe and Barbara Hershey in The Last Temptation of Christ. Indeed, to watch Jesus of Montreal right after you watch The Last Temptation of Christ feels a bit like going from the kind of ponderous Biblical epic Hollywood used to stage in the 1950s right to the French New Wave. It’s like seeing Breathless for the first time.
Jesus of Montreal opens in the middle of a play within a movie, a staging of a scene from Dostoevsky’s The Brother’s Karamazov. The audience is a caricature of the French Canadian bourgeois, cultural elite. The actor’s portrayal of Smerdyakov’s suicide is vivid and dramatic, as a staging of a suicide should be, but it also feels grotesque, overdone, kabuki-like. Arcand cranks up the sound so high, we almost feel relieved when the rope snaps his neck. After a woman in the audience remarks to her companion that she’d like to get the lead actor’s head for a TV commercial, a Biblically literate viewer will immediately recognize the allusion to Salome and John the Baptist, and probably notice how Arcand has set up the idea of the Roman occupation of Judea as the corporate mass culture that has colonized the minds of people in Quebec. “Here’s a better actor than I am,” the actor says, breaking off the conversation with the casting director to talk to Daniel Coulombe, Lothaire Bluteau, and reenacting the scene in the Gospels where John the Baptist passes the leadership of his movement onto Jesus.
Daniel Coulombe is a spare, intense 30-old-man with a subtle yet commanding presence. At one time a promising actor — he graduated first in his class as “the conservatory” — he disappeared for most of his 20s to travel in Asia. Now he has returned to Montreal to reestablish his career. He gets an opportunity to “start at the bottom” when and elderly priest named Father Leclerc, Gilles Pelletier, taps him to take over the passion play at the St. Joseph’s Oratory, an ethereal white cathedral modeled after The Sacré-Cœur Basilica in Paris and located on the commanding heights of Mont Royal, one of the highest places in the city of Montreal. While viewing videotapes of the old production of the passion play, Daniel notices Constance, a friend from acting school he immediately decides to bring over to the new one. Together they gather a gifted cast from the marginally employed bohemian community of the city, a man who does voice overs for pornographic films, another man who does narratives for a local planetarium, and, most important of all, Mireille, a young woman who works in advertising.
Mireille, the film’s Mary Magdalene played by Catherine Wilkening, is physically beautiful, but dead inside. Indeed, the first time we see her — she’s filming a perfume commercial — she quite literally looks like a zombie, sleepwalking through life as she hangs out of her skimpy clothes. Mireille, who’s in an abusive relationship with yet another casting director named Jerzy — he tells her she’d “give a paraplegic a hard on” but has contempt for her intelligence — surprisingly decides to sign on with Daniel Coulombe, to give up a potentially lucrative career for a part that pays almost nothing. Daniel, meanwhile, has rewritten the script of the passion play to put it more in line with the latest secular research on the life of the historical Jesus. Jesus is no longer the product of a virgin birth. He’s the illegitimate son of a single mother and a Roman soldier. There are long, educational passages about how the idea of “the Christ” was developed over time. Jesus, for example, was originally portrayed as a clean shaved youth. Only later, after Justinian became the emperor of the Byzantines, did artists begin to paint him with a beard, which was considered a sign of power in the Byzantine Empire. Daniel painstakingly studies the image of the cross, something the early Christians considered too horrifying to paint or discuss, only emerging as part of Christian iconography 500 years after the death of the historical Jesus.
The first production of Daniel Coulombe’s rewrite of the passion play is a smashing success. Coulombe, like a Catholic version of John Cassavetes, has allowed his actors to develop the script along with their performances. The results are startling. Mireille is transformed from an insecure young woman who thinks men see her as nothing but a sex object, to a genuine artist, confident in her abilities. Their little group has, in effect, become the mirror image of Jesus and the 12 apostles. They are not only dramatizing the Gospels. They are living the Gospels. Daniel’s portrayal of Jesus is so powerful that a woman in the audience, a black Haitian immigrant, tries to rush past the St. Joseph Oratory’s security staff to touch his cloak, precisely the way the non-Jewish woman in the Gospels broke through Jesus’ followers to touch his cloak, and be healed of her disease. The “Passion on the Mount” becomes the toast of Montreal. Even though the city’s bourgeois cultural establishment doesn’t fully understand what they have seen, they do understand that they have witnessed something of tremendous significance. It’s hard not to have the same impression. Arcand’s fictional passion play has a sombre, powerful beauty even for those of us who aren’t very religious. I was raised Christian, and I’ve studied the Bible and the history of Jesus, but I became thoroughly convinced as I was watching Jesus of Montreal that until Denys Arcand put the Gospels up on screen, I had never really understood what Christianity meant.
Unfortunately for Daniel Coulombe, Father Leclerc, who becomes the film’s Judas, understands all too well what he’s seen, that the real message of Christianity, at least before it was co-opted by the Roman Empire, was subversive, revolutionary. Daniel Coulombe, has not only made him insecure for his privileged position at a basilica in a major city — he’s terrified of ending up as the chaplain of a nursing home in Winnipeg — but that the established church is a fraud. The true spirit of the Christian religion is maintained, not by a hierarchy of priests, but by a poor artist and his bohemian followers. The Passion on the Mount has convinced Leclerc that he is a Pharisee and that Coulombe and his acting troupe are Jesus and the twelve apostles. Like Judas, therefore, he betrays the Christ, arranges for the Passion on the Mount to be shut down. For the film’s viewers, Leclerc’s betrayal is powerfully affecting. We want to see the Passion on the Mount again as badly as Daniel and his actors want to put it on again. For Daniel, Mireille, and Constance, the object isn’t to become rich and famous. Indeed, they don’t care if they completely destroy whatever careers they could have had in whatever mainstream culture Montreal has — which we’re told is a backwater compared to New York, Paris, or Los Angeles anyway — but to feel the emotions that putting on the passion play helps them experience. Money means nothing. Their little community, the mirror image of the small groups of social misfits who founded the Christian religion, means everything.
As Daniel and his actors fight the authorities at the St. Joseph’s Oratory to put on one more production of the Passion on the Mount, something quite magical happens. While doing the research for his screenplay, Daniel had met an otherworldly librarian, a woman with a far off look in her eyes and a passionate interest in his project, who had told him “you don’t come to Jesus. Jesus comes to you.” We begin to see that her prediction has come true. Daniel is no longer merely an actor. The spirit of Jesus himself seems to have entered his body, and he only half consciously begins to act out the journey Jesus took in the Gospels in secular, capitalist Montreal. Lothaire Bluteau is a small man, about 5’8” or 5’9” and all of 140 pounds, but he seems to embody an authority far beyond his size, or years. Indeed, when he chases the money changers out of the temple, attacks a group of cynical, and misogynistic advertising industry executives who have insulted Mireille we understand exactly why they run away. He’s not just an actor who has temporarily gone berserk. He’s the embodiment of a terrifying power, offended love transformed into indignation. When he’s arrested and hauled in front of a criminal court judge played by Arcand himself, we can’t but help see the historical Jesus testify before Pontius Pilate. When a smooth, corporate lawyer tries to tempt him with money and power in the mainstream media, we see Satan in the wilderness. After Daniel is quite literally martyred and resurrected in a way that Arcand manages to achieve with absolutely no appeal to the supernatural we get to see his followers, the early Christians, tempted, and corrupted, by the same smooth, corporate lawyer, no longer Satan, but now the Roman Empire.
Denys Arcand, however, ends the film with a glimpse of the kind of person he sees as the key to keeping the message of the early Christians alive, the marginal artist, the misfit who creates, not out of any desire for fame or money, but for spiritual enlightenment. The closing scene of Jesus of Montreal mirrors the opening scene. During the opening credits, we had seen two women, church musicians, singing the Stabat Mater inside the magnificent St. Joseph Oratory. The film closes with the same two women, still singing the Stabat Mater, only now in the street, continuing to practice their art outside of the institution that rejected, then finally destroyed Daniel Coulombe. The spirit of Christ has fallen from the Mount of St. Joseph’s only to be resurrected in the voices of two buskers in the Montreal subway. Denys Arcand, perhaps the greatest of all Christian filmmakers, has blessed and anointed the most marginal of all artists to carry on his legacy.