Friday, 23 March 2012

"I wouldn't walk around the goddamn corner for the American flag."

I am enjoying Homeland, the US TV series that is currently showing on Channel 4 in the UK (it's only halfway through so I don't know the ending). There are great performances, a dynamic narrative drive and compelling relationships between the main characters; Brody, the ginger Steve McQueen lookalike, his milf wife Jessica and Claire Danes' psychotic CIA agent Carrie.

The series tells the story of Sergeant Nicholas Brody, a US marine who has just been freed  after 8 years being held hostage (without trial) in Iraq. He was tortured, beaten and urinated upon by his sadistic and fanatical captors and manipulated into all kinds of abuses and treachery.

Great stuff but it is hugely fanciful stuff. Fancy dressed as realism and intended to be consumed as such. But excuse me, it seems to me that Homeland is kind of upside down, that what happened to the American marine Brody by Islamic fanatics is more of a reflection of US foreign policy in the region. Imprisonment without trial, torture, urination, humiliation of prisoners, it all sounds so familiar. But in Homeland things are twisted round. Everything is twisted  round. In Homeland the Arab royalty that features (and we're only halfway through in the UK so things might change) isn't culpable, rather it's their lackeys who are the evil-doers. The royal family escapes unblemished. Propaganda points are even scored on the names of the fictional Jihadist organisations; The Islamic People's Liberation Front. Really? What group in recent years has used "People's" in such a suggestive (and socialist ) manner? Who could they be alluding to? And the suggestion that G8 protesting leads to Jihadi activism. Mmm, I would say that being in the US military (or any military) is more likely to lead to violent protest and murder on a grand scale. There's certainly a lot more direct evidence for that.

I suppose Homeland is a product of its culture, a culture that at certain levels is based on an irrational, wish-fulfilling upside-down way of thinking that is based on limited perspectives and paranoia - a western version of the tunnel vision of those who categorise life and the unfamiliar through the narrow divisions of halal/haram oppositions. Both ways of thinking have the same result - the age of madness mentality where right is wrong and wrong is right and you blame the victim and bless the villain.

Other nations have their equivalents. Upside-down thinking is essential to preserving inequality, justifying murder, torture and theft and making greed and corruption desirable ends in themselves. I especially enjoy the way India squares the circle, how it can reconcile two opposing views within a particular framework. Hindi cinema is especially good at this , with the film Chak De! India being one of the finest examples.

Chak De!India was made in 2007 and stars Shah Rukh Khan as Kabir Khan, a disgraced hockey player seeking redemption through coaching the failing women's hockey team. So it's all about how they overcome prejudice, bigotry and small-mindedness to become champions of the world. It is a formula film with absolutely no surprises, where obstacles are overcome, barriers swept aside, ambitions realised and redemption is found.

The film is tremendous, the hockey team outstanding. They look great and have a raw and random edge. But this is Bollywood so every achievement they make is channeled through a man - their coach. It's the coach whose tactical nous conquers the tight-marking South Koreans, the coach who tells the goalkeeper which way to dive to save a crucial penalty. The coach even controls their sexuality and their aggression, channeling it to fight back against the dirty shin-whacking Argentinian women.

So the women overcome patronising boyfriends, controlling fathers, dismissive government officials and most of all themselves. But let's not get carried away here. It's always a man who makes this happen. The film ticks the women's box, but also the traditional, patriarchal man's box. Leading to box office delight all round!

So two different ways of on-screen seeing; the Anglo-American  twists things round, the Indian has it both ways. But then you get the occasional oddball who throws things right into the mix to see what will happen.

This is what Peter Watkins did with his Punishment Park.  Made in 1971, it's shot in shakey documentary style (using a handheld 16mm camera in desert heat) with a mix of actors and real people. The film is set in a dystopian US future where governments opponents are sentenced at hastily convened tribunals in the desert. Lengthy prison sentences are the norm and the only way to escape them are to go to Punishment Park and undergo a 3 day chase (with police and National Guard on your tail) across the desert.

The main action takes place in the tribunal tent where improvised speeches by both the radical defendants and the conservative tribunal members make the polarised nature of US politics to the fore. There is no bringing together of views, no upside-downess in the straightforward sledgehammer sentiments that Watkins sympathises with.

The film got killed by the critics (and an industry who didn't really like such anti-American/pro-justice sentiments being aired in their cinemas). So I watched it and wondered if the film isn't a bit too much, a bit too over the top, and if Watkins doesn't protest too much in the 25-minute speech he gives defending his film in the DVD extras.

And then I thought about the last 10 years and the rhetoric of right and wrong that have been so twisted in the US and the UK too. And I decided that no the film isn't too much, that Watkins doesn't protest too much.

And then I read about Trayvon Martin and I wondered what could you possibly show that would match that, that could capture the cruelty and venality of a place that justifies the murder of a 17-year-old skittle-eating boy and does not even bother to arrest the murderer. In exactly what way is that killing any different than a lynching? I know the police and the judiciary and legislature and electorate that voted for these dumbass laws aren't all crowded round a tree and it was a bullet that killed him and not a rope. But apart from that?

Some quotes from Punishment Park.

Jay Kaufman, Tribunal Defendant: You want me to tell you what's immoral? War is immoral! Poverty is immoral! Racism is immoral! Police brutality is immoral! Opression is immoral! Genocide is immoral! Imperialism is immoral! This country represents all those things!

Defendant Lee Robert Brown: You don't wanna hear my message. You spent fifty years evolving a propaganda system that'll take the truth and change it into what you wanna hear. You don't wanna hear shit that's gonna mean you might have to give up something. You don't want it. All you wanna do is sit on your fat, dividend-drawing ass and draw dividends.
Charles Robbins: Would you like for me to define what a politician is? A politician is nothing but a debater. All that you do is debate issues, you fat pig, you meathead. That's all that you are, because you are lying, sucker, you're lying to the camera, you're lying to your mama, you're lying to everybody, but every time I hear you open up your mouth, all I hear is oink, you pig. That's all I hear, oink. 'Cause you ain't got no humanity in you, 'cause you're a pig, you lying punk.

Defendant Lee Robert Brown: America is as psycotic as it is powerful and violence is the only goddamn thing that will command your attention.
James Daly, Defense Attorney: Ladies and Gentlemen of the tribunal, I would like to read you something: "The streets of our country are in turmoil. The universities are filled with students rebelling and rioting. Communists are seeking to destroy our country. Russia is threatening us with her might and the republic is in danger. Yes, danger from within and without. We need law and order or our nation cannot survive". We might all be forgiven for supposing those to be the words of our President. But they are not. Those words were uttered in 1932 by Adolf Hitler.

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