Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Third Force

Jean-Paul Sartre was the most embattled postwar French philosopher. His serious and original engagement in political affairs brought him the enmity of left, right and center, both in his own country and abroad. He was even haunted by imaginary lobsters. Still, he graciously absorbed the admiration of the world's disaffected youth, while quaffing sherry from his battle station at Café de Flore.

Western Europe was poised between two rival imperial forces. France tended to lean left but of course toeing the Communist line was difficult in the wake of Budapest '56, if not earlier. And so Sartre formulated a "Third Force," and created the Revolutionary Democratic Assembly, designed to keep his country autonomous from the era's two great powers. For this he was accused of demagoguery and blasphemy. Those who saw him as a Soviet agent felt confirmed when he rejected the Nobel Prize in '64.

The Revolutionary Democratic Assembly initially had wide support, including from Sartre's rival Albert Camus. Rebecca Pitt, from the International Socialism Journal:

Sartre's involvement in the Revolutionary Democratic Assembly (RDR): The RDR was formed in early 1948 as a response to the Cold War, the Stalinist PCF and Gaullism, and made clear where its principles lay:

    Between the rottenness of capitalist democracy, the weaknesses and defects of a certain social democracy and the limitation of Communism to its Stalinist form, we believe an assembly of free men for revolutionary democracy is capable of giving new life to the principles of freedom and human dignity by binding them to the struggle for social revolution.

Formed as a left wing anti-Stalinist assembly, the RDR was able to "achieve a larger membership than any Trotskyist grouping between 1945 and 1968. However, as Birchall points out, the RDR contributed to its own downfall by failing to provide a clear position on the quickly developing political situation.

Sartre was no coalition-builder. He never got his revolution. But Sartre's radical notion of a European exception--a progressive, humane and powerful society--has indeed come to pass with the rise of the European Union.

Certainly he would have repudiated the taint of "rotten capitalist democracy." If the revolutionary aspect of Sartre's Third Force exists today, it's in the Latin American struggles for autonomy. But global politics is now "multipolar." Europe has transcended the power play between the U.S. and the shadowy East.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Astérix Lives!

BBC man-in-Paris Hugh Schofield has some critical things to say about Astérix, the comic book hero and plucky symbol of Gaullist resistance. To Schofield and other fans, the indigenous warrior with the drooping mustache and magic potion has been phoning it in since 1977, when writer René Goscinny died.

What's revealing about Schofield's eulogy is the allegory to Franco-Belgian exceptionalism, under siege by a homogenized pax americana. Other critics saw parallels to other struggles--deriving from various French premiers, Corsican separatists, and even the Nazis. But the current foe is a loss of aboriginal identity to more powerful sibling nations. Astérix outwitted his cloddish Roman imperialist foes, and likewise sophisticated Europe sees itself as a bulwark against consumer culture.

But if Astérix is treading water, then what does that say for Europe's self-image? If he falls prey to Hollywood, as have his compatriots Tintin and Blake and Mortimer, then would that be an unpardonable cultural capitulation?

No, it wouldn't. Astérix is another distinctively European phenomenon that has become global. Just look at the comments page on Schofield's story: worldwide fans thrill to his antics in over 100 languages. His fiftieth anniversary is being feted in Angola. Lost amid the accounts of Europe's decline or its identity crisis is the view that the world has become European.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Wages of Fear

Henri-Georges' Clouzot's 1953 masterpiece features Yves Montand and a cast of pan-European ne'er-do-wells in the throes of physical and moral decay in a sleepy Central American town. Montand was a charming nightclub singer in Paris. For The Wages of Fear he had to become an unlikeable misanthrope.

The task for these men, put to them by a morally bankrupt American oil company, is to drive trucks full of nitroglycerine over a mountain range in order to put out a fire. It's a suicide mission, but one they all throw themselves into, so desperate are their straits. This film has a similar resonance to The Deer Hunter--an unflinching gaze into the abyss of human error.

The long prologue establishes the characters although it denies the viewer background information: how did they get to Las Piedras, what drove them here? They banter in a resigned linguistic soup--stateless postapocalyptic vagabonds in an environment of half-naked child-sadists.

You don't have to be a master dot-connector to see the anti-Americanism in the depiction of the oil company's merciless grip on the people and the place. But Clouzot's scorn does not stop there: the European hero/victims are just as cruel and selfish and arbitrary as their American manipulators.

The filmmaker claimed that a brush with death in a sanitarium turned him into an artist, although you've got to think Nazi Occupation and French collaboration were not far beneath Clouzot's bleak view of the world. The director received a lifelong suspension from French cinema for his purportedly anti-French Le Corbeau. It was later reduced and Clouzot returned to his depictions of sinister deeds.

Like so many French movies (Pépé le Moko, Mon Oncle), there is a yearning for an absent French essence. Jo and Mario talk about the streets in Paris they lived as they drive to their demise. The Wages of Fear was actually shot in the Camargue, the arid flamingo habitat in Provence.

Although the scorn may be spread evenly--blame directed at institutions and individuals alike--the demonization of American private enterprise feels like a touchstone in European leeriness. American foreign policy and unchecked industrial capitalism would continue to divide Europe and America.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Big in Europe

European appreciation of American culture always can seem condescending, but I think they are just more wholehearted about "low art" then we are. My Belgian friend could take or leave the U.S., but he is hopelessly devoted to donuts with sprinkles on them, which are unavailable on his side of the pond.

The French are well-known and often mocked for their love of Jerry Lewis. American audiences have a hard time remembering any of his achievements prior to those muscular dystrophy telethons. Lewis was a son of vaudevillians, and a writer, performer, producer and director who shattered film industry barriers and invented video assist, allowing directors to review what they had just shot.

Stateside, his embarrassing brand of comedy has not aged well, but in the sixties the French managed to re-ironize the screen legend. Americans can be smartasses, but in France the phrase "une certaine perversité" is considered complimentary. The auteur theory, more prevalent in Europe, holds that a great film can emanate from a single brilliant mind. And Lewis, in spite of his terrible taste, joins the ranks of Chaplin, Keaton, and Woody Allen in leaving a powerful, personal, idiosyncratic imprint on his work. Incidentally, Allen is also more loved in Europe. In this movie, he insists that his films "gain something in the translation."

Susan Bernofsky says that the equivalent to Jerry Lewis in Germany is Donald Duck. Apparently this is not due to some intrinsic Germanness to the slobbering, pantsless cartoon character. Nor is it a failure of Americans to appreciate Donald's brilliance. His cult following in Germany arose thanks to the erudite translations of Erika Fuchs, described as "a free spirit in owlish glasses." My compliments to the voiceover artist in this clip--he nails the original Donald.

Long live cultural exchange, and may we forever delight in each other's detritus!

Sunday, October 4, 2009

L'Affaire Polanski

Listen to all that claptrap about the Roman Polanski situation. Granted, it's a sensitive subject to many, and you've got lots of intriguing facets. OWH offers a summary:

The term splashed across the headlines is "sex charge." This is not quite accurate. Polanski is wanted for a 31-year-old sex "conviction." He pled guilty to statutory rape, but admitted to drugging and raping a 13-year-old, a crime that could have landed him a much longer sentence. This should clear up any confusion about whether his detainment is evidence of some culture war between American prudishness and European pervishness. Every legitimate legal system would find him guilty.

But questions remain. The authorities have not adequately explained why they waited three decades to nab him. It must be that they resented this 2008 documentary's depiction of his trial as unfair and even illegal. Is it necessary that he return to U.S. to be sentenced for a case with whiskers so long on it? It can scarcely be argued that the California prison system can or should reform this heroic artist.

This is the most valid contention of the pro-Polanski people, which includes moviedom's finest: not that the man is innocent or above the law, but that the application of justice has nothing to offer society in this particular case.

Still, this reality has not quieted the critics of the pro-Polanski crowd. They maintain that his flight to France means that he has not accepted judgment. They also resent Polanski's claim that "there's a different justice for people who are public figures than for those who are not." It is not really notable that his victim believes that the case should be dropped--this is a common situation in sexual abuses.

Finally, an evaluation of his guilt must include an examination of his incredible biography: he was born to Holocaust victims, the Manson family killed his pregnant wife, and since his crime, he has made some okay films on the lam. Polanski is not a menace to society, assuming he won't ever make anything like "The Ninth Gate" again. But his defenders are naive to imagine a sinister conspiracy against him, and he does not deserve their tears.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Nattering Nabobs of Neo-Spenglerianism

Pessimism, declinism, millennialism...it's all a belief in what a bummer tomorrow will be. The argument for downward trajectories of any kind is tempting but intrinsically misleading. It's easy to think of something great from the old days that isn't around anymore, or has been perverted. And it will be easy to reflect back on 2009 as a golden era.

If ever there was an era to feel gloomy about European affairs, it was the aftermath of World War I. Nationalistic aggression and incompetent leadership had brought about a slaughter of unprecedented scale. There goes our Whiggish self-improvement: sorry children, and children's children. Unfortunately, as Richard Overy points out in "The Morbid Age," the civilizational pessimism had much in common with incipient fascism, including the intellectual vogue for eugenics.

Today the bogeymen thought to undermine our seemingly steady world are moral relativism, shrugging permissiveness and atheism. These vices leave us open to the fundamentalists in our midst, assert Christopher Caldwell and Theodore Dalrymple. These thinkers are right to lament a lack of serious debate about the ramifications of immigration, and the blurring of personal emotions with broad political concerns. But they are wrong to believe that these unresolved questions can only hurt society.

Caldwell's anxiety about Muslim integration hinges on the primacy of Christianism to any respectable civilization. This view is out-of-date by at least one hundred years. Secularism is as valuable to the modern world as any of the teachings of Jesus. In the words of Slavoj Zizek, "isn't it time to restore the dignity of atheism, perhaps our only chance for peace?"