Friday 20 February 2009

Jacobson: You're All Racists!

It was hard to know whether to bother to plough through Howard Jacobson's prodigious output in defence of Israel, across two full pages of Wednesday's Independent.

Such Stakhanovite effort, so many words expended, so that the loathsome Jacobson, a man who disgracefully described the Justice4Jean campaign as 'ghouls' back in 2005, could find a way to insult the readership of his newspaper without simply blurting out the crude essence of his position: that if you were shocked by the bombardment of Gaza and criticised Israel for its actions, you are a racist.

Jacobson particularly rails against the use of the words 'slaughter' and 'massacre' to describe the war inflicted on Gaza. This brought to mind world reaction to the murderous US assault on Fallujah in Iraq in November 2004 - another example of the collective punishment of civilians by an overwhelmingly powerful army, justified in the name of defeating opponents described as terrorists. Notwithstanding the fact that most anti-war activists would find the ideological beliefs of Muqtada al-Sadr repellent, the indiscriminate killing of a trapped and terrified civilian population, with hundreds dead or wounded, was rightly described as a 'massacre'. But at no point was this critique of US military policy ever described as a racist position. Such an accusation would have been absurd.

But writers like Jacobson have no problem with embracing the absurd. It is the basis for preventing discussion about Israel's actions and is cynically targeted at the liberals who read newspapers like the Independent, those who are most likely to react with alarm at being called 'racist'.

It is also dangerous: there clearly has been an increase in anti-Semitic attacks in Britain and anti-racists should not only condemn them, but be able prepared to act in solidarity with those facing these attacks. However, as long as absurdists like Jacobson insist that first you must express no opinion whatsoever about Israel's actions, or you will be placed in the enemy's camp, then such solidarity becomes almost impossible to achieve.

To read an interesting response to the issue of 'the left and anti-semitism', see this from Brian Klug.

Wednesday 18 February 2009

Happy Birthday Zainab

It's hard to believe that nearly a year has passed since last year's magnificent F22 birthday party in Camden.

So happy birthday little sister, relaxing halfway across the world. Have a great birthday and, to celebrate, I've dug out a really tasteful picture from 2008.

This year, get as drunk as this if you dare!

LEFT: Julie (slightly drunk)
RIGHT: Zainab (sober as a judge, apparently)

Wednesday 4 February 2009

Why 'The Reader' is better than 'The Wrestler'

One of the best things about cinema-going in January and February is the surge of film releases in time for voting for the Oscars. And this year my local cinema, Stratford Picturehouse, with a summertime reputation for piss-poor programming, suddenly had not one but three heavyweight films on show, all nominated for Academy Awards.

Danny Boyle's triumphant Slumdog Millionaire has received almost universally positive reviews, with good reason. I think it will win on Oscar night But it shows that, like the critic Mark Kermode’s bizarre championing of Mamma Mia! and High School Musical 3, reactions to films can be very different and very personal. Critics loved Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler, a film I hated (more below) and whilst praising Kate Winslet’s performance in The Reader, have dismissed it as a shallow film with a questionable message. Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian said that “under the gloss of high production value, under the sheen of hardback good taste, there is something naive and glib and meretricious. It left a very strange taste in my mouth.”

For those who haven’t seen it, The Reader is the story of Hanna, an older woman who has an affair with Michael, a fifteen year old boy, but then suddenly vanishes. Michael encounters Hanna again as a West German law student visiting a war crimes tribunal, when he discovers that Hanna was an SS guard at Auschwitz concentration camp. Michael finds out that she liked to pick "favourites" from among the prisoners to read to her, just as she had asked him to do in the midst of their affair, and that her shame at her hidden illiteracy means she is prepared to admit to writing a damning SS report rather than admit to her inability to read and write. Michael has the power to stop Hanna from receiving a life-sentence by revealing what he knows, but is unable to do so. He carries the guilt he feels for not speaking out into adulthood.

Perhaps I have misunderstood the film completely. Bradshaw criticises “the dramatic and emotional structure of the film” that “insidiously invites us to see Hanna's secret misery as a species of victimhood that, if not exactly equivalent to that of her prisoners, is certainly something to be weighed thoughtfully in the balance, and to see a guilt-free human vulnerability behind war crimes.” But that’s not the way I saw the story at all.

For me, what makes The Reader impressive is casting a likeable actress like Kate Winslet in the role of a monster who has, from start to finish, absolutely no redeeming qualities. Where a critic like Bradshaw got the idea that we are supposed to sympathise with her, I don’t know. Hanna’s embarks on her affair with Michael only after discovering that he likes to read: she manipulates him just as she has used the prisoners she previously guarded. As soon as the prospect of a promotion from tram ticket collector to an office job threatens to reveal that she is illiterate, she simply abandons Michael without a word or concern. She admits that she never thinks about the past and far from being, in Bradshaw’s words, “the only honest defendant among the guards on trial”, she is so amoral that she is the only one lacking the shame to try and lie in the dock.

Michael, I thought, was motivated not by misguided sympathy for Hanna after she is imprisoned, as Bradshaw suggests. His guilt stems from his own inability to speak out or act when he knows it is an injustice to condemn one former SS guard as worse than the others - complicity by silence that is also the burden of many who lived through the war and one that the next generation of young Germans would like to have believed they could have overcome.

The Reader is a thought-provoking film but enthusiasm for Mickey Rourke’s Oscar-nominated film The Wrestler, meanwhile, bewilders me. The film, about a washed up former wrestling champion, has a central character who is not, as some have suggested, a loveable character. He’s a steroid-filled loser who has spent a lifetime providing staged entertainment to an audience baying for blood, who has abandoned his daughter and, when finding himself alone, tries to buy his way back into her favours but still manages to ruin everything through his narcissism. The character played by Marisa Tomei, that of an stripper with a heart of gold, is an exasperating cliché familiar from so many other, less-praised, films. And the final speech given by Rourke’s character is just awful.

But this is the film that the critics love. Unbelievable…

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