Friday, 25 May 2007

let us compare colonialisms

Let us compare mythologies. Let us look at the stories we tell ourselves. Then we’ll rip apart the pretty gardens like hungry dogs looking for rabbits. I’m tired of the tea parties.

The MYTH OF EMPTINESS. The colonist got there first and the plains were a vast no-man’s land, inhabited only by tasty animals, shiny rocks, and the odd grunting, under-dressed soul. No matter that kingdoms had already risen and fallen, that rich languages were already splintered into dozens of dialects, that religions flourished and customs were entrenched, that economies and trade existed. No matter. No matter because the colonizers only saw emptiness, only heard the chatter of their future selves. Listen:

Henry Morton Stanley, African “explorer”: “Unpeopled country! What a settlement one could have in this valley! Fancy a church spire rising where that tamarind rears its dark crown of foliage, and think how well a score or two of pretty cottages would look instead of those thorn clumps and gum trees!”

Rutherford Birchard Hayes (1822–1893), U.S. president: “What a prodigious growth this English race, especially the American branch of it, is having! How soon will it subdue and occupy all the wild and empty parts of this continent and of the islands adjacent.”

Golda Meir, early founder of Israel and Prime Minister: "There was no such thing as Palestinians ... It was not as though there was a Palestinian people in Palestine considering itself as a Palestinian people and we came and threw them out and took their country away from them. They did not exist."

The MYTH OF CIVILIZATION. Because the natives are savages, backwards, uncouth, uneducated, uncivilized. Because the colonizer sees hope in the future when all may bask in a shared decorum, his decorum. Because the native is less than human. They need us!

Ibn Khaldun, Arab historian (1332-1406): "...the Negro nations are, as a rule, submissive to slavery, because (Negroes) have little that is (essentially) human and possess attributes that are quite similar to those of dumb animals..."

16th century Dutch pamphlet about Indonesia: “These folk live like beasts without any reasonableness and the women be also as common. And the men hath conversation with the women whether or not she is his sister, his mother, his daughter or any other kin. And the women be very hot and disposed to lechery.”

Friedrich Hegel, German philosopher (1770-1831): “The African exhibits the natural man in his completely wild and untamed state. There is nothing harmonious with humanity in this type of character.”

Menachem Begin, Israeli Prime Minister in a speech to the Knesset, 1982: "The Palestinians are beasts walking on two legs."

The MYTH OF DIVINE GUIDANCE. They are here by the grace of God, whose hand guides them to greatness and glory. God smiles on their exploits, blesses their deeds and rewards with economic and military success. Right.

William Gilpin, Governor of Colorado Territory, 1846: "The destiny of the American People is to subdue the continent, to unite the world in one social family. ... Divine task! Immortal mission! America leads the host of nations as they ascend to this order of civilization. ...the industrial conquest of the world."

John Winthrop, Governor Massachussetts, 1630: “For we must consider that we shall be as a City upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and a byword throughout the world.”

Golda Meir, 1971: "This country exists as the fulfillment of a promise made by God Himself. It would be ridiculous to ask it to account for its legitimacy."

The MYTH OF HOW IT HAPPENED. They’d rather you believe it just materialized. That the land opened up and welcomed them like a harlot. But even harlots have stories.

Olaudah Equiano, African slave (17-45-1797): “I was immediately handled and tossed up to see if I were sound by some of the crew; and I was now persuaded that I had gotten into a world of bad spirits, and that they were going to kill me...The closeness of the place, and the heat of the climate, added to the number in the ship, which was too crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself, almost suffocated us... This wretched situation was again aggravated by the galling of the chains, now become insupportable; and the filth of the necessary tubs, into which the children often fell, and were almost suffocated. The shrieks of the women, and the groans of the dying, rendered the whole a scene of horror almost inconceivable."

Captain Silas Soule, Sand Creek Massacre, 1864: "The massacre lasted six or eight was hard to see little children on their knees, have their brains beat out by men professing to be civilized. One Squaw with her two children, were on their knees, begging for their lives, of a dozen soldiers, within ten feet of them all firing -- when one succeeded in hitting the Squaw in the thigh, when she took a knife out and cut the throats of both children, and then killed herself. They were all scalped. They were horribly mutilated. One woman was cut open, and a child taken out of her, and scalped. White Antelope, War Bonnet, and a number of others had Ears and Privates cut off. Squaw’s snatches were cut out for trophies. You would think it impossible for white men to butcher and mutilate human beings as they did there, but every word I told you is the truth, which they do not deny."

David Ben-Gurion, Israeli Prime Minister, 1948: "We must use terror, assassination, intimidation, land confiscation, and the cutting of all social services to rid the Galilee of its Arab population.”

David Ben-Gurion, 1978: "Jewish villages were built in the place of Arab villages. You do not even know the names of these Arab villages, and I do not blame you because geography books no longer exist. Not only do the books not exist, the Arab villages are not there either. Nahlal arose in the place of Mahlul; Kibbutz Gvat in the place of Jibta; Kibbutz Sarid in the place of Huneifis; and Kefar Yehushua in the place of Tal al-Shuman. There is not a single place built in this country that did not have a former Arab population.”

Yitzhak Shamir, Israeli Prime Minister, 1988: "The Palestinians will be crushed like grasshoppers, heads smashed against the boulders and walls."

Mythologizing continues. The Canadian government drapes itself in native headdress. The falafel is Israel's official food. George Bush continues to celebrate "Columbus' bold desire to push the horizons..."

Nina Simone, I am sure, would have described it otherwise.

Saturday, 5 May 2007

Jamestown: TIME vs National Geographic

I've been getting TIME magazine free for six or seven years now. Addressed to a previous resident - from so long ago no one remembers him - it arrives like an old dog to my doorstep: faithful and unwanted. How I feel about dogs is another matter. Over the years I must owe him a few dollars. Doubled, when you consider that I was also getting Sports Illustrated in his name. Alas, that subscription seems to have wound itself down this year. Too bad, I really like SI.

TIME is reserved for late night reading when I am too tired to soak in any real information. The May 7th cover story was a case in point. A revisiting, on its 400 year anniversary, of the settling of Jamestown, it spun its usual web of truth modified by patriotism.

When I saw National Geographic put Jamestown on its May issue cover, well I knew I had an Apples&Oranges case study. Actually, this was before A&O came into existence. But I would have compared them anyways. Eventually. Okay, I would have thought about it a lot.

Each magazine turns its story around an essential core. For TIME, it is John Smith. As described, he comes off as a crude, conniving and rotten individual. The key word is individual. The stuff that Americans are made of. In spite of being a "bully and a braggart... They never would have made it without him."

It is by the cojones of John Smith that success for the American colonists hangs. Passing more than a few first years on the brink of starvation and succumbing to disease, Smith's brutality and creative ways with treaties repeatedly saves them. By 1619 the colonists are able to establish a council of sorts "and," in typical TIME giddiness, "from this seed would grow... the elective house of Virginia's colonial legislature and the political academy of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson."

TIME's writing moves along in a cha-cha-cha rhythm. Every negative portrait or unflattering behaviour is followed by a flourish like "yet they survived." Or, " made Americans who they are." The intent of the writers is obvious: no matter the mismanagement, no matter the cruelty, no matter the self-serving destruction, everything that happened did so for a purpose. And that purpose is America.

National Geographic is a little more grown up about it. First of all, they do not lose sight that these "early American settlers" were neither settlers nor Americans. They were English outcasts and squatters, gold diggers as per contemporary beliefs, who landed on a track of land that had already been cleared by the natives - and abandoned, as it was marshy, salty and poor in nutrients. It would be many years before "settled" and "Americans" would be personified.

Secondly, they move out from the facile John Smith portraiture to a panoramic landscape shot, taking in the numerous factors that contributed to both success and failure: the boundless greed of the English company that repeatedly sent ships of derelicts to replenish those who had died, the Powhatan tribe's misguided belief that the colony would eventually die out, the aggressive monoculture farming and cattle raising that would in short time destroy much of the land for the Indians. And so on.

In other words, National Geographic gets into the nitty gritty of ecological imperialism, while TIME magazine serves up a few good John Smith YouTube moments. I suggest you buy the May issue of National Geographic. The map is awesome.

TIME vs National Geographic:
Mom's apple pie vs Pemmican made with Apples

Grey's Anatomy vs Le Petit Lieutenant

One of the stronger things going for Grey's Anatomy is the British/Canadian spelling of the colour. Yes, it is Meredith Grey's last name. But it is also a great way to spell the otherwise known as "gray." It brightens my day.

Everything else about the show is fading. No longer hiding its soap opera soul, the characters flit and float between beds and bridesmaids. The only one holding up any gravitas is Miranda Baily, bless her scowling soul. Characters Who Scowl bring depth and a sort of meta urgency to the screen. 24's Chloe does that. Their grumpiness tells us that no matter how petty, unreal or farcical the predicaments are around them, they are still connected to the human condition. They're not about to drop everything just to say cheese.

Addison Shepherd had that going. She stood above the intern hormonal fray and, because of her older age (the actress herself is 40) and experience, she cast a jaded eye at the nonsense around her. She was cynical, unsentimental and tough.

But as the show prepares her role for next season's spinoff, that is changing. She's gone to LA, she's flirting with the new hospital's hunky staff, and she's pouting and stamping her feet like a 13 year old anxious to grow up. I want a baby! I want a baby now! She was hot before, but now she's dressing hotter than ever. And while Grey's Anatomy is peopled by a cast out of a Land's End catalogue - lovely but not totally out of anyone's league, this new LA setting is Victoria Secret. Is this an LA thing? Is the new show commenting on the exigencies of living in Tinsel Town?

I don't think so. They've clued in to the essential hotness of Kate Walsh and are going to exploit that baby as far as they can throw it. But what they don't get is that her appeal is completely wrapped up in her gravitas. It's that sexy combination of beauty + brains. It's the feminine woman in a man's tuxedo. It's the scowl on the face and the glint in the eye. That's what's compelling and the show's producers wouldn't know it if you kicked them in the hollow space between the ears. If I were Kate Walsh, I would smell this stinker from a mile away.

If I were Kate Walsh I'd consider learning French and moving to Europe where they seem to know how to treat their actresses d'un certain âge.

Nathalie Baye, for example. Fifty-seven when she made Le Petit Lieutenant in 2005, she is a middle-aged detective with her best cases behind her, a former alcoholic trying to get back into the game. The years show on her face and she makes no attempt to hide it. Yet, and maybe this is a French thing, she is loved all the more for it. Her fellow officers respect her, some even finding her sexy. She moves through their world, her world, with a quiet confidence and melancholic beauty.

The pacing of the film is all French as well, for better or worse. If you can stick with it, especially the first 20 minutes, the film unfolds a nuanced portrait of human nature in both the waiting and crisis moments. Unlike Grey's Anatomy, whose combination of Sims music and singer-songwriter soundtracks telegraph exactly what emotion goes where, Le Petit Lieutenant prefers to tell the story on its own terms.

Baye has much in common with Helen Mirren, as well as the officer characters they play; Prime Suspect's Tennison is practically a doppleganger. Commander Vaudieu, however, is as much about what she doesn't do as what she does. Her performance is a study in restraint, in the tiny cracks in the pavement. When her young officer, the petit lieutenant, dies, she crumples on to the hood of their undercover police car and just stays there. The camera holds back, giving her distance, context and respect.

And by holding back, that includes few close-ups. Both a crutch and a gimmick of American film and tv, the closeup is best used judiciously if at all. It is precious and facile all at once. In mostly medium and two-shots, Baye is able to nonetheless convey everything by the subtle changes on her stoic expression. Close-ups would be invasive and exploitative. Baye won a Cesar here for her performance, the French equivalant to the Academy Awards.

Kate Walsh, on the other hand, is subject to closeup after closeup. Cue the pouty mouth, cue the eyes, cue the botoxed absence of expression. These shots, rather than letting us get close to her, subject her to our judgement. And that is not good for either a character nor an actress.

Grey's Anatomy vs Le Petit Lieutenant:
mealy crabapple vs jus d'oranges pressées