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Archive for December, 2013

American Hustle

american-hustle-poster

[update below]

Saw this yesterday. Didn’t know much about the film beforehand except that it received stellar reviews (with a 90 score on Metacritic; sortie en France le 5 février, sous le curieux titre ‘American Bluff’). It’s moderately entertaining but not essential. And the family members with whom I saw it gave it the thumbs down. But then, a highbrow cinephile friend—and whose recommendations (film and otherwise) I follow without fail—put it in his ‘favorite films of the year’ list and with this comment

Dylan: “To live outside the law you must be honest.” Irving Rosenfeld, played by Christian Bale in David O. Russell’s delightful screwball comedy, may be a con man, but he’s got his pride, and his ethical standards, and his devotion to the man he’s conning gives this film an unexpected tenderness. With an insanely good cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper and Louis C.K.

Yes, the cast is indeed very good. And I liked the 1978 setting and accompanying soundtrack, which brought back memories. The main thing that went through my mind while watching the movie was the American law enforcement practice of sting operations, or entrapment—the film is a loose reenactment of the Abscam affair—, which is quite outrageous when you think about it—and is illegal in France and just about every other country governed by the rule of law. Crazy stuff in the American legal system.

All the songs in the soundtrack naturally predated mid 1978, except for one (sort of), which was the contemporary Lebanese singer Mayssa Karaa’s cool rendition—in Arabic—of the Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit.” Le voilà on YouTube.

Another film seen in the past few days—this via Netflix—was ‘The Impossible’—which came out a year ago in the US and France—, based on the true story of a Spanish family (British in the film) with three children—the film was Spanish-produced and directed—who were at a Thai beach resort in December 2004 when the tsunami hit, were swept up in it, but miraculously survived and managed to all find one another. The disaster side of the film—of the tsunami—is very well done given that it’s not Hollywood, and therefore did not have the budget for Hollywoodish special effects. What a nightmare for all those who were affected by the tsunami. Thai society—the film was shot in Thailand—is portrayed very positively, expressing an exceptional level of solidarity and toward all the foreigners who were caught in the disaster. The film is gripping and well-acted, albeit marred somewhat by the annoying soundtrack—saccharin and overly loud—at the end, when the family is reunited. But it may definitely be seen.

UPDATE: Critic Willa Paskin has a spot on piece in Slate on how “‘American Hustle’ is the flashiest, emptiest, worst Best Picture nominee of the year.” (January 26, 2014)

The Impossible poster

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12 Years a Slave

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[updates below]

I’m presently in the US on holiday. Seeing a movie a day. And since I don’t feel like writing about politics at the present time, I’ll write about movies. This one I saw last week, catching it at the very last theater in the area where it’s still showing. As it’s at the end of its US run—sortie en France le 22 janvier—presumably everyone who has had any interest in seeing it has done so by now. I don’t have anything original to add to what’s already been said about it. It is quite simply the most powerful film ever made on slavery in the American South. It entirely merits its 97 score on Metacritic—and is the best American movie of the year IMO.

Two things that went through my mind during the film and thinking about and discussing it after. One was the terrorist regime in the American South—where I happen to be at the moment (in a civilized part)—and that persisted for a century after the end of the Civil War. The American South was the most politically reactionary, violent, quasi feudal, and least democratic part of the Western world into the mid 20th century. And the entire white population was complicit. There may have been a few relatively kindly or benign slave owners—and one sees two in the film—but they were still slave owners. During the post Civil War century of Jim Crow, no sector of white society, not even a small minority, challenged the existing order. Practically no Southern whites participated in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s or openly supported it. Cf. South Africa, where a minority of whites did oppose apartheid (some even joining the ANC). And also unlike South Africa, there was no Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the post-Jim Crow South. The federal government imposed the change on the South via legislation, court rulings, and even troops, and that was that. The South had no choice but to acquiesce. Of course there’s been accommodation, some at least, and life for black Americans in the South today bears little resemblance to what it was sixty years ago, but there’s still a direct line between the white Weltanschauung depicted in the film and that of the current Tea Party GOP, which dominates (white) Southern politics. How else to comprehend the GOP’s determination to restrict the suffrage via undermining the Voting Rights Act (America being the only country in the Western world—or even among non-Western democracies—where there is a concerted effort by one of the parties of government to effectively deny eligible citizens the right to vote, or to render it as difficult as possible)?

Second thought. In the scene in the film where the slaves are chopping trees with axes, one can almost feel how tempted they are—and particularly Solomon Northup/Platt—to swing around with those axes and use them on the slave owner and his overseers. White Southerners lived in permanent dread fear of slave revolts, which is one reason the violence meted out to the slaves was so extreme. If one was whipped for not meeting the quota for picked cotton, then the penalty for killing a white man could only be a slow, hideous death following torture and mutilation, and which the slaves knew well (and not even the slave owners had law on their side if they tried to shield their slaves from the wrath of whites of lesser standing; e.g. the scene of Solomon Northup/Platt being told by his first owner that he couldn’t protect him after the altercation with the overseer and the latter’s lynching posse). Thus the Second Amendment and the “right to keep and bear arms,” here the white population forming armed militias to control the slaves. The Second Amendment was demanded by the Southern states to this end, so explicates law professor Carl T. Bogus in his 1998 article “The Hidden History of the Second Amendment,” published in the University of California at Davis Law Review. America and guns: it was all about controlling slaves.

UPDATE: Jonathan Chait has a quite good essay, dated December 4th, “12 Years a Slave and the Obama Era,” on the New York magazine website.

2nd UPDATE: The Guardian has an interesting and informative article (January 4, 2014) on the film’s director, “Steve McQueen: my hidden shame.” The lede: “His new film 12 Years A Slave is an unflinching look at human brutality. But director Steve McQueen’s childhood contains a painful secret he has never confronted.”

3rd UPDATE: The Smithsonian magazine has a most interesting article (April 4, 2016), “Inside America’s Auschwitz,” by writer Jared Keller. The lede: “A new museum [in Louisiana] offers a rebuke—and an antidote—to our sanitized history of slavery.”

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Nebraska

Nebraska-Poster

[update below]

Saw this last night. It’s a wonderful movie. I loved it. I slipped it in to my ‘Best (and worst) movies of 2013’ (previous post) but had I seen it before drawing up the list, it would have likely made one of the top categories. For what it’s about, see the trailer and reviews (tops), in particular Kenneth Turan’s in the LA Times. In the video part of his review, Turan concludes with this

This is a road movie, this is a movie about fathers and sons, this is a comedy, this is a poignant film, this is a film that will make you happy that you have gone to the movies…

Absolutely. I didn’t know a thing about the pic before seeing it—apart from its 86 score on Metacritic and that it was directed by Alexander Payne—and had forgotten that Bruce Dern won the best actor award (richly deserved) at Cannes for his performance. As for Payne, it is further confirmation that he is one of America’s premier directors. Apart from his previous film, ‘The Descendants’, which I didn’t like too much, everything he’s done has been very good to excellent: ‘Sideways’, ‘About Schmidt’, ‘Election’, and ‘Citizen Ruth’ (and also his segment in ‘Paris, je t’aime’, which was the best in that otherwise uneven film). So: thumbs way up! Highly recommended. Sortie en France le 2 avril 2014.

ADDENDUM: A comment about the film. It portrays a slice of America and American society that almost no one sees: of small towns in the deepest heartland—here, the Plains states—, the people who live in them, and their particular cultural style and values (the latter of which are no different from those anywhere else). It is a part of America ravaged by unemployment, drug abuse, and of no future, that is slowly dying and is rarely the subject of Hollywood movies.

UPDATE: ‘Nebraska’ has been nominated for six Oscars, including best picture, best actor (Bruce Dern), and best supporting actress (June Squibb). Dern and Squibb get my votes hands down! (January 16 2014).

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Best (and worst) movies of 2013

Voilà my annual list of the best and worst movies of the year (for last year’s list, see here). The movies here came out in the cinema this year in France or in the US. All have separate posts on this blog or will soon. N.B. I see a lot of movies but haven’t seen everything, including some that have been highly recommended by cinephile friends (e.g. I missed or have yet to see Cristian Mungiu’s ‘Beyond the Hills’, ‘La grande bellezza’, and Claude Lanzmann’s ‘Le Dernier des injustes’). And several recent, well-regarded American films are opening in France after the new year.

TOP 10:
12 Years a Slave
A Simple Life (桃姐)
A Touch of Sin (天注定)
Blue is the Warmest Color (La Vie d’Adèle)
Home from Home—Chronicle of a Vision (Die andere Heimat—Chronik einer Sehnsucht)
No
Omar (عمر)
The Broken Circle Breakdown (Alabama Monroe)
The Repentant (Le Repenti التائب)
Wadjda (وجدة)

HONORABLE MENTION:
Horses of God (Les Chevaux de Dieu يا خيل الله)
Out in the Dark (עלטה ظلام)
Rush
Syngue Sabour, the Patience Stone (سنگ صبور)
The Past (Le Passé گذشته)

BEST MOVIE FROM SINGAPORE:
Ilo Ilo (爸妈不在家)

BEST MOVIE FROM SRI LANKA:
Ini Avan

BEST MOVIE FROM GEORGIA:
In Bloom

SECOND BEST MOVIE FROM GEORGIA:
Keep Smiling

BEST MOVIE FROM TURKEY:
Beyond the Hill (Tepenin Ardı)

BEST MOVIE FROM ICELAND:
The Deep (Djúpið)

BEST MOVIE FROM ISRAEL ON COURTSHIP AND ROMANCE AMONG THE HAREDIM IN A TEL AVIV SUBURB:
Fill the Void (למלא את החלל‎)

BEST MOVIE FROM ISRAEL ON FANATICISM AND VIOLENCE AMONG THE HAREDIM IN A TEL AVIV SUBURB:
God’s Neighbors (המשגיחים)

BEST MOVIE FROM ISRAEL ON CONFLICT BETWEEN ISRAELIS AND PALESTINIANS DURING THE FIRST INTIFADA IN GAZA:
Rock the Casbah (רוק בקסבה)

BEST MELODRAMATIC COMEDY FROM MOROCCO ON CONFLICT BETWEEN MEMBERS OF A MOROCCAN FAMILY IN TANGIER:
Rock the Casbah

BEST MOVIE FROM MOROCCO ON A LOWLIFE POLICEMAN WITH A HEART OF GOLD IN CASABLANCA:
Zero (زيرو)

BEST MOVIE FROM MOROCCO ON LOWLIFE LAYABOUTS IN TETOUAN:
Death for Sale (Mort à vendre بيع الموت)

BEST MOVIE FROM DENMARK ON LOWLIFE LAYABOUTS IN COPENHAGEN:
Northwest (Nordvest)

BEST MOVIE FROM DENMARK ON LOWLIFE SOMALI PIRATES:
A Hijacking (Kapringen)

BEST MOVIE FROM HOLLYWOOD ON LOWLIFE SOMALI PIRATES:
Captain Phillips

BEST MOVIE FROM HOLLYWOOD ON 1970s VIOLENT AMERICAN RADICAL LEFTISTS:
The Company You Keep

BEST MOVIE FROM ARGENTINA ON 1970s VIOLENT ARGENTINIAN RADICAL LEFTISTS:
Clandestine Childhood (Infancia clandestina)

BEST MOVIE FROM INDIA THAT WILL HAVE YOU SALIVATING FOR INDIAN HOME COOKING:
The Lunchbox

BEST MOVIE FROM GERMANY ON AN INTELLECTUAL WHO DID NOT SHY AWAY FROM CONTROVERSY:
Hannah Arendt

BEST MOVIE FROM FRANCE ON FRANCO-ALGERIANS PROTESTING RACISM AND INJUSTICE IN FRANCE:
La Marche

BEST COMEDY FROM FRANCE MAKING SPORT OF INTERPERSONAL RELATIONS BETWEEN FRANCO-ALGERIANS AND ALGERIANS IN ALGERIA:
Homeland (Né quelque part)

BEST COMEDY FROM FRANCE MAKING SPORT OF INTER-GENERATIONAL RELATIONS AMONG PORTUGUESE IMMIGRANTS IN FRANCE:
The Gilded Cage (La Cage Dorée)

BEST COMEDY FROM FRANCE MAKING SPORT OF A FORMER FOREIGN MINISTER WHO REALLY IS THE WAY HE’S MADE OUT TO BE IN THE COMEDY:
The French Minister (Quai d’Orsay)

BEST COMEDY FROM FRANCE THAT WAS IN FACT ONLY AN OCCASIONALLY FUNNY COMEDY:
9 Month Stretch (9 mois ferme)

BEST DOCUMENTARY ON A GREAT CONTEMPORARY AMERICAN SINGER WHO PRACTICALLY NO ONE IN AMERICA HAS HEARD OF:
Searching for Sugar Man

BEST DOCUMENTARY FROM ISRAEL PERIOD:
The Gatekeepers

BEST MOST CHILLING DOCUMENTARY ON COLD BLOODED GENOCIDAL KILLERS IN INDONESIA WHO REGRET ABSOLUTELY NOTHING:
The Act of Killing

BEST DOCUMENTARY ON THE GOVERNING STYLE OF THE CURRENT FRENCH PRESIDENT:
Le Pouvoir

BEST DOCUMENTARY ON LEBANON’S 1960s AEROSPACE PROGRAM:
The Lebanese Rocket Society

BEST AGITPROP DOCUMENTARY ON THE 1970s TRIAL OF A CELEBRATED AMERICAN COMMUNIST WHO REALLY DOES NOT MERIT HER CELEBRITY:
Free Angela and All Political Prisoners

BEST DOCUMENTARY ON MOROCCAN JEWS WHO EMIGRATED TO ISRAEL BUT REMAIN PROFOUNDLY ATTACHED TO MOROCCO:
Tinghir-Jerusalem, Echos from the Mellah

BEST DOCUMENTARY ON THE UNTOLD STORY OF THE END OF APARTHEID IN SOUTH AFRICA:
Plot for Peace

BEST MOVIE IN 3-D:
Gravity

BEST MOVIE BY ROMAN POLANSKI:
Venus in Fur (La Vénus à la fourrure)

BEST MOVIE BY JOEL AND ETHAN COEN:
Inside Llewyn Davis

BEST MOVIE BY GUS VAN SANT:
Promised Land

BEST MOVIE BY ALEXANDER PAYNE:
Nebraska

MOST OVERRATED MOVIE BY WOODY ALLEN:
Blue Jasmine

MOST FORGETTABLE MOVIE BY STEVEN SODERBERGH:
Side Effects

MOST CONTRIVED MOVIE BY LEE DANIELS:
The Butler

MOST TRIVIAL MOVIE BY SOFIA COPPOLA:
The Bling Ring

MOST TEDIOUS MOVIE BY HONG SANG-SOO:
Nobody’s Daughter Haewon

MOST UNSATISFYING MOVIE BY ARNAUD DESPLECHIN:
Jimmy P.: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian

MOST DEPRAVED MOVIE BY CLAIRE DENIS:
Bastards (Les Salauds)

MOST BLOATED UNORIGINAL MORALLY DEGENERATE MOVIE BY MARTIN SCORSESE:
The Wolf of Wall Street

MOST VIOLENT POLICE ACTION MOVIE FROM SOUTH AFRICA DEPICTING THE RAINBOW NATION UNITED IN JUSTICE AND IN CRIME:
Zulu

MOST COMPLICATED MOVIE FROM ARGENTINA ON STUDENT-FACULTY POLITICS IN ARGENTINIAN UNIVERSITIES:
El Estudiante

MOST LUGUBRIOUS MOVIE FROM AFGHANISTAN ON PATRIARCHY AND GENDER DYNAMICS AMONG THE EDUCATED AFGHAN ELITE:
Wajma, An Afghan Love Story (وژمه)

MOST ABSTRUSE MOVIE FROM GUINEA-BISSAU:
The Battle of Tabatô (A batalha de Tabatô)

MOST SUCCESSFUL SCREENPLAY ADAPTATION OF A YASMINA KHADRA NOVEL:
The Attack (L’Attentat)

MOST FAILED SCREENPLAY ADAPTATION OF AN ALBERT CAMUS NOVEL:
The First Man (Le Premier homme)

CREEPIEST MOVIE FROM JAPAN:
Penance (Shokuzai 贖罪)

TRASHIEST MOVIE FROM SERBIA:
Klip (Клип)

WORST MOVIE BASED ON A 1940s FRENCH CULT NOVEL:
Mood Indigo (L’Écume des jours)

WORST MOVIE BASED ON A 1980s FRENCH CULT COMIC SERIES:
Snowpiercer (Le Transperceneige)

WORST MOVIE FROM ISRAEL PERIOD:
Zaytoun (להישאר בחיים)

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The Wolf of Wall Street

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[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below] [4th update below]

Saw this today. Three f**king hours of a movie that merited no more than 1 hour 50 max. The pic is not totally uninteresting—it does have a certain entertainment value, though not for three hours—but absolutely, totally does not merit the top reviews it has received in the US and (above all) France. This one by Lou Lumenick in the NY Post gets it right. Money quote

If you’re going to invest three hours watching a movie about a convicted stock swindler, it needs to be a whole lot more compelling than Martin Scorsese’s handsome, sporadically amusing and admittedly never boring — but also bloated, redundant, vulgar, shapeless and pointless — “Wolf of Wall Street.”

Yes, bloated, redundant, vulgar, and pointless. And unoriginal. Haven’t we seen this several times over the past 25 years already? E.g., Gordon Gekko/greed is good, etc, etc. And one wonders how to interpret Martin Scorsese’s message (if he had one), if he intended to critique the general Weltanschauung of protag Jordan Belfort (the Leonardo DiCaprio character) or unwittingly present it as some kind of model. He no doubt did not intend the latter, though Wall Street types who saw advanced screenings interpreted it otherwise, so it seems. Scorsese apparently hued closely to the real Jordan Belfort’s account; if so, I don’t believe half of it. I quite simply do not believe that traders and brokers shagged prostitutes in their open space offices in front of their colleagues, consumed hard liquor, quaaludes, and crack cocaine, among other intoxicating substances, during lunch hour and before returning to work, or engaged in even a fraction of the debauchery depicted. Okay, maybe a couple of nights a week after quitting work, but not 24/7. I am willing to believe the worst of these people, mais pas à ce point-là… Normally if one is out to make millions of dollars and efficiently dupe and exploit people in the process, one needs to have a sober head on one’s shoulders. If Jordan Belfort recounted this working hour decadence and debauchery in his book, he’s bullshitting.

So if one wishes to fritter away three hours of one’s time (plus transportation time to the theater) for entertainment that will yield little to nothing of intellectual or cinephilic value, then by all means see the movie. But if one has other things to do with one’s time, then skip it.

UPDATE: Cinemablend.com has a post (via Business Insider) on the “3 reasons why audiences hate ‘The Wolf Of Wall Street’” (December 30th)

2nd UPDATE: Blogger and translator Arthur Goldhammer, agreeing with my take on ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’, informed me that the 2000 movie ‘Boiler Room’, which is based on the same memoir by Jordan Belfort, is much better. I hadn’t even heard of it, let alone seen, so got it from Netflix. And Art is right: it is indeed a better film than Scorsese’s (it stars Giovanni Ribisi, Vin Diesel, and Ben Affleck, among others). The pic portrays well the social class and ethnic subcultures—petit bourgeois/working class Italian and Jewish—of this category of alpha male traders—who are not Harvard MBAs, loin s’en faut—, the one exception being the middle-class Jewish protag (the Ribisi character)—and who turns out to have half a conscience. And here it shows actual victims of the firm’s stock scams and the effect this had on the life of one. The decadence and debauchery that are at the core of Scorsese’s film are implied in this one but not depicted. The baratin of the traders is also well done, of how they were able to sell a bill of goods to the most skeptical targets of their schemes and persuade them to part with their money (I was reminded here of how, some twenty years ago, a very slick, fast-talking saleswoman persuaded me to buy a new car before I had made up my mind; I was signing on that dotted line before I knew it). Here are reviews from the time by Roger Ebert and A.O. Scott. French reviews (titre en France: ‘Les Initiés’) were good. (January 1, 2014)

3rd UPDATE: TNR’s Isaac Chotiner has a piece on “The silly liberal attacks on ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’,” in which he mentions Christina McDowell’s “Open Letter to the makers of The Wolf of Wall Street, and the Wolf himself,” that’s been making the rounds, and links to a December 20th column by Matthew Yglesias on how “Wolf of Wall Street whitewashes the real problems with Wall Street.” (January 2nd).

4th UPDATE: William D. Cohan, a former Wall Street banker and author of the 2012 book Money and Power: How Goldman Sachs Came to Rule the World, has an op-ed in the Sunday NYT on “The tame truth about the Wolves of Wall Street,” in which he says that “Unlike Hollywood’s idea of Wall Street partying, the only all-nighters I pulled were over spreadsheets.” (February 16th)

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Al Zaatri refugee camp, Mafraq, Jordan, February 25 2013 (Muhammed Hamed/Reuters)

Al Zaatri refugee camp, Mafraq, Jordan, February 25 2013 (Muhammed Hamed/Reuters)

[update below] [2nd update below]

My Facebook and Twitter feeds have had numerous articles and other links of late on the catastrophic situation of Syrian refugees. I can hardly bear to read about this, as I find it so painful and heart-rending. And particularly as we know that the situation will only get worse, with the oncoming winter, the ongoing collapse of the Syrian state, and likelihood that the civil war will continue for years to come. There is already starvation, with a dispatch last week by Patrick Cockburn calling it “[t]he biggest emergency in the UN’s history.” Cockburn concludes with this

In rebel-held areas the situation is much worse. Food is in short supply and government salaries and pensions, however inadequate, are not being paid. A recent graduate from the University of Damascus, writing for IRIN, the UN news agency, said that there are few doctors in the besieged town of al-Hajar al-Aswad in south Damascus – and those that remain say that mothers are too undernourished to produce breast milk for babies and there is no powdered milk available.

One doctor said adults “are getting by on small amounts of seasonal stocked traditional Syrian foods like olives, thyme and marmalade – and in some cases cats and dogs”. He expected adults to start dying of starvation in the near future.

Dying of starvation in Syria…

And then there’s the effect of the war on education, with “Syrian children…suffer[ing] the ‘sharpest and most rapid’ decline in education standards in the history of the region,” according to a report released on December 13th by UNICEF, the UNHCR, World Vision, and Save the Children.

And, pour mémoire, there is the massive rape crisis afflicting Syrian women in the refugee camps, which I had a post on earlier this year

This post on the CNN website lists NGOs and their US 800 numbers for those wondering “[h]ow to help Syrian refugees.” And this video clip by Amnesty International cleverly publicizes the issue, skewering the leaders of the European Union, “The Apathetics,” in the process for their pathetic offer to resettle a whopping 0.5% of Syrian refugees within their borders.

On the question of resettling refugees from the Syrian war, there is a particular urgency for Syria’s half-million-odd Palestinians (e.g. here and here; my photos here), who have been there since 1948 but do not have Syrian citizenship, thus rendering them stateless. Syria treated the Palestinians better than any other Arab state, even more than Jordan. But at least Jordan gave the Palestinians citizenship—albeit second class—and thus a passport. Being stateless—not having a passport issued by a recognized state—is a disaster for those in that situation. As I have learned in recent years from Palestinian-Syrians who carry the Syrian issued Palestinian refugee travel document (below), most of the world is closed to them. It is almost impossible for Palestinians from Syria to obtain visas for any Arab state. Any. The Arab world  (plus Turkey) is, in effect, off limits, even for short visits. E.g. the brother of a Palestinian-Syrian friend works as an engineer in the oil sector in Algeria but it took him years to obtain a visa to enter that lovely country to take up his job with a US company there. And my friend, from a well-to-do family in Damascus and who worked herself for a European company in the city—so no money problems—, has never been able to get a visa from the Algerians to visit him. To comprehend how full of shit the Arabs are when it comes to the Palestinians, one may look no further than here: of their refusal to grant citizenship to even those who were born and raised in their countries and to refuse entry to Palestinians from elsewhere. The Egyptian MB government did open the doors to Syrian Pals but then treated them like dirt (e.g. here), and now they’re being pushed out. The countries that Syrian Palestinians may visit—that do not discriminate against them when it comes to visas—are the EU Schengen area (the UK, which is not in Schengen, is difficult), the USA, Canada, Mexico, and various Latin American states. The US is particularly generous toward the Syrian Palestinians, so I have been reliably informed.

In view of the disastrous situation of stateless Syrian Palestinians, it would behoove the European Union, US, Canada, Latin American states, Australia, Russia (which should feel a particular responsibility here), and whoever else to simply decide to absorb the entire Syrian Palestinian population, to settle all of them within their borders and with a fast track to citizenship, and with those with family ties in any of these countries going to where they have those ties. The situation is urgent and it would be almost unconscionable to do otherwise. Convene an international conference and just do it. With that, I wish all a Merry Christmas.

UPDATE: William R. Polk has an exceptional article, dated December 10th, on The Atlantic website, “Understanding Syria: From Pre-Civil War to Post-Assad.” The lede: How drought, foreign meddling, and long-festering religious tensions created the tragically splintered Syria we know today.

2nd UPDATE: The Lebanese website NOW has a report (May 15, 2014) on how “New restrictions leave Syrian Palestinians trapped in Lebanon.” Outrageous.

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Paris 01 05 2013

Henri Guaino, sarkozyste du premier plan, had a full-page tribune on the Front National in Le Monde dated December 17th (voici le lien), explaining why, from his Gaullist standpoint, the FN’s world-view and political posture is antithetical to his, of why he feels no affinity whatever with this political party. Now I am not a fan of Guaino, to put it mildly. I have felt no affinity whatever with him over the years—and particularly during his five-year stint at the Élysée as Sarkozy’s right-hand man—and have made unkind statements about him on occasions too numerous to count. But giving credit where credit is due, I have to say that his tribune is excellent. As a principled man of the right, he nails what it is about the FN that renders it beyond the pale. The tribune merits being read in its entirety but here is one noteworthy passage

D’où vient alors ce malaise indicible que j’éprouve comme tant d’autres face à ce parti et qui m’empêchera toujours de pactiser avec lui ? Il vient du sentiment, dont je ne peux pas me défaire, qu’il y a dans sa conception du pouvoir quelque chose de monstrueusement inhumain et que le problème posé par le FN est dans ce que j’appellerais, au risque assumé de la polémique, son ADN. C’est une métaphore. Il ne s’agit nullement ici de biologie. Mais, j’y reviens, les partis comme toute collectivité humaine, comme les nations, ont une histoire, une expérience, une culture qui leur façonne une manière d’être et de penser.

Si avec les responsables du FN, il n’y a jamais de débat possible, seulement des affrontements, c’est parce que ce parti a encore et toujours besoin d’ennemis. Sa nature est d’être toujours l’instrument d’une colère ; aujourd’hui, l’immense colère qu’éprouvent tous ceux qui se sentant dépossédés de leur vie veulent dire non à tout parce qu’ils ont le sentiment que c’est l’ultime refuge, l’ultime expression de leur liberté.

Reading Guaino’s description of the FN’s DNA, I was reminded of the Tea Party GOP. The need to have enemies, to demonize part of society… For the anecdote, I mentioned Guaino’s tribune yesterday to two of my American students, which led to comments on American politics. One said that her mother, a lifelong Republican, was now calling herself an independent on account of the GOP’s right-wing lurch. The other said that her father, an investment banker and Republican, was so fed up with the party that he may vote for Hillary Clinton in ’16. As I’ve said before, the Tea Party GOP = FN. A not insignificant number of Republicans want nothing to do with the party if it is taken over by its extremist wing. And an even more significant number of principled French conservatives want nothing to do with the FN. Which is why the UMP will not, malgré tout, enter into any kind of formal alliance with the Frontistes, now or in the future.

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MAC43_ANGRY WHITE MALE Joe Raedle Getty Images

For the coming years, at least, so argues Harvard social scientist Theda Skocpol in a must read article, “Why the Tea Party’s Hold Persists,” in the Winter 2014 issue of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas. A few quotes

In 2011, Vanessa Williamson and I published our book The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism [AWAV: It’s an excellent book], which used a full panoply of research—from interviews and local observations to media and website analysis and tracking of national surveys—to explain the dynamics of this radical movement. We showed how bottom-up and top-down forces intersect to give the Tea Party both leverage over the Republican Party and the clout to push national politics sharply to the right.

At the grassroots, volunteer activists formed hundreds of local Tea Parties, meeting regularly to plot public protests against the Obama Administration and place steady pressure on GOP organizations and candidates at all levels. At least half of all GOP voters sympathize with this Tea Party upsurge. They are overwhelmingly older, white, conservative-minded men and women who fear that “their country” is about to be lost to mass immigration and new extensions of taxpayer-funded social programs (like the Affordable Care Act) for low- and moderate-income working-aged people, many of whom are black or brown. Fiscal conservatism is often said to be the top grassroots Tea Party priority, but Williamson and I did not find this to be true. Crackdowns on immigrants, fierce opposition to Democrats, and cuts in spending for the young were the overriding priorities we heard from volunteer Tea Partiers, who are often, themselves, collecting costly Social Security, Medicare, and veterans benefits to which they feel fully entitled as Americans who have “paid their dues” in lifetimes of hard work.

Of course Tea Partiers are for social insurance. Just so long as they’re the beneficiaries—and not categories of the population they don’t like (“the undeserving poor,” moochers and other takers, etc).

Here is the key point: Even though there is no one center of Tea Party authority—indeed, in some ways because there is no one organized center—the entire gaggle of grassroots and elite organizations amounts to a pincers operation that wields money and primary votes to exert powerful pressure on Republican officeholders and candidates. Tea Party influence does not depend on general popularity at all. Even as most Americans have figured out that they do not like the Tea Party or its methods, Tea Party clout has grown in Washington and state capitals. Most legislators and candidates are Nervous Nellies, so all Tea Party activists, sympathizers, and funders have had to do is recurrently demonstrate their ability to knock off seemingly unchallengeable Republicans (ranging from Charlie Crist in Florida to Bob Bennett of Utah to Indiana’s Richard Lugar). That grabs legislators’ attention and results in either enthusiastic support for, or acquiescence to, obstructive tactics. The entire pincers operation is further enabled by various right-wing tracking organizations that keep close count of where each legislator stands on “key votes”—including even votes on amendments and the tiniest details of parliamentary procedure, the kind of votes that legislative leaders used to orchestrate in the dark.

Tea Party Republicans don’t care if they’re unpopular, BTW, because they disdain people who don’t like them (they, the Tea Partiers, being “real Americans”). If it were up to the GOP right-wing, there would no doubt be a return to the suffrage censitaire (I’ll develop this at a future date).

The bottom line is sobering. Anyone concerned about the damage Tea Party forces are inflicting on American politics needs to draw several hard-headed conclusions.

For the conclusions, read Skocpol’s article.

The article is one of several in a symposium on the Tea Party in Democracy’s Winter issue. I haven’t read the others yet but they look most interesting—and are authored by well-known specialists of the subject:

Republican Leaders’ Two Choices by Alan I. Abramowitz

The Anti-Jacksonians by Sean Wilentz

R.I.P. Republican Internationalism by Leslie H. Gelb & Michael Kramer

Will the Tea Party Outlast Obama? by Christopher S. Parker

The Tea Party and the 2016 Nomination by Dave Weigel

Bonne lecture.

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Peace Now activists Jerusalem May 15 2010 Photo Tomer Appelbaum

[mise à jour en français ci-dessous]

The Boston Review has a very interesting article on its website by Susie Linfield of NYU, entitled “Letter from Israel: Leftists on Zionism’s Past, Present, and Future.” Among the left-wing Zionist intellectuals Linfield interviewed are Zeev Sternhell, Gershom Gorenberg, Ilan Greilsammer, and Shlomo Sand (whose views expressed here will likely disappoint some of his admirers outside Israel who have uncritically bought into the controversial arguments of his recent books). Needless to say, this is the part of the Israeli intellectual-political spectrum I would find myself in if I were a citizen of that country. The piece, at some 5,500 words, is long but well worth the read.

MISE À JOUR: L’article de Susie Linfield, “Israël: la gauche et le sionisme passé, présent et futur,” a été traduit en français par la revue Contreligne (nº de décembre 2013).

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Plot for Peace

P4P

[update below]

As the death of Nelson Mandela has been dominating the news the past two days, I should mention this fascinating 1½-hour documentary that opened 2½ weeks ago in two Paris cinemas (and that I saw in the nick of time, as it’s already gone; it wasn’t a box office hit, needless to say). It tells an “untold story” of how the apartheid regime in South Africa came to an end, the story being the indefatigable, behind-the-scenes effort of a French businessman and adventurer, Jean-Yves Ollivier, to broker an agreement to end the South African cross-border war in Angola. The effort achieved fruition in 1988, resulting in the mutual withdrawal of South African and Cuban troops from that country, which set in motion the process that led to the independence of Namibia the following year and, in 1990, the freeing of Mandela. Here’s the synopsis from the film’s website

THE UNTOLD STORY BEHIND HISTORY, a well-kept secret behind the world-wide icon: Nelson Mandela’s release was a Plot for Peace. For the first time, heads of state, generals, diplomats, master spies and anti-apartheid fighters reveal how Africa’s front line states helped end apartheid. The improbable key to Mandela’s prison cell was a mysterious French businessman, dubbed “Monsieur Jacques” in classified correspondence. His trade secret was trust.

In the mid-1980s, township violence raged in South Africa and one of the Cold War’s most vicious proxy conflicts devastated Angola. “Total onslaught” was writ large across the horizon. It was then that a foreign commodity trader with connections to all stakeholders in the region became the lifeline for top-secret contacts. To build trust, he organized a vast prisoners’ exchange. A year later, in 1988, South Africa’s forces and 50,000 Cuban troops began withdrawing from Angola.

In John LeCarré style, the land of apartheid and the front line states come out of the Cold War long before the Berlin Wall crumbles. Within fourteen months, Mandela walks out of jail – a free man and, soon, South Africa’s first democratically elected President.

For the first time, the protagonists of this high-risk venture – African heads of state, battle-tested generals, international diplomats, secret service operatives, and anti-apartheid icons such as Winnie Mandela and ANC leader Thabo Mbeki – recount the true story of how the front line states put paid to apartheid.

“Monsieur Jacques” leads this action-packed documentary through a rugged landscape of moral dilemmas. To some, such as Thabo Mbeki and militants for transparency, he was a sanctions buster, a secret go-between, a French spy. For others, such as Winnie Mandela and Mozambique’s former President Joaquim Chissano, he is a trusted friend and a man of bold vision. “I shake the hand I cannot sever”, says Jean-Yves Ollivier. As a matter of fact, he was bestowed upon highest honours by both the last impenitent stalwart of apartheid, P.W. Botha, and the first President of the new South Africa, Nelson Mandela.

As with most people not intimately connected with this aspect of the story, I knew nothing about Jean-Yves Ollivier. When I saw in the opening credits that the documentary’s historical consultant and scriptwriter was Stephen Smith—whose reporting and writing on Africa I’ve been following for the past 25 years—, I knew that it would be good. Jean-Yves Ollivier’s story is gripping. He was intrepid, knew Africa like the back of his hand, and had an ample carnet d’adresses—on the continent and in Paris, Washington, and other capitals. He is also a Pied-Noir from Algiers and in 1962, at age 17, spent five months in a French prison for politically related activities; he doesn’t detail these in the film but one may surmise that he had been in the OAS and had done things he may not wish to talk about. He recounts his first visit to South Africa in 1981, of the isolation of the country—both physically and as an international pariah—and how cut off the white population was from the rest of the world. He viscerally identified with the whites but knew that apartheid was untenable, that the system was doomed. As a Pied-Noir he felt it was imperative that South Africa not experience what Algeria had two decades earlier—with the calamitous demise of Algérie française—, that a transition to majority rule had to be negotiated and which would not result in an exodus of the white population. So he took it upon himself to persuade whites at the elite level and use his numerous contacts in the African frontline states to initiate a process of negotiation. The larger context was the Cold War and with Angola the principal regional theater. One of the leitmotifs in the discourse of white South Africans was the dread fear of communism, of what they saw as Soviet expansionism and their conviction that the ANC was part and parcel of this. This was also, of course, the view of the Reagan administration, and which Chester Crocker affirms in the film.

The interviews in the film—with the major actors on all sides—are exceptional, as is the narrative of the geopolitics of the region in the 1980s. An impressive job by directors Mandy Jacobson and Carlos Agulló, not to mention Stephen Smith. So if one is at all interested in the subject and has the opportunity to see the documentary, do so. The trailer, on the film’s website, is here.

BTW, Stephen Smith has an LRB blog post here on Nelson Mandela’s death. And here’s an assessment of Mandela’s legacy by Harvard anthropologists Jean and John Comaroff—who are specialists of South Africa and from there—published on the Harvard Gazette website.

UPDATE: Those who have seen the documentary—plus those who haven’t—will want to read the article by Piero Gleijeses, professor of American foreign policy at Johns Hopkins-SAIS, published on The National Interest website, on “Why South Africa loves Cuba.” (January 14, 2014)

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Nelson Mandela, R.I.P.

nelson-mandela-1

[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below] [4th update below] [5th update below] [6th update below] [7th update below]

I just learned of his death. He was truly un grand homme, what else to say? I first heard about him in the 1960s—before my teen years—, no doubt from my parents, who instilled in me a precocious indignation toward apartheid South Africa. And I most certainly mentioned his name in my first exercise at public speaking, at an all-day teach-in on South Africa at my high school—the organization of which I initiated—, on the 14th anniversary of the Sharpeville massacre. I was living in Algiers in Feb. ’90 when Mandela was released from prison; as I didn’t have a television I went over to my neighbors’ to watch the event live. Couldn’t miss that one. And three months later, on precisely May 17th, I saw him speak, at the Coupole du 5 Juillet on the outskirts of Algiers. As tiersmondiste Algeria had been in the international vanguard of the anti-apartheid movement and Mandela had received brief military training there in 1962, just before his arrest and incarceration, he made Algiers one of the first stops on his triumphal world tour following his prison release. I went with my friend Philip Shehadi, the Reuters bureau chief (who was murdered in Algiers nine months later, in circumstances having nothing to do with politics), so got to see Mandela speak from the press section right up front. The arena was packed with some 10,000 mostly young people—the event was formally sponsored by the FLN’s youth organization, the UNJA, though few of those present likely had ties to the party or empty shell UNJA—, with the government officials and other big shots—including Abdelhamid Mehri and Sid-Ahmed Ghozali—in the tribune behind the podium. Mandela, who naturally received a rapturous welcome when he arrived, spoke in English and with no interpretation; as the English language was not understood by maybe 98% of those present, including the big shots and (Algerian) journalists covering the event—I noticed exactly one who was taking notes during the speech—, hardly anyone knew what he was saying, mais peu importe. The crowd cheered deliriously each time Mandela mentioned the word Algeria, even in passing.

Amusing detail: when recounting his 1962 Algeria visit Mandela evoked his fond memories of Krim Belkacem and Mohamed Khider, FLN chefs historiques and members of the immediate post-independence regime, but who later went into dissidence and exile, were assassinated by regime agents, and whose names were still publicly taboo in Algeria in 1990; silence from the youthful crowd—most likely not recognizing the names—and gêne visible from the VIP tribune. Another amusing detail: when FLN Secretary-General Mehri got up to introduce Mandela the crowd booed loudly—booing Mehri and the FLN, and with some chanting the name of FIS leader Abassi Madani; the VIP tribune collectively cringed, with Mehri shouting “uskut!” (silence!) to the crowd and Mandela looking bemused; someone leaned over to say something to him, likely to the effect of “uh, we have a little political problem in Algeria at the moment…”

Anyway, it was great to be able to see him en chair et en os. He was impressive, as could have been expected.

The mark of Mandela’s greatness was, of course, his role in presiding over the orderly, peaceful transition to majority rule, reaching out to the white minority, and his utter lack of rancor over his 28 years of incarceration. But while the transition was peaceful, it is not as if the preceding years were so. In addition to the ordinary, daily violence of the apartheid system, there was the added violence and repression of the minority regime against the majority as the contestation increased from the mid ’80s onward. And though the ANC—to its great credit—eschewed terrorism as a strategy, it did engage in it on occasion. The level of political violence was high in the final years of the apartheid regime. And the orderly transition was no sure thing even with Mandela leading it. In his book The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa, Sasha Polakow-Suransky writes of the hostility of the Afrikaner rejectionists, led by General Constand Viljoen, to President F.W. de Klerk’s negotiations with Mandela and the ANC. The rejectionists, heavily armed, were ready to launch an OAS-style terror campaign in 1994, which, had it come to pass, would have plunged South Africa into a heretofore unheard of level of violence, brought about a bloodbath, and upended the transition, resulting in a who-knows-what outcome but that would have most certainly been catastrophic. But as Polakow-Suransky recounts, Mandela, just prior to the ’94 election, invited Viljoen and associates to his Johannesburg villa and, speaking to them in Afrikaans (which he had learned on Robben Island), assured them that the white minority would have its full place in the new South Africa and that there would be no retribution or vengeance. With that, Viljoen & Co were disarmed, both figuratively and literally. They dropped their plans for a terror campaign and agreed to participate in the transition. If Mandela’s gesture was not the mark of greatness, then I don’t know what greatness is.

Too bad we haven’t had any Mandelas in the Middle East these past decades. Oh well.

UPDATE: Raphael Ahren, diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel, has an interesting and detailed examination of Nelson Mandela’s relationship with Jews, Israel, and Palestine. The lede: “Late South African leader had strong friendships with many in the Jewish world, but never forgot his allegiance to the PLO — or Israel’s support for the apartheid regime.”

2nd UPDATE: The Algerian website Chouf Chouf has a post on “Nelson Mandela et l’Algérie.”

3rd UPDATE: NYT columnist Bill Keller has a good commentary on historian Stephen Ellis’s revelation—if one can call it that—that Nelson Mandela had been a member of the South African Communist Party in the early 1960s, a “revelation” that US right-wingers are using as a gotcha to defend their own support of the apartheid regime. Keller suggests—though he could have driven home the point—that the engagement of Mandela and the ANC with the SACP was irrelevant as a guide to their eventual behavior in power. To say the least. Anyone who has spent time with African or Arab communists will note that their communist convictions rarely go beyond mouthing slogans. And, as recent history has demonstrated, communists can become capitalists on a dime if the circumstances are right. (December 8)

4th UPDATE: On American right-wing attitudes toward Nelson Mandela—present and past (and it’s always useful to recall past views one so ardently asserted)—, on how GOPers despised and disdained him—and with many in the GOP base still despising and disdaining him—, see here, here, here, here, here, and here. Liberals are naturally having a field day with this one, though in the interests of fairness and balance here’s one reasonable conservative commentary on Mandela’s passing.

5th UPDATE: Giving credit where credit is due in regard to American right-wingers and Mandela, here is Newt Gingrich’s response, relayed by Ta-Nehisi Coates, to the racists in his camp who got on his case for his eulogy. Gingrich may be crazy on a lot of things but on this, he is reasonable and principled.

6th UPDATE: On Mandela having supposedly been a communist in the 1960s, here is what John Comaroff says in the interview I linked to in the following post:

It was [Mandela], for example, who, against the rather different position of the black power movement, argued most forcefully [in favor of] a … post-racial South Africa, a unified nation founded on the sovereignty of the people rather than sovereignty of the party. In that sense, he was a profoundly liberal thinker, in spite of the efforts of the Ronald Reagan and Maggie Thatcher regimes to construe him as a raving communist. He was never that at all, he was always a very considered — if anything, a Christian — democrat.

7th UPDATE: An informative Algeria blog has a post on “Mandela et l’Algérie: cinq mensonges et une révélation,” which corrects some of the errors or misconceptions regarding Mandela’s relationship with Algeria. One of them—a factual error I made myself above—concerns his 1962 visit, which was, in fact, to an ALN base camp just over the Moroccan border, not to Algeria itself, a country he only set foot in for the first time in 1990.

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Die_andere_Heimat

This is a beautiful, wonderful four-hour, black-and-white German film—split into two parts—I saw last month (on separate days). It’s a prequel to director Edgar Reitz’s 53½-hour, three-part ‘Heimat’ saga, that aired on German television in 1984, 1993, and 2004. The series—which, for some reason, was unknown to me—followed the life of a family in a fictional village in the Rhineland from the end of World War I to the new millennium (Timothy Garton Ash reviewed the first ‘Heimat’ episodes in the Dec. 19 1985 NYRB). The present film—the first in the series to have a cinematic release, so far as I know—focuses on the family’s ancestors in the village between 1842 and 1844, and specifically on the village blacksmith’s early 20s younger son, Jakob (actor Jan Dieter Schneider), who’s an intellectually brilliant autodidact and a dreamer, and who would rather read books—any he can get his hands on—then do a stitch of work. The characters in the movie are all very well-developed and with the acting first-rate. And the film is set in a specific social and historical context: the grinding poverty of rural Germany at the time and pauperization of a part of its population, the social class stratification and political despotism of the Prussian aristocracy, and with emigration to the New World the only escape. Emigration—to Brazil—is one of the film’s leitmotifs, with hundreds of families in that small corner of Germany making the voyage in those two years alone. Emigrating to Brazil—leaving Germany for good and starting anew—was Jakob’s obsession. But he didn’t seek to leave for economic reasons. He wanted to be free. And freedom—liberty—is another leitmotif of the film, with the ideals of the French Revolution very much alive for those old enough to have lived through the Napoleonic wars earlier in the century. Though the film ends in 1844, it anticipates the revolutionary upheavals that ensued four years later.

Put off by the length, I had originally not planned on seeing the film and despite the stellar reviews in the Paris press (here and here), but was convinced by an academic colleague who gushed over it for at least five full minutes. She was right. The film is mesmerizing. After the first part, I couldn’t wait to see the second. And my sentiments were entirely shared by an American academic friend who saw it during a visit to Paris last month (the word-of-mouth on the film is clearly very good across the board, as it’s still showing at ten theaters in Paris and environs six weeks after its release). So it’s a must see. Period. Reviews are here, here, and here. Trailer is here.

For the record, I will mention another black-and-white German film I saw earlier in the summer, ‘Oh Boy’, which has nothing whatever to do with the ‘Heimat’ prequel, in subject matter or anything else. This one, which is short of 90 minutes in length, is set in contemporary Berlin, with its subject a single day in the life of a mid 20s slacker named Niko (actor Tom Schilling), who is flat broke—though hails from a rich family—, has dropped out of law school, hasn’t told his father, and isn’t doing a damned thing with his life (come to think of it, he does bear some resemblance to Jakob in the Heimat prequel, who was also a slacker of sorts—and certainly in the eyes of his father; but Jakob was far more intellectually engaged than is Niko). It’s not a bad film for what it is (and won all sorts of awards in Germany this year). Review is here, French reviews—mostly good to very good—are here, trailer is here.

oh boy

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