film

Elusive justice

a review of a film to be aired in November 2011 on PBS

It happened that I screened Jonathan Silvers’s Elusive Justice just as I rewatched Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. I regularly teach a course on representations of the holocaust in literature and film; Spielberg’s melodramatic, reductive version of the Oskar Schindler story is one of the representations my students and I discuss. Spielberg knows exactly where he wants us to look, and indeed teaches us — forces us — to see the way he wants. We see the liquidation of the Cracow ghetto from Oskar’s point of view, omniscient, Olympian, commanding: from atop a hill (where he had been riding horses with his Polish mistress), a vantage enabling him and thus us to see everything at once. This view is distinct from that of the victim of the Aktion, who necessarily saw almost nothing except the chaotic and blindingly rapid-moving terror immediately in front of him or her. And to make certain that we see what we are supposed to, from the authoritative perspective we are simply given, Spielberg paints bright red (in a movie otherwise filmed in pseudo-documentary black and white) the coat of a little Jewish girl, so that we can follow her with our eyes, having no choice, and can identify with her innocence amid the guilt. It is supremely well intentioned, but nothing here is elusive. Schindler’s List marches straight toward the feelings it is designed to instigate in its viewers. There is no visual or thematic wandering. It is friendly toward sovereignty. It is about who has the power of life and death and its own flawless visual mode (strongly implying that it can after all be comprehended) makes no irony of that absolute power.

Amanda Stewart: Faces, shifts, indices

the movement throughout the image
of body, whole, gathered and real.
begin. end . sense. 

like a likeness, a sign, the ritual,
repeat. To focus becomes the object
is disappearing.

It suffices. An Astronomy of power,
implicit, subtle, carnivorous,
bureaucracies serenade their untied shoelaces

not being able to
possess:
not being able to 

(Amanda Stewart, from "Icon", I/T)

In beginning my fossicky labours, my first desire was to visit Amanda Stewart. I wanted to ask her about her sense of Sydney, since we seem to occupy a similar orbit. She went to the same university that I did, twenty years before me, and studied in the same cultural studies node that I did (though she copped the guts of it and I caught the lingering whiffs). And like me, she has found herself working, making and thinking in collective arrangements that share an approach to method, rather than an essential identity. This means that she has been variously involved with sound artists, musicians, performers, film-makers, radio-makers, poets, critics, etc., and she has produced work that could be considered sound art, music, performance, film, radio, poetry (spoken, written, concrete) and criticism. She uses the word poetry to describe what she does, where poetry is a methodology. I mean methodology very literally: how things are done when things are done. For Stewart, experimenting broadly and socially with technologies of signification, including but not limited to language, is poetry: and this has come to include a good heft of work in lots of directions, alongside many technicians, poets and otherwise.

Why I Dislike "Schindler's List"

A Film Very Friendly Toward Soverignty

I have long been a sometimes unreasonable antagonist against Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List. It's a film about the Holocaust with an ideologically ironic Master Narrative feel, and Oskar is presented as an I know/You don't, I am/You aren't, I have/you want relationship to Jews individually and collectively. The power dynamic gets sexualized (Oskar is physically attracted to a Jew's weakness in connection with his strength - although he knows the difference is merely a result of the era and will change later). The film uses Oskar relentlessly as a focalizer of our view, and so (despite what I take to be Spielberg's good intentions) this movie gives us the Holocaust of a German (indeed a member of the Nazi Party) when so many other perspectives are narratively possible. When we see the little girl in the red coat, we see her only and precisely from Oskar's point of view (which is to say Spielberg's) and there is no visual choice. We see what he wants us to see. In an otherwise black and white film (pseudo-documentary) her coat is painted red. Get it? Sure, we get it and how can we see anything else. It's a fascistic camera. No formal replication of the chaos, the utter chaos, the multiple views, the self-reflexivity, the varying degrees of complicity, the painful-to-watchness, the who-knows-what's-happening historiography of works like Maus or Shoah.

In '94 the Village Voice hosted a terrific symposium on the film. To me this is the finest way of understanding the issues the film raises about representations of the Holocaust.

Gertrude Koch, a panelist, says, "Who has the power? Who has the power to give life or death? That's what the film's about. I think the film is very friendly toward the concept of sovereignty, in the sense that Spielberg is always reproducing it."

Click here and read the whole symposium.

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