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September 1, 2003 Reviews

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Some notes on what seems to be out there, and what some of us have sampled....


Our readers recommend....

My friends weigh in this week.
A quick note from an old college friend in Boston, Bonnie, who teaches English -
Have you read or heard about a book called Reading Lolita in Tehran?  I read it this summer and recommend it for all English majors.  It was written by an Iranian woman who was educated in Switzerland, England and the US and then at thirty returned to Tehran to teach Western literature.  Eventually she left the university rather than don the veil, and took with her a small group of women grad students and scholars to participate in studying Nabokov, Henry James, Jane Austin, The Great Gatsby and other classics.  A really fascinating and unique view both of live as a woman under the Islamic Revolution and of the uses of literature.  Alas, I'm embarrassed to say that in my culturally biased way I have forgotten the woman's name for the moment, though I tried hard to learn it, and have loaned the book.
Well, that's what web searches are for -
Reading Lolita In Tehran
by Azar Nafisi
Publisher: Random House
Published: March 2003 (Hardcover 368 pages)

And one of Bonnies friends sent this, after I failed to get to the annual Cape Cod meeting of all the old friends last month.
Someone who DID get to the Cape is Bonnie's friend Joellen, who is between gigs in Hanoi and Bangkok, and whose husband Phil wrote Yak Pizza To Go.  I found a copy in Amazon's Z shops and it just came yesterday.  Started reading it - and it's hard to put down.  About his travels after marrying Joellen (at 44) and moving to Africa.
It seems the author, Phil Karber, married Bonnie's friend Joellen, moved to Africa where she was working and started writing travel stories. The book is Yak Pizza to Go, and sounds good.
Yak Pizza to Go! Travels in an Age of Vanishing Cultures and Extinction
Publisher: Athena Press
Format: Paperback, 443pp
Pub. Date: May 2001


The Pentagon has a French Film Festival, sort of...

    Last Wednesday, the 27th, the command of Special Operations in the Pentagon held a screening of The Battle of Algiers, Gillo Pontecorvo's 1965 classic film about a rather famous urban terrorist insurgency. 

    This decision, and the film, was discussed at length by Charles Paul Freund, the senior editor at Reason magazine, in an article in Slate magazine this week - The Pentagon's Film Festival, Wednesday, August 27, 2003 (Article URL: http://slate.msn.com/id/2087628/) and by David Ignatius in the Washington Post.  Ignatius called this "one hopeful sign that the military is thinking creatively and unconventionally about Iraq."   


    The Pentagon flier read in part:

    How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas. ... Children shoot soldiers at point blank range. Women plant bombs in cafes. Soon the entire Arab population builds to a mad fervor. Sound familiar? The French have a plan. It succeeds tactically, but fails strategically. To understand why, come to a rare showing of this film.

    I have not come across any further comment on how the screening went.

    I don't remember the film very well, and 1965 was the year I left for college.  The film was studied by the campus left for its lessons in revolutionary-cell organization and was obligatory viewing for Black Panthers.  For an English major from Pittsburgh in central Ohio it was of only passing interest.  No one required I see it.

    Here is Freund's summary:

    The first part of the film depicts the campaign of terror launched by the National Liberation Front (FLN, called "the organization" in the film) against French colonial rule in 1954. The story is built around a criminal-turned-revolutionary known as Ali La Pointe, and it details his political epiphany and his terrorist career. The movie's second half concerns the reaction by the French military, which consists primarily of a campaign of torture and murder, and focuses on the leader in charge of that campaign, "Col. Mathieu." Mathieu is by far the best-realized character in the film; his is the only role filled by a professional actor.

    From its first release, the film was extremely controversial: When the film was finally shown in France, theaters were bombed. In Italy, viewers were attacked.

    Ali was indeed the hero of the Casbah, the Muslim section of Algiers; as the film suggests, his death marked the end of the real battle for the city. The French did torture and murder their way to tactical victory. Mathieu, for his part, is based closely on the real-life Gen. Jacques Massu, who devised the counterterrorist strategy. Many sequences are meticulously accurate, such as the famous one referred to by the Pentagon in its flier, in which Algerian women put on Western clothes and makeup and then plant bombs at civilian French targets. Unsurprisingly, many characters are composites, and numerous details are fudged, made up, or altered. Among them is Ali's powerful last line in the film, directed at the French: "I do not negotiate with them." The line is actually appropriated from a speech by then-Interior Minister Francois Mitterand, who had directed it at the insurgents.

    Very odd.  The lessons here?  Well, terrorists around the world may have learned the efficacy of insurgent terror from Algeria.  The PLO, Hamas, and other groups are indebted to the Algerian strategy of so-called "people's war."  Its lessons are now apparent in Iraq, too, according to Freund.   I see that.

    Is Freund right in contending that this film shows that wars may not be won with terror, but they can be lost by reacting ineffectively to it?

    While The Battle of Algiers has next to nothing to say about overall French strategy in Algeria, its most obvious military lesson - that torture is an efficient countermeasure to terror - is a dangerous one in this particular instance. Aside from its moral horror, torture may not even elicit accurate information, though the film seems to suggest it is foolproof.

    The French military view of torture is articulated by Col. Mathieu in the course of a series of exchanges with French journalists. As reports of torture spread, the issue becomes a scandal in France. Mathieu, however, is unwavering in defense of the practice: To him it is a military necessity. Informed that Jean-Paul Sartre is condemning French tactics, for example, Mathieu responds with a question that would warm Ann Coulter's heart: "Why are the liberals always on the other side?"

    At one point Mathieu challenges the hostile French reporters with a question of his own: "Should France remain in Algeria? If you answer 'yes,' you must accept all the necessary consequences." Mathieu might as well be addressing the American military and the American public. Is the United States to remain in the Middle East? If so, what are the "necessary consequences"?

    Now wait.  Is this a film about doing whatever it takes, no matter what?  Is this a film that is "pro-torture" and being shown at the Pentagon for what it can tell us all?  No, the film is set up show that terrorism, including murder, is better than torture.  Slightly better.

    It justifies its support of FLN terrorist murder over French torture by rewriting history. According to the film, terror was futile; it didn't work. What finally drove France out, it suggests, was a spontaneous explosion of popular resistance. That scenario, however, is a fantasy. What drove France out was sustained and bloody insurrection.

    The French left Algeria in the end.  It turns out it was not really ever going to be a part of France.  Charles de Gaulle reversed himself he was brought back in the mid-fifties to fix all this, committed a half-million troops, and then he granted Muslims the full rights of French citizenship and in 1959 declared publicly that Algerians had the right to determine their own future.  

    Freund suggests the better lesson is this -

    As a portrait of revolution and of a war of ideas, The Battle of Algiers suggests that the French went wrong by denying they were foreigners; they treated Algeria as an extension of France.  At least one lesson for the United States seems obvious: A liberal Iraqi order is going to have to develop within Iraqi terms, and only the Iraqis themselves can establish those terms.

    I'm not sure this last point is what the Pentagon folks wanted to show when they screened this film last week.  Or maybe it was.

    The other film regarding this war, a year earlier, is quite the opposite.  The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Les Parapluies de Cherbourg) - Jacques Demy's film from 1964 has the young hero sent off to fight the war in Algeria, and while he's away his girl marries another man, and he returns to nothing.  It's a musical.  And it wasn't shown last week at the Pentagon.


    Randy Newman anticipated the neo-conservative agenda, of course...

    Randy Newman, Sail Away (1972) Warner Brothers Reprise Records (W2 2064)

    Back in the seventies on the very first Saturday Night Live show on NBC, hosted by George Carlin, the "musical guest" for the week was Randy Newman, who performed the title cut from this album - and Carlin did his routine where he asks the puzzling question, "Why is there no blue food?"  There is no answer. 

    "Sail Away" is an odd tune.  One is, as has been said, sucked in by a beautiful song, crossing the mighty ocean into Charleston Bay, celebrating a place where "every man is free," and the narrator sucking you in is a slave dealer.  Pretty tune, with a nasty idea about America there, and lots of ironies balanced nicely.

    But thirty-one years later a lot of people have been remembering the seventh cut on the album, "Political Science."

    Bob Baker writing in the week's Los Angeles Times comments.

    Newman laughed at the simple-minded song, which he titled "Political Science," but he distrusted it.  It had come to him too easily; it struck him as too exaggerated, even for the brilliantly warped songwriting sensibility he was developing.  At first he would not play it for audiences.  Then one night he trotted it out, and the crowd laughed.  Newman put it on his third album, Sail Away, in 1972, and it became a fan favorite.

    The years passed, foreign policy ebbed and flowed, spats with allies came and went, but the wonderful thing about "Political Science," Newman realized, was that no matter how absurd America's behavior toward the rest of the world seemed to people like him, it could never approximate his song's hyperbolic jingoism.  "Nobody talked like that, not even Curtis LeMay."

    Of course.  Perhaps you remember it.

    No one likes us; I don't know why
    We may not be perfect, but heaven knows we try
    But all around, even our old friends put us down
    Let's drop the big one and see what happens

    We give them money, but are they grateful?
    No, they're spiteful and they're hateful
    They don't respect us, so let's surprise them
    We'll drop the big one and pulverize them

    And so on and so forth.  The tune is not getting a lot of airplay these days, because Newman is no longer in fashion, and it does cut too close to the bone.  It's awfully sarcastic and would offend the Fox News, Clear Channel crowd.  Hey, they assure us we are the good guys.

    Did Donald Rumsfeld say that France and Germany, opposing our war in Iraq, were irrelevant?  Yes.  "Now, you're thinking of Europe as Germany and France.  I don't.  I think that's old Europe." 

    Asia's crowded and Europe's too old ...

    Yep, I remember that line.  This is too odd. 

    Two summers ago, Thomas Friedman, the New York Times' foreign-affairs columnist, was trying to show that Europe's resentment of American free-market capitalism, the death penalty and globalization had been around far longer than President Bush.  He began his column with the first two verses of "Political Science."  The British columnist Miles Kington suggested that Bush's advisors stop making recommendations about how to patch things up with Europe.  Instead, he wrote, they should simply have Bush study the lyrics of "Political Science," most of which the columnist reprinted, ending with a rhetorical question: "Who said that the Americans don't have irony?"

    And only the UK and Australia would join us in the war?

    We'll save Australia
    Don't wanna hurt no kangaroo
    We'll build an All American amusement park there
    They got surfin', too

    Very curious.

    And if our current international efforts are to make sure the rest of the world adopts our political system of representative secular democracy, and entrepreneurial deregulated market capitalism, because that is what they really want, even if they won't say so, and also to assure open semi-free trade everywhere...? 

    Well, Newman had that covered.

    Boom goes London and boom Paree
    More room for you and more room for me
    And every city the whole world round
    Will just be another American town ...

    ... Oh, how peaceful it will be
    We'll set everybody free
    You'll wear a Japanese kimono
    And there'll be Italian shoes for me ...

    Do people in other parts of the world mistrust us and resent us telling them how they really want to be?  Do they resent us telling them they want to be just like us?  The tune ends as you would expect.

    ... They all hate us anyhow
    So let's drop the big one now
    Let's drop the big one now.

    Newman thought the song was a silly throw-away thing thirty years ago.  And what does he think of the song now?   "It's one of my better songs ... better than I thought it was. The lines are funny, it doesn't fall down anywhere.  After I started playing it live and taking a look at it, I realized how consistently stupid the guy was." 

    Yeah, well, this is the sort of thing once actually reads these days in pages of the conservative news service NewsMax.  What was silly, over-the-top sarcasm three decades ago seems what we actually have being said right now.

    I guess it's still funny.  But it's funny in a sad sort of way now.

    Still, my favorite song on the album is "God's Song (That's Why I Love Mankind)." 

    We seem to be in a holy war, where our born-again Christian president is trying to lead the western world in facing down the maddest of Islamic terrorists and fanatics.  Our president says God is on our side and has said he feels he was chosen by God for this task.  And the terrorists and fanatics say Allah is on their side.

    In this other Randy Newman song a rather amused God has some good lines.

    Man means nothing he means less to me
    Than the lowliest cactus flower

    Or the humblest yucca tree
    He chases round this desert
    Cause he thinks that's where I'll be
    That's why I love mankind

    I recoil in horror from the foulness of thee
    From the squalor, and the filth, and the misery
    How we laugh up here in heaven at the prayers you offer me
    That's why I love mankind ...

    I burn down your cities how blind you must be
    I take from you your children and you say how blessed are we
    You all must be crazy to put your faith in me
    That's why I love mankind
    You really need me
    That's why I love mankind

    It's a slow minor blues chant.  And Newman seems to have had a good idea of what God might be musing, looking down on Baghdad and the West Bank and the White House.

    So, if you are of a certain age, pull out the album and listen to it again.


    And don't even think about Gary Coleman running for governor out here in California and start humming Newman's "Short People."  That's too spooky.