C'est nous qui brisons les barreaux des prisons, pour nos frères, La haine à nos trousses, et la faim qui nous pousse, la misère. Il y a des pays où les gens aux creux des lits font des rêves, Ici, nous, vois-tu, nous on marche et nous on tue nous on crève.

Thursday, 27 September 2007

A Belated Glance at 'Munich': Art, Ideology, Symptom

Some time ago, I was asked how it was that I, a supposedly 'politically literate' person, could listen to both East-coast and West-coast hip hop. For those who are unsure, EC hip hop is more likely to features raps on the 'gritty' nature of street life, injustice within America, or take a trenchant political stance on things. WC hip hop, on the other hand, is characterised by fairly simply motifs: money and 'bitches'. I am oversimplifying things here somewhat, but hopefully, you get the picture.

As often happens, I couldn't think of a particularly good answer at the time. Upon reflection, however, it occurred to me that the trashy, materialistic WC hip hop was just as 'political' as its EC counterpart, if not as directly so.

To explain a bit further, EC hip hop seemed to incorporate strident criticisms of the system that created the harsh soundscapes of rap, and served as an explicit political attack on injustice and inequality. WC hip hop, on the other hand, does not attack the system, so much as over-identify with it, exaggerate and caricature it, and thereby undermine it by other means. The preoccupation with violence, the obsession with cars and jewellery, and the sexualised objectification of women are not the antithesis of US consumer capitalism, but the logical consequences of it.

It is for this reason that, in the pantheon of cinematic myths, Michael Corleone is a genuine American hero, who, in Godfather II, is right to emphasise his credentials as a good businessman and patriot. De Palma's Scarface is an over-the-top, operatic riff on a similar theme, namely, the 'American Dream'. Both films (and their protagonists) are admired by a very large audience, in the US, and elsewhere. Neither film is overtly 'political', but both films nonetheless wear their ideology on their sleeves. This ideology functions as a kind of 'symptom', in a psychoanalytic sense; that is, as something to be interpreted.

Another example can be found in the HBO series, The Sopranos. The incorporation of ideology in this series is more overt and self-conscious than in my previous examples. Tony Soprano (and his goons) take explicit political stances on a number of issues throughout the series, by way of their discussions. The viewer is treated to mockery of gays, minorities, women, and the welfare system. Human beings are viewed as merely being a means to and end, and violence is routinely instrumentalised as a means of getting one's way. In short, we might say that The Sopranos is symptomatic of the dominant, conservative ideology, in that it embodies an extreme version of this Weltanschauung. Saying this is not to suggest in the least that the shows' makers endorse this ideology in any way, but rather, that they depict it.

With the forgoing discussion in mind, I'd like to turn my attention to Steven Spielberg's Munich. Yes, I know it's old, but I've only seen it recently, and it got me thinking.

Munich, for those who don't know, stars Eric Bana as the leader of a group of Mossad agents, following the murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics. Bana's character travels through Europe, locating those responsible, and liquidates them. In addition to this basic plot, the viewer also sees glimpses of Bana's character wrestling with his conscience - that is, he attempts to rationalise his actions, minimise civilian casualties, and so forth. We also see his interactions with his wife and family, and his fidelity to the former.

As we might expect from any film touching on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the film was controversial, and attacked from both the left and the right (and the Zionists) for its depictions of the Mossad agents. One such attack came from Melbourne's very own village idiot and Murdoch lapdog, Andrew Bolt. I can't find Bolt's original article, as News Ltd. seem to take these offline after a while, but the Boltwatch response to the article contains a few original quotes. Here were some of the criticisms of Munich, coming from the Right:

AIJAC’s Colin Rubenstein argued, “The film’s [Munich] message is both
historical nonsense and morally dangerous. There is a world of difference, both
ethically and legally, between deliberately murdering the innocent to promote a
political cause, and carefully targeted attacks on armed terrorists. To ignore
this distinction, even in the service of a naïve ‘all violence is wrong’ premise
that may feel ‘moral’, is to destroy the basis of the international laws of war
which are a vital foundation our civilisation.” The Daily Telegraph

Dvir Abramovich, senior lecturer at the University of Melbourne, argued,
“Nowhere in the film is there historical background or context. Decades of
conflicts are reduced to clichés. Munich fails to mention that Israel suffered a
series of attacks before the Munich massacre…The image of the World Trade Centre at the end of Munich seems to suggest that Israel’s counter-terrorism policy of
the 1970s led to the September 11 atrocities in 2001.” The Herald-Sun

Andrew Bolt argued, “The most sinister thing about this hyped film, with
its noisy soundtrack of the wringing of well-manicured hands, is not that it
attacks Israel – although it does. Nor is it that in telling how Israel hunted
down the Palestinian terrorists responsible for the Munich slaughter and other
attacks on Jewish civilians Spielberg presents fiction as facts – although he
does that, too. No, the true shame of Munich is that he spent nearly $100
million to make a seductively deceitful film that warns we are evil if we fight
back against the terrorists trying to kill us… In fact, killing even in
self-defence makes us worse than the Palestinian terrorists who tie up Jewish
sportsmen and then machinegun them… Germany, for instance, let go three of the
Black September terrorists behind the Munich massacre after Palestinian
hijackers threatened to blow up a plane. France, Greece, Italy and Cyprus all
allowed Palestinian terrorism suspects to freely roam their countries. Spielberg
doesn't investigate that, of course. Giving in to violence doesn't seem to shock
him.” Herald Sun (source)

Some of these responses are predictable, of course. Any portrayal of Palestinian terrorists whatsoever (excluding 2-dimensional cartoon characters) is liable to accusations of anti-Semitism. The Palestinian terrorists in Munich are little more than caricatures, or cyphers, and naturally, do not receive the interiority of the Israeli characters. Apparently, to film them at all is to paint too sympathetic a portrait.

Given that the Mossad agents and their missions are central to the film, one might have expected reproaches of Spielberg for portraying these characters (and their goals) as murderous, or cold-blooded. Au contraire, amis. If memory serves, one of Andrew Bolt's foremost objections to the film was that the Israelis were portrayed as being too 'soft', too troubled by conscience, too possessed of hand-wringing questions. For Bolt, the film could be interpreted as sending a dangerously pacifist message.

At this point, we may do well to question precisely why Spielberg goes to such lengths to assure us that the Mossad avengers do indeed have human hearts beneath their breasts. Hirsute Slovenian Slavoj Žižek examined the propaganda function of these sorts of depictions:

How does Israel, one of the most militarized societies in the world, succeed
in...presenting itself as a tolerant, secular, liberal society? The ideological
presentation of the figure of the Israeli soldier is crucial here; it
parasitizes on the more general ideological self-perception of the Israeli
individual as ragged, even vulgar, but a warm and considerate human being. We
can see here how the very distance toward our ideological identity, the
reference to the fact that 'beneath the mask of our public identity, there is a
warm and frail human being, with all its weakness,' is the fundamental feature
of ideology. And the same goes for the Israeli soldier: he is efficient, ready
to accomplish the necessary dirty work on the very edge of (or even beyond)
legality, because this surface conceals a profoundly ethical, even sentimental,
person...This is why the image of the weeping soldier plays such an important
role in Israel: a soldier who is ruthlessly efficient, but nonetheless
occasionally breaks down in tears at the acts he is compelled to perform. In
psychoanalytic terms, what we have here is the oscillation between the two sides
of objet petit a: shit and the precious agalma, the hidden treasure: beneath the
excremental surface (vulgar insensitivity, gluttony, stealing towels and
ashtrays from hotels, etc. - all the cliches about Israelis propagated by
Israeli jokes), there is a sensitive core of gold. (The Puppet and the

In this light, we have another perspective on Munich, whereby the film is symptomatic in the manner of a dream, with manifest and latent content. On the one hand, we have a portrayal of the Mossad agents as tortured sentimentalists, loving family men who kill only out of sheer necessity; this offsets the manifest content of the film, consisting of a series of 'extrajudicial' killings (to say nothing of the innocent civilians who were killed by Mossad in reality). Indeed, pre-emptive, extrajudicial killing by Israelis is more common now than it was back then, but, contrary to anything resembling fact, beneath these ruthlessly efficient and unquestioning killers' surfaces lies a 'sensitive core of gold'.

Aaron Klein, an Israeli military historian, said as much when interviewed about the film:

Asked about the portrayal of Mossad agents in the film as plagued by
doubts, Klein replied, “Well I've spoken with more than 50, as I said, more
50 veterans of Mossad and military intelligence and I must say that all
that I met and spoke with are very proud of what they did. They are
very proud,
they have no remorse, no second thoughts of what they did. They
saw their work
as the holy work – they were protecting the people of Israel.
This is the way
they see the whole incidence, the whole counter terrorism
campaign that they
were involved with,” ABC Radio “The World Today” (Feb.
13) (source).

Whilst Spielberg's film may not be factual in this regard, it'sembellishments serve a purpose nonetheless. Far from showing Israeli agents as'soft', equivocal souls, Munich preserves the ideological myth-making thatfacilitates the doctrine of 'preventative' murder, of execution without trial. It anaesthetises viewers to the killing, by assuring us that the killers areoverflowing with the milk of human kindness. I have no idea what Spielberg'sintentions were with making this film, but he has succeeded in propagating a colossal piece of ideology, and has converted this most symptomatic ideology into celluloid form.