Thursday, September 27, 2007


A thought inspired by The Wind that Shakes the Barley :

If you're making a political movie, about a cause or an issue you really believe in, and you think that your side is obviously the right one, then you should have the balls to give the other side just as good lines, just as appealing defenders, just as strong arguments. Otherwise you're stacking the deck and setting up straw men. And if your side really is right, why would you need to do that? (Maybe because you don't trust your audience?)

So, if you really believe, as Ken Loach and Paul Laverty seem to believe, that the split in the Republican movement was a tragedy as much because it dashed the hopes for a Communist Ireland as it was for turning brother against brother in a vicious Civil War, then you shouldn't need to stoop to portraying the pro-Treaty characters as power-grubbing hypocrites. The actual politics, loyalties, and issues seem messy enough that drawing clear sides, as the movie does, feels like a bit of a cheat.

The movie's nostalgia for Communism doesn't help, of course. I'm always a bit queasy watching movies like this or Pan's Labyrinth, which romanticize failed Communist movements, without seeming to acknowledge the fairly awful history of successful Communist movements.

Despite all this, I thought the movie was definitely worth watching. The subject is interesting, the performances are all nicely done, and it does a very good job of getting at some of the specifics of irregular warfare.


Steve said...

"I'm always a bit queasy watching movies like this or Pan's Labyrinth, which romanticize failed Communist movements, without seeming to acknowledge the fairly awful history of successful Communist movements."

This is bizzare. Even if you take a dim view of the Popular Front overthrown by Franco, it's not clear that the localized rebels in Pan's Labyrinth are doing anything but trying to undermine the current "fairly awful" fascist military rule in their province. After Franco's coup, leftist leaders and sympathizers were disappearing into prisons, being tortured, being summarily executed--i.e., fighting for their lives. You'd have to be a pretty dedicated reactionary to expect the filmmaker to paint them all potential Stalins.

Jon Hastings said...

Why bizarre?

I mean: I admit I'm a bit of a reactionary, but be honest, here. If you're making a movie about a Civil War, Spanish, Irish, or American, it's biased as all get out to portray one side as vicious barbarians and the other as saintly defenders, especially now, looking back at everything.

Maybe you should check out my original post on Pan, where I pose the question (which no defender of the film has ever bothered to address) of how you would feel about this issue if the film dealt with the American Civil War.

Here's the link.

Here's the relevant bit:

Imagine exactly the same movie, except set it in the aftermath of the American Civil War. The sub humanly evil Captain is a radical, Republican reconstructionist, and the super humanly good guerrillas are D.W. Griffith's romanticized Clansmen. If you would still be willing to give that movie a pass, then I guess I won't begrudge the "fairytale" defense of Del Toro's handling of the Captain.

Steve said...

Do you really think PAN'S is about the Spanish Civil War? I don't. For one thing, it takes place entirely after the war. It does connect the stepfather's cruelty toward his wife and daughter with fascism in general and Franco's brutal post-war crackdown on the remaining leftists and dissenters in particular -- which seems like fair game to me. The post-war atrocities by Franco's government were well-documented (unlike, say, atrocities by renegade reconstructionists in the post-American Civil War South), so any kind of "balance" in that specific context would be pretty specious.

In any case, I reject the idea that every artist is obliged to take a balanced, even-handed view of all his characters and the political sides they represent -- particularly in a fairy tale.

James said...

Jon, I agree with you in principle: in a didactic work of art (e.g., a serious political novel, or a movie dealing with a conflict of philosophies or ideologies) - it's absolutely essential to play fair between the sides.

This is my chief complaint against Ayn Rand's books: if you're arguing that conventional morality needs to be thrown away in favor of some Objectivist ideal, you're not particularly persuasive if you begin your argument by assuming the cowardice and baseness of conventional moralists.

(In much the same way, but in a more nerdy vein, I can't bear to take Robert Howard's Conan stories any more seriously than juvenile fiction. Conan is morally superior to everyone, at least in every way that matters, because he's Conan and you're not. So, I choose to read Howard for ape-men and giant snakes, rather than for applicable advice on how I should live my life.)

For what it's worth, I think your comments on Pan's Labyrinth are accurate but miss the point. The conflict between the rebels and the Captain aren't really about politics: they're little flourishes to particularize the conflict between the Evil Stepfather and the Good Nurse. It's part of a fairy tale.

Like, in Cinderella: is it really a fault of the Cinderella story that we never get to see the story from the Evil Stepmother's POV? I mean, the basement is filthy and they're too poor to hire a maid, and the little girl wants to feel appreciated--so, get scrubbin'.

I saw Pan's Labyrinth as a densely symbolic, very sad fairy tale. The fact that the movie would be less appealing with unpalatable politics, is no more significant than the fact that Cinderella would be less popular if the heroine was horrifically disfigured.

Jon Hastings said...

James -

When you say this:

"The fact that the movie would be less appealing with unpalatable politics, is no more significant than the fact that Cinderella would be less popular if the heroine was horrifically disfigured."

That is exactly my point. I find the movie's politics, as they are, pretty "unpalatable". The movie only works if it's politics don't raise a red flag for you. ;)

Also, I think the argument that politics are secondary to the movie because it is a fairy tale is kind of bogus. The movie's "real" sections are painted in an incredibly "realistic" manner, with all the little details firmly in place. We're supposed to read this movie as being "about" the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. That's not only how Del Toro seemed to intend the movie to be read, but that's how almost all film critics have read the movie.

Steve - I'm not saying there needs to be balance. I am saying that this particular imbalance, in this particular movie, makes me queasy, in the same way, I assume, that an imbalance along the lines of my American version of the movie would make you queasy. But maybe it wouldn't: you haven't answered the question yet.

Steve said...

Jon, I guess I thought I had indirectly answered your question, but to make it explicit: the fascist Captain was a fairy tale representation of the brutal reality of Franco's post-Civil War Spain, and therefore I didn't have a problem with it. The evil Republican reconstructionists, lust-crazed Negroes, and heroic Klansmen in BIRTH OF A NATION strike me as not grounded in the reality of post-Civil War South, and therefore I do have a problem with them. I just don't see the equivalence between these examples that you do.

As I recall, in PAN'S, even the captain's men appear shocked at moments at his brutality. He's presented as uniquely cruel, and while I would guess that Del Toro (like most of us) isn't exactly enamored of fascism as a political philosophy, he's not really making a political movie here. I could imagine a filmmaker using a military officer in Soviet Russia in the same way, and I wouldn't have a problem with that either.