Sunday, April 24, 2011

Black Watch in Brooklyn

The war in Iraq, and military life in general, are so far from the experiences of most Americans that it takes a determined effort to understand them from the inside out. But if you seek to understand them, you should definitely see Black Watch, a brilliant play at Saint Anne's Warehouse in Brooklyn about soldiers in the famed Scottish regiment deployed to Iraq.

Grounded in interviews with Black Watch veterans, the play takes the form of encounters between a writer and soldiers in a Scottish poolroom that flash back and forth between the deep past, the present, and the war in Iraq. The play has already won many awards in Britain, and has returned to Brooklyn after an enthusiastic reception at Saint Anne's in 2007. Better than anything I have seen, it captures the complex mix of pride, courage, cynicism, anger, obscenity and solidarity that sustain soldiers in combat.

If you're looking for a critique of the history of the Black Watch in the British Empire, or an examination of British soldiers' relations with Iraqis, you'll have to keep looking. Neither gets much time in the play.

Where Black Watch excels, however, is in its exploration of the ideas, actions and emotions of soldiers. With monologues and dialogues, exquisitely choreographed scenes of combat and barracks brawls, pipe band music and Scottish folk songs, Black Watch takes viewers to a world that few of them will know first-hand. The final scene of the play, which blends an assault and close order drill, conveys the suffering and solidarity of the soldier's life in ways that are extremely moving.

Gregory Burke, author of the play, suggests in a program note that the sense of unity in the Black Watch can be traced to "the male psyche's yearning for a strong identity." He adds that "The army does not recruit well in London or any other big city; fighting units tend to be more at home with homogeneity than with metropolitanism or multiculturalism."

He's on to something, but his play does better than his writer's note at explaining the complex mix of motives and feelings that sustain soldiers. What carries the men in the Black Watch, despite all the pain and contradictions that surround them, is the knowledge that every one of them would risk his life for the other. As a university professor who can find it hard to get people to attend a meeting at 10 am, I know how that sense of solidarity is a rarity in the modern working world. And working class lads aren't the only people looking for a strong identity: the Princeton alumni who gather annually to sing the praises of Old Nassau are perhaps more besotted with their alma mater than these soldiers are with their regiment.

In the end, the veterans of the Black Watch are buoyed by stories: the stories of their predecessors on far-off battlefields and their own stories of Iraq. They guard them closely, but we are fortunate to have them shared with us in this play. If you have any curiosity about these lives and their world, don't miss Black Watch.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Angry Men

With the passing of Sidney Lumet, we have lost one of the most gifted directors of the past half century, and one of the most gifted directors of films about New York City ever, to whom we owe Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico, Network, Prince of the City, and many others. But for me, and I guess, for many others as well, his most memorable NYC film was his first, one that only shows the city in glimpses, 12 Angry Men, the ultimate jury room film.

Made in 1957, the film is often seen as a high water mark of post-war liberalism, in which prejudice, seen as a distorting filter that blinds people to their own less than rational motivations, is eventually exorcized through exposure to the honest discourse of unbiased seekers of truth. Of course, if they were making the film today, it would end with Lee J. Cobb making his day, Clint Eastwood-like, with a sniveling Henry Fonda, tearfully admitting on his knees that his Harvard elitism blinded him to the reality that a punk is a punk is a punk, and that he almost let a dangerous murderer back on the street.

The dominant metaphor of the film is the jury as democracy, in which people from different classes and backgrounds struggle to transcend their differences in their difficult search for a common ground. This doesn’t have too much to do with the reality of the jury system, with its origins lost in the Anglo-Saxon mists of the witenagenot and whatever, and the consensus the jury reached in 12 Angry Men with the notable lack of women and blacks, was not in the end truly representative of the country as a whole. Still it’s a powerful metaphor, one perhaps behind much of Obama’s efforts to convince Americans that what they share in common is more important than their differences. But if that's what he doing, he going about in the wrong way.

What the jurors in the film shared were not their attitudes or beliefs, but a common task, a common purpose. They were partners, equal partners, and everyone was of equal importance. Once they understood this, they were able to reach a common decision. This is what America so badly lacks today, and I'm not sure how Obama should go about trying to realize this, but you don’t start by stating how much you agree with those opposed to you.

Perhaps you start by finding a common enemy. Another Lumet film that perhaps speaks more to the spirit of our times, is one of his least characteristic films, Murder on the Orient Express, sort of the reverse of 12 Angry Men, in which—-spoiler alert—-twelve or so people of very different backgrounds and stations in life come together for the express purpose of killing someone they mutually loathe. If we really hated the recession as much as the travelers on the Orient Express hated the kidnapper-murderer they offed, as much as FDR hated the depression, we might begin to discover again what he had in common.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Donald Trump and Adolf Hitler

Donald Trump is embarrassing himself (as if that was really possible) in his new campaign to demonstrate that Barack Obama was not born in the United States. But the more interesting question is what has been behind the birther movement, which has shown a remarkable strength despite the absence of the tiniest scintilla of evidence for its cause.

One answer can be found in an infamous little book written in 1850, one of the greatest composers of all time (he would definitely be in my top five), and one of the worst persons of all time (its hard to compare someone who was actually not responsible for the deaths of anyone with the Hitlers and Stalins of the world, but he would definitely make the top 25, I think.)

Anyway in this little screed he argues that composers of Jewish origin (he focuses on Felix Mendelssohn and the French opera composer, born in Germany, Giacomo Meyerbeer) can never really be German or European. Both of these gentlemen had converted to Christianity, but it wasn’t enough for Wagner, indeed it made things far worse. Because of their racial background, the most they could do was outwardly ape the forms of European civilizations, and appear to be German, while they really weren’t.

Wagner was at the beginning of a new, and as we know, horribly virulent phase in the history of anti-semitism. For centuries, Jews had been the “other” the non-Christian minority. They dressed different, they talked different, they lived among themselves, and prayed to a strange God.

But by Wagner's time Jews were no longer the other. Jews were us, apparently indistinguishable from good Germans. But of course Jews were still the other. But they had gone from despised outsiders to despised insiders, which meant they went from being despised for their powerlessness to being despised for their supposed powerfulnesss. Without putting all the sins of Hitler on Wagner’s head, a direct line leads from Judaism in Music to the death camps.

Barack Obama’s is Donald Trump’s Felix Mendelssohn, the outsider who has become the super-insider who is still an outsider, though they can find no rational basis for his outsiderhood, except his racial affinity to many genuine outsiders, immigrants and poor blacks.

Where does this leave us? Donald Trump is no Hitler, and the Tea Partyers not black shirts. But the most dangerous fury is not the hatred of the other, but the hatred of the almost like us.

Obama tries, but for people like Trump he can’t really be an American, because deep down, in his essence, he isn’t one. And this is where we are in America today, and this passion is bitterly and hatefully destructive, and will lead to no good.