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Sunday, Sep. 09, 2012 at 1:17 PM
American films, largely absent in recent years, made a startling comeback to the 69th Venice Film Festival this month with a vivisection of an American society whose moral restraints have become as elastic as a worn rubber band, a malaise which, like American culture, has infected many parts of the world.
VENICE FILMFEST 2012: AN AMERICAN GRAFFITI
By Uli Schmetzer
Venice, September 8, 2012 – American films, largely absent in recent years, made a startling comeback to the 69th Venice Film Festival this month with a vivisection of an American society whose moral restraints have become as elastic as a worn rubber band, a malaise which, like American culture, has infected many parts of the world.
Film makers laid bare an America which has metamorphosed from a country of immigrants where anyone was welcome to a country whose citizen are inoculated with hatred for a minority of fellow citizen - Moslems and Arabs.
In this dark side of America the difference between right and wrong has become so foggy it is often lost. A once strong communal spirit has been replaced by egocentricity, megalomania, corruption, fraud, infidelity, religious cultism and ravenous corporate greed.
No film at the festival had more courage than Michael Singh’s much applauded documentary ‘Valentino’s Ghost’ during which well known academics and journalists accuse the U.S. media for demonizing Middle East societies and stereotyping Arabs and Moslems as terrorists. The metamorphosis of the ‘Heroic Arab’ of the 1920s to the ‘Evil Arab’ of today coupled with the paranoia about an aggressive Islam is being constantly stoked by the powerful Israel Lobby in the United States.
The documentary leaves no doubt the American-Israeli propaganda methods employed today against the people of the Middle East are not much subtler then the methods elaborated by Josef Goebbels who stereotyped Jews and turned them into monsters as a prelude to their extermination by the Nazis. The Arab, sitting atop the world’s vital oil reserves, has been converted into a ‘terrorist’ who must be dominated (read colonized) to ensure our own safety (read national security.) Arab oil resources must serve the universal good (read oil companies) and we must impose democracy on the Arab countries (but with a democracy subservient to us.)
After the screening film maker Singh admitted it is unlikely ‘Valentino’s Ghost’ will be screened in the United States. “They have already asked me to cut 39 per cent of its content. All I can do now is go to court,” he said.
What has happened to America’s much vaunted freedom of expression?
Reporting from the Middle East has always been one sided. By coincidence during the Venice film festival Italian State TV, like most western media, recalled the anniversary of the Munich Olympic Massacre when 11 Israeli athletes were killed during a botched Palestinian commando raid. Yet there has never been an anniversary commemoration for the Shatila refugee camp massacre where thousands of Palestinians were killed while Israeli troops looked on. In 1946 Yitzhak Shamir and Menchen Begin had wanted posters out for them as ‘terrorists’ who masterminded bomb attacks on civilians. Yet both men became celebrated Prime Ministers of Israel and Begin won a Nobel Peace Prize.
In Singh’s documentary historian Melani McAlister and Professor John Mearsheimer (who wrote the book ‘The Israel Lobby” which focused on the blatant lies and historic manipulations perpetuated by the zealots of the Zionist State) detail some of the more recent methods to vilify Arabs. They point out Arabs are always dark-skinned in caricatures and evil looking and portrayed as attacking foreigners when they actually defend their invaded countries. They ask how come the West Bank was referred in the past as The Occupied Territories but is now described in our mass media as ‘disputed territories?’ How come Jerusalem was ‘liberated’ when it was already the Palestinian capital? How come the Apartheid Wall Israel built has become a defense wall? How come we always see images of Israeli settlers as victims but never see Palestinians whose land they illegally occupy being kept under curfew or subjected to house searches by Israeli troops? How come a nation with six million of its people exterminated ow by the Nazis now talks about ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from Palestinian lands?
“It’s the occupation that is causing terror its not terror that is causing the occupation,” comments film maker Jack Shaheen in the documentary while Mearsheimer argues Americans have never been told or showed any interest in the reasons for the attack on the Twin Towers. Occasional efforts to examine the motivations for the attack were quickly short-circuited. Yet the documentary reveals there were statements explaining the attack was in etaliation for American political support, arms supplies and financial aid to Israel.
The mass media is again under attack in Xavier Giannoli’s racy film ‘Superstar,’ the story of a simple worker turned into a superstar by a social network prank. The networks feature his photo until he turns up everywhere and is mobbed, pursued and persecuted by doting fans with no idea why he is famous.
Giannoli takes apart the talk shows and their egocentric hosts who use people like ping pong balls, then drop or squash them – or in this case turn the adulation of the Superstar to hatred. Any news is good news, as long as it is sensational.
If Valentino’s Ghost and Superstar are compulsory for those interested in the other side of the story the Festival’s opening film set the Festival’s tone.
Mira Nair’s riveting ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ could have been renamed: “I Love America….But….’ The pillar of the film is the much publicized theme that anti-terrorist phobia, persecution of suspects and stereotyping people only produces more terrorism. Nair constructs a ‘real’ case of a successful Pakistani working at the executive level of corporate America. He becomes a victim of mass hysteria following September 2001. He is humiliated, terrorized and made to feel an alien until he leaves the United States and gradually drifts into the arms of fundamentalism though he keeps telling everyone, especially the interrogating CIA agent: “I love America.’
The phrase ‘I love America’ could also be Nair’s personal motto. She dreads carefully (for which film critics lambasted her) on delicate issues, hinting rather then exposing the indignities suffered by ‘bearded’ men and detained terror suspects after the Twin Tower attack. Many film makers obviously do not want to foul their American market – and activate the Israel Lobby.
One of those cautious directors is Paul Thomas Anderson. His film‘The Master,’ which won him the silver lion for the best director) is an obvious exposure and a ridicule of Scientology and rampant cultism in the USA. (Anderson immediately denied at a media conference he had based his main character on Ron Hubbard, the father of Scientology). Though fraudulence and hocus-pocus, caged in woolly pseudo-science, are part of the Master’s tricks the more insalubrious details, like sexual liaisons, are touched with silk gloves. The peccadilloes are barely hinted, perhaps in deference to the sensitivity of a Hollywood dominated by converts to Scientology. In the year of Mitch Romney and his Mormons the point of the film is hardly lost. ‘The Master’ is embellished by the brilliant acting of Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman who jointly won the festival’s best actor awards.
Harmony Korine’s ‘Spring Breakers’ depicts another sector of a dysfunctional America. Four Barbie doll teenagers use their Spring school break to indulge in a rampage of violence, sex, drugs and the kind of unrestrained behavior now more and more associated with a young generation whose parents seem to have abdicated control – or pretend they don’t see.
During their wild spree the four keep telephoning their gullible parents, reporting an idyllic holiday. Korine said the idea of the film came to him after a news report about four girls on Spring Break holding up tourists with automatic guns to finance a holiday spree at expensive resorts.
There was no end to the flaws of the American society.
Ramin Bahrani’s ‘At Any Price’ is the story of a family in rural America (Iowa corn-belt) whose members come to terms with cheating, with murder and with infidelity under the national slogan that is also justifying wars: ‘We must be united. We are a team.’
The film is symbolic of a nation which forges ahead with unjustified interventions in the affairs of other countries while exhorting patriotism from its citizen.
It seems film makers believe America’s once strong legal and moral restraints are in shreds.
It could be argued ‘At Any Price’ tries to say what is good for the family is also good for America – and the next generation. And if someone has to die, it can be argued away as an unfortunate accident or a necessity. And if someone has to be cheated it was necessary to ensure economic growth and secure the family property - for the next generation. And if the father strays from mother’s bed he is forgiven for the sake of a coherent family and the preservation of their property.
In past cinematic history male career climbers killed and tortured each other. In Brian de Palma’s ‘Passion’ it is now women - two executive Eves in an American advertising agency in Berlin – who harness guile, cunning, charm and sex to control, dominate and steal ideas from each other. De Palma, a modern day Hitchcock, spices his story up with lesbianism, phallic aids and kinky sex encounters all coupled to America’s most common phrase: ‘I love you’ or: “Do you love me?’ All is videotaped on smart phones and used to blackmail or embarrass the other. Of course it ends in murder with an Inspector Derrick-type Berlin policeman way out of his depth.
Meanwhile Robert Redford’s long awaited ‘The Company You Keep’ is yet another concession to American family values. The protagonist (portrayed by Redford) is a former Weathermen ‘terrorist.’ He rolls up – or some would say betrays - his entire organization thirty years after they went underground and became often respected citizen. With the FBI hard on his heels he contacts them (which results in their arrest) in an effort to prove to his young daughter that he was not the man who killed a bank guard during a robbery thirty years ago. The fatal shooting at was committed by another member of his group who must confess.
The moral dilemma of this film is this: If you belong to an activist group which decides to resort to violence are you just as responsible as the person who pulls the trigger? The film seems to indicate you are not.
When the dust settles on the Venice Filmfest this year it will leave, as always, much controversy. This time the argument could be whether American society forgives and forgets its sins far too easily these days without proper reflection - or whether it simply expunges them with prayer.
Uli Schmetzer, a former foreign correspondent for Reuters and the Chicago Tribune is the author of four books all available in print or e-book on www.amazon.com
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