Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Lives of Others - Reflections on the Stasi

This is an appropriate time to watch the 2006 Foreign-Language Oscar winner The Lives of Others, set in 1984 in East Berlin. We now know that the Stasi, the East German secret police, had files on hundreds of thousands of citizens. Human weaknesses were levers to pry open the secret compartments of hearts and thoughts, with the aim of preserving a system which could only survive under conditions of universal mistrust.

Following the information released by Edward Snowden, we should take careful note of what our government is doing today. "Oh, we're just looking for patterns," the NSA assures us. "We're not actually listening to individual conversations or reading personal emails, unless we have a warrant first." Of course, you'll have to take their word for that, since FISA has locked the surveillance process in Catch-22 layers of secrecy. They won't tell you they've been requesting records of yours unless you happen to ask, but those under surveillance have no right to know they are. So no, you're not going to find out. These days, you can't even catch someone red-handed going through your mail or tapping your phone - it's all done remotely.

If we have to take their word for what they're collecting and keeping and what just runs through their filters, the open society our founders sought to create and sustain, is dead. Trust flourishes in the open. A look at The Lives of Others reveals how even love cannot protect lovers from the state, from each other's vulnerabilities.

The East German government was pretty sure it was protecting its citizens from harm, from all those troublesome thoughts and activities that were corrupting the West. The film's writer protagonist was shocked to be told, after the Berlin Wall had come down, that he had indeed been under full surveillance - he imagined that because he was careful, because he self-censored his work to stay out of prison, he was above suspicion. But the former minister who punctured that illusion did so with the only satisfaction he had left: smugness regarding the extent of the spy-state over which he had presided so long. No one was above suspicion, not even the apparatchiks who did the prying and spying.

The film ends on a note of gratitude and nobility, a bow to the courage and humanity of the spy who saved the writer. But as we refine the technology of snooping, can we hope for such weak spots? The new NSA data center in Utah, 1.5 million square feet, will have a capacity of a yottabyte of data - the equivalent of 500 quintillion pages of text. Why? For whom? If they're just filtering, why do they need so much storage? Your service providers at the phone companies (all of them), Google, Yahoo, Facebook, etc. have already declared they have provided no access and no data to the NSA. Do you believe them?

Our prosperity has greatly simplified the task of spying on us. Phones equipped with GPS aren't only handy for you: they're a boon to the snoops. Just a decade ago, the military didn't want publicly-available GPS units to be as accurate as theirs: they considered them security risks. But now, the secret-collectors must be high-fiving each other over the increased accuracy of the devices: your activities can be tracked precisely. Which plane were you on, what book did you download (or check out of the library, for that matter), which friends do you hang out with? Where do you shop, what do you buy, who's in your contact list? They know more about you than your mom ever did, but there's no reason for them to be indulgent: the NSA is not the home of unconditional love.

The fall of the Berlin Wall isn't going to save us this time - we have to speak up, loud, often, and in large numbers: this massive data collection is only making us "safer" in a limited sense. Over the long term, we will be at the whim of a state the Stasi could only dream of.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

This Sporting Life - film review

Lindsay Anderson is best known for 2 movies, 1969's  If..., about a student rebellion at a boarding school, which brought fame to Malcolm MacDowell, and 1973's O Lucky Man, in which MacDowell cements his reputation as a young man with a curled lip who bears watching.
But before that, in 1963 Anderson made the film This Sporting Life, which is in its own way a more powerful story about the disaffected.

Richard Harris stars as Frankie Machin, a working class brawler who pushes himself to be selected for the local professional rugby team. One fragment of story at a time, we come to understand his living situation - he rooms with a widow, Margaret Hammond (Rachel Roberts), and her two young children. Eventually we learn that her husband died in an accident at the factory owned by Gerald Weaver (Alan Badell), the man who casts the deciding vote to pay Machin what he asks to join the rugby team.

A semi-articulate brute, Machin swaggers with the status his rugby prowess gives him, but he's attracted to Margaret, in whom he senses another broken soul. She smiles only a few times in the entire film, emotionally ravaged by her husband's death (she polishes his work-boots every evening), unwilling to open her heart again.

Machin, a child himself in some ways, is good to her children, but Hammond is wary of his brutish nature - he hits her a couple of times, and once nearly rapes her.  Still, you think they could work it out, until the evening he takes her out in a new fur coat to a fancy restaurant popular with the team's owners. There his boorish behavior embarrasses her, while those his rudeness targets simply ignore him in that chilly English manner which epitomizes class division.

The film has a gritty look: black and white, with the sound of bodies - no helmets, no padding - crunching, blood and mud smearing the players' white shorts and shirts. The camera lingers on Harris' flat forehead and hawk nose, the pensive strained beauty of Rachel Roberts, the hemmed-in landscape of rain-glazed narrow streets or a skyline of roofs studded with chimney-pots against a steely sky.

One of the difficulties of adapting for the screen is the mismatch between the complexity of a novel and the 90 to 120 minutes allotted a movie. Novelist David Storey's screenplay, as too often happens, pursues multiple story-lines to the detriment of the film: Machin's relationship with an older man, "Dad" Johnson (William Hartnell), who supports his ambition, provides a strong thread - until Johnson fades out of the story. Likewise, we see the greed and bloodthirstiness of the team's owners who live vicariously through the brutal sport, and for a while it seems Machin will turn his rough strength on them. But that potential we sense in Machin to defy the circumstances of his life and class, doesn't materialize. He loves Hammond, and perhaps she loves him, but unable to cope with his untamable behavior, she suffers a brain hemorrhage and dies.

Any of these threads could have made a strong story: Machin relying on then finally rejecting Johnson; Machin turning his toughness on Weaver and the other owners; Machin and Hammond trying and failing to connect through love. By pursuing all three, Storey and Anderson leave us dissatisfied.
Still, two powerful performances make this flawed film worth watching: Richard Harris, a cross between Paul Newman's Hud and Marlon Brando's Stanley Kowalski (or perhaps Johnny in The Wild Ones), plays a feral man who punches his team captain during a scrum while pretending the assault was by an opposing player, yet cavorts happily with Hammond's young children; and Rachel Roberts, a blunt-spoken woman wounded by loss, who puts up a harsh facade to protect herself and her family. These two could heal each other, if the world would leave them alone long enough. But they are trapped in the town where their past looms, and the gossip and contempt of neighbors curdles their intimacy. You want them to break free together, but their entrapment is the essence of their working class lives.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Faulkner's Intruder in the Dust

A year ago, Fred and I took a Faulkner class from a professor at DU, and were amazed to discover this incomparable writer whose work we'd never delved into. Over the ensuing months we bought a number of his books, and recently read (aloud, to each other) his Nobel Prize winner, Intruder in the Dust. It's only 158 pages (11 chapters) but length is relative.

Hanging his ruminations on a simple plot, Faulkner discourses on race, the legacy of the Civil War, the unity of Man regardless of attitudes or external circumstances, time, society, and the actions of the relatively powerless to utterly transform a tense situation.

In brief, the story is that a solitary and dignified old Negro, Lucas Beauchamp, whose grandmother was a slave and grandfather her owner, is jailed as the murderer of a poor white man from the up-county woods. Lucas refuses to defend himself by telling what he knows, and a lynch mob quickly forms outside the jail. A pair of sixteen-year old boys - one black, the other (our narrator) white - and an old white woman go out to the churchyard that night where the dead man has been interred, to dig him up to prove that Lucas' pistol did not kill him.

But things are not as they seemed to be, and over the course of a day, night, and the following day, the boy demonstrates courage, persistence and mettle, learning plenty about his fellow humans into the bargain.

In post-World War II Mississippi, some things have changed while many have not. The country people's poverty and racism have scarcely budged in a century, and white men take it as their right to rise up against any black man who dares look them in the eye. At the same time, attitudes among the townsfolk have evolved, to a degree. Yet none of the powerful will take action until the word of a venerable and proper white spinster requires them to.

Faulkner's sentences (some a page and a half long) can hardly be diagrammed - they are thickets into which you follow a route apparently through, but in a meandering way so compounded with digression that by the time the longed-for period arrives, you just have to stop and marvel that you got to the end (but where are you now?). Just a short sample:

"Charley. Go back and finish your breakfast. Paralee isn't feeling well this morning and she doesn't want to be all day getting dinner ready:" then to him - the fond constant familiar face which he had known all his life and therefore could neither have described it so that a stranger could recognise it nor recognise it himself from anyone's description but only brisk calm and even a little inattentive now, the wail a wail only because of the ancient used habit of its verbiage: "You haven't washed your face:" nor even pausing to see if he followed, on up the stairs and into the bathroom, even turning on the tap and putting the soap into his hands and standing with the towel open and waiting, the familiar face wearing the familiar expression of amazement and protest and anxiety and invincible repudiation which it had worn all his life each time he had done anything removing him one more step from infancy, from childhood: when his uncle had given him the Shetland pony someone had taught to take eighteen- and twenty-four-inch jumps and when his father had given him the first actual powder-shooting gun and the afternoon when the groom delivered Highboy in the truck and he got up for the first time and Highboy stood on his hind legs and her scream and the groom's calm voice saying, "Hit him hard over the head when he does that. You dont want him falling over backward on you" but the muscles merely falling into the old expression through inattention and long usage as her voice had merely chosen by inattention and usage the long-worn verbiage of wailing because there was something else in it now - the same thing which had been there in the car that afternoon when she said, "Your arm doesn't hurt at all now does it?" and on the other afternoon when his father came home and found him jumping Highboy over the concrete watertrough in the lot, his mother leaning on the fence watching and his father's fury of relief and anger and his mother's calm voice this time: "Why not? The trough isn't near as tall as that flimsy fence-thing you bought him that isn't even nailed together:" so that even dull for sleep he recognised it and turned his face and hands dripping and cried at her in amazed and incredulous outrage: "You aint going too! You can't go!" then even dull for sleep realising the fatuous naivete of anyone using cant on her on any subject and so playing his last desperate card: "If you go, then I wont! You hear me? I won't go!"
"Dry your face and comb your hair," she said. "Then come on down and drink your coffee."