Pasolini’s Cathartic Medea

MedeaI just saw Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1969 film, Medea. As usual, it is a beautiful film without a great deal of bother about the plot. I think this is why Pasolini picked subjects like the Gospel of Matthew and Oedipus Rex for his films. It allowed him to deal with film as an art without getting too bogged down in the transitions required to tell a story. That worked especially well with, The Gospel According to St Matthew, as I discussed in Pasolini’s Atheistic Tribute to Christianity. The gospels are episodic with no real transitions themselves. That’s not so much true with Medea.

Pasolini put two different stories together in the film. The first 50 minutes of the film involves Jason’s quest for the golden fleece and Medea’s abandonment her entire life in order to give it to him. The remaining hour is dedicated to a curious telling of Euripides’ play Medea. But even if you know these stories well, you will still be fairly confused. All together, the film comes off as a series of moments. As though Pasolini is saying to the viewer, “Remember when Medea murdered her brother to allow Jason to get away? Remember when Creon banished Medea?” The major scenes are rendered, but there are very few dots connecting them.

In addition to this, the second half of the film is presented in a seemingly random order. Jason’s infidelity is only made clear in retrospect. And perhaps the most confusing thing: Medea’s murder of Glauce is presented twice in two different ways. It was only on second viewing that I realized what Pasolini was doing. At first, he is presenting it as Glauce’s father, Creon, imagines it. This leads him to go to Medea and banish her. This is not in the play and it is a very welcome addition. But Pasolini provides not clear indication of this. In fact, in the Wikipedia entry on the movie, it speculates that the first murder is Medea’s vision. This is an understandable error.

Having said all this, you probably have the impression that Medea is not good. But that isn’t my impression of it at all. I thought it is was riveting from the very start. But I’ve begun to question whether I can much speak for other people. In recent years, I’ve begun to see film much more as pure visual art. Or at least that’s how I approach it when that is how it is intended. And that’s certainly the case with the Pasolini that I’ve seen. In that regard Medea is a tour de force.

It isn’t just the visuals here. The performances are great — Most especially Maria Callas! — and the music and sound are overwhelming. The whole package is incredibly self-assured. Pasolini seems very clear that he is going to present these two great myths with a maximum of power. And that’s why he can’t be bothered with trivialities like why Jason is treating Medea so poorly. And that’s probably for the best, because a modern audience can’t really understand Jason’s betrayal anyway. And what does it matter? It’s really just about the injustices done to Medea and her (over) reactions to them.

The film ends with Medea shouting at Jason from behind a line of fire, “Nothing is possible anymore!” It’s shocking but appropriate. And it sums up her whole life from meeting Jason. It also sums up all of our lives — it is just that our tragedies are so much more banal. Medea takes our pedestrian sufferings and transforms them into something powerful. If you are up to it, it will not disappoint. But Medea is certainly not for casual viewing.


Here is the whole film on YouTube. The print is not great, but it will do. And the subtitles are better than on my print.

Islamic State Recruits and Identity Politics

Mehdi HasanFew experts have done more to try to understand the mindset of the young men and women who aspire to join the blood-drenched ranks of groups such as ISIS and Al Qaeda than [Marc] Sageman. And few can match his qualifications, credentials or background. The 61-year-old, Polish-born psychiatrist and academic is a former CIA operations officer who was based in Pakistan in the late 1980s. There he worked closely with the Afghan mujahedin. He has since advised the New York City Police Department on counterterrorism issues, testified in front of the 9/11 Commission in Washington DC, and, in his acclaimed works Understanding Terror Networks and Leaderless Jihad, closely analysed the biographies of several hundred terrorists.

Does he see religion as a useful analytical prism through which to view the rise of ISIS and the process by which thousands of young people arrive in Syria and Iraq, ready to fight and die for the group?

“Religion has a role but it is a role of justification,” he tells me. “It’s not why they do this [or] why young people go there.”

ISIS members, he says, are using religion to advance a political vision, rather than using politics to advance a religious vision. “To give themselves a bit more legitimacy, they use Islam as their justification. It’s not about religion, it’s about identity… You identify with the victims, [with] the guys being killed by your enemies.”

For converts to Islam in particular, he adds, “Identity is important to them. They have… invested a lot of their own efforts and identity to become this ‘Muslim’ and, because of this, identity is so important to them. They see other Muslims being slaughtered [and say], ‘I need to protect my community.'” (A recent study found that converts to Islam were involved in 31 per cent of Muslim terrorism convictions in the UK between 2001 and 2010.)

Sageman believes that it isn’t religious faith but, rather, a “sense of emotional and moral outrage” at what they see on their television screens or on YouTube that propels people from Portsmouth to Peshawar, from Berlin to Beirut, to head for war zones and to sign up for the so-called jihad. Today, he notes archly, “Orwell would be [considered as foreign fighter like] a jihadi,” referring to the writer’s involvement in the anti-fascist campaign during the Spanish civil war.

Religion, according to this view, plays a role not as a driver of behaviour but as a vehicle for outrage and, crucially, a marker of identity. Religion is important in the sense that it happens to “define your identity,” Sageman says, and not because you are “more pious than anybody else.” He invokes the political scientist Benedict Anderson’s conception of a nation state as an “imagined political community,” arguing that the “imagined community of Muslims” is what drives the terrorists, the allure of being members of — and defenders of — the ultimate “in-group.”

“You don’t have the most religious folks going there,” he points out. ISIS fighters from the west, in particular, “tend to have rediscovered Islam as teenagers, or as converts”; they are angry, or even bored, young men in search of a call to arms and a thrilling cause. The ISIS executioner Mohammed Emwazi, also known as “Jihadi John” — who was raised and educated in the UK — was described, for instance, by two British medics who met him at a Syrian hospital as “quiet but a bit of an adrenalin junkie.”

—Mehdi Hasan
How Islamic Is the Islamic State? Not at All.

Rich Distort Language to Screw You

David Cay JohnstonThe great David Cay Johnston published a really useful article last week, Don’t Be Duped by Misleading Economic Terms. It even includes a helpful glossary. One thing I learned from my time as an actual scientist was that nothing is all that hard to understand. Scientists love to make their work seem very impressive with a lot of mathematical jargon, but the concepts are always simple. The complicated stuff is usually important to the scientists themselves, however; and that’s how it is distinct from politics and the non-science of economics. When people are making these these things sound complicated, it is usually because they are hiding something.

I want to focus on the issue that Johnston did in the first half of his article: compensation. There is an overwhelming tendency on the part of politicians and journalists to talk about compensation as though it were charity. And this is especially true when it comes to people who work for the government. I’ve never been too clear on why this is, but people seem to think that when the government hires someone to do a job, it isn’t real and the worker shouldn’t be paid the same as if she were hired by a private institution. When stated explicitly, people claim government workers shouldn’t make as much as comparable workers elsewhere. That’s bad enough.

But as Johnston noted, the bigger issue is on benefits. There is a constant war on the retirement benefits of public employees. And by referring to them “government contributions,” it is implied that they are some kind of charity rather than part of the compensation package the government and the employees worked out long ago. Dean Baker has written about this a lot by contrasting it to bond holders. When a state is having financial problems, the CNBC crowd is all about reneging on these work related promises to pay. The idea that bond holders would get screwed is outrageous to these people. But they are exactly the same things. If I work for you in exchange for money to be paid to me in the future, you owe me money just as surely as if I loan you money to be paid back to me in the future. This isn’t hard to understand, but the use of words like “contributions” are designed to obscure the truth.

Related to this is the payroll tax. Most people think that they pay 7.65% of their income toward their future Social Security and Medicare benefits. But that’s not true. The employer also pays 7.65% toward this. But this is simply part of workers’ pay that is taken away. So why don’t our checks just have 15.3% in payroll taxes removed? Johnston has a good answer for that, “The other half of the tax does not show up on paychecks because it is part of a deception by Congress to make the tax seem less onerous than it is.” You can see why this is so. If everyone saw 15.3% come out of every paycheck they got, they might wonder why it is that they are paying more in that one tax than Mitt Romney pays in total federal taxes on the tens of millions he “earns” every year.

This is just one example of how the language is distorted to keep us from seeing the truth. And I suspect that even having written this, a lot of readers are still confused about how they are actually paying 15.3% (actually, it’s 14.2%[1]) when it doesn’t say that on their check. But do you know who isn’t confused about this kind of thing? The rich. They know what they are doing, and they love the fact the vast majority of people just accept the linguistic frame that allows them to stay rich at our expense.

[1] If your employer didn’t have to make its “contribution,” your pay would be 107.65% of what it is now. You would then pay 15.3% of your income: 15.3/107.65 = 14.2%.

White Privilege on Australian Buses

White PrivilegeA few weeks ago, Ian Ayres brought my attention to some amazing but unsurprising research, When Whites Get a Free Pass. The title is a literal description of a recent study out of Australia. Researchers looked at how often bus drivers would allow people free rides when their passes had run out of money. Not surprisingly, they were much more likely to let whites ride for free. In fact, whites road free twice as much: 72% versus only 36% for blacks. They did it in a lot of different ways too. In some cases they dressed the riders in business suits and army uniforms. It was always the same. For example, 97% of whites in army uniforms got free rides but only 77% of blacks did.

What’s critical here, is that the bus drivers don’t think of themselves as racist. They aren’t intending to disproportionately help whites. In fact, although the numbers weren’t as skewed, black bus drivers also helped out white riders more than blacks. That’s actually quite a well known effect. When tested for subconscious bias, blacks in America tend to be somewhat more positive toward whites. It puts a whole different spin on the conservatives’ great canard “reverse racism.” But the point here is that racial bias is something that is in the society itself and it infects all of us.

This is why I think we ought to calm down on all the freaking out about the explicit racism like we saw at Sigma Alpha Epsilon. We should use such incidents to highlight the broad nature of racism and what we can do about — not use it to feel good that we don’t sing songs about lynching African Americans. A much bigger issue than segregated fraternities is the fact that most Americans don’t understand white privilege and how affirmative action is one tool to fight it. George Will has spent the last several decades claiming that affirmative action is racist, and he’s held up as an exemplar of respectability.

What the Australian bus study shows is the ways that whites get a clear and tangible benefit from being white. And like so much else that has to do with privilege, it is done in a way that is invisible. If we wanted to create a policy to offset this, we would allow blacks to ride the bus for slightly less than we do whites. And just as with affirmative action, this would do two things. First, it would tell blacks in a very forceful way, “We’re helping you!” Second, it would allow whites to claim that they were treated unfairly because they don’t see their privilege. So even the efforts to fight racism would add to racism. It’s frustrating.

What I think needs to be done is that we white people have to get over ourselves. We need to have our noses rubbed in our privilege. And this is something that we are very reluctant to do here in the United States. And this goes way past race. We are supposed to believe that the rich white child going to private schools has the same chance of getting into Harvard as the poor black child going to a struggling public school. I understand that when it is put that way, it’s pretty obvious it isn’t the case. But that is the reality of America where most people absurdly claim that there is “equality of opportunity” (when they aren’t defining it out of existence).

I’m almost to the point of thinking that we will always have racism as long as we accept capitalism. The two seem to be related because capitalism wants to monetize humans. At this point, to really look at why African Americans own and earn so much less than white Americans — as Ta-Nehisi Coates has — is to question the justice of the whole system. I do know that a lot of it is government policy. But I just don’t see how you separate our economic and political systems. They feed each other. And any economic system that allows people to get really rich will also allow them to distort the political system to their advantage.

In the absence of fundamental change, the least we white people can do is to be aware of our privilege. Being a white person in a white community, I’m constantly assaulted with other whites whining about all the special “gifts” that black and brown people get. That’s the thing about white privilege: the more we have, the more we whine. And they both stop us from moving forward.

Morning Music: Maria Callas

Maria Callas - NormaMaria Callas was probably the most famous soprano of the 20th century. She also lived quite a tragic live, which may be the thing to do when you are an opera star. But I know her primarily as the star of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film, Medea. There will be more about that elsewhere. For now, let us focus on opera. She is widely considered to have changed opera in a major way. Before her, it was mostly a musical thing. She introduced (or reintroduced) drama to it. And that, rather than having a great voice (opinions differ), is what set her apart.

She really came to prominence in the title role of Vincenzo Bellini’s opera, Norma. So here she is performing the most famous aria from the opera, “Casta diva.” To be honest, I don’t know why there is any question about her voice — she’s amazing:

Birthday Post: David Cronenberg

David CronenbergToday, David Cronenberg is 72 years old. He is one of the great modern filmmakers. And I say that despite the fact that his obsessions are not mine. I do not share his interest in biology and generally the gooey nature of life. But given that — when he is at his best — he is a horror director, the fact that his take on reality disturbs me doubtless helps.

I pretty much turned off to Cronenberg after A History of Violence and Eastern Promises. They are still excellent films, but they seemed to indicate to me that he was going in a more traditional direction. But I will have to check out the new stuff. The one thing about Cronenberg is that he is always worth checking out. I don’t know of a film he made that wasn’t a worthy attempt.

The film that I most associate with Cronenberg is eXistenZ — his effort at virtual reality. Many people have claimed that the film would have been a hit if only The Matrix hadn’t come out that same year. I think that’s a stretch. eXistenZ is — as usual — a mind bending film with a subplot about amphibian farming and absolutely no action. The Matrix was a modernized kung fu film. But if you haven’t seen eXistenZ, you should. But you won’t. I’ve been hocking this film for 15 years and basically no one is willing to see it.

The film that Cronenberg will probably be remembered for is Videodrome. It’s been a while since I’ve seen it, so I just ordered it again. What I think people miss about it is that it is a horror film. Roger Ebert wrote, “The characters are bitter and hateful, the images are nauseating, and the ending is bleak enough that when the screen fades to black it’s a relief.” I don’t see how any of that is a problem. I would add that that its concepts are deep, its images stunning, and its story utterly fascinating. (Ebert had a tendency to make snap judgments and then hold onto them forever; he wasn’t the kind to write, “I revisited Blue Velvet and I realized that I’d been wrong!”)

Do I need to warn you about this clip?

But Cronenberg is much more than these movies. I haven’t seen his early films. But just to name a few other great films: Crash, Dead Ringers, and Naked Lunch. (Who would ever have thought a movie could have been made from that novel!) Ultimately, Cronenberg offers something I find irresistible in a filmmaker: an idiosyncratic vision wedded to mastery of cinematic technique. Off hand, the only person I can think of who offers that is Samuel Fuller — and even in his case it might be better to classify him as a great social justice filmmaker like John Sayles. Cronenberg is an original in an industry that usually destroys such impulses.

Happy birthday David Cronenberg!


Cronenberg is totally wrong about professional film reviewers. I don’t disagree with him about self-appointed “critics.” But he seems to be under the impression that professional reviewers have any special qualifications other than getting PR packages from the studio. Almost without exception, film reviewers are just reporters who fell into the job. So what do they do? They maybe read a couple of books? They are not critics in the traditional sense of the word — except in their pretense.