Cannibals & Soccer Balls

August 16, 2008

Man is a product of history, many histories in fact
tugging at the corners.
I am succumbing to a history at this very moment,*
while watching a live Olympic soccer game, between Brazil and Cameroon.
We Brazilians don’t watch our national team because we hope them to win,
we watch them because we expect them to play well -that is to say:
queremos ver um futbol bonito -to play beautifully.
We become indignant with am ugly, malaccomplished victory,
and such expectation is a product of our history,
our Pele history, our generation of World Cups,
when the soccer game crystallized into moments of authentic grace,
small ballets with a ball, transcending mere display:
the triumphant perfection of the act of football as an aesthetic act.
Our history is a heavy burden for a football team,
when Brazil lost the World Cup to France and three goals,
we defined such an ugly loss as a conspiracy of sorts,
the machinations of capitalists… our players were drugged!!!
You may find us arrogant for such an attitude,
but what about the nation that names its basketball team the “dream team”,
as if their men were beyond history,
as if they were some conjured product, some Hollywood fantasy.
Then again, America wouldn’t take a day off for a world cup match.
Proud and drunk as we are, we aspire to our own history.
Our absurd nationalism is backed up by our absurd playing style:
Our aim isn’t to defend ourselves from football,
from the joy of it, the pass, the dribble…
Our aim is our history and our history is one of cannibalism
-that is, of appropriation.
At its best, our style is a kind of jazz:
the joy of the instrument, the ecstasy of the moment, the authenticity of the player
-that is, at its best.
Football is a human sport
and with our history we tend to become complacent with ourselves,
with our own technique, with our niches in Europe.
Our football team has never won an Olympic gold medal
-five world cups but no gold medals.
It’s true, not all of our famous players are on the Olympic squad,
most are under twenty-three,
but we’ve never cared that much for gold medals,
never cared beyond complacency.
Come to think about it,
FIFA has a good stake in our history

-s
* – if I were a film, this statement would always be true


Olympathy for Pretentious People

August 12, 2008

For the first time in my life, I am actually enjoying Olympic coverage. That’s because, for the first time, coverage isn’t limited to what Thomas Paine called the “tyranny of the tube”. NBCOlympics.com has been providing live streaming coverage of a multitude of sports, all at a click’s length. While the live coverage is only reinforcing my nocturnal lifestyle, the difference is unquestionable. For one, I don’t have to be force-fed taped Olympic coverage through the television stations focusing on America-centric competition. Besides, I don’t care less about Michael Phelps or track and field… even gymnastics have lost their luster. I want to watch handball, badminton, fencing… futbol. But the best part of the online coverage is how wonderfully bare-bones it is: there are no talking heads, no flashy graphics, no blocks of commercials (except for some offensively bad spots by GE), there’s not even any commentary. All you hear is the sound of the game, the mingling of languages, the swelling audience. Visually, the shots are surprisingly well composed, and the usual replays and close-ups render the sports as a naturalistic aesthetic experience (compared to the artificial grotesqueness of a Super Bowl).

Personally, I’m captivated by the details… by the Spanish pep-talk given by the Brazilian Handball coach, by the eyeliner on a female Hungarian Handball player, by the way an injured Japanese Judo fighter was carried away like a cradled baby, by a Korean fencer’s lime green nail polish, by the bloody hair of a Kiwi Field Hockey player and the star forward telling his goalie “it’s me and you” after a win, by the syncopation of whistles… I could go on. For an added effect, I like to play music along with the live footage, providing rich atmosphere and subtext whenever the rhythm of music complements the rhythm of athletics. Case in point: the tense last minute of the women’s individual foil gold medal match set to the drumscapes of Led Zeppelin’s “Moby Dick”, or the Brazilian soccer team’s final counterattack and goal accompanied by the Cadenza from the Adagio of Rodrigo’s “Concerto de Aranjuez”. At this exact moment, A women’s soccer match between North Korea and Germany is being illuminated by Charles Mingus. I’m cheering for North Korea, since their players are more likely to be sent to a labor camp for losing.


The Maccabean Theater of Judgment

August 4, 2008

There is much talk within film scholarship about the complicit passivity of audiences… Complicit in that the audience’s eyes aligns with the camera’s gaze, and passive in that the alignment (the images on the screen) and its direction doesn’t at all care for the audience’s agency. In a sense, watching a film is like stepping into a different world -or better yet, like taking a guided tour of another world. Stanley Cavell talks about how there is a moment of awakening after a movie ends, the audiences realigns with reality. Walter Benjamin likens the aesthetic experience of film to that of architecture. While it seems that film theorists like to talk about the passive audience as if it’s a “film thing”, something similar can be said about audiences at a classical music concert (just try coughing during one!) or even at a play. The big danger with this whole logic, is when it begins assuming that observers are essentially passive. Such an assumption belies a Eurocentric tradition of a non-participatory audience, where they can aspire to be, at most, loud tomato-throwing critics without any bearing on the course of what they are observing. In all this, different traditions are obscured. A notable exception to this entire passive audience talk is “the Maccabean Theater”.

The Maccabees were a Jewish fundamentalist terrorist organization seeking to liberate the holy land from the foreign occupation of the Greek empire-state (well, the Seleucid Dynasty). They were ultimately successful and today they are mostly known for two Apocryphal books and a surprisingly effective energy sustainability policy (even though they blew all the energy saved on a party). Little is known about “the Maccabean Theater”, probably because it wasn’t an actual theater. The Maccabean Revolt was as much of a struggle against an occupying empire as it was a civil war between Jewish Nationalist and Jewish Hellenists. Violence against the Hellenists was widespread, it was so common that it gave birth to a curious tradition. Maccabean fighters began rounding up Hellenists on an elevated platform, forcing them to act out their profane gentile rituals, utter prayers, and prepare offerings. As the captive Hellenists acted as they were told to, the Maccabees would shoot arrows and throw spears at the actors. Some would even rush up to the platform, bloodthirsty sword in hand. These performance ritual were also cleansing rituals, fervent homages to the High Priest Phineas (Pinchas). They grew in popularity and became more and more elaborate. The forced reenactment of rituals evolved into the forced reenactment of histories and mythologies. Thus was the “Maccabean Theater” born, a theater of sentencing, a theater of judgment and execution.

Unlike the Roman gladiators, who were mere spectacles, the Maccabean Theater reached a brief peak before the newly liberated Jewish theocracy ushered its decline. None exemplified the apex of the Maccabean Theater better than Zedekiah the Danite. While many question the historicity of Zedekiah, reasoning that he represented a small amorphous collective movement, his projects sought to elevate the performance purges to a different level. Zedekiah often crafted his own reenactments, binary morality tales based on Jewish struggles. He created a reenactment of Book of Esther where all the captives played Haman. There’s evidence that suggests that Zedekiah even trained some captives to act, as the more capable actors were often killed last to greater general enthusiasm. Zedekiah reasoned, that if the audience were to play G-d’s will and punishment, the reenactments shouldn’t simply be some glorified shooting gallery. There must be a dynamic between the audience and the actors. So Zedekiah the Danite began toying with sympathetic gentile characters (how much longer will the divine arm let this sinner live?), but then he wanted to take a step further. He imagined an opulent Passover pageant, in which the story would change according to the death of each captive. This task was harder than imagined, since a vast array of plot permutations had to be planned and rehearsed. Zedekiah would have also required captives with significant acting experiences, capable of memorizing all possible outcomes and improvising smooth transitions, as a captive never really knew when the “Will of G-d” would smite again. The historical record doesn’t indicate whether Zedekiah’s plans ever came to fruition, although it’s said that one time, as a big finger to Hellenic culture, Zedekiah staged a minor comedy by Menander.

With the liberated Jewish state and the decline of heretical crimes, the Maccabean Theater became less about killing the actors and more about letting the better actors live. Crowds began sparing the better performers before killing off the inferior ones. Once the Romans took over, even the hands-on killing started to cease, as the Roman state usurped the state’s judicial power of execution, and death by stoning made a rollicking comeback among smaller religious courts. By then, the performance rituals forsook plots and stories, to become a kind of holiday variety show, where the most popular captive criminal act would be spared execution. Such was the case when Jesus Christ competed against Barabbas one Passover morning (a detail the gospels poorly address). By choosing a majestic silence over the actor’s craft, Jesus was promptly dispatched to the nailing yard, while the thief Barabbas was set free (according to Luke, Barabbas beat out not only Jesus but two others).

While largely forgotten, the Maccabean Theater of Judgment does have some spiritual children of sorts. The concept of torture as theater is probably more common than it’s been in awhile, thanks mostly to the Bush administration, Abu Ghraib, and Guantanamo Bay. It’s in no way limited to post-9/11 politics. Take, for example, the shitty Korean movie Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, or Jean-Pierre Meville’s 1969 masterpiece Army of Shadows. But I think what best inherits the tradition of the Maccabean God-audience is the current fad of judge based reality TV shows, such as American Idol, or the one with the fashion designing cooks. The audience retains a faint semblance of Maccabean empowerment. The leap from Zedekiah the Danite to American Idol is certainly long, but as any good Czarist would attest: the Jews own the media.

– s