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

Batman and His Problems

July 28, 2008

Everyone just loves the new Batman movie. After only two weekends in theaters, The Dark Knight is the #1 movie of all time according to imdb members. Critics have been gushing with glowing reviews (though the New Yorker or A.O. Scott beg to differ). The movie’s success is evident, it is the fastest to gross over $300 million domestically. Heath Ledger is even generating Oscar buzz… but with all the hype aside, the best I can say of The Dark Knight is that it’s a “superior superhero movie”, which is pretentious-filmspeak for “the hype’s total bullshit”.

The “superior superhero movie” qualifier should be elaborated. The Dark Knight features a very competent cast with a remarkable Heath Ledger to go along with a cool chase, some neat cat-and-mouse scenes, and some Stygian Gotham atmospherics. Seeing it on an IMAX screen is definitely and all-encompassing (and loud) experience. What’s interesting about Dark Knight (and what everyone fawns over) is how it questions the superhero genre itself within a “post 9/11” context. But that’s all it does. It questions and questions and questions as loudly and succinctly at every possible moment. Writers Cristopher and Jonathan Nolan bring up just about every liberal post 9/11 talking point: Torture! Wiretapping! Due Process! Just let the Joker make a phone call! All of this makes for a story that’s richer than usual. Only all these hot-button topics dissipate as Batman does what the genre invariably tells him to do.

The dissipation problem is more than thematic. The movie frantically weaves in and out of scene without giving each a sense of cohesion or closure. As a result, scenes with dramatic potential get the same slap and dash treatment as unnecessary exposition. There’s an entirely absurd Hong-Kong mission where Batman comes off like some glorified American James Bond. In spite of all the razzle dazzle, the final confrontation between Batman and Joker reminded me of a time I went flaccid during intercourse. You’d imagine that a $185 million dollar budget would afford some script editors… But no… Even Two-Face’s little coin flipping trick is a pallid replica of Anton Chiguhr’s.

I have always had issues with superhero movies. I just can’t accept a superhero world and the myth of exceptionalism that the genre bases itself on. In the proud American tradition, the superhero world presupposes a simple good versus evil polarity, which The Dark Knight questions without betraying the assumption. The superhero itself is equally problematic. A superhero is the sublimation of the human entity into a weapon, into an instrument of order and security. The apotheosis of the superhero requires that the individual leave behind his real identity in order to become an abstracted citizen, a symbol of a man, an image (The Dark Knight uses all the batman imitators to briefly toy with this idea). As a symbol, the superhero is essentially a fetishism. In the case of Bruce Wayne, whose “superpower” is his wealth, he spins amazing technologies out of thin air, a batmobile here, a wire-tapping infrastructure there… as if Batman and Lucius Fox built it all themselves. No one expects a superhero movie to discuss labor. After all, the superhero must be divorced from his material reality to be super. Such distinction is clearly only allotted to the exceptional, while all other hard-working citizens must depend on this symbolic exception.

Just as Batman is a symbol, so is the Joker. They mirror each other (another idea that the movie brings up to little consequence). That the Joker is the most compelling character in The Dark Knight attests both to an incredible performance by Heath Ledger and to the staleness of the other “human” characters. The Joker is a non-entity. Unlike Batman, he has no human context, no mask, only a grotesquely painted facade, making his unmotivated acts of destruction all the more palatable for its symbolism. The Dark Knight becomes the Joker’s movie. He gives the best lines, diabolically catalyzes most of the action, and brings Batman’s entire moral universe into question. Is Batman doing more harm than good? Has he brought Gotham down a road of no return? Perhaps this will be answered in the third installment. But by the end of The Dark Knight, even the Joker becomes problematic.

The problem is not that the Joker’s acts of destruction are a symbolic challenge, but that the movie insists that the Joker is a terrorist… After the movie, I remembered Baudrillard’s “The Spirit of Terrorism”:

This is the spirit of terrorism. Never is it to attack the system through power relations. This belongs to the revolutionary imaginary imposed by the system itself, which survives by ceaselessly bringing those who oppose it to fight in the domain of the real, which is always its own. But (it) moves the fight into the symbolic domain, where the rule is the rule of challenge, of reversal, of escalation. Thus, death can be answered only though an equal or superior death. Terrorism challenges the system by a gift that the latter can reciprocate only through its own death and its own collapse.

As exceptional symbols, both Batman and the Joker enjoy a quasi-omnipresence and an unlimited supply of resources. Although Batman has everything money can build at his disposal, the Joker uses real, functional structures (the domain of labor). In using these structures, the Joker becomes a truck driver, a nurse, a soldier -and always a terrorist. Therefore the Joker, the symbol of unmotivated chaos, the non-entity, is also the symbol of terrorism. And as such a symbol, terrorism becomes depoliticized, it is no longer a reaction against the dominant order or calculated political violence. It is reduced to being evil, to being the unreasonable and unmotivated desire “to watch the world burn”, and to being only vincible with weapons or superheroes.

This new batman movie posits fundamental questions about itself, and for a second, the entire superhero framework appears absurd. But that’s only for a second. Maybe these limitations are placed by the genre. How much of Batman would the studio’s allow to be deconstructed, torn from its roots and set on fire?If I ever decide to make my own superhero movie, I want to create a dashing hero experiencing all sorts of superhero adventures, blowing all sorts of shit up… there’ll be chaos and destruction… but at the end, the superhero confronts an angry mass… guerrillas? workers? students? only to be swarmed and killed, dismembered, torn apart. The antithesis of the American-brand exceptionalism: the “super power” of the collective.

– s