Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Another Leni Riefenstahl Moment
I was repelled by the obvious political message of Hero, though like everybody else I did admire the color scheme. Though the movie overtly deals with the First Emperor, the ruthless king of Chin who reunited the Empire at the end of the Warring States period, it isn’t much of a stretch to understand the film at as a piece of revisionism about the Tiananmen Square massacre. What seems to be going on is this: A Chinese intellectual makes his peace with the powers that be by directing a movie about a group of transcendently skillful warriors who seek to assassinate a tyrant but eventually decide that the project of Chinese unification justifies his monumental crimes. Tellingly, two of the warriors are writers and in the movie’s finale, the hero, whose name is Nameless, willingly submits to execution in an immense public square. Zhang Yimou does portray the protesting swordsmen as honorable people, but he is just as insistent that they all must die to atone for their rebellion. Zhang gets off easier. He just has to make a movie.

I understand that for American audiences and reviewers who aren’t aware of Chinese history and politics, a movie like Hero will mostly register as an action flick. For a Chinese audience, it’s so tendentious it’s almost honest.

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Rum, Romanism, and Reaction

It is something of a commonplace by now that the various Islamic fundamentalisms are radically innovative relative to tradition, though this fact is kept quiet by the innovators because the tradition pointedly rejected innovation (Bid’ah). Backward looking Christian sects are also very creative. Since religions are soft-bodied organisms unstiffened by any extra-human reality, this flexibility shouldn’t be surprising. I confess, however, I have trouble processing some of the more recent mutations in American Protestantism, especially the increasing respect the right-wing theocrats express for Catholicism. Admiration for the Pope is the one thing I had never expected to hear emanating from an American bigot. Have these guys forgotten the Black Legend? I guess they haven’t reread Foxe’s Book of Martyrs lately.

The irony of ironies in all this is that Jerry Falwell et. al. are making nice to the Whore of Babylon at the same time that the catholic laity is in revolt against the corruption and rigidity of Papacy, often in the name of a fervent Augustinian spirituality uncannily reminiscent of the faith of the Reformers. Meanwhile, on the officially Protestant side of the aisle, there remain plenty of evangelicals who continue to support the separation of church and state for purely religious reasons and find Roman mummery and monarchism to be, if not actually repellent, at least utterly irrelevant to their deeper concerns. Another feature of the confusing ideological scene are the presumably secular figures like Niall Ferguson who manage to say nice things about Rome despite its exceedingly rancid historical record—the Black Legend bit is unfashionable, not inaccurate.