All In The Same Theater...
When a film opens in Paris, it opens big in ways
we can only imagine from our Upstate perspective. Think of the
latest Harry Potter combined with the next Star Wars and Lord
of the Rings spectacles… plus the seriousness that would
come into play should Francis Ford Coppola ever make another Godfather
sequel.That's what it was like when Martin Scorsese's latest,
Gangs of New York, premiered in nearly 100 cinemas simultaneously
January 8. But add in front page discussions with the director
about his mature look into the violent soul of America. Discussions
about American violence on the evening news and prime time talk
When my wife and I saw Gangs of New York on that
opening day, with an SRO crowd of about 1200 other viewers, it
was as though the audience we were with were all conscious of
what the French critics had said about the film… that it
was Scorsese's raw masterpiece, a means of divination into a general
truth about the human condition as powerful and revealing, in
its way, as Leni Reifenstahl's pre-war Nazi paeans. People whispered
about how our President had started coming on stronger for their
war against Iraq and lambasting those who wouldn't agree with
him. Simultaneously, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick
had started heavily criticizing what he dubbed Europe's "immoral"
stance on genetically modified crops, noting that U.S. patience
with the European Union's four-year-old moratorium on the approval
of genetically modified crops was running out, and that the U.S.
was now considering suing the EU on behalf of its GM food industry.
Zoellick's angry case, as major a news story
throughout Europe in recent months as Bush's build-up towards
war, said that U.S. farmers were losing hundreds of millions of
dollar of sales because of the EU's moratorium. He quoted U.S.
Ag Dept. officials who blamed environmental groups for the problem,
saying they were pushing countries around the world to reject
food aid that included GM products. He noted how the EU Council
of Agriculture Ministers had adopted a proposal in late November
that would require products to be labeled as genetically modified
if they contain 0.9 percent of biotech material.
Simultaneously, he lamented the way European
stores hadstarted advertising their lack of American products.
History, great thinkers and adept historians are constantly telling
us, moves in odd ways. A badly-cooked and worse-received meal
leads a crazed Serb to shoot an ArchPrince, igniting a diplomatic
crisis that leads to first one, then eventually a second world
war. The bad weather of two summers forces an emperor to march
his armies across a mountain range to find new food sources. Or
a small child's bad dreams reinvent themselves as an adult's megalomania,
once he's gained the power to affect change on the world he's
always felt surrounded by.
Could it be that Scorsese's latest film, released
to mixed reviews as just another violent entertainment in America,
but sharing front pages with a growing number examples of American
bullishness, have had an effect on French President Jacques Chirac
to double his nation's "no" to our own president? Could
the fact that Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld saw private White House
screenings of the Somalia mishap flick, Blackhawk Down, then the
contained nuke drama, The Sum of All Fears, in the months just
following 9/11 have tempered their judgement?
Is it possible that our American diet of survival shows and condemnation
of losers, our endless appetite for massive explosions behind
joking buddies, as opposed to Europeans' penchant for Romantic
epics, or Bollywood's crazily sanitized singing/dancing extravaganzas,
effects our respective world views? Our support, or lack of support,
for the creation of a new war?
Equally big in the January news when we were in Europe was the
release of a new book by historian W.G. Sebald about the previously
unexamined destruction of Germany's cities at the end of the last
world war. Writers were saying that the continent's decades of
repair, of learning to live amidst total destruction, is what's
tempering its current push towards unity. And that far from making
for an "Old Europe," this has made for something new
that in comparison ends up making our own administration's push
towards war "old" in its outdated bellicosity, and heedless
ignorance of the effects any war has.
Something new in their taste for peace above
Similarly, there is caution about "new" changes in a
diet that, somehow, has proved itself better in the long run,
red wine and cheese, the best chocolates and meat included, than
our own American predilection for fast food. And our own trusting
of what we see on a shelf over what looks messy in an outdoor
Maybe Michael Moore's Waiting for Columbine, an anti-gun documentary
that also gained great receptions throughout Europe, and similarly
hit front pages by opening discussions of American violence, set
the stage for Scorsese, deep thought about war, and "Old
Europe's" recent actions.
In the weeks since Gangs of New York opened, Chirac joined Germany
and Belgium joined France in fighting Bush's march towards war.
And the U.N. joined them, not us. And millions came out to march
their views around the world. And our president said he didn't
care, he "respectfully disagreed" and felt he was still
on the right track. So now members of our
government, as well as much of our press, calls for new bans on
all things European. Cutting imports of French wine and cheese.
Stemming the flow of German cars and Belgian chocolates.
It all connects in odd ways. The Academy Awards, foreign policy,
the Grammies, a president wife's disinvitation of her nation's
poets from a White House event because she believes that politics
should somehow remain separate from culture. Diplomacy, the restaurants
we choose to eat at, the music we listen to when relaxing, which
movies we choose to watch.
And most of all, what news we pay attention to.