Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Drama of Inevitability

I feel surrounded by inevitability, and the weight of history. Or at least, that’s what my entertainment is telling me.

For the past few days, I’ve been watching The Battle of Algiers, a 1966 film by Gillo Pontecorvo (who also directed Burn!) about the Algerian uprising and war that eventually drove the French from the country. It’s shot in black and white, and looks almost like a documentary. The movie is more concerned with the movement of cultures than characters, and what is essentially the birth of terrorism as we know it.

Meanwhile, I’ve been listening to The Archivist’s Story, by Travis Holland, about a disgraced professor in 1939 Russia—a man charged with destroying the unpublished manuscripts of blacklisted and imprisoned writers, who smuggles a short story out of the prison walls.

Both stories have a hopelessness and an inevitability about them—Algiers on a global level, and Archivist on a personal level. The archivist, Pavel, is essentially the lead in a prison drama: Even though he leaves the prison every night, the whole of his country has become a police state, and he can’t even have dinner with a friend without paranoia. Beyond that, his personal life is deteriorating. His wife is dead and her remains are missing in the bureaucracy, his best friend (and father figure) is heading for dire political trouble, and most tragically, his mother is beginning to have blackouts and showing signs of neurological problems. Nothing, it seems, will come to a good end. He has a burgeoning, tentative romance with his building manager, another damaged soul. Maybe, maybe, he’ll be able to draw a little joy from this. But how can he trust anyone in this place? Maybe the only thing he can trust is the words he has risked everything to smuggle out.

In The Battle of Algiers, nothing seems to slow the growing cycle of terrorism and retaliation, sometimes misdirected. French police are shot. An off-duty captain gathers some men and blows up a suspect’s house. The Muslim section of town (called “The Casbah”) is cordoned off. In the most riveting scene of the film, three women have dyed their hair and westernized their outfits, in order to pass the checkpoints more easily. They’re given destinations, and bomb components for their handbags. They meet an explosive expert in a warehouse, who sets up the devices and tells them they have a half hour to set them. And off they go, to a bar, to a teeny-bopper hangout, to an airport.

The woman at the bar is beautiful; a man offers her his chair. She sits, sipping a soda, looking around the bar. There are businessmen there, and couples on dates. A little boy licks an ice cream cone. You can see her realize—or maybe I’m just projecting, but it’s an easy projection to make—that she is moving from revolutionary to murderer. And there’s something heartbreaking about her standing up and leaving, sliding her handbag under the bar with her foot. It’s like history hinged on that moment—that fictional moment, or fictionalized, at least—and since then there have been no choices.

Of course, that’s an illusion. There are always choices to make, and so many of us make the right ones. But when we fall, the earth quakes beneath us.


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