Why People Protest

I wrote this three days ago, before the Hong Kong protests turned violent.

This morning I had a conversation with someone who, apropos of nothing, said, " What they're doing in Hong Kong is stupid and isn't going to work. You think China will give way?"* It's a comment that betrays that peculiarly Singaporean "pragmatic" approach to life, the universe and everything. It's also the kind of comment that pushes all my buttons.

What does it mean for a protest to "work"? Presumably, the protesters are protesting for a reason, and there are concrete demands that the protesters want to see met. So I suppose we can say that one view of it is that a protest "works" when the protesters get what they want.

This is an awfully utilitarian -- and awfully naive -- view of protest, in my opinion. The very nature of protest is that it is always directed by those without power against those with power. Anyone who has the power to effect change without protest would effect change without protest. Because of this, most protests always look like -- and feel like -- they are going to fail, at least in the beginning.

That is also why protests can feel like they skirt the edge of legality: precisely because by the time a protest happens, the protesters have already tried nearly all the institutional channels for change and failed to achieve their aims. Singaporeans, believing in the inerrancy of the government, might feel that this shows the illegitimacy of the protesters' objectives -- "if you asked for change and didn't get it, the change you wanted must have been a bad thing" -- but that is merely a symptom of our collective political illiteracy.

So why do people protest?

Think about what people risk to be part of a march, a sit-in, a strike, a picket line. They give up their time and energy and money. Often that time and energy and money is not trivial: it is the livelihood that their families depend on. They risk retaliation by the very powers that they protest against. No less significant is the fact that they risk the comfort and stability of known quantities for the mere hope of something better. Why? Because they are convinced that they or someone they identify with is suffering an injustice; because the present situation has become so intolerable that even the shadow of something better is worth fighting for.

And that, I think, is why people protest: to bear witness to an injustice.* Yes, protests always have stated political aims that are part of the "why" -- but people join protests even when they feel that the hope of actually effecting change is miniscule, so that cannot be the sole motivation. So perhaps the protest "fails", in the sense that the protesters don't get what they want. But what cannot be denied is that they drew attention to their cause and invited people to join it if they felt the same way; a protest says, "hey, this thing is happening, and we don't like it, and we want it to be known." That is the spirit that drives protest.

* God only knows what this person thinks of protests to show solidarity. To be fair: I used to think they were stupid too. I don't any more. ^

*** Somewhere in my files I have an essay that I wrote for class, arguing that the purpose of a documentary is to bear witness. ^

Writing the Essay, Progression Three: The Unbelievable Truth

This was the third essay of my college career, written in Fall 2010 for what is now EXPOS-UA 5 Writing the Essay: Art in the World, under Professor Victoria Olsen. At the end of my college career, I can now see that what we had in Writing the Essay was a luxury: five to seven weeks of actively working on and refining one essay. I note elsewhere that the opportunity to spend this much time developing an idea is a rarity in most college classes, and precision of thought gets sacrificed in favour of expediency. I have Victoria's feedback from this essay but have, in the main, not modified the essay save for issues of punctuation and formatting, and in a couple of places, word choice.

As far as raw documentary material goes, it is hard not to feel that Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe hit paydirt with Lost in La Mancha. The film, documenting the “un-making” of Terry Gilliam’s failed epic The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, began life as a typical making-of documentary. Their role as documentarians was not to dig below the surface for factual or psychological truths not readily apparent, but simply to document, to get out of the way and let the material make its own case.

In such films, the filmmakers work with the understanding that the spectacle in front of the camera is more salient than anything the camera can create. This is true regardless of whether the documentary in question is a making-of or an unmaking-of documentary, because either way, an extraordinary drama will play itself out. As Philip French remarks in his review of Lost in La Mancha in the Guardian, “the business of making films is as interesting as the films themselves.” To mount a film production is an enormous undertaking involving not just huge sums of money over a long period of time, but also a considerable amount of faith.

In the case of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, the stakes were ratcheted much higher: the combination of a great director tackling great material so suited to him bred high expectations, attracting an investment of $32 million that would make it one of Europe’s biggest films, yet an investment that – as Gilliam himself says in Lost in La Mancha – was “way below what we would normally need to make a film like this.” As if that knowledge was not enough to deter him from such an undertaking, there was the specter of Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, a similarly adventurous production that stretched both its crew and its budget to extremes, then failed spectacularly at the box office for mysterious and mythical reasons.

Moreover, there was the small matter of the number of people who had attempted to adapt Don Quixote and failed. In The Impossible Musical, Dale Wasserman lists four major failed Quixote adaptations, including Orson Welles’ cursed production which he caustically describes as “an in-joke of sorts” in which “money ran out, actors died, and film had to be re-shot” (24). Philip French considers this one of the many advantages Fulton and Pepe had in the making of Lost in La Mancha, describing the history of cinema as “marked by the bleached bones of unmade or unfinished versions of Don Quixote,” conveniently setting the stage for Gilliam’s valiant attempt at defying historical precedent.

French also adds, “it’s as if some curse were transferred from its mad, idealistic hero to those attracted to bringing him to the screen.” What is especially curious about the spate of failures to adapt Don Quixote is that right at the end of the lengthy text, embedded in the narrative of Quixote itself, is the following warning:

For me alone was Don Quixote born, and I for him… let the weary and crumbling bones of Don Quixote rest in the grave… to mock the many [journeys] undertaken by so many knights errant, the two [journeys Don Quixote] made were enough. (Cervantes)

So, simply by taking on the challenge of adapting Don Quixote, Terry Gilliam was not just testing faith, he was tempting fate.

From the moment Gilliam began his project, it could only have been an epic success or an epic failure. When tempting the gods, there is no middle ground: either one tempts the gods and wins, from which we get the quintessential Greek comedic or epic form, or one tempts the gods and loses, from which we get the quintessential Greek tragic form.

Lost in La Mancha opens with goblin-like creatures dancing with fire torches laughing hysterically. The next thing we see is Terry Gilliam, rapt with childlike wonder, putting his little camcorder to his eye. The telephoto effect of Fulton and Pepe’s long lens gives us the impression of being close to and intimate with the action. We are close up on the devilish figures, then close on Gilliam, always enraptured by the dream being realized right before his eyes. Right from the beginning of the film, Fulton and Pepe present us with an image of a man enamored of the notion of staring gods in the face.

However, this does not explain why the film proves so effective. Even though the film obeys a traditional tragic form, this form only dictates an overarching structure – it tells us which elements constitute the story, but not how the story should be told. It does not explain why we are so engaged in the drama, so compelled to keep watching. Like an oft-heard, well-told joke, we want to hear the story even though we already know the ending, because there is joy in the telling, in the delivery of the joke itself. The tragic structure of Lost in La Mancha is not a sufficient explanation for the strength of the film: we also need to look at why the story works, why it can draw us in over and over again, why we can experience the tragedy of Gilliam’s failure afresh each time.

Ancient Greek dramatic practice provides a framework we could use as a starting point for exploration, but the specificities of the ancient Greek theater are very different from those of modern dramatic practice, and much of ancient Greek dramatic theory is no longer applicable in its original incarnation. What strikes the modern scholar or practitioner when studying Greek drama is the stringency of the form: the rhythm and cadence of the text, the role of the Chorus, the use of masks, and even the physical stage space itself are all highly stylized to fit to a rigid form.

Peter Hall, in his book Exposed By The Mask, argues that all drama requires a form that serves as a channel through which the artist can express emotion at an intensity beyond what is acceptable in daily life:

Any actor will tell you that if you wish to move an audience, you must not cry. Do not cry. If you cry, the audience will not. The actor must exercise restraint… a child who comes towards you trying not to cry (but who is filled with suppressed tears) is incredibly moving. (Hall 23)

Hall refers to such restraining, channeling forms as “masks,” invoking the masks used in ancient Greek theater. A mask is a containing, strict, almost unnatural form of expression that serves as a contract between an artist and his audience. Once the audience accepts the form, be it blank verse, sung dialogue or a physical mask, the audience also agrees to suspend their disbelief and to experience all the dramatic events presented to them as if they were real while in the full knowledge that they are not, in order to experience much more intense emotions than can be experienced in day-to-day life. The tension between the confining form of the mask and the vast extremes of emotion the mask hides creates a paradox that is infinitely engaging to experience. This is how, Hall argues, an audience can be made to live an event as horrific as Titus Andronicus cutting his hand off without having to believe that the actor has just severed his hand (27). Epic drama demands a mask. Without one, we cannot suspend our disbelief to experience drama on the epic scale. With one, we are liberated from the constraints of mundane reality.

So what is the mask of Lost in La Mancha? Why are we so engaged in the drama of Gilliam’s failed Quixote, when Lost in La Mancha does almost exactly what Hall advises against – presenting an extreme reality without a restraining form?

Everything that can go wrong goes wrong. I mean everything. Everything. Everything. Everything. I mean if you write a script and you think of the worst possible situation, you can’t make it up. – Nicola Pecorini, director of photography for The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, in Lost in La Mancha (2002)

On the second day of production, a storm approaches the shooting location. The sky has transformed from a pale blue into a sheet of billowing cloud, then abandons all pretense and turns aggressively dark. Yet principal photography continues, despite all better judgement. Jean Rochefort delivers his lines: “Yet according to the duty of my profession, I have no choice.” He follows this shortly after with, curiously enough: “Yield to heaven’s command!”

Thunder rumbles. Phil Patterson, the first assistant director, instructs the crew to secure all the equipment and to get under cover.

Terry Gilliam, in a moment of sardonic frustration, yells: “Yes! Whoa!” as the sky looms dark over the production and the lack of light casts a pall over the scene Fulton and Pepe present us. We are close up on Gilliam, but even the size of Gilliam in the frame cannot make us forget or ignore the enormity of the storm, or the futility of Gilliam’s madness against the force of nature’s madness.

As if to drive the point home, Terry Gilliam turns to Pecorini, his director of photography, and asks a dry, pointed, ironically self-aware question:

“Which is it, King Lear, or Wizard of Oz?”

A better script could not have been written.

Philip French of the Guardian describes a scene in which the film’s investors “get to see a frantic Gilliam direct Johnny Depp as he struggles with a fish beside a waterfall” as “scarcely believable in a fictional movie.” Indeed, in an article for Landmark Theatres, even Fulton and Pepe themselves wrote that if Lost in La Mancha had been fictional, no one would have believed it.

That is exactly it. A better script could not have been written, because it would not have been believed. A well-known director, making a high-stakes film destined to become a classic, has his equipment washed away by a freak storm the day after his audio recordings are ruined by the sound of NATO planes flying overhead and a week after his lead actor unilaterally delays his arrival on set due to back pain: that is exactly the kind of drama too indulgent to be taken seriously, without a restraining form to channel the sheer ridiculousness of the events towards a satisfying climax. If such a script were to be written, it would not be a drama or a tragedy as Lost in La Mancha is – it would be a comedy, akin to David Mamet’s State and Main or Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen’s Singin’ in the Rain. The comedic form is a contract in which the audience agrees to abide by unrealistic rules of engagement, to suspend their disbelief, in exchange for a big comedic payoff at the end. In a documentary there is no need for the audience to suspend their disbelief, because they are prepared to watch something as long as it is true.

If the contract of most drama requires a rigid and unnatural form, then the contract of the documentary requires veracity. The audience agrees to be engaged in the material on the condition that the events portrayed did happen, that everything that happens in front of the camera has some basis in reality – not simply an emotional or spiritual reality, but a factual reality that can be independently verified. That is a documentary’s mask, perhaps the most rigid and unbending mask of all – the material must be rooted not only in truth, but in fact.

Within the constraints of this form, any scenario is acceptable, however extreme or impossible it may seem. If the paradox of the theater and of fictional film is that audiences engage with the truth in the unbelievable, the paradox of the documentary form is that audiences engage with the unbelievable in the full knowledge that it is true. For this reason, documentary audiences feel violated when they discover they have been tricked into believing something that is not true, the same way audiences are repulsed by excessively theatrical drama. In both cases, the artist has broken the formal contract and reminded them that the story they are watching, that they are living, is untrue. This is why Pecorini says in Lost in La Mancha, “You can’t make it up.”

In the light of this understanding, one could perhaps argue that Fulton and Pepe would have been able to tell a fine story regardless of what actually happened with Gilliam’s production. Like a fully-wound wind-up toy, all the parameters for an extremely dramatic story had already been set and all that was left was to watch the drama unfold. It did not matter exactly how the drama of the production played out – it was always going to be epic, with or without their direct involvement. All they had to do was to get out of the way and let the material make its own case. Most importantly, it was always going to dare the viewer to disbelieve its account of an epic drama, and turn out to be unbelievably true.

Works Cited

  • Cervantes, Miguel. Don Quixote. Trans. Edith Grossman. New York: Harper Perennial, 2005. Print.
  • French, Philip. “Down the shoot.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Limited. 4 Aug. 2002. Web. 30 Nov. 2010.
  • Fulton, Keith and Louis Pepe. “A Curse of Mirrors.” Lost in La Mancha. Landmark Theatres. 2003. Web. 30 Nov 2010.
  • Hall, Peter. Exposed By The Mask. New York: Oberon, 2000. Print. Lost in La Mancha. Dir. Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe. Perf. Terry Gilliam, Jeff Bridges and Tony Grisoni. Quixote Films, 2002. Film.
  • Wasserman, Dale. The Impossible Musical. New York: Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, 2003. Print.

Writing the Essay, Progression One: Art Reflects

This was the first essay of my college career, written in Fall 2010 for what is now EXPOS-UA 5 Writing the Essay: Art in the World, under Professor Victoria Olsen. At the end of my college career, I can now see that what we had in Writing the Essay was a luxury: five to seven weeks of actively working on and refining one essay. I note elsewhere that the opportunity to spend this much time developing an idea is a rarity in most college classes, and precision of thought gets sacrificed in favour of expediency. I have Victoria's feedback from this essay but have, in the main, not modified the essay save for issues of punctuation and formatting. The one change I have made here is to give the essay a title, which it did not have at the time of submission. The title should not be regarded as set in stone - I have given it one for completeness and consistency, but if I think of a better title, it could very well be replaced.

In a couple of places page numbers for citations are missing. This is because I used a source other than the published version (an Internet resource, or an in-class handout) and was able to track down the book but not the page number.

I am glad to see that what I wrote over three years ago as a freshman still stands on its own. Seven semesters of college later, this essay is still the closest to my heart.

Reading the yellowed pages under dim lighting on a bumpy bus ride was difficult enough, but what made it truly painful –

they laughed, their daring growing with her fear; throwing the knife harder and closer to her feet; the knife skipping and billiarding away, picked up and thrown again at the dancing feet (the scene resembling one in a grade B western); the laughing, leaping and pirouetting stopping suddenly as the blade of the knife stuck in the calf of her leg (had it been a board, not flesh, the blade would have vibrated and twanged). (Selby Jr. 30)

– and as I read I felt steel puncture flesh, my flesh, thick red blood travel down from my calf to my heel… and I shut the book because it hurt too much.

This is what Hubert Selby Jr. does. He forces you to look at things you would rather not see. He makes you read by force of his images, his sounds, his words. To read on is to look in the mirror and see yourself in his tormented characters, both victims and victimizers – distorted, ugly, wild. To stop reading is to say, this book has nothing to do with me.

To stop reading is to turn away from yourself.

Last Exit to Brooklyn is not a pretty novel. It is a beautiful one. It is not an easy novel to read, and anyone who says otherwise has not really read it.

Tim O’Brien, walking the very fine line between revulsion and eulogy, describes some of the awesome sights one might see in war:

You admire the fluid symmetries of troops on the move, the great sheets of metal-fire streaming down a gunship, the illumination rounds, the white phosphorus, the purply orange glow of napalm… It’s not pretty, exactly. It’s astonishing. It fills the eye. It commands you. You hate it, yes, but your eyes do not. … any battle or bombing raid or artillery barrage has the aesthetic purity of absolute moral indifference – a powerful, implacable beauty – and a true war story will tell the truth about this, though the truth is ugly. (Things ##)

How could something as abhorrent as war elicit such an impassioned defense of its capacity to cause men to be astonished by its beauty?

Because: war is wild. War is immediate. War is intense.

War puts men under pressure, and only under pressure is the true essence of man’s character distilled, like juice from a juicer. War forces men to respond according to their basest instincts, and it is under that pressure that we see what matters most to a man. How do we fault the man who shoots a helpless baby water buffalo – ear, leg, mouth, tail, ribs, spurts in the belly, left front knee, nose – throat – for grief of his friend? How do we fault the man who sings wry songs while peeling his mangled comrade off a tree? We cannot, for we see ourselves in these men; we know we would do deeds no grander than these men’s if we faced the horror they faced.

War is beautiful because it tells truths that are ugly, intense truths about ourselves as human beings we would refuse to face otherwise, truths that are indefinite and relative and subjective and deeply personal that are nonetheless true. When we refuse to face the truth of war, we refuse to face ourselves.

Art is wild. Art is immediate. Art is intense.

Art is a difficult animal.

Winterson refers to the animal trainer Vicki Hearne, whom she tells us “has written of the acute awkwardness and embarrassment of those who work with magnificent animals, and find themselves at a moment of reckoning, summed up in those deep and difficult eyes” (20). Why should we feel awkward and embarrassed when face to face with a magnificent animal – why could we not simply enjoy and appreciate that magnificence? Because we are inadequate and the animal has told us so. We lack the same fearlessness, the same abandon, the utter lack of self-consciousness that the animal has… all the things that define wildness, that define intensity. The animal, the art, the animal that is art – they convict us of “fail[ing] to meet intensity with intensity” (20).

Would you like to be an animal? To be wild, to be free of self-consciousness, of guilt, of fear? To not be able to care about what went before, what will come after, to be able to live completely in the here, the now, the right now? To live from day to day, hour to hour, moment to moment? To respond as instinct wills, without regard for consequence or for notions of good and evil? To be absolutely morally indifferent?

Even if you could, would you?

Self-consciousness is one of the things that define human nature. If we were to gain the immediacy that is required to live life intensely, we would lose our ability to reflect, to induce thought, to comprehend. We would lose the ability to build civilization in all its forms: physically, socially, emotionally. We would lose the ability to marvel, the very thing that gives our lives meaning.

To be self-conscious is to lose the moment, to lose the little details from one moment to the next that give a well-lived life its intensity, its vividness, its immediacy, that feeling of being alive. Yet we cannot live with absolute immediacy, without thought of what went on before or what will come after – we would be exhausted emotionally to live with that kind of intensity, and even if we should ever do, intensity itself would begin to lose meaning; we would lose our sense of what it means to be alive. Most of us lurch from one extreme to another, or exist in the dead space in between. Nonetheless, we need both extremes, for without one, the other would be meaningless.

To gain immediacy is to lose the ability to appreciate upon reflection.

In his book Story, Robert McKee summarizes the function of art thus:

“A story well told gives you the very thing you cannot get from life: meaningful emotional experience. In life, experiences become meaningful with reflection in time. In art, they are meaningful now, at the instant they happen.” (111)

Art, then, is a window into that intensity, that immediacy, that we cannot experience on a day-to-day, moment-to-moment basis. It brings us one step closer to the wildness that forces us to confront the truth of who we are.

Art is beautiful because it tells truths that are ugly. When we refuse to face the truth of art, we refuse to face ourselves.

Of all the images I have seen in my life, one always stands out as being the most exquisite expression of agonizing emotion I have ever seen and probably will ever see. A man stands on a bridge. His eyes look nowhere. His palms depress his jowls, forcing his face agape. Behind him, blood red streaks deep orange sky, and where sky hits horizon an abrupt front forms as midnight blue sea rises to meet it like an implacable monster rising from the depths. It is a terrible painting, not “terrible” in the nonchalant, pitiful way we use the word; it is not “terrible” the same way someone has had a “terrible” day, or someone has written a “terrible” essay or read a “terrible” book. It is terrible in the way something is terrible when no words exist to articulate terror.

The Scream, by Edvard Munch, is not a pretty picture. It is a beautiful one. It is not an easy picture to look at, and anyone who says otherwise is not really looking at it.

I have never managed to look at it for very long.

How often have we heard that “art holds a mirror to society”?

The quote is often attributed to Theodor Adorno, who also wrote that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric” (Criticism ##). He was both right and so wrong.

Adorno takes the concept of art as mirror from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, in which Hamlet tells his players, “[playing’s] end both at the first and now, was and is, to hold as ‘twere, the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure” (III.ii). Certainly art holds a mirror to society, but only as a side effect of holding a mirror up to nature, a nature that is under no obligation to reflect the civility that is implicit in the word “society.” Adorno had a complex conception of art as a meta-mirror, reflecting things in society that are false and thereby revealing their falseness – I say to hell with all that abstraction. Society is not a natural or instinctive construct. Art simply serves to reconcile the self-conscious part of ourselves that is dedicated to civility, and the wild, intense part of ourselves that is dedicated to passion.

As for Adorno’s other statement –

he is right. To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. The notion that there might be poetry, that there might be beauty in Auschwitz repulses us. But he is also very wrong, for there is. Against – and only against – the backdrop of such human barbarism does every little kindness, every hopeful endeavor take on an equivalent excruciating beauty. To deny that there was beauty in Auschwitz is to deny the capacity of human beings to hate or love or feel with all the intensity of an animal. To deny that there was poetry in Auschwitz is to refuse to look at it, to say, this event has nothing to do with me.

To refuse to look at Auschwitz is to refuse to look at ourselves.

John Keats once wrote: “’Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ – that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know” (“Ode”). It is all too easy to assume, based solely on this statement, that Keats believed there was no truth in the ugly. Yet Keats, who was most ill during the time he wrote his best poetry, endeavored in every poem and through every cadence to make the mundane marvelous, wondrous and worthy of attention, and on his deathbed wrote “… I have loved the principle of beauty in all things” (“Letter to Fanny Brawne”).

All things. Not some, not most, but all, even – perhaps especially – the ugliest, the things we would not look at if art did not make us look. For it is only in the wild, that which is ugly, abhorrent, barbaric to our conscience, that we find the truths that cut through to our heart.

Works Cited

  • Adorno, Theodor. Kulturkritik und Gesellschaft (Cultural Criticism and Society). Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1977. Print.
  • Keats, John. "Letter to Fanny Brawne." Feb 1820. Available online at http://www.john-keats.com/briefe/000220.htm. Last accessed 5 Oct 2010.
  • Keats, John. “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Complete Poems and Selected Letters of John Keats. New York: Modern Library, 2001. 238-9 Print.
  • McKee, Robert. Story. New York: HarperCollins, 1997. 111. Print.
  • Munch, Edvard. Skrik (The Scream). National Gallery, Oslo. 1893. Oil, tempera and pastel on cardboard.
  • O’ Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. New York: Houghton Muffin, 1990. Print.
  • Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. Print.
  • Selby Jr., Hubert. Last Exit to Brooklyn. New York: Grove Press, 1964. 30. Print.
  • Winterson, Jeanette. “Art Objects.” Writing The Essay: Art in the World, The World Through Art. ed. Darlene A. Forrest, Randy Martin, Pat C. Hoy II, and Benjamin W. Stewart. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2010. 17-24. Print.