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Media and Violence in PUNISHMENT PARK (1971)

 The following is hastily excerpted from a longer unpublished paper I wrote a few years ago on Peter Watkins. While is true that, as Walter Benjamin teaches us, the state of emergency in our world is the norm, not the exception, these United States of America feel very much as of late to be ripping themselves apart at the seams. So it must have felt to Watkins, a British visitor, in 1971. Some of the concerns in his film have proved startlingly prescient, which is why I wish to share this with you now. A regrettable caveat: the single largest factor in our current unrest is quite inarguably race, something that this particular analysis fails to treat. It is however a clear element in the film itself, which I hope my meager writing convinces you to view. Special thanks to media theorist Marc Steinberg.


Media and Violence in Punishment Park

Peripatetic British film director Peter Watkins is known, if at all, for his withering attacks, both on celluloid and (very earnestly) in print, upon the affirmative culture advanced and upheld by what he calls the MAVM (Mass Audio-visual Media). Yet the cinema of Watkins and his collaborators also represents a more subtle negotiation of communication, in several senses of the term. This I would like to explore in what follows, utilizing a cinematic turning point in his oeuvre – his lone American film Punishment Park, from 1971. First, more about the object of Watkins’s ire: “Monoform” (again his term) of the MAVM is a standardized, market-driven blend of form (linearity; bite-sized programming blocks; extremely rapid, “invisible” editing) and content (easily digestible material; criticism of localizable practices at most but nothing critical of underlying capitalist structures). Effects on viewers are effectively predetermined, and by calculating them ahead of time the Monoform forecloses utterly on true audience response – on the possibility of their bringing their own experience to the table. (This critique is what we might call dollar-book Frankfurt School; Watkins’s cinema departs greatly from the Culture Industry model, however). In essence, the Monoform is a one-way street, precluding real communication.


(Fig.1 – Watkins illustrates the Monoform at a lecture, punctuating it with an arrow going one direction.[1])

How to change this situation? The problem calls to mind the 1970s back-and-forth polemics between German poet/media theorist Hans-Magnus Enzensberger and French philosopher Jean Baudrillard regarding the capacity of electronic media for dissent and even insurrection.[2] Enzensberger felt electronic media had an inherent equalizing potential and a “reversibility of circuits”; that is, the “one-way street” of communication was only upheld through artificial means, (re)inforced by the ruling classes through economics (i.e. the base, in Marxist terms). Baudrillard, on the other hand, saw electronic media as corrupt in their very design, neutralizing of real world action and brooking no real response to power and its “messages.” In fact, the very model of sender-message-receiver denied the possibility of true exchange, which should always allow for ambivalence of meaning. Graffiti was Baudrillard’s example of a transgressive challenge to this model: “What is strategic in this sense is only what radically checkmates the dominant form,” i.e., smashes the code.[3]

Punishment Park


(Fig. 2. New detainees being driven to the Tribunal in the desert. Following the film’s completion, the actor in this frame was indicted for conspiracy to bomb and sentenced to three years in prison for assaulting a police officer.)

Watkins’s critical angle at this stage in his career, in Privilege (1967) and Gladiators (1969), had been to somewhat contentiously use the master’s tools, i.e. the “monoform,” against him – fire with fire, as it were. But while continuing to do so in his next film he increasingly foregrounds the material (im)possibility of a response to this situation through the media. Punishment Park (1971) envisions a shockingly contemporary America in which all human communication – listening and sharing – has broken down. Made in 1970, in the wake of the most recent actions of an increasingly repressive Nixon administration that carried out targeted political assassinations of African-American radicals and had just escalated the Vietnam War to include Laos and Cambodia (the protest against which provoked the Kent State shootings), Watkins’s first objective in this film was to portray the utter polarization and onset of political psychosis in America. He takes as his starting point a McCarthy-era U.S. law still on the books today known as the McCarran Act, which allowed the Executive to order persons suspected of future subversion to be indefinitely detained. The film creates a place in the bleak Arizona desert known as ‘Punishment Park,’ which serves the two-fold function of excluding radicals and undesirables from society while training a police force in methods for handling (repressing) future organized expressions of popular dissent. In the film Watkins adopts an elaborate cross-cutting strategy (with a clearly labor-intensive post-production) between the “show trial”-like summary sentencing of new detainees before a civilian tribunal and the futile attempt of a sentenced group of detainees to run a fifty-three mile gauntlet, pursued by armed law enforcement, to reach an American flag and their freedom.

In the film’s desire to repel it exposes, and effectively, the lie that spectators truly contribute anything to the film text in its currently dominant mode. In this challenge it is not unlike Fassbinder’s more vicious melodramas such as Martha (1972) (about an abused, doomed housewife), which used the ‘grammar’ and lushness of Hollywood film to highlight systemic, invisible cruelty and its implication in formal elements. Punishment Park deploys not only the 1960’s editing tropes and naturalistic photography of 1960’s fiction film (part of Watkins’s “Monoform”), but also borrows from the ‘fly-on-the-wall’ “Direct cinema” of Robert Drew and the late Richard Leacock, which suggested the hopeful, participatory potential of representative democracy in such trailblazing films as Primary (1960).

Yet while making use of verité filmmaking techniques – the talented crew was asked to capture the improvised dialogue literally on the run – Watkins effectively stands such cinema on its head. He introduces Direct cinema into the diegesis, as a third party to the mayhem of the “criminals” vs. law and order. In Punishment Park, camera crews from Britain and West Germany have been asked by the tribunal to document the proceedings to demonstrate the “fairness and lack of bias on display.” Watkins had often encouraged his actors to look into the camera, but in this film especially, through the meticulous post-production editing work and the photography of cinematographer Joan Churchill, the film tacitly conveys whose side the camera crews are inevitably on, constructing with the ‘kino-eye’ the reality we cannot see on our own.

(Fig.3a A Senator/Tribunal member listens to detainee testimony. Fig. 3b For a half second, he looks directly into the camera the Tribunal has commissioned.)


Watkins had toyed with this device of diegetic journalists before: he added an interviewer in Culloden (1964) for Brechtian purposes, and in The War Game (1965) he had actors as soldiers restricting the ‘real’ camera from seeing beyond certain points, implicating likewise the spectators.[4] But media personnel had never been dramatis personae as here, where they are used here to illustrate the ambivalent relationship of the camera to reality. With one brief, notable exception they inhabit off-screen space exclusively, and we feel them largely through a sound design which stretches across the history of documentary cinema.

(Fig. 4a. Police and guards react with hostility to the camera crew late in the film when the latter has come out in favor of the detainees)
(Fig. 4b. The most avowedly non-violent detainee looks accusingly at the camera crew following them through Punishment Park)

Foremost is an ever-present BBC interviewer played by Watkins himself. He is at first imperious and declamatory in faux-objectivity, introducing the dramatic situation and its ‘cast.’ Later, as he begins interviewing detainees who are running through the Park, his position vis-à-vis the implacable man-hunt becomes more ambivalent, alternating between callous ‘voice-of-God’ descriptions of the situation (“When the human body has suffered a dehydration of between 6-10 percent, it experiences dizziness, difficulty in breathing, decreased blood volume, indistinct speech, and finally, an inability to walk.” Fig.4b), and interviews of both guards and detainees. The tone of the interviews slowly shifts from contemplative to outright hectoring. Finally, the full horror is revealed – in the film’s climax almost everyone is beaten and/or killed by the guards in cold blood, while no one is permitted to reach the flag, and their liberty. At this point the crew makes a desperate attempt to intervene through testifying, shaming and ultimately impotent appeals to the power of the camera (Fig.4a).

BBC: “We’ve seen this! We’ve seen this! …YOU FUCKING MURDERING BASTARDS!”
Sgt: “As soon as you get through with your little hysterics we can go ahead with the procedure.”
BBC: “Hysterics, mate, you wait ‘til you see yourself on television!”
Sgt: “I’ve been on TV before – I’m not worried about it.”

I must add only somewhat parenthetically that this is moment was especially chilling for me as an inhabitant of a city coming to be known for its extreme police brutality; that in fact one of my Concordia colleagues was recently beaten bloody and unconscious by several members of the SPVM (Montreal police) – and on video camera (for taking photographs, ironically enough). But on a grander level it deflates the liberalism of a generation that believed in reportage as a fail-safe way to influence events (e.g. the war in Vietnam). We can successfully bear witness, Watkins seems to be saying, but using media (and the media) in this way – as a substitute for real action – finally does little to check power. And, as one cop snidely and even bitterly indicates, they are getting good television.

The power of this uncompromising film is ultimately a destructive power, but I mean this in an entirely positive way, something like what Benjamin meant when speaking about destruction: “Some people pass things down to posterity, by making them untouchable and thus conserving them; others pass on situations, by making them practicable and thus liquidating them. The latter are called the destructive.”[5] Thus, before one can hope to construct something different with media, certain “situations” must be articulated and cleared away in that way unique to that which is technologically reproducible. Yet here too in destruction the seeds for something different are planted by the cinematic form itself if used to its fullest potential and not merely to seek profit through productivity. Philosopher Nakai Masakazu, a Japanese contemporary of Benjamin, speaks of the “historical continuity” of cinema:

“What connects one shot to another is the spirit of the masses who watch. Their sighs, their rage—these are what directly link various shots. Of course, filmmakers are aware of this when joining shots. That is to say, when a film is being produced, it is made entrusting the continuity of one shot with another to the mass quality that is present in history. It is truly important that an art is being produced by entrusting its copula to the movement of history. What is projected there is not a mere schematic figure. Rather, the copula is cut off and liberated from such schema—and thus formed—by the practical negativity of history. This gives a truly new task to aesthetics. The myth of Moses calling upon the Red Sea to part is the broad line of force that permeates every moment of historical continuity. The sense of lack or the desire amongst the masses connecting cinematic shots is far from unrelated to Moses’ cry.”

This “practical negativity” of history liberates through cinematographic technology (e.g. destruction of tradition and the auratic, in Benjaminian terms). But the “common labor” that allows an audience to enter a film text cannot be achieved through form alone (especially given the triumph of the edited-for-speed Monoform, which neither Nakai or Benjamin lived long enough to see). The only way to rescue cinema from the “pursuit of cheap profits” is to connect form to process – at the level of mobilization. How does Watkins begin to achieve this technologically-administered common labor with a prospective audience? In part by making a film not about them so much as with them. Cast members were recruited from non-actor young people living in and around Los Angeles and its suburbs. These people were allowed to base their own improvised dialogue on their personal feelings and experiences[6], all of which dialectically take on an air of poignant unreality when exposed to the diegetic tribunal that has judged them guilty before they have begun to speak.

Because of this new collaborative emphasis, Watkins abandons the Dreyer-like close-ups that hauntingly populated Culloden and The War Game. Such naked appeals to individual emotion are deemed unnecessary if true collectivity has been engaged. It is here that we see the hopeful element in an allegedly “pessimistic” film. The clearing-away of its destructive energy enables preparations for a new creational space – extra-diegetic, as it were. …

[1] Peter Watkins’s articulation of these ideas can be found on excellent website,, which was published as a book in France as The Media Crisis, 2003, and this particular still is taken from a documentary about Watkins, The Universal Clock: The Resistance of Peter Watkins (dir. Geoff Bowie, 2001, NFB)

[2] See Hans-Magnus Enzensberger, “Constituents of a Theory of the Media,” and Jean Baudrillard, “Requiem for the Media,” The New Media Reader, eds. Wardrip-Fruin and Monfort, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003)

[3] ibid, p.287
[4] Bill Nichols interestingly refers to these moments as showing the camera’s “helpless gaze,” in The War Game, in which it testifies to the camera’s inability to do anything but bear witness, and indeed this tendency becomes very acute in Punishment Park. Nicholds, Representing Reality. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991), p.83

[5] Walter Benjamin, 1931, “The Destructive Character,” Selected writings: 1931-1934, Volume 2, Part 2. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005), p.541

[6] Joseph Gomez, Peter Watkins, (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1979), p.103


Grounded Craft

Under delay for take-off for some time, Where’s is the Friend’s Blog? (hereafter WITFB) has now been grounded definitely by its author, in hopes that he can hustle his way back into graduate school (and of course live on to eat a steak with the Polish Jean Arthur). Pieces were planned about the special character of Robert Ryan’s performances in noirish melodramas as well as an inquiry into how auteurs use telephone conversations to subvert norms in classical Hollywood cinema, but they will have to wait – all energies have been redirected to the Ph.D. front. WITFB, rest assured, will reemerge in the New Year as a beautiful butterfly, mixed metaphors fully intact. The last unrelated cinematic experience to be had is the complete 5-hour plus version of Olivier Assayas’s new film serial Carlos (about the international terrorist, not the former Tribe second bagger). It screens tomorrow afternoon at the Wexner Center. To those of you who claim you’d rather watch football, I can only point out that word has it God was quite taken with Summer Hours, and thus may find it rather awkward to have mercy on your soul.

In the meantime, devoted followers, I must direct your attention to the excellent work my esteemed colleague and friend RJ Dennis is doing over at Green Rays and Holy Whores.

Happy Holidays, folks. Make sure you get enough to eat and drink this Turkey Day.

Love’s Reckoning (in E.Germany)

Clo. Would you have a love-song, or a song of good life?
Sir To. A love-song, a love-song.
Sir And. Ay, ay; I care not for good life.

–  Shakespeare, Twelfth Night; Or, What You Will

The Wexner Center for the Arts turns 21 this year and celebrations are in order this weekend for an organization that has long served up intoxicating fare to patrons who may or may not possess a legit driver’s license. As a young OSU student in the early ‘Naughts, for me and others the Wexner’s modestly-named Film/Video space did plenty to stoke a burgeoning cinephilia. Within the bowels of this unstable modern cathedral I experienced one revelation after another – requisite or hard-to-see classics, striking new features from masters new (Sokurov) and old (Rivette), perverse holiday choices (the annual Valentine’s Day film was Stanley Donen’s bilious Two For the Road); in short, life-changing films which simply couldn’t be found within a day’s travel. Thanks to my sub-hoarder tendencies and newfound rummaging prowess, here is a visual chronicle of what remains…

Looking at this list now, what I saw I remember well – Dovzhenko in particular struck me dumb for the better part of the following week – but I am especially stung by what I missed out on. I do recall walking out of Effi Briest with my girlfriend because we hadn’t seen each other in several months, but it’s painful to notice now that I missed the third part of a triple feature because I didn’t recognize the finale as Kenneth Anger (and the preceding Assayas film put me in a foul mood). The Cool Guys series helped me initiate my little brother into what used to be hip, by way of his love for cars (rather than bizarre turtleneck-blazer ensembles).

As you might imagine, for some of us the real revelations were the director retrospectives, and thus my greatest Wexner memory was a full-on immersion in the man I usually name when asked for my favorite filmmaker, Rainer Werner Fassbinder. In those weeks in the dark with Rainer at the unseen wheel, I learned cinema could be both utterly uncompromising (in how it showed what it showed) and absolutely generous (refusing to blame people – the characters and the audience – themselves). Anger, intelligently directed, could not only expose an exploitative system –that was the easy part – but shield and even encourage, human togetherness and warmth, even if this could only be understood by its absence on the screen (Godard called cinema truth, remember, not reality).

Such thoughts filled my head as I exited that cerebrally scaffolded structure last week after my first visit to the Film/Video space in several years. I had just caught part of a traveling programme of East German films, previously unseen due to their having “slipped through the cracks” during the massive social upheaval soon after the fall of the Wall, a time known as ‘Die Wende’, ‘the time of change’ (literally, ‘turn’). From what I saw and what I gathered of the other films, there was a thread of refusing to gently accede to ‘the End of History’ – a fierce insistence on remembering – that would have appealed to the New German Cinema’s late enfant terrible.

Heiner Carow, the director responsible for the biggest film in DDR history, 1973’s The Legend of Paul and Paula, likes to tell love stories in his films, as much of the press attached to the DEFA program seems fond of pointing out. As Heinz Kersten poetically puts it in the programme notes (without resorting to alliteration), Carow’s protagonists are “summiteers who are spared the pain of love, because they fall before reaching the peak.” Still, there is a whiff of apologia; why? The pure love story (Rom-Coms don’t count, as they don’t ask us to take them seriously) is highly unusual and traditionally critically/commercially unviable in mainstream film, as Mary Anne Doane tells us. Hollywood prefers them as a suspect seasoning to a much larger backdrop, specifically an historical one. When dealing with the difficult past on film, a tried and true method is to put a human, individual face to something unfathomable and traumatic, allegedly allowing us to approach how it impacted us (as a nation, a group, a people); call it the Spielberg effect (Schindler wasn’t Jewish, but details, details!). The how usually gets lost in the process, but perhaps we have learned something…or anyway we’ve had a good cry. To really expedite things, there is no better method of short-cutting corners than the love story. I realize I may sound overly flip and cynical; a good argument, I suppose, could be made about the validity of such an approach (though not by me), but too often in practice the love story, rather than illuminating the larger social forces at work – as is the case in, say, Graham Greene – obscures the fact that a film has little or nothing to say about the events it dramatizes, be the perspective reactionary (Pearl Harbor) or liberal (The Constant Gardener). Ideally, by the time the credits roll we feel good about the couple – pleased at how they triumphed in their union or despairing over how it was prevented – and don’t trouble ourselves overmuch at whatever effects of the societal trauma linger into the present (it is safely in the past/the guilty have been or will be punished).

Now, being a New World Westerner unspecialized East Germany, I am certainly disqualified from authenticating cinematic testimonies of experience of that time and part of the world, and yet a film’s truth-content has a way of shining through. Recent popular success The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen), with its relatively similar subject matter to the film I wish to discuss– that of the East German State’s interference into private lives, specifically a romantic relationship – seems to me guilty of what I describe above. Very well-crafted, it zips along in the pacy thriller mode it has adopted, its audience absorbed in the narrative (‘sutured’, for the film students). As François Truffaut tells us in ‘the Hitchock’:  “Suspense is simply the dramatization of a film’s narrative material, or, if you will, the most intense presentation possible of dramatic situations.” Compare Lives to a film without a love story, the excellent 4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days. In the latter film the narrative tension is inherent in its material, unbearably so – it plays like a thriller and not only does it leave us breathless and exhilarated, but we feel we have an acute grasp of how deeply wrong a society is when a woman’s body is in thrall to the State. Surely, if a film contains a love story – something that by its nature, if we believe at all in what we are seeing, impedes the development of the action (plot) – there should be a separation, I would argue, felt between the couple on the one hand and the larger, threatening political mechanisms on the other, at least when a film purports to present important historical truths. (To say it in another way, does it matter if the couples in Hitchcock or Double Indemnity aren’t meaningful? No.) The Lives of Others conforms to its genre, sewing together all the thriller and romantic notes and foreclosing on a reflective audience in the process. We feel bad/feel good…what else?

Carow’s Die Verfehlung (The Mistake) pursues its aims in a rather different way. Set in 1988 and made in 1991, it bids a long goodbye to the DDR, utilizing a verboten East/West romance to look at how still was before the end was in sight. The film unfolds with the paradoxically transporting slowness of the love affair (like the one at its center), with its power of swift delivery from tedium or the halting of the advance of time (again, plot) altogether. Lingering over details, leavening its critique with odd beauty glimpsed amid a squalid, crumbling town, the film balances a love for the East German people with righteous anger at the action of individuals within the bureaucracy. In other words, this is humanist film doing what it does best.

As the titles run, the camera in a crane shot rushes at an strangely fast clip over a forbidding landscape, finally coming to rest on a street in a broken-down village. We are not moving that far into the past, but aftera all things three years ago, we are instantly reminded, were different. Watching Fassbinder regular (and Hollywood killer in Goldeneye) Gottfried John wandering slowly down a derelict street, gazing thoughtfully at a destroyed house, I had the impression of a man revisiting his past. Whether this impression was intended or not (if the former, it perhaps marks John as a stand-in for director Carow in the present, 1991), we soon realize he is a foreigner, a West German – Jacob from Hamburg. Moving to the next home, Jacob spies a woman, Elisabeth, bathing gleefully and noisily in the nude with her small grandsons, clearly capable of great joy despite what he may have heard in the West. He is entranced; she finally notices and growls at him in that very German way to get lost. A somewhat glib opening scene (especially in the direction of the actors – Carow sometimes relies too much on the deep reserves of John’s charisma), but it tells us everything we need to know about its fascinating protagonist. As played by Angelica Domrose of Carow’s earlier Paula (just as John was reputedly chosen for Western glamour, she embodied for East Germans the ‘soulful, vivid and independent woman’), Elisabeth is captivating – alternately fierce and restrained, impulsive and thoughtful, capable of great strength as a mother, as a lover, as a woman. Show me a celluloid grandma to top her.

These two do not have a future together – their love is doomed. Sensing the danger of consummating their meeting (in a nice bit of business in a local pub, Jacob touches Elisabeth’s hair roughly as he exits, suggestive of one thing), Jacob instinctively forgets to ‘say goodbye’ to Frau Bosch before departing for home, only to later turn back to be with her thus setting into motion a Great Love. His choice is one of two such decisions – later, in an unforgiving Berlin, she will be the one to fail to walk away – that conceivably lends the film its title. The third ‘mistake’ (this is a far stronger word, apparently, in German, translated better as ‘breach of judgment’) has to do with the climax of the film, which fulfills Chekhov’s dictum that if you introduce a gun in Act One, it had better be used by Act Three…

So what does it mean, to make this choice Jacob and X make to bite their thumbs like a creaky Romeo and Juliet at society and the law outright? In flouting social convention by seeking romance as an aging widow – despite the vehement wishes of her grown children to continue to do their bidding – Domrose brings to mind that most American of heroines, the late Jane Wyman in Sirk’s All that Heaven Allows (who had headaches, as we all do when we aren’t fucking often enough, as Fassbinder put it in his synopsis). The problem, then, is universal, or at the very least not confined to Soviet-style Communism. Heterosexuality may now be passé and even reactionary, but choosing to couple out of love for the sake of love (not with an eye toward the bourgeois family) is, even at this late date, is something like a radical act. Turning away with another person, refusing to stand up and be counted on to ‘contribute’ to a society that counts you merely as an cog, whether it claims to celebrate individualism (a lie to cover the break-down of social bonds) or ‘the people’ (the empty linguistic lie which provides cover for the selfish actions of the film’s villain)…this retains a revolutionary flavor.

When Jacob & Elisabeth finally abandon all pretense of caution, they co-exist with their surrounding community, and the rhythm of life is felt in Carow’s freewheeling camera. No stranger to delirious party scenes, he films the couple’s brash homecoming to the East German village – at what is effectively a celebration of their engagment – in a series of apparent 360 degree pans of revelers in a small town hall. Each time the couple comes into the frame, their next appearance in the pan, speaking together with a group of people, occurs before it logically should (even hosts at a party don’t move that quickly). It is as if their resistance, their happiness, is having a dangerously viral effect on the party-goers. Suddenly another figure we recognize appears, swaying gloomily to the bar for another drink, in a grotesque dark mask with bulging colored eyes covering his hangdog face. As an embittered, middle-man government official (the mayor of the town), he is, we know at once (as we have, I suppose, all along; for better or for worse, dramatically) about to put a distinct end to the lovers’ happiness. The effect of seeing the villain Reimelt appear in this way (especially as played by veteran Jord Gudzuhn, who looks like a huskier version of another Fassbinder actor, nebbishy Hark Bohm) is comic and suddenly sinister, but also touching. We soon realize he is capable of more evil than we had even guessed, but he is not unsympathetic – like Fassbinder, Carow treats his ‘bad guys’ with dignity, as they human beings they are. He prepares us for this in two earlier scenes: one sets the stage for his later wrath – Reimelt is humiliated by Elisabeth’s laughter at his ludicrous professed search for ‘the enemy’. In the other, just after an air-raid drill complete with WWI gas masks, he speaks of his past and confesses he love for her – quite remarkably, the camera slowly excludes Elisabeth, framing Reimelt in close-up, as we learn happens when the youthful dreams thwarted by society and turn uglily inward, to finally explode…

This party scene that dissolves in the cold morning light – as Elisabeth’s love is deported by the Stasi – has its darker twin in the more overtly Carnavalesque climax, which Carow films to coincide with the 750-year anniversary celebration of the town of Bubenau (which itself no longer exists!). You must hunt down the DVD to see the local gals dance the Can-Can, something ludicrous yet rich and strange, which Carow initially mocks but ultimately, as he camera nears, finds inscrutable (it even feels like an anticipation of similar scenes in Thai Joe).

But to close I want to mention a scene in which Elisabeth hears her youngest sing at a dissident rally in a Berlin church. Closing the gap between then and now, documentary and fiction, it is something else as well.

With this precarious shot – such as Fassbinder would never permit himself – Carow’s lets us glimpse the profound hope in the 1988 underground of a better future. It sounds like a naked play to emotion, but it knows itself to be an artificial image, and I defy your heart not to swell. All three linger in the frame as dissident son is introduced to illegal lover, the trio seeming to grasp the significance. This Utopian moment proves to be the eye of the hurricane, its subjects by film’s end institutionalized or banished. It is of course not the future – it is a brief window to the past. The future is not here, it seems to say. You, says the film to 1991, you are only the present (to paraphrase Trotsky). It is this knowledge that the film possesses which possesses me to ask you to seek out The Mistake, in hopes that it and others will be known beyond their status as ‘the last of the East German films’…

A Puckish Entertainment – shame and violence in a Rust Belt rink

For many fans, the most memorable line in Slap Shot is one of the few delivered by the Hanson Brothers (the half-witted, puppyish hockey goons who became cult icons). An overanxious referee, having just been witness to their brutal handiwork on the ice prior to the contest even starting, begins chirping warnings at them during the playing of the National Anthem. Stoic, dripping blood, a Hanson finally bellows down: “I’m listening to the fucking song!” To understand what makes this line so goddamned funny, and learn other things too, read on…

Excessive behavior in American athletics, on the field or in the seats (or armchair), will forever be a puzzle to those with little or no interest in the wide world of sports. The primary objection to the whole enterprise could be boiled down and summed up in the words one of the ‘hockey wives’ of George Roy Hill’s Slap Shot: “I’m so sick of those games, they seem so childish.” But of course even the non-fan must admit that sports in all their messy glory are an inextricable, celebrated part of the American experiment, as inescapable in daily settings as in language itself (as an English teacher abroad, one finds it impossible to proceed without giving students a crash course in sports metaphor). Beyond mere play, there is as well a Utopian (perhaps even cinematic) aspect – as Dave Zirin writes, “(sports) can also be a place of inspiration that doesn’t transcend the political but becomes the political, a place where we see our own dreams and aspirations played out in dynamic Technicolor…the playing field is where we can project our every thought, hope and fear.” But if what we see is ugliness, an unrest, perhaps this has wider implications? Instead, then, of simply condemning and dismissing aberrant (unsporting, the phrase goes) behavior as, say, the empty wish-fulfillment of obsessive individuals, the dubious outlet of ultra-competitive types, the vicarious travesties visited by failures who double as parents, etc, we should step back and look at larger questions, examining the social forces at work on those whom we would isolate as individuals (or, conversely, lump into a ‘mob mentality’ charge).

Take a recent, all-too-fresh example here in economically depressed Ohio. After an unprecedented media build-up, LeBron James – basketball’s most brilliant player, star of the Cleveland Cavaliers – elected to take his business elsewhere. Cleveland fans, uncommonly loyal but admittedly never a very stable bunch, responded to a departure that was widely perceived as protracted public humiliation with demonstrative, profound fury, pouring into the streets, burning basketball jerseys and hurling rocks at “King James’s” 10-story downtown mural. James, the local boy made good, had previously assumed the mantle of the city savior who single-handedly put Cleveland back on the map (excellently chronicled in this video report). Sure, LeBron is a multi-millionaire, reasoned Clevelanders, but this young man from Rubber City is one of us! But their illusions were roughly remanded, and emotions that this depressed, once-proud Steel town hold inside were ferociously ignited.

Beyond, and yet part and parcel of, the economic impact to a city of a sports team is the ‘difficult to quantify…psychological lift’ (to quote a Cleveland resident from the aforementioned video) that a team can provide. When social bonds begin to break down or disintegrate due to economic hardship – when tensions within families (“kitchen table realities,” in the reductio of current media parlance) reach a desperate pitch, when the organic solidarity (Durkheim’s phrase) of the workplace is destroyed in the wake of closing automobile plants, the loss of solidary structures results in a loss of pride, in collective self-worth. And in an era of government-legitimized torture and other practices that mock the abstract ideals that underpin the founding myth of our country, how do we relocate this solidarity? It goes like this: maybe we no longer believe the jobs are coming back, but at least our team is the envy of the league (in other words, of the country)! A successful sports team is pride reconstituted. False pride? That’s as may be, but certainly (for Dawg Pound liberals) it is preferable to excessive Patriotism (for the limits of this distinction, a friend assures, one should speak to ambivalent German soccer fans).

Suffice it to say, sports, like the America experiment itself, is a complex tale, one that rarely gets a realistic telling on the silver screen. In the genre known as the Sports film, as in the Western, what is celebrated – or, more to the point, printed and circulated – is the myth. Indeed, sports films, with their well-worn, enjoyably disposable clichés and format, remain true to the veracity-challenged, topsy-turvy narrative often advanced about American sports in the media. We won’t deal with that narrative at length in this space (although for anyone interested I heartily recommend Dave Zirin’s brilliant writing, including his illuminating new book), but for a small taste consider the case of Major League Baseball’s Chicago Cubs. Cubbies fans haven’t seen a World Series come to them since 1905, and oh how these ‘lovable losers’ suffer! They who reside in largely white, upwardly-mobile, young professional (they used to say ‘yuppie’) Wrigleyville. Contrast this media depiction with that of the Chicago White Sox of the hard times, union-heavy, largely black South Side of town: in American media terms, they are untouchables and thus – despite winning a 2005 World Series -unmentionable. On celluloid this thread of the myth – whereby ‘lovable losers’ become heroes – unfolds in small town America, scrubbed down and frayed with nostalgia (the most famous example is probably the sincere, modest Hoosiers (1986), the Our Town of Sports movies). The story goes that through hard work and belief in themselves these underdogs can triumph over their circumstances and win the day. In other words, the American Dream.


The wily hockey comedy Slap Shot (dir. George Roy Hill, 1977) wickedly subverts this formula while remaining very much within the genre. Set against the backdrop of a small Rust Belt community about to see the closing of its primary source of employment, a steel mill, the film tracks the fortunes of lowly local hockey team the Charlestown Chiefs, led by player/coach Reggie Dunlop (Paul Newman). The Chiefs appear set to go the way of the Mill, so Reggie, hoping to light a fire under his sad-sack players, plants a fabricated newspaper story which insists the team is on the verge of being sold by their owner (whom no one has ever met) to millionaires in Miami, FL. That’s provided, of course, Chiefs start winning. With this white lie, the stage is set for the typical Sports Film, but that as Reggie begins implementing his strategy he stumbles across a profound (though hardly unknown) short cut to success (the WWII to his New Deal) – violence. As unleashed by childlike thugs The Hanson Brothers – surely the most memorable manifestation of cinematic Id since Harpo Marx – the Chiefs begin decimating their opponents quite literally, and, more importantly, winning the hearts and minds of Charlestown fans. Alas, there is no glory without consequences, and just as Reggie cannot put his marriage back together simply through winning, so too do the moral failings of his strategy appear to catch up with and unravel his brazen ploy. Nevertheless, in the end, The Chiefs – with an unexpected boost – succeed anyway…

While the large, continued fanbase of Slap Shot can partly be attributed to its gleeful excesses alone – the violent encounters on the ice, the vulgarity of the ‘locker room talk’; put another way, the perceived anti-authority values when viewed in an increasingly (then and now) politically correct environment – there is a broader, satisfyingly ambivalent critique of America in the witty script and the acting sensibilities of the film. What is more, the way in which the violence itself is deployed adds to our narrative pleasure in a transgressive yet non-reactionary way. There is something subversive and unresolved in the dark energy – personified by the Hansons, an outside force of avenging angels – of the subjective violence (to use Slavoj Zizek’s term) of these far-from-lovable underdogs on the hockey rink. Their reckless behavior, encouraged and echoed by the fans, is in a way the counter and natural product of the structural violence inflicted on the city of Charlestown and its newly unemployed people (“What are these poor fuckers gonna do?” as a Chiefs player puts it). Viewers in 2010, for one, amid a job-hemorrhaging economy – a situation that shows little sign of abating – are likely to experience something rather cathartic in a knockabout comedy effectively showing small-town losers literally fighting back. The fact that they are ultimately fighting amongst themselves, like gladiators, does not go unrewarded. We are entertained, then, yet strangely empowered. Like the best Hollywood films – from Sturges to Verhoeven – Slap Shot gets away with having its cake and eating it, too.

Taking a closer at how it achieves these aims (which may at times play like Fassbinder synopsizing Sirk, but so be it), the question seems to be what is the engine of this violence? The film quickly supplies the answer. It becomes apparent from the beginning that Slap Shot will be a film for Americans (not a simple Hollywood export, then) and about America itself, something soon confirmed in the mock-patriotic title sequence. The brilliant first scene, a ‘cold open’, operates – like so much of the film – on this dual level. Hockey, it seems to say, is, let’s face it, foreign – something the majority of Americans know little about, belonging as it does to our northern neighbors. (Interestingly enough, the only complete version of the scene I could find for you is dubbed in French).

A weekly TV interview show thus initiates hockey novices into the somewhat obscure rules/procedures of the fastest game on Earth. In the particular interview that opens the film, we learn of the various transgressions that can land a hockey player in the ‘penalty box’ (another sports idiom, adopted by parents for use with the children of my generation). French-Canadian goalie Denis – hockey purist and simple, romantic soul – lists and demonstrates these illegal maneuvers with the liberal, surprised assistance of his greasily-toupeed interlocutor in a way that would make Daffy Duck proud. They are, Denis adds, something only “English pig(s) without brains” would engage in – us! Significantly, alongside learning what we are not allowed to do, we also see what we can do (this recalls a personal anecdote in which, after repeating an inappropriate word at home that at I had heard at school, I allegedly asked my mother to enumerate any and all ‘bad words’ so that I would “know what not to say”).    (click image for video)

It is important to emphasize just how this is presented. In standard Hollywood fare – which by 1977 was mutating into the Blockbuster, the famous death knell of 1970’s cinema soon to gain a stranglehold on the market – film and TV interview would likely start together. Instead, we see the two men just prior to the interview commencing, looking hapless. Initially this creates confusion in the viewer as well but ultimately it gives us a comic distance from the action, a second perspective that lingers. The first noises we hear are off-screen – an advertisement for spring water which unconsciously prompts Denis to go off-screen likewise and wet his whistle, returning late for the start. Process is thus revealed, and comedy is increased. Eating the cake, too.

Goalkeeper Denis concludes the demonstration with a few calmly delivered sentences that sound silly but nonetheless play like a moral prescription, the simplicity of which the characters of the film, for reasons we are about to go into, will fail spectacularly to grasp: “(If) you do that (commit a foul), you go to the box – two minutes by yourself – and you feel shame, you know. And then you get free.”

Thomas Scheff and Suzanne Retzinger, in their penetrating study of shame as the primary emotional trigger of human conflict, invoke the poet Ovid in defense of their thesis. In what the Roman dubbed the age of wickedness – humanity’s last act, as it were – shame ‘took flight’; a loss of the sense of shame allowed for the unspeakable to take place. The authors explain it like this: “Shame functions as an automatic pilot, a gyroscope. When it is bypassed, individuals and groups lose their moral direction, leading to conflict and anarchy.” (p.29) We experience shame when our social bonds are threatened – anytime we ‘lose face.’ All things being equal – as in the situation Denis innocently describes – a sense of shame is a normal and healthy part of learning from our mistakes and repairing relationships. But if unacknowledged – if shame is denied or ignored – it can become a veritable powder keg.

The validity of first part of this argument can be seen in how we deal with our problems as individuals in society, be it in the private or public realm. Rather than taking the time to admit and deal with the difficulties brought about by significant changes, we are instead advised to “make the best of it”, “take it one day at a time”, or even “be a man”. Indeed, such clichéd exhortations (part, I do believe, of this ‘structural violence’) are still in use, even if, ironically, they are rarely spoken openly. Shame has “gone underground”, as Scheff & Retzinger put it; that is, we are ashamed of being ashamed. The beaten-down Charlestown players understand their plight but remain only dimly aware of how it is actually affecting them. Despite mild protests from the veteran players that the Hansons are “embarrassing”, they gradually acquiesce to the new strategy, some taking to the violent thuggery with enthusiasm (the gentlest guy on the team changes his name to “Killer”). They behave unlike themselves – shame is bypassed. And violence during the game on the ice, however displaced, seems to them preferable to directing it inward or (as the owner would no doubt agree) at a likelier target…

A somewhat obvious yet effective melodramatic device early in the film brings this issue of (male) shame to the surface. To raise money, the conniving GM (the great Strother Martin) has arranged for his players to walk the catwalk in a local fashion show, something they find emasculating, to say the least. The players respond with obscenity, not just verbally (with the stereotypical homophobia of a ‘jock’ mentality), but quite literally when one of the infuriated Chiefs veterans makes good on his threat to expose himself to the all-female female crowd. With the notable exception of climax of the film (an interesting bookend which we’ll get to), whenever sexuality surfaces in the homo-social world of the Chiefs, it takes the form of obscenity, from the lurid war stories of the GM to Newman’s bedding of opposing player’s wives for a game-day advantage to the conquest tales of the team’s resident dirty old man, Ned. When the latter at one point launches into a story about well-endowed barmaid, he is pushed away and ignored in favor of a local man being interviewed on what appears to be a TV game show.  “10 bucks he mentions all the guys at work!” yells somebody – reinforcing their solidarity and identification with the townspeople. Yet in the background the players are scrambling with phone calls and contingency plans – it has been announced that the team is folding.

But one Chiefs player, it is pointed out without resentment, doesn’t “need hockey,” – he has an Ivy League education to “fall back on.” This marks the handsome young talent Braden (Michael Ontkean, later Sheriff of Twin Peaks), as an outsider, though he is very much an accepted part of the unit (he runs poker games on the team bus, for crying out loud). Braden will be the only player to stand up to Newman’s goon strategy; he has the luxury of being anti-fighting – an ‘old-school’ hockey purist, loving the game for the sake of the game – because unlike the others he doesn’t need the job. Certainly he is troubled but his problems are comfortably middle class – he is an adulterer and hates his overbearing father. However sympathetic and likable, we don’t ultimately see him as noble for taking a principled stand – we simply recognize his having a different (or perhaps a lack of) experience of the world.

Meanwhile, Paul Newman’s Reggie desperately schemes to advance the Chiefs’ hopes while making faltering and unsuccessful attempts to patch up his own marriage. A direct opposition is made between the violence of hockey and the love of his wife (wonderfully shown in a scene in which a hockey groupie asks him, “Are you a fighter?” “No, I’m a lover” he smiles, and immediately notices his wife at the other end of the bar – the smile vanishes). The tension between the two reflects the way in which he tries to bring Braden over to the dark side – by stepping into the middle of the deeply stormy relationship of Braden and his wife Lil (a fine and fierce Lindsey Crouse, railing against the provincial town and guzzling liquor). Reggie, you see, is our Everyman, and most of his energy is spent trying to stabilize his rupturing surroundings, outside and in (“I’m normal!” he tells Lil. “Yeah?” she counters, “well then normal is FUCKED.”)

It all comes to a head in a typically base, memorable exchange between Coach & Star. The Chiefs popularity has soared due to the Hanson Brothers and Reggie responds by upping the ante further on the violence, calling for a bounty on the head of the opposing team’s Captain. As the game begins Braden is called out by  but refuses to fight; he subsequently scores a goal and then sits down as the lines change. The two men then watch from the bench as pandemonium breaks out on the ice.

Braden's reaction to Reggie

As they begin to argue as to why and how they win games, Reggie announces his intention to bench (not play) Braden for refusing to fight, much to the younger man’s dismay. The linguistic antinomy of their subsequent dialogue is instructive.

“I scored a goal you has-been!” …
“Ah, you’re the biggest pussy in the league!”
“That’s right – I like pussy!”
“Yeah? That’s not wife I hear from your wife!”

Braden then lays Reggie out with a right cross, leaving the Coach to grin wickedly at the knockdown from his anti-fighting forward (thus anticipating the advent of the Blockbuster, er, the Darth Vader/Luke Skywalker relationship at least, by a month or two). Braden suddenly reappears in the announcer’s booth, intent on quite literally on doing the unthinkable, broadcasting his shame and failings to the world.

Jim, the chagrined announcer – previously marked as belonging clearly to the repressive “Be a man!” older generation – finds Braden’s sticky bourgeois revelations about his problems in the sack (as brought on by an unhappy childhood) rather disquieting.

But the heinous fun must come to an end – the shadowy owner has been unmasked as a suburban widow who has determined that despite Reggie’s newly successful Chiefs having put her “in the black for the first time in years,” it is not in her interest to sell the team; it is more cost-efficient to fold. “I could probably sell you,” goes her withering corporate logic, “but I can’t.” Further, it is not above her to moralize as hypocritical cover: “I confess I never let the children watch a hockey game on TV,” because child emulate what they see,  she argues, and if they see violence…Reggie is beside himself, and yet as he drives home the local radio corroborates her nurture theory. He decides to go noble, convincing his squad to play “old-time hockey, like Eddie Shore” for their final game, and drop the goon act. The child-like Hansons agree with their coach. But since this is Slap Shot, not The Mighty Ducks, the GM arrives, enraged, at intermission, wheezing that every scout in the NHL is out there tonight looking for “talent, winners!” e.g. thugs. Scouts? asks Reggie. And with a great comic edit, things are back to bloody normal.

And yet there is that inspired ending to contend with, the rare moment in American film when sex, however briefly, trumps violence. It begins while everyone is beating the living hell out of everyone else on the ice, while the bemused Braden watches from the bench. Suddenly he catches a glimpse of his wife Lil in the stands – she has had a makeover (the film making this literal also) and is cheering excitedly: Lil has taken Reggie’s advice to “roll with it.” Braden is thunderstruck.

Disapproving of hockey as she did, part of his anti-fighting creed was likely an attempt to please her, cloaked though it was in stubbornness. Does he rush onto the ice, then, and join the carnage? Instead, inspired by what he sees, he does what is in his heart (if that is the right organ), slaying the dragons on the field with sins of the flesh. Both teams are spellbound. A marching band accompanies his dance with a tune.

No one knows why but they are overjoyed by what they see. Nearly everyone, that is – violent objections to the ‘disgusting pervert’ are raised by the opposing team’s earlier targeted Captain, resulting in a forfeit in the Chiefs’s favor.

In this blinkered yet oh so American standard of ‘violence is ok, but cover that body!’ I recall something Andrew Sarris said in a film review:

It reminds me of the indignant mother suing the distributors of the homicidal video game “Grand Theft Auto,” not for all the killings of cops, but for a sex scene hidden among all the homicides. Apparently, it is better for a child to play at shooting policemen than to be exposed to simulated sexual activity.

Braden’s performance is, for all the spectators he draws, some more than a distraction – it’s a window towards something no one quite comprehends. The rink has become the cinema, the space where we project  desire. But the window closes just as quickly, as the powers that be cash in – when announcer Jim sees the winning trophy he ceases his shamefaced vitriol. “Chalk it up to the exuberance of youth!” The Chiefs meanwhile, are given a parade and hailed as heroes for their victory, thanks to their ‘fighting spirit’. Reggie receives the offer of  a coaching job, to which he plans on bringing his players. But Reggie’s wife is unfooled; he doesn’t get the girl. At the end of the day, we have seen plenty, but it is clear no one on screen has learned a damn thing. That makes this a happy ending even the cynics should get behind. If they’re not ashamed to, that is.

I hope I have spelled out some of the true reasons we love this film. It’s good to get at what motivates us, no?

And finally, having the National Anthem thrown back in the face of the ruling authorities who are benefiting from the Hansons’ mayhem is surely one of the smartest middle fingers in cinema. Long live Slap Shot.

A Sort of Introduction

“I snuck into art to get away from life. And what a getaway! This in spite of the fact that life eventually catches up with you .”  – Abbas Kiarostami

Summer has drawn to a close; where do we stand? For me, having just returned to the proverbial bosom of my family (and its attendant ‘small-town America’ mythology), I am for the first time in awhile free of new input from the outside world, be it flora or fauna. So much for excuses not to write. And so as even high school dropout Dick Whitman has recently begun putting pen to paper, I think it’s high time I knocked the cobwebs off this aborted attempt at a essay blog, redirected my creative energies and got some considered written material out to you all. I will leave aside the Keilloresque reminisces for now and dive headlong into what I know and love best – film art. But if you’ll indulge me, first a little bit about that…

The cinema is somewhere between art and life, Jean-Luc Godard tells us. The first, simplest way to understand this is that cinema is a creative renderer of recorded moments of reality. It is probably true that for a majority of people, the cinema is still best known for its escapism qualities; that is, a film is something that pulls us out of ‘real life’ rather than drawing our attention to it. We are not necessarily speaking of mindless entertainment; one may locate these qualities in the (ideologically-conservative) Hollywood mainstream tradition or even the smaller, (humanist/’apolitical’) independent cinema of Kiarostami, et al. Indeed, within the darkened cinema space, a dream-like realm, nearly all our favorite films admit this characteristic, however pointedly ‘political’ we might think them (and perhaps this is inevitable with narrative forms in general).

Still, one can only dream for so long. Spending too much time in the dark has consequences. The slowly accumulated moments of reality afforded by the cinema may very well result in a violent rupture of the dream, like the triumphant young hero of Dovzhenko’s Earth cut down in mid-dance. (I have been away, but from what I understand putting a scare into people is the way to make yourself heard these days). We are but dimly aware of what else is at work up there on the screen, disturbing our reveries with insidious care, for better and for worse. Whether or not the film texts (or directors, screenwriters, etc.) are ‘conscious’ of the disruptive elements – of what is being revealed of the world, as it were – has little bearing, because the impact itself is real. Within this notebook, I hope to call attention to that impact, with a special eye to what older films may have to say about how things stand today.

However, like the great feminist film writer Molly Haskell once said, I am first and foremost a cinephile, and the prime directive of this space is to celebrate the richness and pleasure of cinematic achievements. Life here in the postindustrial Rust Belt, you see, has long since ‘caught up’ with us; many it has passed by entirely. A little intoxication here and there may not be a bad thing. My favorite films, moreover, are not usually about the destination, but, to borrow Thomas Elsaesser’s phrase, the dust kicked up along the way. And so I hope to behave like Kiarostami’s young protagonist searching for his friend’s house, and through my meanderings reveal a little truth and beauty, always believing that, sooner or later, we’ll get to wherever it is we’re going…

“Reality does not disappear under a scrutinizing eye; it just tells its story. Let’s listen to it.” – AK

Midnight Mass in Silesia, or: my fault! my fault!

I am no churchgoer, and yet Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve has always been one of my favorite parts of December. Doubtless this has everything to do with my own happy version of it growing up in my small Midwestern town. With my mother’s side of my family we were regulars at the laid-back, blandly avuncular Emmanuel’s Evangelical (in name only) Lutheran Church. There Midnight Mass was known as Candlelight Service, for self-evident reasons. Certainly I had some experience with the genuine article, too, for my Catholic-raised father sometimes gigged as organist for St. Augustine’s Catholic Church, where it seemed just about everyone else I knew belonged, including my Polish-Catholic Grandmother and Grandfather. Dad was and remains a hardline agnostic, but he, I imagine, did care for the (nostalgic) pageantry, and greatly enjoyed the kindly, slow-of-speech, Buddy Holly-bespectacled priest Father Paul. We sometimes attended the services he played – during Christmas and otherwise – and always I strained my ears to work out what pop tunes or Ohio State University-themed material he would blend into the standard mix of dirge-like Catholic hymns and processional music. Once my Uncle, a card among cards, bade me take Dad a 5 dollar bill during the Offertory with a paper-clipped note that read ‘PLAY “WOOLY BULLY”‘.

Didn’t he preamble? But yes, “Midnight Mass” at the mightily-steepled Emmanuel’s Lutheran Church – for me this meant a gathering of part of our small-town community, and, most importantly, the singing of carols, which were peppier and more tuneful than proper hymns (Martin Luther in particular wrote some of my most dire songs on record). Of course, part of The Christmas Story was read, and though our lectors didn’t seem to me to be as eloquent as Charlie Brown’s pal Linus, it was very nice. At some point came the sermon (here dubbed ‘The Homily’), and as delivered by the late, great Ron Siebert, it was terse and full of good Christmas feeling. (Actually all of his sermons were short. They were punchy and he jabbed at the air, moving around the congregation – quite welcome in the staid Lutheran milieu – with the nervous energy of the chain-smoker that he was…). Then more carols – hearts lifted in song and whatnot – verse building upon verse, dynamics guided by the cool hand of our Church’s virtuoso, jazzhead organist (!! sorry, Dad). Mighty baritone honks escaped from the wall behind, its flaps moving like the gills of a great fish. Eventually, we blew the candles out and tottered home, back up the hill…

These days, however, I am one itinerant son of a gun. I haven’t landed home at Christmas in years. The night of December 24th has found me popping into one imposing European edifice after another – sometimes early with company, sometimes late and alone – and always partly with the intention of catching a whiff of the past. Plus, hey, it’s Christmas, right?? No, said my Polish girlfriend this year, we don’t go to Midnight Mass in my family – we have never been in fact. Certainly she had her reasons why, but I was far away from home and – as is far too often the case – there was no stopping me. Catholic Poland! Midnight Mass! Just as I had done the first time I saw the legendary and beautiful Lord’s Ark in Krakow’s Nowa Huta, I quickly blotted out all of the terrible things I knew or suspected about the Catholic Church in Poland, and readied myself for my first Polish Mass. My girlfriend’s younger sister was selected as the third congregant, and we soon arrived by car at the local parish on that snowless Eve.

We hustled our way inside. Things had already commenced, and we sifted through the crowd until we had a decent view. My Polish is still poor, and so there was nothing for me to do but observe: how nice! No faux-liberal hypocritical Anglican boilerplate for me this year! I was blissfully unaware of what was actually being said. This would soon change, emphatically so. For now, there was much to take in.Here was a Catholic Church far different from what I’d experienced in the West. Newish but certainly not modern – earthy and unadorned and very Polish (I told myself). The wooden walls had a very light stain. Supporting beams were abundant but failed to cross the area that shot up at a diagonal from the back of the altar. This was somewhat unfortunate, because along with the unfinished-looking wood it created the unmistakable impression of a giant bowling alley lane – Our Lady of the Missed Spare, perhaps. The altar was akin to a giant thrust stage, magnificently suited to the overflowing holiday environment, with parishioners fanned out evenly on three sides. This was copied by the balcony above, also full to capacity. And these people, as someone put it to me later, were they ‘into it?’ I think about this now, and it remains difficult to say. At the time, I thought: everyone is certainly very attentive – doubtless basking in that good Christmas feeling! (The Holy Spirit, it would be said, right?). True, there were some strange movements, I felt, in my periphery, but I paid them little mind at this stage.

Then suddenly, the sermon was upon us. Oh, I thought, this will be overlong, and with perhaps no small amount of guilt invoked, but nothing more. If this were a Hollywood Science Fiction blockbuster, I would have been the naïve, untested hero who failed to notice the enormous dark shadow that had quickly crept over all and sundry, cast by an ominous intruder bent on imminent destruction. I was still enjoying the scenery. I found fascinating the drawings on the walls of various Disciples, Saints, and Christ (JC was central, painted on the upside-down bowling lane above the altar ). Each depicted their subjects as possessing a complexion unmistakably dark and non-Caucasian – far from the lie of a blue-eyed, pale-faced Savior as in back home. In all likelihood this was due to the already light shade of the background they were working with, yet it still impressed in Conservative Catholic Poland (for I wasn’t that naïve). Also, each figure had a kind of glowing energy sphere painted above his head. Cool!

Meantime, the elderly but able-bodied priest delivering the sermon had shifted gears, as it were, his tone altering noticeably. The ominous shadow overhead had begun to cloud the faces of my companions – my girlfriend was glowering and her sister smirking. Occasionally the priest rapped the pulpit with his old knuckles for emphasis, and with each thwhack! words that I knew began to ring out – words like ‘Democracy’, ‘Minority’, ‘European Union’, ‘Lenin’ and…what? ‘Zhorzhe Orwell?’ And what was that phrase he kept repeating (threateningly, I should add), I asked my friends. “Priest tells that Satan’s Breath,” spoke my girlfriend’s sister, “is upon us.” (This she said with a giggle, looking at me. For prior to the service, you see, I had consumed two glasses of cognac, and I now emitted its distinctive odor.) It was then that I finally noticed the strange gestures of the parishioners – a several in the crowd were thumping themselves in the chest with a half-closed fist, in a rhythmic method, while repeating the words, ‘My fault! My fault!’

As to the import of the priest’s words, it was anyone’s guess. It seemed that with little or no regard to logic, the aged Father was hopping about to and fro on a train of disconnected political – not religious – thoughts, sounding like a monarchist, now an anarchist, now an anti-communist. ‘America’ had already been spat out several times, but now he slowed pace, adopting a graver tone. What he said went something like this: “And what of the American President, Mr. Obama? Recently he gave an official speech while visiting, friends, a Catholic University…and at this speech it was decided that the name of our Lord be covered up with cloth – closed to the eyes of the world. But why? Why would the President in Christian America do such a thing? The only conclusion we can draw is that, most probably, Mr. Obama is a Muslim.”

Whoa! I thought (for this part I essentially understood at once). FoxNews Live, on tour! Are we not in a place of worship, a holy place unconcerned with earthly trifles and election cycles? But there wasn’t time to ponder, for my girlfriend had at once turned on her heel and led us, demonstrably, past blank faces to the comforting chill of the outdoors. As we spoke quickly amongst ourselves, a tall man in a long top coat overheard. He pulled on his cigarette and in Polish expressed solidarity with our confused state. But Obama, he shook his head, is white!