Our America

September 16, 2007 at 2:40 pm Leave a comment

Raccoon and I reconvened our film club on Thursday. We watched Spike Lee‘s 25th Hour.

In thinking about the film I found myself wanting to call it elegiac but hopeful. Coming shortly after 9/11, the film is saturated with visuals invoking the absence of the two towers and construction at Ground Zero. At one point several workers in protective gear are shown hoeing what for all practical purposes appears to be a crater on the moon. This is Spike Lee’s New York, after the tragedy. A qualified tragedy, because Spike Lee has Francis discourse while looking at the the workers on ground zero about profiting from other’s pain. The towers, as symbol of American capitalism, were a sign of just such profiting. On a small, allegorical scale, Monty’s drug dealing profits from the pain of the people he services.

Hope is what happens when Monty can identify with other people, a little boy on the bus, the various ethnic communities in New York, after he is beaten up so that he’ll be less pretty in jail (see Raccoon on the repetition of the male rape motif). Monty’s face is to be taken as indicative of the gaping wound at Ground Zero. At the end of the film, his father narrates an imaginary journey westward toward a new beginning, rather than Monty’s going to jail. In every frame of this journey Lee presents a flag or some combination of red, white, and blue. The symbolism is heavy handed and, at least for this non-patriotic viewer, strangely moving. “It’s a beautiful country” Monty’s father intones, as they drive through rural America toward Monty’s New Canaan. The hope is that in time Monty will be able to be rejoined by Naturelle, his girlfriend, and they’ll have a prosperous multiethnic family that resembles, and is, American. By extension, Spike Lee suggests that after the trauma, America, like Monty, might rejoin the world, having learned something about the suffering of others on 9/11.

That America did not, need hardly be written. I kept asking myself, for what is 25th Hour an elegy? Not the prelapsarian United States. No, the elegiac quality is something I bring to the film. It is my mourning for what we as a country, what our “elected” leaders, did not do: embrace the world. I’m not talking about a flaccid liberal embrace. I’m talking about general strike until we straighten shit out. No more profit.

We learned nothing. Naomi Klein has an article about what she calls “disaster capitalism and the new economy of catastrophe” in the October Harpers. She suggests that whereas instability in the past was assumed to be bad for markets, on the contrary it is now a tremendous growth industry. Firms like Blackwater, Fluor, Shaw, Bechtel, KBR, and CH2M Hill provide security and services in Iraq and New Orleans for those who can afford them in absence of a government that provides those basic services: security, electricity, water. Thus traumatized places are divided into red and green zones. In the red zones the damned pursue their dieing. The green zones are protected oases for the few. Every time infrastructure fails, private companies, with private priorities, are called to sort it out.

Private firms become a government within a government when the federal government turns over many of its basic functions to contractors. FEMA, Klien points out, hired contractors to hire contractors in New Orleans. The result is that you have tax dollars going to these firms as though they were the government, but none of the accountability. These firms, unlike many corporations that like to hedge their bets, direct 70-90 percent of their political donations to the republican party. The party of small government. The party for whom armeggeden is the just deserts of those who cannot pay, as Klein also suggests, to escape it. Catastrophes are a growth industry. So too is privatized government. The result is simple: fascism.

So my mourning is for the lost opportunity in Spike Lee’s visual metaphor. We took, if you’ll forgive the expression, the road already taken and went to Blackwater’s jail. Lee knows that there is no guarantee we were going to behave differently. He ends with a shot of Monty’s bruised face, and the ambiguous decision which way to go, prison or out there–in that beautiful beyond. We chose the camps.

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Entry filed under: 25th Hour, 9/11, Film, Harpers, movie, Naomi Klein, Spike Lee, thurs afternoon.

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