“Even the most extreme consciousness of doom threatens to degenerate into idle chatter. Cultural criticism finds itself faced with the final stage of the dialectic of culture and barbarism. To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric…critical intelligence cannot be equal to this challenge as long as it confines itself to self-satisfied contemplation.” -Theodore Adorno
Thousands of children cry in cages as I write this. It’s a hideous fact of life, one of a countless sum, that ought to make it impossible for us to hold two thoughts in our brains at once. It’s easier to dig graves than plant crops because bodies need not be harvested. Only forgotten. What has the responsibility of the critic become in the 21st century. What would it have been during the Battle of the Somme or during the Influenza epidemic? I don’t guess we stopped watching Charlie Chaplin shorts or reading coverage of the world series when men were literally drowning in mud and drinking water with the marinating corpses of war dead to stay alive long enough to die somewhere else in France. While Armenians were marched towards extermination. While the great meat grinders of European combat chewed up men from every corner of the world. Warfare, which implies wholesale slaughter and the ruin of families, has been around as long as the earliest cave paintings and so they must co-exist. Napoleon supposedly said something like “You cannot stop me, I spend 30,000 lives a month.” Did it matter when civilization was an experiment for the rich to conduct a thousand feet above their subjects? The people will always let you know when they’ve had enough of one system of governance or another. There’s something horrifying happening now upon which I don’t think anyone could have counted.
Since the American election cycle drew to a horrific close in 2016 there’s been talk of ‘distractions’ all over the internet. “Don’t let the president calling a woman ugly distract you from the investigation into Russia changing the outcome of the election.” The idea seems to be among many people on the left that there’s a hierarchy to corruption and only one or two of the ten thousand problems facing humanity deserve prioritization during a given news cycle. Compounding the blunt force trauma of condescension is that many people, including members of the Democratic Party and even members of the media who deliberately abdicated the responsibility of objectivity in favour of satire, have fallen for a conservative strategy of semiotic entanglement. Hundreds of people who ought to be taking direct action have allowed conservative politicians, pundits and ideologues (none more capable or competent than any other) to change every single debate we ‘should’ be having, into a question of optics, language and semantics: Footage surfaces of a Nazi being hit in the face, a trump cabinet official being the brunt of a public joke, or a republican congressmen being chased off a 50 dollar meal by concerned citizens and the question instantly becomes one of acceptable protest. Should Americans leave the members of a political party alone, while they gut our economy, jail Hispanic children as a deterrent to a non-existent crime, sever our ties with every nation not holding the nuclear football, and let white supremacists set the agenda? Isn’t there a nicer way to tell them to please consider that the people they hate are in fact human beings?
America in 2018 is spending their 30,000 lives a month, and we at the bottom have to have civility debates. The police are armed and ready to put down the threat posed by frightened, angry, unarmed and starving men, women and children. The armed wing of the US government was always a cannon pointed at non-whites and homosexuals, and now that the machine is creeping towards the rest of us, white people in power are panicking. They’re allowing the discussion to be about taking a joke instead of children in cages. Anything to keep the truth from becoming the truth. It’s too awful to consider, why not deflect? Then you can hide the part where you’re able to do something about it and have chosen not to. After all wasn’t it decades of immigration policy dictated by irrational fear that led us to this place? But if the political ‘elite’ don’t seem concerned enough to stop this monstrousness, it has the effect of making those of us with no power seem crazy, frothing and uncivilized. Our words and our physical presences, our easily ignored and suppressed votes are all we have unless we want to regress to screeching peasants hoping to overthrow the government. Americans could at any moment, but we won’t. It wouldn’t be ‘civilized’. And so they will always win.
This Kafka-esque roundelay of false dichotomies, politesse vs. fascism, cues up a memory in the VCR lodged in my brain. I see David Warner’s hand in close-up gently, even tenderly patting a hotel mattress. “I won’t bite you.” He says soothingly to Malcolm McDowell. The movie is Nicholas Meyer’s Time After Time (1979). Warner’s playing Jack the Ripper and McDowell H.G. Wells, who has built the time machine from his story of the same name, of which this is a loose adaptation. Jack has stolen it and flown to the late 70s and Wells has followed him there to bring him back to face prosecution. Wells tries appealing to the mass-murderer’s humanity, or at the very least his reason, when he argues that neither man belongs in this time. Jack disagrees and by way of illustration, invites Wells to sit next to him on the bed so he can show him just 2 minutes of American television. It’s all he needs. The montage waiting for them, of Looney Tunes juxtaposed with the murder of schoolchildren from a news brief, of tanks from a WW2 movie and Jimi Hendrix smashing his guitar, makes shorter work of history than any other medium can. Just as in The Parallax View‘s (1974) indoctrination video, the Ludovico test from A Clockwork Orange (1971) (also starring McDowell), or jumping ahead to Steven Boone’s Wolf City High & Low (which remixes Michael Wadleigh’s Wolfen (1981) into a psychedelic barrage of New York’s impoverished landscape), we see the ferociousness of time and how violence and a policy of forgotten empathy leads to a present defined by jagged mixed media cowering in a foxhole while world leaders work out their issues. “You haven’t gone forward, Herbert, you’ve gone back.” Sneers Warner’s Ripper.
Warner never made much sense to me as an actor. I’ve only seen him really work in a way no other actor would have twice. The first is in Joseph Losey’s A Doll’s House (1973), where you need to believe him precisely as the kind of man you choose to be with because the alternative might be destitution. And the other is here, where his wolfish serenity is precisely what makes him so insidious. When he talks about civilization stepping beyond even his sociopathy, indeed they’ve adopted it as a baseline. He runs through everything he’s learned about the modern world as quickly as he can to try and assuage Wells’ need for justice and manages to say “You can buy a rifle or a revolver, it’s perfectly legal, these people encourage it!” before Wells slaps him. “It’s catching, isn’t it…violence?” The line Warner was born to say. Of course, now all I can picture is Mitch McConnell and Jeff Sessions, nakedly evil and hypocritical with no regard for how they look as they offer up a religious pretext to kidnapping. It’s got the same empty sting. “These people encourage it!” Power can afford to sit you down and explain why they’re killing people. Why should they sweat their behaviour, they’ve come this far?
A foot chase puts Warner in the hospital and McDowell has to rush to the hospital and see for himself what modern scars look like. Men holding their guts in on gurneys, crying children, people dying of internal injuries. It shakes him, but hearing about Warner’s probable death sets him free of the sight. He’s completed his task. His care is selective. The enormity of real life is a distraction from Jack The Ripper. And the murderer’s allowed to blend in in San Francisco because ‘wrong’ urges have been ghettoized and regular society doesn’t venture to the places he goes to kill prostitutes. What Wells can’t make sense of is that there’s a Jack The Ripper on every corner now. His quest to stop one is a drop in the bucket. You take down one and another will take his place. Wells’ love interest Amy, played by Mary Steenburgen in an early prototype of Nathan Rabin’s Manic Pixie Dreamgirl, asks him “Why is it your responsibility?” Hinting that the modern identity’s sense of moral responsibility has become vestigial. Wells barely saves the lives of the modern women only he knows how to protect and even that seems like a bridge too far for Amy. Conversely, the Ripper treats his vacation in the present with exactly the viciousness most Americans on the internet revert to given anonymity. It might as well be virtual reality to him, and he takes to it immediately, adopting modern dress and carving women up at a leisurely pace. Wells’ uses reason to try and stop his foe, viewing violence as barbaric, the sort of thing to which only a man like The Ripper would revert. Amy, for her part, finds out after a brief time travelling excursion of her own, that she’s on the list of Ripper victims. “I don’t want to die,” she pleads with Wells as they run out of ways to save her from the seemingly inevitable.
The film’s morality is a choice of three things we still try to choose from every day. “I have no responsibilities to my fellow man and can do as I please,” “I have a responsibility to myself,” or “I have a responsibility to help others, inasmuch as it was my fault they need help.” It’s an incomplete set of options and it ignores everything out of one’s immediate orbit. There’s a sickening truth to the stunted trifurcation of our choices as presented in the movie. Our sense of guilt doesn’t tend to reach into the possible. It’s what we did that bothers us, not what we didn’t get around to or didn’t think was in our power to do. So we won’t forcibly free children from cages, we won’t overthrow the government, some of us won’t even scream obscenities at the Senate Majority Leader if we see him on the street. We have ample evidence of what history remembers but we’re not wired to make that what keeps us awake at night. We have to work for that. History remembers Napoleon and his 30,000 dead men a month. We’ll be lucky if it remembers the movies we reviewed or the words we used to review them. Time After Time is enjoyable and engrossing, buoyed by two great performances and a score that’s beautiful when it isn’t overbearing. Will we still talk about it in a hundred years? Two hundred? A thousand? That keeps me awake at night, as does the guilt about the way I’ve treated people and the terror of death’s finality. History won’t remember our fears as anything but abstract pieces of the same whole (how different could they be?), because they die with us, and they can’t compare to those of children in cages. So it’s worth asking what purpose they serve. Perhaps we shouldn’t resort to violence, as Wells insists, but surely we must do something. Men with guns and power don’t fear history, they’ve been taught they’re what makes it. Those without either ought to live with the same confidence. Even if it isn’t civilized to do so, because occasionally history remembers what we did not do just as keenly.