Monday, February 4, 2019

The dense, glittering stream of reality

Perhaps the most philosophical film of last year was Happy as Lazarro, in which the title character is reminiscent in some ways of both Socrates and Christ, and in which vaguely Marxy questions are raised about politico-economic systems and people's lives within them. (To be less obscure: when a group of peasants are moved overnight from a feudal society into a contemporary capitalist one they still end up broke and with very little opportunity to improve their lives. Does this reveal their lack of grit, initiative, etc. or show that the system is to blame? Or, since this is a work of fiction, does it show nothing at all?) But I would like to think of Zama as philosophical too. The best review I've found of it is this one in The New York Review of Books. It's here that the director, Lucrecia Martel's, desire "to film not Don Diego [Zama]’s hallucinations or his distorted perception of the world, but the dense, glittering stream of reality he moves through: the experience that precedes the interior monologue" is described. Also worth reading, though, is Glen Kenny's review, which notes that the film ends "on a scene of verdant nature not entirely stained by humanity." 

The dense, glittering stream of reality through which Zama moves is not only the horrible and absurd colonialism that most reviews focus on but also the verdant and magical natural world, with its llamas, tall grasses, and strangely attired human inhabitants. Zama is mostly talked about in the reviews I've read as an absurd figure living a frustrated and ridiculous life that he deserves because his sins are "of his own making." There is something to this, of course (why would so many critics say it otherwise?, and aren't everyone's sins of their own making?), but he can also be seen, it seems to me, as a kind of everyman. He is described as mediocre, which suggests averageness, and as characterized by "thwarted dignity and unrequited desires, [and] his bewildered attempts to grasp the logic of his predicament and exercise some sort of control." Otherwise known as the human condition, as Geoff Dyer might say.

There is a real danger that I'm projecting (I certainly tend to think "human world bad, natural world good"), but it seems to me that Zama contrasts the violent, mediocre, cruel, and tedious worlds that people make for themselves with the almost literally incredible larger world of beauty and strangeness around us. Zama waits for a transfer to another post that never comes, but the switch he really needs to make is of a different kind.

Searching for Zama led me to Scipio Africanus, which features a recreation of the Battle of Zama. This is literally fascist propaganda (made in Italy in 1937), but it seems tame in comparison with a movie like 300. It's been a while since I saw that film, and I don't plan to watch it again just to get my facts straight, but as I recall 300 pits a bunch of manly British actors playing Spartans against a bizarre coalition of brown and Asian types (didn't some of them look Samurai-ish?), led by a queer Xerxes. My point is not to bash an old movie but to note that the racism, nationalism, and lust for war (or glory) in Scipio Africanus is no worse than we are used to seeing in movies, and in some cases significantly weaker than what can easily be found in contemporary culture. Whether this causes fascism is probably debatable, but it can't be good.