Saturday, July 27, 2013

Coup de Torchon  (“Clean Slate”) 1981-  Bertrand Tavernier

 

Tavernier’s slithering pastel-hued adaptation of Jim Thompson’s tale of depravity Pop. 1280, relocates the action to 1930’s colonial French Senegal. In the dramatic first sequence, set to Sarde’s menacing percussive score, five jet-black African boys are digging around for sustenance. In the foreground Cordier’s hand appears against the bark of a tree like the claw of some swamp monster before he moves into the frame, crouching down to observe the emaciated quintet squatting in the white sand. Only at the end of the film is the real motive for his lurking revealed. The score grows increasingly contrapuntal and dissonant as an obscuring, dingey film appears on the white dot of sun disappearing behind the earth’s shadow. Cordier lights a fire in the half-dark, beckoning to the boys to gather round in a gesture that feels like the reparation of a guilty conscience. The sequence is brilliant bit of mood-establishment that casts it’s shadow over the entire film, prefiguring the duality of Cordier’s character as affable slug and helpless menace.

Tavernier's Africa is a place of sprawling, culturally ambiguous spaces. The choice of steady-cam is of a piece with the use of faded colors, imparting a sense of moral twilight in which characters eat, drink, sleep, have sex, fight, and knock one another off. It'’s restless, roving glide de-centers and opens up the action; robbing it of gravity and inducing something like spiritual vertigo. Visually plain and de-saturated, bleaching mid-day light and clouds of dust frequently obscure the action. Coup de Torchon is an ugly experience of collectively ugly characters that seems to dare us to take pleasure in it. 




 A scene with his snippy wife and her incestuous kid brother Nono, in which Cordier vindictively pours salt into his coffee, shows him to be a naughty but harmless mischief-making cuckold who knows more than he lets on.  In due course we learn just what he is capable of as a manipulator of people’s minds. For all his apparent dim-wittedness, Cordier is remarkably wily, if not clairvoyant. A veritable seer in darkness who dispatches the unwitting with understated yet lethal eliminationist zeal. 


Cordier knocks-off Rose’s husband Mercaillou, kicking his dying corpse-to-be while assuring him he is the more hurt by it. At the funeral Huppert, asked by the priest if she has forgotten the words of Our Father (viz. to forgive one’s trespassers) replies glibly, that she remembers them as “lies one tells children... One can only forgive those one loves, and even then not completely.” It is a declaration as accurate as it is nihilistic. Surely she believes in God, the priest inquires. “I believe, but not truly,” she replies with a shrug, an arid breeze fluttering through her veil. The film is littered with examples of such insolent irreverence, tossed off with the reptilian insouciance that would become Hupert's trademark.

Stephane Aundran is almost unrecognizable as the slatternly Hugette, who asks if the pigeon hanging over the altar is made of gold. “That pigeon is the Holy Spirit,” the priest replies with consternation. “I’ll say no more, I don’t want to encourage theft.” Unfazed, Hugette presses: “What’s it worth? Approximately...”

At times the actors deliver their lines with that mixture of nonchalance and insouciance one expects in comedy. Noiret’s Cordier, even when disseminating pearls of wisdom, is a bumbler, while Isabelle Huppert, here in the first of many turns as moral idiot, quips flippantly as the frontier wife for whom nothing is sacred, eliciting smirks of incredulity. We are hindered from an enjoyable complicity by Rose’s vacuous sang-froid and calculating pettiness. Guy Marchand is comical by his mere physical presence, given his natural endowments. Stephane Audran, looking emaciated and creased since her days of glory and not known for her comedic talents, delivers her lines with mock-seriousness. Over all it's a darkly humorous work punctuated by our gasps of horror. 


With the exception of a school-mistress who comes to embody the witness from outside with a moral compass by default, albeit impotent to intervene on behalf of justice, sundry characters display an all-too-human selfishness, greed, venality and, in the case of Noiret’s Cordier, a growing lust for ‘cleaning up the trash,’ as he calls his murders of spite and revenge. From his perspective he is only doing what others--
lacking the “courage” to do it themselves--expect of him. To the victims themselves it is a kind of "favor" in his eyes. Cordier is as an executioner out of altruism. 

Selfish, murderous, and blasphemous--Cordier represents the dregs of humanity. Yet Tavernier presents him as an amiable slouch meandering through town and countryside from one set table and bed to the next while offering advice and bits of wisdom as if completely disconnected from his crimes. Tavernier seems to want us to conclude that because in Cordier's own conscience he is doing his victims and the community the favor of ‘getting rid of trash’ there is some validity to that perspective. We are allowed to entertain the revolting notion that he is, in some sense, innocent. In the sense, perhaps, entertained by Goethe when he wrote: "He who acts is always without conscience."  

Such a means-end perspective exonerates him as effectively as killing out of religious conviction has done down through the centuries. Not only does his conscience not bother him, he feels morally justified in eliminating the inferior in the name of safeguarding purity. 

Cordier is vile by word as well as deed, and the screen-play of Jean Aurenche and Tavernier, in addition to its comedic inflexion, is eloquently hyperbolic and cynical. As he prepares to shoot Paulo, a young Senegalese who drops off Mercaillou’s corps in the dead of night, Cordier reproaches him for lying about having believed his every word up to that moment: “Coming from a good Catholic like you it worries me.” Lying, after all, is a sin. They are sitting on a log some ten feet apart. Paulo, resigned to his fate, wants to negotiate. Murder, he replies, is an even worse sin. “Let me tell you a secret now,” Cordier muses, having loaded his shot-gun, hands folded in his lap, “and let it be as a consolation to you. We all kill what we love.” “But you don’t love me, Mr. Cordier,” Paulo insists, making as if to retreat. Cordier dissuades him, as it would only fatigue him, offering by way of explanation for his impending murder: “Better the blind man who pisses out the window than the joker who told him it was a urinal. Know who the joker is? It's everybody. All the bastards who look away when you’re in shit, who wallow in their cash, praying through their assholes that nothing happens. If it’s true they were made in God’s image, I wouldn’t like to get Him in a dark alley. You kissed too much white ass. And now your getting fucked, and you asked for it. So now this is what I do with friends like you.” 

Attempting to console Rose who fears detection for her murder of Hugette and Nono, Cordier observes: “thinking of...starving kids, girls sold as slaves for a mirror, women whose sex is sewn up and you start thinking God created murder out of pure kindness.” It is an resumé of his perverse Weltanschauung. Interestingly Tavernier instructed Phillipe Noiret, known for his warmth and humor, to play each scene as if it were a separate movie. Tavernier did not want him to know when he was being manipulative and when he was being sincere. Disconnected from the unity and accountability of the narrative each person embodies as moral being, the murderer is innocent. Tavernier's directive for the sake of ambiguity works like a charm. 


The one over-arching vice of all the characters is a blithe lack of awareness; each exists from one moment to the next without constraints, pursuing pleasure and power in a Hobbesian state of nature. Yet at least one of them--Cordier--is also a philosopher.  

The lack of momentum and direction is an impression Tavernier intended to create, not a failure of execution. The stagnant quality is augmented by the steady-cam’s hover, the washed-out colors, and the anomie of its characters. To ‘like’ or enjoy this film at the level of entertainment, that is to say, of transport, would be indecent. Only the morally depraved could ‘enjoy’ Coup de Torchon. That we are repelled by it is reassuring. Perhaps precisely because we are made co-conspirators in Cordier’s nonchalant and cowardly point-blank shootings are we so outraged by them. They are the more shocking for being executed with reptilian detachment; staged not as crimes of passion, but as a kind of pest-control. Or killing as sport. 
Cordier has two pimps who pushed him into the dingey brown river sing a song for him before blowing them away. 

An informed second-viewing with the author’s intentions and decisions in mind; the process of adaptation, style of mis-en-scène, cinematographic technique and scoring--a fusion-Jazz score by Phillipe Sarde--made explicit, enables the artistic enjoyment proper of the film as work. At that level the moral dimension is irrelevant. 

The formal level, where content interacts with the formal elements and craftsmanship, transcends considerations of entertainment and morality. In appreciating the inter-change of the narrative and its mis-en-scène, we inhabit a realm beyond good and evil, except in the sense that, as Rousseau observed, there is in all imitation a moral element. To chide Tavernier for his immoral production after his intentions have all has been understood, is naive: we have already forgiven him in and through the higher pleasure of the aesthetic. 

To reclaim a sense of moral-outrage at this stage of the game would necessitate abandoning the aesthetic vantage point and returning to the pre-reflective, immediate immersion in the film-experience: the ‘who-dun-it’ perspective in which which we usually, but for those rare retrospective aesthetic experiences, inhabit the world. It would require--a lot of imagination. 


 Tavernier's portrait of an odious innocent-as-criminal unchecked by laws or conscience is unforgettable. Cordier the most likable and gregarious psychopaths in all of cinema. The entire film is an exercise in incongruous, misleading characterizations and hypocritical speeches. A curious co-incidence of directorial and diegetic duplicity Tavernier must have relished pulling off with such aplomb. And I must say it was a genuine pleasure, in the rarified aesthetic sense, to be duped by his subtle-devious directorial machinations; a pleasure equal parts outrage and amusement.  If “guilty pleasure” applies to any film, it’s Coup de Torchon. Not incidentally, Jean Genet, infamous denizen of the world beyond good and evil, cared very much for it. Go figure.



 

The Edukators - Hans Weingartner (2004)

 

“Edukators” are those qualified to inculcate or educate (“die Erziehungsberechtigten”). The original German title is Die Fetten Jahre sind Vorbei  (The Time of Plenty is Over).

Weingartner's The Edukators is an ideological action-film in which leftist non-students put musty old Marxist ideas about revolution, exploitation, rich vs. poor, etc., into play. Literally. It's a kind of Gesamtkunstwerk of subversive practical and theoretical political engagement across generations. To make a film that engages the intellect as much as our emotions sounds compelling enough on paper, but the resultant film manages to encapsulate everything that makes the tendentious tedious. That it's leftist ideas being put into didactic action does not, alas, make the spectacle any less exhausting.



 

Breaking into an accident-victim's palatial home, our trio of social reformers rearranges furniture, throws a couch into an indoor pool, and, putting the seal on their counter-cultural zeal, make out. All in an effort to conveying to the crash-victim that his pecuniary advantage (he has won a judgment against the girl involved in the accident) exists at the expense of social equality. In an unequal world--he a well-to-do patriarch, she a struggling wage-earner--what is legally just is morally corrupt. Their protest against the social hierarchy stacked against them dovetails with a celebration of disillusioned youth’s exuberant action-ready idealism. (They are “idealists” in the same way delusional people are.) They may be full of shit, but at least they're making a statement. 

Returning later to remove all trace of their intrusion, they become unwitting victims of their own pay-back scheme when the proprietor of the house ((Burghart Klaussner as Father-figurehead of the status-quo), suddenly returns. Instead of beating, gang-raping and defecating on him as any self-respecting revolutionary would do, they abduct the establishment sell-out to an alpine wonderland in order to teach him lessons. With nature squarely on the side of disaffected youth, the enlightenment of the System-Father who betrayed the revolution gets underway.

A communal joint helps to break the tension of ideological stale-mate, revealing Old Authority to be a former colleague of Rudy Dutschke from the ’68 student-revolution's glory days. “Your idealism--that I can respect,” he tells his abductors-with-a-mission. (National-socialist revolutionaries were also idealists glorifying the authenticity of ‘resolution’ and engagement, but that's conveniently forgoten.) From the modern decisionist perspective the main thing is to be passionately engaged in something, never mind what. The resolution to act determines the merit of an individual’s authentic life, rather than which side of the political spectrum he occupies. The hollow ring of their credo--“We believe it is more original to have a cause”--attests to that, asserting a purely formal criterion of authentic selfhood. Surely not the having of a cause, but the pursuit of a worthy one is laudable. Justice, not originality is important in the moral and political realms. One has a sense of justice not a genius for it, though some make a veritable vocation of their righteous indignation.

That the youth use a word like “original” in praising engagement reminds us that they see the choice facing them cleanly polarized into the option of selling out to the “system” (becoming a drone in the colony of acquisitive producers), and doing one’s own thing (uniquely and creatively criticizing and repudiating everything one’s parents' generation represents). This division in their perception of reality may be seen as coming with the territory of adolescing youth.  It illustrates that having a clearly defined enemy is as important as having comrades in arms. Even if it turns out, in the long run, that a shared hatred is not viscous enough to bind them together. (Hatred tends to favor interpersonal (moral) entropy.)

In one point of revolutionary etiquette--free-love--these apprentice revolutionaries cannot live up to their prototypes. Their abductee helps sow the seeds of that most “stuffy” of bourgeois of passions--possessiveness. With the intrusion of proprietary jealousy, their earnest fraternity loses its sense of vocation. Seems some aspects of ‘bourgeois morality’ may just have to be put down to non-negotiable human nature. A revolution based on invidious comparison is bound to fail. Maybe capitalism isn’t equivalent to the desire to possess after all, but is a species and strategy of that striving. Though a three-way never ensues, there is a near-final image in the film suggesting a communism of the flesh. But it is a gratuitous afterthought.

The experience of their own stuffiness casts a pall over their revolutionary ardor, putting an end to their misguided project of rectification. Realizing their scheme was fueled not by class-struggle and the proletariat’s heroic attempt to deliver the down-trodden from their oppressors but by their own resentment-fueled agendas (whether the distinction is plausible lies at the heart of the revisionist reception of the ’68 generation’s “idealism”), the three call off the kidnapping, returning their victim to his mansion. He in turn pardons them, canceling the young woman’s legally adjudicated reparation for running into his car, and returns, chastened, to his life of responsibility and security. Meanwhile, we are supposed to share his regret for having failed to maintain his revolution-for-the-sake-of-revolution ardor and made his peace with the “system”--the order that has ceased to confront him as the wholly alien “other.”

The father proves their superior in his even-tempered forgiveness
bordering on the incredible. We are asked to take his lack of anger toward his captors at face value, attributing it to his residual sense of shame for abandoning his ideals--for attaining success at the “institutional” equilibrium of self-organization. The film finally shows him to have attained a kind of resignation in and through nostalgia. A transformation that vindicates the misguided abduction and attempted re-education of the father-victim while at the same time robbing his abductors of an unambiguously malevolent enemy. The question is left open as to who is qualified-to-teach whom.  

In the final sequence the three are seen in bed under a pristine white sheet. A swat team assembles ominously (the power of the state is evil), then bursts through the door in an homage to the police intrusion scene in Die Verlorene Ehe der Katarina Blume (1975). That crack-down on the Republican-Army-Faction actually happened. Alas, this assault is but a fantasy necessitated by the need to create martyrs. But the violent knock on the door turns out to be a foreign cleaning lady who's come to offer her services. The swat team appears again entering and wandering disorientatedly about a suit of empty rooms. On one of the bare walls a piece of paper declares: “Some people never change.”

My sense an hour into the film was that it should have been made in the early ‘70’s. Or done as a period piece. As usual, the Germans, eternal late-comers to artistic trends (here the cinéma-verité style as a sort of controlled anarchism negating the privileged distance between viewer and enactment), go about their film-making business with Saturnine precision. There may well be some truth to the adage that German’s don’t invent, they perfect. (Though it is least applicable to their musical and philosophical innovations.) 

I personally find the remedial politicization of all things cultural and ideological in the wake of generations of unpoliticalness (the legacy of the ’68 generation) tedious, whether as a facet of higher-education or of cinematic efforts (with notable exceptions, i.e., Herzog, Fassbinder, Schloendorf). Though they may have visited the most awfully efficient atrocities on mankind in the last century, “the” German’s are a profoundly reflective and moral people (Luther, Lessing, Kant, Goethe, Schiller, Hegel, etc.). Theater as a “moralische Anstalt” (moral institution) is the title of one of Schiller’s essays. The spirit of Goethe [Elective Afffinities] is very much alive in our generation of creatives. It is a spirit of radical reflection first, artistic spontaneity second. That makes for a certain pedantic earnestness, but also real depth. Perhaps we should be thankful that German cinema is only breezy by imitation of the French model. Which explains why I recoil when they attempt insouciance. And the reason for this may "just" come down to linguistic differences (as if there could be any more determinative of cultural-spiritual character).

It thus came as a surprise that Weingartner's film turned out to have an ideological theme of great moral earnestness as its subject. The question is, is such a purpose reconcilable with the formal demands of an abduction-thriller’s mis-en-scène. A half-century into the age of revisionism, the answer is still: yes. And yet there is a lingering reluctance to accept The Edukators as a wholly successful film on purely cinematic grounds, given that it is so laden with and explores at such length the ramifications of liberationist ideology. The film is not an allegory. Yet the intellectual conflict it emplots, the political and literal acting-out of ideological consequences and the reflectiveness of the whole approach, bring it close to the allegorical. As a consequence, the characters assume something of the function of ciphers. It struck me as more literary than cinematic.

It is somewhat perverse that one presupposition of the film’s protagonists appears to be a sort of militant egalitarianism: crimes committed by have-nots should be exonerated on the basis of their in-equality with the privileged offender. The assumption is that the haves got where they are through “exploitation”; that security is the reward for compromising one’s principles. All that really counts is the fact of resolution and spontaneous engagement. The end justifying all conceivable means. The formula of nihilism. But, as stated, political idealism is the stance of the disenfranchised who have nothing to loose by taking on the system. They are primarily defined by their adversarial stance and their marginalism.

This dilemma is the heart and soul of the youth vs. establishment polarity our youth-culture celebrates. It is a face-off between those who have established themselves and have a stake (responsibility) in the “system” and those who have not made the compromises necessary to become insiders, players, or managers of institutions, of which the family is a primary and most natural example. It is, further, a version of the difference between romantic love and marriage. The youth celebrate their engagement as an end in itself, exalting in the pure willfulness of making changes in the world, however disruptive they turn out to be. But it turns out that they are themselves, for all their desire to redeem the excluded victims of capitalist exploitation, a bunch of nihilistic hedonists accountable to no one but themselves.

La Fleur du Mal - Claude Chabrol 2004 


                           “Time doesn’t exist, my dear: there is only the perpetual present." Aunt Line La Fleur du Mal

                                                                                                    
It's unusual for a thriller, even the perverse psychological thrillers of Chabrol, to reach its emotional climax in the utterance of an observation as perspicacious Aunt Line's. To encount eloquence in such a context and feel it resonate in a way that makes the actual misdeed--the genre’s center of gravity--pale by comparison, is a dream come true for literary types. Even rarer in a contemporary film that a senescent woman should utter words so pregnant with a lifetime’s reflection. Chabrol, as we ought to know by now, is one of the great directors of female characters, without therewith being a director of “women’s films” in the traditional sense. His women are the deeper vessels compared to men; registering the vibrations of the moral and emotional cosmos with seismographic sensitivity. Even the murderers among them are innocents. For all his cynicism, Chabrol--like Flaubert and Wagner--reserved his profoundest utterances for female personages. 



We pause to ponder, savoring the implications of time's illusoriness. The at first imperious denial of time’s passage--the affirmation of life’s timelessness--catches us off-guard. It’s a statement one would expect to encounter in a philsophical seminar, not at the moment in a crime-thriller when hiding the corpse should be the top priority. Yet the context gives the observation, delivered with deliberate tenderness as exhortation and painful-liberating conclusion across generations, its force. Conveyed in close-up by the earnestly imploring Aunt Line (Suzanne Flon 1918-2005)--whose murder of a Nazi-abetting father cast a pall over her own life--the denial of time's apparent discontinuity testifies to the fact that guilt does not have a season. It transcends the declension of time into past, future, and present. 

The bifurcation the future tense, as carrier and channel of possibility, forces on us, also makes possible the spectrum of valuation that discriminates the momentous from the incidental. In the most general sense it facilitates the hierarchization of priorities. Aunt Line, in negating the relativization of time, therewith restores the priority of conscience over history. Her statement can be read as asserting that there is no statute of limitations on taking another’s life; justice, like Plato’s Form of the Good, is beyond being. To assert that only the present exists is to reinstate the rule of eternity, and therewith its claims. It is to transcend the nihilistic implications of history and the ontological rate of decay of human deeds and meanings. 

The search (demand) for justice outlives all crimes, even undetected ones. It is in relation to the moral dimension, that court of judgment holding sway in all who are beholden to the human good, to the virtual community internalized as conscience, that we seek to atone and ‘come clean.’ Time by itself cannot wash away the residue of the misdeed--only the assumption of responsibility expiates the violation. By becoming guilty again through the vicarious assumption of guilt (blame) Aunt Line, the voluntary scape-goat loading herself with her niece's present-day sin, can reclaim both her humility and something like righteousness.

Two murders separated by an interval of sixty odd years elide in the present crisis. By assuming Michèle’s (Mélanie Doutey) guilt for her murder in self-defense, the arc of time comes full circle. In a moment of solidarity, Aunt Line offers to assume the guilt for the death of her son-in-law. In so doing she will atone for her own undetected crime, even as she never regretted committing it. In her eyes it will be an expiation, though the idea that one death (or murder) is interchangeable with another--that it makes sense to assume the responsibility for the someone else’s misdeed as a way of atoning for one that went unpunished--must remain problematical. 

The ‘virtual community’ of voices that is conscience is not the arbitrary product of our imagination, but embodied in real institutions. Aunt Line is sacrificing herself to their execution of justice. Whatever her conscience tells her, it's the willingness to deliver herself over to the executors of justice in the real world that will exonerate her in her own eyes. She is willing to accept punishment for the taking of a life she disdained, but only because, despite her final dissimulation, she will accept its judgement as her own. Absent deference to the standard of the just community atonement is null and void.

The past is the future. And always will be. That is the confession of the moral consciousness. The past is the future because we are the accrual of all our experiences, the harvesters of history. There is no expiration date for the prosecution of undetected transgressions. To realize this is to understand the necessity of God (of some agency transcending history). And to realize the disposibility of God once the intuition and institution of the suprahistorical (in that sense "eternal") has been accomplished. This step--the establishment and institutionalization of the conceptual as that which out-lives [de]generation--is itself, of course, a process within history. But the attainment of the trans- and supra-historical may nonetheless be understood as inaugurating a post-historical era (Hegel's end of history). An era that, paradoxically, first sets up the parameters for something like 'human history.'

Time is the great mystery. The all-nourishing abyss; the no-thing that contains all forms in their temporary existence. Every being is a “condensed emptiness” that succumbs to the entropic derangement of time’s passage. Egyptian kingdoms, Auschwitz, cherry blossoms. Entire species. In the dimension of time the real and the virtual are interchangeable. The non-existence of time suggests its passing doesn't devour all things without remainder.  We peer through the fog of the past and its lingering traces as through a veil--into the present. All things return. And nothing ever changes. The never-before is an illusion, even if it is warranted by our only-once, our single 'turn.'

Whatever may be true of the universe, the limit as thing-in-itself, human being cannot transcend the skein of dimensions as which it temporalizes space. Always ahead of ourselves, we are ever behind pasts lingering into future. We live towards the future as towards a reprisal. 

Our search for justice denies the dissolution of order; the slipping away of the responsible and culpable. For the search for order has always been the search for that which can be counted on and allows itself to be made accountable. The desire for justice is unappeasible and rejects the partitioning of tenses. The love of justice institutes eternity as the present containing all pasts. God as judge exists by virtue of the unpunishability of undetected crimes and because we are incapable of pronouncing just sentence without an absolute measure.

Billy Budd - (1962) dir. Peter Ustinov

 

Now this is a movie (having been a novella, a play and an opera). Blessed with history’s judgment (certificate) of significance, Ustinov has tackled the material without conceding anything to the stylistic mannerisms of nouveau vague or a wide-screen aesthetic, though the use of that format is mostly advantageous. Here is a classically constructed film with great performances. What is a great performance in a film? One that conveys the existential significance of a conflict without calling attention to the act of projecting it. By that measure Ustinov's adaptation has none of the theatrical performances and caricatures one encounters in Lean's adaptations of Dickens (Great Expectations, Oliver Twist)--the kind that shout to the rafters to dispel all ambiguity, effectively chasing away any trace of nuance in the process.



Ustinov’s cast is uniformly excellent. My one slight reservation is Robert Ryan’s portrayal of Claggart. He underplays his enmity, to be sure, but comes up a bit short in the process. I applaud his intention to humanize Claggart and make his villainy credibly banal and genuinely malific. But Ryan fails to fully convey the bitterness, envy and repressed yearning that would induce a frisson of appalled recognition.  Had he emphasized the malevolence, on the other hand, he would risked the opposite offense, over-playing in the manner of Lean's characterizations. Ryan had to walk a thin line, with perils on either side of ambi-valence. Robert Ryan makes a convincing scum-bag, malcontent and social deviant (as Cross-fire, The Racket, On Dangerous Ground, The Naked Spur amply demonstrate) but does not convey that final degree of malice the character of Claggart requires. 


What is required of performance in terms of emphasis is contingent upon the characterization around the role in question. Ryan's portrayal feels a bit flat and undercharged, yet it could be argued that his insularity, his recessed perch among the others, makes his portrayal of Claggart all the more inscrutable and sinister. 


What role the conspicuous absence of a British accent plays in my asssessment, I can only speculate. Imagine Trevor Howard (who’d just played the Captain Blye in Mutiny on the Bounty) in this role. Something like his magnitude of seething malice, razor-sharp focus and frightful spleen are qualities Claggart should convey. To do so while remaining believably human--vulnerable--was the special gift of Howard. Ryan's affable American core leaves one feeling that he is playing a role--excellently, yet incompletely covered by the shadow he projects.


Billy’s trial feels a bit like King Marke's speech in Tristan in dispersing the ardor of action through the sober focus of rational reckoning. With it the conflict of justice (criminal law vs. military law in a time of war) comes to a head, and our sense of out-rage bears mortifying fruit. Conflicts of justice are well-represented in emplotments going back to Antigone, in which the conflict is between laws of state (the King) and the rites and rituals of the family hearth. Antigone disobeys the decree to leave her brother’s body to rot in the open and buries him according to the most primordial law of all--to honor one's own in death. In Antigone this conflict sets up the rest of the play, which is about the consequences of Creon’s decree (disobedience, suicide, condemnation); hubris (pride), and its tragic consequences. There is a chorus in Billy Budd too, but it is kept in check when its angel of mercy is lead to the noose. In place of hubris we have a decent man (Captain Vere) wanting to do what is just under the circumstances. All members of the military tribunal on board acquit Billie of intending to kill Claggart. His blow was a substitute for a sense of indignation he could not give words to. Nonetheless, his action caused the death of his commanding officer, and therefore, under the code of law in force at a time of war, he is guilty of murder and deserves to be hanged.


 My disappointment was in part due to the way in which Captain Vere, with hypothesizing disinterest and dispassion, leads the members of the tribunal to reconsider, in light of the cold letter of the law, their acquittal of Billie on the grounds of his personal motivation and character. It becomes a court procedural, a moment of grudging affirmation of the law as it stands over merely human or psychological considerations. This is different from a conflict about royal decrees, less immediate and more abstract. It represents, in Robert Kegan’s developmental conceptuality, the conflict between interpersonal (the other as non-relative responsibility, mirror and equal of the self) and institutional selves (the self as identified with and ally of the institution, ideology, law, state being served). In effect it is a conflict about allegiance and ultimate authority. The tribunal exists to serve the law, not as Billy's friends or neighbors. That they are both at once, but must be only the arm of the law for the sake of legality, but not justice, struck me as both inhuman and oddly majestic. The horror of the triumph of reason as the consequence of Law. 


I suspect Melville's intention was to turn us against the law entirely, rather than the discomfiting sense of ambivalence I experienced, but I can't be sure. That we are supposed to feel horror at the waste of life seems clear enough.

To have the turning point that sets up the ‘resolution’ of the plot hinge on this moment of reflective conflict seemed anti-climactic, even perverse. The moment Captain Vere hesitates to accept the initial verdict one realizes what is to about to unfold: an innocent will be lead to slaughter, the letter of the law enforced for its own sake. For the sake of the institution of justice. Melville’s message seems to be: justice is unjust and in some cases even evil.

The perverse and mortal injury inflicted on a hapless victim, a paradigm of beautiful humanity, fills one with outrage. For beauty is what points us to the consumation of life, impregnating and inspiring us to bear fruit. By comparison the execution of penal law, which must always be arbitrary, is an instrument of vengeance, apportioning retribution as negation of privilige, even the privilige of life itself.

To take the life of such a well-loved man should lead to mutiny. It does not. The attempted rebellion is kept in check by prudence, ultimately by fear. The ‘criminal’ is led on deck to the noose and, after blessing Captain Verre, who turns away in horror at this last manifestation of saintly humanity, is hoisted aloft to his final struggle. The law--but not justice--prevails because of one man doing his duty. Presumably his pride in carrying out the sentence to the letter will outlive the momentary mortification of watching the robbery.

One might wonder if Melville has not gone a little overboard here in having Billie bless the captain. It elevates Billy into the realm of Christ-like numinosity. But it works, dramatically speaking, and that’s enough to justify it.

Claggart’s false accusation may be understood as the attempt to destroy the source of his mortification and sorrow, the innocence of Billy, out of shear envy.  The question of interpretation regarding the supposed homo-erotic tensions seems comes down to the question of love, not sexual attraction. I think Claggart would have resented, more than the challenge to his authority, the sense of his own weakness in the presence of Billy’s radiant purity of heart and guilelessness. Such a motive would make him even more evil. The world is intended to love Billy, and Claggart represents the taint of humanity confronting grace; the failure of the erotic as the only response ultimately commensurate with Billy’s beauty, viz., its idealization.