Anger Is An Energy: Responding To Paul Greengrass’s 22 July

Anger is an energy sang PIL, and so the punk movement took flight. Behind the now cliché of a colourful mohican was a frantic energy to destroy the status-quo of the elites running culture and politics. This was a music that left everything out on stage – except, perhaps, the instruments themselves which were often thrashed past the point of breakage when the gig has reached its climax. A few bands still do this even now; it’s seen to be a signifier of having given so much to the performance that there’s nowhere left to go, a symbol of the destruction of the established order. It’s also quite good fun to watch. Like most musical genres, once punk muscled its way into deeper public consciousness it seemed to have less energy, and to be a bit tired. That’s not entirely fair, but the hardcore punk fans see neo-punk acts who remain commercially successful as bands who have sold out – many true punks look disdainfully on bands like Green Day and their fans as having somehow failed by virtue of their success. The baton of truth is held, it’s said, by bands most of us would never have heard of; in punk, and in other genres that once betokened rebellion but now command widespread attention – RnB, hip-hop, rap. And so on.

Anger isn’t wrong; it just seems to be something that can easily tip us over into wrong. One New Testament letter writer doesn’t say ‘Your anger is a sin’; it says, instead ‘In your anger, do not sin’. Anger is an energy, which left unchecked can lead us to dangerously lose control; which is why the same letter-writer also recommends that if  we find ourselves angry with someone we love, to sort it out before bedtime.

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The truth is that there seems to be an awful lot of anger around at the moment. American conservatives are angry that under Obama their America was lost. American liberals are angry at the Conservatives for spreading hate and intolerance. Progressive Christians are angry at conservative ones for supporting Trump; conservative ones are angry with progressive ones for not doing so and for accusing them of selling out the gospel. Women are angry at men for the patriarchy and the abuse and the harassment; some men are angry at women for finding a voice, other men are angry at the rest of the men for speaking up or not speaking up. Brexit supporters are angry with Remainers for demanding a new vote and with their government for selling out the referendum; Remainers are angry with Brexiteers for being Brexiteers and with their government for an indecisive process. Here in South Africa … well, it feels to me as if everyone is angry with one group or another. Apply to your own country or context several times over.

Social media is often blamed for this; and it’s true that never having to see the person you’re typing at makes it easier to get angry and nasty; or at least not having to see them in that moment … a bit like over-spending on the credit-card because it doesn’t feel like real money. If anger is an energy, it’s often a destructive one, whether it’s musical instruments, people or political unity.

Anger was destructive on 22 July, when right-wing terrorist Anders Behring Breivik murdered 77 young people attending a Labour Party Youth Camp on Utøya Island outside of Oslo after detonating a car bomb in the city. Paul Greengrass’s new film, titled 22 July tells this story. With his background in television journalism, British director Greengrass is attracted to stories like this; most powerfully in United 93 which told the story of the plane hijacked on 9/11/01 that never made it to its intended target. That he managed to tell that story without nationalistic fervour, hatred or voyeurism is one of the great cinematic achievements this century. A similar eye is there in his more action centred films – the Bourne movies (3 of which are his) may be fictional thrillers, but they are ones that seem to live in a nearly-real, believable world. If a film had to be made about Utøya Island (and as someone who knows what it’s like to lose someone to terrorist atrocities, I think that’s an open question) Paul Greengrass is the man to do it. He does so with a cinema release, but primarily on Netflix, to get what he sees as an important story into the medium most likely to reach younger people.

It’s a film with clear segments. The first 30 minutes or so portray the massacre itself – the families of victims asked him to neither sanitise nor exploit it, and he achieves that. It’s a devastating half-hour, shot in the eerie half-light of Scandinavian summer; deaths and injuries are real, but not lingered on. Its cinematography is a mixture of his trademark shaken, handheld cameras which deliberately jar with some powerful longer shots; one, of a group of teenagers huddled fearfully halfway down a cliff face, is especially memorable and moving. From there the film follows two paths – the recovery of one teenager badly injured, and the arrest and eventual trial of Brevik. Throughout nothing is soft-soaped, but neither is it milked; the teenager’s recovery is hard to watch (beyond a couple of scenes which feel a little contrived or clichéd; though I’m aware we can’t know the details of his recovery process). Brevik (brilliantly portrayed) is neither mad nor cartoonishly evil; he’s coldly rational, angry and aware. The moment we all know is coming – when he walks in to court and gives a long Nazi salute – is no less upsetting for it being predictable. That’s all in the brilliance of the direction and the performance.

None of these people are the central character, though. That’s Norway itself; the country Brevik insists is on trial. Greengrass said in his brilliant and eloquent interview with the BBC’s Simon Mayo (Simon Mayo interviews Paul Greengrass) that he wanted to tell the story of how Norway wrestled with the issue of whether to let Brevik tell the court his reasons; should we listen to his anger, or should they deny him the oxygen of publicity? Is it ever right to listen to the people who do these things? Norway decided it was; and the result, Greengrass claims, is that anger is is dissipated. In that interview Greengrass cites the ongoing divisions over Brexit, the rise of the far-right in diverse countries and the political cauldron of the USA as contexts where a similar exercise in listening might be fruitful or even healing.

It sounds true and wise, and probably is. I’ve tried hard to listen over recent years, as best as I am able to practically, given my circumstances. But the thing is, I’m getting sick of it. I’m getting sick of being shouted at – metaphorically in text or in reality through someone’s voice. I’m sick of being told or thinking I might be intolerant on the one hand or racist on the other; of being theologically liberal or conservative or progressive; of being a toxic male or a weak one; of being a parent who’s too strict or too permissive. And so it goes on. If listening really does dissipate anger’s energy, or allow the wrongness of the ideas that drive it to be seen for all it is, then I’ve yet to really experience it. Maybe dealing with it once in Norway just caused it move and take root more deeply elsewhere, like some sick version of Whack-A-Mole.

What do we do with our anger, mine and yours? Unexpressed anger is a breeding ground for all sorts of darkness, of which others or the angry one themselves may both bear the brunt. There are plenty of places in the Bible, for example, where anger and lament is given a voice; but this is rare in our public worship. Saying or singing the psalms doesn’t seem to be something that works in many settings now – so maybe we need new expressions of these texts, or songs and hymns that give voice to very contemporary laments. Still, though, many Christians seems to feel that anger is inherently sinful, and that its very expression or acknowledgement will let the genie out of the bottle. What about the rest of us, though; the increasing majority who are ‘spiritual, but not religious’; atheist or agnostic? What are their options? How do we listen well, and express anger well without the cancer spreading or worsening? How do we find the strength to keep listening when we’re sick of it?

I don’t know.

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In Which A White Man Pontificates On Black Anger, or Finding Words To Respond To BlacKkKlansman

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Urgency and reflection do not often sit together – and nor should they. Usually. When an ambulance receives an emergency call, the crew don’t sit around reflecting on what might be the best treatment; they don’t pour over maps together discerning the best route to the site of the emergency. It’s all done on the fly, usually with the support of others. Other times reflection is important, no matter the apparent urgency. I may feel it’s urgent to add my thoughts to a discussion, for instance – my perspective is burning in my heart with every passing syllable, but as an introvert I frustratingly find I can’t get a word in edgeways with which to dispense my pearls. But reflect a moment: is my voice really needed? Is what I have to say really that revolutionary or perceptive?
BlacKkKlansman, the new film from Spike Lee, has arrived on a wave of urgency and hot-takes and opinion pieces. I’m a white man, and film criticism has a superfluity of people from that demographic. In all honesty there are very few people waiting for my take on it. That’s all well and good, until one sees the film. It may be set in the past but the subject-matter, the film’s extraordinary epilogue and the way that epilogue is carefully but clearly foreshadowed throughout the film make clear that this is indeed an urgent film. The end result of seeing this film is so overwhelming and moving, so urgent and clearly of profound relevance to the world in which we live, that I stumbles out of the cinema desperate to talk to someone about it. But I couldn’t. I could barely form the words to talk to my wife about it (with whom I saw it); I managed a few whispered conversations along the lines of ‘It’s great. Those last 10 minutes; wow’. But it’s been hard to articulate what and how and why I think about it all.
Then along came Serena Williams, racket smash and foul-mouthed tirade and all, to complicate matters. I found the voice to comment on that, on what I feel was racially tinged, sexist treatment of her both on court and in the media. Somehow I found myself trying to link Serena and BlacKkKlansman and Donald Trump and a few other things besides. My magpie mind rarely moves in straight lines, but still I couldn’t quite articulate it.
Here I am, a week or so on from seeing BlacKkKlansman, still unable to fully articulate a response to it. The facts are quite simple. Based on a somewhat extraordinary true story that seems too bizarre to be real, it’s the story of Ron Stallwaorth, an African-American police officer in Colorado who uses his voice on the telephone to infiltrate the local branch of the KKK in the 1970s; in a bizarre echo of Cyrano De Bergerac, his white colleague Flip Zimmerman incarnates his telephone personality. Much of it is played for laughs – and the laughs are real, out-loud, clever ones. The performances are note-perfect, pitching the comedy with just the right undertones of impending suffering. It’s in the film’s final act that the story takes a fully dark, disturbing tone – personalities unravel and events spiral out of of everyone’s control; then, in the film’s coda, we find ourselves with documentary footage of Trump and emboldened white-supremacy on the streets of Charlottesville. A character’s earlier insistence that America would never elect someone who would appeal to the KKK’s base rings in our ears, exposing the lies of comfortable liberalism in the same way as the heightened reality of Get Out did.
This is no heightened reality, however (no criticism of Get Out’s take on things – it worked brilliantly); the last few minutes of footage I had studiously avoided from seeing in detail in news reports becomes inescapable; the reality of a white supremacist in the White House exposed as a sin to lay at the door of smug white liberalism as much as at the feet of those walking the streets of Charlottesville with flaming torches. The film is a cry of rage and a call to action made all the more audible by the film’s respect for its medium and its audience – it never forgets the importance of telling a good story, of being funny and exciting. We finish on a still image of a young white woman who died in the protests at Charlottesville, her dates underlined with the maxim ‘Rest In Power’.
In truth, I still don’t know what to think or say about all this. It’s clearly Spike Lee’s best film for a while; perhaps his masterpiece (which is quite something, given his back catalogue). It’s certainly important, as much as I hate the worthiness so often associated with the word as applied to art. What I can say, though, is that this film shows me abundantly and completely that the world doesn’t need the pontificating of over-privileged white men like me. It needs us to listen, and then not act. Listen to the times, listen to the voices of the marginalised and fearful, then to do what they ask us to do. Above all, it tells us never to rest in the comfortable lie of ‘It will never happen’. It will, it did, and it is. In America, and with growing confidence in many other countries.