Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Stuck On Half Moon Street

[Note by way of introduction: Thanks to my friend Pastorius for inviting me to post to this blog, and my regrets for not often thinking up something equal to the privilege to post. Who am I? Well, I have a small mostly-unread blog over here if you're interested. Below is something I just co-posted there. -Sonic Charmer]

If you're as cynical about and tired of Middle Eastern politics as I am, an interesting thing to do for a laugh is to go back and watch or read some old movie or book from a long time ago that touched on Middle Eastern politics. Chances are, all the same issues will be present and it will be manifestly clear how little has been solved or progress has been made.

Conversely, if you're a wide-eyed optimist about things such as the "peace process", doing the above can be an important corrective.

For example, Half Moon Street is a (rather strange) movie starring Sigourney Weaver and Michael Caine. The main plot has Weaver, a supposed expert on the Middle East who works for some sort of "Middle Eastern Institute" in London, deciding to become a call girl. (This is mostly presented as liberating and independent, and Weaver appears to be attempting to look defiantly unsexy and unwomanly despite being nude in many scenes; the whole thing is steeped in a quaintly '80s notion of feminism.)

Anyway, she gets caught up in Arab/terrorist/etc political intrigue in the process, because (it's pretty clear even before the conclusion) she's being used as bait to try to blackmail or trap Michael Caine. Why? Because the Caine character is a bigger "expert" whom the government turns to in order to negotiate secret, and fragile, "peace talks", and the Bad Guys who Don't Want Peace (and the movie is very strange in its hints about whom these Bad Guys are) wish to prevent him from Creating Peace with his ingenious plans for Talks and Negotiations (which, of course, it is implied he will do if only he and his genius are kept safe from the Bad Guys).

The good smart people can create peace with their brilliant negotiations and talks and summits, if only the Bad Guys will let them and stop standing in the way. This is all pretty familiar territory to anyone following current events and familiar with conventional wisdom. But the funny part is that this movie was made in 1986 and based on a Paul Theroux book from 1984. All the same assumptions and naive beliefs are there as we have now. Apparently the smart people are so smart that they haven't learned a single thing in almost 25 years.

What really struck me, and what strikes me as more deserving of comment than it seems to get, is that in the film (as with real life) Middle Eastern politics are constantly being presented as something complicated and intricate (and of course important) that can and needs to be studied by "experts". The rather obnoxious Weaver character is presented as someone of overwhelming brilliance because of how much she understands. One thing she says in a (supposedly brilliant and cutting-edge) "talk" she gives is that it's cool for OPEC to limit production even though the Saudis don't like it (paraphrasing). At another point in the movie she praises Kuwait's "social services" (this was pre-Gulf War). This is the sort of brilliance that Hollywood minds believe can solve problems such as Israel-Palestine, you see.

About 2/3rds of the way into the movie, my mind started wandering, and I asked myself: why do we need so many "experts" on the Middle East, and so many "institutes" to "study" this (rather simple in its barbarism and not at all difficult to understand) place? What makes "the Middle East" so special? I mean, how many "Norway experts" or "Institutes for the Study Of Danish Politics" are there I wonder? My answer is: overeducated social-science people need ways to feel important and useful, and so they are the ones who create demand for roles such as "Middle Eastern expert", and perhaps they are egged on and indulged by wealthy Arabs needing somewhere to shower their propaganda money. In other words, it's not that the "Middle East" needs so much "studying", it's that a bunch of otherwise-useless people either need something to "study" or have too much money to throw at those who do.

To people whose views were informed by actual reality, the failure of "peace process" and "Middle-East expert" type thinking to accomplish, well, anything over the past three (four? five?) decades would present a challenge to conventional wisdom. But we seem stuck with the same old assumptions and beliefs. Our views about "the Arab world" are more like a mythology than anything else, and I wonder if we underestimate Hollywood's role. They are our mythmakers after all.


christian soldier said...

A list of movies -even the old b&w- would be great....
Thank you for the head's up on this movie....

Anonymous said...






Pastorius said...

Thanks. I appreciate it.

Pastorius said...

One of the greatest comments on Islam in a movie was from Malibu's Most Wanted.

The movie is about this kid, played by Jamie Kennedy, who grew up in the lap of luxury in Malibu. His father is a famous politician who pays him no attention, so he is raised by the black maid. He grows up more steeped in black culture than Malibu culture. So, when he's in high school, he and his friends fancy themselves living the thug life.

Anyway, one of his friends is a nice kid who happens to be a Muslim.

The hijinks of the movie ensue when their Malibu thug life crashes up against real thug life in South Central. They feel the need to arm themselves. So, he and his friends go home to get the weapons in their parents house. Jamie Kennedy comes out with a antique Musket from his father's collection. And, the Muslim kid shows up with a rocket launcher, because, you know, every Muslim family just happens to have a rocket launcher around.

The reason this is great commentary is because there is no indication in the movie that the young Muslim kid is anything but a decent, goofy human being. But, at the same time, none of us would be surprised if a nice kid from a nice home that happened to be Muslims, might also have an uncle who is running rocket launchers for Al Qaeda.