DIALOGS FROM voxpop
By John Steppling & Guy Zimmerman************************************
I REMEMBER PETER BERG, the director of the new Universal film The Kingdom, from the one summer he participated at the Padua Hills Playwrights Festival. He struck me as an arrogant and superficial careerist, and later I wasn’t much surprised to see him appearing in various lightweight TV drama and the occasional studio film. Now, after twenty five years of sucking corporate studio cock he has made the single most offensive film of the decade.The kingdom in question is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (though it curiously resembles the San Fernando Valley for much of this tedious film).
The plot is basically a laying out of every American foreign policy conceit one can think of, coupled to the requisite apologia for violence and then all awash in your basic orientalist islamophobic sterotyping of the Arab world. What is rather astounding in this truly depressing exercise in stupidity is how Berg has revealed exactly the opposite of what he intended. The clueless and insensitive US FBI agents that arrive in Ryadh are so singularly boorish and truculent that anyone with even a modicum of intelligence or feeling will immediatly sense some glimmer of why much of the Arab world despises the United States.
Now, all the Saudis in the film are either mildly retarded and child like or simply non-thinking killers — though the reasons (much like in Rendition) are never contexualized in the least. It seems being a muslim more or less equates to mindless ferocious violence. The lone *good* Arab is a policeman who cooperates with the FBI agents and of course, like all colored sidekicks, has to die in the end. But hey, Jamie Foxx tells his orphaned son how brave dad was (this is right after Jennifer Garner….special agent ‘lips’…..hands some Saudi child a lolipop……which is really nice after blowing apart her family and neighborhood). So, it’s all ok.
Now, you might argue that Garner and Foxx and the increasingly irritating Chris Cooper are blowing apart the ‘hood’ to find Abu someone, the fingerless mastermind bomber who destroyed the american compound in Ryadh. Do I really have to do into the ironies involved in this plot? I think not. The real point here is the background assumptions about US involvement in the Middle East, and the basic treatment of what are clearly seen as lesser cultures.There is maybe not a single sequence where the FBI agents are not, with great patience, teaching those dumb A-rabs how to work, how to think, and how to have fun. Add to this the Peter Berg penchant for directing his actors in the manner of Bochco and Milch — a faux realism that always feels painfully artificial and strained. It’s a very particular expression of what mass culture feels is *seriousness*.
So, in short, another orientalist condescending piece of militarism. The FBI is heroic and “getting the job done”.Berg has so little grasp of history and so little basic imagination that the entire film feels, finally, utterly incoherent. This is the cartoon world of Bush and Cheney — and it’s the one The Weekly Standard describes, and it’s deeply offensive. The only thing worse than the constant depiction of Arabs as suicide bombing fanatics is the nauseating attempts to **humanize** them via the western biases of American exceptionalism.
I saw The Kingdom months ago and had a somewhat different reaction. I imagine Berg himself was a little perplexed by the poor reception, having thrown the kitchen sink at the story in terms of budget and faux-verite camera coverage. Also, with Scotland Yard brought in to “investigate” the Benazir Bhutto murder, the film was somewhat prescient in its basic plot conceit.
I actually don’t think racism was the problem. Tokenism? Sure, but those Emirates are freaky places – medieval realms sent hurtling into the post-industrial age by the steroid fuel of petrodollars. And those Arab royals, I would bet, are the source of George W. Bush’s royalist habits of mind. It’s certain that nightspots around Kennebunkport and Crawford provided an arena for coked out, boozy confabs between W and his close pal Prince Bandar about how much better the monarchical system is than the democratic one, setting the stage for W’s later encounters with Leo Straussian neo-fascists who reach the same conclusions traveling a different path.
But The Kingdom is only peripherally interested in these issues, which Berg views as a foundation for celebrating a particularly obnoxious idea of American individualism, one that confuses bravado for vitality and technical know-how for analytical competence. It was interesting to notice that Michael Mann produced the film as I have liked Mann’s film in the past. Thief, Miracle Mile, Manhunter and even the one about the cab driver attain a kind of lyricism that redeems their tired machismo. Berg wants The Kingdom to reach into the same terrain, but it doesn’t even get close and it would be interesting to analyze why. As it is, you just want bad things to happen to the Americans, whose souls belong to Ronald Reagan no matter what marks they would make in the ballot box.
The issue of Islam is confusing to me. I always feel as though I don’t know enough about what is really going on in the culture of resistance that has grown up largely in response to American imperialism at its most virulent. Islam itself is intriguing to me in how it is somehow at once the most repressive and monolithic of the three Abrahamaic traditions and also the one most concerned with social justice. I relate to the Christian mysticism of the Gnostics, Meister Ekhart, Boheme et al, as well as the heretical sects such as the Cathars. In Judaism you have the Kabbala and other very intriguing systems of mystical thinking. In Islam you have the Sufis and their astonishing teaching stories. The Sufi’s relationship to the teachings of Mohammed are just as intriguing as the Gnostics to Jesus. But in its fundamentalist forms, Islam is just as troubling to me as fundamentalist Christianity or Judaism. Fundamentalism, indeed, is the problem. The belief in belief. The human penchant to invest totally in a totally illusory system of feeling/thought and allow that system of beliefs to manifest in the realm of action.
My own sense is that this human tendency to believe in belief lead to the vast atrocities of Hitler and his ilk in the first half of the 20th century…and now we are faced with a similar threat but in the more primitive, pre-modern form of the great monotheistic religions. Demonic energies are being sublimated into a shadow-play where the footlights can be measured in mega-tonnage. The background of it all is, of course, the capitalist transformation of the industrial age, which provides the amperage, the capacity for destructiveness, the perverse, deluded will as well as the means. The Kingdom indeed.