Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Tough Guise in Paris

I loved the movie La Haine, though I admit a bit of trepidation after reading that it was intense. The last movie that I watched that I described as “intense but completely worth it” was American History X -- also an investigation into violence, race relations and their utter breakdown, scapegoating, and the cost we pay as a society for not doing better. I completely loved that film too, but I wasn’t certain i was up for another viewing.
La Haine shows us a completely different view of Paris than the one we see in film, on postcards, in travel brochures, in depictions of and aspirations to sidewalk markets and cafes. The Paris we explore with Said and his pals is gritty, dirty, depserate and desolate, one with ample idle time from unemployment and little in the way of possible meaningful engagement. My favorite character by far is Hubert, the foil on all the pull-yourself-up talk that we hear in any Western country -- save up, do well, work hard, be your own man. Hubert did that, getting out of a life of crime just in time to avoid a prison sentence, saving two years for a gym that is burned down just before the film opens. Hubert is shown as placidly boxing with his punching bag, acceptance and resignation his tools for handling devastation of his life’s purpose.
His companions, especially Vinz, seem completely opposed to this way of living and looking at the world and their section of society. By contrast, they seem hell bent on respect, convinced that it can be won at the end of a gun, through the right haircut, and to the beat of a tough guise that comes complete with fashion and haircuts as well as swagger.
The misogyny is so pervasive it almost fades into the background. Talk of your sister, your mother, that girl peppers every conversation and even the graffiti to the point that it seems ludicrous that Said takes it seriously enough to be offended. And yet we all are, of course. Women appear to be the only ones who have jobs or homes to share -- the grandmother sits at her dining table while Said and Hubert and Vinz make disrespectful remarks, take food without manners, and shove off to activities unknown.
I loved that the film was black and white, an homage to art films while also nodding to the stark divide amongst those who belong and those who don’t in Paris. There is a subtle moment when the primacy of the Real Parisian shows up during the scuffle on the rooftop between police and the assembled youth. A young man, clearly a True Parisian, is talking with the decorated officer when another officer interrupts. With all the arrogance and authority that only the French seem to have, but have in buckets more than any other country ever, the youth turns to the interrupter, puts his hand up, and tells the non-Parisian not to talk to him, saying “I don’t know you.” There is a moment of tense silence where everyone gets on board, and then the Parisian youth resumes talking with the uniformed officer as though the interruption never happened. There are no consequences for the group, given that the Parisian smoothed things over, but it’s clear that this gathering isn’t wanted, isn’t warranted in the dominant view, and is highly suspicious, despite being guilty of nothing more than indolence, unemployment, and a penchant for hot dogs (which should be a culinary crime in my opinion). The message is clear: No matter what activity is going on, status reigns in Paris.
The film goes on to show us that American machismo culture’s promise of respect through violence and aggression holds sway in Paris no less than in Chicago. The contagion of toxic masculinity continues to spread as we see disenfranchised young men scramble from drugs to guns to find the love and belonging they clearly crave.
Scapegoating is a huge part of this toxicity, on both sides of the fence. Events such as the Charlie Hebdo shooting, the nightclub attacks, and the Champ Elysees incident of last week only heighten the sense of insecurity and widen the fear-driven social divide. The disenfranchised citizens scapegoat the police, while the ruling class tightens its control on definitions of power, authority and identity, leaving less and less latitude and legitimacy for those who don’t make the cut.

Defining the attacks as acts of terrorism blinds us to the chasm of inequality that drives the young men to violence, leaves an extreme arm of an otherwise peaceful religion the most attractive choice for droves of young men who feel left out, cut out and left behind. One is reminded of the IRA in the 1980s, a desperate use of violence for legitimacy and a future that included them by men who had little to do with the tenets of Christianity. The European man today, no less than the northern Ireland man of forty years ago, is struggling against a narrative of nonexistence, one in which he must shout to be heard, where he owns nothing but his tough posture and a gun. We can all agree with Ben Ahmed: “C’est catastrophique.”