Dreams Involving Water

By Gary Indiana

There has been no butter for two weeks. A taxi driver thought there might be butter in the supermarket in Miramar. I think so too: I once saw a man in that market buy 20 cases of Coca-Cola in loose 12-ounce bottles. Otherwise there is no butter to be found anywhere in Havana. I am not going to Miramar just to find butter. I am content to believe I could, whereas I'd be most unhappy if I went and discovered they didn't have any.

Last week there were no tomatoes. We looked for them everywhere, to make spaghetti sauce. Just when we resigned ourselves to no tomatoes ever again, the markets were suddenly full of them. Things like this happen all the time. Yesterday our building elevator, broken since the rains in May, was repaired. We rushed out for the joy of returning later and making out with our dates in the elevator. Or with each other, if we didn't find dates.

There is now a shortage of pharmaceuticals. That is the embargo. I have an infection. First the national pharmacies ran out of Diproma for pain. Then Cipro disappeared. In the full-price international pharmacy in Miramar a tall, 40ish Jewish American princess held up the line for 40 minutes with the kind of obnoxious, trivial complaint visiting Cuban Americans love to inflict on people working here in stores, smugly aware that they are inconveniencing many of their former countrymen by exploiting the bureaucratic fastidiousness and imperturbable slow pace of the people serving them. The proud little smile this witch offered the 12 people waiting behind her reminded me for all the world of my erstwhile editor at Perseus Books, a malignant twat named Lara Heimert, who was full of absurdly unmerited self-confidence and had the brains of a luncheon menu. I gave the woman in the pharmacy the finger, which happened to be the infected one. I've just given Lara Heimert the same finger, so I suppose this infection is good for something.

The orthopedist at the university hospital wanted me to take Cipro for five days before he lanced the blistered fingertip, which everyone on the Malecon is curious about now, as it began as a tiny white discoloration and quickly blossomed into a major problem. Also, since it was soaked in iodine, the bandage looks like a little orange microphone for Karaoke Barbie. But after two days I couldn't stand it. We went to see Ricardo's mother's cousin who works in a hospital lab across the road from Carlos III shopping center. She walked us through a maze of hospital corridors and waiting areas, some of them open to the sky, to a doctor who told her to poke it open with a sterile needle and squeeze the pus out, which Ricardo's mother's cousin proceeded to do, while a lab worker on maternity leave came by to show off her new baby. I wanted to scream from pain but didn't. I looked at the baby and saw a future of scrapes and bruises. Life is short and full of pain and always beautiful, besides.

My Santeria doctor thinks he can cure anything. He is useless for anything besides back problems, where he does possess a certain genius. Even then, he insists on explaining “the Eastern philosophy” he studies, at such tedious length that what are basically chiropractic sessions are 10 percent treatment and 90 percent explanation of how the blood flows around the brain when the chakras or whatever are in tune with the moon. I get a brand new pain from nodding like a moron for 40 minutes out of 60. All the same, I call him to give me acupressure with a lit taper, which distracts me from my finger.

At the original hospital a different orthopedist, young and handsome, studies the result of my treatment at the second hospital. He decides to scalpel away the blister, scrape out the infection, and douse the wound with iodine. First he injects a local that numbs my other fingers and leaves the afflicted one with full sensation. So that little operation was a trip. Now the finger is almost normal but I can't get it wet. The surgical glove they gave me to wear in the shower doesn't fit over the bandage. We wanted to go to Camaguey and swim in the coral reef. Now we can't do it until August, if I come back in August. You must never plan, is the lesson here. Last year all the raving beauties on the Malecon were from Isla de la Juventad, but this month they are all from Camaguey. We thought it would be nice to meet some who hadn't moved to Havana and become complete whores yet. It has to wait.

Some notes on The Act of Killing: I didn't bring the press book. But IFC picked it up on the festival circuit, so it should be playing at IFC Center right now, or soon, or maybe it just did. Although I've come to feel that film reviewing is as idiotic as art reviewing—most people no longer watch movies in theaters, so reviewing them doesn't even count as a consumer service—I will risk saying this is the only recent movie besides Melancholia and Amour that I made a point to see in an actual theater, though not for exactly the same reasons. I had heard that The Act of Killing shows something new and urgent about the banality of evil in our time, and that turned out not to be an exaggeration. So it is better to see it sooner than later. Why put off having any residual illusions shattered?

Parenthetically, a recent spate of “smart for the stupid” magazine prose efforts have attacked Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem in connection with Margarethe von Trotta's current biography film starring Barbara Sukowa as Arendt. These articles have been written by people who cannot distinguish an idea from an opinion, and believe their opinions qualify as ideas. They also appear to think that by “banality” Hannah Arendt meant “boring.” Eichmann's banality was fascinating, as Arendt made entirely clear, for his extreme typicality, Eichmann being a standard-issue product of a highly organized bureaucratic society that happened also to be devoted to evil ends, the means to which were technically indistinguishable from the working apparatus of any other “advanced” society. For example, though this fact emerged long after Arendt's report, the numbers tattooed on Jews in the death camps corresponded to numbers on computer punch-cards provided to the Reich by the German branch of IBM, used the way such cards would've been used to compile data of any sort in another country. But these particular cards were used to track down every Jew in Europe and their numbers were replicated on the skin when an individual Jew had been processed for extermination.

That Eichmann imagined himself an intellectual, even a scholar of Judaism, exactly reflects “the absence of thought” which Arendt speculated, in The Life of the Mind, enables people to do evil. This hypothesis has also lately been attacked, as if it had been put forward as a certainty. Arendt's entire report on the Eichmann trial has in fact been disparaged by what I suppose are called cinema pundits writing on the von Trotta film, on the grounds that Arendt only attended a few days of the trial and otherwise relied on transcripts as her source material. I can't think of any criticism more unconsciously reflective of the twisted spirit of the day, in which the world of appearances is taken for reality, when all philosophy since Plato proceeds from the opposite understanding. It is not entirely beside the point what Eichmann looked and sounded like, but Arendt experienced this in the courtroom and in fact his eccentricities as well as his ordinariness were part of the banality she perceived, and what he actually said is far more telling than what his hair looked like when he said it. What's fetishized by the new hue and cry about Eichmann in Jerusalem is the idea that anyone sensitive to their own vivid impressions, whether equipped with Arendt's formidable powers of reasoning and deduction or two hairs short of a pinhead, can arrive at the truth about anything by recording what it feels like to them. This was the masturbatory raison d'etre of 60s New Journalism, and it has never entirely gone away. It's obvious to me, anyway, that Arendt's latest slew of detractors are the least formidable she has ever had, incapable of separating her ideas from what they wrongly presume about her personality and character because of the fact that she had an affair with Martin Heidegger. This dovetails neatly with the undying, hysterical resentment over Arendt's observations about the Jewish Councils' role in the death camp deportations, and with the mentality of right-wing Zionism in general.  

As Arendt's cinephile critics have never read Heidegger, they also assume that everything he wrote is darkly and inextricably connected to his disgraceful collusion with the Nazis at the beginning of the Third Reich. If things were that simple, folks in Tuscarora might live in Utopia, but the rest of us would have no art, no literature, and no nuanced inner lives, since a great deal of life's interest derives from its unceasing plethora of contradictions.

I promise you will learn absolutely nothing important or even accurate about Hannah Arendt's thought by reading reviews of the von Trotta film, though the most conspicuous ones to date may incline you toward my point of view, i.e., that most film reviewers deserve to be film reviewers because anything more ambitious than sticking a thumb in the air is beyond their competence.

This brings us to The Act of Killing and why it's worth seeing: metaphorically speaking, it's a film about an Eichmann trial that never happened, and how an Eichmann might portray himself if things had turned out differently, and there had been a Thousand Year Reich instead of a 12-year Gotterdammerung. While the film is a bit disjointed, its disjointedness is that of a harrowing dream with interchangeably horrific parts, rather than the spawn of a delusional script conference. Its philosophical focus is steady, even if its narrative threads are full of disorienting tangles.

It showcases three unlikely-looking, middle-aged-going-on-elderly mass murderers in Northern Indonesia who played exuberant, hands-on parts in the genocide that followed the overthrow of Abdul Sukharno in 1965 (the coup depicted in the pre-Jew-baiting-Mel Gibson, Sigourney Weaver, and Linda Hunt vehicle, The Year of Living Dangerously), in which over a million supposed communists and ethnic Chinese were slaughtered in an amok-seeming, meticulously orchestrated frenzy, in part by General Suharto's army but also by local gangsters acting on Suharto's behalf, using lists of “subversives” and their locations provided by the CIA.

The Suharto coup was very much an American business-sponsored atrocity—vintage Kissinger & Co.—and as far as so-called free-market capitalism is concerned, it was enough of a success story that none of the people responsible for it have ever been held accountable. In fact, one of the major crimes against humanity in the 20th century is still celebrated in Indonesia as a patriotic triumph. The Act of Killing's central triad, who were movie ticket scalpers and besotted fans of American cinema before becoming mass murderers (partly motivated, according to them, by anger over a Marxist-imposed quota on Hollywood films), needed little encouragement from this movie's directors to reenact their murders on film, sometimes casting themselves as their own victims, restaging episodes of savage mayhem in the styles of their favorite film genres—the cowboy Western, the gangster flick, and, yes, the Technicolor musical.

The bizarre result is a brilliant study in impunity with implications that are hardly local. The American public's serene acceptance of a war against everybody, arbitrary violations of international law, torture, robot aircraft bombings in neutral countries, illegal detention of suspects, and, particularly, the flatulent, exculpatory rhetoric of Obama to soften its criminality into something gooily well-intentioned and accidental, is only a touch less obviously grotesque, thanks to America's superior brainwashing, than the spectacle of Indonesian talk show hostesses gushing admiration for this film's protagonists and the sadistic methods they invented to dispatch “the enemy.” It's when a fat cross-dressing member of the gang wistfully recalls telling his 12-year-old rape victim, whom he strangled afterwards, “This is going to be hell for you, but heaven for me” that I realized The Act of Killing may be too much for the very people who most need to see it.