Interviews with Hideous Men — Jessica Yu’s Documentary Protagonist

Jessica Yu’s 2007 documentary Protagonist chronicles the lives of four men to reveal how absolute certainty is a form of psychological blindness that can entail devastating consequences. In a spare, Errol Morriseque approach, Yu sticks mostly to upper-body shots of the men, who tell their stories directly to the camera, beginning with childhood and extending into their formative traumas and the consequent fallout of these traumas. Yu uses film or video of the men from outside sources at times (news reports, surveillance video, home video, cable access shows, etc.), but the major conceit for dramatizing or reenacting the men’s stories comes from her use of wooden puppets. These wooden puppets are dressed in ancient Greek theater garb, including two-faced masks; the puppet segments are set in a miniature Greek theater. In addition to the puppets who play act parts of the interviewee’s stories, there is a Greek chorus which introduces each chapter of the film by reciting lines from Greek tragedies that correlate directly to the men’s lives. While these lives never directly intersect, Yu deftly crafts her film to show how each person, as the protagonist of his own life, must course a trajectory against the curse/blessing of family, history, and social conditioning. While the men share certain phenomena in their pasts—abusive parents, strict religious upbringings, early childhood traumas—it’s their search for ultimate, authoritative certainty that most unites them. Each man quests for identity, and along the way is challenged, experiences epiphany, dreams of apotheosis, and achieves eventual catharsis. The search for certitude eventually blinds each man; as the film concludes, each subject recounts how absolute certainty—the absence of doubt—is precisely what leads to unthinking, inhumane actions. The film ends with one interviewee paraphrasing Socrates’ famous dictum: I only know that I know nothing.

I’ve omitted so far exactly what specific details make these men’s lives so hideous, so odious, so fascinating, so redemptive—so worth watching. Namely: What did these four dudes actually, like, do in their lives that is worth 90 minutes of your time? I was lucky enough not to know such details going in to the film, and I think that there couldn’t be a better way to see it. Each man tells his life story, beginning in youth; the stories become increasingly shocking as they progress. With this in mind, I strongly recommend you see Protagonist and skip the rest of the review, which contains SPOILERS.

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“Just Asking” — David Foster Wallace’s 9/11 Thought Experiment

Here’s David Foster Wallace’s “Just Asking,” from the November, 2007 issue of The Atlantic

Are some things still worth dying for? Is the American idea* one such thing? Are you up for a thought experiment? What if we chose to regard the 2,973 innocents killed in the atrocities of 9/11 not as victims but as democratic martyrs, “sacrifices on the altar of freedom”?* In other words, what if we decided that a certain baseline vulnerability to terrorism is part of the price of the American idea? And, thus, that ours is a generation of Americans called to make great sacrifices in order to preserve our democratic way of life—sacrifices not just of our soldiers and money but of our personal safety and comfort?

In still other words, what if we chose to accept the fact that every few years, despite all reasonable precautions, some hundreds or thousands of us may die in the sort of ghastly terrorist attack that a democratic republic cannot 100-percent protect itself from without subverting the very principles that make it worth protecting?

Is this thought experiment monstrous? Would it be monstrous to refer to the 40,000-plus domestic highway deaths we accept each year because the mobility and autonomy of the car are evidently worth that high price? Is monstrousness why no serious public figure now will speak of the delusory trade-off of liberty for safety that Ben Franklin warned about more than 200 years ago? What exactly has changed between Franklin’s time and ours? Why now can we not have a serious national conversation about sacrifice, the inevitability of sacrifice—either of (a) some portion of safety or (b) some portion of the rights and protections that make the American idea so incalculably precious?

In the absence of such a conversation, can we trust our elected leaders to value and protect the American idea as they act to secure the homeland? What are the effects on the American idea of Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, Patriot Acts I and II, warrantless surveillance, Executive Order 13233, corporate contractors performing military functions, the Military Commissions Act, NSPD 51, etc., etc.? Assume for a moment that some of these measures really have helped make our persons and property safer—are they worth it? Where and when was the public debate on whether they’re worth it? Was there no such debate because we’re not capable of having or demanding one? Why not? Have we actually become so selfish and scared that we don’t even want to consider whether some things trump safety? What kind of future does that augur?

FOOTNOTES:
1. Given the strict Gramm-Rudmanewque space limit here, let’s just please all agree that we generally know what this term connotes—an open society, consent of the governed, enumerated powers, Federalist 10, pluralism, due process, transparency … the whole democratic roil.

2. (This phrase is Lincoln’s, more or less)