Thursday, January 21, 2010

Critical Distance

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—Guess I spoke too soon, because here I am already with a new post! I guess this is what slacking off from going to the gym will do: free up time for blogging. I'll be back to my two-session-a-week routine next week, I promise!

In the meantime, there's something that's been on my mind recently that I'd like to put down here. To introduce it, then, an image:

Amidst the many random postmodern bits of movie-movie business strewn throughout Jean-Luc Godard's Pierrot le fou (1965) is one cherishable bit of real-world insight, one that's now more relevant than ever in ways I'll explain below. It comes early in the film, as Ferdinand (Jean-Paul Belmondo) is driving Marianne (Anna Karina) home. Marianne turns on the radio and hears a news broadcast reporting the number of soldiers on both sides of the Vietnam War killed that day. From that instant comes the following exchange (at least, as rendered on the Criterion DVD's subtitles):
MARIANNE: Awful, isn't it? It's so anonymous.


MARIANNE: They say "115 guerrillas," and it means nothing to us. But each one is a man, and we don't even know who he is—if he loves a woman, if he has kids, if he prefers movies or plays. We know nothing about them. All they say is "115 killed."
This particular dialogue exchange crossed my mind last week when I heard about the massive devastation in Haiti. Obviously, what's going on in Haiti right now—70,000+ people dead as a result of a 7.0 earthquake—isn't quite the same as people dying in war; the casualties in one come from a natural disaster, while the casualties in the other are entirely man-made. Here's the dovetailing point of interest, though: I'm hearing about the destruction in Haiti through media sources, just as I'm certain a lot of people around the world heard about the violence in Vietnam through radio and television. In other words, I'm hearing about it all from a distance. Unless you're physically present to see, with your own eyes, the unconscionable loss of life in both those situations, can you truly grasp the magnitude of destruction, particularly on an intimate human level? You may have an idea, buttressed by eyewitness reports you may see and/or hear, of how bad it is in Haiti right now, but that may be all it is: an intellectual grasp, but, depending on the kind of person you are, not necessarily a visceral or emotional one.

That kind of distance can be a slightly disturbing sensation especially if you are aware of it. I was sitting at my cubicle at the Wall Street Journal news desk when initial reports of the Haiti earthquake started flowing in, and honestly, I didn't think too much of it at first. The simple fact that a huge earthquake occurred in a third-world country like Haiti affected me no more than a standard murder reported on a local evening newscast usually would—which is to say, not all that deeply. But then more details started pouring forth: the initial death-toll estimates, the Richter-scale reading of the quake, and, later, the heartbreaking images and soundbites right from the stricken area. Only then did I start to get an idea of just how bad this situation was.

Even with that awareness in mind, though, it all still feels far away for me (literally and emotionally). I have no relatives in Haiti, and no one in my immediate circles of friends have been affected by the wreckage, at least as far as I know as of now. If I knew people affected by the tragedy, I might feel differently. But, as it stands for me right now, it feels like...well, a news story. And my comprehension of this feeling (or lack of it?) unsettles me just a tad. (Maybe I really just need to watch more TV news?)

And that's why I flashed back on that particular moment in Pierrot le fou. Godard, early in his filmmaking career, may have made films that, on a certain level, expressed a certain yearning for life to be like a movie. But he knew, deep down, even literature, sound or image had limits on accessing the various human truths of a situation. The distance is always there, however much a medium tries to bring you the cold, hard facts.

These realizations, of course, haven't stopped me from trying to do my part in contributing to the relief effort underway in Haiti. So far, I've donated some money to UNICEF online, and now that it may be possible to be able to write off those donations as 2009 tax deductions, I will probably contribute more. Short of actually going into Haiti to help the relief effort in person, I feel like it's the least I can do.

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