Everything is Local: Benny Torati's Desperado Square

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December 23, 2009

Benny Torati’s Desperado Square tells the story of a Tel Aviv slum that appears to be removed both spatially and temporally from Israel. Suspended in time and place, its Mizrahi residents are in a state of blissful ignorance or, rather, of “arrested development” and spend their days in seemingly infantile pursuits: collecting wood for the annual bonfire, pushing each other in a cobbled-together cart, playing pranks on each other, and staging scenes from favorite action movies—Tarzan, Maciste, Hercules and the like.

A year after the death of Morris Mandavon—the suburb’s “statesman”—his son Nissim has a dream. His father appears and beckons him to reopen the old neighborhood cinema he had shut down twenty-five years earlier. On that very day, Morris’ brother Avram returns to the neighborhood after prolonged absence. In search of a suitable movie for the reopening of the cinema, Nissim and his brother consult the neighborhood old-timers.

The Mandavons decide, to screen the legendary Indian film Sangam, but find out not only that their mother, Signora, fiercely objects to the idea, but also that Avram owns the only copy of the film and is reluctant to hand it over. Subsequently, they learn that Signora, Avram and Morris were involved in a love triangle that bears more than a passing resemblance to the plot of Sangam. Signora and Avram were in love, and their meeting place of choice was the theater, for private screenings of Sangam. Yet, as Signora was engaged to Morris, through an arrangement of their families, Avram felt compelled to leave the neighborhood, to clear the way for his brother.

Rewind to the present: Avram reconsiders his position and remits his copy of Sangam. The film is shown, and it is received with great enthusiasm. In its final scene, Avarm and Signora make their way to the theater, where they meet once more for a private screening of the film.

Desperado Square is, then, a film about the love of cinema. More specifically, it is about the love of Indian cinema, about the kind of cinema frowned upon and derided by the Ashkenazi economic and cultural establishment in Israel, yet tolerated as the cultural example of the “developmentally arrested” Mizrahim.

The move to reclaim Indian film culture is commonly viewed as a move to assert local (that is, Israeli) Mizrahi identity and culture, in the name of universals that are different from the universals that cultural critics regularly appeal to in their assessment of Israeli culture. The turn to Indian film is thus viewed as an implicit rejection of American, and moreover, European film culture, traditionally favored by Israeli film critics as exclusively appropriate for the western state Israel desires to be. Sami Shalom-Chetrit thus writes: “The power of this films lies in its incredible ability to be so local and intimate and […] simultaneously so universal.” Torati, Chetrit contends “forms a new artistic language, connected to a universal artistic language, and in this he circumvents the block posted by the hegemony of the north.” For Chetrit, clearly, the embrace of Indian film culture is seen as a move to reorient local culture and relocate it from the American-European hemisphere to the Asian, and more specifically, to the Middle Eastern.

I do not dispute that Torati’s Desperado Square engages in a critical examination of Israeli cultural politics by staging or, rather, screening, a shunned film culture; shunned, that is, by the Israeli cultural establishment and by segments of the Asheknazi populace. Crucial to that examination is the juxtaposition or confluence (or, in Sanskrit, sangam) of both the local and the trans-local that takes place in the movie theater. Yet, that sangam, which takes place “at the movies,” as it were, is anything but resolute, as most critics would have it; in fact, far from providing a decisive alternative to the hegemonic cultural politics, the film raises some uneasy questions about cinema and cultural politics.

Sangam breaks the term ‘imagined community’—so prominent in the discussion of the modern locality par excellence, namely the ‘nation state’—into its two components, ‘imagined’ and ‘community.’ The community of Desperado Square is local, that is, un-imagined inasmuch as all of its members are in situ, that is, present in person at the theater at the time of the screening. Simultaneously, however, the community is produced as local by what is in absentia, that is, as an effect of what is projected on the screen, of another locality, of another time and space, of an Indian scene whose attraction lies precisely in that it is removed from the locality of the neighborhood. Or, to complicate things further, whose attraction lies in the effect it had on the community two and a half decades earlier. In other words, the power of Sangam is the power of nostalgia, in all its complex relationship to the present time and space.

What characterizes the community depicted in the film as being local is, quite obviously, its performance vis-à-vis the projected Sangam, something markedly different from what is deemed appropriate or proper behavior. The latter is marked by the self-containment of the body and its gestures—self-containment that stands for the emotional and intellectual self-control of the European bourgeois man, in whose image the Israeli elite sought to mold itself; more importantly, that self-containment renders the experience of going to the movies a lonely one, one in which the individual insists on his isolation, distinction and autonomy even in the midst of such a public space as the movie theater.

The audience in Desperado Square on the other hand, gesticulates its emotions broadly and publically: laughing and crying out loud, clapping hands, joining in the songs and dances. They thus remind one more of what seems to exist only at the margins of the US-European film culture, in cult films such as Rocky Horror Picture Show, so well known precisely because they are extra-ordinary: of cinema as an emotional and interactive experience, where by staging a performance over and against the screen, a communal experience is triggered. The performance sets that community—in both Rocky Horror Picture Show and in Desperado Square—over and against the community of decorum outside the theater, Israel’s national-bourgeois community.

But things are more complicated, still. An entire theater scene in Desperado Square is modeled upon another film, this time not an Indian film but a European one, and a staple of the so-called “European Art Cinema”, namely, upon Giuseppe Tornatore’s 1988 Nuovo Cinema Paradiso, an international critical and box office success in the US and Europe, as well as in Israel. In fact, one could argue that the structure of emotions of Torati’s film as a whole is derived not from the Indian cinematic tradition, but rather from the European and American tradition of such films as Nuovo Cinema Paradiso.

It should be noted that, whereas such films focus on the experience of cinema in small towns and villages on the margins of Euro-American civilization - in Nuovo Cinema Paradiso it is Sicily - their narrative structure tends to follow that of “high-brow” European and US cinema, which more often than not, has little to do with that of the localities they depict. They are ‘imposed’ narratives, which are not indigenous to the circumstances they describe, but, nevertheless help explain what’s ‘local’ about them.

Be that as it may, whereas reviewers have readily noted Torati’s debt to Nuovo Cinema Paradiso, to the best of my knowledge none has paused to ask how and where the two cinematic models interact within the movie and what is the effect of their interaction. What is the effect of viewing Sangam through Nuovo Cinema Paradiso, Bollywood through Cinecittà? I’d wager that Torati’s film—perhaps contradicting the filmmaker’s own intentions—is overlaid with the very European Jewish culture it seeks to criticize. Rather than reorient his neighborhood so as to circumvent the cultural hegemony of the Ashkenazi, Torati embeds it in an artistic structure that would buy its ticket of admission to the theaters in north Tel Aviv.

Desperado Square does not just demand that we become double-visioned in order to understand the locality of its neighborhood, in relation to Sangam on the one hand, and to Nuovo Cinema Paradiso and The Last Picture Show on the other. It also asks us to not, oddly enough, acknowledge them. In all three films, for example, the imagined trans-local community of the nation infringes on the local, and intersects it in the image of the military or, more precisely, of military conscription. In all three films, the protagonists are called to serve their nations and in all three they abide. That service takes them away from their “local”, cutting them off from it for a protracted period of time.

Particularly significant is that in its rendition of Sangam, Desperado Square fails to note the crucial part Sundar’s military service plays in the plot of the movie. It is this service that ultimately leads Radha to choose him over Gopal. If anything, Desperado Square refuses to acknowledge what it projects on its screen, rather than simply reflect it, as critics would have it.

Ultimately, Desperado Square seems to be involved in a process of misprisioning, to employ Harold Bloom’s term, a kind of strong misreading or, rather, mis-viewing, in this instance, of other films. What, following Bloom, I mean by this is a kind of appropriative viewing that manifests itself not in the reduplication of other films but, rather, in their revisionist “castration,” if I may use such a loaded term. That is, in their clearly insolent re-editing. This re-editing is what facilitates the localization of the international, that is, what allows for the appropriation of these powerful foreign productions.

In films such as Sangam, Nuovo Cinema Paradiso and The Last Picture Show, the movement of the local to the national is carried out through military service. The prominence of this narrative in international cinema helps make Desperado Square something more than an Israeli production, despite the fact that it is so thoroughly about Israel. The director’s misprisioning of this significance suggests a refusal to acknowledge that his film relies so heavily upon appropriated, foreign narratives. In this sense, one cannot wonder whether Desperado Square is forever doomed by its locality, as though it did not offer opportunities to understand Israel relationally. It is in this sense that the Desperado Square is “doomed” to remain forever local.

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