September 30, 2009

Based closely on the outstanding 1999 novel that won J.M. Coetzee the Nobel Prize in Literature, the new art house film Disgrace follows August’s District 9 in portraying the ever-growing Afrikaner diaspora’s dire view of black-ruled South Africa. While most reviewers of District 9 were too obtuse to figure out what Neill Blomkamp’s sci-fi movie was about, the portrayal of the fate of South Africa’s white farmers in Disgrace is too starkly horrifying for even journalists to ignore.

Disgrace won”€™t come within an order of magnitude of District 9‘s $114 million at the U.S. box office. It is the despairing antithesis of Taken, the surprise 2009 hit ($145 million) in which mighty Liam Neeson lays waste to half of Paris to rescue his virgin daughter from Muslim pimps. In Disgrace, however, effete John Malkovich (best known for, well, Being John Malkovich) portrays an ineffectual intellectual who fails to save his daughter from being gang-raped by newly liberated blacks.

I”€™ve read only one other Coetzee novel, 1980’s Waiting for the Barbarians, a conventional anti-apartheid allegory about the moral costs of imperialism. In Disgrace, however, the barbarians have finally arrived, and with a vengeance.

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<embed src=“” type=“application/x-shockwave-flash” allowscriptaccess=“always” allowfullscreen=“true” width=“290” height=“180”></embed></object><p>I can only vaguely guess how Coetzee’s career has managed to survive over the decade since publication of Disgrace. He remains a favorite of English professors who discourse on topics like “€œJ.M. Coetzee and the Postcolonial Rhetoric of Simultaneity,”€ even while he radiates contempt for them, such as in this hilariously curt interview. Although the ruling African National Congress has denounced Disgrace as racist, many white literary and film critics have managed to convince themselves that all the really smart people understand that the book must actually be about something other than what it seems to be about. (This is particularly ironic because the concept of rape as an act of political power, the essence of the plot, is a staple of academic feminism.)

Malkovich plays David Lurie, an aging Cape Town Casanova, who, in the usual academic sexual harassment brouhaha familiar from David Mamet’s Oleanna, gets fired from his job trying to explain Lord Byron’s poetry to college students majoring in Communications Studies.

The funny-looking Malkovich, whose affected delivery makes him sound like Liberace’s evil twin brother, has been frequently cast as a Lothario (for example, in Dangerous Liaisons) for reasons I can”€™t explain. But then, even though I”€™ve followed his career since his Steppenwolf days in Chicago theatre, I”€™m not sure why he’s a movie star at all. Force of will, I guess. Daniel Day-Lewis would have been more natural as Dr. Lurie, the olive-skinned Byronic seducer turned creepy middle-aged man. Or, if they had wanted a leading man who rather looks like Coetzee to play the presumably semi-autobiographical role, Jeremy Irons would have fit the bill. Still, Malkovich glowers and whispers his way through well enough.

In disgrace, the former professor retreats to the farm in the Western Cape he had bought Lucy, his blonde lesbian daughter, when her back-to-nature hippie commune broke up. He’s hoping to use the rural peace to write an opera entitled Byron in Italy.

Although the movie is very faithful to the bleakly Malthusian novel, the book is funnier. For example, when the ex-professor wonders whether his daughter truly is a lesbian, he muses, “€œSapphic love: an excuse for putting on weight.”€

The film suffers from the usual problems with prestige adaptations: a Nobel-level prose style doesn”€™t automatically mean Oscar-level cinematography and editing.

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Moreover, Coetzee’s tendency toward allegory doesn”€™t translate all that well to the screen. Disgrace is a parable about the insanity of liberalism in South Africa, as embodied by Lurie’s daughter, Lucy, who passively endures without leaving whatever degradations the New South Africa heaps upon her. In real life, fortunately, most liberals are vastly more hypocritical than poor Lucy. Movies are inherently a more realistic medium than books, so while Lucy’s stand against White Flight has a certain masochistic dignity in Coetzee’s spare prose, on screen it just seems stupid.

Lucy’s farm laborer, Petrus, an industrious Xhosa, has recently bought part of her acreage with a grant from the government, and acquired a second wife. Petrus barges into Lucy’s house to watch soccer on TV whenever he likes.

One day, when Petrus is conveniently away, three young black men walk up to the isolated farmhouse, knock Lurie unconscious, and rape his daughter. When he awakes, the home invaders set him on fire, which he eventually douses by splashing himself from the toilet. They drive off in his car with his books on Byron and the rifle his daughter never learned to shoot:

It happens every day, every hour, every minute, he tells himself, in every quarter of the country. Count yourself lucky to have escaped with your life.

He consoles himself with the explanation that the better sort of white people in South Africa gravitate toward:

A risk to own anything: a car, a pair of shoes, a pack of cigarettes. … Too many people, too few things. What there is must go into circulation, so that everyone can have a chance to be happy for a day. That is the theory; hold to the theory and to the comforts of theory. Not human evil, just a vast circulatory system, to whose workings pity and terror are irrelevant. That is how one must see life in this country; in its schematic aspect. Otherwise one could go mad. Cars, shoes; women, too. There must be some niche in the system for women and what happens to them.

A neighbor, Ettinger, the type of white farmer whom Lurie has always despised for his bigotry, drives them to the hospital. “€œI never go anywhere without my Beretta,”€ observes Ettinger, who seems like the most sensible person in the movie.

Lucy refuses to admit that she was raped to the police (not that they would do any good). She asks her father:

What if … what if that is the price one has to pay for staying on? Perhaps that is how they look at it; perhaps that is how I should look at it too. They see me as owing something. They see themselves as debt collectors, tax collectors. Why should I be allowed to live here without paying?

But she fears they will come back:

“€I think I am in their territory. They have marked me. They will come back for me.”€

Petrus returns after the home invasion with an abundance of building supplies and begins erecting his own house 100 meters away. Lurie starts to suspect that the industrious and shrewd Petrus (“€œHonest toil and honest cunning”€), like the malign French peasants who outwit Gerard Depardieu’s idealistic city dweller in Jean de Florette, is maneuvering to grab Lucy’s land:

Then he would like to have Ettinger’s too … Ettinger will be a harder nut to crack. Lucy is merely a transient; Ettinger is another peasant, a man of the earth, tenacious, eingewurzelt. But Ettinger will die one of these days, and the Ettinger son has fled. In that respect Ettinger has been stupid. A good peasant takes care to have lots of sons.

Then, Lucy reveals she is pregnant by one of the rapists, and will keep the baby. Meanwhile, the youngest of the criminals moves in with Petrus next door; he is some sort of in-law in this proto-Big Man’s rapidly expanding clan. When Lurie confronts Petrus about his sheltering Lucy’s rapist near her house, after some evasions, the black farmer replies:

“€œYou come to look after your child. I also look after my child. … He is my family, my people.”€
So that is it. No more lies. My people. As naked an answer as he could wish. Well, Lucy is his people.

Petrus then points out that the rapist is too young to marry Lucy. So, the polygamist gallantly explains:

“€œI will marry Lucy.”€
[Lurie] cannot believe his ears. So this is it, that is what all the shadow-boxing was for: this bid, this blow! …
“€œYou will marry Lucy,”€ he says carefully. “€œExplain to me what you mean. No, wait, rather don”€™t explain. This is not something I want to hear. This is not how we do things.”€
We; he is on the point of saying, We Westerners. …
“€œBut here,”€ says Petrus, “€œIt is dangerous, too dangerous. A woman must be marry.”€

Lurie’s daughter explains to him:

“€œObjectively I am a woman alone. I have no brothers. I have a father, but he is far away and anyhow powerless in the terms that matter here. To whom can I turn for protection, for patronage? To Ettinger? It is just a matter of time before Ettinger is found with a bullet in his back. … Petrus may not be a big man but he is big enough for someone small like me. …

Not long after, Lurie discovers the rapist (who may be the father of his upcoming grandchild) peering in his daughter’s window. Lurie, finally, strikes the youth:

Never has he felt such elemental rage. He would like to give the boy what he deserves: a sound thrashing. Phrases that all his life he has avoided seem suddenly just and right: Teach him a lesson. Show him his place. So this is what it is like, he thinks. This is what it is like to be a savage!

But his daughter rescues her upcoming in-law, and sends her father off, saying:

“€œI am prepared to do anything, make any sacrifice, for the sake of peace.”€

Not surprisingly, Coetzee left South Africa for Australia in 2002.


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