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Movable fairs: Beirut (1970-74)

This post reminisces the activities in Beirut during the period 1970-1974. As a university student, I had the time and leisure to watch many of the hundreds of movies and attend most of the Lebanese pieces of theaters that were played.

The epic Woodstock musical fiesta of summer 1968 disbanded after three days.  The critical French student revolt in Paris of 1968 ended a week later. Spring of 1968 in Paris was a movable fair, an all free-invited party.  It was a movable feast for sharing ideas and desires for justice, peace, liberty, and pleasure.

There were plenty of generosity and compassion:  Youth was feeling bored of the old world system of unjust order, capitalism, petrified ideologies and dogmas.  It was a humongous fair where affluent lifestyle in the western States of plenty hide the miseries of the lowest classes living in shantytowns. It was in a period for the third world struggling to emerge from the slavery stage of colonialism.

The French student revolt of 1968 was a big party with deep lucidity: banners read “Run, comrade, run.  The old world is chasing after you.” Youth was taking a reprieve by running joyously, a week of total freedom, running as fast as he could, knowing that the old world will invariably catch up with him.

Karl Marx said:  ”When history repeats its cycles, the next time around is a farce.”  Spring of 68 was a sympathetic and spontaneous farce: it was an innovating and creative revolt with no arms.

These movements for change crossed to Lebanon in 1969 and lingered for 5 years as movable fairs in Beirut.  

I witnessed that wonderful and crazy period as a university student, witnessing far more than studying.

By 1970, I was mainly taking courses in math, physics, and chemistry.   Once the morning courses were taken care of, I roamed Beirut freely and all alone. The Lebanese pound was strong (the dollar was worth 2 LP at the time): I could afford in the afternoon to see movies, watch theater pieces, or go to the empty beaches in mid September and October, eat local sandwiches of falafel, shaworma, and freshly pressed fruits with less than a dollar.

Most of the days I ended up attending conferences, political party meetings, joining regular demonstrations and marches by university students, sit-ins, hunger strikes on the street in front of the education ministry (I tried once for half a day), fleeing police tanks and water hoses, or just walking all around Beirut circulating where the “movable fairs” crossed my path, gathering of people chanting slogans against the sectarian and mercantile political system, the defeatist government against the frequent bombardment of Israel in south Lebanon…

There was heavy polarization in Lebanon:  On one side, we had the groups that wanted a strong army ready to retaliate at Israel’s frequent aggressions, civil marriage, eliminating the privileges of the 19 officially recognized religious sects in administering civil status and not paying taxes, and planning for a modern economical basis: These groups backed the rights of the Palestinians for armed struggle to re-conquer lands occupied by Israel.  On the other side, there were groups against the armed presence of the Palestinians outside camps, the belief that Lebanon’s existence depended on its weak army, and that no political reforms should be on the table to be discussed.

The citizens in south Lebanon (mostly Moslem Chiaa)  flocked to the suburbs of Beirut, mainly in Dahieh that was labelled the “Red belt of poverty.”   The Palestinian Liberation Movement, led by Yasser Arafat, and its institutions were firmly established in Beirut and in a dozen Palestinian camps.  Cash in hard currency spent by the PLO and the various resistance movements maintained the Lebanese currency very strong.

In January 1972, a series of Charley Chaplin movies were shown in the theater Colise such as “Modern Times”, “City Lights”, “Gold rush”, and “Dog’s life”

In February 1972, “Traffic” by French director Jacque Tati was shown in the movie theater Etoile. Tati attended the show and fielded questions.  Tati directed only five films such as “Holiday”, Vacation of Mr. Hulo”, and “My uncle”.  The main character in the movies of Tati is a regular French person fond of American dreams of speed, machines, and order.

In May 1972, Beirut Cinema Club in cooperation with the US Cultural Center projected a series of Orson Wells movies such as “Citizen Kane”, “The lady from Shanghai”, “Secret report”, “Satan’s touch”, and “Falstaff”.  Wells mostly recalls the negative critics: for example, a critic said that Orson shouts like a rhinoceros” when Orson played “Candid” of Bernard Show.

Wells and Charlie Chaplin might be the greatest directors.  Wells prefers that producers invest massively on many movies even if one of his films are not marketed.  He said: “Without men there is no art.  Without women, men never become artists”

Also in May 1972, the movie theater projected a series of Ingmar Bergman films such as “The holder”, “The shame”, “Persona”, the hour of the wolf”, “the source”, and “Screams and Whispers”.  Bergman stands in front of doubt and points with his finger.  We are facing the nature of our existence on earth. He does not leave us any choices; he does not even choose.  People are left to face death alone, always alone and in isolation.  People are wary of the aristocratic double faces, lies, hate, and scheming.

December 1972 witnessed the first screening of “Hold it…O Sea” by Kuwaiti director Khaled Al Sidick in the theater Commodore in Hamra.  The movie describes three generations of Kuwaitis before oil production and after.  People in Kuwait were mostly into deep diving to retrieve pearles and sell it to big exploiters.  This movie cost 50,000 dinars from Khaled own money.  Khaled was sent to Bombay (India) at eight of age to study.  In India, they would wrap sweet with a piece of paper summarizing the movie you are attending. Khaled’s father supposed that his son was studying business; but khaled was studying cinema.

In January 1973, “Do it again Sam” and “Banana” by Woody Allen were projected along with “Fantasia” by Walt Disney in the theater Embassy.

In May 1973, the film “Red Weddings” by French director Claude Chabrol was projected in Eldorado movie theater.  There was a curfew in the previous week:  The Lebanese army tried to enter the Palestinian camp of Dbayeh (mostly Christians).  A few feddayins escaped and fled through the valley of river Nahr Kalb; we provided them shelter for three days in Beit-Chabab. These Christian feddayins resumed the trip to Dhour Shouwier.  An ambush by the Phalange (Kataeb) Party killed several of them on the way.

Chabrol has a particular style and a deterministic view on how events should unfold:  His movies are about illicit love affairs, then murder, then punishment by the “bourgeois” legal system.  That falling in-love is genuine, it is irrelevant and must be punished, one way or another.

In August 1973, the movie “American night” by French director Francois Truffeau is projected in the Piccadilly theater.  Truffeau was honor guest  in Beit Meri during the movie festival for the French-speaking countries.  Truffeau relates his love story with films and the difficulties for pulling up a movie.  He said: “The film begins with vast dreams, and the dream shrinks gradually until you wonder how diminished and regular the dream ended up.”

In September 1973, a series of Alfred Hitchcock movies were shown in the theater Starco. Among these films were “Pshyco”, “The mountain”, Frenzy”.  The common denominators in Hitchcock movies are:

First, they take place within bourgeois settings that reflect the strongest modern western societies’ troubles;

Second, the personalities are schizophrenic and live normal life among their communities;

Third, the murderers prefer hanging their victims or strangling them with any kinds of ropes;

Fourth, the main hero is basically the dead body.

In May 1975 (the Lebanese civil war had started in April), the Arabic Cinema Club hosted a series of Cuban movies in the Beirut movie theater. Director Octavio Gomez had several of his films projected such as “Days of water”  and “With God’s help”. Santiago Alvarez had “Ho chi Minh” and “I am the son of Americas”;  Pasteur Vega showed “Viva the Republic”; Manuel Herera in “Giron”. 

A short documentary on Miriam Makeba (wife of Stokely Carmichael).

Spring fairs in the western world spread to most nations where the partying lasted and lasted.  The virus of the movable feast reached countries with old systems destroyed by the colonial powers:  The newer power systems were unstable and mostly haphazard to come chasing after mass movable fairs.

Spring of 68 crossed to Lebanon and lasted 5 years and emerged on a civil war that lasted 13 years and produced 300 thousand casualties, dead and injured (10% of the population!)

Note:  Details of my reminiscing were supplied by Georges Al Rassi in “Stations along the trail of Lebanese and Arab movies

“Peels of laughter” by Olivier Mongin, (January 24, 2009)

The French book “Eclats de rire” by Olivier Mongin is 325 pages long, divided in three parts and of 17 chapters in total. I will review what made sense to me. There are three chapters dedicated to women in the business of comical situations. The epilogue is a wonderful chapter that delves into questions of why we laugh, how we laugh, who laughs, and whom we are laughing at. 

Laughter has undeniable qualities, physically, emotionally, and mentally. 

We have to learn to laugh; otherwise the tragic stresses of everyday would force us to dive from buildings.

Charlie Chaplin had the art of transforming traumatic situations into heroic posturing. The loser in Chaplin ends up mutating into a savior. Thus, personal misfortunes are converted to shared happiness.  When the character falls, and he frequently falls, he jumps back on his feet and endeavors to make others fall.

Buster Keaton prefers his main character to be subjected to the situations and never to voluntarily intervene.  Keaton tries hard to escape, but situations always involuntarily catch up with him and he is condemned to be a victim or a runaway.

The French Jacque Tati created the character Mr. Hulo who is not necessarily a moral person, and who has no inclinations to offering moral lessons. Mr. Hulo happened to be just here, trying hard to stand tall and erect, using an umbrella for the appearance of equilibrium. 

The character of Mr. Hulo feels to be in a precarious instability or physical disequilibrium, worried of succumbing to adversity or free-falling, but he never falls. Tati makes sure that his character feints immobility, but he is not to fall as was the tradition for generating laughter: For Tati, falling is not a typical human attribute that should generate laughter.  Tati is “inventing what already exists, and that not many people had realize that a country (France) has started the modernization process

Why we laugh? 

People laughed when movies were silent, and thus, the body structure, gestures, and movements are the prime element in inducing laughter.  Fundamentally, we laugh because we tend to discriminate in gender, social classes, profession, knowledge, abilities, attributes, tradition, culture, and all sorts of idiosyncrasies.  We laugh because we have the impression of our “own superiority” toward the other characters. In a way, we laugh at the “expense of others”, until we feel that this fictitious superiority is fleeting and unfounded. 

When we laugh we are exposing our hidden characters so that we try to link up with our group, friends, or community. We laugh the harder when we are amidst a “homogeneous group“, otherwise many of the spectators will refrain from sharing in the merriment.  

Shakespeare said in Henry V something to this effect “To our inadequacies, supplemented by our thoughts: divide each man to a thousand for creating an imaginary army

French author Stendhall offered four conditions for successful comical situations in order for the message not to deteriorate into a sign of superiority.

First, the comical situation should be exposed clearly so that we may keep a distance from the “stupid” character

Second, our reflection should come as a total surprise, lest we have time to reflect on our own condition. 

Third condition pertains to avoiding us the feeling that the suffering of the comical character is not associated to a potential suffering, which we might experience later. Thus, the suffering of the character should be mild and bearable. 

The fourth condition for a healthy laugh is that the comical character should be presented as endowed with estimable attributes, otherwise we might be encouraging “superiority complexes” among the masses that will turn “a good laugh” into very dangerous tendencies.

In summary, we laugh by comparing our “superiority” to the comical characters and consequently, in order to generate a healthy and inoffensive laughter, the laughing individual should not feel an overwhelming sense of “superiority”, or the perception that there is a high odd that the suffering of the character might eventually turn on him later. 

Laughter is necessary, but we should not take comical situations and conditions lightly because they have potent political messages among the masses.


adonis49

adonis49

adonis49

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