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Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Trial & Error in 21st Century America

I recently watched Orson Welles' interpretation of Franz Kafka's novel The Trial, and was struck with the film's eerie resonance for our own time. Welles treatment was made in 1962 (see the Internet Movie Database entry for details on the production), and his lens onto the story differed quite a bit from Kafka's 1920 central European perspective (the novel was published in 1925 from an unfinished manuscript, after the author's death). There are, however, certain universal themes in the plot that span generations and languages.

In very short order, the novel and film both tell the tale of Joseph K who wakes one morning to find himself under arrest for a charge that's never explained. He then engages in a existentialist struggle to navigate through the maze of a legal system that offers one of only two possible outcomes: madness or death. Just walking through the opressive halls of "justice" in the movie's absurdist society physically sickens K, as the stale air draws the very breath from his lungs.

The film can be a bit uneven, bouncing between the farcical and attempts at profundity, but it hits its stride in the later acts. All of the people K encounters in his wanderings through the system are trapped in their situations, much like him. Whether accused or employed by the State, they blindly accept their places in its drama and unquestioningly act out their roles. Free Will only exists within the narrow array of choices not so benevolently granted to them by the various strata of judges who interpret the system's inscrutable laws.

As The Trial draws to its climax, K discovers the impossibility of his situation, and realizes that he can only escape by not playing this lunatic's game. In the flick's most dramatic scene, K (Anthony Perkins) tries to dismiss his advocate Albert Hastler (Orson Welles). Hastler humiliates another client in order to demonstrate to K the unavoidable fate of the accused at the hands of the State. In Welles' trademark godly bass, the Advocate tells K, "To be in chains is sometimes safer than to be free." The guilt of the accused has become inconsequential, all that matters is the perpetuation of the system the laws prop up.

In George W's post-9/11 America, Joseph K's nightmare scenario has become too common a possibility for America's enemies both real and imaginary, foreign and internal. Those who fall into the ever-widening grouping of the "accused" can be detained indefinitely, hidden from public view without ever being formally charged or facing their accuser. The American people have gone along with this mad interpretation of U.S. Constitutional law, convinced that it's in the best interests of national security. We've followed Hastler's advice and bartered freedom for the appearance of safety.

Like Joseph K, we need to reject the prescribed roles we've been given in this absurdist drama. Unlike the inevitable doom faced by the hero of Kafka's dark vision, however, I believe in the possibility for us to creatively escape our condition. We just need to imagine a new set of rules and work to create a world that plays by them.
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