Gates arrested at his own home.
Images from Caché
The first establishing shot of Caché.
An intervening shot from another angle.
Returning to the establishing shot and rewinding.
Driving through Paris.
Georges visits the apartment, depicted in the same viewpoint as the videotape.
The wrapping of one tape presages the dream in which Georges relives his lie for us.
In the dream, young Georges watches Majid behead the chicken.
Young Majid approaches a dreaming Georges.
On July 23, 2009, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, who is African American, was arrested on the front porch of his home in Cambridge Massachusetts, on charges of disorderly conduct. The professor had yelled at the white police officer who was responding to a neighbor’s call about a suspicious looking man (Gates himself) trying to break into Gates’ home. The charges were soon dropped. Several days later, when asked about the arrest, President Barack Obama suggested that the Cambridge Police Department had acted “stupidly,” setting off a storm of media criticism. Regretting his words, President Obama invited Gates and the arresting officer to join him for a beer and a private conversation about the incident. The President and his aides described the event as a “teachable moment” about race, without specifying exactly who was teaching whom or what might actually be learned.
This empty moment of racial panic and its containment recalls the day in Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign when he had to repudiate the words of his onetime mentor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, after it came out that Wright had earlier delivered sermons critical of the United States. While the speech that Obama gave was moving and beautifully crafted, it reduced Wright’s complex commentaries on the history of racial oppression and its current expressions to a “teachable moment” about those who cling to outmoded ideas of race and those who do not. Wright’s sermons had been much more than that. They had explored the relationship between racism and colonialism, and between U.S. foreign and domestic policies, in interesting and troubling ways. Given that Barack Obama then reduced them to caricature in order to call for a postracial capitalist United States, “teachable moment” would seem to mean “forgetting.” This brief essay explores three distinct but related moments of race and its erasure, one of which is the Jeremiah Wright incident, with an eye to reclaiming teachable moments from the dustbin of history.
Caché: beheading the chicken
Michael Haneke’s Caché ("Hidden," France 2005) is a story about urban bourgeois anxiety. Georges and Anne Laurent (Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche) are a successful couple with a handsome teenage son, living in a stylish townhouse in Paris. Georges hosts a television talk show; Anne is a player in the Parisian literary scene. Their life is elegant, graceful, and good. Then, someone begins to videotape their home and to leave the tapes—sometimes accompanied by bloody, childish, violent drawings—on their doorstep. The mystery of who is behind this is never fully resolved, but it reveals discord in the marriage and the family. This seeming invasion of the Laurents’ privacy also spurs Georges to relive a childhood trauma surrounding the betrayal of his boyhood playmate and foster brother, Majid (Maurice Bénichou), an orphan of the brutal 1961 massacre of peaceful Algerian protesters by the French police.
Though we will not learn much of this till later in the film, from its very beginning Caché imposes on us a question that makes this information seem like a series of clues that will help us solve the mystery. The film’s first establishing shot shows a building seen from street level. By convention, we are to understand that both the scene and our relationship to it as neutral observers has been established. But then the shot goes on, and on, and on. We are presented with a decision. Is this an establishing shot or a point of view shot? If a POV, then whose? In an intervening shot from a different angle a man comes out of the same building and looks up the street. Then we are back in the first shot…which then shudders, and the bars of a tape rewinding appear on the screen. We discover we are watching a videotape of the Laurent home…playing on the television in the living room of that home.
This is the question we are offered: “Who’s watching?” It’s the one the film asks us to address. It’s also the wrong question. Although it persists throughout the film and is never fully answered, it obscures the very real relationship between the Laurents’ comfort and security and the eventual immiseration of Majid and his son (Walid Afkir).
A series of scenes describes the problem in miniature. After the film has been going on for a while, we have learned some things. We know that someone is watching the Laurent family. We know that the observation throws the family into crisis and that Anne may be romantically involved with a close friend. We come to know that Georges suspects his boyhood playmate, Majid—whom he coldly betrayed to secure his mother’s love all for himself—of being the voyeur. The scene is set.
Soon Georges receives another tape, which seems to lead him to the voyeur’s apartment. At first, as before, we don’t immediately know that we are watching a tape. We seem to be in a car driving through Paris. We arrive at a nondescript apartment block, pass down a hall, and approach a door marked “47.” Just as we arrive at the door, the shot goes into reverse and the stuttering bars of video rewind appear on the screen. The camera pulls back to show Georges and Anne at home, watching the recording of what we took to be the scene we were watching.
Viewing the tape, Georges and Anne decipher where the apartment is (on Avenue Lenin), and Georges goes to the housing block, arriving at the apartment where his former playmate, Majid (now a middle-aged man) lives. This is the second time we visit the apartment (the first having been on tape). The first time, we approached the door as if we were an unknown protagonist, or walking with him. The second time, we see things from Georges’ perspective. We have his point of view of a maze of low-income apartments that signifies nonwhite poverty, and it seems identical to the first viewpoint. Georges goes to confront his stalker and discovers his former friend, who denies being the voyeur. Georges leaves unsatisfied. Our subsequent visits to this apartment will be different…but not before some intervening scenes in which the family’s internal tensions are brought to the fore.
(Before receiving this tape, though, Georges dreams of Majid’s exile. His dream displaces his betrayal of his friend, linking it to the horror of watching Majid kill a chicken in the courtyard of his family’s country home. In the dream, a young Majid beheads a chicken and his face is spattered in blood. He then turns, hatchet in hand, and walks young Georges backward until Georges’ back is against the courtyard wall, staring impassively at Georges (and at us) with blood on his face, slowly raising the hatchet…and the adult Georges wakens from his nightmare. We are to understand that this is the lie that Georges told, that Majid threatened his life, which caused his parents to send his friend away.)
As it becomes clear that Georges suspects more about the identity of their voyeur than he is letting on to his friends and family, he and Anne begin to bicker. In one scene, they argue about secrecy and honesty as silent images of Mideast violence play on a television in the background. This conflict comes to a head when their son, Pierrot (Lester Makedonsky), disappears without a trace. Suddenly, the external threat invades their home: they suspect a kidnapping. Georges contacts the police, and with them he barges into Majid’s home looking for his son. On this trip, too, we follow behind them down the hall and to the apartment door—a member of the raiding party. Majid and his son are arrested even though there is no evidence connecting them to Pierrot’s disappearance.
Finally, Pierrot shows up, having merely spent the night at a friend’s home. When Anne confronts her son, he accuses his mother of infidelity. That is why he disappeared: the external threat recedes to a more mundane Oedipal conflict which is seemingly tidily resolved when Anne reassures him that she is not in love with anyone but him and his father. The threat is deflected and the home’s sanctity uneasily restored.
The rather conventional narrative here is that of the white, bourgeois family threatened by forces internal and external, and this family is offered as the seemingly natural choice for our identification. The internal threat is infidelity and marital discord; the external threat is an unknown and potentially violent voyeur. The mechanism meant to insure our identification is suture, the repetitive loss of phallic power and its return, which film theory tells us continuity practices provide us when each edit wrenches us from the place where we are, demanding that we do our part to find our way back into the narrative. Here, that mechanism is troubled by the uncertainty of knowing whether what we see comes through the camera’s omniscient eye or the voyeuristic videotaping of the unseen stalker. Just was we are unsure whether Pierrot’s disappearance derives from family discord or from an unknown enemy, so we lose confidence in the apparatus of identification, and the whole narrative machine shudders for an instant: is this a family, or a symptom?[open endnotes in new window]
Then we revisit the suburban apartment block to which Georges has returned to confront his suspected observer one more time. We enter the apartment, and without any of the usual warnings that the conventions of classical narrative promise us, foreshadowings that usually prepare us for impending threats to our suturing, Majid suddenly and horribly slits his throat right in front of Georges and in front of us, his blood spurting up the wall behind him. He is dead. Just like that.