“We read the world wrong
and say that it deceives us.”


If the reviews were all that we had to go by, we’d have to conclude that this one was a stinker, despite the near universal praise reserved for Michelle Williams’ turn as a mother grieving the loss of her husband and son. According to one critic, “Were it not for Williams’ Oscar-quality performance, all the more remarkable for the shambolic incompetence that surrounds her, this would be a turkey.” Another critic wrote: “This supposedly sensitive drama about terrorism and bereavement, from a novel by Chris Cleave, is sloppy enough, in every sense, to make you appreciate High School Musical 3’s professionalism. … It makes you feel embarrassed for everyone involved.”

So, we may fairly ask: Why the hostility … and embarrassment?

It’s worth considering the possibility that the reason involves the very focus of the film, and the fact that we have yet to fully understand the process of bereavement and, more importantly, the ethical dimensions of coming to terms with the kind of loss being grieved here. For Incendiary is as much concerned with the ghosts of the dead as it is about developing a conscience that can speak back to the very conditions that gave rise to those deaths in the first place. The fact that this process revolves around a young woman, and one who hails from London’s projects (i.e., the wrong side of the tracks) points to how foreign and unintelligible her musings would be, particularly to anyone already committed to the dominant discourses of the day.

Third generation of block dwellers, we are.
If you’re interested, just type in chav, pikey, or ned,
and you’ll find us in council estates all over London.
Favourite food: chicken Kiev.
Favourite TV programme: ‘Top Gear.’
Religion: Arsenal Football Club.

Clearly, the fact that her (now dead) husband worked in a bomb disposal unit and that she is later courted by one of his supervisors, a key figure in the country’s anti-terrorist police force, suggests that the “religion” that is the focus of this film – Arsenal – refers not just to a football club. It is also the logic of destruction and fortification that unites terrorist and anti-terrorist alike, and one that deploys the language of Might and Right in the name of Justice and Peace. The men in this young woman’s life, in other words, reflect and allegorize this other game of seduction to which we are all subject, one in which defenders-of-the-nation compete for our affection and allegiance. (“I wouldn’t be the first woman in my family to have her knickers charmed off her by some fella in the army.”)

Her grief, then, does not merely revolve around the loss of husband and son; this is not merely a story of personal loss. It also concerns the gaping wound of meaninglessness when confronted by the recognition that the masculine ideal to which she was (unhappily) wed is the very cause of her loss. In this sense, it’s not only the passing of the beloved that is being mourned here, but also the woman she had come to be in their eyes and, as a consequence, her own as well. When understood in this way, the process of grieving at the heart of Incendiary is not only about accepting what has passed but, equally importantly, reclaiming a sense of dignity in the face of one’s complicity in that destruction. More fundamental than this, given the story’s focus on terrorism, is the process of generating a voice that can speak to – and against – the very authority that gave rise to the violence in the first place.

A Nation Under Seige

“Man barricades against himself.”

The explosion couldn’t have been more precisely targeted, for even the Twin Towers was a symbol that acquired meaning in the terrorists’ eyes not immediately obvious to their victims. But in targeting the stadium – a secular site to which Arsenal fans made regular pilgrimage – the terrorists, knowingly or not, successfully identified the logic that locks opponents in an unending embrace. For it is the arena that invites witness and noisy celebration as two “armies” pummel the other (sport as sublimated violence), where the one most successful in extracting points from the enemy finally emerges victorious.

And how does a nation respond to such a defeat in another (but not so different) battle between forces of Good and Evil?

Following that fateful blast, and as has already become all too familiar in the real world, the media latches onto images of devastation, intercut with anonymous faces of shock, horror, and despair. Stand-ins for our own inarticulateness in the face of aggression unadorned by the decorations of mass entertainment. The images, in other words, give evidence to a fascinated and hallowed obsession with the unspeakable that can only repeat itself with nauseating frequency and, apparently, to no end.

And yet, voices are soon heard that attempt to respond to the destruction. Official pronouncements are made, religious services are held, and banners raised to the sky. Leaders, both religious and secular, will repeat the well-worn and predictable – … “senseless violence” … “victims’ families” … “our hearts go out to” … “honor the dead” … – not quite able to provide the comfort and reassurance that is so desperately sought. In voiceless despair, enlarged signs will make their urgent declarations, yearning for a message different than the one delivered by the terrorists’ bombs, bespeaking a certain kind of innocence only allowed in the face of disaster. Quite simply: unalloyed by the utilitarianism of everyday routine and untarnished by fashionable displays of cynicism, it is the language of hope. And it is a hope unable (or unwilling) to face the pain of division or conflict.

It is the inarticulate desire to return to what (never) existed before, as if the bombings had disrupted a veritable Garden of Eden, as if life until that moment was the enactment of perfect and eternal bliss. Or perhaps, if we are more generous, a craving to create such a dream, a vision of heaven on earth. And yet, the concerted efforts at “rebuilding” already belie the backward-looking impulse of that vision, covering over the rubble of destruction with the hope that life can “return to normal.”

“… Rebuilding Our Lives … Rebuilding Our Club …”

In an eerily beautiful “reenactment” of the barrage balloons used to defend against the London Blitz of World War II, a thousand balloons painted with the faces of the dead are also raised, creating a “cemetery in the sky.” Another (mute) monument that bespeaks the enormity of loss, as well as the safety of distance when it comes to confronting death, elevated to the heavens, quietly haunting those who are doomed to continue living on earth’s surface below.

In the midst of this, and during the days and months that follow, it will be the young woman’s task to discern whether these rituals – and their rhetoric – on behalf of the dead actually honor the meaning she would like to give to her loss. Her task will be made all the more difficult since she will hold herself personally responsible for the death of her husband and son. For while they were caught-up in the excitement of Arsenal’s play, unknowingly on the brink of extinction, she was seducing another man, chasing the kind of pleasure her marriage was no longer able to provide. And it was precisely at the moment of that adulterous consummation, that the bombs exploded and the earth burst into flames.

It will be her first realization of the awful ways in which sex and death commingled in defining the shape and rhythm of her life, as if conspiring to bring another truth to the surface.

Reconceiving Grief

“Death belongs to life as birth does.
The walk is in the raising of the foot
as in the laying of it down.”

It has been forty years since the publication of On Death and Dying by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, revolutionary in so many ways but best known for delineating five stages of coming to terms with death: denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. But hidden behind this model that emphasizes the cognitive process by which an ego confronts its own mortality is another vision of transformation, one less concerned with the mind’s reconciliation with an unwanted absence than – surprisingly – one in which the very notion of life itself undergoes a radical renewal. The quotations included here (above and below) are reproduced from that book, each penned by the famed poet-philosopher and Nobel Laureate, Rabidranath Tagore.

If we embrace this broader understanding of what it means to confront death, only then can we come to appreciate the story being told in Incendiary, especially the struggle of its main protagonist. Otherwise, for those impatiently looking for a simple message or, worse, seeking confirmation for what they already know, the film can only come across as embarrassing or incompetent, a measure of what it fails to reflect (and regurgitate) back to an audience already overfed with well-worn words that, deliberately or not, only serve to buttress against what we have yet to learn as a culture and civilization. It is this lesson that the young woman at the center of the story has to teach us, even as she willingly allows herself to be swallowed by a grief too awful to bear.

Like the rest of London, for a time she will stand entranced by the vision of the floating balloons, knowing that among them is the face of her dead son, haunted by the shrinking image of happier days when his delight was her own life’s blood. But the stillness of this entrancement can only last so long, since the fire of the intolerable will continue to burn within, compelling her to seek out something – anything – to help make sense of the gaping “boy-sized hole” that has been left in destruction’s wake.

She will come to learn the identity of one of the suicide bombers and, without quite knowing why, begin stalking his widow and son, as if their survival of the bomb’s blast holds the secret to her future or, more ominously, as if they provided the most convenient target for her pent up rage.

But the haunting sadness of this (other) boy who sneaks out of school after all the adults have disappeared tugs at something within her. And what began in the daze of confusion gains a focus, as she befriends this lost child who, unaware of what was wrought by his father’s hand, still waits for daddy’s return. It is an unlikely friendship that grows between them, even though nothing is said of what brought him to her attention, her silence ensuring that he will remain oblivious to the unspoken grief that they share. Instead, the two of them will enjoy the simple pleasures of empty time, whiling away the interminable expectancy for what will never return: he, ever on the look-out for the man she knows will never come, and she, desperate to fill the absence that tugs at her very being.

This reverie will also come to an end, and a violent one at that, since both know that it is merely a stopgap measure that lightens the load of what has been lost and a distraction against the palpable yearning for what refuses to return. And then something else arrives: the brown-skinned boy will be sent into a panic and, as a consequence, will become the target for the authorities’ vigilance. And, once again, she will be caught in the crossfire, between one she has come to care for and Arsenal’s crushing force.

It’s for this reason that one reviewer remarked that the film “beat the living hell out of her,” since she spends a significant portion of the story bloodied and broken. But it is not just her body that bears the brunt of violence but her very soul, pummeled by the recognition that her life and loves can expect no safe haven, and that those who would protect her – and her country – are as likely to puncture her sense of security as anyone else.

“Sexy Mama”

“Let me not pray to be sheltered from dangers
but to be fearless in facing them.
Let me not beg for the stilling of my pain
but for the heart to conquer it.
Let me not look for allies in life’s battlefield
but to have my own strength.
Let me not crave in anxious fear to be saved
but hope for the patience to win my freedom.
Grant me that I may not be a coward,
feeling your mercy in my success alone;
but let me find the grasp of your hand
in my failure [too].”

Early in the film – and quite inexplicably (or, rather, without comment) – we are shown close-ups of this woman’s behind, for upon it is inscribed the identity that has been provided her and which she has gladly embraced. After all, it comes with certain pleasures and satisfactions that are easily taken as one’s own; it also provides her with an estimation of her value in others’ eyes. Regardless of what others might say, it is through this that she gave birth to a son, and found the single love and joy that had animated her young life. This is no small achievement, either for her or for the image, since it has given her a place in the world, a standard against which to measure herself, and an object for her affection. And when it works well, it’s nothing short of heaven.

But as she – and we – begin to discover, this bliss comes at a cost, not the least of which is her inability to stake a larger claim on the world which she inhabits along with the rest of humanity. Instead, like a host of others, she has been rendered a passive victim to the vicissitudes of two sets of defenders of family and nation, those who have arrogated to themselves the power to do so and who, in addition, have claimed the voice to name what it is that requires their defense in the first place.

Following the memorial service for those killed during the May Day attacks, she will come face-to-face with this dilemma as she and her new suitor ponder the Madonna and Child housed in the church’s sanctuary. For us in the audience, it will be difficult not to be struck by the different versions of what they are likely to see in such depictions of hallowed motherhood. For him, it can only be taken as a sign of what he has committed himself to defend; for her, particularly on the heels of her loss, it can only come across as a perverted idealization, particularly since her “defenders” clearly failed to protect her and her own. Despite her grief, or perhaps because of it, he will continue to court her, so much so that, when she returns home to mourn, he will be left enthralled by the hole at his side that he has decided only she is able to fill.

But in the end, this image of the holy family is one that she shares, as well. All of us have been taught to embrace it and, especially during times of war, have also learned to abhor its obverse: the alien face that would destroy “our” way of life and all that is held to be sacred. The uniformed one who seeks to win her heart will give voice to this, taking a certain pride in his blind faith –

People fool themselves that they can understand the mindset here.
At the end of the day, this is a war between two different species.
[But] I’m not paid to understand the mindset. I’m paid to defend.

– even as she grapples to understand what is supposed to mark “them” out as so radically different from herself. (“There was a Muslim nurse at the hospital. Her God wasn’t a bombing God … “) Despite this tension, she will slowly begin to imagine herself sharing a life with him. After all, he’s gentle and appears to have a good heart. His commitment to the cause is admirable, too, backed as it is by a seeming clarity of what has been violated by the terrorists and what he seeks to defend. (“Ever since May Day, it’s as if I can’t close the door anymore. I can’t leave the horrors outside. That’s what those bastards have done.”)

But this reverie will come to an end as well, especially when she discovers a secret that he has been unwilling to share: that his commitments do not – and cannot – coincide with her own. In the end, the image of Madonna and Child will come to mean different things for them. For him, it remains forever out of reach, serving as the most sacred marker of what it means to be a man, as well as the sole inspiration for his unwavering commitment to defend the nation against her enemies. In a nutshell, it is what draws him to her. On the other hand, for the young woman, it will signal the cruelty at the heart of Arsenal’s commitment, simultaneously desiring to acquire the Madonna’s holiness – through her – while continuing a crusade that violates the very sanctity of Life itself.

Another crushing blow …

(Might these “blows” be contemporary equivalents of the stations of the cross or, as is the case here, the cross that modern women are condemned to bear?)

After this, it is the “mama” to which she will finally turn. For when she returns to her empty home, she will find that her boy has miraculously reappeared, as if the bombing and its terrible aftermath were nothing but a bad dream. Without losing a beat, they fall back into the rhythm of shared love and admiration. No longer is there a need to leave the building, for all that is required is to be found in the eyes of the other.

This is, in other words, her descent into madness, a last ditch effort at recovering what has been irrevocably lost. And for one last moment, she is able to revel in its deliciousness, the memory of which has been rendered palpable, even as her surroundings mirror a different version of events: a slow and steady deterioration marked by chaos’ reign. (“We tape newspaper to the window to keep out the cold. And we found a use for all the unpaid bills.”) For one last time they will play the staring game and, as always, he will win – or she will allow this for him – since, for her, the joy comes not from their competition but the privilege of basking in the embrace of that young life and the uninterrupted witness of his untrammeled spirit.

This (last) reverie will finally be interrupted, too. The widow of the bomber, along with her son, will come to apologize for what was brought about by her husband’s hand, fumbling with words that have come before but which fail to do justice to what needs to be expressed. In the end, it will be the boy who rights the situation, reminding his mother that its her voice that needs to be heard:

Say it like you said before, like in the letter.

What follows is not particularly eloquent, but it is sufficient to break the spell that has held our protagonist captive to the ghost of her own (dead) son. For when she turns around, she will find that the boy – the love of her life – has disappeared and she is, once again, returned to that state of desperation with which the story began. But now, suspended between heaven and earth, she will come to the realization that she can no longer seek to merge herself with the spirits of the dead.

The words of another, written in a letter and delivered by a shaky hand, finally punctured the bubble that no other had been able to penetrate. For she – the other mother – sought neither to provide consolation nor to minimize the nature of her loss. Instead, in crossing the lines with which Arsenal had come to fortify the world, that absence had finally become real in the eyes of another, irreducible to the (mere) defilement of a lofty ideal that, in the end, spoke to agendas and desires that were not her own.

This is the “gift” that was exchanged between the two women: first, in the befriending of the forlorn son left bewildered and grief-stricken by an absence that remained unexplained and unaddressed, and second, in the offering of an apology that need not have been made but which, nevertheless, sought to acknowledge one’s connection to the despair of another.

And in this crossing of borders, where one widow courageously faces another, the final seed for healing is planted.

The Pregnant Virgin

“The storm of the last night has crowned
this morning with golden peace.”

When we first met her son Lenny (“lion-hearted,” and patron saint of prisoners), we saw him kneeling on the floor, asking his mother to remove Mr Rabbit from the “dizzy machine.” (“He doesn’t like going in [there]. Quick! Get him out, now!”) It’s a scene we will see more than once during the course of the film, as if it encapsulated the trauma with which she is faced, the dizzying whirl of a life gone out of control. But in this case, she will be left to face that confusion without the calming presence of a mother-figure to reassure her that everything will be all right.

So, after the terrorists’ blast, she will find herself clinging to Mr Rabbit, a reminder of – and consolation against – the death of her son. Her ever-present companion, unconcerned about what others may think. And since she no longer insists that he be clean (no more “dizzy machine” for Mr Rabbit), his body will remain forever marked by that fateful day, carrying the blood, dust, and mutilation that mirrors her own sense of having been battered to the edge of death. And for this interminable moment, she will forget the role she had played for her son: the importance of finding the strength to face the pain of separation and tolerating the confusion that, ultimately, will bring renewal against the unwanted accretions of life.

That she is (temporarily) unable to do this is no character defect; neither is it a shortcoming. It’s a natural aspect of coming to terms with death – of oneself, of another, of an ideal – that Elizabeth Kübler-Ross helped bring to our attention forty years ago. Yet, strangely, that contribution remains a symptom of the very emptiness that continues to define our civilizational moment: the absolute inability to confront the reality of one’s extinction. Entire industries have been built around denying (or softening) death’s blow, providing the “service” of distracting us from an imperative that refuses to disappear, or desperately fortifying ourselves against such an inevitability.

In another time, ceremonies and rituals were built into the very structure and rhythm of life, moments during which, quite deliberately and solemnly, initiates were removed from the demands of the living in order to renew the life of the dispirited. At first, the isolation faced by our protagonist is psychological and emotional, giving rise to her panic and desperation when confronted by the death of her family. She will, quite naturally, seek out consolation from others, some kind, any kind, of connection with another. But since each of these will fail to fill the absence that haunts her, she will – inevitably – be drawn to a different kind of isolation: an enclosure of her own making, in which the awful task is precisely coming to terms with the “dizziness” that life has dealt her. In the absence of culturally-accepted practices that enable – and validate – this process, the power and responsibility will fall on the individual to find a way out of the impasse. And in the absence of priests and shamans able to guide the bereaved, it will fall to an enlightened witness to provide the impetus for taking that lonely journey, a flash of recognition that signals that she is not alone.

The Pregnant Virgin is the phrase that Marion Woodman uses to describe this process of (self) transformation, one that applies equally to women as it does to men. By virtue of separation and self-enclosure, the “virgin” finds the courage to face the devastation alone, submitting to the yearning and despair that inevitably accompanies death, so that a new beginning can be found. What eventually emerges is a new life wrought at one’s own hand, a fertility requiring no artificial (external) insemination, where a man, or woman, or fantasy is no longer a precondition for one’s existence, much less one’s happiness.

In other words, a virgin birth.

Significantly, this provides the much needed reinterpretation of – and answer to – the hallowed place accorded to the Madonna and Child. For they are not extensions of Man. Neither are they, in the form of a wife and family, the condition for His existence that requires and demands defense. Instead, She is the (feminine) force that fights for her very survival, not through barricades or bombs, but by embracing the pain of death, the devastating blows of absence and, at times, the haunting guilt of one’s complicity in bringing an end to life … so that, following this labor through darkness, one can emerge to give birth to another life, reborn.

The voice-overs we hear during the course of this story are but the final stage of that process where she is finally able to articulate past, present, and future. No longer panic-stricken by what has been severed from her, no longer swallowed by the gaping hole of blackness or rendered mute by the senselessness of it all. Instead, a voice emerges. One that speaks of presence rather than absence, life rather than death, and love rather than justice or revenge, embodying a voice that has found a way to overcome loss without diminishing what came before, facing the future without denying the pain that came in the wake of the past’s destruction. Emerging from a womb-like tomb that has held her in safety, incubating a life that had yet to be born.

She writes to Osama bin Laden, in part because that’s what was recommended to her. At first, it felt like a silly exercise. She didn’t have his address, after all. But following the (final) disappearance of her son, and after she has found the strength to build a life without him, the words begin to flow. And the words give evidence to a fierceness that she would never have thought possible, before.

Love is not surrender, Osama.
Love is furious and brave and loud. …
That noise is the fiercest and the loudest sound on earth.
It will echo till the end of time.
It is more deafening than bombs.

Come to me
and we will blow the world back together
with incredible noise and fury.

Maybe – just maybe – Arsenal has finally found its match.

~ by mistified on December 6, 2009.

One Response to “Incendiary”

  1. holy cow – wordy! glad you got that much out of the film.

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