Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Zero Dark Literally

Sometimes a cipher is just a cipher

When it comes to movies these days, I'm usually pretty late to the party.  The joys of my 50-inch plasma screen mixed with my deep seated aversions to out of focus imagery, over cranked air-conditioning, and rude morons yakking in my ear have caused me to pretty much abandon theater going for any reason other than to make some sort political/financial statement.  If, say, Joss Whedon or Terry Gilliam have a new film out, then I'm going to make the trip just to put my money where my mouth is in the hopes that those under-appreciated (heretofore in Whedon's case) filmmakers get to make more movies.  And occasionally (very occasionally) there will be an action film that looks promising enough that I want to experience it via the big screen, although this latter case usually (very usually) ends with bitter disappointment and much oath swearing regarding my intentions to forgo the next big budget spectacular-spectacular that everyone says is great.

All of this is to say that I am woefully behind the curve when it comes to movies, so I don't usually write about them.  It's not to say that I don't love movies, and it's not to say that I don't consider myself fairly knowledgeable about movies (even more so now, as you are about to learn), but rather it's to say that I don't go to movies.  No, what I do is rent movies.  And the lag time that makes that possible tends to put me at least six months behind the conversation of the moment, which makes it pretty hard to write about movies.  Of course, one glance at this blog will tell you I don't usually write about much of anything, but I don't write about movies even more than I don't write about other things.

In a sense, however, this rant isn't really about a movie.  I come here neither to praise nor to bury Zero Dark Thirty, but rather to bitch a bit about the death of American film as a subtle experience, thanks to the apparent death of subtlety itself.  Because the reaction to Kathryn Bigelow's film---or perhaps I should say the overreaction---is just another depressing example of the literalism that has overtaken every aspect of the American experience.

In the months following Zero Dark Thirty's release, I did a fair job of avoiding any conversation about the particulars of the film (Did they get Osama Bin Ladin?  I had no idea!), but I would have had to cut off my ears and pluck out my eyes in order to avoid all the outrage pouring forth from the film's detractors regarding its alleged promotion of torture for fun and profit.  Many people, especially those who had not, I would later learn, actually seen the film, were besides themselves over what they believed to be the rah-rah nature of the film in general, and the we'd-never-get-anything-accomplished-without-torture stance that they had taken away in particular.  In fact, the early wave of that particular criticism was so pervasive that it was directly responsible for my having moved Zero Dark Thirty from the top of my list of must see movies of 2012 to the bottom.  I still wanted to see it, mind you, but I decided I was going to wait for the DVD to become available via Red Box rather than spending the cash for VOD or, god forbid, actually going to a movie theater.

And so that is how it came to pass that I didn't actually see Zero Dark Thirty until yesterday, several months too late to really take part in the debate that raged across the cable-net-o-sphere in the most hectoring and pedantic manner possible.

Of course, that's not such a bad thing, I now understand, because it turns out that most of the people who I would have been arguing with also never saw Zero Dark Thirty.  Glenn Greenwald, one of the commentators who led the attacks on the film from the pages of The Guardian admitted as much, and he was outraged that you were outraged that he was outraged at a film he hadn't even seen.

After all, not seeing a film you are condemning has a long and proud tradition.  I can remember being a young man in New York City and arguing vociferously with a picketer outside a screening of The Passion of the Christ, and that very angry fellow hadn't seen the film in question either.  So obviously Glenn Greenwald was in some illustrious company.

But even those detractors who had watched the film's images flicker before them in a darkened room apparently never actually saw Zero Dark Thirty either, because the seething anger being directed the film's way has been, so far as I can discern, wholly misplaced and the result of a blindingly inaccurate understanding of the film's message.  It also betrays a basic misunderstanding of what film itself is, or, for that matter, what a message is.

My biggest takeaway from the outrage I have perused these past 24 hours is that many people today, especially those who participate in or provide coverage of the political world, seem incapable of understanding any ideas that are more complex or less obvious than those that can be clearly expressed via a direct-mail flyer, a campaign poster, or a USA Today pie chart.

But what I personally took away from this whole experience was not anger over the film's non-existent pro-torture stance, but rather depression over the fact that people are just getting more fucking literal with each passing year.  Because the idea that Zero Dark Thirty is anything but anti-torture, anti-imperialism, and anti-pretty-much-every-fucking-thing that the Bush bastards did can only be explained by the fact that people today must believe that if you are not standing on a soap box, megaphone in hand, decrying that which you oppose in the most strident and explicit terms possible, then you are probably in favor of smothering puppies as a way to pass the time in between atrocities.

I really wish there was a word I could type here that would convey the feeling that comes from wanting to slam my head down on my keyboard at having to type that last sentence.  "Frustration" just doesn't do it justice. Probably the Germans have a word for it, but you will excuse me for forgoing any German when I'm about to wade hip deep into a pool of people calling Kathryn Bigelow a Nazi.

Yes, Zero Dark Thirty has a total absence of didactic monologues decrying the inhumanity of torture.  No one stands up and shouts, "What are we doing here?  What have we become? Are we now the terrorists?"  So if she is guilty of anything, Kathryn Bigelow is guilty of vastly overrating people's ability to take from a film anything that is not explicitly stated in dialogue.  She is guilty of making a movie rather than a polemic.  For that, I celebrate her.  But for that, literal minded simpletons like Glenn Greenwald castigate her.

For the Greenwalds of the world (and there are many of them), there is black and there is white, and then there is the guy standing on your chest explaining to you which is which.  For the Greenwalds, important issues of the day can only be discussed while standing on someone's chest, preferably with an amplifying device of some sort hooked into their larynx.  And if you do not agree, then you are probably just some sort of modern day Nazi who thinks the Iraq War ended too soon.  Sure, you can say you think torture is bad, but if you aren't saying it loudly enough based on an arbitrary decibel scale invented and individually calibrated by each and every Greenwald out there, then you might as well be Donald Rumsfeld's butt monkey.

For the Greenwalds, subtlety is not something political arguments are made with, and therefore films that are subtle might as well be an endorsement of tyranny.

The problem here is that films are---surprise, surprise, surprise----not supposed to be didactic political arguments.  In point of fact, films are films. That may sound stunningly obvious, but if it were really all that obvious, then a lefty like Kathryn Bigelow wouldn't have spent the last several months being labeled as Dick Cheney's answer to Leni Riefenstahl.

Of course, this assumes your idea of film is not limited the greater works of Michael Bay and Tom Shadyac.  This all assumes that your idea of film includes people like Welles and Hitchcock, and even, dare I say it, fucking commies like Tarkovskiy.  This assumes you understand that sometimes people say one thing when they actually mean another, and that it is exactly that juxtaposition of meaning that often provides the most devastating critique possible.

Films are not campaign speeches, nor are they Guardian articles, and so they are not always aiming for the lowest common denominator.  They are also not newspaper stories, so they are not written and produced and directed using only those tools which can be understood by an eighth grade audience.  Great works of art are meant to affect those who are open to them in the most subtle ways possible, and so they reward repeated viewing and, most of all, careful consideration.  They are meant to provoke an emotional reaction initially, with intellectual meaning only becoming truly clear later, and only then if you are willing to work up some skull sweat to get there.  If you are only capable of knee-jerk reaction in the moment, then you are likely going to miss the type of pointed commentary which usually only becomes wholly obvious once something is chewed over later.

All of which is to say that something like Zero Dark Thirty isn't going to be as easy a nut to crack as Bruce Almighty, even though at the same time Zero Dark can still be a hell of lot more entertaining and exciting than the almighty Bruce and his titty-growing, moon-pulling shenanigans.

Thus, when the CIA officer in Zero Dark says, mid-torture, "This is what defeat looks like," to a captured terror cell financier, there is a reason the camera is squarely on the officer himself at that moment.  When you hear the words "this is what defeat looks like" you are not looking at the pitiable Arab tied to the ceiling.  No, when you hear the words "this is what defeat looks like" you are looking squarely at the torturing agent of the U.S. of A.

This is the use of another near-dead tool called irony.  On the surface it appears that the defeated one in the scene is the man tied to the ceiling, but the point of the image shown to us at the exact moment that the line about defeat is uttered is that, in fact, we are the defeated ones.  The point is that defeat looks like this CIA officer, not the detainee.  The point is that a once great nation has been reduced to animal behavior that is in direct contravention with its foundational principles.  The point is that we are the defeated, and with every punch and kick and electro-shock to the nuts, we defeat ourselves a little more.

Now, of course, Kathryn Bigelow could have simply had a character say all of that aloud.  But that would have necessitated creating a new character named Boring McObvious, or at the very least changing the name of the movie from Zero Dark Thirty to Glenn Greenwald, Let Us Explain It All To You.  And then instead of a movie she would have been making a civics lesson.

And it would have been a civics lesson, by the way, with which huge swaths of the Western public would not agree.  While Glenn Greenwald and I may not be big fans of torture, it is worth mentioning here that torture polled exceedingly well during the period in question, and continues to do so to this day.  Kathryn Bigelow is indicting not just a transitional U.S. government in that shot of the CIA officer.  She is also pointing her camera vicariously at all of us who allowed atrocities to be committed in our name.  This is very tricky business she is engaging in, trying at once to document reality, while at the same time trying to take a position on that reality that is not didactic and boring, while at the same trying to engage an audience that is probably more than half filled with people who just may think the CIA guy is doing God's own work.

So how do you reach not just those people who are inclined to agree with you when you are making a film?  How do you make something that can stand the test of time and perhaps reach into and discomfit those with whom a political discussion would end as quickly as they are able to ascertain that you are stating something with which they do not agree?  And what is the point of a film in the first place?  Is it merely something that should be designed to make all those people who already agree with you feel good about themselves for the position they took?  Do we really want our movies to turn into the same sort of unchallenged echo chamber that our news media has now become?  Can a film really be great if it is merely designed to be glanced at, understood immediately at face value, and then passed around between like minded individuals like a Facebook meme?

The scene I mention above comes right away in Zero Dark Thirty.  And whether you get the point of the film grammar Bigelow is using or not, the scene is shot and staged in such a way as to make us uncomfortable from the get go.  Certainly our protagnist, the young CIA agent played by Jessica Chastain, is uncomfortable.  Chastain's Maya grimaces and looks away repeatedly, but, apparently to the Greenwalds' endless frustration, she never says a word.  Eventually she will be corrupted by the process in which she is engaged, and later you will see her witness and participate in such acts without batting an eye; indeed without even registering on her face that there is anything to bat an eye about.  But while this tale of innocence corrupted is as old as storytelling itself, these days you rarely see it played out wordlessly, or without any external comment at some point, and so the discomfort shown by Maya in this early scene was apparently not enough for the Greenwalds.  For the Greenwalds, force-fed a diet of 42-minute homilies on the supposedly simple nature of good vs. evil each week on NCSI & Order, how can someone truly be corrupted if she didn't begin from a place where she was verbally railing against the injustices she would later come to accept as a matter of course?  If she didn't verbally object, then how are we to understand that there was anything happening on screen that we were not supposed to applaud? After all, don't Mark Harmon and Sam Waterson make a big speech each and every time they see something morally questionable?

Of course, the fact that none of that happened is very much not to the point the fickle finger of fascism at Bigelow.  For those who believe everything must be a cut and dried political argument, and only a cut and dried political argument, trying to find meaning in the messiness of reality is much too difficult.  If you want to make a point in the political world, you state it outright, and then you say it again, and then again and again and again.  And then nine thousand more times for the stupid people in the cheap seats.

For the Greenwalds, if you want subtlety, make a movie about a zombies or something, otherwise you are on the wrong side of the moral divide.

Again, if you take everything literally, and if you are of the belief that anything shown without immediate verbal condemnation is then de facto consent, as apparently the Greenwalds believe, it is possible you will take away from Zero Dark Thirty that torture is, as Martha Stewart might say, a good thing.  It is possible you will see the image at the end of the film---the very one that leads this post---and it will simply wash over you with no meaning.  It is possible you will not see that the isolation in which Maya is bathed at the end of the film is meant to signify the isolation that we, America, have created for ourselves with our terribly wrong-headed approach to the war on terror.  It's possible that her being alone on an island in the middle of darkness for most of the last hour of the film will not resonate with you at all, and you will see no larger meaning in those carefully crafted images.  It's possible that when her decade long mission, the thing to which she has dedicated her heart and soul with so little thought of its consequences or aftermath, is finally at an end and she is asked where she wants to go next, you will think nothing of the fact that she has no answer and simply weeps in silence.  It's possible that you will see no broader meaning in any of that.

But just because you do not see it does not mean that it is not there.

No comments:

Post a Comment