Since I have not yet seen Zero Dark Thirty and am not sure when I will get around to doing so, this post will be placeholder. It is based on a comment I left under Ethan Gach’s post “Kathryn Bigelow Trolls Zero Dark Thirty Critics.” I’m posting a cleaned-up version here for our friend Mr. Isquith, after another of many conversations about the film.
An academically trained visual artist who was studying during the rise of Concept Art and the thorough penetration of the “art world” by post- and neo-Marxist theory, Kathryn Bigelow has a different and, I think it must be said, likely much more sophisticated concept of “artistic truth” than do most of her critics. She and they therefore tend to talk past each other. At the same time, if she tried to summarize all that she is after as a filmmaker, she might end up both ruining her chances to pursue her art further and also distorting its reception.
The difference between her sensibility and that of her critics shows up in the reaction to the final statement of her LA Times op-ed. For Bigelow and arguably for the audience she is both addressing and seeking to implicate, “brave men and women [giving] their all to keep the country safe and find UBL” is not, as Gach would have it, a “morally unambiguous sentiment.” Bigelow is probably likely aware, however, that the statement will be taken as “unambiguous,” even by attentive and sophisticated readers like Gach and Isquith. Her offering it will help to pre-empt charges from the other side: of effective treason in her included acknowledgment, and vivid cinematic demonstration, that “moral lines” were crossed. How can an open assertion that moral lines were crossed be taken as a “morally unambiguous” affirmation? The ambiguity is right there on the surface of the sentence, right before the succession of phrases that strike Isquith as jingoistic “boilerplate.”
Not just Bigelow’s film or op-ed but any honest consideration of the last decade or the last 250 years or the last 500 years or the last 5 – 10,000 years will tend to confirm vast ambiguities, imperfections, and failed reconciliations in concepts of justice: the rarity of a pure and remainderless coincidence of universal and patriotic or partisan morality, the frequency of tragic conflict. It may be the very notion that morally very highly ambiguous or simply wrong actions might be converted by patriotic sacrifice into something “morally unambiguous” that produces the deeply troubling actions depicted in and fictionally replicated in Bigelow’s film. Gach and Isquith’s elision prepares to repeat the same syndrome from another side: The unreserved condemnation of torture will on close analysis sooner or later reveal unexpected or suppressed “ambiguities” in any observer’s position – commonly brought forward in the “ticking time bomb” scenarios popular among torture defenders, but potentially much more complex. The examination is not one, however, deemed likely to serve paramount objectives of eliminating torture from any arsenal of democracy and further winding down or re-conceiving the War on Terror.
To crib a bit further from Paul W Kahn – whom I have mentioned many times in such connections, since he has written extensively on the problematic of patriotic sacrifice over the last ten years – we love our countries, like our children or our parents or our husbands and wives or our fellow fill-in-the-blanks, because they are ours, not because they are better than someone else’s. This fact, ambiguously a problem and the source of blessings, seems to be what the self-styled pacifist Bigelow addresses, in a manner that re-frames the role of torture and its near variations in the hunt for OBL (& co.) as a question rather than an answer.
The problem with making political statements–even supposedly non-political non-statement statements– with movies is that the voyeur aspect can turn even the biggest turn off into at minimum an accidental turn on. Trainspotting had ex-heroine addicts running back to their needles despite the toilet bowl scenes. Schindler’s List had to work as entertainment (and was being finished at the same time SS was making The Flinestones) and that is a grotesquery in and of itself. So if the movie shows a whole lot of torture, it may not matter what the director thinks she’s doing. It’s still a torture movie, which is to say it’s a snuff movie. So if a potential viewer like me doesn’t want to support snuff movies then I can’t buy a ticket.