placeholder for a 0D30 post

SUB-24ZERO-articleLargeSince 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.


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  1. 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.

    • All movies are snuff movies at varying and complex degrees of remove from the original crime or crimes which are themselves repetitions and reciprocations in a chain of guilt back to Cain & Abel or their mummy and daddy and their Nobodaddy. One reason I don’t hardly ever go to movies anymore, but this one is one of note. Do you remember when we went to see Schindler’s List? I had forgotten that he was producing the Flintstones, but had just directed in the same year JURASSIC PARK, a major hit, of course, leading to the suspicion that the T-Rex and the furnace at Auschwitz may have had some connection to each other. Or maybe the the T-Rex was the Allies, the Velociprators the Nazis, and Sam Neill was Liam Neeson.

      • Not just movies, but art in general could be charaterized as snuff plays, poems, paintings, macrame etc in this way. “Varyng degrees” provides a lot of latitude.

        Besides the snuff thing, there’s also the capitalist stooge thing too

        By focusing on the film-historical context—the aesthetic idiosyncrasies of an individual film or its connections to other films by genre, crew, or cast—film criticism fails to see the intentions and desires of the film industry, the only active subject in major cinema. In doing so, film criticism colludes with the entertainment industry’s massive project of commodifying experience. By treating entertainment products as a mirror of social experience, film criticism legitimates capitalist alienation while cheapening the possibilities of art.

  2. I do remember. I also remember how well it went over at the high-holiday family table when I told Sid that I didn’t think the holocaust was fit subject matter for entertainment. My ex-mother-in-law gave the book Schindler’s List to Sid’s wife and she gave it to SS and the rest is history–at least Hollywood’s version.
    I meant to beat you to the punch with the “every movie is a snuff movie” point but my ADD tripped me up.
    The thing that had me shaking my head most about Jurassic Park was the scene with the grandfather eating ice cream as his grandchildren were somewhere being eaten by the Nazis. SS had and has a major father-complex and since he has no sense of it at all, there’s all these super creepy father moments in his movies where the emotional intent behind the scene is more obscure than Bigelow’s in 0D30. Really, I just wanted to write 0D30 myself.

  3. You’re going to blame Thomas Kenneally and Michael Crichton, the source material for both, although I’lll admit Ralph Fiennes was much more evil as Amon Goeth, then as Voldemort, a generation later,

  4. Schindler’s List, will likely last much longer than ZD 30, because the images hold up after nearly 20 years, but it’s hard to watch, for that reason, because it was a real life horror film, a trek ‘through the valley of Death’ with an almost demonic villain in Fiennes’s Goeth, Neeson’s Schindler’s was an imperfect foil by comparison, the latter was subsequently in ‘Strange Days’ a film that really is a Boschian descent with little redeeming social value.

  5. Having just seen Django I’m going to let it rip here. in coming back the blog, I was hoping that this comment stream had died out more so no one would read it and I would just be ranting into the void. The arrogance is going to flow. Don’t read this if it bugs you. But here goes anyway. FIrst, props to CK for instinctual sussing out some important Hollywood commodifications. He didn’t see Dj or 0D30 (me either) but he knew something was up. There is something up. Dj is a great movie. It is blacksploitation done so incredibly well I can’t believe what I just saw. And I know I’m being objective because I know where he got the feel and structure of the scenes: the Sister’s Brothers. That’s a book that has nothing to do with slavery but trust me, from my days of being ripped off in Hollywood, combined with energetic sensitivity I know what material comes from what material if I’m at all familiar with the ripped off material and Mr. T ripped off Sister’s Brothers. in fact, he couldn’t help but out himself with a few riffs off brother names in Dj. But I don’t care. The movie is still great. It’s lucky I went because I don’t think slavery should be turned into commodified entertainment. So I wasn’t going to go see Dj. Then a close friend who I always agree with about movies told me it was “great.” The fact that she’s half African-American was important in this case. Given my feelings about Schindler’s List I was expecting to have issues with making slavery entertaining. But I also knew that the humor would make a difference. It did. Wicked humor trumps everything else. It can’t be critiqued. It can’t really “collude with commodifying experience” the way drama does. Really smart humor is impossible to critique, which is why really smart critics hate it. And I don’t know how, but Mr. T has gotten a whole lot smarter since R-dogs. He has climbed a ladder like the structure of Unforgiven. Italian Mr, T started out with the stupid racism of Italians, made his way up to Jewish racism, and finally made it to the top of the mountain (think Dr. King’s mountain in a humorous way) where the good and evil wrench the wrenching of dealing with human empathy beyond anything anyone, including CK, will ever find fitting words for or about, and that is especially true in respect to the director’s intensions. But I am not a critic, and I did get lucky here and understand Mr. T’s intensions. Bigelow’s intensions may come from trained conceptual art schooling, but Mr. T’s are, I am sure, much more potent. It’s simple. No critique will have the balls to state it, but Mr. T is so successfully black enough that he does the blackest thing I know that strong black men consistently do to each other: he presents a challenge with wicked humor. With this movie, he challenges people of African decent to stop fighting each other for sport–for entertainment. He challenges everyone not to be entertained by torture but by real intelligence and strength. And just in case you have your doubts (hopefully no one is reading this anyway) I will draw your imaginary attention to a scene so subtly art historical that my draw dropped. It was not by accident because Mr. T had already well established the German Romanticism aspect of the story and film. Dj’s love interest is named “Broomhilda,” and a German character tells the story of her romance. So I was impressed when Mr. T shot the dream scene between them ripping off a German Romantic named Freiderick or something. Icy and foggy and white just like his landscape paintings.
    But the real genius in the movie goes beyond any critique or anything else even CK could think about it. Again, the humor trumps critique. That’s what Schindler’s List didn’t have at all. Plus, the “torturifc” scenes that CK warned me about made me go personal. I won’t use my personal torture story the way other folks besides CK on this blog use personal stories (to justify or condemn on a supposedly connected big issue) but I will go personal. When Dj is going to have his “nuts snipped” with a hot knife I couldn’t help but go back to a surgery that was performed on me called a “testicular biopsy.” Torturific. It was especially torturific because I was awake. The surgeon was exploring because…no…not that it was that big a deal, but maybe someone will read this. So, I will downgrade to the minor torture that took place during the movie. An overweight old white guy burping throughout the movie. Bad. Not as bad though as when I had my ear pierced in the most tender spot on the ear. Why would I do that? Because I wanted to prove something. The doctor who cut my nuts open had gotten me to do the surgery (which resulted in no new info) by telling me that it would be like an ear piercing. So I later did the most painful ear-piercing you can do just to prove a stupid point only to myself. Didn’t change anything. Didn’t change that right before the doctor snipped my nuts open (even though he had given me a local) had said, “You can scream all you want, just don’t reach down here.” And imagine what it would have felt like without the local. I couldn’t walk for 4 days. He said I’d be fine in one. That was a long time ago but I still think about going back to LA and finding that doctor, especially since I have learned that testicular biopsies are never done with just a local. But he’s probably dead. Anyway, seriously, I am teasing CK with all this. It’s all true but it’s meant to make things so twisted that CK can’t enjoy the fact that I went to a snuff movie and enjoyed it. Mr. T got me. He probably knows he has to get it while the getting’s good because as great as this movie is, it won’t hold a candle to the movies people of African decent will make some day soon. Mr. T made a hugely challenging movie but he is like Pat Boone. He also did the right thing and pointed out that the ability to really love the way Dj does in the movie is the real reason African slaves may have appeared “submissive,” but he’s still just Pat Boone and I bet he knows it. Otherwise he couldn’t be so funny (like the house n played by Samual Jackson) as ge rips off the genius floating off of black culture to do things that entertain us now, but someday, in a time that people look back and see even Spike Lee as a house…no I can’t say that..horrible and unfair…there will be real movies made because the humor will be filled with real love, not just the Pat Boone kind.

    • Well thanks for that. Now I really don’t think I need to see the movie until it’s on PPV at earliest. If I liked going to movie theaters more, I might, but I don’t, so I probably won’t.

      You seem a little skeptical about KBig’s Concept Artist credentials. You should take a look at the link I added to the “early life and education” section of her Wikipedia bio: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kathryn_Bigelow#Early_life_and_education I woke up this morning wondering if I had maybe exaggerated it based on some intuitions about her, some stray bits and pieces, and the knowledge that she worked on the graphics for Semiotext(e), a notorious avant-gardish magazine. If anything, I far underplayed it. Think about the Concept and Performance Artists of the ’70s ’80s when she was cutting her teeth, and what they went on to do. I often think of Tim Burton that way, though I think what he mainly took from his CalArts education was contempt for Hollywood narrative conventions and for auteur pretensions, not any very highly developed critical project.

  6. Typical of me and my ADD, I forgot the point of my last comment. I had written earlier that movies like Trainspotting still make heroine addicts want to do heroine. My point was that Dj didn’t make me want to go out and pierce my ear again.

  7. Please commodified hyperviolence has been Tarantino’s game, at least since ‘Pulp Fiction’, some 19 years ago. It is striking how the utter rolling abbatoir arrives on the eve of the last atrocity, from all those arrogant criers for gun
    regulation even confiscation, The poison pill, about slavery in this country, was that it struck at the essential idea, for which it was founded,

  8. I love how a totally head-shaking comment like mine there could be followed so effortlessly by the real master of the comment head-shaker’s comment. Although I do think that miggs’ comment right there includes the least number of names he’s ever used in a comment.

  9. I think my earlier posts, about Jurassic Park, which is an entertaining romp, and the somber almost funereal mien of Schindler’s List, that needed to be done were more worthy.

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