Katheryn Bigelow and Pop Anti-Analysis

Earlier this month, a FOIA request yielded another hundred pages of documents relating to the CIA’s collaboration with the filmmakers behind Zero Dark Thirty. As is customary when these things happen, the typical response included a few recurring threads. The first is film and culture writers tripping over each other to declare that there’s nothing unseemly about the CIA having veto power over a “first draft of history” like a big Hollywood film. See, the CIA cares about accuracy, which probably explains all those spies in newsrooms. The second is that “It might have been one thing if the finished film was unrepentant pro-CIA propaganda,” but the main character squirted a few at the end. That basically makes the film anti-war–and man, the CIA accidentally made an anti-war movie, those guys must be even more inept than we thought!

The third trope in all these is the idea that critics are actually censors. For instance, in 2013, a couple former ACLU directors wrote a letter to the New York Times arguing that Americans should watch Zero Dark Thirty in order to make up their own minds about CIA torture. As Tarzie wrote at the time:

Oh mercy me, no. Congress mustn’t interfere, via polite letters, with the free artistic expression of CIA operatives and their Hollywood collaborators. How else but through manipulative, formulaic films with scrappy CIA heroines can we, as a society, determine whether torture and extrajudicial killing are good or really good?

Now, in 2015, a Katheryn Bigelow quote I hadn’t seen at the time is getting a second life, and it’s worth highlighting. A couple years ago, Bigelow claimed that “confusing depiction with endorsement is the first step toward chilling any American artist’s ability and right to shine a light on dark deeds.” “Confusing depiction with endorsement,” according to Bigelow, is the first step to chilling speech. From what I can tell, Bigelow is the first Hollywood millionaire to shift the evils of censorship from doing something to thinking something critical. The slippery slope that ends with the Bill of Rights in flames now begins in the critic’s mind.

There’s been a strain of thought that holds that viewers can only read a film based on statements of the author’s intent, which are passed down with God-like clarity as though they’re the 10 Commandments or something. According to the anonymous author behind the blog “Fables of Faubus,” this idea was first articulated in a modern way by Walter Benn Michaels and Stephen Knapp in their article Against Theory, which argued that a text’s “meaning is whatever its author intends.” The writer points out that Michaels and Knapp are “extremely prescriptive” about the fact that most theory-based analysis should end. The anonymous author also points out that their idea found purchase in left-liberal literary journals that were (at least) the spiritual heirs to a lot of the CIA-funded magazines of the cultural Cold War. At the very least, it’s easy to see why this idea would enjoy the patronage of capital. The idea that people shouldn’t place any stock in their own judgment or substantive analysis, but trust the word of millionaires and their corporate benefactors, is a recipe for propaganda going unchallenged.

If this idea can be called “anti-analysis,” then in the last 5 or so years we’ve seen the rise of pop anti-analysis. When The Dark Knight Rises came out, for instance, there was a lot of commentary on the villain’s Occupy-inspired imagery. Chris Nolan’s responses to the threat of unprofitable controversy were classic pop anti-analysis:

  • “I’ve had as many conversations with people who have seen the film the other way round. We’re going to get wildly different interpretations of what the film is supporting and not supporting, but it’s not doing any of those things.”
  • “It’s just telling a story.”
  • “But what’s politics?”

Who’s to say, like, what politics even IS, anyway? Touché, Chris. Nolan touches on a lot of the tropes of pop anti-analysis, but Bigelow popularized one that he missed. This is one of the central planks: the idea that depiction doesn’t equal endorsement. Like other threads in this tapestry, endorsement vs. depiction is something that depends largely on the artist’s intentionality. The singular focus on “endorsement” removes the text from the realm of analysis and places it into the filmmaker’s mind. Since none of us have access, we just have to take their word for it. And if the artist’s mind can have supernatural power over the meaning of the film, then it’s plausible that the skeptical viewer’s mind has the power to send well-meaning, transparency-minded artists like Bigelow to the gulag.

Of course, last week it came out that the FBI believes that retweets are endorsements–meaning that merely depicting something uncritically won’t save you from getting 20+ years on a material support charge. Hollywood’s going to keep putting out propaganda, and defending it by arguing that no one can draw their own conclusions. The spies and secret police thugs who help them make these films don’t buy that, though, and neither should anyone else.


Postscript/Personalish Note: If anyone is interested in these liberal war films and the types of discourses around them, I’m working on a book on the subject. I’m done with research and have put together drafts of a couple chapters, so it looks like it’s finally moving towards becoming something real. It’ll obviously be in at least e-book form, but if enough people are interested I may have a few hard copies printed up. I’ll keep people posted around here.

11 thoughts on “Katheryn Bigelow and Pop Anti-Analysis

  1. nice piece. are Bigelow and Nolan being intentionally obtuse? There are many aspects to the life & career of OBL, US involvement in Afghanistan/Pakistan, CIA ops, etc., etc. No lack of material, incl. the possibility that the story of OBL’s demise is utter falsehood, yet Bigelow chose to tell “how the cia nabbed obl”, not some other story, and all of the narratives this story implies, esp. about “the war on terror.” This choice, obviously, is a political act. It is no suprise that CIA collaboration follows and an endorsement of torture’s effectiveness, whatever her protests.

    and how is the delusional fantasy of nolan’s beneficent billionaire batman not a political statement? every utterance & gesture of these movies is intended to solidarize the viewer with Leviathan by whacking them with the cudgel of fear repeatedly. I kept wishing for the Joker to blow the Wayne penthouse with all those rich fucks in it in the middle of the movie, but no: we side with them against the chaos of the Joker and we do so because Batman, our new Messiah, Jesus H Kick Ass, punches just a little bit harder than the bad guys AND runs a big charity. Sheesh, how much more reactionary can you get?

    • As far as Nolan and Bigelow, they’re definitely lying. Nolan, for instance, definitely knows that no one is claiming Dark Knight Rises as a PRO-Occupy allegory because there’s nothing in the text to support a reading like that. Ultimately, that’s what those of us who still support analyzing the politics of what we’re shown have going–the film is right up there on screen, able to be read by anyone willing to do the mental work. In a similar vein to Nolan, I remember screenwriter David Goyer swearing-off any similarity between Batman and Bush when the comparison was being raised after The Dark Knight. His smokescreen was that it wasn’t political because “the theme was escalation.” Oh, sorry Dave, I didn’t realize *escalation* didn’t occur in politics.

      Bigelow is also a liar, and like Nolan, a shameless one. For all her robotic repetition about the film’s journalistic accuracy, a simple Google search can turn up ample accounts of how many CIA lies made it to the final work. Bigelow used the CIA as much as they her–she had been working on a film about UBL’s alleged escape from Tora Bora in late 2001, most likely based on Dalton Fury’s “Kill Bin Laden.” She could’ve stuck with that, but she and Boal probably smelled glory as much as the CIA smelled perfect psyop material. A real match made in heaven.

      • these movies have all the sophistication of a bout of WWE RAW! i didn’t see ZD30 cuz we all have enough media voices telling us sometimes we need “to walk on the dark side,” so maybe i’m not being fair to that movie, but i doubt it. what is the difference in batman b/n his 1st encounter with bane and his second? nothing more than strength of will. what is the message of ZD30, among other things? we need to have the strength, the strenght to do evil things.

        this is a similar thing in zach snyder’s “man of steel” ripoff of the 2nd movie in the old christopher reeve’s superman series. in the original, superman has to trick Zod and Luthor b/c he’s equally matched & there’s no other way. it’s not great movie-making but it’s light years above snyder’s superman literally ripping the head off of general zod in a final showdown with more punching than all the rocky movies combined. (in the remake there is the lame excuse that zod is not quite so used to earth’s atmosphere so superman after 6 hrs of punching can get really mad & finally break his neck. what a turd.)

      • You’re totally right–for all the alleged ambiguity, the morality here is as complex as Wrestlemania. I know you saw this in one of the other posts, but I always point out that the “morally ambiguous” torturer played by Jason Clarke is both handsome and an animal lover.

        If you’re looking for something that shows how to do *actual* moral ambiguity, have you seen the recent Dawn of the Planet of the Apes? It’s quite great, and it shows what complex ethics look like through a very effectively realized villain. It looks nothing like this “dark, edgy” stuff coming out of comics and spy movies, with heroes remaking evil as a gray area. Apes is also worth seeing just because it’s great, too.

      • thanks. i’ll check it out. i did enjoy the previous one. nice to see Americans biting it sitting it in one of our favorite spots: a traffic jam. and animals making some kind of a come back.

        these movies have no subtlety about the distinctions b/n power as rhetoric and power as force/violence. just listen to (nolan’s) batman’s idiotic voice. what’s he supposed to be, a nazi camp guard? b/c the villain is an outsider trying to break or break into the established structure of power and so is weaker, the villain has more theatricality, more fireworks & smoke-and- mirror gestures. (see the scene where nolan’s batman tries to use smoke bombs against bane. and who knew that Sherlock Holmes was also Jet Li?) nolan’s villains are very limited in their imagination, where the heros have no imagination at all. They growl & flex & strut before the fight and maybe their two lady friends will go at it too…and they stage a fight. To its credit, I don’t turn on Wrestlemania automatically knowing who wins.

        The 3rd Batman movie spends about 5 minutes at the start on the subject of Bruce Wayne not being his costume. He’s heart-broken & beaten up & getting old & these issues are resolved within those same 5 minutes. Except later he gets thrown in that hell hole prison where we discover that the mask of strength is the real Bruce Wayne. and so he escapes, thru more push ups and heavier grunting.

        i don’t have all this worked out, but these movies are stagings, instances of power-as-rhetoric even as their stories focus on power-as-violence. But Bigelow would have us accept this performance & production as “true.” There is no Oz fiddling around with his gizmos behind the curtain. like there is no CIA & Hollywood. and Augustus Caesar really is the son of the divinized Julius Caesar. despite being, you know….adopted. He says Rome comes in peace. what’s the BFD? what more is there to know?

        this is all a roundabout way of saying The Prestige is better than all this garbage. AND they are still trying to kill each other in the end.

        Thanks. i’m ramblin’. and good luck with your bigger writing efforts.

      • ramblin on: many americans are mystified by the refugee crisis in europe b/c uncle sam played a parlor trick on us by not showing or discussing the actual conditions of any of these countries being destroyed by the West (or the troops coming back). No pictures allowed. Power as bombs & bullets & power as magic tricks, powerpoint presentations, and newscasts. The people on the being bombed side of this dynamic are refusing to play their assigned role, which was & is, after all, to die. Merkel, Orban, et al, find their self-display & command of the stage, their agency, to be gauche & irksome. These filthy bodies are not supposed to be actors at all. Get off the TV screen! And so, today, in US newspapers in discussions of the refugees, no connection with the eruption of Western militarism in these “conflict zones” can be made, even though Libya was destroyed only 4 short years ago.

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