SICARIO and America’s dark new frontier

Sicario-Movie-Reviews-2015

Down into the heart of darkness.

Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario is a thriller about the drug war starring Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, and Benicio del Toro. It’s getting rave reviews, is already considered a financial success, and will probably win quite a few awards. I had a feeling it would fit into a wider set of Obama-era war on terror fiction for a few reasons. First, Villeneuve had previously made an appearance on this blog for his 2013 film Prisoners, part of a series of “morally ambiguous” torture films in which anguished heroes do evil things for the right reasons. Now, I haven’t seen either of Villeneuve’s other films, Incendies and Enemies, but given what happens in his movies I’ve seen, I have to assume that both have moments where the hero has to pull someone’s fingernails out to save the day. Second, since its release a couple weeks ago, the film has garnered almost unanimous comparisons to Francis Ford Coppola’s warfare-and-madness classic Apocalypse Now. Finally, friend of the blog George Bell told me that the film had every criterion of a contemporary shoot-and-cry—and boy, was he right. Sicario is that film, but it combines a lot of insidious messages into something new.

As I’ve outlined in previous blog posts, and in greater depth for my upcoming book, the shoot-and-cry, cloaked in faux “moral ambiguity,” is the dominant narrative framework for middle- and high-brow films dealing with the military and the homeland today. It’s necessary to specify that these are films about “the military and the homeland,” rather than just “war,” since these films engage in a conscious blurring of the lines between wartime and peace. This new kind of American film is the result of an endless war, prosecuted by someone liberals like, who has both escalated it overseas and made countering an enemy within a cornerstone of his policies. Sicario in particular is a new escalation, reflecting the state’s creation homeland security as a nebulous category of militarized, lawless, endless force.

As is always the case with these American shoot-and-cries and “morally ambiguous” torture films, most of the discussion from paid critics and middle-brow aesthetes on twitter gets some fundamentals wrong. First, the prime point of comparison for Sicario shouldn’t be Apocalypse Now, although that film is important. More accurately, Sicario has the DNA of Zero Dark Thirty cross-polinated with the earlier spook thriller The Recruit. Coppola’s Apocalypse Now is, of course, loosely based on Joseph Conrad’s 1898 novella Heart of Darkness. According to film professor Neda Atanasoski, Heart of Darkness is “the touchstone of post-Vietnam US historical fiction.” Heart of Darkness is about a descent into a moral void, resuscitated by ethical feeling and ultimately, redemption. According to the narrative, only by having one’s naïve assumptions revoked by an ugly reality can someone incorporate that reality and progress morally. Obviously, this doesn’t lead to a critique of imperialism, since Conrad was a big fan of the transformative power of the British empire. And just like Conrad wrote Heart of Darkness while waving the Butcher’s Apron, these “morally ambiguous” films are about re-writing evil as a gray area.

Sicario is worth paying attention to for a few reasons. First, the film’s reputation and subject matter give it clout as a cultural reference point. The film is hailed, by people paid to do this sort of thing, for grappling with serious moral and political questions. This is a signal that the viewing public is supposed to give weight to the ideological messages that this film imparts. Its release also signals that Villeneuve deserves to be considered alongside Katherine Bigelow and Christopher Nolan as a mediator of centrist anxieties over American power. And Sicario may be unique among these films in that its premises are even murkier to identify. All these films wallow in misery in order to obscure what they’re saying, to seem “ambiguous” when they really have an uncomplicated ethical stance. Sicario uses the main protagonist as an audience surrogate to an extraordinary degree, and the horrors she’s put through leave the viewer seemingly bereft of neat conclusions. But the film has discernable messages and subtext, echoed by the filmmaker, which are easier to pick up on if you know what the dominant messages are that Hollywood’s putting out about American power-projection.

Continue reading

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.

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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.

2 takes on Capitalism from “Nightcrawler”

2014’s Nightcrawler is the story of Lou Bloom, a cosmopolitan sociopath who finds success in the media. Unlike other brands of villain, Lou is lucky enough to live in a system which rewards a certain variety of exploitative creep with material goods and prestige. Rather than coming off like a cretin, Lou sends off the right social signals by speaking in the language of entrepreneurship, pop psychology, and power-of-positive-thinking aphorisms.

In the beginning of the film, Lou is eking out a living by stealing scrap metal and bikes. he soon discovers that local morning shows will pay cash for sensational footage, so he begins a career in the news industry, zipping across Los Angeles to film his fellow Angelenos bleeding and dying. Because he possesses no conscience, and there’s no moral line he’s unwilling to cross, Lou is a natural. Over Nightcrawler‘s runtime, he climbs the ladder as he’s able to deliver bloodier, ever more dramatic footage to his corporate patrons. At Lou’s station, one producer tries to agitate for some standard of decency, but is overruled. After all, the basic nature of a money-making organization dictates that profits must comes above all else.

If all this sounds like a lesson about capitalism, that’s what I thought, too. Lou isn’t just rewarded because he is willing to transgress boundaries that others won’t. More importantly, there are built-in, structural reasons for this. No matter how many people within the organization may object on moral grounds, the system has certain demands. Regardless of how well-meaning the managers and day laborers within the system might be, it’ll produce predation a general cheapening of human life. That’s what’s in the film text, anyway–from Lou himself to the producer whose objections are dismissed. Continue reading

I love how Jackie Chan doesn’t love America

The YouTube channel “Every Frame a Painting” is one of the most thoughtful, enjoyable, and well-produced film series on the internet, and the creator did a great piece on Jackie Chan. The man behind the series does a compelling job of mapping out why exactly Chan is such a uniquely compelling martial artist, physical performer, and comedian. Having gotten started on a Jackie Chan kick, I devoured a lot of his movies on Netflix and YouTube for the first time since I was a teenager.

Having just watched a lot of his movies recently, I’m convinced you could make a solid case for Chan being one of the best performers of the 20th century. There are few other actors who marry such a wide variety of skills–from peak physical condition to perfect comic timing–to a commitment to pleasing the audience above all else.

And a golden throat, too:

However, in my quest to watch Jackie Chan doing and saying everything possible, I found this slew of headlines from 2013 that I’d missed the first time around:

Jackie Chan Thinks America Is “The Most Corrupt Nation In The World”

Speaking on a television show in Hong Kong, Chan had some harsh words for the good ol’ U. S. of A. Chan was discussing recent progress China has made…when he called America “the most corrupt [country] in the world.” Chan then continues, blaming America for the world’s troubles and spouting some seriously nationalistic nonsense (Gawker)

The anti-Americanism of Jackie Chan

Chan’s comments…do reflect a certain strain of anti-Americanism that is particular to some elements of China. [Y]ou might naturally be wondering how Chan can square his criticism of the United States with his long embrace of the American film market. How, after all, could he spend so much time making movies in “the most corrupt country in the world”? (WaPo)

Why Did Jackie Chan Body-Slam America?

There are notable differences between PSY’s gaffe and Chan’s, however. PSY dropped his buzzbomb over a decade ago as a relative unknown, driven by youthful passion and the prevailing attitudes in his native country. Chan hardly has that excuse. He’s experienced enough to know that words have power (WSJ)

So, obviously, I love this.

The brief clip is worth watching, too, if only for seeing Jackie Chan speak about America in a tone he usually reserves for onscreen drug smugglers.

My enjoyment is tempered somewhat by the knowledge that he’s voicing his sweet, sweet anti-Americanism from a nationalist position, rather than a more libertarian one (in the traditional, non-Cato sense of the word). Still, there are precious few joys in this world these days. Seeing vacuous media jagoffs wail and keen over someone’s inexplicable, nay, shocking lack of love for America is one of them. How often does America get body-slammed in the media?

However, the revelation that a foreigner feels anything other than unalloyed love for the world’s hegemon prompts something like revulsion over their lack of gratitude. “How could he spend so much time making movies in ‘the most corrupt country in the world’,” in the words of the Washington Post. What kind of a so-called crooked country ever rewarded celebrities? Q.E.D., Commies.

It’s this background that lead to the American reception of his most recent movie, which Chan claims will be his last, Chinese Zodiac (a.k.a. CZ 12). The film is too “nationalist” for American reviewers, who take issue with the temerity of its hero:

Instead of seeking a magic sword, or Nazi gold, as in the previous films, Chan’s band of adventurers is on a quest to steal 12 ancient Chinese statues that were taken by Anglo-French forces during the Opium Wars of the 1840s.

The plot of the 1994 film The Legend of Drunken Master involves Jackie Chan’s character stopping the British from stealing Chinese treasures, too. It’s amazing what a difference a strategic pivot makes. However, as far as nationalist statements go, isn’t seeking the return of your country’s stolen historical treasures a pretty mild one? I’d be more willing to concede that there’s something unsavory about this instinct if these same critics hadn’t spent hundreds of thousands of words arguing that American Sniper needed to be appreciated as an apolitical work. Classic America–anything it does is neutral, anyone who doesn’t love it is a deranged ideologue.

Play us out, Jackie.

Copaganda Theater: “End of Watch”

Occupy LA Anti-Social Media (OLAASM) has published an excellent piece on the historical role of the Los Angeles police department, called “The LAPD: Not Your Model Police Department – But Definitely Theirs.” OLAASM writes that:

Los Angeles has long served as a proving ground where the counterinsurgency tactics later adopted by police throughout the United States were first domestically deployed. Ever since the nation’s very first no-knock SWAT raid on the Black Panther Party headquarters at 41st & Central and the CIA-facilitated, “crack cocaine explosion” that was first unleashed on South Central to more recent, repressive innovations like so-called “Community Policing” and today’s “Predpol,” (Minority Report-style pre-crime tactics –ed) the City of Angels has repeatedly been lauded as a “model” for “modern” policing.

OLAASM’s piece about how the LAPD is a “model” police department got me thinking about a film I just watched, which struck me as one of the cop-iest piece of copaganda ever dressed up as “found” footage. David Ayer’s 2012 End of Watch is both a critically acclaimed cop thriller and a text that broadcasts police forces’ most deeply embedded myths.

The LAPD is a model police department, but a model for how the state can more effectively and invisibly defuse challenges to its power. For instance, when a militarized police response to the Ferguson protests failed to quell the resistance, the cops sent out a lovable Captain in his dress blues to hug and hold hands with community members. OLAASM calls this part of the “LA Model,” and discusses the tactic’s roots in counterinsurgency strategy (COIN). One of the central planks of COIN is “perception management,” a.k.a. propaganda and related psychological operations. In the case of the America’s police forces, OLAASM calls the carefully cultivated media relations model copaganda.

coin fergusonHollywood usually engages in “perception management” in a pretty direct way—with a cop, spy, or soldier telling screenwriters “add more of this” or “take that part out.” This may sound like a conspiracy theory, but it is well-established conspiracy fact. Just last month during the bizarre spectacle surrounding The Interview, it was reported both that CIA contractors were consulting Seth Rogen during the production, and State Department officials and RAND corporation employees were pushing the screenwriter and the studio to target North Korea ever more belligerently.

Similarly, when David Ayer set about writing End of Watch, he consulted cops (“I’m a good researcher”), to ensure that viewers are sutured into the LAPD’s perspective. The result is a film that mirrors the most successful relationship Hollywood has ever cultivated: the one with the US military. According to Peter Debruge at Variety, “End of Watch affords the LAPD the respectful portrayal the U.S. military seeks when partnering with Hollywood: Instead of glorifying the individual, the film depicts an honorable and efficient organization of people working together.”

One of the most consistent aspects of film reception is that “realism” in form is taken as indicative of realism in content—a film shot with steadicam-immediacy is discussed critically as though its narrative must similarly reflect “real” life. End of Watch is shot in found-footage style, with the conceit that the film is recorded from the officers’ body-cams and Taylor’s handheld digital video camera (Presumably, if all cops were outfitted with body-cams, the footage would show what a bunch of chill guys they are). Continue reading

No wonder it made $100m last weekend: “American Sniper” is a unique hybrid of right-wing and liberal pro-war movies

if Zero Dark Thirty (a film I really love a lot) had been anything like the flag-waving, jingoistic, torture-endorsing film its detractors claim it to be, it probably would have made twice as much money. –Film website comment

The past week, Clint Eastwood’s Chris Kyle biopic American Sniper made $120 million over its 4-day opening weekend. Not only is Sniper the highest-grossing January release ever, it’s the biggest opening weekend of any film not part of a franchise—Warner Bros. pictures was expecting an opening-weekend gross of between $40 and $50 million. Not only was Sniper a huge commercial success, it’s been lauded by critics. The film’s huge success with both the “real America” contingent and coastal élites would indicate that the film is something unique—“a bona fide cultural phenomenon,” in the breathless words of CNN’s Brandon Griggs. Despite the protestations of critics like Griggs that Sniper is “a human story, not a political one,” though, there’s been a political controversy.

However, one of the first misconceptions is that American Sniper has prompted a controversy—rather, there are two. One dispute is between the left and right, over the valorization of Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL sniper with cryptofascist politics and a gargantuan body count. This is sometimes diminishingly lumped in with a discussion about Selma and tepidly called an issue with historical accuracy—as though making a hero of a cruel mass-murderer is analogous to a PR headache for the estate of Lyndon Johnson. The second controversy is between liberal film critics and American Sniper’s detractors. These critics, bolstering the film’s reputation against the ugly facts about the late Chris Kyle, are arguing for the film to be appreciated as a liberal war movie, rather than a right-wing one.

Against claims that Kyle was a vile individual, the film’s liberal supporters argue that it’s not an overtly jingoistic work, but a “morally ambiguous” one. Both sides are correct, in their respective, separate discussions—Chris Kyle was a reprehensible human being, but Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper is informed by liberal conceptions of warmaking. The film’s tremendous huge box-office and critical success is due to Eastwood’s accomplishing a unique hybrid—the story of the ultimate right-wing war hero, with the themes and narrative signals of liberal pro-war films. The resulting intervention on the part of supportive film critics, arguing for an ahistorical and apolitical reception of American Sniper, is about shoring up liberal imperialism versus its more distasteful, unsophisticated sibling.

American Sniper’s subject, along with its mass appeal and huge box office success, might indicate that it’s a right-wing war movie—something overtly bellicose, jingoistic, and “flag-waving.” The film has definitely been a success with right-wing audiences, who’ve both turned out in droves and targeted what Sarah Palin called “Hollywood leftist” critics. Directed by a filmmaker whose last prominent work starred an empty chair at the RNC, Sniper isn’t just about any hero, but the epitome of reactionary heroism. The actual Kyle, in his own words, was an unrepentant mass-killer—someone who “loved” killing the “damn savages” that he “hated,” even finding it “fun,” and whose only wish was that he “had killed more.” Kyle saw himself as a Christian warrior in a civilizational battle against Islam, adorning himself with a tattoo of the red Crusader’s cross popular among other identitarian Christian fascists like Anders Breivik. However, not only was Kyle an enthusiastic racist murderer in reality, but in the legend he cultivated about himself. Kyle was an unrepentant bullshit artist, building himself up as the embodiment of a violent right-wing archetype—a Free Republic comment come to life.

Amongst his many lies, Kyle repeated a popular authoritarian myth about liberal treachery, claiming to have been called a baby-killer in the highly right-wing area of San Diego where the SEALs are based. He claimed to have found WMDs in Iraq. He also claimed to have acted out the sort of racialized vengeance fantasies that fuel the right-wing id: inventing stories about shooting two carjackers, and gunning down “looters” in post-Katrina New Orleans with impunity. The last point is particularly ironic since Kyle described looting Iraqi homes during the war, making him the sort of thieving petty criminal that private property-loving “stand your ground” types see as the lowest form of scum. It’s actually surprising that Kyle never claimed to have taught a lesson to an avowed atheist and ACLU-member college professor, who one day challenged God to knock him off his platform.

This is the Chris Kyle in the public record leading up the release of Eastwood’s film. He is firmly associated with the American right—and one controversy has played out along these lines. Americans of the cryptofascist political persuasion send those who denigrate him death threats. Some liberal celebrities, like Seth Rogen and Michael Moore, have made mild critical comments, which they immediately walked back under pressure from the right. However, Seth Rogen provides a valuable object lesson in what division is manifesting itself here. Among many critics with principled stands against warmongering are liberals like Rogen. Famously, Rogen propagandized on Israel’s behalf during last summer’s Operation Protective Edge, so he obviously doesn’t have a substantive issue with slaughtering Arabs. However, people like Rogen, who support warfare in the name of democratic pluralism, are actually one of the film’s natural constituencies. Continue reading

Death to Christmas, Hollywood, and Free Speech

549b79e88d470aea988645a74f2d8ed836ea0b59This week, Kim Jong-un cancelled Christmas.

Not only that, he has eliminated America’s most cherished value: Free Speech.

It may have not been the North Korean government that hacked Sony and threatened to unleash a 9/11-style attack on theaters screening The Interview. However, the US government and its good friend, Hollywood, are treating this like it’s the case. It’s lead to a holiday season spectacle that’s finally worth watching: the entertainment industry wailing and keening over the deaths of all that’s good, decent, and American in the world.

George Clooney said that “North Korea dictate[s] content” now. Sean Penn, who seems like he got tired of pretending to be a leftist sometime last year, says that this has sent an invitation to ISIS. And then there’s everyone else in Hollywood, with variations of the hackers/terrorists/Hitlers have won (thanks to Variety for the laughs):

LOL

LOL

LOL

As is often the case with invoking Free Speech, people aren’t responding to government censorship but invoking an American totem like a fetish object. It’s one of those unfortunate situations that reveals the discomforting truth about capitalism. It’s chieftains have no silly, impoverishing devotion to any nation, just to their bottom line. In reality, Sony probably saw a mid-budget misfire that they could quietly shuffle off their schedule until an embarrassing hacking scandal died down. Especially once theaters started scurrying away from controversy, as profit-driven institutions are wont to do. As a hilarious illustration of the true amoral opportunism that makes someone an oligarch, the right-wing billionaire who owns Regal cinemas and was the first exhibitor to abandon the film was named “America’s greediest executive” by Forbes in 2002. Anyone who expects a corporation to uphold values or act on principle is asking them to be something else–something out of a socialist worker’s paradise. Continue reading