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.

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Uncritical Critics & The Death of Political Film Criticism

dark knight lucius fox

Batman’s panaudiocon (The Dark Knight, 2008).

At Interrogating the Reel, Ian Goodrum asked a question that I’ve also thought about for a long time: “What the fuck happened to film criticism?”

“Now, I suppose that really should read ‘What the fuck happened to English-language, mainstream film criticism?’ since that specific category of film scholarship is all a significant portion of the population reads, but the incredulity remains. What the fuck happened? Because it seems like since Pauline Kael stopped writing, there haven’t been any political indictments of the kind she rained down on the most deserving of cinematic atrocities. Where’s the critical courage?”

If there was ever a time when film criticism made space to interrogate the politics of a film text, that time is long gone. For Goodrum, as well as me, the denaturing of film criticism was best represented in the controversy over Zero Dark Thirty. There was a debate over the film’s textual support of monstrous, authoritarian tactics like torture and extrajudicial killing—but the film’s supporters were almost all film critics, and its detractors were journalists. “Even in the reviews that bring up the movie’s politics, this minor quibble is dismissed as insignificant in the face of what the critic considers to be a monumental achievement in filmmaking.”

The dynamic repeated itself most recently with the release of the genocide documentary Watchers of the Sky. The film posits liberal imperialist Samantha Power as a great human rights hero, and film reviewers have regurgitated this whitewash uncritically. Only journalists have done the work of reporting on Power’s role as “Obama’s atrocity enabler,” as Max Blumenthal put it. The critic/journalist split reflects the fact that film criticism has abandoned its most-needed critical faculties. “Mainstream criticism,” according to playwright John Steppling, “isn’t really criticism, it’s reviewing.”

Humanitarian hero Samantha Power takes time off from defending the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians to explain that the US's war against ISIS aims for regime change in Syria.

Humanitarian hero Samantha Power takes time off from defending the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians to explain that the US’s war against ISIS aims for regime change in Syria.

The reason why I love film and the art of criticism is because film matters. Film is a tool of unparalleled power for imparting messages, and unpacking those messages is a worthwhile pursuit. “From geopolitics to lifestyle through politics and history, Hollywood movies have become the key global delivery system of US culture, thanks to the nature and strength of its narrative and medium,” according to Al Jazeera. President Obama said that “entertainment is part of our American diplomacy.” It seems like the only people who don’t see the political dimensions of the multi-billion dollar beast sometimes called “the culture industry” are contemporary establishment film critics.

If political film criticism is dead, Charles Bramesco at The Dissolve has written a piece that would merit mention in the postmortem. I can hardly imagine an essay that better encapsulates the perception of politics as a facile, substance-free set of signals, coupled with a total lack of knowledge of recent history, and undergirded by a latent disdain for criticism with the courage to say something challenging. The Dissolve has several great, thoughtful writers, and obviously Bramesco is merely representative of malignant trends, rather than the cause. However, the piece, titled “The slippery politics of The Incredibles and other superheroes,” advocates for all the politically ignorant, historically illiterate, and anti-intellectual threads that have fed into the death of political film analysis.

To close out a week on Brad Bird’s 2005 film The Incredibles, Bramesco discusses the “curious” observations that many film critics made about the film’s seemingly Ayn Rand-inspired ethos. Bramesco declares that this reading is curious, but then enumerates all the evidence in the film and ultimately concedes that “it isn’t difficult to see where they were coming from,” because “The Incredibles offers up a roundly solid foundation for an Objectivist reading to hold water.” In the very first sentence, Bramesco describes the act of reading a film politically with a weaselly adjective, before repeatedly conceding that the reading is supported by evidence. Not a great start, but a sign of things to come.

However, despite the exhaustively documented argument made by these critics, Bramesco has found a silver bullet that renders all these readings baseless. “Except that Brad Bird isn’t an Objectivist. He’s an avowed centrist, stating in multiple interviews that any Rand-sympathizing ideology in the film was completely incidental.”

60 years after the heralded “Death of the Author,” it’s a little weird to declare a filmmaker’s “centrist” intent with godlike certainty, as though that’s a definitive statement about the text. It doesn’t take Roland Barthes to see that films, maybe more than any other art forms, are collaborative efforts, and countless creators go into making them. Rick Altman proposes that films be read as “events,” legible as a structure with culture and history influencing the product. It doesn’t take Chomsky and Herman, either, to see that a film with a 9-figure budget fronted by a giant corporation during an extraordinarily reactionary time will reflect of the dominant culture that created it. Continue reading

Blood on the Tracks: Politics & Revolution in “Snowpiercer”

It is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism. –Unknown

If the world should end in ice  In days of endless night

I’ll let the snowstorms cover me  In a blanket of white

The Handsome Family

In a piece of contemporary science fiction, making an archaic technology like trains a focal point of the narrative is a statement.

The recent Atlas Shrugged films, for instance, faithfully retain Dagny Taggart’s railway lines as a central feature in the story of a dystopian, collectivist America. By embracing the anachronism, the filmmakers affirm their faith that Ayn Rand’s ode to selfishness is a work of timeless wisdom and prophetic vision. Keeping Rand’s trains reifies the cult of individual strength embodied by Hank Reardon and his exceptional steel.

Bong Joon-ho’s 2013 Snowpiercer takes place entirely on a train in order to make a fiercely political statement. Transpiring after a climate change-induced cataclysm, Bong’s train exists to show how the advancement human technology has simultaneously wrought our planet’s destruction. More importantly, it creates a space that literalizes social inequality, and tells a story of revolution. Snowpiercer is a film about a revolt against the rich.

The path of the Snowpiercer.

The global circuit of the Snowpiercer.

Like a lot of great sci-fi, Snowpiercer handles world-building as it goes, and parcels out only the most salient information at the outset. In 2014, the world’s governments try to combat global warming by releasing an experimental substance into the atmosphere. The plan backfires, creating an ice-age and rendering the Earth uninhabitable. 17 years later, the last survivors are relegated to living on the eponymous Snowpiercer, a train that perpetually circles the Earth.

The film opens in the tail section of the train, where the poorest survivors live. Armed men scour the drab, dingy car looking for a violinist to entertain those in the front section, who “eat steak dinners and listen to string quartets.” In the tail section, the train’s restive underclass subsists on gelatinous “protein blocks.”

Chris Evan’s Curtis, an aspiring revolutionary under the tutelage of John Hurt’s Gilliam, is trying to track down a protein block with a name in it. Curtis and Gilliam have an unknown source, and all they need is the name of the man who designed the train’s security system—man who will take them all the way to the engine. Before the uprising can begin, people from the front come for another member of the underclass, this time a child. One of the tail’s residents hurls his shoe at the brightly dressed apparatchik leading the impressment gang, beginning a riot.

A friend of mine who writes a lot about the genre distinguishes between “kinky” and “non-kinky” sci-fi.

Non-kinky sci-fi asserts that our future is basically bright and that through cooperation we can conquer the outer and inner spaces, that good things are in store for us and that technology will make us better men, et cetera. Think Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov and 2001. Kinky sci-fi sees our civilization as a sham, sometimes our whole reality as a sham. Phillip K. Dick, Neuromancer and Mad Max are all kinky.

The most effective “kinky” sci-fi—fiction that excoriates our systems—builds a dystopian world with enough elements of our own to be recognizable but understated enough to be insidiously creepy. Think of the police state in Children of Men; desperate and securitized, but still functional enough that most people live their lives with a familiar sense of normalcy. It’s not until anyone steps out of line that the state resorts to the Abu Ghraib treatment.

The hooded prisoner of Abu Ghraib stands in a refugee camp in Children of Men (Alfonso Cuarón, 2006).

The hooded prisoner of Abu Ghraib stands in a refugee camp in Children of Men (Alfonso Cuarón, 2006).

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Jurors rejected from the Cecily McMillan trial are revealing a lot about our elites and their world

Cecily McMillan, a 25-year-old Occupy activist, is going to trial on charges of assaulting a police officer. Chase Madar explains that McMillan is “a 25-year-old student and activist who was arrested two years ago during an Occupy Wall Street demonstration in Manhattan. Seized by police, she was beaten black and blue on her ribs and arms until she went into a seizure. When she felt her right breast grabbed from behind, McMillan instinctively threw an elbow, catching a cop under the eye, and that is why she is being prosecuted for assaulting a police officer, a class D felony with a possible seven-year prison term.”

This week, jury selection has begun for McMillan’s case. The Guardian reports that the “trial of Occupy activist struggles to find jurors impartial to protest movement.” The selection phase is moving so slowly because the pool is full of people like “Mary Malone–an Upper East Side resident who previously worked for a bond fund and said: ‘I have really strong feelings about Occupy Wall Street and the people involved’–and Peter Kaled, a corporate finance worker from the Upper West Side who said that one of his friends had policed Zuccotti Park at the height of the protests.”

That so many New Yorkers interviewed to serve on the jury have shown strong antipathy towards the Occupy movement isn’t that surprising. Since the city is the world’s financial capital, enough of its citizens see threats to the interests of oligarchs as threats to their own interests. However, the responses of these prospective jurors are remarkable for how they encapsulate what the rich think about the rest of us.

McMillan’s case is one of these events where Middle School civics-lessons about freedom meet the real limits on permissible dissent. Petitioning your government for a redress of grievances is fine until your government’s owners want you out. According to Madar, “Cecily McMillan’s Occupy trial is a huge test of US civil liberties,” and he asks “will they survive?” Now, the process of jury selection is illuminating even more about the boundaries of the world in which we live. In a series of revealing statements to The Guardian, these finance-connected Manhattanites illuminate the contours of the alternate physical, mental, and moral world that capital has created.

The first rejected juror is one George Yih, whom LinkedIn identifies as a “Venture Capital & Private Equity Professional”:

“I’m involved in Wall Street things. I’m on the Wall Street side, not their side,” George Yih, one of a group of prospective jurors…said under questioning from Judge Ronald Zweibel on Wednesday. “They can protest all they want, but they can’t brainwash my mind.”

For Yih, like so many others who are benefitting from the way the world works, widespread discontent is baffling. A movement like Occupy could seem like reality-free “brainwashing” only if one had no connection to the daily, lived reality of millions (or rather, billions) whom capitalism is immiserating rather than enriching. For billionaires and people like Yih making six figures a year serving those billionaires, all this citizen discontent must seem strange and frivolous. Continue reading

Superheroes for the Empire

UpdateThis piece, originally titled “Holy unwashed masses, Batman!”: The anti-populist, elitist message of “justice” in 3 superhero films from 2012, was included in the March-April 2014 issue of Against the Current #169, a socialist, feminist, and anti-racist organization.

“I had hoped that the…moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.” –Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter From A Birmingham Jail”

“Peace is not the absence of conflict but the presence of justice.” –President James Marshall, Air Force One

Ever since Captain America punched-out Hitler during WWII, superhero texts promise the fantasy of invincibility and moral certitude. This promise has been particularly appealing given the last several decades of American global dominance, during which time, our empire’s actions as unchallenged global master have produced tremendous violence abroad and inequality at home. Consequently, our pop culture works to palliate the feeling that “we might not be the good guys.” Ideological messages are best received when they don’t seem to exist at all, and superhero films, with their fantastic subject matter and aimed primarily at young audiences, are particularly effective at concealing their ideology. You’re not being asked to believe anything “political,” you’re just asked to believe a man can fly.

captain-america_hitlerSuperhero movies represent a particular kind of American wish-fulfillment, unleashing our id and assuaging our fears.  Some reviewers and film theorists made the connection that much of Spider-Man’s (Sam Raimi, 2002) enthusiastic reception had to do with its telling a New York superhero story the summer after 9/11. The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008) was widely read as an allegory for the Bush administration—an ethically just hero who extraordinarily renders, beats up prisoners, and warrantlessly surveils in order to protect his city from the ticking time bomb scenario that is endlessly invoked in real life to justify all manner of horrors. Both Raimi’s Spider-Man franchise and Nolan’s Dark Knight series deal with contemporary anxieties and reified Manichaean ideas of Good vs. Evil, but the War on Terror parallels in Dark Knight were obvious to many, while “very few critics picked up on [Spider-Man’s] symbolic resonance.”

The different ways audiences received both film’s messages illustrates how much more effectively ideology is communicated when it’s invisible. Similarly, three superhero films were released in 2012 with anti-populist messages; one was overt, two communicated that message insidiously. Of The Dark Knight Rises (Nolan, 2012), The Amazing Spider-Man (Mark Webb, 2012), and Chronicle (Josh Trank, 2012), only the former was singled out for what was called its anti-Occupy message. In the third act of Rises, the villain Bane unleashes popular outrage against the status quo using the language of economic justice. Over the course of a brief montage, things go very French-Revolution very quickly in Gotham City. Nolan implied that the existing order is maintained—tenuously—for the good of society, and it’s elite plutocrats like Bruce Wayne who do the onerous task of upholding the status quo. If the authorities loosen their grip, it’s only a matter of time before the commoners break out the guillotines. The message was so widely received that Nolan assured viewers that the film “wasn’t political”; as though such a thing could ever be possible.

After attacking Wall Street, Bane unleashes the city's underclass, who ransack the Upper East Side.

After attacking Wall Street, Bane unleashes the city’s underclass, who ransack the Upper East Side. Kangaroo courts to punish the wealthy come next.

No one asked similar questions of Mark Webb or Josh Trank. Their films eschewed overt, politically resonant imagery like the roving underclass mobs of Rises. Where Nolan’s hero was a billionaire ninja, Webb and Trank’s heroes were teenage everymen. The villains in Spider-Man and Chronicle, though, are both motivated by a desire to stop greater criminality. The law being enforced out by the heroes of Spider-Man and Chronicle is the sort of justice that protects the powerful against accountability from the masses they exploit. In 2012, the same year these three films came out, voters handed a second electoral mandate to a popular Democratic president whose first term articulated a clear vision of elite impunity. In his first term, Obama made good on the Democratic embrace of elite lawlessness from the 2008 campaign trail, rendering bipartisan the idea that law is something applied to commoners, not oligarchs. Where Dark Knight Rises evoked the dangers of too little authority in a blunt, obvious way, Spider-Man and Chronicle evinced these ideas much more effectively, masking the ideological underpinnings under their gee-whiz spectacle. With the deceptive oratorical finesse of Obama himself, these films offer audiences an elite, authoritarian conception of order where justice exists to protect the powerful from the exploited. Continue reading