The conservative anger of David Simon

The HBO miniseries Show Me a Hero just premiered, which means that the public gets to enjoy the same spectacle we do every time a sanctified liberal hero puts out something new for us to buy: a fresh slew of hagiographies, all recapitulating the same few points about why the artist is so uniquely valuable to our democratic experiment. Having just properly honored the new James Baldwin, it’s time for yet another celebration of David Simon, America’s anguished liberal Cassandra.

The most effusive praise for Simon comes from Matt Zoller Seitz, and his piece “the Radical Humanism of David Simon.” To properly honor a man who was “elevate[d] to the Western canon” sometime between his second and third shows, the piece opens with an apology. After 1200 words praising Simon’s new program, we get to the apology itself, which regrets not sufficiently appreciating Simon’s work until now, for not caring “as much as he does,” this man who “truly cares, as a democratically minded American citizen should care.” Simon’s work isn’t just extraordinary, but vital, bringing any of us who will likewise care a perspective “necessary for the survival of the United States.” According to Zoller Seitz, “His work is more morally and politically and dramatically advanced than almost anyone who naysays it.” Evidently there’s something other than unanimous critical ejaculation for Simon out there—and like the mightiest liberal creative titans, to be one of these critics is to reveal oneself as a pathetic, basement-dwelling cretin.

The only thing besides gushing praise for Simon is a reference to the artist as “legendarily grumpy and hectoring,” an understandable outcome of being such a clear-eyed and lonely prophet of American decline, a side-effect of his radical humanism. Zoller Seitz doesn’t quote any of Simon’s “grumpy” statements, but these constitute a genre of their own and the essence of his status as a modern Jeremiah. “The audacity of despair” is a cornerstone of the Simon brand; the title of a far-reaching public speech on American decay, the name of his blog, and his twitter handle (@AoDespair). In countless talks with minatory titles like “the end of the American empire” and “America is a horror show,” Simon charts a course of decline, which has brought America to the low point it currently occupies. A January 2015 piece in Grantland is a useful guide to the salient points about Simon’s worldview, which have gained him his reputation for aggrieved seriousness and world-weary miserabilism.

The interview and career retrospective is titled “David Simon Does Not Care What You Think Is Cool About His TV Shows,” in a nod to his misanthropic aura. It’s also a reference to something on which Simon and I are simpatico, in that both of us find it extremely tedious to hear how cool Omar is, again. Simon was a reporter on the police beat for the Baltimore Sun in the ’80s before budget cutbacks. He wrote a “classic” crime book, Homicide: Life on the Killing Streets, which became a 7-season TV series. He and cop Ed Burns then got together and wrote The Corner, The Wire, then Generation Kill. “No one,” according to Simon, watched The Wire or Treme, just like no one watched Generation Kill, since in the latter case America wasn’t ready for “a piece about the American misadventure in Iraq when people still have a taste of Fallujah in their mouths.” Simon keeps giving America truths no one can handle, and for it he’s scorned like Prometheus.

Still, David Simon does get to be celebrated as one of the greatest American creative geniuses, and Wire fans are quick to remind you that the Great American Novel is actually a show called The Wire. David Simon got to interview the Drug Warrior-in-Chief, who, along with America’s former top cop, has praised Simon’s genius along similar lines. Maybe no one watched The Wire or Treme, but those shows were on for 5 and 3 and a half seasons, respectively, which might mean some of the self-flagellating is just so much brand-building–and standard procedure for rewriting conventional bourgeois disaffection as radical critique.

More interesting is his cynicism about the 2005 Marine Corps drama Generation Kill, about “the American misadventure in Iraq.” Generation Kill was written by Evan Wright, based on his account of the first weeks of the invasion while embedded with the 1st Recon Battalion. The show itself doesn’t depict much in the way of “misadventures,” beside the standard amounts of fucking-around and shit-talking common to any group of hyper-aggressive 20-something men. The show is 7 hours of vulgar but competent, brave, and decent Marines doing their duty to liberate the Iraqis and fight them over there so we don’t have to fight them over here. In interviews from the time of the show’s release, Wright reiterates that the experience left him above all with a deep respect for the American military, primarily blaming the public for the failures of “their” media and leaders. Some viewers may associate Generation Kill with flag-draped coffins rolling out of C-130s at Dover AFB, but the show itself is exactly the sort of pro-military story that lead the Pentagon to create the embedding process in the first place. Kill isn’t an indictment of American warmaking, but an ode to the courage of America’s warrior sons, with an elegiac undertone for those troops betrayed by public indifference and government incompetence—in other words, a work that liberals, centrists, and reactionaries alike can enjoy. However, Simon sees his show, which actually tells the most popular type of story in America, as something insurgent, dangerous, and too-hot-to-handle for the ‘Muricans glued to their idiot-boxes. Continue reading

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

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

“Terminator: Genisys” will be a blistering satire of the modern blockbuster

The new trailer for Terminator: Genisys (the fourth sequel of the series) has dropped, and it promises several things. It promises that Arnold is back in the role that made him an institution. It promises fan-service in the form of familiar catchphrases, now in their fifth iterations. It promises big, loud action.

Most importantly, it promises to be a blistering satire of the modern blockbuster, a subversive meta-commentary on the endless cycles of sequels plaguing multiplexes.

An IMDB list of sequels, prequels, remakes, and spinoffs currently in development numbers over 330 entries. An infographic on Short of the Week breaks down how much non-original works have come to dominate the box office. The Terminator franchise is a perfect example of the culture industry’s relentless mining of the same vein to diminishing creative returns.

Screen Shot 2014-12-08 at 9.37.19 PMJames Cameron’s 1984 tech-noir sci-fi thriller The Terminator was an independent film. A film that was, according to Cameron’s self-mythologizing, born from a fever-dream of a metal skeleton rising from a fire gave birth to a whole constellation of action figures, comics, video games, and ancillary products. It spawned one widely beloved sequel in 1992, at which point anyone who didn’t own the rights to the franchise considered the story told. There followed, to diminishing results and box office, two sequels and a TV show that were widely considered to be retreads of the first two films.

The trailer for Terminator: Genisys (alternately 5 from here on out, for brevity and sanity’s sake) reboots the series chronology. Future-soldier Kyle Reese goes back in time to protect Sarah Connor, but this time everything is different. This could be read as merely another cynical attempt to wring more money out of a franchise that’s running dry, albeit with a J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek-esque “continuity no longer matters!” twist. However, the idea of revisiting the first film from the perspective of a cynical blockbuster cash-grab makes ample space for Terminator 5’s blistering commentary on Hollywood. Continue reading

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