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.

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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