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

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Tortured Conscience: the Rise of the “Morally Ambiguous” Torture Film

Americans in Times Square celebrate the assassination of Osama bin Laden with a traditional ritual: the chanting of U-S-A! U-S-A!. Courtesy Josh Pesavento Flickr.

Americans in Times Square celebrate the assassination of Osama bin Laden with a traditional cultural ritual: the chanting of U-S-A! U-S-A!. Courtesy Josh Pesavento Flickr.

We sleep safely in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would harm us.” –Unknown

“Some men are created evil” Big Bad Wolves Tagline

Contiguous with our “golden age of television” is a cycle of works, in both TV and film, whose protagonists’ “moral ambiguity” is a selling point. From Jay Gatsby and Walter White to Louis CK and Hannah Horvath, moral ambiguity marks a work as mature, complex, and thought-provoking—worthy of being called great art. The last few years have also seen the rise of a new genre with deep political ramifications: the “morally ambiguous” torture film.

The most recent entry in the genre is Big Bad Wolves, an Israeli film that Rex Reed called “a sensation” and Quentin Tarantino called “the best film of the year.” The film deals with a group of men who kidnap and torture a suspected child-murderer, and is visually and thematically dark. Among positive reviews (the film enjoys a 78% on Rotten Tomatoes), the film is widely praised for its “moral ambiguity.” The film has been called a “morally ambiguous fairy tale,” whose “haunting meditation on the morality and efficacy of torture…only increases the moral ambiguity,” according to The Hollywood Reporter. Thematically and ideologically, the film shares the most DNA with another dark revenge-thriller from 2013, Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners. Prisoners also deals with a missing girl, whose father then kidnaps and tortures the suspected abductor. Villeneuve’s film was similarly hailed as another “morally ambiguous” film, sophisticated enough to “navigate a maze of moral ambiguity.” “Prisoners puts all other morally ambiguous movies to shame,” in the words of one breathless reviewer.

Both Big Bad Wolves and Prisoners follow the first “morally ambiguous” torture film: 2012’s Zero Dark Thirty. When it was released, Katherine Bigelow’s film about the manhunt and murder of Osama bin Laden rightly generated a lot of controversy around its depiction of torture. However, for as many people who called the film out for its torture apologia, there were many who praised the film for its “moral ambiguity,” erecting the strawman that to not depict torture would constitute a whitewash. In a Time magazine interview, Bigelow defended the film as “a deeply moral movie that questions the use of force.” Where Zero Dark Thirty generated controversy, Prisoners and Big Bad Wolves have generated unreserved praise. Mother Jones celebrated Prisoners as a welcome corrective to Zero Dark Thirty, calling it “the strongest anti-torture argument that has come out of the movies in years.”

The idea that these films are “morally ambiguous” is central to their reception. It tells viewers that, rather than functioning as torture apologia, there’s a nuance at their core that prompts deep ethical probing. However, viewers tend to side with the character through whom they see the world. Dodge paid for Walter White to drive their cars for a reason, and Jay Gatsby’s parties look pretty fun. Quentin Tarantino’s sensibility draws heavily from the simplistic worlds of comic books and exploitation films—If Big Bad Wolves gets the Tarantino seal-of-approval, the ethical complexity of this genre is probably being oversold. The man’s most morally ambiguous choice is giving the world of cinema its most congenial Nazi—he’s not exactly St. Augustine.

These films share the same ideological core, and it’s not one built on great complexity and shades of gray. The moral world these films create is one of dueling, good-vs.-evil extremes: heroes who grudgingly use torture to defeat monstrous villains. Moral ambiguity is a superficial affectation achieved by a dour visual palette, extended onscreen suffering, and a disingenuous air of ideological neutrality. Films in the “morally ambiguous” pro-torture cycle obfuscate their Manichaean moral framework to remake an unambiguous evil into an ethical gray-area and interpellate subjects into their authoritarian worldview.

Torture Creep

Today, more Americans support torture than believe in evolution. In a piece on Zero Dark Thirty’s “torturer-as-feminist-icon” narrative, Matt Cornell breaks down the shift in public attitudes:

In August of 2012, the Hoover Institution’s Amy Zegart conducted a poll on American attitudes toward torture, and found that Americans had become more supportive of the use of torture in the previous half decade. Zegart reported that: “[between 2007 and 2012,] 41 percent said they would be willing to use torture — a gain of 14 points — while 34 percent would not, a decline of 19 points.” Among the reasons for this shift in consensus, she cited the possible influence of spy movies and TV shows, which have increasingly depicted torture as heroic. According to her poll, so-called “spy TV watchers” were more likely to support a range of abusive tactics.

Zegart’s findings were predicted in 2008 by a Parent’s Television Council report which observed a significant spike in the depiction of torture on prime time television—and more critically a shift in which characters were using torture. Increasingly, it was the “good guys” carrying out the torture.

2012 was a decade after the Bush administration legalized torture and four years into the administration of Barack Obama, who didn’t consider torture a “grave [or] intentional breach” of Presidential powers and consequently immunized torturers. This isn’t to frame America’s current acceptance of torture in liberal declinist terms. From the torture inflicted on black slaves to torture as a tactic to crush the Philippine insurgency to the CIA’s KUBARK manual to the torture lessons at the School of the Americas, torture is as American as an apple with a razorblade in it. Recently, legalizing and immunizing torture has signaled to the culture industry that torture is now something “the good guys” do, too. However, torture is best depicted with a bit of handwringing, and a ghastly villain to justify it. Continue reading

“12 Years a Slave,” “Django Unchained,” and that time Spike Lee was totally right

12 Years a Slave, the new film by Hunger and Shame auteur Steve McQueen, is one of those films whose arrival dominates the critical conversation. The film, based on the memoirs of escaped slave Solomon Northrup, is being praised for its artistic as well as its revelatory qualities. Paul MacInnes of The Guardian calls it “not just a great film but a necessary one.” All reviewers talk about the brutality of slavery depicted in the film, because brutality is a necessary component in a film purporting to depict the realities of American slavery.

Many, like Richard Roeper, make the comparison to last year’s Django Unchained. The comparison keeps popping up, despite the fact that 12 Years and Django have relatively little in common. 12 Years is, in the words of MacInnes a “stark, visceral and unrelenting” biopic of a man enduring hellish torment. Django is a Leone-inspired Western, at times bloody but cartoonish. To the degree there’s any relationship at all between the two, 12 Yearsis a necessary corrective to the antics of Django Unchained.” The consensus is that 12 Years is brutal and unforgiving, whereas Django shares only the motif of slavery. 12 Years shows us that Django didn’t come close to illuminating the realities of the time. What I’m wondering is, when do we acknowledge that Spike Lee was totally right about Django, and the legions of people who criticized him were wrong? Continue reading