Monday, January 21, 2013

"We're going to need a script" - Politiczing Film, Filming Politics

"This is an historical presentation of the Civil War and Reconstruction Period, and is not meant to reflect on any race or people of today."

"The former enemies of North and South are united again in common defence of their Aryan birthright." - Birth of a Nation (1915)
"We're going to need a script." - Argo (2012)
For the spoiler-averse, this week I'm discussing the intersection of art and politics, citing in this discussion Zero Dark Thirty and Argo, as well as a number of tangentially related films that are probably "spoiler"-proof (like Triumph of the Will and Battleship Potemkin).  That said, with the exception of Argo, the article does not delve much into "spoiler" territory.  (In fact, Argo is the only film discussed at length here that I've seen as of this writing.  UPDATE -- I caught Zero Dark Thirty yesterday, and I wrote a little more about my thoughts on that movie here.)

I like to think that it's entirely possible for us as the audience to separate our personal politics from how we engage art.  That's not to say that I think we can (or should) put on political blinders when we pick up a book, sit down at a theater or enter a gallery.  Art invariably expresses some point of view, and that point of view almost always has a political dimension - particularly, in any event, when it comes to art worth discussing.  Yet, it should not prevent us from praising good art to recognize simultaneously that we may disagree with that point of view or even find ourselves disgusted by the message that the art conveys.

Or at least that's what I like to think.

This Art Rose From The Depths Of The People
Perhaps the classic "go to" example (or counterpoint, depending on your point of view) when discussing the intersection of artistic merit and despicable politics is Triumph of the Will.  If only Nazi-inspired art began an ended with the sub-par works of Adolph himself in his early days as an aspiring painter, we could simply dismiss it as the worthless product of a talentless hack.  But again, knocking out that one example of "horrible yet important" art wouldn't absolve us from also discussing the artistic merits of the overtly racist Birth of a Nation, or the casual racism that pervaded the cartoons of Walt Disney, Hannah Barbara and others.  Whatever questions these dated art works raise, history already has given us the answer:  Influential, popular art will outlast whatever political or social viewpoints (whether agreeable or atrocious by contemporary standards) they expressed at the time.  Film students will study these works, and these works will continue to influence our art and culture regardless of whatever controversy you can stir by connecting the dots from the popular, non-controversial art of today to the offensive (yet influential) art of yesteryear.

Thus, one need not know (or care, for that matter) what Sergei Eisenstein had to say to his Russian audience when he directed Battleship Potemkin to recognize that the film-making skill on display ...

... would resonate through the decades, long past the fall of Soviet Russia and whatever political forces had inspired that film ...

This is all, on the one hand, fodder for an Intro to Film History course -- not particularly deep and I can't say I have very much to add to that well-worn discussion.  On the other hand ... I'm really looking forward to seeing Zero Dark Thirty.

While I usually avoid reading too much about a movie before I've seen it (spoiler alert, they killed Bin Laden!), I also read a lot of political blogs and online magazines (mostly left-leaning, I'll admit), and due to the accolades this film has received, a lot of online ink has been spilled dissecting what Kathryn Bigelow is saying (or not saying) about the use of torture by the U.S. and its connection (or lack thereof) to locating Bin Laden.  The subtext of these discussions is that Zero Dark Thirty is not only a piece of entertainment but also a political statement, and - insofar as it is the latter - the movie ought to be addressed in the same manner that one would address a controversial New York Times editorial.

Consequently, there's a significant body of writing out there by everyone from film makers to film critics, from politicians to political commentators, all picking apart the "torture controversy" clean to the bones.  Republican John McCain and Democrat Dianne Feinstein, among others, insist the movie is "pro-torture" and have condemned the movie as such, while Liz Cheney has said essentially the same thing but in the context of a ringing endorsement. On the other hand, Mark Bowden - author of The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden - insists the movie is not "pro torture" at all.  Film writer Vince Mancini splits the difference and calls the film "amoral" for refusing to take a position on torture.  Taking a different tact, political writer David Sirota chastises the filmmakers for their close relationship to the U.S. military in making what he believes resulted in "ideological content disguised as seemingly apolitical entertainment products" transmitting "intensely political messages ... about the supposed efficacy of torture."  On the flip side, film critic Armond White has criticized the movie as being naively anti-war in ways that may speak to the progressive left but otherwise "end up serving a cynical topical awareness" for "dupes."  Meanwhile, David Chen -- who called the film one of the year's best -- insists nonetheless that "if you think [it's depiction of torture] doesn’t matter beyond the world of film critics circles, you are kidding yourself."

I have no intention of kidding myself, despite my futile wishes that good art should be appreciated for its merits regardless of what one thinks of the politics the art expresses.  The reason so many people are analyzing what this film has to say about torture is that popular art does influence popular opinion.  Annapurna Pictures obviously understands that the cultural impact of the movie extends well beyond the theater, as evidenced by the "Zero Dark Thirty map pack" available for the combat video game Medal of Honor: Warfighter.  Now you can reenact the killing of Bin Laden at home, kids!  (There's no indication as to whether the game will feature a "waterboading" side mission, but that could always be part of an expansion pack down the line.)

Yes, the obvious must be said.  Art influences life just as life influences art.  But having recognized that, and recognizing, too, that the hot button political topics of the day will inspire hot button politically-charged art ... so what?

Argo F#ck Yourself

All facetiousness about spoilers aside, I have been irreparably spoiled by these discussions.  I cannot possibly go into this film now without my feelers out and alert for any hint of what Bigelow has to say about torture.  This will have as much an effect on my movie going experience as if someone had told me before The Sixth Sense that I should really ask myself why no one but the kid addresses Bruce Willis directly.  As a result, I'll probably accord certain dialogue more weight than Bigelow intended at times, while otherwise misinterpreting scenes meant to address some other important theme of the movie as possibly relating to the torture question instead.

As reflected by the spectrum of perspectives cited above, I will enter the film prepared to accept that I may object strenuously to the political message of the film while enjoying the presentation as a film nonetheless.  Yet, that remains to be seen, because unlike films detached from historical events that may convey objectionable messages (such as the Objectivist leanings of The Incredibles or Iron Man's defense of the military-industrial complex),  it would be far more difficult to endorse a film that appears to explicitly defend a morally abhorrent practice - no matter how skillfully done as a stylistic exercise.

As important as this analysis can seem in the moment -- imagine, in fact, if the Medal of Honor "map pack" mentioned above actually permitted (or encouraged, even) the player to torture prisoners -- it is also an arbitrary analysis that will have little significance beyond the immediate 24-hour news cycle.  One reason I say that is the relative absence of any such discussion with regard to the veracity of Argo, a film which has also received near universal accolades as well as given Zero Dark Thirty a run for its money in terms of racking up awards and nominations.  (Ben Affleck's triumph at the Golden Globes, as well as Bigelow's snub for the Best Director nomination, has been interpreted by many as a political statement as much as a statement of artistic merit.)  Yet, the fact that Affleck clearly plays fast and loose with the historical record, and employs racial stereotypes and Muslim fear-mongering to boot, hasn't generated any significant criticism of that other "inspired by real events" film about Muslim extremists on everyone's "best of 2012" lists.

Here is where I do have to throw a SPOILER ALERT out there, and it's indicative of the fictional dramatic elements interjected into Argo that open the film to allegations of political propaganda beholden to anti-Muslim, anti-Iranian biases. 

Let me say first that I was not a huge fan of this movie.  Though skillfully shot and (Affleck aside) very well acted, you can't really say that much happens.  In much the same vein as Charlie Wilson's War, the "story" plays out more like a dry sequence of events, almost entirely without any real drama (besides the  exhilarating opening scenes depicting the Iranian invasion of the U.S. Embassy), without any real conflict and without any character making choices that matter to the outcome of the story.

That all changes, however, in the last scenes of the film depicting the breathless escape of the Americans via the Tehran airport.  Affleck successfully shepherds the doe-eyed, green-eared American diplomats through mobs of unhinged, deranged-looking Iranians all the way to the departure gate for the airport that will take these innocents to the safety (and sanity) of the West.  In the final checkpoint, a most surly-looking brute of an Iranian guard pulls the Americans into a separate room to interrogate them over their cover story -- that they are a film crew for a sci-fi flick set to shoot in Iran.  In the film's most tense (and also best) scene, the American who had been the most skeptical of Affleck's plan also saves the day at the last minute.  Since he's the only one amongst them fluent in Persian, he is able to entrance these ragged-looking Iranian halfwits into accepting their cover story by explaining the "plot" of the imaginary movie in a manner that evokes all the romantic sentiments the Iranians have for their own recent revolution against the Shah.  Shortly thereafter, with the Americans safely on board the plane, the Iranians make one last-ditch attempt to prevent the rescue plane from taking off by blocking its path with their cars.  Yet, as history dictates (it is "based on a true story" after all), the Iranians are unsuccessful and the Americans fly away safe.

Of course, aside from the last half of the last sentence, none of that actually happened.  As many have pointed out, the Americans' passage through the Tehran airport was entirely uneventful.  No surly Iranian thugs breathing down their necks, no bullshit story told to entrance Iranians so blinded by the Muslim Revolution that they can't see what's going on in front of them, no breathless car chase down the tarmac.  If it weren't obvious, I'm using hyperbolic language to describe these scenes, which others may view without any of the racist, anti-Muslim implications that I implied.  I'm also not the first person to question whether Affleck betrayed history by adding these dramatic flourishes.  As a matter of artistic expression, I buy the sentiments expressed by Matt Singer of on the subject:
"We could debate, in a general sense, whether a filmmaker has a responsibility to the truth. In some cases, maybe they do. In this case though, the opposite is true. Not only do its fictionalizations enhance Argo's impact, they also reinforce its themes. Remember: Argo is more than a retelling of a true story of American espionage: it's also a love letter to the literally life-saving power of the movies. ... Argo is not a journalistic record -- it is a movie about movies ability to reshape reality for the better."
I buy that, I do.  At the same time, if I apply the same lens applied to Zero Dark Thirty, don't I also have to ask what "ideological content" may have been "disguised" as "seemingly apolitical entertainment products"?  As hot a topic as torture is, U.S.-Iranian relations are pretty hot right now as well.  The same Sen. McCain who (rightfully, in my opinion) rails against the moral atrocity that is torture committed by the U.S. after 9/11 also infamously joked about "bombing Iran" during his doomed 2008 Presidential campaign.

(He later said he was just kidding about the whole "bombing a sovereign country for the hell of it" thing. Hahahaha.)

So why should the same voices that condemn Bigelow not also hold Affleck to the same standard?  What signal does it send to Iran that the Golden Globe winner for "Best Picture" and "Best Director" deliberately distorted historical events to portray Iranians as bloodthirsty brutes who only failed to slaughter more Americans because they're so damn gullible?

Do You Really Believe This Story?

I ought to add that whatever people conclude about Zero Dark Thirty or the personal politics of Bigelow (or anyone else involved with the film), it's probably not going to hurt the film or the filmmaker in any serious way.  (Well, aside from whatever fallout there might be for Bigelow from Senate Intelligence Committee's recently launched investigation into whether the CIA fed misinformation to the filmmakers regarding the role of torture in finding Bin Laden.)  It's done quite well at the box office, and I'm sure Bigelow will learn to survive for now with just the one Best Director Oscar on her mantle.  There's no censorship at risk here, no concerted effort that I can see to prevent Bigelow from moving on to her next project.  Like all good controversies, this will probably only boost the total ticket sales at the end of the day.  I know that I, for one, was only more inclined to see this movie to judge for myself after all the fuss was made.

Yet, we live in an era in which the arts are an easy target for those looking for something to blame for society's ills.  While the progressive-minded (or, in the case of McCain and others, those simply opposed to torture) are condemning one movie, the conservative-minded hope to derail any discussion of gun control following the Sandy Hook massacre by insisting that Hollywood, not Bushmaster, bear the blunt of the responsibility for promoting violence.  With this in mind, I find something inherently troubling about starting and ending the discussion of a film with whether the message aligns with my (or anyone else's) political values -- even if I accept that you're not doing so with a hidden agenda as in the case of the NRA attacking Hollywood.

And besides that, I cannot help but think in answer to Naomi Wolf's accusation that Bigelow may be the next Leni Riefenstahl ... what, you mean wildly influential and studied by film students for decades???  Needless to say, I'm being more than a tad glib.  To be certain, I doubt any filmmaker wants to be considered the next Riefenstahl.  Yet, what would that mean, except that history will ultimately decide whether the artistic merit of the work overcomes the unfortunate politics of the work in the context of its time and place of origin?

It is, perhaps, too much to hope that anyone who buys a ticket for Zero Dark Thirty has also read credible journalistic accounts regarding what really went into finding Bin Laden, and the degree to which torture did (or rather, did not) aid that operation.  It is also, perhaps, too much to hope that we can differentiate between the artistic merit in the execution and the politics we perceive when assessing whether a film succeeds or fails on its own terms.  Perhaps, then, the debate we're seeing play out -- for all of its bluster that often provides more heat than light -- is the best possible scenario, framing the film with additional information and counterpoints to keep the audience on its guard.  Perhaps this particular debate only sticks out because we fail so often to challenge the political messages we're being fed in other films, because we naively hope (as I did in the opening paragraph of this very article) that we can honestly enjoy art without engaging with the politics of the artist.

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