24 and Zero Dark Thirty helped sell Americans on torture

A new Pew poll says Americans approve of CIA torture by 51%-29%, so bringing this out again:

Not just politicians, but also the media are responsible for selling Americans on torture. During the Bush years, there was the series 24, whose very premise – Jack Bauer only has 24 hours to stop the terrorists and save America – made the case that torture can be justified in an emergency. Last year, the film Zero Dark Thirty revived the argument by erroneously depicting torture as instrumental to finding (and killing) Osama Bin Laden. The order of events shown implies a connection between the torture of a detainee and what most Americans think is the most significant foreign policy achievement of the last decade. In other words, the plot exploits the jingoism of US audiences to convince them that while the CIA did some ugly things, it was all worth it in the end.

This kind of ideological manipulation is especially worrying in light of the filmmakers’ heavy collaboration with the CIA. The hacks behind Zero Dark Thirty got exclusive access to information about Bin Laden’s murder that was denied to the public. In return, the CIA got Oscar-nominated, chest-thumping propaganda. While some haveclaimed that the interrogation scenes are actually critical of torture, the camerawork and editing are careful to show us everything from the point of view of the CIA officers – not the detainee. For example, when he is stuffed into a box too small for his body, terrified and in pain, we don’t go in there with him. Our perspective stays outside. We’re invited to identify not with the tortured, but the torturers.

As Glenn Greenwald pointed out on MSNBC, “Americans know that torture is brutal – That’s why they think it works. They have supported torture because they believe that the people that we’re doing it to are primitive, violent, horrible savages who need to be treated brutally, because that’s the only way we can get information, and that’s the way we stay safe.”

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Cinema for pleasure or cinema for protest?

Several of you have asked about the work I do in the graduate Cinema Studies program at New York University. Readers of this blog know I sometimes enlist the help of film analysis and critical theory in shedding light on the worlds of politics and culture. Some of the most overwhelmingly positive responses I get are to posts in which I do just that (see here, here, and here), so I’d like to follow up by sharing a bit of what I think film can tell us, not just about what we’re up against in the struggle for a free and just society, but also about how we might be able to get there.

In March, I noted that the film Zero Dark Thirty uses a pretty standard stylistic convention (point-of-view editing) to invite the audience to identify not with a detainee being brutally tortured, but rather, with his CIA torturers. Even the film’s most vocal critics neglected to point out this fact, which should have settled the heated debate about whether the film is “pro-” or “anti-torture”.

In a later post, I tried to address the question of how mass media manipulate their audience by way of the theory of the culture industry, as laid out by Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer in their Dialectic of Enlightenment. I want to highlight that theory’s flaws here, and then point in a more progressive direction by sketching one possible answer – that of Adorno’s student (and my favorite filmmaker of the moment) Alexander Kluge – to the question of how a cinema of liberation is even possible today.

Briefly, in the chapter on the culture industry in Dialectic of Enlightenment, Adorno and Horkheimer argue that mass entertainment has a key ideological function in late capitalism: to commodify both art and the subject. Defining your identity by your choices as a consumer works to reproduce an ideology of sameness and obedience, one that fascism was able to exploit, to well-known effect.

This point needs to be stressed: Although the critique of the culture industry was first written in exile from Hitler’s Germany in California, the theory is haunted by the specter of the Holocaust and National Socialism. For Adorno, the interchangeability of individuals as consumers and workers reached its logical extreme in the willful arbitrariness with which individuals were wiped out en masse in the Nazi death camps. In other words, Adorno reads the Holocaust as proof positive that mass culture’s elimination of difference entails, in turn, the threat of liquidation, the elimination of life itself. Passive, collective submission in the realm of “entertainment” carries with it the promise of passive, collective submission in the realm of politics.

Adorno runs into some problems, however, on the question of whether an oppositional artistic practice can actually counteract cinema’s role as a tool of ideology. While he and Horkheimer claim, dubiously, that culture industry products are determined exclusively by formula, they also admit that it’s sometimes profitable for the culture industry to allow an artist some license to experiment, if only for the sake of an authorial brand (“a film by Almodovar”, “a Spike Lee joint”). But instead of asking how this might open up a space for real freedom within the belly of the beast, Adorno and Horkheimer dismiss any subversive potential out of hand as an illusion.

In a 1966 essay for the newspaper Die Zeit, entitled “Transparencies on Film”, Adorno goes a bit further in explaining his view. His concern here is that film as a medium depends on movement and the “collectivity” of its reception: “The movements that it depicts are mimetic impulses. Prior to all content and concepts, these movements incite the viewers and listeners to move along with them.” What he means is that the sensory experience of cinema has a sort of immediate, compulsory effect on the audience, who are then mobilized (as a group) to “move along with” the stimuli. The argument is much more complex, but I just want to note two things: First, whatever Adorno thinks happens when we watch films, it’s more or less true of all films; second, his imagery here strongly evokes fascism and mob terror.

“Transparencies” was written in support of the young modernist film movement in the Federal Republic of Germany. These West German filmmakers, none more openly than Kluge, took the critique of the culture industry as a challenge. Upon receiving the Adorno Prize in 2009, Kluge reflected on his dialogue with his teacher: “Adorno tended not to consider film an original art form…I maintain that in the end, I convinced him to correct his assessment.” Kluge’s answer to Adorno was to reinterpret montage, an influential Soviet theory of editing based on the idea that cinema creates meaning not through the content of shots, but through the cut, the relationship between shots.

Although Kluge pokes fun at Adorno’s saying, “I love to go to the movies, the only thing that bothers me is the image on the screen,” Kluge’s theory of montage also holds that the real source of cinematic meaning isn’t the “raw materials” onscreen, but the “information hidden in the cut which would not be contained in the shot itself.” Hollywood has shunned montage, partly because it calls viewers’ attention to the fact that the image isn’t just given to them, but created.

Kluge’s montage goes further, emphasizing the fact that viewers put their own imaginations to work in the process of creation. As Kluge puts it, “Since the Ice Age approximately (or earlier), streams of images, of so-called associations, have moved through the human mind, prompted to some extent by an anti-realistic attitude, by the protest against an unbearable reality.”

While it’s the technology of cinema that allows this exchange between fantasy and reality to play out, the filmmaker’s choices can empower spectators by calling attention to their active role as co-authors. Although Adorno didn’t live to see it, Die Patriotin (The Patriot, 1979) may be Kluge’s most stunning attempt at undermining cinema’s authoritarian potential.

The main character, history teacher Gabi Teichert, is unhappy because the material she has to teach makes it impossible to tell a “patriotic” version of German history – one that “takes an interest in all the Reich’s dead”, the individuals who across the ages have experienced the flow of history, suffered through it, and more often than not, been crushed by it. The film frequently cuts away from Teichert’s personal quest for “new material” to show us

images (illustrations and documentary film clips) of political history from Napoleon to Stalingrad; curiosities from the history of everyday life, ranging from the wish list of twelfth-century peasants to the price of geese in Silesia in 1914, references to the history of the imagination, from Grimms’ fairy tales to comic strips; a plethora of anecdotes and life stories; quotations from the history of music, painting, and film. (Anton Kaes, From Hitler to Heimat)

The film interweaves the history “written by the victors” with the stories left out of that history (the German Geschichte can mean both stories and history). For Kluge, the division between fiction and documentary, tightly enforced by conventional narrative cinema, robs images of their potential to do justice to the actual relationships between individuals and history. By itself, documentary film denies history its basis in “the emotions, actions and desires…the eyes and the senses of the people involved.” On the other hand, since “it is equally ideological to assume that individuals could determine history”, documentary elements help to ground the “fiction” in the real conditions of existence.

In The Patriot, montage breaks down this barrier between fiction and documentary. For example, at several points in the film we are shown Allied aircraft bombing the German countryside. In each case, the film cuts from external shots of the bombers in flight to point-of-view shots of the planes firing their deadly payload, repeatedly and (apparently) indiscriminately. The film then cuts to a shot, obviously staged, of a woman hiding with two children in a bomb shelter. Kluge’s narration interjects: “I do not know if it was this bomber whose bombs are striking. All I know is: It is up there.”

Montage, by mixing discontinuous images and representations, dispels the illusion that history and reality have only one (authoritative) interpretation and only one (inevitable) trajectory. This allows our minds’ indicative and subjunctive tenses, so to speak, to bleed into each other – to disrupt passive acceptance of “the way things are”.

I’m not arguing that Kluge’s films are “the best”, nor am I saying that the only subversive or daring films are ones based on the principle of montage. But Kluge’s theory and practice offer one compelling answer to the question of how spectators can be empowered to think critically whenever we see images – not just at the “arthouse”. If a film’s true significance is found in the gaps between images, gaps filled in by the emotions and experiences of the viewer, what’s to stop us from filling in the “raw materials” of reality with our hopes, our desires, and our will to see them realized?

Art changes the world every day

Last week, I wrote about how Hollywood has helped reopen the public debate on torture in the United States – for the first time since the end of the Middle Ages. Just like the news media, popular works like 24 and Zero Dark Thirty have a huge impact on how our society sees itself and its problems. In fact, we’re so used to this idea that it’s become something of a truism. Like all truisms, most people who use it to assign blame (whether they happen to be right or wrong) simply have no idea what they’re talking about.

So it’s worth taking the time to look at how it is that mass media can influence us at all. Art doesn’t just determine how we feel about this or that policy, although it can. What’s far more important is what it tells us about how the world works, and how it could be different.

To be of any use to anyone, a critique of mass media can’t view culture in isolation from politics, economics, and so on. It’s the relationships between all of these spheres that make up society at large. While it’s currently out of fashion, no basic theory of mass society is more relevant today than the one presented by Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer in their book Dialectic of Enlightenment. Published in 1947, the work was written during their exile in the US. Adorno is especially notorious for identifying the third horror of the 20th century, after fascism and Stalinism, as the “culture industry”.

The Western liberal democracies, Adorno and Horkheimer write, are not so liberal anymore. In the 19th century, competition between small businesses rewarded the individual capitalist with some measure of independence and financial security. The logic of the system was one of meritocracy among entrepreneurs, albeit at the expense of the working class. But as enterprises grew larger and larger, and the state began increasingly to intervene in the economy, there emerged an extreme concentration of power never before seen in industrial societies.

Markets are no more. There are only planned economies. In the liberal democracies, the planning is done by private monopolies we now call multinational corporations. The true class division is no longer between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, as it was in Marx’s time. “Just because society’s energies have developed so far on the side of rationality that anyone might become an engineer or a manager, the choice of who is to receive from society the investment and confidence to be trained for such functions becomes entirely irrational.” In other words, a tiny elite have complete control over both government and industry, and the mass of people are practically powerless. We believe in the cult of chance.

It’s becoming more and more clear that the all-pervasive influence of corporations isn’t just some leftist conspiracy theory. Most people know, for instance, that only 5 corporations own the commercial media (films, TV, newspapers, etc.) in the US. Despite talk of a “free press”, media that doesn’t depend on corporate sponsorship is the exception, not the rule. The question is more salient now than ever: How does this regime stay in power year after year, decade after decade?

Capitalism’s defenders preach that there’s simply no viable alternative. What stops mass movements from calling their bluff? The answer, Adorno and Horkheimer claim, is “entertainment”.

In our traditional notion of totalitarianism, the state tries to regulate its citizens by controlling them directly. Capitalism in the liberal democracies does something different. Already in 1831, while touring the US, Alexis de Tocqueville observed that,

Tyranny in democratic republics…ignores the body and goes straight for the soul. The master no longer says: You will think as I do or die. He says: You are free not to think as I do. You may keep your life, your property, and everything else. But from this day forth you shall be as a stranger among us.

The culture industry sews the ideology of chance, sameness, and obedience into the very fabric of our consciousness by convincing us that we choose it freely as consumers. Hence, there’s no need to conceal the absurdity of the gulf separating the elite and the mass of people: Entertainment commodities celebrate the arbitrary nature of “success” and “failure” as essential to the “magic” of the system. Everyone is the same, in that we will never be the lucky star onscreen. Just as stories and characters have to be interchangeable to satisfy the demands of the market, so people must be as well.

So it’s not just the economy that shifts from liberalism to monopoly capitalism: Artworks themselves change radically. As bourgeois art gives way to mass media, everything about the work is determined by formula. Under liberalism, there was a tension between the artwork and the market. As long as a work was marketable, the artist had some freedom to choose its form and content. The culture industry does away with that bit of autonomy by establishing “entertainment” as the alpha and omega of art.

The demand that art be entertainment is really the demand for total marketability. Successful business models are recycled and reused. Like Coke and Pepsi, Camel and Marlboro, Democrat and Republican, the various brands are (for the most part) only cosmetically different. They change only as much as necessary for consumers to know whether they’d prefer the repetitive revenge fantasy of Django or Jingo Unchained.

“In a film, the outcome can invariably be predicted at the start—who will be rewarded, punished, forgotten,” Adorno and Horkheimer observe. If the uniformity of the products in theaters on a given day isn’t proof enough, the phenomenon of test screenings surely is. The details of a film (plot points, editing style, how it ends, and so on) are set by industry demands for particular effects. This rules out the possibility that the film as a whole might develop its own unique voice and dynamic. For Adorno and Horkheimer, a work is as “autonomous” as it is free from the prescriptions of business models.

Here Adorno and Horkheimer add a provocative twist: What the different brands in the culture industry have in common is that they actually fail in their stated task. Cigarettes that supposedly relieve tension end up making you more tense. Soda doesn’t satisfy your thirst so much as it makes you crave more. Politicians who ran in opposition to certain policies turn around and implement them. And Hollywood cinema doesn’t really entertain. Instead, “[e]ntertainment is the prolongation of work under late capitalism.” Whether she’s aware of it or not, the consumer recognizes the flow of familiar tropes, stereotypes, and clichés for what they are: Fordism of the mind. The viewer follows along as the same basic premises arrive at the same basic conclusion using the same causal logic. “Entertainment” becomes just another aspect of a worker’s monotonous routine.

So it isn’t by distracting us from the reality of our poverty or financial insecurity that mass media serves the prevailing order. It does so by conditioning us to passively accept that reality, by asking nothing of us in the way of mental engagement and interpretation. While pretending to cater to our personal tastes, the culture industry serves us our meal pre-chewed.

But really, what’s wrong with that? Why should anyone go through the trouble of seeing a “difficult” or “challenging” film, one that has to be wrestled with and thought over for days afterward? For one thing, you can’t think critically if you can’t orient yourself in an ambiguous situation. We aren’t taught how in school. If we don’t learn how in our “free time”, we’re not as likely to call bullshit when we come across dominant ideology in politics or at work.

The biggest problem facing experimental art today is finding audiences. Most (if not all)  of the so-called art cinema has been co-opted and integrated into the culture industry as serving a “niche market”. This fact helps to ensure that alternative filmmaking continues to be dismissed as irrelevant and snobbish by most people. But it also means that while it’s this way now, it could also be otherwise.

The regime seems to think autonomous art has to be defused. Does that mean it can’t explode? On the contrary, that its impact has to be stifled suggests that it’s foolish to judge what’s possible by what already exists. Experimental art remains threatening not because it breaks the rules, but because it can show us that there are rules. It shows us the power of images to manipulate: to shape the kind of world we want to live in, and what we choose to do about it.

The Dark Knight Rises: The (Real) Politics of Nolan’s Batman

If the respective media bonanzas surrounding the Presidential election and The Dark Knight Rises have produced anything spontaneously newsworthy, it was surely the absurd moment when the summer’s most anticipated crowd-pleasers finally began to bleed into each other.

That “Bane” (the main villain of the new Batman film) sounds like “Bain” (Romney’s former company) has ruffled some Republican feathers. As Rush Limbaugh fumed: “Do you think that it is accidental that the name of the really vicious fire-breathing four-eyed whatever-it-is villain in this movie is named Bain?” Limbaugh, who has clearly seen the film, is right about one thing: “A lot of people are gonna see the movie, and it’s a lot of brain-dead people—entertainment, the pop culture crowd—and they’re gonna hear ‘Bane’ in the movie and they’re gonna associate ‘Bain’.” Democratic strategist and former Clinton aide Christopher Lehane has already done him the honor of confirming this: “Whether it is spelled Bain and being put out by the Obama campaign or Bane and being out by Hollywood, the narratives are similar: a highly intelligent villain with offshore interests and a past both are seeking to cover up who had a powerful father and is set on pillaging society.”

This is all, of course, a thick wad of garbage. But like almost everything in mainstream politics and media, it tiptoes around what’s actually worth talking about. Even more so than the previous installments, Rises is deeply political. But it’s not an allegory for the election.

I’ll briefly (pinky swear) sum up my take on the politics and aesthetics of the trilogy and Rises in particular. What makes Nolan’s trilogy different from other recent attempts to “modernize” the superhero genre? He’s honed in on what makes the Batman universe the darkest of the major franchises: the relatively few fantasy elements. Bruce Wayne has no “magic” power because his greatest foe is power itself, the oppression of our world. It is not radiation but the violence and poverty of Gotham City that create Batman when they take the lives of his parents. Batman Begins, perhaps the trilogy’s least ambitious and least flawed installment, recognized Gotham’s function as the very real dystopia of corporate capitalism. There is no metaphor in these films for the real-world abuse of power. It is the very fabric of social relations.

The central battle of The Dark Knight is really a conflict of two ways of dealing with this reality. On one hand, the nihilistic Joker sees postmodern institutions as unreformable and humanity as irredeemable. On the other hand, Batman’s humanism compels him to reject destruction as a tool of resistance and retain his belief in the value of every life. In the end, Gotham gets it backwards, villainizing the very man who saved them—just as their real-life counterparts made “Hope and Change” out of more of the same.

Which brings us to Rises and surprisingly, back to Rush Limbaugh, who counters the Bain thing by claiming that Bane is actually “a terrorist… an Occupy Wall Street guy”. There is a kernel of truth to this nonsense, and it’s central to what I’ve concluded is the film’s political confusion. OWS represents the resurfacing of radical dissent, the threatening desire for “none of the above”. It is the slightest hint that there may be an answer to the deadlock of TDK: if merely “saving” us (civilization, capitalism, the US etc.) only means prolonging our own slow decay, where does our true salvation lie? Bane recognizes this longing for an answer in Gotham City, and he exploits it.

Rises is, above all else, a conservative film. In the beginning, Gotham looks cleaner and more daytime-y than it used to. Yes, the truth about Harvey Dent and Batman has been hidden under a pile of misplaced outrage and empty eulogies, but has incremental reform (plus Batman) really worked? While the first hour is bloated with introductions, reintroductions, and “Hey, remember what happened in the first two movies?”, it’s a further shortcoming of the screenplay that the actual condition of Gotham and its citizens is left rather murky, considering their role in what follows. Bane is Limbaugh’s OWS boogeyman in the sense that he, like the fascism of old, uses popular disillusionment with a corrupt, morally bankrupt democracy and the language of anti-capitalism to control the mob, establishing a new, frightening, even more violent status quo.

Recall that Bane’s “revolution” begins by attacking the two sacred cows of the United States: pro sports and the stock market. The tense alliance between Batman and the police pits them, as defenders of civilization, against Bane and the restless 99%. Fascist Gotham offers the masses as much of the rich’s property as they can grab, and a kangaroo court keeps them entertained by condemning their former oppressors to death or “exile”. In the end, Bane is defeated, and the old order (minus a few rich people) is restored.

But despite Bane’s rhetoric, he really just wants to blow everything up. There’s nothing remotely lefty about Fascist Gotham: it looks like rubble and cars piled up in the street. The only order is the fearful submission of the mob to their warlord. There’s also the issue of the police and the government. Aren’t they still corrupt? The top brass turns on Batman and lets Bane escape the moment it appears advantageous. Aren’t they still protectors of the elite? The discontent and resentment Bane exploits are very real and (at least according to the Batman universe) completely justified.

The film has other problems: too many characters are introduced and then underdeveloped; (necessary) flashbacks and “remember this?” moments feel clunky; cheesy montage; uneven pacing really kills the momentum (space out those returns!). Improvements over TDK include coherent (and awesome) action scenes, breathtaking set pieces (the football stadium…!), and Anne Hathaway. One final twist: would I have been more generous with Nolan’s recent output (which is really quite good) had he never made Memento? I suspect so.