Tag Archives: propaganda

Link Dump: #54

Ah, Tigger: top made out of rubber, bottom made out of string, the hyperactive bane to parents everywhere. Did you see the new Winnie the Pooh movie? It was a really cute, modest effort that got financially crushed under HP7.2‘s enormous heel. But it’s still very funny, well-cast, and worth watching. (Hell, “Everything Is Honey” and the not/knot routine are both solid gold, and it’s only an hour long.) Now that I’ve plugged one of 2011’s sweetest animated treats, here are some links…

We had a few odd, off-putting search terms this week. First, as usual, are the vaginal ones: “truly the best pussy movie show” and “funny thinkings that women put in cunts.” Then “dark blood satanic pentagram,” which sounds like an excerpt from My Immortal. And speaking of bad Harry Potter fanfiction, “albus and rose incest.” Yep. All right.

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Oscar Grouching #2: The Hurt Locker

So, I am persistently continuing this series of posts about this year’s Best Picture Oscar nominees. I think it’s a very interesting – and for that matter, historic – race, as I detailed in the previous post. And, as evidenced by the film I’m about to discuss, it stands to say a lot about the current state of the American consciousness. This film, which ties Avatar with its 9 nominations, is Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker. By way of introduction, here’s what I had to say about it in my recent article on this year’s Oscars:

“But then, [with regard to Avatar‘s chances] you have to consider the ex-wife factor, because Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker is rampaging through awards season like a humvee filled with soldiers who specialize in defusing bombs. Like Avatar, The Hurt Locker is about conflicted soldiers, but these ones – led by Best Actor nominee Jeremy Renner – don’t fall easily into character types. Instead, they’re just ordinary guys in an extraordinary, very dangerous situation from which they’re unable, or maybe even unwilling, to escape. Capturing the addictive trauma of war with its journalistic style, The Hurt Locker is a difficult and deserving movie. It immerses the viewer so long in the grit and gunfire of Iraq that the shops and homes of suburban America look as alien as the floating mountains of Pandora.”

I could look at The Hurt Locker and its role in this contest from a lot of angles. It’s a damn multifaceted film. First of all, let’s think about the impressive woman behind it, Kathryn Bigelow. This is the only one of her film’s I’ve seen, though I’ve long yearned to see her 1995 dystopian sci-fi thriller Strange Days. Since the ’80s, she’s specialized in intense genre movies, from the vampire western Near Dark to the more standard action movies Blue Steel and Point Break. She’s been designated an auteur of sorts, and one of these days I’d like to look deeper into her work. She is also James Cameron’s ex-wife (1989-1991), throwing a very fun wrinkle into the mix. They seem amicable, but it’s very fun to have such a close rivalry – over both Best Picture and Director – between two people with such a once-strong bond. Gives some real drama to the Oscars, don’t you think?

But personal life aside, Bigelow is a formidable woman, at least judging from her most recent film. It smashes any silly preconceptions that great female filmmakers automatically have to make films about women’s issues. The Hurt Locker is an well-structured, unrelenting time bomb of a movie, whose only significant female character only appears for a few minutes at the end. The lack of obvious feminist discourse in Bigelow’s filmography reminds me of another important female director, Ida Lupino, the only film by whom I’ve seen has been The Hitch-Hiker. It’s a brutal little noir with no feminist subtext in sight – like The Hurt Locker, it’s about the relationship between three men trapped together in stressful circumstances. Lupino’s never really gotten her due; maybe the Bigelow’s sudden success will cause her to be rediscovered? I can only hope.

The point is that Kathryn Bigelow is a very rare animal and a very talented director who will hopefully open the floodgates for more acceptance of female directors. It’s so great to see a group of nominated directors who aren’t totally pale and male; a quick glance shows that the last variations in race or sex were Alejandro Iñárritu, nominated for Babel (2006), and Ang Lee, the winner for Brokeback Mountain (2005). Historically, the Academy likes their directors white and penis-having, trends that are temporarily halted by Bigelow and Precious‘s gay black director Lee Daniels. More on him later, more about The Hurt Locker now.

It’s a film that scores the tricky feat of being both extremely topical and universally applicable. Superficially, it’s about the ongoing Iraq War, based directly on Oscar-nominated screenwriter Mark Boal’s experiences while embedded there. This is pretty damn timely, especially considering that Apocalypse Now wasn’t released until four years after the Vietnam War had officially ended. This timeliness is both a curse and a blessing: The Hurt Locker pays absolutely no heed to the historical context or consequences of the war, but this gives it a feeling of immediacy; it’s not about the war so much as the soldiers, who have to live from skirmish to skirmish. Whereas Apocalypse Now was all about deconstructing the war’s accumulated mythologies, The Hurt Locker regards Iraq as a work-in-progress, and focuses unblinkingly on a specific unit.

Bravo Company’s bomb disposal unit consists of three men: the leader Sgt. James (Jeremy Renner), and his subordinates Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Eldridge (Brian Geraghty). As I observed in my article, one beautiful element of this film is the way they’re characterized. Avatar dealt in the language of total moral legibility, where every character can be categorized as “good” or “bad” based on the first glimpse. The Hurt Locker doesn’t really provide portentous snippets of dialogue as signposts for who we’re supposed to love and hate. All we’ve got is three flawed and confused men. James makes frequent poor decisions of which Sanborn, with frustration, takes note, and tensions run high both as a result of his behavior and the possibility of an explosion at any given second. Eldridge usually watches the proceedings with quiet interest, nodding along with Sanborn’s grievances but saving his real feelings for his last scene in the film.

If I haven’t made it clear from all that, this is a very different kind of war movie. It’s character-driven and episodic, following the unit from one potential bomb site to another; the repetition almost leads to feelings of deja vu and an uncertainty of where, exactly, the movie is going. By the time we come to the last shot, which takes every badass image of warfare from recent cinematic memory and turns it on its head, we realize that we haven’t been following a narrative arc, but an emotional arc within James’s psyche. Bravo Company isn’t trying to “take the anthill,” as Adolphe Menjou would’ve said in Kubrick’s Paths of Glory. We have no linear progression to an achievable goal. The film’s structure resembles that of a video game (like, say, Gears of War, which Eldridge is seen playing). It doesn’t end. It just circles back around to the next level. The influence of video games has been mentioned in numerous discussions of The Hurt Locker, and it’s very visible – this is a truly 21st century war movie, in its style and story.

The gaming aspect of the film’s visuals also connects to a common criticism, which is that The Hurt Locker functions more or less as a two-hour advertisement for the thrill and intensity of military service. I’m not saying that this point has no validity, but I do think that both the articles I link to are somewhat wrong-headed in their readings of the film. It’s always funny, with a work as ideologically ambiguous as this, how critics tend to either decry it as jingoistic and hawkish, claiming that it only shows the “fun” side of war, or else condemn it as anti-American for daring to show the inner strife of combatants.

The truth is more difficult than that, because The Hurt Locker is hardly unassailable in its politics, but neither is it as unequivocal in its presentation of war-as-a-game as some would have you believe. The second of the articles I linked to, Tara McKelvey’s “The Hurt Locker as Propaganda,” describes James’s brief furlough home during the last portion of the film as “a dull, dreary world,” complete with a cereal aisle that ostensibly signifies “American consumerism gone amuck”; it adds that upon his return to Iraq, James is “filled with a sense of purpose, courage, and even nobility that does not exist in suburban America”.

While this isn’t strictly false, it does force The Hurt Locker into a dualistic box where it doesn’t belong. Yes, suburban America looks dull and dreary when compared to the thrilling scenes of war that preceded it, but that’s not because of some inherent superiority of the former. It is, as McKelvey observes, all about the contrast; the film’s real point is that after so much time becoming acclimated to the stresses of warfare, James can’t perceive his home life in the same way. In this department, The Hurt Locker resembles Apocalypse Now, wherein the “wisdom” that Colonel Kurtz reaches through the horrors of war makes him retreat into the jungle while his family waits back home. The moral isn’t “Join the military – it’s so much more fun than home”; it’s “Join the military and you’ll become unable to enjoy being home.”

The Hurt Locker, after all, is a film with a definite thesis, its first onscreen image: “war is a drug.” The point of a drug is that the addict craves more, and that all other pleasures in life are diminished until the drug becomes an all-consuming means and end. (Look at Trainspotting, where the choice is between “life” and heroin.) When James goes home, he isn’t disappointed by the rampant consumerism or the tedium of tearing leaves out of gutters. He’s in withdrawal, totally incapable of relating to family anymore, and it’s utterly tragic. The next and last scene, with James suited up and strutting down a Baghdad street, reads almost as a parody of army propaganda. It’s anything but noble.

This is a talented man, the best at what he does, who’s been reduced to a junkie, and by the end of the film, he is the suit. He’s gone from a full human being to a video game character, compelled to cycle through until he runs out of lives. Yes, The Hurt Locker viscerally and even quasi-sexually depicts the dismantling of bomb after bomb, and this yields several scenes’ worth of decidedly pleasurable cinema. But this is part and parcel with any war movie, so much so that François Truffaut once commented that no movie is truly anti-war, since they’ll always communicate some fun, thrilling aspect of war. Just look at Apocalypse Now‘s helicopter attack to the tune of “The Ride of the Valkyries,” which is the textbook illustration of this effect.

But Bigelow and Boal don’t just passively accept this. They cleverly and insistently undermine it. This is a very smart war movie, and far from being a recruitment ad. I don’t know if it’s the best movie of 2009 – I’ll have more to say about that later – but I am glad to see all the critical approval. Unlike Avatar, it doesn’t just let the audience sit back, identify with a protagonist, and then applaud themselves for being such wonderful people. If we see ourselves in James, Sanborn, and Eldridge, we have some hard questions to confront. That Iraqi’s just filming you dismantling the bomb, after all. Would you be justified in shooting him? And James’s climactic attempt to free an innocent man just throws in an extra layer of difficulty.

I think it’ll take some time to figure out what The Hurt Locker‘s front-runner status really says about America/Hollywood’s willingness to talk about and understand the Iraq War, but love it or hate it, it’s out there. I also suspect that the close proximity between the film’s release and the start of the war has a lot to do with its lack of a clear political stance, and that murkiness in turn has probably buoyed its popularity. As the criticisms show, you can read a lot into this movie based on your own inclinations. When faced with populist bullshit like Avatar and brilliant, original filmmaking like The Hurt Locker, despite its few flaws, I’ll take The Hurt Locker every time.

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Visions of wartime: Casablanca and Maus

So, continuing my unintentional theme of art involving WWII, I think I’ll now add more about Claude Rains’ performance in Casablanca, and possibly touch on Art Spiegelman’s comics masterpiece Maus.

So, back to Captain Renault: as I was saying, he’s an appropriate intermediate between the city of Casablanca and the rest of the world. Rains plays him as happily corrupt, amoral, and indifferent; while he may sympathize with Rick as a friend, ultimately he “blow[s] with the wind, and the prevailing wind happens to be from Vichy.” Renault takes Rick’s indifference and one-ups him by adding a layer of pleased detachment. While Rick may claim to stick his neck out for nobody, we know he has a soft heart, between his past underdog sympathies and his romantic fixation on Ilsa. But Renault really doesn’t stick his neck out – even with his famous line “Round up the usual suspects,” he’s not so much sacrificing himself (especially compared to Rick’s monumental self-sacrifice that immediately precedes it) as he is giving in to the prevailing wind, all with an air of absurd amusement.

The slippery, dissolute Captain Renault

While the “same old story / a fight for love and glory” may form the core of the film, it’s characters like Renault, hanging around in the periphery, who give it the bottomless appeal of a “classic” and make it the conventional epitome of classical Hollywood filmmaking. The film, after all, is titled after the city where it takes place, and with good reason: its denizens, corrupt or innocent, victims or villains, are its subject of inquiry, and Rick & Ilsa are only two out of many. As Rick tells her during the climax, “the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” Casablanca is a city of in-betweens. It’s marginal: politically – stuck between Nazi-occupied France and Lisbon (the gateway to the free world) – and geographically, as it’s not quite Europe but not quite Africa.

In Casablanca, the baggage of the past is up for grabs as people can redefine their nationalities, political identities, and relationships with the law and other people. It’s also a cosmopolitan city, where refugees from all over Europe (and the world) pool their collective cultural and monetary resources. And in the middle of the middle is Rick, his status as a “drunkard” overwhelming any sense of national identity. My point is that, in the end, Casablanca is a story about people crossing borders, whether physical or political; whether of the law or of the heart. So it’s fitting that one of its funniest, most memorable characters should be Captain Renault, a perfect centrist, who blows with the wind between Vichy and Free France, shutting down Rick’s or covering up Major Strasser’s murder, and does it all with a knowing smile. I think this character is just one of those great mergers of writing and performance, where the right man is reading the right lines, in this case the multitalented Claude Rains.

So, that said, I now want to talk about one of the most-lauded works of graphic fiction ever written, Art Spiegelman’s Maus. The concept is surprisingly simple: Spiegelman’s father Vladek narrates the story of his life during the Holocaust, from the late ’30s until his transfer to Auschwitz (this is where volume I leaves off; Spiegelman published volume II five years later, but I have yet to read it). The book’s distinguishing conceit? The Jews are drawn as anthropomorphic mice; the Nazis are cats. (And Poles are pigs.) So the big question: why is Maus so great it became the first comic book to win a Pulitzer?

A feline Hitler presides over Jews in hiding

Where to start: Spiegelman’s storytelling techniques bring us deep into his and Vladek’s lives while the use of anthropomorphic animals creates the perfect amount of distance; it’s an amazingly achieved balancing trick. The story is simultaneously presented through Vladek’s voice and perspective as an old man who’s endured decades of pain and trauma (including the relatively recent suicide of his wife, who figures prominently both as a shadow cast over the present and a living person in the past) and also, through cross-hatched illustration, as an objective account of Jewish life under the Third Reich.

Maus is subtitled “A Survivor’s Tale,” and the first volume bears the additional title of “My Father Bleeds History.” I think the latter goes a long way toward introducing us to Maus‘s attitude toward the past. Spiegelman treats his parents’ stories as living things; volume I concludes with him castigating his father as a “murderer” for burning his mother’s old diaries. In addition to the storytelling sessions, we see Art and Vladek’s interactions in day to day life, and they’re constantly colored by the past. Art discusses Vladek’s miserliness with his stepmother Mala, another survivor, and the Holocaust is always lurking in the background.

The specter of anti-Semitism intrudes on Spiegelman's creative process

Any interaction with Vladek is like a puncture wound causing him to “bleed history”; writing Maus is like an attempt to let it run until the blood starts coagulating (i.e., the story is fully told). While Inglourious Basterds may ask nothing much deeper than “Wouldn’t it be cool if…?”, Maus instead confronts the question of “How do we cope with the fact that…?” In Spiegelman’s present, the past is alive and well, an elephant in a room full of mice (if you’ll indulge the mixed metaphors). And depicting the Holocaust in cat-and-mouse terms is, I think, as valid a coping device as any. To use the great opening line from L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” And our understanding of how “differently” they do things in the past is entirely reliant on finding the right port through which to enter that country – and in Spiegelman’s case, it’s through the lens of mice.

Much of Maus‘s effectiveness, I think, comes from this contrast: the mice do not speak or act like mice; they act like Jewish human beings. But it’s the superficial appearance that alters our perception. I’d compare the effect to George Orwell’s Animal Farm – maybe it’s easier to understand Stalin when he oinks and has a squiggly tail. But the crucial difference is that Maus isn’t an allegory; it’s a direct memoir. We’re told the plain, real-life facts of Vladek’s life during the Holocaust. The only difference is that Spiegelman draws the characters as mice. It’s just a question of how, exactly, we can best perceive this atrocity, and in this case, it could be that it’s just easier to comprehend the story with the Jews as mice than it is to handle seeing human forms straight out.

Historical realism meets recontextualized propaganda imagery

A few months ago, I wrote a mini-essay for a publication at my school entitled “Anthropomorphic animals in animation”; among the points I made are these:

I think it’s legitimate to say that children at some level can gravitate toward anthropomorphic animals (and sure, plants & objects) because they sympathize their position…

[W]e like seeing things and animals triumph over the destruction humanity hath wrought because we sympathize with their peril…

Ultimately, it’s ironic for Spiegelman to present the Jews – villainized as “ratlike” in so much Nazi propaganda – as mice who innocently conduct their day-to-day lives, only to be systematically rounded up and victimized by the militaristic cats. But he’s not writing “a child’s guide to the Holocaust” – it’s a brutally honest, explicit, personal, and devastating book that I think conveys the true horrors even better than, say, Schindler’s List. Whereas Spielberg’s Holocaust is somberly excessive, with one larger-than-life hero and one demonic villain, Spiegelman’s is the story of one flawed man among many who just wants to save himself and his family – so basically, a normal human forced to cope with tragically abnormal circumstances. It’s the story of a mouse, not a Schindler (i.e., a movie star).

I think I’ve said most of what I’m able to say about Maus for the moment though of course a lot more has already been and has yet to be said. It’s an endlessly fascinating document, a brilliant approach to a very difficult subject, and it’s of vital importance in remembering and comprehending a past that still touches all of us, Jew or goy, American or European, whatever. It’s a great book and if you haven’t yet I strongly recommend reading it.

Real trauma distorted through art

I just want to make one last point: embedded in the middle of Maus, and also featured in Spiegelman’s Breakdowns: Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!, is a short comic called “Prisoner on the Hell Planet.” It’s a stark, expressionistic tale of his reaction to his mother’s suicide, painful and depressing, but powerful and not easily forgotten. I think it can resonate with the part of anyone that recalls the sting of a sudden, life-changing revelation, and it’s very fitting for it to reside within the pages of Maus. Spiegelman is just an incredible, talented, influential artist and I’m happy to have the opportunity to read his work; his successful experiments have proven beyond any doubt the cathartic capabilities that exist in comics.

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Sex is SCARY!!

I am here in PA with Ashley, so while we may be busy together and unable to write, when we do it shall contain the full force of both of our creative wellsprings. (PS: it’s fucking awesome.)

And so, in addition to a number of wholesome, fun activities together (kissing, watching movies, eating) we have been watching a number of MST3K videos together on YouTube. Now, although my face is all leaking and itchy for some reason, making me disoriented and uncomfortable, I’ve been trying to form & express coherent thoughts – and now I’m going to try this in blog form. Because of course, as I was telling Ashley yesterday, the analysis never ends. The words “media studies” on my CAMS major t-shirt mean studying media: i.e., every single form of communication since the beginning of history is up for grabs. Movies, yes, and the Internet, TV, radio, pamphlets, skywriting, tattoos, posters, messages engraved on satellites, smoke signals, cave paintings – they’re all media.

"Teen Talk"

This also includes a flyer we were reading entitled “Teen Talk” distributed by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, Office of Population Affairs, which details the Department’s opinions on teenage sexuality; although it’s an ephemeral piece of informational literature, it’s nonetheless worth analyzing on a number of levels: the style and content of the flyer can show us, for example, what the U.S. government (as of 2003-2005) wants to tell the youth of the nation, and how they think they can best get these ideas across.

To be honest, its existence as a product of organizations within organizations, under the banner of the federal government, has kind of an Orwellian vibe to me – as if it was being produced by Pornosec within the Ministry of Truth or something. And you can know that someone with a talent for graphic design and a supposed eye for what appeals to kids these days was hired, at some point, to put this together, probably to arrange the pre-written script into a presentable format. We see a bunch of totally typical-looking kids – really carefully typical-looking, that is, engineered to be your ordinary, ethnically diverse group of sexually confused, inquisitive teenagers – presumably asking questions like, “Should I have sex now or wait?” The information is written like a pseudo-FAQ: no one’s really asking them “What should I know if I decide not to have sex?”, but dammit, the question’s going to be answered; it’s also interesting how the phrase “Decisions about sex may be the most
important decisions you’ll ever make, so think before you act” is placed at the top of the page, in quotations, as if citing some great youth educator, but without attribution – so it’s really just another message from the great, amorphous, and apparently reliable “Office of Population Affairs,” which wants you to know that “You Are More Than Just a Body.”

I’m not condemning the flyer’s messages or anything. Young people are stupid and them having less sex would probably be a good thing. But Ashley and I both noticed its resemblance to the hilarious exploitation masterpiece Sex Madness (1938), whose climax involves an otherwise innocent woman blinding her husband and killing her baby, if I recall right, with her secret shame, syphilis. “STDs can be painful,” the flyer explains with a typical penchant for bolds and italics as emphasis devices. “They can make it impossible to have a baby. Some are incurable, and some may even cause death.” DEATH! INCURABLE! NO BABIES! It’s pretty damn sensationalistic; it goes for the “educate through shock value” approach. And what better way to scare kids away from sex than the by using the hellfire-and-brimstone of human sexuality, the STD.

(We’ve been talking about the terminology used, and Wikipedia helpfully explains: venereal disease, of course, is the more outdated term coming from Venus, the Roman goddess of love; STD describes a disease – i.e., symptoms are being exhibited; and STI just means an infection, that the infecting agent is present in your body even if the disease hasn’t exhibited itself yet, so it’s more inclusive.)

I just find it really interesting how the government tries to reach young people. And, more often than not, they end up leaning toward puritanical Sex and Reefer Madness-like extremes, because apparently subtlety just doesn’t work when you’re trying to get into the heads of the young. And besides, it’s just really fun to overanalyze whatever’s available. It makes stays in medical waiting rooms far more entertaining. Why, for example, do they capitalize specific letters? “DON’T BE FOOLED into thinking most teenagers are having
sex.” Capitalization for emphasis IS SUCH A HANDY TOOL. Just so long as you know how and why to use it. Also, why are so many of the headings capitalized like titles – “What Should I Know About Pressure?” Doesn’t look a title to me; I think “What should I know about pressure?” would be way more effective to preserving the illusion of these being actual questions asked by teenagers. So, all that said, on the surface you might just say, “It’s a fucking flyer about teen sexuality. Nothing to analyze there.” But I, obviously, beg to differ.

I was going to continue this post by discussing MST3K, but in the midst of research, I got very distracted – so I’m going to write a whole post about it later on.

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