Monday, January 14, 2013

Compliance (Craig Zobel, 2012)

I spent my late teens and early twenties doing my best to sift through the pantheon of horror films that were both "must see" and "watch at your own risk." If it was something that was either considered one of the masterworks of the genre, a film that added a new dimension to it or changed the course the genre had been going, I was trying to see it. At the same time, if a film been deemed to have absolutely no social value, to be inexplicably offensive, to be an attack on everything a civil society should be, I was doing my best to get my hands on a copy, even if it was just borrowed. My VHS collection, when those were actually the preferred home viewing method, wasn't unimpressive to a well schooled horror fan. Like so many other budding cinephiles and horror geeks, I took pride in the fact that I could recite the years of release, directors, producers, stars and inane trivia related to many of the more obscure trash horror films released between 1953 to what was then the present. I didn't understand it as such at the time, but I was using film as a way to begin to gauge what the society I lived in found to be worthy of reverence and what it found to be unacceptable when it came to art and free speech.

I've seen some disturbing shit in movies. For a time, I thought there was some kind of psychological or emotional strength gained from sitting through a film that was little more than punishment. I might not have actually been wrong about that, but I still wasn't exactly right either. What it produced seems to be a pretty deep well of tolerance for what gets created, produced, screened, marketed and what have you when it comes to the creative arts. Especially with things that are actually created to shock or to produce revulsion or distress in the audience, I have never come to the point that I've said, "They shouldn't have been allowed to make that." I certainly feel there are films which have no business being made, but even those tend to be as related to the obviousness of their commercialism as it is for the outrageous and shocking aspects of another films content. I'd rather I Spit On Your Grave exist before Battleship any day. Hit the jump to find out why, and what relevance this has to Compliance.

Both are extremely cynical and deeply troubling in their own way. One is disturbing on a visceral, defiling, putrid level. The other is only disturbing if you're able to take a step back and look at what it actually thinks of its audience. One wears its black hole of emptiness on it's sleeve, the other hides it behind a few hundred million dollars of spectacle and digital effects, with pretty faces and trusted names to serve it to you. One is deliberately provocative, the other is so intensely saccharine it puts an enormous amount of effort into avoid being provocative in absolutely any way. One, in making no bones about what it is, actually encouraged a whole hell of a lot of discussion about a number of different topics, whether it was the depiction of violence against women, societies relationship to violence in the media, what exactly the lines we were willing to accept about all of that were and what the rights of the individual to create were in balance with the right of the society to be able to say, "We don't ever want to see that shit." The other, is no less cynical, and certainly as disturbing in it's portrayal of any number of different subjects be it the military, women, violence etc. but it wraps all of that up in the most acceptable possible package it can, so only very few academics ever even bother to start asking those questions about it. It never makes us ask who we are. Worse, it's an expected and accepted emptiness. It's something we go and sit through for two hours, with no thought, little emotional engagement and certainly nothing to secretly ponder later. And it doesn't even bother attempting to take this time and money from us and give us a decent story in return. It's literally empty, with the exception of spectacular visual effects.

On a technical level that could possibly be acceptable if the degree of care and design that went into those visual dazzlings were actually dazzling and something interesting, but that's not even the case. It's just big, loud and dumb, and it's in every multiplex in the country on day one, so that all of us will drop our hard earned cash on it, and waste our precious time. Battleship and it's ilk are films that are hoping that most of us are intensely, unquestionably stupid, with incredibly low expectations or worse, without the ability to even make the kinds of distinctions that lead to low expectations. Films like that hate the audience, and they are scams, dreamed up by scam artists. The ultimate difference between I Spit On Your Grave and Battleship is millions of dollars and the controversy one stirred. The degree of their nihilism is exactly the same. One is just very plainly honest about that, and the other is hiding it behind every possible cultural shield it can. I'll go with the film maker who succeeds in getting people to start talking about who we are and who succeeds in unmasking some of our deeper problems every single day. The film maker blowing the equivalent of celluloid smoke up everyone's asses is a patronizing little shit who needs to be sent to bed without dinner, which in this case means no ticket sales. Any time a form of art is going out of its way to be too "safe," it's crossed the line into self affirming propaganda. Art does not have to be controversial, but it certainly shouldn't attempt to avoid it in order to make the audience feel comfortable. As far as I'm concerned, there isn't a good enough reason to ever say, "You are not allowed to make that," in relation to any form of the arts. There's also no reason to tell adults, "You are not allowed to see that."

All of that relates to Craig Zobel's Compliance in a very specific way. Of all the things I've ever seen, it may be the most distressing. It is that distressing and disturbing without the cynicism and emptiness of those other kinds of films I was just referring to. By adding the humanity so often missing from both exploitation films and big budget festivals of empty nothingness, it succeeds in making the film more disturbing in a way that is absolutely appropriate. This isn't a film about the vicarious thrill of violence or an excuse to parade around scene after scene of sexualized violence. It's specifically about recognizing that these things should make you and I feel badly (whether that badly is described as uncomfortable, shocked, offended, disturbed, grossed out, doesn't matter), we should not look upon them with glee. And I don't mean that they should make us feel guilty, but that they should make us ask questions about our own moral compass and our own "moral fortitude."

Let me be clear, this isn't disturbing as so many of the late seventies, early eighties films were disturbing in the way they approached violence or even what was often a deeply misogynistic tone. This is something different. It is disturbing in a way that much more lauded, more highly praised and serious films often try to be and fail miserably. Compliance is disturbing in what it suggests through it's title alone. Just how compliant to authority are people willing to be?

Smartly, it doesn't necessarily try to answer that question on too broad a spectrum. It sticks to what it knows, a specific example. An audience member could easily come away feeling it's making a statement about American culture, but they could just as easily come away feeling it's making a statement about human nature more broadly. It's also not the kind of trashy, faux post-modern kind of film that tries to assert there is no real villain in the story or that everyone is equally to blame. There's certainly more than the fair share of blame to go around, so it's definitely not dishonest or overly simplistic in that sense, but it also never attempts to create some kind of misplaced empathy for the person in the film who sets the events it portrays in motion. They may have their reasons, they may be emotionally or psychologically damaged, but no matter how you lay it out, what they've done is wrong in a way that there really is no excuse for and there should be no attempt to excuse it. It's just not excusable and the film never tries to play that angle. It does create a number of different questions about the actions of the other characters in the film that are deeply unsettling, and still worthy of wrestling with.

Compliance is also great in that it either expects the audience to react in the way the film makers believe decent human beings will normally react and that they therefore don't need to be spoon fed and treated like 5 year olds or it really is just presenting the events it's documenting in the most compelling way possible and expecting the audience to bring to the film everything else they will need. It doesn't have the kind of big, sweeping dramatic edge that most films which would attempt to deal with this subject matter have. It's straight to the point, depicting each part of the story in a way that is both straight forward, but also (considering the subject matter) tame and essentially classy. It tells the audience everything they need to know, without being gratuitous. Writer/director Craig Zobel knows when to use inference and when to be direct. He also knows that the subject matter and the events in the film are going to be enough to shock audiences in the first place, and that he doesn't have to present it in a way that is is going to make that material so "in your face" as to detract from it. He displays a pretty amazing degree of discipline here for a film maker as young and inexperienced as he is. He's taking material that is horribly unsettling, discomforting and troubling and treating in a way that portrays it honestly, but still with a sense of the humanity of the characters it's portraying. It's no slight trick, and he deserves real credit for being able to weave those things together as well as he does. Beyond the shocking and horrifying nature of what it's dramatizing, looking at the basics of the construction of the film, it's meticulously put together and incredibly effective.

Three quarters of the film take place in what is essentially the supply closet/office of a small fast food franchise location, and somehow, it still manages to be visually interesting and arresting. The cinematography is great, but in a way that also doesn't call attention to itself. It presents a visual experience that helps keep the viewer interested by being able to make that kind of mundane environment interesting, making clear which characters perspective it's portraying at any given moment and never creating the kind of moment in which the audience or viewer are pulled out of the story by saying, "this is absolutely beautiful/ugly/edgy." It would probably also not be really appropriate to do so, given what the film is about, but at the same time, it's obvious the cinematographer has the talent to create a really arresting image and use the camera to support the story. Adam Stone got his start in features in 2007 with Shotgun Stories and has worked on a number of indie darlings in that short time. Like Craig Zobel, he's going to be a talent to watch in the future. He has a sense of visual storytelling that would seem more fitting for a person twice his age, with twice the experience.

The performances in the film are great. I've read very little in the way of praise for the actors, though I have seen a few people suggest their performances were sub par, but that seems to be ignoring the fact that the film has been provoking extreme reactions from critics and audiences. There is very little in between, people either love it or they hate it. The thing that's interesting about that is that the people who love the film never mention how well the actors portray the characters as part of just how well the film works. The people who are taking shots at the performances in the film are also the same ones who are saying that the film is "unbelievable," and that the events it portrays aren't believable, no matter how often it's pointed out to them that just the slightest bit of research provides ample proof that the film is portraying what actually happened in one particular incident, and that seventy other very similar incidents took place in a few years time. The quarrels with aren't actually with the performances, they're with the basic suggestion that the film and the real life events it's portraying make about human nature. All of the central characters are imbued with the kind of basic humanity that makes the story work, and that's something the actors should be complimented for. They are believable people, in an unbelievable situation that actually happened and is being depicted as best it could be put together afterwards. That is absolutely going to mean a certain degree of dramatic license, but again, even the slightest bit of research into the veracity of the films depiction proves it hasn't taken a degree of liberty with the real story that should offend anyone with the capacity to believe the events it depicts are possible.

Compliance is a hard film to sit through, of that there should be no doubt. At the same time, it's a more worthy and worth while film than the many others which can be given that description. The questions and suggestions at the heart of what it's saying and depicting are hard, and not so cynical as they are embarrassing and disheartening. In this case though, that's not the work of a film maker trying to foist their perspective on the evil or failings of humanity on the audience, it's the work of actual fact. I'm happy to see Compliance become part of the landscape of contemporary cinema, because of the assertions it makes and the events it depicts. Film is sometimes the best way, and often the only way, we, as a culture begin to grapple with deeply important questions on a mass scale. I'm not saying that Compliance is going to provoke that kind of discussion, because it is after all a small indie film that almost no one who doesn't already have a passion for film is ever going to hear of, but it does lay the groundwork for that kind of discussion to begin. Hopefully, time will be good to this little indie gem and it will become part of the pantheon of "must see" films for serious film buffs and therefore, make it into the mass consciousness through the respect and admiration they give it. It is, int it's own way, deserving of that place in the film community for the same reasons that films like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Midnight Cowboy, and others are deserving of their place. They present aspects of humanity in a rather unflattering light, can be a beginning of a kind of self reflection that individuals and societies need in order to grow and be healthy. They do that, by also using the best of cinematic technique to make their stories have a profound emotional impact on the audience, and Compliance fits the bill in both of those categories. Whether or not you end up loving it or hating it, I'd suggest seeing Compliance.

I do think there is one thing about Compliance that makes it incredibly interesting and actually important from an artistic standpoint. It's the kind of film that is a litmus test for the audience. It touches on issues that aren't generally discussed on "polite company". Along the way it touches on issues of class, age, understandings of authority and power in ways that we just don't have any real discussion about on a large scale. It does not turn all of this into spectacle or simple, spoon fed bullshit. It does one of those things that so much of the artistic community and the critical community surrounding art hope for, it presents a kind of window into who we are as we're responding to it. I can't walk away from Compliance and feel that much of the criticism that has been leveled at the film is more a reaction to that aspect of the film than it is to the film itself. This is not a sexist film. It isn't a polemic against sexism either. It expects that you don't need to be told that what it depicts is horrible. It does not revel in that horror either. That is exploitation, and it never gets close to that. Because a film makes you or I feel uncomfortable does not make it exploitation or misogynistic. Sometimes, the best thing a piece of art can do for us is to make us feel uncomfortable. I try to stay away from lampooning or lecturing film critics or other peoples opinions, because we all actually do have a right to our opinion, but in this case something has to be made clear. By reaching for the labels of misogynistic, sexist, and exploitation, the people who are levying those charges against this particular film are harming the outcome of what they're attempting to defend or uphold. Compliance isn't even a film that came from someone's imaginative desire to see certain things portrayed on screen and therefore have them discussed. It's a film that came from the actual incidents that happened in real life. To make the kind of attacks against this film that have been levied is to create the atmosphere in which no one can be plainly clear about just how these events took place. That is a short sighted, narrow minded and cynical approach. The reason this film is producing the reaction it is in the audiences is because they understand that these are horrific events, and they're reacting accordingly. Sometimes, we need to face the reality of the horror we're capable of in the best way we possibly can. In this case, this film is giving us an opportunity to do that. Shutting it out is not going to further the cause of developing a society that better respects it's members of any gender. Look at it. It's ugly. It's dark. It's disgusting, and it actually, really happened because people deferred to authority instead of thinking critically.

Below you can find a link to the Blu-Ray on Amazon. You can find links to the DVD and see it through Amazon's Watch Instantly through the banner for my Amazon store at the bottom and in the right sidebar of any page on this blog, including this one. The most recent recommendations are always on the last page. 

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