Thursday, January 17, 2013

Zero Sum Controversy

2012 had it's fair share of controversy spilling out of the film press and into the more mainstream news. The Dark Knight Rises was lambasted as both a communist plot to indoctrinate youths and inspire them to overthrow the wealthy and as a propaganda tool of the 1% in an attempt to convince the pleebs that they actually have our best interests at heart. Both things could or could not be true. Overall, the film got sucked into a larger social/political discussion that I don't think it meant to include itself in. I think the fact that the script was finished almost two years prior to going into production supports that. Also, it's a movie about a guy running around at night dressed up like a bat and beating people to a pulp with his bare hands, another guy who sounded like Sean Connery if he'd had a few too many highballs and someone slipped him a tab of acid, and a woman dressed up like a cat caught between the two. No matter how I might feel about how well or poorly made the film might be on it's own merits, it's hard for me to take away any serious political content from it. I do take it as a good sign that virtually no one read their tea leaves to mean that the shooting that happened in Aurora Colorado during a midnight screening was somehow the fault of the film, the film makers or anyone else involved with the film. Take small miracles where you can get them when it comes to acts of maturity by our politically motivated brethren.

Now comes Zero Dark Thirty. The clashing of my worlds is happening yet again. I can't read the film press without some screed either defending or defiling the film based on whether or not the writer feels the film did or did not defend the use of torture. Let me be clear here, I have yet to see the film, and I honestly have no interest in weighing in on that debate in part for that reason and in part because I find the tenor of the entire discussion pretty ridiculous. I also can't turn from the film press to what is generally considered more "substantial news" and escape the ridiculousness of it either. Suddenly, the same discussion is popping up in places that normally couldn't care any less about film or what is happening on screens nation wide or world wide. Somehow, no matter which side a particular journalist comes down on, I want to bang my head on my desk or stick a pen in my ear.

It does provide an opportunity to actually look at the way we perceive films place in society though, and to my mind, that's always a worth while discussion. It's also one that can't be avoided if any other discussions like those that have surrounded Zero Dark Thirty and The Dark Knight Rises are going to have any meaning in the future. And that's really what it comes down to in those discussions, are they actually meaningful or are they just more empty political rhetoric with everyone involved preaching to their prospective choir?

As someone who is both politically conscious and who has a deep love and borderline obsession with film, I think I fall in a unique place to provide some perspective on this kind of discussion and what can make it actually meaningful. I've spent a fair amount of time writing about politics/culture and film separately, and have done my best to keep those things separate, because essentially, I don't think they are all that related in the world we live in. One actually has real world effects that can be seen, felt and measured by the majority of the people who live in the society the politics help create. The other, well, the other is specifically not reality, by it's very nature and the question of just how much of an effect it has on the nature of the society it helps create is one that hasn't been answered in a few thousand years.

All of that being considered, I thought it might be good to bring up some ways that everyone involved can actually keep these kinds of discussions from devolving into a circle jerk of preconceptions and that might help us all actually get somewhere with the discussions that involve film, it's place in society and how it can responsibly or irresponsibly contribute to the society it helps create and is created by.

1. If you haven't seen the film, sit down and shut up. 

Few things infuriate me more than listening to, reading or hearing some long think piece on what responsibility a particular film has toward a particular subject only to find out that the person making all of these points and taking up my time hasn't seen the film. If you're doing this, you very literally have no idea what you're talking about. You may have it on good authority that your position is supported. You may have idols whose ideas you are parroting. You may have read reams and reams of content to suggest you are correct. All of that is absolutely useless if you haven't actually seen the film. Sure, we all want to get involved in the conversation and you still can, but you're going to have to find a way in that doesn't involve you speaking authoritatively about your opinion on the film in question. You haven't seen the film, so you don't have an opinion, you have someone else' opinion. Sometimes, the best thing you can do or say is that you refused to see the film because you reject the premise outright. Most of the time, if you feel a film is that irresponsible, the best thing you can do is to say nothing about it and never see it, but those two things work in conjunction. Zero Dark Thirty is a film made by someone who is essentially considered an art house director. It's going to sell more tickets based on the controversy it has stirred than it ever would have on it's own. That is a fact of the landscape of film, if you aren't willing to actually consider that, you don't belong in the conversation, because you obviously don't know much about the way film as a medium and especially as a business works. Whatever my feelings or yours on the business of film, the reality is that it is a business.

2. It matters whether or not it's a well made film. 

Atlas Shrugged was released as a film adaptation last year. How many of you knew that? Even more importantly, how many of you gave a shit? As far as straight propaganda is concerned, Atlas Shrugged is one of the founding documents of libertarianism. It's not just propaganda, it's the fountain from which all other libertarian propaganda flows. As a piece of philosophy, which it's more rigorous defenders portray the novel to be, it's sloppy, ill conceived and poorly constructed. As a novel, it's not a bad read. It's not great literature, but not horrible by any means. It has, however, been the oxygen on which the libertarian movement has survived for quite a long time. The film on the other hand, was so universally panned and mocked because of how terrible it was as a film, that no one cared enough to argue against it as a piece of propaganda, because it was a horrible failure in that degree. I made it through about twenty-five minutes, specifically because I wanted to be able to talk about it with some degree of credibility, and I couldn't make it anymore. I find propaganda of just about every stripe fascinating and will generally sit through it just to be able to pick apart what makes it work. I couldn't do it with Atlas Shrugged. It's the kind of film I call a "dead fish," because it was just completely lifeless and watching it felt like being hit with a dead fish every few minutes. It might be the kind of film that would be fun to sit around and make fun of with a group of friends, but more often than not, I'd rather spend that time looking for a film that's actually worth watching. It was offensively bad film making. Hence, no one but the hard core libertarians saw it, and no one but them care that it was released or that it exists. For those of us who have a deeper interest in film as a whole, it's a novelty and an interesting case of what happens when you take a piece of writing that's deeply beloved by a relatively small audience and make a poor film adaptation.

Zero Dark Thirty is by most accounts a deeply compelling and engaging piece of film making. This is something that can't be overlooked in the discussion because it adds another dimension to it. It means that the people making the film actually cared about making a film. They're weren't just interested in spreading some aspect of what their political or social views are. It takes more than that to make a film that is even just decent, and by most accounts, even some who find the content questionable, Zero Dark Thirty is more than decent. What you're doing if you're ignoring the quality of the film making is essentially the same thing that many people have done in writing Spike Lee off as "the guy making movies for black people," as if not being black might mean there's no reason to see his films or that there's nothing one might get out of his films. Spike Lee has been making great movies for a few decades, despite whatever else one might think about the guy. His latest press storm over Django Unchained (a film I couldn't possibly disagree with him more about) is a really good example of what one runs the risk of doing by deciding they're going to both talk about a movie they haven't seen and attack it's perspective while doing so. Spike is fighting a losing battle because it's a great movie, and not just because (at least in my opinion) he's wrong. If it had been a terrible movie, you can bet there would have been plenty of people jumping on his band wagon, whether or not what he's saying is true. Quentin Tarantino has reached a level and streak of success that it's become almost chic to dislike him and his films, and there are few things America loves more than seeing titans fall. The saddest part for me of the Spike Lee controversy, as a film lover is that there is literally no one, and I mean no one I'd rather see make a movie about slavery in America than Spike Lee. The chances of that happening now are slim to none. If you're looking for a primer on how to talk about aspects of a film that are troubling to you while also being able to acknowledge that the film is well made, you should check out David Chen's piece about Zero Dark Thirty over at /Film. In the last month, it's the only thing I've read about the controversy surrounding the film that didn't make my stomach turn. Mind you, I don't completely agree with the David, but because its not interested in the journalistic equivalent of a flame war, I've been more willing to consider his points than the majority of other things I've read. It's reasoned, it's measured and it's points are well laid out without being hyperbolic and needlessly inflammatory.

3. Do you believe in an artists freedom of speech? 

One of the most disappointing aspects of discussions of films that end up going beyond discussions of the quality of the film itself and into larger social/political aspects is that everyone's inner fascist shows. When people that I know well and whose work in different aspects of political and social activism I respect start sounding alarmingly similar to the religious right during their crusades against artistic freedom of speech in the 1980's, it's disappointing and deeply alarming. There should be no clearer sign that you need to reign it in a bit. I may not like a film's perspective, and I may suggest to people that they not see it for that reason, but I will only extremely rarely suggest some kind of ill intent on the part of the film makers. I still reserve the right to attack film makers who are in it for absolutely nothing other than the money. They're doing a disservice to film as a medium and they're picking the audience pocket. I can disagree with the film makers perspective and even pretty brutally dismantle a film, but the film makers as people are generally off limits. As someone who is both a film lover and who is politically aware and has been politically active, I can tell you that those things are connected by the periods in time where different societal entities have helped to create an environment that chills artistic freedom of speech. It's one of the first things that made me have any desire to be aware of and involved in activism and discussions about who we are as a society and it's also one of the first things that can immediately pit me against people, groups and communities I would otherwise support. Do you or do you not support the free exchange of ideas? You'd better be really clear on that from the outset. Otherwise, you're going to get tangled in the web of questions about who gets to decide what ideas are worth sharing on the level of mass communication and what ideas aren't.

There may be things that can be divined from a film makers entire body of work that tell us about what their thinking on various subjects is. It's just as likely that in looking at a film makers body of work, they'll examine the same themes and ideas from many different perspectives. There may be some interviews etc. to help with that, but even then the majority of people who are behind the camera like being behind the camera because they don't want to talk to the public about every detail of their lives and psyche. Which means I have to remember that I'm not a mind reader. I don't necessarily know that the way I'm perceiving the film is how the film maker intended or even that it's how most audiences or viewers are going to perceive it. That is one of the biggest reasons I ever started writing about film in the first place. When the internet made it possible for just about anyone to be able to start taking part in the conversations in the film community, it became clear that the ways that people perceive films are vastly, vastly different. Just because I perceive a particular motive or a particular idea or theme in a film, doesn't mean everyone else will. Especially with films that are well made, sometimes that's not as cut and dry as we'd like to assume it is. The best films, by the most intelligent film makers are often going to conclude in grey areas. Maybe it's not even because the film maker doesn't have a particular perspective, but that what they believe is most important is that people are actually having a discussion about the topic they're addressing in their film.

And that's how we come to the question of artistic freedom of speech. At the end of the day, films that create sweeping changes in the way a culture or society addresses a specific idea, problem or topic are the most rare films in the world. There probably isn't even one particular film that can be pointed at as being an example of having done that. They usually exist as part of a much larger framework of discussion. There are films which can be deeply influential in relation to the topic their addressing, but even then, more often than not, it's a discussion that's already begun and has some cultural traction. Otherwise, plainly and honestly, the chances are better than not that the film won't get made and that even if it does, very, very few people are ever going to see it. Because again, whether we like it or not, film is a business and the people who are responsible for financing are generally unwilling to throw money down the drain in the form of a film that no one is going to see or wants to see. And that is a restriction that already exists on artistic freedom of speech where film is concerned. For those of us who are politically aware and or active, we need to ask ourselves whether or not we want to contribute to creating an environment that makes it more hazardous for a film maker to try to express themselves, whether or not we like what they're expressing. Especially when considering that sometimes what we need to hear and see expressed is often what as a society, we're most reluctant to accept. We may believe we're making it harder for people with a particular perspective that we don't respect to continue to make films, but the hard reality is that there are always consequences to doing that and they almost always involve creating an environment where the things we really want to see put out into the world and the culture are going to be threatened as well.

In the case of Zero Dark Thirty, there's another aspect to it. As anyone who would have read this far is aware, the controversy surrounding the film has been related to whether or not torture or "enhanced interrogation techniques" are effective, and whether the film portrays anything related to the truth about the topic. That being what it is, and having been a running discussion in the culture and society for about a decade now, there were already communities ready to do battle before this film was even released. It's just been drawn in to their already existing argument. One of the things that's being left out of this discussion is that Kathryn Bigelow is the films director. Now, her being Kathryn Bigelow doesn't matter to the discussion, and neither does the fact that she is currently the only real A List female director in Hollywood. That is to say it doesn't matter to the discussion of Zero Dark Thirty as it pertains to whether or not the film realistically portrays the use of torture, but to film as a medium and to the film community as a whole, it matters. It matters a great deal. This isn't to say that the people who are taking issue with her film are taking issue with her film because she's a woman. I don't believe that, though I have seen it floated as one of those disgustingly cynical political sidesteps that are par for the course these days. It's more to say, that this is the kind of unintended consequence of attacking the film makers in the attempt to see your perspective or goals furthered. I completely and totally agree with the people who believe that torture has no place in American policy, whether it's foreign or domestic policy, and I completely agree that it's been proven to be ineffective in providing useful intelligence. Those things have nothing to do with Kathryn Bigelow. As a director, and especially as a female director, she has a few things that she really needs to be considering in making a film. First, it has to be a good film, meaning that it has to be a good piece of storytelling, technically sound and able to engage audiences. Second, she has to be sure that there's some audience for the film. Third, she has to be ready to do everything she can and has to in order to be sure that film is financially successful, if she wants another directing job again. Hollywood will relegate directors to the basement of direct to video or direct to On Demand very quickly when they produce more than one consecutive financial failure. Being a female director, the chances that it will take more than one failure are slim, and Bigelow has gotten close to reaching the level of success she has in the last few years a few times previously, only to have to languish in relative obscurity for a number of years before being allowed to take on the kind of projects that most directors go into the profession with dreams of working on. One of the most interesting things about Bigelow is in her filmography. Her career is full of films that most people would not relate to as having been told from a female perspective. Near Dark, Point Break, K-19: The Widowmaker, and the film which has brought her toward the top of the list of directors working today, The Hurt Locker. The only film in her career that is specifically from a female characters point of view is Blue Steel, a solid little thriller starring Jamie Lee Curtis and Ron Silver. If seeing more women in positions of creative power is important, which I'd argue it is, and I think so would many of the people who've come out in conflict with the Zero Dark Thirty, do those women have to present films from a perspective we who support their success agree with? At the same time, do you give Bigelow, and the problems you may have with her film a pass because she is a woman and has reached the kind of place in Hollywood where her success or failure is undoubtedly going to effect how many more women are allowed to follow in her footsteps? Or, do you leave Katherine Bigelow out of it and address the film specifically, and what your problems with the film are? Are you willing to cross that magic line in the sand where there is so much controversy that it overshadows the financial success and future projects start becoming hard for her to find and finance because she's just too controversial?

I'm not saying there are many people advocating Bigelow be shut down or that she no longer be allowed to make films etc., but I am saying that the realistic end point of Zero Dark Thirty's detractors isn't going to have anything to do with the film or even the ends they're trying to reach (which aren't completely clear most of the time). It would mean Kathryn Bigelow not being able to make movies on anything resembling this scale anymore. So what of artistic freedom of speech in all of this?

4. If you don't respect your audience, they're not going to hear you unless they already agree with you. 

This is something that goes for any variety of communication. It counts for movies as well, and for those folks who are involved in some degree of discussion or argument relating to film, here's something to remember... If you don't respect the audience as much as the film maker does, you've lost before you've begun, and vice versa.

This is to say, "Don't tell your audience what to think or feel about a film." More, it's a plea that you tell the audience what you thought or felt about a film and why. This is another reason to not go on long rants about a film you haven't seen or take some kind of "principled" position on a film you haven't seen. As someone who has spent a good deal of his time writing about and talking about film, I can guarantee you that without writing a full length novel or non-fiction book, you're never going to be able to compete with the experience that a good film provides, much less one that a great film provides. Reading a screed of some kind, against or for anything, is never as immersive as good film making, and therefore doesn't present the viewer/reader/audience with the same degree of engagement. Especially in today's media environment, the difference between buying a ticket to sit in a movie theater and clicking an article/review/essay couldn't be more significant. A film has already gotten their attention and if they've bought a ticket, they've already decided to go for the full ride. Chances are they have some idea what the film is about, if not all of the details. They're on board.

This is only true of the various mediums of text based communication or even video (if you're taking into consideration that most of the video communication of this variety that people are going to encounter is on the internet) if the people who are reading/watching/listening already have a good idea of what you're going to say and already agree with you. Otherwise, you have to more or less ask them to come along with you and listen to what you have to say. And if you're engaged in this kind of discussion to any degree, you need to realize that there are probably thousands of other places they can go and find a howling, angry scream of offended righteousness. This is, after all, the internet. I like a well written take down piece as much as the next guy, but that's not where I go when I'm actually willing to engage in some degree of reflection and am open to having my mind changed, and I know that I'm not alone on that front. The minute someone starts telling me what to think or feel, I'm basically gone, and I might read/watch/listen to the end, but that's basically just because I'm already starting to build a case to undermine everything they've just said.

Your audience are autonomous beings, with the ability to make the decisions themselves. They are not a heterogeneous mass to be manipulated at your will. And unless you're exceedingly happy with the news environment and political/social climate as it currently exists (which is only an extremely small percentage of the population), then contributing to that variety of communication and that environment as it exists today is working against the things most people who engage in a campaign in defense of or against a film are really attempting to reach. It may be much more difficult and it may take much longer, but if you're actually looking to see a more human and compassionate society with the ability to think critically, you have to literally invite people into it. Otherwise, it's just more of the same chorus of bark at the moon madness that's overtaken just about every kind of criticism and communication we currently have. Treat your audience like they're capable of making good decisions and they'll respect you for it.

5. If you're arguing against whether or not a film realistically portrays some aspect of the real world, based on that film, you've already lost.

The number one reason not to engage in the kind of argument/discussion surrounding Zero Dark Thirty that has been happening is that it legitimizes the idea that the movie could be presenting reality. The argument being made against the film is that it doesn't "realistically" portray the efficacy of torture. That argument may be absolutely correct, in the strictest sense, but it's also a loser. It's a loser immediately, because at best, you end up causing the audience to begin to parse what they believe or can find are the details of what in the story is factually correct and what isn't. That's a loser in today's day and age, because again, unless they're already on board with your argument, they're either not going to listen or they're going to go about searching for that information on their own. At this point, this controversy having now raged for a month or more, there is all manner of explanation out there for every possible side of the story, and you're just likely to end up with the audience throwing up their hands and going back to what their gut says. And this goes back to why it matters whether or not the film is well made and whether or not you respect your audience. If the film is well made, it's already provided an experience you can't match. Period, point blank, full stop. No matter how impassioned or reasonably constructed your argument is, it just is not going to be able to overcome the impact of a well made film. Admit it, accept reality and move on.

The best way to address this kind of thing is to respect your audience, know that they know the difference between movies and reality, and turn to the truth of the entire situation, "It's just a movie." A film can approximate a perspective on reality. It can't even approximate reality, especially in the case of narrative film. This is the reason people spend millions of dollars to create an illusion. If you're arguing the degree of reality the film portrays, you've lost, for exactly that reason. You (I'm betting) do not have millions of dollars to lay out your own perspective on the reality of the perspective the film is approximating. You'd probably even be better off making the argument that you enjoyed the film, but since film can ever only represent an emotional reality, not a factual one, you don't believe it's capable of portraying whether or not any of this is true in the factual sense. It's capable of telling a good story, and expressing some degree of emotional honesty or metaphorical truth, but that it's essentially a medium of fairy tales. The audience the film is made for defines the kind of fairy tale being told. That's it. That's all there is to it.

That's an argument that leaves the people your making it to with the ability to make their own decision about things. And again, giving your audience the respect to believe that they know the difference between reality and fantasy is important, especially because most adults are never going to tell you or anyone else, much less themselves that they believe the movies are reality. What you're essentially going to do is plant that seed of doubt and start a process of cognitive dissonance in relation to the film and subject at hand. And as the controversy continues, your explanation that none of it is reality is going to look more and more sensible because of the irrational lengths people will go to in order to prove whatever point or perspective they're trying to. They'll essentially be proving your argument for you. It's also an argument that places no challenge to the question of artistic freedom of speech. When it's all fantasy and therefore, doesn't really make a difference, who cares what a movie or a film maker has to say? By doing that, you also help to start creating the kind of environment where people don't look to things like movies for objective truth about any of the things they're facing and are encouraged to look elsewhere, which is also good. No matter how much I might love film and movies, I don't think they are at all a basis for anyone to make life decisions. Film and narrative in general, is based on extremes. The reason we tell these stories is because they are ways for us to examine and get some kind of experience with the extremes in human emotions and thought in a removed way that doesn't risk anything except being temporarily uncomfortable. Living in a constant state of the extremes that narratives tend to represent would make for a short life span, and probably a horribly painful one. "It's only a movie."

1 comment:

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