Sunday, June 17, 2007

selling torture

Ok, so now I supposedly have more free time on my hands (do you say 'free time on my hands?' Would it just be 'time on my hands?') and even though I've been thinking plenty about writing some things here, I've totally procrastinated on it, to the point at which so ideas I had a week or two ago that seemed especially good, I've now forgotten. But it's good to have extra things to make you feel bad about yourself. Feeling bad is what modern life is all about.
Speaking of feeling bad, one contemporary filmmaker I find very irritating is Eli Roth. His movies aren't awful, but he's been so over-hyped and comes off as so obnoxious and egocentric that, well, i dunno...I just don't like the guy. What's worse, in recent interviews promoting Hostel 2, which either just came out or is about to come out, he's been trying to sell the idea that there's some political aspect to his movies, which is funny because in the past he's always seemed to sell himself as somewhat anti-intellectual, more concerned with making his films as gory and tasteless as possible than making any kind of significant statement about anything. Not that there's anything specifically wrong with that. But Cabin Fever (I haven't seen either Hostel yet) was decidedly lightweight. Yes, it did include some gory, cringe-inducing scenes, but the overall tone of the film was cut with clumsily written/performed/inserted goofy, Porky's-level humor that the disturbing stuff was kind of hard to take seriously. The film's reasonably effectively downbeat ending was even undercut with a post=credits gag scene that served little purpose other than to justify the dropping of a few N-bombs in an otherwise decidedly very 'white' movie (though admittedly it's funnier and more clever than in the 40 Year Old Virgin, which was just flat out racist). In large part, Roth seems to have an inability to leave well enough alone. His trailer in Grindhouse was near-perfect for most of it's duration, a dead-on copy of 80s slasher movies trailers, right down to the film grain, but for me it was ruined in the final moments by a goofy, inexplicable gross out moment. And it seems like the gross out is Roth's raison d'etre, when perhaps it's other elements of his material that are ultimately more interesting. Not that there's anything wrong with a good gross out, but context is everything, and sometimes less is more etc. etc. etc.
Anyway, in a recent interview with Elvis Mitchell in Interview magazine, Roth claims that there is a political element to the depiction of torture in his movies. This would make sense, totally, torture is one of the big issues of the day, something that's on people's minds, something that's shaping the national identity of America following the revelations of U.S. troops torturing prisoner's of war at Abu Ghraid and Guantanamo Bay. Roth claims to believe that his films, and other torture-oriented movies like Saw, are successful because they tap into some fear Americans have about being tortured, citing the killing of journalist Daniel Pearl as an example.
This is very problematic for me because it seems like in most of the torture-related cases that have come to light, it is actually the Americans who have been doing the torturing. I think Roth's films have been successful at least in part because they take something extremely disturbing to most people, a national identity of Americans that includes the idea that our government tortures people, and inverts it, so that the torturers become these vaguely characterized 'others'. That way the horror of torture can be experienced without any of the guilt, if we can see ourselves as having more to do with the victims than the transgressors.
At the same time, I think these movies inevitably also serve to indoctrinate viewers into the idea of torture. Of course, in the Hostel and Saw movies, torture is presumably depicted as a bad thing, something that happens to the films' protagonists, which they must escape. But these films are also primarily sold on the idea of torture as entertainment, the titillation of breaking violence taboos and all of that. And if we can watch scenes of torture for fun, then the idea that our government is out there torturing people becomes less shocking ultimately, and also a step removed form reality, although it's a cliche I guess in a sense we become desensitized to the violence and horror of the whole thing.
In the cases of these films, I believe these side effects are mostly unintentional, although Mr. Roth highlights the regressive elements of his oeuvre when he tries to graft some kind of political consciousness to them. On the other hand, the TV series 24 seems to have a specific agenda of indoctrinating the American public to the idea of torture as something not only acceptable, but necessary. The show's co-creator, Joel Surnow, is in fact very outspokenly right wing, and a supporter of the current administration, the torture administration. A look at Surnow's politics and their influence on the show can be found in this New Yorker article by Jane Mayer.
I don't know anything about the politics of their producers, but two shows I actually like (I don't like 24), also seem to operate, consciously or not, on a level of 'anything goes' or 'anything for the greater good' when it comes to civil rights. The first is Battlestar Galactica, in which enemy combatants are frequently tortured, and one popular form of punishment is shooting people (or enemy android robot people- so actually the show also reinforces the idea that our enemies aren't even truly human, and therefore don't deserve human rights) out of spaceship airlocks. There are definitely a lot of ways to justify these actions within the context of the show, which remains one of the best on TV, but as entertainment being produced during wartime, it must be seem as somewhat dangerously reactionary.
The other show is Veronica Mars, which I think was also one of the best things on TV, and unfortunately was recently canceled. As much as I really like this show, as a detective series, it operated under the notion that surveillance is always justified, and looking back I realized in how many instances Veronica used surveillance in ways that violated her subjects' civil rights. This might be reasonably benign if the issue of illegal surveillance by the government weren't up there with the issue of government-sanctioned torture right now. Again, the audience is indoctrinated into the notion that illegal surveillance is a necessity, since, after all, it's helping Veronica catch the 'bad guys' on the show. The reality of surveillance and how it relates to civil rights is much more complicated, obviously.
(By the way, what the fuck's up with just canceling Veronica Mars at the end of this past season? I know TV's all about ratings, but was the show really doing that badly? And didn't a cultish following and critical acclaim make up for some of that, at least enough to give me a season or half-season extra to either get better ratings or tie up loose ends? And aren't bad ratings as much as network's fault as a show's, like when they took Veronica Mars of the air for several weeks earlier this year to show that Pussycat Dolls reality show instead? Ok, whatever, I'm a fan, I'm a nerd, I hate myself for caring about this, but there ya go, that's the way it goes down sometimes...)
It's not that I believe TV shows and movies tell people what to think, or that people are so stupid that they can't separate fantasy from reality. But I do think the depiction of things in popular entertainment does have an effect on the shaping of people's ideas, an influence, sometimes very subtle, perhaps even subliminal. If every movie or TV show seems to suggest that torture is something that's acceptable and necessary, that's clearly going to have an effect on the popular view of torture.
None of this would be quite so dire if Bush, Cheney and their administration weren't so wholeheartedly unapologetic in regards to their use of torture and illegal surveillance. While Roth's Hostel films encourage us to view the torturer as something other, a dark, foreign, amoral figure from a corrupt, lawless land, the current actions of our government are making that more of America's reality, and as our leaders, implicating us in their crimes.
A downbeat ending for sure, but at least I posted something. Next time, maybe I'll write about something I like, like the Lone Wolf & Cub movies, or the anime Armored Trooper Votoms, or the huge hardcover edition of Jack Kirby's Fourth World Omnibus that just came out...

1 comment:

Eric said...

A wonderful addition to your list is the British show "Meadowlands," now available on Showtime On Demand. I've just seen the first episode so far, but it seems to be saturated in both themes of torture and surveilance.

The premise is an entire town that is under some sort of government surveilance, and at least some of its residents are in a witness protection program. The obvious idea being that one must surrender all privacy for security. Already within the first episode, torture is equated with a justifiable (extreme, but accepted) form of punishment for infractions.

The characters are admittedly "miserable, paranoid and dysfunctional", but they're safe and sound, and they don't seem to have any desire to change a thing.