A Rumpus Orange: Where The Wild Things Are & Bronson (2009)

Posted by Charles Reece, October 18, 2009 10:28pm | Post a Comment

I dreamt that it was night and that I was lying in bed. (My bed stood with its foot towards the window; in front of the window there was a row of old walnut trees. I know it was winter when I had the dream, and night-time.) Suddenly the window opened of its own accord, and I was terrified to see that some white wolves were sitting on the big walnut tree in front of the window. There were six or seven of them. The wolves were quite white, and looked more like foxes or sheep-dogs, for they had big tails like foxes and they had their ears pricked like dogs when they pay attention to something. In great terror, evidently of being eaten up by the wolves, I screamed and woke up. My nurse hurried to my bed, to see what had happened to me. It took quite a long while before I was convinced that it had only been a dream; I had had such a clear and life-like picture of the window opening and the wolves sitting on the tree. At last I grew quieter, felt as though I had escaped from some danger, and went to sleep again.
-- Sergei Pankejeff, the Wolf Man


I caught what might be called a double-feature of the Id this weekend: Spike Jonze's long-awaited adaptation of Where The Wild Things Are (co-written with Dave Eggers) and Nicholas Refn's adaptation of the long-waiting life of Michael Peterson, Bronson (co-written with Brock Norman Brock). If little Max hadn't eventually come back to the comforting constraints of familial order, then he would've found out as Peterson (aka Charlie Bronson) did that society is always ready to force that order on him.

Maurice Sendak's tale is about as perfect as could be imagined, and Jonze hews closely to the book's essential truth, while detailing more of Max's home life, adding neurotic personalities to each of his mental chimeras and marketing his despair towards the type who's always pushing the bangs from the eyes and wearing a hood indoors (the hoodie being a more socially acceptable way of getting a few more years out of that wolf suit). Sendak probably did as much for making Freudians of us all as Freud himself, but we needn't consult Herr Doktor to get his point. As Jonze has it, Max drifts off to Lidsville after trying to eat his mother up by literally biting her. Seeing mom make googly eyes at her boyfriend was more than Max could stand. This event comes at the end of an already shitty day which began with his sister siding with her friends when they accidentally destroyed an igloo that he had built. Loneliness here results from feeling cut-off from the locus of control, of feeling ineffectual in his ability to curry favor with those more (emotionally) powerful than he (in desperation he jumps on a counter and cries, "feed me, woman!"). His mother calls him wild, so off he escapes to a land of feral desires. If the movie does anything more effectively than the book, it's in making the Puffinstuff menagerie grotesquely cuddly and fearsome, like keeping a panther for a loving pet provided you can throw it a leg of lamb fast enough. Max is king of the fuzzy-wuzzies so long as he can provide for their emotional needs -- not all that different from the maternal order he fled. Going wild turns out to be pretty similar to desiring absolute control -- a childish / bureaucratic / fascistic fantasy, take your pick. As he loses control over his wild things, Max comes to the adult realization that power is everywhere and nowhere, and begins to miss his mom. With a tearful goodbye to his imaginary friends, back he sails to his family where he can become a productive member of society. 

And daddy doesn’t understand it
He always said she was good as gold
And he can see no reasons
'Cos there are no reasons
What reason do you need to be shown?
-- Bob Geldof


At age 22, Britain's "most violent criminal" Charles Bronson (who initially took the name for his short-lived boxing career and then had it legally changed) began serving a 7-year sentence for armed robbery. The year was 1974, less than 2 years after Stanley Kubrick pulled his movie Clockwork Orange from the theaters due to death threats. With the exception of just over 4 months, Bronson has spent the last 35 years as a ward of the state, all but 4 of them in solitary confinement. This extended sentence has to do with his seeming love of violence for violence's sake, something like the performance art of an evil Andy Kaufman. As such, he's a child of Alex de Large, or an Agent Orange, that is, one whose real life lends itself to Kubrick's satire. Or, at least, that's how Bronson's director Refn takes it (some of Bronson's victims tend to approach his nature a little less abstractly). Therefore, Refn gives us Clockwork Orange's malevolent juxtapositions of barbarity and high-toned culture, gravitas and cornball pop tunes, with a comic book color palette and told through the wide-angled, symmetrical perspective of a demented narrator in clown makeup. Not exactly original, but like Cape Fear was to Hitchcock, livelier than most other films that don't steal from only one source. In fact, there are enough parallels between Alex and Bronson that telling the latter's life as a remake of Kubrick's film becomes an artistic statement: they share a vocation for ultraviolence; they come from solid, conservative and loving middle class parents; the State has tried penal, psychiatric and even artistic means to correct their moral deficiency; they both show a fondness for art, Alex with his beloved Ludwig van, and Bronson with his writing and drawing; and they were released back into civilian life despite the questionable success of those corrective procedures only to rediscover their true calling.

Kubrick's adaptation ends on a downer that Anthony Burgess' original does not because Chapter 21 was excised from the American version that the former had read, the age of 21 being that of adulthood in which Alex was to have sought redemption for his youthful sins. That doesn't sound like an ending the cynical Kubrick would've used even had he known about it, and it finds a counterexample in Refn's protagonist. Despite his size, Bronson never reaches Max's realization, much less Chapter 21. In demanding complete freedom for his base desires, he achieves it internally (as he periodically demonstrates to a mental audience) while being socially isolated through the most punitive means society can offer, a smaller and smaller box. Thus, his repeated demands for harsher imprisonment are shown to be paradoxically a dream of absolute power, a radicalization that doesn't look all that different from complete submission to authoritarian control. Imagine that.

Technophilia, The Trailer Hitch of Realism: Previewing Alvin and The Chipmunks: The Squeakquel, Despicable Me, and Alice in Wonderland

Posted by Charles Reece, July 26, 2009 09:43am | Post a Comment
One thought that never crosses my mind when watching a classic Bugs cartoon is how it could be  improved with a richer palette of colors, more shading for 3-dimensional effect and a better use of perspective -- you know, so it would appear as if this anatomically incorrect bunny might actually exist in our world. Call me crotchety, but I don't like aesthetics being reduced to technology. Just because the average Macbook now has millions of colors at its disposal, this shouldn't matter a whit to a modern audience watching an old Chuck Jones cartoon. But it does, if the average CGI-toon that dominates production is any indication.

When Casper the Friendly Ghost received the CGI treatment, he became a true monstrosity, a virtually embodied horror, the mishapen spectral remant of a literalized infanticide. Yet, it was in a movie aimed at kids and no one seemed to mind. If he'd been covered in blood, I suspect it would've been a different story. In The Philosophy of Horror, Noël Carroll suggests two major defining features of the monster proper: that (1) the creature be threatening and (2) it be impure. Now, it's probably not much of an overgeneralization to suggest few feel threatened by Casper, not even by his 3D deformity. But he's clearly impure in two ways: First, obviously, he's undead, kind of like a zombie, but one who's rational and apparently takes showers. That is, he violates the cognitive categories we have for what living and dead bodies are supposed to behave like -- mixes the contents. Second, and perhaps less obviously, in the 3D version, he is a violation of the formal abstraction that was part of his 2D cartoon body. This formal impurity wouldn't have existed had the animators decided to go with a realistic form for their adaptation, something like the ghosts in Peter Jackson's The Frighteners.

Perhaps my own revulsion at Casper's (or any) realistic cartoonishness is informed by a recurring childhood nightmare wherein I was trying to escape a carnivalesque labyrinth while avoiding the four-fingered clutches of a monster who looked a lot like Madame sitting in one of those coin-operated fortune-telling machines. Sometimes she would be a cartoon, other times a puppet, but her mitts were always fleshy and grotesque. When the "wish it into the cornfield" episode of Twilight Zone was remade for the movie, with the omnipotent kid (originally played by Billy Mumy) conjuring cartoons into his reality, it dredged up all kinds of phobia for me.

Had the 3D animators chosen to increase Casper's literalism with dashes of gooey blood, the demographic family might've found the style as threatening and horrific as I, even if the character behaved in the same cuddly manner. The second half of these flesh and blood cartoons must remain implicit, because versimilitude isn't ultimately the point -- the wanton display of technology is. It's a despotic aesthetic when style is driven solely by the "because we can" of technology -- nothing but a licentious technophilia. Showing Casper's bloody ties to reality would've actually given the "live action" version a raison d'etre, forcing the realism to serve a darkly comic purpose. Instead, all the computer added to Casper was the ability to watch real people interact with cartoons in a more "realistic" (i.e., technophiliac) style than was possible back in the days of, say, Song of The South. But wasn't the attraction of "old fashioned" cartoons to enter a fantasy where anything was possible? Didn't the moral play of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? teach us that when the twain of physical and cartoon worlds meet, it's because of evil machinations?

I guess not:

Continue reading...

Joker's Wild, or Batman Degree Zero: The Dark Knight (2008)

Posted by Charles Reece, August 10, 2008 10:36pm | Post a Comment
The Joker

There is an old story about a worker suspected of stealing: every evening, as he leaves the factory, the wheel-barrow he rolls in front of him is carefully inspected. The guards can find nothing. It is always empty. Finally, the penny drops: what the worker is stealing are the wheelbarrows themselves ... -- Slavoj Zizek, p. 1, Violence

I just happened to start reading Slavoj Zizek's new book, Violence, shortly after I saw Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight and found both to serendipitously complement each other. Zizek begins his book with the little tale of theft quoted above, which he uses as a grounding metaphor in analyzing our approach to violence. Too often we're concerned with its subjective effects (who was hurt and by what, i.e., what's in the wheelbarrow), rather than its objective status (the symbolic order that gives form and definition to the violent act, i.e., the wheelbarrow itself). For example, an anti-semitic remark doesn't constitute hate speech -- isn't violent -- for a Nazi who exists in a context where "the Jew" is defined outside of humanity, and thus moral concern. It is the functioning symbolic order that allows everyday people to exist in a system perpetuating violence on others without seeing how their own normality is defined by what it violently excludes. This is what the Joker is getting at when he says to Harvey Dent:
Nobody panics when they expect people to get killed. Nobody panics when things go according to plan, even if the plans are horrifying. If I tell the press that tomorrow a gangbanger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will get blown up, nobody panics. But when I say one little old mayor will die, everyone loses their minds! Introduce a little anarchy, you upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos. I am an agent of chaos. And you know the thing about chaos, Harvey? It’s fair.
Sure, we (represented here as Gotham City residents) might see the gangbanger's death as violent, but always as subjective violence, an act by an individual on another individual, not as a sign that the cultural system itself is violent. The difference between the violence against a gangbanger and against the mayor is that only the latter is perceived to be a threat to the normal order of things, whereas the former is already written into the cultural bill as the price of doing business as usual. The Joker is an agent of chaos, because he's the embodiment of pure objective violence. That's why he assures Harvey that killing his girlfriend, Rachel (Bruce Wayne's love interest, as well), and leaving him horribly disfigured as Two-Face was "nothing personal." As such, the Joker's actions can only be read as chaotic, senseless, or just plain nuts. He doesn't put Gotham's citizens (including its criminals) through a series of terroristic spins on the prisoner's dilemma for personal gain, revenge or as the result of some childhood trauma -- he's an ascetic without a real history. Rather, his only goal and source of pleasure is in making his victims face up to the abstracted violent substructure around which their culture is configured. Sounding like Jack Nance and looking like he's spent time in A Clockwork Orange and Ichi the Killer with fashion tips from Malcolm McLaren, the Joker provides a scarred face to the invisible logic of capitalism, with cracking make-up and a forced smile. He's pure desire without an object, paradoxically making the impersonal personal and invisible visible. Regarding this invisible and "fundamental systemic violence of capitalism," Zizek writes:
[M]uch more uncanny than any direct pre-capitalist socio-ideological violence: this violence is no longer attributable to concrete individuals and their "evil" intentions, but is purely "objective," systemic, anonymous. [Some stuff about Lacan's Real versus reality that I will spare you.]  We can experience this gap [between the reality of people and what's being defined as reality by the logic of capitalism] in a palpable way when one visits a country where life is obviously in shambles. We see a lot of ecological decay and human misery. However, the economist's report that one reads afterwards informs us that the country's economic situation is "financially sound" -- reality doesn't matter, what matters is the situation of capital ... -- p. 12-3, ibid.

Stocks wouldn't keep rising for a corporation that exploits third-world misery if that repressed misery took on a subjective quality for the investors. For capital to keep growing, said misery has to remain purely objective, an abstract cost that's been symbolically excluded out of our day-to-day concerns. The Joker is the same unbounded desire that drives capitalism. Without any object or goal to satisfy him, he exists outside of our rational system and can only be stopped with violence. He can't be beat, however, only beaten, because the solution to the problem he presents is the problem itself: repression of systemic violence. (Batman once tried to reason with him -- understand him -- in Alan Moore's The Killing Joke with miserable results.) At best, Gotham City can return to the status quo by forgetting him -- define him out existence as insane and lock him away in its local Id repository, Arkham Asylum. Or they could kill him, but Gotham's local hero of repression has only one rule: he doesn't kill.
The Batman

It is an enigma to me how a theologian can be praised because he has struggled his way to unbelief. The achievement that always struck me as most heroic and praiseworthy was struggling through to belief.  -- Karl Kraus, #421, Dicta and Contradicta

There's many parallels that Nolan uses to show Batman and Joker as two sides of the same systemic coin, with Two-Face serving as their dialectic. At a fundraiser being thrown for the still intact Harvey Dent by Bruce Wayne, the latter is shown throwing out champagne while pretending to drink it. When the Joker shows up at the party, he does the same thing, but stages the pretense for all to see. Bruce has to pretend to drink in order to hide his identity as the Batman and keep functioning within Gotham's high society, whereas the Joker wants nothing more than to lay bare all such pretenses. While the Joker has no determinate psychological beginning (he changes the tale of his scars with a change in victims), Batman is bound by his origin. Bruce would've never become the Batman without being from Gotham's wealthiest family. Conversely, Gotham needs him as a stopgap mechanism to continue functioning at all.  The city got the hero that it needs through an act of subjective violence on the Wayne family. In turn, Batman perpetually fights evil doers on a case-by-case basis, giving Gotham the illusion that something's being done about its pervasive corruption. As the always astute Dave Fiore says of the Caped Crusader:
All he wants to do is hang on. Exercise virtue and excise "corruption." Keep the money in the hands of the people that are already ("legitimately") rich, and the underclass in its place. The only "systemic" critique this concept is capable of generating is a law n' order screed against legal loopholes that allow the criminals to go free.
Bruce has to believe in his subjective cause, lest his whole origin be called into question. Just where do all those billions come from if not from the same rapacious practices of the real world's most successful capitalists? To help explain the Bruce/Batman duality, Zizek provides, once again, a telling example-- that of the liberal communist. The unbridled desire of capitalism is masked by the charitable communitarian deeds of many of its most successful practitioners. While remaining ruthless in their business practices, men like Bill Gates and George Soros find enlightenment and meaning by giving away much of their wealth to needy causes. The inspirational figurehead for the liberal communists is Andrew Carnegie, who gave away a good deal of his wealth to fund humanitarian causes while using a private army to suppress organized labor. Capitalism needs charity in the same way the Batman "justifies" Bruce Wayne's wealth.  Capitalism qua Gotham City creates the problems and then provides the repressive mask by which those problems are to be solved.
Gotham City

: But apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh-water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?
Xerxes: Brought peace?
Reg: Oh, pea... Shut up! -- Monty Python's The Life of Brian
Following Brecht, Michael Wood suggests Gotham City has to be a pretty miserable place if it needs Batman. Well, yes and no. On the one hand, Gotham's repressed elements are always more on the verge of surfacing than in an average city, hence the reliance on a vigilante. On the other hand, like any capitalist center for civilization, there's going to be a good many people who are helped along, with all the repressive mechanisms in place to make their existence a fairly smooth one. People wouldn't have the time to earn doctorates and write for the London Review of Books about comic book characters without a certain level of bourgeois complacency. There is value, even a sense of existential heroism, in the Batman's Sisyphean struggle to return the city to a state of equilibrium (even if it's doubtful that Gotham has ever been in such a state). Gotham would cease functioning altogether if it could no longer hide the systemic violence that the Joker represents under Batman's mask of rationalization. The Joker's chaos might be "fair," but the have-nots wouldn't be helped in the slightest by reducing all the haves to their status. Therefore, Batman can't give in to the Joker's demand that he remove his mask in order to stop the latter's killing spree. This need to "keep the mask on" is demonstrated on multiple levels:

It's telling that the main criminal power brokers ultimately side with the uncorruptible (will to status quo) heroes Batman and soon-to-be Commissioner Gordon. Even Gotham's gangsters realize the Joker operates outside of their ratio-economic structure and has to be repressed. They choose Batman's law and order to a fellow criminal willing to burn their sole raison d'etre, money. The Joker is just plain crazy.  Crime wouldn't pay -- wouldn't make sense -- if the system of criminalization went belly up. What would be the point, for example, in being a drug dealer if all drugs were legalized? The criminal rationale is just as dependent as bourgeois comfort on the extant symbolic order.

In order to test the limits separating Gotham's law-abiding citizenry from its criminal underworld, the Joker rigs two ferryboats with explosives and gives the detonator for each to the other boat. On one boat are the citizens and on the other, a group of prisoners. If neither group chooses to execute the other by midnight, the Joker makes it clear that he'll blow up both. Batman manages to stop the Joker's ability to carry out the double execution before the deadline rolls around and neither boat has exploded, but why did neither group push the button? In the corniest example of his Eastwood growl, Batman claims it's because these people are "good." He wasn't privy to what we viewers got to see, however. On the criminal boat (a significant proportion of whose occupants were, in all likelihood, put there by Batman), a single black man cons his way into possessing the detonator, only to throw it overboard, determining the fate for all. Contrary to a popular religious myth, one lone martyr is hardly an argument for the good of all. On the law-abiding boat, the passengers take a vote, and overwhelmingly elect to kill the criminals. The button isn't pushed because of virtue, but due to a lack of resolve. Violence to restore stability is fine when done abstractly through a representative (an executioner or a soldier), but not when it takes on a personalized meaning. The "goodness" that saves Gotham's (or Batman's belief in Gotham's) dignity turns out to be cowardice.

Finally, when the Joker gives Batman the forced choice between rescuing Rachel (the girl he loves) or Harvey Dent (the white knight of supposed systemic change), Batman chooses the subjective. Because the Joker lied about the location of the two victims, Batman mistakenly rescues Harvey, while Rachel goes up in flames. The Joker has Batman's number. For all his scientific-detective rationality, all he really has to fight the problem of the Joker with are his fists. He continually pounds the Joker, to which the latter knowingly replies with something like, "you've got nothing on me." As I discussed with Iron Man, superheroes can only address systemic threats on a personal level. Their serialized nature requires such a palliative solution in order to heroically continue. (The one superhero story that does effectively address systemic change is the never completed fascistic-utopian Miracleman by Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman.)  Bruce Wayne pays lip service to possible systemic change by funding Dent, but as Batman he puts his subjective interests first. Thus, like DC Comics' stockholders, he doesn't really desire a Gotham without a need for the Batman.

As a heroic figure of repression, Batman remains unchanged by the Joker's games of pitting objective violence against its subjective counterpart. Like the Joker, he'll just keep on keepin' on. Harvey Dent, however, is thoroughly contaminated. With Rachel dead and his face now horribly disfigured on one side (dripping pustular goo all over his suit), he becomes the stochastic angel of vengeance, Two-Face, meting out violent retribution with a flip of the coin. The only system of justice left to him is chance, where everyone's (even Gordon's kids') guilt or innocence is determined randomly. Can there be any doubt that the Joker has won? Rather than allow the truth about Gotham's corrupted hero get out, Batman takes the rap for Dent's crimes, further perpetuating the illusory hope that real change is just around the corner.  Batman is certainly the hero Gotham needs, but Two-Face is the one it deserves.

Based on True Events: Rambo (2008)

Posted by Charles Reece, June 14, 2008 05:12pm | Post a Comment

So this isn't, practically speaking, a summer movie, but if they still made 'em like they used to, it would be. This time around John Rambo is a snake handling loner living in Thailand who makes money on the side by ferrying people across the river to their inevitable death in Burma. As in the previous films, he hates humanity and has little patience for ideology of any kind. He's content playing with his snakes until a hot Evangelical missionary (played by Angel's ex, the vampire Darla) convinces him to take her group over to feed a Karen village being tormented by the Burmese military. I read a few reviews that found this scenario unconvincing, suggesting that her platitudes wouldn't be enough to get Rambo to care.  Rambo's been playing with snakes for the past 20 years in a jungle, what more reason does he need?  It's not what's said, but who's saying it. Fear not, Rambo doesn't have sex, only its substitute, killing, which brings up a question I had while watching Bret Michaels in Rock of Love: how does the bandana stay on during intimate moments? Does Bret pay the girls not to say anything, has it written in their contracts? You'd think at least one of his rejects would call him on it. Is this why Rambo takes no prisoners? Regardless, kudos to both men for laying waste to a bunch of bodies while keeping their hair on straight.

Rambo is the second part of Stallone's Christian marketing diptych, following Rocky Balboa. Originally he wanted to call it John Rambo, but the studio demanded it be changed for some reason. He saw how well Mel Gibson was doing marketing bloodletting and violence to the fundies and decided to continue his successful franchises with that strategy in mind. Look how well it worked with the Rocky sequel:
What was also wonderful about the film was how Stallone incorporated, what I like to call, the faith factor. As part of his corner crew, Rocky brings along Spider Rico, portrayed by another former boxer Pedro Lovell, as his spiritual advisor. Before going out to take on Dixon, Rocky is sitting in his dressing room while Rico is reading scripture verses to him. In his restaurant, Rico always gets a free meal from Rocky until he takes it upon himself to start washing dishes for Rocky telling him, “Jesus wants me to work.”
Over there on Christian Spotlight, the reader responses were overwhelmingly positive, with only a couple of negatives that had to do with the profanity (these guys use the aesthetic criterion of bean-counting the number of salacious words in a film) and some kiss between a supposed 10 year old and a 40 year old (but this problem was brought up by teenaged reader). Christian moralizing has come a long way since the days of the Hays Code and the League of Decency, when violence itself was largely deemed indecent, irrespective of who was killing whom and for what reason. Now, as Gibson's Pollack-cum-blood manifesto, The Passion of the Christ, demonstrated, it's okay to get off on unrelenting gore so long as it serves a higher purpose. This a good thing; Christian films have finally caught up to their brutal legacy. Therefore, when Rambo is trying to get a group of mercenaries to go in and risk their pagan lives to save the Christian tail who inspired him earlier in the film, he mumbles, "live for nothin’, or die for somethin’."  Like the ambiguity of all that S&M Catholic self-flagellation and torture, is Rambo's new found higher calling a sublimated rejection of his celibacy or a belief in Divine Will?

Going by the Spotlight responses, the conservative Christians seem to take the film as an allegory for God's Wrath. But this film proved a bit more divisive than Rocky Balboa. The sheer amount of gore showed that there are some old-fashioned moralists who just can't take it, regardless of intent. As for the largely positive reviews, the violence was seen as a necessary realism for the way war is, carnage adding verisimilitude. Expressing the ambiguity I alluded to in the previous paragraph, one reader says:
My main objection to this film was the scene of a woman's breasts. I really am trying to stay away from films containing such material. There are other scenes of sexually related material as well. This film is EXTREMELY violent -- but this is to be expected fom a Rambo movie. The violence did not bother me, especially considering it is a means by which we privileged people can see the genocides occur in areas where few even know exist.
Why sex in art is never taken by the fundies as being a necessary depiction of the way life is continues to be unexplored, or outright shunned (cf. the differing reactions to The Last Temptation of Christ and Gibson's magnum opus). Had Stallone decided to give Rambo peace of mind by having him fuck a lot, rather than murder a couple hundred Burmese soldiers, the film wouldn't have been as well received by the right-wing Christians. God is always vengeful, loving in a strictly platonic way, never ordering His followers to go fuck their enemies, but only smite them. Unlike violence, fucking would be turning away from God, not towards him:
This movie so accurately portrayed the evil that man, without God, is capable of. To think that these acts of torture and cruelty actually happen in Burma. May God save those people. Is this what King David faced when he and Israel went to war? Of course, not the modern weapons, but the sheer hatred, the brutality, the lack of concern for life, the lack of respect for God?

Is this what will happen to us if America turns from God? Is it really a waste of life to go into these areas and try to bring the peace of Christ? Rarely does a movie cause me to ask so many questions, but this one did and still does. An excellent movie!! I salute Stallone for his bravery in making this film.
Just so the fundies know Stallone is on their side, he made the junta leader a HOMO-sexual predator -- along with the groping of some Burmese hookers and a touch of rape, it's the only sex directly referenced in the film. Any positive depiction of sex would be cause for concern for right-thinking parents everywhere. If these Christians watched more Battlestar Galactica, they'd know that even genocide can be forgiven with a lot of sex. Sleeping with the enemy produces hybrid offspring, ideological miscegenation. But, then again, that's not something the Evangelical types strive for, as it would dilute the purity of their beliefs -- "segregation now, segregation forever."  That's why they have their own Christ-brand simulacra for everything we secularists and pagans enjoy, like death metal, theme parks, feminism, genre fiction and the aforementioned example of torture porn (well, in fairness, this last one is merely returning to its roots). These Christian extremists exist in a alternate world that's akin to the Star Trek holodeck, where any kind of story might happen, but in the final instance, the flock can rest assured that it hasn't left the Biblically literalist sub-structure. It's certainly homo-ideological, even while it denounces any -sexual part. 

Besides, the inclusion of negative homosexual stereotypes -- as with 300 -- will ultimately give this film, featuring a bunch of overly muscular men slaughtering everything in sight, an interesting angle for future queer theoretical analyses, rather than any sort of consistent moral agenda for the impressionable masses.   In other words, any sort of sexual argument the film makes will probably go unnoticed to anyone who doesn't over-think their mass entertainment (like yours truly). Since the Sixties, the medium has been the message, and Stallone's medium is violence. It is in violence that pagans, Christians and atheists can all come together and love the same thing.  Take my god-hating limey pal, Simon (who's trying to be American, but he still doesn't drink coffee):
I've never seen so much awesome carnage! Legs getting blown off, people exploding in a fountain of blood and getting cut in half, and don't forget about babies being thrown into burning rubble. That's especially awesome! And what about the ending of this movie. It brought a tear to my eye. I give this movie a roman thumbs way up. This movie gets a perfect 10 for total entertainment! I have to say I love Stallone for making this picture.
Everyone loves babies and everyone loves specular violence; they go together like chocolate and peanut butter. Rambo is a rejuvenation of the Eighties superhuman action flick for a post-Saving Private Ryan generation. Back in the Reagan era, the muscular hero would mow down an impossible number of villains at a distance with very little bloodshed. Stallone's great aesthetic innovation here is to personalize the carnage, giving the audience both quantity and quality. Rather than just keeping the camera with Rambo, he locates it within the ranks of those being lacerated à la the first 30 minutes of Spielberg's film, letting the finely detailed blood splatter and limbs fly across the camera eye. The result is as close to a summer movie being directed by Takashi Miike as we're likely to get. That's high praise in my book.

One doesn't have to be a homophobe and/or Christian to appreciate Stallone's ability to use realworld events to occupy our leisure time. It's a sign of the new interventionist aesthetic where it's politically correct to enjoy violence involving the Other so long as Our Hero is stopping it from killing an-Other (as was recently seen in Iron Man). What's not as widely acceptable is when we're supposed to be entertained by the fictionalized versions of acts perpetrated on us (confer the conservative reaction to United 93). Thus, Stallone cherry-picked the worst of the current political crises that didn't directly involve the U.S. and interpellated his hero into the story. As an action director, Stallone knows how to entertain.

In fact, so committed to violent entertainment is Stallone as an auteur that any proselytizing ability the film possesses is only going to work on the most committed, red-meat eating kind of Christian (you know, the ones who see the story of Abraham being willing to sacrifice his son for God as a sign of loving devotion). On the way down the river, Rambo kills a bunch of Burmese marauders who were trying to steal supplies from him and the missionaries and keep Darla as a sex slave. Instead of thanking him, the head missionary chastises Rambo with a bunch of claptrap about "thou shalt not kill." Reminiscent of the moral dilemma in End of Days where Schwarzenegger has to give up his gun and go fisticuffs with Satan in order to prove his love to the Lord, this pacifist missionary is shown gleefully smashing in Burmese skull with a rock later in the picture. What a right-wing Christian might see as an allegory for Divine Wrath, a homo-loving atheist might see as leisurely entertainment. Such is Stallone's complexity as an artist. Truly heady stuff: like the morality of sex, is violence only to be appreciated when it's done for God?

Gee, Ain't It Funny? Horror and Bertolt Brecht Don't Mix: Funny Games (2007)

Posted by Charles Reece, March 23, 2008 10:43pm | Post a Comment

Depicting beauty gets a free pass compared to depicting violence.  Mankind's history of brutality indicates that violence is as much -- if not more -- a determining factor in the creation of what now constitutes civilized self than our love for beautiful things.  Why, then, no "that portrait of the beautiful Contessa is pure exploitation?"  Accusations of exploitation only enter when there's a gaping wound involved (or prurient nudity, which is objected to on the grounds that it does violence to its subject -- an objection that is, in practice, limited to pornography for heterosexual men).  It's assumed that there's something wrong with you for taking any sort of pleasure in the the depiction of the violent side of our cultural constitution.  Despite that, I had a real enjoyable time the other day at the moving picture show thanks to Michael HanekeFunny Games is a good, psychological thriller that's no more gruesome than Psycho, largely due to Haneke's mastery of Hitchockian prestidigitation.  Just like Morrison in Florida, the meat of the matter is more suggested than shown.  Many critics were distraught over Haneke's hooks-on-the-eyelids sadism anyway, referring to his film as another instance of "torture porn" and/or that it's nothing but a misery to sit through (at least for right-thinking folk):

  • The “Hostel” pictures and their ilk revel in the pornography of blood and pain, which Mr. Haneke addresses with mandarin distaste, even as he feeds the appetite for it.  -- A. O. Scott
  • To a healthy human mind, however, it’s one of the most repugnant, unpleasant, sadistic movies ever made. No matter what virtues of craft one can find within, no matter what themes lie beneath, Funny Games is aesthetically indefensible. -- Andy Klein
  • Professional obligations required that I endure it, but there's no reason why you should. -- J. Hoberman
  • The joke is on arthouse audiences who show up for Funny Games, which is basically torture porn every bit as manipulative and reprehensible as Hostel, even if it's tricked out with intellectual pretension. -- Lou Lumenick
  • [T]he film itself inched close to the sort of exploitational detail that it was supposed to abhor—a proximity that only gets worse in this later version, which adds a definite carnal kick to the sight of the heroine being forced to strip to her underwear. -- Anthony Lane

In truth, Haneke brings much of that kind of moralizing on himself.  In an interview with Scott Foundas, he gives his reason for remaking his German-language film in English, namely to better address its target audience: "For the consumers of violence — in other words, Americans."  Evidently, Germans and other Europeans aren't the ones who come first to his mind when it comes to enjoying the representational infliction of pain on others.  Maybe he believes his countrymen don't consume specular violence when they have a recent history with the real thing ... but I doubt it.  Rather, it's due to a moralizing European arthouse pretension, as can be read in an interview he did with Jim Wray: "Funny Games['s] subject is Hollywood’s attitude toward violence. And nothing has changed about that attitude since the first version of my film was released — just the opposite, in fact."  He'd probably suggest turd-munching served a real aesthetic purpose when Pasolini used it, but not so much when John Waters did -- if Haneke ever contemplated the aesthetics of coprophagia, that is.  Not to be outdone by the Europeans -- and as a function of their culture-envy -- the middlebrow American critics attempt to prove their highbrow bona fides by turning the table on Haneke, dismissing his film as another instance of the (sub-)genre he was himself purportedly condemning (cf. the video above).  Haneke isn't above the Americans, say they, he's just as bad.

For my money, no one does abjection like the Europeans (well, maybe the Japanese); they have a rich tradition in specular depravity that has not only pushed art to the edges of humanity, but sexualized and intellectualized the cruelty along the way (for starters, look at  the writings of Foucault and Kristeva).  The words 'sadism' and 'masochism' weren't derived from Americans, after all.  Nothing in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or the oeuvre of Herschell Gordon Lewis  makes my toes curls like Dali and Bunuel's razor across the eyeball or induces a dry heave like Bataille's orgy in a puddle of urine, blood and feces.  Of more recent vintage, one barely dips the toes in the toilet by watching the so-called torture porn of Saw or Hostel compared to the baptism by sewage in the films of Breillat and Noé.  Really, Pink Flamingos is one of the few American films that holds a candle to the European tradition -- with Waters' challenging commitment to cinéma-vérité -- and he and his "actors" did it for laughs.

Violent depravity in art tends to be called ''transgressive" when the Europeans do it, but "pornography" or "exploitation" when the Americans do it.  However, this isn't due so much to intercultural biases as it is to a class bias.  The American suburban teens like Ricky Kasso aren't staving off ennui with angst-ridden readings of Les Chants Des Maldorer and 120 Days Of Sodom.  It takes a just-right combination of naiveté, boredom, and border-line personality disorder to treat the pseudo-rebellion of Ozzy lyrics and Anton LeVay's charlatanism as a prescription for a way of life.  The same remains true of the moralistic middlebrow's current bête noires -- videogames, rap music and "torture porn."  It's not that suburban moralists wouldn't call for a banning of Lautreamont's writing if it registered on the pop cultural map, only no one but intellectuals read his stuff.  And intellectuals are secure in their own cool-headed ability to handle such transgression; it's the other, more red-blooded types, which are cause for worrying.  Thus, when the moral concerns of a leading European filmmaker happen to line up with those coming from commentators on the mainstream news channels, elitist condescension and stirring up mass fears for ratings overlap: the masses are too ignorant to distinguish between fiction and reality.  As movie and videogame ratings, book burnings, obscenity trials, et al. demonstrate, the masses will often come around to believing it about themselves.

Such classism can be heard in the video interview when Haneke discusses the impetus for making the original Funny Games.  He was distraught over reports at the time of teens from good, bourgeois homes committing acts of seemingly random, inexcusable violence.  In a prime example of rarefied cluelessness, his solution was to make a violent arthouse film as a homeopathic injection into the popular cross-cultural bloodstream.  Well, in the words of Gomer Pyle, "surprise, surprise," his attempt failed.  Films are just as just as bloody as they were and their audiences just as bloodthirsty.  Reasoning that his failure must've been due to a language barrier and the lack of big, global stars (as opposed to his films being of interest to a relatively small arthouse audience, who probably already share many of his views), Haneke remade his film in English and set it in New York.

Haneke's own class-based critique is most explicit in the scene where the lumpish Peter is left alone with the traumatized couple while Paul -- the alpha male of the two preppy perps -- has gone off to capture Georgie, the couple's son.  Peter is passively watching NASCAR racing at full volume with Ann (the mom), bound with duct tape in her skivvies, and George (the dad) incapacitated after having been beaten with a golf club, among other things.  Putting aside the innate horror that NASCAR racing must hold for the haute-bourgeoisie -- that it could infect even their children -- Haneke's intuitions and skill as a filmmaker tend to override his snobbish worldview.

spoiler alert!

My favorite scene from the film is where George and Ann are left alone with the remains of their dead child's prostrate body poking out from behind the tv set.  George is unconscious and off-camera and Ann, with her arms bound behind her back, is bruised and kneeling before the tv.  In a long, static shot, Ann struggles to her feet in order to turn off the noxious sound of the racing cars.  It's a morbidly beautiful scene, and I don't feel the least bit guilty for seeing it as such.  Haneke uses a similar technique to David Lynch: a wide angled shot of a room where commonplace objects have become signs of terror.  Real dread occurs when the safest of places (e.g., a home) become thoroughly estranged (by the eruption of violence).  If Lynch can make beautiful films out of horrific circumstances, why not Haneke?

The film only falters in its misuse of Brecht's distanciation, or alienation effect (counter-narrative strategies which push the audience out of the diegesis in order to make them reflect on its ideological underpinnings, e.g. having Paul turn to the camera and ask us who we're siding with).  The most controversial of which is where Ann manages to shoot Peter with a shotgun, only to have Paul use the reverse button on the tv's remote control to change the course of events.  Unlike a transgressive tale where the reader or viewer is implicated by the depraved protagonist -- being pulled along with his or her abject desires, and thereby having to face oneself in the abyss -- the audience of Funny Games wants the couple to survive, feeling cheated when the scene is rewound for an outcome more advantageous to Paul. 

This desire on the audience's part isn't the same as what can found when cheering on Arnold Schwartzenegger as he mows down a bunch of villainous Arabs.  All that Haneke's distanciation points out here is that the audience is siding with the innocent couple, not some ideological bias.  Compare that to the critique of identification implicit in our anxiety as we wait with Norman Bates for the car to sink in Psycho, so as to erase evidence of his murderous crime.  Identification per se isn't the problem, but the purpose to which it's used (xenophobia, among others things, in the case of Arnold).  If anything, Haneke uses the Brechtian technique against Brechtianism by strengthening, or justifying, identification, rather than alienating us from its object (the family).  We want order restored and nothing about the movie makes for a good critique of that wish.  Ironically, Haneke's modernist gimmick creates the same effect as Classic Hollywood's demands for a happy ending -- both lessen the emotional impact that the narrative has had up to that point.  Fear not, clueless viewer, you're only watching a fiction.  Haneke's intellectual condescension and Hollywood's crass commercial concerns turn out to be not all that different-- both sell the audience short.

If Haneke didn't feel shame for his gift as a horror director and hadn't attempted to make his audience share in his guilt, Funny Games could've been a great film, rather than a good one with some serious flaws.  Compare his rewind effect to the one used by Lynch in Lost Highway (or Mulholland Drive).  In that film, a new narrative direction is taken at a crucial point where the strains on the protagonist's psyche have become too great, causing a shift in narrative reality.  What Lynch doesn't do is let his audience off the hook by excusing us from the events that have occurred in the prior portion of the film.   The impotent, wife-murdering Fred's alternate life as a the Noirish stud, Peter, only lasts so long before reality starts to leak through the cracks in the dream.  The diegetic reality and the diegetic dream (the "rewind") reflect each other, holding the audience within the film's moral view.  Haneke, on the other hand, makes it so Paul and Peter could've done far worse to the family without the audience ultimately feeling any worse for wear, since his rewind effect falsifies the story within the diegesis itself.  Whereas the events in Lost Highway only become more tragic with each viewing (fantasy and reality becoming more inextricable), any moral impact of the horror felt from Funny Games will happen only once, since you know it's all bullshit going in a second time.
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