Zero Dark Thirty

I bet you were all waiting for me to weigh in, right? As a disclaimer, I loved The Hurt Locker. I loved its intensity and the fact that its main character was not entirely a “good guy”. He was reckless, unable to really function as one with his team even though it is an essential part of the job and of survival. And I loved the fact that it showed the difficulties of return.

So, ZDT. No two ways about it. It is pro-torture and it is torture porn, IMNSHO. And it is intellectually dishonest. The first thing you see in the film is the original claim that it is based on first-hand accounts. It is not fiction. It is a fictionalized documentary. At least, that is the claim being made. What you are about to see is what happened. And we all know that claim turned out to be inaccurate. That’s for the intellectually dishonest part.

Now, the torture thing. The first part of the film is torture porn. It is. The point of these first 20 or so minutes is not to horrify the audience to torture (if you need to be horrified by torture, your moral compass needs serious adjustment). It is to establish it as the source of everything that follows, the whole investigation. And throughout the film, one can see Maya intently watching tapes of other interrogations, obviously involving torture as well.

Later, Maya and her fellow agents watch Obama on television claiming that the US does not use torture and they roll their eyes (I wondered why this was not shown when Bush made a similar claim on television as well a few years earlier). And once the detainee program gets disbanded, several CIA agents keep whining about having lost their most useful source of information.

This film lies about the uses of torture (proved to be useless in terms of truthful information), while claiming to be retelling the actual truth based on first hand accounts. It places torture as the providing the initial lead that created the thread that Maya doggedly follows, substantiated along the way through more torture (alternating with more terrorist attacks, that is the rhythm of the film minus the first and last twenty minutes).

In this sense, there is no doubt either that the movie is very much pro-CIA. In the film, it is the CIA against hapless and hypocritical politicians, against changing public opinion, etc. They do their best, if only they were allowed to use what they know works: torture. Frankly, I don’t think there is any ambiguity or complexity in Bigelow’s directorial choices here.

The gender aspect – the heroism of Maya, as played by Jessica Chastain – but I’m with Peter Bradshaw on that one:

“This really is overdog cinema, whose machismo is not tempered by Chastain’s faintly preposterous, flame-haired character showing up at various locations as if for a Vogue cover shoot, at one point with some cool aviator shades.”

As with her other films, Bigelow is a very skilled director and the sequence of the assault on OBL’s compound is indeed gripping even as we all already knew some of the details, and of course, how it ended. I don’t think anyone can help have their heart pump fast during the whole sequence. The whole film, itself, is goes at a good pace and I was never tempted to look at my watch. As I said, Bigelow knows how to make movies.

One can also see a recurring theme of her on ZDT: the attraction / repulsion relationship between the main character and his/her nemesis, whether it’s OBL, or the addiction to the rush of explosions in The Hurt Locker, or the attraction to the criminal in Point Break and Blue Steel. But in this case, the film, I think, deliberately, makes the viewers complicit in its endorsement of torture.

So, it’s a well-made film, directed by a very apt filmmaker, but then, so was Leni Riefenstahl.

A.L.F. – The Movie

For some miraculous reason, the town where I live has an independent film festival where VeganProf and I got to see A.L.F. tonight. It’s a French film that will be out in France in November and later, hopefully, in the US. As the title indicates, it is about the Animal Liberation Front.

It is not a documentary, though. the basic plot follows the police custody and initial interrogation of Franck, the leader of an ALF group and then backtracks to Franck and his group as they get ready to raid a dog laboratory. The movie then goes back and forth between Franck in custody, following the members of the group in the 24 hours before the raid, as well as Sarah’s therapy sessions as she awaits Franck’s release after serving a 10-month prison sentence for armed robbery. So, the timeline is disjointed but not at all hard to follow.

In between, we get glimpses of animal torture and mistreatment in factory farms or labs, but not a whole lot, just enough to get a sense of the horror. The director has smartly placed these images so they relate to members of the group and how they got to the point of raiding the lab. It was a risky choice though: too many of such images would have overwhelmed the narrative and taken over the film. The choice of soundtrack for these images makes them all the more powerful not as voyeuristic, but as explanatory as to the members’ states of mind as they get themselves ready for the raid.

A.L.F. reminded me of Amores Perros (another movie about dogs, incidentally) not just in the structure of disjointed timeline and narrative but also in the ways in which each flashback gives the audience opportunities to see all the main characters more in depth as it humanizes them, including the cops who interrogate Franck. As much as the film definitely has a point of view and sides with the activists, it does not take cheap shots at the cops, which would have been easy. Everyone get a humane treatment, not ironically.

Similarly, the director made smart choices as to what to show and what was not necessary to show: the raid and Franck’s arrest. From the first scene of the film, we know the raid was a success but that Franck got arrested. That is established and showing it in details would have been redundant.

Anyone studying the sociology of social movements would find this film interesting as it shows the experience of becoming involved in a movement seen as radical as an alienating one. It seems all the members of Franck’s group end up having to detach themselves from close and intimate relationships as they get deeper into the movement, not because of a cult-like aspect, but because of the experience of living with images of tortured animals that redefines their identities and priorities (as Chloe blows her audition and Sarah stops showing up at the newspaper where she works). Being involved in such a movement, even before getting into illegal activities, creates a dual identities for the members of the group where the links between their “normal” identities and their ALF identities become more tenuous and less real to them.

So, a good film to see if/when it really comes out here.

And let’s not forget the one star of this film, the raid truck:

“What’s My Driver’s Name?”

The title for this post is one of the most hilarious things stated by Jackie Siegel in The Queen of Versailles, the documentary that reveals the oh-so-very privileged life and somewhat downfall of time-share tycoon David Siegel and his family. The first part of the documentary reveals their immense wealth in all its conspicuous consumption and opulence, including the massive building project  based on the Versailles castle which was supposed to become the largest, most expensive single-family home in the US, with something like 30 bathrooms so no one has to stand in line.

In that first part, there is everything barf-bag-worthy: the arrogance of power (David Siegel claims to have gotten George W. Bush single-handedly elected through illegal means, but he won’t tell which ones); the large brood spread over three wives including seven from the last one (each treated by their father as future employees rather than children, and as cute things to be dumped on nannies at the first sign of inconvenience by their mother… so no expectation of college apparently); the nannies and maids from the Philippines; the multiple dogs pooping all over and other exotic pets that the kids abandon to die cuz feeding them is, like, boring; and the piles and piles of stuff. The art accumulation, the couple and family portraits, though, are awful.

But, of course, Siegel owes his success all to himself.

But then, this all turned out to be a house of cards as Siegel’s empire relied on cheap money and the multiple mortgages packaged and sold into derivatives. So, when !@#$ hit the fan in 2008, they got hit pretty badly as well. The second part of the film shows the consequences of their downfall, such as taking the kids out of private school and putting them in *gasp* public school! This also involves having to fly commercial once the private jet and yacht have been auctioned off, or for Jackie to find herself learning at the Hertz counter that her rental has no driver. There is also the massive layoffs and David Siegel’s increasing moodiness and his taking his financial frustration out on his family. This downfall is perfectly symbolized by the decaying, incomplete, Versailles that ends up pushed on the market.

I expected these people were going to make me want to throw up but I ended up being surprised by how relatively grounded and down-to-earth Jackie turned out to be as her husband cranks up the complaining about the banks that won’t lend him cheap money anymore, and the lenders clamoring at his door for all the reimbursements on all the mortgages his company has taken out to finance the acquisition of all these resorts out of which he sell timeshares.

But one should not be fooled into thinking that there is a radical loss of privileges here. The Siegels certainly have lost a lot but they can still afford an opulent lifestyle, the nannies, the massive home. What they lost is the ability to have a lot of stuff done by other people, like party managers or having fewer maids and nannies, and no more private jet. This is still luxury by any definition.

It is also refreshing to hear Siegel acknowledging that his own addiction to easy money as allowed by the financial system combined to create the crisis and that he is not blameless in this. But unlike a lot of people, he still gets to raise a few millions here and there and he still has his business, even if it has to be shrunk to size. Mostly, he is pissed off at the crumbling of his pedestal, and probably the loss of power going with it.

If you teach sociology, this is a good and nuanced depiction of the extent of privilege and how it cushions failure while less privileged people get to enjoy the whole free fall. The film is rich in details so that one can probably spend quite a bit of time dissecting all the different cultural and social aspects of privilege beyond the massive amounts of money, especially how it makes one clueless at life.

French Films That Succeeds in The US

One of my favorite sociology publications, Contexts, has this nice short article detailing why The Artist was so successful in the US and collected Academy Awards. It mentions a couple of reasons but leaves out others or wrongly dismisses them, I think.

The first obvious reasons is that it is not strictly a French film: there is no French language spoken as it is a silent film (with old-fashioned title cards in English) and all Dujardin has to say at the end is ‘with pleasure’, not enough to notice his French accent. In addition, the setting of the film is Hollywood at the end of the silent movie era and the beginning of the talkies. It is an American story that most American movie goers know (the downfall of the silent era stars and the rise of new studio stars).

The narrative itself follows typical Hollywood-produced drama / romantic comedies, which is why Diane Barthel-Bouchier is too quick to dismiss the predictable plot (predictable precisely because it it molded the Hollywood fashion), the sappy ending (which I discussed just yesterday) and the cute dog. American audiences love that stuff.

On top of it, any lover of classical Hollywood films can follow along the many, many references to classics throughout the film. I should re-watch it and make a bingo card of it.

Add to that the storyline of the young woman climbing up the success ladder thanks to her own talent and determination which will ultimately save the Dujardin character later on when he stops feeling sorry for himself and getting nostalgic about the bygone era and embrace youth and the new cinema being made. That is also an American, individualistic narrative.

And, let us not forget that the movie is in black and white which gives it a classy cachet that makes us all feel smarter about the whole thing, making it look more sophisticated than the story really warrants. More than that, the film does not rock the boat. There is really no claim it makes except for being a cute love story using old-fashioned stylistic codes and loudly using nostalgic tropes from the constant references to classics to the Max Steiner-type soundtrack.

In other words, the film does not demand anything from its audiences, except to adjust to the silent part, which, as the article notes, is probably better than to subject audiences to French and sub-titles.

In that respect, I would have expected Intouchables to get wider distribution but I can also see why it’s not going to happen beyond art and independent theaters. No amount of subtitles can do justice to a very wordy movie, with a lot of slang. On the other hand, it has everything American audiences would love: a story of friendship transcending race and class, with a solid background of hegemonic masculinity (which I thoroughly addressed here) that is so well accepted as a given and a source of jokes. But that is another movie that does not rock the boat, no more than La Vie en Rose did, or even A Very Long Engagement or The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

One (AKA, me) has to wait for the more critical movies on cable and on demand or Netflix. They usually do not make it to the theaters here in the US.

Again, I think the key here is a narrative that does not rock the boat, more than anything else.

Let me remind you all that Despicable Me is a French film.

Hunger Games v. Battle Royale

[Disclaimer: I have read the entire Hunger Games trilogy but have not (yet) seen the movie.]

First off, if you have not watched the analysis videos of the Hunger Games on Feminist Frequency, you should do that. Go ahead:

And comparing film and book:

I pretty much agree with everything in these videos, which is why I actually liked the Japanese film “Battle Royale” better than the Hunger Games even though it is extremely objectionable in terms of gender.

One of the ways in which Battle Royale has a better background story than Hunger Games is in the conflict between youth and adult cultures. In HG, it is hard to envision parents not rebelling every year at the idea of sending two of their children for the Games just like that. BR deals with that aspect much better: both stories involve economic and then social collapse. In BR, the social collapse has been marked by an explosion of deviant youth culture across the country, turning adults against the youthful mobs and their criminal behavior. It is therefore not surprising that the BR Act would be passed and that no one would raise issues with randomly picking a class of 9th graders to fight each other to death. That is seen as generational punishment and complete breakdown between adults and adolescents. In HG, picking young people makes the fights more lively and interesting for the audience. After all, it’s all a spectacle. In BR, it is punishment by proxy.

Because this is a Japanese film, there is no avoidance of violence and gore but there is also a lot more humanity in all the contestants whereas in the HG, a few contestants are humanized (mainly, Katniss, Peeta and Rue) and the rest are largely either not explored or dehumanized (like the career tributes, depicted as sadistic and murderous sociopaths, even though it is not really their fault, they were socialized to be like that). Anita Sarkeesian makes the good point that in the film, though, the female tributes are depicted as especially sociopathic whereas Cato gets some humanization towards the end.

So, yes, BR is much more gruesomely violent (audiences under 15 were not allowed, whereas the HG film limited the violence to get a PG13 rating). One could debate the issue of glamorizing the violence or emphasizing other aspects. What I thought was interesting in BR is how much of the violence is horrifying to the teenagers themselves. And that is one of the major aspects of BR: a lot of the killings are clumsy, inadvertent, and side-effects of other dynamics than just pure murderous intent, such as just being scared s!@#$less.

Many deaths occur because teenagers just plucked from their school life simply do not know how to become competent killers. Some give up right away and commit suicide (fatalistic suicide), some kill each other by mistake because they were afraid (as when Kotohiki kills Sugimura even though he was coming to get her to safety). But even the one girl who gets closed to being seen as a sociopathic killer gets humanized and we get an explanation for her behavior (her addicted, prostituting mother selling her to men).

It is also noteworthy that right away, several of the teenagers constitute themselves in teams not to kill more effectively but to figure out solutions even though that is done along traditional gender lines: two girls just shout out to the other to just not fight and meet to talk it over (before being killed by one of the two former winners still in the game) while three geek boys get to work on a computer solution, hacking into the surveillance system of the game.

Finally, the main couple, Shuya and Noriko, play the traditional role: he protects her, she falls ill and slips into a mild coma for a while while he runs around trying to find a way out, ending up locked up in the lighthouse with a bunch of girls who end up killing each other based on old grudges from schools and also based on a stupid mistake… pfft… girls.

In a way, the concept of the game in BR is worse than HG as it takes an entire class of 9th graders who know each other and may be friends and then make them kill each other, as opposed to the tributes who only know the other tribute from their own districts thanks to the absolute segregation between districts. And BR does a good job of presenting the existing relations and collective primary groups feelings between the students with flashbacks to the basketball games (although, again, highly gendered: the boys play the game, the girls cheer from the sidelines).

And as in the HG, the main couple does survive but instead of the Gamemakers bending the rules this one time and declaring them both victors, in BR, they end up wanted for murder, completely alienated from the rest of the culture and living on the run. And even though they are still teenagers, their maturing is obvious. Because the game, in BR, is a punishment for a loathed generation, there are no rewards for the victors except that they get to go home whereas in HG, the Games are one of the means through which the Capitol maintains control (the whole Panem and circenses thing) through a divide and conquer institution that provides entertainment for the Capitol and reinforced powerlessness for the districts.

Interestingly, in BR, we, the real audience, are the audience for the game as we get to see the countdown of deaths (from 42 to the end) on our screen. That is, we are made to be the adult audience watching the teenagers killing each other with no chance of escape. That is a deliberate directorial choice. Note that the same thing sorta happens inadvertently in the HG movie with the death of Foxface whose killing made real movie audience cheer. BR does not expect such cheering on any death. Every single death, in BR is truly portrayed as tragic and useless in that annual culling, which is why we are made to watch them all, with blood and gore.

In that sense, BR makes a stronger point to the audience than HG.

World-System 2.0 – In Time

Sorry about the lack of recent posts, guys. Between the beginning of the term and the massive amount of academic writing I have foolishly and irresponsibly agreed to do, I will be swamped until February 15th.

That being said, while taking a break from The Writing, I watched this film, scifi fan that I am:

The movie was directed by Andrew Niccol who also directed Gattaca (which I really loved) and Lord of War (ditto). Now, the main plot is rather stupid and the main characters were poorly cast, in my view, but, as usual, I got more interested in the social background underlying the story.

For those of you who have not seen it, the story takes place in a dystopian future (aren’t they all?) where the dominant currency is time. People are genetically programmed to grow up until they reach 25, then, a clock embedded their arms starts and they have one year to live unless they can get extra years through labor, gambling, prostitution, or financial dealings. Everything is bought and paid for in time (minutes, hours, days, etc.). The whole language reflects the prevalence of time. When your clock gets down to zero, you just (literally) drop dead.

This society is highly stratified in a very Wallersteinian way. Financial investors are at the top of the social ladder and they live in wealthy (gated and highly secured) time zones that resemble Wallerstein’s core areas. There are middle time zones (the semi-periphery) and the ghettos (the periphery) where people are fully precarized in terms of time. They work for a few extra days, take out loans that deplete their clocks. The whole time system (financial system) is controlled by very large corporation, controlled by time-financiers who continuously extract time-value from the less wealthy time-zones (through labor, loans and control of the costs of living… when they need a time boost, the wealthy – in New Greenwich, a major core time zone – bump up the cost of living in the ghetto which extracts more time from the poor, that is transferred to the wealthy.

This translates in different behavior. In the ghetto, people are constantly checking their clock and rushing and running everywhere. That is how the main character gets spotted as “different” when he crosses into wealthier time zones. In the wealthy time zones, people move slowly. They have time.

There is more than enough time for everybody but the wealthy want to live forever, so, in that zero-time game, someone has to die for that to happen. And so, while the poor live highly precarized lives, doing anything to live a few more days, including engaging in fights through organized criminal groups where the goal of the fight is to deplete the other guy’s clock, the wealthy live lives surrounded by luxury but also lots of bodyguards in order to avoid the only deaths they can expect, through crime or their own stupidity (accidents).

In this society, law enforcement takes the form of poorly paid (based on a limited per diem allotment of time) time-keepers who keep track of time and maintain the stratification system. They are what Guy Standing would call the salariat, ideologically aligned with the global time elite, and making sure the precariat in the ghetto does not steal someone’s time even though they are economically closer to the precariat.

As I mentioned, the rest of the film is pretty much either garbage (the rich have it hard too!) or teenage nonsense (the bad boy from the ghetto and the poor little rich girl fall for each other and turn into Bonnie and Clyde 2.0). Apart from that, I think it is definitely meant as a metaphor for our times.

Intouchables and Hegemonic Masculinity

While I was spending the holidays in France, I had the opportunity to go see this blockbuster on the left. Intouchables has been a tremendous success in France. It is largely a feel-good movie. Philippe (the character played by François Cluzet) is a very wealthy, quadriplegic man who hires Drisse (Omar Sy), from the projects, to be his caretaker. The setup involves some very obvious “clash of the classes” where Drisse gets exposed to, and consistently derides, the high culture Philippe enjoys (from contemporary painting, to classical opera and music).

But ultimately, Drisse’s low class no-nonsense, no-pity attitude grows on Philippe (and the audience) as he treats Philippe like a human being, and not a near-vegetable. Ultimately, the friendship between the men transcends class differences and improves them both. Like I said, a feel-good movie. One can see why audiences would enjoy it. The dialogues are sharp, there is quite a bit of humor in-between a few clichés. But it is a bit à l’eau de rose, as we say in France. And any movie that has Earth, Wind and Fire’s September as its opening soundtrack has won me over right off the bat. Seriously, there is no better song.

It is a theme one has seen many times over: individualization can destroy class differences as people from different background get to know each other individually. That, in itself, is a cliché and the critiques have indeed pounced a bit on the unrealistic nature of the main plot (see here, here, and here, for instance). Most critiques have focused on the “it’s not that easy” aspect of transcending class relations.

However, there is one aspect of the film, that is central to me, and that all the critiques I have read failed to mention: the film is a promotion of hegemonic masculinity. Of course, several critiques have mentioned the casual machismo of Drisse as he flirts more or less seriously with women around him. But the central theme of the film is how Drisse, the hegemonic male, helps Philippe (whose masculinity is gone, nor just because of impotence but because of his paralysis and complete dependency on women and non-hegemonic men – the parade of hesitant, barely competent home health care assistants is both funny and rather obvious) reclaim his masculinity (the movie ends with Philippe finally meeting face to face the woman with whom he has corresponded through letters and phone calls, hiding his condition).

Everything about Drisse is exposing what a “real man” is and does. Drisse bullies his way into Philippe’s office not to interview for the job but get his unemployment benefits, pushing the “real” candidate aside. On the first day on the job, he frets about having to dress Philippe and putting stockings on him (for blood circulation). He very clumsily flirts with the attractive assistant (who turns out to be a lesbian, “bye dudes” – yells Drisse – as he leaves the job, to the assistant and her partner) and we now all understand why she resisted his advances. He makes fun of the unspoken attraction between the other main assistant (who is older, so, he does not flirt with her) and the gardener (another dominated male who has longed for the Yvonne for a long time, in silence).

Rather than pick the minivan equipped for the wheelchair, he picks the Maserati. When he can’t get it out of the driveway because the neighbor always parks his car in front of the entrance, despite “no parking” signs, he drags the offender out of his car and bangs his head against the sign. He roughly does the same with the ex-boyfriend of Philippe’s daughter. In other words, Drisse, by proxy, rebuilds Philippe masculinity by brutalizing other men and boys. He even asks Philippe permission to slap his daughter around a bit (she’s a spoiled brat) because he is Philippe’s arms and legs, after all. Philippe refuses but does give his daughter a tongue-lashing, reclaiming his parental authority. It certainly helps that Drisse is physically more impressive than all the other men in the film and he unashamedly throws his physicality around. He becomes the body that Philippe no longer has.

And, of course, Drisse allows Philippe to get some sexual satisfaction by hiring prostitutes that trigger Philippe’s remaining erogenous points (his ears, while Drisse gets it the usual way). The only reversal of the relationship between Philippe and Drisse occurs in two occasions: the flight in a private jet, and the parasailing. In both occasions, Drisse is reduced to a passive position which makes him insecure (in the plane, he can do nothing about the turbulence, and during the parasailing, he has to leave it all to the instructor who controls the whole thing). But for everything else, Drisse pushes his hegemonic masculinity through Philippe’s (highly feminized) household. He consistently bullies non-hegemonic males. And it is precisely this hegemonic masculinity that Philippe misses when Drisse has to go to resolve a family situation.

So, this is an aspect of the film that most critiques seem to have missed as, again, it is central to the film. Is it because most critique are men or because gender analysis still has a long way to go in France? Probably both.

My Life As A Feminist – Super 8

So I watched Super 8 in between grading. The movie is directed by J.J. Abrams, but Steven Spielberg has his hands all over it, especially with all the kids stuff. Not to spoil anything but Super 8 = E.T. + Stand By Me 2.0. It is a mix of scifi, disaster / scary monster /coming of age film. Therefore, it is patriarchal through and through:

1. Mothers die or leave (Joe’s and Alice’s mothers)… and Charles’s mother cooks a lot (the kind of mothers that always has food ready for the dang neighborhood) and is very, well, motherly.

2. Failing fathers (Joe’s through his inability to bond with his son, Alice’s father through his drinking and irresponsibility) will learn to become “real men” again thanks to a disaster.

3. Smart Alice is relegated to a comatose role waiting to be rescued by a boy and his boy friends.

4. Drugs and alcohol are bad (because they render men less manly… either stone or irresponsible), but pyromania is a useful skill.

5. A boy becomes a man by letting go of his mother and finding his bond with his father.

Protecting Privileged People’s Sensitivity

Which is why, as demonstrated by this Cracked article (Cracked tend to be a mixed bag but this one hits the nail on the head) regarding five persistent prejudice in movies that contribute to, you guessed it, the reproduction of racism and patriarchy:

5. They Still Can’t Show a Black Man Dating a White Woman (Unless That’s What the Whole Movie Is About):

“It’s not just our imagination. The “Audiences Don’t Want to See Black Men Taking Our White Women” thing is so ingrained that Will Smith claims that Cameron Diaz lost the lead role opposite him in the movie Hitch because producers were worried about “the nation’s problem of seeing a black man and a white woman getting intimate.” So, Cuban-American Eva Mendes was cast instead. Hollywood has apparently decided that Mendes is a nice compromise to the black man/white woman problem — she gets those roles again and again and again.”

4. Only the Pretty Girls Are Allowed to Live AKA, the Vasquez always dies meme.

“We’ve convinced ourselves that there’s such thing as “ass-kicking supermodels” for the same reason female slasher movie survivors tend to spend the last hour of every film running and screaming at the top of their lungs. There is so much psychology behind that concept of the lone female slasher movie survivor that there is an entire book about the phenomenon and what it means (Men, Women and Chain Saws). The author points out that when the last person standing in a horror movie is a man, you never see him screaming or crying with fear (imagine Arnold’s character in Predator doing that), but with women, it’s required. For the most part, we won’t sympathize with her unless she spends a certain amount of time helpless and terrified.”

3. Movies Are Still Weirdly Prudish About Some Subjects, mostly, women having fun with their sexuality and enjoying it. And abortion too. You can make as many rape jokes as you want, but abortion is a big no-no.

2. If It’s a Blockbuster, the Star Better Be White (or Will Smith). Well, that one is pretty much self-explanatory. And even when it’s Will Smith (or Denzel Washington, but he’s getting older), the black stars tend to be of lighter-skinned with fine features.

1. We Still Don’t Care About History That Doesn’t Involve White People, which is something I have discussed under the “white savior” heading. Only white people can liberate oppressed minorities or indigenous peoples (see the Guarani in The Mission or the Naavi in Avatar), only white people clear agency and the guts to make the tough moral decisions that need to be made based on the lessons taught by minority characters (with limited agency and dysfunctional cultures).

If you put this all together, you can clearly see that all of these memes protect privileged people’s sensitivities and reproduce their privileged position, whether it is class, gender, race and heteronormativity. They assign agency, capacity for action and leadership to already privileged category and erase challenges to privilege. And in all of them, the only moral viewpoint that matters is that of the privileged category. Which is why these memes persist: because they allow the main audience’s viewpoint to prevail, and therefore, makes privileged audiences more comfortable and allows greater potential for identification with main characters.

A good example of what happens when that is not the case is the mini-controversy that has erupted over the casting of the upcoming Hunger Games movie:

And especially these two posters:

See this post for the full controversy which boils down to: how dare they make these characters I like BLACK!! And read the rationalization for the outrage: the (mostly white) readers had imagined these characters as good, gentle and ultimately victims of the Capitol’s oppressive system, as, of course, white (like them). The book is rather clear in its description of Rue that she is black. For Cinna (the character played by Lenny Kravitz), there is no particular description, so, it was open. It is especially revealing that some commenters assumed that Cinna was white because the book depicts him as sweet and lovable (and therefore, not possibly black). you can go read the whole sorry thread at the link.

All these commenters lamenting that Cinna is, OMG, black which does not fit with a nice, gentle, sweet, and good character are tapping into a whole trough of media representations of black as the opposite of all these things, without a shred of awareness. And I am sure they would all deny any racism on their part. It is just not the way they imagined the character. And being white, they must be right. And now they are stuck with an impossibility to identify.

How dare the movie producers do that to them?

A Documentary on Zygmunt Bauman

As regular readers of this blog know, I am a big fan of Zygmunt Bauman, who was my sociologist of the semester a couple of terms ago. So, it makes me very happy that someone finally made a documentary about him, with the great title “The Trouble with Being Human These Days”. Here is the trailer:

The Trouble with Being Human These Days (official trailer) – Documentary about Zygmunt Bauman from photogl on Vimeo.

As the producer of the film states in a little blurb he left me:

“The film is a bold attempt at characterizing our contemporary, increasingly globalized, society through a prism of Zygmunt Bauman’s concept of liquid modernity. For decades Zygmunt Bauman has been painstakingly trying to disperse darkness surrounding the existence of an individual in the Western consumer society. He has been relentlessly pointing at the traps of free market economy and showing ugly flaws in the system, which for years have been officially glossed over. Despite his famous irony, he is in fact a passionate defender of some core values which are the prerequisites of a more equal and, simply, happier society. Our film presents in a nutshell Bauman’s vision of the world filled with concern, anxiety, but also – hope. By documenting Professor Bauman’s unique ideas, we intend to popularize his outstanding work and truly prophetic theories, which are concerned with the issues most of us can easily relate to.”

I most certainly look forward to seeing the finished product not just because I agree that Bauman is one of the most important sociological thinker of our times, but also more generally because we need more good documentary films on social theorists.

The Privatization and Individualization of Movie-Watching

This item in the Independent got me thinking (but then, pretty much everything does):

“Cinema chains could refuse to show major films in a showdown with two leading studios over home viewing.

Warner Brothers and 20th Century Fox are expected to soon launch a premium online video-on-demand service, allowing people to watch movies on their TVs and computers a month after they are first screened.

Cinema companies are outraged by the proposals, which would greatly reduce the standard gap of four months between cinematic openings and films becoming legally available for the small screen. They believe it would greatly cut into profits by reducing their time window for luring audiences into cinemas and have warned that it would cause many cinemas to close down.

Their cause is supported by 23 of the world’s most successful directors – including James Cameron, Kathryn Bigelow, Guillermo del Toro and Michael Mann – who attacked the plans in an open letter published in Hollywood trade magazine Variety.

Last year, the UK’s three largest cinema chains announced they would refuse to screen Tim Burton’s film Alice in Wonderland due to Disney’s plan to release the movie on DVD a month earlier than usual. Although Cineworld and Vue eventually relented, Odeon went through with the boycott.

The prospect of this occurring on a much wider scale is looking likely, with cinemas in the US already cutting the number of promotional trailers they are showing for both studios.

Under the studios’ scheme, which will be launched in the US, customers would pay $30 (£18) to rent a single movie digitally. Though this is a relatively high price for an individual film, they believe it is cost-effective for families for whom the convenience of watching from the sofa rather than the cinema would be a prime incentive. There is also speculation that Google will sign deals with Sony and Universal to stream films through YouTube in competition with iTunes and Amazon.”

So the issue is not “movies you can watch on TV”, because that was always the case with the advent of television. The issue is to get movies on TV soon after theater release or straight to DVD (for crappy horror films), so the “I’ll wait for the DVD / on-demand” becomes a more attractive and realistic option, especially with very large HD TV sets.

As one of these curmudgeons who cannot stand people who eat / chew gum / drink / chat / do whatever on their cell phones during movies, I recognize the trend. But on a larger scale, this is clearly in line with the privatization and individualization of movie-watching. This is privatization in the sense of retreating into the private sphere for an activity that used to be social (common and collective).

This is individualization in the sense that, even as a private experience, you could still have the whole family watching the same film on their big-ass HD TV (think, the Mannion family movie night which is private but social, then shared more widely with readers, see the right sidebar on Lance Mannion’s blog). But this is truly individualization as every household member could be watching a different film on different platforms (TV, iPads, computers, smart phones, etc… a trend discussed here). And, of course, no more concession money for movie theaters as people could eat their own junk food at home.

Needless to say, there will always be theater audiences for movies like Avatar (and the same people will buy the DVDs or watch on HD TV when available). The issue is for “smaller” films (foreign, independent) that have a smaller audience to start with. Basically, the movie producers might make determinations as to which films “deserve” to be on the big screen as opposed to thrown straight to streaming on-demand. And we know what kinds of decisions this will lead to: more Thor, less Little Miss Sunshine. More disaster films, less character-driven productions. Which means, more guys films, less chick movies (paging Anita Sarkeesian), when chicks movies is understood as everything that is not a guys film.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll go watch something from my Netflix Instant queue.

My Life As A Feminist – Don’t Mess With Philip K. Dick

So, I dragged a good friend of mine to see this film, because it looked intriguing, adapted from a short story by Philip K. Dick, and it had Matt Damon, Emily Blunt and John Slattery (who can do no wrong):

I owe my friend an apology. We should have gone see Rango instead, it could not have been worse. This movie was terrible in a lot of ways. For one, if you are going to have a story based on the idea that individual fates are all controlled by some entity that needs to ensure that people do what they are “fated” to do, otherwise, the ripples are countless and can be catastrophic, then, such an exclusive focus on one single individual makes no sense.

Also, I almost puked when one of the members of the Bureau explains to the main character that humans were given free will at the end of the Roman Empire, and what did that produce? The Dark Ages. So, everything got under control until 1910 (I’m sure that everything was dandy in-between), and then, WHAM!, two World Wars. Hello, Euro / Americano-centrism. I guess non-Western civilizations never counted. And all these Bureau members are SO white dudes (except for the token black guy, who is also the one who (1) falls asleep on the job, provoking the incident that starts the whole plot, and (2) betrays the Bureau.).

But mostly, what bothered me was the major, MAJOR patriarchal and sexist perspective. You see, the character played by Matt Damon and Emily Blunt keep bumping into each other, and are attracted to each other, even though it’s not part of The Plan. But the only character with any agency in this is Matt Damon / David Norris. Norris is the one who gets all the attention of the Bureau to give up his relationship with Emily Blunt / Elise Sellas. She is denied any agency in this story. She gives him her number but he loses it, so, they don’t bump into each other for three years even though he’s easy to find, what with being a public figure and all. No, she does nothing, not even find him to kick his ass.

Then, at their next meeting, she tells him of her passion for dancing. He attends a show where a Bureau member causes an accident that lands her in the hospital with a minor sprain. David is then convinced to let her go so she can fulfill her destiny as world-class dancer and choreographer. See? It is not up to her. It is up to him to make that choice. And so, he dumped her at the hospital, without telling her. Same deal… she does not look for him (he’s campaigning for a US Senate seat, so, he’s again easy to find, right?). Nope.

Then again, months later, Norris reads her engagement notice to some other schmuck in the newspaper. He again seeks her out, because he knows that he should be the one marrying her. And this leads to the stupid ending where the Chairman decides to let them be together, because, you know, they really love each other (BARF!).

So, throughout the movie, Elise has zero agency whatsoever. All she does is talk a bit smack to Norris, dance (that’s the only thing she’s ever cared about, we are told), and wait patiently in-between encounters. Norris, on the other hand, spends the whole movie running around, bumping into Bureau dudes, getting help from the token Black dude, and overall getting his way, in one form or another. And Elise’s fate is a matter for him to decide.

I have read enough Philip K. Dick stuff to know that, yes, most of his novels and stories are told from a masculine perspective. But that was the 1960s. If you are going to adapt one of his stories with so much licence, because FSM knows that the film is VERY different from the short story, then, get a 21st century upgrade in there.

And by the way, this last point goes for another really messed-up adaptation of a great short story  – Button, Button – from another great writer – Richard Matheson – that tuned into a shitty movie – The Box.

And in both cases, it seemed to me that the people in charge of the process of turning a short story into a full feature film screenplay just didn’t know how to expand the original story in a way that would have been (1) faithful to the tone and atmosphere of the original, and (2) made sense.

Despicable Me – A Sennettian Interpretation

Since Despicable Me was shamefully ignored in the Academy Awards nominations, I decided to dedicate a post to it, putting together a few thoughts I had while reading Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman.

In the book, Sennett describes craftsmanship as such (Kindle edition):

“Craftsmanship names an enduring, basic human impulse, the desire to do a job well for its own sake. Craftsmanship cuts a far wider swath than skilled manual labor.


Craftsmanship focuses on objective standards, on the thing in itself. Social and economic conditions, however, often stand in the way of the craftsman’s discipline and commitment: schools may fail to provide the tools to do good work, and workplaces may not truly value the aspiration for quality.” (Loc. 101-10)

For Sennett, craftsmanship involves dedication to work for the sake of work itself, the production of quality. For the craftsman, there is no separation between intellectual and manual labor, with one valued over the other.But the labor process is not simply a means to an end. It is valued in and of itself, as perpetual training in skill as well as opportunity to resolve problems and improve one’s craft. The work of the craftsman is the work of constantly problem-finding and problem-solving.

Craftsmanship is therefore a lifelong process of complete engagement with one’s craft. The craftsman does not wing it, or phone it in. The constant problem-finding / problem-solving dynamic challenges one’s skills to evolve, building on experience, obedience to rules of one’s craft and personal answer to the challenges. That takes time and patience. But this is also why the craftsman does not find repetition boring. Boredom and ennui, as demonstrated in several plates in Diderot’s Encyclopedia, are traits of the idle (and unskilled and useless) aristocratic classes.

The craftsman is not a virtuoso. A virtuoso is an isolated individual, interested in drawing attention to himself through displays of showmanship. The craftsman is a man of the workshop, a collective environment. The quality of the work is driven by his skills, as they are embedded in the collective work of his workers (Sennett uses the example, among others, of Stradivari’s workshop).  Cooperation is at the core of craftsmanship. And, as Sennett notes, the medieval workshop joined family and work under one roof. Apprentices lived in the master’s house. And the medieval guilds were organized under a mode of family hierarchy, albeit not based on blood ties.

And that is why, for Sennett, this is no longer a craftsman’s world:

“The corporate system that once organized careers is now a maze of fragmented jobs. In principle, many new economy firms subscribe to the doctrines of teamwork and cooperation, but unlike the actual practices of Nokia and Motorola, these principles are often a charade. We found that people made a show of friendliness and cooperation under the watchful eyes of boss-minders.


Sheer service to a company was, in an earlier generation, another reward for work, set in bureaucratic stone through automatic seniority increases in pay. In the new economy, such rewards for service have diminished or disappeared; companies now have a short-term focus, preferring younger, fresher workers to older, supposedly more ingrown employees-which means for the worker that, as his or her experience accumulates, it loses institutional value.


But craft does not protect them. In today’s globalized marketplace, middle-level skilled workers risk the prospect of losing employment to a peer in India or China who has the same skills but works for lower pay; job loss is no longer merely a working-class problem. Again, many firms tend not to make long-term investments in an employee’s skills, preferring to make new hires of people who already have the new skills needed rather than to engage in the more expensive process of retraining.


Those firms that show little loyalty to their employees elicit little commitment in return-Internet companies that ran into trouble in the early 2000S learned a bitter lesson, their employees jumping ship rather than making efforts to help the imperiled companies survive. Skeptical of institutions, new economy workers have lower rates of voting and political participation than technical workers two generations ago; although many are joiners of voluntary organizations, few are active participants.” (Loc. 356 – 71)

In this social and economic context, there are no real rewards for doing good work for its own sake. Pride in one’s work, as craftsman trait, has limited value in the current socio-economic system.

Ok, by now, you’re either wondering what this has to do with Despicable Me or you’ve seen me coming from miles away. So, here goes: Gru (and his acolyte, Doctor Nefario) is a craftsman. His craft is villainy.

He comes up with elaborate plans (intellectual labor) and Doctor Nefario comes up with technological solutions, manufactured by the army of now-world-famous minions in what is truly a workshop and a family (see the countless instances of minions behaving like children, under the authority of the Gru/Nefario parental pair. And even though it is mentioned that the minions have families, they obviously live in the workshop (in quite luxurious conditions… they have a gym where they do step aerobics, for Pete’s sake!).

Like any craftsman, Gru cares about the quality of the work, for its own sake. He does not seem to care about setting up plans to get a lot of money (he’s apparently constantly in debt with the bank), and his plans are not the most prestigious. But he does take pride in his work.

However, being a craftsman does not get him any favors from the Bank of Evil (“formerly Lehman Brothers”). Mr Perkins (the banker) finds him old and washed up. He is only interested in getting his money back fast (along with other more sinister plans).

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the worker of the new economy: Vector.

Vector is a dilettante who believes himself to be a virtuoso rather than an overprivileged, bored spoiled brat. Vector is the individualized worker: no workshop (you wanna bet his piranha / squid guns are made in China? And what lousy ideas are these anyway), no minions. Vector is a show-off, engaging in conspicuous consumption (shark, anyone?) whose success is due to his father (Mr Perkins) stealing ideas and funding them for him.

Vector does not really care about the quality of the work, except for the publicity it gets him (and money). After all, after having stolen the shrink ray from Gru, all he can think of doing with it is play at shrinking his toiletries (“you’ve been shrunk, tiny mouthwash!”). The idea of the shrink ray as a tool in service of a well-crafted plan does not come to him.

Indeed, the contrast could not be greater between Vector’s home and Gru’s. Gru’s home shows years of working on his craft, marking his identity as a villain (a guild in itself!). Vector’s home contains no such history. It is bare, except for the objects of his dilettantism and teenage boredom (Wii, popcorn and soda) and some conspicuous elements that are supposed to mark him as a villain.

No wonder Gru instantly dislikes him the first time they meet. Vector, like any pretend-virtuoso wants attention and engages in showy plans that are quick gigs. Gru and Nefario spend time working on their plans, working out problems and glitches (“boogie robots”!). And because appearance does not really matter, Gru is ok wearing a pink astronaut suit.

Oh, and as Sennett notes, parenting is also a craft, so, it is no wonder that it takes a little time, but Gru does not find it too difficult to become one, the same way he became a craftsman at villainy. It is no coincidence that his first “break-through” with the girls occurs because his sense of justice and respect for a job well-done is offended (Agnese did hit the spaceship). And he dispenses justice with one of his well-crafted weapons:

The Culture of Poverty and Zombies

Since apparently, the culture of poverty argument (AKA: let’s blame the poor for their poverty based on their “culture”, meaning, they’re lazy, promiscuous, violent and lack self-control in temper, food and sex), I think The Real Doctor Phil has a point when he analyzes the zombie movie genre as reflection of bourgeois fear of the working class (“classes laborieuses… classes dangereuses!”):

“Despite burying the Soviet Union and having things their own way for 30 years (at least in Britain and the US), the end of history has proven to be a period as uncertain as any other. Far from ushering in a von Hayekian utopia, capitalism has been rocked to its foundations by a financial crisis few of its apologists saw coming. Keynes has been dug up and reanimated to get things going again, but at the same time the spectre of Marx has been disturbed and has taken to haunting their imaginations. On the one hand there’s the geopolitical challenge represented by the Chinese (communists!). And on the other the declining salience of mainstream political parties, the retrenchment of irreverence, and the uncertainty around the character popular opposition to the cuts will eventually assume make the dangerous classes … well … dangerous again.

Zombies as a horror staple are the result of some unfathomable biological or supernatural crisis that cannot be reversed. They are mindless. They are faceless. They are ugly. And they want to invade your home and feast on your flesh. If this does not work as an allegory for bourgeois attitudes to and fears of the working class, I don’t know what does.


But at the same time zombies offer an opportunity for asserting superiority, mastery, contempt, and individuality against the mass. Zombies are slow and stupid. Humans are quick and intelligent. Zombies are limited by their reach. Humans can use all manner of weapons. Provided they are not swarming in great numbers, humans run rings around them – lopping off a limb here, beheading another there, removing their teeth, chaining them up, what fun can be had! And all without a troubled conscience too.”

Which, of course, is highly reminiscent of the extensive torture visited upon non-White people by US / UK forces and their allies during the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. After all, zombies are a physically distinct bunch: not white (grey-ish and decomposing), grotesque looking and moving. They have the characteristics of the stereotyped poor: immediate gratification, mindless drive for bodily satisfaction (Braaaaiiins), shiftlessness and dumbness. Dehumanized in such a way, they can be killed in large numbers without concern.

As Phil notes, the surviving humans are the neoliberal individuals, surviving on their skills and wits. Unlike the zombies, the survivor plans ahead, waits for the right time to take care of his business and exercises restraint and cautions.

But there is another dimension to this. As Phil notes, zombies are created by catastrophes. The zombie genre is related to the disaster genre. And the disaster genre is heavily gendered. Think 2012, or The Day After Tomorrow, or the Tom Cruise version of The War of The Worlds, The Road, Mirrors. In all of these movies, the main character is a man who has lost his patriarchal status of leader. Look at Cruise or Cusack at the beginning of the film: their speech patterns and body language is defeated. They get humiliated by their ex-wives, outclassed by the men they have married and their children do not respect them.

But when disaster strikes, social norms collapse and this is their opportunity to reassert their patriarchal status by saving their wives and children. The new husbands conveniently die so they can reclaim their wives. Men can be real men once society lets them (by collapsing).

It is the society where women have options (to dump men and pick others) that has put them down. Once the feminized civilization has collapsed, then, these men reclaim their uncontested place. And every gender category regains its rightful place, women submitted to men’s leadership.

Zombies are non-gendered, they are an amorphous mass, with no order, no leadership, just a mindless, valueless bunch, driven by biological urges. Invariably, in the group of survivors, one or more men will take the lead (after some grumbling and male competition), by some feminine assistance. Militarized order and disciplined hierarchy will win the day.

So, white, de-classed straight men get to reclaim their patriarchal privilege once “unnatural” and illegitimate social norms that emasculated them (and led to collective disaster) have been eliminated. The responsible father and husband then steps in to restore the “natural” order, based on the patriarchal family, willing to sacrifice himself for his family. Zombies (and panicking crowds) are the opposite of all that.

The enemy then is no longer, as Phil noted, the zombie-as-communist but the zombie-as-irresponsible poor (you know, the ones who to took out mortgages they couldn’t afford because they did not plan ahead and went with their impulse).