Personal Defense: On Fear (In Theory)

 

Part 1 of 2

Recent crime statistics show that violent crime is at a 45 year low and that gun crime in particular has dropped by half since 1993. At first glance these statistics seem to represent an unambiguous victory for the anti-gun control crowd. If they are indeed true, the root cause is not the availability of guns. I can’t help but agree.

This rather counter-intuitive statistical information does not settle the issue. The question remains:

 

why are we so afraid?

 

At the time of this writing the San Bernardino shooting is less than 48 hours in the past. The optics of this heinous crime represent a convergence of our present anxieties: the figure of the “lone wolf” mass shooter, and the specter of global terrorism.

With a dearth of hard facts at present, the perceived motivations underlying the attack in San Bernardino have already crystallized into partisan interpretations: on the Right is proof positive that Muslims are the absolute root of all evil, and on the Left that gun control is the sole solution to prevention of such crimes.

The fact is, less than 48 hours out, the facts are hopelessly irrelevant.

What is clear is that, barring our individual political outlooks on the event and others of its ilk, the villains have already won. Regardless of the actual death tolls, our psychospiritual atmosphere is already poisoned. We are all either slipping into violent insanity or succumbing to paralyzing despair.

The statistics confirm, in theory, that we are all safer than we have been in 45 years, with regards violent crime involving guns or otherwise. We do not feel safer in any tangible way.

The problem is not situated in objective reality, but is encased in the very narratives and media we employ to construct reality. Solutions do not ultimately come down to being for or against certain immigration and/or gun control policies, but how we form our identities and oppose or reconcile them to real or perceived threats and the material or immaterial circumstances that undergird this formation.

In a brief but illuminating post written just after the Umpqua Community College shooting in October, Adam Kotsko elaborates upon the true depth of these violent spectacles: even if we solve the problem of access to guns (which he maintains is a worthwhile pursuit) we still have to reckon with the fact that as a society we still produce an alarming amount of individuals who believe a mass shooting is a perfectly reasonable way to deal with problems.

It is in that fact that those vehemently opposed to any and all gun control have a point: you cannot legislate evil out of existence. Any and all changes to law by no means guarantee that incidents of spectacular violence, politically motivated or not, will cease upon ratification.

This is far from an excuse to do nothing, which seems to be the only relatively “positive”plank in the anti-gun control platform. To speak out, to legislate, to yearn for action and alternative can mitigate the effects of the evil in our midst, and shrink its scope.

To refuse to give in to the fear engendered by these horrific events is to deny them victory, and to release ourselves from their terrible thrall.

By addressing the symptoms first, we may be able to one day address their root cause.

In the meantime, we cannot entrust our hopes to the cult of The Good Guy with a Gun.

Lady Ahab and a Pack of Mutant Chimps: Post-“War on Terror” Cinema

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Zero Dark Thirty was the diagnosis.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the cure.

 

In the years since 9/11/01, a date that threatens to re-center history, dethroning the birth of Christ Himself as the defining event of all Western civilization, we have continued telling stories. Stories to soothe ourselves, to make sense of what happened, to reckon with the dawning of a new century, one that could not be described as “American”.

After tragedy, we cling to the oldest stories, the simplest stories. Good/evil/white/black, neat divisions, no bullshit. These stories comfort and console, provide sense where there is none. They can do good, in a holistic sense, but the potential benefits have an expiration date.

The decade and a half since the towers fell has certainly seen no shortage of cultural production that wrestles with the complexity of the War on Terror, but those early-day questions and critiques have bled inwards from the fringe. Even popcorn flicks are willing to deal with these themes.

 

 

Kathryn Bigelow tried to sell Zero Dark Thirty as objective and historical, if not in some sense universal. The Hurt Locker won best picture because of this, and we all expected the same result on round two. Zero Dark Thirty was not as easily accepted. It got some critical acclaim, modest box office, a few nominations, but mostly a pissing match between the Left and Right over matters of historical record and political disposition. Did it accurately reflect the events it described? Whose ideology animated it? The Left dismissed it as an apology for latter day American Imperialism, the Right whinged about historical/factual inaccuracy.

For such an explicitly political film, no place of rest was prepared on either end of the spectrum. Almost 2 years on, it seems to be mostly forgotten; another prestige war picture thrown to the dustbin after its moment. But it haunts.

Bigelow’s film doesn’t function as intended; a little too dark and biting to simply be the docudrama its creators seemed to intend, that the public possibly wanted. What it is: a wannabe postmortem for the War on Terror. Maya is the new Marlowe/Willard; her river made of scraps of data divulged under duress, surveillance tapes, rumors. She pursues our new, alien Kurtz with the singular conviction of Ahab rather than Willard’s initially detached, soldierly professionalism or Marlowe’s haunted witness. Bin Laden is the answer; kill him, the question is settled, the bloodlust slaked. Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t indulge in the expected triumphalism of a job well done, an enemy slain. The path of the film is labyrinthine, and Maya’s journey indirect.  The Great Satan is killed without fanfare in the night, prey of demonic specters that fill the women and children with terror. Maya sees his mutilated face. It does not bring her friends back, or grant them peace. There is only uncertainty, if not fear, for the future.

What should have been the closing chapter to the Great American Misadventure of the 21st century is left open. Absolute vengeance did not stem the consequences of the actions that led to it. The forces set in motion by American bloodlust birthed innumerable terrors, and sowed chaos over the Middle East for the foreseeable future. Maya’s tears of anguish in the film’s final frame are for us, for them.

 

And what does an emergent civilization of genetically enhanced apes have to do with recent American history?

 

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes makes war its central theme. Its hypothetical universe sees apes ascendant in the wake of humanity’s fall. One civilization tries to build something new, the other to restore past glory. Inevitably, the deep traumas suffered by either side foment into open conflict. The efforts of the peacekeepers, the dreamers, undermined by deep hurt and hatred. As the ape Caesar said, “Apes started war. Humans will not forgive.”

Dawn ends in uncertainty, akin to Zero Dark Thirty, but with a recognition of what it takes to heal. The fledgling ape civilization, led astray by the scarred and hateful Koba’s own bloodlust, bows before their founder, the risen Caesar, uniformly displaying their open palms: a gesture of supplication, a request for forgiveness, an admission of complicity. The apes display a collective guilt and lament that the modern nation-state cannot hope to match, that leaders of men spurn, view as weakness.

Zero Dark Thirty was the diagnosis.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the cure.

 

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State of the War Film

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The history of the American War Film is the same conflict played over and over again: anti-war film versus “apolitical” pro-war/propaganda film.  For every All Quiet on the Western Front there’s a Birth of a Nation, every Deer Hunter Green Berets. This dialectic has produced some of the best and most important cinema in the span of the 20th century, but as the War on Terror trudges on, we’re still figuring out how to make war films about our war.

The old narratives of heroism don’t convincingly map onto the War on Terror, not they ever did justice to the truths of war in the first place. But, it’s quite apparent that these narratives remain popular. Peter Berg’s Lone Survivor has been declared the most successful war film of the War on Terror era. Salon’s in-house film critic, Andrew O’Hehir, found the film to be painfully racist and jingoistic, indulging in caricatures of both Taliban fighters and American soldiers, as well as playing fast and loose with historical facts. Though the film is undeniably problematic (understatement), O’Hehir found it to be a more-than-competent thriller in its own right.

Lone Survivor’s financial success has caused no small amount of anxiety on the Left, and that anxiety has provoked no shortage of vitriol from the Right. The battle is one of cultural heritage: who gets to make the final artistic statement on the War on Terror? The box office numbers indicate those that side with power have this one sewn up. While that is undeniably true in the short term, only time will tell.

In 1968, John Wayne produced and starred in the aforementioned Green BeretsSpurred on by an all-American hatred of the anti-war movement, The Duke intentionally churned out a sickeningly simplistic and racist piece of propaganda (a Vietnam movie so inaccurate, my Vietnam-vet uncle can watch it without anxiety), and released it to relative financial success. Almost 40-odd years on, when we talk about Vietnam War films, or even John Wayne, how often is The Green Berets mentioned?

Lone Survivor’s financial success can be explained by the above images. What images would the viewing public rather see in the moment? Simple, violent, perversely comforting displays of traditional American masculinity in a morally clear environment, or the labyrinthine and shadowy world presented by Zero Dark Thirty. Men nobly suffering, or women sobbing in anguish?

The films worth talking about will be talked about for a long time. The ones that provide visceral thrills based on flawed premises will always enjoy success, but are doomed to become cultural punchlines.