Saturday, January 26, 2013

0 dark thirty, the cult of violence, and America's fin de siecle

As a full-time politico, whose Facebook feeds routinely flare with threads on the legality of waterboarding, drone strikes, and the presidential appointment process, the first thing I did when my evening dinner plans were canceled last Friday was to walk to the Bruin theater in Westwood to see what all the fuss over Zero Dark Thirty was about.

Following a mandatory 2 minute tribute sequence of 9/11 voiceovers (okay, we get why the CIA is dead-set on capturing this bin Laden guy), I get my first pangs in my gut: within the rundown confines of a Pakistani prison, a group of operatives ominously clad in Ninja-like masks watch Jason Clarke's character (named Dan) physically jostle a Saudi detainee named Ammar, his (Ammar's) hands and legs are chained to the walls like a rabid dog

 I definitely felt a reactionary wince, but the incomplete context of the scene on its own made for no more than a primary impression, an acrid psychological backdrop. Next, Dan, with a hooded companion at his side, proceeds to step out into the harsh Pakistani sunlight, but at the insistence of the now-exposed female partner (the will-be protagonist, Maya), he returns to the prison cell to enact a considerably lengthier demonstration of CIA "enhanced interrogation techniques" (complete with a sickly play "Good Cop, Bad Cop" routine by Dan and a riveting chaining-up of Ammar).

Eventually, over a platter of meze*, Ammar will provide the crucial lead of Abu Ahmad al-Kuwaiti, bin Laden's supposed courier, but before Bigelow reaches that point she must throw in another prolonged, unproductive grill session, in which Clarke's character-again playing the good cop, bad cop routine- gives Ammar some food, only to lock him up in a wooden box when he refuses to speak. Later, still, Maya's pursuit of the "Abu Ahmed" lead is accompanied by a series of videotapes of confessions being coerced from detainees by kindly Saudi intelligence.

 Attributing a definitive perspective on a political issue like torture to Zero Dark Thirty (e.g., or any movie for that matter, is always a shaky proposition, influenced as much by one's gut reaction to the work (dependent on personal experience, origin, etc.) as by the structure of the work itself. One can more objectively discuss the aesthethic form of the work, and my biggest concern with the movie is that it wallows in profuse display of dehumanizing acts of violence that are not entirely necessary for advancing the plot.

If the film's first hour lingers on the sickening intricacies of the Bush-era intelligence efforts, the film concludes with a sequence depicting a US Navy Special Forces team shooting down (two at a time) most all of the adult male inhabitants of the Bin Laden compound. (following which, they blow the house-with women and children inside-to pieces).

In between, even in a less memorable scene such as where Maya's car gets ambushed outside the US embassy in Islamabad, the violence-militants shoot at Maya's car with semi-automatic assault rifles- is drawn out (as the car waits for Embassy's slow-moving bulletproof gate to open-and then close behind her) in a matter that is suspenseful but gratuitous.
Bigelow's decision to draw out violence may very well reflect an artistic choice for "journalistic" realism (   and yet, vetted by a large Hollywood production company, Bigelow's film had to have passed the test of the consumer market. That Bigelow's film can be successful focusing so intensely on the deathly acts of torture, shooting or bombardment reflects on the parameters accepted by American society at large.

 This is, after all, a population that not only readily consumes "kill-em-all" video games like Call of duty and Grand Theft Auto but that casually patronizes the blood-drenched works of Quentin Tarantino(e.g. Django Unchained) and the bluntly grotesque Saw franchise.
In an age in which military action has been placed (through use of a volunteer army, special forces units or even remote control "drone warfare") safely beyond the social realm of the American public, a lack of active awareness desensitizes violence -if not giving it a romantic appeal. Ironically, the very aloof yet decisive relationship of Chastain's character to the battleground in Zero Dark Thirty mirrors that of the American public towards violence.

 Maya discerns an attack on her CIA colleague-attempting to meet with Al-Qaeda spies at an Afghan air force base- through a cut-off aim thread from Washington. She tracks Abu Ahmad's phone calls along Rwalpindi and Peshawar streets on a diorama from Google Maps (also, safe in the capital) and, even the climactic final operation plays out for her (with camera cutting back and forth of course) from the control room of an Afghan air force base.
Maybe Maya is on a terrorist "kill list" (for her anti-Al Qaeda activity). But her access to internet and remote technology, as well as the protection she enjoys from one of the largest armies on earth, cushion her "battle"-outside of Pakistan- in a office-cubicle backdrop of scribbled "countdowns," frenzied typing and bureaucratic maneuvering. In contrast, the security guards, hotel staff and  ordinary civilians in Pakistan get caught up in the cross fire of terrorists and US operatives on a day-to-day basis.

Most (white, middle-class) Americans are similarly blessed to go through day-to-day life in an almost monotonous state of stability. They can dispense petitions and march in rallies  favoring or opposing another drone campaign without going exercising more than the vaguest theoretical or emotional capacities. Even for the most liberal soul, violence-whether at Abbottabad or Newtown- is marketable as an invigorating entertainment-arousing lethargic endorphins over a morning pastry or a Friday evening.

I point to America's banalization of a largely absent variety of free-flowing violence with worry because it reflects social trends occurring in Europe exactly a century ago. From around the 1880s to 1914, the period of the so-called fin de siècle witnessed a previously  unparalleled standard of living in Western Europe, whose growing middle-classes (thanks to advances in technology made by the Second Industrial Revolution and political reforms) encompassed an increasingly wider share of the population, accompanied by peaceful relations amongst all of Europe's "Great powers."
But, in such a tranquil milieu, tension simmered. A brute interpretation of Darwinism that embedded the principle of "natural selection" in the struggle for power between nation-states complemented a romantic nostalgia for masculine military expansion, labeled as  "hygiene" in the manifesto of the Italian futurist painters.  These sentiments at first played out at a safe "distance," as European powers vied in the depths of Africa and Central Asia for the establishment of colonies and spheres of influence. Ultimately, in the balmy summer of 1914, an act of terrorism by a no-name Serbian nationalist group would enabled the war-thirst in each European country to drag Europe into the bloodiest  conflagration history had ever seen.

I do not doubt that Zero Dark Thirty spiced and diced its story so as to maximize its market appeal. What I can say is that by simultaneously marketing to and portraying a society numbingly immune to from the warfare it craves, the movie inadvertently made me question the sustainabilityconcerning the continuation of the current pax Americana.

Now why do I worry about America's desensitization to violence in the year 2013, in an age when the a majority of the American public stood behind president Obama's withdrawal from Iraq and now supports a timetable for withdrawal from Afghanistan ( so strongly (see that even the republican presidential candidate (Romney was compelled to agree.

I worry because America still boasts military bases in more than thirty countries across the world ( ), the largest stockpile of Nuclear warheads possessed by any nation in history  ( and largely unchallenged supremacy on the UN Security Council (which enables America's first-strike capacity).
I am almost certain that our drawdown from Afghanistan, like that from Vietnam, will not impede one bit the US ability to keep violence as far away from its borders as possible. Shrouded in blissful ignorance, Americans' memories of the "economic ramifications to taxpayers" incurred by the Afghan war will be replaced by hysteria should (once the economy recovers) the bubble be punctured by say,a bomb blast in some downtown square...

For better or for worse, warfare has changed since 1914.  New remote-controlled technologies such as the Predator drone (e.g., and use of a select volunteer army (along with elite divisions such as the "Naval Special Warfare Development Group"-responsible for executing the bin Laden raid) for fighting make unlikely the recurrence of a mass-based "total war." If an era of violence dawns on America's shores it will be of the embedded, insiduous variety such as shatters Maya's dinner at the Islamabad Marriot, an erratic sequence of Israeli-style bus bombings, Newton style murders, or computer hackings by hostile non-state actors or state-affliliated guerillas.

 I am not trying to predict the future but point out (a very-plausible) violent scenario that has the appeal to be drawn out over a three-hour story and marketed. If critics like the New Yorker's David Denby praise Zero Dark Thirty for its "radical realism," they do so bluntly accepting the film's immersion in gore and harassment as representing phenomena that are logically imminent but psychologically in the realm of fetish.

 Returning to the film's final scene, when Maya gazes at Bin Laden's mangled corpse- her life's "dream"-in silent reverence, I advise viewers to take note of the the inherent metaphor: the dichotomy that juxtaposes the career objective of a nail-biting American civil servant, and the earthy bloodshed that America exerts afar in order to mainten of the insulating tranquility of this fin de siecle lifestyle.

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