by Joe Giambrone
“Be careful when you fight the monsters, lest you become one.” -Friedrich Nietzsche
Mainstream Hollywood tends to make me nauseous for what it puts up on screen and for what the public accepts as normal, as “entertainment.” I’ve rejected the usual mainstream studio version of war and what torture means for quite a while, but it keeps finding its way back into even supposedly children’s fairy tales.
For all I know the Hansel and Gretel story was originally designed to scare the crap out of kids and to keep them from wandering off. That much does translate to the new film Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters. I was dragged to the thing by family, and it was either that or Spielberg’s Lincoln, which I certainly wasn’t in the mood for; in retrospect this was in all likelihood a mistake.
Now the issue with stories, the power of the story is what it does to the protagonist(s), or more to the point what the protagonists choose to do. How they respond is how we are to respond to external events. They are a template, a guide to lead the viewer through challenges, as one might find in the real world. Whether fantasy, science fiction or horror the responses and reactions of the protagonists are to be considered by the audience and accepted as logical, justified and rational given whatever extreme situations confront them. In this way stories teach, prompt and alert. They acclimate the viewer to new and extreme possibilities such as war, combat… interrogation of captured prisoners?
Here is where the word “entertainment” gets employed by “the industry” as a shield of armor. They love this word and all it implies, freedom from moral considerations, freedom from scrutiny, freedom from accountability or responsibility for the things they show and tell millions of strangers. It’s all just entertainment, you see, and you are supposed to repeat the mantra too, as you unquestionably accept their culture. “Entertainment” is the first refuge of intellectual cowards.
Hansel (Jeremy Renner) and his sister Gretel (Gemma Arterton) are mercenaries now, guns for hire. That’s a “new take” already. Mercenary protagonists? Hired killers with a long track record of killing witches, only in this film the witches are very powerful, fast, violent and ugly, so it’s okay. Well, the main antagonist, the “Grand Witch” Muriel can be pretty attractive when she wants to be, but she always transforms to a hideous makeup effect when it’s time for evildoing.
The Hansel mercenary character has an odd American sensibility about him, as the movie is supposedly set in old Europe. It’s obviously not intended to be taken seriously but to pander to provincial American audiences. And pander it does. Dialogue is peppered with contemporary one-liners, like a Die Hard film.
So that’s the stage. When one of the townsfolk returns to the tavern with a message from the witches he then explodes in a volcano of guts and gore. One of the young fan boys who’s obsessed with the two witch hunters proclaims, “That was cool!” Still covered in the intestines of the exploded man, what kind of twisted thinking is going on here? The extreme gore and sadism is normalized, even in a peaceful tavern where one of their own has just exploded in a most disgusting fashion, the walls splattered with his blood. This wasn’t even a witch but a local tracker whose splattered spleen has landed in the ale. Whatever?
Even that scene wasn’t what set me off against this thing. It was the capture and interrogation of one of the witches. The torture issue is where Hollywood boasts a stained, repugnant record that stretches way back but is particularly egregious after the attacks of September 11tt 2001. What stands out about the Hansel torture scene is the casual, unthinking normalcy of it all. Jeremy Renner has his own spikey brass knuckles ready, and probably blood-encrusted, which he automatically grabs and begins beating an actress across the face with. It’s never a question, never an issue by anyone. It’s simply a normal, everyday part of the War on Witch Terror, a deliberate parallel that is flagged later for us in no uncertain terms. And of course the torture also works! The witch remains defiant in demeanor, but swiftly spills her guts about the big witch plan. Zero Dark Thirty meets Disney, who could ask for more?
So torturing and killing the evildoers is perfectly fine, business as usual, literally. See, there’s never any question about their guilt. With witches, if Hansel fails them in his inspection it’s burning time. He is judge, jury and executioner.
A moral issue is established in the opening scene over witches, the death penalty, mob justice, hysteria, etcetera, before Hansel and Gretel show up in the town. An attractive young woman is presented and demonized by a bully of a sheriff, while the mayor appeals to justice and evidence. The ignorant mob is swayed this way and that, eventually fear mongered into siding with the sheriff and ready to kill the pretty woman. That’s the cue for Hansel and Gretel to take charge, display superior firepower and belligerence, and to humiliate the sheriff.
As the pretty woman is saved by the two newcomers we are led to wonder if these two are on the side of justice. They seek evidence about the woman, and really it’s just the expert myth that counts here. Hansel has the status, the experience, the expertise to decide if the pretty woman should live or die. Thus Hansel is supreme authority, supreme military force and “the decider” now. As he reveals later, all witches will be burned, and that is his business model. There is never any possibility of peace through any other means. It is war, only war, and the enemy is beyond negotiation. This is the tired formula, the cliché of course. It’s expected, and it’s beyond question.
Like all good propaganda – and bad movies – the antagonists don’t have any legitimate grievances. Witches aren’t retaliating for any wrongs done to them. Townsfolk aren’t stealing the witch’s oil or propping up corrupt dictators over them, secretly torturing them in black sites or the like.
The witches just seek to steal the innocent town children, and for what? For some McGuffin of a ritual; again who cares? They’re evil. Kill ‘em all, and do it in the goriest, blood splattered manner possible, much like modern weapons of war actually do to real human beings today. In fact some of the weaponry, jaw-droppingly “blessed” with holy water by a “white witch” later on in the movie, are modern automatic machine guns and pistols. The holy artillery is wielded by the mercenaries and their new side kick, the fan boy.
It is the essence of glory to kill ugly women, seems to be the theme of this thing. The witches do take beating after beating and get torn apart in expected fashion at the climax. The grand witch Muriel even begs for mercy, back in her attractive actress form, as Hansel is about to kill her. There is no mercy for the evildoer, baby. Mercy this.
And so that old adage about not becoming the monsters we seek to defeat was left on the cutting room floor. Kill, kill, kill and live to kill another day. As the witch hunters press on into infamy across the barren landscape (Afghanistan?), Hansel reads a voice over apparently prepared by the US Department of Defense. You can’t run and you can’t hide. We’re coming for you, evildoers, no matter where you go. For we are Ameri-witch hunters, yeah witch hunters. The world is our mission, and we won’t quit until it’s accomplished. The white man’s burden is transferred to the next generation by way of special effect stuffed fairy tales.
Oh yeah, it’s just entertainment.
And they cheered, some small group of young people across the aisle. It was a light turnout, second run, cheap seats, mostly empty.
I’m considering a study of the use of torture by protagonists, by supposedly “good guys” in Hollywood “entertainment product.” This was, and is, actually a theme that runs through Hell of a Deal, my own novel. The selling of torture is one of the most crucial issues of our time. Polls show that significant percentages of people now accept this abhorrent, illegal and immoral practice after so much repeated conditioning in the news and on their screens. Torture is pervasive, and yet has been rightly condemned as barbarism for centuries. Our own Constitution forbids “cruel and unusual punishment,” and always has. Perhaps the founders had significantly more wisdom than your average contemporary couch potato.
One film that stick with me on this torture issue is the first Charlie’s Angels movie(2000). Such an unlikely place to find a pro-torture message. This film is a favorite of little girls everywhere. My own daughter watched it repeatedly when she was 11 or 12, and it is a lighthearted romp. But there’s that one moment they just had to include… fucking Hollywood.
At one point in the middle of the Charlie’s Angels film an unnamed thug fights with Cameron Diaz (“Natalie”), and she quickly kicks his ass. Then she proceeds to torture him for information by grinding her boot into his throat. That’s the moment the film crosses the line from justifiable to morally questionable. In my view it’s flatly immoral by its matter of fact unquestioned acceptance and use of torture when convenient by one of the “angels.” This scene throws the entire film, and the people behind it and responsible for it, into question. In what circle is torture considered another tool of the trade? At what dinner parties do we stomp on people’s throats until they tell us the correct responses? Why is this content included in a film for young people, who are to idolize and identify with these women?
In an overwhelmingly fascist culture, it’s just entertainment. Who do we torture and kill next, Hollywood? Can’t wait to buy my ticket.