Posts Tagged ‘The Hurt Locker’

Argo: Time to Grow Up and Get Angry?

by Kieran Kelley

 

The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off” – Gloria Steinem.

There have been a number of critical condemnations of the film Argo. The most thoroughgoing that I have read is this one. What seems to me to be missing is any critique that successfully conveys the utter ludicrousness of expecting something other than lying propaganda to come out of a Hollywood film about the CIA in 1979. It is like expecting the Soviets to have made an accurate and unbiased account of KGB activities during the Prague Spring. I saw the preview before the film’s release, and after about 5 or 10 seconds of suspense it became apparent that it was a load of crap – the usual Orientalist stuff, straight out of the Reel Bad Arabs playbook, except with Persians instead of Arabs. The film mirrors the preview – at first it seems possible that one might be about to see a balanced and thoughtful movie, and then… not. Decidedly not.

Let me begin with some historical context. The CIA’s first coup in Iran, considered at the time “its greatest single triumph”,1 brought the Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlevi to a position of supreme power. The CIA “wove itself into Iran’s political culture”.2 They created SAVAK, a notorious “intelligence” agency, trained in torture by the CIA3 and supported by the CIA and DIA in a domestic and international dissident assassination programme.4 Repression was at its peak between 1970 and 1976 resulting in 10,000 deaths.5 By 1976 Amnesty International’s secretary general commented that Iran had “the highest rate of death penalties in the world, no valid system of civilian courts and a history of torture that is beyond belief. No country in the world has a worse record of human rights than Iran.”6

Nafeez Ahmed cites the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) who detail an extensive police state of intense surveillance and informant networks and torture “passed on to it” by US, UK and Israeli intelligence. Ahmed quotes the FAS on methods including “electric shock, whipping, beating, inserting broken glass and pouring boiling water into the rectum, tying weights to the testicles, and the extraction of teeth and nails.”7 Racism allows commentators such as Tim Weiner to blithely exculpate the CIA of fundamental guilt: “The CIA wanted SAVAK to serve as its eyes and ears against the Soviets. The shah wanted a secret police to protect his power.”8 After all, what could civilised Westerners teach Orientals about torture? But something of the real US attitude to such repression can be seen in the official reaction to the unrest developing in the late 1970s. Aside from US officials consistently urging and praising military responses to protest action, including inevitable massacres,9 the US ambassador objected strongly to a reduction in repression. In June 1978 he reported his finding that, “the Shah’s new directives to his security forces, such as instructions to desist from torture… are disorienting.”10 The funny thing about this was that it occurred after the US had forced the Shah into the liberalisation that set loose the forces that were to rip his régime apart.11 This may seem puzzling, but it made more sense for the US to push Iran into the easily vilified “enemy” hands of an Islamic theocracy than to try to maintain control over a Shah who, however repressive, was determined to develop his populous oil-rich country independently.

That is the key point that you will almost never hear about: the US was sick of the Shah. He had become too nationalistic and developmentally inclined, and they didn’t want him any more. They may not have really wanted a revolution in Iran, but they weren’t going to shed tears over the Shah’s departure. Their main fear was the strength of the secular revolutionary left, which had more popular power than the Islamists (despite SAVAK’s repression) so the US helped nurture the Islamist factions.

The CIA were far from unaware of the impending fall of the Shah’s régime, here is a quote in the film which is an instance of absolute barefaced deception: “Iran is 100% not in a pre-revolutionary state. CIA brief, November first, 1979.” Let’s not be stupid here – it is one thing to claim not to know of an impending revolution, but the film is claiming that the CIA were unaware of a revolution that had already happened. Of course some people in the CIA knew that revolution was brewing and the actual CIA brief was from August 1978 and was plainly dishonest even then. By that stage even the State Department was planning for a post-Shah Iran.12 The revolution had actually happened nearly a year before Argo claims that the CIA believed it wasn’t going to happen (the Shah fled Iran in January, Khomeini returned from exile on February 1). But Argo makers really, really, really want you to “know” that the CIA were caught flat-footed and are willing to go to considerable lengths to make you believe this lie.

There is another deception in the film which indicates a conscious systematic attempt to indoctrinate the audience. Some describe Argo as “well-intentioned but fatally flawed”, but these “good intentions” cannot possibly be reconciled with the disgusting propaganda treatment of the issue of the shredded documents put together by Iran. The documents seized by radicals in the embassy takeover were the Wikileaks of their time. Most seized documents were not shredded and they exposed massive systematic illegality and wrongdoing by US personnel, especially the CIA. They were extremely historically significant. Iran spent years piecing together the shreds and the reconstruction was a major intelligence and propaganda coup. In the film, however, we see a very different narrative played out, and we are shown a set of very different images.

In the film, for some inexplicable reason, there were xeroxed photographic images of the staff who had escaped from the embassy when it was seized by radicals. Could this simply be a cinematic plot device for generating suspense? Not really. Any number of other devices might have been used – such as a dragnet, or informants, or surveillance (mobile or static), signals interception and cryptography. You name it, if you are willing to make stuff up, then there is quite a lot you could make up that would be potentially more suspenseful and, unlike this particular conceit, wouldn’t run such a risk of the audience losing their suspension of disbelief because of such an obvious unrealism.

“Realism”, I should add, is a very import aspect of this film. It is not done in a documentary style, but is presented as a dramatisation of historical events. Let me illustrate with a quote at length from Wide Asleep in America:

[Salon’s Andrew] O’Hehir perfectly articulates the film’s true crime, its deliberate exploitation of “its basis in history and its mode of detailed realism to create something that is entirely mythological.” Not only is it “a trite cavalcade of action-movie clichés and expository dialogue,” but “[i]t’s also a propaganda movie in the truest sense, one that claims to be innocent of all ideology.”

Such an assessment is confirmed by Ben Affleck’s own comments about the film. In describing “Argo” to Bill O’Reilly, Affleck boasted, “You know, it was such a great story. For one thing, it’s a thriller. It’s actually comedy with the Hollywood satire. It’s a complicated CIA movie, it’s a political movie. And it’s all true.” He told Rolling Stone that, when conceiving his directorial approach, he knew he “absolutely had to preserve the central integrity and truth of the story.”

“It’s OK to embellish, it’s OK to compress, as long as you don’t fundamentally change the nature of the story and of what happened,” Affleck has remarked, even going so far as to tell reporters at Argo’s BFI London Film Festival premier, “This movie is about this story that took place, and it’s true, and I go to pains to contextualize it and to try to be even-handed in a way that just means we’re taking a cold, hard look at the facts.”

In an interview with The Huffington Post, Affleck went so far as to say, “I tried to make a movie that is absolutely just factual. And that’s another reason why I tried to be as true to the story as possible — because I didn’t want it to be used by either side. I didn’t want it to be politicized internationally or domestically in a partisan way. I just wanted to tell a story that was about the facts as I understood them.”

To emphasise this point, the initial part of the end credits juxtaposes images from the film with real documentary images. They show how much the actors look like the people they portray. The show how they had faithfully recreated scenes from the revolution. And they show the teeny tiny hands a the poor slave children forced to piece together shredded CIA documents. Wait a second though… don’t the hands in the real photo, despite severe cropping, look more like a woman’s hands? And why would young children be used to piece together valuable and vulnerable documents written in a language that they could not possibly understand?

For some reason the film makers took it upon themselves to invent a whole bunch of “sweatshop kids” putting together these documents. There is no conceivable reason to do so that does not involve conscious deceptive propaganda. In this case, the intent is to make deliberate emotive subliminal association. What do I mean by subliminal? As Joe Giambrone explains:

The father of modern propaganda, Edward Bernays, wrote in the late 1920s:

The American motion picture is the greatest unconscious carrier of propaganda in the world to-day. It is a great distributor for ideas and opinions. The motion picture can standardize the ideas and habits of a nation.” (Bernays 1928)

Bernays noted the “unconscious” character of much film propaganda. It was not necessary to directly state messages, but to let the scenarios and the story world carry the messages in the background. Once immersed in the foreground story — whatever it was — the “unconscious” background elements were passed to the audience without critical interference and often without the viewer’s knowledge.

This subliminal quality is praised by Bernays as a positive thing, in his view. This is hardly surprising as Bernays’ concept of propaganda is broad in scope encompassing every medium and method of communication that exists. Bernays’ seminal book Propaganda begins:

The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized.” (Bernays 1928)”

Subliminality doesn’t mean that images are flashed too quickly to be noticed, rather that associations are made without conscious thought. It is true that you can find a great number of deliberately concealed images in advertising, but the claim that this is all that constitutes subliminal advertising is itself a deception. Advertising, in particular television advertising, is dominated by subliminal messaging, and it is not about tricky concealment. It uses repetition more than anything else, to make associations between advertised products and services with other desires – particularly, but not exclusively, sexual. If you want to sell a car, you don’t generally use brake horsepower or fuel consumption statistics. You associate it with a lifestyle, with attractive people, with status, with sex, with success, with normalcy, with excitement, with fine wine and food, and so forth. That is subliminal.

Obviously when film makers are unconsciously disseminating their own internalised propaganda they convey such messages subliminally. Subliminal means below the threshold, meaning, in this case, below the threshold of consciousness. This is a very, very significant manner in which an orthodox ideology, such as chauvinist US exceptionalism, is deepened and perpetuated. However the deliberate use of techniques designed to manipulate people by subliminal means can be far more powerful still. As an apposite example, let us examine Michelle Obama’s Oscar night appearance. Some have pointed out that Obama being flanked by military personnel as “props” suggests a desire to subliminally associate the First Lady and the presidency with military virtues. That may well be the case, but think how common it is to see faces arrayed behind political speakers in our times. Every time it is possible to do so nowadays, major US politicians will have a bunch of people in uniform behind them when they speak. But it is not strictly about the association with uniforms. Press conferences often pose colleagues behind the speaker – including military briefings almost as a matter of course – and when politicians speak to political rallies or party conferences, they are framed by a sea of supporters’ faces behind them.

You see, we automatically respond to other people’s facial expressions. In fact eliciting an emotional response is as much a component of facial expression as conveying emotion is, and this occurs subliminally. Now think again of Giambrone’s description: “… the ‘unconscious’ background elements were passed to the audience without critical interference and often without the viewer’s knowledge….” The people behind the speaker are being used as a way of evoking an emotional reaction like some science fiction mind control ray. Fortunately, people are fickle creatures and often their reaction to watching the back of a speaker’s head, no matter how eloquent, is to look bored or embarrassed. But clearly the technique is being perfected, and the people chosen are those who can be relied upon to convey the right emotions, hence the predilection for military personnel and partisan enthusiasts.

Similarly, subliminal messaging in advertising and film is often also aimed at a gut level. They are not conveying particular ideas, but emotions. The victim (I mean viewer) can rationalise these emotions any way they might later choose, and the brilliance of the system is that it enlists every victim’s own inventiveness tailored in response to each specific circumstance that might challenge or belie the conditioned sentimental sense of reality. So where does this leave us with regards to Argo‘s mythical “sweatshop kids”? We have precisely four references to them. The first is in our hero’s initial briefing: “The bastards are using these [pause and do gesture to indicate need to
convey novel concept] mmm sweatshop kids.” Nearly an hour later, we are shown about 5 seconds of the “sweatshop”. It actually looks very stupid if you pay attention to it, but it is over too quickly to register (more subliminality similar to that used in The Hurt Locker). What it actually shows, when the camera pulls back to reveal the scene for around one second, is dozens of children aged about five to eight sitting amidst piles of paper shreds. There is an unnatural hush, redolent with a sense of fear. Half of them are just staring into space, and there is no conceivable way that any of them could actually be doing any useful work. Accompanying the scene is one of the 16 tracks on the official soundtrack. It is called “Sweatshop” and here it is:

Note the image chosen for the album cover.

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CC. Attribution and sharealike david_shankbone

Genocide, Fuck Yeah!

How The Hurt Locker Put the Fun Back into Mass Murder

by Kieran Kelly

There is a question used to illustrate the way in which presuppositions can constrain discourse: “Have you stopped beating your wife yet?” The discourse of US international relations is somewhat like the inverse of that question – perhaps equivalent to “have you been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize yet?” It appears that people find it very difficult not to become apologists for the US when they set out to critique the US. For example a recent paper on possible violations of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and International Human Rights Law (IHRL) in US drone “signature strikes” takes as written that there is a sustainable claim that these strikes are legitimate self-defence. This is in order to make the point that even acts of self-defence must conform to IHL and IHRL. You might think that is a reasonable stance, but how can anyone possibly think that signature strikes are legitimate self-defence? These are attacks carried out against unknown individuals based on patterns of behaviour such as visiting suspect buildings. This simply cannot be reconciled with the right of self-defence given under Article 51 of the UN Charter, so why on Earth would anyone simply concede this utter lie? Even the Obama administration prefers (citing US officials’ opinions as sufficient legal precedent) to claim that it is killing as part of an ongoing war, and that its violations of sovereignty are legitimate because the US has done the same thing in the past (and gotten away with it).

Sometimes, however, you don’t need to concede anything to have a critique subverted by the power of the hegemonic discourse. You stick your black spike of dissent in the path of the giant snowball of empire, and with barely a jolt or change in direction the ball gobbles up your spike which is soon obscured and does no more than add its weight to the thundering behemoth. For example, I greatly like the films Full Metal Jacket and Waltz with Bashir. They are both unflattering depictions of war from a conscript’s viewpoint. The problem is that they exist in a distorted context. It is good to humanise the forces of an aggressor, especially the actual grunts who have to face the dangers and do the most intimate dirty work. But to have a context wherein only the aggressors are humanised is sick and depraved, and I don’t mean that these films are sick and depraved. I mean the society we live in, that has never accorded such a deep three-dimensional humanity to Palestinians, Lebanese or Vietnamese, is sick and depraved – utterly sick and depraved.

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Waltz with Bashir deserves an acknowledgement in that, in its final moments, it very movingly humanises the victims of the Sabra and Shatila massacres through still photographs (similar to the approach of DePalma’s Redacted) . However, through no fault of the film-maker (who had his own story to tell), the victims were not protagonists; they were not actors; they were not agents. Both of these films unintentionally act to support Israeli or US aggression. Whenever Israel or the US invades a new country, our imaginations are embedded with their personnel. We think about their fears and their suffering, not the greater fears and suffering of their victims. The emotions of their victims can’t be shown in any significant way, because then the US and Israel would look like the “Bad Guys” and people might find it difficult to believe that their violence is founded in the fight against the “Bad Guys”.

It is not just perceptions of real life that are altered by this one-sidedness. The boundaries of what is allowable within the cinematic discourse may, because of this context, allow utterly toxic pieces of propaganda to pass unnoticed. They fit comfortably within the normal practice of privileging Western lives and Western stories. They blame the victims and revere the sacrifice of the perpetrators. They may even be ostensibly antiwar, but they are pro-war crime. Such a work is The Hurt Locker.

The film Zero Dark Thirty has rightly attracted criticism for being a repugnant pro-torture piece of propaganda. For example the Political Film Blog has quite a collection of posts from various writers on many different aspects of why it is a repulsive work. But writer, Mark Boal, and director, Kathryn Bigelow, received almost universal praise for their previous work, The Hurt Locker, and what criticism there was of this movie made it seem almost as if it was a vapid and empty thriller that, by default, promoted a nihilistic love of US muscularity and capacity for destruction. As one writer puts it: “When the film ends with James marching defiantly toward yet another bomb in slow motion, one can practically hear the parody song, ‘America, Fuck Yeah!’ playing in the background.”

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by Randy Shields

Hey Raheim,

Thanks for letting me borrow Avatar, The Hurt Locker, and Blind Side. You really hooked me up this time. How did you know that Caucasian porn is one of my guilty little pleasures ? Having merciful, just, compassionate and brave white people always available and their goodness spurting off like Old Faithful, OMG, is so hot. Here’s my review:

I have to hand it to us: we whites are the most selfless, courageous, beneficent people who ever walked the face of … the silver screen. From pistol-packing white mama Sandra Bullock sashaying into the hood to tell off the home boys in Blind Side (how come those black savages aren’t doing honest work for six bucks an hour in one of Bullock’s millionaire husband’s fast food chain restaurants/plantations?) to the white gimp hero being made whole in his blue heaven of Avatar (white men can jump on Pandora!) and leading the blue savages to victory (after he and his kind brought them carnage and mayhem) to The Hurt Locker soldiers de-mining bombs unfairly planted by the sand savages (after the soldiers and their kind brought them carnage and mayhem.) The problem is always savages — savages, savages everywhere. Savages of every color and stripe (the Na’vi!) and not enough white people to save them. Whites! Carnage! Action! Salvation! Hang in there, magenta people, wherever you are, we’re on our way to save you (from us, after the introductory offer of carnage and mayhem.)

(Memo to white Christians: time to get couples counseling because, while you’re keeping the home fires and hell fires burning, the God you worship apparently hates you: He keeps carousing out there in the Third World and even other galaxies, giving away all the cosmic bling — the buffalo, the oil, the “unobtainium” — to the savages.)

I know you liked Blind Side, Raheim, but if you want a classic football movie check out North Dallas Forty with its humor, injuries, legal and illegal drugs, racism, sadistic coaches, greedy owners, groupies, the stamping out of individuality, and the camaraderie and love of competition that keeps players hanging in there to the bitter end. Should Blind Side get points because it’s based on a true story, this tale of a white southern Republican family that adopts a young black male who goes on to college and pro-football? Nah. It left me cold. I’m not interested in the America that accidentally coughs up a diamond every once in a while for our pleasure and pacification — I’m interested in seeing movies about everything that capitalism deliberately devours and shits out to produce that diamond or, more accurately, fool’s gold. Probably in the last 300 years in America there were a couple dozen instances of white people helping out black people — and Hollywood made blockbusters out of all of them.

In Avatar, put aside the white male hero character going off the rez — that’s too easy to slam — I didn’t buy Sigourney Weaver’s character trying to schmooze the tall athletic Na’vi. Wouldn’t the American empire have sent somebody like NBA Commissioner David Stern to see if the blue freaks could hit the turnaround jumper? The empire needs to be entertained too, you know. Isn’t an NBA commish born to negotiate with chief mercenary Stephen Lang, concerning the merits of a possible new expansion franchise, the Pandora Tail-Shtuppers? Even if Pandora was destroyed, a few Na’vi could have been brought back as “hardship” cases and been mentored and tutored about the discovery of their country by “explorers” Lang and Weaver and then suited up.

I’ll say one thing for Avatar, though: this film is a crack across the mouth of America, America’s military, and everything the American empire is doing in the world. Director James Cameron turned up the squirm knob on American filmgoers cuz by all rights they should have been cheering and whooping that the underdog Na’vi heroically defeated a fiendish aggressor. But there wasn’t that kind of cheering in American theaters (unlike foreign ones) because — oops, cognitive damn dissonance, these villains are the sacred and sainted troops whom it’s so important to glorify at all times. Avatar does not support the troops — and if it cost $300 million to put that statement on screen it was worth it. You can’t get that statement out of the mealy-mouthed “leaders” and supposed radicals in the antiwar movement. Maybe in America you can only tell the truth if you have $300 mil in your pocket. Or are completely broke — anything in between and you’re just a corrupt little weasel in waiting. Apologies to real weasels — we humans just labeled you really funny and it’s a great oversight that our names aren’t reversed and we aren’t all singing I-I-I-I-I-I am everyday weasels… Weasels… need weasels…

That said, Avatar’s not that threatening on a more basic level. A movie of noble savages saying a little prayer for each innocent creature they needlessly slaughter ( there seems to be a lot of juicy fruits on Pandora ) puts humans back in their cribby comfort zone. Humans are always open to the Good News of the possible necessity of killing something. Americans, in particular, can deal easier with their skyscrapers being knocked down than the true nightmare, the end times scenario: the cheeseless world of the scary vegans. To show you what America really fears, I offer you all the many anti-terror laws used against eco and animal activists during the Bush years (not so much a time of the Great Fear as the time of the Great Big I-Don’t-Give-A-Damn.) The words “soy cheese” and “tofu” elicit more instant hatred and alarm than “fuel oil” and “fertilizer.” (The best sequel to Avatar: an invasion by a thousand vegan missionaries brandishing Cornell University’s “The China Health Project” and Tom Regan’s The Case for Animal Rights while simultaneously hunt-sabbing the Na’vi and dodging all of Pandora’s carnivorous creatures. Na’vi eyes would glaze over, preceding their surrender, as we vegans carpet-bombed them with sermons on non-animal sources of B-12 and the hoax of protein complementarity.)

Now the Hurt Locker does support the troops which is why big bad liberal Hollywood gave it the best picture Academy Award over Avatar. This tedious sand fly soap opera is nothing but war propaganda. Scene after scene about the terrible difficulties that invaders, occupiers, and war criminals face. After 90 minutes of murderous foreplay, America finally gets off: a dead young Iraqi boy has a “body bomb” implanted in his torso by the diabolical insurgents and our white hero can’t bear to blow up the dead kid so he basically does open heart surgery to remove the bomb at great risk to his own noble self and carries the dead kid to the safety of the American conscience. It’s so good living here in the White Imagi-Nation. Jesus Christ, we’re good people. We would never stand by and let our government kill one million Iraqis or turn another four million into refugees or destroy their country in a simple tax/wealth transfer from our children’s future to Lockheed and Halliburton’s present. No, we sacrifice our own lives, the most valuable and meaningful lives on this whole damned planet, to make sure that even dead ragheads get a proper burial!

O courageous Hollywood directors, there is a heroic story to be told about Iraq — it’s the Iraqi resistance, particularly the Sunni resistance. At one point the Sunni were fighting the great American murder machine, the fanatical al-Qaeda interlopers and the numerically superior Shia. And in the winter of 2007 with the chaos boiling over it looked like the Sunni just might pull it off and make Uncle Sam cry uncle. But American generals screwed their courage to the sticking place — and put the Sunni on the payroll. I often wonder at the mental gymnastics that friends and loved ones of US soldiers go through. One night we went to bed knowing the Sunni are depraved terrorists who plant IEDs and the next morning the newspapers said these irredeemable murderers are now getting our tax dollars (the “Sunni Awakening” was really the Pentagon Awakening to the fact that it was about to get its five-sided ass kicked out of Iraq.) But where oh where on earth is our revenge supposed to go? And who knew that there’s so much Christian forgiveness at the Pentagon! And no congressperson or prominent media person says a word — just get used to it you idiots, we’ll tell you day is night and shit is sugar and you’ll buy it every time. We’ll tell you who to hate and when to hate and how hard to hate and then tell you to stop on a dime and you losers will do it every time, even if the blood and limbs of your sons and daughters are fertilizing Fallujah. This government is bankrupt because you’re bankrupt.

The Hurt Locker and Blind Side are two “true” stories that paint a more deceptive picture of what life is like in 2010 than does Avatar’s 22nd century Pandora.

Anyway, Raheim, keep the flicks comin’. And don’t forget to shower the weasels you love with love.

Randy Shields can be reached at music2hi4thehumanear@gmail.com.