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Preserving and Reconstituting Community: The Interrupters and The Amish

March 7, 2012 1 comment

A major consequence of our hegemonic post-capitalist order has been the fate of traditionally-constructed communities, which has ranged from gradual erosion to purposeful dismantling to aggressive, restrictive attempts at preservation. The concept of community, always already an amorphously-defined system of interrelations that is constantly reshaped and co-opted to purposes both inspiring and sinister, has not only been deconstructed by widespread corporate commodification, but community has become a commodity in its own right, with its own considerable symbolic value to be exploited by corporate marketing systems. The communities that have survived and thrived in the turbulent past few decades are the ones most inclined to integrate their identities into the dominant models of mass capitalization.

Two recent documentary films explore the highly divergent approaches of two communities that either cannot or will not commodify their collective identities sufficiently to become productive sub-orders in the global capitalist superstructure. Steve James’ The Interrupters was one of last year’s most acclaimed documentaries, and can be watched gratis online on the website of PBS’ venerable sociopolitical newsmagazine program Frontline. It focuses on a Chicago-based organization called CeaseFire, which employs the titular “interrupters” in an effort to curb the endemic violence in the city’s low-income, predominantly-minority communities.

The violence interrupters are mostly former gang members themselves with checkered pasts with crime, substance abuse, and the very pathologies that they are attempting to treat, and there is more than a suggestion of atonement and redemption in their choice of occupation on the streets that brought them low and threaten to do so for subsequent generations as well. Interrupters are sometimes mentors and sometimes something akin to addiction support-group sponsors. Now and then, they’re even direct conflict mediators, which can be dangerous: James’ cameras tail one of CeaseFire’s directors as he visits a staff member who was shot while attempting to defuse a violent conflict on the street.

Mostly, CeaseFire preaches patience and deliberation instead of hotheaded retribution, and the film explores the cases of members of the community that they’ve helped and others that they’ve failed to help. There is a note of bourgeois charity-capitalism in the organization that cannot be wholly dismissed, founded as it is by a white epidemiologist who considers violence to be another virulent phage to be treated with rational dedication and enlightened efforts. But the true role of CeaseFire and its violence interrupters is to reconstitute the sense of interwoven community values that have been so devastated in African-American and Latino neighbourhoods by the pitiless productivity demands of corporate culture. The capital worth of these communities has been so thoroughly drained that interpersonal ties are all that their people have left, and violent crime threatens to undo those ties as well. With touching fair-handedness, The Interrupters portrays a concerted if slightly idealist project to deflate the violence bubble with old-fashioned kindness, and to reconstitute some semblance of eroded communities in the process.

On the other end of the spectrum, we find The Amish, a sober and intimate exploration of the famous German-American anti-modernity Anabaptist sect from PBS’ national history flagship American Experience (whose site also hosts a free streaming video of the film). Although most Amish will not appear on camera, many of them record their thoughts and experiences of their simpler life in the Amish communities of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and other regions, which form the soundtrack for a series of haunting long-shot images of their homes, farms, and the people themselves.

The simple eloquence of the documentary masks the extreme reaction to the forces of global capitalism represented by these restrictively anachronistic and theocratic Amish communities. Unlike other downtrodden American microsocieties like the decaying urban blocks of The Interrupters or the dilapidated rural spreads of Appalachia and the Ozarks, the Amish have, to some extent, beat back the demons of capitalism by firmly barring their gates to the outside world (which they refer to idiomatically as the “English” world). Their aggressively insular conception of community, where every moment of their everday lives is dedicated in worship to God and even the briefest privacy is an undesirable temptation, limits modernity’s influence and, to the Amish mind, preserves the sacred links of their community, which is, in and of itself, their church.

But even the Amish cannot, by theocratic decree, keep capitalism entirely at bay. Their young men often do not farm as their fathers and grandfathers have for generations, but work in “English” factories with power tools and other modern accoutrements in order to earn a living. In addition, the film opens and then closes with the incursions of busloads of tourists into the Amish heartland in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, bringing with them the attitudes of modernity as well as injections of capital. We see an Amish boy hard-selling quillows (quilts that become pillows, pillows that become quilts) to “English” retirees in a gift shop, then counting out their change at the register. Amateur inadvertent anthropologists come away with bags of indigenous craftwork trinkets, as if they emerged with treasures from a marketplace in Addis Ababa or Bangalore and not a rural stretch of the Keystone State. Anti-corporate counterculturalists may build up these religous dissenters as laudable resisters to the homogenizing imperative of globalization, but even in their purposeful upholding of an edifying archaic lifestyle, the Amish cannot cut capitalism out entirely.

These unique visions of community, of a network of associations worth either working hard and smart to reconsitute or crafting elaborate rules and regulations to preserve, have surprisingly more in common than one would guess. The Interrupters and The Amish are not all that different, ultimately. Both locate a conception of authentic identity in an idea of community that may be imaginary, desultory, or unattainable, but still motivates and animates their collective choices.

Film Review: Zodiac

March 4, 2012 2 comments

Zodiac (2007; Directed by David Fincher)

Zodiac is an entirely representative David Fincher film, a stylish blood-streaked post-modern noir full of tantalizing clues, confounding symbols and dangling fragments of explanatory paradigms. In a way, it’s Take Two of Seven, the director’s highly-regarded first serial killer thriller. Despite some early sequences depicting the mysterious unsub’s murderous acts, however, Zodiac is less concerned with the horrors of physical mutilation and much more enmeshed in the years-spanning attempts to make some sense of those acts and pin them on a single person. The term is overused to the point of meaningless by now, but Zodiac is indeed a puzzle to be gradually but never really solved, the pieces slotting into place (and sometimes not) but never forming an image that can be clearly deciphered.

Zodiac, of course, is based on a series of real and unsolved murders taking place in the San Francisco Bay area in the late ’60s and early ’70s. As much as the death at Altamont and the Manson Family murders, the Zodiac killings signalled an end of the hippie dream of love and peace in America and foreshadowed the rise of the dark and uncertain predatory future for the country. The murders were attributed to a single unknown man, self-dubbed the Zodiac Killer in one of a series of trickster-ish letters that he sent to the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper over a period of several years.

Fincher’s movie is based largely on a bestselling book about the Zodiac killer by Robert Graysmith, a political cartoonist at the Chronicle at the time of the murders who later became obsessed with the killings and with solving them. Played by Jake Gyllenhaal as an awkward, earnest, dogged amateur detective who mostly irritates everyone involved so much that they agree to help him in his investigation in the hope that he’ll just leave them alone, the Graysmith character mostly haunts the background until the last hour and a bit, compulsively focusing on the ciphers that accompanied the Zodiac’s letters. The immediate aftermath of the murders is more the territory of his crime reporter colleague Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.), whose brain and notes Graysmith picks for details about the investigation.

On the police side, SFPD detectives Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo, his hair too large and his voice a hoarse whisper) and Bill Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) enter the case when the Zodiac shoots a cabbie dead on a San Francisco street corner. The case consumes them as well, Toschi in particular, as they cooperate with local investigators in the various jurisdictions in which the Zodiac took his victims to find some thread to follow to the end. It’s only well after the trail has gone almost entirely cold that Graysmith gets serious (a bit too serious) about piecing together a case for his book, enlisting Toschi in particular but also the county detectives and various experts in the effort.

Seeing as there were many suspects but never any firm charges laid in the Zodiac case, Fincher and screenwriter James Vanderbilt never fully incriminate anyone on celluloid. The script is indeed rather measured in its application of various strands of circumstantial evidence to a number of suspects (in one frightening case, to a man with a creepy basement that Graysmith finds himself in at night). Zodiac therefore becomes a garden of forking paths leading in different directions and back upon itself, a fascinating treatise on the impossibility of closure and the ever-moving target that is intelligible certainty.

This is fertile creative ground for Fincher, and what Zodiac lacks in definite conclusions it more than makes up for in immersive period detail, visual style, and technical prowess. The aforementioned murder sequences early in the film are riveting, surprising, and vicariously terrifying in their unpredictability; a confusing highway kidnapping of a woman and her infant that may have been committed by the Zodiac or may not have been is similarly taut. When characters lay out complex scenarios and sift through scraps of evidence, there are no cutaways, flashbacks, or other cinematic conceits. Fincher points his camera at his actors and lets them talk, illustrating what needs illustrating with only their words, documents, and whatever else is at hand.

Few other directors have such a keen sense of when to get slick (CG-assisted long shots of the Port of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge, for example) and when to show impeccable restraint, keeping things simple and trusting the potency of the script to make its full impact. The movie’s highlight sequence is a superb example of this restraint at work. A police interview of Arthur Leigh Allen (John Carroll Lynch), the favoured suspect of both Toschi and Graysmith who was later identified as the Zodiac by the killer’s only surviving victim, is tense and perfectly structured. Elements of Zodiac-pointing evidence rise to the surface like the air bubbles of a submerged crocodile, and Fincher composes the questioners at the centre of his frame in a series of reaction shots, showing them processing Allen’s intriguing and suspicious answers one by one.

Zodiac stretches its legs a little too much after a screw-tightening start, and the subplot about Graysmith’s obsessive digging into Zodiac lore destroying his marriage (while true) is a bit pat for my liking. Gyllenhaal is convincingly vulnerable and uprightly nerdy in a way that he’s rarely been allowed to be since Donnie Darko; if Jimmy Stewart were alive today, this is the kind of part he’d play with gusto. Downey, Jr. plays exactly to type as a smoking, boozing loose cannon, but drops out of the movie just as the investigation starts to get interesting (maybe it gets interesting because he drops out of the movie). Fine character actors are sprinkled across the supporting roles, among them Philip Baker Hall as a handwriting analyst, Donal Logue and Elias Koteas as the rural police detectives, and Brian Cox vamping about as a famous lawyer who gets drawn into the case at the Zodiac’s request. But Fincher’s masterful control of the film is the real star. A strong and absorbing puzzle-piece thriller, Zodiac is a whodunnit that knows it can never be solved and therefore finds transcendence in its embrace of the lack of closure.

Categories: Film, Reviews

The Intractable Problem of Conservative Pop Culture

March 3, 2012 4 comments

The now-permanent conservative insurgency in Western democratic political culture is becoming characterized by its increasing extremity. Recently, one of the main hopefuls for the Republican Presidential nomination decried college education as the bastion of “snobs”, the longtime talking-point cannon of American conservatives has apparently overstepped his usual boundaries of acceptable misogyny in the midst of the current self-destructive anti-contraception mania on the right, and the Conservative Party of Canada’s pitiless electoral gamesmanship finally caught up to them. In light of all of this, it’s worth considering what, if anything, the culture-warriors of the right are contributing to our popular culture in general.

The immediate answer is “Not much”. Cultural products that openly identify themselves with political movements of either stripe are rarely of much worth. The purest distillation of Tea Party conservativism to come down to us in pop culture since the dubious movement’s inauguration immediately after Barack Obama became President is likely the widely-panned box office failure Atlas Shrugged, which is spawning a sequel despite its abject rejection by nearly everyone but the most ardent Objectivists.

What else is there? We can point to the mainstays of small-c conservative mass culture like down-home country music and the CBS primetime programming docket of straightforward gender-role sitcoms and law enforcement and military propaganda in the dramas, certainly, but even these genres can become ideologically diluted by a desire to appeal to a larger audience. Take a recent episode of the reliably reactionary Criminal Minds in which a greedy demagogue buttresses his mayoral run by manipulating an impressionable member of his campaign staff into igniting a racial panic among suburban whites through a series of home invasion murders staged to look like the work of minorities. It was, basically, a firm critique of the sort of xenophobic rhetoric against cultural difference in all of its forms that animates the conservative movement in the United States, and it came from a TV show that tends to trumpet the hard-right line on crime at every opportunity.

It feels like this conservative subcultural surge is likely to come to a head in the soon-to-be-released remake of John Milius’ 1984 Red Scare wish-fulfillment epic Red Dawn. A favourite amongst movement conservatives who screen the film at their conventions and shout “Wolverines!” along with the guerilla teenagers as they murder Communists, Milius’ tribute to the martial ethic is the closest thing to metaphorical art that American conservatives can really claim as their own. Even then, Red Dawn is more camp than classic, widely mocked for the unsubtlety with which it expresses the emotions behind its political message as well as for the overheated absurdity of the message itself (anyone who seriously thought that America was in grave danger of a Soviet invasion in 1984 had drunk enough of the arch-conservative Kool-Aid to become physically ill).

But Red Dawn is theirs, unlike movies that are claimed by conservatives but not crafted by them (like The Lord of the Rings, made by progressive Kiwis with funding from liberal Hollywood, or March of the Penguins, which is French, for Pete’s sake). Milius may fatally reveal himself as a gun-toting reactionary, but he’s no hack, precisely; he co-wrote Apocalypse Now, made Conan the Barbarian, and show-ran HBO’s flawed but nicely-crafted Rome. His Red Dawn smartly locates its anti-Commie hysteria in the film-history scheme of the classic Hollywood western, repeatedly equating the invading Reds with the untrustworthy red-men of the cowboys-and-Indians potboilers of the past. Like many conservatives, Milius proves to have an unfortunate soft spot for the offensive stereotype, foolishly assuming that if bleeding-heart liberals disavow something, then it simply must be worth a right-flank defense. But the seductive crafting of his onscreen hysteria is what has made it so appealing to the hysterics that populate the modern right. You cannot say it doesn’t deserve its ideological accolades, unlike the apparently inept Atlas Shrugged.

Will all of this be reflected in the remake, starring the blond Aussie beefcake from Thor and helmed by a career stuntman and second-unit director of overfrenetic action flicks? It seems mildly unlikely, as the remake’s pedigree seems more likely to be one of furious unideological violence with the occasional fascist knee-jerk thought tossed in. It cannot be pretended that Red Dawn, of all cultural products, represents some sort of conservative intellectual golden age, but compared to the moral and intellectual rot at the core of contemporary right-wing thought, it at least demonstrated the courage of its convictions. The main problem with conservative takes on popular culture is that the basic constituents parts of creativity – openness of thought, a collaborative mindset, lack of dismissive moral judgement – are the very qualities that are firmly rejected by conservatives as socially-destructive liberal indulgences to be rooted out and eliminated in order to restore the stronger, more traditional social order that they crave but has never really existed.

Andrew Breitbart in mid-freestyle

This rigidness of thought combined with a roiling anger and disdain for difference in all of its forms was embodied in certain public figures on the American Right, and troublemaking blogger Andrew Breitbart’s surprising death this past week, when combined by Rush Limbaugh’s execrable slut-shaming of an ideological opponent, may be the harbingers of a sudden implosive deflation of the current vogue for aggressive conservative intransigence. Another likely crushing electoral defeat at the hands of the right’s latest Antichrist, Barack Obama, may accomplish the sudden realignment of conservative priorities that Andrew Sullivan longs for, or it may calcify the activists even more in their anti-social belief system. Either way, until conservatives can learn to engage more freely with the components of creative inspiration, they will continue to cede ground to what they view as the essentially liberal products of mass culture, and to cede the wider social territory to their perceived enemies as well.