Kathryn Bigelow – Antenna http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu Responses to Media and Culture Thu, 30 Mar 2017 23:48:47 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.7.5 “Depiction is not Endorsement”: Representing Torture in Zero Dark Thirty http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2013/01/22/depiction-is-not-endorsement-representing-torture-in-zero-dark-thirty/ http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2013/01/22/depiction-is-not-endorsement-representing-torture-in-zero-dark-thirty/#comments Tue, 22 Jan 2013 15:00:24 +0000 http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/?p=17398 Zero Dark Thirty has ignited a virtual powder keg of controversy regarding its depictions of the use of torture as a means of getting information during the ten-year hunt for Osama bin Laden. Despite complaints that it justifies the use and effectiveness of torture, the film cannot be dismissed so easily.]]> Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty has ignited a virtual powder keg of controversy regarding its depictions of the use of torture as a means of getting information during the ten-year hunt for Osama bin Laden. Like Bigelow’s previous, Oscar-winning film The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty has been received as an important document in helping to provide a popular history of the war on terrorism. In fact, at least one critic has suggested that Zero Dark Thirty “will be the film that defines a decade,” and, judging by box office numbers, audiences appear curious about the film and what it says about this cultural moment.

In making sense of Zero Dark Thirty, it’s worth noting that Bigelow chooses a very narrow frame for telling the story of the bin Laden manhunt. The film opens with a black background while audio from the September 11th attacks plays, a technique that reinforces the film’s authenticity and directly precedes a sequence in which Dan (Jason Clarke) roughly interrogates a suspect, punching him and eventually humiliating him sexually. For the next two hours, the movie focuses almost exclusively on the work of a small group of CIA operatives, particularly Maya (Jessica Chastain), who is introduced to the manhunt during one particularly brutal interrogation scene and who then devotes virtually all of her time and energy to the pursuit of bin Laden. When asked later by the CIA director, Leon Panetta (James Gandolfini), what else she’s done since joining the organization, Maya quickly replies, “Nothing. I’ve done nothing else.” Thus, rather than viewing the war on terrorism through the lens of policy or through its effects in the battlegrounds in Iraq and Afghanistan, we get what is essentially a procedural narrative, in which Maya pursues the clues leading to bin Laden.

The debate over the film began weeks before its early January national release when political commentator Glenn Greenwald condemned it (without having seen the film), in large part on the basis of Frank Bruni’s New York Times column. Greenwald worried that the film seemed to assert that coercive techniques such as waterboarding were “crucial, even indispensable” in pursuing bin Laden, when most accounts suggest differently – that these enhanced interrogation techniques often produced incorrect information, an argument that Alex Gibney, director of the investigative documentary, Taxi to the Dark Side, makes in his extended analysis of the film. And under a relatively straightforward cause-effect analysis of the film’s narrative, it’s not too difficult to reach this conclusion. Dan roughly interrogates suspects. Eventually, Maya suggests more subtle forms of coercion. Through these techniques, they get the name of bin Laden’s courier, which eventually allows them to find bin Laden’s compound. Matt Taibbi makes a similar argument, going as far as saying that the film’s genre as a political thriller actually reinforces the justification for torture, suggeting that our expectations of capturing “the big treasure”  lead us to accept the actions of Maya, Dan, and others in the CIA. This affirmative account is, perhaps, reinforced by source bias. Bigelow and Boal were given unusual access to the CIA operatives involved in the case, and the film was made with the material support of the US military (as Chastain mentioned in an interview with Jon Stewart).

Eventually, Bigelow was forced to defend Zero Dark Thirty against many of these complaints, writing an editorial in the Los Angeles Times where she defended the film by stating flatly that “depiction is not endorsement.” In other words, her decision to show the use of torture is not meant to be understood as advocating for it, either morally or strategically. What Bigelow’s argument overlooks, however, is the fact that depiction is, in fact, endorsement, at least to the extent that her film endorses one specific truth about what led to the capture of bin Laden. As Taibbi observes, all of the narrative choices that Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal made involve framing how the story is told and are, therefore, endorsing a way of thinking about the bin Laden manhunt. In this sense, Zero Dark Thirty seems to claim authenticity not only through its set design and handheld camera techniques – which tend to augment the film’s documentary “feel” – or through its use of expert testimony, but also narratively, through the storytelling techniques that frame our interpretation of the events leading to bin Laden’s death.

Yet, despite these complaints, Zero Dark Thirty cannot be dismissed so easily. First, due to the film’s extreme focus on the experiences of Maya, many of the popular (or official) narratives about the war on terror are effaced. Elected officials only appear fleetingly on TV sets, their comments often remote from the daily business of the CIA. The triumphant image of Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Hilary Clinton, and others watching from the White House as Seal Team Six completes its mission is absent. The only image of celebration is a brief shot of Maya, and even this image seems to be coded as part of the procedural narrative associated with completing the job. Instead, these scenes seem almost somber in tone. In fact, there is very little sense of resolution at the end of the film. I don’t think the depictions of torture can be ignored, and Bigelow’s defense of the film seems hollow at best. No one is questioning her right to show brutal violence, just the implication that the use of torture produced intelligence that led to bin Laden’s capture. But given that Maya’s pursuit is filled with false starts and failed leads – recall that one prisoner continues to make up false information despite being repeatedly waterboarded – it also resists simply affirming a celebratory narrative about bin Laden’s death. The critiques that label the film as “propaganda” overlook or ignore this complexity and underestimate the interpretive skills of audiences who seek to engage with the film. Thus, rather than dismiss the film, we should instead engage with it and make sense of how it both reflects and challenges dominant discourses about the war on terrorism.


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The Oscars, Star-Studies Style http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2010/03/08/the-oscars-star-studies-style/ http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2010/03/08/the-oscars-star-studies-style/#comments Mon, 08 Mar 2010 16:54:21 +0000 http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/?p=2460 On Thursday, I informed my students in Hollywood Stars that their homework for the weekend would focus on the Oscars.  After all, The Oscars are a star scholar’s Super Bowl: as much as we like to disdain them as artistically misguided, bloated, or pure distracting fluff, they’re a fascinating text to behold.  Like any other form of media spectacle, they’re an artifact of what a culture elevated and denigrated at a particular moment in time — artistically, sartorially, politically, ideologically.

Ever since NBC first broadcast the Oscars in 1953, they have served as a sort of Authenticity Litmus Test. Massive star ‘meet-and-greets,’ whether telethons or awards shows, allow fans to see what appears to be the authentic and unmediated star: oh, look, here’s George Clooney, uncognizant of the camera, just hobnobbing around with buddy Matt Damon!  Of course, The Golden Globes presents itself as even less mediated; nevertheless, stunts like the direct address, tears, and blown-kisses of admiration between former co-stars and current nominees at this year’s awards facilitate the believe that the Oscars presents the ‘real’ actors behind the performances for which they are being honored.

But just because a star can act — or can attract attention to his/her personal life — doesn’t mean that she should be trusted with enlivening a 3.5 hour show.   Some stars, such as Robert Downey Jr., can spice up the most dour material; others (read: Cameron Diaz) can’t even read the teleprompter — or improvise when the teleprompter forgets to change the name of the presenter.

So when a star gets on stage, reads a prepared speech, either presenting or accepting an award, and fails to say something either poignant or hilarious, a little something dies inside the fan.  Unlike a star’s endearing ‘just like us’ moments featured in US Weekly, these banal Oscar flubs and speeches  simply make the star appear unworthy.  For example:  no matter how arduously the writers tried to make fun of Baldwin and his ‘authentic’ feelings of inadequacy…it still didn’t ring true, or even humorously.  I could see both Baldwin and Martin trying to squirm out of the bad-writing straightjackets they had been laced into, but I still felt that my belief in Baldwin as intrinsically funny was forever compromised.

And while some stars’ appearances seem to perfectly confirm their dominant images — I’m talking to you, Dude — they don’t necessarily engender elevated feelings of appreciation and devotion.   A pitch-perfect speech, on the other hand, can perform such heavy rhetorical lifting.  And, to my mind, the only person who did this last night — and did it in spades — was Robert Downey Jr.

Secondly, the stars aren’t dead, despite no small number of eulogies in recent years.  Granted, there will certainly be some interesting postmortem concerning what the triumph of The Hurt Locker — the smallest grossing Best Picture in history (and one that killed off its only ‘name’ actor in the first ten minute — says about the future of the industry.  As Roger Ebert tweeted to conclude the ceremony, “Shortest Oscar story in history: ( ! > $ )”  But while  The Hurt Locker‘s win affirms that the Academy itself still values embodied acting, shouldn’t Avatar’s ridiculous financial success indicate that expensive technology, rather than expensive stars, actually bring in the audiences?

Yes and no.  First, it’s no mistake that the three STARS of the Avatar — Zoe Saldana, Sam Worthington, and Sigourney Weaver — were all presenters at the awards.  Their faces, even if modified and blue, are essential to the heart and soul and success of that film, however ideologically repugnant you might find it.  While other directors posed with their actors in last month’s Vanity Fair, James Cameron was photographed with his massive camera.  It’s ironic, then, that following Avatar’s virtual shut-out, Cameron’s stars received far more stage time than he did.

Even more importantly, the two main contenders for Best Actress starred in FOUR big hits this year (Bullock in The Proposal and The Blind Side…and we’ll conveniently forget All About Steve; Streep in Julie & Julia and It’s Complicated).  Stars aren’t dead, then — they’re just working for less.  The $100 million paycheck that characterized Tom Cruise’s halcyon 1990s is gone.  But they stars still do draw audiences: see, for example, the behemoth $116 million opening weekend of Alice in Wonderland, a product presold via concept, director, and star.

This year’s Oscars attempted to bring aspects of Old Hollywood glamour back to the show.  To my mind — and I’m by no means alone, judging from the Twitter cacophony from last night — it was stilted, poorly edited, and embarrassingly written.  There was not a single shining moment, save the glorious win by Kathryn Bigelow.  There was no Brangelina; no Pitt Porn; no Julia Roberts or Tom Cruise or even Edward Pattinson.

But when Mo’Nique went backstage after accepting her award, she was asked about her choice of outfit: a blue dress and a gardenia in her hair.  Apparently she choose both because they were exactly what Hattie McDaniel had worn, nearly seventy years ago, when she became the first African-American to win an Academy Award.  Stars — and our memories of them, their presence and even their appearances on awards shows — matter, and the Academy Awards are a piquant reminder of why.

For a star’s triumph, coupled with residual goodwill affiliated with his or her image, can allow us to forget what she is being awarded for.  Was Jeff Bridges being awarded for his performance — or for being Jeff Bridges?  And what function did Sandra Bullock’s star image — that of the tremendously nice, likable, girl next door  — play in glossing over the parts of her winning performance, and the film in which it finds itself, that are so insidiously and quietly dangerous?  I love and am enthralled by stars, but find myself constantly reminding myself, and others, of the maxim at the very heart of star studies: stars embody ideologies, but they also mask their work.  The spectacle — of the awards themselves, of a dress — can distract us from the complex labor performed by the star image in propping up dominant understandings of race, sex, sexuality, and what it means to live in America today.

And finally: LiveTweeting the Oscars with a gaggle of media scholars was far more amusing than watching them.  Next year: join in!  And please share your own thoughts on the show — and the stars — below.


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