Sunday, March 01, 2015

american sniping

Chomsky reviews the reviewers of American Sniper:

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For reasons that aren't particularly interesting, I won't be seeing American Sniper. I have never been convinced that Clint Eastwood is a very good filmmaker (or actor, for that matter) and, fairly or not, the fact that his films are generally praised very highly makes me feel differently towards them than I would, say, the films of another competent or better than average filmmaker whose work was consistently treated with the lack of reverence and respect I thought it deserved. I also have no patience for any of the recent movies about war and terrorism that couch themselves in vague notions of neutrality, whether that be through a director's insistence that the work is "not political" (and critics largely treat it as such), an actor says that a given film is not about war but rather a "character study" (meaning that the war itself is mere backdrop—an inherently political decision in its implications), or any of the other myriad ways this stance might be expressed. The Hurt Locker, with Kathryn Bigelow's insistence that the film was somehow "neutral" or apolitical, was for me the first and final straw in breaking any interest I had in watching these dishonest (at worst) or woefully naive (giving benefit of doubt) films. At the same time I do sometimes wonder how much this kind of framing is genuine sentiment and how much of it is merely a cynical marketing strategy designed to make the films appeal to the largest number of viewers possible, both pro- and anti-war1. (When it turns out that a given movie is "serious" enough to contend for awards, this strategy would also help ensure that it doesn't ruffle too many feathers in the Academy2, a body thought to be much more in opposition to the Iraq war than in support of it.)3

1: An easy shorthand. But yeah, I just did that unfair thing with language that anti-abortion types do when they frame themselves as "pro-life." (By definition, no sane person is ever "pro-war," however much they might support a particular action.)

2: Not a Birdman reference.

3: I already told you in the beginning that my reasons weren't particularly interesting; you have no one to blame but yourself.

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A comment found below Matt Taibbi's online review of American Sniper :

Normally I wouldn't respond to this at all, or I'd respond to it directly on the page. But since the comments are closed, I'm snowed in, the comment itself is frozen directly below the article for all to see, and I have nothing better to post at the moment...

helloiamyo: You seem to be under the impression that it is somehow possible to go into a movie completely objectively, with no preconceived expectations or prejudice
—how quaint! The irony is that you did the exact same thing you criticize Taibbi for, albeit at the opposite end of the spectrum: you expected to like the film. How do I know? Because you paid to see it. (Though you've already demonstrated that logic isn't your strong suit, I'm assuming that the reasoning behind this particular deduction is intuitive enough for you to infer without my having to explain it.) It follows, then, that you had the mindset of finding what is "right" and "good" in the film and therefore enjoyed it like "the rest of us" (who likewise paid for it). Add to this the possibility of having to face the disappointing prospect of having plopped down ten bucks for something you didn't even enjoy and, well, it's no wonder you found something to like, right? Or should I give you more credit than you're giving Taibbi?

The following comment can be seen shortly thereafter, wherein a marooned citizen proudly fires his cannons from the shores of Philistia:

Nothing to say to that; one can only marvel. (I would ask, however, that if "entertain" is truly "ENOUGH!" for movies to do, then why does Mr. Lously bother to spend time reading about them, let alone take the time to write a response? I sense some inner conflict...)


the curator said...

I agree with all of this except the part where you imply that faux-neutral war films are "at worst" dishonest, that in other words their dishonesty is their most egregious sin. In fact I think their impact is far more alarming and dangerous than that. You yourself have hinted at this by pointing out that accepting the possibility that war can be a neutral background has grave political implications.

Beyond theoretical implications, though, such things have serious consequences for real people in the real world. Movies like American Sniper and The Hurt Locker are an essential element in securing the state affairs that Mr. Chomsky bemoans, namely, the public's large-scale acceptance of and/or silence about the global terrorism perpetrated by the U.S. government. So is the attitude that such movies can be "just entertainment."

The "inner conflict" that you've suspected in the second commenter is not just a curiosity but rather a perfectly rational reaction to the reviewer's assault on the fundamental psychological assumption that is holding our society together (to put it perhaps slightly hyperbolically). We absolutely must be able to consider war to be neutral and/or patriotic and/or entertaining--if you remove this comfort, you risk placing people face to face with the fact that (first) their own lives are built upon the suffering of innocent people and (second) that there is nothing they can do about it. That's a situation most people wouldn't be able to tolerate, because it would render them unable to enjoy their lives while leaving them without any alternatives.

So Clint Eastwood and his ilk are not just bad, dishonest, or naive filmmakers--they are active and culpable participants in the creation of the psychological possibility of supporting terrorism and other evils. (Incidentally, The Hunger Games operates according to exactly the same principle: it provides an outlet for the pent-up psychological energy created by our dissatisfaction with our lives while simultaneously defusing it--at least things in the real world aren't that bad!)

Tyler said...

Agreed.. As written, I suppose the way you read the sentence is correct. I was referring to the possible motives or intent behind an actor or director saying that a particular war film is neutral or apolitical. Either they are lying (and don't believe it, cynical marketing, pure propaganda, whatever) or they genuinely believe that their film is neutral, in which case they are woefully naive for thinking such a thing is even possible.

On a related note, it's also a perfectly rational response for Chris Kyle to refer to the people he killed as "savages" (for some of the reasons outlined here, among others). In fact, I originally wrote five paragraphs defending him against many of those on the left who are guilty of one of the very same thing they're criticizing Kyle for: namely, turning some enemy (real or perceived) into a kind of mindless "savage" (in his case, "psychopath") in order to make themselves feel better / have a cleaner conscience about their position. I decided not to go this route, however, when I found out more about Kyle's history, statements, claims, and outright dishonesty.

Dr. Oktober said...

Perhaps this is just a veiled repetition of what you both have already said, but I think that the culpability can be turned up just a bit further with regard to these filmmakers. To take a Chris Hedges argument, films like American Sniper and The Hurt Locker are nothing more than pornography seeking to eroticize the sadism that underpins American culture.

As with the popularity of the recent "Fifty Shades of Grey" movie, eroticized sadism not only turns violence into a highly profitable commodity, it justifies the shame of the viewer, brutalized and powerless against the culture at large. But, contrary to what the Curator said, this doesn't simply "defuse" the "pent-up psychological energy" of the culture. Instead, it deepens and perpetuates the brutalization and the profit machines that prey on us.

So of course these movies are entertaining, they're IMMENSELY entertaining as only pornography can be to a culture with psychological wounds as deep as ours.