A character is strung up by a rope, waterboarded, dragged around by a dog collar and stuffed into a cramped box in an attempt to extract information concerning a terrorist network. The viewer witnesses ‘animal-like howls of anguish’ and ‘unintentional defecation.’
Such scenes are part of a familiar revenge narrative in which the good guy’s (and audience’s) righteous motivation is established in the early scenes and the baddie is eliminated, exhilaratingly and bloodily, at the end.
A fan of the movie describes it approvingly:
[CIA counter-terrorism officer] Maya (Jessica Chastain), looks on — it seems to be her first “enhanced” interrogation. We see [tortured detainee] Amar’s treatment through her eyes, and though she appears troubled at first by what she’s witnessing she’s also fighting off any feelings of revulsion. “I’m fine,” she says, in response to doubts from the more seasoned interrogator who is running the show. During a subsequent torture scene, Maya is left alone with Amar. He begs her for mercy; she tells him, “You can help yourself by being truthful.” Now we know for sure that she has steeled herself to be cold and hard—that she’s consumed with tracking down Osama Bin Laden and is willing to do whatever it takes to find the man responsible for the 9/11 attacks (which have been evoked hauntingly during the movie’s opening moments).
When Amar is led around by a dog collar and then finally, horribly stuffed into a tiny wooden box, we recoil at this treatment and feel Amar’s pain—but we also feel Maya’s sense of urgency. At the end of the interrogation scenes, I felt shaken but not morally repulsed, because the movie had successfully led me to adopt, if only temporarily, Maya’s point of view: This treatment is a legitimate way of securing information vital to U.S. interests.
Critics have deplored this as ‘endorsement’ of torture.
In response, some Democrat bloggers, posing as sophisticated aesthetes, have accused such critics of Zhdanovite philistinism, of ‘aesthetic Stalinism’ and of behaviour befitting ‘Bill Donoghue and the Catholic League’. (Nobody yet has applied the ‘moral panic’ label, whose use I described here.)
These bloggers identify themselves as liberals who would never support torture but who know how to appreciate a good film when they see one.
Meanwhile, according to film critics, the ‘morality brigade’ has failed to appreciate how the film’s hero is portrayed as ‘morally compromised’. The torture scenes are ‘squalid, vivid and brutally protracted’, and they generate a ‘horrible sense of complicity’ among the audience ‘when we realize we want the guy they’re interrogating to spill the beans and get it over with’:
There can’t be much question that the filmmakers mean this to be distressing and tarnishing, not something to cheer for.
Another film critic, seeking to rebut the pro-torture accusation, solemnly declares: ‘fleeting shots of Maya clenching her jaw, crossing her arms, and looking away, should leave no doubt as to where the filmmakers stand on the issue.’
Whether a film openly ‘endorses’ torture, or whether it styles itself as a Funny Games-type ‘critical examination’ of cinematic and real-world violence, is not irrelevant.
(Of course, in making Zero Dark Thirty, director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, a former ‘embedded’ reporter who wrote The Hurt Locker, were granted ‘top-level access’ to White House, Defense Department, and CIA sources, as well as assistance from a commander of the Navy SEAL team that executed Osama bin Laden. Pentagon officials described their wish to ‘shape the story’ of the film, and expressed their satisfaction that Bigelow and Boal were using ‘White House-approved talking points’.)
To focus on this question is, however, to miss the deeper point.
What does it mean when world-weary film critics accuse Glenn Greenwald of interpretive incompetence, of failing to evaluate the torture scenes using aesthetic criteria rather than judging them on political or good-taste grounds?
When watched by a ‘naive’ or novice viewer, ‘graphically intense’ on-screen violence elicits a stress response. Activation of the HPA axis leads to increased heart rate, galvanic skin response, dilated pupils, uncontrolled breathing, and sometimes trembling, clenching, nausea and other physiological symptoms of arousal.
Attending to such unfamiliar and unpleasant symptoms (and to associated emotions) makes demands upon the viewer’s scarce cognitive resources and thereby distracts him from the film. (Put differently but equivalently, focusing on the non-violent aspects of the film requires effort rather than happening automatically.)
With the experienced viewer, who has become accustomed to doses of cinematic violence, this stress response is inhibited. Rather than triggering anxiety or overwhelming distress, such visual and auditory cues (gaping wounds, blood, screams) generate a manageable kind of excitement, heightened attention or amusement.
The positive evaluative judgements of film critics are underpinned by their familiarity with the visual material and the consequent ease with which they process it. Repeated exposure facilitates liking of a stimulus, generating a positive appraisal of what initially may have been neutral or even aversive. (Thus the manipulation of consumers by advertisers pursuing brand recognition: familiarity enhances product preference.)
Indeed, viewers of mainstream films, TV and video games undergo a kind of stress inoculation. Having been exposed repeatedly to doses of horrific brutality, and having become habituated to them, the cinematic adept or initiate is imparted with a newly found tolerance during subsequent encounters. He or she gradually acquires resilience – an attenuated stress response – because it’s all been seen before.
This adaptation to aversive stressors also describes the kind of ‘hardening’ undergone by the character Maya. What initially are novel and unpleasant stimuli (the sights, sounds and smells of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’) rapidly become familiar, and she can ‘steel herself to be cold and hard’ (although developing this sort of emotional resilience in its recruits is something imparted by training and by self-selection of Washington’s military death squads and CIA torturers).
To be capable of appreciating films that expose viewers to realistic violence, audiences and critics must (like Maya) have ‘steeled’ themselves.
Only once this state has been reached, i.e. after they have been brutalized by repeated exposure, can viewers appreciate what they are seeing on other levels or derive pleasure from it. Thereafter violence can be enjoyed in several ways.
What is required from the audience of a Quentin Tarantino film is self-conscious savviness: getting the allusion, generic reference or cinematic in-joke. (This is what allows such films to function as a signal of the audience’s quality – acquiring competence, being able to appreciate them, requires a costly investment of time, effort or money that cannot easily be faked. Self-congratulation is one of the rewards of such films.)
Violent ‘anti-violence’ films such as Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, and ‘deconstructed’ shooter games such as Spec Ops: The Line, which hope to ‘implicate’ the viewer or player, also demand a ‘competent’ audience, i.e. one that can appreciate it on the ‘right level’, get the message or appreciate the style without being distracted by their repugnance or feeling too sick to watch. (Haneke has said that his ‘ideal scene’ would impel members of an audience to look away because they are ‘panicking’.)
And, viewed with enough aesthetic distance, Zero Dark Thirty‘s ‘squalid, vivid and brutally protracted’ torture scenes, its ‘morally compromised’ protagonist, the blood, bestial howls and involuntary defecation, and the ‘horrible sense of complicity’ generated among its audience, can be understood, like The Hurt Locker, as some sort of nuanced critical statement on ‘the moral, psychological and even spiritual price’ of war, the ‘sacrifices and costs of keeping America safe.’
In other words, the aesthetic and commercial ambitions of these films depend upon, just as the films themselves help create, an enormous oversupply of media violence. The latter produces ‘literate’ viewers of the required sort.
This desensitization of audiences has broader social correlates and consequences. By brutalizing consumers of media and entertainment products, it is helping to encourage a shift in social norms, internalized preferences and individual tastes.
Increasingly, perpetrating lethal violence or enjoying it for entertainment purposes does not lead to ostracism or sanction, but is positively rewarded (c.f. Bigelow and Boal’s reverence for the armed forces, the CIA and the ‘American triumph, both heroic and nonpartisan’, of killing Bin Laden).
Over time, this mix of incentives and cultural influences is causing a shift in the population distribution of attitudes to violence and the psychological traits needed to undertake it.
For the average person, this general shift is scarcely observable: it merely makes the median viewer more resilient (i.e. less prone to negative emotional states) when horrific violence appears on the movie screen.
But a rightward shift in the tolerance for violence will also increase the number of people at the sparsely inhabited tail (i.e. the extreme upper range) of the population distribution: those psychological outliers with the capacity to kill people and undertake torture while remaining composed, emotionally stable and task-oriented.
This outcome is functional for the US ruling elite, which for the past two decades has advanced its strategic objectives through belligerence and lethal violence. The state leadership’s policy of military aggression is facilitated by population-wide habituation to violence.
The likes of Bigelow and Boal are thus participating in a war drive. So too are the countless film critics, writers, bloggers, academics and paid ideologues whose own set of professional incentives leads them to apologize for her work and other products like it.
Tarantino, of course, has always disclaimed any extra-aesthetic relevance for the torture and sadism shown in his films. They are just movies. Few have bothered to challenge this line over the past two decades, even as sinister musings on torture by Alan Dershowitz became publicly acceptable fodder for ‘liberal’ editorial columns, and the creative efforts of John Yoo were taken on as policy by the US Justice Department.
Now, with his Django Unchained due to be released one week after Zero Dark Thirty, will its torture scenes be judged worth of comment? Will critics note the resemblance of Tarantino’s various sadists to Bigelow’s interrogators (and to the real-life versions working in Bagram, Cairo, the West Bank, the basements of Mogadishu, etc.)?
If so, will this be thought to mean anything, or will any such suggestion be dismissed as embarrassingly unsophisticated?