Thursday, January 24, 2013

Follow Yr Dreams: "The Hurt Locker" As War-Porn Wanderlust

-Mike Ferraro

Given the subject’s prominence over the last decade, when considering the most influential American films of the last ten years you would be remiss not to focus part of your selection on a film or films that depict war in the Middle East. Of the slew of such films that have come and gone, a worthy contender for discussion, not least of all for its raised profile as last year’s big Oscar winner, is The Hurt Locker.

Because of the film's documentary or embedded reporter-style depiction of combat, and the level of purported objectivity such a style allegedly employs, the more generous reading of the film's treatment of war is that it depicts, like all good anti-war films, the cold and impartial carnage and madness of combat in all its abject horror.

A less generous reading would suggest that it glorifies violence and the rush of combat to a frightening and fantastic degree. Not only that, but more troubling, in the figure of veritable sociopath—or is it just plain old war junkie, the film has trouble making a distinction—James, the film glorifies the mentality that such senseless violence breeds.

In fact, the overt message of the film indicates the latter, less generous, reading.
Disarming IEDs, after all, is “gangster.” And war can be fun, advises the well-intended but preposterously fatuous officer-psychologist who trades the cushy confines of his desk for a day in the hummer on bomb-duty. Given the stunted trajectory and limited imagination of the film’s narrative arc, do I even need to add that he is blown to smithereens as a result of this stab at everyman heroism?

Whatever irony and intended message underlying such subtle filmmaking, the effect is lost on me. Simply put, moments like these come across as pure Hollywood-schmaltz. Even more simply, the psychologist is a straight-up dope.

I mean, they're all dopes, stuck in a godforsaken desert-hell, risking their necks for fairy-tales. But that is another discussion altogether, I’m afraid.

For the heart of the film lies in James' return home to his humdrum suburban-existence—the staidness and uniformity of which, the film suggests, is enough to justify his war-lust. There he confesses to his infant son that in life you only really love one or two things. Well, one thing, it turns out. The closing shot of the film is of James, shitkickers laced-up and crunching that infernal desert sand as he embarks on yet another tour of duty.

Sorry, kid, you gotta follow your dreams no matter how putrid.

I realize James’ confessional is supposed to be a big, brave moment of emotional honesty and character-revelation, one that showsin a film, ostensibly, about such moments—the cyclical nature of, and our obsession with, violent masculinity. But, because of the schmaltz and one-dimensionality of everything that came before, it falls flat. Further, whatever the filmmakers' intentions, in the The Hurt Locker the Iraq War comes across as the pointless waste of lives and resources that it is and was engineered to be. And such revelations do not seem to be the point of this film. The film’s preoccupation with the glorification of war-violence, disingenuously and irresponsibly rendered under the guise of mock-objectivity and reporting, exacerbates this tendency in virtually every frame.

Still, I would like to think that the film adopts the attitude of say, Zola, or Brett Easton Ellis—that imitation is the most severe form of criticism, but honestly I don't think this is so.

In any event, the film taught me exactly nothing new regarding the madness of combat. Worse, each fragmented scene, stuck in its monotony, serves only to further desensitize the viewer to the obscene violence onscreen. And that is perhaps the film's most disconcerting aspect. Correlatively, the fact that the first female win for best director came under the banner of this type of war-porn tells us much about ourselves and sick cultural norms.

Sanborn was right: they should have blown that "rowdy boy" back to hell when they had the chance. 878 bombs disarmed or not, James is a liability, and the mentality that he embodies needs permanent erasure.

An impossible task, I know, but one worthy of our attention nonetheless.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Pride Goeth Before A Fall: An Open Letter to My Hometown

Anthony Schiappa

Delhi, India. Kivu, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Steubenville, Ohio.  All deeply connected previously unimaginable ways.

It must finally be faced. Our sons raped one of our daughters and the authorities are doing as little as they can about it. For many residents, the first reaction was to defend our precious Steubenville pride, in ourselves, our kids, our city, our school, our football team. Too fearful to speak the truth, we turned the stark relief of black and white, of right and wrong, into an opaque gray.

Equivocation is spinelessness. It is high time to end the chorus of “whatever happened to innocent until proven guilty?” This seemingly levelheaded plea for open-mindedness only functions as an attempt to stop the discussion dead in its tracks, and to keep us from confronting reality. It removes power and responsibility from our hands, which is exactly where it should be, and places in the hands of “authorities.” The lawyers and judges will determine what is legal; I seek the truth.

So once and for all, let us end this horrid, transparent pretense to impartiality and accept that a young girl was sexually assaulted multiple times over the course of that August night—taken from party to party while unconscious and intoxicated, and forced to endure an endless stream of humiliations—by members of the Steubenville high school football team. Like most sexual assaults in our morally repugnant society, her brutalization was not at the hands of some random psychopaths hiding in the shadows, but by people she knew and trusted. In this case, these trusted friends meticulously and gleefully documented their actions. Everyone present that night shares the guilt, verdict be damned, and their crimes continue every day they refuse to step forward and take responsibility for what they have done.

Though the details are common knowledge, most of the perpetrators face no consequences. The two defendants are facing reduced sentences as juveniles despite the very adult and illegal activity they engaged in. We are frequently told the case will be difficult to prosecute: an odd characterization given the literal stream of digital evidence available to prosecutors and investigators. The only logical conclusion to draw then is that authorities aren't interested in finding and using this evidence. Despite the incessant blue-collar yapping about self-accountability, there is a concerted effort to keep the guilty from taking full responsibility for their actions. All of this is painfully obvious to the casual observer and represents the source and scope of the outrage now directed at Steubenville.

So how did this happen? Unlike a tragedy such as the Connecticut shootings, the perpetrators in this case cannot be simply—and falsely—labeled outsiders who went crazy and did despicable things, but who do not represent the community as a whole. That is the usual response: we bury our heads, and our chance of real healing, further into the sand. In Steubenville, some of us have clung to a puerile refrain to further insulate ourselves from this truth, hitting all the tired old notes regarding the indomitable spirit, strength, and purpose of vision of our good ol’ American values along the way, insisting: “we have a lot of of good student athletes, we believe in our kids, we have a top-notch high school, the coaches mean well but are imperfect, and we support our students.”

It’s all a sham, of course. The ugliness and violence of the case are just as much a part of us as our proudest achievements, whether or not we choose to take responsibility for them. This attempted reaffirmation of our quintessential “goodness” in the face of tragedy is rotten through and through because it leaves all of the underlying causes of these events unexamined, unchanged, and waiting to happen again, as it inevitably will. (Ask yourself if you really think this is the first time something like this has ever happened in Steubenville.) No bastard children to disown this time. Big Red’s athletes carry on our proudest traditions and represent our values. And they raped a sixteen-year-old girl.

For a town like Steubenville, for any town across America, these are desperately hard facts to come to grips with. But we must face them bravely. The health and security of our nation depends on it. In order to accomplish this task of creating new and better values—beneficent, life-affirming values—we need to ask ourselves difficult questions. First and foremost, where did these boys learn their attitudes towards women? Where we all learn our attitudes: in the home, in the school, in the locker room, in the church, from parents, siblings, teachers, coaches, clergy, our city fathers, and one another. They are as much a reflection of our community as the upstanding kids who stay out of trouble and do great things, and try as we might, we cannot distance ourselves from them now.

So what is it with Steubenville?

Steubenville is a former booming, bustling steel town that has been in decline for decades, completely battered and bewildered by the indifferent forces of global economics. At the whims of Almighty Capital, we have been bled dry and left for dead, and the cancer of corruption feasted on whatever was left. This corruption, in many ways, is a holdover from the Glory Days, when the mob ran things and there was plenty of action to be had downtown. A big-city, almost East Coast mentality is easily discernible to this day, the source of our much-vaunted grit and toughness. The “Little Chicago” lore is well known: nightclubs, bars, gambling, brothels, with the mob pulling the strings of it all. A wild time, better than Vegas.

When the good times ended, the mob mentality lingered on like an endless hangover, even though there was nothing to control. This persistent corruption extends to the police force, one of the first in the nation to sign a consent decree with the federal government for excessive Civil Rights lawsuits, tampering with evidence, falsifying reports, and sheer intimidation and brutality (and anyone who has had spent some time around ex-cops knows the documented evidence does not reveal the half of it). The past few years have also seen a steady rise in gun violence, gangs and drugs, the responsibility for which is placed on individuals from outside the area moving in. We all know the oft-cited positives: sure, there is a wonderful effort to bring back the Grand Theater, and yes, the elementary schools are the best in Ohio. But on the whole, the future for Steubenville, and the Ohio Valley as a whole, is rather grim. A glimmer of hope on the horizon comes from the shale gas cash-in, igniting talk of a kind of renaissance, but we are placing this hopes in a group of thirsty businessmen who are coming to drink our blood—and we can take or leave whatever they’re offering, but they will unquestionably keep the true wealth for themselves.

The largest remaining shared positive experience is Big Red football. Despite the halfhearted protestations on Facebook and the comments sections of various articles on the case, in Steubenville, the sun rises and sets on this program. The large and beautiful stadium is full every Friday. The players and coaches are unquestionably among the best at what they do and have the complete support of the city, financially and otherwise. There is also the pure spectacle of the games: the show put on when team enters the field, with The Best Band in Buckeye Land, the majorettes, the cheerleaders, balloons, video presentations, and Man O’ War sending huge plumes of fire into the sky. A visit Harding Stadium will tell you all you need to know about what Big Red football means to Steubenville. It’s like a Nuremberg rally.

If all that sounds a little quick and easy, and more than a little embarrassing it, that’s because it is. The truth is, as always, very simple and very uncomfortable.

It is within this context that the case is unfolding, and whatever happens we can hardly blame those making accusations of a cover-up, for such claims are entirely reasonable, if not always correct. This case has been handed shamefully but predictably. All but two of the players suited up to play ball this season. Most of the people who know something do not have the courage to come forward. What they fear, we can only speculate: intimidation, threats, violence, or that something might actually change in Steubenville. The Police Chief says his hands are tied, and he doesn’t know what else to do, lamenting that some people just aren’t very nice, and he wishes he could arrest people on that account. This does not sound like an experienced lawman who knows how to doggedly pursue a case; it sounds like a man either cowed or bought off. The prosecutor and judge eventually recused themselves due to their relationship to the school and to the accused, which was the right thing and had to be done, but this illustrates how closely connected everyone is in the city. The local news station is doing as much as it can to not ask difficult questions for the fear of offending their viewers, and featured the accused on a promo for “Sports Friday,” dedicated to high school football coverage. The coach of the team said he didn’t think the kids had done anything. His investigation consisted of asking the kids themselves if they felt what they had done was wrong, and naturally, they said they didn’t think so. In terms of real actions, he did nothing other than threaten reporters. Anything to protect his beloved football program, since that is who he is, and without it, he is nothing.

My own hunch is that he thinks we should be grateful that he offered up his two top players, and that we’re crazy to ask for more when he has his season to think about. The superintendent of the school system said he is satisfied with the coach’s “handling” of the situation, almost as though he was afraid of stepping overstepping his bounds. The principal, astonishingly, said he wasn’t even aware of what was happening until October, even though the story broke in August. School administrators have done nothing to reassure the girls of Big Red that they will be protected from brutalization. Clearly, they won’t be. Whether this is gross incompetence, corruption, or just pure chickenshit cowardice, you can decide for yourself.

And yet people bristle at the idea that Steubenville is an economically-depressed, seedy, football-obsessed town that is circling the wagons around its favorite sons, a place where everyone knows everyone and a small cadre runs the town like a fiefdom, a bizarre amalgam of the towns of “Friday Night Lights” and “In the Head of the Night,” with a dollop of no-potatoes “GoodFellas” thrown in for good measure.

Considering these reactions, it is not at all surprising that these kids thought they would get away with it. And it looks like they will.

Now Anonymous is involved. It was only a matter of time before the case caught the attention of the national media; the only surprise is that it happened so late. There has been a resurgence of something vaguely resembling political consciousness in the country—even if this interest is, at bottom, only lurid sensationalism engineered to sell more ad space—and it was inevitable that “outsiders” would get involved. If the authorities engage in their own brand of extra-judicial justice, as it appears they have done, they can hardly be surprised when vigilantes arrive. However jerked-off the Occupy movement is, however ridiculous the Guy Fawkes masks are, whatever the deficiencies of the current state of radical politics, however many people are really only there to lodge their thankless complaints against the general shittiness of Steubenville, they are at present the only strong public voices for the victim. A sexual assault crisis organization will be at the next protest, and this will in all likelihood be the first opportunity for Steubenville’s girls to learn what rape is. In this alone, they are doing what we failed to do.

Does this sound unfair? Too harsh? The rush to defend ourselves as good parents and our kids as basically good kids is understandable, though one wonders who is trying to convince whom. Everyone loves their children, everyone is doing the best they can for their kids. It is because of our love for our children that we must do right by them—all of them, without exception. We must show our love now by truly interrogating what happened and why. The time is long past for cold, hard introspection about ourselves and what we want for our community. It is from our love that we must re-examine the values we are instilling in our sons and our daughters and take the responsibility when they do wrong. At present, the lesson we are clearly sending is that we will not protect our daughters from rape, that our boys may do whatever they wish to whomever they wish, that sex is violence, that its better to keep quiet and not make a fuss rather than to hold each other responsible for our actions, that silence is better than speaking uncomfortable truths. A shameful state of affairs to be sure, but it is impossible to conclude otherwise witnessing what is unfolding before our eyes.