More Cuts, Please: Current Films and Our Self-Torture
Patrick Hallstein / McEvoy-Halston 2012
If you’re like me and you’re beginning to notice a lot of evil being passed off as innocuous, just a joke, or even as good, and you’re wondering why this has become so widespread, why people are doing the opposite of the holy crusader and enterprising ways to target, to demean the precariously placed, let me tell you what this is all about. Most people are not comfortable when too much of the good life has been made available to them. All the great things they’re hugging to themselves has them feeling they’re worthy of disownment, of catastrophic punishment, as this was the crippling experience they were made to feel when they first as children started attending more to their own needs than the unmet ones of their mothers. The superego, set up as a child to protect him from reviving this intolerable experience, by dissuading him from having too much fun in life, takes over and comes up with a scheme that’ll save the self from oblivion. Individually, we agree to take actually good things as only of a form we can lament as gross and sinful – self-love, gluttony, and so on – and collectively we make sure society is restructured so that, rather being dominated by an aspiring middle class, it becomes of the smallish quotient of the protected prospering accompanied by the spread of losers. The moment when we began to become more focused on our own individual lives and our mothers turned away from us, abandoned us – intentionally – for our unconsciously presumed to be deliberate abandonment of them, is replicated and stretched out for a tedious sum of years. And this time “the child” does not find way to inevitably grow anyway, but simply to suffer wounds, sores – degradations – it intuited it deserved for this most quintessential and worst of crimes, while “the mother” is put in plain view in her absolute worst light, self-absorbed, disconnected, cruel, thereby allowing the child to demonstrate absolute obeisance to her will by seeing all but allowing himself to register nothing. Woe to all those, that is, who’d call Her a tyrant! Thereby – believe it or not – a worse fate is felt to have been averted.
Most people alive unconsciously want our society to be for awhile of disconnected winners and afflicted losers. This sounds ridiculous to you, I know, but how do you account for the fact that Romney has been mostly identified at this point as an elite, lifelong ensconced in pampered surrounds, as an uncaring asshole who bullied other kids and is thoughtless to those – our pets – defined by their being under our care, as someone who unabashedly is a friend to corporations and who is very, very awkwardly trying to fit what is evidently wholesale their agenda into packaging that sounds at least a bit bottom-up, and yet very plausibly has a legitimate shot at the presidency? And how do you account for the fact that since dealing with the cleanup of 9-11 the very last thing we’ve had to worry about is mass public denial of the afflictions to public service men and women, debilitated through their experience in whatever service they’ve undertaken – the physical injuries they’ve suffered, the psychological ones driving them to suicide, the financial ones telling them they’ve got destitution awaiting them in their home life as well – with I think the near conscious collective realization that no one for a good while is going to do much about it, even with all the facts laid bare, week after week, by our news media?
Politics and economics produce the carnage. What the media does is ensure we all know it’s being done, transforming all the incoming variant data of external suffering into quotients of sacrifice we can please ourselves by counting and stacking up. Fairly assessed to be at the helm of this madness is what is most commonly assumed to be a tag-along – popular arts, which, rather than offering escapes, keeps us at some level keen that none of this carnage owes to happenstance but rather entirely to our dictates. Films, that is, are directed – if it’s on the screen, it’s ’cause somebody wanted it there. And more and more we’re assuming they’re done, not by auteurs lead by their own idiosyncrasies, but by those skilled at taking percipient guesses as to what we’re going to want next.
What we wanted not that long ago were still films that told us we really don’t deserve to be kept stunted, and that what we really need are more sparks of encouragement and love in our lives to start us on the path to realizing ourselves – Wall-E is perhaps the strongest last evidence of this. The grossly askew in this film are the robots put in power when society had become all corporate, determined to slacken human beings into their most passive forms to expedite vulgar profit-making – specifically Auto, who can only recognize real life as something aberrant and destructive. To the perceptive, the ostensibly ordinary in this movie, like Wall-E and the corpulent, childish captain, are more evolved than the superficially superior specimens – to Eve, who is shown as massively repressed, as essentially deprived, despite her lavished-upon Apple-white gloss, her Maximilian physique and power. Part of the point of Eve in the movie is in fact to show up an awesome arsenal as mostly just good protection to absorb the shocks and blows that might incur should you chance to actually begin a souled life. The difference between her and the tiny line-making robot, whom Wall-E drives into fits over the most trivial of trespasses as fair register of its inanity, is ultimately trivial.
But around the time Wall-E was released came also very popular Ratatouille and Dark Knight, and subsequently it has become evident that whereas Wall-E was at the crest of something good, these films were at the core of something foul which has become the bulk of our view. Ratatouille is the dark to Wall-E’s light. Wall-E holds to the generous view that what is greatest in humans is to be possessed by each one of them, regardless of cultivation or IQ; Ratatouille to the opinion that the masses are dispossessed of anything worthy, and only worth a nod if they at some level recognize their bumpkinness and put themselves at your disposal. That is, while Wall-E gives you irrepressible Wall-E, as well as the indefatigable captain, Ratatouille gives you limp-noodle Linguini as your representative of the average. While Wall-E portrays manipulation and control of the masses as evil, Ratatouille shows it as necessary – not just to ensure the cultivated and smart collect within the society they truly belong to, but because without being ordered and directed about nothing notable will ever be realized. (Ditto everything said here with Brad Bird’s subsequent film, Mission Impossible 3, which conspicuously delineates regular cops as “not rocket scientists,” as idiots, that is, and allows abusive handling of Ethan’s limp-noodle ally Bogdan for his being dispossessed of any ability to help himself.)
The issue in Dark Knight is why the exceptional should care about those so execrable they’d annihilate a true hero who stood amongst them if it would quit them of a momentary uprise in uncertainty and fear; and the only reason the Joker doesn’t quite entirely win this debate, isn’t really owing to the fact that the business man doesn’t end up turning the key and blowing up the other ship, as he remains as we assessed him first, not in anyway credible as a man; but because if Batman stops being interested in the people, Batman in all likelihood stops being interesting to the Joker, who’d already gotten bored with what the rest of humanity makes available to him. The lieutenant deserves exemption, and so too Maggie Glynwethall as the love interest, but for the most part humanity is drab and scurried, and is actually at its most fetching when harassed into lipstick and white paint before sacrifice. And when bound into some kind of tight collection, your thoughts can become quickly inclined to ponder over just much really is lost is someone connived to cart them off – “elsewhere.”
Dark Knight is no doubt to me the most important movie of our time. Products of genius are only really possible when your own visions can be taken aloft by the prevailing inclinations of an era – it wants what you have to offer, and your unconscious intuition of this gives full confidence to your initiatives. And when it starts demanding sacrifice, demeaning attitudes towards human beings it prefers portrayed as diseased, a masterpiece like Dark Knight arrives to daunt those who’d hope to mount something built of love and hope. To me there is something intense about this film, specifically, that probably helped shoulder out some of the hopeful in our obviously downward-plummeting era; and mostly afterwards what I’ve experienced in movies not made by auteurs who’d built their reputations on films made decades ago, is not so much great bombasts of, well, evil, but steady deposits made in film after film of quick but telling swipes taken at the dignity of average, struggling people.
We get films more akin to Iron Man, released around the same time as Dark Knight, which might even be noted for their positive estimations of people, but which rather seem to have in supplicant modesty queued up so the new Big Man on the scene can see who they’re truly in sympathy with. Tony Stark is moved to change his business wholesale after he really gets what his weapons are all about, how much damage they do to regular people, how much they inflate petty tyrants. He removes his tie, and sits amongst the people eating a cheeseburger – and corporate-heads panic! But man-of-the-people Tony Stark prompts the civilians he now champions to in fact behave in a manner which historically has served as pretext to launch armies to wipe them out. When he as Iron Man arrives to save the men from being shot before their distraught sons, daughters and wives, he leaves the boss terrorist to the fate of the peasants, whom one is presumed to assume will converge on him and deliver a fate crueler than anything he could possibly deliver. One is presumed to assume that they’d immediately mob him and rip him up into a debris cloud of sinew and viscera before he could even quite squeal out a “NOOOOOOOO!!!,” leaving us with a still haughty Tony Stark, deliverer of clean blows, as well as the apropos, and the ravaged peasants, dispensers in their revenge of a mess of blood and gore. It’s just a quick scene, and the rest of the movie prattles about as far as I can remember under the assumption of the dignity of the people, but what a denigrating truth it drove in: the common people can be counted upon to degenerate into savages; you might loosen your tie amongst them, but how much closer would you really want to get – yuck!
This spring, week after week I saw the cuts, gauges, wounds, films are plainly eager to make to regular people. Friends with Kids has been praised for its generous treatment of the long considered but ultimately discarded love interests. But how kind is it to decide against the gorgeous, talented brunette – Megan Fox’s character – for showing her possessed of an aversion to kids as if they were spiders, or dirty rodents, delineating her as someone who, though she has cleaned herself up nicely, remains solidly fucked-up at the core? And how nice is it to show the considered love-interest who is comfortable with kids, and is also nice, sweet and reliable to boot, as possessed of a shortchanged, mundane appreciation of play? When she squeals in alarm at the kid in the restaurant, she is the trauma-informed kid, born of a trailer park, who rose to become what someone born in that position and is beautiful and determined is plausibly able to do – get to New York and become a star performer. When his dull intellect blanches at seeing any sense to her morbid games, he is the unimaginative lower-order intelligence who certainly didn’t come through Berkeley, and who has succeeded, but who may not thrive for long as society displaces everyone who cannot make instant play with whatever demands are put before them, like her ad-man perfect partner can. The trauma-infused lower orders, and the stunted middling ones, are considered for equal status – but damningly rejected. An especially hard hit given that they are ostensibly represented by their best.
If you can only trudge through life, leaving the dreaming and their carrying out to the higher orders, you shouldn’t and you’re not going to feel safe enough to feel the world has gifted you a safe-zone wherein to figure out what you want in life, to feel convinced that for you the world can still about testing, trying, learning, developing, ably riding and otherwise enjoying. You’ll go on like a soldier in the trenches, knowing at any minute you or your best mate may be shot down, and you’ll be upset for a half hour before – out of necessity – putting your mind as to how their demise might enfranchise you. Friends with Kids knows that the friends belong to the protected circle, that they enjoy knowing that they are the ones who can frighten the servile with instant doom. Done much like as in Iron Man, where it looks to be about something else, this film showcases the vulnerability of the working class, of everyday folk, by making it seem mostly about a means for Adam’s Scott’s character to show much he cares about his lifelong best friend. Perhaps the whole life of an insufficiently fawning servant – the nanny – is up in the air, to make one nice milestone moment happen for a privileged couple. It’s Atonement, but without the mother surprising all by appearing out of nowhere and raging head on at the car, making ample demonstration at the injustice done to one of the working orders – to her dear, beloved son – just to demonstrate the resiliency of an idiotic, rigid social order.
In What to Expect When You’re Expecting a whole class of people get it too, and just as sneakily as with Iron Man and Friends with Kids. While the rich in the film can seem dopey, they’ve got heart, and can indeed learn a new trick or two as well; the poor, or at least the precariously placed, are the opposite of redeemed. A wad of money is denied most of the movie by a son with a sense of pride, but finally accepted to show he’d abandoned selfishness in favor of learned selfless concern for his wife. Very nice, except the means by which this wad of money was put to generous use counted on the fact that nurses – presumably way past the luxury of professional and personal pride, having known too long cuts to their pay, instability of hours, and an overall environment resonate with abuse – are most likely now open to your bribes. It’s a chilling moment. The son of the rich dad is made to seem loving – that he bumped his wife up ahead of others doesn’t count against him, as he is only doing what anybody would do to save the life of their loved ones – and the professional who is supposed to be in right frame of mind to countenance one person’s upset against that experienced by all the patients, comes out looking possessed of the moral center of a street hood.
If the nurse who accepted the bribe got caught, he might end up a hood – this at least is the working assumption in 21 Jump Street. In this movie, which showcases the Abu Ghraib-akin humiliations you can feel free to subject gang members to (the two main-character police men mock hump one of them from behind while he lay pinned on the ground), the head of a new drug ring centered at a high school is a teacher, who was driven to it, we are told, owing to the paltry wages paid him. His situation isn’t even hinted at as something worth concern, though. Instead, he is the medium whereby the film feels comfortable trying out humiliations you may not ever have seen before as a source of humor – specifically, his penis gets shot off, and we see him fumbling about on the ground trying to find it. Teachers, we are told, are, like the nurses of What to Expect, part of a now suspect occupation. They are like lower class occupations of old where people involved in them were presumed to be always just this close to going illicit. It is true that the high school teacher involved is a boorish male, and it is worth considering that he is subject of remorseless abuse mostly because of his belonging to this category of disrepute, but another contemporary film, Me and My Boy, does have you wondering if, no, while not apt to be portrayed as drug dealers, we’ve still presumed female teachers might have been forced to go so off-kilter that boys’ dreams of teacher sex is something some of them might be voraciously making happen.
One might assume those of one working class occupation – the police – come out of 21 Jump Street okay – but this actually needs to be considered. The one character with smarts is shown to be someone who, if he’d actually been treated with some respect in high school, would have been off to Berkeley rather than exploring the trades. This would have meant, like Tony Stark in Iron Man, not just being in possession of a posh pad, but never needing to dirty himself, not ever needing to find some kind of compensation within the realm of the macho which seals the deal as to what kind of social rung he belongs to. He humiliates his opponent, but as the film shows, his world is easily one where he and his partner could end up being, and essentially at random, shot to pieces. Just after their preparing themselves for just such a fate, the original (that is, the TV show) 21 Jump Street cops surprise us with their appearance and prevent this from happening; but any pleasure incurring from their visit is quickly replaced by shock at how quickly they become dispatched by a hail of bullets – star status, we are conclusively being told, is eclipsed by their being in the role of discardable cops. No magic exists now to keep members of the working class safe.
Construction workers are the ones who get it in Dark Shadows; they’re one of two groups we see the awakened vampire presume to prey upon in the film. The other group is composed of young sensitive hippies, who are done away with, it is made to seem, simply for being out of sorts and vulnerable to society for existing outside their heyday. To be vulnerable means someone is going to get to prey on you very brutally, and to have it portrayed as the most inessential of side matters, an after-thought, and maybe – if it can, as with this film, look to be mostly about rounding out our understanding of someone relevant – of no import at all. Unlike Monty Python’s Holy Grail, no trail of police officers is due to track him down for his butchery. If lords were slain it would be a different matter, but no one is going to speak up for the working class dregs or other similarly disenfranchised – again with this film, it’s do to them as you wish, while you mostly attend to curious plucks on the threads extending out of your privilege.
Unlike Wall-E, debilitations aren’t adorned on men but for their triumphant shedding of them. The momentum of these films isn’t towards their standing on their own two feet, but towards being loaded down by encumbrances, and pretty much accepting that their fate is be drawn down inexorably as sacrifices into a predatory maw, ála the most iconic moment of Toy Story 3. The critic Stephanie Zacharek said of The Avengers that “it’s time for Whedon to retire the idea of the hole in sky that suddenly breaks open, unleashing horrors upon an unsuspecting world.” But, I’m sorry, the portal isn’t going away, because dealing with a felt need to feed it is in fact the primary concern of our age. It is the maw of our mothers, which wants representatives of our self-ambitioning, self-nourishing selves sacrificed to it so it can know satiation and justice – the time for self and societal-growth is over; it’s now about who’s to pay the price for accumulating for decades, and how much each guilty one. If you already had some sense as to what this age was about, you could pretty much have predicted that Snow White and the Huntsman would have a scene where the expectant queen would have before her a multiple of strewn-about youths, drained into carcasses for her replenishment. So, too, that the experience of watching Prometheus could fairly be described – as one commenter at the movie-review site Movieline did – as being riddled with a million wounds; and that the pursuit of origins, rewarding, renewing discovery – enlightenment – would be easily outmatched by some wretched-awful beast’s insistent demand that it’s going to be about biology, about your body as host and its about presumptive spawning. You could also have predicted that the girl would come out okay – so long as she was shown thoroughly decimated beforehand. And especially if it could be made to seem a choice between wholly-taken-down-a-notch her and some still proud figure, which is of course what we get, with her being lead to believe for a moment that her just-deceased husband had managed to impregnate her, only to find out that this miracle had occurred owing only to his already being in part a DNA-manipulating beast-thing (making her someone who essentially was fucked by a fiend, and near-forced to give birth to its kid), and with his being of a species of humanity which has presumed to temper themselves into gods.
The humiliations we’re seeing applied in all these movies towards the kinds of people we know are most precariously placed, isn’t about Hollywood not giving a damn, but about our being able to show we’ll actually pay for films which show people like us treated abominably. We’re cutting ourselves to pieces, and the abasement happening to us in society, through loss of jobs, through service in war, through competition in schools and being owned by student loans, through pleasure-critical, self-lacerating diet and fitness regimes, takes on the environment, stances on youth and youth culture, on your sheer right to have any confidence in your ability to supply yourself just the basics, is our best hope to show ourselves so afflicted we can’t possibly be taken as greedy types that deserve to be sucked into the maw. We’ll feel ourselves drawn into it, but our own sure scar-procuring, fervent self-brutalization will keep us from ultimately deeming it’ll much be moved at the finish to actually seek nourishment from us – any pride still there that might yet be sucked from us, isn’t worth anyone’s trouble, no matter how voracious.
We’ll come out of this at some point, and it’ll actually come with our sense of pride being replenished. But this story, friends – also essentially dark – will come at another time. As a preview, it'll be about re-polluting categories of people fifty years of collective effort has been put into humanizing.