Tuesday, February 28, 2012

A History of Violence

Courtesy of Santi Slade
"Familiarity breeds contempt,” the saying goes. Anyone familiar with the current events of the world should harbor a little contempt at the way things are running. On one side, GOP contender Rick Santorum spews outdated drivel demeaning women, gays and all other minorities. Far more flagrant is the state-sanctioned massacre of civilians over in Syria. Videos from journalists — two of which were killed last week while covering the clash — and everyday citizens expose nauseating bloodshed that has spared no one; a clip went viral earlier this month that depicted a dismembered teen’s last moments. This continues on, with no end in sight.

But, hey, we love violence. A small contingent applauded Rick Perry’s boast that, last year, his state of Texas put to death more criminals than any other. A much larger majority cheered the death of Osama bin Laden. I will not lie to say I was not one of them. But, as a key passage from the Bible, Matthew 5:44, attests, “Love your enemies,” a principle so noble in theory because it is so difficult in practice.

Consider how many synonyms in the English language can substitute for “kill”: murder, slay, waste, snuff, whack, hit, ice … to take care of, to do away with, to make sleep with the fishes. How many different ways can we describe a field of flowers, or the connection with a loved one? Words appear futile in those circumstances. We have all, at least, seen glimpses of the best in life. Millions of songs have been written about how impossible it is to describe, the ineffability of beauty. Most of them are so bad they make us value this struggle even more.

Victims of rape assure the cozy masses that the extent of abuse similarly defies words. With a glazed stare, PTSD war veterans contend that taking life, for the noblest of causes, still rattles the soul. Hostile rhetoric can prove far more dangerous, for it indoctrinates subjects in intolerance, pushing objective detachment to subjective hatred. The images of war and the words leading to it remain ugly. Violence is the antithesis of beauty.

History tells us violence has forever been the answer instead of, to quote Elvis Costello, “peace, love and understanding.” It is easier, requires less thinking and compensates for the impotence of a long line of male leaders. “Kill, kill, kill!” we yell to this day. Demonize the enemy, for they could surely not be anything like us.

The haunting quote from Jean Renoir’s 1939 film, The Rules of the Game, takes the just, if taboo, both then and now, approach to our history of violence: “The awful thing about life is this: Everybody has their reasons.” There is a side to every story, with emotions and values that lie not in black or white, but the grey in between. Familiarity breeds not contempt but identification, knowledge of another’s affairs that sit not far from our own.

Art uncovers these truths and, today, cinema most of all. But now that Oscar season is over, I expect movie studios to once again focus on making money; that is, equate the lowest denominator as the entire audience. Sickly romantic comedies take a shot at cobbling together some immaculate depiction of true love while Michael Bay and Guy Ritchie wade in the unremitting tide of action blow-em-ups.

From post-Oscar February to pre-Oscar October, Hollywood attempts to ignore its unequaled ability to contemplate topics like peace and morality, values long stripped from Congress. Some films like Harry Potter, Super 8 and Planet of the Apes slip through the cracks, yet not even they, the sole breadwinners in the business, occupy the ballot for Oscar night. Why does intelligent fare have to be relegated to a narrow three-month window, and at the metropolitan poles of our two coasts, no less? For the rest of the year, sex is love and blood is war.

The best of cinema ponders themes greater than its own plot or mechanics. Iran’s A Separation, winner of the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar and my Best Film of 2011, period, studies a simple but powerful domestic dispute. Through its performances, subplots, editing and direction, the film upends the hostile image of the country and its people many of us have as well as any notion of infallible law. No side of the conflict, between a recently divorced husband and sickly, pious woman, acted worthy of condemnation independent of one another. Innocuous events escalated until a mutual split in morality cast one vehemently against the other.

It is a fascinating, brilliant film that explores the simple violence in language and conduct, and how uncontested it would stand at each home base. Like the smallpox explorers greeted Native Americans with, the origins of strife are invisible to one another.

I criticized last year’s Drive, a film I otherwise greatly admired, for serving its brutal, almost beautiful carnage with no footnotes. Director Nicolas Winding Refn framed the slitting of wrists and stomping of skulls with chill sterility and detachment. It disturbed me not for the bloody images but for its refusal for empathy. It took a Camus approach to violence, detached and detailed, not unlike the testimony of the BTK Killer or Ted Bundy.

That approach works for some, but I carry an agenda with the greatest of films. “Why?” I want the film to ask. Violence is all around us, but it is born of mass ignorance and petty greed. Diplomacy seems impossible for a man raised to pull the trigger. If this is such a wonderful world, there should be nothing funny about peace, love and understanding. The Coen Brothers capture this complex perfectly in Fargo, after policewoman Marge apprehends four-time murderer Gaear. “And for what?” she asks. “For a little bit of money. There’s more to life than a little money, you know … And here you are, and it’s a beautiful day.”

This article was originally written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location via this link.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Taking Out the Trash

Courtesy of Santi Slade
On a video that made the reddit rounds in early January, geek icon and The Next Generation starchild Wil Wheaton threw a rant about the depressing state of culture. “Why do I try so hard to add value to the world when I could just be a dumb, worthless piece of shit and a multi-millionaire?” he asked. And to secure this quip viral status, he added, “The Kardashians are more depressing to me than Hitler.” The expected “whoa now” from the audience mixed with patched applause.

Now he makes a just point through an extreme analogy. Pulling the Nazi card, even through comedy, is not offensive but low. You know, we have heard it enough; it is no more than a capsuled, low-hanging platitude sputtering the most elementary notion of evil. It is not in bad taste, just laziness.

I defend his statement, however, because Kim and the whole Kardashian family do not deserve any better. They do not deserve the comparisons to Stalin, Ivan the Terrible or our current murderous scumbag in Syria, al-Assad. They do not deserve any minute interpretation or thought. They do not even deserve the current 81.2 megabytes of RAM Microsoft Word harnesses to type these words. But, for only a few more hundred words, I will deign to reiterate what the informed reader already knows and what the mass consumer will not find out. I will, if I can paraphrase the recently emancipated Kris Humphries, “hit it and quit it.”

Keeping Up With The Kardashians, Jersey Shore and similar company slide quite smoothly down the contemporary American gullet. Social networks have perpetrated gossip through other means, glorifying the everyday minutiae of your friends and half-friends. In particular, Facebook has both inflated noxious egos and crushed weak ones, granting a “like” button for idiocy and hate. People are stupid — something we have known forever — but now everyone has their own online vuvuzela at hand to swell the louder cacophony. We are turning into increasingly narcissistic, insular lizard brains.

So, if all that is true, it should be no surprise ogling brainless, buxom bods is on the rise. There has long been a specific industry for this purpose, but now these cable programs, slightly less explicit yet equally vapid, rule ratings and talk. Setting role models in the cast of these reality shows is a very real reality itself, as kids look up to those they see on the magical television. By the sociological bell curve, the masses may not boast high intelligence, but since when has the opposite slope been so broadly championed?

Saying all of this, the state of intellect remains strong. Online tools do stimulate thoughtful debate for the libertarians, socialists and activists of all causes who have built their own digitized podiums. Those who cherish knowledge (and easy grades) thank Wikipedia. The inexpensive costs to create art — like music, graphic design, film and games — encourage risks while online distribution methods reach millions. These are user-created hubs of communication and exchange, in new forms unrecognizable from the media of the past.

As awesome as these modern strides have been, they emphasize how primeval the rest of media remains. Film distributors play it safe with the featured rom-com of the week yet forgo the shocking, smaller pictures piquing interest in just as many, if not more. (Ithaca’s Cinemapolis and Cornell Cinema are noted exceptions). The brooding, contentious Melancholia surprised its producers when its early Video on Demand premiere reeled in more dough than any other new release. People want great films, but the money in Hollywood now rules with the cliché checkbook. Consider how The Godfather and 2001 broke box office records for their time.

Those serious about music no longer look to the Billboard charts for quality. Our aforementioned love of dirt scrutinizes the talented anomalies that are there like Adele and Amy Winehouse — quite literally — to death. The Best New Music hums underground, distinct from the mass market.

Which is where we find the root of the problem. An ugly trend of normalization has stripped craft from the masses. Those who know better look elsewhere while the rest just soak in what is left. Passive faces do not question whom the television tells them to hate, dress like or vote for. Misanthropy tells me not to concern myself with these people, but we have reached the point where I must engage. We are at the nascent decline of culture, a word synonymous with civilization, or at least any civilization worth living in.

I offer no panacea to the issues we face. People have already taken notice, as seen from the globe-spanning Occupy protests to the far more innocuous Amazon.com rage over the recycled trite of Modern Warfare 3. “Change!” we scream. Maybe your own life needs a little bit of it. A recent study linked Jersey Shore watching to acquired stupidity. As much as you are what you eat, you are what you watch.

Consider the nearly impossible but still existent chance that you drop dead the next time you watch TV. What would your friends and family say about your last moments? Would you really want to spend your swan song with Kim Kardashian, by yourself? Because you don’t watch that shit with anyone else.

This article was originally written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location via this link

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Grey Review

The Grey
Directed by Joe Carnahan
Released in 2012

In my minutely-partitioned movie collection, there is a little section I like to call “old men kicking ass.” The subgenre hit its peak in 2008 when Hollywood realized the youth demographic revered the aging action stars from the 70’s and 80’s  (Chuck Norris jokes may be somewhat responsible). We saw Clint Eastwood and Michael Caine pulverize punks in Gran Torino and Harry Brown, and Sylvester Stallone slurred at anything that moved in reboots to the Rocky and Rambo franchises, not to mention regrouping the Rogaine collective in The Expendables.

Guilt by proximity places the Liam Neeson of Taken in this category as well, as a 56-year-old clearing a yacht full of machinegun-wielding thugs using only a pistol and no apparent shortness of breath strikes us as rather exceptional. Neeson may be a few years under the median of the rest of these gentlemen, but his association in the badass elder enclave stands strong.

When I buy Mr. Neeson’s latest film The Grey — which I will do considering it is, itself, rather exceptional — I will not place it besides these vigilante senior pictures. This film has something profound to say, not (wolf) skulls to crush, though the aggressive marketing campaign insists on the latter. The Grey creeps into heavy philosophical territory without pretension but with the innate terror — and, conversely, Zen — these situations carry. For me, that trumps any mindless action rehash, even with the novelty of an old man holding the gun.

Ottway (Neeson) is at the end of the line. He addresses ambiguous notes to his unseen wife and finds himself pulling a gun to his brain in the plot’s first five minutes. Symbolic events ensue and he ends up on an airplane with a crew of oil drillers headed to Northern Alaska. They do not make it there. In a stunning scene, the plane rips from the sky in a whirling blur of chaos, silence and light. Seven survivors plus one dying one make it through the crash. That man’s death — which Ottway softly eases him into — throws the film as far away from the hyper pulp of Taken as possible, if the initial suicide attempt did not already come to that conclusion.

The terrible plane crash actually brings Ottway back to life. Not to the extremes of Locke’s reaffirming rebirth in Lost, but more a solemn commitment to save those still with him. His official job in the oil operation is to snipe encroaching wolves, so he knows a few tricks to sustain survival. Unsurprisingly, the crash reduced his rifle to splinters so the circling wolves indisputably have the upper hand.

These savage canines — whose depiction conservationists call deceptive while Joe Carnahan, the director, defends as plausible — pick off the survivors one-by-one, with different tactics each time. The realism of the wolves’ stalking, strategizing, bloodletting may be questionable, but I have seen enough Planet Earth to know that nature is cruel, and it would not surprise me if apex predators, evolved to dominate in the harshest of climates, could wipe out our truly weak species.

Carnahan takes cues from Spielberg by keeping the wolves off-screen for the most part. Relegating the animals to blurs of grey fur and echoing howls creates creatures far more terrifying than what Canis lupis truly are: a few nucleotides away from Air Bud. Jaws set the precedent for the unseen, and thus omnipresent, monster (actually due to malfunctions on-set that Spielberg took in stride). These wolves could be anywhere, but are always in mind.

But enough about these damn wolves, sharks and boogeymen, for the story cares little about them. Instead, it thrusts men into the most primal of scenarios, where it is not only necessary to kill, but almost impossible to do so. This crew of ex-cons, fugitives and thieves — “men unfit for mankind,” as Ottway describes, though others might just call them “manly men” — falls victim to the elements with shocking passivity. Diaz, played by Frank Grillo and by far the most captivating of the supporting characters, brutally dismembers a wolf carcass as the rest of the survivors watch in concern. It is not a look of disgust as much as fear that this loss of humanity lurks around the corner for them, as well.

Dread as bleak as Alaska’s whiteout tundra permeates every scene of this film, though spiritual catharsis joins in tandem for a few provocative moments. Prayer is both futile and vital. Under such duress, most would turn to a higher power for aid, but what can He do? Screenwriters Carnahan and Ian Mackenzie Jeffers play the middle ground, leaving the message fulfilling to those with and without faith. Distributor Open Road Films actually released a companion pamphlet aimed at Christian audiences, saying The Grey “provides men with an opportunity to discover the many ways in which they can better face a life in which spiritual warfare – the battle for our individual souls – is a hard reality.” Perhaps pushing the card a bit, but the poetic last scene will leave it up to any interpretation.

There is one scene that will sear into your conscience. A character gives up, but not in the way you would expect. Carnahan stages an incredibly long shot, proving great courage on his own part (he directed the bombastically mediocre A-Team reboot after all) and balances terror and serenity with minimalist precision.

The solid cast of Ive-seen-that-face-before character actors and the scripts decency to give us a decent look into their humble lives brings a complete, circular structure to the plot and themes. It is a heavy movie for the multiplex, especially considering many are expecting Taken 3 (2011s Unknown was the spiritual sequel) and do not anticipate a Jack London-esque contemplation on nature, death and faith, in all the agony and peace and yin and yang that they carry.

This strife serves as the perfect vehicle for the films titan, Liam Neeson. His rugged but mortal face completely fills the poster. It is a handsome face, well-suited for close-ups, not unlike the symbolic tarmacs of Clint Eastwood or Dustin Hoffman. His presence guarantees quality regardless if the rest is camp or craft. He dominates the screen. How could wolves think they stand a chance?

Final Verdict:
4 Stars out of 5

This article was originally written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location via this link.