John Pilger vs the American Psycho

John Pilger, journalist and documentarian, criticized the film [The Hurt Locker] in The New Statesman, writing that “it offers a vicarious thrill via yet another standard-issue psychopath high on violence in somebody else’s country where the deaths of a million people are consigned to cinematic oblivion.” He compared the praise given to The Hurt Locker to the accolades given to 1978’s The Deer Hunter.[42]

I saw The Hurt Locker at the Melbourne Film Festival in 2008, the year it was released. Regardless of the hype, it was just another American action film built on the same scaffold of structural and character clichés we’ve been absorbing for years. I didn’t think much about it, other than how many of the audience members (a ‘highly intelligent collection of film-savvy Melburnites’) guffawed at all the dumb-macho jokes, all the way through.

I find going to the movies an often-disappointing experience. I tend to stay inside nowadays and, more often than not, read and watch other stuff. I am perfectly prepared to be pelted with all the ideological rotten tomatoes you can muster (and I accept them – I know, I sound like a wanker). The truth is, my degree was about digesting as many films and books as I could rake in. After a few thousand hours, you become saturated with the form itself, which is what instills a lot of pleasure in the first place. I think it’s actually the big gap between young and old, in terms of taste; the old forget – and the young don’t realize – that there’s a certain exhilaration in the pure experience of a story articulating in front of you.

A lot of the reason I read ‘classics’ now, or stick to them, is because they are anti-genre. EVERYTHING in a modern context is spun in terms of how it will be marketed, and genre is key to this. ‘Literature’ is a genre now, folks; don’t be fooled.

Genre is not just a matter of story conventions, it’s become a matter of ideological conventions. Modern films, almost exclusively, are bolted into a kind of ‘timid, lying morality’; a vomit-soup of sentimentality and romance that makes me sick. As the man said, ‘religion is the opiate of the masses’. That used to be true; now it’s commercial art.

Some of it, though, isn’t just disgusting; it’s downright disturbing. Films like The Hurt Locker, particularly, where the violence of the Iraq war is served up as ‘entertainment’ in all its bone-headed glory. Film-makers like the great Sam Peckinpah defined the ‘modern’ use of graphic violence, but sadly, their narrative values didn’t take root. I suspect this is partly because identification with his characters is confusing. They often shift moral polarity (Straw Dogs), while others are downright repulsive (The Wild Bunch). 

The litmus test (for me) with all these things is whether you can relate them to your own life. Shakespeare or Tolstoy are less-accessible, but you can relate to them. They take you into the innermost workings of their character’s secret hearts. Which allows you intimate knowledge of your own. And that’s what ‘entertains’ me; to see those things, and be able to handle the instruments myself. There are plenty of other examples. Many of them, strangely, are the province of American cable tv. Game of Thrones is the most recent, but not the only example, that springs to mind.

Whenever I think ‘blood-thirsty psycho I am encouraged to identify with and vicariously drink in the gore’, Mad Mel Gibson comes to mind. How can you go past mainstream classics like Lethal Weapon, The Patriot or Ransom? Lethal Weapon is obvious, but the other two are more sinister again. The Patriot features a scene where Mad Mel fires a pistol which tears the fingers off a man who puts his hands up to protect himself. It’s the shot right out of the end of Taxi Driver where Travis finally freaks out and goes on a kill-crazy rampage. Whether this was a conscious reference or not is uncertain; either way, it’s pretty fucked-up.

The other example is Ransom. Mel’s daughter is kidnapped and you have the ‘pleasure’ of the spectacle of her suffering. Then, Mel goes on the righteous rampage. At the climax, he has the opportunity to kill his enemy, grants him mercy, and as he turns his back, the kidnapper gets up and attempts to shoot him. Mel is then fully justified in gunning him down. The plot developments are astonishingly facile, and purely in the service of providing us with righteous carnage.

At risk of getting all Modernist on you, another more contemporary example is the film Colombiana. It was produced by Luc Besson, and if you threw a stone from this one, you’d hit La Femma Nikita without too much trouble. To make a short story even shorter, it’s about a size-0 Colombian woman exacting a vendetta against the vicious drug-lords who killed her family. Once orphaned, she seeks refuge with her American relatives, the patriarch of which is a gangster. When she meets him, he is beating another man senseless. Later, he tells her to forget her revenge and repeatedly fires a revolver at a passing car to make his point. The car careens into a fire hydrant, creating mayhem. And I asked myself the question: is it possible to see this character as anything other than a sociopath?

People who say the UFC and rise of blood sports are evidence of a degenerate society are, in my opinion, miles off the mark. In fighting sports, no one dies and there is no ideology driving the fighters, other than their personal motives. In addition, the blood is real. The spectacles of Rampage Jackson cutting Chuck Liddell, as opposed to Mad Mel gunning down a Red Coat, couldn’t be further apart. In fact, I’d set them as opposite poles of the spectrum at issue.

I appreciate that a picture of a pipe is not a pipe; it’s a picture of a pipe. All the clever academics will tell you so. But my question is, how can the picture of a dead, mangled body function as ‘entertainment’ if it isn’t a springboard for some experience of psychological reality? Filmmakers ranging from Dali and Bunuel to Sam Peckinpah to George Miller and Stanley Kubrick thought they were torturing their viewers with depictions of explicit violence. Ironically, it turns out they were entertaining them en masse.

As Colonel Kurtz said, “We train young men to drop fire on people. But their commanders won’t allow them to write “fuck” on their airplanes because it’s obscene.”

Is Baudrillard right in his belief that reality is relative, or is this collapse of perceptions indicative of Yeats’ prediction that ‘the center cannot hold?’

Or, in fact, has it already fallen way-the-hell out?

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