Night of the Living Dead (1968) begins with a shot of a car driving through a pastoral and eerie countryside. The car turns off the road and winds its way into a graveyard, where we discover that its passengers are a brother and sister who have come out from Pittsburgh to deliver a wreath to a grave. They are squares, unhip. This is a year after the Summer of Love. The Tet Offensive is nine months in the past. The graveyard is deserted except for a tall, shambling man. He staggers forward and attacks them. The brother is killed. The girl flees through the countryside to an old farmhouse in which she barricades herself along with several other people who have fled from whatever it is that is happening; there is no reason, there is no backstory, there is some confused talk of radiation from outer space; we are given no context; there is simply a world overrun.
Apocalypse Now (1977) carries Joseph Conrad’s understanding of the European colonial enterprise forward into the Vietnam War. A white man, Kurtz, has gone up the river and set himself up as a god among the natives. But this brazenness cannot be tolerated. It is one thing to believe this privately, in your heart, and quite another to admit it publicly. A second white man is sent – in Conrad’s novel to investigate the first man, in Coppola’s film to assassinate him.
It is not simply the jungle into which we are moving on our journey up the river; it is the absurdity of the colonial enterprise itself. The film walks the viewer through a series of increasingly wretched, bizarre and surreal scenes: the infamous Ride of the Valkyries landing on Charlie’s point; the boarding of a sampan and the massacre of the civilians aboard; a USO show in which Playmates gyrate in front of a wall of GIs on floating platforms on a river in the war zone; a battle fought in a surreal night in which soldiers lob grenades at taunting voices in the darkness, a battle in which there are no longer any commanders, any control. Finally, we reach Kurtz’s corpse-strewn base camp and come face to face with Kurtz himself. He is insane, destroyed by the enterprise to which he has given his existence, the enterprise which he has had the audacity to face openly.
What elevates these films is the intensity and clarity of their vision. Their subject is violence. More exactly, it is the horror of the violence that lies just below the surface of the American achievement. Their basic method is the artistic one. Not argument, but a scream of agony and disbelief and laughter at our existence. They are modally full, which is to say that they utilize a wide variety of approaches: carnage, horror, fear, beauty, comedy.
In the opening of Night of the Living Dead the brother vamps through the graveyard after his sister, doing his best impression of an old Universal Studios monster movie villain. With a quick twist of the wrist the film bends this humor into horror, as the man that the brother makes fun of turns out to be a zombie who kills him. Apocalypse Now is famously full of savage glee: think of Robert Duval standing tall among the flying shrapnel and tearing off his shirt, declaring that he’s not afraid to surf this beach. Think of how this scene is then warped to nightmare, flowing smoothly into the indiscriminate killing of civilians by the American troops, a young Vietnamese girl who throws a grenade into a medivac helicopter and is then gunned down from above as she runs away.
Both films also employ moments of strange, stunning beauty: the opening scene in Apocalypse Now in which a vast stretch of jungle explodes as unseen bombs fall from unseen jets, or the long quiet shot of the tail of the crashed American airplane arcing up over the river; the silent sequence near the opening of Night of the Living Dead in which Barbara explores the house she has discovered, in which the stark patches of light and immense impenetrable blocks of darkness pay homage to the American noir films, to German Expressionism.
It is these type of disjunctions – horror and humor, beauty and violence – that help to give the films their modally full power. Another way of getting at this is to note that there is a connection here to a more commonly used, and intensely complicated, word: irony. We might say that the idea of modal fullness is an attempt to trace some of the mechanics of the ironic, some of its operations in art. We might say that what modal fullness pushes towards is an expansive irony, as opposed to a reductive one; an irony that increases emotional, artistic, and intellectual depth, rather than decreasing it.
The San Diego Padres are a baseball team named for the Franciscan Friars that founded a mission in the area in 1769. There is a large military presence in San Diego, to which the team has become closely tied. In every home game that occurs on a Sunday, the Padres wear camouflage-patterned uniforms. Visiting teams are often treated to tours of nearby military instillations, where they take team photographs in which the players pose with heavy and light machine guns, night vision goggles, grenade launchers.
There is a modal fullness to this. A game, the American game, no less, twinned with the war machine; a team named after the Friars of a religion founded on the teachings of Jesus becoming the team that most fervently salutes the military; one team wearing camouflaged uniforms while the other goes down to the beach to take photos of themselves posing with guns.
A modal fullness. During the Vietnam War, a pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates named Doc Ellis threw a no-hitter against these same Padres while he was on LSD.
He went to L.A. to see his girlfriend on an off day, woke up at some point and thought it was still the same day, and dropped some more drugs. Then his girlfriend told him that it was actually tomorrow (from his point of view; another way of putting it would be, “No man, you’re supposed to be pitching in a couple hours”) and put him on a shuttle flight to San Diego. He found the game, put on his uniform, and pitched a no-hitter. He admitted later that he often could not see home plate all that well. At one point a player hit a soft come-backer and Ellis threw himself to the ground, thinking that the ball was a line drive that would fell him.
And resonances: In Apocalypse Now one of the sailors on the boat going up the river, Lance, a surfer, drops acid as they approach the scene of a nighttime battle. The battle becomes surreal, an exercise in non-existence, in just the way that Ellis’s experience with the Padres seemed to.
Lance survives the movie, the only sailor on the boat to do so.
The irony of the militarization of the Padres seems to go unnoticed.
In The Hurt Locker (2009), perhaps the most acclaimed film to come out of our current decade of warfare in the Middle East, there is little humor. There is no surreality. There is a continuous attempt, instead, to be gritty and real. There is no howl of protest, or even of approval. The overarching logic of our current war, or wars, or colonial skirmishes, is taken for granted. There is a system, the movie seems to say, and we must operate within it. There is no room for a larger vision: someone needs to defuse those bombs, there is a struggle against terrorism that goes on and on and someone needs to fight it, the way of the world is that they sew bombs into people’s bodies and we try to prevent this. We must accept the need for violence, even if we bemoan the way the violence corrodes the life of the individuals involved. Yes, it is tragic that these lives get ruined in this way, but it must be done. There is evil out there, and we must fight it.
Glenn Greenwald has been tracing this arc for years. He is fond of pointing out that the idea that there is any disagreement in Washington over the logic of our military actions is a myth. He notes, for instance, that a four year extension of the Patriot Act was recently approved in the Senate by a vote of 74-8. There was no significant debate. He notes that the Obama administration, in the name of pursuing the War on Terror, has demanded that the FBI needs to have the ability to access the internet records of Americans without requesting a subpoena, and indeed without any sort of judicial approval at all. The media and the public have no comment. These are the tools we need to fight the terror, the evil. He notes that the killing of Osama Bin Laden had no discernible impact on the conduct of, or the dialogue about, the war in Afghanistan, which was begun to root him out.
What are the responses to Greenwald? He’s shrill. His posts are too wordy. The logic makes sense to everyone, and if Glenn doesn’t like it, that’s because he’s just not serious enough, or rational enough, to understand the threat.
The killing of Bin Laden. The computerized re-enactments on the nightly news shows. The hagiography of the military dog involved. The immediate copywriting by Disney of the title Seal Team Six for a movie. The news that Kathryn Bigelow, the director of The Hurt Locker, is working closely with an advisor from the Pentagon in order to get the inside scoop for her movie about the events. The cleverly released footage of Obama watching the action “as it unfolded,” surrounded by his advisors, as if they were watching the big game. As if they were watching a movie. As if this is become a movie itself.
And sanitized, edited in just the way a film would be. The photos of the body never released, lying in some cutting room archive somewhere. The body itself, dumped into an ocean hundreds of miles from where the assassination took place. The winking pretense that there was actually some plan to capture him, that the orders from the beginning were something other than to put him down. This is just as it would be in a movie: the loose cannon hero and his steely boss, knowing in their hearts, as the audience knows in its heart, that the only real remedy is to kill the bad guy, that subjecting him to the clumsiness of the judicial system would be nothing short of idiocy.
Has there been a shift in the narrative that we wrap around our violence in the last thirty years?
Why video games that mimic, one after another, the experience of soldiers killing and being killed in battle? Why television shows about the decency and patriotism of wives left behind by their husbands fighting overseas, as if this state – alone, raising the family, the agony of waiting – were the normal one, the noble one, and not the horrifying one? Why this refusal to question, not the wars themselves, or the violence, but the sanity of those wars, that violence? Why this deadening, this modal stifling? Why this inability to find some deeper irony, some more distant point of view?
Night of the Living Dead forced the audience into the meat grinder of this question of sanity. It forced them into a world in which everyone had turned into slow-moving, unthinking, zombies. Zombies who wanted nothing other than to kill you. And then eat you. It forced the audience into the position of contemplating the unthinkable, the absurd; and then it forced upon them the fact that this absurd was, in fact, their world. The characters in the movie turn on a television to find out what’s happening and are greeted with a scene of an Army commander being evasive about the explanation. This cuts to befuddled news anchors who try to explain the events and fail to do so. Here is the audience of the movie suddenly projected into the movie, experiencing its own reality of watching the Vietnam War on the nightly news. Grainy black and white footage of violence, people on television who cannot explain what is happening and yet are presented as authorities, experts, the war turned into a nightmare of zombies that kill and eat and rise from the dead, that cannot be stopped.
Not content to stop there, the film also grinds us into the violence of our racial legacy. We are given a pale white girl with blond hair, a kind of lilting heroin from the popular American imagination. She hides from the zombies in the house, and is alone until the appearance ofâ€¦a black man. It’s as if the director Romero is saying: You’re afraid of miscegenation? Well then, here’s a little of the old myth, the old racial horror, for you: a pretty young white girl trapped all alone in a house with a big strong black man. How do you like it? How sane can we pretend our world to be now?
And then he takes this and twists it, making the black man is the only competent character in the movie. Why is this? The film forces the question on us. Could it be that this black man is accustomed to navigating a world of horror? Could it be that being threatened with mutilation by a horde of zombies is nothing new for a black man in 1968?
The film closes by presenting the audience with the forces of order, in the persons of the sheriffs. They ride around in a pickup truck shooting zombies. They seem to revel in the outbreak. The chaos offers a chance to do what they’ve been itching to do all along: shoot for the head, indiscriminately. They shoot the black man, the hero of the film, in the head as well. Of course. None of the characters in the house survives. The film seethes with repudiation. The world is fucked! it shouts, And you, You! are going to get chased down, slowly, inevitably, agonizingly, and killed and then come back to not-life again as one of them, able to want only to kill the other people who are as alive as you once were. Why? Because the system is absurd. The world is absurd. There is only, in Conrad’s refrain, Coppola’s refrain, The Horror, The Horror.
Saw (2004) and its sequels might be seen as an epitome of a contemporary narrative drift, one which might be worth considering. Torture-porn, it has been called. A genre of horror movies in which the sharpest visceral thrill comes from the slow, deliberate anticipation of and then infliction of violence. This is not Michael Meyers stepping out from behind a door and sticking a knife in you. This is people sawing off their own legs. People strapped into place and mutilated, slowly, in high resolution. People are trapped in devices of torture; we are expected to marvel at the ingenuity of these devices. Because the subtle twist of Saw is that the victims are guilty, and the killer is the hero. The victims are chosen because of their sins. They have cheated on their spouses. They do drugs. They lie. They are the sinners, and the killer is blameless.
In one standard horror movie formulation, the killer is wronged, directly or indirectly, by the people that he sets about killing. This gives us Frankenstein, brought into a life of pain and setting out to take revenge on his creator. Another formulation is to create a cycle of wrong, like the one that produced Freddy Krueger. He was a killer who was burned alive by a group of people and then went about murdering their children from beyond the grave.
But in Saw this link between killer and killed, between offense and retribution, is severed. The killer has been wronged, but not by any of his victims. He has been wronged because he is dying of cancer. His connection to his victims is incidental. This cancer has robbed him of his chance to live, and so he decides to show the sinners how precious their lives are by torturing them. All of this is offered with the standard ponderous Hollywood moralizing. We are invited to feel sorry for the killer, and to admire his fiendish plots. We are invited to believe that this treatment will end in those he is torturing actually learning a “lesson” about their lives.
What a clear picture this paints! Of our puritanical moment: do drugs, lie, cheat, and what you need is to learn a lesson through torture. No Doc Ellises for you, subsisting on freedom and strangeness and uncaring in the face of the military’s official team. It is a picture of our self-loathing: we deserve this torture, all of us, who are engaged in these activities. We want this violence. A picture of our hatred of death and decay, of our belief that we all ought to live forever, of our tantrum that it is manifestly unfair that we do not live for ever: the greatest sin is not torturing other people, it is that the universe gave me cancer!
This is an exercise in decadence. It is a movie made as if the Vietnam War never happened. It is made as if Pol Pot never existed. As if the first World War has slipped entirely from memory. It is a movie made in a culture that has no sense of scale. It is a movie made in a culture that has lost its sense of existential horror, its sense of beauty, a culture that lives with an overarching fear but with no understanding of, or experience of, violence. In a culture that feels trapped by a system, a clever torture device, wars which must not be questioned. It is a movie made in a culture that has, at least temporarily, lost its very mechanism for questioning. Its mechanism for protesting against or even pointing out the absurd.
General Petraeus is a hero. Because of his steely resolve. Because of the role he played in refusing to surrender his vision. His vision of Iraq, a country in which it must be asked what has been accomplished. A trade of a few hundred thousand dead for the removal of a dictator. His vision of Afghanistan, in which only the very romantic can still believe: a nation restructured through the cleaning force of violence itself, recreated into something that no one can articulate, no one can actually describe; and yet a vision with redemptive power in the minds of America: some functioning “democracy” the delineations of which, we are assured, will somehow create themselves over time.
We read in the L.A. Times: “Defense Secretary Leon Panetta declared Saturday that the United States is ‘within reach’ of ‘strategically defeating’ Al Qaeda as a terrorist threat, but that doing so would require killing or capturing the group’s 10 to 20 remaining leaders.” Ten to twenty. This is not a nation controlled by Nazis. This is not a legion of troops at the border. It is, and always has been, a demented terrorist group that got lucky on a scale that had not been previously imagined possible. Nineteen men with box cutters, who had no idea that the towers would fall. Who took flying lessons but no takeoff or landing lessons, clever and stupid in exactly the same measure. Who managed to start a decade of war, with victims in the millions.
Violent men. Madmen. Dangerous men. And yet the truth that has gone uncommented on is, of course, that they are only dangerous on any serious scale because of military proliferation: suitcase nukes and anthrax attacks, the mushroom clouds that hang in the fevered dreams of the politicians. Weapons invented, none of them, by the terrorists themselves. The truth is that these terrorists are able to recruit successfully because of the state of continual violence that has existed around them for decades. The truth is they are a threat only because of the continued and radical militarization that is exactly the thing being called for to stop them.
Petraeus is not a hero for anything he has done. Because what is that? He has simply conducted the wars that were given to him. He is a hero because he is an embodiment, like a character on the silver screen, of an idea, a dream.
Pat Tilman is this dream. This movie. Poor Pat Tilman, the professional football player who forsook his life as an athlete to fight the War on Terror. Who was by all accounts a brave man and an honest one, a man who had deep doubts about the wars. Who should serve as a cautionary tale, of sacrifice, of belief, of the cruel laughter of the world. He was a hero when he was killed. The military explained it clearly. He had died heroically in an engagement with Afghan forces and was awarded a silver star.
And yet other facts began to emerge. He had actually been killed by friendly fire. In fact, he had been killed by three closely placed shots to the head. Some American soldier, through accident or luck or malice, had assassinated him. And the military knew it the entire time it went through the charade of declaring him a hero.
Pat Tilman deserves an Apocalypse Now. He will not get it. He will get a military flyby on opening day. Osama has been killed and Pat Tilman has been killed and hundreds of thousands more have been killed and yet the war continues. The war in Afghanistan. In Libya. In Yemen. In Pakistan. In Somalia.
And so we get The Expendables (2009), Sylvester Stallone’s action movie in which everything but the violence itself is acknowledged, even celebrated, as a trope. With a wink and a nod the director acknowledges the audience’s knowledge, the entire country’s knowledge, that all of the wornout old devices – character development, dialogue, a love interest and the like – are simply that: old and wornout.
The characters are only developed in that they are “burned out.” These are men who “hate violence” but understand that it is, of course, necessary. Wait, strike that. Actually, violence is useful, and kind of fun, and here’s the groundwork for the sequel.
The attempts at love stories in the movie are centered not around adult relationships, but around scenes of redemptive, choreographed violence. A man beating the people who have struck his woman. Another man killing the people who have insulted his woman’s honor, her country. This is love: the ability to inflict redemptive violence.
The dialogue is delivered as if the characters understand they are in a movie. They banter in a way that we imagine that soldiers banter, who banter that way because they’ve seen it on the screen. They banter because that is the flip side of the new narrative of violence; we take this cartoonish violence for granted, and so make quips about it.
This is irony of the thinnest, most reductive sort. Isn’t it crazy, the movie asks, that we all – director, actors, characters, audience – understand that we’re watching an action movie? Isn’t that ironic? This is modal flatness. This is irony in service of the system of violence rather than revealing it. Because the only thing which the movie does not treat ironically is violence itself.
The deepest reason for the movie’s existence, or course, is to give us a series of scenes of killing. Explosions, dismemberment, deserving terrorists torn apart limb from limb; these scenes are labored over. They are loved, caressed, choreographed. Filmed in high def slow mo. They, only, are not treated with a wink.
I am reminded sometimes of the advice of Wole Soyinka. He wrote The Man Died when he was a political prisoner. He wrote it on scraps of paper, and in the margins of books that had been smuggled into him. In it, he explains that his solitary confinement created in him the temptation to give in to a view of his own existence as one of nothing more than tragedy. He writes that a tragic view of this sort “is possible solely because of the limitations of the human spirit.” This view is dangerous, he explains, because it always threatens to become a mode through which repressive society can control the human spirit. Thus The Hurt Locker uses its “tragic” presentation of the war in Iraq in order to acclimate people to the sad necessity of that war. The movie does not provoke condemnation or repudiation, but acceptance. Thus Saw or The Expendables treat violence. They claim for it a false tragic, or self-tragic, necessity. Through a modally narrow expression they force the audience to accept the status quo, in the same way that forcing Soyinka to accept the tragedy of his own unjust imprisonment would have allowed his jailors to force him to accept the imprisonment itself.
Fight this, is Soyinka’s demand. Fight it through all the tools of existence, of art, all of the modes which are available to us. Fight it, and become expanded:
“There are levels of despair,” he writes, “from which, it rightly seems, the human spirit should not recover. To plunge to such a level is to be overwhelmed by the debris of all those anti-human barriers which are erected by jealous gods. The power of recovery is close to acquisition of superhuman energiesâ€¦”