REVIEW: Joe

Joe joe_us_posterhas been described as a ‘return to form’ for Nicolas Cage. Though most critics are praising his acting chops, it can also be understood as an acknowledgement of his ability to ‘do crazy’ terrifyingly well. Cage’s latest foray into crazy is certainly one of substance, and, luckily, every one of the leading performances here follows suit. With equally skilled direction, much of this unique and rattling picture hits the mark dead on; perhaps, then, it’s the basis of the novel that predated it that stunts this otherwise complex story of masculinity in crisis.

 

The film can confidently claim its success as a mainstream picture, carefully toeing a line between box-office thriller and arthouse meditation, allowing for widely appreciable receipt which I don’t doubt it will get. It is more complex than its trailer betrays; though its the spine that allows for wider exploration, at its centre it is not about Joe being a father figure to an abused boy (Gary, played by an exceptional Tye Sheridan,) and/or very occasionally shot at, which is what lured most people in. The essence of the film is an examination of whether vices and violence preclude one from being a ‘good person’. Joe’s tendency to violence is the focus of this conflict between good-or-not, and his vices facilitate both his restraint and his violence. The foregrounding of prostitution, alcoholism and smoking, however, present ambiguous messages to the audience, and a series of morality-chicken-and-morality-egg considerations.

 

The big question at its heart is one of good, evil and human nature; how and why, and indeed, is Joe a good man? Will Gary be?

 

I’m assuming it was purposeful that the eponymous character was constantly in conflict with the audience; Joe’s behaviour bounces between repulsive, parental and adolescent. Without any comic relief it was difficult to feel identification with someone so inconsistent; though, of course, it rang true. The parallel between Joe and Gary was made explicit initially, but generally left alone throughout to allow for an assumed connection between them, and a comment on neglect, abuse and the cause and effect of both in adulthood. The ties to class here were interesting; the film is centered entirely on working and under-class characters, and very much focused on the ravages of alcoholism and poverty within their lives. The characters who did not drink (at least on-screen) were happy and friendly in the main, with a great sense of camaraderie, compassion and connection as a community. These were incredibly interesting characters, who could certainly have given the film even more depth. Unfortunately, there was no attempt at a wider comment on the economic situation or history of anyone; this was not a radically-minded film, but one which, as usual, seemed to leave most of the characters’ traits, behaviours and habitats to be assumed as an innate part of their ‘bad’ character.

 

Ultimately, the film is about what it means to ‘be a man’, and it’s as layered, frustrating and contradictory as that sounds. Thematically, Joe is intriguing; an archetypal story of good and evil, implicitly reflecting on class and identity and surreptitiously providing insight into the human self and our beliefs about those selves. Though, once again, an essentialist ideology about ‘being a man’ pervades this work; Joe does not challenge prevailing stereotypes about masculinity, but rather resigns itself to them. It provides more insight into the chronic clichés of classical characterization than it does into humanity or our potential to challenge the failures of those clichés.

 

For all the complexity and nuance, stereotypes of masculinity are glaringly present. Though the connection between them is implied, it is unclear whether we are supposed to understand Joe as having an abusive upbringing similar to Gary’s. Without allusion to it, Joe’s obsession with violence and protection of the innocent (which, naturally, includes women, as long as they will have sex with him) appears to come from his oh-so-manliness; one so tied to his base desires as a human that in order not to kill someone a brothel pit-stop, facilitated by his dog killing their guard dog so he can get in for a quick blow-job, is necessary, before he can finally soothe his roaring male-ness under the weight of a tank of whiskey and a few beers.

 

He then proceeds to let a first-time-drunk Gary drive him around. Granted, there is a mild comedy and a deep tenderness to the boys’ road trip to find Joe’s dog (who, incidentally, is female…) and in the context of their connection as damaged children, it works. The derailment of Joe as a father figure is successfully implied, and in addition he loses his endearing nature and it almost signals his end; not only in the narrative but also as a champion-able protagonist.

 

This also provides insight into whether or not the film really provides a critical edge when it comes to power relations that aren’t between men. The exploration of masculine violence is constant, but reads as more of a fascination than a critical examination of how violence is used. Desperate attempts at retaining unequal power imbalance, an unstable ego, and a facilitation of greed at others’ expense are all present in the film; all complex portrayals of the roots of violence. These subtle hints at the nature of violent relationships are commendable, and remain foregrounded throughout, but the focus of the narrative, and thus its power, remains with the enacters of violence, and not those abused. There is no unease in Joe’s visits to the brothel and the general use of prostitutes, and his relationship with Connie, while illuminating both his gentleness and his rejection of intimacy, results in a pretty flat plot strand. There were numerous females present throughout, though none were developed and all were passive (except the wonderful woman whose birthday it was – we never found out if anyone made her a cake.) All of these gender dynamics could have allowed for a greater determination of what exactly is meant and felt by ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’, and the power relations between the two. The opportunities having been lost, they left only underwritten female characters in their wake and yet another cinematic foregrounding of woman-as-commodity.

 

The character of Gary was a blank slate, and rightly so; lost but full and played perfectly by Sheridan, his rescue of his sister was a triumphant and satisfying end to his arc, but not hers. It was yet another conflict in message, mired in imbalances that were perhaps lost in favour of the exciting climax shootout. For a film that was so tender, well-played and -directed, the shortcomings of Joe in its themes about masculinity, class and violence were frustrating. Joe’s final showdown with his nemesis could perhaps be read as a comment on the futility of violence, and that if ‘good’ men succumb to it, they will be destroyed, but it also provided a conveniently quick and neat ending. As a comment on masculinity, Joe is not a radically transformative one, and while insightful in many ways regarding the expectations and pressures on young boys to be stereotypically (destructively) masculine, it speaks more about vice and its relationship with violence.

 

As a meditation on abuse and an exploration of what it means to be a good person, especially what it means to misunderstand and abuse oneself whilst attempting to heal, it is full of contradictory but fascinating messages. And ultimately, these contradictions may ring true as a reflection of the complexity involved in human desire, and the lottery of life. The last line of the film is “Joe was a good man…”. People are not as simple as good and evil, and I hope that audience will come away understanding that; I have faith that this was Joe’s aim.

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The Abuse of Power in Narrative (aka Game of Thrones and Strong Female Characters)

Representation, not only of particular characters and social groups, but also of events and their significance, seems widely misunderstood, and Game of Thrones is a great example of this. Representation is often considered at surface level only: as what, instead of how. 

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The Game of Thrones Debate

I initially decided not to watch Game of Thrones because, in general, anything resembling Lord Of The Rings and me doesn’t mix, and I didn’t want to eat into any time that could be spent elsewhere, valuably slagging off fantasy fiction. Many friends of mine with great taste assure me of how well it’s written, how many breathtaking pixel amalgamations there are, and how many Strong Female Characters rise to power to rule over the land of their teeny dragon mates and their wooly and metallically clothed, Stoke-accented subjects.

Yet after unavoidable glimpses of clips, trailers, recaps and reviews, I couldn’t help but notice how naked and raped the women kept getting. Tedious.

Danielle Henderson agrees. After posting her much-circulated article in the Guardian (GoT: Too much racism and sexism – so I stopped watching) to my social media, I sparked one of those long debates where everyone gets offended and disagrees forever.

You might not find the sexual violence in GoT tedious, you might find it mesmerizing, titillating, or entertaining – my hope is that at the very least, viewers find it disturbing. I assure you it is intended to be all of these things; the vast majority of all entertainment media is. If the gruesome events in GoT were simply disturbing, people would not watch it en masse (weekly screening of Irréversible, anyone?) If they were simply a demonstration of the realities of sexual exploitation, it would not have necessitated the coining of the word ‘sexposition’.

I choose not to watch it because the continual sexual violence and exploitation displayed in GoT feels both disturbing and tedious to me, considering the paradoxical nature of women’s roles in GoT in particular, and the abuse of rape and sexual violence as a narrative device in the entertainment industry as a whole. If I can remove myself from being exposed to it (which, actually, I can’t until everyone pipes down) why does it matter? If there are plenty of rich female characters in Game of Thrones or any other media, how can it be ‘sexist’?

Representation

One rape scene may be different than another. One Asian character might be a racist representation and another not. It’s not that we need to simply put more women, people with disabilities and people of colour in films, or censor certain events from being broadcast at all, necessarily (except for A Serbian Film. Seriously, fuck those guys.) Rather, we need to understand the process by which ideas of normality and magnitude are created and perpetuated, and how these are delineated through existing discourses of power and visibility.

The gratuitous use of female nudity and rape in Game of Thrones is a pertinent example of this. The representation of any kind of power inequality is problematic when it is not heavily examined and critiqued from the point of view of the oppressed party. Having characters who are oppressed grow to seize power is not an act of redemption which ‘corrects’ the wrong of rape and renders everything just, it is simply using rape (a very real, and very frequent event that too many of us experience) as a tool in their narrative. The event itself is not usually critiqued in any more depth than ‘That Was Bad.’ That the oppressed characters in the script might be ‘strong’ (usually in the very shallow sense of being magic, or using weapons) is not the same as actually discussing and critiquing rape and its reality, those who rape, and the processes by which this is normalized by societies, real or fictional.

For example, why are there numerous rapes of women, but not numerous rapes of men? (Trolls, NB: I am not advocating raping men, or that raping men is ok, or necessary for equality, or anything else that you could employ to dismiss all my other sentences.) Unfortunately we are increasingly aware of how many more males experience sexual violence than was originally known, so if we are going to be die-hard about its realism, is it realistic that zero men are raped? Why aren’t there consistent gratuitous scenes of naked men? Do they bathe clothed? The opportunity to exploit anyone is there, though which opportunities a creator chooses is significant.

Further, in the words of Kevin Smith, it’s all bullshit. GoT has fantastic elements throughout (dragons, skeleton zombies….other magic shit), why not create a really interesting and new topsy-turvy world where non-white people hold any sort of power and have lines of dialogue, no one is sexually subordinate to anyone, and ready-made sandwiches grow in bushes? THIS IS A FANTASY WORLD. ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN. YOU ALREADY HAVE PEOPLE WHO CAN POSSESS ANIMALS, WARGS, AND THE FACE-CHANGING GUY. This absolute need for ‘realism’ (as opposed to drama) as a nonchalant defense of continued exploitation of women in narrative does not hold up without explicit critique of that exploitation.

In any show, or film, it would feel too extreme to see (when they appear at all) men being raped over and over again; men always having to overcome abuse and being violently downtrodden by women, often accepting this and being shown to masochistically enjoy it; having men constantly get their balls out while the camera lingers over their soft scrotal skin, giggling and making their pecs dance for paying customers; and feeding their female superiors an endless supply of ready-grown sandwiches.

Why is it not too extreme to see this constantly, consistently, of women in the name of realism? (I have no beef with the sandwich bushes.)

A: Because we consider it ‘real’, and thus ‘normal’. Acceptable, or understandable, even if we express distaste for it.

I expect better from creative people. And then, this is hardly a jaw-dropping update.

Years and years of ‘normal’ life.

GoT aside, this is industry-, and indeed, world-wide. Women are under- and mis-represented in the vast majority of positions of power throughout globalised society. It is not that the representation of women in media is more important than in, say, politics; they are simply different symptoms of the same long-standing power imbalance that runs deeply through the landscapes of our beliefs. But media is particularly significant; not only because it saturates our lives to such an extent, but also because as a visual medium it informs our imaginations which in turn forms our actions and creations. It is culturally and mythically creative; the way in which we communicate, understand, and learn about ourselves. We (and by we, I mean those in power) are telling symbolic stories to each other, and ourselves, about ourselves, and each other. Beliefs, not laws or physical actions, about humanity are created via narratives, and beliefs determine how we behave, what we fight for and against. These beliefs come from the meanings conveyed; you will* (*may) not believe that dragons are real after watching Game of Thrones, but you will believe that strength in numbers and companionship are important (and that CGI is getting awesome.) You may also, then, understand rape and domination as something that happens to women because men want to have sex with them, and that is normal, and something that they must overcome to become advanced characters in life. And in the same vein, that whoever has bare crossbow skills (agility/precision/adaptability) and uses them for ‘good’ (benevolence/conscientiousness) will (or should) defeat those who are evil and have big hammers or maces, or swords (might is right.) These are all subconscious processes, which inculcate us before we began watching GoT, or any other adult media.

The above meaning-creation process in the way rape is often used in narrative is not an original creation of these narratives, merely reinforcements to the way that rape, prostitution and other forms of exploitation are often understood in society. That they are found frequently in narratives in which the non-white/straight/male/able-bodied characters have actually been given some depth is not surprising. We have legislated away the official and explicit prejudice that we could not openly defend; yet those beliefs, still replicated, persist. It’s only been a little while; we do have to give ourselves a bit of time. But we can’t do that if we don’t understand the mechanisms by which these beliefs are reproduced subtly, once explicit prejudices are ‘gone’. (Covered up.)

The Defense

The defense of GoT (and often other stories containing storylines of graphic violence) is often centred around that realism issue. George R. R. Martin, writer of the original novels on which the show is based, recently told the NYTimes that

“Rape and sexual violence have been a part of every war ever fought, from the ancient Sumerians to our present day […] To omit them from a narrative centered on war and power would have been fundamentally false and dishonest, and would have undermined one of the themes of the books: that the true horrors of human history derive not from orcs and Dark Lords, but from ourselves.”

This is true, and I believe that Martin and many viewers will understand them as such. That he states explicitly that there is a negative judgment value put upon the sexual violence in his books is encouraging, and surely sincere. Novels also benefit from allowing much more of the characters’ thoughts and feelings to be directly communicated. However HBO’s version has been widely criticized for emphasizing and changing certain aspects of the sexual violence (specifically Jaime’s rape of Cercei, which, in the books, was consensual sex.) Whether the TV show has had to condense more of the story yet has kept all of the sexually violent material for drama, or whether they are relatively true to the books, I don’t feel a need to know. Why would I want to watch depictions of ‘happy hookers’ and rape that are, as noted by comic book writer Mariah Huehner, treated “cavalierly”? Scott Berkowitz, president of the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, echoes this: “The best depictions don’t just leave it at the dramatic device of the rape itself, they use it to tell a deeper story about recovery and what effect it has on that person.” I would add that they should also centre around the abuse of power and the structures by which that power and violence came to be imbalanced in the first place.

Another frequent dismissal states that there’s nothing wrong with the show’s continued use of rape showboating, because it also showboats the murder of a young boy’s parents in front of him, infanticide, torture etc. This argument comes up also in defense of rape jokes, which again misrepresents the issue. Rape does not need to be specifically cloaked where everything else should be fair game; rather, the treatment and understanding of rape in society, its epidemic nature, and the tone of its portrayal in jokes (or its ‘cavalier’ portrayal in screen media) renders it an abused topic. Not one which needs scrapping from view entirely because it’s icky, but one which gets bandied around in the wrong way by people who do not understand it. Lindy West has notoriously and beautifully set the standard for discourse on understanding why most comedians get it wrong:

“The reason that “rape jokes” become such a contentious issue as opposed to, say, “cancer jokes” or “dead baby jokes” (yawn) is because rape is different from other horrors in some very specific ways.

Say you knew for a fact that in any given audience there was at least one person who had been mangled in an industrial threshing accident—JUST STICK WITH ME HERE—and that we lived in a culture where industrial threshing victims were routinely blamed/shamed for their own death and/or disfigurement because they wore the “wrong” overalls, and people were afraid to report threshing accidents because the police department just employs a bunch of threshing machines in badges and little hats anyway (and everyone knows threshing machines protect their own), and historically humans were sold into marriages with threshing machines where they could just be tossed in there and chopped up willy-nilly. Oh, and also 90% of the comics in the show (yourself included) are threshing machines too, but since you’re this young, liberal brand of threshing machine with newfangled safety guards and you fervently don’t believe in mangling humans, you think it’s fair game for you to make “jokes” about idiot humans getting their faces and limbs shredded by those more sinister other threshing machines. But do you really think that isn’t going to traumatize the fuck out of some humans? Even if you’re “joking”?”

This is just one paragraph from a much larger (and less fantastically metaphorical) article that, if you’re interested at all in this debate, from whichever side of the fence, you just have to read in full. It’s a fantastic demonstration of why any topic IS fair game –in the same way, there is a difference between jokes about race, and racist jokes. We don’t have a parents-getting-killed-in-front-of-their-children problem (currently in Britain, at least) of epidemic proportions – and if we did, would it frequently be played for laughs by numerous comedians as standard, and provoke a fetishisation and trivialization of the experience of orphans by those who have parents? (I’m not going to make a joke about rape victims being the Batmen of society.)

This type of reliance on shock value and cynical titillation is learned behaviour. The more extreme a show is (and the better its writing and characters, as is the case with GoT, clearly) the higher the drama; the more people will talk about it and create desire for it. The underestimation of the significance of the events being shown, also, comes from an inexperience with and misunderstanding of that structural power which exists in society. Is it a coincidence that power is held largely by white men who have grown up in a white-male-dominated society, and that most protagonists (and thus those whose stories are presumed to be most valuable, most relatable, the default for ‘human’) are white men, at the expense of other demographics? We must understand the difference between blaming someone for having utterly failed, and critiquing groups of people and society at large for patterns of misunderstanding. Representation needs to be critiqued by those who are not in positions of power, for the health of future work.

I Heart…

The phenomenon of fandom is one that creates in us huge amounts of love, wonder and joy. Of course nobody wants to hear criticisms of their favourite creations. I love Breaking Bad more than I love my own family (I find my parents marginally more tolerable now they’ve finished Season 5) and I have a hell of a time even trying to critique Breaking Bad but, a couple more great examples of shows with representation/ideology issues are early-sixties race comedy bungle The Help and, I have to admit, Breaking Bad.

Both are brilliantly written narratives with engaging, mostly rich characters, and exemplary formal execution. And, it is also important to understand the structurally racist and sexist ideology imbued in them. Considering the depth, goodwill and skill that have gone into them, their reflections of the industry’s chronic prejudices remain so slight that they go almost unnoticed. When they are noted, people wont hear it out of frustration, and/or protectiveness. Again, critique does not render something all bad, unwatchable, or unenjoyable.

The Help is a powerful film, with sharp performances all round. Viola Davis, rightly, gets the majority of the attention from critics for her warm and devastating performance, and Emma Stone renders her slightly bland protagonist likeable, as ever. Many critics agree that the narrative and form was largely faultless, if a little broad and formulaic (hence why it “works.”) But to what extent should we really defend a film about racism, and specifically highlighting the stories of black people in a white dominated society, whose protagonist is a beautiful, successful rich white girl? While Aibileen plays a vital role, it is a supporting one. The storyline focuses on Skeeter’s coming of age arc (exemplified by the absolutely redundant romantic subplot), and the redemption of individual ‘good white people’ by indirectly reprimanding the individual ‘bad white people’. The triumphant air-punch comes when Minny is told by her benevolent white employers that she is to continue being their servant for life, if she so chooses. This is genuinely the resolution of the film.

Hallelujah.

Breaking Bad’s gender and racial roles are hugely conservative, also. All of the Latino cartel members are without redemption (except maybe Hector Salamanca) – the only variation in their character-type is the choice between calculated or passive evil. There is certainly a comment on the ignorance of the US middle classes, but not a huge amount of humanity given to anyone else. The female characters (the white ones, that is) are all given depth, and plenty of screen time, and in contrast to what many have expressed, I found Skylar to be a hugely sympathetic character played expertly by Anna Gunn. However, her role remained as wife to the protagonist, mother, and supporter of the actions of her husband. There were few subplots involving Skylar, Marie or Lydia which involved them acting rather than reacting to male-driven deeds, except Marie’s short-lived kleptomania/therapy subplot which, in hindsight, appears to be an interesting but shoehorned method of giving her depth.

Again. Both fantastic stories, fantastic narratives which I relished – and both going some way to being progressive mainstream representations of important issues and fuller characters. And both remained within a prescribed framework of whose stories and values are foregrounded according to the ‘human nature’ of traditional roles and supposed ‘audience preference.’

These pervasive ideologies need to be debated; disagree, or be undecided, but don’t shut debate down because you, personally, find remaining structural inequalities to be a-ok. It’s not about whether or not intentions are good, or about historical accuracy, or an all-or-nothing bash at the value or watchability of one particular show, but the ever-changing relationships between people and their representation, perpetuation of stereotyping and what is considered ‘normal’.

Culture is both reflection and instruction. You can’t argue that we’re shown rape because it’s true to life, and then that it doesn’t matter because it’s fiction.

6 Grim Truths Revealed in ‘The Act of Killing’

Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary The Act of Killing has been generating increasing fear and bewilderment amongst the previously ignorant of late, bringing farcical performances of horrific murders from grinning, cha-cha-ing killers to our shocked and appalled senses. Acclaimed documentarist, actor, and executive producer Werner Herzog describes the film as “powerful, surreal and terrifying” and “unprecedented in the history of cinema.” The fact that his contract requires him to repeat this to each interviewer is irrelevant; he is correct every time.

ActofKilling-Strangle Once the film finishes and the impotent rage and shaking have subsided, you may find that to stop the repetitions in your mind’s eye, you need to coax your denial back. Tell yourself ‘it could be worse’. And you’d be correct every time!

Admitting there’s a complex, systemic problem is the first step to really understanding and making futile attempts to rectify it. To truly move past the trauma of seeing The Act of Killing, we need to untangle and face all truths hidden beneath the now welcome distraction of pantomime homicide.

  1. The golden age of Hollywood improved the killers’ methods.

Stories thrive on cultural tropes, and Hollywood’s particular brand does comedy duos, underdog narratives and representations of gloriously vicious gang killings to a numbingly high standard. The classical Hollywood era is generally remembered in the collective Western consciousness as timeless, glib, interestingly-lit fantasies; glittery outfits gurning and flailing their way through songs about rain, safe in the knowledge that if ever a Wiz there was, the Wizard of Oz was almost certainly one. Their capacity to be read as a series of PSAs for a thrifty, efficient genocide went over our heads.

But this was not lost on The Act of Killing’s very own Laurel and Hardy, Anwar and Herman, who reveal that prior to the genocide they were just regular blue-collar gangsters (read: fateful underdogs), working in a black-market cinema which showed then-banned Hollywood films. They loved the good-ol days of industrialised ‘Merican cultural output as much as the next…average joe, from the latest Elvis vehicle to the many variations by which each genre depicted their protagonists committing efficacious murders.

Mob films were especially beloved by the gangsters, as they saw their lives reflected in the consequence-free narratives of their American brothers-in-arms. Anwar confesses that seeing those wily Americans performing that old ‘strangulation with wire’ act (classic!) in Hollywood gangster films gave them their preferred method for ending the lives of their many opponents. In an interview given on Indonesian public television, the show’s host trills enthusiastically at the “amazing” revelation that they were inspired by films, to create  “a system more humane, less sadistic and without excessive force”. And she’s on to something; the hilarious re-enactments of sadism-reduced torture featuring rotund cross-dressing extrovert Herman and self-congratulatory, wannabe-thespian Anwar is truly breathtaking. (Sorry.)

The real tragedy, of course, is that henceforth, when we watch a previously-beloved gangster film or the latest murder-centric thriller, we wont be able to enjoy it. The suspension of disbelief we relied on through torn flesh SFX and each scene of human-rights abuses, has been irrevocably ruined by those anti-commie bastards. And around half of us pay good money for our denial! Screw you, reality. The concept “it’s only a movie” has been rendered useless.

  1. Our government supported the genocide.

While officially Western democratic governments maintain that they were ignorant (I am tempted to end that sentence there, but that would be childish) to what was occurring in 1965, historians have claimed that they either allowed the communist purge to happen, or directly helped it along with loans, arms supplies and then turning a blind eye to what they’d already seen. At a 2009 international conference discussing the events in Singapore, Bradley R. Simpson, an assistant professor at Princeton and an expert on Indonesian history, said while he did not believe the US masterminded the coup (noting that as a distinct possibility) “there is a lot of evidence that the US was engaged in covert operations . . . to provoke a clash between the Army and the PKI . . . to wipe them out,” referring to the Indonesian Communist Party.

David Jenkins, former foreign editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, added to this narrative noting that “the Australian, British and US embassies were aware of the mass killings, but did not raise a single protest to the systemic slaughter launched by the Army against the PKI.”

Unfortunately, knowing what we now know about military bartering, covert involvement in foreign conflicts and a general colonial attitude to the murder of brown people and/or The Baddies, it’s just not surprising to learn that we were on the wrong side of history in this particular genocide. Yawn, next…

  1. We, personally, depend on these regimes for our lifestyles.

In subsequent interviews, Oppenheimer has repeatedly made clear the connections these events have to the daily lives of the globalised capitalist societies (that’s most of us; almost certainly you. It’s definitely me.) The market forces of capitalism that underpin the retail industries rely on modernised slave labour to function, and that slave labour is enforced primarily in countries which have histories of mass poverty and violent, fatalistic oppression. Western companies and their consumers, in turn, fuel the end demand rampantly, every time a product made within these industries is advertised or purchased. Living without making these purchases is arguably possible, but so elusive and expensive that it could be branded and packaged as a luxury item itself.

Oppenheimer’s explanation of this dynamic in an interview with the LA Review of Books’ is a matter-of-fact, gentle yet stark indictment of this process, and the millions of people who must deny it to continue their lives without action to change it. He rightly reminds us that

“we are much closer to the perpetrators than we like to think. We know that even though in some way we may be victims of political systems, we’re also perpetrators. We know that every article of clothing touching our bodies is haunted by the suffering of the people who make it for us. We know that all of them are working in places where there has been mass political violence, be it China or Indonesia. Where perpetrators have won, have built regimes of fear so oppressive that the people who make everything we buy are not only killing themselves, are poisoning themselves in the process, but also unable to get the struggle of the human cost of everything we buy incorporated in the price tag we pay. That is to say we depend on the reality you see in The Act of Killing for our everyday living, which is to say also that this is not some distant reality on the other side of the world that is interesting to see how human beings have built this kind of upside down wonderland where black is white and white is black, good is evil and evil’s good. But rather, this is the underbelly of our reality.”

Sitting on donated furniture, in second-hand clothing (Made in Taiwan), typing on my second-hand laptop (Made in China), any sense of second-hand vindication fades from my tenuous grasp.

  1. Knowledge is not power.

While documentary film can be a fantastically powerful and effective medium for communication, it often tricks slacktivists into believing that they are part of the solution to wider systemic problems just by employing their ocular functions in a particular direction and acknowledging that a horrific situation is, indeed, totally happening or has like, literally happened. Documentaries are fantastic at posing questions, but not often successful (or appropriate for) giving answers or solutions to them. We know from TAOK and from history textbooks that these events have hardly been hidden from view, but what use is awareness in the face of continued oppression from the source that created it? Oppenheimer himself has said that “a film can’t change Indonesia. A film can just create space for Indonesians to change Indonesia.”

And we have to be hopeful that that space is large enough, because I’m pretty sure (though do check Wikipedia for me) that since the film premiered in 2012, global shit has still been hitting the worldwide fan at its previous velocities. Indeed, “the function of art is to show people what they know, but have been too afraid to say.” And what then? Unfortunately, in the main, people who have the powerful knowledge of oppression (in the form of flashbacks, scars, dead loved ones etc.) do not get into power, because it’s the people in power who oppressed them. Knowledge may be powerful, but commandeered power is like a fucking video game boss with cheat mode on.

  1. The perpetrators will almost certainly remain unpunished.

Following on nicely from our last uplifting anecdote, it is clear to see the remaining regime of violence and extortion that exists as a power structure in Indonesia. This is not going to change because a film draws attention to it, and there have been reports that the film has in fact failed to interest many Indonesians; in a Jakarta Post article titled “What Next After ‘Act of Killing’?” scholar Ariel Heryanto is quoted as saying

“The film falls well short of generating the controversy in Indonesia that it deserves, particularly when compared with the impact it had on its international audience.”

It is noted that several screenings in Indonesia have been cancelled “due to lack of interest. Some viewers even walked out of the film before it ended, while others thought TAOK glorified its protagonists.”

“If Indonesian viewers do not react to The Act of Killing with the same emotions as their international counterparts, the reason is not simply fear in expressing their voice,” Ariel said. “Rather, it is because news about preman-ism [gangsterism], vigilante behavior and their boasting impunity are all too common in everyday life.”

It seems huge numbers of Indonesian people have resigned to oppression and impunity as a part of their everyday life. In the same way that we mostly give up our voices and actions to business-as-usual in our own corporate-political system.

  1. It could have been you.

One of the hugest triumphs, and the most uncomfortable byproducts, of The Act of Killing is that the film forces us to see people, and not simply what they did. We watch these grandfathers play with their small grandchildren, teaching them how to be kind, trying to maintain their tenuous sense of authority. We are shown a bind of lifelong friendship that locks them into a grave trust and support of each other, allowing them to believe they weren’t (and aren’t) wrong, bad, or immoral because of their shared crimes. They are just another few in our giant community having to deny ignorance, misgivings and cruel behaviour in order to live with themselves. They do not have the liberty of allowing their beliefs and self-righteousness to slip. We aren’t sorry for them, neither should we be.

Having spent years interviewing perpetrators of genocide, Oppenheimer has said “For me, none of them are monsters, although their crimes are monstrous. […] Meeting the perpetrators makes it obvious that there is no monster. They are still human. They are still very, very human.” At a Q&A screening at my local cinema, I was fortunate enough to be able to ask him a direct question. Did spending time with these men for God knows how long, constantly having to hear (and accept?) their boasts and laughter about brutal murders, become easier or harder as time passed? He replied, he and his crew quickly became numb, and remained so for a great deal of time. Then sleepless nights started, then nightmares, and the cycle of no sleeping/recurrent nightmares continued for around 8 months. Still, he admitted that he could not guarantee that given the same upbringing and the same experiences, he would not have done the things that the 80+ perpetrators that he interviewed have done, and spent the rest of his life trying to blithely justify it.

We are all as vulnerable as each other to systemic patterns of violence, dominance, denial, delusion, and disregard for each other. Our families and friendships are full of it. With a few exceptions, we have brought it into our global political systems. And we need to understand the fundamental micro-actions we all perform to prevent seemingly indecipherable macro-abuses.

“We have to somehow accept that within the boundaries of humanity, crimes of that magnitude are still possible. They are not completely exotic. They’re not foreign to human nature. That’s a hard thing to swallow.”

[NB: This started out as a comedy article for Cracked, originally written as 6 Ways to Mentally Process the Act of Killing, a piece about my inability to do so. It has changed a lot since the first draft and, understandably, I feel conflicted in writing a (somewhat) comic piece relating to a genocide. However, my hope is that whoever reads this will engage with the conflicts within it, and with the film and the history if you haven’t yet done so.]

Tootsie & Misogyny: Dustin Hoffman’s Epiphany

In this short clip of an American Film Institute interview with Dustin Hoffman, he reflects on the memory of his realisation that he was, like all of us, culturally ‘brainwashed’. I love this clip not only because he speaks about it at all (and on record), but also because he obviously feels it so deeply. This is the answer to prejudice, I think; to feel the effects and experiences of the (perceived) ‘Other’.

While I could discuss the merits of this video for hours, it’s quite late, and no need; Hoffman’s soul speaks very gently and clearly for itself.

I feel privileged to have seen this today – found at TheMarySue.

Diane Abbott’s Crisis of Masculinity

crisisDiane Abbott’s most recent concern, the UKs ‘crisis of masculinity’, has understandably touched quite a nerve. Making assertions on the identity of a group of people will inevitably rattle cages, since the egos in those cages (which we perceive to protect the sacred self) are challenged and scrutinised. (Uncomfortable self-reflection is not conducive to maintaining one’s sense of utter righteousness, and, it would seem, favoured by neither privilege nor lad culture.) The subject becomes touchier when the person opining does not ‘belong’ to the group; the offended often claim all criticism is misunderstanding of the ‘truth’ due to the offender’s lack of experience or difference. We can all agree that Abbott’s ‘got balls’, just not to the extent that she belongs.

 

Abbott has a point or several, but she’s just missed the mark. Her misunderstanding (or misrepresentation) here is not down to her sex, as many have claimed. I think it’s comes from the mainstream understanding of gender as binary, following the ‘us and them’ dichotomy that pervades so many attitudes. She and I have identity traits in common: we both identify as female, and it would seem we are both moved by gender and how it is married to wider societal issues. So, I hereby cast my mere opinion into the ether for all including Abbott to consider, or at least react to with repulsion.

 

In ascribing this crisis to ‘masculinity’, Abbott has (probably inadvertently) blamed the kind of behaviour she criticizes on all who identify as masculine. To clarify: intellectually and spiritually, I don’t believe in dualised gender. (Emotionally, I still work against negative limitations I have internalized throughout development. [Sniff. Tiny violin.]) Since gender isn’t tangible it isn’t essentially definable, and thus the traditional definitions of gender are, for me, lost in the nature vs nurture argument, and in a recognition that all traits are human traits. The majority of us will still identify with ‘traditional’ gender roles as they have been defined, since our lives are initially made easier (remember school?) when we do; most people will let you know somehow which traits are ‘natural’ (despite this often occurring when we ‘naturally’ exhibit the wrong ones.) The absence of gender becomes apparent each day when women display human traits which are ‘masculine’, men display human traits which are ‘feminine’, and lesbian, gay and transgender people display human traits which are, yep, human.

 

Abbott has not only promoted the false idea that masculinity exists as a unified ‘thing’ for all who identify as masculine, and Is Bad, but has also made all those who identify as masculine feel attacked. Those who do display whiskey-drinking, porn-loving, viagra-popping, woman-hating behaviour are on the defensive of such behaviour, and those who identify as masculine but don’t display these behaviours are on the defensive from being misrepresented. Attributing a crisis to masculinity is reductive; it’s almost equivalent to attributing the miscommunication of social crises entirely to Diane Abbott.

 

Of course, there are chronic crises of sex inequality that we require men to prioritize in a way that our culture and society discourages. Regarding systemic, ongoing, daily oppression as a worldwide, urgent problem ought to be of utmost importance to everyone. Confronting a man’s blasé attitude towards the exploitation of sex workers, for example, is often met with ridicule, then defensive anger. But this is a society-wide problem also; there are plenty of women who knowingly and naively support existing patriarchal structures, and plenty of men who don’t. I don’t regard binge drinking, degrading or violent pornography, unnecessary pharmaceutical intervention, and misogyny as tenets of ‘masculinity’; I regard them as a result of long-standing complex processes within (patriarchal) society that stratify and bind people on the basis of their class, race and gender. What Abbott describes is a crisis of identity for numerous British people, largely influenced by a western capitalist society that cultivates entitled, violent, sexist, belligerent, materialistic and nihilistic values in its citizens. The inclusion of consumerist and individualistic culture in her discussion began to touch on this, and the crises of unemployment, depression and suicide trends naturally follow from what capitalism peddles; but what underpins the behaviours and beliefs associated with identity was not unraveled further than “masculinity is broken”. I applaud much of what she did say; I only wish she had addressed it to all citizens, and especially the MPs with whom she works.

 

There are several crises facing us, globally rather than nationally. Abbott describes issues of identity politics, which take dictation in part from the crisis of capitalism (but are not its most brutally damaged victim.) Individuals reject and accept these dictations all the time, and we must understand the abjection that often follows from rejection of these values in order to develop the strength to reject them. In the face of the glorified social and financial capital of commodified masculinity and femininity, deviating can be frightening and isolating. The initial confusion that arises from rejecting gendered identities can be matched by the freedom found expressing a more whole, diverse and fluid identity.

 

There are questionable stories about society, human nature, and nature under which we develop. They can be difficult to fight within ones own psyche, let alone in discussion with others. I have learned everything I am writing now, from my situated perspective. I encourage change of my own perspective regarding new information, and I hope for continued enlightenment. It requires work, and a denial of fixed knowledge and self while allowing expression of what you feel is right and just.

 

We have a cultural crisis of self, rather than a crisis of men or women or immigrants or Britons. We currently face crises of humanity on many fronts: culturally, financially, environmentally, etc. All of these present us with constant opportunities for monumental change. Will we take them, and quickly enough?