28 January 2013

The Zero Dark Thirty debate continues

More heavyweight personalities weigh in on the moral and political implications of Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty. From England, sometime film critic and fulltime provocateur Slavoj Zizek condemns the picture, rejecting Bigelow's "depiction is not endorsement" defense.

One doesn't need to be a moralist, or naive about the urgencies of fighting terrorist attacks, to think that torturing a human being is in itself something so profoundly shattering that to depict it neutrally – ie to neutralise this shattering dimension – is already a kind of endorsement.

For Zizek, Bigelow's avowed "neutral" approach to the material can only result in "normalizing" torture for the audience. He attempts a reductio ad absudam on Bigelow, asking whether rape or the Holocaust could or should be portrayed in the same manner. For his sake, one might add such hot-button topics as Stalnist terror or the Chinese Cultural Revolution, but to be fair, while Zizek has sometimes championed revolutionary "terror," he's never said (to my knowledge) that torture should be an integral or desirable part of it. When he argues for the potential necessity of terror, he more likely means simply the need to kill people rather than torturing confessions for show trials out of them. But it's too easy to call a self-styled Leninist a hypocrite for condemning anyone else's politicized violence, and as a Leninist he'd probably dismiss the charge easily enough by contrasting his own with someone else's "bourgeois" morals -- while denying anyone else the prerogative of prioritizing one set of moral imperatives above another. In any event, what I found more interesting, if not more annoying, about Zizek's comments is his rejection of the idea that Bigelow's film is meant to provoke thought about the value and cost of the hunt for bin Laden.

[W]ith torture, one should not "think". A parallel with rape imposes itself here: what if a film were to show a brutal rape in the same neutral way, claiming that one should avoid cheap moralism and start to think about rape in all its complexity? Our guts tell us that there is something terribly wrong here; I would like to live in a society where rape is simply considered unacceptable, so that anyone who argues for it appears an eccentric idiot, not in a society where one has to argue against it. The same goes for torture: a sign of ethical progress is the fact that torture is "dogmatically" rejected as repulsive, without any need for argument.

Zizek simply doesn't care whether viewers leave the film questioning whether bin Laden's death was worth all the effort, including the torture. He won't grant filmmaker or audience the liberty of drawing their own conclusions, demanding an absolutist, knee-jerk response. His attitude contrasts sharply with a filmmaker who's emerged as perhaps Zero Dark Thirty's most unlikely champion. Michael Moore applauds the film in part because he sees it as a refutation of the Bush administration's approach to the War on Terror and a vindication of what he sees as the Obama administration's approach. For Moore, timing is everything. That bin Laden is not tracked down and killed until after Obama becomes President, and after changes in policy regarding "enhanced interrogations" forces Maya and her colleagues to switch their emphasis from torture to detective work.

In the final third of 'Zero Dark Thirty,' the agents switch from torture to detective work – and guess what happens? We find bin Laden! Eight years of torture – no bin Laden. Two years of detective work – boom! Bin Laden!

And that really should be the main takeaway from 'Zero Dark Thirty': That good detective work can bring fruitful results – and that torture is wrong. 
Moore recognizes that many critics base their response to the film on how they perceive others responding to it. If you hear audiences applauding bin Laden's death, for instance -- as I did not in a crowded Albany theater -- you're more likely, unless you share the mindset of those applauding -- to feel that Zero Dark Thirty portrays torture as not merely necessary but also a positive good. Moore reports very different reactions to the film.
After I saw 'Zero Dark Thirty,' a friend asked me, "During the torture scenes, who did you feel empathy for the most – the American torturer or the Arab suspect?" That was easy to answer. "Oh, God, the poor guy being waterboarded. The torturer was a sadist."

"Yes, that's the answer everyone gives me afterward. The movie actually makes you care for the tortured guys who may have, in fact, been part of 9/11. Like rooting for the Germans on the submarine to make it back to port in 'Das Boot,' that's the sign of some great filmmaking when the writer and director are able to get you to empathize with the person you've been told everywhere else to hate." 'Zero Dark Thirty' is a disturbing, fantastically-made movie. It will make you hate torture.
Between Moore and Zizek the issue is whether we should trust audiences to respond thoughtfully and thus trust filmmakers to make thought-provoking movies rather than propaganda. As a filmmaker Moore may be a self-interested participant in the debate -- he certainly wouldn't want anyone, be it Zizek or some opposite number on the right, telling him what he and we shouldn't need to "think" about. Zizek prefers that torture, no matter what the situation, be ""dogmatically" rejected as repulsive, without any need for argument."  
He puts "dogmatically" in scare quotes, suggesting that, for an unrepentant ideologue like himself, dogma is not a pejorative term, or else that some moral absolutes can't be dismissed as simply somebody's dogma. Critics of Zero Dark Thirty go beyond mere moral absolutism. Everyone can or should agree that torture as portrayed in the movie is wrong. Kathryn Bigelow says the same thing routinely in interviews. While she remains more vulnerable to the criticism that her film inaccurately portrays the effectiveness of torture in tracking down bin Laden, the debate that really matters is the one described here. Have artists moral obligations when they represent the reprehensible? Is it their prerogative to provoke thought or their duty to teach a lesson? Bloggers have it easier: if I've provoked thought today, I feel I've done my duty.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What is the basis of morality that one may judge one set of morals as the "right" or "correct" set?

What makes one war "moral" and another "immoral"? Part of the problem, I believe, is the assumption that humans are "moral beings" to begin with. While any given individual may have a set of morals which he/she uses as a guideline for their personal life, one cannot truthfully say that all humans are moral.

So if morals aren't innate, from where do they stem? Why should one person or group have the right to impose their morality on others? This is something we need to figure out before we can even begin to judge the morality of an action.

People like Slavoj love to denounce the actions of their "opponents" as immoral, while justifying the actions of their own. Violence is violence. Whether it's a Leninist killing in the name of the glorious people's revolution or an intelligence agent torturing someone for information, it's the same thing.

If violence is justifiable on any level, it becomes justifiable on all levels. People like Slavoj must either denounce and condemn all violence, or keep their mouth shut on the subject.