Friday, January 25, 2013

Torturer's Apprentices

Zero Dark Thirty (11/15) - There is a movie there, a pretty good one, too, a procedural in the vein of Zodiac (though not quite in Zodiac's league), with a more - conclusive - ending.... But the film as film has tended to be obscured by the talk about the torture in the film - and though it's tempting to sigh about that, that is also probably as it should be. It's unfortunate that the talk about torture has tended to make the film itself somewhat less visible than it might have been - you can see parts of the film world shying away from it - it seems to have cost Kathryn Bigelow a best director nomination, and to be making it more of a long shot for best picture than it might have been.... The first thing to note is that, whatever you think the film says about torture, the fact that it is willing to include it, to address it, directly (as directly as it does) is commendable. Torture is a shameful element of our history - and more shameful for our general inability to actually address it. We seem to want it both ways - we did it, we seem relieved not to do it anymore - but we don't quite want to face the consequences of having done it. That is very close to our official position on torture. The unofficial position might be even squishier - you can probably find enough people who would, if they were compelled to consider it, defend it - but these days, the culture seems to prefer forgetting about it. And that tendency leaves this film rather isolated - because it does address it, directly and seriously - whatever you think the film says about torture, it is certainly not eliding it. That, by itself, is something worth praising.

Still, that's just the start - what does the film actually say about torture? It is notable that in fact, there are claims on both sides - there are those who say it defends torture - some who say it condemns torture; some who say it shows torture working - others who say it shows torture not working.... with multiple positions between, and differing notions of how it positions the viewer and - more..... Well - to me, it seems that this multiplicity of interpretation is a feature, not a bug - it is a deliberate result of the film's design. I think Zero Dark Thirty is made in a way that allows you to see what you want to see. If you want to see the Americans as making themselves morally indistinguishable from the terrorists they are torturing - you probably can. If you want to see that torture works and without it Bin Laden would be alive - you probably can; if you want to see that torture is a terrible thing, and made us all a little worse, but ya know, in the end, without it, Bin Laden would be alive - well - you can probably find that, too. Whether you find it or put it there - there's plenty of room for all of these ideas. This openness is a function of the style - the distance, the neutrality, the coolness of the style - and the main character. Chastain does not emote, does not reveal much beyond her professional behavior - Bigelow does likewise, leaving Maya as a blank cipher, someone whose non-CIA life is invisible, whether it exists or not. Bigelow doesn't show it - and when other characters try to find it, Maya deflects it as well. You won't get any humanization here. You get emotion - but it's professional emotion - pride or impatience or disappointment... I think the effect of this strategy is to avoid judgment on the things we see. The film seldom guides us. It trusts us to understand what we see - it challenges us to think about what we see, and interpret it. Though I don't think it's unfair to say it's careful ambiguity is there precisely to avoid responsibility for what it shows - to avoid taking sides, on things where not making moral judgments might just be a moral judgment itself. At least - an unwillingness to commit, in public.

But on balance, I would say its neutrality is more a good thing than a bad one. And - despite it's unwillingness to really commit to a final word on torture, I think the film does make at least one fairly clear judgment about torture. It is, I have said, a procedural, a film about competence, about a task to be completed and the means of completing it, the methods for completing it... and in that context - torture is shown as a shortcut - it's cheating. And what's more, it's a waste of time. Taking it as a procedural - what you see is 7 years of torture that yields nothing, ends, more or less, in failure and frustration - only to start over again, with someone who has gone to the trouble of going through the files - a rather less exciting, or horrifying, piece of work than stuffing a guy into a box - but which works. And maybe all that torture gave them a clue or two, someone to look for - but none of it mattered without the real work of going through the files, tracking down phone numbers, getting wiretaps, putting agents on the ground, looking for him, staking out miles of road, to find out where he lived. There is a pragmatic argument against torture there - that it is time wasted. Anything you got with torture you could have gotten somewhere else, and probably faster.

The thing is - you can get what you want with torture, if what you want is to hurt people and make them beg for mercy. Maybe to intimidate other people - to control them.... Ask the Stasi! It's interesting that Christian Petzold's quite remarkable Barbara (12/15) has a somewhat similar beginning to ZDT. The character types in the opening parts of ZDT are very similar to those in Barbara - the new girl, a hotshot from the city; the charismatic old hand at this sort of thing, who initiates her and guides her... In ZDT he makes her a torturer; in Barbara he's a spy, and operates in a kind of moral half world between her and the Stasi. Barbara's story is this - a doctor comes to a remote part of Germany, from Berlin. She's some kind of political problem - the local secret police and the head doctor at the hospital where she works are keeping an eye on her. She does her job, she tries to help people - she also makes plans to escape. And - the police keep tabs on her - searching her, harassing her, every time she goes out of sight... There are subplots - a girl who keeps running away from a work farm; a boy who tried to kill himself - the doctors treat them, though sometimes the treatment needed isn't medical... Things build, to medical crises and political crises, sacrifices are made, large and small acts of heroism. All of it is shown with consummate care and style, without quite showing off. A great little film.

And one that, if we're thinking about torture, ought to tell us something - it is not ambiguous. It is not sentimental about torture. Torture, the police state, is aimed at intimidation - you can make anyone say anything you want them to. Which the CIA men in ZDT don't seem to realize is not what their job is - they want their prisoners to tell them things they don't know - but torture is designed to make people tell you what you want to hear. The one won't get you to the other. The East Germans didn't seem to have those illusions - they use torture to intimidate - and not just the person being tortured. They are made examples of - they are used to terrify other people into submission. Which works - until it doesn't... all that paranoia builds, and it reaches a point where the intimidation doesn't work anymore - people will do anything, risk death, to leave.

One more film: Central Park Five (11/15) - a documentary about five black and hispanic teenagers accused of a horrific rape in Central Park in 1989. Accused and convicted - but then freed, when the real attacker confessed in 2002. And this film provides what might be an even clearer statement of that half-hidden thesis of Zero Dark Thirty - that torture only gets people to say what you want them to say; that in police work, it is almost always a shortcut, used to avoid the real work of actually catching the perpetrators. The story here is an explicit version of what I said about ZDT - a crime committed - the cops rounded up suspects - went to work on them, using rather harsh and dubious means to get confessions - and as soon as the kids admitted something, the cops shut down everything else. They had reasons to be looking for Matias Reyes, the real attacker, from the start; they ignored evidence from the time that would have led them away from the people they arrested. There was no forensic evidence - how can you have a brutal rape and no trace of the rapist? or - have traces of the rapist, but no traces of the 5 people you arrested for the rape? there was no logic in it - but they got what they wanted, by keeping a bunch of teenagers up all night, berating them - maybe this didn't count as torture, though it's pretty damned close - especially used against 14 year olds.

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