Sunday, December 30, 2012

Complaince, Marxism, and Tears

Anarchist Calisthenics

    This is the title to a little blurb I read in an issue of Harper’s.  It was cute.  It was discussion about how you couldn’t be expected to form an anarchist revolution if you can’t even cross a street in disobediance to a traffic sign.  This is especially true when after looking both directions it is easy to verify that no one is around.  Yet the people in this country would all wait in pacient little groups for the sign to change so they could cross the street even though no cars were coming.  The author proposed Anarchist Calisthenics.  The idea is that you do something disobedient every so often so as to keep you in practice.  It all sounds quaint, especially when you are talking about rebelling against traffic signs.  However, after seeing the movie Complaince the idea takes on a whole different meaning.

    Complaince is a hard movie to watch.  Having trudged through A Serbian Film, Slaughtered Vomit Dolls, and The August Underground movies you’d think I’d be pretty unshockable wouldn’t you?  Nope I found myself looking away from Compliance, unwilling to focus on the horrors that the movie spat out at me.  For those of you who don’t know what the movie is about go to IMDB and look it up.  There are other people who seem to enjoy typing summaries to things.  I am not one of them.  To be clear there is no blood, no one physically gets hurt, there is no physical violence.  Instead what we have is a voice on the phone who adopts a position of authority and manages to get people to do unspeakable things all in the name of, well authority really.

    Compliance is a brilliant movie.  It is utterly brilliant.  It is ugly and I never want to watch it again but that is part of what makes it brilliant.  A voice over the phone claiming to be the police can get people do simply unspeakable things.  Don’t believe me?  Here’s a newspaper article.  Not only did this really happen but it happened over 60 times.  The idea of it is insane to me.  It is insane to the crank caller too.  More often than not in the resulting legal cases the managers were treated as victims themselves even though they were the ones perpetrating the crime at the voice’s behalf.  Increadible and yet not. 

    I wish we took Marxism a little bit more seriously.  Somewhere along the line Marxist theory didn’t pan out the way it should.  If it did the whole movie would make perfect sense and anyone who knew the theory wouldn’t be surprised by it, and yet this hasn’t happened.  Somewhere along the line Marxist theory stagnated, became technophobic and it found itself turned into a toy to amuse English professors and to enchant undergraduates and nothing more and that is god damned shame because it is deadly serious.  That’s the thing though.  The situation changes and the theory didn’t keep up.

So all of this needs some explanation.  Marxism flash facts:

History of class struggle is history or all of history can be seen as the history of class struggle.  Whichever you like.

The bourgeoisie posses an infinte array of tools to adapt the means of production to keep ahead of the laws or the literary departments.

Alienation it’s everywhere!  EEEEK!

    Okay then so we have some conversation points.  Now we can talk a little bit about Compliance and how it works.  Let’s talk about alienation first because that one is my favorite and it is the one that has changed the most.  Before it simply meant you were alienated from your labors.  So all you do all day is you work on an assembly line making the 5th gear of the 10 gear wanking machine.  That is all you know and so you are alienated from your labors.  Capitalism has an uncanny knack for ignoring the human factor which is something I’ve always found to be more than a little fascinating.  However, we are in the modern day now.  We no longer make 10 gear wanking matchines.  Most of our jobs are in the service industry.  The most common phrase spoken in across the US’s employees is probably “how can I help you?” or some variation of that.  Service is our main export, we have service industries, and a service based economy and hey what is there to be alienated from right?  I mean you help someone find the perfect shirt, or a watch, or you put in the order and a team makes a hamburger and everything happens right then and there.  Peachy keen with a side of pleasant sauce right?  Well not exactly.  This is particularly true in corporate controlled places, employees are subject to a baffling array of rules and regulartions.  Most of which are seemingly arbitrary, arbitrarily enforced, and handed down from the mysterious corporate office.  We have managers that seem to be promoted based on their ability to jump very high when asked and who don’t ask questions.  Not based off of the ability to think for themselves, to direct, or to you know be in command.  Most managers are given a massive amount of shit for marginally more money and little to no real authority to deal with the problems that arise.  The real wise man said that authority with no actual power corrupts far faster and more thoroughly than absolute authority.  What we are seeing here is an alienation not from our labors but from ourselves.  Every time we don’t put a rude customer in their place, do some mindless task to keep an inept overlord busy, every time we say sure when we mean “go fuck yourself” that is what alienation from the self means.  It is a concept that isn’t new.  Hell this has happened ever since we’ve had one person be stronger than another and they decide to take advantage of it.  However, this sort of work place alienation is subtle, it is ill defined, we lack the vocabulary to really get our heads around it.  Yet it is there.  How else can you explain someone forcing a young naked girl to do jumping jacks so that money will fall out of her vagina because a voice over the phone told you to?  This happened not just in the movie but also in life.  When we force ourselves to put up with nonsensical crap every day what is a little bit more?  Especially when you have someone threatening everyone you know.  Alienation is a cruel thing. 
`    At some point I was segueing nicely into class but that didn’t work out so well so crappy transition for the win!  WE IS TALKING ABOUT CLASS NOWS.  I am the best of all the writers.  Class has become a thing with me recently and I don’t know why.  It never was before.  Anyway a lot of Marxist theory seems to fall apart when the middle classes get introduced.  When reading the communist manifesto it is easy to forget how long ago it is written.  It is only when you start working with it fairly often do you start finding the little dated parts hiding here and there in all the cracks.  The thing is that when the manifesto was written there was no middle class, well not really.  There was the very rich and the very poor.  Dichotomies!  They are easy ways to divy up the world so that everyone understands what’s going on and hey for awhile it worked!  Then things went more than a little pear shaped which is a shame and the middle classes arrived and things got all muddled.  Not really though.  Think of class less in terms of money but more in terms of securiry and the gradiants between the classes becomes clearer.  The super rich up at the top?  They don’t have a whole lot to worry about in terms of things going wrong.  This goes from the mundane things like cars breaking down to the collapse of the global financial system and massive food shortages.  These people believe that the rich will eat first and everything will be fine.  To a degree they are correct.  They are also irrelevant to this conversation.  Bye now.  Back at the lower middle class where things are a little bit tighter that is where we get the fear.  Here you just have less securiry.  Take the manager in Complaince for example, freezer door got left open and $1500 worth of product spoiled overnight.  This is the first thing that happens in the movie.  We then see the store manager get berated by the truck driver who brings her competency into question. The second thing we learn is that the store manager has yet to report this to the regional manager because she is afraid.  She might loose her job, she might get a writeup which is a direct threat of job loss, she might just get yelled at.  The point is that this represents a disruption to the status quo.  That can be scary when your status quo is already fragile and sure it isn’t very good but it can so easily get worse,  so you do what you can to keep things normal and good.  For example, you don’t tell your manager when you let 1500 worth of product go bad.  That would suck.  To be clear her normal day sucks.  I mean she works in fast food, granted she is a store manager but it isn’t like she doesn’t have a shit job too.  Ego when something bad happens she tries to deal with it as quickly and cleanly as possible because seriously who wants even more troubles?
    So you get the voice on the phone claiming to be the police telling you to do these things.  Police can mean jail time, physical confrontation, fines, a whole system the average person knows nothing about and has little positive experience with.  As anyone who gets pulled over knows dealing with the police is statistically unpleasant.  So you do what they say to whomever they tell you to do it to because no one wants that wrath turned upon them.  Yet this seems to be a friendly police man.  He has that calm steady voice of authority.  He also is quick to compliment the store manager, he brings her inside, makes her feel important, compimtent, and basically everything she isn’t.  He also claims to have the regional manger on the phone he uses the manager’s name.  If the regional manger says its okay then it is.  Or rather once our little intrepid store manager feels that the buck has been passed up the chain and is given a few compliments then why not.  Desptite the fact that she may think its wrong or baffling there are people telling her that she is good and that they approve of her actions so why not?  It seems strange still doesn’t it.  Remember though is that it all goes back to security.  This manager is already on the hot seat because of the 1500 of meat going bad now this?  If she pisses off the wrong person here she could loose her job.  She did anyway but seriously what a catch 22.  In real life McDonalds which is one of the franchises that got hit most often by the real life perpetrator claimed it did pleanty to inform it’s managers.  MacDonald’s defense was that handling all these situations are in the manager’s guidebook which she clearly hasn’t read.  That’s cute.  But here is the thing.  The voice on the phone already said he had the regional manager on the phone and that it was okay.  This right here throws the guidebook out the window as well as common sense for most people because not everyone feels secure enough to tell the cops, and their manager to go fuck themselves. 

As for that manager’s fiance?  I have no idea what the fuck that guy’s problem was he has no excuse.

Anyway Imma gonna stop this here.  I feel a little better and this is starting to get pretty long.  As someone who recreationally engages in over sexualized exchanges of power I feel overly bothered when I see them forced upon unwilling subjects.  There are plenty of people out there who would of gladly of done everything he asked without anyone getting hurt.  He’d still be in control he’d still be on the phone and this would all be happening except that in this case everyone would be having a good time.  There was no need to go and trick people who were already downtrodden and unhappy into doing amazingly horrible things to people who were little more than children.  It just played on people’s desperate need for securety and his need for power.  But he could of gotten that from his willing participants I’m sure of it.  While I agree that this is a radically inappropriate thought this is one of those times where I am forced to wonder, “Why can’t people just be nice.”  It is hard enough already out there.  Why make it worse?  Oh well. 

Friday, December 21, 2012

The Final and its Cousins

I would like to take this moment to talk about a movie called Head Hunter.  It is amazing.  It is tense and really wasn't sure what was going to happen next more than a couple of times.  There were also some pretty beautifully shot moments.  Good stuff!  Go see it.  I don't really have anything more to say on the subject so now we will return to a subject that I have plenty to say on.  The Final.

The Final is a horror movie from 2010 where a bunch of kids who are picked on by other kids get revenge by gathering them all up at a party, torturing some of them, and then the movie ends.  It is very specifically a horror movie but it tries to do a little more than that.  Most of the outcast kids have difficult home lives which makes dealing with their problems at school all the more difficult.  They do a good job establishing that some of the kids really do deserve to have some bad things happen to them whereas some of the other people just got in the way.  On an interesting note this has the same basic idea behind the school shooting but in a more targeted sadistic environment.

As a result this movie shuffles up awkwardly to a genera of movies that are all better than The Final.  When you look at movies like Elephant, Bully, and There's Something About Kevin, and then you look back at the Final you see a group of movies that express their ideas in a much more effective way but it is important to realize that The Final is a horror movie and it puts its heart more in that realm rather than social commentary.  This isn't a complaint or a slight against the movie but it is also something that happened.

You might notice that I didn't mention the movie Heathers, or some of the other bully revenge movies and this is because I am making a pre/post Columbine distinction.  Columbine changed the discussion in a fundamental way in the same way 911 changed our discussion of terrorism.  Setting There's Something About Kevin aside as it is more about nature/nurture than the resulting violence The Final sits comfortably between Elephant and Bully in terms of the moral spectrum.  Elephant provides the viewer with a mystery.  The shooters weren't particularly bullied, in fact we don't learn very much about the shooters at all.  The nature of the violence is arbitrary and there are pleanty of people who get hurt even though they don't deserve it.  Bully is a very different sort of movie.  The Bully is pretty much a sociopath who rapes and beats everyone around him until they reach their breaking point.  So the group of people he abuses get together and murders him.  These movies are both excellent and very much worth your time.

The way The Final fits between these two movies is interesting.  First of all it is a group of outcasts who are all pretty specifically bullied.  They aren't bullied to the same degree as they are in Bully but it is pretty bad and they pretty much have nowhere to turn to for help.  As the movies main dooshbag says, "You know why I do what I do?  Because you can't stop me." and he's right.  He always has a lacky with him so that he almost always outnumbers the person he's picking on.  It is pretty clear that everyone in the group is in a pretty miserable situation, and so they are backed into a corrner so far that they lash out.  There is a particularly good moment when Dane talks about how being bullied actually empowered him to commit these acts of violence.  How he wanted nothing more to be left alone and to fade into the background.  It is an interesting moment and it is one of my favorite in the movie itself. 

More and more our spree killings are being perpetrated by the specifically mentally ill.  However, looking back to Columbine that wasn't the case so much.  In all that time we have failed to really come to terms with the way we treat each other, the way we allow others to be treated, and the hatred in our own hearts.  It is a good movie that becomes better when it shares the same critical space as Bully and Elephant.  Though if you make a weekend of it prepare for a bout of depression as all three of these movies are pretty intense.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Killing Them Softly and why I liked it.

    Man I liked that movie.  I’d been waiting eagerly for Killing Them Softly for awhile now.  I don’t normally like going to the movies on a Friday night, to many people, to many of them are there because of a lack of anything better to do rather than wanting to actually see a movie.  Bravely, I shoved all that to one side and bravely forged my way ahead to see this movie and holy shit what a movie it is.
    First and foremost Killing them Softly is a pretty, pretty movie.  The whole movie takes place in the bad side of town full of crumbling houses, littered streets, and desperate people.  Yet despite all that the movie manages a certain fascinating aesthetic.  One of the interesting things about the evolution of the noir genre is the look.  It 50’s noir well everyone wore suits and looked spectacular.  It didn’t matter how downtrodden you seemed to be if you were in the 50’s you had suits end of story.  Life isn’t like that anymore.  The hit man played by Brad Pitt wore a leather jacket, the two morons who knock over the card game look like the dressed themselves out of the goodwill’s dumpster.  The world looks worn out, dirty, and then it makes it all look good.  The movie’s look and feel gets under your skin.  It feels distinct very much like we are watching a vision of the world and not just people moving about the world.  The movie’s particular opening credits sets the stage well.  I didn’t know what to make of them at first but I think now that confusing you is the point., it jangles the nerves, disorients your perceptions, then the movie reorients you the way it wants you to see it.  If you let it happen then I think this movie will provide a much richer experience than say locking up and refusing to let it in. 

The violence is crisp and it feels violent.  The beating ends up being quite frankly hard to watch and the shootings all stand out with clarity.  We only see three people die but this movie doesn’t treat death like it is a small thing.  This isn’t an action movie where we see our favorite star mow down a dozen goons and then walk off laughing.  Violence is resisted by the higher ups but it is inevitable.  It is a consequence of a series of actions that lead to the movie taking place.  Yet the shooting of Ray Liotta’s character serves as the center piece for the whole movie.  It is beautiful and unsettling then the rest of the movie continues on its inexorable path.

So what’s up with the political thing?  My friend asked me about what I thought and I threw around the word metaphor and made up a bunch of bullshit on the spot and some of would hold up I think.  I am pretty sure I made a decently defensible argument whose details I won’t share with you because I think the argument is crap.  Lets not dick around here.  This is a mean movie.  It is mean spirited the characters are mean.  The plot is mean.  Some of the stuff that just happens in the background is mean.  This is a mean little movie.  It has a pretty specific way of seeing the world and I love it.  Now there is a decent amount of humor in the movie but hey it is black hearted mean little humor.  My favorite kind.  Now that I got that out of the way let’s head back to the political thing.  It is there, it is nearly impossible to ignore, and yet more often than not I found it funny.  The political sound bites, when seen as just another snaky layer of commentary about what is going on in the movie it becomes pretty hilarious.  I mean come on Obama talking about concerns with the economy while a bunch of people are being robbed?  Pretty golden. 

I think because of the political nature of the sound bites there is a lot of temptation to look to much into it.  Like somehow the movie is a grand metaphor for american life, or that it is a metaphor for how corporations have come in and crushed free market competition, or hell I dunno raising taxes on the rich versus everyone.  The thing is that while you could stretch, bend, and flex the movie in a variety of ways to make these ideas and many others work ultimately they don’t because the movie ultimately isn’t about that.  The political thing gives it an extra edge, a way to inject some humor, stuff like that but turning it into a carefully crafted satire on American political life isn’t going to work.  While I would love to see something like that I don’t think this movie is lessened by the fact that the political stuff is mostly there instead of soundtrack for a number of scenes.  I used that phrase specially because A) This movie has one BAD ASS SOUNDTRACK and B) the director knows how to use music super effectively he uses it to set the mood and to enhance the drama of any scene that has any sort of music in it.  Well when I started thinking of the political stuff as just another part of the soundtrack then it becomes very interesting.  I would call it a bold experiment and while I found it exceptionally effective I think it does end up providing a red herring in terms of real time film interpretation that some people might find distracting.  That said I do love the idea of alternative soundtrack solutions and ultimately I feel that this experiment is both interesting and successful. 
Another way to look at the political side of the movie is to demonstrate just how amazingly out of step it all is for the rest of America.  The main movers and shakers in the film are all career criminals.  New York Micky, Brad Pitt, his handler, Ray Liotta all of them were criminals when economic times were great and they are all criminals when things have fallen apart.  It isn’t like they lost normal jobs and turned to a life of crime.  It also doesn’t particularly suggest that anything real has happened.  The robbery of the card game isn’t to save the rat’s failing dry cleaning business no.  The plot of the movie would of happened in both boom times as well as the bust times.  Throughout the movie we here speeches from both Obama and Bush and ultimately they just seem hollow, alien, they talk about solutions but the people in the movie were having problems when things were fine let alone falling apart.  The disconnect is enough that people wonders what it means and I think that the question itself is precisely the point.  Ultimartly what do these people get us?  In the good times as well as the bad there are still going to be people who don’t have enough.  People who steal because they believe they can.  People will die so that other people will feel more secure.  This is the world Killing Them Softly presents to us.