Friday, February 23, 2007

The Warporn Eucharist

The February 19 issue of The New Yorker has a great article by Jane Mayer on the impact of the television War on Terror fantasy "24" on real-world public policy. Jack Bauer's imaginary L.A.-based domestic covert ops wing of the CIA, it turns out, is housed on the ground floor of a refurbished pencil factory in the San Fernando Valley, where America's enemies are interrogated every Monday night for the entertainment of prime time zombies like yours truly. The article notes that American TV now feeds us one hundred instances of torture a year, versus four before 9/11.

"The show's villains usually inflict the most gruesome tortures: their victims are hung on hooks, like carcasses in a butcher shop; poked with smoking-hot scalpels; or abraded with sanding machines. In many episodes, however, heroic American officials act as tormentors, even though torture is illegal under U.S. law. In one episode, a fictional President commands a member of his Secret Service to torture a suspected traitor: his national-security adviser. The victim is jolted with defibrillator paddles while his feet are submerged on a tub filled with water. As the voltage is turned up, the President, who is depicted as a scrupulous leader, watches the suspect suffer on a video feed. The viewer, who knows that the adviser is guilty and is harboring secrets, becomes complicit in hoping that the torture works. A few minutes before the suspect gives in, the President utters the show's credo, 'Everyone breaks eventually.'"

The article catalogues Agent Bauer's menu of techniques for immediate revelation, from brutish stab wounds to mock live video executions of a prisoner's family members. It then recounts the efforts of actual military interrogators to persuade the producers and writers to imbue the show with a more realistic portrayal of government agents conducting their interrogations in accordance with the law, citing their concerns that 24's representations of intelligence collection are distorting the public's view of reality, and influencing public opinion in an unhealthy way. Quoting a December 2006 report of the Intelligence Science Board:

"Prime-time television increasingly offers up plot lines involving the incineration of metropolitan Los Angeles by an atomic weapon or its depopulation by an aerosol nerve toxin. The characters do not have time to reflect upon, much less to utilize, what real professionals know to be the 'science and art' of 'educing information.' They want results. Now. The public thinks the same way. They want, and rightly expect, precisely the same kind of 'protection' that only a skilled intelligence professional can provide. Unfortunately, they have no idea how such a person is supposed to act in 'real life.'"

Recall a prior generation of L.A.-based Watchmen enduring a stressed out Zeitgeist: the Jack Webb police procedurals Dragnet and Adam-12, in which lonely sentinels of law and order exhaustedly administered Miranda due process to murderers, car thieves, pill popping moms, and spoiled Bourgeois hippies. Alas, Jack Bauer's lineage is more Bud White than Joe Friday – Judge Dredd with a Blackberry.

The intriguing allure of this brutalist cultural thread is compounded when Mayer name-checks some of the Washington notables who are big fans of 24: Karl Rove, Tony Snow, Laura Ingraham, Clarence Thomas, ex-Justice Department torture analyst John Yoo, Mary Cheney, Lynne Cheney ("an extreme '24' fan"), and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. Justice Thomas' wife Virginia organized a Heritage Foundation symposium on the show, at which Secretary Chertoff praised the ethical credibility of the show's real-time bet-the-world utilitarianism: "Frankly, it reflects real life."

9/11 happened to a culture that had long before obliterated the barriers between consensus reality and the narrative delusions of technicolor media dreams. Consider the disturbing number of lawyers practicing today who were lured by "what's your movie" aspirations to realize their own inner Arnie Becker and Ally McBeal. Is it any surprise that our neoconservative sentinels and their dark dauphines enjoy spending their down time inside an action movie funhouse mirror of their day jobs? Celebrating situational nihilism as the dutiful resignation of the protective pater familias (the unappreciated Vietnam Vet meme never dies). How long before they start making cameo appearances? Or one of the taciturn mutual fund commercial terror-fighters gets recruited to head some bogus White House task force?

Skeptical that a pulp action TV serial could have a bona fide impact on public policy and its practitioners? Consider this intriguing lecture held last night at the University of Texas' Harry Ransom Center:

"Daniel Posnansky, retired faculty member of Harvard University, presents the Carl and Lily Pforzheimer Lecture "Arthur Conan Doyle on America: British-American Foreign Policy in the New Millennium" on Thursday, February 22, at 7 p.m. at the Harry Ransom Center.

"Posnansky will discuss the ways in which Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes influenced American foreign policy for decades after Doyle’s death, and continue to do so. He will bring samples of original materials from his personal collection, including letters of Harry S. Truman and Franklin D. Roosevelt, that quote Holmes and discuss his strategies for pressing foreign concerns."

Any preference for Chertoff channeling Bauer versus FDR channeling Holmes?

Of course, Jack Bauer's raw and unlawful interrogation techniques are tame compared to the thinly disguised warporn at your local cineplex and Blockbuster outlet. Every few weeks brings a new torture-based shock thriller to amuse America's teens. Saw I-III, in which abductees are compelled to maim themselves to survive. Hostel, which envisions an underground torture club of paying tormentors and kidnapped victims in some corner of Slovakia that didn't make the latest "Let's Go." Turistas, The Descent, etc....these are not your brother's Reservoir Dogs.

When a colleague at the day job last fall said her weekend plans as a suburban mom included hosting her daughter's 12th birthday party at a showing of Saw III, my incredulity was compounded by further investigations at the parental film guide Dig the accidentally Ballardian, clinical catalog of the film's suburban Abu Ghraib, invisible literature for an age of terror:

VIOLENCE/GORE 10 - A man is screwed into an apparatus that we are told will twist his limbs: We see screws through his hands and feet and a metal ring around his head, the machinery begins to twist (we hear popping and cracking and tearing and see blood spurting), the man screams in agony, each limbs is twisted, and we see bones protruding through the twisted skin; then his head is twisted and we see the stretched skin on his neck and we hear a loud crunch when his neck breaks.

► We see a man with chains attached to him by rings that pierce his skin, his lip and Achilles tendons: we see him pull the rings out one by one, while he screams and blood flows, and he tries to reach for a bomb to de-activate it, but it explodes leaving him in pieces.

► An explosive device is detonated and blows a woman's head off (we see the blood and matter that remains above her shoulders).

► A man uses what looks like a toilet tank cover and pounds it down on his foot repeatedly crushing his ankle and foot (the man screams with every blow and we hear cracking and popping); he then snaps the ankle bone (we see the bone pushing through the skin and the foot is very bloody) in order to be able to slip out of a shackle that holds him attached to a pipe.

► A man uses a power saw to cut another man's throat (blood spurts and we see the man gag and spurt). A man shoots a woman in the throat (blood spurts and pours), she falls to the floor, and she gags and dies. A man is shot in the side of the head (we see part of his head and face blown off and blood spurts from the additional resulting neck wound).

► A woman wakes up from being unconscious, with a heavy metal ring around her neck, and an apparatus attached to her ribs (we see bloody hooks attached to her sides and blood drips on the floor); she reaches into a container of acid to retrieve a key that will free her (her hand is eaten away by the acid and the liquid turns bloody), her time runs out and the apparatus that she is attached to rips her rib cage apart (we see her fall limp and see bloody tissue flapping around).

► A medical procedure is performed on a man's head and we see the entire procedure: the scalp is cut and folded back, the skull is drilled into, a saw is used to cut a piece out (blood sprays on the surgeon's face) and the brain is exposed (we hear squishing, cracking, the whirring of a saw and drill and there is a lot of blood).

► A man with a very bloody foot wound drags himself through a dark hallway (we see his foot flopping around), he beats a woman with a metal pipe, she kicks him in the bad foot and he falls to the floor, he bites her on the leg, punches her and slams her head into a wall (we see her bloody head and face), and she spits in his face, kicks him and leaves.

► In a flashback to a sequence from the first "Saw" a woman locked into a head apparatus must cut a key out of a man's stomach in order to save herself, and she does so.

► A man injects himself with a drug that reduces his heart rate, his head is covered with blood and he lies down in a pool of blood on the floor (presumably it is animal blood, not his own).

► A nude woman hangs from her hands, which are chained to a metal frame, and she is sprayed with water periodically; the room she is in is a large freezer, and she is eventually completely encased in ice.

► A woman shoots a woman in the back, blood sprays on a plastic sheet, and she falls into a man's arms (we see blood on her clothes).

► A woman wraps a plastic bag around a man's head, he flails trying to get away, and he hits his head on a toilet (we hear the crack and see blood in the bag); he flails for a little bit longer and then falls dead.

► Armed police break into a room and are shocked by what they find: We see a room with very bloody body parts strewn around and bits of internal organs and tissue on the floor. A man shines a flashlight around a dark room and sees a dead man lying next to a severed foot (the man has blood on his face and the foot is covered with blood).

► A woman squeezes the blade of a saw and cuts her hand (we see blood pouring onto the floor and on her hand). A woman cuts herself on the leg with a large knife (we hear squishing and see old scars from previous cuts). A man struggles to reach a key, his cheek becomes frozen to a bar and when he pulls away from the bar the skin tears off (he screams and we see a bloody patch).

► A young boy is brought into an emergency room on a stretcher and has a bloody head wound and a bloody wound on his side (ER staff examine and stabilize him).

► A woman places an explosive collar around another woman's neck and explains what she needs to do to be set free. A woman locked in a locker room is attacked by someone wearing a pig mask, and she wakes up tied into a chair and struggles to get free.

► A man is chained around the neck to the bottom of a large vat, many decayed pig carcasses with wriggling maggots are dropped into a crusher, they are liquefied, the man in the vat is sprayed with the liquid and it begins to fill up (he is freed before he drowns). A man finds himself trapped inside a wooden crate, and he pounds on the crate until it falls from its perch and breaks apart on the floor below (he ends up with a bloody gash on his head).

► A woman attacks a man and incapacitates him (we see her knock him to the floor, then straddle him and we see him unconscious later). A woman shoots her gun through a closet door, reaches in to find something and is grabbed from behind and incapacitated.

► We see several disjointed sequences of a boy dying after having been struck by a car (there's no blood, and he is lying motionless on the pavement).

►  A man lying on the floor and chained to a pipe in a dark room struggles to reach a gun and then a flashlight. We see a young girl locked in a room.

► A woman with a knife threatens another woman. We hear a man screaming that he is going to kill someone. A man yells at a woman and she appears frightened. A husband and wife argue.

► We hear that a man has an inoperable brain tumor. A man finds a tricycle and a doll lying on the floor in a dark hallway and he remembers his son's fatal accident.

► A man has a seizure; he vomits, begins to thrash violently and spits blood. A man vomits (we see goo and hear him gag).

Roll over, Walt Disney. Time to turn on CNN for the latest beheading video. The news is a snuff film, and so is the matinee.

Postulate: When your nation is unleashing mayhem with remote control bombs on the other side of the planet and gurgling waterboards in the windowless buildings where no one can hear you scream, even though the resulting real-world carnage never appears on your dinnertime news feed or coffeetime front page, you know it's out there. It lurks in your subconscious, and needs to be processed. Pop culture provides a sugar-coated safety valve. Acted out in a waking dream, one where your filmic alter egos are both the victims and the perpetrators. In the gated cortex of the American mind, the motion lights flicker on after midnight, illuminating the lurking predators 'R us. Grab some buttered popcorn and a 48 ounce Diet Coke.

When the mainstream media mainlines warporn, one wonders what kinds of deeper moral crises this already-savage century is incubating in the minds of the world's adolescents. The imminent rise of the next generation will tell us whether this dark carnival of cathode ray mayhem is a prefatory Dionysian revel of 'obscene enjoyment,' or a more grounded ethical percolation designed to perform cultural C.P.R. on exhausted Christian aspirations for utopian love.


Jess Nevins said...

Great job, Chris. Really, really good job.

Anonymous said...

This was a really interesting article. I was thinking about this exact subject the day before I read this.

So, kudos.

Nicholas Martin said...

I have to disagree with you lumping The Descent in with the likes of Hostel and the Saw movies. The Descent is not torture porn, it is a survival film that operates on a series of mythical archetypes that are completely absent in Saw I-III or Hostel, orany of the other myriad of bad gore films that have graced our cinema screens for the plast four or so years. In fact, the Descent works on such a completely different storytelling level than the average gore film. The Descent is a movie of substance wearing the mask of a horror film.

Christopher Brown said...

paranoiajack: Fair comment. I'll take your word for it -- I'm reacting more to the film marketing. I will take a closer look. Any film about hot spelunking action is worth a close reading in my book!

Jess et al. -- Thanks!

St. Anthony said...

Sugar-coated safety valves and warporn ... excellent stuff, excellent article.
I have never seen so much as a minute of '24' ... and now I know a brace of Cheneys sit around gawping at it, I think I never shall.
What is also disturbing about Hostel is the complete unawareness from the people involved of the country the film is ostensibly set in ... they clearly thought it was involved in the recent Balkan conflicts. Do your research, boys.