Saturday, October 13, 2012
Before you even begin, please accept my apology for the run-on sentences, dangling modifiers, and jumpy structure on display here. These are, as usual on EL, notes rather than article. This is often how I write when hit with a bit of inspiration (but "inspiration" isn't quite the right word; "impulse" maybe). And in truth I have not written like this for myself in a while, and I am doing so here for two reasons: one, I want to get the feelings out now so I can start to formulate them more coherently down the road; two, when faced with writing a dissertation as I am currently doing (and the dual strictures of occasional writer's block & the requirements of careful, footnoted fact-checking), it can feel great sometimes simply to open up the floodgates on a completely unrelated topic. (Also: this post discusses Redacted with a general sense that you the reader are familiar with it. But for readers who may not have seen or heard much about this film from a few years ago, it was a controversial and very disturbing docudrama recreating some of the events around the rape and murder of a teenage girl and her family by US soldiers in Mahmudiya in March of 2006.)
Here's a useful tangent spurred by the talk of mimesis I reproduced here earlier today, occasioned by a recent viewing of Redacted (Brian De Palma, 2007). Though I generally like De Palma, I let this one pass me by years ago because concensus seemed to be that it was a hugely messy, well-intentioned statement film: a movie made with a straightforward agenda by a leftie greybeard of liberal Hollywood, using newfangled "new media" techniques. I didn't rush to see it; I already had assumed a picture of what I'd get out of it ... and that picture didn't include a heightened understanding of the political or human dimensions of the war in Iraq. Plus, those who know me realize I'm like a sloth, cinephilically-speaking - it often takes me a long, long time to get around to things.
Imagine my surprise when I put on the DVD and was completely devastated. I think it's a great film.
Yet, how could this be? Many of the people I'd look to for guidance on this matter were apathetic or mixed, at best, toward Redacted. My man Girish, for instance, listed it as a film that don't work for him at all from Toronto 2007. Olaf Möller concluded, "But when all is said an done and every image fucked over, remade, and defiled, we still need to believe in images as carriers of truth, and there's a sense of desperation to the whole enterprise." In the same issue of Film Comment, the late, great Paul Arthur absolutely excoriates the film on every level. He writes, "Scarcely a single frame of this stuff looks or feels plausible: a surveillance camera miraculously records crystal-clear dialogue; a female journalist accompanying a nighttime raid shoves her mike [sic] into the faces of troops trying to clear a potentially hostile zone; the diarist's first-person voiceovers and accompanying images rarely match."
Even De Palma advocate and card-carrying professional contrarian Armond White panned the movie: "De Palma hasn’t thought through what to say about war." (I don't think this is a movie begging for a statement about War in general, exactly, but more to that point below.) White then echoes Arthur's misgivings about the choice to tell the story through imitation of various new media & journalism templates: "Sequences sample either a soldier’s video diary, Internet webcasts, surveillance camera footage, Al Jazeera broadcasts, even a French liberal-TV documentary with hokey editing transitions from a generic software package. This inconclusive media jumble may be anti-war fodder for those who can’t get enough slant on the war, but it’s essentially a technocrat’s quandary."
If you ask me, Olaf Möller's mixed-to-negative appraisal is actually much closer than White's or Arthur's to getting at what Redacted does and what sorts of an aesthetic it actually employs. Der OM, at least, more or less recognizes that the root of the aesthetic here is a matter of distance from realism, and proximity- or intimacy - in an ethical quandary: how does one reconcile service, even mere citizenship, with complicity in events that push outside the bounds of what is permissible (i.e., what is one's relation to the state's non-sovereign enemy?); and also a quandary one about witnessing such trespasses (i.e., about looking & testimony).
Perhaps because I saw this movie late, largely free of expectations of a bold and timely statement, I was more receptive than many to the acting style and the clear-voiced multimedia tableaux, or the fact that the characters play somewhat stereotyped roles, or that certain plot points and images are "heavy-handed." These things did not strike me as failures because I don't think I agree with many of the film's other observers about what it is even trying to do. I don't come away from Redacted with any impression that the film was aiming for psychologically rounded characters woven in a rich social-novelistic tapestry - i.e., The Wire in Iraq (or just The Hurt Locker, a film roundly praised for its being fairly "apolitical" yet highly psychological-realist, tho' maybe just maybe those two things are connected!).
For one thing, examples of the latter type of fiction are often overestimated in terms of "realism," and for another, Redacted instead seems to me spurred more along the lines of the thought experiment, the anecdote, or the case study. Characters are drawn broadly not because they're drawn badly, but for economy of expression. The situation in which they're placed is artificial, but it seems overwhelmingly self-evident to me (and perhaps I'm crazy since it was not so self-evident to the film's many detractors) that it is meant to be artificial. (Of course the conveniently-placed surveillance cameras record dialogue perfectly, much to Arthur's dismay!) This is one reason, perhaps, why so many of the peripheral characters are shown off-screen, given no identification as real "characters," but instead as hands and as voices serving a purpose.
What about, then, the use of multimedia? I think part of the issue here is the question of mimesis; to what ends and in what capacities does De Palma imitate the trappings of this new spectacular digital age of war? Is it a choice motivated by texture? Meaning: does the proliferation of new media techniques, cheap editing transitions, and "fake" looking YouTube vlogs, etc., exist to heighten a sense of the war by retreading the means by which "we" as a society see it? I don't think this is quite it. I think the choice stems from a deeper decision about the nature of the text. (At this moment I'm using "text" in its broad, lit crit sense of the word.) If Vietnam was the TV war and the Iraq wars were gradually spectacularized into innumerable digital vectors, the means by which we - the American populace at home - have of these wars is also, obviously, mediated through all these electronic forms. But I would disagree, respectfully but strenuously, with Olaf Möller's assertion that "we still need to believe in images as carriers of truth." No. Images alone are not ever carriers of truth. There is no such thing as a pure film language; there is no such thing as a purely imagistic communication. These are myths; we have language, and images do not cast us back to a prelapsarian/pre-discursive truth, not even temporarily. Language is always there waiting, even if we decide it is not active.
So it's important to attend to what the movie does with words, too. The wooden dialogue many sneered at contains, to me, a lot of subtle and significant cues. There are Freudian slips (Salazar talks about "her" body) and verbal blocks: that body-twisting rage one feels when an emotion finds no adequate words, or is met with resistance from within oneself to get the words out. Words themselves seem inadequate once uttered; when McCoy makes his speech near the end of the film, he clearly has no comfort of a talking cure. He is asked to tell a war story, but what he has to tell falls upon deaf ears as his friends with cameras push him into the production of an another sanctioned image (video & a candid picture of the returned veteran whose peers and colleagues will not even allow him to shake them out of their complacency: he's awkwardly, politely ignored). Redacted opens with discussion of soldiers bequeathing their Iraq war footage to another; all through the film there is an implicit promise of all this accumulated material being seen by someone, by someone who would have the authority to act in justice's name. But it comes to nothing. It peters out. There's too much out there, there so too many images and words.
(I would go so far as to suggest that the political-ethical problem is not that a proliferation of media objects is intrinsically bad; it is more a matter of how this very proliferation functions in the society that produces it. In this case, proliferation functions to silence even as many citizens hope and work to do just the opposite. But it's hard work. Debord: "The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images.")
And a note about the "bad apples" argument: while the narrative is such that there is indeed an atomized spectrum of monstrosity (Flake and Rush as bad apples, Salazar as complicit with little conscience, McCoy as complicit but with a great deal of conscience, Blix as far away from complicit as a soldier could be - which is not that far), and I think this quasi-typage is in keeping with the non-realist dramaturgy of the film, I would emphasize that the film subtly conveys the impression that transgressive behavior by soldiers is structural and systemic rather than solely personal and moral. To point to a few ways the films does this: (a) providing Flake, if not Rush, with a story about his family history and its pressure cooker of violence, (b) underlining the military imperative to weigh charges of misconduct with morale and tight functioning of the troops, for instance in the video chat between McCoy and his father - this don't rock the boat pragmatism comes across explicitly but we can also draw out a lot of tacit communication too, including about parental indoctrination, (c) indicating via Salazar the choice of a stint in the military as an opportunity for long-term careers, something that the Army has used in its marketing/recruitment since the 1970s [this last is a point gleaned from a talk I saw recently by historian Beth Bailey].
Finally, on political controversy: I understand that conservative commentators generally hated this movie, too. My own feeling is that while this is a highly radical and extremely political film, the tenor of its stance in terms of blue/red electoral politics is actually fairly muted. Though Redacted makes a stringent and angry appraisal of American conduct both individual and systemic, its chief concern is not how or why American foreign policy led troops into the mess it did. It presumably leaves that for other films, books, etc. Instead its concern is a matter of our ethical reaction to a line crossed. A state functions by excluding something, even most things, from its own body politic. In the act of defense of that very body, and of those very lines, the military arm of the state can cross the lines which had previously been counted upon to help constitute the very substance of that state's body politic. (In other words, murder would be implemented so as to protect/"protect" even the Land of Pacifism. Protection of the law entails extra-legal force.) Even when such transgressions are not officially ordered or sanctioned, they often goes unpunish, or punished only by a scapegoat. ("Sovereign is he who decides the exception.") But for the citizen of a state, putatively democratic, who sees this transgression, in fact takes part in it - even from off to one side - there remains a profound ethical problem. And the modes of seeing such trangressions multiply; rather than carrying truth on their own, they instead act as shattered glass or shards of a mirror. Perhaps they inure us with their small, image-heavy truths to the demand a more singular, clearer articulation of truth might convey. Redacted sketches out exactly this sort of clarion meta-picture.