Monday, January 14, 2013
It's 2013 and It's Time To Stop The Madness! A New Year's RANT OF DOOM.
- Well, here we are, and it's 2013 ... guess that whole Mayan apocalypse thing didn't quite pan out.
After a string of exhaustive 2012 Year-In-Review posts, I was a bit blogged-out. At the same time, I wanted to kick off 2013 with some good material, and was trying to figure out what to write. As often happens though, the subject matter found me (as opposed to the other way around), and here I am with a lot to say as we find ourselves midway through January.
Basically, my question of the moment is: HAS THE WHOLE WORLD GONE CRAZY?!
Now, this is largely a pop-culture blog, so I ask that question through a pop-culture-tinged lense. But still, the question remains, and it invariably ties to a larger socio-political context. It's no wonder that post-apocalyptic fiction is so popular right now ... sometimes it really does feel like the end is nigh. Not even the end of things on a material level, but the end of reason, sanity, and level-headedness.
I will start with the macro-view of things and talk about something that's obvious: America has a problem with violence. This past year, there were scores of horrific shootings that made one wonder what the hell was wrong with people. There was an added dimension of horror to these incidents because they largely took place in places that we regard as safe havens: movie theaters, malls, and most of all, schools. Incident after incident occurred, with the straw that broke the proverbial camel's back being the Sandy Hook school shooting in my home state of Connecticut. The fact that innocent children were gunned down - kids under 10 years old - it was almost too much to bear. Still, even thinking about it is almost impossibly sad, and hard to wrap one's brain around.
As I (and most rational people, I think) see it, there are two main addressable issues here. One is gun control. Many of these incidents were perpetrated by assault rifles and other weapons far too powerful to be available for civilian use. Few are advocating the ban of guns altogether, but many want to see sensible regulations on what kinds of guns can be sold, and to whom. For years, I've found it frustrating that this issue has been tossed aside as a political minefield not worth addressing or spotlighting in national debate and discourse. It's a shame that it took such horrific incidents to finally get the conversation going again. The second issue is mental health. There seems to be a real issue with the identification and treatment of mental illness here in America. It's too hard and too costly for many families to have mentally ill sons or daughters properly treated or cared for. And as relates to gun control, the fact that people with mental illness had such easy and free access to guns is maddening.
The fact is - certain people and factions in America just have ridiculously backwards and asinine views of guns and their rights as relates to them. The gun culture in America is harmful, problematic, disruptive, and just plain misguided. Too many people fancy themselves to be soldiers, vigilantes, and cowboys - and are living in a fantasy world in which one must stockpile bullets in the event that the US government turns on its people.
In any case, there was a moment after the Sandy Hook shooting in which the one silver lining seemed to be that we were, finally, going to turn a corner. But now, I worry that, as often happens, we are letting the moment pass us and get buried under an avalanche of distractions, politics, and sound-bytes designed not for reasonable discussion, but to feed the beast of a 24-hour news cycle.
And that brings me to the micro view. As I look around, I see intelligent discussion about violence in America being swallowed up by brainlessness. I see the hard conversations - the ones about gun control and treatment of mental illness - being undermined by the same old easy conversations, where pundits and politicians blame things like movies and videogames for all of our problems.
The sudden resurgence in attacks against the videogame industry really bothers me for how misguided it is. For one thing, last time I looked, none of the attackers in the major shooting incidents in 2012 were children. All were adults. So why then is there the constant need to talk about the effect of media on them? Lord knows - any work of fiction or nonfiction, be it the Bible, Shakespeare, Die Hard, or Call of Duty - has the same ability to warp a mentally unstable person's mind. There's nothing new here, and there's no reason why we should condemn STORIES for real-life actions. What I am seeing now is a movement towards the worst possible thing in a free society: censorship. In Connecticut, residents of the town of Southington are getting together to BURN violent videogames. Are you kidding me? How is this any different than burning books, movies, or music? This is Farenheit 451 come to horrific life. There always has been and always will be media that is inappropriate for children, and it's the responsibility of parents to ensure that their kids are exposed to age-appropriate material. But to limit what stories adults are exposed to because of fear of the story's content? That, my friends, is crazy. So how about if instead of burning / destroying games, the parents of Southington actually do their jobs and parent, rather than act like savages in their own right?
This same madness extends to the world of television, where the recent TCA event - in which networks show off their new series for critics and journalists - was riddled with accusations of too-violent content. Again, why should series aimed at an adult audience concern themselves with such things? Furthermore, to reduce media to base-level labels like violent and nonviolent severely undermines questions of context and quality. In the world of TV, this is especially true. Over the last decade and a half, we've seen a renaissance in quality on television. We've seen dark and mature shows - from The Sopranos to Breaking Bad - that are more intelligent, more nuanced, more complex - than most of what used to be churned out. TV has become challenging and adult - no longer just a pacifier, no longer just an idiot-box. So of course, people are now coming out of the woodwork to criticize it.
The truth is that there will always be art that revels in violence for the sake of violence. We have a primal part of us that is excited by violence as the ultimate life-or-death challenge. Drama is best when the stakes are high - and no stakes are higher than life and death. This is literal and metaphorical - after all, what is the fascination with professional sports if not as a microcosm of life and death. Isn't the warlike strategy of football basically warfare in miniature, the tackles a stand-in for killing blows? Don't we all enjoy the drama of all-or-nothing, winner takes all? That is always going to be reflected in our culture. At the same time, there is also always going to be art that celebrates life, goodness, friendship, love, and the human spirit. We all have a need for those kinds of stories, and they will always be there. Sometimes, an outwardly violent tale can actually turn out to be uplifting and good - take Lord of the Rings or Star Wars. Sometimes, an outwardly sweet story can actually end up being soul-crushing - look at the stories of Charlie Brown: a cute cartoon character for kids whose adventures are actually almost nihilistic in their negative outlook on life. Point being: you can't just label something as violent-bad or peaceful-good. In fact, I think there's a strong argument to be made that people who live lives in which they repress their minds to violence and sex and anything that challenges their worldview ... those are the people who often end up with the most problems. How many politicians, Catholic priests, and other would-be role models have turned out to be hypocritical people who act out on the very things they preach most loudly against? It's why the people calling for censorship - either self-censorship or imposed-on-others censorship, often strike me as the craziest of all.
At the movies, you've not got journalists ganging up on guys like Quentin Tarantino and his latest film, Django Unchained. The criticisms are not new for Tarantino, but they seem to be heightened due to the recent anti-violence, anti-everything-that's-not-100%-politically-correct hysteria. Now, Django is unquestionably a complicated film from a tonal perspective. It's got a pulpy, over-the-top, often comedic style that references Spaghetti Westerns, grindhouse cinema, and blaxploitation flicks. But it also has some real social commentary beneath the surface, and its portrayal of slavery in the pre-Civil War south is starkly brutal and disturbing. And yet, people are fixated on the movie's use of the n-word. People are reducing the movie to over-the-top pulp - even though there's much more to it - and therefore taking issue with a supposedly silly movie's use of a very serious word. Again, it's an issue of reductivism - people are too lazy to really examine the film's themes, its contrasting tones, its genre influences, and what it's saying about slavery and race - and are instead framing criticisms in sound-bytes ready-made for FOX News. The exact same reductivism is happening with regards to the movie's violence. Obviously, Tarantino is a guy who enjoys the visceral, subversive thrill of a great action scene. He is a great storyteller, and a master of building up narrative tension that culminates in violent climax. But rather than have intelligent discussions about the movie's narrative beats, people seem to want to simply label it as violent, and that's that. How many Oscar-winning movies could have just been labeled as violent - and therefore not worthwhile - and that's that? How many great books could be labeled as violent - and therefore not worth further analysis or cultural merit - and that's that?
This same logic applies to videogames. After all these years, too many mainstream critics and "journalists" fail to engage with the medium on any level except with regards to violence vs. non-violence. There is a whole world of aesthetics and craft that don't get discussed outside of enthusiasts. Gameplay, graphic artistry, control, precision, immersiveness, challenge, and yes - story and theme. I think about The Walking Dead videogame that I named as game of the year for 2012. There is violence and horror in it, yes. But it also put you in the role of protective father-figure, group leader, and redemption-seeker. And yet, in the spewed-out non-discussion of games, in which "violent" games are being burned in Southington, a game brimming with artistic merit might be thrown into the flames.
But back to movies, the most prominent example of small-minded reductivism has to be the recent "controversy" around Zero Dark Thirty, which I find sort of shocking. Here is one of the most intelligent, well-crafted films of 2012 - a movie that never talks down to its audience - that is being attacked from all sides for no reason except, again, to stir the pot. At the least, it was reassuring to know that the movie still did solid box-office this week despite all of the crazy complaints. It makes me wonder if we live in such a sound-byte oriented society that we no longer know how to process nuance or complexity. It's the same way in which everyone yelled about the "fiscal cliff" without knowing a damn thing about it, except that it was coming and it was bad. With Zero Dark Thirty, there is now a controversy about the depiction of torture in the movie. How is this possible? What's true is that the movie opens the floodgates for discussion and debate about America's use of torture in the war on terror. What isn't true is that it endorses torture. In fact, the most prominent theme of the entire movie is the psychological toll that torture takes - on those directly involved in administering it, and on the country as a whole. The depiction of torture in the movie is never cathartic or exploitative - instead, it's hard-to-watch and almost makes you sympathetic for the prisoners. But what's brilliant about the film is that it doesn't really lean one way or the other - it presents torture in a way that forces you as a viewer to think about its benefits vs. its consequences. Key words being: "forces you to think."
Somehow, complaints about the film's exact accuracy morphed into a meme stating that it was controversial because it endorsed torture. First of all, these criticisms are not the same at all. Second, I don't see how it's fair to criticize a movie that represents still-classified events as being not wholly accurate. The movie is journalistic and real-feeling in its broad strokes, but I don't think most expected it to capture the entire hunt for Bin Laden in minute detail. It disappoints me that politicians would so forcefully condemn the movie for this reason. But this all goes back to what I was talking about earlier: not paying attention to a story's broader themes, instead focusing only on details that might prove offensive if taken out of context. Let's look at Zero Dark Thirty as a whole - the entire movie is clearly a fictionalized amalgam of real people and events, put together in order to tell a story about a specific moment in American history, and the slow and scar-tissue laced road to healing post-9/11. Jessica Chastain's character is based on some real people in the CIA, but isn't a direct representation of any one person. The same goes for most of the film's other characters. So already, from Moment One in the movie, we as viewers know that this isn't a documentary, but an approximation of real events, assembled in dramatic fashion in order to make a broader thematic point. Argo used the same sort of artistic license. As did Lincoln. AS DID EVERY FICTIONAL MOVIE ABOUT REAL EVENTS EVER MADE.
And so, in the discussion about what - exactly - is truth vs. fiction in Zero Dark Thirty, the real discussion that the movie *should* be prompting conveniently gets totally lost. The movie should be inspiring meaningful conversation about to what lengths America should go to preserve its safety and its freedom, about what lines we should draw to distinguish us from our enemies, about the symbolic importance of finding Osama Bin Laden and the work that still needs to be done even after his death.
But America seems to be having a moment where intelligent conversation is being totally washed out by reactionary outrage. We are better than this. And I know that because we count among us intelligent and gifted storytellers like Kathryn Bigelow, Quentin Tarantino, and Steven Spielberg who have been telling the story of America in interesting, thought-provoking (and - gasp! - sometimes violent) ways. My sincere hope for 2013 is that we stop the madness and stop the calls for censorship. That we stop confusing the real issues with the imagined ones. That we tackle what is practical and pragmatic instead of what is baseless. Let's embrace those ideas and those voices that challenge us, make us think, and make us smarter, and tune out those that reduce everything to sound bytes and dogmatic us vs. them fear-mongering. Let's remember that there's nothing wrong with being different, or thinking different, or being an individual - in fact, that's what makes America great in the first place. When everything becomes Blue vs. Red, side vs. side, we lower ourselves to the reductivism I've been rallying against. Let's start using our brains again, and remember that the world is a weird and complicated place - but that that's what makes it great.