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Tuesday, August 14, 2012

"The Dark Knight Rises", Media Violence, & Social Change

This article was originally published on on Tuesday, August 14, 2012:

"The Dark Knight Rises" still of Christian Bale and the suit

It seems obvious to me that the Aurora, Colorado cinema shooting and the close-on-its-heels massacre at the Sikh temple make the need for gun control clear and absolute, in particular the need to renew an assault weapons ban that would have covered the assault rifle James Holmes used. I immediately signed all the gun control petitions which showed up in my inbox, such as this bipartisan one from 700 mayors. (Others are listed at the end of this article). What seems patently obvious to me, however, is not so obvious to everyone, as gun sales in Colorado spiked 41% after the shooting at the Batman screening. The gun lobby -- which is to a large extent a gun manufacturers' lobby -- is certainly not going to let reforms come easily, even though there have been 60 mass shootings in the U.S. just in the 18 months since the Arizona shooting that injured Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.

Though there are many factors that contribute to this insanity, surely one of the reasons reform is so difficult is the prevalence of extremely powerful gun commercials available 24/7, slickly produced by multi-national corporations. These are not ads for specific gun models per se but movies, video games, TV shows, online videos, violent songs, and yes, graphic novels and comic books, which send the message that it's a very threatening world out there, that there are people who are less-than-human who you should hate, and that the way to be strong and cool is to be proficient at violence. This is emotional, gut-level propaganda, and it works.

James Holmes' deep identification with The Joker of the 2008 Dark Knight movie is one more very serious warning signal about our culture. When scientists measure toxicity levels in our water or air or they measure the growth of an epidemic, the markers that indicate the problem seem to first be the most susceptible members of the population. Poisons tend to be more noticeable in the homes of the poor and the bodies of children, pregnant women, the elderly, and those with compromised systems. Individuals like Holmes who so horrendously mistake movies for real life -- or real life for a movie -- are the ones who happen to be most susceptible. But the breakdowns or mania or whatever you want to call it that they go through are indicators of the presence of toxins which put everyone at risk.

The high school massacre at Columbine (another city in Colorado) was linked to the fantasy sequence in Basketball Diaries , when a very young Leonardo DiCaprio in a cool black trenchcoat mowed down his classmates to a sound cue of applause. Several other similar high school shootings ensued which were also linked to the movie. In fact, two years before Columbine, Basketball Diaries had already been the subject of a lawsuit by parents of victims of at a high school shooting in Paducah, Kentucky.

The same lawsuit targeted Natural Born Killers , which has been linked to eight different murders committed by extreme fans of the film, including a matricide and fraticide, a decapitation committed by a 14 year old, and the murder of the family of the killer's girlfriend. Oliver Stone's killing-spree saga was also sued (unsuccessfully) by a victim who'd been paralyzed in an NBK -inspired shooting--novelist John Grisham supported that lawsuit.

"Child's Play" still of Chucky and friend

In one of the most chilling instances of life imitating art, an Australian man devoted to the horror flick Child's Play killed 35 people; the same movie was implicated in England, when two10-year olds (who clearly should never have been watching Chucky in the first place) abducted and murdered a toddler. Another Brit watched First Blood too many times, and went on a Rambo-inspired shooting rampage through the streets of his village. Back in Colorado, a teenaged girl and her boyfriend beat the girl's sister to death while babysitting because they were practicing moves from the video game-derived film Mortal Combat. 

Other films implicated in separate incidents of overtly influential violence include Fight Club(with several copycat fight clubs and even an attempted bombing linked to it), The Matrix, Gladiator, RoboCop2, Money Train, Scream (in costume), Magnum Force, Dirty Harry, The Collector, The Deer Hunter (in the form of Russian Roulette), Taxi Driver, and A Clockwork Orange and the pattern dates as far back as 1949's White Heat.

The New York Times points out that five of the films on the above list, as well as The Dark Knight and many other violent films, were made by Warner Brothers. But I doubt that this is truly a matter of a specific studio or specific films. (And I personally think schlock-meisters shouldn't even be put in the same camp as the brilliant ace directors Scorsese, Kubrick, and Fincher, nor should smart and artistically ambitious Cimino, Stone, or Nolan be tarred with the same brush as a vacuous industry just out to make a profit.) The issue goes much deeper, and is a continuing and unthinking trend despite all the evidence that violence in mainstream media is linked to increased aggression. Two of Warner Brothers 1960's movies, Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde and Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch, were controversial for the graphic way they depicted violence, new at that time. But those seminal achievements took violence seriously -- they were realistic about it because they were considering the actual consequences of violence on the characters and what it really means in a big-picture way. Since then, however, Hollywood has co-opted the gore but shown next to no interest in the meaning.

It is no longer conjecture what effect this is having. In 2003, for example, a study by the Texas Department of Human Services and Iowa State University found that music with violent lyrics led subjects to have more aggressive thoughts and feelings. A number of studies on violent video games have also found links to aggression and violent behavior. One such, a 2012 study, discovered that video games featuring violence against women increased male subjects' belief in myths about rape.

University of Michigan professor L. Rowell Huesmann claims that research in this area of media effects is already conclusive: "It's been well established that media violence makes kids behave more aggressively. Of course, there's no scientific way to evaluate how media violence may have or may have not caused real violence, but there's definitely a relationship, a 'priming' or 'cuing' of behavior for certain individuals." Huesmann's clarity is chilling: "Every study indicates a relationship. The statistical correlation between childhood exposure to violence in media and aggressive behavior is about the same as that between smoking and lung cancer."

Amusing Ourselves to Death
There is the possibility that we, as Neil Postman put it in his 1985 "media ecology' treatise, areAmusing Ourselves to Death . Urban life has cut many kids off completely from any meaningful experience of nature or any of its calming, restorative effects, Richard Louv argued in his 2005 book Last Child in the Woods , and replaced it with a "wired' existence -- which is starting to show links to learning disabilities and ADHD. 75% of families own a video game player; boys spend approximately 41 minutes per day playing video games between the ages of 8 and 18. Yet scientists have recently learned that the human brain is still in a formative stage throughout that span -- our brains don't reach full maturity until age 25.

Still, the effects don't even stop at age 25. In their July 16th issue, Newsweek ran a cover story headlined "iCrazy." It consolidated reports coming in on what the amount of time we spend online, emailing, or texting, is doing to us, and the results aren't pretty. A study released this year found that intensive web use alters our brains: heavy web users are adding abnormal white cells -- "extra nerve cells built for speed," Newsweek explains -- while at the same time losing 10-20% of their grey matter: areas needed for memory, emotion, and speech processing, among other key functions. The magazine quotes UCLA neuroscience expert Peter Whybrow: "the computer is like electronic cocaine." Oxford pharmacology prof Susan Greenfield does not mince words: "this is an issue as important and unprecedented as climate change."

The article discusses the case of Jason Russell, a campaigner whose video went viral, leading him to virtually fuse with his computer, barely sleeping, over the next subsequent days. He ended up likening his life to, ironically, another Christopher Nolan movie, Inception , telling his followers that he felt like he was in "a dream within a dream" -- and then had a public breakdown, apparently a "reactive psychosis.'

Another alarming result of internet addiction left a tragically innocent victim: a depressed South Korean couple spent 12-hour stretches at an internet cafe, raising a virtual child in an absorbing fantasy game -- while back at home, their actual infant starved to death.     
In the late Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 , the hero's wife is so narcotized by an electronic fantasy life she can't even recall her previous night's suicide attempt. She lives for the nightly serial story that appears on the walls of her living-room, a fiction she is so emotionally engaged in she calls the characters "the Family." (The show also provides scripts and interactive opportunities for the spectator -- it's like the late Bradbury predicted gaming back in 1953.)

Soap opera actors have long been baffled by fans who can't tell them apart from their characters; quite a few other actors have also had that experience. A few are named on Robert Young would get asked for medical advice because he played Dr. Marcus Welby on TV, and Edward Woodward was often asked for help because of his recurring role as The Equalizer. Jason Hervey, who played Kevin's older brother on The Wonder Years, was once berated for being so mean to his sib. The biggest head-scratcher of a plethora of anecdotes comes from Dan Blocker, best-known as Hoss on Bonanza, who maintained that a woman asked him how Hoss was, and when he told her he was fictional, she replied: "I know that, all I want to know is if he's alright!"

Movie still of Keanu Reeves inside "The Matrix"

It's so bizarre it seems funny, but not knowing which reality you're living in was not so funny when a teen who watched The Matrix more than 100 times ended up taking part in the 2002 sniper attacks in Washington, D.C. The Matrix also allegedly convinced three other (separate) murderers that they were in an alternate reality; a "matrix" where murder wasn't really murder.  

Celebrity hype is also its own ongoing fantasy, existing on a plane above the narratives these professional artists create. Holmes' state of mind leading up to the Aurora shooting was probably goaded by the huge advance hype for The Dark Knight Rises. Ads for the opening of the movie would have been constant and omnipresent, and the fan base was passionate and vocal -- causing a furor on Rotten Tomatoes even before the film opened.  Some people think they receive messages through their TV sets. John Guare's Obie-winning play The House of Blue Leaves is set in the 1960's and features an "empty nest"-aged mother descriptively nicknamed Bananas. She does little but watch TV. In a monologue, she tells her husband about a vision she had featuring LBJ and Jackie Kennedy and others from the news: "I turn on Johnny Carson to get my mind off and there's Cardinal Spellman and Bob Hope... I'm nobody. I knew all those people better than me...I know everything about them. Why can't they love me?" 

Or as progressives like Ralph Nader have pointed out, the people on the covers of magazines are always the "winners", the ridiculously successful stars of entertainment, politics, business, and sports -- and everyone else is invisible. The onslaught of virtual reality doesn't stem from the consumer's imagination, it's pre-fabricated, and suits a particular agenda. There's a possibility that when we consume so much media it is really consuming us instead.

Batman, Counter-Revolutionary
The mainstream news media has certainly not been very diligent about the issue of massive domestic surveillance after 9/11. For starters, they ignored evidence that the Bush Administration began secretly and illegally spying on Americans months before 9/11. Consequently, in the previous Batman movie The Dark Knight (2008), screenwriters David S. Goyer, Christopher Nolan and his brother Jonathan made this kind of large-scale spying seem completely justified by having Batman do it to catch the Joker. They evidently got their news from corporate media, not from indy sources that showed the scarier ramifications of government surveillance, like "Democracy Now."

These three writers seem to continue to rely on mainstream news too much, judging from their current film The Dark Knight Rises. Their new Batman movie envisions a people's movement to "take back" New York from the rich; it fills the streets with revolutionaries. Yet it reveals them to be a criminal, violent, unthinking mob. Director Christopher Nolan maintains that he and his collaborators conceived of the idea long before the Occupy movement came into existence, and the production schedule would seem to bear that claim out. But what this means is that the Nolan brothers and Goyer (whose other writing credits include Call of Duty video games) saw the economic crisis of 2008, saw the lack of accountability for Wall Street, saw the gap between the haves and have-nots, and concluded that the most fearful thing out of all of that would be if the people were given their chance to rise up. It's ok for the craped crusader to rise, as the title indicates, but then that's pseudo-religious. He knows what's best for the people much better than they do.

Nolan attests to Rolling Stone that the scenario was an evil person seizing control of a populist movement -- and Bane (Tom Hardy) is a nasty, nasty villain, make no mistake. But he doesn't actually steer the revolution. All he does, once he's killed various people and disposed of Batman (Christian Bale), is trap the city's police force underground and open the prisons; the rest he seems to leave up to the people. And what they do with the freedom is to run rampant. At the same time, (BRIEF SPOILER ALERT) the environmentalist and investor in sustainable energy played by Marion Cotillard turns out to be a fraud. That's the problem with The Dark Knight Rises.

Unlike Occupy's scrupulous and egalitarian parliamentary procedures, the only grassroots decision-making process on display in the film is summary sentencing. The crazed judge who presides at the lethal, retributive tribunals is Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy), the Scarecrow villain of Nolan's first Batman film and the cameo in his second. Also unlike Occupy's experiences, the confrontation between the film's revolutionaries and the police -- literally referred to as "war" -- is the complete inverse of what actually happened at protests. Nolan's police wear such quaint, friendly-cop uniforms, they look like their aim is to give directions to tourists. They brandish no weapons, not even "less lethal" ones like those they often shoot or spray at protesters in real life. On the other hand, the rebels are obviously armed and eager for violence. They've even got tanks Bane stole for them from our superhero -- batmobiles painted in camo. You can tell it's a comic book when civilians have the military advantage over the NYPD.

With the news media having already done their best to defeat the Occupy movement, the resonance some have noted between the uprising in The Dark Knight Rises and Occupy Wall Street is just the kind of simplistic, visceral demonization of a particular group that does brainwash people and lead to violence against that group -- whether in the form of hate crimes or just in acquiescence with the abusive practices of authorities or government policies. The way this works is illustrated, for example, in Vito Russo's groundbreaking book The Celluloid Closet (also a film)which shows how Hollywood has propagandized against LGBT characters, often having them either die tragically or become killers. (One notorious example was William Friedkin's Cruising, which gay-bashers referenced directly.) Jack Shaheen's encyclopedic tomeReel Bad Arabs (now a doc as well) exposes Hollywood's shabby, stereotyped, and hostile treatment of Arabs and Muslims on-screen. (Another Friedkin film, Rules of Engagement, vilifies the people of one such country and was probably very helpful in inculcating support for U.S. bombing in that part of the world.) The Dark Knight Rises, even if it was never deliberately meant to invoke Occupy Wall Street, adds another powerful element to an already dangerous technological, political, and cultural mix in our society that breeds hatred and violence. This must be very pleasurable for Frank Miller, the graphic novelist who created the ultra-violent Sin City, the racist and war-mongering 300, and the Batman comic book series which had the mostinfluence on Nolan's film trilogy. He made headlines with a hysterical screed against Occupy on his site last November.

Nolan, meanwhile, has tried to stress to interviewers that A Tale of Two Cities was the conscious inspiration for The Dark Knight Rises , not Occupy. Indeed, Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) reads aloud from the novel in the film, equating Batman with the self-sacrificing Sydney Carton hero. But in A Tale of Two CitiesCharles Dickens wasn't just critiquing the Red Terror, he was issuing a warning, essentially the same as JFK issued: "those who make peaceful revolution impossible, make violent revolution inevitable." Dickens doesn't get to the carnival of death of the French Revolution until after he has poignantly described the gross injustices suffered by the French masses under their oppressors -- so we can see how the violence perpetrated by the aristocracy came back to literally bite their heads off.

Catwoman in orange in a still from "The Dark Knight Rises" 

By contrast, all The Dark Knight Rises has to represent the plight of the downtrodden is the Catwoman-origin-story of scrappy, slinky Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), who makes class-conscious jibes at our billionaire hero. Kyle resents the wealth of Batman's alter-ego Bruce Wayne, makes statements about inequity, and has to cat-burgle to pay her rent. This sure doesn't justify a revolution the way Dickens did, with a nobleman callously running over a pauper's child, and aristocratic brothers hiding their rapes and murders by incarcerating an innocent physician, in solitary, forever.

Still, as in Dickens' classic, prisons are a prominent motif in Nolan's third Batman film. An aggressive new city ordinance has swelled the prison ranks of Gotham -- and when the doors open, those thugs hurry to exact revenge. Like many comic book superheroes and archvillains,The Dark Knight Rises is a model of Freudian theory: Batman certainly experienced an original trauma, and there's an excruciating origin story on the villain side as well, revealed in the climax. It revolves around an exotic, primitive prison where the inmates are dropped down to the bottom of a deep pit they can never escape, taunted only by a small circle of burning sunlight high above. This experience destroys the psyche, as indefinite detention did to the gentle doctor in A Tale of Two Cities.

However, it should be noted that the neglected prisoners in The Dark Knight Rises wear desert-climate robes and face-concealing head scarves, they live in a barren vaguely Eastern land, and oh yes, they claw and tear at each other, because the assumption is that's a region where there's always civil unrest, I guess. Perhaps that is why Batman cares only about Gotham, and doesn't try to get the prisoners out of their hell-hole; perhaps their lives are naturally barbaric, and they have none of the First World's right to a decent life.

A rope-and-pulley system to help them escape would be nothing to this billionaire with an engineering firm. Bruce Wayne uses, as his butler Alfred (Michael Caine) puts it, "air superiority" to defeat evil. (This joke is delivered in the middle of a taut action sequence; it's amusing unless, of course, "air superiority" makes you think of U.S. war crimes.) But if The Dark Knight Rises is going to lay messiah vibes on Batman -- he's got a little resurrection thing going on, and Les Miserables of the Asian prison feel it and chant for him worshipfully -- then it's unlikely the movie really sees him and them as fellow humans.

Rising Up from the Hell-Hole
A survivor of the terror attack on Colorado's midnight screening, but the friend of one of the twelve who were murdered, is suing Warner Bros., among other defendants, on the grounds that the 2008 Dark Knight film incited James Holmes to commit his heinous imitation of the Joker. 

While lawsuits like this are understandable as a way to vent the rage and grief such a senseless loss engenders, what could the legal grounds be? And who would be more legally liable, filmmakers who create wooden characters and one-dimensional plots, or those who craft convincing films?

If movies or other forms of mass entertainment have content that is harmful to society's interests, we're going to have to use sociological arguments to make them change -- and when their profits are going sky-high, it will take an organized effort to be heard. When the Council on American-Islamic Relations campaigned against the title of Alan Ball's film Towelhead (coincidentally, a Warner Independent release), Ball met with representatives in a recorded dialogue, and heard their objections during a panel discussion. This airing of all sides was one of the bonus features on the DVD. It is consciousness-raising like that which we ought to embark on with the entertainment industry about violence.

The way media violence often defines the identity of "the other' -- justifying and encouraging racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, and imperialism -- merits extensive discussion. It could be a kind of Truth and Reconciliation Commission between the industry and the audience. This process would educate both media-makers and the public in general -- including consumers, parents, and those in the helping professions who treat addictions. It could also put us on the road to eliminate some of the propaganda that makes a segment of the U.S. favor gun proliferation in the first place.

Ironically, the entity which knows best how to run respectful, attentive consciousness-raising sessions these days is Occupy. The entertainment industry should try asking them for some pointers.

Still of the Joker from "The Dark Knight" (2008)

Here are links to take action for gun control:
Credo Action petition; The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence petition; Mayors Against Illegal Guns website; American Friends campaign for assault weapons ban renewal; Petition by a MoveOn member for assault weapons ban

"Hope Springs": Not Just Your Grandmother's Rom-Com

Originally published on Political Film Blog on August 14, 2012.

In a genre continuously spewing out specimens, most of which are as indistinguishable from each other as they are distinguishable from reality, the romantic comedy feature Hope Springs is an anomaly worth paying attention to. It is unfortunate that Hope Springs bears the same title as a 2003 rom-com that received a paltry 25% on Rotten Tomatoes (from a pool of a mere 12 reviewers), and that search engines work rather bizarrely and keep dredging up the older movie. Because the new and unrelated film, released last Wednesday, currently holds a 78% on RT (from a pool of 100 critics). It is a chamber piece scripted by Vanessa Taylor and directed by David Frankel, and revolves around three characters: a couple married 31 years, played by Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones, and their counselor Dr. Feld (Steve Carrell). The film also seems to have the famous sexologist Dr. Ruth Westheimer’s endorsement.

But despite its aging romantic leads and the support of an 84-year old psychiatrist, Hope Springs is far from old-fashioned or ‘retiring’. On the contrary, it is refreshingly bold and ahead of the pack in several ways. For one, it presents a female character who actually states what she needs, not just once but as often as it takes, and despite intimidating obstacles (her husband’s attitudes, primarily). And she doesn’t have to be a writhing nympho or a ball-breaking action heroine to do it. She’s quite ordinary, a conventionally-dressing wife and mom of ‘a certain age’, and she’s led a pretty timid life. But the problems in her marriage have reached their zenith, and she’s fed up.
Moreover, Kay and Arnold and Dr. Feld don’t just speak in vague, inoffensive generalities about ‘Love’ the way characters do in most ‘chick flicks’ that are not Sex and the City. They get quite technical – but in a way that is always related to how the characters feel about their sexuality. Unlike the raunch-comedy genre, that’s meant to make you laugh at dick jokes and gross-out humor by making you think “how outrageous!” and “how badly those bros behave!”,Hope Springs scores its points by being honest about the characters’ moments of dismay, embarrassment, and insecurity.
Most unusual of all, it’s a movie with romantic leads who are well beyond middle age. They even have several (PG-13) sex scenes. One of which is actually female masturbation! Kudos to Meryl Streep, I say. Both Streep and Jones know that these scenes are probably not going to go viral as erotic videoclips. Their attraction to the material — and Streep attached herself to it early on, before it had backing – was probably because, as the superb character actors that they are, they could recognize a revealing investigation of human behavior when they saw one. The fact that it’s a facet of human behavior overlooked in an age group that Hollywood all but puts out on an ice floe and sends out to sea was probably impossible to resist.
Now, Hope Springs is unmistakably a mainstream film and a comedy. There’s no chance of confusing it with a raw, harrowing, dysfunctional-relationship drama like Blue Valentine, Closer, or We Don’t Live Here Anymore. Arnold and Kay are not themselves sick, even if their marriage is ailing — their normalcy, and the lack of shame in seeking counseling, is part of the message of the movie. Yes, you can see where it’s headed from the outset: just as the late Nora Ephron’s script for When Harry Met Sally signaled from the initial meet-cute scene that the dramatic question to be solved would be “Can men and women be friends?”, Hope Springs lets the viewer know almost immediately that it will be organized around the question “Can marriages change?” And we’re not exactly astonished when we can predict the answer.
But the assurance this movie takes from knowing what it’s about is palpable. This is screenwriter Taylor’s first produced feature and according to her it took some revising by her — and advising from others — to pare the script down so cleanly to just the nuts and bolts of the principals’ relationship. Though rom-coms are frequently buoyed by quirky supportive characters, this one features only a handful of day-players with just a couple of lines each; the film has a laser focus on its triumvirate of star leads and on its therapy and make-out sessions. This streamlining and Frankel’s succinct, unfussy direction pay off.
The high-powered cast invests emotionally despite the discomfort. Jones is not afraid to wallow in his character’s locked-in curmudgeonly-ness; weaker actors shy away from alienating an audience, but Jones is on Arnold’s side, like a good actor should be. Streep, who worked under Frankel’s direction before on The Devil Wears Prada, has plumbed the kind of woman that Kay is and internalized what makes her tick. (Hint: it’s very different from what made her last film role, Margaret Thatcher, tick.) Carrell – who long ago proved that a background in parody or satire doesn’t necessarily limit a comedian to oversized performances – is excellent at listening and cogitating, saying much with the flicker of an eyelid or the corner of a smile.
In a Q & A, Taylor explained the genesis of the script. Though she is only in her 30’s, she was writing about something with strong personal meaning for her, not specifically to pay tribute to an older generation but because she wanted to write about difficulties with intimacy and she saw how the challenges that any couple can face would be especially magnified with age.
Kay and Arnold’s issue, an enormous distance that has opened in their marriage, is one that a couple could experience at any age. Though Viagra, flab, and wrinkles are mentioned, the real issue is they’ve stopped communicating. In fact, as they limp painfully over the threshold of a real relationship, they discover there were some pretty fundamental things they had never communicated about in the first place.
For years, writing instructors have told their students to “write what you know.” Taylor has demonstrated that the adage can be phrased another way: “write what you feel.”
The packed screening I attended in Los Angeles was very eclectic in terms of age, gender, and race – only about 10% looked to be seniors – and yet the auditorium repeatedly erupted in gales of uproarious laughter over the tiniest line readings, gestures, or facial expressions. I think this shows that Hope Springs is going to be able to transcend the senior-discount demographic and find a general audience, even though there are quite a few people who have a knee-jerk prejudice against entertainment they perceive as geared to the blue-rinse set, to cite a pejorative term. Unfortunately, even some of the staunchest of liberals, concerned about homophobia, racism, sexism, anti-semitism, classism, and even speciesism, haven’t yet added ageism to their list. Part of that bias may derive from observable trends like older voters skewing Republican and socially conservative. But it is also likely to stem from the overall influence of a consumerist, high-tech, disposable culture which constantly equates newer with better.
Hope Springs opens a crack in that mentality. The film is a clear and healthy reminder that everyone is interested in sex. Without being preachy, this rom-com can make you realize how Hollywood’s emphasis on youth, high cheekbones, and well-defined abs keeps everybody down – even those who manage to fill the bill.

Friday, August 3, 2012

A War Horse of a Different Color: Stage Vanquishes Screen

This article was originally published on Political Film on Friday, August 3, 2012:

By Jennifer Epps
If anyone else has refused to watch Steven Spielberg’s film adaptation of War Horse until they could attend the puppet version from Britain’s National Theatre, the fact that the Tony Award-winning theatrical hit has embarked on a 20-city tour of the U.S. may be welcome news. The equestrian extravaganza is currently strutting the stage in San Francisco, (while simultaneously continuing its long runs in London, New York, and Toronto) and has visits scheduled for Portland, Spokane, Dallas, Chicago, Des Moines, St. Louis, Atlanta, Fort Lauderdale, Boston, and more over the next 11 months – as well as tours of Britain and Australia in 2013. Fortunately, the tour kicked off with a run in Los Angeles, and I’ve kept my own vow by seeing War Horse live on stage first, then followed it with Spielberg’s movie on DVD. The contrast is striking and deep-seated.
Knowing that Spielberg has a tendency to, if not glamorize, at least fetishize, warriors and military heroism (i.e. his executive-produced series Band of Brothers, his opus Saving Private Ryan, most likely his upcoming Civil War odeLincoln, and even a 40-min war film he made at age 14) it is hardly surprising that historian Jacques R. Pauwels wrote on Political Film Blog that Spielberg’s War Horse is “militarist” and fails to question the First World War. And it turns out I agree with Pauwels. But those who haven’t seen the National Theatre show that motivated the making of this movie epic of a horse and his boy ought to take note that the stage version is A Very Different Animal.
There’s the obvious difference that Spielberg and his producer Kathleen Kennedy relied on the usual animal wranglers and flesh-and-blood horses whereas the National Theatre hired South African-based Handspring Puppet Co. to bring jointed cane-sculptures to life, which they do remarkably realistically despite the puppets’ skeletal, see-through designs revealing the puppeteers inside. The film chose not to use animatronic puppets, CG animation, or other representational art to try to re-create the mystery and magic of the puppeteers; as it so happens, those qualities are scarce in it. At the same time, the horse on the silver screen is, ironically, less believable, even though he’s played by 14 real equine actors; it’s partly because the film is less sure it can manipulate the animal’s slightest response on cue and so leaves out much of the war horse’s characterization, and it’s partly because the screenplay calls on the horse to do more anthropomorphic things than his theatrical predecessor.
Differences in aesthetics, style, and content between the War Horse rivals quickly add up to major differences in theme as well. Nick Stafford’s stage adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s 30-year-old novel of the same name is a strong example of animal advocacy, not unlike the Anna Sewell classic Black Beauty, which helped to build the RSPCA when the novel was published in the 19th century (and has itself been repeatedly adapted for animation, film, and TV series). And this animal advocacy goes together with and aids the other important theme: War Horse on-stage is also a plangent anti-war fable, low on gore but high in often-symbolic shorthand for battlefield horror — a risky stance for a story that parents want to bring their kids to see. (For a long time, the show piles on the misery, probably pushing the audience as far as we can go in a general-audience entertainment before redemption rewards our patience.) Though I have not read Morpurgo’s novel, Stafford’s dramatization seems true to the author’s original purpose, as espoused in the play’s program notes. Morpurgo is quoted for wanting to “write a story of the first World War that wasn’t told from one side or the other.” He hit on the construct of a hoofed protagonist not as a staple of the genre (though he does generally write children’s fiction), but as the articulation of his theme. Morpurgo had speculated: “Wouldn’t it be an interesting notion to tell the story about the universal suffering in that war due to the 10 million who died on all sides – German, American, English, Scottish, French, Russians – telling it how it was, but through the eyes of a horse.”
(Battle scene as depicted on-stage with the Handspring Puppet Co. creations)
Though Spielberg saw the show, somehow he didn’t get the same program notes.
First of all, his film is not really a horse’s eye view. British screenwriters Lee Hall and Richard Curtis introduce the title character, Joey, literally through the eyes of the farm boy Albert (played by Jeremy Irvine), who watches his birth. By contrast, Joey’s puppet predecessor in the play trots nervously out alone towards the footlights at the play’s opening — we only meet 16-year-old Albert (Andrew Veenstra in the U.S. tour) a bit later; in other words, in the theater, we essentially see Albert through Joey’s eyes. On-stage, Joey is surrounded as a colt by jeering, hostile humans, hemming him in with long poles that double as fence rails, and he’s terrified – our sympathy is with him. Yet in the film, Joey has grown from helpless colt to strong stallion before he ever has to leave the verdant pastures of his foalhood. He is therefore much less vulnerable during his auction, and this allows the focus to slip off of him from an early point.
Though the play had some Jack London-style moments revealing the harshness of life for a domesticated animal, the film cuts out the whippings, mines for comedy in the plough-pulling test, omits the fight with a rival horse, and emphasizes throughout Joey’s courage and special nature. (Like many other fiction films about horses do.) In the play, we were urgently aware of Joey’s suffering and the extreme peril he faces when he goes to war; in the film, however, Hall (Billy Elliot scribe) and Curtis (known for comedic writing) keep most of that low-key until the harrowing climax. (At least they didn’t mess with the visceral effect of that.)
The screenwriters seem to use more dialogue than Stafford’s adaptation did, crafting numerous scenes beyond Joey’s earshot or understanding. In contrast, the stage production was more devoted to the visual than the verbal – an aspect that L.A. Weekly theater critic Steven Leigh Morris scorned in two different responses to the production.
But there’s nothing hierarchical about literary art over visual art; that’s why we have both libraries and galleries. The National Theater production had good reason to exploit the inherent fascination of the Handspring puppets and their deft manipulators. It also did very well to include black-and-white animated backgrounds in a jagged swath across the upstage scrim (we justify them, unconsciously, as drawings ripped from an officer’s sketchbook). The show’s excellent animation, designed by the late Peter Stenhouse of 59 Productions, morphs during the course of the play from representational rural landscapes (with clouds wafting gently by) to swirling, nightmarish, wartime abstractions – as befits an epoch that inspired new paradigms in art like Dada and Surrealism. This emphasis on the visual is also extremely appropriate for a horse’s tale because, if the autistic and renowned animal expert Temple Grandin is to be believed, animals think in images.
(Video montage of the animation used in War Horse stage show)
But when it’s Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski’s turn, they fill the frame with resplendent panoramas — carefully composed, luxuriantly lit. For the most part, Dreamworks’ War Horse is a series of inexplicably beautiful postcards. When the story slows down in the film (as it does teeth-grittingly often) for banal palaver between friends or family, the sun usually comes through a window and reflects off the dust motes. Even the muddied black spikes of No Man’s Land are bathed in a blue glow. It’s pretty hard to absorb the horrors of war when it’s so self-consciously pretty.

And whenever there’s an army around, Spielberg goes for epic, with rows on rows of troops and steeds. He never settles for 5 soldiers in a foxhole when he can have 50. Yet the stage production’s original directors, Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, seem to have understood the advantages of their smaller space and scanter resources: when only a handful of bodies represent legions, the loneliness of war and the fragility of the individual come across.
One has to conclude that this was part of Elliott and Morris’ aim. In the play, the ‘Great War’ is senseless. No-one seems to know what it’s about (though the Brits blame it all on “the Kaiser,” just as Americans liked to single out Saddam Hussein), and naïve predictions are made that it will all be over in a few months. As the British ship takes the new recruits to the front, they sing a rousing martial chorus — only to be thrust into reality the moment they dock, when a ghost-like contingent of ashen-faced, maimed casualties hobbles across their path. (Some of these are puppets.) And this is only the beginning. From here on in there is nothing but barbaric, pointless confusion – very much as a horse might see the conflict.
Appropriately, Stafford’s playscript keeps the narrative simple. This is another of the L.A. Weekly’s criticisms, yet it allows for a consistent perspective that validates the horse’s point-of-view (without a literal adhesion to it). Who is the cannon going to shoot at? Doesn’t matter, dragging it uphill is agony for all involved. What’s the battlefield objective? Just the impossible task of staying out of the barbed wire. Whose side are the good guys on? Neither – and both.
There’s no quarrelling with the fact that the horses on-stage are innocent victims. With that as a starting point, it’s not too much of a jump to see the soldiers themselves – on both sides — as unwitting players, trapped in a war with no known purpose. Joey is the catalyst for this insight: he begins on the British side, then is taken by the Germans and co-opted to work for them. There’s symmetry between the characters in both armies. Both sides have cruel people and kind ones. Both risk, exploit, and are dependent upon horses. And both are just following orders, buffeted by forces beyond their power. At one point in the second act, even the icy, lethal German commander who abuses the horses cries out: “Damn this war!” (The open-mindedness impressed modern day Germany; the play is coming to Berlin next year.)
This absolutely central attribute of the story was somehow completely lost on the director of Schindler’s List. Whereas Spielberg presents the British officers as young, trim, handsome, and dignified, with perfect upright posture (and lacking any of the cavalier arrogance that was included in the play), he makes the German commanders surly, slouching, decadent, and unscrupulous. The Brits get decimated in an early battle through no fault of their own, while the Germans ransack civilians’ pantries, menace children, and puff on cigars – looking an awful lot like typical Nazi villains, though it’s several years too early. It is of course no rarity for Hollywood to make a war film along such lines, but it is a shame, seeing as how the production that had excited Spielberg and Kennedy to make the film in the first place eliminated that cliché, and carefully cultivated a moral equivalence between the two sides.
The other shame is how relentlessly uplifting Spielberg and Kennedy try to make the movie. (The co-existence of sentimentality and militarism in the same work are instructive; they do after all seem natural bedfellows, while honesty has to sleep on the floor.) In Dreamworks’ War Horse, class conflict is minimized, animal abuse is unseen, and the war isn’t too much of a bummer. Albert’s mother (Emily Watson) has the enduring strength of a PAX-TV movie mom, not deep-seated disappointment in her drunken husband. She even explains away his alcoholism in a big speech – that we’re supposed to take seriously. Moreover, Albert’s burning anger over being betrayed by his father (Peter Mullan) is curtailed in the film; though in the play, not only is the anger much bigger, the father and son never actually do reconcile.
Nevertheless, even more importantly, the parallel depiction of societal prejudices about war and peace is absent from the Hollywood take. In the play, the British villagers have made Albert’s father Ted ashamed his whole life because he didn’t fight in the Boer War. Their jibes of “coward” have actually turned him into one, and Ted hides in liquor, gambling, and bluster. This is paralleled in the second act when a German captain, fed-up with the brutality of the battlefield, deserts his command position and is likewise dubbed a coward. Yet we adore this gentle soul, he’s an oasis of compassion in a barren wasteland. We don’t look down on him for refusing to fight — it seems laudable, in fact; he’s devoted to the horses, and we want him to protect them. As a consequence, any audience members who had bought into the English villagers’ condemnation of Ted are now led to re-evaluate it.
The film does a hell of an about-face in this area. As Pauwels previously mentioned on Political Film Blog, it makes Ted a veteran. He didn’t stay home, he fought in the Boer War. He’s so brave, Albert’s mom attests, he isn’t even proud of his service. Not only that, but he won medals over there. He’s a war hero! This of course has an effect on Albert, who sees his own chance to prove himself in combat. (In the play, it’s obvious that Albert enlists only to search for his horse on the front, and his quixotic mission makes him a kind of absurdist Private Benjamin who’s out of touch with real conditions around him. But in the film, he’s a respectable soldier, and barely mentions his equine friend once he’s in uniform.)
Along with this difference comes the fact that the German deserter in the film is now a young man, his motivation the preservation of his underage brother. He hasn’t seen combat and been crushed by it as the character in the play had; he’s just an adolescent, and much easier to make allowances for. And without the parallel between the German and British ‘cowards’, we learn nothing about society from his act – we just get another instance of mean behavior by the German army when they catch him.
Most egregious of all, the screenplay completely blunts the edges of Albert’s own wartime experience. On the stage, dramatist Nick Stafford seems well aware that Albert’s belief he can locate Joey among millions of deployed British forces is ludicrous — though the TV miniseries Anne of Green Gables: The Continuing Story (2000) wasn’t embarrassed to send Anne Shirley on the same trek to save her husband Gilbert Blythe.
Stafford lets Joey’s naïve optimism be what gives him strength. And that foolish hope provides an important character arc: by play’s end, WWI has defeated Albert. He no longer believes in any protective wartime bubble around horses or nature or children (the kind of nudges from a parallel reality that are interspersed through The Thin Red Line, and which pop up briefly in Apocalypse Now). This horse whisperer has seen too many dead horses. Albert is so demoralized by the climax, he leaves his gas mask off until it is almost too late, and is blinded. The nurses in the hospital decide they’d better watch over “that one” – he might be suicidal.
(War Horse movie still: British cavalry charge)
Yet the celluloid Albert exhibits no such despair. On the contrary, just before he is wounded in the gas attack (which Spielberg shows could not have been guarded against), he’s a very pro-active war hero, neutralizing German guns with a grenade and then bravely rushing into the enemy foxhole. Frankly, this is exactly the kind of embedded-with-the-troops, adrenalin-pumping action sequence we’ve seen so many times before – and which glorifies militarism for succeeding generations.
This Albert is never discouraged at all. And Spielberg doesn’t seem to want the audience to be, either. To make sure we fully appreciate the “miracle” at the end, Spielberg has it unfold in a Christmassy snowfall, and positions 100 soldiers or so in an awe-struck trance to watch as it happens. Soon, the soldiers are pitching in to help Albert out, this band of brothers.
When the ‘Great War’ finally ends, the men are piously told: “let us remember our brothers fallen in the field”. That speech is no substitute for the annihilation kept out of camera range to court the MPAA Ratings Board — the play has more frequent carnage, even if it is largely puppet death. But the speech, with its classical pro-war tropes, also works differently from the folksy ode at the end of the stage show. There, war-weary protagonists return home to a chorus singing that we should be “remembered for what we have done.” Precisely because the play avoids the battlefield heroics the movie assigns both Albert and Joey, the theater version seems to be saying that the noteworthy thing the boy and his horse have done is to survive. They, like the German captain who deserts, like the French farm-girl who clings to the horses despite her terror, are on the side of choked dandelions which stretch tentatively towards the sun out of scorched black earth. Or, as the recently-departed rebel intellectual Gore Vidal once said of John Lennon, they “represent life.” The conflict that underlies War Horse on-stage is not between nations, but between the forces of life and the forces of death.
L.A. Weekly critic Steven Leigh Morris alleged that the puppet War Horse is “theater that’s aching to be a movie”, though I think the movie that did emerge illustrates that the theatrical producers knew all along stage illusion would beat out Hollywood ‘realism’. The reviewer based his opinion not only on the play’s elaborate visual design but on the unabashed use of musical underscoring, begrudging the fact that all of these aspects won numerous awards. But I particularly liked the strident musical chords that blared when Joey strained to drag the enormous cannon up the muddy hillside, it made us feel what Joey felt – and in fact helped put the German soldiers in the same boat with him. (And if commanding sound or visual design cheapens the theatrical experience, then the American avant-garde theater director Robert Wilson has apparently wasted his entire career.)
Moreover, as an animal activist, I take heart when I see that works which engender empathy for non-human creatures are transcending the ghetto of ‘family entertainment’, There’s absolutely nothing fantastic about perceiving the complexity of animal cognition, nor childish about trying to protect animals. Yet stories about genuine animal concerns (i.e. not those in which they try to master kung-fu or tap-dancing) almost never attain cross-over audiences. The documentary March of the Penguins was one such rare break-through. Now, the international success of the War Horse stage show seems an even more encouraging sign, combining, as it does, animal rights with human rights –issues which are intertwined in the real world, as well. Spielberg did not get that memo either, apparently, and instead fashioned a straight-up family film that features many of the worst traits of the category. But fortunately he does not seem to have pre-empted the theatrical business of this phenomenon. So audiences in countries which are still very much at war (i.e. the U.S., Britain) still have the opportunity to receive the show’s much-needed and potent anti-war message.