Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Art of 8-Bit History

Luke Skywalker filtered by 8-bit Avatar Maker
"What follows is based on actual occurrences. Although much has been changed for rhetorical purposes, it must be regarded in its essence as fact. However, it should in no way be associated with that great body of factual information relating to orthodox Zen Buddhist practice. It's not very factual on motorcycles either" Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
A few years ago I began a project to explain Modernism via the original 1977 Star Wars movie. This is not an even match up. To understand everything you need to know about Star Wars takes 2 hours, but to understand even a small corner of Modernism is a project that can eat up ones entire adult life (ask me how I know). What I ended up doing, was viewing the movie under a critical microscope, breaking it down moment by moment and enlarging on every detail. Modernism, meanwhile I was forced to reduce to a few key players, some illustrative anecdotes, and iconic art works and architecture. A friend who came to one of my talks about the project took issue with art historical liberties, he felt, I was taking. But in truth, I wasn't changing the facts of the story; I was changing the resolution of the story. The history I lay out may not have the richness of detail we find in an heavily annotated academic survey, but just as an 8-bit portrait is still a photograph, an 8-bit history is still a history. Likewise, the "truth claims" of Zero Dark Thirty, Argo, Lincoln, and even Django Unchained shouldn't be dismissed because those films simplify complicated histories. While these films can never provide full historical resolution, they remain important looks at important moments.


There are constant calls for more political art, for art to engage with politics, but whenever the wish is granted all sorts of hackles get raised. In addition to being called out by Maureen Dowd for the lesser sin of reducing a whole "sisterhood" of bin Laden-hunters within the CIA down to a single protagonist, Kathryn Bigelow has been accused by Matt Taibbi for the sin of omission, for not making clearer how ineffective and morally destructive torture is. Going beyond Taibbi, Naomi Wolf calls Bigelow a "Leni Riefenstahl-like propagandist of torture." (here's hoping those two are never seated besides one another at a diner party.) Steven Spielberg, meanwhile, has been taken to task for omitting Frederick Douglass from the story of Lincoln (I admit this one rubs me wrong, but I would have enjoyed 8 more hours of Daniel Day Lewis' Lincoln). And Spielberg's screen writer, Tony Kurshner, has had to defend the film against angry Nutmeggers, who rightly point out that Connecticut legislators voted for the Thirteenth Amendment, not against. (As a native of the Land of Lincoln I hate to admit it, but Maureen Dowd is right on this one. The role-call at the film's climax should be altered to make FIPs take the fall.)
Lincoln filtered by 8-bit Avatar Maker
  
Evidently, Ben Affleck is guilty fabricating a scene at the end of Argo in which Iranian Republican Guards chase a plane down a runway in n attempt to prevent a small group of Americans from making their mistake. Affleck evidently justified this liberty by saying the change was made for "dramatic reasons"; to add tension. I think this was a mistake, not adding the chases,; the mistake is Affleck's choice of rhetoric. As I watched the end the chase, what struck me was how terrifying it must be to live in a society that has been hijacked by a group of bearded young men, who feel entitled to run airports with machine guns screaming at the top of the lungs and shoving stewardesses. Affleck does a pretty great job of showing a revolutionary violence and anger that could boil up at any moment - modern day Jacobins hanging men from cranes.

For myself, I didn't find myself disbelieving the Hollywood trope of the climactic chase, because it added to the terrifying sense of arbitrary power that Affleck had been skillfully revealing in bits throughout the film. The chase brought that sense sense of a political terror to a head. Argo NEEDED that scene. (The on board celebration that took place once the plane cleared Iranian airspace was, however, a horribly false note that I wish Affleck had handled in a less conventional way, with more nuance - done something that pointed to the decades of misunderstanding and conflict to come - something like Bigelow's deflated ending for ZDT.)
Argo's Affleck filtered by 8-bit Avatar Maker
  
An difference between the the scifi-mad 1970s America (and evidently Iran) that Ben Affleck was  trying to capture, and today, is that George Lucas turned to scifi only after trying, and repeatedly failing to make a realistic film about the Vietnam War based on Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Hollywood didn't make a Vietnam film for a decade. The war was so polarizing  loaded with so much shame and confusion, that it had become radioactive subject matter for studios, who till then could be counted on to pump out war films at a steady clip.  What is amazing about today is that while Star Wars recast a film that could otherwise not be made, Kathryn Bigelow made her unnameable without the need to hide behind Wookie wigs. (Not that there's anything wrong with hiding behind Wookie wigs.)
"They torture the shit out of people in this movie, don't they? Everyone is chained to something." The Navy Seal who killed Osama bin Laden, on Zero Dark Thirty.
I watched the kerfuffle over ZDT take shape over Twitter as Glenn Greenwald and other do-gooder pinko surrender-monkey types attacked the film for endorsing the Bush era use of torture. As a self-styled do-gooder pinko surrender monkey myself, I made the conscious decision to avoid the controversy until after I had seen the film. Bigelow had earned my trust over a career of making great movies, I wasn't going to take any one's word for it that I shouldn't see ZDK (unlike Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ, which I was happy to avoid and still haven't seen - because Gibson had lost my trust years before.)
Zero Dark Thirty's Maya filtered by 8-bit Avatar Maker
  
But I do trust Bigelow, and watching her film, I get the feeling she trusts me. That she trusts me to make my own conclusions about the use of torture in the pursuit of Osama Bin Laden and his Al Queda lieutenants. Here is what I concluded from her film: that she and her screen writer, Mark Boal (a former Village Voice journalist) condensed a massive, billion dollar, decade long, manhunt down to a two hour film. That they had delivered the story of a fraught and extremely polarizing period of US politics in a cool, nonjudgmental voice, that brought Mark Bowden's book Blackhawk Down to mind (so much cooler, and more interesting than Ridley Scott's ham-fisted movie); that the film isn't a masterpiece of historical scholarship, but it is clearly as great as 8-bit history gets.

Did I leave the film believing that the hunt for Osama bin Laden involved torture? Yes. That everyone involved in his capture was up-to-their-eyeballs-tainted by torture? Entirely. That torture is what made the execution of Bin Laden and the dismantling of his network possible? No, not at all. Bigelow's film makes it clear that the breakthrough that lead to the death of UBL had nothing to do with a high pressure 24-esque scenario, but instead was the product of careful investigative work, followed by months of careful deliberation. But Bigelow managed to make Naomi Wolf and the acting head of the CIA squirm. Both were anxious for us to know that torture was absolutely not instrumental in any way in locating Bin Laden. Neither Director Michael Morell, Wolf nor Tiabbi believe what Bigelow seems to know: that we, the movie going public - citizens of the US, Europe, Afghanistan, Pakistan and where-ever else the movie is shown - that Bigelow trusts her audience to understand that torture was instrumental, but certainly not necessary; and definitely wrong.
Django filtered by 8-bit Avatar Maker
  
Of all the politically loaded historical films that came out this past year, Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained, would seemed to have most entirely slipped the trap of historical distortion, if only because it wears its irreverence on its sleeve, the opening title card reads: "1858, two years before the Civil War." Even so, Tarantino managed to piss off Spike Lee, who decided sight unseen, that the holocaust of African American slavery was dishonored by reducing to fit within the conventions of a spaghetti western. At least one friend, who also had not seen the film but had heard Lee's comments, was put off that I had gone to see the film at all, because it was "racist."

Tarantino defends the film's violence, gore, and N-bomb blitzkrieg by pointing out that they pale in comparison to the historic reality of African American slavery - but he shouldn't have to. While his film is more akin to the simplification (and exaggeration) of a cartoon than an 8-bit icon, Django is one of the only Hollywood films in decades to explicitly grapple with the horrors of American slaver; a subject so taboo that an outsider could be forgiving for assuming that the Spaghetti West was the only approach available to American filmmakers. Rather than attacking the film's low resolution, it should be judged by how recognizably it compresses the truth.
Jean Val Jean filtered by 8-bit Avatar Maker
  
Finally I have to mention Les Miserables - a film I was very surprised to enjoy as much as I did. (I wanted to see Django, but we compromised and saw Les Mis instead... life is not fair.) I found a lot to be admired in Les Mis. The theatrical distancing of the singing, coupled with the realism of the acting and intimacy of the massive close-ups was weirdly entrancing, the film seemed to build on Baz Luhrmann's effort with Moulin Rouge to revive the Hollywood musical as a viable genre. (If only Tom Hooper had had the courage with the score that he had with the vocal performances. I found myself hoping the orchestration would drop away for even a pica-second, or instead of a full symphony, he would allow the background music to dwindle to a creaky diegetic fiddle of fife. No such luck.)

But I mention Les Mis because while there was no intention to gracefully simplify a complex moment in history, there was the particularly weird loss of historical resolution the film represents; less 8-bit and more a process of signal degradation. The movie is based on a musical (transliteration of a French musical), based on a Victor Hugo novel, about an actual failed revolution. The story of Les Mis is by now only tenuously attached to the "truth" on which it was based. What Victor Hugo had romanticized, the French lyricist had grossly simplified, and the English librettist had further cauterized from reality, Tom Hooper had re-imagined. Even so, no matter how low the resolution, it is "true" that poor young women were forced to sell her hair, teeth, and virtue to survive the inequities of the 19th century; that men spent decades in jail for stealing little more than a single loaf of bread; that young boys were shot and killed by soldiers.
Palestinian Boy filtered by 8-bit Avatar Maker
  
8-bit histories should be judged and defended on their merit: as a first look, a glimpse, a reminder. A reminder to pick up Doris Kern Godwin's Team of Rivals (the only nonfiction book that has ever made me cry); to listen to David Blight's Civil War Lectures; to read Mark Bowden's other book, Guests of the Ayatollah, about the failed attempt to rescue the American hostages; to learn about just how terrible the Bush era torture policies were; and to find out why the guy who shot Osama bin Laden doesn't have health care.
"I have a map of the United States... Actual size. It says, "Scale: 1 mile = 1 mile." I spent last summer folding it." Steven Wright
Like a good 8-bit portrait, these films are recognizable, but not complete. Their over simplification doesn't make them untrue. Just as it dangerous to argue that torture is wrong because it is ineffective, it's wrong-headed to reject art for not being life.
Steven Wright; Territory vs Map.

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