Monday, September 24, 2012

96% Unemployment: Dredd & the Socialist State

Judging by the poor box office it received, I guess it didn't occur to anyone but me really to check out Pete Travis' Dredd, which I might add I was "dreading" because I had such a change of heart about it. As I mentioned previously, when the trailers were first released, I thought Dredd (Karl Urban) would symbolize American voters upset about how things were going in Washington and he was going to take out the politicians and I could hardly wait (the drug slo-mo being what they feed us to "slow down" the version of reality they feed us as the truth); then, in my pessimism, the day it opened, I suddenly turned and thought, Oh, no, Mama (Lena Headey) is going to be symbolic of a capitalist and the drug is the way socialists see consumer consumption in a capitalist society (it's no longer "Religion is the opium of the masses," as Karl Marx said, rather, "Things are the opium of the middle class" dulling our senses to a better, more enlightened society that we should willingly accept but for being so darn addicted to "stuff").
I'm happy to say, that's not what the film is about, and it hinges on one detail.
One of the issues concerning me through the film was the visual resemblance to the eagle on the hall of justice in the film and the eagle of the Nazi Third Reich from World War II (yes, I thought a socialist film might use that to identify itself to the implied socialists/communists in the audience) but after comparing the two, they are not similar, hence, Dredd as a judge, jury and executioner can symbolize one thing only: the American voter, who judges the job of politicians, hears their case during the torturous campaign process and then executes according to what we decide with our vote that either re-elects them or takes them out.
The one detail that changes the entire tilt of the film is that, in the Peach Trees mega-block controlled by Mama, there is 96% unemployment. If that were a capitalist symbol, there wouldn't be unemployment--we see good, positive examples of work being done in the start of the film when Rosa, a fast-food worker in a Chinese take-out is held hostage (yes, that's symbolic, too)--but no one in Peach Trees working, and Mama identifying herself as the law, not to mention the idea of living in a grove of "peach trees" where everything is free and you just pluck what you want when you want, is definitely an image many of us associate with socialism; additionally, there is the fact that Mama alone controls and produces the drug slo-mo because she wiped out all the other competition. As a monopoly, that could be an image of bad capitalism, however, because she has everyone unemployed (she's a badass, she could make everyone work if she wanted to, but that's not what she wants, she wants them dependent on her, hence she's called their "Mama") it resembles a socialist state wherein the government wants the people dependent upon it, not free to provide for themselves and make their own decisions.
Yes, he keeps the helmet, and the scowl, on for the entire film. In a shoot-out in a drug room of Peach Trees, the druggies are high on slo-mo and Dredd comes in shooting, and one is shot through the cheek, another through his fat, exposed belly that jiggles all over in slo-mo time, and then another one is shot through the cheek again. Why? I mean, outside of the Coen Brothers' Fargo, who on earth gets shot in the mouth? Someone being punished for their appetites. Socialists have become fond of pointing that finger, in a film such as Lawless and Jack's insatiable appetite for expensive clothes and cars, but Dredd shows us how to point the gun the other way at socialists and how a socialist/communist government will harness the appetites of its people to use against them and chain them to what they and they alone can provide for them, which we saw in The Bourne Legacy with Aaron Cross being kept on a leash because of his meds even when he had all ready been viraled off some of them.
When the film opens, it's shots of the "cursed earth," radiated from war that created one massive city extending from Boston to Washington DC with 800 million people, all else uninhabitable. This is important because we've been seeing lots of end-of-the-world scenarios lately, including Mirror, Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman. Like the step-mothers in both Snow White versions, Mama took over after her pimp scarred her face (more on this below) and she's not the "rightful ruler" of the area she controls, which she has totally wasted. Her rule of terror is the law instead of justice and punishment, which brings us to comparing the villain and hero.
It's not very noticeable in this shot, but crawling up her right cheek is actually a vine with a leaf on the very end (on her cheek) and this is a tattoo coming up from her back, very much like the leaves growing on the ankles of Timothy in the pro-socialist film The Odd Life Of Timothy Green which I mistakenly took for a pro-capitalist film. The "environment agenda" that the tree vines speak of is in and of itself not a case for
When we first see Mama, she's in the tub loaded on slo-mo; when we first see Dredd, he's getting suited up for the day. This is an intentional polarization: Mama is naked, Dredd gets dressed; Mama appears to be getting cleaned, Dredd charges out into the filth of the city; Dredd wears the heavy armor of a cop under fire, Mama lounges with her "naturalist" tattoos; Mama has power, but Dredd has responsibility. With these binary oppositions (which we saw Christopher Nolan use in his construction of The Dark Knight Rises) Dredd depicts how all these falsities about Mama are the scars on her face, hence, her identity (the face symbolizes our identity) is forever twisted but Dredd's identity is protected (not masked) by the power he serves. Perhaps the best way is to think of Oscar Wilde's The Picture Of Dorian Gray: what we do effects our identity and our actions become our identity (Dredd becomes a Judge because he correctly judges, but Mama becomes a druggie because she does drugs). Our face is our identity and our actions are worn on our face.
Anderson is a rookie who should have failed because she couldn't pass any of her tests but they want to put her out in the field anyway; Dredd makes the case that if she failed, she failed, but the supervisor points out her amazing psychic abilities and they want that to give her an edge in the field so she gets another chance as Dredd evaluates her. This is another example of capitalism which the cartoon in the start of Ice Age 4: Continental Drift made fun of with Maggie Simpson being sent to Ayn Rand day care and being treated like waste because of the failure of capitalism to sponsor the lowly (Anderson happens to be a mutant and an orphan but she's been given special status as a judge). Even Arbitrage attacks the idea of capitalism "investing in people" unless the system is getting sex from them (more on that in the post). Anderson doesn't wear her helmet because it interferes with her psychic abilities. When Anderson first meets Dredd (she's still behind the glass and she asks to describe him) she mentions his anger; this is important because Anderson's innocence as a rookie and someone using the capital of their talent and gifts to improve the area where they came from balances the anger that makes Dredd unstoppable in his dispensing of justice.
That kind of structure is great in the comparison of hero and villain, but can the film carry it further? Yes it can. With the rookie Anderson, her hair is yellow because yellow is the color of gold and hence the color of dignity (gold is associated with royalty) so her desire to serve and make a difference is her "crowning glory" (hair symbolizes thoughts) because she's not thinking of herself, but the people who, like her, live in the mega-blocks they are trying to defend and clean up. On the other hand, Zwiren (Jason Kope) wears a yellow shirt because he's a coward (the opposite of the dignity of kings yellow can express is the cowardice of those who run away from their duty) and Zwirken is bullied by Mama standing behind him. More important are the eyes: Zwirken had his eyes put out by Mama's thumbs and she gave him fake eyes; Anderson has "fake eyes," but they are the eyes-as-gift of her psychic abilities that can "see" what others can't.
Mama like just took a bath, and look at how dirty she all ready is again? That's the stain of sin and the disease of power. When Kay, one of her "workers" returns with Anderson hostage, Mama tells Kay that he should have killed the judges or died trying, and this explicitly invokes the Siege of Stalingrad during World War II when Adolf Hitler made Friedrich Paulus a field marshall because no field marshall had ever been taken alive (so Hitler sent him the orders to die fighting or commit suicide) but, instead, Paulus surrendered. Why is this important? It demonstrates the lack of respect for life inherent within socialist systems. 
Most importantly, within this level of the film's structure, is how Anderson and Zwirken are treated: Dredd exposes Anderson to death, but only so she can fulfill her desire to make a difference and become a judge; Mama threatens and bullies Zwirken with a knife to his belly and makes him lie and do bad things while Dredd helps Anderson to become a better person and fulfill her destiny. A government that exists by power and extortion brings only harm to its citizens, whereas a government of freedom will most likely see abuses--we are all familiar with them--will also see good ones rise up and take the lead in cleaning up the abuse.
This happens later in the film, but I really like how they did it. In a film, the hero usually has unlimited free will, that is, they can pass through gun fire without getting hit, they can fall without breaking bones, they can get shot without it taking them down, etc. Throughout the film, we have seen Dredd do all these things, but once Anderson got taken hostage, he "is low on ammunition" and then gets shot down, nearly killed, until Anderson comes to save him, and not only by shooting the bad guy, but by "being there" with Dredd in their quest to take out Mama and bring justice to the Peach Trees and the city. Once she shows up, Dredd "operates on himself," and as graphic as that scene is, it's also a spiritual operation meant to inform us of how much he has come to depend on her emotionally during this trial by fire.
One last, interesting item the film throws out for our consideration: skateboarding.
This was well done. The peach Trees mega-block has been completely war-locked, no escape, but Mama, in her desperation for getting the judges, fires a massive machine gun that opens up a hole in an exterior wall and Dredd and Anderson manage to escape outside onto a skate board ramp (pictured below, attached on the left side in the middle of the image).  They end up going right back into the mega-block, so why bother having this scene?
It even looks like the type of cities the socialists/communists built during the Cold War...
Consider, please, all the films as of late that have utilized games and sports for analogies to capitalism; skateboarding, when I was in seventh grade, was just becoming a popular--or I should say, "acceptable"--sport for participation but today it's a major event with millions of dollars wrapped up in it; in other words, because of capitalism, the kids "wasting their time" skateboarding aren't wasting their time, they are practicing a sport in which they have a future and can make a living if they get good enough. This isn't the only reason this scene happens, but to remind Dredd and Anderson why they are doing what they are doing, to rejuvenate their purpose and encourage them in the fight that it's worthwhile and going to be the best for the greatest number of people.
Anderson has been captured by Kay (wearing a yellow shirt, please see commentary above) and is probably--at this point in the film--going to be gang raped. It's probably only that Mama herself had been a prostitute and been severely wounded/beaten by men that she doesn't allow it, instead, showing mercy to Anderson by just having her filled up with bullets (I'm being sarcastic). Is that mercy? No, so let's not fall for it. This is pretty graphic, and I apologize for this but it's an incredible example of good screenwriting: she's not going to let Kay "enter" into Anderson and leave his seed within her, because that would be Kay's power being exercised, not Mama's and Mama is only concered with Mama's power, so she wants her bullets to fill Anderson because she wants to be the one executing justice and power, no one else, and especially not someone who works for her. On a different level, Dredd, like a growing number of films, is not promoting a sexual/romantic relationship between leading man and lady, instead, there is a growing, genuine emotional/psychological bond that is being adopted and promoted more and more and I love it!
Like The Dark Knight Rises, Dredd's dusting off of the old-school "binary oppositions" upon which to hang its arguments is itself an aggessive political statement because they re-adopt what more radical political groups successfully got academia and historians to abandon in the 1960s-1970s. In conclusion, many of the variables of the film's narrative and details could have swayed the film one way or another, however, knowing history and the practice of socialism, and keeping up on the expanding and organic vocabulary film employs in today's cultural and political  debates, I am confident that we have a well-planned pro-capitalist film that has made its own contribution to the cinema battles we are witnessing!
Eat Your Art Out,
The Fine Art Diner