Monday, October 8, 2012

Justice Or Revenge? Taken 2 & American Paranoia

Let's face it: money matters.
No one expected this huge haul for a sequel, and while some critics have placed the success at Liam Neeson's door, the sequel to Taken has raked in twice what the original did and has set an opening record for an action film during the September-October cinema season; we have to ask why? Given the film has received only a 19% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and audiences have graded the film at an average of a B+  (I would give it a B), then what was driving people to see this sequel? Would the film done as well if there had not been the Libyan attacks on the US Consulate and worldwide Islamic protests against America? We can only speculate, but given the inconsistencies between the film's critical reception and how much money it's pulled in, world events are certainly re-coloring the message of the film in a context (probably) never intended.
Which brings us to a genuine problem.
I actually didn't intend for Taken 2 to start the breathing break from our capitalist and socialist break I promised but it fits in nicely with The Cold Light Of Day. I didn't see the original Taken from 2007, but that was a totally different world then compared to today (here is a synopsis of the plot if you haven't seen it). It's important to note that Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) and his wife Lenore (Famke Janssen) are separated and their daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) is allowed to go to Paris where she is kidnapped and sold into sex slavery before she's saved by her father. Mills kills the man who sold her, and it is the father of that man, Murad, who comes to take his revenge on Mills in Taken 2.
If people were going to see Taken 2 as a result of world wide Muslim anti-America protests, can we interpret the film within this context, or do we have to ignore what has happened in the world (which the film makers obviously could not have guessed would happen) and take the film at face value? It is my experience that the best art is always prophetic, that is, artists (in this case, film makers) are able to articulate internal conflicts and tensions within culture and make an educated guess on where that would lead, and in the case of Taken 2, the guess was right on; in other words, while the film makers could not have known precisely "how," "what," "when" and "where," they knew the "why" and encoded that into the film; catharsis, especially after real-world tragic events, will always be a purpose of art, and I believe the public trauma of the death of US Ambassador Christopher Stevens, and his being sodomized, as well as the deaths of those American military personnel protecting him and the US Consulate, the attacks on the Consulate on the anniversary of 9/11, then being betrayed by our President and Secretary of State who apologized for us, is what drove so many out to see this film and re-order a chaotic world in terms we are familiar with; did the film accomplish this?
Ben Affleck's Argo opens this week, centered upon similar events, the 1979 Iran hostage crisis during the administration of Democrat President Jimmy Carter. The film, based on the actual caper of the CIA, involved disguising the six escaped Americans as a Canadian film crew to smuggle them out of Iran. I expect great things of Mr. Affleck artistically, as he has fully dedicated himself to advancing the craftsmanship of films on every level, and I have full confidence of the quality of the film; however, knowing Mr. Affleck's liberalism, I expect an interpretation of the film to be along the lines of  Hollywood following President Obama's "lead from behind policy," and for Affleck--not to be showing the situation of radical Islamic anti-American hatred and possible solutions--rather, that America should pull out of the Middle East altogether because we are the bad guys and no amount of good intentions on our part can do anything to help the world, rather like The Hurt Locker, which is an anti-war film on one level only (when liberals start talking, they drop all kinds of important values to the wayside, they just can't help it, and end up contradicting themselves terribly). On the other hand, the newest James Bond film Skyfall, opening November 9, also contains an embedded reference to Istanbul (which is where Taken 2 primarily takes place) in that is where M has Bond assassinated. That will be interesting.
Let's begin with an old, American cinematic tradition involving the law of the Constitution and the actual practice of Americans today: the separation of the father and mother of the future of the country. In other words, film makers have usually employed the status of separation/divorce between spouses to illustrate how the country--the motherland, symbolized by a woman of mature age--to be separated from the law of the Constitution--the founding fathers as symbolized by a male of mature age--and usually a hard worker but misunderstood by his estranged family, but he usually proves himself still the hero in the end; the re-unification of the husband and wife means the stabilization of the American identity between its past and present, equalizing a hopeful future for the country (this was especially popular in John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara films, such as Big Jake and McClintock). This same formula structures the situation between Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) and Lenore/Lenny (Famke Janssen) with their daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) and the formula hasn't changed.
The very end of the film, when all has been saved, and Lenore (not wearing her wedding ring to estranged second husband Stuart) happily sits with Bryan's arm around her in an LA ice cream parlor with Kim across from them; it might look innocent, but it's perhaps the second most serious political statement of the film. Of all the places they could go to eat in LA they chose a "newly opened" at the end of the pier 1950s styled ice cream parlor; why? As long-time readers should recognize, the 1950s were that Super-Power time in American history when we came into our own as an international leader in global politics, specifically against socialism/communism. Bryan Mills, being an older male and a symbol of the "founding fathers" in the film, not only invokes the history of American's founding and our ideals as a democratic republic, but, as well, the strength and leadership we have always shown internationally which, because the family is gathered and reunited in this atmosphere, includes the upholding of America staying a super-power.
What Taken 2 really focuses on is the difference between "justice" and "revenge." To Murad, the father of the man Mills killed in Taken, slowly and painfully killing Mills, his ex-wife and daughter is justice; to Mills, that man he killed had kidnapped and sold his daughter, and countless other girls, into sex slavery, so killing him was justice while Murad, who doesn't care about what his son did, only wants revenge. On the larger scale--and I think Taken 2, as well as Argo, Skyfall and The Hurt Locker beg for this--we have to examine the eye-for-an-eye retaliation between the jihad launched against the US on 9/11 and the declared War on Terror resulting, and the resulting suicide bombings and killings and protests resulting from that. This is where the film's most important political message comes into play, and it deliberately sets it up so we are sure not to miss it.
Instead of going to lunch with mom and dad, Kim gets the idea of her recently singled mother going to lunch with dad alone and herself staying by the pool to relax. As Mills and Lenny go to lunch, Mills realizes he's being followed and calls Kim who doesn't answer her phone (another important example of not answering "the call" in life, our destiny and what we are supposed to do). She's wearing a red bikini (pictured above) and we have to ask, is that merely Hollywood sexuality coming through, or is there a meaning? I like to think there is a meaning, especially when we contrast what Kim wears with the pale pink (one could call the color "nude") of Lenny's tank top beneath her sweater. As a symbol of America today, Lenny's faded tank top over her breasts denotes a weariness/inability to nurture anymore (which is what a woman's breasts symbolize artistically, the nurturing potential she has) possibly because she's so busy taking care of her own problems. On the other hand, seeing the flashbacks of trauma Kim experiences when she hears her father tell her they are going to be taken, we could say Kim's ability to nurture--as a symbol of the future America--is filled with anger over what has happened to her and she's buried that anger beneath her depression (the blue shirt and jean shorts). This makes sense when we examine her will power, i.e., her feet, because she wears only flip flops, flimsy things, and because they are slipped on and off easily, so is her will for doing or not doing things (like not really caring if she passes her driving test in the beginning of the film, then starting out being angry at her dad for tracking her, but then not being mad, wanting to take music lessons, then skipping them to be with Jamie). She almost immediately "changes" when she takes an active part in helping in the rescue of her mom and dad: she gets the gun and two grenades then escapes the hotel by going through the maids' locker room, where she tries a locker that is locked, but then finds one opened and takes the clothes therein and puts them on. It's always psychologically/spiritually significant  when a door, window, or whatever is locked when a character tries to get it opened the first time and can't (what it means is context specific) but, in the case of Kim, it's safe to say that whatever her first reaction was, in terms of what she thought  she needed from within herself  to meet the challenge of helping her parents, wasn't the right instinct; symbolically, the clothes she puts on fulfiills what she needs to be in order to fulfill this call of her destiny (see next caption below).
As the murder spree ends, only Murad is left alive and Mills tells him, "If I kill you, your other sons will come and seek revenge." Murad answers that they will. Mills tells him that he will take Murad's word that the blood feud is over between them, and drop his gun and walk away, because he's tired, if Murad vows he will leave him and his family alone. Murad agrees. Mills drops the gun and turns his back. Murad picks up the gun and fires it at Mills' but it's out of bullets. Mills drops the last bullet and puts his hand over Murad's face, pushing him into a spike sticking out of the wall and impales him, Murad dying with his eyes open. This is the film's thesis and what it wants to communicate to us.
I think this scene was actually cut from the film, however, it displays what they are wearing well. Kim's jacket is nearly identical to her father's shirt color (over Mills' gray T-shirt, which, because of his regrets for not being there for Lenny and Kim more, causing Lenny to leave him as they discuss when he realizes they are being followed, probably means "penance" for him, that saving his family from this danger is to make up for not having done more earlier). Kim's jacket, however, is in a military style, with the collar and shoulders, so she's taking what she needs to do and her role as an act of war, she is actively helping instead of passively being rescued or saved (or just waiting). The blue and white shirt means her depression has been changed into wisdom because of what she has learned (depression and wisdom are often linked because it is through the misfortunes and sadness of life that we gain greater knowledge of ourselves and others) while the white means her purity has been saved (the redness of her wrath, the red bikini top, has been washed clean). The similarity of the colors of her jacket and her father's shirt shows how they are united in helping each other and knowing what must be done. Kim also wears white tennis shoes, meaning she has a more active will and she is "tied" to following through with what she must do (the shoelaces instead of just slip-on flip-flops). Hair symbolizes our thoughts and Kim's hair being tied back means she has disciplined her thoughts mostly (she keeps her cool and follows directions) but the stray hairs means she hast "lost control" and gets upset (which we see happen when she's driving the taxi). Lenny wears a shade of purple either meaning suffering or pertaining to royalty; as the matriarch of the family, she is the queen, but she also suffers; more on this below).
It's not going to matter, Taken 2 tells us graphically in this scene, if we leave the Middle East or not because they will continue the violence at whatever cost, so we might as well defend ourselves. To politicians and foreign policy makers in America, this is a radical statement, so much so that they will probably miss it. But that's not the only golden nugget in plain sight in this scene: instead of using the gun to kill Murad, Mills uses his bare hands. The gun can be taken as a sign of technological superiority (remember, for example, in Iron Man, the insurgents needs for better weapons) and Mills doesn't utilize his military advantage, rather, it's his natural strength overcoming Murad and that's a philosophical statement: the man defending his home and hearth is stronger than the man seeking a blood payment (revenge) and holding to that ideal makes us stronger in our efforts at defending ourselves than those attacking us and they will only end up losing face as a result (Mills' grip on Murad's face). The spike? That can easily be interpreted as any number of things, but my take is that, since it sticks out of the wall, and the wall is part of the house (symbolic of the soul), Murad's own being has killed him, i.e., his instinct to shoot Mills in the back is what impales Murad and his whole family.
As the film progresses, Kim has to take to the roof tops in order to locate where her father is. We saw a similar chase scene on dilapidated rooftops in The Bourne Legacy (in the Philippines). In both cases, Americans run on top of third world houses; why? The house symbolizes the soul, so being on-top is a sign of getting "on top of the subject," or being "on top of things" in terms of knowledge and understanding, the kind of perspective you and I attempt to gain when we engage art and film; the films putting their characters on top is an invitation to us, the viewers, to join them on top and take a bird's eye view of what is happening and see the bigger picture the film presents.
At the start of the film, Murad intends to take Mills, Lenny and Kim but Kim is not with them and manages to escape. As part of his revenge, Murad has a small slit cut in Lenny's throat, then has her chained and hung upside-down so her blood will drain to her head and she will die. It's because this is exactly what has happened to America (the motherland Lenny symbolizes) as a result of the 9/11 attacks that this image of Lenny's blood slowly draining out of her is so powerful, the most powerful image of the film. Take the slit on her neck to be the bombing of the World Trade Center (the financial "artery" of America) and you can see how the money spent on the War on Terror, the lives of brave American men and women lost fighting the war, fears of another attack, the paralysis to American air travel (Lenny being chained illustrates how tedious it is to fly now, we're chained) and that we were attacked at all shows how "upside-down" the country has been turned as a result.
This was a well-staged device: please note the "stick" object Mills fights with in this scene, which he took from one of his assailants; towards the end, when Kim has dropped the gun down to her father and tries escaping the man pursuing her, she comes to a dead end and, taking a piece of rebar from a pile of bricks (like the weapon her father uses in the scene pictured above) drops it because she doesn't have his skills to defend herself. Don't get upset with me for this, but one way of understanding the nightmare of the Cold War is that it trained and prepared agents like Mills to handle the War on Terror and resulting attacks whereas Kim and her generation don't have those skills or the guts required to keep America strong and a global leader (again, we'll see this in Expendables 2).
Lastly, the driving test.
I will be discussing this "generation gap" again in Expendables 2: whereas Expendables 2 sees the younger generation as not having the heart to continue America as a superpower, Taken 2 demonstrates Kim can do it, she just needs the "drive" characteristic of previous generations. She has failed her driving test twice, and Mills is trying to help her so she can pass; when they drive together in the start, he warns her about going too fast and being careful not to hit other cars; when they are trying to escape with their lives in Istanbul, he has to tell her "Faster! Go through it!" and wreck the car or anything necessary to save their lives. There is a difference, in other words, when she let's her emotions "drive her" (when she's upset that dad found her with her boyfriend) and the "drive" she needs to save herself (the future of America), her father (the founding father) and her mother (the motherland), and the film employed this technique quite well.
In conclusion, we have to ask if elements of the film--even just the basic premise--was a primary draw for American audiences given recent world events because it had such an unexpected big opening weekend; I think it did (nothing against Liam Neeson, but The Grey, starring him made just under $20 million its opening weekend, and Taken only scored $24 million, so this huge $50 million haul had to come from somewhere). If there had not been attacks on the American Consulate and international protests against America in the last month, I doubt Taken 2 would have done much better than The Grey; that's not to undermine its artistic genius, however, because--as I pointed out above--it wisely contains many prophetic elements revealing insight into current global tensions that have erupted and do not appear to be solved, or even, solvable. It reveals how deeply troubling the attacks have been to Americans and that our leaders have to do something to assure us that it won't happen again, we are safe and justice will be served and seeking justice is not the same as seeking revenge.
Eat Your Art Out,
The Fine Art Diner