Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Without Baggage: Erasure & Identity In The Cold Light Of Day

The tagline, "Be careful who you trust," fits the film and its purpose quite well: we have trusted our allies and we need to continue trusting them, but the film makes the point in the generation gap between Will and his father Martin that with a new generation of Americans, the old alliances aren't necessarily going to hold, unless the new generation goes to war itself. As the villain Jean Carrack (Sigourney Weaver), we have a government official more concerned about personal profit than the ideals of helping our global friends and, seeing the type of person Carrack is, Will slowly starts to make the right decision. Please remember this seemingly innocent discussion on Will not having a change of clothes with him (he does have clothes on the boat from last time and that's important) because it figures into our discussion on erasure.
I'm am impressed with this film, politically and aesthetically.
You are probably saying that you have no interest in this film: it only scored a 6% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes and it did terrible in the theaters, so why am I even bothering to post on it when, as you all know, I am seriously behind as it is? The film takes an outside approach to the current political and economic troubles plaguing America right now to draw our attention away from ourselves and towards the greater world stage, and it does so very convincingly. Further, it has artistic moments of visual vocabulary expansion that is well worth our time to discuss.
Although the trailer sets up the family reunion on the boat as a happy occasion, that's far from the truth of the narrative: Martin (Bruce Willis) and Will (Henry Cavill) are at absolute odds with each other, so much so that Will even refers to his father as "Godzilla." While Will has agreed to meet his family in Spain for sailing, he doesn't want to be there. Let's start at the very beginning because that is where director Mabrouk El Mechri starts with Will.
Will arriving with Martin at the family boat after a disagreeable car ride from the airport and without his luggage. Before we see his face, we discover that Will's luggage never left San Francisco. Why? There are a number of ways to understand it, all valid and all displaying facets of a character who becomes very deep by the end of the film. One way is to ask, What else has been left in San Francisco? The famous Tony Bennett song from 1954 goes, "I left my heart in San Francisco," and that is a viable understanding not only because of the fame of the song, but because it's apparent as the scenes with his family in the boat go on, that Will, too, left his heart, his business and his attention span in San Francisco along with his change of clothes. Another angle is Will is ready for the upcoming adventure because "he doesn't have any baggage," in other words, after the failure of his company, besides saving what remains of his family, Will has nothing to lose. Still another way--among many other still possible understandings--is that Will has to "put on the new man," and he can't do that if he has an identity to which he clings
When we first meet Will we don't meet him. Director El Mechri takes his time to let us see Will's back, the bars of the service desk crossing out the features of his face and the sunglasses blocking his eyes, the windows of his soul (a similar device is used in the opening sequence of The Words with Dennis Quaid's Clayton Hammond not being shown as he gathers up some objects and we don't see his face). It's during this visual commentary that we learn his baggage never left San Francisco and, in conjunction with the physical lack of identity El Mechri makes in these imperative first seconds of the film, we are shown volumes of the philosophy of identity and metaphysics.
Will and his mother talk about Martin. The film supplies us with the standard symbols were used to:  a mature woman symbolizing the motherland (America) and a man of mature age symbolizing the founding fathers (and, in this case, Martin symbolizes the "fathers of American foreign policy" after the lessons of World War II--Will calls him "Godzilla," and we'll discuss this below) so Martin dying actually is not a bad thing in the film, he must die in order for the next generation (Will) to learn the lesson itself of why that which was done, was done for the greatest good and should continue to be done. Yes, we discussed this in Taken 2 and we will continue the same dialogue in Expendables 2 but it's my estimation that The Cold Light Of Day does it best and most thoroughly.
At this point, we don't even know his name, we just see the back of his head and what El Mechri wants to draw our attention to is that which he is not showing us. In theory, when a philosopher wants to let his/her reader know that a word is "necessary but inadequate" for what the writer desires to communicate, such as "being," they will write "being" and then draw a line through the word leaving "being" legible yet in a state "under erasure," or sous rature. Physically speaking, this is exactly what El Mechri does with Will's character, placing his physical features "under erasure," because Will is necessary as a hero and a future founding father but at of the start of the film he is wholly inadequate, and discovering his inadequacies and how he is converted into an adequate hero is the job of the viewer.
Why are they on a sail boat? It symbolizes the "ship of state," and Zahir's men coming aboard, putting a gun to Martin's head and kidnapping his family (minus Will who is not "on board" with Martin because he "jumped ship," and these are political connotations) is possibly how Will's generation thinks of Israel, not much more than terrorists (Zahir works for Mossad, Israeli Intelligence) and how the current US political administration has painted our long-time ally in its siding with the Arab states instead of our friend (please see Israeli lawmaker states that President Obama has not been a friend to Israel). While Will thinks Zahir is the threat to his family, and he's willing to trust Carrack or at least the police, as events escalate, he realizes that isn't enough and his family is actually safe only with Zahir as well as the world (the terrible things that will happen to global stability if Carrack succeeds in selling the briefcase, symbolic of the selling of Israel to the Arabs).
The reason Will "jumps ship" and leaves the boat (is thereby absent when his family is taken hostage) is because, symbolically, there is a disagreement over what the "ship of state" is and the best way to steer it. Martin gives Will command of the ship, but as the narrative relates, Will's business is bankrupt; while he's on the phone discovering that he can't recover his lost business (symbolically, a part of his "lost luggage" [and I apologize for this part, I am not familiar with ships so I know I am mis-using terminology!]) the ship's mast he should be watching instead of texting/talking comes around and nearly knocks out Dara, Will's brother's girlfriend that he saves at the last second, but she gets a cut on her head. Martin gets so angry, he throws Will's phone into the ocean. This is what we can call "the heart" of the film.
Why is this an important shot of Will? After he's left the "ship of state" it shows that he's "all washed up" yet his shirt and shoes in the bag means something has been saved, preserved. This would be a good time to discuss "the call," and why phones are so symbolically important in films. Everyone has a destiny, a purpose in life, and most of our lives are spent preparing ourselves to "answer the call" to duty we are meant to fulfill; if one hasn't prepared themselves to fulfill their destiny, their destiny still calls, but they are inadequate to do what must be done. This conflict is a favorite device in horror films, such as Scream, Night Of the Living Dead and Invasion Of the Body Snatchers (the original and the re-make). In The Cold Light Of Day, Will constantly being on his phone means he is willing to answer the call, but he's answering the wrong call (this is the case with Kim Mills in Taken 2) and Martin demonstrates this to him by throwing Will's phone "overboard." Importantly, it will be his father's phone, after Martin is murdered, that Will takes up as his own because he realizes his father's calling is also his calling (discussed below).
Will, like many Americans today, is more concerned with the economy (his lost business) than the larger "business" of steering a proper course for the government (international affairs, why they are on the ocean) and the future of America (Dara, as a young female can symbolize a possible future for the country) is at danger because no one is watching the way "the winds are blowing" jeopardizing the health and safety of the future (Dara being hit by the ship's beam). Martin throwing away Will's phone is his way of re-directing Will's attention to what is really important, because ultimately, each viewer in the audience (regardless of age) is meant to be identified with Will because all of us have been tending to the business of the economy rather than international affairs. So what does Martin's "call" in life mean to us and why should we pick it up as our own?
The clue is "Godzilla."
It would be easy to get upset with Martin for having a "second family," but we have to remember that American democracy has many children, not just us, and we are responsible for our political siblings just as we are for those of our own family.
I know, I know, you're saying, "Not Godzilla again!"  But just as Godzilla is imperative to understanding The Amazing Spider Man, so it's imperative to understanding The Cold Light Of Day. Steven Spielberg's Jaws was a metaphor for what the Japanese did to America during World War II and American justification for bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki (please see Jaws & the Cleansing Of America). While the monster shark Jaws symbolizes American fears of the Japanese suicide submarines, for the Japanese, the giant lizard Godzilla symbolized the US and the destruction ravaged upon them by us dropping two atomic bombs; as I explain in post on Jaws, the Japanese started seeking out the help of Godzilla to save them from other monsters who started attacking them, specifically Mothra and Rodan (symbolic of the fast-paced growth of socialism/communism in Asia) so, while the Japanese were upset with us for what we did, they recognized the US as being a "better monster" than the other enemies they had (please see Decay Rate Algorithm & Cross Species Genetics: The Amazing Spider Man for more on this topic). So, when Will refers to his father Martin as "Godzilla," this is what he's talking about!
Carrack later reminds Will of how, when he was little, he got a scar across his palm making her a martini; why does she bring it up? Psychologically, it's meant to establish a bond of trust between them, they know each other and are on the same side; it really serves as a kind of prophecy: drinking the martini is like her selling the briefcase, she is expecting to get something, but both times, Will gets in the way of what she wants and frustrates her designs.
Martin, as a symbol of the "founding fathers" of post-World War II foreign policy, knows that the American economy is not the most important thing in the world, (and this is easier to write, given the  terrible events that have rocked the US in the Middle East the last month) rather, the Middle East peace and stability is the most important because the global stability depends upon it (please see US Officials Didn't link Libya attack with video like the president and secretary of state). We might be reluctant to be the "Godzilla of the Middle East," The Cold Light Of Day tells us, yet the consequences of not enforcing peace is far worse for America and the world if we don't. This is the call Martin is anxious for Will to pick up and answer, to give himself to because it's the important call and it's not by accident that call is tied to a briefcase.
While FABRIK is the name of a nightclub, it's a great play on words, because the "fabric" of Will's soul because, just as Zahir has to decide to believe Will, Will has to decide to believe Zahir and this is the moment that changes everything, and, above all, changes Will.
When an important briefcase appears in a film, it's hard not to link it to the briefcase in Pulp Fiction. We don't find out what is in the briefcase in The Cold Light Of Day, but neither does Will, he has to join the CIA for that. What is important, among many other things, is that an exchange has taken place, instead of being concerned with his personal lost luggage at the start of the film, by the end, he has risked his life countless times to not only stop the corrupt Carrack from selling out Israel, but saved the case itself and it's this shifting of priorities from the personal (his lost business) well-being to the larger, world stage (helping Israel) that converts Will into the hero and becomes the vehicle for him overcoming his inadequacies at the start. In other words, what was erased at the start of the film, is filled out by the end and it is nothing short of his individuation and person-hood.
In the start of the film, it's almost comical and awkward how lacking in physical skill Will is for an action hero, but this, too is intentional, because at the end of the film, Will has accomplished his will, stopping Carrack. In art, especially action films, the hero has "unlimited free will" (as in Will himself) so if Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner) wants to slide down a concrete wall without the horizontal velocity crushing him, he can do it, because his physical strength exists in proportion to his inner-strength and virtue as a hero (the stronger the hero's virtue is the greater his strength and stamina, the weaker a hero's/character's virtue, the weaker their strength and will power (please refer to All Points Of Convergence: The Bourne Legacy for more). We saw this in Casino Royale with James Bond (Daniel Craig) at the start of the film being awkward, clumsy and slower than the villain he chased, but by the end, his allegiance to justice and a cause greater than himself has strengthened him to overcome danger threatening him and those he has vowed to protect (please see James Bond: Beyond Boundaries for more). This is the same case with Will in The Cold Light Of Day, the more he dedicates himself to saving his family and doing what is right on the international scale, the stronger Will's will becomes and the more he realizes himself and his potential hence.
We have a greater family than just our immediate family, and when one family is threatened--like Zahir's that was blown up by a market-place suicide bomber--all our families are threatened. Sometimes we take the best care of ourselves when we actually put ourselves to the side, and worry about someone else. (If you missed The Cold Light Of Day in theaters, it will be out on disc between December-January).
Eat Your Art Out,
The Fine Art Diner