Thursday, January 31, 2013

Gingerbread Temptations: Analysis of the Grimm Brothers' Hansel & Gretel

Wilhelm (left) and Jacob Grimm (right) in 1855.
While the Grimm Brothers' fairy tale Hansel and Gretel is legendary, it's a somewhat vague tale, suitable for each generation to adapt the symbols and metaphors to its own needs, thereby making it a timeless story for all (the entire story is quite short and can be found in its entirety at this link). The original collection of tales were published in 1812, but Hansel and Gretel probably originated during medieval times. Due to the violent nature of some stories, changes were often made to the original publications (the Grimms tended to keep everything as they heard it from the oral tales they collected, believing their was more merit in the uncensored version), resulting in confusion: for example, in the H & G original story, the father--a woodcutter--and his wife, are the biological parents, but in later versions, the mother is changed to a stepmother, the idea being that a mother would never kill her children. So, what does the story mean?
There are endless possibilities and we will explore several of them including feminism, Marxism, psychoanalysis, deconstruction, iconography and spirituality.
Hansel gathering pebbles by moonlight. As always, numerous interpretations of any art work are possible, with all being equally valid but the interpretation which can account for the greatest amount of the story proves the most fruitful. In this part of the story illustrated above, for example, a Marxist might demonstrate how the father symbolizes the "fatherland" and the mother might be the culture whereas Hansel and Gretel are the proletarians, the working class, being starved by the incompetent rulers which have failed to provide for the lower-classes. Hansel and Gretel hearing their parents talking because they couldn't "sleep for hunger" might be understood by a Marxist as the political awakening of the middle-class workers, brought on by tragedy (hunger) and the lack of concern of rulers for those beneath them socially. That Hansel's and Gretel's adaptability throughout the story demonstrates the superiority of the workers to make their own decisions and control their own destinies by controlling wealth (the riches they get from the candy cottage). On the other hand, a feminist would most likely focus on the "unwanted children" and the father's incompetency: the mother obviously has a better way of managing the household resources and if birth control had been available to her, there would not be over-crowding due to population control needs; if the mother had not been forced into marrying the father  (it is assumed she was at this point in time), materially, everyone everyone would have been much better off, including the unborn children. The witch in the candy cottage reveals society's bias against women because the woman is obviously successful in having everything she needs and not being forced into marriage or having children against her will, and labeling her a witch brainwashes young women such as Gretel into fearing having a mind of her own, exploring her sexuality and living an independent life free of male domination. A feminist might continue her argument that far from wanting to eat the children, the witch wants to liberate the children through education, but the male-dominated society fears the "dark mystery of womanhood" (symbolized by the forest the witch lives in) so turns the witch instead into a cannibal, establishing feminism as a taboo for other, impressionable females such as Gretel that, if feminists (unnatural women like the witch) are going to eat Hansel and undermine male authority, the feminists will eat the Gretels, too, but if Gretel wants to be protected and provided for, then she has to reject the self-sufficient life the witch presents and that's done by rejecting sexual freedom (the witch's oven as a sexual symbol): society turns the feminist agenda around: feminism will free Gretel, not enslave her (the witch making her work), but society can't let her know that or men will lose their power. I don't agree with these interpretations, however, they are valid, and that's why art shows us who we are and what we believe, we tend to project our universe onto the art which reflects it back to us so we can see ourselves.
As mentioned, the original story of Hansel and Gretel probably started sometime in the Middle Ages, when famines were frequent, thereby suggesting the cannibalistic story might have been a cathartic release for what some parents had done during extreme circumstances; while such an explanation indeed explains taboo behavior (cannibalism) it fails in accounting for the continued popularity of the tale beyond that historical time and into today. Certainly catharsis is always one possible impetus for artistic creation; primarily, however, fairy tales serve as encoded secular morals to the world much like Christ employed parables for His followers. Fairy tales explain why we don't steal, why you don't engage in sexual relations outside of marriage, why you don't cheat people, why patience is such a virtue, etc. offering real-world lessons which often line-up with religious teachings, yet displays society's wisdom of regulating citizens. By examining the structure of Hansel and Gretel, therefore, we should find behavior that we can condemn and behavior we can exonerate.
Another paradigm for interpretation is the sexual awakening of Hansel and Gretel trying to overcome their sexual inhibitions. Far from hearing their parents "talking," a psychoanalyst might say, the children actually hear their parents engaging in sexual intercourse at night which awakens their own sexual appetites and that hunger for sex is what keeps the children awake. The famine, or hunger, is everyone's starving libido, not a physical hunger for food. The trail of pebbles and crumbs Hansel leaves behind actually symbolizes his sperm which he comes to realize he has in the forest surrounded by the towering phallic structures of the trees (the cat Hansel sees is Hansel seeing his sister as a sexual object). Hansel and Gretel, in other words, "lose themselves" in the ecstasy of sexual delight through incest, the most taboo of society's sexual laws. The siblings "finding their way back home" means they willingly suppress their libidos to return to the acceptable sexual practices of sexuality. But "hunger" (for sex) comes again when they hear their parents "talking" again (having sex in the next room). The second time in the forest, however, the siblings engage in oral sex because they are "eating" together; the bird Hansel saw before leaving the house indicates sexual freedom, the the bird not being bound to earth and Hansel not being bound by society and that's why the birds eat his bread crumbs because that's illuminating his sperm being consumed by Gretel and then he consumes her bread meaning he reciprocates (because bread is baked in an oven and the oven is a symbol of female sexuality). On one hand, the children are upset because they know they are losing themselves in the dark forest of dark sexuality, but they also "can't find their way back" to the socially accepted limitations of sexual experience. The candy cottage, then, becomes a Garden of Eden of sexual delights because the house symbolizes the body (a psychoanalyst would argue) and that everything is edible on the house reveals how every part of the human body can be used for sexual stimulation. The witch, with her crutches (sex toys) is what society posits as lurking behind this fantasy of utter sexual freedom. The slavery Hansel and Gretel experience in the candy cottage is the reality of sexual excess (like the excessive amount of candy on the cottage) society wants to communicate to youth: even though Hansel is "getting fat" engaging all his sexual fantasies, he is also wasting away because the "bone" he gives the witch is a phallic symbol for his erection; Gretel's sexuality is being likened, not to freedom, but the womanly chores of house keeping because sexual freedom will actually dominate her and make her waste away, too (that is, her sexual appetites won't be fulfilled--evidenced by the witch starving her--because she will exist only to fulfill a man's sexual needs, in this case, Hansel's, and if Hansel doesn't control his sexual appetites, he will be dominated by the woman who will control him through sex, symbolized by the witch). Gretel pushing the witch into the oven symbolizes Gretel "being in heat"and the heat of sexual lust not being hot enough to want to choose that life of licentiousness for herself which is why she can kill the witch because she has chosen to free herself of sexual desire. Hansel, then, can only be freed by a woman who has freed herself from sex (Gretel). When Gretel frees Hansel from the cage, they dance "and kiss each other," because now, this doesn't risk incest because they have learned their lesson. The gems the children gather further illustrates their new found "sexual education" because Hansel 'thrusting" the gems into his pockets puts the gems next to his genitals, meaning that he now has a greater value for his sexuality and won't waste it; likewise, Gretel putting gems in her pinafore (like a little apron worn over the dress) puts the gems next to her breasts so she won't waste her sexuality either. The pond the children then come to symbolizes once again, sex  (as Freud taught us), but this time--instead of the dark forest of sexual taboos in which they wee lost earlier--now they come to the sanctioned sexual intercourse of society: marriage. Ducks mate for life, and Gretel going across the pond on the duck, then Hansel going across the pond, symbolizes that each sibling will get married in their turn and their own taboo relationship will have to end because a marriage won't be able to "support" the sexual drives of the spouse and the sibling.  Returning  home, then,  is a return to society and the "law of the father" which destroys woman's authority in the household based on her sexual status and all three (remaining) members of the family are now sexually healthy and once again part of society. Regardless of whether you like or dislike this interpretation, it is valid (instead of Freud, you would need to  use Jacques Lacan, to make it a more modern psychoanalytic interpretation).
We could, for example, deconstruct the story by locating inherent instability: let's look at degrees of  "eating."  The mother "eats at" the father so he will agree to her plan; Wild animals in the forest will "tear them to pieces"; the children eat the witch's house, which they "tear to pieces" in eating it; the witch is going to "eat" them and the birds eat the bread crumb trail while Hansel eats to get fat and Gretel is starved. The witch uses her house as a bait for hungry children. The father likens "sharing" with eating the last loaf with his children and Gretel shares her last piece of bread with Hansel while Hansel gives Gretel "food for thought" in telling her to be comforted, God will take care of them; of course, the whole story starts because there isn't "enough to eat." What's singular about Hansel and Gretel are the diverse ways in which food is presented (the two reasons the story is famous, the traits of the narrative people think of first, is for the gingerbread house [a house made of food] and Hansel leaving a trail of bread crumbs, neither of which is a standard representation of food on a plate being consumed at a meal).
An obvious Biblical reference could correlate the Book of Job and God allowing the devil to tempt His servant Job with hardships to H & G 's mother telling the father to lead the children into the forest and leave them there. Job's testing by the devil can be likened to a forest because Job was left in darkness, and a forest symbolizes darkness; God not consoling the servant being tried is the absence of Light/Grace. What about the two animals Hansel claims he sees as he leaves his trails both times? The cat might be an apt symbol for Hansel himself: if the story originated during Medieval times, the symbol of the cat would have been understood by the audience as the one keeping the pests of plague away (Bubonic plague), so even though the cat has to be fed, it provides an invaluable service to the family/community because it keeps down the rat/mouse population. Likewise, Hansel and Gretel having to be fed is not a liability, rather, the children are a blessing because it allows the father's faith to be tested (which he fails by twice agreeing to let the children die to save he and his wife) but Hansel and Gretel surviving their trials of faith brings blessings upon the house. The bird Hansel sees the second time they leave the house is probably invoking the Holy Spirit, the Comforter. When Jesus was baptized, the Holy Spirit descended upon Him in the form of a dove; as Hansel leaves his father's house and sees the bird, it's like, again, he sees an image of himself. He is not burdened with fear or worry because he believes God will take care of them and the bread crumbs will lead them back home, so his soul takes the form of a bird. It's also birds that eat the bread crumbs so he can't find his way back. As in the Book of Tobit, when Tobit becomes blind because of bird droppings getting in his eyes, even though he has just performed a good deed, so birds activate a bad situation (losing the way back home)  even though it is something bad happening to a good person (Hansel and Gretel). Why? This is perhaps the whole purpose the story attempts to answer, and it's signified by the next bird appearing, after the children have been lost, "When it was mid-day, they saw a beautiful snow-white bird sitting on a bough, which sang so delightfully that they stood still and listened to it. And when its song was over, it spread its wings and flew away before them, and they followed it until they reached a little house, on the roof of which it alighted; and when they approached the little house they saw that it was built of bread and covered with cakes, but that the windows were of clear sugar."  The bird they follow this time is the Holy Spirit because the bird's song comforts the children and leads them, two of the three main giving Gifts of the Spirit; the third Gift, is Life and that is where the candy cottage comes in (please see below for more).  
Of course, as previously stated, fairy tales are secular moral lessons (so the current trend in Hollywood produced fairy tales could be Hollywood's encoded way of saying that society is deteriorating and needs to be reminded of the basic tenants of the social contract to survive). Examples of behavior that would be condemned by a society include the mother "eating at" the father (nagging and wearing him down, as the children "eating at" the witch's house) to abandon the children. It has often been suggested that the mother being dead when the children return to their father means we are to understand the witch as a metaphor for the mother: the wretched plan of the mother turns her into a witch, the way the witch intends on turning the children into a meal. That is why it is Gretel who must kill the witch: the witch and mother are the future Gretel, what she will turn into unless she renounces them to become a virtuous woman instead of a witch (the "food of wickedness"--i.e., the burnt body of the witch roasting in the oven--that Gretel does not eat so she is not consumed by evil), which leads us to another approach: chaos theory.
Following the pebbles back home. Hansel and Gretel can get back home because in this part of the story, they don't have anything they can exchange with God. In the economy of the spiritual life, God will give us something, then take it away and replace it with something better: for example, God first gave Abraham his son Ishmael, then gave him his son Isaac, nearly took Isaac away when God asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, but gave Isaac back a second time and increased His Blessing upon Abraham and Isaac and all the descendants. Likewise, Hansel and Gretel have not yet been given anything by God, so the siblings finding their way back home gives them confidence; when the bread crumbs are eaten, and they cannot find their way back home, God takes that confidence to give them Trust in Him (and this is mentioned in the story) but you can't Trust in God wholly until you have nothing. The second time they get back home highlights the differences between the two experiences as well as the monetary difference between the white pebbles like "silver pennies," and the wealth of the gems.  
Chaos theory affords numerous avenues for potential interpretations, but one way to look at Hansel and Gretel is like the Russian doll sets: there is a big doll, with a smaller, identical doll inside it, with a smaller, identical doll inside it, etc., and the story presents us with the same kind of large pattern, and smaller patterns of it within the narrative, etc. The mother and father are what Hansel and Gretel would become if they follow bad examples of marriage (because marriages have always had problems) and the nagging wife and weak husband synthesizes bad traits into a bad marriage while Hansel and Gretel uncover their inner-virtues to work together and help each other, being a better example of what a good marriage is: not a political or sexual union for wealth or even survival, rather, a bonding of loyalty and selfless fidelity.
Birds eat the trail of crumbs. Why? Spiritually speaking, Hansel depends on himself here, but the Holy Spirit (discussed below towards the end) wants to be trusted and therefore takes away our ability to provide for our self so we must turn to God for our needs. The "thousand" birds of the forest eating the crumbs echoes the language of the Bible (especially the Old Testament, when armies would march against Israel and the death toll was recorded). Again, the many birds suggest this tragedy is in God's planning for the children so they can return to God the Father before returning to their earthly father. The mother/witch, then, symbolizes the world in this context because of the extremes of worldly burdens both women represent in the story (poverty and wealth).
We can see little Hansel gathering pebbles to be more resourceful than his father gathering wood: while the young Hansel is thrown into a more dire situation and saves himself and his sister, the father isn't capable of providing the basics to feed his family. While the mother knows the father is weak, and clearly sees how far she can push him (the opposite of the witch's poor eyesight), Hansel uses weakness as a virtue in showing the thin bone to the witch to keep himself alive, whereas the father's feebleness he displays to his wife only causes him anguish. On the other hand, while the mother sits up at night plotting against her own children because she doesn't trust her husband can/will provide, Gretel sleeps trusting her brother will save her. Whereas the mother/witch all the children names including "goose" before the oven's fire, Gretel calls out and a swan appears on the water. Whereas the father is trapped in his impoverished marriage, Hansel is freed from his cage by Gretel. Once the mother/witch has been destroyed, Gretel is free to grow up to be a virtuous woman, Hansel won't be eaten like his father and the father is once again head of the household. 
In this illustration, we see a gingerbread house more "bread" than ginger: "they approached the little house they saw that it was built of bread and covered with cakes, but that the windows were of clear sugar." The house being made of the same food they go without, and the same food they share, actually fits the story better than gingerbread. Why? If the story originated during medieval times, than the Roman Catholic church was the dominate religion (no other denominations of Christianity yet existed; all Christians were Catholic at this time). The Eucharist is the consecrated Body of Christ, so a house made of bread--the food peasants consumed each day--might be seen as an alternative church, either a life in the world and not a spiritual life, or an actual alternative church. After the Protestant Reformation began, and groups started splitting away from the Catholic Church to start their own churches, its possible--since bread plays such an important role in the story and the Eucharist was an important point in Protestant debates--that the story took on the historical significance of that time in later versions. Depending upon which church you belonged to, one could make the Catholics out to be the witch, or Protestants, but this historical angle is another valid venue of interpretation.  Since the Eucharist is THE Body of Christ, and the witch proposes to commit cannibalism with Hansel's and Gretel's bodies, this perspective probes a new way of explaining that detail of the story.
As I have said in the past, in whatever format, art is essential for life, because more than any other human endeavor, it offers each individual the chance for self-knowledge by the manner how and what we reflect upon: in other words, we can only see in art what we have within ourselves, but we wouldn't know it was a part of us, without the mirror of art. Without self-knowledge, we cannot know our gifts and and dreams, virtues and vices, so we cannot fulfill our destiny; because of this, there is never a "right" or "wrong" interpretation, and all interpretations are valid as long as they utilize as many elements of the art work as possible and nothing within the artwork flat-out contradicts the interpretation. Having said that, since the story references God so many times, being a Christian, I would like to apply a moralist reading.
This isn't a great illustration, but the best I could find. In today's culture, there is more sweet stuff on the "candy cottage" and not just a house of bread. Why? In the film Hansel and Gretel Witch Hunters, the cottage is covered in sweet stuff and this evolution of a story detail indicates a divergence from the original so we today can express our  culture and our traits as a society; the question is, what does the candy reveal about us? I will leave that to you as food for thought,...
There is a continual repetition of occurrences: two times the children are left in the woods, two times they come home, Hansel leaves two trails, etc. Perhaps the most rewarding method of reading the story is as the traditional battle between earthly cares and spiritual battles. There are two ways we can be spiritually destroyed: first, being crushed by poverty, secondly, being crushed by riches and Hansel and Gretel illustrates both examples. The mother and father are crushed by their poverty in not turning to God to provide food for them even though that's a lesson that even young Hansel knows (when he encourages Gretel to trust in God). Proof of this is in the recovery of the family after leaving Hansel and Gretel the first time in the woods and the children successfully fending for themselves and finding their way back home. The mother, however, instead of learning the value of faith, only learned the mean lesson of locking the children in their rooms. Is this why the mother dies? No, the mother--in typical artistic fashion--dies because she is all ready dead. If any character dies in a work of art, it is because the artist "embodies" that character with unacceptable behavior to demonstrate why that type of behavior is death itself. We can support this by the fact that when the children finally return home, the mother has died and no cause of death is given (explicitly) except that we know she exhibited intolerable behavior.
Being locked up insures Hansel won't become like his father  because of the way Hansel has experienced being enslaved to his appetites but not having been through the difficult way like Hansel, the father doesn't realize he is enslaved.
Let's admit it: life was hard in medieval times. Infant mortality was high, sickness was common and cruel, something as simple as a broken arm could lead to death, invasions and famine were common place. Just as we might think of money solving our problems today, so a medieval peasants might think a house made of food would solve their problems then. Hansel and Gretel, then, can be seen as a story of encouragement to examine the hard facts of life--starvation and poverty--and see how God brings good from the worst situations, and how what might seem like a good situation--finding a house made of food when you are starving--is not a good situation; this presented morality introduces the theme of "seeing" into the narrative. The old witch cannot "see" but Hansel can see how to find his way back home (with pebbles and bread crumbs) and how to fool the witch (the bone) and Gretel can see how to get rid of the old witch and cross the pond that has no bridge. These examples point to a "wisdom tale" because we have the figure of "the fool" (the father) with both the wife and witch taking the children to be fools but he children playing the wife/witch to be the actual fools. So where does wisdom come from?
The birds.
What would be the fire of hell for Gretel becomes the fire of purgatory when she pushes the witch in and kills her. The house of "earthly food"--had Gretel continued to eat of it--would have killed her soul and then, she would not only have lost herself, but would not have been able to save Hansel. The witch calling Gretel a "stupid goose" is the witch's denial of the Holy Spirit in Gretel's soul because a goose is not an example of a "graceful bird," and, being a witch, the woman would not be God-fearing. So defeating the witch is also Gretel overcoming the temptation of not believing in her immortal soul and castigating the witch to hell so Gretel can saver herself.
As stated in one of the captions above, the multiple roles of birds within the text supports interpreting the iconography (symbols) as the Holy Spirit. Why would the beautiful bird, singing the beautiful song, lead the children to the candy cottage of the witch IF that bird symbolizes the Holy Spirit? Because the Holy Spirit is the Lord and Giver of Life, and we are not likely to chose the path that leads to real life and real freedom because--like the suffering and trials of the children in the witch's cottage--that way is too hard. Just like the bird leading the children to the witch's cottage (and Jesus being led by the Spirit into the Wilderness after His Baptism)  the Holy Spirit sings our heart a beautiful song we follow (it may be the hope of love, a career path, a financial decision, anything which --had we known what the outcome would be before--we would not have chosen for ourselves, but the Holy Spirit does chose that for us because we will come out better for it (this is a theme we will be exploring in The Hobbit and the contract Bilbo has to sign).  
The last issue is the theme of "There and back again," as JRR Tolkien calls it. Just as Bilbo Baggins is led away from The Shire on an adventure in The Hobbit, so God led Abraham from Canaan only to bring his family back there, and led Moses from Egypt only to take him back to save the Children of Israel before leading them back to Israel; why? It's a way for us to realize what God has accomplished and how much bigger we are as people after His plan for us has been completed; the jewels the children come home with attests to how they have been "enriched" in their souls by the experience because they are being re-united with God the "Father" in the person of their father. 
All fairy tales contain lessons highlighting moral and immoral behavior and the consequences. Employing various models of interpretation sheds light on narrative traits otherwise obscured. Most importantly, however, the tales reflect our own beliefs and morals back on us, revealing what we think and believe when we least expect it. Some important changes were made to Hansel and Gretel Witch Hunters, and many details added, so now that we know the story in its original format, we can see how it's been adapted to reflect our culture today!
Eta Your Art Out,
The Fine Art Diner

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

For Film Connoisseurs & Skyfall Video Release Date

Wow, I would LOVE to have this,...
Either for yourself or that serious student of film you know, in celebration of their 90 years of film making, Warner Brothers is releasing two, limited-edition, Blu-Ray/DVD gift-sets: one with 50 of their greatest films (16 of which won Best Picture on 52 discs) plus exclusive documentary footage, and another with 100 of their greatest films (22 Best Picture winners on 55 discs), also with exclusive behind-the-scenes extras. Details of the 50 film collection here and specifics of the 100 film collection here.
The big question is, how much?
That depends on where you intend to buy it.
On Amazon.com, you can purchase the 50 film collection for $366 plus tax and shipping, or for about $20 more get the 100 film collection. There are also other places selling the sets, such as Best Buy. Customer reviews have primarily been about the movies they all ready own being duplicated, so it's not necessarily a great deal for everyone. However, if you have become serious about film lately, you might check out the guidelines for becoming a film connoisseur.
On a somewhat more important note,...
Skyfall will be released February 12! 
Also being released this month:
Bully, week of February 12, which was a rather important documentary.
Silent Hill Revelation, which I very much appreciated and will try to get that review up; it's a surprisingly Christian film, which I was not expecting, with a deep understanding of spirituality and the Dark Night Of the Soul.
The Sessions, which Helen Hunt was almost nominated for an Oscar
The Man With the Iron Fists (Quentin Tarantio produced)
The Perks Of Being A Wallflower
The Week Of February 19:
 Argo, which is sweeping awards
Sinister, which I wanted to see but, honestly, it looked so scary I just chickened-out!
Anna Karenina
Eat Your Art Out,
The Fine Art Diner

Monday, January 28, 2013

Out On DVD & Trailers: Upside Down, Evil Dead, Red 2, Dead Man Down, Side Effects, Sherlock Holmes 3 & Thor 2 News

The "Angelic Doctor," Thomas Aquinas.
Happy feast day of St. Thomas Aquinas to all my fellow Thomists!
If St Thomas is your patron, I wish his prayers and many blessings to you through his intercession! Let us always strive for wisdom through humility and make the most ardent prayers to God for complete holiness and submission to God's will. Amen.
On Rotten Tomatoes, the film has only a 5% approval rating. I truly felt this was a well-crafted film and for those interested in directing tricks, it would be worth your while.
Out on video this week, finally, is The Cold Light Of Day; I was probably the only person who saw this in the theater, but I was quite pleased. You might not consider it great entertainment, but it ascends beyond the capitalist-socialist debate to put the question to America about our role as defenders of democracy and Israel in the world. The acting was quite well done, but the detailed directing made the film worth my while (my review: Without Baggage: Erasure & Identity In the Cold Light Of Day).
This scene perfectly illustrates Count portraying business owners because he criticizes the job the Knight does and asks what he gets paid for, when the Knight replies he doesn't get paid, suggesting that all employers fail in properly compensating their workers and care about nothing except their personal lives which they deny to all others.
Also out this week is Hotel Transylvania which I consider to be a very anti-capitalist film. It was enjoyable, the animation was well done, it was fun getting to see and catch jokes about the old horror films, but it signals a reverse in culture: whereas the "unnatural" monsters once symbolized the unnatural systems American society fought and defeated, now people like myself (conservative, Republican, capitalist, Christian) are the unnatural ones, holding back society so vampires and humans can mate (my review Worm Cakes & Scream Cheese: Hotel Transylvania).
Seven Psychopaths is really impressed with itself.
I saw the film but didn't review it because it describes itself as a "bloody Buddhist film," or, in other words, a film that is against violence but not really as long as it's really violent. About the only good thing in the film, is an exercise in understanding what makes a film bad, because it's just as important to be able to articulate why you don't like something as why you do like something. The problem with Seven Psychopaths, like The Watch and The Campaign, is the "morals" of the film makers are so compromised and conditionalized, it ends up advocating a world of anarchy in every sens of the word. The acting was pretty good, and there were some funny parts, but there is no respect for human dignity nor is there any sufficient degree of personal integrity exhibited that makes the film choose one path over another, but remain perpetually in the fruitless realm of no man's land.
Released this week (but I haven't seen it yet) is The Awakening:  "In 1921, England is overwhelmed by the loss and grief of World War I. Hoax exposer Florence Cathcart visits a boarding school to explain sightings of a child ghost. Everything she believes unravels as the 'missing' begin to show themselves." Children who are ghosts are always symbolically problematic: as symbols of the future, children who turn into ghosts are a future that didn't happen, so the question--appears to be--what future post World War I might England had followed but didn't and why would it be showing itself now and reminding us of it? (Because historical films are never about history, they are always about the here and the now, the time period is just a vehicle). It looks like if you enjoyed The Woman In Black or The Innkeepers, this might be for you (it probably won't show up at Redbox--maybe--but you can watch it instantly now at Amazon).
To be released March 15 is Upside Down and about class conflict and mobility:
On the other hand, the new movie being billed as "The most terrifying movie you will ever see" (and even made my body-builder dad squeamish when he watched it, it's pretty gross) is awesome! Coming out April 12 is Evil Dead:
What book should be "left alone?" The Book Of the Dead is actually the Book Of Marx, the Communist Manifesto, because communism died with the Soviet Union so the demons being summoned are those from the graveyard of the Soviet Block. I tried explaining it to my dad, but he wasn't interested.
After several changes in release dates, GI Joe Retaliation is now set for March 28 and I will be watching this one in 3D:
 And out in August is Red 2:
Due out March 8 is Dead Man Down; this will be complex: at 2:35, see if that brief image invokes any thoughts in your mind (think implied reader, where have you seen/read something like this before?):
To me, that brief clip of the rats crawling over the man, invokes Winston from George Orwell's 1984. We'll have to wait and see if that's an accurate linking or not. Director Steven Soderbergh's newest film, Side Effects due out on February 8, invokes the drug usage we have been witnessing in films such as Dredd, Savages, The Bourne Legacy and Hansel and Gretel Witch Hunters:
It would be tempting to say somethings now, but I am going to wait on this one. I think this is going to be done incredibly well, and I can't wait to see it. Speaking of Mr. Jude Law, aka Dr Watson, we have an update on his next collaboration with Robert Downey Jr: "Law says that the script for Sherlock Holmes 3 is still in development, but he hasn't heard anything yet. "But you know what it’s like, it’s going to be about scheduling, it’s going to be about the right time for the studio and it is about keeping the bar raised," says Law, "you know, coming up with something that’s really smart and making sure it keeps getting better."
Thespian Kenneth Branaugh directed the first installment of Thor but Game Of Thrones director Alan Taylor is taking over the sequel which will emphasize the mythology of Asgard, Thor's home land. "Kyle also said that Thor: The Dark World will begin with Asgard battered by war and The Nine Realms beset "by rag-tag invaders known as The Marauders," a race which could be a variation on the team of assassins employed by super-villain Mister Sinister that was first introduced in "Uncanny X-Men" #210 (Oct. 1986). This leaves Asgard in a weakened state ... which allows for the invasion of the Dark Elves, led by Malekith the Accursed (Christopher Eccleston)." Thor 2 will be released in November.
Eat Your Art Out,
The Fine Art Diner

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Hansel & Gretel Witch Hunters is Pro-Capitalist! Pre-Review

Feast your eyes on the ugly face of socialism,...
I got to see this with my dad, and we give it two thumbs up!
If you were just rating dad and I by films we like, you would assume I was adopted, because he has the WORST taste in films I have ever seen (he watched Citizen Kane for me, and made me watch Blazing Saddles for him,... need I say more?). So dad rated the story line at 5 stars; acting, special effects and scenery at 4 stars; his only complaint was that some of the action scenes were too fast--and I concur--so while we did enjoy them, we wish it had exploited the possibilities of the 3D more, other than that, we both thoroughly enjoyed it! BUT, the wonderful creativity of the opening credits made up for that (at least for me).
She is the character who not only makes this a capitalist film, but radically capitalist, like The Hunger Games will hate this film! Remember, Hansel and Gretel are self-employed bounty hunters who get paid for their services and provide a service for the communities, and these are basic concepts Obama's administration is trying to make taboo in America.
It was actually of a higher quality than I expected--I saw some clips, which were not in the film, beforehand and that made me question the craftsmanship, but I would give the film a solid 90% rating for entertainment and narrative structure (okay, most people don't grade on narrative structure, but you know that's important for me!). There is some foul language (and neither dad nor I appreciated that) and brief female nudity. Nearly done with Hansel and Gretel (the original story) and will start working on the full Witch Hunters review and it will be a good one!  This one is loaded!
Eat Your Art Out,
The Fine Art Diner

Friday, January 25, 2013

Hansel & Gretel Coming

I am getting up the post on the Grimm Brothers' original tale of Hansel and Gretel so we are the "implied readers" when we see the film Hansel and Gretel Witch Hunters this weekend. While you are waiting on the post, please read the quite short story, in original form, here. Studying the story before seeing the film will help us pick-up on changes made to the original "set-up" from the original story so we will enjoy those little details all the more!
Eat Your Art Out,
The Fine Art Diner

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Fear & Cowardice: Argo

Starring and directing the darling of critical reviews, Ben Affleck's thriller Argo achieves the highest standards of technical perfection. Mr. Affleck's intuitive understanding of directorial techniques does nothing but give him credit worthy of praise and honor for deepening our bond with characters, experiencing fear and--most difficult of all--not just creating suspense, but sustaining it. His pacing is, to be honest, perfection and, in a thriller, pacing is everything. Not only is Mr. Affleck's directing talents amply displayed in the intimate, vulnerable portrayals of the six American refugees during the Iranian Revolution and his historical re-creation of the events but his own considerable talents for performing arts comes through in subtle yet definite moments of re-creating Tony Mendez, the CIA extractor working to get the Americans out before they are captured. Argo and Mr. Affleck deserve all the critical praise for the artistry of a fine film,... but,...
Why does this poster look like this? A part of the film is based on re-constructing shredded paper. Someone in the American embassy in Iran created a "yearbook" of all the embassy employees complete with photographs; after the Iranians storm the embassy, they find all the shredded documents and get child basket-weavers to put the pieces back together so the army has an idea who the escaped embassy employees are. This scenario in the film is one of which we should be aware because, we, too should be looking for what is missing and why. "Based on," as is written below the title above,communicates that the outline of the story reflects a historical occurrence, but the meat of the story not necessarily. That's why we have to take a special approach to historical films; just because we know it's not real history being presented, doesn't mean the filmmakers won't try to make you think that's how it really happened, which is a good reason to research a historical film before you see it.
There is quite a bit of smoke-and-mirrors going on, and I don't mean that in a good way. I couldn't write this review just after seeing the film; I greatly appreciated Affleck's technical mastery--and I will stick by that, he crafts the film well--but I worried that my gut reaction might be too hard on him; having seen director Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty, however, I realize she was putting for the acceptable agenda on American politics, not Affleck. As you have heard me say many times, a history film is never ever never ever never ever NEVER about history; history is the vehicle, the means, the embodiment of a narrative to discuss the here and the now. If a film is trying to accurately reproduce history it is a documentary; therefore, in a drama/thriller such as Argo, artistic license has to be given to leave things out, embellish, add, interpret, etc. That license granted by the viewer, however, does not mean we have to agree with the agenda being put forth, nor do we have to meekly submit our minds to the subliminal messages being sent to us.
What subliminal messages?
"John Wayne has been in the ground six months and this is what's left of America," one of the characters says, and it's a important statement because, in today's lingo, they really mean, "John Wayne and what he stood for is dead. Get over it. Get out of here." John Wayne, the great American hero of the wild west, the man who knew what was right and was willing to fight for it, the man who kept up American morale during World War II and became the icon of the unbeatable spirit is dead.
Nothing more subliminal than anything else we have discussed.
For example, Tony tells one of the embassy employees, "Play with me today, and I will get you out tomorrow." Actually, he's not telling the embassy worker that, he's telling us the viewer that because the entire film sets the goal of "getting out" (the husband of one refugee laments how his wife kept begging him to leave but he wanted to stay just a bit longer...). We have to remember that Argo opened shortly after the nearly-forgotten Benghazi attacks on the American consulate in Libya; while Taken 2 opened to a whopping $50 million weekend (making back its entire budget in just three days), Argo didn't pass $20 million; why? Trailers for Taken 2 actively show Liam Neeson's character actively pursuing the Middle Eastern kidnappers and actively saving his family, whereas trailers for Argo show Ben Affleck running away (likewise, in Skyfall--which begins in Istanbul--and Zero Dark Thirty trailers, we see pursuits for justice courage, not cowing and humble submission).
But isn't this a heroic story?
Hollywood adores nothing more than a movie about making movies (please recall that last year's Oscar winner was The Artist) and Argo is certainly about making movies. Long-time readers of this blog know we have been chronicling the politics of the last year as films demonstrate either pro-socialist or pro-capitalist leanings, so the political leanings of Argo should not surprise us. What are they exactly?  In the image above (you can click on it to open it in a separate window at full size to study it better), we see the office headquarters for the film-front Argo being used in the caper; if you look behind Lester (Alan Arkin) at the poster with the woman's mouth open, there is a cobra coming out of it with the caption, "Once this motion picture sinks its fangs into you, you'll will never be the same!" and that is exactly the agenda of Argo (Affleck's film) to bite down on us the viewer and not let us go; but what does a cobra do when it bites down on someone? Releases poison into their bloodstream. So what does the poster suggest Argo is doing to us? Cramming it down our throats. For better or for worse (and I will discuss this more below) cobras can often be linked to snake charming, often associated with the Middle East and Islamic culture, so we have a symbolized yet clear idea of what is being forced-fed to us; I'll discuss this in greater detail below, however, the cobra image is one example of the "Orientalism" Affleck incorporates into the film to inspire fear in the audience. Why? Being an Obama supporter, (though I won't go so far to call him a socialist, although he may be) Affleck's film demonizes the relationship between the US and Middle East for the sake of destabilizing oil trade and production so big oil companies being held by private owners can be run out of business and the government can then corner the market with green energy and decrease the amount of private business in the country so the government becomes bigger and more powerful and has a greater portion of the population dependent upon it so it can stay in power.
Doesn't Tony (Affleck) sweep in and rescue the Americans in distress in spite of the odds against him and befuddle the hostile militants wanting to kill and destroy America? Yes, this is what happens, but it's also clear the Americans are being forced out and we are in the passive role, unlike the active role seen in Taken 2, Skyfall and Zero Dark Thirty, and that is what makes all the difference. There are at least two instances of the passive, feminine role being championed by Affleck: first, a sub-text of the story and secondly, a moment of reflective monologue on the situation in Iran and not heeding the warnings (discussed above). What complicates the matter is, when we see Affleck, we think of him as an American, not the Canadian in the story; further, there really aren't any situations permanently embedding his Canadian identity onto our minds (such as dramatically different accents or speech patterns) so, at least I as a viewer, kept seeing him as American instead of Canadian. (I have a very large and loyal readership in Canada,  for whom I am deeply grateful; I would love to hear your reactions to how you did or did not identify with Tony and why or why not!).
This view is another wall of the office for the Argo caper; please note the Canadian flag on the wall, left side. It's not just a tribute to Tony, it's a replacement for the American flag. While I disagree with a great deal in this article, I think it aptly summarizes how lop-sided and uninformed socialists view capitalism:  Is Canadian Socialism a Better Breed of Capitalism?
First, Tony and his wife are separated. 
Because men typically signify the founding fathers or the economy (the active principle) and women typically symbolize the Church or the motherland, when there is a marriage in trouble in a film, it typifies discontinuity between the founding father (the traditions of the country) and the motherland (the future of where the country will go). This is where the problem comes in: technically, this disparity should be read as a problem in the Canadian identity of tradition (capitalism) and the future identity (socialism?), but--again--because at least I as a viewer kept forgetting Tony's Canadian identity, I saw the rupture between the American founding fathers and the future of America, between the economy and the identity of the country. This is important because, as you can imagine, at the end of the film, they are reconciled.
Why?
This is one of those scenes which could be called a "high point" because from the height above the encoding in the rest of the film, we can see everything else more clearly. During the dialogue, Lester and Tony discuss their families, Tony admitting he and his wife are separated and Lester revealing that he lost his family because he was always working; sound familiar? It is a fair critique of capitalism that individuals abuse work and fail in their personal relationship with their family, however, that personal divergence in responsibility is not an inherent feature of capitalism, rather, an inherent feature of humanity (we make bad decisions sometimes) and one socialism can't promise to solve because it can't solve the human condition. Let's consider some of the details exhibited to establish that thesis. First, Lester's socks. Lester and Tony sit in a casual position, but Lester's paint legs are raised high, and his dark socks conflict with his light suit so as to intentionally draw attention to his feet; why? The feet symbolize the will, so the discussion in this scene--about Lester losing his family--"exposes" what caused the loss of his family because he had a dead will (black symbolizes death) and that's because he was working. On the other hand, look at Tony's arms: his sleeves go awfully high up his forearm, don't they? Why? To demonstrate that Tony has "nothing up his sleeve," and we can trust what is going on in this scene because he doesn't want to fool us,...  another detail is the bags of lunch they have with them (tacos or taco burgers, something like that). Notice anything in particular about the packaging? That's right, nothing! There is no business logo or brand anywhere on the fast food wrappers or bags or cups. Odd, isn't it, if this is a capitalist culture? Just like what we see in Gangster Squad, there is no more business, and there is no quality or innovation differentation if there are no brands, because we know there is a difference between Taco Bell, Taco Shop, El Pronto, the Our Lady Of Guadalupe Mexican stand, or the church ladies Mexican food raffle, etc., but there is no difference when it's owned by the government. Mr. Affleck, obviously, would prefer to take credit for making Argo for himself; I haven't heard or seen him giving his Golden Globes to President Obama, have you? But he expects us to hand over our businesses to the government?
While a typical film considers it essential to reconcile the family, different films advance their agendas through various decisions they make reflecting their political objectives. For Argo, it's only after the American refugees have gotten out of Iran that Tony can go back to his family suggesting (like with capitalism breaking-up Lester's  family) you can't have a family and be capitalist, you can't have oil and have a family, you have to decide and if you want a family, you have to abandon the Middle East, capitalism and brand-name taco burgers.
 
The Suleymanive Mosque, Istanbul. This landmark shows up in three films released in the last four moths: Taken 2, Skyfall and Argo.In Taken 2 and Skyfall, Liam Neeson's character and James Bond physically and actively dominate the scenery and landscape when this mosque is shown; when Tony enters Istanbul in Argo, however, he is dominated by the overwhelming presence of the mosque, signalling a slight but definite shift in how socialists want the new foreign policy to be crafted for. the Middle East: America dominated, not dominating.
Exactly how, though, does Argo propose to get us out of the Middle East?
Fear.
ONLY A LIBERAL could have gotten away with the words and images the film makers include in Argo; if a conservative film maker had mentioned snake charmers and flying carpets, or likened the exotic orient to the theater of the absurd, they definitely would have gotten panned by the film critics and certainly would not have gotten any awards, certainly not the Oscar nominations. It's through applying Orientalism--fear of the unknowable "other" and their traditions and culture--that Affleck not only accuses us the audience of being small minded towards Middle Easterners, but plays off the legitimate fears we have seen in televised attacks of anti-American sentiment, so Affleck gets to have his cake and eat it, too. By making the attackers militant, and accentuating aspects of how foreign they are from Western culture, he slowly heightens the drama and the viewer's desire to "get out" as quickly as possible through anxiety and a deepening feeling that, "It's just not worth it."
That is defeatism Affleck embraces.
In Istanbul, Tony goes to meet an agent in the Hagia Sophia, Church of the Holy Wisdom, which used to be a Byzantine Church (Eastern Catholicism) until Muslims conquered the great city of Constantinople and took over the church for a mosque. It begs the question, is the holy wisdom of the film staying in a place where we are not wanted, or heeding the signs and getting out while we can? Again, Affleck highlighting a historical location of such importance feeds the general thesis of the film that America (as a Christian nation, or we at least once were) is a land conquered, not free.
As I said at the beginning of the post, Affleck has great technical mastery over the film, and no where more so than at the very end, when he changes gears without letting the audience know. As I stated, when a film utilizes historical events, artistic license should be granted for dramatization; what Affleck does is suddenly make the audience think he has delivered a documentary in mentioning the Carter Administration (Democrat) and kept hostages from being killed, then jumping to Democrat Bill Clinton and championing him because Clinton declassified the documents so Argo could be told; Affleck completely and intentionally ignores the role the Iranian Hostage Crisis played in Carter losing the presidential election to Ronald Reagan, AND, more importantly, that Iran released the hostages minutes after Reagan had been sworn in as president because the Middle East held so little respect for the Carter Administration and from the way we see Affleck portraying America being dominated throughout the film, we can understand why we didn't have any respect because that's how Democrats--even today--want it (and yes, I am furious having heard the lies Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Congressional Hearing Committees today about her lack of knowledge about the Benghazi attacks on the American consulate).
At the airport as they are trying to get out, and the Iranian guards question them about the film they intend to make as one of the refugees regales them with the "magical stuff" films are made of to weave their beautiful narratives; we have to ask, "Are we not the ones really being fooled? There is no movie, just a plot to "get us out?"
In conclusion, Argo exhibits great technical skills by Mr. Affleck who not only knows what techniques and tricks to use for enhancing action and emotion, but also has the discipline to resist adding unnecessary dressing to a scene that doesn't require it; however, I feel there is a large quantity of dangerous political theory being advanced to the detriment of the country through the intentional misalignment of inconvenient historical fact for which Mr. Affleck should be held accountable, just like the Secretary of State. 
Eat Your Art Out,
The Fine Art Diner

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Reflections, Masks, Noise, Erasure: Zero Dark Thirty & the Children's Crusade For American Justice

This is the way movies should be made.
Director Kathryn Bigelow's critically acclaimed dramatization of the US hunt for international terrorist mastermind of the US 9/11 attacks Osama Bin Laden (UBL for Usama Bin Laden in the film) is not only the summit of excellent film making technique and narrative, but exactly how I would have made it (if I had Bigelow's talent). Let's briefly examine the controversy then turn out attention to the dominant symbol of the film and how Bigelow incorporates that into all the sub-text dialogue: Maya (Jessica Chastain).
Jessica Chastain plays Maya, the CIA operative who spends ten years tracking down Osama Bin Laden (or Usama Bin Laden, UBL). In the film, when we first see her in the film, we don't see her, she's wearing a ski mask, the kind that has only the eye holes cut out; in the shot of her beneath the writing Zero Dark Thirty above, it's the exact opposite, only her eyes are covered (that scene above is when the SEALs are waiting to go do the mission before UBL has been killed) then at the end of the film, when she's on the plane, she cries signalling a rebirth and a cleansing of her identity now that the mission has been completed because she, too, is completed having exacted justice (not revenge, but justice). More on all this below in the discussion on the white film poster with the black writing crossed-out. This leads us to an important point in the debate fueling controversey: how much of the film is fact and how much fiction? "Fact" and "fiction" are not relevant points in this debate: there are facts, but not the kind you find in a documentary, because this isn't a documentary; dramas convey wisdom, a superior moral position on cultural and political debates, and they ONLY incorporate "facts" when it lends to the message the film wants to send. Films are art; documentaries are facts. No one can expect films to be what they are not. As I hope to demonstrate throughout this post, films should be judged upon artistic merit not historical accuracies and anyone diverging from this approach fails to engage what is being offered by focusing on what they deem is absent.
There are seeming debates about the film: first, is the film in support of torture? To ask that question is to ignore what the film says. Zero Dark Thirty opens on September 11, 2001, and we hear phone calls being made of people trapped in the Towers, calling for help and dying; there is so much noise, we can't hear and understand everything being said, and that "noise" contributes as an important artistic medium in the film. One, because it demonstrates how we the audience won't "hear" everything in the film, there is literally noise built into the story and if we don't listen carefully, we'll miss the most important part. Secondly, to substantiate this, towards the end, Maya is handed a important piece of information the CIA had all along but it got lost in "the noise" after 9/11. So, what does this have to do with torture?
Names are important in Zero Dark Thirty because it's the "proper name" and the correct meaning of the name Maya spends so long looking for. What does "Maya" mean? In an extra-textual sense (outside the boundaries of the film), "Maya" might refer to the 2012 obsession with December 21 and the "end of the world." Why? Because Bigelow might be accusing us of being more concerned with the possibility of the world ending rather than the definite new beginning the end of UBL meant for America and the world when he was killed. According to Google dictionary, however, "Maya" can also refer to 'The supernatural power wielded by Gods and demons to produce illusions,' 'The power by which the universe becomes manifest' and 'The illusion or appearance of the phenomenal world.' Seeing the methods of deduction Maya utilizes in the film to determine motives of the detainees and the chances of UBL's compound being found, Maya not only produces the illusion of confidence required to finally go after Bin Laden, but she can see through the illusions created by others. Why? How? I will discuss this below relating to what Maya symbolizes in the film.
There is no torture in carrying out justice.
Like Maya, we witness Dan (Jason Clarke, another CIA operative) "torture" Ammar (Reda Kateb), a nephew of one of Bin Laden's inner-circle, in order to get an email address from him; after we--and Maya--have thoroughly witnessed how Dan treats Ammar like an animal to get him to communicate information that will save lives of people all over the world, Dan strips off Ammar's pants (covered in his own feces) and leaves him naked with Maya; Ammar begs Maya to make Dan stop and Maya tells him, you are bringing this on yourself in not telling us the truth. Later, Maya herself uses physical beatings in coaxing information from detainees and, one detainee who was a banker tells her that he has all ready been tortured and will tell her whatever she wants to know.
So, based on this, is ZDT pro-torture?
No.
This is Dan (Jason Clarke) and of course, the name "Dan" is short for "Daniel" which in Hebrew means "God is my judge," also translated as "Judgment of God." In this particular scene, Dan has placed detainee Ammar in the box," rather like what happens to Alec Guinness' character in Bridge On the River Kwai, so we recognize this as torture (more on this just below). What is interesting about Dan is (symbolically or poetically speaking) why he has to leave the CIA site and "hand-off" to Maya (he doesn't "have to leave" but as a character with a purpose in a narrative, he has to leave in order to convey the moral point the film makers want).  There is a little scene with Dan feeding ice cream to two monkeys in a cage at the CIA Black Site where he has been working with detainees. He encourages the monkeys to take a bit of ice cream each, then one of them takes the whole cone away. What does this mean? It's clear that Dan treats the detainees like animals (more on this below) and the monkeys symbolize the detainees because of Dan's methods; the monkeys taking the ice cream formulates for the viewer how treating and torturing the detainees has "robbed" Dan of his "sweetness" (the ice cream) without him intending it. In other words, Dan was willing to "give" some of his sweetness/humanity to treating the detainees like animals--because our actions define us so what he has done to others has made him what he is--but without Dan intending it to happen, all his sweetness was stolen just as he stole all the humanity from the detainees. Furthermore, during the opening torture scene, the song being played is "Pavlov's Dogs," linking to the experiment of classical conditioning: "When you lie to me, I hurt you," Dan tells Ammar, not just teaching Ammar that "golden rule" but also conditioning Dan that when Ammar lies, I have to hurt him or the building up of the conditioning is all undone. The monkeys are the opposite of Maya's canaries (what the SEALS are called in the film) because Dan's monkeys die (symbolic of his work with the detainees) whereas Maya's canaries (the Navy SEALS) live and complete the mission. This symbolic balance Bigelow presents is imperative in understanding the moral and political agenda of the film as a commentary on the last ten years of American history.
In our world, there is a lot of noise, primarily created by liberal political-correctness, the "double-speak" of socialism seeking to make a term such as "justice" seem right-wing and inherently unjust. The truth is, there is a truth, and there is justice, there are guilty people and there are innocent people; granted, we can't always get to the complete truth, but that humane limitation should not and cannot stop us from pursuing and initiating what truth we can access and what truth calls for, justice. Innocent people from all over the world died in 9/11 and subsequent al-Qaeda attacks. The aggressive terrorist tactics of jihadists threatened the security of the world and the world has the right to defend itself and exact the penalty for wrongs committed against the innocent (this is the foundation of Dan's warning to Maya about the "political climate" changing in 2008 because Obama's cabinet does not care about justice, only their own power). But this is only part of the "torture" aspect the film presents us.
The way the film substantiates this position is in the mask Dan puts on Ammar when pouring water down his mouth (waterboarding). In art, masks to not conceal but reveal, so if someone wears a mask something about them is being revealed in that instance and the mask alerts us to take note of the character's deeper presence in the narrative. Ammar's face is blacked out (erased, just like the words on the black and white poster for the film) by the black mask and like the fully clothed black figures in the film: he has no identity. It's not just Jihadists who have their identity blocked out, and this is discussed just below. Dan rather represents the idea of American "brass knuckle tactics" we saw in Lawless and Expendables 2 and, wanting to distance the manhunt from that accusatory position that America is just a bully, Bigelow distances Dan from the manhunt by removing him to Washington. ZDT follows the same Jaws, which was a validation of American justice in bombing Hiroshima during World War II (for more, please see Jaws & the Cleansing Of America). Like Spielberg in Jaws, Bigelow in ZDT takes great pains at establishing all the crimes and how the punishment aptly fits.
Dan and Maya make it clear that Ammar and others are being tortured solely because they are refusing to tell the truth. If Ammar had told Dan the answer to his questions, Dan would not have put a dog collar on him or subjected him to physical beatings. Not telling the truth i\perpeturates further acts of vioelnece in two ways: lying is an act of violence agains the ruth is revealed,  many lies that even when the truth is revealed, and this comes up several times in the film with lies) and secondly, lying and withholding truth allowed additional acts of terrorism to take place in the world which could have been stopped had the CIA agents known the next targets.  So the detainees are not only guilty of crimes they committed while outside US custody, but while in US custody as well.
I know exactly what you are thinking,...
Above is night vision employed by the SEALS as they enter the UBL compound, part of a concerted demonstration of perfected structural balance, manifesting the excellence in both writing and directing of ZDT. One day, Maya drives out of her compound and Islamic men get out of a (almost) neon-green Mercedes and fire at her with automatic weapons (at 1:34 in the trailer at the start of the post); to connect Maya's near-assassination with the SEALS' assassination of UBL, the door of his compound is green. UBL's compound is all white, so there is no reason for the door to be green and I have NEVER seen a Mercedes that color of green before (not to limit the realm of possibility in the world, yet I would like to draw your attention to the application of this specific color) so "green" links the failure of the Brotherhood to kill Maya and Maya's success in killing UBL, the intense green of the night vision in the still above linking the events Bigelow wants to weave into our experience of the manhunt. Why green? Like many symbols (especially the colors) green has a positive and negative value: positively speaking, green invokes re-birth and therefore green is the color of hope; green is also the color of mold and decay, something that has rotted. Maya's assassins get out fo the nasty-colored green Mercedes to assassinate her because the vehicle (the car) of their hatred (killing her) for her is itself rotten (green); perhaps this makes more sense if we jump ahead a bit and add that Maya symbolizes America itself (more on this below) and not just America, but what is best about America, and this brief moment of the film is like a "re-casting" of how /11 took place: murderers propelled by the rotted dogmas of Islam attacked the strongest aspects of the United Stats. Contrariwise, when Maya's field agents have located UBL's courier Ibrahim Sayeed, they watch him enter the compound through a double-green door (again, the rest o the compound is all white, so there is no logical reason for just the doors to be green other than to make a point). Sayeed entering the green doors symbolizes the hope that the manhunt is nearly over and victory nears. While night-vision isn't over-used in the compound entry towards the end, it's used sufficiently to, again, link itself with the other applications of color reproduced for our engagement.
You cannot expect "the brothers" (the detainees as part of the Muslim Brotherhood) to tell information that will jeopardize the Brotherhood and betray their religious affiliation. Why not? I can guarantee you if I--as a Catholic--were caught in a Muslim country just preaching the Christian Gospel or urging people to convert, not even making acts of violence, just talking--I would be tortured and maybe even killed just for talking; now, is that a fair and rational approach to the world's safety? No, but it's the double-standard that exists. The law of the United Nations is not for the whole world to submit to Muslim rule, therefore, being at odd with the rest of the world, the world has the right to break the detainees' obstinacy (used as a weapon against the welfare of the rest of the world) with whatever weapon appropriately breaks obstinacy, be that what it may, because interrogation becomes a battlefront all its own where each side continues introducing the means of battle necessary to prevail, silence and lies for the detainees and waterboarding for the detainers.
This is a clip from The Debt with Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson and Jessica Chastain (far left); in this film, Chastain plays a young Israeli intelligence agent assigned to capture a Nazi doctor from the Holocaust so he can be brought to justice. Why bring this up? Besides Chastain playing intelligence officers in both films, Bigelow visually sites The Debt in the closing of ZDT with shots at the end of the film summoning this very image (this is known as reader response, when the audience recognizes something the art referencing something outside itself to extend the realm of engagement and those recognizing the end shots of ZDT are the implied readers because the film makers speak directly to them). Why make this connection? Two reasons, at least. First, it compares Osama Bin Laden--lest anyone be in doubt--to the Nazi doctor (because both are the villains she brings to justice in both films) and the cruelty he waged upon innocent men and women, which means Bigelow correlates 9/11 to the Holocaust, and justly so because both the Nazis and Jihadists had nothing but the extermination of innocent people in their plot. Because of this, we come to the second reason, which is, the loss of identity. Murdering someone means you murder yourself, which is demonstrated in the film by a loss of identity (as discussed above, in the case of the black mask  being put over Ammer's face because, by withholding information, he was still contributing to the murdering of people so he was also killing himself). There are two times the film demonstrates this thesis. First, when Maya interrogates the Jihadist banker, because torture has made him value his own dignity and humanity, he now willingly offers what he knows and thereby regains his humanity and looks human, instead of Ammer looking like a beat-up dog because all people are dogs to him to be killed (until Maya and Dan trick him, then he regains his humanity as well). For example, Dan  tells Ammer that when Ammer gives him the email address he wants, he will give Ammer a "blanket and some solid food," because when Ammer gives Dan that address, Ammer will be showing compassion for other people and be worthy of compassion himself, instead of treating other people like dogs, and thereby be worthy of being treated like a dog himself. But the exact opposite is true, as well, and that is seen in the SEAL who actually kills UBL. The film doesn't pay attention to him until after UBL is dead and Patrick (Joel Edgerton) turns to him and recognizes what he did and how the world will want to know about it. So, murdering-with-a-just cause, in this case, manifests humanity and dignity because of the sacrifice that SEAL willingly made and his expertise in carrying out his duty for his country (for more, please see The Debt & the Theory Of Chaos).
When Ammer is being waterboarded, the mask "reveals" to the audience how he has "erased" his own identity in willingly participating in the "erasing" of innocent people (murdering; see poster just below for the visual example); this is an example of justice because what Ammer is doing he is properly being paid back for. Another part of waterboarding is being tied down and not being able to move; is this torture, is this excessive force? No, because Ammer has "tied down" the CIA from being able to act and prevent further terrorist attacks, so this, too, is an example of justice. What about the water being poured into his mouth to simulate drowning, is that excessive? No, this is justice because Ammer's lies are flooding the information Dan and Maya are getting and they can't accurately swim through Ammer's bad information (just as Dan puts Ammer in the box, Ammer babbles Monday, Sunday, Thursday, Friday, in trying to confuse Dan as to the day a new attack is planned for). So, as presented by Bigelow in Zero Dark Thirty, there is no torture, only justice, and that done because the detainees refused to stop their participation in the murder of others.
This was the first poster released for ZDT, making the philosophy of "erasure" the primary means of our first introduction to the story. Why? Sous rature, or "erasure" is a practice more than a philosophy or idea, where we are forced to use a word of concept in spite of how inadequate it is: for example, "being" doesn't really describe what it is like to live, it fails to invoke the soul, it doesn't account for our relationships, etc., but there are times when we still have to employ the term regardless of what "being" lacks in its ability to communicate; when a writer wants to place a concept under "erasure" then, they write the word, "Osama Bin Laden" (for example) and then make a thin but definite line through the word(s) (so it looks just like the phrase Zero Dark Thirty above in the poster) so anyone reading that word(s) will know the name of the man, in this example, doesn't begin to convey the full-meaning of what his identity means to Americans. Osama Bin Laden doesn't convey the thousands of people suddenly killed on 9/11, the violence and insanity of airplanes being used to wreck into the buildings, the pain of hearing phone calls from the dying, the first-responders who died and suffered, etc. Placing UBL under erasure works well in ZDT because, in effect, so does Bigelow: we don't see UBL's face, we only see that long, greying beard with the white streak going down one side (more on the use of beards below) What does "Zero Dark Thirty" mean? It's the military's time for half-past midnight, when the SEALS entered the UBL compound; so, seeing "zero dark thirty" under erasure, we can deduce Bigelow's desire to invoke a far greater concept than the words indicating a mere time-span achieves because of the final closure being attained in this act, the crossing of the threshold of justice and faith shown in Maya's tracking, among many other ideas and emotions.  Seeing Maya in the poster at the very top of the post (the one where Zero Dark Thirty is written over her as she wears black shirt and sunglasses) that Maya's identity is under erasure like Will in The Cold Light Of Day, because she has to emerge from her nothingness (UBL is the only thing she has ever done we discover) like the SEAL shooter of UBL towards the end of the film.(for more on erasure, please see Without Baggage: Erasure & Identity In The Cold Light Of Day). But if Maya symbolizes America, then America, too, is under erasure, and we have to decide exactly what that means and what it leaves out.
But there is torture, and Bigelow takes time to make sure we know it's there: FEAR IS TORTURE; information overload is torture. There is the torture from the wounds and insecurities caused by 9/11 and the rest of the terrorist attacks throughout the world. There is the torture of not feeling safe and secure; there is the torture of not being able to find the enemy; there is the torture of not knowing who your friends are and re-directing precious resources into a manhunt not producing rewarding results. There is the torture of having to take your shoes off at the airport because a passenger has a razor or the fear of parked cars in Town Square because it poses a bomb threat. For Maya, there is the torture of knowing "she was spared" when Jessica was taken and the survivor's guilt so many carry from 9/11. This kind of torture could be said to be genuine torture because it was directed against the innocent (the US had not attacked nor provoked attack) and it's nearly impossible to heal from it. When examining a controversial moral implication, such as the torture issue Bigelow confronts the audience with, it's best to let the film maker do the talking.
Maya, as mentioned, is on her first assignment, and Dan asks if she's too young to be on this assignment, to which Joseph Bradley (the Chief) responds that Washington (Bush Administration at this point in the film) wants to have a "Children's Crusade." What is that about? The Children's Crusade was an actual religious crusade by European Catholics to take over the Holy Land from the Muslims in around 1212 (there were several crusades); so, we can say, in this phrase, Bigelow formally recognizes the history of conflict between Muslims and the West  but there is at least one additional reason fro this phrase being employed. As we have seen discussed n Expendables 2, Red Dawn, The Cold Light Of Day and will see in A Good Day To Die Hard (Bruce Willis, February), there is concern being expressed in films over whether or not younger generations (Generation X and Y) are not morally and psychologically up to the tasks of carrying the torch of freedom as Baby Boomers have done since World War II; ZDT shows the world Maya and her determination and offers that as its answer of the future of Americans continuing the "Children's Crusade" (the younger generations) for American Justice in the world.
Now we can discuss Maya.
Generally, we know Maya symbolizes America because she is female (the passive element as opposed to the active element of the male which would symbolize the economy) and she is of child-bearing age (so she symbolizes the future consequences of the now because she will "give birth" to something, more on this below). Maya symbolizes America because generally this is true of women in art, however, she also symbolizes America because of her characteristics: her determination to kill UBL embodies the nation's drive to justice. There are several instances of this in the film.

Maya studies what they believe is the hide-out of UBL. Please note, in traditional symbolism, the hair communicates to us what kind of thoughts a character is experiencing; Maya's hair being pulled back suggests that she's keeping a "rein" on her thoughts so she can analyze the situation; later, after the okay is given for the SEALS to go and attack, the rush of wind from the helocopter sends her hair every way; it can be said, "Get real, of course that is going to happen," but deliberate care was taken to show her hair flying up as the chopper lifts up to target the compound, suggesting that at that moment, Maya releases her thoughts and begins thinking of the ten year hunt finally being over and what it will mean for the world. There is also a point in the film, during her investigation, when she wears a wig: this can either be interpreted, by the events in the film, as she is "putting on her thinking cap," (because she others are trying to prove her wrong on the Sayeed link), Maya is changing her thinking pattern or she is trying to take an approach more similar to Jessica's since the wig is close to Jessica's hair color and style (of course, there are always more than one interpretation possible, these are just examples). Above, we discussed Maya's name and how it refers to illusions and the ability to pierce through them: Maya not only creates illusions--like playing off Ammer's isolation to convince him he helped them when he didn't--but she also discerns illusions, as within the realm of negativity surrounding UBL in the compound. That Maya wears a blue shirt further attests to her own suffering on this journey and the wisdom she has gained from it. Blue is the color of wisdom, and also the color of depression, because wisdom is the greatest attribute for a person to have, it is also the costliest and only comes from painful experience, so Maya wearing a blue shirt--hair pulled back/thoughts kept in check--studying the compound, relates to us the audience that she who is capable of putting up illusions herself must now pierce through one created by another.
I abhor profanity, so please forgive me, but this is an important aspect of the film for us to discuss. After the compound has been located, and Maya has deduced the probability of UBL being there, she sits in on a Washington meeting and speaks "out of turn"; when asked who she is, Maya replies, "The mother-fucker who found him." Her self-description so aptly describes what she has done, we really can't call it profanity, because she is a mother (at the same time, America is her mother because America gave birth to her), because Maya gives birth to the mission to take UBL down (please see caption below for the exact moment in the film this happens) and Islam is the "other mother" who gave birth to her enemy, UBL. The motherland of America contends against the mother church of Islam. By taking out UBL, America takes out the children of mother Islam so her own children (Maya and Americans in general) can return to peace.
Jessica, about to be blown to bits. This shot is the second explosion she experiences in the film, the first being with Maya at the Marriott. At one point, Maya hits a dead-end with the investigation and Jessica consoles her, knowing that particular lead was her favorite but now she tells Maya to "cut the umbilical cord" and take a new approach which Maya doesn't do and it pays off. In art, if a character dies, there is a reason for it, and Jessica's encouraging Maya to let Maya's umbilical cord be cut is reflected back in the scene above when Jessica's lead comes and blows her up (instead of Maya "killing" her lead as Jessica suggested). Remember, both Jessica and Maya could have died in the Marriott explosion, but they didn't, Maya not dying because she is strong enough to process and internalize the lessons she has learned and benefit from them, whereas Jessica doesn't die because that moment for her death would not have been justice, but her being killed by her own lead is so that's why she is temporarily spared. One additional way to understanon Jessica's death also stems from the conversation in the Marriott when the suscipisons of  the audience about Maya's lack of a social life are validated and, probing Maya, Jessica realizes all the personal sacrifices Maya has made for her job; simultaneously, we also see how Jessica hasn't sacrificed as much and that is why she is called upon to make the ultimate sacrifice with her life because the fruit of Jessica's death will keep Maya going and determined. So, what about Dan? He's not killed, but he removes himself from the action of interrogation; is this a judgment on his character? As a male, his active principle would usually symbolize the economy, and in an "organic" sense, that is correct in ZDT, because he's the active principle that has not created profitable outcomes for the investigation (they are spending billions of dollars and have only killed 4 targets, that's bad economy tied in with Dan's character being in the process). IT'S NOT THE MEANS DAN USES, and that's why we see Maya watching Dan "torture" detainees and then we see Maya utilizing the same techniques, but what is important is the source of who that "punishment" comes from, the "mother" figure Maya and not the economic/political figure of Dan who can also be taken as a figure of "heartlessness" because of the"mask" he wears with the detainees. I know, he doesn't look like he wears a mask, but listen to the opening lines at the start of the trailer about being "bad news," because the persona Dan presents to the detainees is a mask he wears just like the ski mask Maya wears when we first see her and because that is a form of "false identity" (the persona) he can no longer participate because for the manhunt to be one of justice--not revenge--there must be an absence of malice; with a strong man (Dan) it would be possible to see/interpret his masculinity as a American Super Power trip in world politics, but with Maya being female, her feminine nature makes the manhunt one of compassion for the victims and safety for the future, like a mama bear protecting her cubs.
But doesn't Washington (Bush administration) say "She's a killer?"
UBL is the first assignment Maya has ever had, so how can she be said to be a "killer?" We know Bigelow, and given all the "instability" of the narrative (the illusions and "erased"meanings) when examining what "killer" means, we can ascertain a number of possibilities, rather like in Bigelow's first blockbuster The Hurt Locker and instability in understanding the opening declaration "War is a drug" (please see Whore Houses & Soccer Stars: The Hurt Locker for more). Sure, Maya tells the SEALS, "I want you to kill Bin Laden for me," but there are a lot of different types of killing going on: Maya has to kill the doubts surrounding her thesis of where UBL is; she has to kill what is weak within herself; she has to kill resistance her chiefs have to her demands for continuing the hunt for UBL as well as detainees' resistance to helping her and, above all, she has to kill her ignorance of where UBL is. These are just some examples (again, we see this same kind of "instability" in The Hurt Locker with the words "war" and "drugs").
Maya arguing with Brady about continuing importance of UBL.
Last item on Maya: her confidence.
Before 9/11, American confidence was a guarantee that a task would get done, that America could rebound from anything and we would always triumph (American confidence is undermined in the character of Forrest Bondurant [Tom Hardy] in another Chastain film, Lawless; please see Lawless & Brass Knuckle Tactics for more); when the meeting discusses the probability of UBL being where Maya says, none of them will go over 60% chances, except Maya: "It's 100%" that he's there, she says. "I know you don't like certainty," and why not? Because in the Obama Administration, "confidence" has become taboo, and the proof of this is the reason why Bigelow wasn't nominated for the Oscar for Best Director: although President Obama took personal glory for killing Osama Bin Laden, Bigelow doesn't even have anyone calling him.
If you saw Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes of 2009, you should recognize Mark Strong (Lord Blackwood). A further indictment Bigelow makes of the Obama Administration involves the 129 days which lapsed from the time the compound was identified as the probable hideout of UBL and action was finally taken. Maya takes a red sharpie and angrily counts the days by writing them on the office glass of George (Mark Strong). Glass, of course, reflects, so we are called upon to "reflect" on what it means for so long a time period passing with no action being taken. No, no more information was found or gathered or thrown out, it was all just sitting there the whole time and nothing was done; that is an indictment of incompetence at best and treason at worst.
President Bush is never mentioned by name, and neither is President Obama; however, Maya does watch a film of Obama giving a speech in the 2008 campaign in which Obama declared that he would end torture to reestablish America's moral authority in the world; by this point in the film, you have come to side with Maya and you know Obama's pledge is bad news. When Jessica is meeting with her potential new lead--the one that blows them all up at the AFB--one of the aides says they will give the president (Obama) a live update and another White House staff member mentions telling the president something a little later on. SO, when the SEALS set off to kill UBL and there is never any mention of the President watching or being informed or on the line, or NOTHING, that is not a screenwriting/directing oversight, that is intentional because they have demonstrated previous knowledge of the president and the manhunt for UBL in the film, but he's no where in these closing scenes.
In conclusion, this post only scratches the surface of complexity and film making excellence Zero Dark Thirty offers (because I have only seen it once). It is not a film about killing someone, it is a film about justice, it's a film about America, it's a film to make us take pride in our ability to defend ourselves and do what we sit out to do. ZDT is important for another reason: it is the exact opposite of Ben Affleck's Argo (the next post I am making). Whereas ZDT demonstrates America's success in the Middle East, Argo demonstrates cowardice and incompetence. Again, this is the way films should be made, and--unless you are President Obama or one of his supporters--you should definitely see this film.
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