On "Zero Dark Thirty," "Point Break" & the Politics of Form

I know, I know. You're supposed to talk about movies right when they come out or not talk about them at all. What a strange rule!

I swore I'd never watch this film as it plays up the idiotic, dangerous fallacy that there is one man, a boogie man, to blame for the horrors. My own understanding of cause and effect sees networks and synchronicity and relationships rather than prime movers. But curiosity and boredom prevailed and I watched the movie.

What I find so odd about this film is that it operates so thoroughly within the context of a certain prescribed knowledge. That is, this movie is not discrete; it does not seek to define its own terms at all. It uses the general cultural knowledge, fear, and storyline to perpetuate its knowledge, fear, and storyline. Yes, the film opens with a reference to 9/11 but we never see the event; we never even hear it. We hear a 9-1-1 call that, out of context, is cryptic. Watching this film out of context makes it confusing and bizarre: they're chasing some villain named UBL and we have no idea why.  In fact, the dominant villainy in this film is perpetuated by the US military. Which may be Bigelow's point but I don't think so.

Now, all movies necessarily work within a cultural context, within a field of knowledge and experience. What makes ZDT different is that its plot relies so completely on the narrative plotted out by the media. It does not set up a villain. It does not explain its terms. It leans 100% on terms propagated by the government and media, on figures and events that are nowhere in the film because Bigelow assumes we assume them. Take away the accepted media story, take away 9/11, and ZDT collapses like a house of cards.

It's entire trajectory never inflects the pre-existing narrative. There is no interpretation of events, no critical read of the media or the government. Sure, there is the all too familiar figure of an individual — these days it tends to be a woman — who is undeniably fierce and committed and runs up against systematic walls of politics and bureaucracy.  (This figure in and of itself is interesting. At what point in our history did official bodies — the police, the government — become the bad guy? It's the premise of Dirty Harry. But I'm not an historian and don't know when this shift began — Watergate?)

Compare Zero Dark Thirty, for a moment, to a great film about 9/11, United 93 (which I've written about here >)United 93 of course operates within the context of American media and politics. But that film also operates on its own terms and delivers an incredibly complex critique of epistemology in the age of distributed communications: How do we know anything when events can't be perceived whole and everyone sees from his own perspective? United 93 plays without any knowledge of 9/11, of UBL, of Al-Qaeda. Everything the film goer needs is in the film. 

In ZDT, Mr. Bin Laden — not to mention 9/11 itself — is conspicuously absent. We never see his face precisely because he is so present in an unquestioned manner. He is assumed, a given backstory that never needs telling not to mention any explication. This film only plays if we know about 9/11, UBL, and Al-Qaeda — and assume the given story about them.

Now, at first, there are two critical points I'm making here: one is political, the other formal. Politically, this film continues the narrative of the official state apparatus. But, frankly, whatever — so do most films and TV shows and commercials and newspapers and, for that matter, people. We exchange clich├ęs like they were air. That's nothing new.

My main critical point is that this film is peculiar formally in the way it relies on an unstated but (presumably) accepted and thoroughly penetrated storyline. We see this in sequels, of course. Watch The Dark Knight Rises without watching the earlier films and you are confused out the wazoo. But in ZDT, the prequel is the media story! It's almost as if it's a new genre of news or propaganda (which is the same thing) — formally speaking, not politically.

This, needless to say, raises the question: Can the formal and the political, medium and ideology, really be separated?  McLuhan and Foucault would argue no. The formal is always the political, always an expression of power in that it literally shapes information, sets boundaries, distributes possibilities.A technology is an ideology and an ideology, in turn, is a technology as it, too, distributes the world. 

Which means, as far as Ms. Bigelow and me, I still find Point Break a far superior film to either ZDT or that locker bomb one people liked so much. Point Break is a fantasy, an over the top romantic homage to excess, to passion. It is cinematic. It has an unabashed bravado and intensity (did she introduce the claustrophobic chase through apartments? In any case, she does it so well).

Point Break has a sense of danger as it pokes at the limits of being, of the so-called system, of the action film, of what is good and what is bad. The presidents in their masks holding up banks so they can surf are, well, cool. And righteous. The scenes of them in their masks wielding guns and fire are disconcerting as what we see and what we know are at odds. Bigelow plays with our sentiments and sympathies. The  narrative is not so linear. Meanwhile, Zero Dark Thirty plays as a seamless extension of a government press conference.

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