Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, USA, 2013)

American cinema, Blogpost, Film reviews, Uncategorized

I was fortunate enough early this week (18-20 November 2013) to give a few talks in Sweden, at the University of Gothenburg and at the University of Skovde. At both institutions, I spoke about digital cinema, while also delivering a third paper on neuroscience and film at Skovde.

What was in particular of interest, however, was the way in which the trip allowed me to discuss with my esteemed colleague, Lars Kristensen, about his ongoing work on bicycles in cinema. Furthermore, since Skovde, where Lars works, has a strong emphasis on the study of video games, it also allowed us to discuss gaming.

In a relaxed conversation, we ended up hypothesising something along these lines: cinema has a dual tendency – for realism and for fantasy, a dual tendency also at work in video games, but which manifests itself in a different way.

Put succinctly, when cinema deals with bicycles, it often presents to us a strong notion of the physicality – of the embodied nature – of bike riding, and also of what goes into owning and maintaining a bike.

We need look no further than Vittorio de Sica’s classic Ladri di biciclette/Bicycle Thieves (Italy, 1948) to see this realist tendency at work in terms of how the bike is an important component in physical existence: the film tells the story of a man whose very livelihood depends on the bicycle, even if we do not see him ride it very much.

To take a less well known example, we also see in Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Bibycleran/The Cyclist (Iran, 1987) the way in which the physical act of riding a bike is exhausting – a physical experience that is understood best through one’s body.

This we can compare with a film like E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial (Steven Spielberg, USA, 1982), in which we are given a fantasy version of the biking scenario: Elliott (Henry Thomas) eventually flies on his bike, in effect no longer needing physically to ride the thing, because E.T. just allows him to take off.

This latter example, E.T., is cinema as fantasy: cinema allows us at times to transcend the limits of gravity and to take off.

Now, we tend to think of computer games as not being particularly realistic, and therefore perhaps more fantastic. This is most clear in terms of the relationship of the images that we see in video games to reality: unlike analogue photographs, which have an indexical link to reality owing to the much theorised concept that photographic and cinematographic images bear the direct imprint of the light that was before the camera at the time of the image’s taking, digital images have no such link. And as a result, digital images are freed from the shackles of the real world and can depict fantastic places and deeds that defy the physical limitations of that real world.

The same applies to digital images in cinema as applies to digital images in games: digital cinema – in terms of special effects cinema – sees fantastic figures performing fantastic feats, many of which defy gravity. Flying cameras, flying characters – all unhooked from reality and existing in a fantasy realm.

While cinema commonly offers us myths of flying – of defying gravity – gaming, however, seems paradoxically to be defined precisely by gravity, at least a lot of the time. Sports simulations may involve getting the game’s avatars to perform bitchen and radical moves, including on bikes. But they also involve falling back to Earth. Mario and Sonic can jump great heights, but they always land. Lara Croft sometimes cannot jump high enough. And Tetris is defined almost uniquely by the inevitable weight of gravity – including, as the game progresses, the notion that the objects fall faster and faster the further one gets.

(To go way back through the canon of video games, I always felt horrified when Jet Set Willy would on occasion fall down from one room in his mansion and through into another, where Willy would continue to fall to his death – sometimes seven times in a row (Willy’s number of lives), since Willy would always start a new life in the exact location where he entered the last room before his death. It was agonising to watch Willy fall seven times in a row, even worse when he did this after I’d loaded the cheat version and caused Willy to have innumerable lives – i.e. he would fall and die in a loop forever.)

This discussion provides an excellent context through which to offer up a brief consideration of Alfonso Cuarón’s latest film, Gravity, which I saw this evening (21 November 2013) at the BFI IMAX in London in 3D.

I shan’t do much more than allude to the way in which Gravity has something like a game structure: it is about solving problems in short order, getting from space shuttle to space station, to another space station and then – spoiler (of a sort) – to Earth (though the clue is in the title of the film, so this should not constitute too ‘bad’ a spoiler – ‘worse’ are to follow).

However, being a film that is in enormous part the result of digital animation, Gravity does also play with the dual tensions within cinema – as explained via the bicycle analogy – towards fantasy and towards realism.

For, while digital cinema can show us incredible feats performed by impossible specimens, Gravity seems instead to want to use its digital effects to convey something a lot more ‘realistic’.

This is not simply a case of the perceptually realistic images that we see of Earth and of the Heavens from orbit – excellent though these are, and important though they also are to my argument about the film.

Nor is it that Gravity is without fantasy/fantastic elements, as I shall discuss presently.

But rather, I shall propose that Gravity demonstrates the way in which something so false as a digital image can in fact function towards realistic ends. Or rather, it can function towards helping us to believe in reality.

To paraphrase Gilles Deleuze, the film offers a parable about how the power of the false (the digital image) can reaffirm our belief in the real (the world that we inhabit) – and that, arguably, this is key to the film’s power over audiences (even though some people I know have responded to the film in a way that we might in the vernacular term ‘meh’ – i.e. not particularly impressed).

(I should qualify this by saying – based upon off-blog discussions about the earliest version of this posting, that I am not particularly in love with Gravity if you want my value-judgement of the film. I found the IMAX 3D in particular annoying because parts of the images, typically Sandra Bullock’s face, blur if you do not look at them directly, and Cuarón did not push the deep focus far enough – for me, variable focus and 3D are antithetical, since my eyes want to search the depth of the image, and instead I am confronted with more blur. Beyond which, I am not particularly interested in whether a film is good or bad; these are relative and relatively pointless terms. I am more interested in what a film is trying to do, and I might – as per Gravity – cut the film some slack when it is trying to do something interesting, even if it does not achieve its aims for every audience member – hence the ‘meh’ that many people express at the film.)

Now, Gravity tells the story of how a physicist, Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), tries to get back to Earth after her first space flight to work on a telescope goes horribly wrong as a result of a débris shower brought on by destroyed satellites.

She struggles with her colleague Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) to get from her space shuttle to a first and then a second space station, all the while with limited resources – before trying to get back to Earth.

So, here is a key fantasy element: there is in particular a sequence in which Kowalski reappears to Stone late on in the film. She is about to give up on her attempts to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere, but he enters the Russian pod in which she finds herself and gets her to continue in her endeavours to escape/to survive.

Significantly, the film does not cut as we transition from what appears to be a realistic moment (Stone alone in the pod), into this fantasy apparition from Kowalski, and then back again to her being alone in the pod.

In other words, the fantastic seems to be on a continuum with the real, such that we cannot tell them apart. Indeed, one might infer from this that nothing else that we see is real, but instead all a fantasy – and that Stone is in fact dreaming the whole situation.

This is a plausible take on the film, but one that would only to me signal something that all viewers already know: that the film as a whole is of course a fantasy – this is a fiction film starring well known stars whom we know not to be astronauts in real life – but that this fantasy might nonetheless have an effect in the real world, that this fantasy might allow its viewers to believe (once again?) in the real world.

Perhaps the casting of those self-same stars is important here. We have Clooney, the star of Steven Soderbergh’s slightly maligned but interesting remake of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solyaris/Solaris (USSR, 1972; USA, 2002). In that film, space is used as a vehicle for fantastic projection: faced with the void of space, the fact that our memories and our fantasies structure and are an inseparable part of our perception of reality becomes most tangible. In effect, we realise that humans are incapable of facing the void, of facing the reality of the enormous scale of the universe, of facing our insignificance and our death, and that we use fantasy (we use the desire to see reality as a film?) to cope with the emptiness that otherwise surrounds and perhaps is us.

Bullock, too, is the veteran of many a ‘fine’ action film – Speed (Jan de Bont, USA, 1994) is the one that most particularly comes to mind – though she also does increasingly a line in credible, realistic portrayals of ‘real’ people, as The Blind Side (John Lee Hancock, USA, 2009) and 28 Days (Betty Thomas, USA, 2000) might suggest. That is, she seems to come with – and to embody – the dual concerns of gravity.

And then, perhaps importantly, we have the voice of Ed Harris as Mission Control – he being associated with ‘real life’ space travel films Apollo 13 (Ron Howard, USA, 1995) and The Right Stuff (Philip Kaufman, USA, 1983). In other words, Harris ‘grounds’ the film in supposedly true/authentic cinematic depictions of space/space travel, thereby reinforcing Gravity‘s credentials as a film that relates to the real world.

I mentioned earlier the shots of Earth and the Heavens from space. These are digital compositions and not ‘real’. However, in particular during the film’s opening 10 minutes, in which we enjoy a single, unbroken shot of space and then of the astronauts as they work on the damaged telescope (and conjoined shuttle), we are – or at least I was – inclined to view these images as awe-inspiring.

Conceivably, images of Earth and of the Heavens have become ubiquitous, such that we look at them without thinking very much when we see them. Nonetheless, we can look at them sometimes and feel that sense of being small, of feeling lucky to breathe, of feeling lucky – mind-bogglingly lucky – to exist at all in a universe that is so dark and cold.

The duration of the shot/take is here important: for no doubt many viewers might regard the Earth and the Heavens in an unthinking fashion, especially were they to pass by rapidly, as can often happen in films set in space. However, because we get so long to contemplate in this opening sequence (as well as at other times), the very duration of these shots helps to maximise the possibility of this sort of response.

If one still feels inclined to say ‘but we know that these are not real images, and therefore I cannot feel about them anything “philosophical” along the lines suggested here’, then perhaps my only attempt to get such a reader to reconsider would be by saying that it is perhaps important that Stone is up in space working on a telescope.

For, telescopes like Hubble in fact have digital cameras. That is, they do not take images of space that have an indexical link to reality – as per analogue photos defined above. Rather, telescopes like Hubble take digital images of space – what we see has no indexical link to what was before the camera at the time of the image’s taking, for what we see is in ‘reality’ only made up of the 1s and 0s that form digital code – and yet these digital images still form the foundation of our best, scientific understanding of the universe.

In other words, it is only in art/cinema that the indexicality issue seems to loom so large; in science, there seems to be no such problem (a likely overstatement, but I hope its spirit is understood).

And when faced with the vastness of the universe, and with our own insignificance and mortality, we are confronted with the void, with death. Perhaps it is for this reason that the film then feels compelled to suture into a disaster movie/game scenario: genre functions as the coping mechanism for us to deal with the fact that ultimately there is nothing but the void, that ultimately digital images are indices, not of the world, but of the void itself.

But cannily, the genre is, as we know, a disaster movie: Stone has to save herself from the perils of space, just as many movie characters before her have saved themselves from sinking ships and alien invasions.

In other words, the film works hard to maintain the notion of a threat of death. And here the ’embodied’ nature of the film becomes important: as many spectators testify, and as the supposedly ‘immersive’ nature of both 3D and large format cinema (IMAX) reinforce (especially when working in conjunction), it becomes as if we are ‘there’ with Stone. That is, we ‘experience’ what Stone experiences, namely a fear of death.

We particularly ‘experience’ this fear through the film’s use of sound, as has been widely noted. We are given to hearing Stone’s breathing – with oxygen forming a central theme of the film, as well as her heartbeat, and I for one as a viewer did often find myself tensing up at crucial moments.

Also key to the film is the notion of touch, and in particular of gripping. The human mirror neuron system functions in such a way that when we see conspecifics (other humans) trying to grip an object, the same neurons fire in our brain as fire in the brain of the person doing the gripping.

Here the film’s editing becomes key. For while the movie is defined by long takes that suggest massive scale – lending to the film a temporal, experiential realism (‘real time’) that sits alongside the film’s perceptual realism, the close ups of hands trying to grasp objects that will save the life of Stone (and Kowalski) give to the film a ‘haptic’ quality, such that we are not just feeling what the characters are feeling, but also feeling for something to hold on to in the same way that they are.

Perhaps it is important that the threat in this film is human caused. Aside from some potential digs at the Russians for launching a missile at one of their own satellites – the initial cause for the débris – it is not necessary for this film to resort to aliens as threat.

By making the threat ‘human’ in origin, Gravity seems to offer no escape from the void, retaining a level of plausibility that in turns helps the film to seem realistic.

As Stone begins to despair, she finds a Chinese radio operator who has a dog that barks and a baby that cries. It is a remarkable moment when Stone barks along with the dog: the barking seems to be the expression of the inner void that the film seems to want to depict.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that Stone has lost a child in her past; that is, she is a woman in despair, overwhelmed by her helplessness before the lack of justice in the universe. For her, work – conceptual space travel – becomes the device that helps her to fill not the void created by the loss of her child, but the fact that the void is all around her anyway. Death is everywhere.

(Perhaps it takes a Mexican director, a compatriot of Octavio Paz, a celebrant of the Day of the Dead, to get a handle on death in this way. Although Danny Boyle’s remarkable Sunshine (UK/USA, 2007) also has a strong understanding of death within the context of a space film.)

I have repeatedly said that Gravity is realistic, and yet the film is also full of symbolic images. Symbolic images potentially challenge the idea of realism, because in real life there arguably are no symbols.

I am thinking in particular of Stone in the foetal position as star-child, or Stone continually being reborn as the film progresses, emerging from womb after womb.

Nonetheless, while symbolic, these moments also visualise something important: namely that, in being continually reborn, we get a sense in which Stone is consistently becoming. That is, she does not settle for who she is and lean back and die, but instead she consistently fights/struggles to overcome her situation.

This may be a (female twist?) on the classical male heroism of normative cinema. But on another level it suggests that Stone learns, that she consistently is taking positive lessons from her interactions with the void/with death, and using these to project herself forwards into life. In other words, even though the film has various symbols of rebirth, Gravity seems to suggest that Stone paradoxically becomes via her interactions with the void, it inspiring in her ever deeper coping strategies that come in the form of her will to survival.

If I have tried to avoid spoilers so far, I am about to offer up a description of the final scene, so you have been warned…

If movies like E.T. present a defiance of gravity – with the defiance of gravity/fantasy being a key aspect of cinema – Cuarón paradoxically (since this is a big budget special effects movie) represents gravity as inevitable. The film must be dragged down to Earth eventually.

And nowhere for me is this more clear than after Stone has landed back on Earth (conveniently in a small lake). Stone (who like all stones must fall) swims to the shore and lies on the beach. We see her grip the sand, then stand up and walk away.

Briefly we get to see during this final sequence one of Stone’s footprints in the sand. The footprint is another index: like light hitting the analogue film stock, so, too, is a footprint a direct imprint of the human standing on that spot at a particular place in time.

In other words, as Stone breathes air and touches the sand, so, too, does she make an impression on it. After much time in space touching objects with gloves (even if keeping a grip is, in every sense perhaps, key to her survival), she is now in touch with reality again.

In other words, having fled into empty space after the loss of her child, she is now able to be in and with the world again. She can believe in the world again. And so maybe the whole film is her fantasy – a fantasy of the void in order to help her escape the void and to believe in the world again.

But we also have here a sense in which the world is our only refuge from the void. Perhaps even our experiential perceptions are attempts for to us impose a pattern on what is otherwise essentially formless, what is otherwise just an empty void, dead.

As such, we cannot ever really see reality/the void, even if we can feel its presence everywhere, just as we feel gravity.

Gravity may be a film that is full of non-indexical, digital images. And yet, if the power of the false that we use/need in order not to be overwhelmed by the void is sufficient to make us believe in the world – as happens for Stone – then perhaps the power of the false that is Gravity can also help us viewers to believe in the world as well.

Digital cinema may be empty like the void; but like the void, what it can do is to spur us to embrace the world and our fragile lives as best we can.

War autism and film style: Zero Dark Thirty

American cinema, Blogpost, Film education

This is the text – with slides – of a talk that I gave yesterday (11 November 2013) at the Rothermere American Institute at the University of Oxford.

I am very grateful to Dr Ben Morgan for the invitation to talk. I hope that the below, when presented, stimulated some interesting discussion/debate.

I have retained my original paragraph spacing – so apologies in advance if some of these are long.

When Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow, USA, 2012) was released in 2012, the film was the subject of criticism as a result of its seeming pro-torture stance. To take two examples, both from The Guardian, Glenn Greenwald (2013) called the film ‘pernicious propaganda’, while Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek (2013) argued that the film ‘normalises torture’, suggesting that if another film tried to normalise rape in a concentration camp during the Holocaust, then it would be accused of moral indecency.

My task today is not expressly to agree or to disagree with these criticisms (though, should anyone care to know, I tend to agree with them – and will return to the issue of the ‘normalisation’ of on-screen torture and violence during this talk). Rather, what I would like to discuss today is how Zero Dark Thirty, as much as it is a ‘procedural’ looking into the way in which Osama bin Laden was hunted down and killed by the CIA and the US military, is also a study in, precisely, the dehumanization of one’s enemy, a kind of willed lack of empathy for other human beings, or what I shall provocatively term ‘war autism.’

This is achieved primarily through Jessica Chastain’s remarkable performance as Maya, the CIA agent who single-mindedly hunts down bin Laden in the film through her pursuit of Abu Ahmed, or Ibrahim Sayeed (played by Tushaar Mehra), who is believed to be the only connection between bin Laden and the outside world. But it is also achieved through director Kathryn Bigelow’s stylistic choices, in particular her use of editing and framing, as we shall see. Having analysed how Chastain’s performance in conjunction with Bigelow’s direction conveys a willed lack of empathy, or ‘war autism’, I shall briefly suggest that Bigelow’s film may indeed normalize torture, as well as the mental conditions that allow it (i.e. a lack of empathy), and that this in turn may well influence audiences and their attitudes towards violence.

Dutch neuroscientist Christian Keysers, who was one of the key figures in the discovery of mirror neurons, describes his experience with an autistic gentleman, Jerome, as involving Jerome always looking around the room but—significantly—‘never into my eyes’ (Keysers 2011: 18). Meanwhile, Simon Baron-Cohen, Britain’s leading expert on autism, suggests that there are two stages to empathy: recognition and response. As Baron-Cohen says, ‘[b]oth are needed, since if you have the former without the latter you haven’t emphathised at all’ (Baron-Cohen 2011: 12). Recognition involves both identifying and responding to another person’s emotions, and Baron-Cohen suggests that one can recognize emotions by reading faces. However, he does suggest that ‘if your attention has a single focus—your current interest, goal, wish, or plan—with no reference to another person or their thoughts or feelings, then your empathy is effectively switched off… In such a state of single-mindedness, the other person—or their feelings—no longer exists’ (Baron-Cohen 2011: 12-13). Baron-Cohen then suggests that there are seven levels of empathy, from zero to six, with zero empathy being the lowest. People with zero empathy can be zero-negative, which involves borderline personality disorder, psychopathy and narcissism, while people with zero empathy can also be zero-positive, which Baron-Cohen associated with various forms of autism (especially Asperger’s syndrome; see Baron-Cohen 2011: 30-87).

On a similar note, film scholar Tarja Laine (2007) has studied the emotion of shame in relation to cinema, drawing upon Jean-Paul Sartre’s understanding of the emotion to suggest that shame is an excellent means of regulating human behavior, because it is a public, or intersubjective, emotion. That is, it is when one’s acts are recognized as being seen that one modifies one’s behavior, or acts in a more social/sociable fashion. Although relatively unexplored, it nonetheless seems intuitively logical to suggest that empathy is to a large extent intersubjective, or a two-way process, akin to shame: one does not just see in order to recognize an emotion, but one is also seen.

In other words, there seem to be several traits that are linked to a lack of empathy, which in turn is linked to various psychological disorders, including autism. These are an inability to look people in the eye—as well, notably, as being single-minded of purpose. Not looking someone in the eye logically would lead to an inability to recognize the emotional condition of others (because one does not look at them to recognize that emotional condition), which would also mean that one could not respond to those others and their emotional condition, which thus results in a lack of empathy, and therefore in a condition like autism.

Now, with regard to Zero Dark Thirty, it is not that Maya is an autistic character, or a character with a psychological disorder—although such characters do exist in films and television shows about the CIA, with Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) in Showtime’s Homeland (Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa, USA, 2011-) being an interesting case in point (and one to which I shall return). However, I would suggest that Maya wills herself into a sort of temporarily autistic condition, which I shall term ‘war autism’, over the course of the film.

Zero Dark Thirty opens with a black screen and sounds from the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon that took place on 11 September 2001. We then jump forward to two years later, at a ‘black site’, the whereabouts of which are unknown, or undisclosed. Dan (Jason Clarke) is interrogating Ammar (Reda Kateb), a Saudi connected to the World Trade Centre attacks, and also torturing him via the use of the infamous waterboarding technique, humiliating him by stripping him, enclosing him in a box, keeping him in soiled clothing, keeping him upright and his arms suspended for protracted periods of time and so on. Maya is initially observing Dan’s work wearing a balaclava. Dan says to Ammar early on in this sequence: “Look at me. If you don’t look at me, I hurt you.” In other words, the issue of looking and eye contact are quickly introduced into the film, but importantly the first we see of Maya is when she is, so to speak, eyes without a face.

That is, Maya observes, but she cannot be seen. And what is literally true of Maya is also figuratively true of Dan: Dan repeatedly tells Ammar that he ‘knows’ him—and reels off facts about Ammar’s life to prove it. Meanwhile the American agents function in anonymity; indeed, their anonymity is to be preserved at all times—and we see one agent, Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler), dismissed from his post as the CIA’s Chief of Staff at the American Embassy in Islamabad when his identity is uncovered.

The anonymity of Maya and the other agents is important, because while they can demand that Ammar looks them in the eye (otherwise they will hurt him), he cannot really see their faces. We have here a sense of how intersubjectivity is a key component to empathy. That is, even though Ammar must look Dan and Maya in the eye (and thus feel ashamed that he has soiled his own clothes or is naked, because he knows that he is being seen), Dan and Maya can look at Ammar and know that they are not being seen—literally when wearing a balaclava, and figuratively when shrouded in anonymity. Nonetheless, Maya at first seems upset by Dan’s interrogation techniques, nervously observing from a distance. However, it is she who insists upon returning to Ammar and continuing the investigation, suggesting her first steps along the road to willfully refusing to empathise with those she is interrogating.

Her transition seems fast and is signaled by the moment Dan asks her to put some water in a jug so that the waterboarding of Ammar can continue; interpellated—that is, called into action—Maya becomes not just complicit by observation, but complicit by deed, in the torture of Ammar, and from this point on Maya’s descent into war autism is rapid.

We then see Maya several times through screens—her face obscured in a window, through a glass at the American Embassy in Islamabad. When Maya first meets Joseph Bradley, she makes eye contact, half-smiles, and then her eyes dip down—a refusal of eye contact that will become a signature of Chastain’s performance (and which Bigelow will repeatedly insist, via her editing, on showing, typically in relative close up).

Maya gets to work in Islamabad, the film conveying to us that she watches numerous DVDs showing footage of interrogations and torture sequences. At the end of this sequence, Maya has noticed that many interrogatees mention a certain Abu Ahmed—and so she approaches Dan to ask to investigate this lead. Notably, Maya does not look at Dan until he has left the room during the scene of her request. Thereafter we see Maya in a wig talking to Abu Faraj (Yoav Levi), asking about Abu Ahmed.

Not only does the wig signal a procedural reality of CIA operatives, but it also suggests Maya’s transformation from potentially empathic human being to a willed sufferer of ‘war autism’.

Significantly we only discover Dan’s name after 44 minutes of the film’s running time. Similarly, we only discover that Maya’s main female colleague in Islamabad is called Jessica 56 minutes into the film—just before she is killed by a bomb at Camp Chapman in Khost, Afghanistan. Furthermore, we only discover that Jessica is called Jessica because her name appears in type on a computer screen as she instant messages with Maya as she is about to interrogate a key lead; it is not because we hear her name spoken. In other words, Maya’s lack of empathy with the likes of Ammar is matched by the film’s decision to make her co-workers seem anonymous; it suggests a lack of empathy with/for even her own colleagues.

Maya works with a single-mindedness of purpose that we might well associate with a lack of empathy, as suggested by Baron-Cohen, such that even her colleagues have no names. Meanwhile, her refusal to look others in the eye—which Keysers sees as a sign of autism—becomes clear when Maya has dinner with Jessica in Islamabad, just prior to when we discover her name, and just before a bomb explodes at the city’s Marriott hotel where they are eating. As Jessica (Jennifer Ehle) is explaining to Maya that she must relax a bit more, Maya refuses to look at Jessica, suggesting that she can only think of work, and this comes at the expense of any human relations. Notably, the film is structured here in such a way that just as Maya might be thinking of relaxing and (re-?)becoming a bit more human, a bomb explodes to remind her that her task—God given in her eyes (“I believe I was spared so that I can finish the job”)—is all-consuming. In this way, Zero Dark Thirty is a study of how Maya wills herself into a kind of ‘war autism’.

Just before she dies, Jessica says to a colleague “here’s to big breaks and the little people that make them happen.” After Jessica’s death, Maya is also told that her key lead, Abu Ahmed, is similarly dead (she does not look at the colleague who tells her this). Maya’s senior colleague, George (Mark Strong) berates his team for their lack of progress (Maya averts her eyes when he enters the room). And then Maya is handed a lead suggesting that Abu Ahmed is in fact alive—by her colleague Debbie (Jessica Collins). In effect, Debbie is the ‘little person’ who makes the whole bin Laden manhunt happen, but it is Maya who egotistically gets the credit. The only demonstrations of emotion that we see from her are when she shouts at Dan, and then George, in order to get her way.

We see her permanently at work, distancing herself from colleagues by wearing shades, and refusing to look at other members of staff, including Larry (Édgar Ramírez), with whom she works closely in Rawalpindi. When Maya gets a meeting with various CIA and National Security honchos, she blurts out in a somewhat autistic manner that the compound in which bin Laden is supposedly hiding is close to eight tenths of a mile (4,221 feet, to be exact) from Pakistan’s Military Academy in Abbottabad. She egotistically says that it is ‘for me’ that the United States Naval Special Warfare Development Group (or DEVGRU) soldiers will kill bin Laden. “It’s her against the world,” remarks George. In other words, Maya seems willfully to isolate herself from others, beginning to lack empathy for colleagues (to Larry: “I don’t care if your guys get any sleep or not”), and in particular to lack empathy for her enemies, as suggested by her complicity in torture.

Disguises—in the form of wigs, veils, dark glasses, and even a full burqa in Islamabad—help Maya to perform this ‘autism’, which is reflected in the night vision goggles and uniforms that the DEVGRU troops wear during the film’s final operation. Seeing the world through a screen helps to distance them from the human aspect of war, mediation in Bigelow’s film consistently separating soldiers, including torturers, from their victims, be they innocent or otherwise. Maya stays on in her job for 12 years—much longer than Dan, who has to leave and pursue a desk job in Washington DC.

The persistent presence of the media no doubt has a role to play in Maya’s ‘war autism’; Christian Keysers argues that ‘each hour spent in front of the television is an hour less in front of a reacting human being’ (Keysers 2011: 173), the argument being that it is human interaction that helps prevent autism, rather than simple observation. A set of eyes without a face, then, Maya observes without empathy, often via screens, such that she is without empathy. Her only emotional display—apart from anger at her colleagues—comes at the film’s climax when a tear runs down her cheek as she flies home, to an unknown destination.

However, the question becomes: what effects might Zero Dark Thirty itself have a role to play in helping to develop empathy, given that it is a film that we watch via the medium of cinema, DVD, television, the computer screen or the internet? Maya says that she is 100 per cent certain that bin Laden is in the compound that she has found, before saying she is only 95 per cent certain, because total certainty “freaks you guys out.” In other words, we have here a gendered ‘craziness’. As Shohini Chaudhuri (2013) has pointed out, Hollywood has a propensity for making films in which revenge is exacted and enacted by a woman, from I Spit on Your Grave (a.k.a. Day of the Woman, Meir Zarchi, USA, 1978) to Kill Bill (Quentin Tarantino, USA, 2003-2004). As mentioned, it also has a propensity, as in shows like Homeland, to show dedicated American agents to be female, unstable (and, in the case of both Maya and Carrie from that show, ginger).

In other words, the film seems to want to naturalise the idea that revenge is a feminine trait, that the USA is a feminine body that has been attacked and metaphorically raped during the 11 September 2001 attacks, and that it is righteous in its pursuit of revenge. Maya’s single-mindedness also naturalizes the hard work ethos behind contemporary capitalism—suggesting that one will get nowhere without being as egotistical and as dedicated as Maya. Although Baron-Cohen suggests that women have more empathy than men (Baron-Cohen 2011: 19), here we see Maya willfully shed herself of empathy in order to achieve the ‘higher goal’ (seemingly God-given) of defeating bin Laden.

Whether Bigelow’s film simply observes or whether it actually endorses such ideas is open to debate. I could, for example, imagine a ‘haptic’ critique of the film, suggesting that it allows us to ‘feel’ more than it allows us simply to observe Maya’s ‘war autism’, such that, paradoxically, we have empathy with someone who denies themselves an empathic response to those around her. Nonetheless, the film does seem to naturalise ‘war autism’, as well as torture, not least because what we see is mediated—we are watching a film.

Kathryn Bigelow’s relatively fast cutting rate (the film has an average shot length of 3.4 seconds, according to the Cinemetrics website) places it firmly in the category of ‘intensified continuity’ that David Bordwell (2006) sees as characteristic of contemporary cinema: faster cutting, an always moving camera, more significant changes of focal length between shots, and so on.

I have argued elsewhere (Brown 2011) that such demands on our attention via fast cutting rates might distract us from closer analysis of the film; by making the film exciting via rapid cutting, even if it depicts deeds that we are not particularly happy to watch, such as torture, what is on screen is thus glamourized. And if what is glamourized is torture, then Slavoj Žižek’s dislike of the film is arguably justified. Nonetheless, Zero Dark Thirty is a fascinating study of what I am terming ‘war autism’. And it may serve as a piece of propaganda designed to endorse such a feminized, victim-like and single-minded approach to revenge. More worryingly, it seems to endorse torture (contrary to many statistics suggesting that torture is not a particularly useful method of extracting information; see Chaudhuri 2013 for a discussion thereof).

Perhaps the normalization of torture via films like Zero Dark Thirty as fast-paced entertainment needs to be countered by slower films that show the effects, both short-term and long-term, of torture not on the perpetrators, who themselves view torture via screens in a bid to become less empathic with those they are torturing, but on the victims.


Ur Teaser Online Now!

Beg Steal Borrow News, Ur: The End of Civilization in 90 Tableaux

The first teaser for Ur: The End of Civilization in 90 Tableaux is now online!

The teaser features music from the multi-talented Giles Hayter, one of The King’s Will (with Musa Okwonga), who also provided music for Common Ground in the form of their excellent track ‘The Swords Are Coming.’

Giles has also recently found great success in the guise of Professor Mathmo, and his pedagogical album, Professor Mathmo and the Voyage to the Times Tables.

William is happy to confess that the trailer was also inspired by the trailer for Jean-Luc Godard’s Film Socialisme (2010).

Check it out!

Meanwhile, work on Ur is ongoing – we are now deep into post-production – and are hoping to have the film ready for screening in the not-too-distant future!

Busy Beg Steal Borrowers

Beg Steal Borrow News, Friends of Beg Steal Borrow

This is just a quick update to say how busy some of the Beg Steal Borrow collaborators have been of late.

Firstly, producer Deanne Cunningham has been up in Leeds working on the fothcoming series of Utopia.

Secondly, Alex Chevasco, star of En Attendant Godard, Common Ground and Ur: The End of Civilization in 90 Tableaux, has made it through to quarter finals of the Final Draft Big Break Contest with a TV pilot about the USA’s first African-American composer.

Charlotte Wolf, meanwhile, will be taking up an exciting opportunity in the new year to teach filmmaking to potential cineastes in Sierra Leone.

Tom Maine and Andrew Slater continue to be busy with their various productions – and Nick Marwick, who acted in Afterimages and Common Ground, has also taken his first steps into film and television production.

Well done and good luck to all Beg Steal Borrowers!