On "anti" films that succeed, and why

More than one friend has pointed out an exception or addendum to my last post on "anti" films, which makes the claim that no "anti" films are successful on their own terms, for they ineluctably glorify the very thing they are wanting to hold up for critique: war, violence, misogyny, wealth, whatever.

The exception is this: There are successful "anti" films—meaning dramatic-narrative films, not documentaries—whose subject matter is intrinsically negative, and not ambiguous or plausibly attractive. Consider severe poverty, drug addiction, or profound depression. Though it is possible to make any of these a fetish, or to implicate the audience as a voyeur in relation to them, there is nothing appealing about being depressed, addicted, or impoverished, and so the effect of the cinematic form does nothing to make them appealing: for the form magnifies, and here there is nothing positive to magnify, only suffering or lack.

So, for example, The Florida Project and Requiem for a Dream and Melancholia are successful on their own terms; my critique of "anti" films does not apply to them.

But note well a few relevant features that distinguish these kinds of movies.

First, no one would mistake such films for celebrations of poverty, drug abuse, or depression. But that isn't because they're overly didactic; nor is it because other "anti" films aren't clear about their perspective. It's because no one could plausibly celebrate such things. But people do mistake films about cowboys, soldiers, assassins, vigilantes, gangsters, womanizers, adulterers, and hedge fund managers(!) as celebrations of them and their actions.

Second, this clear distinction helps us to see that films "against" poverty et al are not really "anti" films at all. Requiem is not "anti-hard drugs": it is about people caught up in drug abuse. It's not a D.A.R.E. ad for middle schoolers—though, as many have said, it certainly can have that effect. In that film Aranofsky glamorizes nothing about hard drugs or the consequences of being addicted to them. But that is more a critique of the way most films ordinarily bypass such consequences and focus on superficial appurtenances of the rich and famous, including the high of drugs but little more.

Third, this clarification helps to specify what I mean by "anti" films. I don't mean any film that features a negative subject matter. I mean a film whose narrative and thematic modus operandi is meant to be subversive. "Anti" films take a topic or figure that the surrounding culture celebrates, enjoys, or prefers left unexamined and subjects it to just that undesired examination. It deconstructs the cowboy and the general and the captain of industry. Or it does the same to the purported underbelly of society, giving sustained and sympathetic attention to the Italian mafia or drug-runners or pimps or what have you. In the first case, the lingering, affectionate gaze of the camera cannot but draw viewers into the life of the heretofore iconic figure, deepening instead of complicating their prior love. In the second, the camera's gaze does the same for previously misunderstood or despised figures. Michael Corleone and Tony Montana and Tommy DeVito become memorialized and adored through repeated dialogue, scenes, posters, and GIFs. Who could resist the charms of such men?

Fourth, the foregoing raises the question: Why are bad things like crime and violence and illicit sex plausibly "attractive" to filmmakers and audiences in a way that other bad things are not? I think the answer lies, on the one hand, with the visual nature of the medium: sex and violence, not to mention the excitement and/or luxury bound up with the life of organized crime, are visual and visually thrilling actions; in the hands of gifted directors, their rendering in film is often gorgeous and alluring to behold. Bodies in motion, kinetic choreography, beautiful people doing physically demanding or intriguing or seductive deeds: the camera was made for such things. Depression and deprivation? Not so much. (A reminder that film is not a medium of interiority; psychology is for print.)

On the other hand, the perennial topics of "anti" films are, as I said in my first post, not wholly bad things. War, needless to say, is a deeply complex phenomenon: just causes and wicked intentions, wise leaders and foolish generals, acts of heroism and indiscriminate killing, remarkable discipline and wanton destruction. War is a force that gives us meaning for a reason. But sex and westerns and extravagant wealth and even organized crime are similarly ambivalent, which is to say, they contain good and bad; or put differently, what is bad in them is a distortion of what is good. The Godfather is a classic for many reasons, but a principal one is its recognizable depiction of an institution in which we all share: family.

One friend observed that, perhaps, films cannot finally succeed in subverting vices of excess, but they can succeed in negative portrayals of vices of privation. I'll have to continue to ruminate on that, though it may be true. Note again, however, the comment above: vices of privation are not generally celebrated, admired, or envied; there is no temptation to be seduced by homelessness, nor is the medium of film prone to glorify it. Which means there is nothing subversive, formally speaking, about depicting homelessness as a bad thing that no one should desire and everyone should seek to alleviate. Whereas an "anti" film, at least in my understanding of it, is subversive by definition.

Fifth, another friend remarked that the best anti-war films are not about war at all: the most persuasive case against a vice is a faithful yet artful portrait of virtue. Broadly speaking, I think that is true. Of Gods and Men and A Hidden Life are "anti-war" films whose cameras do not linger on the battlefield or set the audience inside the tents and offices of field generals and masters of war. Arrival is a "pro-life" film that has nothing to do with abortion. So on and so forth. I take this to be a complimentary point, inasmuch as it confirms the difficulty (impossibility?) of cinematic "anti" films, according to my definition, and calls to mind other mediums that can succeed as subversive art: literature, poetry, music, photography, etc. I think the phenomenon I am discussing, in other words, while not limited to film, is unique in the range and style of its expression—or restriction—in film.

A simple way to put the matter: no other art form is so disposed to the pornographic as film is. The medium by its nature wants you to like, to love, to be awoken and shaken and shocked and moved by what you see. It longs to titillate. That is its special power, and therefore its special danger. That doesn't make it all bad. Film is a great art form, and individual films ought to be considered the way we do any discrete cultural artifact. But it helps to explain why self-consciously "subversive" films continually fail to achieve their aims, inexorably magnifying, glamorizing, and glorifying that which they seek to hold up to a critical eye. And that is why truly subversive literary art so rarely translates to the screen; why, for example, Cormac McCarthy's "anti-western" Blood Meridian is so regularly called "unfilmable." What that novel induces in its readers, not in spite of but precisely in virtue of its brilliance, is nothing so much as revulsion. One does not "like" or identify with the Kid or the Judge or their fellows. One does not wish one were there. One is sickened, overwhelmed with the sheer godforsaken evil and suffering on display. No "cowboys and Indians" cosplay here. Just violence, madness, and death.

Can cinema produce an anti-western along the same lines? One that features cowboys and gorgeous vistas and heart-pounding action and violence? Filmmakers have tried, including worthy efforts by Clint Eastwood, Tommy Lee Jones, and Kelly Reichardt. I'd say the verdict is still out. But even if their are exceptions, the rule stands.


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