Category Archives: The Garbage We Watch

On the Dead-Beat Dad Trope

The dead-beat dad is such a common phenomenon that it is now a pop-cultural trope. Whereas two generations earlier television and movies reified the nuclear family as a fact of nature, and one generation earlier the depiction of divorced parents became normal, no longer a sin to be overcome with a Parent Trap, the patriarchal rot at the heart of the traditional family was finally demystified. Families defined by the absent father, the single mother (sometimes struggling and sometimes not) free from an abusive spouse, and a reflection of the rejection of the world of the father was slowly normalized.  The dad as dead-beat became a trope that reflected a reality that previous family tropes had obscured.

Mens Rights Activists (MRAs) often latch onto this trope as evidence of misandry within the culture industry. Against feminist claims about sexist depictions of women in media, MRAs like to claim (either out of ignorance, dishonesty, or a combination of the two) that it is men who are depicted in a sexist manner, the dead-beat being a paradigm example. Since they also claim that men suffer in custody arrangements since more women end up as custodians of the children, the trope of the dead-beat is perhaps particularly offensive since it reveals the lie to their crude empiricism: while it is correct that in situations of divorce and separation most women retain custody of their children, it is also a fact that most of these men do not challenge custody because they are in reality dead-beats who resist paying child support. The trope thus reflects a reality MRAs (some of whom probably are dead-beat dads) work hard to suppress.

But the thing with the culture industry is that, while it cannot help but reflect certain truths about social reality, it is quite adept at remystifying its tropes according to common sense ideology. Hence the emergence of a pernicious variant of the dead-beat dad trope: the redeemed dead-beat whose shitty behaviour is justified by noble gravitas. Since it is true that a large number of fathers in the imperialist metropoles are absent dead-beats of one kind or other, the media trope exists as an entertainment verisimilitude: most viewers will not identify with depictions of stable nuclear families, a large population cannot even identify with loving cis-het male divorcees. But in order to maintain this verisimilitude without turning men into eternal villains, which would alienate a massive swathe of the male consumer population, the trope of the dead-beat dad as maverick hero has manifested.

The 2008 film Taken best encapsulates this turning point in the dead-beat trope, the moment where it is recaptured by patriarchal ideology. Although significant as the film that catapulted Liam Neeson’s acting career into the type-cast of the gruff/aging/world-weary action man, Taken‘s true importance is in the reactionary reclamation of the dead-beat trope. Indeed, the characterization that would become Neeson’s current type-cast is only interesting if we understand its necessity for the performance of an ennobled dead-beat.

In Taken Neeson is only a dead-beat because of his commitment as a patriot. As a violent enforcer of US imperialism he was forced to make a hard decision between his family and the nation and, as any patriot with his particular “skill set” should do, he committed to the latter. If he is a dead-beat it is only because his family cannot understand the deep man pain of having to violently commit to the imperial aegis, so as to give their life stability from the horrors of terrorism. The inner truth is that he is only a dead-beat because his family, who could not understand the depth of his commitment to a better life promised to all imperial families, is incapable of understanding his pain of sacrifice. He is only a dead-beat because he sacrificed his family on the altar of the greater nation. In this way he is an echo of the Homeric hero: Agamemnon literally sacrificed his daughter to appease Poseidon, a sacrifice justified by the fall of Troy and the victory of the Achaians.

We are meant to feel pathos for Neeson’s dead-beat dad who, upon retiring and returning home, discovered that his home life, like that of Odysseus, is in disarray. But in the contemporary world of Taken the absentee father (whose absence was also justified) cannot murder his wife’s suitors and reclaim his patriarchal seat. Instead, more noble than his Homeric counter-part, he is forced to be “cucked” by a substitute father who is depicted as weak and decadent. There is no examination about whether Neeson’s character, Bryan Mills, has paid child support, let alone the political questions regarding a dad murdering for imperialists. Bryan Mills is the victim, showing up at the birthday party of a daughter he barely knows like every dead-beat asshole ever and we are expected to root for him because he is the real father; his nobility has already been established.

Taken in fact works hard to convince the audience that there is a good reason for being a dead-beat dad. It’s a good thing that Neeson never paid child support, never did any child-care or house work, because he learned those very “masculine” skills required to be a true father. Good thing he was a violent imperialist dead-beat because, when his daughter is abducted, he can prove to his ex-wife that he is the real father by doing what his effete substitute cannot: using all of his skills earned as a dead-beat in service to Empire to save their daughter. He murders and tortures all of the terrorist sex traffickers, demonstrating that the dead-beat is a noble protector, to save his daughter from slavery. In the end the nuclear family is validated by the violent dead-beat. Hell, Bryan Mills doesn’t even give a shit about the abducted daughters of other fathers, who aren’t as masculine to save them, because he ignores hundreds of other victims in his singular goal to preserve the sanctity of his biological family. It is the noble dead-beat who swoops in to save a daughter he hadn’t given a fuck to raise or support––but he is the biological father, the authentic head of a family he saves from the skills earned in as an absent parent.

In the 2016 film Deadpool Ryan Reynolds’ character, Wade Wilson, jokes about Liam Neeson being a bad father in Taken. “They made three of those movies,” Wade Wilson quips: “At some point you have to wonder if he’s just a bad parent.” The bigger joke, though, is that the audience isn’t asked to wonder if Neeson’s Bryan Mills is a bad parent before he parachutes in to rescue a daughter he has no social right to call daughter. According to the evidence supplied but suppressed by the movie, this dead-beat dad was a bad parent from the very beginning: abandoning your daughter so you can be a Yankee murderer, leaving her to be raised by a single mother without child support, should signal the behaviour of an abusive asshole. Instead, Neeson’s father in Taken is depicted with mythic grandeur: the dead-beat who justifies his absence by using the skills gained in this absence to prove fatherly machismo.

Taken is not alone in this retrograde reclamation of the dead-beat. Take 2014’s 3 Days To Kill, co-written by Luc Besson who was also behind the screenplay of Taken. (Is Besson a dead-beat dad? This seems to be a common theme in his current work.) In this film, Kevin Costner plays a CIA killer who, for reasons similar to Bryan Mills, has been absent from his daughter’s life. Hell, Costner even tries his damnedest to sound like Neeson’s gruff portrayal of the world-weary imperialist murderer. Battling against his hyper-sexed woman handler, Costner’s character must recenter himself as a father for a daughter who would lose her way without the reestablishment of the nuclear family. This daughter’s rightful resentment at his absence in her life is off-set by the fact that she needs him for stability. The tragedy is that he was only a dead-beat insofar as he chose to serve his nation, leave the child-rearing to a wife whose prime duty is to raise children, and thus the viewer is entreated to view his awkward attempts at reunion as truly parental. To be a dead-beat dad, we are meant to believe, is a supreme act of sacrifice.

This reclamation trope must necessarily brush up against the grain of reality. For in reality, dead-beat dads are not noble figures. As a father who cares about my daughter I cannot imagine abandoning her for some greater good, especially since the good I pursue is diametrically opposed to patriarchy––I can’t imagine leaving the lion’s share of childcare to my partner. Aside from these political motivations, it is hard for me to care about a father being taken seriously as a father when he hasn’t given a fuck about his daughter’s life for most of this daughter’s life. Seriously, why would any dead-beat dad who has spent the majority of his life ignoring his child suddenly become this child’s saviour? If this mythic biological impulse wasn’t enough to stay with the child, or at least to provide child support, then it probably won’t ever manifest in a meaningful way.

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When the dead-beat trope is not being reclaimed and sanitized, however, it still functions to regulate our understanding of fatherhood and valorize patriarchal ideology. Since asshole fathers are so common there is a tendency to lionize a dad who manages to be a decent parent more than his mother counter-part. That is, there tends to be over-excitement around a father who cares for his kid, who does house work, who nurtures. No such excitement is accorded to mothers for doing the same thing because they are “expected” to be nurturing. In film and television the nurturing father is celebrated in a way that the nurturing mother is not; this both reflects and reinforces the way we understand parenting in reality.

All a dad has to do to qualify for a father of the year award is to not be a dead-beat. A pretty low bar to clear if you really think about it, but because so many assholes don’t clear this bar it’s seen as a victory for humanity when fathers simply succeed at being decent, equitable parents. It’s endearing and cute, like many anomalies are, prized because of its rarity. Sometimes it generates an aura of martyrdom: the man who gave up on being “masculine” (a career, maverick autonomy, etc.) for noble reasons, like Bryan Mills’ sacrifice at the altar of national security. The trope of the tragic widower (such as Jude Law’s character in 2008’s The Holiday) expresses this kind of nobility, a nobility denied to the widow.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been called a “good father” by complete strangers simply because they saw me playing with my daughter, taking her on long TTC rides, and pretty much doing what most mothers do on a regular basis. I get congratulated for being a responsible parent like I’m a hero for doing some pretty banal shit that my partner and a lot of women also do without random compliments by passersby. Being aware of this attitude, along with the fact that my partner has not received the same attention for doing identical work, prompted me to reflect on the matter a while back, so I won’t repeat myself here.

Moreover, this celebration of the father who beats the dead-beat odds is amplified for nurturing single fathers who have sole or primary custody of their children. Hell even if they have equal custody and do their part they are heroic!

Hence, even when the reality of male privilege in the context of parenting is accepted as normative, when the fact of the dead-beat dad becomes a trope, this privilege is still reinscribed. Either the dead-beat is justified with these ludicrous Taken narratives, or it becomes a low bar that, once cleared, congratulates cis dudes for being just okay. Our current understanding of the family really does need to be demolished.

 

Adaptation and Nostalgia: on the Preacher series

As I’ve discussed before, adaptations are tricky things. On the one hand there is the fannish tendency of attempting to perfectly replicate the source material that might end up mummifying the original work in a formulaic representation. On the other hand there is the adaptation that is attached to the source material mainly in name and has little to do with it otherwise. The Preacher adaptation is hard to pin down: at points it feels like it has veered to far in the territory of the latter case, at other points it does come across as trying to faithfully replicate the key aspects of the graphic novels.

My interest in the series, though, is driven by a nostalgia for the comics I consumed at the end of high school and the beginning of my undergraduate degree. Preacher was one of the series I followed at that time, and at one point I thought it was pretty amazing, but then my tastes changed both politically and aesthetically. Hence, I wasn’t overly concerned with whether or not the show would faithfully abide by its source material because I had ceased caring about the comic series as anything more than something I used to enjoy, that I had fond memories of, but no longer counted myself a fan. Indeed, the fact that it took me so long to watch the series is probably evidence that I was not overly excited by the idea of the adaptation let alone committed enough to care if it managed to stay faithful to the original version of the story.

Some background… One of the reasons I stopped caring about this particular comic series (and in fact culled all the dusty Preacher collections from my bookshelves years back) was because I eventually realized it was a US libertarian trash heap that worked too hard in passing itself off as transgressive. Trying to offend religious sensibilities by writing stories about God being an asshole, the inbreeding of Jesus’ blood-line, and an irreligious Texan who wanted to kick God’s ass was not, in my mind, that radical in an ideological context that promoted some white maverick John Wayne loving Texan named after a colonial murderer as a cowboy protagonist. The series persistently valorized some of the most insidious aspects US mythology (i.e. the sacredness of the Alamo, the heroism of Confederates, the cowardice of the French in WW2, the supposed “amazingness” of US society, etc.), had a pretty offensive treatment of Vietnam, mocked the Easter Rising and John Connolly, and at the end of the day was about a small group of white folks “sticking it to the man” through their own piss and vinegar. Let’s be honest: politically, Preacher was pretty shitty.

The fact that Seth Rogen of all people was one of the adaptations producers did not help renew my interest in Preacher. Aside from the fact that I cannot stand his comedic hijinx, he is also responsible for making that extremely racist film about the DPRK and is one of the people who saw fit to publicly chastise Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz for daring to criticize colonialism and apartheid. Lovely fellow.

So I approached the television adaptation with an attitude of tired interest: let’s see what they do with something I used to like when my tastes were different because there’s small chance that it could be worse than what I remember. (This attitude is similar to what I feel about the new Star Wars films.) Thankfully the series cleared this low bar and, in the choices it made to stray from the source material, made me interested enough to keep watching and look forward to a second season. I’m not saying it’s pure gold or some masterpiece everyone should watch, only that the way in which it cleared that low bar was intriguing enough to take notice. In fact, the series was often more interesting when it strayed from the source material than when it remained faithful.

Of course, the television was barely faithful to the way in which the comic’s narrative developed. The writing team threw multiple characters from the comic, some of whom would be encountered later and in different contexts, into the same town at the very beginning. Whereas the comic began with Jesse Custer’s church being destroyed by Genesis’ arrival, leading Jesse to leave town, meet with his ex-girlfriend Tulip and the vampire Cassidy, and begin the road trip story that would define the entire series, the adaptation brings multiple characters to the same town so that it feels a bit like a Twin Peaks affectation. You know, throw a bunch of creepy and quirky characters into one place and see what happens. So you get a situation where Jesse knows the Roots rather than encountering them first as antagonists. Where Odin Quincannon knows Jesse’s family because he’s from the same town, rather than being the sinister figure Jesse encounters at a much later point of the series in another town. Where Tulip shares a childhood and then a life of crime with Jesse rather than being someone he meets as an adult. Even still, the gist of the story (Genesis entity, God fleeing, Heaven in crisis) remains the same and most of the characterization remains quite faithful. When such characterization differs, or at the very least is given depth, the show is in fact superior to the comic.

Take, for example, the character of Tulip. In the comic she’s a white woman from a privileged background who was taught to shoot by her NRA loving single dad who somehow becomes an amazing gun-toting vigilante. Most of the character tension between her and Jesse has to do with the latter’s southern boy macho bullshit getting in the way of recognizing the former as an equal (i.e. he’s always trying to protect her when she doesn’t need protecting but somehow that’s okay because of LOVE), which is utterly boring. In the adaptation, though, Tulip is played by Ruth Negga: she’s a black woman from the wrong side of the tracks who grew up in a situation of violence, claimed a subject position in this violence, and possesses the kind of rebel agency that the comic Tulip couldn’t believably possess. Moreover, television Tulip’s tension with Jesse has nothing to do with this macho-protector bullshit; they possess a different and more equitable shared history. Really, and mainly because Negga’s a phenomenal actor, Tulip is the best character in the adaptation: she’s introduced as some kind of kickass MacGyver assassin that little girls want to be like but, at the same time, possesses significant character depth.

Then there’s the character of Eugene Root who was little more than an extended politically incorrect gag in the comics: a Nirvana fan who tried to suicide with a shotgun after Kurt Cobain killed himself only to survive the attempt with a severely mutilated face. In the comic he’s mainly called “Arseface” (a name that appears here and there in the adaptation as fanservice but is in fact treated as insulting) and exists for comedy relief – the “joke” is that the protagonists laugh at his disfigurement only to demonstrate their magnanimity by befriending him. But in the adaptation he possesses a real subjectivity – at one point he even challenges Jesse which leads to a tragic development – and the story behind his failed suicide disfigurement is given more nuance than “Nirvana fan”.

Even more interesting, to my mind, was the adaptation’s refusal to celebrate USAmerican mythology, a key element of the comic, and instead treat the foundations of the US with cynical contempt. The flashbacks to the “Saint of Killers” origin story, for example, are also flashbacks to genocidal settler violence: frontiers towns that hang Indigenous people from trees and encourage scalping – the “western” history of the US is given the serial killing dimension that it actually possessed. As critical scholars such as Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz have pointed out, settler men, women, and children were united in the ideology of genocide and these flashbacks depict this ideological unity as historical fact. Obviously this depiction is not perfect, and at points it feels more about shocking the audience than being truly critical, but at the same time it rejects the asinine settlerist mythology that the comic often promoted. Low bar clearing? Maybe.

None of these changes are enough to render the show perfect. Indeed, one of the reasons I didn’t finish the series until recently was because, when I watched the first episode back when it initially aired, I was turned off by the opening scene that happened in “Africa”. No country or region within a country, just the name of the continent and a scenario that felt like the “this is what all of Africa looks like” trope: shanty-towns, a dust-ridden place of worship, dusty roads in the outback, superstitious enthusiasm. Seriously folks, this is some retrograde shit. Only the fact that, in the last episode, Tulip made sardonic comments about God’s whiteness allowed me to (partially) stomach that.

In any case, compared to the other recent (and network) DC-Vertigo adaptations – the underwhelming Constantine and the eye-rolling Lucifer – Preacher stands out as a franchise that could be better than its source material. Hopefully the second season improves on the faults of the first and does more than simply accommodate my nostalgia.

*Stranger Things* and the Problem with Genre Nostalgia

Since I’ve been watching the new Netflix series Stranger Things [slowly since we don’t always have time/energy to watch television] I’ve been thinking about the science-fiction/fantasy/horror pop-culture of my youth, particularly the way it functions as cultural artifact. Clearly, as anyone who has watched Stranger Things will know, this series does not hide its influences and in fact is trying to celebrate 1980s and early 1990s genre television and film. From the soundtrack, to the title font, to the lovingly recreated 1980s setting and look, to all the nods to 80s mass culture and film/television references, it has worked hard to become pure simulacra. Hell, they even cast Winona Ryder (darling of weird but popular films in the late 80s and early 90s), follow a bunch of kids driving around on their bikes looking to solve a memory, had an episode where the character “El” was dressed up almost identically to the way Drew Barrymore’s character in ET dressed the titular alien, and etc.

One thing that has struck me during my viewing experience of Stranger Things is that the quintessential 1980s-90s sci-fi/horror thriller could only be made now, decades later and looking back through the lens of nostalgia. Being a copy of an original that does not exist Stranger Things functions as the way we remember these older shows rather than the way they actually were. That is, it is only possible to make the perfect late-80s/early-90s genre thriller in retrospect, filtered through successive layers of memory and desire.

Everything about the appearance of Stranger Things is dead-on: the sets, the costumes, the mass culture references, the ways in which teenagers are supposed to act, the stock characters, the fashion, the technology, even the bloody colour pallets. The viewer who grew up watching what Stranger Things references is meant to think, after experiencing the first episode, “holy shit this is exactly like a show/movie from my childhood!” Except it’s not really like any of those shows or films; it’s more like the way we wanted these films to be, the ways they were supposed to be, the way we tend to remember them. Taking these cultural memories as artifact, and aware of everything that has happened up until the present, Stranger Things is better able to do what those shows could not: largely avoid dating itself by placing its narrative in a past that is already understood, demarcated by nostalgia. On the accompanying technical level, 21st century special effects are able to reproduce the look of cutting edge late 20th century technology, even if it’s “secret government” technology, due to an understanding of an imaginary possible that, unlike the 1980s/90s imagined future, violate the course that technological development would actually take. We are being shown a retrospective that does not, in contrast to the shows Stranger Things channels (and as long as we accept the fictional universe’s boundaries), look or feel fake.

The best way to explain what I mean is to look at some of the genre thrillers, particularly those based on government conspiracy and supernatural/alien activities, of the late-80s/early-90s. X-Files, for example, dates itself and violates one’s original memory of its broadcasting the moment it is rewatched: FBI agents trying to uncover the truth their own agency is trying to hide, and the alien technologies hidden by this conspiracy, seems entirely hokey when it is re-encountered. Just why the FBI would bother covering up the existence of aliens when we know, especially after Snowden, that it has better reason to cover up what it is actually doing – that it is in the business of political and not extra-natural repression – and that this is a more terrifying (and confirmed) “truth is out there” scenario than whatever overly complex secret business Mulder and Scully are pursuing. This dated nature of X-Files is most probably why the recent sequel series didn’t work: we wanted the show to remain a dormant part of our fond (or not-fond, depending on your taste) TV genre nostalgia rather than try to reestablish its same conceits in an era that had passed them by. Since Stranger Things locates its subject matter in the past, however, it avoids dragging the nostalgiac cultural artifact into the present and simply becoming an updated X-Files: its narrative happens in a past imaginary that could have existed within the universe of genre thrillers; it is not happening now, it is a window into the genre past but with better special effects and verisimilitude.

Or take another example that I recalled when watching Stranger Things and that the show provokes by its attempt to place itself within past genre offerings of television/film: Nowhere Man, the Prisoner of the early 1990s. The protagonist of Nowhere Man is chased by secret government organizations because he is a photographer who made the mistake of capturing part of a conspiracy on film and has hidden the negatives of the photographs. Although it ends up being the case that the protagonist’s memories of the negatives have also been altered, and that the meaning of the negatives becomes more and more ephemeral, the very fact that the viewer could take this part of the thriller seriously relied on an acceptance that the photograph could at some level represent the truth of an event and that journalists could threaten a government conspiracy. We don’t even need the fact of digital photography and Photoshop, which emerged as normative very soon after Nowhere Man‘s airing, to recognize the dated nature of this show. The very fact that journalistic revelations have not challenged hegemony for a long time (if they ever really did) is revealed by the fact that the aforementioned Snowden leaks do not matter to the average US citizen. Add to this some of the weird representations of technology in Nowhere Man that were written in an attempt to demonstrate the secret technological acumen of the US shadow government: that episode where the protagonist met a hacker who used “VR” technology (remember the whole early-90s imagined VR obsession?) to take him into some early imaginary online world, a very shitty cyberpunk reference, where you can actually “die” from computer viruses and system crashes.

What Stranger Things does is place itself in the world of these older shows as a fond memory of what these shows should have been. It possesses the budget and technology to make itself look more authentic than the cultural offerings it takes as its influences as well as the benefit of historical hindsight. Aware of the limits of the time period in which it has built its fictional universe, this show will not make the error that Nowhere Man made with its [now embarrassing] “hacker” episode, for example, nor will it push the limits of government conspiracy beyond the limits of what it can possibly describe as “strange” in retrospect. Yeah, we got alien stuff happening in this show but it’s not run-of-the-mill Area 51 bullshit; it’s thoroughly weird because it knows all of this Communion era pale men with giant-ass eyes is a parody of itself. And if it does end up landing in this territory it can justify such conventions by appealing to genre irony. Its genre irony is most apparent in the way it simulates a social existence that belongs more to mass culture depictions of the US than reality, and irony that is only possible because Stranger Things functions as a throwback that is more perfectly constructed than what its influences.

Indeed, this show’s genre reconstruction of small town America seems intentionally ironic: an imaginary place, like a whole bunch of movies and shows, where all of the actual problems of US settler culture do not really exist… Racism is not a real issue (even though it has never stopped being one), the chief of police can be a hero (even though #BlueLivesMatter pigs are gestapo), and some creepy stalker with a camera (that like Nowhere Man‘s camera can reveal truth) who is also okay because he’s a poor intellectual – though maybe not because the woman he stalked doesn’t just accept his creepy photo-taking but challenges him, just as she ignores the dude who, if we were following the earlier conventions of the genre, should have ignored her after they had sex. The show is very conflicted in its attempt to recreate 80s/90s sensibility from the perspective of the 21st century; but this conflict, as simulated as it is, makes Stranger Things feel like a show that really did exist in the past even though we know, at the same time, it could not have been made in the era we feel it perfectly replicates.

In this sense, Stranger Things is a period piece. Not a period piece that attempts to accurately represent a historical period as it truly existed, but one that excavates a periodical imaginary; a history that never really existed except in genre television and film. It works to make this imaginary history correct, according to the boundaries of its conceit, and thus to aestheticize nostalgia. While it is an enjoyable experiment, and while it proves that the 80s/90s genre film cannot be truly constructed until well after its time, decades after it has become artifact, it might also function to aestheticize actual social relations, i.e. become the aestheticization of a politics it simultaneously obscures by imagining a perfect nostalgiac fictional universe of an America that never existed. Where the bad guys are secret conspirators, the good guys are good old American kids and lawmakers, and all the shit of vicious mode of production is partially obscured (though sometimes revealed in easily cognizable class warfare, shitty father figures, etc.). White male mavericks emerge to help save the day, even if they are more gritty than their nostalgiac influences, and an apolitical geek squad ride their bikes to solve mysteries. If the quintessential 80s/90s genre show/movie is salvaged and reclaimed in its rearticulation decades from the original, then maybe we can also say that the quintessential early 21st century genre show/film can only be made in future decades.

Martyrs and the Remaking of Films that Shouldn’t be Remade

The USAmerican remake of Martyrs was released on April 1st like a massive April Fools joke. For many of those familiar with the original French film by Pascal Laugier the remake was yet another example of remaking-blasphemy: take a foreign film that has subtitles and that possesses some level of cult importance, write and film another version that is palatable to an audience that might have never heard of the original. The argument that the audience can’t be bothered to read subtitles and so deserves a remake in their own language is asinine: the masses who lack access to literacy aren’t going out of their way to see niche horror films and, if they were, the technology of voice dubbing is far more advanced than it was in the past. Let’s be honest about these remakes: they’re cash grabs for an industry that, having lacked any unique ideas for a long time, seeks to plunder other industries in the hope of a quick profit.

I’m not a purist who thinks that remaking films is essentially wrong; I don’t think it makes sense to proclaim fidelity to an unqualified originality. Herzog’s remake of Nosferatu was a great film because it translated a silent film into the realm of sound. Scorsese’s remake of Infernal Affairs was good because it took a shitty action film with an interesting premise and embraced this premise while refusing to be a shitty action film. I don’t give a shit about the upcoming remake of Ben-Hur because I don’t care about the original and have no desire to see the remake. John Carpenter’s Thing and David Cronenberg’s The Fly were excellent remakes because they departed so wildly from the originals, and in fact eclipsed them, that they ceased being remakes.

But there are those films that should never be remade, that the remakes are terrible copies, and that one wonders why so much money was spent making them in the first place. Like remaking Tarkovsky’s version of Lem’s Solaris: as much as Soderbergh pretended that he was just re-adapting the novel every critic who saw the movie realized it was influenced by Tarkovsky… And really, when it comes down to a choice between Tarkovsky and Soderbergh who are you going to choose? Or what about the recent USAmerican version of Old Boy: a perfect Korean film turned into a fucking asinine English speaking reinterpretation that worked so hard to outdo the original to the point that anyone who had seen the original knew they were watching a reference. When it comes down to remaking a film that was perfect in its own right you will either end up with a substandard copy or, in very very rare cases, something that is just as good because it’s mainly a shot for shot remake (i.e. as I’ve been told that Let Me In, the remake of Let the Right One In, is). The latter possibility is extremely rare.

As aforementioned, the justification for remaking even the great films is based on foreign films that English speakers wouldn’t watch – especially in the US where illiteracy is more commonplace due to their shitty public education system – but as I also pointed out above this is a weak excuse. Why spoon feed the supposed illiterate masses with remade versions of great movies when these same and supposed illiterate masses are more likely to attend a second showing of Batman versus Superman than a limited run of a remake of a French horror movie? More to the point: studios aren’t concerned about what the viewing public that can’t read subtitles is deprived of being able to watch because of the language barrier; they’re more interested in what is possibly sellable, because it was successful elsewhere, for people who hadn’t heard of the original. These are the same people that remake even English movies, anything where a pre-existing idea can be hastily redone, and hopefully quickly with as little money as possible spent, in the hope that because it was successful before it will be successful again.

Why the hell would anyone remake Martyrs anyhow? The original was never commercially successful: it was undermined by French censorship, destined for cult status from the moment it played in film festivals. Nor was universally beloved by critics: it is only now, almost a decade later, that it is being reconsidered as a critical masterpiece. The cult status it received was due to some horror critics realizing what it was trying to do, its unapparent avant-garde sensibility, that is only now – when faced with the shitty remake – leading some critics to declare it the greatest horror film of the 21st century. Indeed, the Guardian critics, who initially gave the original film a poor rating because they were so bemused by its content and form, scorned the remake for reminding the viewer of “just how much Laugier’s film had going for it.”

martyrs-movie

This from the original with shotgun viscerality…

martyrsbaileynoble

…versus this remake 9mm gun hero bullshit.

The fact is that, like all remakes that strive to capitalize for god-knows-what-reason, on brilliant films in another language, the USAmerican Martyrs is something I won’t bother watching because it has no reason to exist. Like a remake of Citizen Kane or Battle of Algiers or 8 1/2 it cannot justify its emergence. You only need to look at the trailer to realize it has immediately missed the point: the protagonists are white women instead of women of colour, an oversight regarding what the original was trying to do – comment on both gender and racism in the militarization of torture. Every review has pointed out how the remake broke with the discordance of pacing that was essential to the original and instead, as the aforelinked Guardian review points out, “cuts up each sequence like a Nine Inch Nails video to drive home the presence of its editor.”

In resistance to the remake I recently rewatched the original Martyrs with a group of friends, most of whom had never seen it. After the experience we spent over an hour arguing about the film: everyone, even those who disliked horror films, were impressed. One thing that was pointed out as essential to the film, and that the remake resists, was this change in pacing. There is that moment where, as my friend who saw it with me at Midnight Madness when it was first released pointed out, the viewer slams into a brick wall that is like the endless battering of the remaining protagonist. And as my friends in this rewatch elaborated, this was a moment where everything that made the film exciting in the first half was turned back on the viewer resulting in a split consciousness: you identify with the victim while at the same time being complicit, as a voyeur, with the actions of the victimizer because you celebrated certain aspects of the first half.

So what Martyrs does is provoke the viewer and draw a line of demarcation across the horror sensibility. When I first saw this film, during its premier at the TIFF’s Midnight Madness, the person on the other side of me from my friend cheered on the first half of the film but grew increasingly uncomfortable with the second to the point of muttering and swearing – he actually booed the film when it ended. Better yet, the director came unto the stage after the showing to mock traditional horror fans for their conservative commitment to violence and state that he intentionally made the decision to shift the film’s pace and tone to throw this commitment back into the collective face of horror fandom. This splitting of fans and critics alike is what makes Martyrs greater than those films that is beloved by every fan or every critic. Good films achieve a level of consensus amongst viewers with their 80-90% approval rating on, say, Rotten Tomatoes (like, for example, a piece of entertainment fluff like the first Avengers movie).  Great movies might be those that provoke an agitational divide where critics and fans are completely split and the split is monumental. Better yet, they force reconsideration years later. For example Battle of Algiers holds a 99% rating on these aggregate sites now, but what would it hold on these same sites if they existed when it was made: critics were indeed split when this film was first made, when it threatened their understanding of the state of affairs. The demarcation has stood the test of time.

In any case, now that I have rewatched the original and am of the opinion that the remake should never be watched because it has no business existing, I feel it’s time to promote my old article – written back in the days when my other blog was just becoming popular – about Martyrs that has the distinction of being a wikipedia link for the New French Extremity “genre”: The Transfiguration of Horror. I’m sure it won’t be as painful to read as the remake is painful to watch.

Review: Catch Me Daddy

To be honest, I really wanted to like Catch Me Daddy.  Aside from reading a few reviews that convinced me to watch it, after putting it on my hard drive several months ago, I resisted reading anything else so that, when I finally possessed the energy to sit down and appreciate it, I would have very few preconceptions.  But from what little I read, and based on the look of the trailer, I was looking forward to a night where I would be sit down to watch it, maybe with some other people, and enjoy an intense indie film.

Although with this poster, you'd think it was some kind of prog-rock album.

Although with this poster, you’d think it was some kind of prog-rock album.

In some ways Catch Me Daddy fulfilled my desire.  For one thing, it’s a film that realizes that the language of film is primarily moving image and is adept at showing rather than telling – or, more accurately, telling through showing.  The best filmmakers, in my opinion, are those who are able to master this skill: they don’t rely on dialogue to explain everything, they can make a film move and produce emotion without spoken info-dumps but with what they show; on the other hand, they don’t end up losing themselves in the possible obscurantism or monotony that can result from a practice of showing that doesn’t tell anything or at least anything significant.  (While I know this will make me life long enemies, I think that Terrence Malick is an example of someone who tells nothing significant in his image-driven filming… this is because, at least in my opinion and with the honourable exception of Badlands, he’s an American imitation of Tarkovsky.)  Daniel Wolfe’s Catch Me Daddy is a thriller that is indeed gripping, even though its explanatory dialogue is sparse, and it is beautifully shot and acted.

My problem with this film, though, is not merely that it falters in the denouement where, after one of the protagonists is hatchet murdered by a coked up racist bounty hunter, things go to filmic shit – the motivation for some characters’ actions become convoluted, annoyingly melodramatic dialogue ensues – but that this denouement is driven by the film’s problematic focus on “honour killings” (though this word is never used) on the part of British South Asians.  Maybe I should have expected that there might be a problem with this film after watching the trailer, where one of the reviews proclaimed that it was “John Ford on the Yorkshire Moors.”  I know that film critics like to cite John Ford as some icon of the western genre, but let’s face it: Ford was a consummate racist who would be happy to participate in KKK rallies – all of his films were exercises in defending the American frontier, the right to slaughter Indigenous peoples.  Any comparison to Ford should make us dubious from the get-go.

The dramatic tension in Catch Me Daddy is driven by the fact that the main character, Laila, has violated the social norms of her Pakistani family by shacking up with her white boyfriend.  Her “dishonoured” father sends his son, some Pakistani thugs, and two hired white bounty hunters to teach her a lesson – namely, to murder her for the dishonour she has brought to her family.  The film is strong when the motivations of Laila’s antagonists remain vague, when we don’t know why the two white “searchers” (one of whom is clearly racist) are working with the Pakistanis, but loses its universal appeal when the honour killing angle takes centre stage.

None of this is to say that there isn’t such a thing as “honour killing” – that young women have not been heinously murdered by reactionary familial patriarchs – but only that a film that is structured around this topic really needs to consider the ways in which the spectre of this crime is utilized by conservative pundits to justify Islamophobia.  That is, while it is true that honour killing does indeed exist, it is just as much an outlier practice as a whole host of other religious crimes against women that obscurantist Christian fundamentalist sects in the western world practice.  So when a white British man makes a film that is driven by the problematic of honour killing in the context of an Islamophobia that has become the justification for contemporary fascism, he really should do the work to be careful that he is not endorsing the fascist narrative that treats honour killing as an essential worldview of “those barbarous Muslims.”

Even worse, Catch Me Daddy goes beyond Islamophobia by venturing into the realm of a general brown person phobia.  It’s not entirely clear that Laila’s family is Muslim since there is nothing in the film that symbolizes them as Muslim aside from their skin colour and the fact they are – as the racist bounty hunter and even Laila’s boyfriend declares – Pakis.  Hell, Laila’s dad is a drinker, hardly the characteristic of someone concerned with the Muslim honour of his family.  So the message here is that all brown people living in the first world are potential ciphers of barbarism, thugs who want to murder their women for transgressing the medieval norms that are essential to their being.

I am not arguing that there should be no filmic investigations of the problem of honour killing, that this crime should be ignored because of Islamophobia.  Nor am I celebrating a banal standpoint ethics that asserts that only members of a given community can talk about the problems inherent to this community.  I am simply pointing that if you do want to engage with an outlier ethical problem that has been attached to a particular community that, as a whole, is under attack, you have to do your work to make sure that your depiction of this problem does not fit comfortably within the narrative of contemporary fascism.

There were so many moments in Catch Me Daddy that could have allowed the narrative of honour killing to not become one that intersected with a whole sale demonization of South Asian immigrants in Europe.  These were the moments that, until the denouement, made the film compelling.  The white bounty hunter Barry pisses on his hand before he shakes hands with his South Asian allies; later, in a moment of cocaine-addled rage, he hatchet murders Aaron.  Or those moments where Aaron, despite being Laila’s boyfriend, refers to her as a Paki, tries to assault a cab driver for speaking with her in a language he can’t understand, and exerts the same amount of control over her life as her father did – this is also an interesting moment that troubles the narrative.

But these potential interventions are eventually off-set: Barry is murdered by his Pakistani allies for no reason other than the fact that they are barbarous; Aaron’s death is a tragedy that leads to Laila’s capitulation.  Meanwhile the Pakistanis are assaulting women (Aaron’s mother) and acting according to the supposed logic of their race.  Barry and his parter, Tony, have no narrative rationality: they are simply despondent thugs who need money – Tony even has a brief moment of conscience where he temporarily rescues Laila from barbarism, though why he does so only to turn her in by himself is poorly explained by a drug problem.  In the end we’re stuck with a denouement that reifies racism, particularly in the annoying final scene where Laila is ordered to hang herself and begins to babble like a child – all of which makes no sense based on the way she was characterized.  The strong woman suddenly becomes a pure victim of patriarchy, lacking the very agency that set her apart at the beginning of the film.

Beautifully shot, acted, and constructed, though… But you know what they say about the aestheticization of politics.

On The Poverty of Revisionist Westerns (Or: “I Saw Bone Tomahawk When It Was Called The Burrowers”)

The upcoming release of the horror-western Bone Tomahawk has reminded me that, despite decades of so-called “revisionist westerns”, I have rarely seen one that was thoroughly critical of the western genre.  Okay, maybe Django, but that had all the problems of a Tarantino film: it gets points for mocking Birth of A Nation and detourning The Searchers (and thus show-casing Tarantino’s awareness of film history, as usual), but it was not a very deep meditation on the settler ideology of the western.  Television series such as Deadwood and Hell on Wheels, though possessing moments that demonstrate some critique of racism/settlerism and western expansion, still fall short of the mark – they generally fall on the side of “everyone is shitty and there’s no heroes” than unveiling the genocidal roots of western expansion.  Indeed, Once Upon A Time In The West, one of the canonical revisionist westerns, already did a far better job of pushing this kind of “revisionist” view of cowboy triumphalism, and the rise of railroad industry, than, say, Hell On Wheels.  Really, the only truly critical western that I can recall seeing is A Bullet For the General (written by Franco Solinas, who also wrote the screenplays for Battle for Algiers and Burn), which dealt with an agent of US imperialism being sent into Mexico to assassinate a peasant revolutionary – but this was limited to a critique of the frontiers era in Mexico rather than the landscape of US western expansion.

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And it stars Kurt Russell!

Although I have yet to see Bone Tomahawk, the trailer makes me suspect that this film will also fall short of the mark.  To be fair, since I haven’t seen it, I can’t really justify these assertions, but from both the trailer and reviews I’ve read I doubt I’m going to be surprised to find a film that is more than a horror version of The Searchers, but one that tries to transcend the explicit racism of that film by reifying colonial violence.  That is, the plot of Bone Tomahawk is something like this: a settler’s wife is abducted, four “cowboy” types go in search of the culprits under the assumption that they are “Indians”, the abducters are revealed to be sub-human murderers who actually are not part of any Indigenous nation (but some sort of “troglodyte” literal inhuman grouping of tusked monsters), as the wise Indigenous supporting characters have already warned.  Hence the explicit racism of The Searchers narrative is offset by the revelation that the settlers aren’t really hunting natives, and maybe that they were stupidly racist to think so, but something else entirely.

Before thoroughly discussing what I take to be the problem with this narrative – i.e. that it doesn’t at all produce an actual critical revision to Western tropes but in fact sublimates them – I feel that it is worth examining as background, since I haven’t seen Bone Tomahawk, that this approach to The Searchers‘ narrative was already done in The Burrowers.  Same frame tale, from what I can tell: people attacked and abducted, racist settler posse sets out to catch the Indigenous peoples they think responsible, a non-Indigenous primordial evil (one that also preys on Indigenous people) is encountered.  Now, as a film in dialogue with The Searchers (which is the iconic racist western, in both its racism and its importance in cinematic history), The Burrowers was not without its merits.  On the one hand it functioned to convict the settler protagonists with their racism – if they hadn’t been so convinced that they were hunting natives, and indeed brutalized an Indigenous person that could have helped them, they wouldn’t have ignored a host of signs that could helped them.  On the other hand, there were moments of solidarity between the captured and beaten Indigenous character and a former slave.  Still, as much as I found this film interesting (and indeed quite frightening), I still found its critical potential squandered for the same reason that makes me wonder about Bone Tomahawk, which feels like another take on the same proto-Searchers narrative.  And it is because of The Burrowers, and my feelings after watching that film, that I found myself immediately suspicious of Bone Tomahawk.

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Can someone tell me if this is the same effing film?

Honestly, I think that connected the western genre with the horror genre could result in a truly critical western (or an anti-western, perhaps) and might in fact possess a lot of untapped potential.  There is nothing more horrific, after all, than the actual historical facts of modern colonialism.  As I noted in my review of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, the horrific lies at the heart of US western expansion and it was notable that McCarthy emphasized this fact… His problem, of course, was that such a recognition would fall far short of an actual “revisionist western” since he ended up implying, in typical Hobbesian form (which is now part of a cynical reactionary understanding of history), that the natives were just as bad as the settlers, that all of the horror was part of some state of nature where humans are equally brutalizing other humans, and thus it makes no sense to complain about the horrors of colonialism when the colonized are equally vicious but simply “losers” in their viciousness.  Even still, there were moments when McCarthy depicted settler violence that felt like revelations, an uncovering of a horror movie that lay at the heart of the founding of USAmerica, that could have been more critical had he embedded it within an anticolonial ethos.

Unfortunately, the horror approach to the western that is focused on a rearticulation of the Searchers narrative does not really succeed in foregrounding the horror of colonialism during US western expansionism (not that there wasn’t horror prior to this period in modern colonial history, only that the western genre is concerned with this period).  This failure is due, in my opinion, to the fact that this Searchers narrative is morally loaded.  That is, the problem with The Searchers is not simply its obvious racist affectations (i.e. John Wayne’s daughter was taken by Indigenous “savages” and turned into a “white squaw” because the colonized are essentially rapists and murderers who must be, as the logic of colonial superiority dictates, exterminated), but also its more pernicious ethical claim: that honest settlers are being harmed and abducted, that they are victims who would otherwise live and let live, and that the law of the frontier simply exists to protect “honest folk” (that is, colonial farmers) from being harmed.  In The Searchers there is never any question that John Wayne’s character, and the people he represents, have done anything wrong: whatever violence they express is simply in reaction to a violation of their right to subsist upon the land.

Hence, as with The Searchers, films like The Burrowers receive their moral impetus from the abduction of innocent settlers.  The reason why the settlers are there in the first place is not really interrogated (though, at least with The Burrowers, there is the occasional, but extremely ephemeral, glimmer of an understanding), the ethical function of the frontiers family is not examined. I am not arguing that every family engaged in western expansion was rabidly committed to Indigenous genocide and thus deserving abduction – as an historical materialist I’m less interested in what people imagined themselves to be than what their function was as part of a structural moment – only that this discourse of “abduction” is highly problematical.  In the context of a push for US expansion, following a rejection of the qualifications of the Treaty of the Paris, what a particular settler family thought about its role in the nation is far less important than what the ruling class, and the ideology it promoted, recognized: that western expansion was indeed, as Theodor Roosevelt would later defend, a necessary violence in order to establish civilization against the “barbarism” of sub-human natives.

Hence, in this period, every family involved in the expansion was, regardless of how they thought of themselves, part of a settler garrison.  Indeed, Sakai defined settlerism as a “garrison” mentality, and there is evidence that many of these frontiers families, would have indeed themselves as part of a civilizational garrison expanding against a state of nature (that included Indigenous peoples) that was resisting the right of civilization – the common sense ideology of the time would have guaranteed that this understanding was normative.  Even still, if these families weren’t conscious of this ideology this doesn’t really matter: they were, regardless of how they conceptualized themselves, part of an intensified colonial putsch.  So in this context, to treat them as the ground of moral action –the settler is abducted, all violence against the kidnappers is justified – obscures the prior ethical crime of colonialism.  This is not to say, of course, that such abductions were common (this is yet another colonial trope that The Searchers normalizes) only that the discourse of settler abduction functions to obscure colonialism by creating a story where the settler, and not the native that the settler exists to displace, is the primary victim.

If movies like The Burrowers attempt to rectify this narrative by displacing the crime of abduction on kidnappers who are inhuman, all this does is reify the claim made by The Searchers: the settler still remains the primary victim, violation of Indigenous peoples is simply a mistake on the way to rectifying the original crime, and the barbarism attributed to natives is projected upon a mythical space.  The supernatural entities in The Burrowers, known by native nations, are also hypostatized versions of native tribes: they are also indigenous, though supernaturally so, and the colonial hinterlands remain hostile to settler infiltration.  Here we find a repression of colonial chauvinism, a sublimation of the colonizer-colonized contradiction, that is driven by the recognition that now it is morally wrong to characterize Indigenous people as kidnappers.  So the problem is these “other” savages, which exist in a mythic space, and that still represent precisely what the racists of the 19th century said that Indigenous peoples were: inhuman monsters, demonic pagans. Does it really matter if this film works hard to demonstrate that the enemy is not Indigenous when it represents everything that Indigenous people were said to be by common sense ideology in the period of westward US expansion?  And in this context, the abducted settlers are still the basis upon which moral practice rests: the entire film is motivated by their innocence, by the violation represented in abduction, and that this abduction is immediately understood (though wrongly) as performed by the colonized.

Which is why I have little faith in Bone Tomahawk to correct the mistakes of The Burrowers, especially since it feels both derivative and less aware of itself within the genre.  According to the reviews, an Indigenous person appears rather early in the film to inform the protagonist searchers that they are ignorant “pale-faces” [yes, this is the term used, a stereotypical way of speaking] for assuming that the enemy is “indian” – as if this enough to off-set the allegiance to the Searchers narrative… in fact, it seems designed to function as a defense mechanism: see we’re not racist even if we’re drawing on a racist narrative!  Here, the problem is not that the true enemy of the colonizer is some savage other – the real savage that threatened the colonizer, a monster that only masqueraded as Indigenous – but that the colonizer itself is the monstrous other, the alien presence upon the landscape that typified western expansion.  Any horror-western that is capable of actually drawing on the authentic horror of that period, and upsetting the narrative of mainstream westerns, must locate its horror in the figure of the settler rather than a variant of the native… For this was the literal horror of history, the axis upon which genocide was accomplished, and to proclaim otherwise is to align oneself with horror itself, to proclaim a rejection of ethics altogether.

All of this is to say that there needs to revitalization of the western genre that is properly critical of this genre’s conceits rather than concentrating on a few symptoms, repeating certain narratives that are in themselves problematic.  An actual “revisionist western” must begin with the fact of colonial genocide and slave-based settlement, especially according to the attitudes of this context in the nineteenth century where the traditional western is supposed to take place, and seek to intentionally disrupt the ideological intersections in which particular colonial narratives locate their existence.  It is not enough to detourne The Searchers, which might be incapable (after at least two tries) of being detourned; the task is to produce a western that begins with the horror of colonization.