Tag: film

Favela Ninjas and Apartheid Samurai

Neill Blomkamp’s “Elysium” packs a punch for an action sci-fi film even if its punches don’t land.

So yeah … Jodie Foster doesn’t give her best performance and the other roles for women in the film are completely lame.  A beefy Matt Damon, bless his heart, is poorly cast.  The core plot line doesn’t make much sense.  Look, let’s face it, there is just no way Blomkamp can match the brilliance of his earlier hit, “District 9.”

Nevertheless, this film plays well with a range of contemporary possibilities/anxieties in the Global North: post-human bodies, surveillance drones, biometrics, the carceral archipelago, the securitization of migration, mega-favelas/globalized Gaza, privatized militaries, socialized medicine, the hierarchy of tongues, etc.

The film reminds us that globalization is as much about the construction of borders as their elimination.  It shows just how uncomfortable we are with liberal ideas in practice.  And it forces us to think about the reality of structural violence in our daily lives.

So how could this film have been better? Continue reading



Last night PBS’ POV program aired the Danish documentary film “Armadillo” (filmed 2009; released 2010) about a Danish-British Forward Operating Base in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.

Although much of the documentary portrays standard tropes and follows a time honored narrative arc from a long line of war films, Janus Metz‘s work sparked debate in Europe because it appeared to depict Danish soldiers “liquidating” wounded Taliban fighters and piling up the bodies to take trophy photos. Thus, as the director notes, the film challenges the notion of soldiers as heroes while also showing the ways in which the experience of combat perverts the psychological state of the soldiers.

More subtly and perhaps more subversively, the film allows Afghan civilians, who are caught in the conflict between ISAF and the Taliban, to speak for themselves. Children beg for food, but they also heckle the soldiers for killing their livestock and wounding their family members and they bluntly tell the soldiers to just go home. Village elders seek compensation for destruction to their property and livelihood by ISAF forces while also trying to keep the somewhat oblivious soldiers off of their crops. There is even a wonderfully absurd encounter at a madrassa where the Danish troops try to secure support and information from the teacher at the madrassa by telling him that with his cooperation they will be able to build schools for children in the village — as if a madrassa were not a school.  The arguments of the soldiers about creating security if only the villagers would collaborate with the ISAF troops are calmly defeated through knowing smiles and gestures explaining what the Taliban will do to collaborators… The hopeless and confused nature of the conflict where violence begets more violence becomes startlingly apparent in these brief interactions.

If you did not get a chance to see this film, the full length version is available at PBS POV.


Understanding Zombie Comedy

Earlier this week, Tufts professor Dan Drezner tweeted that his Theory of International Politics and Zombies book has now sold more than 10,000 copies. That’s a huge total by academic standards and I sincerely congratulate Drezner on his success.

Fellow Duck of Minerva bloggers have previously written a good deal about zombies and Drezner’s book. For Foreign Policy, Dan Nexon wrote a brief comment about Drezner’s original article suggesting that we should think (naturally) about IR in terms of hierarchy and empire:

America’s unmatched global-strike capabilities will lead most other remaining states to acquiesce to U.S. leadership over the zone of the living.

The result will not, unfortunately, be Liberal Order 3.0, but a global Pax Americana supported by regional client-empires tasked with controlling and eradicating local zombie eruptions.

Likewise, Laura Sjoberg argues that Drezner reifies masculinization in/of IR.

Reviewer Adam Weinstein argues that the book is “a light, breezy volume” laced with “quick dry punch lines” (Drezner is said to have a “weakness for the cheap joke”). While Charli Carpenter conceded that “the book can and must be read as parody,” Vikash Yadav more critically writes that this hint of humor does not compensate for the mainstream thinking he finds both in Drezner’s book and the larger debate about it:

I do not see the discussions about zombies as a type of new or out-of-the-box thinking. If anything, the discussions of zombies that I have noted so far are completely “in-the-box” thinking, except with a touch of geeky humor, parody, and wit that is usually lacking in the discipline.

So what would constitute an out-of-the box critique of Theory of International Politics and Zombies?

In her most thorough Duck blog post about the book, Charli notes a potentially serious failing of Drezner’s work.

…the book actually scarcely mentions critical theory, post-modernism, feminist theory or pretty much any scholarship falling on the “reflectivist” side of the discipline, much less utilizes their tools. (Though to be fair, Dan doesn’t claim to do so, either.)

But if I have one critique of this otherwise brilliant little book, it’s that as a description of “the field” of IR, TIPZ’ relentless focus on rationalist theory to the near-exclusion of identities, language or embodiment frankly bites.

Broadly, Weinstein agrees with this assessment, as he claims that Drezner’s survey of the field is “prone to give short shrift to IR theories he clearly disagrees with [citing social constructivism], and to softpedal on those with which he sympathizes just a bit.”

While those are significant concerns about the book, they are likely not sufficiently unconventional to satisfy Vikash’s critique. Indeed, he suggests a potentially more critical approach — by thinking about the central role of threats in the discipline, especially ultimate “worst case” threats.

I would hypothesize that apocalyptic thinking functions to reassert the relevance of dominant modes of theorizing; apocalyptic thinking disciplines the discipline. Apocalyptic thinking is deeply conservative; it reasserts the relevance of theories which protect the status quo.

This is an especially important concern given some empirical evidence Drezner arguably misinterprets in his book — the meaning of a couple of comedic zombie films, Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland.

Some readers may know that my ongoing sabbatical project is about “the comedy of global politics.” As I have previously explained at the Duck, numerous realist and other IR theorists have long argued that the discipline is explained in tragic terms. Tragic stories traditionally focus on doomed heroic nobles who find themselves constrained by their situation. The stories tend to be set in the Great Hall or on the battlefield and end in death.

By contrast, comedy potentially provides an important alternative narrative perspective on the discipline. Comedies typically focus on ordinary people and emphasize their regular lives — the human security agenda, if you prefer that language. The stories end happily, perhaps in a marriage. Comedies focusing on elites typically satirize and critique those characters, revealing them to be self-interested buffoons. Satire, farce and black comedy can be subversive, reflecting critical rather than entrenched understandings.

Arguably, the makers of the recent comedic zombie films have both the concerns of ordinary people and subversive ideas about elites in mind. The threat from zombies is mostly played for laughs (Zombieland was criticized for its failings as a horror film) and the lives of the (ordinary) main characters provide alternative narratives that are not centrally focused on apocalyptic threats. The zombies seem relatively easy to slay — though, granted, their large numbers are somewhat worrisome. The lead characters spend a fair amount of screen time thinking about their love lives and families. Both Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland end relatively happily, suggesting romance, family, and a return to (a new) normalcy.

Elite characters in these films, by contrast, are often lampooned and criticized. Obviously, the zombie outbreaks in both films reflect a failure of established order — and the characters in these movies are thus left to construct their own rules and understandings in order to cope with their situations. While Shaun of the Dead relies upon the military to save the lead characters from their situation, the story’s final resolution remains nonetheless focused on the relationships among the ordinary people at the center of the film.

Bill Murray appears as himself in Zombieland , living essentially alone in his mansion and disguising himself as a zombie so that he can have a life outside his dwelling. He plays golf, an elite sport, thanks to his zombie disguise. This way of life proves unsustainable.

Comedic zombie films, despite Drezner’s take (rom zom com?), offer a meaningful pathway to discuss critical theory in IR.




Cross-posted from my personal blog, by suggestion of a Vikash Yadav tweet.

I’ve now watched the first two parts of “Carlos,” a three-part French-produced television miniseries that was broadcast on Sundance this past month. Édgar Ramírez is terrific in the title (star-making) role, though his character is hardly sympathetic. The notorious terrorist is portrayed as an unusual killer — part playboy, part-diplomat, and part-frustrated middle-manager. Carlos is shown meeting with prominent international leaders and is called a celebrity by his fellow terrorists after the 1975 kidnappings at the Vienna OPEC convention. That event takes up a good portion of part 2.

Part 1 of the film opens with a statement warning that it is a fictionalized account and that only certain specific crimes were factually confirmed at trial. Thus, I was not sure of what to make of an alleged meeting in Baghdad involving Yuri Andropov (then-head of the KGB), Carlos and other desperadoes (one actor looked like Tariq Aziz). Allegedly, Andropov put a price on Anwar Sadat’s head at this meeting.

Indeed, one important element of “Carlos” is the relatively clear state sponsorship the terrorist and his various organizations enjoy throughout most of his career. Support from Libya, Syria, Iraq, Algeria, East Germany and the Soviet Union all figure into the terror incidents portrayed on screen. It is no wonder that the Bush administration, circa 2001, believed that state sponsorship was the key element of its anti-terror campaign (despite facts suggesting a completely different kind of threat). This was not a matter of IR theory privileging states.

As a movie, the Golden-Globe winning production is quite unusual:

The film’s scope, range and ambition are incredible; it’s set in at least 16 countries over a 21-year period, and at all times features the characters speaking the languages they would have spoken in the relevant situations—Carlos himself shifts effortlessly among Spanish, English, French, German, Russian and Arabic. An untold number of supporting and bit players pop vividly to life for however many moments they’re onscreen, and the film maintains an exceptional balance between a relentless forward movement and a certain artistic stability…

…the film is so convincing that it persuades you this is essentially the way it was. There are few so completely transporting historical movies, in that it drops the viewer down in another world and time without evident artifice, doctoring, nostalgia, revisionist thinking or overt political agenda. Those with a continuing stake in the causes involved or their own memories of the times can be counted upon to dispute this or that, but as a time machine “Carlos” functions brilliantly.

I can’t wait to watch part 3 — the decline and fall of Carlos, apparently.


DVD review; “Capitalism: A Love Story”

Up front, I’ll admit that Michael Moore movies appeal to me. My politics lean left, I embrace populist sensibilities on many issues, and I strongly believe that humor can be employed to levy an effective critique of politics.

  • Roger and Me,” which told the dismal story of the relationship between General Motors and Flint, Michigan, was a personal story for Moore since it concerned his hometown and was a strong beginning for his career as a documentary film maker.
  • Bowling for Columbine,” which used the infamous Colorado high school shootings by two teenage boys to examine America’s love affair with guns, was an outstanding work — certified by its Oscar victory.
  • The polemical “Fahrenheit 9/11” revealed some interesting truths to a wider audience concerning the Bush administration, the “war on terrorism,” and its application to Iraq.
  • Finally, Moore’s health care movie, “Sicko,” had some strong moments and made Americans think about the U.S. system compared to systems available in other countries. Not every sector of the economy, he seemed to be saying, should be ruled by free market principles.

In his latest film, “Capitalism: A Love Story,” Moore extends this critique more widely.

Warning: spoilers ahead.

Unfortunately, even though the film included some very fine moments, such as the focus on the 2008 worker sit-in at Republic Windows and Doors in Illinois, I did not enjoy most of Moore’s latest film. Too often, it seemed like Moore lost his narrative thread by exploring weak tangential points.

For example, consider the fairly long section revealing that companies sometimes take out life insurance policies on their workers. It does seem crass, particularly the way Moore framed the issue, but it is also pits one for-profit enterprise (the company buying insurance) against another (the insurance company). Actuarial tables and luck play a big role in deciding who earns and who loses in individual cases. Moore implied that companies had a profit motive in the death of their employees, but the insurance companies likewise have a profit motive in their life. Why is this a generalized critique of capitalism?

Moreover, rhetorically, I think the film would have been better targeted at the corporate and financial sectors of the economy rather than at the economic system as a whole. This is especially important given that the film offers very little about what he thinks might supplant “capitalism.”

Like Moore, I am very sympathetic towards FDR’s second bill of rights and share many of Jimmy Carter’s 1979 concerns about Americans’ worshiping self-indulgence and consumption. Yet, these ideas are not introduced in the film in such a way as to suggest a viable alternative to capitalism. Indeed, the men who originally offered those ideas likely saw them as means by which to counter the power of “economic royalists” (to use FDR’s phrasing). Reforming capitalism to make it more European doesn’t seem like a death sentence.

Worse, I thought that this film’s populism teetered awfully close to the anti-bailout arguments made by the tea party members. I’m not sure Tim Geithner (read this terrific profile) is an economic genius, but Moore’s criticisms of the bailout used many of the same rhetorical devices employed by those who don’t understand Keynesian economics. Moore seemed to be criticizing the size of the bailouts and the government efforts to stimulate the economy as much as he was the corporate recipients.

Yes, many of the funds were employed in dubious ways, but the TARP repayments provide a major counterargument to Moore’s apparent thesis. Moore’s populism works better against corporate greed (when he focuses his camera appropriately) rather than against government efforts to stimulate the economy. FDR would have designed different programs, but his thinking was similar

:“Into the ears of many of you have been dinned the cry that your Government has been piling up an unconscionable and back breaking debt. Let me tell you a simple story. In the Spring of Nineteen hundred and thirty-three, many of the great bankers of the United States flocked to Washington. They were there to get the help of their government in the saving of their banks from insolvency. To them I pointed out, in all fairness, the simple fact that you couldn’t make bread without flour. The simple fact that the government would be compelled to go heavily into debt for a few years to come in order to save banks and save insurance companies and mortgage companies and railroads, and to take care of millions of people who were on the verge of starvation. And every one of these gentlemen expressed to me at that time the firm conviction that it was all well worth the price and that they heartily approved”.

The film’s ending, featuring Moore trying to make a citizen’s arrest of AIG executives, backing a Brink’s truck up to various banks and asking for “our money” back, and wrapping “crime scene” tape around Wall Street’s famous bull, all seem like self-indulgent publicity stunts rather than valuable symbolic acts of political protest. By comparison, Moore lining up Cuban health care for some needy Americans in “Sicko” seemed high-minded, poignant, and effective.

I think “Capitalism: A Love Story” is worth viewing, but don’t expect to be wowed. This Michael Moore fan wasn’t.


The Hurt Locker, again

Duck of Minerva bloggers have already written quite a bit about “The Hurt Locker,” which won the Best Picture prize at this week’s Academy Awards ceremony. I saw the movie on DVD a few weeks ago and have been digesting some of the reactions to the film.

Like many critics of this film, Michael Kamber of the NY Times offers a list of serious errors in “The Hurt Locker.” Viewers see the bomb disposal team leave on missions without much other military support. The team members clear buildings by themselves, become skilled snipers and spotters when they stumble upon some British mercenaries, and operate alone in the desert for no apparent reason. He concludes that these are much more than minor technical mistakes:

The film is a collection of scenes that are completely implausible — wrong in almost every respect…it’s not just minor details that are wrong.

Perhaps most inexplicably and implausibly, Staff Sgt. William James, the lead character portrayed as a reckless showboat, has supposedly managed to disarm hundreds of bombs without killing himself! In one key scene, he runs around Baghdad alone at night without suffering injury. His unbelievable exploits are emphasized and reemphasized throughout the film.

So, why did I like “The Hurt Locker” and find it a viable candidate for the canon of IR-related films?

As I read the film, the story of Sgt. James is a metaphor for the story of post-cold war U.S. military intervention — primarily in Iraq, but elsewhere as well.

For James, the war in Iraq is a narcotic. He thrives on the adrenaline-inducing experience, even though he cannot talk to his wife on the telephone, nor really endure his ordinary post-war experience at home with wife and child. His bomb disposal techniques are so disturbing that his fellow team members talk of killing him. He returns to Iraq because his participation in that war has become an integral part of his identity. Sure, he’s been incredibly lucky in the past, but his personal image is embedded in his wartime experience.

As some critics point out, this film has been lauded because domestic audiences appreciate its apparent wartime “realism,” even though the storyline and characters seem completely unrealistic to experts who give them serious thought.

The U.S. too has a long and mostly successful military record — and it too has been incredibly lucky. Like James, the U.S. returned to Iraq after a successful first effort in 1990-91, though many of its friends decided to sit this war out — and some worked actively to try to stop it. Most IR experts found the rationale for U.S. participation in Iraq fairly implausible back in 2003, though I suppose the mass public supported a certain rationale at the time it was originally offered.

To its critics, the U.S. too is a reckless showboat, willing to take incredible risks with other peoples’ lives, even as it claims to be “saving” them. As Vikash has argued at the Duck, the film makes very little effort to explore the perspective of the Iraqis in the film. “The Hurt Locker” is a narrow portrayal of one small unit’s experiences with death and destruction.

This too could be read as an important element of the film. In political debates, Americans focus on U.S. forces, casualties, and experiences. Foreign policy experts debate the meaning of the Iraq war for preventive war doctrines, counterinsurgency tactics, present and future budgeting, etc. Few consider the implications for Iraqis and the wider Middle East.

At times, their technology and ability make the bomb disposal team members seem like Supermen, saviors of the world. However, the film makes no effort to argue that these super-human efforts are actually doing any greater good — or even improving the security of the United States. The film was set in 2004, which means that the U.S. had not yet officially given up on the search for WMDs, the Downing Street Memos had not been disclosed, the Samarra mosque had not been bombed, etc. “Shock and awe” had not prevailed, however, proving that America’s technological prowess didn’t lead to the type of victory many war proponents predicted in advance of the conflict.

In other words, the bad news was bad…but it got worse.

In sum, while the storyline of “The Hurt Locker” often seems detached from realistic war-time experience, that FUBAR narrative works pretty well to explain the actual U.S. experience in Iraq. The lead character’s addiction to war, recklessness, luck, inexplicable behavior, and need to “save the day” reflect an unsavory, but nonetheless viable, portrayal of American identity.


Grading IR 101 Through Film: Another Bleg

Last time I taught “World Politics” as a GenEd class, I had my first-years write their midterm on their choice of Lord of the Rings, Independence Day or Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith. I want to use the same concept this year but not the same films two years in a row. The assignment is to use the film as a hook to discuss four schools of thought in IR – realism, liberalism, constructivism, feminism; and make an argument about which one is best reflected in the film and why.

One of my TAs suggested BSG: Razor. I worry that Razor, and BSG in general, is too complex a story for such an assignment. Also, it’s more about civil-military affairs and military ethics than about statecraft or foreign policy per se. What do readers think? Thumbs up or thumbs down on Razor? Other ideas for recent blockbuster films that could be used for this exercise?


This Movie is Every Kind of Sick.

If you need a little stomach-turning yet intellectually provocative weekend fun, go watch District 9 while it’s still in theatres. Only check your disbelief at the door. (I mean seriously. If two of your teeth fall casually out of your rotting mouth in the space of ten seconds, you’re not about to get through storming a fortified secret biolab with the rest of them intact, are you now? And since when can humans and aliens understand one another’s languages without a universal translator?)

If you’ve not seen it (and chances you have, I’m usually late to these things since my typical night out to movies still in theatres involves children too young to watch people bite their own fingernails off) Rob Williams sums it up pretty well: “Think ‘Blair Witch Project’ meets ‘Aliens’ meets ‘Borat.'” Aliens arrive at earth to be cast into apartheid-like conditions policed by a sprawling and corrupt private security firm. The rest is a commentary on the Weberian state, emnification processes between in-groups and out-groups, the grimy reality of slum conditions, and the similarities between medical science and voodoo cannibalism. Oh, with a good old-fashioned adversity-makes-a-real-man-of-you hero narrative.

Students who saw it ahead of me raved about it: “Professor, you have to see this film, I watched it and all I could think about was your class!” And true it’s chock full of provocative themes straight out of a human security textbook (though you would think given the context that the political semantics might be slightly more sophisticated).

Sharmini Brooks says the film is full of cliches and it is. (I mean, we get that it’s a play on different kinds of apartheid. Did it really have to be set in Johannnesburg to make that point – wouldn’t any megacity do?) But maybe so. Eric Conway-Smith of the Global Post sees the film as a commentary not on the many forms of institutionalised exclusion American audiences (especially human security students) could read into the plot, but literally about actual living conditions in South Africa’s present-day slums.

I think the most interesting subtext is not about slum life or social exclusion or even identity and interests and liminality and man’s inhumanity to prawns but about the media Panopticon. The mockumentary format of the early and final scenes implies that the non-mockumentary parts have been cobbled together by news cameras constantly watching everything… it’s an eerie effect when you can’t even barf in privacy. Where must one go for a little respect anyway, off-planet?


“Men” at “War”: Reflections on “The Hurt Locker”

Tantalized by Eric Randolph’s glowing review, I watched The Hurt Locker this past week. I can see what Eric means by the film being almost in its own genre – a film about the everyday work of soldiering during an occupation, with no grand narrative about the rightness or wrongness of the war. But in my view, that is it’s own grand narrative: a study in what soldiering is becoming, and the implications for soldiers and for society.

So I viewed this film as an artifact of an emerging era in civil-military relations, an indicator of the kind of war stories we are currently telling ourselves as a society. How divergent is this film from earlier constructions? I noticed two things that were very interesting.

The first was a near-absolute absence of women in the film, other than the typical waiting-wife. Yet a significant number of those serving in Iraq are women. The NYTimes reported recently that this critical mass of female fighters “has changed the way the US military goes to war… reshaped life on bases across Iraq and Afghanistan… cultivated a new generation of women with a warrior’s ethos – and combat experience… and have done so without the disruption of unit coehsion that some feared would unfold.” Given those real-life changes, it’s interesting that this “new kind of war movie” would rely on such an age-old script about war being essentially men’s work, the role of women in a wartime economy to wait at home raising babies in frustration alone.

But with all the manly bodies dominating the screen, the second thing I noticed was the raw emotionality of the film. This was not a film about militarized maculinity per se but about individual men struggling with and against such an archetype and leaning on one another emotionally – to the point of a touch-feeliness we usually see reserved for chick flicks in the US. Is this frame is meant to invoke recent changes in military policy (for example, struggling with morale problems, suicides, domestic violence and divorce, the US Army is now requiring every soldier to take intensive training in emotional resiliency)? Or is it simply part of the director’s effort to recast military life and the coping skills required to survive it?

Either way, of the two trends – the integration of women into combat roles and the integration of attributes associated with the feminine into our concepts of warriorhood – I think the latter is much more significant in societal terms, and I was glad to see it reflected in the portrayals here.


If You Haven’t Seen This Movie, You Probably Should.

Eric Randolph tells us why at Complex Terrain Lab in a post entitled “A New Kind of War Movie” :

“The Hurt Locker has already garnered the epithet of ‘first great Iraq war movie’ since its US release back in June, but that might actually be an underestimation. For a start, it has an intensity that will leave your bowels twisted and your nails bleeding; and it’s made a star of a nobody in James Renner. But, more importantly, by side-stepping the question of the war’s founding morality and justification, director Kathryn Bigelow has achieved something quite new for the war genre. Her resolute focus on the daily activities of a small cog in the military machine – namely, a bomb disposal unit in 2004 Baghdad – results in a film that is neither anti-war polemic nor gung-ho propaganda piece. Rather, she simply seeks to represent the unadorned and bleak reality of daily routine, with the caveat that the daily routine in question happens to be a horrifically dangerous nightmare.

As an exercise in compulsive tension, it is obviously a great subject for a filmmaker, and one that Bigelow and writer Mark Boal have expertly realised. But more than that, it is also a rare look at the process of war-fighting. Cinema has often treated soldiers as metaphors for the grand existential struggles of mankind, or as the tortured pawns of some inherent evil in the world. By contrast, the soldiers of The Hurt Locker are simply employees doing a particular bizarre job. The action is episodic, occurring in a series of fairly independent set pieces that bring home the monotony of work far more than any quest for glory. Although Bigelow tries to inject some concluding “what does it all mean?”-style remarks towards the end, these moments sit uncomfortably in a film that avoids melodrama, sweeping rationalisations or any over-arching narrative.”

I withhold judgment until after I have a chance to rent and watch, which on Randolph’s tantalizing recommendation I shall do this weekend. But based on his description I think this genre (nuts and bolts of work in and around wars, sans grand narrative) was actually pioneered earlier in the decade – with films about the First Gulf War. Jarhead and Three Kings (possibly, though maybe it was in a genre all its own) come to mind. It’s true that you haven’t seen a film of this type about the Iraq war, so that’s new. I wonder if there is some generalizable lag in films about particular wars that renders this type of movie politically acceptable a certain amount of time after the onset of hostilities.


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