Archive for the ‘Film & Television’ Category

Catching up on my RSS feeds this morning, I came across this post on the great security blog Security Generation. The author points to his pet peeve, the oft-repeated but highly-problematic TV and movie trope of photographic enhancement. His beef is that it is impossible. An image (or recording) is not some fractal in which infinitely extract higher and higher resolution. The data is finite, and it is limited by the media. There is only so much detail you can squeeze out. In this montage, YouTube user dunk3d takes a poke this idea:

I have wasted an embarrassing amount of time watching 90% of those. In fact, one or two will likely make it into my dissertation–if I ever finish that bastard document. All of them are all guilty of indulging this fantasy. What I find interesting is that in all of them the fantasy is mediated with computers, another layer of mystery (for the average person) to add credulity to it.

However, the computer is not the start of the fantasy. There are some interesting critiques of this fantasy of ‘enhancement’ that occurred way before the present pseudo-digital, CSI-obsessed era. The 1966 film Blowup explores the idea of ‘enhancing’ a photo beyond what is possible. It is a very weird but interesting movie, which inspired a bunch of films that did the same thing but with audio such as the 1981 film Blow Out. In the case of Blowup, the audience is left to wonder whether the pictures were ever even taken in the first place. The difference between it and the shows represented in dunk3d’s montage is director Michelangelo Antonioni problematizes rather than promotes the fantasy.

Obviously, it is a trope we link back to our fantasies about the so-called “Top Secret America”–that every piece of data, every detail, is accessible to the sometimes menacing, sometimes heroic state of exception.


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A few days ago, I got a chance to watch Inception and enjoyed it very much. To Christopher Nolan’s credit, the film held me in such an almost pained state of suspense that, if I had been reading a book, I would have skipped ahead to the ending. In spite of the fact that I expected Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) to shout “we are duly-appointed federal marshals,” Nolan’s dream world worked for me. Moreover, the premise of stealing (“extraction”) or implanting (“inception”) an idea deep within another’s mind was intriguing.

Yet, the film’s strongest feature was the masterful way he draws upon the cultural imaginaries of films like The Matrix and the James Bond franchise to create a world that is very likely the fiction of one or more characters’ minds. When you have a scene like the Alpine assault on the fortress deep within layers of dreams, the fun–above and beyond the fascinating visuals–is in wondering where, exactly, is the origin of the fantasy.

Amongst my friends and the mainstream press, I keep hearing you have to watch the film multiple times to “get it.” If anything, the film would have benefitted from being even more inscrutable. The whole plot (cover your eyes if you have yet to watch it) can be too easily dismissed as a figment of Cobb’s imagination as he is drowning in the disorientating wish-fulfillment of “limbo” as he is chased by his dead wife and shadowy corporations–both of which may or may not have ever existed. After all, if Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levy), Ariadne (Ellen Page, who I would have bet money would have been an irritating reminder of Juno and those terrible Cisco commercials, but was not), and the other members of the team are mere “projections” of Cobb’s mind, can we trust anything we see in this environment? Perhaps, the audience are themselves positioned as dreamers observing a world we cannot trust.

Indeed, this idea of a world that we cannot trust has taken hold elsewhere in the popular press with the Washington Post’s “Top Secret America” expose. As I tweeted when the story broke, I continue to be underwhelmed by the revelations. If you are remotely shocked by a single one of these, you are not paying attention–and I say this from an English Department where I am the farthest place in the universe from being an “insider.” Indeed, the ‘scariest‘ among the so-called revelations is that there are installations across the United States where this “top secret” business takes place. They are not as inconspicuous as you might think. A building with hardened security fences, 360-degree camera coverage, and persistent security personnel above and beyond the occasional bored doorman tends to stand out. Moreover, a trip to the property appraiser’s website will tell you what shadowy organization owns it. In sum, these places are not exactly hidden within volcanos. It removes the romance/horror (depending on your politics), doesn’t it?

(If you represent an organization that actually operates out of a volcano lair, my resume is but a click away.)

The story’s “legs” is its evocation of an impenetrable hidden world that may or may not be watching us. I quite literally laughed out loud when the Flash video proclaimed a “fourth branch of government–Top Secret America.” If only it were that sexy. The shear number of people that have security clearance should indicate how mundane this world really is. (I recall a segment of The Daily Show where, instead of ‘if I told you, I would have to kill you,’ John Stuart says, “If I told you, you would never have sex with me.”) Many of the number advertised are folks like DEA agents who are subjected to a clearance process in the interest of protecting the names of undercover agents, confidential informants, etc. The risk is not you, reading my blog in your cat-themed night dress, but a cartel trying to gain access to that information. “Top Secret” is more a measure of scrutiny applied to employees rather than actual access to information–much less nefariousness of purpose. Others are folks like Foreign Service Officers who have access to information that may be valuable to actors ranging from foreign companies to intelligence services.

That is not to say domestic surveillance does not creep me out. It does. From my dating misadventures to my politics, I value every shred of my privacy–something, it is worth noting, that those who have Secret or Top Secret clearance have sacrificed in the name of public service. However, having argued better security practices to friends and clients over the years as an IT guy, I guarantee you those who are worried about the NSA spying on your porn habits are far more at risk from disclosing confidential or otherwise damaging information on Facebook, in unencrypted IMs or web browsing, or via just plain bad security practices to criminal organizations than they are anyone in the Intelligence Community.

Moreover, I am 100% confident in the ability of truly nefarious organizations to evade billion dollar systems steeped in bureaucracy whether it be syphoning credit card numbers or planning terror attacks. Just as malware authors continue to defeat signature-based detection regimes like antivirus programs, others will defeat monitoring programs like the NSA’s creepily-named “Perfect Citizen.” Even if there is someone who can perfect an automated surveillance system that could flag real threats (they won’t), bad guys can resort to passing notes between their cousins and brothers-in-law–a medium a lot more trustworthy than the Internet or telephone. Hell, I am reasonably confident in MY ability to evade surveillance and my budget is a grad student’s stipend and my ‘tradecraft’ I picked up via podcasts, websites, and Amazon.com. In other words, I am hardly a Bond villain–golden gun and third nipple, notwithstanding.

What scares me does scare me is two-fold: (1) the over-confidence in high-tech surveillance for reasons I have already stated, and (2) the judges and lawyers making the legal determinations based upon this over-confidence or outright ignorance. At a talk at University of Florida, former FBI senior executive Randall Murch recalled the approval process for an early post-9/11 electronic surveillance measure. The judge, who needed his grandson to turn on his computer, only asked, “Would this technology have prevented 9/11?” Murch answered, “Yes.” I have a great deal of respect for Murch, but the answer was at best “maybe” and belied the fact that security (whether maintaining it or undermining it) is a software issue–specifically, the kind of software between your ears–rather than a hardware one. Unfortunately, human beings prove the weak link whether it is computer security or National Security. Just look at all the leaks to emerge from this so-called Top Secret America.

Yet, the illusion of an omniscient, omnipotent intelligence community is a persistent figure in American culture that resonates in films like Eagle Eye or Enemy of the State. If anything, it speaks to a perverse longing in our culture to be surveilled evident everywhere from Facebook to the boogie man CIA constructed in films like those mentioned above. Certainly, Inception taps into this fear given the assumption that our collective subconscious has become the new battleground. After all, DARPA would trip over its collective self to create a machine that could peer into people’s minds rather than the notoriously unreliable polygraph, which is more of interrogation prop than tool, for all those many thousands of clearance investigations in Top Secret America. However, “extraction” and “inception” prove every bit as fleeting.

This is what makes Inception different (and so much more interesting) than those before it. Nolan shows how this this imaginary technology is every bit as unreliable as its real-life counterparts. Authenticity proves impossible to prove when humans become involved. This is more than the tired “wilderness of mirrors” Espionage trope. For all we know, Cobb is not a spy but some accountant trying to escape his mundane life in one of those opium den-like dream beds we see early in the film.

Whether it is the general public or the Intelligence Community itself, we can no more trust our fantasies about this so-called ‘Top Secret America’ as those in Inception. This film taps into our own perverse desire to have shadowy companies, terror groups, and faceless agencies persecute us even as we (that is, American society) become ever more willing to have our privacy invaded–thousands of times more often for advertising purposes such as with Gmail and the exhibitionism of Facebook than by any act of the Intelligence Community. If there is a truth to be had from the Washington Post piece and Inception, it is that we live in a truly inauthentic age where what we call ‘reality’ is scripted and humans are–in spite of all everything disclose to our therapists or on Twitter–as unknowable as ever.

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***This article contains spoilers.***

There is no doubt Heath Ledger delivers a fantastic performance as the Joker and The Dark Knight is a very entertaining film, but its politics are very unsettling. The action opens in the midst of a crackdown on the gangs of Gotham. There are no hoodlums tripped up with batarangs left dangling from the rafters for police–at least in the beginning. Bruce Wayne/Batman (Christian Bale) and his police department insider, Lt. Gordon (Gary Oldman), have been cooperating to freeze the assets of organized crime. As the two tighten the noose, the desperate criminals turn to a mysterious madman, the Joker, to intimidate the police and kill Batman. Up till now, there have been no significant casualties in the “war on crime,” but no one is prepared for the terror the Joker plans to unleash (and make no mistake about it, this Joker is very much a terrorist). As the action unfolds, both Batman and the Joker prove themselves willing to go to any length to uphold (in Batman’s case) or destroy (in Joker’s case) law and order.  One discussion between Bruce and Alfred illustrates this point:

Bruce Wayne: I knew the mob wouldn’t go down without a fight. But this is different. They crossed the line.

Alfred Pennyworth: You crossed the line first, sir. You hammered them. And in their desperation they turned to a man they didn’t fully understand. Some men aren’t looking for anything logical. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.

It is important to understand what underlies both men’s “line crossing.” For the moment, let us assume the Joker’s personal account of himself is truthful and accurate. For a violent sociopath, the Joker’s pathology is surprisingly comprehensible and his motives consistent. As a young child, he witnessed his abusive father murder his mother. Later, his wife is disfigured when she cannot pay her gambling debts. With no money for corrective surgery, the Joker disfigures himself in a deranged act of empathy only to have her leave him because of his scars. Because of these experiences, the Joker is willing to do anything to prove the base nature of humanity including driving those society sees as its paragons of virtue towards inhuman acts. Certainly, his desire to rob those same people of happiness as his has been stolen also motivates the Joker’s sadism. However, the Joker perpetrates what Walter Benjamin might call a “pure violence”–that is, a revolutionary violence in opposition to the forces (both legal and criminal) that impose a particular social order.

By comparison, Bruce Wayne’s “line crossing” is completely inconsistent with his purpose. His personal tragedy drives him to assert law and order, but his brand of ‘crime fighting’ often flies in the face of it. When Batman tracks down Lau, the Chinese national who manages the crime syndicate’s money, he uses “1960s CIA technology” to abduct him from a sovereign nation in spite of international law for what is essentially a local law enforcement matter. (Does the phrase “extraordinary rendition” ring any bells, Christopher Nolan?) None of this alarms Lucious Fox (Morgan Freeman) who later agonizes over Bruce Wayne’s involvement in a sophisticated government surveillance project. Despite the film’s overt handwringing over FISA, Wayne Enterprise’s “unethical” technology is permissible in this one instance to capture a lone terrorist leader, the Joker. Nolan would assuage our liberal guilt with the duex ex machina that Fox will destroy the technology once the mission has been accomplished, but this disingenuous turn does not undermine the prevailing message that one person has the right to wiretap US citizens without warrant or legal justification. What offends me most is Nolan’s propensity to talk out of both sides of his mouth. The filmmaker permits Batman to use this surveillance (as well as the aforementioned “CIA technology”) but at the same time passes judgment on the government’s legally sanctioned activity. Debate the ethics of “domestic spying” all you want, but Bruce Wayne has no right whatsoever to wiretap. More importantly, Nolan sends a mixed message on the issue, inadvertantly suggesting that wiretapping may be okay in some instances. Pure and simple, he masquerades sanctimony as social criticism.

None of this, of course, is out of character for Batman or the Batman franchise. Throughout the comics (as well as film and television adaptations), Bruce Wayne has taken a snide attitude towards civilians’ right to protect themselves while committing his own unsanctioned violence, which undeniably is a personal response to his parents’ murder. After all, what gives Batman the right to do any of this? He is not an elected official, sworn law enforcement officer, or other agent of the state. He is an ordinary citizen. One of the film’s Batman “copycats” says it best when he tells him, “We’re no different than you are.” Batman quips, “I am not the one wearing hockey pads.” Translation: being a rich, white guy gives him the right–and nothing else. He may have specialized training (training mythologized as to be inaccessible to the everyday person), but the emphasis has been placed on his weapons and tools to differentiate himself from ordinary citizens. In fact, the same classist undercurrent is evident in regions of the United States where gun control is strictest and weapons permits are, by and large, reserved for elected officials, celebrities, and the rich. Some may have no problem with this decidedly undemocratic fact citing “safer” streets, but those people should remember that Wayne Enterprises is itself a defense contractor and his equipment has been reserved for military usage. His privilege alone gives him access to this arsenal (and attendant agency) that the Batman franchise implies ordinary citizens should not have.

One possible defense of Batman can be found in the work of Carl Schmitt, a prominent German legal scholar whose theories helped legitimize the Nazi regime. Schmitt believed that for government to be effective the head of state had the right to declare “the state of exception” in which the normal rule of law could be suspended in times of crisis that required immediate, decisive, and ultimately undemocratic action. Giorgio Agamben has critiqued this concept throughout history including the United States’ “War on Terror.” While Batman is not an actor within the state, he sets himself as a masked executive and his own ‘war on terror’ follows Schmitt’s theorization. The elected officials and law enforcement of Gotham have become party to the crime he sees everywhere, so Bruce Wayne feels justified in bypassing democratic process or legal channels.  Harvey Dent promotes this position when he suggests that it is the “inaction of people like us” that authorizes his violence. [Edit: As reader “M” points out, Dent compares Batman to the Roman dictator who rose to power in times of crisis–an even more explicit link to Schmitt.] Yet again, we are met with a contradiction, because the Batman universe does not allow for the agency of the ordinary person. (The fact “people like us” consists of two lawyers, a member of the idle rich, and a ballerina–all white, of course–is a hilarious albeit accidental reflection of the American political system.) It is not simply that he acts in moments of crisis but also usurps democratic process.  At the same dinner where Dent makes his declaration, Bruce Wayne establishes Harvey Dent as the ‘hero’ of Gotham through a cabal of plutocrats who agree to fund his campaigns “for life.” The persistent undemocratic theme fits perfectly with Schmitt’s politics–and, sadly, those on both the right and left who suspend civil rights in moments of crisis, both real and imaginary.

Nolan would whitewash all these facts with the fantasy that Batman is this “uncorruptable” agent outside the state who wants to restore order, but he abandons the needs of the community when it suits him.  For example, he disregards the greater good to save Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) not once but twice and requires Lucious Fox to restrain (inconsistently, mind you) his own illegal activities. The only thing separating himself from any masked paramilitary is that he will not kill, which serves no other purpose than to create the illusion of restraint when there is none and fuel Bruce Wayne’s own self-satisfied moralism. The fact is that had he killed the Joker, a criminal proven dangerous in and out of police custody, in an act of legally justifiable self-defense the whole of Gotham would have been safer.

This is what makes Batman such a great foil for the other “masked” paramilitary of the film, the Joker. One represents a dictorial Schmittian politics, and the other represents Benjamin’s “pure violence” in opposition to any social order. While the Joker has the advantage of being consistent at the very least, the same cannot be said for Batman. In this sense, Nolan shares at least one of Batman’s flaws in his faux critique of “The War on Terrorism”:  the most damnable crime of hypocrisy.

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