Our Mister Brooks

More on Propaganda and Art, and the Well Bought Turn

Propaganda vs. art, form vs. content, Kathryn Bigelow vs., well, me.

I read the comment thread on my previous post about Zero Dark Thirty with great interest, not least the early comment from Radiant Dragon, aka Our Mister Brooks (Cleanth, that would be), who reproves me for my lack of formalism in my approach to ZDT and the Bigelow method.

I suppose I plead guilty to that, but I would say that it's not the form qua form that I suspect I will object to about ZDT. Formally, Bigelow appears to be an excellent filmmaker. It's the content I think I will find objectionable (for those who need it, I found a decent enough description of the difference here).

It's certainly not that i would find any torture scene objectionable. That's form, roughly speaking. Depends on how well it's done. What I would find objectionable, as I thought I made clear enough, is a torture scene that seems to argue that torture was crucial to the capture of bin Laden. That's content. That would seem to me to cross an obvious line, no matter how well or poorly it's done.

As it happens, speaking of Cleanth Brooks, here we have a video of the great man and Eudora Welty talking about propaganda vs. art. They agree that art tells the truth obliquely. Yes, of course. That means not telling audiences things they already know; it means leaving audiences the trail of bread crumbs and letting the audience sniff them and put it all together, and not leading them by the nose to the dinner plate. It's my suspicion that by opening her film with 9-11 and a torture scene, that is what Bigelow is doing. There is very little that's oblique about that kind of story-telling.

Now maybe she's not doing that. But I do firmly believe this, and I've thought about this a lot. I think people's capacity for accepting ambiguity has diminished greatly in the last 20 or 30 years. Americans', I guess I really mean, since I don't know the rest of the world as well, but from what I observe, the rest of the world, too. I have the feeling, without having studied the matter deeply, that 9-11 had a good deal to do with the diminishment of that capacity. So I'm just ever on suspicious watch for artifacts of culture that seem "real" but that really seek to titillate and to excite in us the kinds of passions that politics--in this case, right-wing politics--is capable of inciting in us. If something hits us on the same level that the evening news hits us, it sure isn't art.