Watching the Dark: Zero Dark Thirty
Some notes for the above video essay:
My viewing of Zero Dark Thirty and my ideas about it were and are influenced by ideas I first encountered in writings by Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, Glenn Kenny, Steven Shaviro, and Nicholas Rombes. Their interpretations are not mine, and they should not be blamed for my failures, but I certainly owe them gratitude for whatever insights I have benefited from.
I worked on this video over a period of months, trying simply to gather a few of the motifs and visual patterns in the film (monitors, windows, surfaces, light/dark). It evolved to be something more impressionistic than that, but that was the initial concept.
From a January email to a friend who didn't much like the film. This captures how I felt after one viewing:
What fascinates me about it is how it systematically it wipes away emotion. For me, the most powerful moments were in the first 30 minutes. The 911 calls over black screen were traumatizing (I avoid images and true stories of that day as much as possible, and had never heard any of the 911 calls before. Indeed, when I read that they were what opened the film, I almost didn't go see it), and then the scenes of torture moved my sympathies to the tortured body -- to the man who was an admitted al Qaeda member. The CIA agents seemed like textbook psychopaths. But then as we move away from the torture scenes, into the scenes of frustrating process, into the quest ... if we feel anything, it's boredom and frustration and perhaps even annoyance. Maya tries on different personas to try to, I assumed, regain some of the fire, to keep the quest meaningful -- I'm not sure how else to make sense of the scene where she said to the CIA brass, "I'm the motherfucker who found it," or whatever she says there -- the bravado, the swagger so odd on her, so silly and pathetic and yet somehow impressive. She's got to do something to keep herself going. Finally, eventually, we get to what in any other movie is payoff -- the big raid. This is what we bought our popcorn for! But instead of being exciting and ra-ra USAfuckyeah! it's ... confusing, maybe a bit headache-inducing, pretty methodical, and it's hard to know quite what to feel. Sure, we're glad the goal is achieved -- glad or relieved? The camera lingers over the dead bodies in a way very different from most action movies, in a way that almost wants us to wonder about them ... about who they were. But then, who is anybody? We know nothing about Maya. She isn't so much a character as a desire: the desire to find Bin Laden. So she does. And then what's she got? Where does she go from here? Another quest? None will ever be this big. But this one obviously isn't satisfying for her. Maybe more for her than us, but that's as it should be; she's the one who's devoted 10 years of her life to it, her whole career, her whole identity. For what? Did it matter? Not within the scope of the film, except as an ending. She gets a whole plane to herself. She's important. This is where the patriotic music should rise, where we should wave our flags. But there's no satisfaction. The friend I saw it with and I left the theatre feeling hollowed out, numbed.4.
Subsequent viewings, and then close work with particular shots and scenes to create the video essay, left me in awe of the craft. The use of color and light, the patterns of narrative and character (in a film where action very much is character — rarely in her films does Bigelow spend more than cursory time on characters' backstories, but this is brought to an extreme with the characters in Zero Dark Thirty, who quite literally, at least from the audience's point of view, are their jobs. This is Maya's triumph and tragedy), the complexity of perspective that pretends to objectivity and shows the limits of objectivity.
What do you see?
The opening title is important and tricksy:
What does this mean? How does it mean?
On a first glance, we can take it as a kind of journalistic pose: Here is truth. Behold!
But of course it isn't truth, despite the film's often fetishistic attentions to detail. It is a reconstruction with actors of stories told by people who saw and participated in events. Eyewitnesses are notoriously unreliable. Human eyes and brains and bodies interpret, filter, distort.
The following motion picture is not actual events. The following motion picture is not a first-hand account. The following motion picture is based on first hand accounts of actual events.
The actual events are unreachable. What we have are stories about them. Zero Dark Thirty is a story based on stories.
And it is a motion picture, but what do we get right after this title? Sounds, not pictures. Darkness, not motion. Actual audio of actual events. The only documentary moment.
The audio serves various purposes, and one of those purposes is to remind us of the difference between actual voices from actual events and stories made from stories.
In the tiresome brouhaha over whether Zero Dark Thirty condones torture, is a CIA propaganda tool, etc., something obvious and fundamental often seemed to get lost: The film shows agents of the United States government torturing prisoners, and it opens up a space for audiences to feel some sympathy or pity for the tortured. The Americans in the movie are not heroes, but functionaries and psychopaths.
I never felt more sympathy for any character in the film than for Ammar. The violence is gut-wrenching. He stopped being, for me at least, any sort of political operative or source of information or terrorist or whatever and became nothing more or less than a mangled body in pain, and my emotions latched on to him and not to his torturers. In the interrogation scenes, I hated his torturers.
The government has always denied that the U.S. tortured prisoners. President Obama's 60 Minutes statement is crucial in the film: "I've said repeatedly that America doesn't torture, and I'm going to make sure that we don't torture." The torturers and functionaries who are listening scoff.
The viewer of the film knows that America did torture, at least according to the reality presented here, and the one most of us suspect is true. These are our tax dollars at work.
The agents and bureaucrats got to watch.
The public statements about the film by director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal were mostly annoying and frustrating. So it goes. I never expect filmmakers out promoting their movies to speak particularly honestly, freely, accurately. Their job is to sell a multi-million-dollar product. They need to say anything that will help that cause. It's journalism! they said at first. Then, when the details were criticized, It's art! Gag. Bigelow, at least, is smarter than this, and her films generally show it: she and the movies she makes are not simply aware of the gulfs and slippages between representation and reality, but often find their greatest energy within those gulfs and slippages.
One of the things that makes Bigelow's recent work especially interesting to me is that she seems at least a little bit aware of the dangers of fascination with military objects and military discourse, and yet she also revels in it all. The struggle — a creatively productive struggle — is visible in how she talks about the film in her David Letterman interview. She clearly has great respect for, even awe of, the women and men who work in the world of covert operations. She clearly enjoyed the access she had to them, she enjoys the lingo, she is fascinated by the training, weaponry, technology. And yet she is not a pure jingoist or militarist, as both The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty leave plenty of space for doubts about the wisdom behind the use of this training, weaponry, and technology. The uniforms, guns, helicopters, and Humvees are all magnificently awe-inspiring in their potential, the perfect props for motion pictures, but what of their actual use against actual human beings? What sort of morality can they inhabit once they move beyond being simply objects that exist?
As viewers — as watchers — what can we do with our fascination with abominations?
Night vision. The long final raid is shown through various lenses, with the green glow of night vision goggles being dominant, a fundamentally subjective view: looking through the eyes of the soldier. There are the very dark scenes shot in a mostly objective style, and then we see through the night via the technology attached to the soldiers — we see through their augmented eyes — and then lights are turned on in the compound and we the wreckage, the carnage, the scramble to collect information and then to flee.
The camera lingers not only on the soldiers and their actions, but on the terror of the people in the compound, the children especially. Can we help but ask ourselves what will become of them? Here, child, have a little glow stick. Pay no attention to the explosions, the gunshots, the screams, the death. Soon, we'll leave you with the dead. But for now, enjoy our magic light.
The constant play of light and dark in Zero Dark Thirty could be read as light = good and dark = bad, but the film more often suggests yin and yang, or the difficulty of knowing where the dark ends and the light begins.
Evil can live in the blinding white light of day.
Agents of secrecy must live in the dark, information must be blacked out — and yet to be made ignorant is to be kept in the dark. We sleep in the dark and we dream in the dark and sometimes we sit in the dark and look at stories told with light.