Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Taken By Propaganda

I am swimming in the same waters as Warner Todd Huston today. He has posted about the forthcoming WATCHMEN movie, fretting about the unheroic qualities of the the lead characters. As it happens, I am about to the do same about another movie, but at least I've SEEN it. (Note: apologies to WTH; he never claimed to be writing about the movie, but the graphic novel)

Warning: SPOILERS AHEAD! Among them the revelation that Fox is finally using the movie division to push Rupert Murdoch's worldview onto us.

TAKEN, starring Liam Neeson as an estranged father who will do anything to save his teenaged daughter from an Albanian white slave ring in France. I caught this Monday afternoon and the audience applauded at the end, so it's clearly a crowd pleaser. In his quest Neeson kills around twelve people (torturing one to death) and shoots an innocent woman in the arm to force her corrupt husband to talk. France is depicted as decadent and creepy. I left the theatre with a nagging question on my mind, and sure enough, when I took the trouble to look it up, I was right.

It's a Fox release.

Just as Fox TV's 24 exists both as entertainment and a shorthand legal argument for Justice Scalia to explain why torture is a handy tool to have in your bag, TAKEN is a way to make you think, "well given the right circumstances I guess I'd hook some guy up to a lamp cord." I wrote elsewhere about the phenomenon of "movie morality", a screenwriting convention that generates sympathy for the hero. If someone does wrong and is punished for it somehow, the audience is satisfied. Even if they're struck by lightening or they choke on a hunk of meat, something bad has to happen to them.

Neeson is not punished for torturing here, so what gives?

I'm spitballing here, so bear with me. I think Neeson is given the DEATH WISH exemption to the movie morality rule here. In this loophole, if the character does terrible things in the service of punishing characters who have done even worse things, it's cool. The guy Neeson hooks up to electricity is part of a ring of villains who kidnap young girls, drug them, and sell them into prostitution. He's got it comin', and someone's gotta do it.

Even so, Neeson does two incredibly gratuitous things here which put him into flawed anti-hero territory as far as I'm concerned. The first one is this guy above - Neeson tortures information out of a guy, then keeps torturing him anyway. Considering that he's on the clock, this is both villainous and a waste of precious time. Secondly, he shoots this woman as a way of dragging information out of her husband. An innocent woman who clearly has done nothing wrong. He mitigates the act by asking her husband to apologize when she regains conciousness. But I cannot reconcile this act with movie morality. There were alternatives to shooting the innocent woman, among them taking the husband into another room and shooting him.

That second one is what fascinates me about this movie, because it's so clearly bad propaganda that I'm wondering if the filmmakers threw it in as a slap in the face to the producers. There's precedent for this too: Roman Polanski's FRANTIC, in which another American chases around France to rescue a female he loves, ends with a gratuitous long take of a garbage truck driving away, as if taking this commercial populist merde with it.

So this is why I think TAKEN is a propaganda movie, because it goes out of its way to violate the movie morality rule and yet keep the hero likable. It's trying to negate the rule by making the immoral actions themselves palatable. Creepy. Making a movie like this is so counter-intuative, releasing it takes a Triumph of the Will.

4 comments:

Publius said...

Um... I was reviewing the comic books form 1985, not the movie. I only mention that a movie is forthcoming I didn't say I was reviewing the movie.

Paulie said...

OK, piker, I have arrived.

I saw 'Taken' over the weekend and loved it.

Yes, Neeson's character is an anti-hero. What hero isn't, really?

I'd be happy to discuss the movie itself, but before I do I feel that your little bon mot about Fox deserves a reply.

Have you, by chance, seen the mini-series XIII? If not, you can catch it on Hulu or Fancast.

It's a fairly formulaic knockoff of the Bourne Identity with one HUGE difference--and this is a spoiler: it's all a Republican conspiracy.

Point being that you can pretty much get propaganda from all sides when you look for it. 'Inconvenient Truth' comes to mind as well.

Now, on to the gratuitous violence--something I enjoyed, by the way...

Neeson warned the m-f'ers that if they didn't let his daughter go he'd kill them.

All he did was keep his promise. I had no problem with that. Even my wife, a closet liberal if there ever was one was OK with it.

Regarding the shooting of an innocent woman: this was the wife of someone he thought was his friend, someone that KNEW where his daughter could be found and who was taking bribe money from the slave ring.

The flesh wound had multiple purposes: pry the necessary information from his 'friend', let his friend see what it was like to have a loved one hurt, let his friend know that he was not going to screw around waiting for him to cough up the info he needed.

Your alternative of taking the guy into another room to shoot him doesn't get it done: THAT would take too much time; after all the other guy was a trained agent as well--he would resist. (Kind of like negotiating with the Koreans--but I digress)

What exactly is the propaganda here? That a father will do anything to protect his daughter? That's propaganda? That force works? That's propaganda?

Piker, you are a pissa, as we say in Beantown.

In the situation as described in the movie, the (anti)hero had to fly from LA to Paris and had a total of 96 hours to save his child.

He attempted to negotiate; he explained his offer and options to the bad guys. The bad guys chose Door Number 2.

I told my wife on the way out of the theater: I smell a sequel.

Danielk said...

Paulie, shooting an innocent woman to save your innocent girl is just wrong. However, I'm willing to grant that most audience members disagree with me.

As for your "what hero isn't, really?" question, I'm thinkin' this.

hero = Luke Skywalker, Indiana Jones, Batman (circa 1968, 1990), the kid in SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, John McCain.

anti-hero = Lando Calrissian, Bonnie and Clyde, Batman (circa 2008) Rod Blagojevich. Interesting guys, fun to watch, but no moral compass.

Publius, point well taken. You never claimed to have seen the movie, and clearly you are quite well-versed in the graphic novel. My apologies.

See? Anti-heroes wouldn't apologize.

Mr No Appendix said...

At the end when it said ' Fox ' ...the movie as propaganda, black and white thinking and American morality was quickly entertained.

Its a piece of manipulative garbage.