What is terrorism? Is it the use of violence, particularly against civilians, to effectuate political change? If that’s the case, why should we limit...moreWhat is terrorism? Is it the use of violence, particularly against civilians, to effectuate political change? If that’s the case, why should we limit our definition to lethal aggression practiced by relatively small groups like Al Qaeda and the IRA? Governments constantly unleash deadly force upon innocents: just ask the citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or former inmates of Auschwitz and Dachau.
Australian film-reviewer Robert Cettl raises this and other vital points in the introduction to his “Terrorism in American Cinema: An Analytical Filmography, 1960-2008.” It never occurred to me there was a terrorism genre, but Cettl with tremendous care limns its development. It has roots in the spy genre, although the form came to maturity in the 1970s with the rise of the PLO hijackings and such films as “Black Sunday.”
Like magicians and filmmakers, terrorists conjure spectacles that both fascinate us. More than Hitchcock or James Bond villains, they parallel movie monsters: as with Dracula, Freddy Kruger, and Jason, they impregnate our minds with inexorable nightmares. As Cettl writes of terrorism beginning the 1970s,
"In the targeting of these non-combatants and the deliberate courting of media exposure, the new and refined definition of terrorism soon became of paramount importance in cinema to distinguish it from previous Cold War agendas."
Unlike the war movie, which by its nature allows audiences to divorce themselves from the carnage, the terrorist film depicts an assault upon civilians. The audience can’t help but empathize with the victims, and as with the horror movie, experience their pain.
And like the horror movies, terrorist films make morally curious bargains with audiences. Whether they admit it or not, viewers attend terrorist films not just for the depiction of right avenging evil, but also to witness evil wielding bloody violence. The catharsis is amoral. Just as a zombie movie must include the undead masticating on the flesh of the living, a terrorist film must depict the death of innocents.
As with the war and horror genres, the terrorist film until recently was often marked by painfully stark delineations of good and evil.
“The good patriarch, very often a father figure as much as a loner, has the essential duty to restore the functioning of proper patriarchal order—i.e., of the American way of life. That is held to be a sacrosanct epitome of freedom so that the right to individual self-determination and the American way of life are symbiotic ideals. In this way, the terrorist is considered the universal but pathological enemy of freedom, enigmatic and threatening beyond justification or even explanation in either political-ideological or humanist terms.”
Despite their often knuckleheaded, jingoistic worldviews, terrorist movies “could almost be considered miniature morality plays. They explored what happens when such an essential human right as self-determination is violated.” And yet the conversation is often not between the terrorists and the power they oppose, but between different elements of the West. “[I:]f hostages are killed, it is solely the fault of the negotiating (or non-negotiating) party rather than the responsibility of the terrorists themselves.”
Cettl points out that immediately following 9/11 there was a dearth of terrorist films. As with the Vietnam War, it was only after some time had passed that Hollywood’s cameras were ready to focus on the subject. Unsurprisingly, the Bush administration embraced the Manichean mindset of earlier terrorist films: “Either you’re with us or against us.” In time, Cettl writes, this position in both politics and cinema gave way to more nuanced and sensitive perspectives. Starting in 2007 came a new breed of films that critiqued the War of Terror, such as “Rendition” and “Redacted,” or emphasized religious tolerance like “Traitor.” Only a year later came the election of Barack Obama.
As with a survey of any genre, many of the films documented by Cettl in his filmography are mere schlock. However, “Terrorism” does include some great films such as “Network,” “Fight Club,” and the overlooked masterpiece “Burn!” Nevertheless, the genre has yet to give birth to its “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Apocalypse Now” or “Chinatown”: a masterpiece that both follows its genre’s conventions and redefines them.
“Terrorism” is an excellent contribution to film studies. It identifies, documents, and analyses a genre ignored by most, yet vitally important in understanding the American imagination.
Of Jim Thompson’s novella “This World, Then the Fireworks,” Max Allan Collins remarked “reading it will be for some rather like drinking a can of froz...moreOf Jim Thompson’s novella “This World, Then the Fireworks,” Max Allan Collins remarked “reading it will be for some rather like drinking a can of frozen orange juice without adding the water.” That’s exactly how I feel about “The Bastardizer” by Bill Thunder. I don’t mean that either as praise or criticism. It’s just a fact.
Just the facts, ma’am. Well, nearly the just the facts. Facts plus mind-blowing violence, negativity, and misanthropy. Sounds like most hardboiled detective novels, doesn’t it? But it isn’t. It’s what black metal is to Led Zeppelin: far more destructive but comparatively limited in scope and palette.
Who is Bill Thunder? He’s “the Bastardizer” in question. According to a promotional interview, Thunder is a British private investigator who decided to put some of his experiences, mixed surely with fiction, into a novel. How much is truth and how much is fantasy is hard to say, although unless I’ve been living in another dimension, the book’s conclusion must be the product of a warped imagination. (I hope so.)
In some ways the novel is a parody of the hardboiled genre: a wife turns to a gruff, tough detective to find her rich husband. But the subtle shades of color, mood, and sympathy we expect from a Chandler or MacDonald aren’t here. There’s no time for it.
“[A]nd so I just nodded and grunted occasionally while scribbling notes as fast as I could. I needed all of this info. It might not all be relevant, but you never know what you’re going to need to know or when. I might have a good memory, but I’m not a Dictaphone. Notes are essential. Good note-taking skills are essential. I’ve had years of practice and am a good note-taker.”
Is it me, or does that paragraph suggest someone who’s crazy? Why would anyone, least of all an investigator, justify and brag about his or her note-taking skills? That’s just one of the many hints of madness that litter “The Bastardizer.” After reading a highly revealing and emotional email from the husband he’s seeking (one Michael Jackson, no less) to an unknown woman, Thunder merely speculates that Jackson might’ve been “having affair and a something of a breakdown to boot.”
With few exceptions, it’s details, not people or ideas, that fascinate Thunder.
“I was itching to get the hell out of there, and not just because of the heat—an insufferable 29 C—or the caffeine which had sent my BP soaring from its standard ‘borderline’ status of 140/90 to 160/100 which stat on the cusp between mild stage one and moderate stage two hypertension.”
“It was a pleasant if hot afternoon: 27 C, 3mph south-westerly breeze, humidity 90%, a high, almost of the scale, pollen count.”
To me, Thunder’s nearly machinelike character is the novel’s most disturbing element. The blood and dustups are secondary.
“The Bastardizer” ends with a gory assault on literature’s and private investigation’s latest rival: the Internet. “You want sanguinary kicks?” I can hear Thunder yell. “Well, I got some real stomach-turning stuff here, stuff you ain’t going find on no Website.” And he’s right. The pen is crueler than the Webcam.
Students of contemporary British culture will enjoy the novel’s caustic asides on students, hen parties, and gastro-pubs. “The Bastardizer” is recommended readers who like their tales short and violent, and their heroes as brutal as their villains. (less)