Saturday, January 31, 2015

Screening Infra-Ideology: On American Sniper

American Sniper: Starring Bradley Cooper and a really fake baby

It seems wrong to call American Sniper ideological in the traditional sense of the word. Racist yes, but ideological no. It only pays the most facile lip service to anything like a justification for the war in Iraq, "fighting them there versus fighting them here" is mentioned but hardly developed as an argument. It is perhaps best understood to function at the level of what Pierre Macherey calls "infra-ideology," ideology that functions at the level of norms, comportments and practices rather than beliefs. The point of Chris Kyle is not that he believes, or what he believes, but his physical dedication, his manliness. 

The training scenes of the film make this abundantly clear. We do not get the typical training montage, do not see Kyle learn scuba, hand to hand combat, and all of the various other skills. The training scenes are of two sorts. The first show Kyle and the other SEALs subject to grueling tests of endurance, exposed to cold water, forced to remain in sit up position, etc. The second show Kyle on the firing range, demonstrating his natural talent as a marksman. Dedication and talent, there is nothing to learn. This is not the story of someone become a soldier, a Bildungsroman of military skill and knowledge, but of a natural soldier, or rather of American man as natural soldier. 

"American" has a long an odd history as an adjective in films and books: American Graffiti, American Gigolo, American Hustle, and so on. In general the first word, America does not so much modify the second--it is not that the film in question presents a specifically American version of the phenomenon in question--but the second modifies the first. Calling a film American Hustle means that you are making a film about the specific hustle that is America. American Sniper functions in a similar way; it is not that we are seeing an American version of what it means to be a sniper but a sniper as the very realization of what it means to be American. To be American is to follow orders, to show no remorse or sympathy, to become a drone. 

Ultimately it is necessary that American Sniper function as a film about infra-ideology, about the basic norms of masculinity, dedication, and commitment, because there is no dominant ideology about the war in Iraq, no dominant narrative. It can neither be celebrated as a victory, as in the case of World War II, nor mourned and eventually symbolically overcome, as in the case of Vietnam. The war has no meaning, no place within an over-coded narrative a national purpose or loss. American Sniper gives the war the only meaning it can have, one of body counts and national resolve. The current state of Iraq, of the war on terror, the absence of weapons of mass destruction, none of this matters, means anything. The only thing that matters is the body count, the size of one's biceps, and how many reps one can do. It has about as much meaning as a crossfit routine. 

This is a Punisher comic book not a graphic novel

Elsewhere on this blog I have echoed the argument made by others that the superhero movie is the dominant cultural form of the post 9/11 moment.  Basically, it makes sense that in a period begun with a national trauma and marked by drawn out wars with uncertain results that there would be a turn towards more fantastic heroes. Thus the superhero film has replaced the action movie. Even American Sniper is not immune from this dominance. It is in some sense modeled after a superhero movie. All of the component parts are there, the life defining bit of advice from a father figure, the traumatic act that gives the hero purpose, and even a villain that functions as the heroes direct opposite. In case all of this is not enough to clue the viewer in, the film is littered with references to Marvel's The Punisher. It could be considered the only successful Punisher film. 

(Oh, and by the way, I say this as someone who has several large boxes of comics, and is on a first name basis with the proprietors of the local comic books store, but I absolutely hate the Punisher).

Image from The Runaways


seymourblogger said...

More on this please.

Unknown said...

I haven't seen this movie yet*, but there are similar issues in other American films that deal with physical activity. There is basically direct censorship of Sex and Violence obviously, but I think it goes even deeper than that. Paragraph 2's observation "Dedication and talent, there is nothing to learn" is a very astute comment on the American ideology of The Winner, and seeing everything in life - even competition in the Market - as a Morality play.

(Americans want everything to be a morality play!)

But it's also at a much simpler artistic level, an annoying cliche in virtually all films nowadays. I know I've seen that before. Skipping through the technical aspect to me is ugh... not fun. In fact, to be honest I wish movies got MORE pornographic with real details of life (e.g. the actual process of killing people - both "our side" and the "bad guys"), but of course that would be depressing and (in this case especially!) "unpatriotic." And no film studio has the guts (or the profit margins - I guess) to allow that.

*I actually caught a big chunk of it after sneaking in from another film. From what I saw it looked overacted and too slow paced (another American cliche), but actually not bad.