Thursday, May 31, 2012

No Church in the Wild, Les Miserables, and the aestheticization of unrest

Hey, two things came out today. First, Jay-Z and Kanye's music video, No Church in the Wild, directed by Romain Gavras (he's done some videos for MIA, in case you don't recognize the name). Here's that:

Second, there's the first trailer for Tom Hooper's film adaptation of Les Miserables, starring Russel Crowe, Hugh Jackman, and Anne Hathaway. So here's that:

Okay, take a deep breath.

Why mention these two in the same blog post? Because they both aestheticize the SHIT out of social hardship and unrest. Let's take a moment to think about that.

Gavras's video is like a slow-motion ballet of civil violence, juxtaposing the restless aggression of youth against the faceless defensive belligerence of institutions of authority. There array of images evokes a whole spread of emotions, like a shotgun blast of provocation. There are strains of noble solidarity, disaffected coolness, and pure nihilism; only the cops seem to have a consistent, legible characterization, which is: anonymous, inhuman, the true representatives of the empty, reactionary rule of law.

There's no explicit revolutionary message here, but in the sweeping, mythic presentation of these young rioters, it's hard not to read some glorification. There are probably a lot of people (the vast majority, perhaps) in the activist community that would find this a gross misrepresentation of their ethos. On the other hand, these scenes are becoming more common at protests, both on the international stage (the IMF protests in particular) and in certain isolated incidents of pure chaos (i.e. the 2011 England riots).

The Les Miserables trailer is based on a much more stable groundwork of source material, though it's a few generations removed from the actual unrest depicted in the narrative. Victor Hugo adapted by Schonberg, now adapted by Hooper -- from the outset, there's a seriousness of purpose here that it's hard to find in the Gavras video.

Still, this trailer is cutting us with the same blade as the rap video above. There's a striking abundance of images of suffering -- Cosette glancing back over her shoulder in terror, and later, Anne Hathaway as Fantine, crying desperately in close-up. For a trailer, it's surprisingly heavy, and you might be tempted to recoil from it, especially if you're in a public place.

When it comes to fictional depictions of violence, anguish, redemptive fantasies, etc, the fact that they're entirely invented provides a shield, allowing the viewer to be affected in a sort of suspended-disbelief isolation chamber. But for these two media artifacts, that chamber is porous, because however fictional and stylized they may be, these are clearly referencing both historical precedents and current events. Without going into a thesis-length analysis, I can only offer a shallow thought: this media packaging probably presents a double-edged sword to the viewer: one edge being awareness, the other being consumption and desensitization.

But as long as we're thinking of the grand narratives of human history, the social breakdowns, the frayed edges of civilization, we should take a moment to consider the continuing unrest and suppression in Syria, which is gradually intensifying, under our noses. Would that we could take this violent drama and tragedy -- which is all too real, and becoming more so every day -- and contain it within the harmless confines of a highly-stylized short film.


Anonymous said...

I am a teacher in South Ga. I came across No Church in the Wild and was amazed at the similarities to Les Mis, even down to the elephant. Do you think that was intentional? I was fascinated.

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