Two famous right-wing actors walk into a diner. Generic pop music plays over the speakers. They sit down, and the older one says, “Is this a guy or a girl singing this song?” “Can’t tell,” says the other, shaking his head. The first one laments, “Don’t know that there’s that much of a difference these days.” Pause, and the younger man addresses the other, “I think the line was obliterated the day men started saying, ‘We’re pregnant’ when their wives were.” They sip their coffee.
Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn star as two corrupt cops in S. Craig Zahler’s new film Dragged Across Concrete. Concrete is a 90-minute action film within a 160-minute shell. Much of its runtime is devoted to scenes like in the diner, the two cops sitting around, waiting for something to happen, casually conversing. Controversy follows the film, ever since its 2018 premiere in Venice, not due to the extreme gore, but because of the seemingly innocuous scenes between the two men. Gibson’s Brett and Vaughn’s Anthony abuse their power, make racist and sexist remarks with candor, and stand by when criminal activity takes place, yet nothing in the movie demonstrates that the director disapproves of their behaviour. Zahler lets them play out their despicableness to its natural conclusion. He passes no moral judgment.
The public concern about the glorification of violence in media has waxed and waned over the years, from when Howard Hawks released the original Scarface in 1932 through when college students began plastering posters for Brian De Palma’s remake on their dorm room walls, but for Concrete, “glorification” isn’t in the cards at all. The film’s violence is disgusting and difficult to stomach, a stark contrast with the splendor and grandeur of shootouts in films like The Boondock Saints, Face/Off, and Scarface. The camera lingers on the victims rather than the perpetrators—the people who commit the most heinous crimes are faceless while victims like Jennifer Carpenter’s Kelly, a new mother who has her head blown off by ruthless bank robbers, are fleshed out. Rather, Zahler hit upon a particularly contemporary controversy: giving a platform to unsavory characters. He’s landed himself right in the middle of a debate, one which reaches outside the confines of film, just by allowing Brett and Anthony, or the people in the real world they represent, to speak their minds.
In September 2018, a month before the commencement of its 19th year, The New Yorker Festival announced that Steve Bannon, President Trump’s former chief strategist and co-founder of far-right Breitbart News, would be headlining. The magazine’s editor, David Remnick, was set to do the interview. The backlash was immediate. In the space of 30 minutes, scheduled speakers Judd Apatow, Jim Carrey, Jack Antonoff, John Mulaney, and others took to social media. “I will not take part in an event that normalizes hate,” tweeted Apatow. “I hope the @NewYorker will do the right thing and cancel the Steve Bannon event. Maybe they should read their own reporting about his ideology.” Apatow assumed The New Yorker didn’t understand the implications of inviting someone like Bannon. Remnick quickly canceled the interview, but only in the context of the festival, “If the opportunity presents itself, I’ll interview him in a more traditionally journalistic setting as we first discussed, and not on stage.”
Then, as usual with these sorts of public episodes, there was backlash yet again, this time against the cancelation. It elucidated a clear division within the mainstream intelligentsia. “Liberals are torn,” writes Michael Grynbaum for The New York Times. On one hand, if they were to invite Bannon, they would be giving a platform to a man who spreads ideas contrary to the general beliefs held by the festival, an event that Grynbaum says is “marketed ... as a fantasy camp for liberals.” On the other hand, some view it as an opportunity to be exposed to opinions outside of those of their immediate peers and potentially shine a black light on ideas with which they disagree. The Economist, a newspaper commonly considered nonpartisan, invited Bannon to an event around the same time as The New Yorker. They decided to let the invitation stand, even though they faced the same backlash, and wrote in a statement, “The future of open societies will not be secured by like-minded people speaking to each other in an echo chamber, but by subjecting ideas and individuals from all sides to rigorous questioning and debate.” This critical rupture seems to currently only occur within center-to-left-leaning spheres—the American Right is perhaps more monolithic at the moment. British neoconservative Douglas Murray looks at the issue from an outsider’s perspective, writing for National Review, “The rules on ‘no-platforming’ are getting increasingly difficult to follow.” The question, Murray opines, is who gets to be the arbitrator in the problem of “legitimate” versus “illegitimate” views. Of course, no universally satisfactory answer exists. While most of his article goes on to get lost in the mire of Clinton hypocrisies, Murray’s assertion of this binary quandary remains. It seems as if the only resolution is to present all sides. Lawrence Wright, a New Yorker staff writer, expressed regret over the magazine canceling the interview with Bannon, tweeting, “Journalism is about hearing opposing views.” The Economist and writers like Wright make the case for curtailing curation and leaving true discernment to be left to the individual. But they’re journalists; it’s hard-coded into their DNA. The concerns for a piece of art, however, diverge from those of journalistic writing. The presence of an artist, who carries with them some sort of intent, opens the arts up to further criticism.
The following month, around the time of The New Yorker’s scheduled Bannon interview, superstar musician Taylor Swift voiced her political opinions publicly for the first time via Instagram, “I will be voting for Phil Bredesen for Senate and Jim Cooper for House of Representatives.” Within the post, Swift claims that the impetus for her sudden declarations is the forthcoming midterm elections, but she fails to acknowledge the outside pressure that had been building up around her for quite a while. She used to be called “America’s Sweetheart”—years later critics were calling on her “to denounce the Nazi nonsense.” Swift’s radical change in public relations seems to stem from her evolving image within the music industry. First of all, unintentionally on the part of Swift, far right-wing sites like Breitbart News and The Daily Stormer co-opted pieces of her music for their own political objectives. In August 2017, Breitbart posted one of their articles about the Israel/Palestine conflict on Twitter with the lyrics, “I don't like your little games / Don't like your tilted stage,” from her single “Look What You Made Me Do.” They used other lyrics from the song in a further five tweets that day. In addition, some critics see the messaging in her music to be increasingly Trumpian. Swift and Trump, according to an editorial from The Guardian, both propagate the idea that “everyone is out to get [them] – but [they] win anyway.” With newer singles like “Look What You Made Me Do,” Swift willingly pits herself against perceived antagonists like Kanye West, with whom she has had a long-running feud, creating a quasi-underdog image. Trump uses similar tactics to earn an “outsider appeal,” generating a following that attacks detractors and ignores criticism. This all led up to Swift’s Instagram post where she rattles off a list of political causes she supports, seemingly in an attempt to alleviate the worsening of her public image in certain circles.
However, the allegorical connection between Swift and Trump and the likely tongue-in-cheek use of her music by extreme right-wing media might not fully encapsulate the driving force behind what causes an ultra-famous young woman, who had never previously made any firm associations with social issues besides rudimentary interpretations of western feminism, to suddenly enter into perilous political discourse. For the third episode in season two of their podcast Broken Record, writer Malcolm Gladwell and record producer Rick Rubin meet with Talking Heads musician David Byrne. They discuss a list of protest songs Byrne compiled for a post on his website, and at some point, the conversation turns to the use of third-person narration by rebellious artists, such as Randy Newman, Bob Dylan, many classic country artists, and Byrne himself. Gladwell notes how uncommon anything other than first person is in popular music “which is weird only when you consider that in fiction that’s basically all there is with some exceptions … Is it [because third-person narration is] hard?” Rubin and Byrne dismiss the question. Instead, from Byrne’s experience with other artists, he’s noticed that “it’s deemed to be inauthentic if you’re not singing about yourself.” Even though Swift began her career in country music, one of the genres most often employing third-person narratives, Swift rose in popularity on the backs of first-person singles like “You Belong to Me,” “I Knew You Were Trouble,” and “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” and with her move to an even-more pop sound in 2014, that writing style has continued. At the same time, artists like Beyonce and Kendrick Lamar, with their often politically charged content, sit alongside her on the the charts. Audience members feel like they know Swift, that her music expresses her true being, so why don’t they get to have a glimpse into her political self? It was inevitable that Swift would have to make her political stances clear. The modern approach to pop musical performance, personalized to the performer, requires that disclosure to maintain any sense of public sincerity. But with film, there is inherently a greater distance between the creator and the performance. In “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” the singer herself, Swift, recounts what we perceive as her messy breakup, no matter if it is fictionalized or not. On the other hand, Concrete director Zahler never sips his characters’ coffee.
“I don’t go to the movies too much, but I see lines in front of theaters that are showing – what’s that movie? Crazy Rich Asians! It’s like, you’re corrupting people’s minds. And by the way, that is, uh, cultural appropriation. ‘Cause maybe Asians aren’t crazy... and maybe they’re not rich. But that’s what we’re going to confuse you with today!” In 2018, I directed and edited “Restoration,” a short documentary about an eccentric antiques dealer and repairman in Manhattan. “Furniture Bob” is what he called himself. A friend and collaborator on the project introduced me to him, and from just a short time interacting with him, I knew all I needed him to do was talk. It proved to be no issue since it seems hearing himself speak is his favorite pastime—he spent two hours on the four questions we asked. After the shoot, Bob invited the small crew to come to his home in Connecticut for a couple days. I went to appease my curiosity—it was a weekend filled with vague racism, conspiracy theories, and narcissistic stories of youth.
A piece of editor’s cunning a third of the way through the film attempts to reveal, in my eyes, Bob’s true character. The film hard cuts to a scantily clad woman cut out of a newspaper and pinned up on the wall in the back of Bob’s shop. Cut to a pamphlet depicting a young Asian woman with her top off. Cut to a tacky painting of a topless woman holding a gun. Cut to an anonymous woman’s boudoir photo. All the while, we hear him say, “Wait, you, you took that out of context,” And cut back to Bob. “[People say], well, what context? This is what we saw and heard. You know,” Bob indicates a small portion with his hands, “that was this much,” he puts his hands out, “of that much.” In effect, this sequence reveals the vulgar irony and shoddy hypocrisy of Bob’s life, but it only gives a taste of the genuine Bob. “Restoration” always gets laughs, but perhaps its reception would be different if I were to depict his character in full. I didn’t include footage of him making off-color remarks about a crew member; I didn’t get out my camera on the trip when he, on multiple occasions, made extended racially charged voice impressions. I just went home and edited. Only after it was finished did I contemplate my responsibility in documenting his true and complete nature.
In an attempt to wash my hands of it all, I revisited the films of a director I knew dealt in controversial characters, England’s Mike Leigh. Critics often cite Leigh as one of the key minds within the UK’s long history with social realism, sometimes referred to as “kitchen sink realism,” particularly because of his stretch of highly influential TV movies in the ‘70s and ‘80s and his films in the ‘90s. Boston University professor Ray Carney, in the first critical study written about Leigh, describes Leigh’s debut, Bleak Moments, as a film that “explores the situation of flawed characters interacting in imperfect ways.” In fact, that is illustrative of all Leigh’s work. Characters, rather than plot, drive his films—characters and their “complex behavior.” Carney understands the lack of contrived conflict to be a consequence of the complexity of Leigh’s characters. Each character has enough to contend with in the emotional reactions and behaviour of the other characters and themselves. In Meantime, for example, young adult Colin grapples with his shyness and comes face-to-face with Coxy, a skinhead, and his malicious behaviour. Carney sees this strategy as a complete divergence from the Hollywood way. “Hollywood movies,” he writes, “let us indulge in the luxury of seeing everything the way we see ourselves – as insides viewed from the inside – while Leigh’s films force us to see characters the way others see us (and the way we see others) – as outsides viewed from the outside.” Essentially, he is making the distinction between varying distances of viewership, much like the difference between Swift’s first-person “Look What You Made Me Do” and Dylan’s third-person “Hurricane.” Leigh’s usual avoidance of emotionally explanatory filmic devices like the close-up, unnatural lighting, and extravagant musical orchestration, according to Carney, draw the difference between Hollywood movies and Leigh’s films. Behavior is all that’s left. We as viewers can’t judge intention but only what is on screen: action.
What Carney ascribes to Leigh as his singular approach is, in actuality, the foundation of all cinema. Character action and behaviour are the fundamental, basic building blocks with which to make a film. French director Robert Bresson—a man whose films couldn’t be any more stylistically different from Leigh’s—wrote in his Notes on the Cinematographer that his work “dies on paper” before it is then “resuscitated by ... living persons and real objects.” Leigh strips back all the tapestry, all the Hollywoodian devices, to reveal the bedrock, resulting in films made up of very flawed, very human characters, unimpeded by Leigh’s moral perception.
“For a lot of us, we may never find a candidate or party with whom we agree 100% on every issue,” Swift wrote in her Instagram post, “but we have to vote anyway.” For Swift, with how she’s situated in the public eye, it’s an obligation to step into a social, political camp. There is no option for her to avoid casting a “vote”—at least, no option that would allow her to carry on as she does with her music. The New Yorker Festival seemingly shouldn’t have this problem. It’s an endeavour of a journalistic publication, after all, but the decision to interview Bannon was met with instant, severe criticism. Concrete and, on a smaller scale, my documentary were created and released in that world rather than Leigh’s, for better or worse. But film still maintains a line of defense over every other mainstream medium of art: the inherent separation between a film’s characters and its creator. Essentially, a filmmaker can always claim, “That’s the character, not me,” and no one can say otherwise.
A crew member recently showed Furniture Bob his fifteen minutes of fame in “Restoration,” and reportedly, he said he was satisfied with it. This is a man who wouldn’t give me his real name because he was afraid of a public backlash against his words and opinions, and he tells us he’s satisfied—an indication that I left out his warts. Maybe fear of receiving backlash myself, for giving a character like Bob a platform, drove me to censure him. Zahler did no such thing. In Concrete, he uses cinema’s particular remoteness as a curtain to hide his true beliefs. We finish the film upset by the violence and dismayed by the characters’ flaws and their inability to rise above them, all without Zahler having impressed his thoughts upon us. Film seems to be the final refuge for that type of storytelling, but the escalation of the “de-platforming” issue may slowly assure its destruction. Up until these modern, limited standards for appropriate character representation and analysis take hold of the wisest viewing audiences, I consider it of high importance that any filmmaker that thinks themself of Leigh’s or Zahler’s ilk—or of Akerman’s, Bergman’s, Cassavetes’, Carax’s, Coppola’s, Fellini’s, Kieślowski’s, or Lee’s for that matter—continue rendering their characters honestly in the face of possible public backlash. Directors, writers, tell us what you think during the Q&A. Right now I’d rather hear what backwards things Brett, Anthony, and Bob have to say.