Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Ziezek, Kung Fu and the Spiral of Violence

As of late I've been reading David Fitch's newest book The End of Evangelicalism? (a really great interview about the book and some of the ideas found therein can be heard here) and I hope to have my own, more thorough post, about the book up sometime in the next month. For my purposes here I'll just say that Fitch's big conversation partner is Slavoj Ziezek. Ziezek, for the uninitiated, is a foul-mouthed Slovenian, continental philosopher, and cultural critic. If you happen to know of anyone who is 1) of interest in the world of philosophy and 2) not dead, then it's probably this guy. One of his big projects is around a kind of cultural psycho-analysis via film. We're the ones shelling out the cash to see them so "What does a film say about the human condition?" should be a more interesting question than perhaps it seems on the surface. By way of example I'm including a couple snippets of a movie he did called The Pervert's Guide to Cinema ("Cinema is the ultimate pervert art. It doesn't give you what you desire - it tells you how to desire."). Before you watch these remember that these films have struck a deep cord with many of us, otherwise we wouldn't keep watching. So what is that deeper cord?

As we do this it's also helpful to note that this deeper cord is not always going to be some greater truth that we appreciate about ourselves. Like any good therapy we should also come to aknowledge where things we unconchiously think and believe (and subsecquently act upon) are deeply pathological.

A few weeks back I went to the Kung Fu Double Feature, part of the Olympia Film Festival. Was supposed to meet up with a friend before we went to the movie to grab a beer but he was running late and so with an hour to kill and my trusty porter in hand I started digging into Fitch's book. So I had Ziezek on the brain while watching The Mystery of Chessboxing and The Bastard Swordsman (two grainy and terrible/amazing 70's era Hong Kong, Kung Fu films). So with that as an all-to-long intro I wanted to talk about what I think these movies do for us.

The Mystery of Chessboxing
Plot breakdown:
Our clumsy protagonist Ah Pao, wants to learn Kung Fu so that he can kill Ghost Face Killer (called "Ghost Face Killing" in about half of the subtitles. We'll just refer to him as GFK) to avenge his father. He eventually becomes the pupil of the local chess guru (/surprise Kung Fu master!) Chi Sue Tin. We find out later that the reason GFK is running around killing all sorts of people is because those are the people who apparently conspired together to kill him 15 yrs ago. The movie ends as GFK comes to kill Chi Sue Tin (turns out he and GFK were buddies but then Chi orchestrated the assassination plot 15 yrs ago) and they get into an epic fight scene that makes Rod Roddy Pipper's in They Live seem reasonable in terms of duration (this fight scene is almost the entire 3rd reel of the film). And BIG SPOILER: GFK dies at the end.

Let me see if I've got this straight: Chi Sue Tin and Ah Pao's dad (among others) tried to kill their buddy GFK. It didn't work and now he's upset about the whole thing. He kills the folks who tried to kill him (but points out he has no beef with their families). Ah Pao then does essentially the same thing as he attempts to avenge his father. Attempting to put on my Ziezekian goggles, it seems to me that this film works as a great lens for how we tend to unconsciously think about violence in our society at large. Through what Walter Wink has called the myth of redemptive violence we move into a spiral of violence. Where would it make sense to stop the violence? Based on the logic of the film if GFK has a kid don't they have a legitimate reason to seek vengeance on Chi Sue Tin and Ah Pao? Revenge is our protagonists driving force as he seeks what Ziezek calls the Objet Petit A, the destruction of GFK and all that he represents. And this is where I think it hits home for us, when the bad guy dies that is, we think, the end. But in reality there is always something else after the curtain closes. Like in the romantic comedy when the couple gets together at the end of the film we aren't shown the part 6-months later where they have the fight over dirty dishes or laundry, that would spoil the illusion. It's only when we pull back that curtain can we break this hypnotic hold these stories are able to illicit.

Ah Pao's real problem isn't gone (he remains a victim of horrific violence).

Bastard Swordsman was equally laughably bad. But I think it's exactly because these movies are so bad (though entertaining) that it is easier to see why when we use similar arguments for the killing of former allies like Osama Bin Laden or the going to war over an atrocity like 9-11 won't fix the problem but will just continue the cycle of violence ad infinitum.

The story I think these films tell us subconsciously, a story we want very much to believe is that 1) evil is external (note Ziezek's points on Chaplin's The Great Dictator in the 2nd video) and 2) evil is a problem we can take care of with by force.

For those of us called to pick up our cross it's important, I think, that we acknowledge the ways that stories (in this case film) can and often does encourage us to buy into a story that is contrary to our own.

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