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Screening Torture

Screening Torture: Media Representations of State Terror and Political Domination

Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 328
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  • Book Info
    Screening Torture
    Book Description:

    Before 9/11, films addressing torture outside of the horror/slasher genre depicted the practice in a variety of forms. In most cases, torture was cast as the act of a desperate and depraved individual, and the viewer was more likely to identify with the victim rather than the torturer. Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, scenes of brutality and torture in mainstream comedies, dramatic narratives, and action films appear for little other reason than to titillate and delight. In these films, torture is devoid of any redeeming qualities, represented as an exercise in brutal senselessness carried out by authoritarian regimes and institutions.

    This volume follows the shift in the representation of torture over the past decade, specifically in documentary, action, and political films. It traces and compares the development of this trend in films from the United States, Europe, China, Latin America, South Africa, and the Middle East. Featuring essays by sociologists, psychologists, historians, journalists, and specialists in film and cultural studies, the collection approaches the representation of torture in film and television from multiple angles and disciplines, connecting its aesthetics and practices to the dynamic of state terror and political domination.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-52697-5
    Subjects: Sociology, Film Studies

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-VI)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. VII-X)
  3. Screening Torture: AN INTRODUCTION
    (pp. 1-18)
    Michael Flynn and Fabiola F. Salek

    Marathon Man was released in 1976. Its protagonist, Thomas “Babe” Ryan (Dustin Hoffman), is a Columbia graduate student majoring in history and a committed runner. His father was an esteemed professor at Columbia who got caught up in the McCarthy hearings and committed suicide when Babe and his brother, Henry (aka “Doc”) (Roy Scheider), were young. Babe believes that his brother is an oil executive, but he is actually an agent who works for a secret government agency. Doc visits Babe in New York knowing that Dr. Christian Szell (Laurence Olivier), an ex-Nazi dentist who worked in the concentration camps...

  4. Part I Torture and the Implications of Masculinity

      (pp. 21-33)
      David Danzig

      To some, Jack Bauer, the hero of the FOX television program 24, is just the sort of guy the U.S. needs to counter the threat from extremist groups like al-Qaeda. Bauer never flinches when confronting a terrorist. In its first six seasons 24 broadcast eighty-nine scenes that feature torture.¹ Bauer has used nearly every torture technique imaginable over the lifetime of the series. He has stabbed, shot, kicked, choked, electrocuted, drugged, blackmailed, threatened family members of terrorists with death, and used other exotic forms of torture in his abusive quest for information. Terrorists who are willing to die for their...

      (pp. 35-51)
      Lee Quinby

      In their list of the “ten best torture scenes in American cinema,” Fat Guys at the Movies not only places scenes from Mel Gibson films in four of the ten slots, they give The Passion of the Christ top honors, admitting with discernible glee that Gibson’s “torture extravaganza” exceeds a single scene.¹ Their list goes directly to a knotty point about depictions of torture in film: cinematic torture entertains—or at least captivates—even as it provides possibilities for critique of the gruesome brutalities human beings can and have wrought upon one another. Of course, there are numerous films that...

    • 3 It’s a Perfect World: TORTURE, CONFESSION, AND SACRIFICE
      (pp. 53-68)
      Michael Flynn and Fabiola F. Salek

      There was nothing cold about the Cold War. It was marked by the insanity of the nuclear arms race and the principle of mutually assured destruction, and this legacy still haunts and endangers the civilian population. The sponsored proxy wars, insurgencies, death squads, and torture centers resulted in a casualty count in the millions. Both sides built up their militaries to obscene levels and supplied warring factions with armaments that are still used and make for a very unstable global climate.¹ The costs of interventions into the political, economic, and societal affairs of the third world were atrocious. From the...

  5. Part II Torture and the Sadomasochistic Impulse

      (pp. 71-91)
      Chris Berry

      Emilie Yueh-yu Yeh notes two brief appearances made by a German shepherd guard dog in Ang Lee’s 2007 film, Lust, Caution (Se Jie). It first appears in the credit sequence, then again in the middle of the second sex scene in the film, in a cutaway shot punctuating the shift from foreplay to penetration. What is it doing here? Its appearance is somewhat mysterious, because there is no evident narrative motivation. The absence of narrative motivation makes it impossible to give a definitive answer about the meaning of the dog. For Yeh the shots of the dog function as a...

    • 5 The Art of Photogenic Torture
      (pp. 93-107)
      Phil Carney

      Sometime during the late 1950s and early 1960s the photographic spectacle changed. Mass media and commerce had expanded in a striking way since the Second World War, delivering a mass consumer culture to the West. Rock and pop, perfume and clothes, catwalks and models, TV entertainment and televised sports—all accompanied by a new kind of celebrity—percolated through consumerist spaces to a much broader spread of age groups and social classes. Suddenly, we found ourselves immersed in an ostensibly classless and ageless mass marketplace of the image.

      Photographic spectacle had progressively expanded since its first stirrings in the mid-nineteenth...

      (pp. 109-141)
      Alfred W. McCoy

      Just four weeks after CBS Television broadcast those sixteen photographs of abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in April 2004,¹ Susan Sontag published a subtle yet sensational cover story in the New York Times Magazine. She simply asked us to look again at that iconic image we all thought we knew so well, the one showing a hooded Iraqi standing on a box, electrical wires hanging from his outstretched arms. By expanding the photo’s frame a fraction of inch, Sontag captured a casually dressed American soldier in the right foreground, nonchalantly adjusting the setting on his digital camera.

      “The photographs,” Sontag...

    • 7 Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange as Art Against Torture
      (pp. 143-164)
      Carolyn Strange

      Between the publication of Anthony Burgess’s novel A Clockwork Orange¹ and its film adaptation by Stanley Kubrick in 1971 “the golden age of American film violence” emerged, as film critics have noted and as moral guardians decried at the time.² When the U.S. Motion Picture Association of America revised its film classification code in 1968 and effectively expanded the range of films adults could watch in public, filmmakers, led by Sam Peckinpah, seized the opportunity to depict violence more graphically than it had previously been screened in mainstream theaters.³ At the same time sexually confronting films, such as Midnight Cowboy...

  6. Part III Confronting the Legacies of Torture and State Terror

    • 8 “Accorded a Place in the Design”: TORTURE IN POSTAPARTHEID CINEMA
      (pp. 167-189)
      Elizabeth Swanson Goldberg

      To discuss torture as it is represented in postapartheid South African films or in U.S. films about South Africa means discussing the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), for the TRC is the elephant in the living room of testimony, an obstacle to the process of remaking South African society after the devastation wrought by apartheid and by colonialism before it. This chapter, then, must grapple with the TRC in the process of considering the representation of torture in postapartheid South African cultural production, as well as in U.S. movies made after the era of protest/solidarity films such as...

    • 9 Confessing Without Regret: AN ISRAELI FILM GENRE
      (pp. 191-216)
      Livia Alexander

      The international success of Ari Folman’s animated mockumentary Waltz with Bashir (Valts im Bashir) (2008) brought to the forefront a genre dominant in Israeli filmmaking: confessional cinema. First emerging during the time of the first intifada (1987–1994) and focused on addressing the actions taken by Israeli soldiers against their perceived Palestinian and Lebanese enemies, Israeli confessional cinema was initially heavily preoccupied with the moral dilemmas and self-questioning triggered by the outbreak of the first intifada, with films like Testimonies (Eduyut) (1991) and What Happened (Ma Kara) (1988). The evolution of the genre through the post-Oslo years, the outbreak of...

  7. Part IV Torture and the Shortcomings of Film

    • 10 Movies of Modern Torture as Convenient Truths
      (pp. 219-237)
      Darius Rejali

      Torture movies purvey convenient truths. But I don’t mean here to document conscious misdirection or blissful ignorance. Rather, in life people make certain misrepresentations that are convenient, even when they should know better. Convenient truths, like urban legends, don’t respect political boundaries. They can be found equally on left and right, among policy makers, academics, reporters, artists, and directors. I’ll identify what makes a truth convenient, but those interested in further evidence for my claims may refer to Torture and Democracy, an 850-page sourcebook on how torture technology works.¹

      Here I’ll map how convenient truths circulate, and how movies convey...

    • 11 Torture at the Limit of Politics
      (pp. 239-255)
      Faisal Devji

      In his classic work on the emergence of modern regimes of punishment in Western Europe, Michel Foucault points out that those who supported such apparently humane forms of imprisonment and correction wrongly identified the corporal exactions of the past as torture.¹ Inflicting pain on the bodies of suspects and criminals in earlier times, he argues, was not simply a barbarous and inefficient use of discipline, but represented rather a different order of truth. For the confessions and recantations extracted from prisoners served not as information in the modern sense but rather as demonstrations of the triumph of truth over falsehood....

      (pp. 257-271)
      Marnia Lazreg

      Apologies for torture, whether in print or speech, follow a familiar pattern whereby the practice is acknowledged as being extreme and unusual, even evil, before being hailed as necessary and mandatory under exceptional circumstances. Written defenses of torture usually rest on its effectiveness and are generally based on fictitious, hypothetical emergency situations such as the ticking time-bomb scenario.¹ Unlike the printed or spoken word, the representation of torture in films appears to be either emphatic about the barbarity of torture as a tool in the hands of discredited political systems or more ambiguous about its meaning. Television shows occasionally contain...

    • 13 Documenting the Documentaries on Abu Ghraib: FACTS VERSUS DISTORTION
      (pp. 273-292)
      Stjepan G. Mestrovic

      I was appointed as an expert witness in sociology for the defense teams of three of the soldiers, so-called “rotten apples,” involved in the abuse at Abu Ghraib: Javal Davis, Sabrina Harman, and Lynndie England. In the process of fulfilling my role as an expert witness, I had the opportunity to observe and interact with the remaining convicted soldiers, Charles Graner, Ivan Frederick, and especially Jeremy Sivits and Megan Ambuhl. Simply hanging out at the courthouse gave me the opportunity to conduct participant-observation research with scores of other soldiers who were witnesses, observers, and in other ways participants in this...

  8. List of Contributors
    (pp. 293-294)
  9. Index
    (pp. 295-316)