Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Feeling Gangster Squad


The art of trailers has become its own genre of filmmaking. Video games, political ads, even commercials for food and insurance borrow techniques from the form of the trailer. While coming attractions are as old as moving pictures the modern trailer eschews story and outline for an assemblage of affectively charged and relatively disconnected sights and sounds. The work of the trailer, the excitement that it generates often far exceeds the films, or even politicians, it hopes to promote. The affective intensity of this form of promotion so commonly causes the complaint “the trailer was better than the movie” that an active attempt is made to produce films at the same amplified pitch resulting in summer movies like Men in Black III, Transformers, etc for which narrative is no longer even an afterthought, it is entirely absent. 
Although all movies have trailers the pinnacle and likely driving force of such innovations in compressed sight and sound is the action film. Explosions, fleeting love interests, more explosions, executions, tense torture ticking bomb scenes all held together by a rogues gallery of heroes and villains. A facial line-up superimposed on a series of disconnected but thrilling events all set to some soaring score; either coming pop hit or operatic aria. One cannot help but feel the concerns of those that saw in aestheticization a fascistic impulse. The great filmmaker Francois Truffaut once remarked that there was no such thing as an anti-war film because the medium was too powerful it glorified everything on its screen. Despite the fact that most trailers are now viewed on cell phones or ipads there is still something about the metonymic mix of image and sound that lends itself to glorification. The body is mobilized for enjoyment. In what follows John Protevi and Jairus Grove with a guest appearance by Davide Panagia explore the composition of a recent trailer for the movie “Gangster Squad” in an effort to diagram the affective economy at work in a mere 2 minutes and 30 seconds of video.


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John Protevi
  Louisiana State University 
The trailer for Gangster Squad yields a prima facie reading of multiple fascist affective tropes.  It glamorizes extra-legal state agent violence aimed at purifying a corrupt society by "going to war." It's only a very small part in a larger tendency of many such cultural moments, but it's worth analyzing on its own.
  Here's a quick reading of the visuals and the verbals of the trailer. Not shot-by-shot, but picking up on some of the most obvious fascist affective elements. As we'll see, the trailer is not exactly great cinema, but didn't somebody once say you can read the cultural unconscious much better with schlock than with good art?
  Before we start, Davide Panagia asks us to keep in mind that in both the visual and aural affective registers there is something compelling about the staccato delivery of the clich├ęd lines, the boxer motif throwing solid punches, the rat-tat-tat of the machine gun & bullets, and the of hip-hop rhythms and sounds. Superimposing all these aspects can we speak of such quick-delivery motifs as a central affective register within which fascism might resonate? The staccato is not enough to suggest by itself to suggest a fascist affect – we'll make that case below -- because these elements work in other spheres also (think of Barthes's 'punctum', or empiricism's 'impression'). That said, the aural and visual staccato punctuality of the trailer seem to scream out a kind of temporal foreshortening that is in no uncertain terms anxiety-producing.
The opening sequence is the Sean Penn monologue with him punching the heavy bag, and some stock shots of the Hollywood sign. I don't think there's much to note here, a little Realpolitik ending with the hubristic "Out here I'm god" (0:01-0:37). But as with all this reading, I'd be happy to get suggestions in the comments.
Things pick up when we get Nick Nolte's grizzled cop veteran talking to Josh Brolin's determined leader of men: "Los Angeles is a damsel in distress, and I need you to save her" (0:38 – 0:41). So here we have society as soft, female, and endangered, with the male cops called upon to swoop in to save her.
  Then we cut to beat-up suspects being led into the police station. Ryan Gosling: "what happened to them?" Brolin: "they resisted." (0:41 – 0:45) Besides the glorification of violence, we have the action hero one-liner trope, which increases the sympathetic identification with Brolin.
Then back to Nolte, who redefines the problem from law-enforcement to warfare: "it's not a crime wave, it's enemy occupation" (0:46 – 0:49). There's a War on Terror forecast here, but we don't have to dwell on that. It's enough that civil society is declared just a mask for warfare. So the heroes have to answer the fascist demand: the homeland is occupied by enemies, the liberal response to treat the gangsters like criminals rather than war enemies is ineffective, what are you going to do about it?
  The response is a black-ops / plausible deniability / "off-the-books" group of cops. At 0:50 Brolin says "I'll need men." What kind of men? Men who walk forward, always forward toward the camera, steely-eyed, no words, just shooting. Men of action. Fascism is always about forward movement, isn't it?
Then after the recruitment scene, Nick Nolte's voice-over at 0:55 – 0:57 says "you are to make no arrests, this is off the books" with the camera panning down the City Hall phallus.   
  Then the boys walking toward the camera in front of the building. That's the kind of government we need, a cover for off-the-books operations.
Gosling mocks socialist ethos at 1:00-1:04 ("doesn't seem right that he should have so much while others have so little") – with a two-shot of Emma Stone and Gosling. She's part of the "so much" that Penn "has." She's a possession. 
Then the Penn character shows the depths of societal corruption that will be redeemed by the extra-legal violence of the heroes: "we're standing in the middle of a money-making machine." Images, gambling, then stacked Tommy guns on desk 1:05-1:08. Then,"we got all the whores and dope sown up" – with shots of each (1:10). Then move terror: gangsters shooting at family home with Christmas lights (1:12).
  Then Brolin is addressed at 1:19 as an officer: "you call it Sarge." Paramilitary violence. Brolin rallies the troops -- "we're going to war" -- but again, we're talking about making heroes out of cops who go off-the-books and wage war at home. 
  Brolin continues "there's no glory in this assignment." But the movie is glorifying the selfless heroics of the black-ops crew, who aren't in it for the money – they light piles of it on fire – they are in it to be the redemptive fire cleansing society (1:20 – 1:27).
  Brolin: "You do this, there's no going back" Gosling, with insouciance, "well, you gotta die of something," extinguishing cigarette (daring, devil-may-care, my life isn't worth that much if we can get some action and clean up the corruption). (1:27-1:31)
  Intercutting of "no badges, no names, no mercy," with various violence / brutality / torture (beating a guy tied to a chair). 1:32-1:35.
  Then the boys march ahead (forward motion for the fascists) with explosions in the background. 1:36-1:38. 
Then we get a car careening on edge and Gosling shooting out the window. A suggestion that things are poised on the edge (1:38). 
  Then we get one of the biggest affective punches of the trailer, the Emma Stone / Ryan Gosling sex and violence link. First we get the repartee (1:39-1:46), then some gunshots (1:47-1:49), then a very quick shot of Gosling and Stone in bed, a bit of flesh, with him starting to roll over on top of her (1:50), then Brolin with his shotgun at waist level pointing up and out (1:50-1:51). 
  Now there's a lot to talk about here. The appeal to teen boys of all ages: go off-the-books and you too can fuck Emma Stone! The embarrassing Hollywood Freudianism of shooting = ejaculation; that real men do it from on top (I'd be interested to know if they have an earlier scene of Stone on top of Penn); and that Gosling's conquest of Stone gives Brolin an erection. Of course fascism isn't the only affective style that links male-bonding and male-dominant sex and violence, but the glamorization of that linkage seems to me to resonate strongly with the fascist affective style.
Then at 1:52 – 1:59 we get interspersed credits with character shots. Penn's character says 2:00 – 2:10 "a cop that's not for sale is like a dog with rabies; you just got to put them down." We cut to Brolin walking down a movie theater aisle, then gangsters shooting up a movie theater, bursting through screen. Other than the reckless shooting up of a public space, showing the gangsters' depravity, I have to say the coming through the screen stumped me, and I'd be glad to get help in comments as to what is going on here.
  Now for the ending one-liner, 2:10 – 2:17. We see a gangster on the ground, smirking about the weakness of liberalism, that cops have to respect the rights of gangsters. "You're a cop, you can't shoot me." Gosling does that one-handed load-the-shotgun maneuvers, looks down the barrel of the gun, and says "not anymore." Cold-blooded elimination. Gun flash illuminates his face, then black. Then title. 
  What to make of the one-liner? (1) Gosling is "not anymore" a (regular) cop -- he's off-the-books. Or (2) the special type of cop that Gosling represents is "not anymore" bound to obey a fundamental code of liberal society, that cops use only the amount of force necessary to detain a subject and that they not mete out justice on the spot. Or (3) he's "not anymore" even an off-the-books cop, but a lone wolf. There are two plausible motivations here: (a) Penn has killed Stone, the gun moll, after having discovered her infidelity or (b) Penn has killed Brolin. Either way, Gosling has then broken free of even the black-ops squad to go rogue for personal revenge. I'm not sure if reading 3 of the one-liner resonates with fascist affect, but readings 1 and 2 certainly do.
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Jairus Victor Grove
  University of Hawaii
The 'above the law' hero-cop is an extremely popular figure. It plays into almost all superhero films and certainly all mafia films.  The story is always the same. A frustrated man unable to cope with the violence around him is driven to leave behind the law and follow a higher law. The causal factor is always the extremity of the villain. This is the formula for The Dark Knight as much as the infinite supply of buddy cop movies. It is in fact hard to remember a summer without a revenge flick following this formula. These films also follow a trailer formula. Generally we come to absolve the hero of his illegal acts because he bares some personal cost or loss that redeems the spectacular destruction as an act of sacrifice for the greater good. For a movie to work that is to say for people to want go see it all of this must be felt in the 3 minutes of trailer that will introduce the film. One has to anticipate the enjoyment of the heroes desire to kill. To give a sense of how this is accomplished bellow there is a brief sketch of the trailers for the Untouchables and L.A. Confidential as they are undoubtedly predecessors of Gangster Squad. 
The Untouchables Starting at 1:51: 
  Canadian: I do not approve of your methods.
  Costner/Ness: Yeah, you’re not from Chicago.


In The Untouchables Brian DiPalma stages virtually the same story as Gangster Squad. After all, as the film goes, Al Capone could not be taken down without exceeding the law (the tax evasion part of the story is underplayed compared to the shotgun justice thematic). Sean Connery’s line, ‘he pulls a knife, you pull a gun, he puts of one of your men in the hospital, you put one of his down” is front and center in the trailer for the film. In no uncertain terms it is cold war escalation dominance with period accents and Tommy guns. The trailer in particular is interesting in that the aural sensible is partitioned almost entirely by voice overs until the end in which an aria, Vesti la giubba from Pagliacci, reaches its fever pitch as the violence escalates and our appetites for full spectrum hero vs. mob violence is truly wetted. Obviously arias are common to film climaxes as the opera’s crescendo cant help but make you want the crisis resolved. It pushes you further into the zone of tension fearful the voice will break until it does in the realm of DiPalma and Coppola with a gunshot. One could also say something about the choice of music so inescapably Italian. Although what is interesting is that the aria is supposed to carry us along with the heroes (Anglos, Irishmen, accountants) not the Italian Al Capone. The trailer is held together then by a traditional musicless introduction of key characters, the setting of the stage of heroes and villain, the foreboding presentation of Costner’s wife and kids as the potential sacrifice, and to seal the deal a contextless violent climax set to opera. 
Leading the charge of the Neo-noir aesthetic that owned the late 90’s (and made the new Batman series possible as Memento caries through both the aesthetic of noir and the violence beyond good and evil motif as well) James Ellroy’s LA Confidential is basically the same movie as Gangster Squad although reversed as the two hero cops are originally part of an under the table ‘gangster squad’ that turns out to be a front for running drugs and killing the competition. However of course in LA Confidential the ‘bad’ gangster squad is merely the pretext for Guy Pearce and Russell Crowe to disavow the immoral extra-legal violence of ‘bad cops’ for their own moral  justice/revenge killing spree. In this case the damsel in distress is not L.A. as Nick Nolte says in the Gangster Squad trailer but Kim Bassinger. Again though in the trailer and in the film the music is period appropriate or at least is engineered to sound like what we think this ‘Golden Age’ of Hollywood would sound like. 
  As the tension builds in the trailer you begin to hear the faint violin section growing louder, short staccato attack gives way to a big lush string section typical of many scores of the period all of which sound like Thomas Newman’s score to The Road to Perdition. Beautiful, big, lush, string sections, oversaturated production, lots of music only, slow action sequences, and kill shots. Generally the scores are, I think, to capture the tragedy and the beauty of someone's act of sacrifice. This sets the affective mood to feel good about the enjoyment of killing as it was something that had to be done. I suspect however the real fuel for the enjoyment comes from a baser desire to witness payback or revenge. In this way Russell Crowe’s excessive violence in LA Confidential is already cleansed and ready for enjoyment in the trailer before seeing the film through its juxtaposition with the tragic score and brief sad glances of Kim Bassinger. Although we come to find out Crowe isn't dead, so it's not really sacrifice despite the fact that he got the music for it. Cheating I think. You should have to die to get the whole orchestra.
These trailers and the movies that follow them proceed by the revenge/extreme justice playbook. Justice can exceed the law but at least the secondary heroes have to pay for it with their lives. Kevin Spacey gets it when he becomes noble in L.A. Confidential; in The Untouchables Sean Connery gets gunned down as does the hapless accountant. And we have all of the slow-building sad violin solos to carry us through.
Gangster Squad is more like Fight Club than its predecessor revenge flicks. I think it was Houston Baker that pointed out that the entire Dust Brothers' soundtrack to Fight Club was hip-hop with the black voices removed. The tracks are sampled and rendered entirely instrumental to create the ‘OG (original gangster) sensibility’ but with the voices of Pitt and Norton. This is of course the fantasy of the movie. Pitt and Norton play at the lives that hip-hop reports on. They start a kind of crime club not because they are poor, marginalized, or stolen from Africa, but because they are bored and tired of cornflake blue ties and Ikea furniture.
While Gangster Squad has a strong visual investment in the same Noir period of L.A. as L.A. Confidential no one cues the swing music or tragic string section. As the renegade cops go fully BADASS the striking anachronism of Jay-Z begins to play. There is much that can be said about violence in hip-hop. The best of hip-hop does more to re-present violence than represent violence, to steal a line from Spivak, however in this case neither make sense. The violence of kick-ass, Jay-Z “I am Che Guevara with Bling On” swagger is put to use by the faces of Gosling, Broelin, and Nolte. I think this is what makes this film truly fascistic. It is the full enjoyment of being beyond the law without any cost or necessity to disavow the guilt inducing enjoyment of violence. There is at least in the other movies a cost or a sacrifice to leaving behind the law in favor of divine violence. People get killed, families are drawn in, etc. Things GET REAL. 
In the trailer for Gangster Squad we have one of Jay-Z’s most over the top songs, samples of screams over industrial clanging synthesized to sound like the crash of cymbals and a driving beat, then visually and aurally punctuated by explosions on screen. The Jay-Z song “Oh My God” comes from Kingdom Come, his most triumphant album (in the sense of Triumph of the Will). The production on the whole thing sounds like it was made by the archangels of a self-proclaimed God. Wagner for a new generation. As a result it has none of the texture and ambivalence of earlier albums which is to say it is a crass celebration of speed boats and Lambos in an intermittently brilliant career. The over-the-top production for "Oh My God" is meant to provide the back drop to Jay-Z’s rags to riches, will-to-power, Horatio Alger story with a black, urban twist. Growing up poor with a single Mom and then through the streets to become the godfather of hip-hop intolerant of young upstarts who questioned his authority during his retirement. Kingdom Come is after all the first album Jay-Z made after he called off his retirement. What is clear in both the production of the original song and its strangely out of history placement in Gangster Squad is that at the top, in control is what strong men prove when questioned.
I have always thought the production of Kingdom Come sounded like something Mussolini would have commissioned. Its is a series of hollow anthems and Jay-Z is their nation. This further compounds the horrifying mishmash of references to the war on terrorism, the decline of the city, the public as damsel in distress, such that we have something quite different from The Untouchables and LA Confidential. We have a music video for enjoying violence as violence with a little sexualization on the side. I am not sure if it is worse than the other two movies as they invest authoritarianism with a sense of nobility but it's not better. Just different but a difference that lends itself even more to the affective form of the trailer as the justificatory backstory is barely needed.
  What is at play in the Gangster Squad trailer is also part of an aural racial aesthetic that uses hip-hop as the go-to for the enjoyment of senseless violence. Interesting that the sound of young urban black male identity is now the reservoir for the reclamation of white male machismo that is if the content of the lyrics are sufficiently removed. As vapid as this particular Jay-Z song is Jay's story is a compelling one and all that remains for the trailer are grunts and background vocals. There is also something about the aural racialization of crime and decay at work here that is made more explicit by the use of hip hop but is present in all three films. I think particularly in the case of LA Confidential these movies are nostalgia trips. In these new modern times of urban decay and rampant crime where are OUR heroes willing to sacrifice their honor and reputation for the greater good? Hip-hop in this context is particularly creepy. Every fascist needs an emergency and urban decay has been enough to make the prison industry a bottomless bipartisan pork barrel.
Although again I think the aural aesthetic of Kingdom Come's 'Oh My God' is one of swagger it is after all a comeback album where the king reminds everyone what the penalty for disrespect is. However these other resonance ought not be ignored. 
  As the inclusion of torture by heroes in films is now de rigueur we ought not be surprised by Gangster Squad. And I am not saying all of this to join the chorus of moral panic over senseless violence. What I think is worth taking seriously is the sense that is being made of violence. As a technique of mobilization not unlike singing in battle or national anthems the trailer as a form is something more than merely an advertisement. And as the trailer form seems to work best as a collage of violence and pulse-accelerating music all held together by close ups of a few unforgettable faces it should not surprise us that it is increasingly the format for politics. It should however concern us.

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