“The spectacle appears at one as society itself, as a part of society and as a means of unification. As a part of society, it is that sector where all attention, all consciousness, converges. Being isolated — and precisely for that reason — this sector is the locus of illusion and false consciousness; the unity it imposes is merely the official language of generalized separation.”
So wrote Guy Debord in his invaluable broadside “The Society of the Spectacle”, first published in 1967, and later converted into a film of the same name. As a work of socio-political analysis Debord’s book/film goes far beyond the likes of Jean-Luc Godard and Hans-Juergen Syberberg in analytical specificity, particularly in relation to the fact that — “The spectacle is not a collection of images; rather it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.”
Both Peter Watkins, and Ken Jacobs have devoted their lives to examining this very social relationship along Debodian lines. But the bulk of cinema is still stuck in its delusion that Spectacle is All — a travesty that becomes particularly acute in “Rendition”.
Directed by Gavin Hood (whose previous credit is the well-regarded-but-not-by-me “Tsotsi” ) from a screenplay by Kelley Sane (whose sole previous credit is the script and direction of the little-seen drag comedy “Franchesca Page”) Rendition is an Oprah-ready bathos-fest in which pert, pleasant Reese Witherspoon, discovers her Egyptian-born hubster Omar Metwall has been “disappeared” American-style — snatched at the Airport on returning from an overseas business trip and whisked away to Somewhere-in-the-Middle-East to be be tortured. This, we are duly informed, is known as an “Extraordinary Rendition” — a violation of the Geneva Convention that began under the Clinton Administration, but went into overdrive under Dubbya after 9/11, as Jane Mayer explains with considerable insight in The New Yorker .
While the film mentions Clinton administration’s inauguration of “Renditions,” not a word is said about George W. Bush or his boss, Dick Cheney. Instead we have Meryl Streep (making her mouth tighter and smaller than every before) as “Corrine Whitman” — a Senator so powerful as to be be personally in charge of all “Extraordinary Renditions.” An American official, sent to work with stalwart foresquare diplomat Jake Gyllenhaal, has been killed by schrapnel in a suicide bombing meant for someone else. Declaring that no American death must go unavenged, Streep’s “Whitman” demands that someone must pay. And so Witherspoon’s hapless hubby becomes the designated patsy as his cell phone records indicate a known terrorist had been calling him.
Naturally he’s not a terrorist and it’s all been a “misunderstanding.”
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves for from this point the film switches into high gear as it veers between a Pakula-lite Beltway thriller (Witherspoon struggling to get answers from a sympathetic-but-officially-constrained Peter Sarsgaard) and an Eli Roth torture porn flick.
It’s all here: the electric shocks, the “waterboarding,” the being tossed naked into a black pit. But being a Hollywood movie, all works out perfectly in the end with stalwart Jake realizing that the hubster is no terrorist and saving his life at the very last nanosecond in best Perils of Pauline tradition. And so we get all the cheap thrills we want, plus we’re made to “feel good about ourselves” by cheering the righteous and booing a fake cardboard villain.
In “Redacted”, Brian DePalma offers something slightly better in that all the images he presents are images first — fictionalized homemade videos, TV documentaries, wesite mini-movies, plus actual still photos of American atrocities. But at the end of the day it’s all about seeing a beheading — albeit a fake one, modelled after the real ones available on YouTube. Bu contrast “A Mighty Heart” refrains from restaging the beheading of its subject, journalist Daniel Pearl. But as the film stars Angeline Jolie as his window it becomes less about the politics of terrorism than the politics of stardom.
But even there it falls short as the public preferred the spectacle offered by Brittany Spears in the comfort of the “Home Entertainment Center” (where the latest TMZ video looks great on an HDTV) to leaving the house to look at Angelina without a Brad to guide her.
“Self-emancipation in our time is emancipation from the material bases of an inverted truth,” Debord wrote.
Note, he didn’t say an “Inconvenient” one.