Teasing Threads – Sundry Film and Literary Criticism: Ridley Scott’s ‘Black Hawk Down’

Chris Palazzolo revisits Black Hawk Down, directed by Ridley Scott, 2001

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21st Century culture industries produce so much it’s entirely possible to spend a lifetime with a cultural diet of products never more than a fortnight old. This is the professional hazard of a Reviewer, and the reason why I describe my column as Criticism and not Reviews; so I’m not only restricted to what is new. I felt at some point that I may want to look at something older, for whatever reason. I named the column Teasing Threads because I like the idea of finding something in a film or a book, or some other cultural artefact that can be ‘teased out’ so to speak, so as to see what unravels. In my last column on Ridley Scott’s The Martian, the meritocratic incorruptibility of NASA and the hyper-competence of its scientific and military personnel was a thread that led me to thinking about an earlier film of Scott’s with the same kind of character-erasing merit of institution and personnel (though with a flaw in its structure that leads to an unimaginably bloody outcome) – Black Hawk Down.

Black Hawk Down is a moment by moment account of US Special Forces attempt (under a UN mandate) to arrest a Somali warlord named Mohammad Farrah Aidid, from central Mogadishu during the Somali Civil War in 1993, and the subsequent retrieval of its dead and wounded when the operation fails. In one sense this film is an essay on the technicalities of military necessity; each step of the two operations, arrest and retrieval, are detailed clinically, orders are followed to the letter, there is no cowardice, no insubordination, and no betrayals by the high command; the Special Forces portrayed here is a meritocracy from top to bottom, start to finish. The humanitarian aims of the operation casts the Special Forces in the glow of Reason. In another sense this is a very political film, examining the disastrous results of a command flaw on a military operation. The flaw is in the command structure, specifically a double directive; 1. Arrest Aidid and bring him into UN custody. 2. Leave No Man Behind. The second directive effectively cancels the first directive because as soon as an American soldier is killed or wounded the retrieval operation begins; for no military reason offense shifts to defence. Because of the narrowcast ‘real time’ narrative we see all of the events from the American perspective. We see their rescue attempts as examples of selfless courage. But the pornography of killing (which takes up 90% of the screen time) and the brute statistics at the end scream at us – 19 American, and over 1000 Somali dead. All but one of those casualties sustained under operation Leave No Man Behind.

What triggers the second directive, and cancels the first, happens when the soldiers are abseiling from helicopters hovering over the CBD. One of the soldiers falls and lies injured on the street. At this stage, the Americans still have the advantage of surprise; no one has been killed, this soldier is the first casualty. If they leave him they may succeed with the arrest with only a handful of casualties. But because of the second directive, crucial resources are diverted to rescue this soldier. In the process more American soldiers are hit; they have to be rescued; each rescue attempt resulting in greater waves of bloodshed as thousands of Somali hot-heads try to do battle with the yankee. In the end, the American dead and wounded that are finally left behind are ripped to pieces by mobs enraged by the massacre of their young men. Who knows how that first injured soldier would’ve been treated by the Somalis if he’d been left and the massacre hadn’t happened? If he’d died there would it have become a corner of a foreign street that is forever America?

Western governments (including Australia’s) have a tricky job arguing for the national interest when they offer their defence forces as police for ‘International Law.’ This is what orders like Leave No Man Behind are meant to do; mollify public opinion. ‘International Law’ means even less to the populations of the failed states where these police actions take place. They don’t see ‘Law Enforcers’, they see invading soldiers. It is a military fact as old as Herodotus that if you intend to win a war leaving men behind is an operational necessity.

But there is another terrible truth our governments are ignoring too. That the dead body of an invading soldier, no matter whether his army is victorious or defeated, is a sombre sign of the humanity of the invader. No matter how hated, it says to the invaded population, ‘here lies a man with a mother and father brothers and sisters just like us.’ Every army in history has left these poignant signs on foreign streets and fields. Except ours (Australian, American, French, British and Russian) which now add to the unprecedented lethal power of their technologies, the insult of this erasure. Leave No Man Behind means the lands we invade are not good enough for our dead. Therefore those lands will raise no memorials to the bravery of our soldiers and the ideals of our civilisation.

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 – Chris Palazzolo

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Teasing Threads is Chris Palazzolo, novelist and poet, editor at Regime Books in Perth, radio host on 6EBA FM North Perth, and manager of one of the last video shops in the world – Network Video, Roleystone.

Teasing Threads Sundry Film and Literary Criticism: Ridley Scott’s The Martian

Chris Palazzolo examines The Martian, directed by Ridley Scott (2015)

MartianWhat actually happens in Ridley Scott’s The Martian? Well in one sense a very big thing happens: an astronaut is stranded on Mars and in order to survive long enough for a rescue mission to arrive devises a way of growing potatoes thus proving that humans can live there. But if a narrative is marked by the physical and psychological changes that occur in a character, then in another sense you have to conclude that nothing happens; the astronaut loses some weight, grows a beard, hobbles a bit at the end (especially after years of comparative weightlessness on Mars) but he seems to bear no psychological scars at all, no nightmares, no visions, no existential dissociations, nothing. Neither do any of the rescue crew for that matter, or the staff at the space agencies, toiling for years on this mission. Throughout the movie all the characters express surprise, bemusement, frustration, triumph and all the emotions one would expect them to express; they express them all uniformly – no one character seems more or less stressed than any other. They all, without exception, just get on with it, no one is lazy, no one is cowardly, no one has any other agenda, apart from doing their job to the best of their abilities – everyone is the best; the best at the beginning, the best in the middle and the best at the end.

This is Hard SF. The only real character is the science; the human characters merely agents, or vectors for conveying scientific concepts in dazzling high resolution cinematography. How strange to see such a film, in an era of cinema where every hero and superhero is ‘humanised’ with some kind of backstory (even James Bond has a backstory now. How decadent is that!) And how strange that it should be from Ridley Scott, who’s other sci fi movies – Alien, Blade Runner, Prometheus – explore the murderous nexus of science, corporate power and human weakness. Here we have a sci fi film who’s characters have no backstories (apart from ‘parents,’ their only backstories are their qualifications), and where the science/power nexus is flooded with the dreamy luminousness of inexhaustible Reason, inexhaustible competence of its staff and inexhaustible funds from an unmentioned taxpayer. This is a joyous and unreserved paean to Science. It’s as if Scott and his writers thought ‘stuff all this realistic character motivations, ‘cat’s cradle’ technologies, and corporate-bureaucratic totalitarianisms. We’re going to make a sci fi movie about a perfect cheerful scientific meritocracy where any human failings (pride, envy, sloth, etc) will simply not exist at all.’ Of course the danger of this kind of representation is that it is actually a scientific aristocracy, of the kind portrayed in the movie Gattaca – which of course begs the question, what does such a world do with the mass of not-so-well-favoured, not-so-gifted (that is to say the insignificant plodders who are the victims and incompetents in Scott’s other sci fi movies)?  It’s beautiful, but it’s not drama. A circus perhaps – ‘Rescue Mission’ told in a sequence of cosmic trapeze acts.

I think The Martian is a kind of Science Agit-Prop. And I think the reasoning behind it is this: the 21st century has seen the emergence of theology allied with instrumental rationality. If Reason (with a capital R) signifies the marriage of scientific knowledge with humanism (life and liberty as the arbiter of all things), instrumental rationality is the technical manipulation of the material world divorced from Reason. Consider the example of Ben Carson, one of the US Republican contenders in the current round of presidential primaries. Carson, a neuro-surgeon, asserts the literal truth of the biblical account of creation; by doing so he rejects 250 years of modern geological science, and the crucial role that branch of science played in the development of the alloys of the surgical steel from which the instruments that he uses to probe his patients’ brains are made. In the face of this terrifying denial of Science by such an intelligent man, perhaps the ecstatic emptiness of The Martian can be defended. But it’s a risky move. By flooding its narrative with the undifferentiated light of Reason, abolishing all the inner shadows of its characters, I’m reminded of Vico’s cautioning against exposing the mind to Reason’s pure light; in its ecstasy Un-Reasoning faith can take hold. Such light needs to be refracted by mirrors of representation – art, poetry, music, the reading of history – humanism in other words. Perhaps I should add comedy to this list, because that’s what saves The Martian from dehumanising faith; its the trial and error slapstick, laughably incongruous songs (70s good old good ones) and the general feel of the whole thing being a bit of a jolly holiday.

– Chris Palazzolo

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Teasing Threads is Chris Palazzolo, novelist and poet, editor at Regime Books in Perth, radio host on 6EBA FM North Perth, and manager of one of the last video shops in the world – Network Video, Roleystone.

The Martian has an official Australian website http://www.themartianmovie.com.au/