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Visions of Power: Violence, the Law, and the Post-9/11 Genre Film


My dissertation, Visions of Power, uncovers specific moments where key Hollywood genre films blur the line between perpetrators of violence and its victims, disrupting a post-9/11 public discourse shaped by Manichean divisions. Discordant notes in these films provoke productive estrangement and challenge us to think historically, to see the resonances between this cultural moment and past traumatized moments in US history. The study thereby advances our understanding of American and international politics through its exploration of the narrative production of discourses around a state of emergency and the effects of this storytelling in creating a space of vaguely defined enemies where the parameters of the battlefield are obscured. Recent speeches by US presidents—as when George W. Bush commenced the War on Terror by citing the wanted posters of Old West, or when Barack Obama compared ISIS to the Joker—show how genre modes hold sway in executive discourse. I probe the cross-sections, slippages, and conflicts that exist within the ongoing dialogue between Hollywood entertainment and political discourse in the creation of competing visions of power to frame genre as a contested critical site—one of equal interest to politicians and to critically inclined filmmakers. My analysis both reveals and wrestles with genre’s multivalent purpose: sometimes as a tool to normalize state violence and, in its shifting perspective between wielders of state power and its victims, at other times as a potential mode of human rights critique.

Visions of Power follows a five-chapter structure. The introduction establishes its interdisciplinary framework that spans trauma, legal, and post-9/11 film studies. Via my analysis of executive and political discourse, tracking its homages to genre, I uncover the state's investment in genre framings. Why did Bush speak of the Old West at the opening of the War on Terror and the search for Bin Laden? Why, to paraphrase Attorney General Eric Holder, was there no sustained outrage towards revelations of America's torture program? Why the general acceptance toward extrajudicial killing through drones? The core chapters, focusing on the Border Western, film noir, and Superhero Film answer these questions and show that such myths contain a potential to normalize state violence. At the same time, I frame each genre as a platform for critically inclined filmmakers to shed light on such violence, and, at times, our own collusion with it.

My first chapter on the Border Western considers Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario (2015), Tommy Lee Jones’ The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005) as well as Ridley Scott and Cormac McCarthy’s much-maligned The Counselor (2013). Their position as genre films about the borderlands is crucial in this study of the interrelation of trauma, genre, and the law, since few spaces were as affected as the US-Mexico border following the 9/11 attacks on either a discursive or political level. Saturated with surveillance imagery, Sicario frames a panoptic border wherein the state’s eye acts as a kind of haunting phantom that reduces the humans it surveys to little more than specks and blurs. Historian Mae M. Ngai identifies the illegal alien as an impossible subject—one stripped of all rights who exists within a legal limbo where his immigration status denies him his humanity. In The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005), I argue, Jones visualizes this limbo to articulate the psychological toll of such a status upon illegal aliens. Examining the film against the fearful discourse surrounding immigration after 9/11 which often conflated the Mexican and the terrorist, I show how Three Burials exposes the discursive process by which the illegal immigrant is transformed into a potential threat. The Counselor extends these concerns with discursive transformation, framing the US-Mexico border space as a kind of broken mirror glass, in which contemporary American anxieties find themselves refracted. Finally, The Counselor, along with the other Border Westerns of this chapter which merge the tropes of film noir and the Western together, frame genre as a vital critical mode where suffering might be confronted and where a revolutionary violence might be perceived, one defined by a greater humanity for how it reckons with our own propensity for violence.

My second chapter on film noir offers readings on Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller’s Sin City (2005) and David Fincher’s Zodiac (2007). Using Paula Rabinowitz’s concept of a “pulp politics” which argues that a noir mood emerges within paranoid political discourse, I offer entirely new insights into the political critiques of both texts. Long viewed as a chauvinistic fantasy, I disrupt traditional readings of the Sin City. Placing it against the Abu Ghraib controversies, I reveal how the film visualizes a destabilizing potential in the “female perpetrator,” a militant portrayal of the femme fatale. Few have read the 1970s period film Zodiac against the political climate in which it was produced. Concerned with the failed search for a killer who encroaches into the everyday through his pervasive presence in the mass media, Zodiac cannily allegorizes the bureaucratic failures in the lead up to 9/11 and the search for the United States’ chief menace of the 2000s, Osama bin Laden: Furthermore, both films express the burden of the genre frame upon executive actors. Yet even as these texts capture how myth can haunt, they also show that it is only in such a violent, often spectacular mode where the phantoms of public discourse might be gleaned.

My final core chapter on the superhero film focuses on Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy. My framework draws out the nuance of Nolan’s critique, already glimpsed within other critical readings, to uncover the depth of his indictments of American executive during a state of emergency. I find the muddy definition of “enemy combatant” within the amorphous terrorist threat of the Joker and excavate the black bodies of Hurricane Katrina in Batman’s Gotham City. Nolan is invested in symbolic fluidity, with the broken borders between the hero and villain, perpetrator and victim. The Batman films position the superhero as a spectacular "show" for the executive—legally unbounded and intoxicating for how it can turn excessive force into fodder for collective fantasy. However, Nolan also frames genre as too volatile to be entirely co-opted by the state, calling attention to both the terrorizing power of such genre myths as well as their resistant potential.

Just as American policy has shaped international law, influencing the creation of Global Security Law after 9/11, so too has the shadow of America's global War on Terror rippled through international cinematic works. Considering a range of films that either inhabit or comment upon genre types, my conclusion uncovers echoes to these American productions, these haunted texts, compelled and repulsed by the exhilarating modes of Hollywood spectacle. In these international films, we witness key disorienting moments that underline how these texts articulate regional concerns and reflect on the ways in which their respective governments have responded to America's wars. An emblematic Japanese example is Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Tokyo Sonata (2008), which presents a Japanese youth joining America's conflict in Iraq. A nightmare sequence of his homecoming, shell-shocked in his military fatigues, employs a noir staging to reflect a home space invaded by American political forces. In France, I consider Nassim Amaouche’s 2009 Adieu Gary, a banlieu-Western that appears distant from post-9/11 transformations in international law. Yet its French-Arab protagonists negotiate mass media envisionings of the “terrorist” in ways that highlight the pressures the controversial resolution placed upon Arab and racially mixed populations. Adieu Gary subversively refashions the Western aesthetic and its iconic heroes for this post-9/11 context to signify not strength but weakness. In its appropriation of the ghost town convention, the film thus becomes a unique example of the disrupted, transnational Western which visualizes the disrupted lives of banlieue youth, articulating the psychological disempowerment of an ethnic group framed in legal terms as a potentially violent threat.

My turn to the global in the final chapter of Visions of Power intends not to simplify contemporary world cinema as a response to American policy and the contemporary traumas that underpin it: rather, it is a first step within an emergent dialogue, a challenge to scholars of world cinema, that aims to situate local cinematic texts within transnational frameworks to help clarify and critique states’ responses to terrorist threats. Through such work, we might bring what Paul Giles describes as a "critical transnationalism" to contemporary genre studies (Giles 65). Giles finds that “to reinscribe classic American literature into a transnational framework is to elucidate the ways in which it necessarily enters into a negotiation with questions of global power” (Giles 72). Reinscribing American genre cinema into this larger framework within the final chapter of my study allows us to appreciate the ways filmmakers cannily negotiate and question a geopolitical terrain shaped by American visions of power. In moments of enigmatic and compelling ambiguity, the global examples of genre cinema show the fraught ways such visions might also be appropriated by those rendered Other and relatively voiceless within post-9/11 political discourse and law, to express and potentially transcend their marginalized condition.

Giles, Paul. “Transnational and Classic American Literature.” PMLA. 118.1 (2003): 62-77.

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