12 January 2015

I Know That I Know Nothing

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I know that when I meet new people I ask a lot of questions, but what's so bad about that? Oh look, there was a question! But are questions really so bad? Oh- there was another! People criticise me for asking pointless questions but if you're talking to another human for the first time then I think there's a lot of important things that need to be asked. Do you believe in God? Do you like cartoons? These are decisive factors regarding whether or not I think we can be friends. For me the answer to both of those big questions is of course not, I'm not a fucking child... just kidding, I love cartoons! Also, for the record, if I am asking too many questions then maybe it's because you're not pulling your weight in whatever shit conversation I'm being forced to have with you. If I don't know you then the odds are I don't want to be talking to you and so have ended up in the situation against my will. So you know... do your bit, dickhead!  

Recently I watched a documentary called The Act Of Killing which was, to put it bluntly, totally fucking mental. On the surface the film is about an anti-communist purge that took place in Indonesia during the 1960's, but that really doesn't do it justice. To say that this is a documentary about a genocide is a bit like claiming The Shining to be about a man having a particularly bad day at work. It's not wrong to be fair but there's so much more going on that it effectively tells you nothing. In this film we follow a couple of characters who were involved with the killings and quite happily chat about how they murdered hundreds of people. So far, so straightforward, I suppose, and so to push things into the realms of bat-shit insanity the filmmakers introduce a slight curve-ball. Not only do these men talk in detail about how they went about murdering but they are asked to film themselves reconstructing what they did in the style of any movie they like. Turns out that what they do like is a healthy dose of cliched Hollywood bullshit and a dollop of fucked up, nightmarish, camp surrealism. Sometimes they set the scene for a gangster or war film but then other times they drag up, dance, sing and recreate what looks like an Asian remake of a John Waters movie. 

This one small addition completely transforms The Act Of Killing from being a film about an atrocity to possibly one of the most profound things I've ever seen. I went in knowing nothing about the killings in Indonesia and I came out not knowing anything about life. The Act Of Killing isn't about giving us answers but rather intends to provoke us into asking questions. Why did these events take place? How can a human kill another like that and live with the consequences? What is the meaning of life, humanity, and art? And why the fuck am I watching a giant fat man dressed up as a woman as he pretends to force a fake cock into the mouth of a decapitated head? What the fuck is going on?? Not only does this movie take a massive shit on your preconceptions of life but I suppose it could also be argued that it has kind of helped to redefine exactly what a documentary is.  

People assume that documentaries are fact based, visual essays that detail the specifics of a particular subject, however if we look to one of the earliest documentaries then this just clearly isn't true. Nanook Of The North came out in 1922, is considered by many to be the first complete film in this genre and contains so many inaccuracies that it's almost as fake and rubbish as Mickey Rourke's face. Another infamous filmmaker who actively despises fact based documentaries and who happens to be one of my heroes is director Werner Herzog. His claim is that if facts were all that were required to tell a story then the greatest piece of literature that humanity has ever produced would be the phone book. Although in it's defense, I do find the Yellow Pages more riveting than 50 Shades Of Grey. Instead, Herzog prefers to depict in his films what he refers to as the 'ecstatic truth'. This is basically the truth behind the facts, if that makes any fucking sense whatsoever?  

If not then a good example of it might be the entirety of The Act Of Killing in which, rather than asking somebody how it feels to murder we instead watch them recreate it. It's kind of like an episode of Crime Watch if it had been directed by David Lynch after having an acid tab slipped under his eyelids. We don't just get a monotone answer but rather an artistic expression which probably gives us a much more accurate look into their mindset. Do they show remorse? Do they try to justify what they did? I guess you could argue that our opinion on what they show us is subjective but then you could also argue that any straightforward answer they give might also be a lie. By not only having them act it out we're presented with how they want us to think they feel and then we can try to work out who they're trying to convince. I don't know if I'm doing a good job of explaining this and so there's a chance that it might sound like it's all bullshit but I promise you that what happens here is beyond effective. 

The very fact that we're now trying to second guess their thought process from analysing their presentations surely means that The Act Of Killing is also exploring the purpose of art. Some people will see the murderers' reconstructions as lies intended to present themselves as the victims whereas others might consider it a kind of therapy in which they attempt to exorcise the demons of their past. Is art up for interpretation? What even constitutes as art? Oscar Wilde claimed that all art was quite pointless but then too isn't life? If we're going by Werner Herzog's world view then everything is just chaos, murder and hostility. A Godless universe in which we as individuals impose our own meanings onto every blank canvas that we find in an attempt to make sense of ourselves and everything around. So when we watch these old killers recreate their crimes, we're not only seeing their interpretation of what happened but we are forced to impose our own interpretation onto their interpretation. Superficially, The Act Of Killing might sound like it's about a genocide but the reality is that it's more like a Russian-fucking-doll style adventure into the brain of twisted, crazed, twats.  

When I was doing my dissertation I decided to do it on the subject of what art is because I felt that it would be ambiguous enough that I could write almost anything and still manage to get a decent grade. Turns out I was right! Anyway, whilst doing that, I found a quote from some German philosopher- I forget his name right now but if I remember correctly, he was a Nazi sympathiser. Anyway, he said something along the lines of art being the means by which society is allowed to express itself. This is certainly true of this film which has apparently now opened Indonesia up to the idea of talking about what actually happened back in the sixties and what is to be done about it. The fact that some crazy fucknuggets were living out Grand Theft Auto has been an open secret for years but according to what I've read, it was this movie that actually gave people the confidence to start looking at the subject instead of simply pretending it never happened. I'm sure Indonesia is a great place, full of great people, however I've seen two films set there within the last year which is both The Act Of Killing and The Raid 2. Suffice to say that if these movies are anything to go by then unless I wake up with a sudden desire to get my balls kicked in and my head lopped off, I shan't be making any holiday plans to visit there anytime soon. 

In this film we see that the killers enjoyed watching movies and then after leaving the cinema they would cross the road to their office and begin murdering people. So even on a smaller scale, it is therefore interesting to see how films and art have played a part in the lives of these men too. A complete idiot might argue that Hollywood tricked these men into believing that killing was justifiable with the glamorous gangster films that they seem to enjoy, however when did a gangster film ever end well for the main man? Scarface might seem cool to a titty-headed moron but lets not forget that he ends up only semi-consciousness in a mountain of cocaine as everyone around attempts to kill him. Call me old fashioned but that does not sound like a pleasant way to spend a relaxing Sunday afternoon. Personally I just think that these men were looking for excuses to justify what they were doing and so would have found them anywhere and everywhere which obviously includes cinema. I guess this goes back to art and life being a meaningless blank space for us to interpret as we will. Does art reflect life or is it simply another tool for us to attempt to make it make sense? Either way, it doesn't seem like Al Pacino could be inciting them to kill when they say that, before slaughtering people, they'd often have watched something as tame as an Elvis movie instead. This has however led to the greatest out of context quote I've ever heard as at this point in the DVD commentary, we hear the weighty, distinctive sound of Herzog claiming that “Elvis can not be made responsible for the mass murders in Indonesia”. And here's me saying this isn't a documentary about the facts!! 

Anyway, considering I keep banging on about Herzog, I should probably mention that The Act Of Killing wasn't actually directed by him but instead a chap called Joshua Oppenheimer, however I don't know too much about his career beyond what I can quickly check on IMDb. Herzog however is an executive producer here and although I'm not too sure how creatively involved he was, there's no way not to notice the film's Herzogian qualities. As mentioned, it cares more for the ecstatic truth than simply something as uninformative as the facts. It presents itself as being about a particular subject before revealing itself to be much more of an existential head fuck. And like Herzog's Into The Abyss, this film also shows the callous, murdering, shitheads on screen as the humans they are and not just as the monsters we'd prefer. Actually speaking of Into The Abyss, there's a scene in that film which is kind of like the concept for this entire film and that is the opening in which Herzog asks an interviewee to describe an encounter with a squirrel. This takes the subject off guard and in telling their anecdote they accidentally reveal so much more about themselves. I guess Herzog's squirrel question has been replaced here with video-cameras, fake blood, pink hats, and a dress big enough for a fat man, but the results are basically the same.  

It should also be worth noting that the film is also produced by another famous documentarian, Errol Morris. I haven't really seen any of his films to be able to notice his influence either, however. But surely this again goes to show the way in which I'm imposing my own understanding of things onto this film. I don't know Oppenheimer and I don't know Morris so I decide to bore you instead by banging on about Herzog. Herzog whose own world views expressed in his movies most comfortably reflect my own. For the record, I also think that life is totally fucking meaningless and if any one of us felt a huge desire to ram our heads into a blender, it would ultimately make no difference to anything. In fact, with our over-population issues, your gory suicide might actually do the world a favour. Somebody else might watch this film, miss the Herzog stuff and claim this to be the best movie that Errol Morris hasn't made. Who fucking knows?! 

As I said before, I guess the point of this documentary isn't to teach you about Indonesia but rather make you question everything else about life. I suppose there's also an argument to be made about this film's relationship with the rise of social media. Why are these men so willing to admit and re-create what they've done? I don't know! Why does some bitch on my Facebook keep showing the world her ugly babies and moaning about her shit boyfriend? Perhaps it's an egotistical attempt to trick ourselves into thinking we're somewhat important or maybe it's our desperate attempt to put some sort of narrative onto the chaos of our lives. In fact, why am I even writing this blog and why do you care enough to read? I don't get fucking paid for it and believe me, the daily hits are low enough that I'd reach more people by shouting in a busy street. Maybe we just need to express ourselves somehow? Some do it by putting up a boring status and others by re-enacting that time they cut a Chinese mans head off for no reason. I'll end this now I think because at the end of the day, the movie is open and brilliant enough that it can almost be tied into any subject and I loved it so much that I'd happily go into them all. This is honestly one of the most important and interesting films I have ever seen and one that I strongly recommend to anybody willing to have their world-view feel treated like a rape victim. My brain went down the darkened ally of this movie wearing only a mini-skirt and emerged bewildered, confused, abused and well and truly fucked. What  just happened?! Anyway, thanks for reading motherfuckers, and see you next time.


You can visit the blog picture artist at _Moriendus_

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