Wednesday, March 4, 2015

ISIS, take 1, 2...: Unintended consequences
of a visual culture

THE MOVIES, America’s indelible and undying contribution to popular culture, has permeated — some will say insinuated itself — into cultures around the world. The relentless motion-picture combine that is Bollywood couldn’t exist without the Hollywood that gave it every letter of its name but one.

The globalization of the Hollywood visual esthetic has had its own benign unintended consequences. Directors from all over the world have taken it and transformed it according to their own singular visions — the Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu just won the Oscar for Best Picture doing exactly that, a year after the Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón won the Oscar for Best Director last year. And other filmmakers have adopted the Hollywood Look for years.

And technology has played its part. Thanks to such video editing tools as the iMovie software included with iMac computers since 2003, it’s been increasingly easy for everyday people to create You Tube-ready videos with any number of top-shelf special effects.

But lately, in a completely different world, that visual language has been corrupted — the only possible word — by the terrorists of Islamic State, or ISIS, whose videos of human beings murdered on camera has altered the terms of engagement between ISIS and the civilized world.

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In exhaustive, at times brilliant reportage in Sunday’s Los Angeles Times, Jeffrey Fleishman writes of how ISIS has appropriated the tropes of Hollywood filmmaking for thoroughly malign purposes.

An excerpt: “The Islamic State's production values have steadily improved since the network grew in Iraq and Syria; it now operates or has affiliates across North Africa and the Middle East. The group's ranks have been bolstered by as many as several thousand recruits from Europe, which may be where the organization's videographers learned their trade. The videos, including those showing the deaths of American, British and Japanese hostages, have been frequently released since last summer.

“The most recent films unfold with almost surreal matter-of-factness, taking their time before death is carried out. Cameras pan and glance from different angles; anxiety builds. The executioners are masked and often dressed in black, including the militant who beheaded American hostage James Foley in August. In those videos and in the one in which 21 Coptic Christians were decapitated on the Libyan coast, the killers speak in English and relish in lurid exhibitionism.”

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I WON’T undercut Fleishman’s work by attempting to boil it down here; it deserves to be read and enjoyed in full, on its own terms. I’d only say that it puts the power of our culture, its viral capacities, into sharp focus. If you’ve ever had any doubts about the power of movies according to Hollywood, the ISIS videos you’ve surely seen over the last six months should have set those doubts to rest.

“They want to make sure we get the message,’ Bruce Hoffman, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, told Fleishman. “The world's most powerful media will amplify it and jump on it. ISIS is very sophisticated. They know they're pushing our buttons.”

Fleishman’s story contextualizes what to the unenlightened eye might look like isolated anomalies — the work of terrorist directors fascinated with modern movie style — to reveal how consistently and poisonously well those terrorists grasp that visual narrative ... how thoroughly those killers have learned not just how to push our buttons, but exactly which buttons to push.

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