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Monthly Archives: June 2013

Un Flic

“You can’t move a camera like that anymore.”

We all giggled while watching Jean-Pierre Melville’s Un Flic (1972), during a shot of a blonde cocaine mule carrying a pair of trick-suitcases onto a train. The camera follows his hand to the door, which he locks, and then traces a shaky path toward the suitcases, where from each he lifts a shirt and then a panel to reveal empty space. The camera lingers there unsteadily for a beat.

Melville is a master, known for work like Army of Shadows and Un Cercle Rouge, two taut, serious works about the French Resistance during World War II and highly choreographed theft, respectively. Un Flic, which means “A Cop,” is not, in technical terms, one of his best. The editing is jumpy and the dialogue goofy. You wouldn’t call it campy, it’s more like Melville couldn’t be bothered to smooth over all of the film’s imperfections. That attitude makes Un Flic memorable in a way that many of today’s films aren’t.

Take the scene in the bathroom of a moving train where Commissaire Edouard Coleman, the titular cop, attempts to bust a crime in progress. After descending from a helicopter to the train car, Edouard pauses, and the film with him. He carefully styles his hair, cleans his face, and changes from a dirty jumpsuit to a dapper robe before walking the halls of the train. It is a slow scene, and drags longer than it needs to do. I liked it, though, because it demonstrates the labored execution of Edouard’s plan. His entry into the train is not about the effortless, slick acrobats of superhero films and Tom Cruise vehicles. The bystanders do not fall away as our star comes to take care of the bad guys. They are obstacles, which is why Edouard makes himself over to look like a first class train passenger before venturing into a hallway filled with observant ticket punchers.  Edouard is a patient and thorough planner. He even brings a comically large generic magnet on board with him, which he uses to slide open the lock of his pursuit’s train cabin.

Imperfect old films like Un Flic refresh one used to the smooth action films we see today, where everything looks high budget and rigorously rehearsed. They respect their audience more, and trust in their ability to suspend disbelief and, more importantly, to fill in the gaps the film leaves with imagination. In a pivotal scene of Un Flic, the characters walk through a museum. Behind them sits a hazy painting of the continued museum halls and visitors. Now, for all I know, there is such a museum in France where a bland mural decorates the end of a hallway. But in the framework of the film, this mural operates as a loosely defined backdrop, more akin to a stage piece than a film background. I’m sure many a would be filmmaker, rich with ideas but low on cash, wishes they could get away with such shortcuts today.

Later, a rinky-dink model of a helicopter hovers unevenly over a cheap looking train set. These playroom models represent the setting of the climax. A modern director might use flashy CGI, elite stuntmen, and a dramatic score to enhance this scene. Not Melville. But though we all laughed when these models first appeared on screen, they did not stop us from engaging in the tense climax. By that point in the film, we were invested in the cops and crooks drama, and we didn’t mind pretending the models were real trains.

With films like Un Flic, not all details are provided for us, and that’s fine. The viewer must do more work, and the director pulls them into a more active role, encouraging them to engage with and author their own details of the film. I will remember Un Flic for its flaws much more than I will remember the last blockbuster I saw for its perfection.

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You can back away from caring about suspicionless surveillance by arguing, “It doesn’t concern me, I have nothing to hide.” But there can’t honestly be people who have nothing to hide, right?

Doesn’t everyone watch weird porn or talk about their spouse to an ex or explore doubts about their religion or Google Katy Perry lyrics? Don’t some research suicide methods or drug rehab centers or just barely legal drugs? It can’t just be me. These are the things we may wish to hide from our boss, our spouse, our family, or our friends, but they are also the things we expect will be uninteresting to  law enforcement in comparison to graver crimes others commit. The government might have an open file on us, and it might contain all of our questionable internet and phone activity, but who cares?

Perhaps still people feel they, as individuals, are doing nothing that would ping the government’s anti-terrorism data filters. In that sense, they might rightly feel that they are not effectively being watched. But surveillance is not an individual problem—it is a group one.

Our ability to act and speak and even think freely cannot be exercised comfortably when we are constantly watched. With a slight change to the definition of words like “terrorism” or “potential threat”, whole new swathes of data might become incriminating. In a more extreme possibility, the list of crimes worthy of detection and prosecution based on aggregate collection of metadata could be expanded to include crimes like drug use or trafficking and acts of civil disobedience. Youthful indulgences or moral campaigns might become bad marks on our record.

As Wired writer Moxie Marlinspike points out, you should be able to do illegal things, sometimes. Breaching the edges of legality while hidden within a group is the mechanism by which a nation of laws evolves, as seen recently in the changes to laws regarding same-sex marriage and medical marijuana. Jim Crow laws were broken before they were banned, as were anti-sodomy laws. Society did not crumble then, nor will it, to use Marlinspike’s example, when marijuana becomes a universally legal treatment for the pains of cancer and other ailments. Marlinspike writes:

Imagine if there were an alternate dystopian reality where law enforcement was 100% effective, such that any potential law offenders knew they would be immediately identified, apprehended, and jailed. If perfect law enforcement had been a reality in Minnesota, Colorado, and Washington since their founding in the 1850s, it seems quite unlikely that these recent changes would have ever come to pass

Would there have been a massive push for medical marijuana were it not for illicit smokers discovering its painkilling effects? Patients in the nearly twenty states that have legalized medical marijuana would laugh if you suggested so. Similarly, would a vivid LGBT community have developed without people violating anti-sodomy laws for decades before they were repealed? Doubtful.

Though it might sound paranoid to imagine the United States government abusing its powers to target petty crime, many members of minority groups and protest organizations know too well that it is not beyond the United States government to cast their net too broad. Just this week, New York City Muslims filed suit against the New York City Police Department. Constant surveillance, including the recording of conversations and the collection of license plate numbers, has thwarted their efforts to gather and to practice their religion. Asad Dandia, plaintiff and leader of the group Muslims Giving Back told the ACLU:

“I am constantly frightened. What if I say the wrong thing?…Islam requires giving back to the community that which you have been given by God. I’ve done nothing wrong and yet I am unable to practice Islam fully because of what the Police Department did to me.”

It has been argued that because such surveillance has long been targeted at religious groups, civil rights activists, organized protesters, and political advocacy groups, then we should not be surprised by the NSA’s PRISM program. Really, though, I’m sure there are few who are truly “surprised” by the recent leaks. We have known for over a year that the NSA was building a massive data center, thanks in part to Wired’s March 2012 cover story. It was assumed, then, that the collected data would be culled from United States citizens.

The totality of the NSA surveillance has arrived with a whimper, even though similar things seem so dramatic in fiction like 1984, in part because of all of the sinister surveillance that preceded it. We have become somewhat jaded, inclined to a one-upmanship mentality that says, “So what if you’re being watched, I’ve known that I’m being watched for years and you never cared before.” But this is again a misguided argument, one that avoids a chance to finally get together a united front of, imagine this, right wing government-skeptics, progressive politicians, Muslim leaders, and young protesters. Though it is frustrating to wonder where the privileged opponents of suspicionless surveillance were when the practice only targeted minority groups, now is not the time to hang tightly to that grudge. Instead, it ought to be the time to engage in a bipartisan debate regarding the implications of a government (and private contractors) who can watch whomever they want, looking for traces of whatever vaguely defined threats have been defined for the time.

“Hero or traitor?” was the original question. I don’t like these labels, and they are putting people into categories of two extremes, villain or saint. … By law, he fits the legal definition of a whistle-blower. He is someone who exposed broad waste, abuse and in his case illegality. … And he also said he was making the disclosures for the public good and because he wanted to have a debate.

-Jessica Radack, lawyer from the Government Accountability, in conversation with USA Today

During the last week, I’ve had several conversations about PRISM and the leaks that revealed the program. Almost invariably, these conversations veer toward a discussion of Edward Snowden. Is he a self-sacrificing hero or an egotistical fabricator? Has he enlightened American citizens, or put the country at risk? And how about that pole-dancing girlfriend?

Talking about Edward Snowden (and, I admit, writing about him) is much easier than talking about the implications of the NSA’s surveillance of American citizens. Stories about his character and personal life are easy to spread. This is the result of a over a decade of suffocating celebrity culture, and the frenzied pace of social media. We are obsessed with individual notoriety and fame, and we apply the same paparazzi mentality toward every public figure, whether they be accused murderers or politicians. The celebrification of people from all fields impedes us from engaging in meaningful discourse of the issues America faces today. By indulging our curiosity for the details of Edward Snowden’s personal and professional life, we lose sight of the act he committed, a leak of information regarding a suspected but hitherto unconfirmed surveillance initiative geared by the United States Government toward its own citizens.

We are allowing ourselves to play a game of individualistic considerations, not public interest. The thought “I have nothing to hide, it doesn’t affect me,” pairs easily with the question, “Who is this Snowden guy, anyway?” Americans act as though the likeability of Edward Snowden is a prerequisite to our acting on the truths he unveiled, those truths seeming remote from our individual well-being, anyway. It is easier to work our way through character analysis than to engage in complex issues of privacy and civil liberties. If we can dismiss him, and the surveillance doesn’t bother us in any immediate way, then we don’t have to worry about what he says.

The troubling thing is that journalists are aware of the tendency of facile gossip and character dissection to displace serious discourse. They remark on it even as they engage in it. Jezebel‘s Katie J.M. Baker writes, “It’s bullshit to focus on Snowden’s personal life instead of the real bullshit he exposed,” but she buries this sentence in an article about Snowden’s girlfriend that analyzes the woman’s Instagram photos and blog musings. Writing in Mashable, Alex Fitzpatrick advise Snowden that if he “wants to minimize the media’s increasing tendency to characterize him as an exaggerator, he would be wise to choose his words more carefully.” The article is entitled “Edward Snowden Falsely Claims Government Accused Him of Treason,” and it seizes upon a possibly inaccurate statement Snowden made in today’s live Q&A with readers of the Guardian. Fitzpatrick misses the point, though. If we are worried about whether Snowden is making false claims about the government’s reaction to him, then we may already be at a point where we have forgotten his original claims, those which have been deemed credible by a number of past NSA whistleblowers.

It matters little whether Edward Snowden, the man, is not careful with his words when speaking off-the-cuff. Nor does it matter what his girlfriend is like or whether he reported his salary with precise accuracy. Snowden summarized the state of things best himself in today’s Q&A with Guardian readers

Unfortunately, the mainstream media now seems far more interested in what I said when I was 17 or what my girlfriend looks like rather than, say, the largest program of suspicionless surveillance in human history.

What matters is that the United States government is engaged in unfettered surveillance of its citizens, and that they have been doing so via un-Democratic channels for years. When polled, however, many Americans do not find this to be an issue. According to a CNN/ORC International Survey, 51% of Americans think the NSA’s surveillance of American phone records is the right thing to do, and even more approve of internet surveillance programs. The failure of Americans to be wary of such massive government power is unnerving.

We have quickly and effectively been steered away from addressing the NSA’s incursions against our liberty by our and our media’s failures. The most frightening possibility, though, is that some of this diversion was intentionally engineered by another layer of secretive private contractors. Peter Lundlow, writing in The New York Times, indirectly suggests that by succumbing to our interest in the personal narrative of Edward Snowden, we may have already fallen victim to intentional campaigns designed to thwart a backlash against the NSA. Private intelligence firms, Lundlow explains, set out to manipulate the American public much in the way Army psyops teams do when operating in foreign wars. Psyops are “planned operations to convey selected information and indicators to foreign audiences to influence their emotions, motives, objective reasoning, and ultimately the behavior of foreign governments, organizations, groups, and individuals.” This is little different than what happens here, as leaked emails from companies like Team Themis, a consortium of private security firms, suggest. Team Themis has worked to undermine the credibility of journalists (Glenn Greenwald) and critics of government agencies (ChamberWatch).  Team Themis’ work, in short, is to engage in Psyops campaigns against the American public. As Lundlow writes,

[I]t is sometimes more effective to deceive a population into a false reality than it is to impose its will with force or conventional weapons.  Of course this could also apply to one’s own population if you chose to view it as an “enemy” whose “motives, reasoning, and behavior” needed to be controlled.

In this frame, the enemy is the American public, as informed by journalists and organizations critical of the War on Terror’s tactics. Propaganda is no new thing, and has been used by the American government to bolster past war efforts. But rather than try to encourage Americans to behave in ways that enhance public safety (for example, “If you see something, say something,” or “Loose lips sink ships!”), these psyops practices aim to alter our sense of reality in order to protect not citizens and country, but the closed-door practices of our elected (and appointed) officials.

Personally, I try to avoid indulging in thoughts of government disinformation, which reek of conspiracy theory quackery and seem rooted in pathological paranoia. But with the news of NSA surveillance giving way so easily to character assassination of Edward Snowden, it seems our media, which ought to lead the public toward informed conversations about its government institutions, is more vulnerable than ever, weakened by its preference for reporting on personalities rather than nuanced issues. We will tire of Snowden, then, as we tire of other over-exposed personalities, and the policies we ought to debate will fade from public scrutiny, allowing the NSA to continue and expand its secretive work.