Shoot ‘Em Up and the politics of indulging to abstain

Originally, I was intrigued by the subway ads. Clive Owen, “I’m a British nanny, and I’m dangerous,” and Paul Giamatti and Monica Bellucci too. Any film titled “Shoot ‘Em Up” with Owen and Giamatti in it had to have something different, perhaps even something intelligent about it. So on Saturday, Saqib and I went to see Shoot ‘Em Up.

The film dispenses with any pretensions to having a serious plot (it doesn’t have a plot, not really), and right from the get-go you realize that it’s actually a comedy starring guns. Clive Owen reprises his role from every other film he’s been in: a man reeling from deep personal tragedy protecting a baby or a woman, or both, from self-serving destructive and evil forces. I suppose the resemblance is intentional, his character even delivers a baby (as he did in Children of Men), but in the middle of a gunfight. The film is, really, just a series of gun battles, but very nicely choreographed gun battles without resorting to Matrix-type “bullet-time” gimmickry and going very light on computer-generated anything. It favours technique over content, and that technique is well worth watching.

But there is a plot, or something that resembles a plot — something about prominent representatives of the gun industry trying to cause the death of a pro-gun control senator poised to become the next president by killing the baby. (The president-to-be needs the bone marrow of this baby to cure his degenerative disease.) Ultimately, though, the senator teams up with the gun freaks to … I’m not sure why. And Mr. Smith (Owen) kills everyone, except the baby and Donna (Bellucci). That’s the entire plot. I haven’t ruined anything for you (if, indeed, you intend on watching this film) because you’d be watching it to see the asskickular action sequences.

But the film does have explicit moments of social commentary in it. Owen’s character constantly rails out against self-indulgent yuppies, against capitalism and the profit motive, and, yes, especially against guns. The film is very clear about this, guns are bad bad bad. Giamatti’s evil character states, at one point, that “guns don’t kill people, but they sure do help.” Yet, guns also happen to be directing everything in the film: teeming masses of men with guns getting picked off one after the other by Mr. Smith and his guns (or his carrots). We could, I suppose, dismiss this as hypocrisy. But couldn’t we also look at this piece — a film that celebrates guns and violence, yet condemns it — as reflective of the kinds of activism promoted by corporations and the like? That is, a kind of corporate-approved and corporate-directed activism that paradoxically (and, indeed, disingenuously) promotes indulgence as abstinence.

For instance, Nestle (which also produces Montclair) issues a notice on cartons of its bottled-water that the bottles now use 15% less plastic, and that they look nicer: “Change is good. But change for sake of the environment is better. Let’s all make a difference. Don’t forget to recycle.” But the real issues that are being ignored revolve around the fact that bottling water does nothing for consumers. It’s no healthier than tap water (and, in the case of Coca-Cola’s Dasani and Pepsi’s Aquafina, is literally just bottled tap water), no safer, no tastier even. You could, if you want to get rid of the characteristic taste of chlorinated water, just filter it at home. What bottling water does is expend enormous resources in the extraction and packaging, produce waste in the processing, and — despite exhortations to recycle — produce tremendous amounts of waste that are not recyclable. It also costs more than tap water, which, for all intents and purposes, is practically free. In essence, you’re not saving the environment by buying bottled water that uses 15% less plastic than it used to, you’re just duping yourself. And the only one who really profits off of this is the bottler.

This is also like Dove’s “campaign for natural beauty” ads, which, rather than questioning the basis for judging a woman based on her appearance, simply redefine (or seek to redefine) the idea of beauty without questioning any of the patriarchal or capitalist social relations that underlie the need for the superfluous beauty products in the first place. Yuvraj Joshi covered this issue thoroughly and refreshingly in his piece in the newspaper.

So go ahead, advocate for gun control by shooting ‘em up. And “buy green” your way out of environmental disaster. And fair trade your coffee to end exploitation. But don’t, for a moment, question the act or ideology of consumption and the fetishism of consumerism.

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