Sunday, August 31, 2014

Race and Class in The Purge: Anarchy

I've already addressed my opinions on the societal shun of horror films. I think that horror films are much more inventive and experimental than traditional genre films and I wish more of my peers appreciated their subtle depth and creativity. This post is specifically about the second installment of The Purge, which I highly encourage everyone watch. Unlike the original, The Purge: Anarchy is a slick thriller with a moral message about class, race, and oppression. I will briefly discuss the horror aesthetics in this film (and its original) before discussing this interconnected themes of hierarchy and exploitation. The cultural scholar and common person alike would greatly benefit from exploring these themes on the silver screen (even with a bit of gore). It may not need saying, but this post will contain spoilers of both films.

The Purger: Anarchy Trailer. Retrieved from YouTube.

The first film was typical of its genre. There were cliche pop-out-from-behind-a-corner fake scares, misdirection, and a dearth of larger meaning than the human urge to kill. The film centered around the near future where a government has issued a 24-hour lift of all laws allowing society to "purge" through murder, robbery, etc. This results in a lower crime rate through the rest of the year and a boon in sales of home defense systems. The first film followed a family that had a break-in in their home after the young son tried to save a man being hunted in their neighborhood. This film was simply okay, an interesting idea poorly executed and mostly abandoned for the cheap and easy scares. I almost didn't go see the second film because of my disappointment in the first. I'm very glad that I didn't miss it.

Retrieved from this site.
The Purge: Anarchy focuses on the streets that are ravaged by roaming bands of vigilantes and the mysterious presence of military and government forces patrolling the streets. A Malcolm X type figure (Carmelo) becomes a prominent character who preaches that the purge is a government tactic to eradicate the poor (and subsequently, minorities) in order to keep the crime rate down during the year. We find out during the film that the government is targeting low income neighborhoods, kidnapping people, and performing genocides of the lower classes. One black woman and her daughter are saved from this government kidnapping by a (white) purger looking for revenge on the man who killed his son in a car accident.

Retrieved from this site.
Two scenes stand out for me as particularly shocking and expressive. The father of the woman saved from government forces disappears early in the film. The daughter and granddaughter find out that he has sold himself to a rich white family for $100,000 to allow them to purge in the safety of their home. The white family has literally bought a poor, black body as if it were property, to ruthlessly destroy and exploit it without exposing themselves to the risks of the purge. There is a poignant frame where the nuclear family is standing around the father wielding weapons in their pristine suits and plastic-wrapped living room of expensive art. Their massacre of this man will be their new art, their secret expression of white privilege that protects their valuables, status, and domination over the lower class.

Auctioneer before the hunt. Retrieved from this site.
The second powerful scene is shown briefly at the end of the trailer where a woman in a blue dress announces before a seated group of people in fancy dress that they have collected the last purge of the evening. The main characters are released into a pitch black maze where the highest bidders enter with night vision goggles and weapons to hunt them down. There are obvious echoes here about the purchasing of bodies as in the previous scene, but it also echoes themes from Richard Connell's "The Most Dangerous Game." This short story is about a stranded man looking for protection who ends up being hunted down for sport like an animal in a rich man's safari game. Humans being the most cunning (and thus perhaps most satisfying to kill) animal provides an elevated type of sport than the traditional hunt. Indeed, the highest bidders in The Purge: Anarchy wear traditional British fox hunting uniforms as if they were out in a normal hunting activity and not viciously murdering other people. In a quite satisfying ending, I will simply mention that the group manages to get a hold of one of the night vision goggles and weapons, making the hunt more of a fair fight.

Both of these scenes highlight for me the interrelationship between class and race and the exploitative powers of a system that only reifies the lasting order and undervalues the lives of poor and minority bodies. In this film, both the rich and the government specifically target and kill blacks, the homeless, deviants, and youth in an attempt to eradicate and "purge" the society of perceived evils. This movie asks us all to reflect on who is in power, what oppressive acts are they committing, and who does society really serve. Both the murderers and the white families who can afford to lock up and hide are complicit in the exploitation and eradication of people deemed unworthy of life. Just as a police officer in Ferguson made a decision of life and death for Michael Brown, The Purge: Anarchy asks us to consider who is in control and what those consequences are. Who gets to define who is worthy of life? Who gets to define how punishment is laid out? Who is in control of our streets, our livelihoods, our identities as targets or as civilians?

Carmelo, leader of the anti-purge movement. Retrieved from this site.
Carmelo is trying to start a revolt against this system. He targets the rich, white, and off-limits bodies to upend the genocide of the poor and the minorities. His tactics are in part successful, at least in saving the lives of the main characters, but his ultimate goal is left unfulfilled. Will it take violent revolution to change the system? Can violence itself do anything but reify the use of violence as a peace-keeping tactic? If anything can be learned in the current state of Ferguson, it is that the tensions between authority, race, and class run deep, and define for entire groups of people their ability to claim a place on this earth free from fear and death. That is unacceptable and violates the very basics of human rights. The Purge: Anarchy brings these themes to life in an exaggerated thriller that asks us to ponder our own situation: how far off are we from this being our reality?

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Rites of Passage: The Qualifying Exam

I have taken time off from this blog to go through a PhD rite of passage: the qualifying exam. There has been plenty of time for me to reflect on the purpose of the exam and the idea of rite of passage in general. From tests of adulthood to tests of skill to tests of preparation, rites of passage are important rituals in human life. For the past summer, I have been undergoing intensive preparation, reading, memorizing, and note-taking in order to prove my knowledge of my specific areas of expertise. Many schools do the qualifying process differently (and even within a school), but they all share the same goal of measuring knowledge and readiness to achieve the PhD. Now finished the writing process (I still have to defend my answers orally in front of my committee), I have often asked myself why PhD programs require these types of exams and why rites of passage in general are so very important to the maintenance of society.

Define "calm." Retrieved from this site.
I certainly learned a lot about the importance of ritual during my studying. Kenneth Burke argued that rituals reinforce "piety," or the maintenance of an overarching order based on social and role expectations. For example, rituals of marriage reinforce the role that men and women should strive to be husbands and wives. The ritual of confession cleanses sin and reinforces how people perform the role of a good Christian. When I engage in the ritual of the qualifying exam, I reify the order that my knowledge is and should be accurately be measured through my performance on this exam. Considering that the PhD qualifies me to teach students at a university, it would make sense that my exam would try to measure my knowledge, ability to synthesize fields of inquiry, and grasp of my given specialty. But, will I ever truly be asked to perform this type of task again? What does a concentrated burst of studying and writing (without access to notes, materials, or the Internet) really prepare me for?

I think the answer lies in looking at the larger picture of rites of passage and their purpose. There is an episode of "Taboo" where boys undergo extensive body scarification with toothed instruments and razors that bleed profusely all over their bodies. Going through this pain and struggle is part of the child's proof that they are able to understand and undergo the pain of adulthood. Though they may never experience such intensive pain again, this ritual proves that if the child can go through this pain, they can survive everything else.

Warning: This video shows graphic cutting and blood. Retrieved from this site.

The PhD program requires me to undergo a different kind of pain: mental pain. Though comparing this process to extensive tattoos may seem a bit extreme, there are similarities here between pushing oneself to the limit so that all challenges that come afterwards are manageable. Perhaps because of this experience, I will be better able to tackle journal deadlines, advising my own students, preparing for classes, and the myriad of administrative tasks. Not only will I have a base level of understanding of this material to draw from, but I will also be used to the long hours, mental strain, and intense workload. The qualifying exam does not quite measure my ability to succeed in this specific task. It is instead a concentrated and purposefully exaggerated challenge.

On the other side...Retrieved from PhD Comics.
As one of my professors once said, I may thank everyone one day for pushing me to my limits, challenging me, and preparing me for the difficult work ahead of me as a professor. Of course, many people in the PhD program are not interested in continuing into academia. This rite of passage, however, has become a universal part of achieving the PhD, an expected mark of academic excellence that you must achieve to be awarded the degree. As my advisor said, he wouldn't let me take the exam unless he knew I was ready, which perhaps begs the question of whether I am really in danger of failing at all. The point, though, is to undergo the experience and come out a better and well prepared scholar. I remember the pain of running during my first half marathon, but the great feeling of accomplishment after it was over. Of course, the process was extremely difficult, taxing, and exhausting, but now that it is over, I do feel a sense of accomplishment. I hope that this accomplishment is rewarded with a pass in the weeks to come! Best of luck to everyone else going through this rite of passage. See you on the other side!