Last week, my Anthropology is everywhere post finished on the simple fact – it was going to be film night (which, incidentally, did not happen until two nights later – first because there was a little pet emergency and then because there was a little domicile emergency, which were both solved with success) and the following post was going to be about Bright.
So here we are now (without home made popcorn, but still).
First thing I need to say is that I very, very rarely read reviews or anything much else on a film or a book. The reason is that anything but the thing itself can be biasing. I therefore read the reviews when I want to know what feelings a film or book excited in what type of person (or, sometimes, on the job, if I have a certified connection to a source, a person specifically). In other words, I don’t so much want to know what others think I should think but more what it made them think, causing them to react as they did.
This is a highly useful approach, and I very much recommend it to everyone who wants to work with any information, especially if it deals with humans. Behaviour is telling on so many things, and for an anthropologist, it’s a key thing to understanding society, culture and all other demons we humans have. * (It also enables you to develop your own opinion, regardless of what everyone else thinks.)
As I have stated previously, the thing that interested me most was the fact that Bright is a melange of several genres, fantasy (what with Orcs, Elves and magic everywhere), buddy cop films (with the typical at work strife, corruption, flaws in the system and so on) and conspiracy involved. They are a well-known staple on their own, or in tandem of cop/conspiracy – fantasy/conspiracy, but to put them all together was, at least to me, new.
Predictably, what was once the social problematic of a black cop, female cop or Latino cop, was now presented through the one Orc on the job cop. Teamed up with an Afro-American partner (Will Smith), it was interesting to see the dynamics shifting from the black man being discriminated to the black man being somewhat discriminating, thus actually capturing quite beautifully the fact that racism and prejudice can and do come from everywhere, a fact sadly illustrated of late by Facebook’s move to enable both American and Israeli governments – governments of people who have had their own bitter run-ins with hate and discrimination – to cherry pick accounts that they deem problematic… often, it seems, with heavily biased perspective, raising a question on freedom of expression and online communication, which I promise will be a post at a later date (soon).
The currently targeted campaign “Black Lives Matter” also makes it into the film in a bitter, unobtrusive and realistic way – with Smith’s character clobbering a fairy (considered a pest by his wife and society at large) to death and commenting dispassionately that “fairy lives don’t matter”, indicating not only his wife’s opinion (it must be here said he was somewhat wrangled into it) but also his society’s opinion… and the crucial human and animal rights point – that lives often don’t matter because there is a hierarchy in what matters or who matters. This is true whether you look at actual bird feeder issues – we put out feed for birds but do not deem other animals, like raccoons or squirrels, deserving of our help, thus clearly illustrating a biased preference in our relations to free living animals – or to the behaviour towards large predators such as wolves and mountain lions, or even smaller animals like coyotes and foxes, all often a butt of raging debates and much violence… or even in our own human proverbial back yard, where colour, caste system, religion and race create only some of the issues that tailor our interactions, including a belief that some are more or less worthy of living and help.
Smith presents an unusual alternative to his usual roles in Bright – instead of a charismatic, determined man we know from many films and many genres, he presents a face of a dispassionate, world-weary, disillusioned individual. A few years from retirement, recovering from a shot wound which had caused a further distancing between him and his work partner (and, ostensibly, his wife), Ward is unhappy about many things, but done trying to fix them, giving the story yet another popular dimension – dystopianism, currently big in popular TV shows and films and books.
While many a popular media source has featured a dystopian tone in the past – what with Batman’s cynicism and darkness, the entire set up of Marvel and Dark Horse verse and the predating roots of Balzac with the naturalist obsession with personal (and therefore moral, in a true chicken and egg situation) decay, with heroes dying or failing in many stories, the modern society has clearly split down the middle these days on the matter, creating a hopeful/hero watching group and the hopeless/dystopian group.
That that is so is no surprise – given the current geopolitical situation, the still on-going war against terror, unemployment and rising interpersonal issues, often starting from many “reasons” stirred up by the also rising populist parties and governments (banking heavily on the possibility of gaining votes by creating the enemy with an Other, whichever that may be for their specific purpose), has left many with the dispassionate, depressed mood that is likely to go even lower as people feel that they cannot act – a self-fulfilling prophecy, as disbelief in one’s own capabilities and one’s right (and capability) to self-action both disables one further and enables the darkness they have so feared coming to keep going unchecked. On the other hand are those who do and will act, perhaps not starry eyed and idealistic, but capable of standing up not only for themselves but for others, choosing to fight for the right to self-action to remain the same, thus balancing out what could easily enough become the Third World War without them.
It is therefore highly ironic that Ward’s partner Jakoby is the hopeful one – as Orcs have been traditionally presented (ever since their inception by Tolkien) as the ultimate evil and have had little time to present a good face even in the computer games and LARP (cf. World of Warcraft’s Orcs, D&D’s Orcs), Jakoby’s nearly idealistic, unconditional belief in the possibility of goodness, of making a difference, his repeated attempts to practically honour his work partner and his unflinching wish to keep to the actual unadulterated truth (realising too late that it is not desired, but coping, perhaps, better with that fact than Ward, who will resort to lies and remain bitter), represents well an individual’s struggle with his conflicted personal place in his ethnic group and society in general – as a non-blooded Orc, from a line of non-blooded Orcs (non-blooded seems to apply to untested in combat, danger; possibly unwilling to react with a typical socio-cultural aggression?), he is at odds with his group’s general behaviour, their history and the way he is therefore perceived by the world at large, and highly motivated to prove all, but most of all himself, wrong in this prejudice. Jakoby wants to believe that things can be different – to the point where he draws a parallel between his situation and ancient history, and believes that Ward, Tikka and himself are caught up in a prophecy – to keep coping with day-to-day life; a problem often found in rigid societies with lots of prejudice and strong hierarchy.
With Orcs replacing the usual gang culture of the (often predominantly Afro-American) ghetto and gang groups, and with humans forming the solid if dispassionate, prejudiced middle (so much so that the names are almost solely human or human-derived or human-like, informing on a strong influence of that middle?), the Elves present an even more interesting face, that of an elite, but not the largely positive elite as we have become accustomed. It is the Elves who seem to be heavily engaged with magic, especially dark, and it is therefore Elves who are at the core of the conflict in the film, with one single Elf man (ironically, an FBI agent specialising in magic) as a somewhat positive figure in the entire film. Apart from him, all Elves are presented as either background characters crossing streets or as the evil Inferni members – even Tikka, one of the main protagonists, had initially started with the Inferni but decided to turn coat, stealing a magic wand and running for her life only to fall in with our two cops.
This perception of Elves can be compared to the dystopian perspective on any form of success or (including meritocratic) upper class – those who succeed must be guilty of something, become blinded by power and dangerous and harmful to the society in general. I probably do not need to specify that this, too, is a form of prejudice, very persistent and currently very present, with roots reaching back to the Medieval figure of Mammon, a personification of the undesirable worldly, earthly, material, and an opposite to the (church approved and desired) poor, subjected to dogma and unthinking martyr.
In twentieth century, this personification was given another dimension through communist and socialist ideologies, started (from the feeling of religiously taught guilt, no less) in the 18th century among nobility and finally realised in the Eastern Block post WW2 and, these days, in many far-left groups around the globe. It is interesting to note that this perception of evil successful is – and especially among the younger generation, which is the likeliest to be unemployed and therefore an easy target for loud extremist groups – joined strongly in our current society with the distrust in all information but the information disseminated by the seemingly friendly extreme groups and individuals and groups dealing in deliberate disinformation, whether it concerns data planted or seemingly obtained, slander without check or even further conspiracy theories.
This thinking is, yet again, easy to understand. If one forgets that one can indeed act (and indeed, the people who are successful now mainly started from nothing in their young adult age), then all those who did and do act become an enemy, an unpleasant reminder that everyone is in part responsible for their fate. That is not to say that people are guilty of living in a time when unemployment is such a huge problem – but the truth is still that what they choose to do to fight back is unfortunately largely down to their own spirit and ingenuity, with their immediate environment constantly testing their resolve by pushing them down repeatedly. It is a hard road and many simply do not manage to keep up, and it is easy for them to become embroiled into brooding thinking that some fictional “Other” is responsible for their grief, ironically often falling in with the thinking of the political parties that do have plenty to do with causing socio-economic misery in the first place. Big businesses create profit in taxes; they create jobs. Successful people did not take anyone’s job (often enough, they made their own jobs), and yet it is easier to think that someone else but yourself is holding you back and pushing you down. Granted – environment itself is not to be underestimated in any way. But once again we are back to the fact that fighting for themselves is not something many people do well.
In short, the evil successful is a story about how those who stand out should be pushed down rather than others modelling themselves on them in the old hero/nobility of spirit worship that has been invented, reinvented whilst scoffed at all along by dystopianists – whose main message is to give up – in literature and film alike.
At the same time, the mainstream media all too often caves in to the pressures of political groups, or attempts to keep an unhealthy amount of PC policy, resultantly losing the trust of the readers and viewers and offering a very poor alternative to the pressures of the conspiracy-heavy alternative sources.
Moving on, I would like to call your attention to the presence of graffiti in the film. They are practically omnipresent, and they illustrate fabulously everything that graffiti represent.
As I said in the little pre-post I did yesterday, graffiti are everything when it comes to studying social interaction. In the film, you can literally see everything of that, so let’s look at graffiti a bit more in-depth.
- Social interaction – Social interaction can be divided between group and individual interaction, territorial markings and specialised messages (under this group, we can count hostile messages like Fuck off xyz, X loves Y, markings of groups against each other or simple territorial markings – usually, those involve the symbol of the group/individual and potentially, if the territories collide or are disputed, threatening messages; those pop up in neutral territory just as well during times of agitation, such as sporting competitions or political events that pit groups against each other, or that could pit groups against each other – often, assertion of Us vs Them is shown in clear demarcation of the Us, even if Them actually share the same ideas… but the Us means that We don’t allow them to/see them worthy of doing so)
- Social history – Better dead than Red as an example, colour and race specific messages and messages pertaining to faith or sexual orientation can be grouped into this one; The Dark Lord is Coming and Jirak lives that we see in the film are a fabulous example of this.
- Hope for/messages of socio-cultural activity (underground or otherwise) – In an ironic double-up, the previous two messages could equally pertain to this grouping – with a sense of personal/social foreboding, or a simple observation of the Inferni (or, in our usual world, political unrest in one’s own environment or on the whole) activity would easily bring a potential graffiti artist to form a conclusion that would be as cassandreic as it would be correct… up to a point, given that, at that particular moment, the Dark Lord’s coming is prevented or at least rescheduled somewhat by Ward’s and Jakoby’s interference with the Inferni (I dare you do say this three times faster 🙂 😉 ). Equally, a law may or may not be passed; a political party may or may not be elected; but however it turns, the graffiti are still a proof of a specific thinking or struggle that was obviously of great importance to the person(s) in question during a specific time period, possibly because it would influence one group more than other. I had the opportunity to observe that on terrain during the struggles for the LGBT equality rights in Slovenia, as well as during the far-right’s struggles against abortion – the furious scribbling on the walls was often very specific and strongly worded, strategically placed (such as on the side of a church) and by no means mysterious about its intent and message. The interesting thing is that with the LGBT rights, the amount of pro et contra was equal, often resulting in a wall shouting match, whereas the abortion rights battle agitated more of the populace that actually is injured by it… the women, with the messages being very clear and angry.
- Self-realisation and determination – especially in disadvantaged youth, and especially in rigid and therefore abusive environments, the way to figure out who we are and what that means for us specifically in the world around us is difficult. That means that a verbal and yet non-verbal communication is often attempted – messaging the world, so to speak, in a relative anonymity, through writing on walls. This may coincide with the group one (personal messages, or group messages where the writer(s) is or are a part of a group). I love women, for instance, that I saw once on a wall, is almost certainly the product of a young lesbian or bisexual struggling with her orientation (especially written, as it was, in relatively small, shy, dark letters, not a flashy style that would draw attention immediately). Alternatively, a highly repressed youth would be a candidate for this type of writing, struggling with awakening sexuality but forced to abandon it due to social or (all too often) parental (mostly maternal) control and censorship. I love Orcs in the toilet in the film could easily be a part of that, or…
- …Of group five, the messages deliberately defying the social, cultural and religious norms. As I have said before, especially disadvantaged youth will end up in situations where they will rebel against not simply their abuser, but against the system, society, in which this abuse could come to pass (this is also true of the mirror group to this, the group whose messages are pro-human rights but who had to or feel they had to, often due to the same reasons, adopt this style of communication; occasionally, their anonymity is broken, deliberately or otherwise, and exchanged for a mantle of ideological leadership (https://www.bu.edu/today/2009/is-graffiti-art/). I love Orcs could very simply be a message of that sort as well, a dare of sorts for people to feel aghast, disgusted, taken aback, and therefore giving the person an anchoring point, a way of self-realisation in which they are in a self-positive position of power against the reader and the world in general.
- Art, in three groups. Idealisation of self or other, portrayal of events or way of life (often as a social observation or criticism), or art per se; this is often beautiful art, and while it is perhaps less directly informative of a social message in some cases, it is most definitely informative of staggering amount of talent present in even the layers of society that many dismiss when it comes to artwork.
Graffiti are generally considered to be a “problem”, acts of vandalism, to the extent of neighbourhoods being seen as “bad” because of their presence (http://iml.jou.ufl.edu/projects/fall07/Sanchez/vandalism.html). Costs of the cleaning, also, can be high when it comes to removal of graffiti, be it actual works of art or any other categories. While gangs are often associated with graffiti (their activity falling into many of the above categories), they aren’t as such the only graffiti users, and, as artists such as Banksy are gaining recognition for their work, and graffiti are making it from the street wall into a gallery, the debate concerning graffiti as more than just gang crime related social issue is definitely shifting opinions (http://iml.jou.ufl.edu/projects/fall07/Sanchez/art.html).
However we feel about graffiti today, we cannot deny the joy we archaeologists, anthropologists and historians feel when coming across the early graffiti (some dating as far back as Ancient Greece, Egypt and Rome), informative about the society and the people in it, much like the time capsules that we leave today for some distant posterity (https://crypt.oglethorpe.edu/international-time-capsule-society/). Of course, we must also consider that the cave paintings, the earliest sign of human thinking, perhaps even art and (disputably) civilisation and spirituality, come in the form of graffiti, ones we are very keen to protect. Professor O’Donnel, who teaches painting as fine art (https://www.bu.edu/today/2009/is-graffiti-art/), has been quoted saying that graffiti are “a public visual expression that has not been sanctioned by a commissioning authority, something that is placed in public view, unsolicited and without permission” and this is, perhaps, where the crux of the issue stands – the division between Us and Them, yet again, the more difficult to shift the more the society in question is rigid. While I cannot fully agree with his entire interview on the matter (do read it though, because it is a very interesting piece to examine!), I do think he makes a very important point there – on social sanctioning – and I would remind everyone that Impressionism, for instance, was widely disputed as an atrocity and the artists expelled from the “good” society and from the “traditional” art exhibitions for a long time.
To wrap this up, I will return to Bright once more. There are tons of themes in that film for an anthropologist, and if anthropology interest you, you should most definitely watch it. It is bloody, it is dark and it is unsavoury in places, because what it represents is and must be unsavoury to all those who respect human rights and diversity that includes them into its very existence.
Beyond the gore and the explosions (so typical for a cop film, especially in the 80s and 90s, which it very closely resembles), its social commentary is worth the watch and worth the many questions it raises and problems it underlines. One thing that I would definitely say is that it ends on a dark note, typical of dystopianism. In many ways, it retains a status quo – its victory is small, of prejudice erased between two people of different worlds. But perhaps, this is how a greater victory can be achieved… because the first step is always to recognise and eradicate prejudice in oneself.
Images sourced via IMDB and Google