"Baseball," torture, Mark Wahlberg, and kissing | Bleader

"Baseball," torture, Mark Wahlberg, and kissing

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contraband3.jpg
Last week I came down pretty hard on the new Mark Wahlberg thriller Contraband on the basis of some graphic scenes of women and children in danger. I probably wouldn’t have been as hostile towards these scenes if I hadn’t also recently watched Beneath the Blindfold, a recent documentary about torture victims. That movie depicts the struggle of victims to readjust to normal life after undergoing unspeakable trauma. It’s a powerful experience and a reminder of how many movies fail to consider the long-term effects of torture (it screens again tomorrow at the Gene Siskel Film Center).

Beneath the Blindfold addresses this issue explicitly when one of the movie’s interviewees, a professor and human-rights advocate, analyzes depictions of torture in two popular television series, NYPD Blue and 24. He notes that both series featured a recurring scene in which the hero must resort to psychological or physical abuse in order to extract information from a suspect. These scenes create the impression, he argues, that information gained through torture is as reliable as information discovered through other means (even though an Amnesty International spokesman points out elsewhere in the documentary that this is empirically not true). Worse yet, they imply these violent measures will have no lasting impact on the suspect, whom the series generally abandon once they served their narrative function.

Since watching Beneath the Blindfold, I’ve wondered how I’d react if someone ever pointed a gun at my face, tied me to a chair for hours, or subjected me to any trauma regularly featured in popular entertainment. I don’t think I’d forget the experience very quickly, but maybe that’s just me. In Contraband, Mark Wahlberg’s two sons (both of whom seem to be around grade-school age) are threatened at gunpoint by the movie’s bad guys but seem to be just fine at the end of the film, as though nothing ever happened to them. Perhaps we’re meant to assume that, as children of a badass like Mark Wahlberg, shaking off the effects of torture is in their blood.

Is it bad criticism to dismiss an entire movie over a few details? I guess that depends on the details and the extent to which they betray the film surrounding them. Before the torture scenes occurred I happened to enjoy a good deal of Contraband, particularly its depictions of merchant ships and blue-collar New Orleans. Like Elia Kazan’s Panic in the Streets (1950) or Walter Hill’s Johnny Handsome (1989)—two other crime movies shot in New Orleans—the film conveys such a strong sense of real life that the pulpy storyline interacts with it like a musical counterpoint. Maybe that’s why I was so offended by the unrealistic depictions of torture: they betrayed the balance between real life and fantasy that the movie maintained, more or less successfully, until then. (On the other hand, I thoroughly enjoyed Takeshi Kitano’s recent Outrage, which contains even more scenes of torture than Contraband does, in large part because Kitano makes no pretenses towards realism. I find Kitano’s sense of fantasy liberating—the film seems to mock the idea that movie violence is a model for real behavior—though I understand that other viewers don’t.)

Donald Hall (photo via The Poetry Foundation)
  • Donald Hall (photo via The Poetry Foundation)
To return to the question above: is it bad criticism to neglect minor details that give us pleasure regardless of the film surrounding them? I’ve been pondering this, too, in the past week upon revisiting one of my favorite poems, Donald Hall’s “Baseball” (I highly recommend it if you haven’t read it; you can purchase the 1993 collection it’s in, The Museum of Clear Ideas, for about a dollar on eBay). In that work, Hall argues that art—like baseball and life itself—derives meaning not from any single theme, but from the accumulation of memorable acts and details. For Hall, all art is collage art:

The madness method
of “Baseball” gathers bits and pieces

of ordinary things — like bleacher
ticket stubs, used Astroturf, Fenway
Frank wrappers, yearbooks, and memory —
to paste them onto the bonkers grid
of the page.

It’s a generous definition, and even Contraband looks better beneath its light. By the “Baseball” standard, Contraband becomes commendable on the basis of a single kiss, which I continue to enjoy every time I remember it. In one scene, Wahlberg’s character chastises his ne’er-do-well brother-in-law (a shaggy-haired, pop-eyed kid of maybe 20) as they’re discussing the big heist they’re going to pull off in Panama. Wahlberg’s clearly exasperated with the kid: the only reason he’s taking part in the heist is so he can pay back the bad guy who’s been threatening his wife and sons in response to the brother-in-law’s debt. Yet after chastising the kid, Wahlberg kisses him on the crown of his head—an act of everyday forgiveness that registers as both tough and sensitive.

These few seconds present in miniature Wahlberg’s considerable talents as a performer. While he tends to use his muscular build resourcefully (The Fighter is an obvious example, but it also comes through in something like I Heart Huckabee’s, where his physical dissimilarity from the other actors lets you know right away that he’s the movie’s straight man/anchor), there’s a sweetness to his work that’s just as present, an unstated longing for something he can neither hold nor pummel. This is why it’s always a joy to see Wahlberg in an ensemble piece: his presence seems to make the most sense within a family dynamic. In Contraband, Wahlberg’s character isn’t short for family. For the first half of the movie, he struts as though blessed to have a beautiful wife, two sons, a best friend he loves like a brother, and a network of allies he can call on for help in staging a heist. Had Contraband replaced the scenes of torture with more scenes of Wahlberg kissing his friends and family, I probably would have recommended the whole thing.

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