Interview by Natalie Hulla; posted by Dustin Jenkins
MC: It looks like you have tea.
NH: I do have tea, and it’s funny because this is the third interview we’ve done and I’m subverting the entire project because I haven’t had coffee once.
MC: I’ve had four cups of coffee already today, so I had to switch.
NH: So you don’t need any more. That’s kind of where I was. At my meeting earlier, I downed some seriously caffeinated coffee so I figured if I drink any more I’ll be on the ceiling later.
NH: To get us started a little bit, why don’t you tell me what you’re working on?
MC: I’m in kind of a holding pattern with the thesis, but the thesis is generally about skinheads and neo-Nazis as represented in film in the United States since in the 1980s. It started out with an interest in fascist cinema in Nazi Germany and that’s been written about to death. People have talked about and written about that since film theory became a scholarly pursuit… I’m not ambitious enough to believe that I can contribute to that body of literature, but I was interested in how the symbols of fascism — like the swastika, or the way bodies are situated in regimented rows within films — how those have changed over time, how they get deployed differently through different films. And it’s interesting to me how a culture like the skinheads — which is distinct from fascism in a lot of different ways because it was born out of England in the 1960s and it was a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-racial kind of community of working class people — kind of got co-opted by nationalist and fascist movements in Europe, and then eventually became synonymous with racism. Skinheads are racists in America. When using that term, people use it interchangeably with neo-Nazis, and it’s just not the history of it. But it’s largely true: most skinheads are racists. And I’m interested in how film attempts to deal with that history, deal with a kind of culture that got forgotten because of the shadow of the Holocaust and World War II.
NH: So, what are the main points of view and themes that come out of that genre? That’s actually a film genre that I’m not that familiar with.
MC: Sure. It’s not really a genre -- the kinds of films that I choose from, most of them are dramas or thrillers, but some of them are also comedies. Comedies wherein neo-Nazis make appearances — or skinheads, rather, make appearances. What I’m interested is how the figure is deployed and what function it uses in different kinds of settings, and usually it’s used to make straight, white, heterosexual males feel better about who they are. Andrea Slane, who is an author that I glean off of quite a bit — she wrote a book called Not So Foreign Affair, and it talked about the symbols of fascism in the production of democracy in the United States. She doesn’t devote a lot of time to skinheads, but she does say that figures like Timothy McVeigh, who is the man who bombed the federal building in Oklahoma City, were seen as a kind of — since he looked like most American men, he was talked about and written about in ways that other kinds of domestic terrorists or international terrorists would never have been written about. And this is obvious. I mean, Islamophobia is kind of a hot topic right now and I think that applies to how we talk about domestic terrorism in relation to those things. Like, ‘the lone gunman’ versus somebody who has fanatical Islam. And the lone gunman kind of obfuscates the system from which they come. And largely, the skinheads who are deployed in film are thought of that way: they’re redeemable, single individuals who are capable of coming to terms with morality and with ethics. They’re capable of reforming. We’ve seen American History X. It’s about a skinhead’s journey through the process of overt racism, but then comes to this realization that it’s not workable any more. He doesn’t want his little brother to be like that. But that kind of narrative doesn’t exist for other kinds of terrorists. That kind of narrative is reserved exclusively for white males.
NH: Why do you think that is?
MC: That’s what I’m hoping to find out!
NH: Stay tuned!
MC: Believe it or not, Ryan Gosling is going to make a huge appearance in my thesis.
MC: Yeah, he’s in this film called The Believer, which is one of his first, more acclaimed films in which he plays a racist skinhead in the United States who was born into an Orthodox Jewish family. He’s a Jew who denounced his faith and is hiding his past. I think it plays on the issues that I’m interested in — the erasure of culture through particular ideology, the erasure of pasts. Pasts of skinhead histories, the pasts of Nazi histories, the pasts of Jewish histories in order to make this one character, who ultimately — spoiler alert — kills himself based on this identity crisis. So, I think that as a locus is a film that embodies a lot of the things I’m interested in. I think it was made in 2001? 2002? He’s still as handsome as ever.
MC: He looks good with a shaved head. He looks really good… But he’s really angry the whole time, so I think it’s off-putting.
NH: So, are there any other films or even television shows that you’ve seen that maybe aren’t necessarily being incorporated into your thesis but are of particular interest to you in this vein?
MC: Well, I’ll admit, I’m not as versed in television shows right now. Since I moved to Athens, I haven’t really had access to TV. Whatever’s on Netflix I have access to, and I mean, ideas of incarceration have always been interesting to me and are good microcosms of how I think societies work. Since I incorporate a lot of Michel Foucault, a lot of the prisons are good — at least in previous centuries — are a good indicator of how structures function. So, Orange is the New Black is a show that I think could hold a lot of social weight if it was applied in a tricky way. I wouldn’t necessarily incorporate it, but I think everything I see informs how I write things.
MC: I watched Selma last weekend and it was fantastic. It made me cry. It made me cry and it made me angry at the same time. It made me want to write more about different kinds of schisms that racism creates.
NH: Have you seen American Sniper?
MC: I haven’t yet. Have you?
NH: I haven’t, but I am so incredibly interested in the conversation around it.
MC: Likewise. I’ve seen a lot of Clint Eastwood’s films, and he calls it an anti-war film. I haven’t seen it but I’m willing to bet it’s not a very good anti-war film.
NH: From what I’ve seen, from what I’ve read online, it seems like there is a very particular group of people who are not walking away with very anti-war attitudes. They’re becoming — it seems like the response is on par to when people watched 300. I remember some of my friends who came out of the theater were like, ‘Yeah, I just feel so amped, man! I wanna go destroy something, I wanna go fight something and just be awesome!’ And I’m starting to see a similar response, and a very racist response.
MC: I mean, I see that response from this movie but I don’t think it’s a unique trait of the film, and I think people are treating it as this burgeoning racism of Clint Eastwood or its effect on America. I think people are kind of directing it the wrong way. The fact that this is popular in the United States speaks more to the United States than it does the film itself. Right?
MC: I think certain segments of the United States are primed to express their Islamophobia in as many ways as they can. This movie — though probably not good — just kind of gave them an excuse to do what they were already going to do. Like, remember Passion of the Christ? That Mel Gibson movie?
NH: Oh, yes.
MC: So, I saw that movie when it came out and there was this, like, six-year-old boy who went with his family to go see it. It’s a very violent movie. It’s extremely violent. And he comes walking out of the theater and he’s crying, bawling, and his mother grabs him and says, ‘You stop your crying, he died for you!’
NH: Oh, my! That’s intense.
MC: That kind of made me want to think about films in a different way. Because those kinds of responses coming out of a movie are something I don’t really see coming out of, like, Dumb and Dumber.
MC: There are certain films that could make people fanatical about their world or about their own ideology. Admittedly, when I saw I Am Cuba, it made me want to go out and start the revolution — I have to put that on check because it’s not a self-contained thing. You’ve got to look at it more deeply.
NH: Do you think people completely miss the point when they see films that address war?
MC: No… I’m not concerned with the filmmaker’s intent. I think misinterpreting a film is one of the best things we can do for film studies. And I’m not saying, ‘be outlandish’ with our interpretations. I think genuine interpretations of films require people to think harder about them. So, if Clint Eastwood’s this, at best, middle of the road conservative, and he wanted to make an anti-war film and people aren’t taking it that way, then I say, ‘Tough nuggets, Clint.’
NH: ‘Tough nuggets.’
NH: So, in production class yesterday, we were talking about grant writing.
MC: I know nothing about that.
NH: Don’t worry, I’m not going to ask you about it. Our professor pointed out that documentaries are very popular right now, so documentary filmmakers tend to get more funding more frequently than narrative filmmakers. It’s because, within the last 20 years, documentary has become a very popular genre. Or rather, more people are watching documentaries. So, you’re a doc fanatic, yeah?
MC: Oh, yeah. I think a particular kind of documentary is becoming really popular.
NH: What’s that?
MC: Documentaries whose intent is to educate. I don’t think all documentaries — well, all films educate. Certain documentaries are didactic. The one that comes to mind is that Al Gore one.
NH: An Inconvenient Truth.
MC: An Inconvenient Truth. It has a particular argument and lays it out in explicit, un-confusing terms, and it mimics, in many ways, newsreel footage and journalistic tactics of citation and getting particular sources. If you get three sources to corroborate your claim then you’re solid. I think the history of documentaries has proven that the most powerful documentaries are ones that don’t have that kind of commentary. They take a more cinematic approach, they’re more devoid of commentary narrative. They just display things are they are, or even artistically in a way that’s clearly subjective.
NH: This popularity of documentaries ties into this idea that I have recently become privy to, which is ‘outrage culture.’ I feel like when we digest news now, especially news that is horrific in some way or jarring or disturbing, because of social media and because of the Internet and the various social platforms we have so readily available to us, we become outraged and we feel a sense of duty to articulate that anger and that frustration online. I feel like outrage culture goes hand in hand with documentaries, at least within the trope of documentaries that you’re talking about. Because if you look at An Inconvenient Truth, people look at that and they’re outraged and they want to buzz up about it. If An Inconvenient Truth came out now, I wonder if we actually would ‘break the Internet.’
MC: You know, there was that headline that I haven’t clicked on yet — there was that study that claimed the gap between the public’s perception of science and how science actually functions and its use, there’s this huge perceptual gap between the two. What fills in that gap are things like documentaries. The study didn’t say that, but our knowledge of things like climate change and how Sea World treats its killer whales can be mediated through documentaries, and all you have to do is click it away, in terms of donating. People call it armchair activism. I think the propensity for documentaries to influence people to do things in the world is kind of diminished.
MC: Yeah, the history of documentaries has never spurred the kind of change people are thinking about.
NH: Like the call to action?
MC: Calls to action, yeah. Usually it’s social disparities and economic disparities that force people into those positions. The Cesar Chavezes, or whoever. Documentaries can elaborate or include larger groups of people in that discussion and they’re valuable for that reason, but they’re certainly not a catalyst for change. Not in my opinion.
NH: I feel like a lot of people who are at least coming around to documentaries, or say that they really love documentaries, they don’t watch to study the cinematic values but they watch it to learn something or ‘broaden their horizons’ in some way, I feel like they would disagree with you.
MC: Oh, they definitely would. It’s not a popular opinion. I have a marginal view of the value of art, or of media, to do things to people, and it’s not a popular one. But I think real systemic change only occurs on an economic level, or a socio-economic level.
NH: So, when we consider the filmmakers who made An Inconvenient Truth and Blackfish, what do you think their intentions are?
MC: Their intentions were to inform and to incentivize action. To my understanding, Blackfish has done quite a bit in terms of putting pressure on Sea World in order to get things done. I haven’t seen it.
NH: It’s disturbing.
MC: Is it?
NH: Yeah. I also say that knowing that it was a very… There’s a reason it’s popular and I think it’s because it’s smart in the way that it’s made. It tailors itself to be a mainstream documentary. Whether or not they intended for it to be as big as it ended up being, it’s smart in the way that it talks about Sea World.
MC: And I applaud the films that are capable of addressing injustices where they find it, and getting people to do things. My concern with film is whether or not it’s capable of changing the course of societies, or disincentivizing the exploitation of animals, and the only way to do that is through a system-wide change, and those are much bigger than cinema could possibly do.
NH: Do you think when people have these reactions and they want to enact change, they feel inspired to do something — do you think that exists in a vacuum? Do you think that that’s wasted energy?
MC: No. The desire to do something is always good. I think documentaries in general tend to make the problems about surface-level systems rather than structural causes. As such, the kind of activism it incentivizes is towards those systems rather than the disease itself. I realize that’s kind of a radical take on it. It appeals to a certain demographic and that demographic is liberal progressives in the United States. It’s a big population. You can sustain an economy on documentary filmmaking appealing exclusively to that demographic. I think we should still make reforms to make our lives better in every sense we can, but are documentaries revolutionary? The answer is, absolutely not.
NH: I’m a documentary filmmaker, so I don’t know how to respond to that.
NH: I’m kidding.
*While this interview was being edited for publication, Cook opted to take the comprehensive Film Studies final exam for his graduation requirements, in lieu of composing a written thesis for academic publication.