Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Inside the world of Boston Bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

For all the controversy surrounding the cover shot that went with Rolling Stone's article on the Boston Bomber (addressed by RS contributor and Boston native Matt Taibbi here, noting, among other things, that the New York Times used the same photo to little fanfare), the article itself is quite good. It's one of few attempts I've seen to really get inside the mind and motivation of a murderer, while still acknowledging the monstrosity of his actions.
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the younger of the two bombers, survived the raid that killed his older brother Tamerlan. The article interviews friends of the family, school acquaintances of Jahar (as Dzhokhar called himself in America), and details the brothers' descent from well-liked high school athletes to radical terrorists. It's a transformation that no one who knew the brothers saw coming. The description of Jahar given by his friends is "a portrait of a boy who glided through life, showing virtually no signs of anger, let alone radical political ideology or any kind of deeply felt religious beliefs."
But, as is often the case, hindsight is 20/20, and, upon reflection, a few crack emerged in the Tsaraev brothers' facade. A friend of Jahar's recalls talking to him about 9/11, and when asking his view, Jahar said, "You won't like my answer," and then quickly changed the subject. In Tamerlan, the inclination toward radicalism was more readily apparent. In the period before the bombing, he had begun to embrace a strict form of Islam, and Jahar and the boys' mother soon followed suit. Tamerlan, who once aspired to be an Olympic boxer, had fallen on hard times shortly before the bombing, poor and with his new marriage struggling. Jahar wasn't doing too well either. Though he had gotten into UMass on a scholarship, he was struggling to keep up in his classes.
The relationship between the two brothers is what most interests me about this case. I've studied pair or team killers before, and there's usually a dominant partner and a willing accomplice. It appears Tamerlan was the dominant partner, even from the time they were young. Their mother, family friends say, favored Tamerlan, calling him "Hercules" due to his athletic strength. All the kids in the neighborhood, especially Jahar, seemed to idolize him. Jahar, by contrast, was remembered as a "calm, compliant" child and alternately "smooth as fuck" and "humble" teenager. He started boxing like his brother, but soon moved into wrestling, which his friends interviewed in the article say is a common pastime among Chechen boys.
With Tamerlan becoming more radical, not only getting into fundamentalist Islam but also conspiracy theories (he was a big fan of Alex Jones, who, oddly but predictably enough, immediately latched onto the conspiracy theory that the bombings were a CIA plot), Jahar, as he always had, followed his brother. Some of Jahar's friends, who still have a hard time believing their relaxed, pot-smoking buddy, who was always the first person they called when they needed a favor, could become Public Enemy #1 overnight, think Tamerlan brainwashed him. Tamerlan probably didn't, at least not consciously. Jahar was lost, unsure of what path to take, struggling in school, and, as he always had, looked to his older brother for guidance. Unfortunately, Tamerlan was just as lost, searching for answers, as many have before, in religion and radical ideology, and Jahar got dragged down with him. We still don't know exactly what triggered their desire to make such a grand, grotesque statement, but it happened.
One of Jahar's friends, upon reading an article where nurses at the hospital where he was staying after the raid said they were reluctant to treat him, because they didn't want to end up liking him, said, "People just have blood in their eyes." It's an eloquent, astute observation. It's the reason for the protest of Jahar on the cover of Rolling Stone, lest a photo of a murderer that isn't defaced be equated with excusing his actions. It's the reason level-headed articles like this one, which try to honestly look at the motives behind such a vicious crime, are so rare. People blinded by "blood in their eyes" only want to see the perpetrators suffer. Anything less is considered being too soft. Which is a shame, because Janet Reitman wrote an insightful piece that gets to the heart, or as close as it can, of how and why an ordinary kid can become a terrorist.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Room 237

On the surface, Room 237 looks maddening; a collection of, to put it lightly, unorthodox interpretations of Stanley Kubrick's film adaptation of The Shining. The movie itself is fairly well-crafted, aside from an overreliance on gimmicky images (images of frightened movie audiences while discussing scary scenes, etc.) The narration of the subjects is juxtaposed nicely over scenes from The Shining, without ever showing the people being interviewed, which is a nice touch. It lets the theories, however odd they may be, stand on their own, and gives the odd ideas an otherworldliness that's very appropriate. While the premise makes the film sound like an exercise in enduring crazy ideas, Room 237 ultimately emerges as a fascinating look at how people think and how our own biases and experiences shape our perceptions and interpretations of art.
The theories about The Shining put forth in this documentary range from the mildly quirky (one sees it as an allegory for the European genocide of Native Americans, another sees a metaphor for the Holocaust) to the downright bizarre (a metaphor for the myth of the Minotaur, and Kubrick's confession that he helped fake the Apollo moon landing).
As Chuck Klosterman writes in his take on Room 237, this type of approach, which he calls "immersion criticism", wouldn't work with just any film. But The Shining was directed by Stanley Kubrick, who was not only reclusive and non-forthcoming when discussing his work (leaving much open to interpretation without input from the source), but was also notoriously meticulous about what went on screen. Actors who worked with him have mentioned doing 60 to 80 takes of even inconsequential scenes (if they were lucky), and shoots that stretched far behind schedule (the shoot for The Shining took over a year). Very few actors worked with Kubrick more than once (Peter Sellers and Kirk Douglas are the only ones I can recall). This was a director who demanded that every detail in every shot be exactly to his liking. As a result, the theorists in Room 237 can be forgiven for finding perceived meaning in the little things.
The most interesting aspect of the film is that it serves as an insight into the thought and interpretation process. Kubrick's version of The Shining differs vastly from the original novel. Stephen King famously hated it, and, knowing this, one interviewee in the documentary puts forth one of the more convincing "hidden meanings." In the book, the car the Torrance family drives to the hotel was red. Kubrick has them in a yellow car, and while they're driving, they pass an accident on the road showing a red car badly damaged. This, the theory posits, was Kubrick's middle finger to King.
Something that's easy to lose track of while becoming oddly enthralled by all the theories (they're crazy, but you still want to see where they're going with it) is, all of the people interviewed are watching the same movie. The same images, dialogue and plot, interpreted in a variety of different and very strange ways. In a film, which is a combination of visual, literary and theatrical art, there are so many facets, any of which a viewer can latch onto and use as the bases of our interpretation of the film as a whole. Some people notice numbers; the Shining/Holocaust theorist concentrates in part of appearances of the number 42, including 237, which, when multiplied, equals 42. Others notice images; the Minotaur theorist saw a picture that looked like a minotaur in the background in one scene and latched onto it, the "Kubrick faked the moon landing" theorist sees a scene of Danny wearing an "Apollo 11" shirt and builds his notion from there. Sometimes, we see something familiar; the Shining/Native American genocide theorist sees a box in the background bearing a Native American caricature and the name of a river near where he grew up, and from there sees other Native American motifs throughout the film, and builds his theory. The concept of seeing/perceiving one thing and building everything else around it has a name, confirmation bias, and it seems to be an innate part of human thought process. But, as Klosterman says, in the case of The Shining, the conspiratorial ideas put forth don't do any real harm, unlike political conspiracy theories. It's just a way, he says, of going deeper into an already mysterious film.
When watching Room 237, I had two thoughts. One, I wanted to watch The Shining again. Two, I noticed something new about The Shining, the prominence of the color red. There's a scene in a red bathroom, red furniture, and several characters wear red. Kubrick, a highly visual filmmaker, must have planned that, probably because red is a dramatic color evoking blood, and The Shining is a story of horror and bloodshed. Or maybe, taking things to the extremes of the theorists, all the red was a sign that the film was an allegory of Communism, or another element in the theory about Native Americans (who were called "red men"). Viewers may mock the subjects of Room 237 for their absurd ideas, but going down the rabbit hole of interpretation is easier than we'd like to admit.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Sandy Hook

The Sandy Hook elementary school massacre in December led to discussions, or heated arguments, about gun control, preceded a string of other public shootings, and even spawned conspiracy theories. The gun control debate has already been amply covered, the other shootings are happening so frequently that I can barely keep track, and this blog does an excellent job deconstructing the absurdities of the conspiracy theory (in a nutshell, the theory goes that the government faked the shooting as a pretext to take away Americans' guns). What I'm interested in, as can be predicted from previous posts, is Adam Lanza and what may have driven him over the edge.

We have little to go on regarding who Adam Lanza was or what may have motivated him, since he had few friends, he destroyed his computer's hard drive, and he started his rampage by murdering his mother, and ended it by shooting himself. But through accounts of acquaintances, we have learned a little. Lanza was described as an intelligent but socially awkward loner who preferred computers to interacting with peers (leading to speculation that he had Asperger's, a diagnosis that has not been proven). He lived with his divorced mother Nancy, who was an avid target shooter (Lanza stole her guns for the massacre), and desperately wanted her isolated son to "fit in." She had sole custody of Adam and his brother. One particularly interesting piece of information came from the Lanza family hair stylist. The employees recall that Nancy directed Adam's movements and answered questions for him, to the point where Adam wouldn't get out of the chair until his mother instructed him to move. Adam didn't speak the entire time, but looked at the tiles on the floor.

What follows is highly speculative. A complex relationship between Adam and Nancy Lanza emerges. Nancy, while fondly remembered by friends, was reluctant to talk about her troubled son, indicating a possibility that she was ashamed of him. While target shooting is a popular hobby, the sheer number of guns Nancy kept in her home was unusual, particularly with a son she knew was mentally unstable. Her tendency to speak for her son was either an acknowledgment that he was uncomfortable speaking himself, or indicated a controlling personality (the guns could have been another way for her to feel in control). Criminal history is fully of mentally unstable men with domineering mothers (Ed Gein, Edmund Kemper, Henry Lee Lucas).

Again, this is pure speculation, but here's what may have happened that day. Adam and Nancy got into a fight, which dredged up all the resentment he felt toward her controlling nature over the years, the pressure from her to "fit in." After a lifetime of real or perceived hardships, he decided to kill himself and his mother. To ensure he would truly disappear, he destroyed his computer where he kept the details of his life. Then he took his mother's guns, and, in a gesture of very personal rage, shot his mother four times in the face. Whether he planned from the beginning to continue the shooting at the elementary school or if it was a spur of the moment decision is unclear. But, as we all know, he got there, fully armed and ready to take out anyone he came across. Why he chose the school is also unclear. He had been a student there, and possibly still carried the scars of being an awkward kid ostracized by others. The school, like his home with his mother, carried bad memories, another symbol of the world that had wronged him.