“Happy slaves”: Tropa de Elite (Elite Squad)
For some reason I saw Elite Squad 2 awhile back when it was released in the US, but not Elite Squad. I finally watched Elite Squad last week. Elite Squad 2 holds records in Brazil for ticket sales and revenue. José Padilha, the director of the Elite Squad series, apparently will be completing a remake of RoboCop next year, a movie of familiar themes to Elite Squad: crime-ridden city, a corrupt system and good cops who must decide to go outside the law to save the city.
Elite Squad is one of the most disturbing movies I’ve seen in awhile. And its easy to see why. I looked up scenes of the movie on youtube and I came across a trailer. The trailer is so detached that the actual content of the movie is transformed into an ideological specter, disembodied from the real movie.
The trailer says that Elite Squad is about reluctant, but good cops who have no choice but to clean up their neighborhood through extra-legal means. It is likely that it is on those terms many viewers may think about the movie. However, the visceral experience of the movie will prove otherwise. Its dystopian portrait of capitalist modernization is highly concentrated in the trope of the prison, which is overtly thematized in references to Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. The feeling of capitalist society as a barbaric prison is reproduced at the level of character in Captain Nascimento’s spiraling addiction as he tries to escape his role as a military police commander.
Of course, Elite Squad must retain the moral impulse of its heroes, but it does so as a half-dead gesture. This is where I thought Elite Squad works and maintains authenticity. The moral impulse is meant to open the way to the restoration of the unity of the city, however, in this case, its “proper” place in the genre recedes in the distance. The kind of ideological commentary in the American trailer for the movie becomes that much more glaring – an attempt to square the circle, so to speak. It is a sign of decadence, equivalent to the chatter of the political class far removed from the actual reality of capitalist society.
Maybe its all the Fanon I’ve been diving into again. The day after watching Elite Squad I was reviewing Lewis Gordon’s Fanon and the Crisis of European Man. I came across the following passage and recognized the complicated material and ideological dynamics of Elite Squad.
“Institutional bad faith discourages human recognition. It is an effort to construct collectives and norms, ‘inert’ practices, that militate against sociality, against human being. Although its goal is the elimination of the human in human being, its route of legitimation may be humanity-in-itself. Institutional bad faith sometimes takes the form, then, of an attack on humanity in the name of humanity….Recall the sadist and the masochist. Both represent a disintegration of reciprocal human recognition. Correlated with this disintegration are various attitudes to social phenomena. For instance, the sadist may deny the social significance of evidence. ‘There is only one truth,’ he might say. His own. In a world in which he functions as the source of truth, he feels secure in believing what he wants to believe….In a world in which there is no truth and all is opinion, one can easily evade the judgment of Others, since Others’ opinions no longer really count for anything. At the other extreme, one may masochistically relinquish one’s role in the constitution of values. Values stand ‘out there,’ but never ‘here.’ For the sadist, institutions (myths, laws, mores, folkways) stand as absolute conditions of what Others must be or do. For the masochist, they stand as absolute conditions of what he is or what he must do. For both, institutional bad faith furnishes ‘casual’ or ‘material’ explanations of the social, or the human. The world that emerges is, then, the world of the living dead, the comfortable, ‘happy’ slave–the being who is a determined consequence of ‘nature’” (22-23).