Five percent of the people think; ten percent of the people think they think; and the other eighty-five percent would rather die than think.
Thomas A. Edison, progenitor of 24:7 illumination
The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.
Nobody can think and hit someone at the same time.
Susan Sontag (2003: 106)
During a particularly harrowing sequence from Platoon (Oliver Stone, USA, 1986), redneck GI, Bunny (Kevin Dillon), bashes the skull of a one-legged Vietnamese man (Romy Sevilla) with the butt of his rifle in an incident loosely based on the Mỹ Lai massacre, in which American soldiers slaughtered some 500 Vietnamese civilians, including women, children and infants, on 16 March 1968. ‘Holy shit, you see that fuckin’ head come apart, man?’ smirks Bunny as he turns from the corpse to address Taylor (Charlie Sheen). ‘I ain’t never seen brain like that before,’ he continues, before turning back to the corpse, which we do not see.
Meanwhile, Three Kings (David O Russell, USA, 1999) opens with American soldier Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg) shooting dead an Iraqi (Ali Afshar) after ceasefire because the latter seems to point a rifle at him. Barlow’s colleague, Conrad Vig (Spike Jonze), later describes the incident as follows: ‘it looked like the guy's head blew three feet into the air’—with the film duly showing us a visibly fake head flying from a corpse thanks to a practical effect.
Finally, various soldiers, especially Donny Donowitz (Eli Roth), take great pleasure in blowing apart the head of Adolf Hitler (Martin Wuttke) and other members of the German high command in counterfactual World War 2 fantasy Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, Germany/USA, 2009). We shall return to Tarantino later.
For the time being, though, I wish simply to say that although there are numerous examples of heads being destroyed in cinema—from Georges Méliès’ L’homme à la tête en caoutchouc/The Man with the Rubber Head (France, 1901) through to the infamous head explosion of the scanner (Louis Del Grande) by Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside) in Scanners (David Cronenberg, Canada, 1981), through to the skull-bashing-by-fire-extinguisher sequence in Irréversible (Gaspar Noé, France, 2002)—I start with these three examples specifically because they are perpetrated by American soldiers.
For, the scenes from Platoon, Three Kings and Inglourious Basterds all suggest that what is at stake in modern American conflicts is not just hearts and minds, but also skulls and brains.
What is more, the Méliès film and Scanners both demonstrate the extent to which mind control is also brain control, and that it is perhaps special effects themselves that are ‘mindblowing,’ and in such a way that cinematic special effects and war can be understood as two parts of the same effort: not to ‘win over’ brains, but to destroy the human brain, thereby making it incapable of thought.
A similar idea is suggested in another film from the same year as Three Kings, namely Fight Club (David Fincher, USA, 1999), in which the unnamed narrator (Edward Norton) shoots himself in the head, thereby ‘killing’ Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), the megalomaniacal-anarchist part of himself that threatens to bring down corporate capitalism. With Tyler dead, the narrator can return to his IKEA lifestyle rather than criticise it, but now with Marla Singer (Helena Bonham-Carter) in tow. No wonder that Nick (Christopher Walken) can only himself escape the ideology of war by shooting himself in the head in The Deer Hunter (Michael Cimino, USA, 1978). For really this actual shooting is just an extension of the metaphorical brain destruction that had taken place prior to his own time in Vietnam.
Not only is cinema a war machine that attempts to destroy brains, then, but this process is also at times homophobic (the Irréversible killing takes place in a gay club called the Rectum) and raced (‘I ain’t never seen brain like that before’). This is also made palpable in Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, USA, 1994), when Vincent (John Travolta) shoots Marvin (Phil LaMarr) in the head in the car of Jules (Samuel L Jackson), an incident that requires the two hitmen to pay a visit to Jimmie (Tarantino), as if the director were suggesting that head-destruction is his opportunity to become cinematic/to appear on screen. That is, taking heads apart and leaving people brainless is Tarantino’s cinematic raison d’être, as well as being the militaristic purpose of cinema – and capitalism – more broadly. Notably, the script for Three Kings involves a discussion of Carl Weathers in Predator (John McTiernan, USA/Mexico, 1987) immediately after Conrad celebrates Troy’s decapitation of the ‘raghead,’ as if men with brains (‘check out the brains on Brett!’), and perhaps especially men with brains of colour, were a threat to the political status quo. Perhaps to be of colour is to have a brain – since it involves not seeing the world as white or as cinema, with whites under capital becoming men of straw (if they only had a brain) put together in order to scare off black crows who otherwise might steal their precious crops. Capitalism might as a name suggest that it cares for the head, but really capitalism involves capital punishment, the replacement of our heads by capital, the replacement of all thought as thought only of capital.
If the ‘head shot’ is a sine qua non for actors and models as they try to make their way in the film industry, then the head shot has also become generalised in the era of Facebook and dating apps. Everyone must take a shot to the head in order to be interpellated into neoliberal (brainless) capitalist culture. And as our online profiles provide data for corporations to mine, as well as opportunities for our thinking to be swayed/for our brains to be treated like pulp via algorithmic exploiters like Cambridge Analytica, so do these ‘heads’ become like those skulls studied by phrenologists and the like in the nineteenth century: our heads are profiled, our brains controlled, our capacity for critical thought curtailed.
If I am providing a relatively substantial (if necessarily incomplete) list of movies featuring head smashing, nowhere has the violent headshot been so insistently expressed as in Logan (James Mangold, USA, 2017) and the John Wick series. In the former, the ageing X-Man (Hugh Jackman) gores at least a dozen people through the skull with his adamantium claws, while across the three latter films (John Wick, Chad Stahelski, USA, 2014; John Wick: Chapter 2, Chad Stahelski, USA/Hong Kong, 2017; John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum, Chad Stahelski, USA, 2019), the titular character, played by Keanu Reeves, kills a combined total of about 300 people (many of them Asian in the final film)—and numerous of these via shots to the head. Of course, both films involve highly trained military assassins being able to engage in little critical thought as they instead succumb to mindless violence.
By this token, the 2010s would seem to involve an intensification of death-by-destroyed-brain. But more than this, if Gilles Deleuze suggested that the brain is the screen, in the sense that cinema thinks and can help us to think, perhaps especially when employing stylistic tropes that we might associate with the time-image (long duration, ambiguity between fantasy and reality, and so on; see Deleuze 2000), then cinema in the digital age would seem to suggest that the brain is, for the purposes of cinema-capital, preferred dead. And if screens have proliferated, then there are bits of brain splattered everywhere, too (each screen is a fragment of brain). However, these chunks of brain have no central human intelligence to help them to think. Or, if there is any intellect, or if there is a person who can read between the lines (an inter-lector), then it is Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), who famously eats the brain of Paul Krendler (Ray Liotta) in Hannibal (Ridley Scott, USA/UK/Italy, 2001), before feeding some of that brain to an American Asian boy (Ian Iwataki) on an aeroplane. That is, surveillance capital (‘central intelligence’) perhaps sucks on our brains as a psychopathic inter-lector, leaving us brainless as it accumulates data about us and controls us.
Central in particular to the John Wick films is that the stories almost unfold in real time, even though the films have been made over the course of several years, with the events of the second film following on directly from the events of the first film, and the events of the third film following on directly from the events of the second film.
In other words, while the contemporary era is one defined by velocity and acceleration, the John Wick films would seem to suggest that there is only one time that is accepted as real, which is the ‘real time’ of neoliberal capital. Once accepted as the only real time, then there is no memory as we live in a world of permanent illumination, no sleep, perhaps even no blinking, and thus no ability to store memories. With no capacity for memory, which instead is outsourced on to those proliferating screens, we can remember no past (we just become cyborg war machines, much like Wolverine), and we can think of no alternative future. Without a brain, there is only the march towards death, as not a single assassin in John Wick 3 (and there are many) questions the point of attacking a merciless killer such as the title character, let alone deciding perhaps to sit this fight out for the purposes of not dying that day. Instead they brainlessly march on towards their death, much like the contemporary precariat that cannot turn down any work if they are to have a hope of living, meaning not only that they will die at the hands of Wick, but that in some senses they were dead already (by virtue of being braindead).
Staying with Deleuze, the philosopher argues that the close-up constitutes the ‘affection-image,’ whereby we see images of thought (people processing events before they then react to them). The smashed skull, often with the face crushed (are not all we who live in image cultures programmed from a young age to have crushes on head shots?), suggests the absence of thought. But more than this, if for Deleuze the movement-image becomes untenable after Hitler and Hiroshima, precisely because it is brainless, then Hitler is the face of thoughtlessness, of brainlessness. To smash Hitler’s face in, then, is not to look Hitler in the eye, or to contemplate the capacity for any and every human to be evil, which might be a moment of ethical thought (especially if thinking begins when we are not sure if we really are thinking). Rather, to smash Hitler’s face in is to become doubly brainless: to become brainless and in the process to forget/deny history, such that the war never happened, or at least not in the way that humans think it did.
Does this mean that Tarantino emerges, finally (all along), as a fascist, trying to destroy thought by destroying history? And in the face of Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (USA, 2019), we begin to see the patriarchal nature of the permanent now, the destruction of history and the emergence of 24:7 culture: straight, white cis-gendered men beating the shit out of women, and straight, white people beating up Asians – including Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) and Nancy Kwan (herself). No wonder that in this world in which survives Sharon Tate (played in the film by Margot Robbie), there can no longer five years later be a Chinatown (Roman Polanski, USA, 1974): Asians must be destroyed, even if it requires the reversal of the Manson killings and the rehabilitation of Roman Polanski.
(Note that in Once Upon a Time…, Brad Pitt plays Cliff Booth, the stunt double for Rick Dalton, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. Pitt’s own stunt double across several films, including Fight Club, was David Leitch, who also was unofficially the co-director with Chad Stahelski of the first John Wick film. Perhaps the journey across these films is not so speculative as all that.)
Another recent face/skull bashing takes place in Midsommar (Ari Aster, USA/Sweden, 2019), a compelling cinematic study of whiteness, and in which older members of a small Swedish community leap to their own deaths, before being finished off with giant, skull-crushing mallets. Although they perform a semblance of revulsion, the American tourists in fact stick around to find out more about this strange cultural practice (and in the name of academia, no less). But rather than being because they truly are revulsed, perhaps it is because they are attracted to the brainless and the mindless nature of this society. Indeed, it seems that the American tourists in fact have a natural affinity for that society, as demonstrated by troubled tourist teen Dani (Florence Pugh), who proves herself a better witch than any of the locals, much as Cliff out-martial arts Bruce Lee and as Sharon Tate roundhouse kicks Nancy Kwan during Once Upon a Time….
If the racial other of mainstream white society has historically been accused of, or has often been understood as possessing thoughtlessness (racial ‘others’ are more like ‘animals,’ driven by unconscious desires and incapable of thought), then this has only really reflected the sought brainlessness of white (cinematic) society, which projects that brainlessness on to the racial other. And yet, that brainlessness is necessary for the white pursuit of eternal youth (old people don’t hang around, since senescence, as a visual signifier of time passing, and thus of change and history, is intolerable), with the quest for eternal youth and for the cessation of time involving the sacrifice – the head-smashing – of racial others in order to remove their capacity for critical thought, and thus opposition to, the becoming brainless of white, patriarchal society. The racial other must be de-faced in order for the face of the white ‘human’ to become eternally young.
To seek eternal youth, which is the myth that drives capital, requires stepping outside of time, i.e. separating oneself from a reality dominated/dictated by time. Capital thus also involves the separation of self from other and self from planet; I can stay young by feeding on the brains of the others, even if the reality of this process is that I become brainless so that I believe that time does not affect me/I do not grow old/I will not die, preferring to ignore history and live only in the present, since the reality of time – much like the reality of the racial other – humiliates me, making me feel all too human as I become and die. If I am to defeat time, then I must stop thinking, since thought is itself time.
If I am going to escape the reality of time, it is not only logical that I destroy black others and the blackness of night alike (since the circadian rhythm suggests time, and thus is suppressed for 24:7 illumination), but it also is logical that I must escape the planet. And so perhaps it is no coincidence that the fiftieth anniversary of the Man on the Moon has heralded a spate of movies commemorating that event, from First Man (Damien Chazelle, USA/Japan, 2018), in which Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) is compelled to escape the planet because of the death of his daughter (i.e. because death has humiliated him by revealing that he and his family are susceptible to time, thus driving him to become the ‘first man,’ as if only separation from the planet constituted the human), through to Apollo 11 (Todd Douglas Miller, USA, 2019). These films have also appeared to make sure that the Hidden Figures (Theodore Melfi, USA, 2016), or the women of colour involved in the space race, do not become too visible as white men return to their central position in the narrative/myth of planetary escape. Again, perhaps it is no coincidence that Tarantino’s Hollywood also takes place in the year of the lunar landing. It is not just Charles Manson, but rather white patriarchy itself that is the lunatic fringe – a notion reaffirmed by the character of various political leaders in western countries at the present time, and by those white men who are also driving new expeditions off the planet for the super-rich who cannot bear to be reminded of their humanity.
To live forever, to live in permanent illumination with no time passing, is again to live in a 24:7 culture that involves no sleep, no memories, no dreams, and thus no future as all time becomes the same. In effect, to try to achieve permanent illumination is to achieve a state in which there is no escape from capital, and no escape therefore from labour. All work and no play. And while in some senses this makes Jack a dull boy, in other ways only to work and never to play in a bid to halt time is to try to become light, or to shine.
‘You’ve had your whole fucking life to think things over. What good’s a few minutes more gonna do you now?’ asks Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) of his wife, Wendy (Shelley Duvall), in The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, UK/USA, 1980), where the woman now becomes the intolerable other whom the protagonist must kill in a bid to escape intolerable memories of the past (in a bid to get away from reminders of time). ‘I’m not gonna hurt you,’ he continues. ‘Wendy, darling, light of my life. I’m not gonna hurt you. You didn’t let me finish my sentence. I said I’m not gonna hurt you. I’m just gonna bash your brains in. I’m gonna bash them right the fuck in.’
And yet, as the head basher seeks to purloin for himself the light of his supposed love, and as the psychopath seeks to end up shining, he also ends up indeed never changing – frozen, solid, in a maze of his own making.
If we continue to pursue brainlessness and thoughtlessness via cinema, not only will white, patriarchal society continue, and perhaps even exacerbate, hatred of and for others, be they different in terms of sex or race, but in their bid to become light/white, they will also render themselves frozen, sclerotic, incapable of thought. What they think is their path to divinity/immortality is really just their steps down the road to hell. For hell is worse than death. Death, at least, involves becoming. Hell means everything always being the same and never changing, never being able to change. Hell is war, war is infinite, or infinity war. Is this brain damage really what capitalist humans seek in order not just to become, but to put becoming itself, as well as thought, to an end? We cannot change anything if we cannot change our thinking. We cannot change if we cannot think. Thinking is change. Thinking is difference. Thinking is otherness. Let us become otherwise – otherwise nothing about our toxic and cinematic era of capital will change again.
Deleuze, Gilles (2000) ‘The Brain is the Screen: An Interview with Gilles Deleuze,’ in Gregory Flaxman (ed.), The Brain is the Screen: Deleuze and the Philosophy of Cinema, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, pp. 365–373.
Sontag, Susan (2003) Regarding the Pain of Others, London: Penguin.