Even though Columbia Pictures’ head Harry Cohn famously derided putting ‘messages’ into films (“If you want to send a message, use Western Union!”), Hollywood cinema has ended up the largest global producer of ‘messages’. More promiscuous than an Amazon.com entry, they can take any form, and be conservative or subversive, populist or messianic. They circle the world like FedExed Legionnaires disease, suggesting that their rampant distribution accounts for their globalist totalizing effects. But such media analyses are focussed on the messenger, not the message, whose aura and make-up encode its fuller meanings. Most importantly, these ‘messages’ detach from their hosts, and circulate in unfounded ways, often cross-fertilizing with others completely out of context. Thus Hollywood films appear to be authored and voiced, but they’re oppositely generated, thereby requiring alliterate modes of reading.
In the case of Mark Foster’s World War Z (2013), a type of ‘semiotic listening’ is required to prise any message from the movie’s semantic din. In its most fascinating and confounding moment, a mass of Israelis and Palestinians gather at processing gates inside a humongous wall Israel has built to keep out a plague of infected ‘zombies’. A young Palestinian woman grabs a microphone and starts singing through a low-fi PA system. She sounds like a wounded mule; non-stop feedback accompanies her. A young Israeli woman grabs another mic and joins in singing the unspecified untranslated song, but it presumably has something to say about unification. Their inept carolling is smeared with whining sine waves and whelping whistles from the military-issue sound system. Yet this magically moves all the civilians of conflicting denominations to join in, generating a nauseous sonorum of campfire togetherness.
Is this deluded humanist cinema, dreaming to be outrageously optimistic? Or is this a cynical damnation of cinema that wishes for such a moment? Whenever actual noise is rendered on the film soundtrack – here embedding bad singing with bad audio – it signifies something occurring beyond legibility. Notably, beautiful wailing women’s voices are globalist clichés on current Hollywood film soundtracks. This scene’s impetus for terrorizing its own soundtrack signposts a post-literate realm, where words alone – and their utterance as message – do not adequately explain the audiovisual scenario under scrutiny.
Before one can answer this conundrum, the feedback and its painful vocalization hits the ears of the zombies outside, triggering them into extremist violence. Are these zombies symbolic of the torture endured by those who are annihilated by terrorism? Or are they terrorists enraged by the platitudes which suppress their logic of rage? And if on the other side – in that ‘Free World’ trapped by the gigantic CGI-transmogrified Wailing Wall of Jordan’s Temple Mount – Jews and Muslims sing a song of hugging devoid of Zionist and Islamic pressure, who and what exactly are the zombie Other, squealing in pain at their utopian wails? Columnists covering the Middle East (as well writers for religiously aligned publications) have mostly thrown their hands up in despair over the confused messages delivered by World War Z, excited initially by a rare instance of Hollywood attempting to symbolise anything to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, yet perplexed by the lack of fixity or substance in the film’s ‘voice’.
Their lack of patience and perception is telling. As the ‘Free World’ searches for terrorist needles in Islamic haystacks, critiques of extremist fundamentalist strategies proceed as if everything should be in plain sight. Extremist attacks are deplored for their unjustifiable actions, yet their reasoning and logic might be as hidden as those haystack needles. The ‘Free World’ press chooses to employ humanist ethics and globalist morality to dismiss extremist rhetoric – the very same sentiments which form the bulk of ‘messages’ in Hollywood’s post-9/11 cinema. But in less democratic realms, a deadly butterfly effect is proffered: The Chinese state-run Global Times (an English-language publication) recently inferred that “what Western developed societies have gone through is payback, as it is their historical acts of slavery and colonialism which led to their current demographic structures”.
Meanwhile in World War Z, the traumatized zombies are reborn as an Other beyond Others. They become a rhyzomatic flood of flesh-entangled tentacles, pouring like a unified mass toward the wall which keeps them at bay. Like decrepit corporeal treacle moving according to an upturned gravity, they shoot skywards in a spiralling tornado of rotting flesh. If terrorists are indeed cells, then this is their hive uncovered. It’s an explosion of bodies driven by collective force, blindly forging ahead against all obstruction. They do not need to see anything: their senses are aligned by something beyond the sensible, the literate, the perceivable. They vibrate like sound waves, responding to the force of being struck, agitated into a deadly wave of negative energy.
For once, Hollywood CGI goes beyond its Tinkerbell fairy-dust facials and shows bodies not as singular identities, but as an uncontrollable mass of aggravated chaos. The zombies form a human eruption of self-scaling bloodlust, reaching the wall’s ledge and piling over like sparks from a welder’s arc. They crash below, again and again, bearing the weight of nothing more than statistical probability: enough will fall to create a landing carpet for the others, all eventually becoming agency for further agency. It’s like a time-condensed visualization of the ideological breeding supported by fundamentalists of all persuasions and sides: for each of us that falls, ten more shall take our place.
Here, Mount Temple has become an arena for rock spectacle. The zombies are stage-diving into the crowd, either breaking neck and limb as they hit walls, grates, rooftops, or snapping and biting at any living thing in their path – from startled IDF soldiers to scarved singers. Like a swarm of suicide bombers, they ‘CGI-bomb’ every frame of this sequence. Yet they resemble disaffected scruffy teens circa-Grunge – possibly the rebel soundtrack to the formative years of many working on this film’s production. (They’re even wearing plaid shirts and camo-gear.) Is this Brad Pitt’s company Plan B Entertainment making a plea for peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, by utilising the para-Survivalist Amero-secular voice of Grunge rage? For while World War Z is Sci-Fi to the eye, it’s a Musical to the ear.
Musicals are aberrant by nature and disruptive by form. They constitute a narrative type predicated upon unleashing libidinal, transformative, utopian & pathological energy through the incursive act of singing in what otherwise is a normative text, shaped by literature, actualised by theatre, and rendered by photography. Songs become decimating agents within their film, wherein the world becomes a stage. Once a character starts singing, things will change – internally (for the character and for the film) and externally (for the world it depicts and our experience of that depicted world). When that young Palestinian woman started singing, she set into motion more than can be accounted for – and far more than can be rationalised by the global intelligentsia and its elitist acultural op-ed columnists. The film’s ‘message’ is in its noise.