Modernism was born of a utopian ideal to elevate humanity through science and order. It looked inward and saw perfection, clarity and infinite creativity. The promise never came to fruition. The perfect alignment and sweeping majesty of the Plaza in Albany, NY or Niemeyer’s (who died last week) Brasilia, became monuments to the banality of capitalism and the excesses of human hubris. Hope turned to cynicism turned into postmodernism and we’ve never looked back.
Say what you will, even of minimalism in the sixties and seventees, but it cannot be said it was depressive. The coldness of minimalism was modernities mind, not the cynicism of today. Like the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey, minimalism offered an interior space that suggested the power of the infinite mind, that anything was possible, even if that was dangerous. Postmodernism, today’s ruling art class, is the post Punk pun. The regurgitation of modernism’s themes as self replicating memes that finds nothing profound and everything worth riffing on. This is the mood of Killing Them Softly.
The film staring an A-list of method actors is based on the book by George V. Higgins, Cogan’s Trade. Higgin’s book is paralleled closely in the movie revealing the inbred underworld of a 1970’s Boston. The movie swaps the 70’s gloom for the ironic optimism of Obama’s first election at the end of 2007. Ray Liotta and James Gandolfini appear but in roles that work to undermine their previous roles as psychopaths and killers. The central character is Jackie Cogan played by Brad Pitt, a mob hitman who reports to what he calls a “committee.” The mob leadership persistently frustrates Cogan with their corporate sensibility for slow decisions and sloppy management. It’s a mashup of The Soprano’s and The Office. The mob committee’s pointman is Richard Jenkins, who plays with finesse and understatement a corporate attache’. Cinematically, it is fresh and takes time when needed to unwind a general environment of pathos, cynicism and laissez-faire. Action takes place in slow motion or a matter-of-fact pace. The director, Andrew Dominik is more interested in sedate settings as backdrops for colorful abstraction, blurred light and what seems like a perpetual rain.
From a cinematic standpoint it is easy to see Dominik’s homage to Cassevettes and Friedkin or even David Fincher, but the sensitivity to light, especially that putrid, yellowish light of faded fluorescent fixtures was reminiscent of the minimalist artist Dan Flavin. Flavin who in the early sixties discovered mundane, off-the-shelf fluorescent lighting as his medium, pursued light as material object. The work juxtaposes banal materialism of an everyday object and the transcendent quality of light itself. The light fixtures, white metal boxes, have come to represent modernities’ egoism. He never concealed this, never tried to hide its banality.
Killing Them Softly embraces the commonplace setting of criminality and the pettiness of human behavior even during moments of transcendent beauty, just as Flavin’s work demonstrates. Beauty comes in tiny moments, a slow motion bullet penetrating glass or the blurred sparklers of an election night celebration. There is a magnificent scene with Scott McNairy (Frankie) and Ben Mendelsohn (Russell) sit in some squatters’ apartment drinking and smoking. Russell is retelling a tale of his trip to Florida for some illicit activity while he shoots heroin. In and out of his fading consciousness, at the edges of euphoria the lens gently flares into a blurry, crystalline light with darkened edges. It happens only twice, briefly, but it is potent. Dominik is saying, we live in these tiny moments of the divine amidst our every day mundane existence, just like Flavin did.
Dan Flavin’s fluorescent fixtures are characters unto themselves playing out a similar drama. Look at the beauty that is possible within my electricity, they say, all the while never escaping their core nature, a mass produced light fixture used ubiquitously from the late 1950’s till today. Stare at them and they are transcendent and mesmerizing a reminder of the zen possibility of simplicity overcoming complexity. Flavin once said; “My icons do not raise up the blessed savior in elaborate cathedrals. They are constructed concentrations celebrating barren rooms. They bring a limited light.”
There is a quality of light throughout Killing Them Softly that is either fluorescent or reminiscent of it. Even the night shots where streetlight mercury vapor mimics the greenish tint of fluorescent glow. It operates as a grounding mechanism for the film, allowing it to function dualistically. On one hand, fluorescent lighting is the cheap, mass-produced lighting of the everyday and on the other, it is soft, cold and flattening, making shapes and characters vapid. The characters in Killing Them Softly are soulless, empty figures. They are deeply cynical, greedy and ironic. This is the world of Ayn Rand personified on a small scale. Jackie Cogan poignantly sums this up,
“My friend, Thomas Jefferson is an American saint because he wrote the words ‘All men are created equal’, words he clearly didn’t believe since he allowed his own children to live in slavery. He’s a rich white snob who’s sick of paying taxes to the Brits. So, yeah, he writes some lovely words and aroused the rabble and they went and died for those words while he sat back and drank his wine and fucked his slave girl. This guy wants to tell me we’re living in a community? Don’t make me laugh. I’m living in America, and in America you’re on your own. America’s not a country. It’s just a business. Now fuckin’ pay me.”
Standing in Dia Beacon a few years ago, I couldn’t help but feel the cold and empty conceit of the American empire writ large in Flavin’s Monuments V. Tatlin series. These constructs mimicking the Russian avant-garde work of Vladimir Tatlin is also an homage to American empire. Formalism is the minister in the church of business. His dig on Tatlin and America, is the idiocy of monumental thinking. The works are transgressive towards modernism while simultaneously celebratory of it. In the same cynicism of Jackie Cogan, Flavin spoke of the work in terms of its deliberate lack of obscurity. We ignore the moments, the flashes of light, or the tiny obviousness before us in favor of something larger. Like Cogan in Killing Them Softly, Flavin’s work kills softly, from a distance and without emotion.
“It is what it is, and it ain’t nothin’ else. . . . Everything is clearly, openly, plainly delivered. There is no overwhelming spirituality you are supposed to come into contact with. I like my use of light to be openly situational in the sense that there is no invitation to meditate, to contemplate. It’s in a sense a “get-in-get-out” situation. And it is very easy to understand. One might not think of light as a matter of fact, but I do. And it is, as I said, as plain and open and direct an art as you will ever find.”