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PURGING THE MAINSTREAM (Part I): "THE PURGE" SERIES AS A SPACE FOR POPULAR LEFTIST CRITIQUE
August 16, 2016
by Casey Ellis
While there are many kinds of revolution, the political revolution desired by the left, must be of the people.  If socialism does not include a mass popular rejection of capitalism’s inhumanity, it amounts to very little.  As a result, it is vital that the left speak in an accessible language.  Scholarly takedowns of neoliberalism are certainly necessary.  However, such critiques unaccompanied by any outreach to people who do not subscribe to peer-reviewed journals are hollow victories at best.  This is where, strange as it may seem, films like The Purge can play a major role.         

The financial success of The Purge film series is as remarkable as the critical disdain it has been subjected to.  Scanning through the negative reviews, one cannot help but feel struck by their repetitiveness.  The consensus is that the films are amateurish, heavy-handed, and needlessly sadistic.  Case closed.   
 
Not quite.  The Purge (2013) grossed almost $90 million on a $3 million budget.  The Purge: Anarchy (2014) did even better and The Purge: Election Year (2016), currently in theaters, looks set to at least equal its predecessors.  Obviously, artistically poor films have made money before, but while (very) far from perfect, The Purge is a significant attempt to present a leftist dissent to current centrist and conservative cultural orthodoxies. 
          
The concept at the heart of The Purge series is that a political movement called the New Founding Fathers of America has seized control of the United States.  The NFFA institutes a ritual called the Purge.  One night a year, for twelve hours, all crime is legal and all law enforcement and medical services are suspended.  The explanation is that the country’s economic and social ills are the results of people keeping their anger and bitterness pent up inside.  The Purge is meant to provide a cleansing release, and is therefore cloaked in religiosity.  Purge victims are memorialized and “thanked” for their sacrifice.  Displays of blue flowers are used to symbolize “a nation reborn.” 
           
It would be pointless to claim that all of the criticism leveled at The Purge series is unearned.  However, when one looks beyond their artistic problems, it is clear that the films are trying hard to say something relevant about the current state of society.  The Purge succeeds in this mission, to varying degrees but, considering the current state of film, the attempt itself is an honorable one.  The first film is by far the best.  The plot involves James Sandin, a businessman who has become wealthy by selling security systems for use during the Purge.  Sandin’s world is turned upside down when his young son takes pity on a homeless man pursued by a mob on Purge night. 
           
When I first heard of The Purge, I was intrigued as a horror and science fiction fan.  However, I made certain assumptions, many of them the same as the critics who dismissed the film.  Shortly before I sat down to watch it, I read a thread on IMDB that had been posted before the film was released.  The commentator speculated that The Purge would have a grim twist ending, where it turned out Sandin or his wife Mary had engineered the events to get rid of the rest of the family.  I smiled and nodded.  Then I watched and my mouth fell open.  Instead of the expected grisly clichés, The Purge presented a genuine moral journey.  Sandin starts the film as cheerfully amoral, loving to his family but indifferent to the horrors around him.  As the Purge invades his home, he quietly begins to realize (too late to save himself) that by accepting the nightmare world of the NFFA, he has put the people he loves at risk, and lost any right to plead for mercy.  The Purge goes even further when Mary is given the opportunity to avenge her husband and the pain visited upon her family.  Having seen the Purge up close for the first time, she is moved to not only refuse to participate, but to finally denounce its twisted pseudo-logic for the barbarism that it is. 

The Purge
deserved far more credit than it got simply for avoiding the thudding nihilism of so many contemporary horror films.  But it is also impressive for following through with the moral questions it raises by its central conceit.  The film’s small scale (it takes place almost entirely in the Sandin home) helps it feel like a kind of ethical laboratory where the various currents act and react with each other. 

The Purge: Anarchy
logically expands the series by taking us out into the streets during Purge night.  Unfortunately, series creator James DeMonaco, for all of his inventiveness, is a remarkably ham-fisted director.  After some memorably tense and eerie opening scenes, Anarchy devolves into an improbable chase movie.  Using car trouble to move a plot forward more than once smacks of narrative desperation.   
Still, DeMonaco manages to introduce some worthwhile new ideas.  In the first film, it was strongly hinted that the NFFA’s rationale for the Purge was a lie.  In Anarchy, we see it fully exposed.  The Purge is really a way for the government to eliminate the poor and sick, thus artificially “improving” the nation’s economy.  Due to the middle and lower classes’ growing resistance to the Purge, the government has started (illegally) keeping the body count high itself.  Cleverly, near the end of the film, DeMonaco depicts the government troops forced to abandon certain victory over the protagonists, lest they publically reveal the Purge for what it really is. 

The third (and hopefully last) installment, The Purge: Election Year, while structurally superior to Anarchy, is the least interesting ideologically.  It adds nothing new to the series’ philosophy and serves primarily to bring the plotline to a conclusion.  Still, it deserves some praise for continuing The Purge’s moral and surprisingly hopeful outlook.  It also further fleshes out the unabashedly left-wing stance of the series. 
That stance is startling considering the apolitical surface of many mainstream American films.  The standard excuse for this is that taking any kind of political position will diminish a movie’s popular appeal.  While there is certainly some legitimacy in that argument, the apolitical attitude is often only a façade, hiding centrist and even conservative messages.  Constantly, the characters in romantic comedies, young people we are asked to see as “average folks” are financially successful or, at the very least, on the verge of comfortable, fulfilling careers.  The implication is that these “normal” peoples’ lives represent the ordinary.  If your life isn’t working out so well, there’s something wrong with you, because your life is not found in representations of the “normal.”   

In superhero films, the implications are often even more tilted to the right.  Audiences are frequently urged to trust the authorities, usually personified by military and police figures rather than by elected officials.  (Democratically elected leaders, when present at all, are often depicted as weak and incompetent.)  Failing that, we are supposed to put our faith in vigilante superheroes.  Concerns about giving so much power to small coteries of overlords are dismissed as foolish or even dangerous.  The language of the left is nearly always in the mouths of characters depicted as stupid or evil.  Even when one hears declarations from superheroes about the need to help the less fortunate, they are always about protecting the weak.  If the weak band together to help themselves, they are probably being manipulated by super-villains.      

In contrast, The Purge series often seems to be directly rebutting these tropes.  Especially in the second and third films, characters who struggle for money are common.  Their lives are not glamorous, nor are their living situations.  Impressively, while these working class characters are certainly depicted as victims of the NFFA’s tyranny, they are not shown as hopeless, tragic failures.  Instead, while not universally heroic, they generally feel protective towards each other.  Especially in Anarchy, DeMonaco highlights how the oppressed classes have begun to resist the Purge, some through silent disobedience to its vicious rules, others through armed rebellion.  Both paths are incredibly risky, and recall the dangers faced by the poor of Tunis and Cairo during the Arab Spring.  The series’ clear implication is that the battle against tyranny resides in mass solidarity among the have-nots.  While Election Year does have a sympathetic, high ranking politician, she is presented as being the end result of the struggle from below, not as a savior from up on high.  The true heroes are the targets of the Purge, willing to stand up for their families, their neighbors, their country. 

Racial issues are less explicit in the films, but still present a socialist critique of standard narratives.  While not openly racialist, the NFFA is shown to be entirely white, and their militias (although primarily interested in money) carry white supremacist symbols.  The leadership of the rebels is predominantly African American and Latino, but they welcome unity with anyone resisting the Purge, regardless of ethnicity.  The Purge thus depicts race as an effectively brutal, but ultimately tissue-thin, tool of class warfare.    
 
Casey Ellis graduated from Manhattanville College in 2004, where he wrote a senior thesis on ethical issues in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. He received a Masters in English from the University at Buffalo in 2006, with a thesis on the language of the fool characters in Shakespeare’s major tragedies. He is currently an adjunct with the English departments of Westchester Community College, Berkeley College, and Pace University.  Whenever possible, Casey updates his literary blog “Tolle, lege!” (http://caseyellis66.wordpress.com/)  In 2015, Casey edited the New Lit Salon Press anthology Startling Sci-Fi: New Tales of the Beyond.  Casey had previously line edited three other NLSP anthologies one of which, Salon Style: Fiction, Poetry & Art, contained his short story “The Creature from the Lake.” 
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