Apr 10, 2014

The Unknown Known

 
"soph·ist·ry ˈsäfəstrē/ 
noun: sophistry 
1. The use of fallacious arguments, esp. with the intention of deceiving."

If you are ready to spend 105 minutes in the exclusive company of Donald Rumsfeld, twice Secretary of Defense, as interviewed by Errol Morris, you will be treated to a crash course on self-delusion and verbal acrobatics. The picture that emerges is more damning than it seems. It doesn't look like Morris lobs harsh questions at his undeniably charming subject, but through subtlety and ironic contrast, the portrait that emerges is that of a man who thinks he's smarter than the rest of us, unrepentant, and deeply engaged with his own sophistry and self-mythologizing. 
The greatest "unknown" is why he lends himself to the scrutiny of Morris, someone he must know harbors no sympathy for his disastrous, warmongering shenanigans. Rumsfeld skirts the answer to this question. He thinks this is all a game of verbal and logical one-upmanship with a worthy opponent. Well, he did not fool me one bit.
Do not expect someone with the heroic-tragic stature of a Robert McNamara. Do not expect regret of any kind. We are dealing here with a man in love with the sound of his own mellifluous, Midwestern voice, and even more in love with having grasped power and taken it for a spin, consequences be damned. 
It is fascinating to watch him today, utterly composed, charming and relaxed and then see contradictory footage of his press briefings at the height of the war: arrogant, condescending, clearly relishing his power over the fawning press corps, to which he bequeathed famously blasé pronouncements like "stuff happens", when asked why nobody thought to prevent the looting of archaeological treasures in Iraq.  This is the subtle way by which Morris attempts to balance Rumsfeld's happy go lucky view of his own history. It's not a pretty sight.
Rumsfeld is a charmer. He has a wonderful voice, made for documentaries about life in the prairie. He acquiesces to read to camera a few of his hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of "snowflakes"; memos he wrote from the beginning of his long ascent into the pinnacle of power. Why did he put everything in writing? Was he thinking to leave a record of heroic public service behind? That he allows himself to read some damning memos only means he is hiding under this supposed transparency. He sleeps well at night. His conscience is untroubled.
I didn't know about his past career, and how he ascended to power by legendary Machiavellian maneuvers in the Ford administration, where he made enemies with Bush pére. Maybe that is the reason he ended wielding such enormous power at the cabinet of the fils, who seems to have done all the damage he did just to show up his daddy. The case against Iraq was merely a father-son Bush squabble that Rumsfeld and Cheney enabled. I didn't know that when he worked for Nixon, little Dick Cheney (aka Satan) was Rumsfeld's assistant. Rumsfeld's body language when he mentions this is priceless. He pats his hand in the air as if he was condescending to a little child. Much later, it was Cheney who recommended him to George W. Bush as Secretary of Defense. All this back story just adds to the creeping realization that we think we live in a democracy, but we actually live in a fiefdom of dynastic power and the same white, mostly male people rotating positions at the top for eternity.
Ironically, for a verbal fencer, or perhaps because of it, Rumsfeld is obsessed with definitions. He insists on the definition of every word. What is the definition of torture, he demands. Well, different people have different definitions. He and Dick Cheney decided that what they were doing to prisoners in Guantanamo was not torture, or that the Geneva Convention did not apply to them. 
He paints himself like a hero when he resigned after the pictures of Abu Ghraib came to light. I'm not buying it. That resignation had little to do with ethics and more to do with shrewd self-preservation. Bush did not accept his resignation. So he continued. It was much later that eight retired generals had had enough of his incompetence and finally mutinied.  
His legacy is the most abject decline of moral values in the handling of war in the history of this country, not to mention two failed wars and needless human suffering. But he freely roams the Earth, charming as the snake in Eden.
Unrepentant, the only tears he sheds happen as he recalls a hospital visit to a critically injured American soldier, which he turns into a happy ending. That soldier in particular rallied and survived, despite all odds: a quintessentially American narrative. But what about the tens of thousands of dead, injured, permanently damaged, overextended and abused American soldiers, plus hundreds of thousands of Iraqi citizens who didn't? Because of people like Rumsfeld, this has become a quintessentially American narrative as well. This is a fantastic, if maddening documentary. 

Apr 8, 2014

Under The Skin


Jonathan Glazer (Birth, Sexy Beast) makes films that feel abstract. This one is his most enigmatic to date. Scarlett Johansson stars as a woman who prowls Edinburgh and the surrounding countryside at night looking for men. She gets them into her van and seduces them to go home with her. Then she makes them fall into a black ooze. This is a strange, poetic science fiction film that may test your patience while you wait for the long scenes to unfold or for something to happen. Long periods of her roaming around in the fog are punctuated by bursts of incident so powerful, so devastating, they quietly astound and shock.
Your patience will be amply rewarded by the realization that you are seeing things from the point of view of an alien. She is utterly outside, not only of society, but of human feeling. She also seems to be unaware of our frantic notions of time. She seems to have all the time in the world. Glazer is not interested in cutting to the chase. We are on her time frame. He wants us to see the world from the outside looking in. Under The Skin makes us notice what we all have under the skin and what we take for granted; that is, our humanity. This is not to say this movie is a sappy paean to the good in people, God forbid. It is an elegant observation of what makes us human, in all its banal, noisy, messy, complicated, matter-of-fact reality. Connection, for instance. She always looks for lone men. For some reason, she is not interested in harvesting women. The purpose of her mission is never explained. She trains her almond shaped eyes on the way humans behave, and we see ourselves, observed, doing nothing remarkable. Shopping, crossing the street, talking on the phone, coming back from a soccer game, waiting. To her, we are a noisy, incomprehensible bunch, but she has learned to ape our superficial social chitchat, always asking the men if they live alone and where they are from.
As we fidget at the slowness of the film, Glazer springs on us surprising things. She is suddenly drowned by a wave of excited women going to a disco (portrayed as a techno version of hell). On a terrifying, and quickly becoming legendary, scene with a young family on a beach, there is no suspense. Only the horrific realization that this woman has no human feeling. 
After an encounter with a remarkable man, something changes in her. I did not quite understand why or how things happened in this sequence, but the fact is that she revolts against her mission. Saying more would spoil the mystery.
If you are bored out of your wits, you can allow yourself to float under the spell of La Johansson's otherworldly presence. Dressed cheaply, wearing terrible black bangs, a bit chubby even, with or without makeup, she is a creature. Her face engulfs the screen. It is an inspired piece of casting; female seduction made flesh, and she is a good enough actress to deploy her porous sensuality without exaggeration. The scenes where she traps her prey are both beautiful, darkly funny and fodder for years of psychoanalysis, the men following her like the chant of the sirens, sinking deeper, even shrinking at the opportunity to possess her. But in the moments when she is simply lost amidst the humans she is equally present, slightly befuddled, affectless but not exactly cold. She makes you notice what it is to display the slightest feeling, and how oblivious we are to our own humanity. She seems to absorb everything she sees through her skin. It is a measured and successful performance of an alien trying to pass for human without a shred of cliché.
I loved the creepy, incantatory music by Mica Levi and Glazer's customary elegant simplicity with images. He creates moments of terrifying beauty. Every time I thought the movie was veering towards the pretentious, some astonishing image arrived to haunt me. The film is visceral, minimal, elegant and perhaps (I hope) deliberately fuzzy. It is strangely gorgeous, quietly violent, deeply disturbing, and utterly hypnotic.

Mar 30, 2014

Jodorowsky's Dune


This illuminating and entertaining documentary by Frank Pavich centers on the ambitious adaptation of Frank Herbert's Dune that enfant terrible Alejandro Jodorowsky got close to making but never got off the ground. It is required viewing for anyone who dreams of making a movie, because it is at once tremendously inspiring and heartbreaking. It encompasses the passion, the collaboration, the singular madness, the universal dream that movies are, and the pitfalls of getting them made. In fact, it should be seen by anyone who is working on an artistic project. Jodorowsky has very astute insights on the creative process.
Since we are talking about Jodorowsky and not any run of the mill director, this movie is also about a seemingly insane charismatic leader marshaling forces to create what in his vision was to be the most important movie ever made.
Jodorowsky's deeply idiosyncratic and provocative films became successful in the 70s (El Topo, The Holy Mountain) and he was suddenly in the position to get French financing to make a movie. He chose Dune, which he had not even read yet (a friend told him it was cool). He set out to look for spiritual warriors, as he called them, since he wanted this movie to be a spiritual breakthrough, to give people an LSD trip without the drugs, to open minds. It was to be a movie that would change human consciousness (hey, these were the 70s). 
So he went on his quest to find the perfect team and he assembled a formidable and in some cases, borderline ridiculous group of talents, among them the great artists Moebius and H. R. Giger, who did spectacular designs. For the role of Emperor of the Universe no one but Salvador Dalí would do (makes perfect sense), and for an enormous malevolent character, he thought of Orson Welles, who had ballooned to gigantic proportions. Mick Jagger was to play a part. Some of the music was going to be by Pink Floyd. You don't get the picture.
Jodorowsky, who is more in touch with the symbolic, archetypal, metaphoric, spiritual world than most people, had his own intuitive way of finding good collaborators. By all accounts, he was an impassioned motivator who gave great freedom to his artists. Not a dictator, but a madman with a vision.He storyboarded the entire film with over 3000 frames, mostly by Moebius, and put it all together in a book thicker than the Yellow Pages. Apparently, there are only two copies in the world today. Pavich has animated some of the storyboard sequences and the frames are so dynamic and gorgeous that I would be happy to watch the entire thing this way.
Jodorowsky seems to have been an immensely charming and charismatic cajoler. To get his way, he promised burning giraffes to Dalí (a total diva) and, to a reluctant Welles, the chef of a Parisian five-star restaurant for location catering. But he also had an enormous ego. It is worth pondering the psychological ramifications of casting his own 12 year-old son as a Messiah figure and putting him through a merciless immersion in martial arts training to prepare him for the role. He took enormous liberties with the original story, emphasizing, not surprisingly, a character with an ego so huge, he lives in a palace shaped like himself.
It is folly, but it is organized, crafted and magnificently imagined: transformed into art. Even better, it seems eminently doable. Three fourths of the movie are devoted to Jodorowsky's creative and casting process, and he is a very entertaining raconteur. But at some point one thinks: whence the money?
And here lies the heartbreak. Unfortunately, to make cinematic dreams, you need money, or as Jodorowsky calls it, "this shit". In those days, the only place to go for help was Hollywood. So he and his producer Michel Seydoux pitched it at every major studio. The studios all loved that amazing book; they even thought that the $15 million budget (about $80 million today) was not unreasonable, but none would make it. They wanted it, but without Jodorowsky. They didn't trust him not to go over budget, and as Nicholas Winding Refn intimates in the film, they were afraid of his expanding mind. They knew they could not control him. He was the wrong dog barking at the only tree. Jodorowsky says, "it's my dream and you don't change my dream". And the studios would say, "Well, it's my money, so I can change your dream": History Of The Movies, in a nutshell. You can still feel Jodorowsky's ferocious anger at this epic frustration.
Dune never got made. Well, it got made by David Lynch, or as Jodorowsky generously puts it, by a De Laurentiis producer, into the clumsy movie fit for Mystery Science Theater 3000 that we know today.  One can imagine the producers barking on the phone a la Sam Goldwyn, "get me the American Jodorowsky", and that's how you arrive at David Lynch.
However, there is a coda that took my breath away and which I won't disclose here, but let's say that two of the artists who collaborated on the better Dune went on to create one of the best Sci-Fi movies of all time. Which is a surprising and deeply restorative insight into what may come out of devastating creative frustration. It is obvious that Jodorowsky's Dune made the rounds in the studios and it influenced, whether consciously or not, every subsequent Sci-Fi movie ever made, including Star Wars, which is like a really dumbed down version (and a movie I detest).
Jodorowsky's Dune is an admiring film and it lets you feel in the blanks for some unexplored spaces. If the adults were utterly devastated by the demise of the movie, how did Jodorowsky's teenage son deal with it? What were the consequences to their relationship? An end title reads that Jodorowsky and Seydoux parted ways, one imagines in catastrophic bitterness. The movie doesn't elaborate except to cheer us up by mentioning that they are collaborating again 35 years later.
This could easily have been a cynical movie, but it is a celebration of creative ambition. Jodorowsky's Dune is not only about the clash between dreams, the concrete shape they take as movies and the financial constraints that hamper their creation, but it is about how art, images and movies influence us at the deepest subconscious level and they suffuse far more of our lives, as creators or spectators, than we can ever fathom.


Mar 25, 2014

The Babadook


Horror movies are more directly metaphorical than perhaps any other genre. They express through overt symbols or tales the fears, traumas, repressions, and terrible fantasies that lie within us. Those of us who love horror movies, who love sitting in the dark enjoying these little sufferings, know that to abandon yourself to an invented fear is deliciously cathartic.
Embrace what you fear is the unspoken mantra of scary movies and it is smartly and sensitively demonstrated by this lovely, scary Australian film from Jennifer Kent; a powerful illustration of the horrors of repressed grief.
It is anchored by a spectacular performance from Essie Davis as Amelia, a young widow who lives alone with her son Samuel (the angelic Noah Wiseman). Samuel is a bit of a weirdo, a quirky child who always speaks his mind and has a robust imagination. He is scared of monsters and has fashioned ways of protecting himself and his mom from them. 
One night, Amelia finds an odd nighttime story to read him called The Babadook (reminiscent of Edward Gorey on steroids), and she reads it to Samuel in bed.
Soon enough things start going bump in the night. Samuel has been obsessing with monsters all along and Amelia is at the end of her tether with him. Now she starts imagining things too.
Kent keeps the ambiguity alive as things get scarier and weirder. Is there a real presence in the house? Is Samuel a bad seed, or is sweet Amelia losing her mind? The psychology of the characters is very sound. They have been through a terrible ordeal of loss. The child is acting out on some very primal fears and guilt, and so is his mom. Her hubris is to pretend that after what she has been through everything is all right.
Kent is great at creating a sense of dread in the audience but also at highlighting the power of metaphor in almost every scene. The movie unleashes a catalog of commonplace horror tropes. Beds shake and invisible powers drag people by the feet, but there is more convincing poetry (and terror) in the source of the fear that is gripping them both.
Good acting is not usual in horror films, but Essie Davis' gives one of the best performances in the genre. She changes mercurially, from a shy, lonely nurse at a nursing home, to the victim of a violent nervous breakdown. The movie would not be as chilling if her story and her veracity were not as grounded in psychological reality.

Mar 16, 2014

Enemy


The night I saw this film by Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Incendies), he was at the theater warning people not to get upset and not to think they're crazy. In fact, at the end of the movie some people were upset and thought he was crazy. This may be a problem of audience expectations. If you are expecting a conventional thriller, you may feel your chain was yanked. But Enemy, which stars Jake Gyllenhaal as two identical men, belongs to a rare genre of surreal movies. Think of this movie, based on a novel by José Saramago, as a cousin to Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut. This will give you a better idea of genre.
Adam Bell, a brooding professor of philosophy, finds out he has a double, living near him in Toronto, which Villeneuve covers with a yellowish haze. Gyllenhaal is quite good, but as one of him freaks out about his double, one wonders what's the big deal. Why is he so tortured? Villeneuve answers our questions incrementally. One thing is to find someone who looks exactly like you; apparently we're all supposed to have a doppelganger. But who sounds like you? Who is you but not you? That's creepy.  As evidenced by what these guys do for a living, one teaches philosophy and his double is an actor, we are in the realm of existential questions. Neither of the guys is very defined as a character. There is not a lot of detail to their lives: metaphor central.
However, the reality of plot threatens the mystery that Villeneuve tries to sustain. Audiences will always ask logical questions: Why make an appointment to meet your double at a remote motel, instead of a well lit Starbucks?  Because this is more the world of dreams and Freudian symbols; not a playful movie about the mischievous possibilities of mistaken identity, but one shrouded in existential dread. Kudos go to the director for attempting to sustain the difficult trick of balancing the concrete logic of plot and the mystery of metaphor with a coherent, if humorless hand. On occasion, Enemy threatens to fall into ridiculousness, but Villeneuve saves it by suffusing it with a steady sense of dread. This is aided by beautiful and disturbing music by Danny Bensi and Saunder Juriaans, and by the way the camera seems to creep slowly into everything, including a somehow empty, yet always gridlocked Toronto.