Apr 28, 2008

Standard Operating Procedure

I knew that there were going to be plenty of tickets to see Errol Morris' new, powerful film about the abuses at Abu Ghraib yesterday at the Angelika. I knew it because it is clear that people do not want to know. They don't want to see fictional movies about Iraq, and much less documentaries about it. This is the war we all try to pretend is not really happening. There were like 20 people in the audience. This is sad and stupid.
But thank whoever is responsible for the existence of Mr. Morris (his parents? evolution?), that he insists on us knowing, and that he does it in his own style, which makes him one of the most interesting filmmakers around. Morris is not one of those preachy documentarians. His springboard seems to be an endless intellectual curiosity. This is key, as his films never take the high moral ground nor piously pretend to tell the audience what to think. He just raises thousands of nagging questions in your mind and lets you be the judge; that is, if you can find rational coherence on human acts that seem to have none.
So now he trains his documentary technique on the young soldiers who were punished for the abuses at the infamous prison of Abu Ghraib. As is customary, his investigation centers also on his preoccupation with truth and imagery. Can still photographs tell the whole truth? Do they mean much more than they intend to illustrate? How are they to be interpreted?
In this case, he centers on the incomprehensible knack for snapshot taking that these bored, demoralized, fucked up soldiers evidenced in their terrible tour of duty at the notorious prison.
To me, the pictures of Abu Ghraib are the perfect metaphor for the criminal moral rot of the Bush administration. They symbolize perfectly the literal degradation and debasement that this government has unleashed on this country. The humiliation of the prisoners, of the soldiers who took photos, of the soldiers who were told to torture the inmates, is the humiliation and debasement of us all (I fail to understand why this is not clear to people). Bush has turned the US into refuse and excrement. And there are pictures to prove it.
One wonders why were the soldiers allowed to snap happily away? Who was minding these young people? If I was in command, I would confiscate their cameras unless they were to be used at a Sunday picnic. But it seems that they were left to their own limited devices in utter, despicable chaos.
Besides the shocking pictures of the prisoners, the pictures of the soldiers at rest seem to show a frightening level of despondency and moral deterioration. This is also extremely frightening. Is this how the US Army minds its soldiers? Is this how it treats them?
(I insist: bring back the draft. Send every son and daughter of America to that newly minted wasteland, see how fast the outrage about war comes to a boil).
Many questions are raised by the testimony of Lynddie England and Sabrina Herman and some of the investigators and interrogators who were involved. Are we supposed to feel sorry for England, a lost, 20 year old girl who was besotted with Charles Graner and allowed herself to pose for humiliating photographs with humiliated prisoners? Are we to feel sorry for Sabrina Herman, who always appears smiling and with a thumbs up in front of hooded, naked prisoners, or most notoriously, a dead one? She can explain and rationalize away all she wants, but it is hard to contradict the picture with sympathy. She seems to be having fun. There seems to be not a glimmer of conscience or revulsion or sympathy in the picture takers and the posers. The nazis documented everything because as Germans they have an obsession with order, but also because they were convinced of their victory and they wanted to build their legacy, it was a point of pride. This is not the case here. The case here is a dreadful combination of ignorance, degradation, burnout and boredom, of banality in the face of horrible circumstances, of lack of discipline, of the absence of human decency.
The soldiers rationalize by saying, well, we didn't beat them or kill them, we didn't harm them. But of course they did. Morris makes clear that in the Army's eyes many of these humiliations are harmless and standard operating procedure. Yet they look like torture to us, innocent civilians that we are.
Can a soldier in wartime say: "I refuse to carry out these orders"? The soldiers are brainwashed to think that disobeying orders can cost their buddies' lives. The cowards who made these soldiers do their dirty bidding knew this and abused this trust. None of them has been charged with anything.
Still, it's hard to be sympathetic to the soldiers. Americans are famously obsessed with right and wrong. Every freaking popular narrative that comes from this country's collective unconscious is about heroes and villains. There barely seems to be another narrative going on. So how come it gets fuzzy all of a sudden? How come now our soldiers, raised on a diet of superheroes, can't tell right from wrong? How come we are expected to justify the most villainous, cowardly evil perpetrated by us, purehearted seekers of justice that we are? How is it that we have fallen to the basest levels of barbarity, in a par with those of our vaunted enemies? How is it that we are emulating beasts like Saddam Hussein now?
The movie is hard going, but it is fascinating. Just when you think things cannot get any worse, out come the human pyramid, the forced masturbation, the unleashing of attack dogs. Morris insists on showing the most disgusting and disturbing photographs, which is completely right. We have to see. We have to see what we've become.

Apr 6, 2008

Shine A Light

Who would have thought that the Rolling Stones could be endearing? Old, yes; nuts, certainly; great, without a doubt. But Martin Scorsese's gorgeous, loving tribute to the Metuselah of bands is sheer joy, because it shows them up close, at their best. They are lovely. And the film is the product of love of rock and roll. You feel the love for the music in every frame.
I did not but tickets to the IMAX version because of the alarming prospect of seeing Keith Richards' face in such a format. But the regular format is amazing. The sound is fantastic and the cinematography, by Robert Richardson, and using as camera operators some of the most genius cinematographers in the business, is absolutely beautiful. The camera captures the amazing energy of the concert and many of the takes are very up close, so you see the feeling, the expression, the mischievousness, the connection, (and the age) everything you really never see when you are in the nosebleed section at a humongous, impersonal arena.
The movie felt a bit long to me, because after all, you are watching a filmed concert instead of being there, which is weird. I felt like clapping and hooting and dancing, but then I realized I was at a movie. Concert films are tough that way. But when done with the righteousness of Scorsese, what a gift!
The Stones are the greatest garage band ever. And they are still beholden to their bluesy roots. When Buddy Guy shows up, you can see where the heart of this great band is, which is the right place.
And the best part is that for all their financial savvy, they still have fun and they still deliver. Mick Jagger is a fucking force of nature. Plus, they are smart. They are sophisticated and intelligent and witty. As astonishing as it is, given that they are aging gazillionaires, their commitment and their enjoyment are genuine. They are amazing performers. They put on a show.
I only started appreciating them after I saw them in concert for the first time, around 7 years ago. Until then I liked some of their songs but was not a huge fan. But they came out to a soaking wet Meadowlands, where people were dripping wet and they played as if nothing fazed them and they played as if they didn't have to do it all over again in another 50 arenas, and they played as if it wasn't raining at all. They gained my unending respect and admiration.
Time is on their side, their Majesties, The Rolling Stones.

La Zona

A very interesting, gripping Mexican film by Rodrigo Plá, La Zona is a good metaphor, very grounded in reality, of the corruption and social inequality that plague Mexico. What makes it very provocative is that even though some may mistake it for science fiction, it basically takes reality only one notch further, and even then the exaggeration is totally feasible.
A bunch of wealthy neighbors live in a closed compound in Mexico City, where they have created their own little world in which the only contact they have with the rest of society is through their servants. They have their own security force, their own chapel, even their own school. The rich kids are sheltered from the poverty that surrounds them in the slums that proliferate right outside their walls. They are sheltered not only from the poor, but from reality. They live in a bubble in their own country. In Mexico City there are many such residential developments and neighborhoods where people just close off their streets and hire private guards, so nothing sci-fi there.
(By the way, I'm dying to know how the privileged audiences reacted to the film.)
Except for the detail of the school, which is a slight exaggeration, all this is already happening in Mexico City (as it is in Sao Paulo or Caracas, or you name it).
Three young punks from the neighboring slums come into the gated community to steal and things go awry. People are killed. Because of the wealthy Mexicans' not unfounded fear of the police, and because of their rampant paranoia about crime, these rich people decide to take matters into their own hands rather than calling the law, which is so blemished by corruption that everybody thinks they are above it, particularly the rich, who buy it on occasion.
This is the part of the movie that stretches credibility for me. I think that what the rich would actually do would be to call their friend of a friend who has a friend in high places and pay the police off to do the dirty work. They'd be too lazy and squeamish to do it themselves. However, I can understand that there are fictional, dramatic requirements that need this kind of poetic license, and the film, to its credit, makes it work.
The film takes the crux of life in Mexico and extrapolates it to a microcosm that reflects it pretty accurately. There are insufferably arrogant rich people (who are not an exaggeration) and there are people with some sort of conscience but with too many private interests or just too much comfort to really bother.
And then there is the police. When they come to investigate reports of gunshots, the rich immediately try to buy them off (an instant reflex, perhaps). The commanding officer doesn't take the bribe, not because he's beyond reproach (no one is) but because he feels insulted, and with reason. As he decides to investigate, at first just to spite them, then with some principle, he of course runs into venal corruption from above, not only rendering all his efforts useless, but creating even more appalling injustice, which victimizes the truly innocent.
The film is clear eyed and does not leave people off the hook; there are no unimpeachable heroes (no one would believe that, since Mexico is a country of cynics), just people struggling with their notions of right and wrong and how they can be applied to such unfairness. Yet everybody's choices are marred by corruption so deep, nasty and pervasive that they are up to their necks in it. Some of the images are strong and effective metaphors: a golf course surrounded by hills rife with slums, the rich disposing of the bodies of the poor in garbage bags, a chase scene inside a sewer (echoes of The Third Man) that ends still inside the fortress of the compound. There is no way out.
In the end, justice is not served, (this would truly be a fantasy); there is only the awakening of conscience in each individual, which should be taken as a triumph. The final image of the film is of a rich teenager finally escaping his enclave, right into the midst of what his parents were trying to shelter him from all along. He eats some street tacos in the dark in the middle of the slums. When I saw the taco stand, with its two hardworking taqueros bathed in golden light, I knew he was safe. I saw redemption.
This is what you are missing, rich people, the movie seems to say, and this is who you are insulting with your contempt and your racism: the country that feeds you, literally and symbolically.

Apr 4, 2008

Two of My Favorite People Ever

Their Majesties: Keith Richards and Martin Scorsese.

Paranoid Park

Why does one go to see Gus Van Sant's movies nowadays? Beats me. In my case, it was one of those days there was nothing else to see, or I had already seen a bunch of stuff. The last movie of his I saw was Elephant and I hated it. There are certain historical events that defy poetry and Columbine is one of them. I thought it was insulting to try to make something so vulgar and so banal into some kind of artsy elegy enamored of teenage mutants.
But Paranoid Park has Christopher Doyle as the cinematographer, so at least you know you are getting your taco de ojo, your eye taco, your visual delight, for the price of the ticket.
And so it is. This may be the only meditative movie about skateboarders.
The skaters are shot in dreamy slow motion, with some sort of steadicam on a board, and they seem to float. The movie has this dense, gorgeous quality that makes you sit back and let it wash all over you. Every frame is absolutely beautiful. That is the good part. But then there is the obssessive gaze at a beautiful teenage boy whose acting skills are on a par with plywood. Yes, teenagers mope. Yes, their indifference is studied and meant to get a rise out of the Buddha himself, but if the main character has less expression in his face than a bad case of botox, one really could not care less about what happens to him.
Sometimes the kid is shot as if to resemble a Boticelli, or a Caravaggio or one of those super sensual Manierist paintings. And one wonders what is behind the camera's insistent, sexualized gaze. One gets a slightly pervy vibe from all this gazing.
Then there is the strange business of Van Sant using the circusy music of the great Nino Rota (from Juliet of the Spirits and Amarcord) , which really seems quite a dissonance, even if it doesn't altogether fail. I left the theater wanting to buy the soundtrack, which also includes music by Elliott Smith and other cool stuff.
But the movie oscillates between poetry and intrusions of reality that seem to belong to a different genre. For instance, this boy's girlfriend is the prototype of a blonde airhead, a grating, materialistic, self-involved brat you see in movies like Ten Things I hate About You. The one violent scene looks like something out of a zombie movie, with a guy cut in half, his torso still moving. It doesn't gel with the rest.
The music in Paranoid Park is great, as is the cinematography. Just don't expect much of a plot, or any acting. This is the movie equivalent of submerging yourself in an immersion tank.


Another one of my favorite people, ever.

Sometimes film critics nail it so well, all I have to do is direct you to their reviews. Doesn't happen often, but when it does, it makes my life much easier.
So here is A.O. Scott's review of Jellyfish, the very charming, moving Israeli film now playing at the Angelika. I recommend it heartily.
I have two things to add to Scott's perfectly nailed review.
1. It looks as if this movie is not political, and it isn't in the conventional sense. But it does give us an interesting glimpse of life in Israel today. A Filipino maid is living away from her family in order to feed it (just like anywhere else in the world today); a young woman barely scrapes by while her mother makes pleas on TV to help the poor. There is a deep disconnection and lack of empathy between generations. It seems to me that this is not the equitable Israel that everyone imagined as they danced the hora in 1948. Not everything is and always has to be about terrorists and Palestinians, but this doesn't mean it's not political. As in the movie The Band's Visit, the filmmakers somehow ground their films in reality, but their surreal or whimsical quality is what gives them air. Reality is so relentlessly heavy in Israel, it is not surprising that its young artists may want to temper it with lightness, with some form of escape. However, what makes these films transcend is precisely that they are rooted in the real. Fortunately, yet because of harsh circumstances, Israelis are constitutionally incapable of being too cute. This is a very good thing. So don't be fooled by the word "whimsy". This is a movie with very real situations and very real feelings.
The novelist David Grossman has said that he wishes Israel were a more normal country, with the normal problems of a normal country. A movie like Jellyfish shows you he is not alone in his wishing.
2. Nikol Leitman, the little girl that appears in the film, is a find. Had she been an inch less charismatic and beautiful, I think the whimsical part of the movie would have been harder to take and believe. But she is so amazing, every time she is on the screen, you feel the magic.
That the filmmakers knew to choose her is a sure sign of their ample talent.

Apr 2, 2008

Not on a Tarkovsky Mood Today

I don't think I have ever said no to an invitation to go to the movies (unless said is for Rambo LVII, or some such Roman circus). But today I got an offer I could very happily refuse. My dear masochistic cineastes, Luis and Bego went to see Andrei Rublev at BAM.
Even if I was not currently under the spell of PMS, I'd still would have said nyet. Maybe it is time for me to revisit the oeuvre of the Russian director (now that I've sat through 8 hours of Satantango, I feel I'm invincible), but I've never really liked Tarkovsky. When I was younger, and went to the Cineteca Nacional in Mexico City to get my requisite dose of important pretentious films, the two responses his movies induced in me were attacks of the giggles, or a deep wish to sleep.
So sue me.

Truffaut Vs Godard

I'm a Truffaut kind of jeune fille.
And to judge from Richard Brody's gossipy article about the deux of them, I'm not wrong about the spoiled brattiness of Godard.
Without them both, however, we would have no New Wave, and who knows how long it would have taken for cinema to be liberated and revolutionized. It is fitting that it was a pair of French young guys who did it. No one loves the movies like the French.

In The Valley Of Elah

Have I told you how much I hated In The Valley of Elah? No? Here goes:
I do not understand why certain critics like certain movies. David Denby plotzed about this film as if it was a miracle to behold. This being a Paul Haggis film (Crash: need I say more?) I had serious doubts. But I love me my Tommy Lee Jones, so I went to see what the fuss was all about. In short, In The Valley of Elah has the distinctive signature of a Paul Haggis movie. It is contrived, manipulative and utterly fake, but since this is all done with a mournful tone and a dour palette, the cheesiness evades even the most perspicacious film critics.
A film that wastes the talents of Susan Sarandon in such a sloppy, cavalier way is already asking for trouble. But then there are the paint by numbers plot twists that always remind me perhaps I need to read that Story screenwriting manual again, since people who follow its advice -- and I bet Paul Haggis is one of them -- tend to win Oscars and good reviews for their terrible movies.
These are the two things that really rubbed me the wrong way:
1. I am expected to believe that the missing soldier's cellphone contains an inordinate amount of footage, almost the length of Ben Hur. Let's for a moment give this the benefit of the doubt. What is unconscionable is that this flimsy plot device is artificially dragged out to elicit maximum manipulation of the audience.
2. You know the screenwriter has no respect for the likes of you when in the middle of the movie, or whenever one of those fabled plot points need to punch in the timecard, policewoman Charlize Theron, looking way too glamorous for Buttfuck, Texas, has a life changing moment because she didn't pay attention to the poor white trash that filed a complaint against her husband for animal torture. I am not the police, but if I were, I would know that if a man is trying to drown a dog in a bathtub, his wife and/or kids may be next. But this idiotic contrivance sets up her epiphany, to which I say with no little exasperation, please give me a breeeeeaaaaaak.
If this movie has a saving grace, it is that it wants to tell the story of the aftermath for our returning soldiers (of which we ain't seen nothing yet and I assure you it will be ugly). It is a noble story to tell, but not by someone so hamhanded, who has such little faith in the audience.

Apr 1, 2008

My Special Olympics

At New Directors New Films I saw "My Special Olympics", the short that won the jury prize at Sundance.
It is made exclusively with footage of home movies; a confessional family documentary (in the vein of My Architect or Capturing the Friedmans). We hear some slacker voiceover nasally intone about his mother and her family problems and how his dad was a US Army chaplain was abducted in the Munich Olympics together with the Israelis and then released. The film is lazy, self involved and deeply uninteresting.
At the end of the film, there is a Q&A with the young director, who explains that, in fact, the "documentary" we just saw is not a documentary, it is pure fiction. He made it all up. His aim was to investigate, I don't really know exactly what, the fictionalization of real events. He had the temerity to tell disgruntled audience members to think about Holocaust movies like Schindler's List or that aberration of a movie, Life is Beautiful. But the difference is that none of those movies pretend to be a documentary. Whether one likes them or not, they are clearly fictionalized stories set in a historical context. Schindler's List is based on a NOVEL about a real character. Life is Beautiful is pure, obscene fantasy. They do not pretend to be fact. They do not try to trick the audience.
I am an audience member, not a guinea pig. I don't like to be experimented with. Filmmakers who do this are intellectually dishonest, and come across as supremely arrogant. This is the reason why I loathed the first version of Michael Haneke's Funny Games, an exercise in punishing the audience for their curiosity. Anthony Lane's review of the second version pretty much sums up my feelings about the first. This is what bothers me about this kind of cinema in a nutshell:
Yet the movie itself is hardly free of exploitative tricks, and what seemed, a decade ago, like an unprecedented exposure of our viewing habits now verges on a gruelling condescension.
It seemed so sadistically condescending to me a decade ago, I actually turned it off.
The short that won the prize at Sundance is not to be compared to any of the films mentioned in this post. It has none of the depth or intellect or insight. Whether as a documentary or as fiction, it feels like lazy, sophomoric, self-absorbed homework.

But this brings me to the current topic of futzing with the truth. I am in the camp of wanting to know what it is exactly that I am reading or watching. If it is a commercial, I want to know its a commercial.
If it's a memoir, I expect it to be reasonably based in the facts of the real life of a person, obviously with their very subjective point of view. If it is a documentary, I am not that naive to expect it to be objective, but it should not be fabricated. If you use your actual home movies to invent a story, this is valid and even interesting, but the audience needs to know it. Otherwise, it is called lying.