Oct 13, 2008

NY Film Festival: Bullet in the Head

That is what watching this movie felt like, you were pining for a bullet in the head to get you out of your misery. I have never seen so many people decamp at a screening. I had an extra ticket that went unclaimed by several friends and I was thanking the Gods of Cinema I didn't have to put any of my friends through this ordeal. I stayed on, mostly because I had nothing better to do. I was waiting for the Q&A to see if Jaime Rosales, the director, could elucidate what in the name of God was he thinking. The Q&A was very helpful. It helped me to understand that there was a huge gap between what the director wanted to achieve in his mind and the actual results.
Call me a philistine, but when directors mention that their influences are Godard, Antonioni, Passolini, Tarkovksy and Ozu, it's time to run for the hills. To me, this shorthand means that the director, who probably does not possess the same amount of talent of his heroes, is a pretentious bore.
In the case of Jaime Rosales, the movie is a great concept for a short. Had it taken 15 minutes, it would have been a masterpiece. Basically, it is a movie where people talk all the time, but you can't hear them. You can hear all the noises around them, curiously enough, traffic, cutlery, the hubbub of modern city life, but you can't hear a word they are saying. In small doses, this can create a disquieting feeling of somebody being spied on (see Michael Haneke's excellent film Cache). If it happens for more than an hour, though, it can make you want to tear your hair out, especially if all you see people doing is chatting at cafés and drinking beers with friends, and going to the park. Not much happens.
But then there is one violent action that immediately reveals who these banal, normal looking people are. They are Basque terrorists. Believe me, this is an instance where you may thank me for the spoiler. If you see the movie, you will want to wait for the eternity it takes to get to this part. It may make it more exciting.
Rosales was saying that he wanted to strip the movie of the ideology surrounding terrorism, so that dealing with it could change the terms in the real world. I think ideology is not the right word; discourse is more like it. Because there seems to be an ideology at work in presenting terrorists as normal people who live in the same world we do. This does not justify them, but it is an ideology. However, Rosales has stripped the movie of the discourse we are used to when dealing with this topic, that of the terrorists being crazy, extreme people who live apart from us, as well as the dramatic discourse we expect from cinema. There is no language in this film but the language of passive observation and even this is artificial. You know it is not meant to be an instance of point of view, in which the camera is acting as another character, because the camera's placement is totally artificial. It does not behave like a human observer. I felt manipulated, subjected to an experiment in which the director wants to conduct an intellectual exercise and cares little for the audience's suffering. He makes us feel that our pining for conventional drama or dialogue is an aesthetic weakness. I hate movies that feel superior to their audiences (Haneke's Funny Games is a good example). And if you are going to play around with the conventions of cinematic language, which is totally valid, then the end result should be as bracing as that impulse for experimentation, not a pompous bore.
Everything Rosales said after the film made sense, but the problem is the movie should work without the lengthy explanation. Rosales contradicted himself, at one point saying that there was a fierce political controversy in Spain over the movie, and that he was surprised because it is only a movie. But you can't say in the same breath that you want to change the world through films and then say it's only a movie. Which one is it?

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