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.