Zero Dark Thirty and Torture

The debate is clearly a classic example of how “experts” in other areas leap onto a film for something that appears to be “content” and therefore easily extracted and abstracted as if it were a policy statement or essay.  This move typically happens around sex and violence and the torture debate fits right in.  The film aids and abets it by avoiding any clear cut pov on torture.  But this is itself where some more attention to form comes in handy.

My sense is that torture is as big a focal point as it is in the film because Bigelow and Boal didn’t really have a plot to develop otherwise!  It doesn’t really condone or condemn it and our hero’s (Jessica Chastain’s) grimaces are neatly counterbalanced by her presence at the moments of torture, and they tilt toward acceptance when she more actively goes along with it, rejecting an appeal from a prisoner [why are they called “detainees” other than to legitimate their pseudo-legal status as suspects when they are individuals deprived of any and all of their rightst?].  Her sense of human decency gets trumped by her urgent desire for information, at any cost, and now.

The film then accepts torture [and thankfully doesn’t use that hideous euphemism of “enhanced interogation”] as government policy under Cheney/Bush/Rumsfeld/Rice, et. al., but Zero Dark Thrity also makes clear that waterboarding etc. didn’t produce miracles at all and that the real info was under the CIA agents’ noses all along and would have been “actionable” sooner if they had sifted through things with greater care, esp in terms of knowing people in their specificity.

Confusions about names and identities are cruclal to allowing vital information that could have led to Bin Laden go overlooked for six years! (a hard point to turn into narrative since the very thing that could drive the story is taken off the table).  All the complexities of an person’s individuality, including his family ties, name, appearance, and so on, are the very thing torture denies as it tries to dehumanize the person and extract “information” from them as if from a truth-speaking machine.  The CIA doesn’t seem to ever learn that but they adapt to a new policy by President Obama and go back to sifting through their existing information; that is what sets the real plot, which starts about an hour into the film–an underdeveloped but also overblown account of how the decision to “take out” Bin Laden was made and how the raid itself was planned, rehearsed and staged. Try to count the number and whereabouts of the helicopters involved in the mission and you can begin to get a sense of how sloppy the film is on detail and how bloated it is on torture, largely, I suggest, to use that “content” to cover over some serious narrative deficiencies in the actual form of the film.



Django Unchained and the Viewer

Most of us have heard this reply to concern/repulsion at the gratuitous, relentless, might I say pointless violence of Django, such as what I expressed in my previous blog: What did you expect?  Tarantino is Tarantino; if you go to see his film you can’t criticize him for being himself.

I can’t quite buy this.

It implies that those who attend do or should constitute a self-perpetuating, self-approving audience that forfeits its right, or obligation, to be critical toward its hero.

It argues that those who stumble in or chose to attend but are not devotees should adopt the same attitude of non-critical acceptance (once a Tarantino fan, always a Tarantino fan).

It suggests that critical dialogue is best left for those who do not make an effort to see the movie first, for if they did, they would fit into one of the first two categories.

It therefore invalidates critical dialogue as the lame product of the uninformed, if not unitiated.

Such an attitude finds considerable purchase in our culture be it in relation to our national gun culture, where only the NRA has the moral authority to  be there, do that and speak about it too, or some versions of identity politics where if you are not a member of the group in question you have no right to comment about the group in question.

If such an attitude prevails, I think we are in trouble.

Sophia Loren as Co-dependent Housewife

If you were making a film with Sophia Loren and wanted to find an unlikely match for her husband, someone who would drive her nuts by film’s end, and who has as much chemistry with her as a sink of dirty dishes, who would you cast?  Five Miles to Midnight, (Le couteau dans la plaie originally) on Netflix, as one of the rarities they throw in to compensate for the great ones that get away, gives one amazing answer: Anthony Perkins.  Perkins plays a neurotic, egocentric manipulating coward/bully who managed to wrap Sophia around his thumb in this 1962 oddity, directed by Anatole Litvak.  Loren has always been a very fine actress, with more talent for nuance than given credit for sometimes, and she works hard to act baffled, dependent, needy and insecure, muffling the guffaws that must have been just below the surface as Perkins does his Psycho schtick.  His charm quotient is close to minus thirty and his credibility as a character is secured only by the sense of familiarity we have (here we go again) from his previous roles, ones he never quite escapes, alas.  Loren and he seem to be struggling to get by in 1960s Paris but she manages to have a pretty spectacular wardrobe nonetheless, perhaps provided by the high-end clothing store where she works when she isn’t trying to placate the ever so thoroughly demented Perkins.  There’s a plane crash and an apparent death with life insurance money hanging in the balance too but seeing Sophia Loren try to act her way through this one is reward enough.

Django and my nerves

Django is earning Quentin Tarantino a lot of praise, from some.  And the Box Office suggests it’s a big hit.

But it really left me jangled and upset.  It felt like the Marquis de Sade met Road Runner.  The succession of brutal, excessive, sometimes pointless (from the pov of any real character motivation) violence was relentless. The number of uses of the “N” word may have set a new world record for feature films. At times that seemed to be Tarantion’s main motivation: slip the “n” word into every scene and have at least one white and one black character use it.  Over and over.  Tarantiono clearly thinks he has an entre into black culture and a free pass on the use of offensive speech and the depiction of appalling acts of cruelty against blacks since these are what the kind of cartoon characters he creates would say and do.  But they seem to exist only to say and do these things, with little link to any historically complex reality. From the hodgepodge of locations to the glee with which everyone scars, maims, or kills others, in a manner just about totally devoid of remorse and lacking in any sense of moral consequences, the film exists in its own peculiar world.  That may be why the packed theater I was in did not erupt in anger or disgust: it was clearly not competing with Lincoln for historical accuracy or insight.  There is, in fact, just about zero insight into anything social, political or psychological. Everyone is a sadist, to one degree or another, including, by the end, our hero, Django, who maims and kills with the worst of them.

Why is it so popular? Is it the cartoon quality that provides an alibi?  Is it the strange frisson of hearing the “n” word and other expletives repeatedly?  Is it seeing a rebirth of Shaft with Jamie Foxx’s super macho black male hero?  Is it seeing whites, rich and poor, revealed as a single collection of trash and depravity, with the possible exception of Dr. Schultz who is at least somewhat philosophical about his lucrative career of killing wanted men to collect the bounty put on them?  Is it seeing Leondardo DiCaprio camping it up as the corrupt, decadent plantation owner?  I will wager it isn’t seeing Quentin in a little cameo role near the end.  I only wish he had found a way to link this kind of carnage and depravity with the kind of Let Evrey Good Man Have a Gun To Take Out the Bad Guys rhetoric of the NRA, which could have produced this film quite happily I suspect.  Or perhaps Tarantino could have alluded to “enhanced interrogation” (torture) or the sickness of Abu Ghraib, as some other films have manage to do, but metaphor and allegory seems far more absent than the urge to imitate and empty the spaghetti western of its form without its content.  Django gives us the spaghetti without the calories of a nourishing afterthought; it is all high energy carbs and more than a disappointment.  It’s a symptom of a director without a moral compass.

I basically prefer to write about films I like or love so take this as the knee jerk rant it is; something may considered may emerge down the road.

Making a Documentary, part 2

I mentioned in an earlier post that context is important. That is to say, what other films exist on the topic, what other films exemplify the style/form desired, what additional information can be gathered up to help make the film?  These are key elements of pre=production. They are also, at a preliminary level, important questions to explore to determine if a given film idea is feasible: perhaps others have already done something very similar, or serious problems exist regarding rights, permissions or archival material, or perhaps the way the issue’s been framed just isn’t clear enough, something that additional research may make clear.

If a film is personal or autobiographical the lack of duplicate material is assured but models for how to do it can be quite vital.  Tarnation, for example, adopted a wildly flamboyant style and incorporated home move footage from early childhood up; it contrasts with the much more sedate but somewhat tongue in cheek style of Sherman’s March, the witty but loving style of Nobody’s Business, and the utterly fabricated but very convincing self-portrait  offered by David Holzman’s Diary.  Tackling this type of film, looking at one’s life as subject matter for a film, invites reflection on the autiobiography as a literary form going back to Montaigne and  Rousseau if not St. Augustine.  It has gained great popularlity in the last few decades and trails into the world of reality tv on the one hand (exposes and confessions) and of essayistic meditations on the other.

These are some preliminary points to consider. Every project is unique and the specific steps depend heavily on the particular ideas and goals that characterize your own project.

Introduction to Documentary, 2nd Edition