Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Why Is Every Movie I See These Days Such a Bummer?

[Note: There will be spoilers.]

It's relevant to note who the action stars of the 1980s are backing in the U.S. presidential elections: Chuck Norris is campaigning with Mike Huckabee and California Governor Arnold Schwartzenegger (R.) has officially endorsed John McCain. The retro nostalgia for both, which manifested itself in a Walker: Texas Ranger lever ("Walker told me I have AIDs") and a successful bid for the governor of California, respectively, speaks to a particularly post-9/11 sentiment: a desire to re-live the Regan years. Back then, we knew who the bad guys were: the Communists and Saddam Hussein (after he invaded Kuwait, of course). It was obvious Al-Qaeda was bad and the US was good, which made it easier for people to believe in action heroes again.

Comic book movies were popular before September 11th (X-Men [2000], for example), but Sam Raimi's Spider-Man (2002) and Spider-Man 2 (2004) (1), without ever directly referrencing the twin towers, deliberately tap in those sentiments. In the sequel, there's a sequence on a train in which ordinary New Yorkers express their solidarity with Peter Parker/Tobey Maguire after he's unmasked. This is America as it would like to would like to see itself, coming together for the common good--as opposed to President Bush telling people in a speech after 9/11 to keep shopping.

I'm as glad as anyone that the New Innocence of the Spider-Man films didn't last, but I'm not sure the New Cynicism of the past few months is necessarily an improvement. I loved the moral ambiguities raised by Ben Affleck's Gone Baby Gone; Sidney Lumet's Before the Devil Knows You're Dead contains a great performance by Phillip Seymour Hoffman; and Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood at least has chutzpah going for it, even if I miss the sweetness of Hard Eight (1996) and Boogie Nights (1997). The Coen brothers' No Country for Old Men--adapted from a novel by Cormac McCarthy, who's been writing novels since the mid-60s but only came into vogue recently--is a skillfully made thriller but its unchecked nihlism leaves a sour aftertaste, despite a strong supporting turn from Kelly MacDonald as a heroic but ultimately doomed housewife. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is, far and away, the most interesting thing Tim Burton's ever done, but the film is almost as single-minded in its obsession with murder and revenge as its protagonist/Johnny Depp. And then there's Brian De Palma's Redacted, which ends with a gruesome montage of documentary photographs of civilian victims of the war in Iraq (many of them very young children) that left the audience I saw the film with stunned. Rarely have I heard such quiet; nobody argued the film's merits leaving the theater or even made small talk, as if too traumatized by the experience to speak.

I don't think it's a coincidence that three of the films mentioned above (Lumet's, the Coens', De Palma's), and Woody Allen's Match Point (2005), are about collateral damage. Like Jerry Lundegaard/William H. Macy in Fargo (1996), Andy/Hoffman in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is a white-collar family man who's desperately in debt and plans an inside job that goes very, very wrong (here a robbery in his parents' jewelry store rather than kidnapping his own wife), but how Andy responds to the situation, particularly towards the end of the film, is specific and shocking in its amorality. Appalled by his actions, Andy's brother Hank/Ethan Hawke asks him: "Have you gone crazy?!" I couldn't have said it better myself. Reading the reviews of No Country for Old Men, it's curious to see critics talk about Anton Chiguhr/Javier Bardem as a "force of nature" rather than a character in the conventional sense of the word, as if he didn't have any other choice but to kill nearly everyone who crosses his path. This confirms my sense that the climatic dialogue scene between Chiguhr and Carla-Jean/MacDonald (the only likeable character in the film and a spiritual cousin to Marge Gunderson/Frances McDormand) in which she forces him to make a choice is, at best, too little too late, or at worst, muddled and diluted by the surrounding context: Chiguhr kills her anyway, and then promptly gets into a car accident in the very next scene; the film gives the last word to Sheriff Ed Tom Bell/Tommy Lee Jones, who reflects the impotence of lawmen to prevent murderers from striking in the first place or even understanding them. Match Point is essentially a superior remake of Allen's own Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)--more confident as storytelling, which is to say not Bergmanesque. The major difference between the two is that, in the latter, the protagonist/Jonathan Rhys Meyers (2) pulls the trigger himself, and then kills an elderly neighbor/Margaret Tyzack in order to make it look like a break-in. It's as if the only way for American filmmakers to represent the civilian casualities in Iraq is to conceal it behind the mechanics of a well-oiled thriller.

While Allen, Lumet and the Coens, consciously or not, allude to the civilian casualities in Iraq indirectly, De Palma's Redacted is a frontal assault on the audience even before the final sequence, which is why it's been marginalized. Of course, this could never be film for mainstream audiences, even if more staid Iraq-war movies weren't dropping like flies at the box office (In the Valley of Elah, Lions for Lambs, Rendition). De Palma obviously wants people to see these images, which he's stated in interviews were the main reason he made the film, but nobody really wants to see a film with these kinds of images (at one point I closed my eyes, they're so awful). It's self-defeating. As for everything leading up to it, it's decidedly a mixed bag. There are some interesting things in the film, particularly the final dramatic scene in which a returning soldier/Rob Devaney is prodded for a war story by an off-screen voice (De Palma himself) until he breaks down and confesses to participating in the rape and murder of a 15-year-old girl and the subsequent murder of her family. At this point, the off-screen voice shouts out for everyone in the bar to applaud the war hero. This would be enough, but like every other sequence in the film, we are aware of the presence of the camera. Are the tears simply for the camera? Based on a true story, in which American soldiers in Iraq really did rape and murder a 14-year-old girl, the film mediates its narrative through a wide variety of sources--a French documentary, blogs, YouTube, Arabic and central European news reports, etc.--which sometimes overlap, so when an American soldier/Ty Jones is killed by a mine, we see it first from the perspective of another soldier/Izzy Diaz who's keeping a video diary and then again on an insurgent website. This fragmented approach suggests a mosaic, yet instead of a plurality of truths that would address the complexity of the situation, we get an aray of perspectives on a single truth: Graphic images of the war in Iraq have been kept hidden from the American public. As a piece of storytelling, it's limited because the characters are so narrowly defined (i.e., This guy reads books so he's okay, this guy's a redneck so he's a rapist) and De Palma is incapable of relating to the Iraqis themselves except as victims or terrorists, rather than people.

I left De Palma's film feeling sad and deflated, but maybe that's the point. I left There Will Be Blood, which I saw the next day, feeling not as sad and deflated but I don't think I was supposed to anyway. It's a better film than Redacted, and sometimes a great one (the entire first reel--nearly twenty minutes--unfolds without a single word of dialogue), but it's disappointing to invest two and a half hours of your time in a film only to see one character bash in another's head with a bowling pin. Then again, how else could this film have ended? All of Anderson's films are about family, and one can neatly divide his ouvre into those about adopted families (Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood) and those about biological families (Magnolia [1999], Punch-Drunk Love [2002]). But where the adopted families in his first two features, despite their flaws, were far more appealing than the nightmarish biological ones in the second category, as well as the opening scenes of Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood is the first Anderson movie to suggest that the characters would fare better on their own. I admired the film, and Sweeney Todd, for creating thoroughly unlikeable, obsessed and insane characters, and then refusing to compromise one bit. At least in Burton's film, however, there's Mrs. Lovett/Helena Bonham Carter who wants to offer Sweeney a new life; she's the film's emotional center and, in the final scene when Sweeney throws her into a giant furnace, I genuinely recoiled in horror from the moment--all the more so because Burton seems to linger on it for so long. Did I care about anyone in There Will Be Blood? Plainview's adopted son, H.W./Dillon Freasier, to an extent, but he has very little agency.

Taken together as an indication of the zeitgeist, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, Match Point, Redacted, Sweeney Todd and There Will Be Blood are bleak movies for a bleak time. While Huckabee, McCain and Mit Romney fight over who's more Reganesque, on the Democratic side, Barak Obama's being compared to John Kennedy, suggesting a desire to re-live the early 1960s. Maybe it's not a coincidence that the most purely delightful movie I saw in 2007 was the remake of Hairspray, about the civil rights movement, which appeals to an optimism about change. I'm not sure it's a viable political strategy, but I'd much rather watch Hairspray a third time than see No Country for Old Men again.

1. I didn't see Spider-Man 3 but everyone seems to agree it's a dud. I wasn't even crazy about the first two.
2. I haven't seen a single episode of The Tudors or read Philippa Gregoire's "The Other Boleyn Girl" (coming soon to a multiplex near you!), but it seems relevant that Henry VIII is suddenly back in the mainstream consciousness.


  1. As a counterpoint to Redacted, I suggest giving the documentary Operation Homecoming a look. It shames De Palma's reductive misanthropy.

    And maybe you're just referring to everybody in your personal circle, but I know lots of people, critics and otherwise, who dug the third Spider-Man movie. If nothing else, it's the most flamboyant entry in the series, so if that side of Raimi appeals to you, it's worth giving a shot.

  2. While we're on the subject of De Palma's misanthropy, he's cited Bruno Dumont's Flandres (2006) as an influence on Redacted, and as a passionate defender of Dumont's first three features (La Vie de Jésus [1997], L'Humanité [1999] and Twentynine Palms [2003]--all of which have been criticized for their reductive view of human nature), I don't want to be too hasty in dismissing De Palma's films along similar lines.

    The difference between the two is that Dumont reduces his characters to their physical essences (he's often compared to Bresson for this very reason), and his corporeal long take style supports this, while De Palma is the complete opposite: he populates his films with types rather than bodies, and in Femme Fatale (2002), his best and most personal film, he opens the movie with his bad girl heroine/Rebecca Romijn watching Double Indemnity (1944), signalling to us that the various types he employs are constructs. (Accordingly, the plot is impossible and we know this and the film knows we know.)

    In Redacted, because the characters are aware of the presence of the camera, it's not much of a stretch to draw the same conclusion, but the types here are so narrowly defined. Even assuming that all the characters are acting for the camera, something of their true self is going to slip eventually. If Bibi Andersson is about to throw boiling water on you, wouldn't you spontaeneously scream "No, don't"?

    As for Spider-Man 3, I can't claim to be a Raimi expert by any means, but what I've seen so far has hardly wowed me. Between Evil Dead 2 (1987), A Simple Plan (1998) and the first two Spider-Man movies, I guess I liked Evil Dead 2 the best. Still, I've never had the slightest desire to check out Evil Dead (1980) or Army of Darkness (1993).

  3. Wait, so you didn't like Flandres either?

  4. It sucks. I never thought Dumont would make such a generalized Figgisesque statement about warfare: "It sucks!"

  5. People should read this.