The last weeks, breaking my usual pattern, I actually went out and saw some films – 3 in about 3 weeks (!) – which is about what I might see in a year, at least if not going to a festival. The first one I saw was rather an accident – Leos Carax’s Holy Motors. I’d gone with friends to see Chasing Ice, but we arrived after the last screening of it, and I noticed the listing of Holy Motors, which I’d read some enticing things about. Not being a cinephile, I hadn’t seen any previous Carax film. Everybody agreed, and in we went. Following the customary horror of bombastic trailers seemingly carefully designed to assure I would never go to them, the film unfolded in a very different mode. I won’t describe as you can find much elsewhere which sketches it out, from academic analyses that suggest it is a kind of “stations of the cross” (somewhat persuasive argument given the title and the last sequence), to an examination of the wonders and price of the actor’s trade, and so on. It is perhaps all of these. Certainly on some levels it was both a celebration of the magic of cinema, and on some others a damning critique of it. Whatever it was, for me it was a deliriously pleasurable romp, and quite funny as well. I think I might have been the person who laughed the most in the cinema, particularly in the darker parts. Gorgeously shot, wonderfully acted, and moving both swiftly but in a manner that left ample time for one’s own thoughts, it happily defied and up-ended customary cinema-theatrical expectations and demanded you just take it on its terms. My only little reservation is that it was, at bottom, still way too conventional for my desires – I’d like to see Carax apply the same inventiveness he shows here towards coming up with a visual shift of gears as strong as his narrative/story-telling one. Probably asking too much.
A week later I was able to go see Chasing Ice as planned. Having seen a trailer I more or less knew what I was going to get, and knew I wasn’t much going to like it, but I wanted to see the footage of the glaciers. My guess was right. The film follows photographer James Balog (whose photography is of the slick National Geographic kind), as he pursues shooting our vanishing glaciers with a panoply of time-lapse cameras stationed in Alaska, Greenland, Iceland and elsewhere. Along the way the technical problems of building and placing the cameras is highlighted, which for a filmmaker like myself is of interest. Unfortunately a larger part of the film is given over to a Herzogian self-glamorizing of Balog, who becomes such a focus that it leaves the sour taste of a promo piece. We see him descending into a crevice as the track tells us his doctor said he shouldn’t do such things owing to a bum knee acquired doing such things and (heroically) doctored up 4 times. Like Herzog the images in front of his camera are supposed to either take on more importance because the filmmaker is there, or the filmmaker is supposed to be heroic because he is there. My view is stuff it: you want to do this, so do it, and get your ego out of it. Balog in this case imagines to side-step this as formally he wasn’t the director, but instead nominally one Jeff Orlog is. But it is clear who was calling the shots as it were, and the fake dramas inserted with multiple camera people and helicopters all betray a certain kind of bad faith. And the film not once acknowledges that it is the very technologies involved in making it which are directly, cumulatively, responsible for the complex range of human-made realities which are causing global warming and the collapse of ancient glaciers and ice shelves, and all the dire consequences the film notes. This kind of bitter irony doesn’t fit in with the glossy look and intent of this film. At the film’s end, a vast chunk of ice in Greenland is shown collapsing in a matter of minutes, and the scale is indicated by superimposing a line of the skyline of the southern part of Manhattan, the ice being much larger. I suppose it is no irony that one of the consequences of this process flooded Manhattan a few months ago. In their press blurbs, Robert Redford is cited as loving the film. I bet he flies (a lot) first class.
And then, at the prompting of Chris McConnell, who came out to Butte to help me in shooting Coming to Terms, I went to check out Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow’s genuflection to the macho world of war and all that. Running two and a half hours, the film is never remotely boring, even if much of it is a paper-shoving (or video screen one) procedural, conducted for a good part in institutionalized rooms. Rather, despite one’s knowing the full story before the film begins, it pumps with tension. Within this genre of classic Hollywood hefty “story-telling” with music dumped over scenes, kinetic camera movements, and all the rest, Bigelow has demonstrated she’s got the biggest balls in tinsel-town. This is a smart, cerebral slice of filmmaking, loaded with, in the terms of this kind of work, great things – performances, CGI EFX, smart-ass dialog, and all the rest. Gotta hand it to Bigelow, she has this game down. Almost. Actually I found the supposedly hard-to-take torture scenes which open the film for almost half an hour, to be a bit tame, and not quite believable: Ammar, our victim, face bruised, whupped again and again, is hoisted up in ropes, hanging from his arms. But, well, not really – instead his arms are limp and he’s sort of standing, which given the abuse he’s undergone doesn’t quite compute. Other aspects of the torturing scenes – of which there are many – similarly don’t quite tally up as so awful (or is it believable?) as the critics suggested. My guess is being movie critics they’ve spent their lives in a little bubble of cinematic falsity, and – as is often the case with their take, say, on costuming – they long ago lost any connection to reality and so have no means to judge these things. Otherwise this film was mounted well, with what appears to be an awful lot of help from the US military, and if what I have read is correct, the CIA and friends. Which brings things around to the big controversy, the one about torture, and whether the film endorses it, or not. The filmmakers and some critics assert it does not, it merely shows what was done. Sort of… it doesn’t show the internal objections made by CIA operatives, and FBI and other governmental agencies, who complained loudly about the torture. Bigelow and scriptwriter Mark Boal (who is Madame Bigelow’s lover) each say it was creative dramatic license, and it would have gunked up the “story” had these elements been allowed in. And they are perhaps right (though one can’t know), though what does occur in the film is that without actually saying so, the whole envelope which contains it all works to mount a clear argument that torture was the key to getting the information that led to bin Laden, and, well, heck, the ends justify the means.
After the film came out, administration figures and others quickly trotted out to say the film was historically wrong, and that it wasn’t torture, but good old fashioned gum-shoe that secured the information, and that, in the words of Obama, seen on a television screen during the film, “America doesn’t torture.” Yeah, sure.
While not nearly as creatively inventive as Leni Riefenstahl’s films Triumph of the Will, or Olympiad, Ms. Bigelow, sticking to the tried-and-true techniques of Hollywood block-busters of our time, nevertheless has earned her right to stand on the same pedestal with the Nazi propagandist: in bed with the powers that be, making work which glorifies it and then ducking accountability. If Ms. Bigelow really had any balls she’d tell the military-industrial complex to go take a hike. But instead she’s done the opposite. Small wonder she is not championed by feminists.
[For a fuller view on this stuff, see Matt Taibbi's Rolling Stone review.]
Shifting to quite another scale, this week a little partial retrospective of my own work was scheduled in a nice Portland alternative cinema, the Clinton Street theater. Yesterday, a Monday, a usual dead night for restaurants and cultural things found a grand total of 5 showing up for the screening of, among other things, Angel City (1976), which, among other things, has a scene which skewers Leni Riefenstahl, and as well Hollywood as a part and parcel of the interlocking corporate world which is the US military-industrial-media complex. Youthful, hip Portland was buried in its electronic stuff in the nearby cafes. Tonight, a Tuesday, I am told a whole 10 people showed up, of which I suspect most, as the night before, were friends of mine. Which is to say, on this 50th year anniversary of my filmmaking – which began in Italy in January 1963 – I accept that the defeat at the hands of our corporate masters has been total and complete. There was never any contest, but those powers have assured there will not be one – in a manner far more clever than Nazi ones. Most Americans have no idea what has been done, and as good German burghers of the 30′s, they don’t really want to know. I am sure most Americans do not know what the Homeland Security Agency, and FBI and CIA did to Occupy, or all the rest.
I hadn’t seen Angel City in some time, and was surprised how relevant its content remains, and how “lively” its cinema aesthetics are, even today. And far more so that the lame output of our so-called “indies” in all their various guises in the last, oh, 20 years and more. But it matters not at all.
The only consolation, if one may call it that, is that this system, unable to check itself, will in rather short order auto-destruct, dragging with it most the planet’s species. It will doubtless be a rather unhappy and ugly affair of drastic shortages, famine, wars, plague, and, well, hell, the usual four horsemen. And far sooner than we imagine. I might just miss it. Or maybe not.