Interrogating the Reel

Film reviews, articles, observations from a radical perspective. Guest Critic columns every month.

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“American Sniper,” or “Stolz der Nation”

One is a trained killer, fighting on behalf of a genocidal, hateful regime. The other is a Nazi sniper.

One is a trained killer, fighting on behalf of a genocidal, hateful regime. The other is a Nazi sniper.

Propaganda is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. It can be used to further a just cause, to motivate a people, to stimulate direct action. Yet to term a piece of art “propaganda” in today’s climate is to rob it of its power, to suggest it’s failed in its mission. Which is true, in many ways. If you see propaganda coming, its hold has been broken. Catching it out can render you immune to its pull. Sometimes. Other times a person can be influenced even after recognizing propaganda for what it is. It’s a slow con game, a tug-of-war between film and spectator in those scenarios. Drop your focus for a moment, and it’ll get you. And if the film in question is agitating on behalf of a ceaselessly hungry imperial war machine, you don’t want to be gotten.

“American Sniper” didn’t get me. It will, undoubtedly, get a lot of people this weekend as it enters wide release, because it seems the Military Death Porn movie is an annual tradition, starting with “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Lone Survivor” in previous years and leading us to this, a blunt instrument of a movie. It’s nasty, brutish and long, treating Muslims as faceless hordes fit only to be cannon fodder or as victims of cartoonishly evil enemy combatants.

Ostensibly the true story of Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), the self-proclaimed deadliest sniper in American history, “American Sniper” feeds us near-constant reminders of the tough job military men and women (all men, here) have. But rather than focus on the physical and mental suffering enacted on soldiers by a capricious government and industries demanding a blood sacrifice, the film tells us instead the toll war takes on fighters is worth it. Someone’s gotta do it, “American Sniper” says, and it might as well be the kind of person who calls dead Iraqis “savages” and brags about fictitiously mowing down evacuees during Hurricane Katrina. Strange that director Clint Eastwood would choose this particular military memoir to put on film, when Kyle has been successfully sued for defamation and the book’s contents judged to be heavily embellished, at best. Why not go ahead and make a movie about Kyle’s uncle, who definitely works at Nintendo?

As if to lay its gross, racist cards on the table from the very start, the film opens in an Iraqi city block, laid to waste by fighting. A military convoy rolls through, as Kyle and a spotter take watch over the field. Kyle spots a mother and child walking into the street, the mother passing a grenade to her son as the sniper agonizes over what to do. There’s hesitation as tension builds, though knowing what Kyle thinks of Iraqis and his supposed “kill list” it’s not like we don’t know what will happen. As his finger brushes the trigger, we’re instantly transported to a scene from Kyle’s youth, his first “kill” of a deer while hunting with his father.

Now, I suppose we could say Eastwood wanted a solid, thematically compelling link between Kyle’s past and present, threading death through both with a single gunshot. But what does it say about this film’s perspective on Muslims that an Iraqi child is connected to an animal, slaughtered for sport without a second thought? Later scenes where Kyle’s father talks of the “gift of aggression” and the necessity of violence to defend the weak smack of a grotesque will to power, a fascist desire to assert oneself above others through brute force.

For every moment where Kyle demonstrates the crushing effect combat has had on him, there’s one where we’re reminded this is the cost of being an American hero. One cringe-inducing moment occurs between Kyle’s tours (he took four in total), as a young veteran approaches Kyle and thanks him for saving his life. Cooper, for his part, captures well Kyle’s reticent, embarrassed reaction to this outpouring of affection, but his nuance is crushed as the veteran goes on for minutes, extolling Kyle’s virtues and literally saluting him in a car repair shop. There’s enough teary-eyed, empty patriotism in that scene to fill 20 Ford F-150 commercials, and it ruins any sense of self-awareness built in Cooper’s downturned chin and frantically shifting eyes.

You've got to be fucking kidding me.

You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.

“Zero Dark Thirty,” for its myriad flaws as a piece of CIA-sponsored schlock, was artful in its support of the Forever War and our continuous export of violence to the Third World. “American Sniper” has none of its sophistication, operating on an even less-informed level of discourse. We even get a black-hooded, moustache-twirling villain in Kyle’s Syrian counterpart, complete with scary theme music. He’s an Olympic gold medalist shooter tracking Kyle over his long military career. At one point, the enemy sniper is seen getting ready, Eastwood’s camera moving to “Mustafa’s” wife, crying infant in hand. This is meant, however briefly, to show us the people at the other end of Kyle’s scope have lives of their own. I don’t buy it, not least because “Mustafa” never speaks, and neither do any Iraqis save two: An informant quickly and viciously murdered by Al-Qaeda lieutenant “The Butcher” (how’s that for subtlety?)  and a civilian, initially friendly but shown to be harboring arms and ammunition for the enemy. He, like the other, is quickly killed after being coerced into aiding the American soldiers.

Kyle repeats a multitude of rationales for the United States’ military entanglements in the film; those facile, false reasons we heard on a loop during the Bush years: We’re fighting over there to keep them from coming here, we’re doing it for freedom, we don’t want another Sept. 11, etc. etc. Some critics have pointed to this as evidence that “American Sniper” is a Republican message movie or pro-Iraq War. But the troubling thing is, it’s not a Republican position. It’s not even an Iraq War position. The United States will be jonesing for military action no matter what party is in the White House or what country will be invaded. Kyle’s reasons are poor and unfounded, but so are any reasons to enter a conflict on behalf of American hegemony.

What I care about, and what “American Sniper” argues for in the abstract, are the capitalist’s reasons for war. The extraction of superprofits from soil overseas, the transference of systemic violence far from the homeland — these are the constant, unchanging reasons for imperial wars of occupation, no matter their jingoistic window dressing.

The film makes overtures toward the lot of veterans after their return home, following Kyle as he ministers to the wounded and lifts their spirits. But these scenes leave a bad taste in the mouth, coming as they do after so many others telling us this is the cost of freedom. It justifies the real-life treatment of veterans by their government, once they’ve done what’s needed to be done to keep the profits flowing. That Kyle is murdered by a disturbed veteran at a gun range should be a telltale sign that something in this country is amiss. Instead, we get footage of Kyle’s funeral procession, showing us the “right” kind of veteran, he who kills most, is treated with respect. Everyone else can rot.

As I said, propaganda is not necessarily a bad thing. But propaganda on behalf of empire, in service of widespread pillaging and murder, is propaganda at its most vile. It’s “Stolz der Nation,” the film-within-a-film of “Inglourious Basterds.” And it must, under any and all circumstances, be fought.

“American Sniper” makes great hay of one hallowed number: Kyle’s “confirmed kill” count of 160, repeated throughout to remind us of his heroism. Well, I have a few numbers myself.

134,224: Civilian deaths during the Iraq War (minimum estimate).

21,000: Civilian deaths during the War in Afghanistan (ongoing).

$47.73: Lockheed Martin share price on Oct. 7, 2001.

$194.98: Lockheed Martin share price today (Jan. 16, 2015).

$1 trillion: Estimated worth of Afghani mineral resources.

0: Tears shed by me, Ian Goodrum, upon learning of Chris Kyle’s death.

The Best Film of the Year Won’t Win a Damned Thing. Duh.

Forget it Jake, it's Hollywood.

Forget it Jake, it’s Hollywood.

Another year, another series of disappointments read aloud by Chris Pine.

I’d initially planned to write this before the Academy Award nominations went out, to show just how prescient I could be regarding what is perhaps the most predictable ritual of the moviegoing season — the slow, boring ceremony of handing out trophies to mediocre or downright rotten work, glorifying the bottom of the collective barrel that is the American film industry.

That the nominations haven’t changed what I’m writing a whit is unfortunate but in no way unexpected. Surely there’s a word in German, or one we could invent in English, to describe that feeling, the letdown that isn’t really a letdown.

Because I tricked myself, again. Much like the Oscars of two years ago, where there was truly, really a horse to back in the Best Picture race, one which had actually snagged a nomination amongst the CIA propaganda, the trite great man biopics, the overwrought spectacle, this year I allowed myself to back a film that actually stood a chance at being nominated. Or so I thought.

Coming out of “Nightcrawler,” that dark horse of a movie which wound up empty-handed this morning save a consolation nod for its outstanding screenplay, what was most striking about the experience at first was how good it was, and how shocking its quality. At face value, there shouldn’t be anything noteworthy about it, a movie which appears to tread the same ground as Michael Mann — a filmmaker who teeters at the line between critiquing toxic masculinity and reveling in it. The elements are there; clean, focused shots making heavy use of digital recording, bluish-gray hues suggesting some overarching malaise, the gritty underbelly of Los Angeles as backdrop.

But from the start, “Nightcrawler” is different. We’re not going to get the tough guy stories of “Heat” or “Collateral,” or the clinical, empty violence therein. Instead, we get Louis Bloom, a shell of a man given life or something like it by Jake Gyllenhaal, his career-best performance another casualty of the goofball awards season. Louis speaks entirely in business school gobbledygook, a carefully crafted persona intended to exert the greatest possible influence on everyone. Rather than shroud such hollow, impersonal language in social cues and charm to hide the essential psychopathy of this perspective, Louis says the stuff by rote. It’s immediately off-putting for us, but only for some characters. Nina (a pitch-perfect Rene Russo), a broadcast news director, takes the amateur car accident footage he submits without batting an eye, asking for more with nary a comment on his dime-store Dale Carnegie act.

In pursuit of the next story to film, Louis hires an “intern,” Rick, who comes to the interview a homeless man. Knowing an opportunity when he sees one, Louis pays Rick (Riz Ahmed, giving out deep, exceptional layers of revulsion as Louis’ corruption grows) almost nothing and berates him for every mistake while maintaining that eerie veneer of false personability, an aura of creepiness that permeates every moment Gyllenhaal is onscreen.

It's cool if I exploit you, yeah?

“It’s cool if I exploit you, yeah?”

As Louis’ successes increase, his wealth and influence expand while Rick sees little in return. One scene shows an encounter between Louis and Joe (Bill Paxton, doing much with his minutes of screen time), a rival videographer who wants to hire Louis for his second van. Louis replies with a flat “no” and swiftly sabotages Joe’s van, causing an accident which gravely injures his competitor.

What’s especially brilliant about “Nightcrawler,” and what makes its politics so astute, is that there is a traditionally escalating arc of turpitude during Louis’ rise, but we are always kept aware that Louis himself hasn’t really changed; his material conditions have. From the first frame, his base, craven instincts are in full view. The actions he takes to protect his “success,” provided by people he exploits rather than rewards, get more treacherous as the consequences of failure worsen. Louis is building an empire, and seeing an empire fall is far worse than watching the collapse of a single person. He’s a one-man representation of all the horrid deeds capitalists commit to maintain their place in the system; he murders, brutalizes and abuses to claw his way to the top. Most frighteningly, he coerces Nina into a sexual relationship by threatening to withhold his footage; Russo and Gyllenhaal’s scene showing this is train-wreck captivating, the contours of Russo’s face becoming sharp cracks as she realizes just what he’s forcing her into.

It's a very good scene.

It’s a very good scene.

There’s no attempts to excuse Louis, no scenes to humanize him. We are spared any flashbacks to show just what went wrong to make a person this way; all we are allowed to see, and all we should see is the man he is, one willing to abandon all morality in the pursuit of more. “More” is an end in itself for Louis: More credit for his footage, more equipment, more face time with the anchors, who know better than anyone else how to mold themselves into cheery simulacra of humanity. And, sickeningly, he gets it all. He gets the credit. He gets a fleet of vans and a set of dewy-eyed interns to replace the murdered Rick. For all intents and purposes, Louis is the conquering hero, and in a different movie, like, say, the odious “Social Network,” we might be impressed with his progress despite his disturbing emptiness. Instead, we are rightfully disgusted.

Because this is what it takes to succeed in late capitalism. The myth of hard work and gumption is a lie, one anyone who’s lived in the world long enough will know to be a lie. Inborn advantages grant success, and barring those, others will have to suffer or die to see you reach your spot atop the meat grinder. This is what “Nightcrawler” tells us. Most critics applauded the performances of Gyllenhaal, Russo and Ahmed while suggesting the film’s critique of broadcast news was too on the nose. But, as we all know, “most critics” are frequently wrong. In this case, they’re in the middle of a vast forest, pointing out trees they like and don’t like, wondering why the things are all grouped so closely together.

“Nightcrawler” marries a gripping personal narrative with spot-on politics, providing surprising refreshment in a sea of fascism wearing blue spandex. It’s the rare American movie to do so, and one I happily call the best film of 2014.

Which is why it ain’t winning shit.

The Sony Hack Was Cool, and Good.

Please, take me seriously.

Please, take me seriously.

Sony Pictures has been hacked, and you are supposed to feel sorry for them.

Well, all right, feel sorry for the releasing of personal information: Social Security numbers, medical records, things with no business being in the public eye. And feel sorry for those threatened, both by said releasing and by direct threats against their person.

Putting those aside, though, and putting aside the salacious details of which executive or producer dislikes which actor or director, trivialities reported endlessly as a result of a cyberattack from parts unknown — this is the best thing that could have happened to Hollywood.

We’ve learned that despite whatever pretensions to the contrary, Hollywood remains, at its core, racist, misogynist and with enough new ideas to fill a thimble. But not a regular thimble. One of those thimbles you’d put in dollhouses. We’ve seen the inner dealings of a company run out of a clown car, the embarrassing correspondence of high-powered executives that looks like what a high-schooler would churn out after reading a page of ee cummings. And, what’s worse, but also what’s much, much better, we’ve seen the direst predictions for the future of cinema are true. This is a studio which, when looking for examples of innovative, fresh ideas, turns to adaptations of ludicrously popular novels and great man biographies, concepts that were daring around the same time as talkies.

Those dastardly North Koreans, we’re told by a government that sustained misinformation campaigns about weapons of mass destruction, widespread surveillance and state-sanctioned torture, are the ones responsible. By invoking the DPRK, already accused of declaring Sony’s “The Interview” an act of war, the United States is hoping Americans can put aside our distaste for Hollywood long enough to yell at one of the few things we hate more: North Korea. Never mind that in order to believe this, we’d have to accept both

1. North Korea is a country capable of training for and executing a massive electronic attack, sophisticated enough to bring down a major American company;

AND

2. North Korea is a country full of insecure, whiny babies who care enough about a $44 million PoliSci 101 presentation thrown together after Seth Rogen and James Franco partied too hard to commit such an attack.

The DPRK certainly could be strong enough for the former to hold true, with the latter being dubious at best, but to believe both at the same time requires the kind of cognitive dissonance that’s been fueling the Western propaganda machine for decades. In fairness, Sony Pictures had the equivalent of a key under the welcome mat as their cybersecurity, so maybe the DPRK didn’t have to be that sophisticated.

Studios seem scared to death of this attack. On the one hand, the exposure of personal data deserves condemnation, and a righteous fear of similar assault. On the other, each and every one of them knows an attack like the one on Sony will reveal their own skeletons, trapped in a closet the size of an Olympic pool, waiting to come flying out. And if it could be possible to guarantee similar leaks without also divulging that personal data, I’d welcome such attacks on them all, if for no other reason than it might make this stagnant, unctuous industry wake the fuck up.

Hollywood is a lumbering, merciless beast; creating dreams and crushing them, feeding the people ideals contradicted by its own practices, constructing a national ideology betrayed each day by material reality, ouroboros and hydra at once. Enveloping all who take part, from the wide-eyed and aspiring to the hard-nosed and jaded, it’s a specimen for capitalism’s “sharing of miseries,” as Churchill so fatuously described life under socialism.

The film industry, like most industries, is a microcosm of capitalism, a petri dish anyone can use to see the fundamental flaws of the system. At each level, there’s desperation, privation, compromise, extraction. Neophyte actors, directors and screenwriters compete for what little work is allowed for brand new talent, scrape out a living while at other jobs, become eternally grateful for what they do get, but often leave forever, burnt out and scarred. Professionals earn their wages in an uncertain environment, not knowing when the next check will come and hoping there’ll be another job down the line to pay for the little things like food, clothing and shelter, and God help you if you’ve been doing this for decades and work is scarce, because you’re off the health insurance now. Enjoy the snickers when you become, without realizing, washed up. Even the stars, despite the howling and gnashing of teeth over Hollywood paydays, face labor extraction by studios. Compare anyone’s salary to the box office receipts of a hit movie and wonder who’s getting the better deal.

Making it into the studio, even earning an executive spot at a major company isn’t freedom, either. It’s a viper’s nest. Any error in judgment, minor or otherwise, and you’re sent packing. No small wonder why Hollywood has become so risk-averse, content to churn out the safest possible films and bet the house on proven earners.

Image credit Mark Harris at Grantland.

What a time to be alive. Image credit to Grantland.

Image credit to Mark Harris of Grantland.

Hahaha, you thought it was just superheroes. Sorry to ruin your day, and also the next five years. Image credit to Grantland.

Which isn’t an excuse — it’s what happens when you run a creative enterprise based on the premise of endless expansion and nonstop consumption despite finite resources. What’s happening to Hollywood is happening everywhere. The difference is, we can see it, thanks to another industry: the entertainment press.

The press is its own, separate beast, feeding on Hollywood’s scraps. Some grouse at the fixation over celebrities and their zany antics, but entertainment news has occasionally given us peeks into just how bankrupt things have gotten. Now the hack, crude as it was — and I won’t discount the possibility it was done to save the studio from a multimillion dollar turkey, at great risk to the personal lives of thousands, no less — has thrown the door open.

After the hack, we can say with certainty that mainstream American filmmaking is a joke. In presentations made to advertisers, ones that may serve eternally in the “DON’T” column of Remedial PowerPoint classes the world over, deliberate attention has been drawn to social and political messages in Sony’s films — only as a means of saying “do not draw attention to these things.” Whatever stupidity Hollywood was a part of in the past, and whatever messy, flawed ideology it was selling, it was at least in the business of making movies that said something. Movies didn’t stop being cultural documents just because idiots in a boardroom said so, but actively quashing political content is a damn good way to make movies terrible. And they’ve gotten terrible.

Superhero and sci-fi spectacles reinforcing fascist politics, “prestige” pictures reinforcing fascist politics, our seemingly annual military death pornography reinforcing fascist politics; sensing a pattern? American cinema is liberal at best, fascist at worst, with the dividing line between the two growing ever blurrier. Good movies from major studios happen in spite of the system, not because of it, and the ones that work get bastardized into franchises and “event movies” so quickly you forget the magic ever happened.

Aaron Sorkin, making use of the op-ed page of The New York Times to provide cover for his own puerile misogyny (a trait with which any regular viewer of “The Newsroom” would already be well aware), has suggested journalists publishing portions of the leak are committing acts of treason. By making the public aware of Hollywood’s true, monstrous character, he claims these news outlets have forever poisoned “a town of powerful people — leaders and risk-takers who create things that have the power to start and change conversations.”

What conversations were those, Aaron? Conversations about which alchemical concoction of beige sameness will do the best business, maybe pick up a few golden baubles while it’s at it? Or figuring out just how much more work male actors do to get recognition, what with how easy it is for women in Hollywood?

This hack has changed conversations, all right. But not the kinds that happen after audiences view Aaron Sorkin’s latest paean to the flawed, misunderstood men who change the world no matter what some people — people with the nerve to be women, or nonwhite, or, saints preserve us, nonwhite women — think. No, these conversations are happening among yourselves, the “powerful people” of Hollywood. You’ve been found out. It’s scary. But this is an opportunity to right the sinking ship, to show it’s still possible to take a damn risk every once in a while, like, I dunno, developing an original property. Or acknowledging that the women and people of color in your audiences exist. Or taking the time to ask yourselves, “Hey, is this fascist?” before loosing torture apologia upon the world.

I’m just spitballing here.

“Amour,” or the Reason Why I’m Watching the Oscars

It's not all shot-reverse-shots of old people, I swear.

It’s not all shot-reverse-shots of old people, I swear.

The Academy Awards are tonight. Ordinarily such a sentence would prompt theatrical scoffing from the reflex center of my brain, and the brains of most who consider themselves serious movie people, and not without cause. In the long history of AMPAS ceremonies, there have been countless bizarre victories for Hollywood at its most mediocre and uninspired, with the occasional seeping through of quality being justly rewarded. Yet for much of my adult life (if such a term may be applied), I’d dutifully watched the nominated films as if these were the best the medium had to offer for any given calendar year. This pattern continued until around 2009, which was coincidentally the last time the Academy gave its biggest prize to a film which could be considered an accomplishment for anything but emptyheaded, easy entertainment.

But it was at about this time that my horizons began to expand, and I learned that other countries had gotten in on this motion picture game and hadn’t simply stopped production after the 1960s. Seeing some of the recent work to come out of the vast world cinema, and the absorption of independent movies into the subsidiary companies of large studios, was the final nail in the coffin for my mythologizing of Hollywood. It was time to grow up, and if the Oscars only saw fit to recognize the entire rest of the world in one category and one category only, often one where all or most of the nominees are superior to those of Best Picture, then it was time to leave the false glamour of the Academy Awards behind.

So it was for the years that followed 2009. A crop of pretty lousy nominees (with some exceptions, as always) was rewarded in 2010, and the true race was down to two films; a well-acted and horrendously-directed biopic that hit all the notes a biopic is supposed to, albeit in an insane key only dolphins and the criminally disturbed can hear; and a glossy, “current” biography of disgusting human beings that condescendingly asks us to feel sad for both a) a young billionaire thief who loses his friend due to ruthless business practices, a.k.a. “business practices,” and b) said friend struggling to make ends meet with only a $2.2 billion net worth as of 2012. That Hollywood gave us a choice of a tragically inept biography with an inoffensive message or a competently crafted biography with a pitch-black moral center is both disappointing and completely unsurprising. Meanwhile in the foreign language category, some seriously challenging filmmaking was going on while being shut out of any chance at real mainstream exposure. This category, as with the documentary category, serves as a means of acknowledging the artistic risks possible in countries with less hegemonic studio systems (or actual funding for films outside of private investment) while boxing in those alternatives to film production as an industrial “Other.” The films which have won Best Picture without financing from American studios have been largely safe, simple, and filled to the brim with schmaltz. In other words, films Hollywood falls over itself to reward. There will, occasionally, be a breakthrough in an acting or screenplay category for a film from another country, but never anything more than a nomination for the big prize, the prize that rewards the entire work instead of parts of the whole.

The phenomenon repeated itself in 2011. With the nomination field expanded, there remained the hope that a foreign film or documentary might worm its way into a chance at the ceremony’s top award, but instead the biggest game-changer has been the nomination of Pixar films; imaginative products of the studio system, but products of the system nonetheless. The race for the top prize in 2011 was hardly even a race; having swept the precursor awards, which now take any semblance of mystery from the Academy’s prizes, “The Artist” walked away with Best Picture. Though not an abject failure in craftsmanship like “The King’s Speech” or a paean to wealth like “The Social Network,” a trifle like “The Artist” winning the big award may go down in history as the most insignificant improvement ever made. 2011 was a unique year for the Oscars, in that Terrence Malick awakened from his ten-thousand-year slumber to put most other Hollywood filmmakers to shame with “The Tree of Life.” Since Malick is one of the few directors respected for artistry rather than bankability, he has the relative freedom to create at his own pace in whatever way he wants. Not an “auteur,” since there is no such thing, but an immensely gifted director, Malick achieved something astonishing with “The Tree of Life:” through the dreamy landscape of cinema, ripe for exploring the fathoms of the human mind, he accurately charted the hazy, disjointed process of memory itself. Sure, “The Tree of Life” had dinosaurs and incredible practical effects, but the film is remarkable for its representation of visually-lived past experience and daydreams. But not to be outdone, the foreign language category again proved formidable with the inclusion and victory of “A Separation,” a film which explores real-world interactions with all the care and meticulous detail that Malick put into his intensely internal “Tree.” The most Iranian director Asghar Farhadi could hope for when he came to Los Angeles was a runaway win for original screenplay (award instead going to a delightfully middling work by Woody Allen) and 30-45 seconds to tell the world his country is not full of Islamists who want to destroy the United States. In the battle between an Oscar acceptance speech for a category people treat as a snack break and years of anti-Muslim and anti-Iran propaganda, it’s not hard to figure out who wins.

"NOT A TERRORIST" sign not pictured.

“NOT A TERRORIST” sign not pictured.

Which brings us to today, and what makes tonight’s ceremony special. Or at least, what makes it special besides America’s Unfunniest Man hosting the festivities, something which makes my determination to watch that much more difficult to maintain. For the first time since 2000, when “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” was nominated for Best Picture and lost to the mopey “Gladiator,” a foreign film has gotten a shot at the big prize. And it’s one hell of a movie.

“Amour,” from the same team who brought you “The White Ribbon,” “Hiroshima mon Amour,” and “Z,” is perhaps Michael Haneke’s finest piece yet, and I don’t think it’s possible that he could have made this film so well without making his others first. After probing the murky underbelly of human psychosis with little squeamishness in earlier works, “Amour” takes a look at that messy and complicated emotion with the same daring and unflinching eye found in “Cache” and both iterations of “Funny Games.” “Amour” is, above all, a celebration of life in all its cruel and unfair permutations, and the perspective it offers on families and relationships is both physically draining to watch and a heartening affirmation of our protectiveness toward those we love. Emmanuelle Riva has been nominated against the person who will win, an able 22-year-old star of the moment who gets enormous goodwill and press attention for acting like a human being in public (but there is little doubt such conduct, though genuine, is a cynical PR move), and an actress tasked to sell a pro-torture narrative with her energy and drive, with that goal’s near-success proof of her talent. Yet it’s Riva who deserves a moment in the spotlight, not simply for her long and distinguished career as a fixture of the French New Wave, but as a fearless performer, who goes through the slow and painful process of suffering degenerative illness onscreen. Jean-Louis Trintignant should be similarly rewarded for portraying an equally heart-wrenching and destructive arc in “Amour”: having to watch it all and pretend the end isn’t coming. But “Amour” isn’t just the love shared between this doomed couple, the fading light of a passion eroded by the course of time. It’s a film you have to love to appreciate. It requires persistence and a willingness to be open with what you’re watching. In order to love “Amour,” you have to love film, and all the discomfort that love might entail.

“Amour” is risky, “Amour” is difficult, “Amour” is devastating, and it’s for these reasons and many others that it won’t be winning any awards but its award-designate: foreign language picture. Haneke will get his half a minute to speak, the orchestra will play, and we’ll move on to see one of several mediocrities take Best Picture. More likely than not, it will be “Argo,” a glorified heist caper that essentially serves to counteract the brief concession to Iran that was giving them the foreign language award last year. “Argo” continues the trend of Hollywood self-congratulation, where wily American operatives dupe the foolish guards in Iran by giving what amounts to a movie pitch with storyboards: a meeting in the Warner Brothers board room transplanted to an airport, with the green light meaning a fearless rescue and a triumph over the Islamic hordes. Or perhaps it will go to “Lincoln,” a whitewashed historical epic that makes a joke of America’s horrid relationship with slavery and a victory of a committed abolitionist compromising his principles. More awful still would be a win for “Zero Dark Thirty,” a piece which makes no bones about obscuring historical fact in service of a more “exciting” story of one of the darkest chapters in the history of the CIA, an organization whose record was already deep in the muck of extralegality and state-sanctioned assassination. “Zero Dark Thirty” is vile enough to call into doubt the quality of “The Hurt Locker,” a film which I maintain is a great, careful deconstruction of the intrepid action hero archetype and the caustic consequences of war. But “ZD30’s” effect on that film is similar to that of Weezer’s “Make Believe” on a Pitchfork critic; it makes previous successes from Kathryn Bigelow seem hollow and false. “Django Unchained” and “Silver Linings Playbook,” the only other decent nominees of the bunch, have just as much chance as “Amour” at the statue, and “Les Miserables,” “Life of Pi,” and  “Beasts of the Southern Wild” are hopeless in their own ways, though I’ve gone on too long already to go into more detail for this post. “Les Miserables” already has a diatribe attached.

Seriously, fuck "Lincoln."

Seriously, fuck “Lincoln.”

Despite the near-certainty of this year’s Oscars being another ceremony dedicated to the upholding of tired and drawn-out cinematic farts as the highest aspiration of the medium, the fact of “Amour’s” nomination is enough to get me interested. It would take a miracle for the film to win (the miracle being everyone in the Academy watching the movie), and it’s the possibility of such a miracle taking place that’s breaking my non-viewing habit. But hey, Adele’s performing, so that’ll be nice probably.

On Frequency

Hello to all readers of the blog. If you were breathlessly awaiting an update for the past 2 or so weeks and feeling disappointed when no such update appeared, I’m sorry. I recently got a new job and haven’t been able to set aside the blocks of time necessary to write long-assed posts about movies. There will, however, be a new post up tonight or tomorrow regarding “Skyfall” and its reversion of the political strides made in the last two James Bond films starring Daniel Craig. It seems like once I get back on a regular posting schedule, there will be long articles popping up weekly and if I start writing shorter, more traditional reviews, those will crop up with more frequency. 

For those who recall my promise of a big long post on the auteur theory, that piece has to be put on hold because a) I have not yet finished it, and b) if it were finished I would be unable to post it until it runs in print.

And some very interesting news! The chief film critic at The New York Times, A.O. (Tony) Scott, has taken notice of this blog and informed me he wishes to make a contribution. Sometime by the end of the month or the beginning of next month, he will be turning in a review of the classic anti-Semite propaganda film, Jud Suss. I, along with you no doubt, am eagerly awaiting what he has to say in our first Guest Critic column. Thanks for reading, and I hope you stick around.

Finding Ecstasy in Agony: “Zero Dark Thirty” and the Uncritical Critics

It's hard out there for a CIA agent.

It’s hard out there for a CIA agent.

What the fuck happened to film criticism?

Now, I suppose that really should read “What the fuck happened to English-language, mainstream film criticism?” since that specific category of film scholarship is all a significant portion of the population reads, but the incredulity remains. What the fuck happened?

Because it seems like since Pauline Kael stopped writing, there haven’t been any political indictments of the kind she rained down on the most deserving of cinematic atrocities. Where’s the critical courage? Since when did we decide to let films get away with propagating their vile agendas by being well-crafted?

I only ask because despite knowing how cowed American film critics have been by the shifting journalistic economy bleeding out their full-time jobs, the lack of any impassioned defense against a thesis so brutally flawed as the one posited by “Zero Dark Thirty” still leaves me shocked. The film is blatant apologia for torture as a method of extracting essential information, yet serious movie people are bending over backwards to make excuses for it. Even if we take as true the overwhelmingly liberal tendencies of paid film critics, the position articulated by the new CIA joint is such a slam-dunk falsity that it comes as an even greater surprise that many such critics are calling it the year’s best.

But maybe it shouldn’t be so surprising. After all, the aesthetic dimension of the film medium has been taking primacy in discussion or criticism over the political-social dimension for decades. Certainly the visual elements and imagery of a film are important; they are what make the art form so distinctive. Lately though, it’s been forgotten that film is like any other art form, that is to say a film carries with it an import on the material world while remaining a symbolic, dream-like document. Movies take us to a place where we are most vulnerable, most susceptible to spectacular versions of our reality, and most readily willing to accept whatever is put in front of us in the hallucinatory space of the darkened theater. This is where film generates its power to amaze and thrill, but it is also where film can distort and deceive. The German filmmaking canon alone gave us Fritz Lang and Leni Riefenstahl, F.W. Murnau and Veit Harlan, exposing audiences to the best and worst of this duality.

Similarly, there have been polarized reactions to “Zero Dark Thirty,” both supporting and maligning its place as historical retelling of the scheme to assassinate Osama bin Laden. What is so unexpected about this response is that nearly all the people against the film are journalists, and almost all those defending it are critics. Even in the reviews that bring up the movie’s politics, this minor quibble is dismissed as insignificant in the face of what the critic considers to be a monumental achievement in filmmaking. David Edelstein, he of the single paragraph-length dedications to the political content of a film, couldn’t bring himself to deny the pleasures of the “fascistic” “Zero Dark Thirty,” and awarded the right-wing treatise his number one spot for 2012. It’s as if politics are merely a curiosity compared to the much larger aesthetic concerns of art, rather than being what makes art necessary and artists want to perform their craft. The countless political movements which have had their own means of artistic expression, or the many political art pieces sprung from whole cloth by various ideologies don’t seem to matter to this new and cowardly criticism.

Just a pretty picture.

I’m not seeing anything about Democrats or Republicans here, guys. Pack it in.

And make no mistake, “Zero Dark Thirty” fallaciously argues for torture. From the opening frame, which asserts the film is based on “real events,” the film is immersing its viewer in the supposed truth of its narrative. We then hear audio recordings of the September 11 victims, followed immediately by the vicious interrogation of a terror suspect. “Ah,” we are meant to think, “here is the justice those people are asking for, beyond the grave.” Some critics are correct to point out just how horrific the violence is against the suspect, but then argue that the depiction of torture as inhumane justifies its presence. Surely people will cringe at the treatment of this man! This would carry more weight had we not just been presented with the sounds of the 9/11 victims, voices full of fear and mortality, providing a surrogate dread for the audience who lived through those days. With the cruelty of that homeland attack on one’s mind, with frightened, doomed countrymen fresh on the memory, it seems almost fair that an accomplice in that terror be given some terror of his own. Manohla Dargis of the Times claims that the film “suggests, in cinematic terms, that torture does not save lives. It is only later, when Dan and Maya lie to Ammar, sit across from him at a table, talk to him like a human being and give him food and a cigarette, that he offers them a potential lead.” Dargis fails to mention that during this conversation, Dan makes a clear threat towards Ammar that if he does not give them the information they want, the torture will continue. (Glenn Greenwald is not so neglectful.) The piece of intelligence Ammar gives to the CIA is shown to be the linchpin of their entire investigation; everything hinges on the name of the courier and his location, for it is there in Abbottabad where bin Laden lies in wait.

So the rest of the movie plays out, there’s some intrigue and false leads, one of which results in the deaths of 7 CIA operatives and gives Maya (Jessica Chastain, sinewy and driven) a Messianic resolve in finishing her mission. That tragedy is preceded by one of the most bizarre sequences of trumped-up drama I have ever seen in a late season “prestige” picture: An intercutting between Maya’s colleague (Jennifer Ehle, whose eyes seem like the only ones in the building not permanently set on “Steely”) getting ready to meet a potential al-Qaeda mole and the instant messenger conversation the she and Maya are having in real time. I suppose the sequence, with its juxtaposition of silly emoticon-driven online dialogue and the nervous tension permeating the real world meeting place, was meant to illustrate that these people are breathing, feeling humans. But what happens instead is an odd bobbing back and forth between solemnity and childishness, and it makes the deadly explosion which follows all the less impactful.

DRAMA.

DRAMA.

The late-night raid on bin Laden’s complex in Pakistan is, as expected, a taut and nerve-wracking exercise, with first person night vision camera views echoing the climactic sequence of “The Silence of the Lambs.” Where that film gave us the perspective of one character in a situation of relatively even odds of survival, “Zero Dark Thirty” gives us the false suspense of being behind the eyes of one Navy SEAL among dozens, attacking a compound with two armed men, three women, and several children. The set piece is still sensational. But the stakes could not be lower. The visceral thrill of the raid is also offset by the clinical savagery of what I can only assume is the SEALS’ standard combat procedure: unarmed and wounded men are shot dead, and the same goes for a woman who falls into the line of fire. It’s a frank, unflinching portrait of the casual nature of military killing, and if it weren’t for the pro-torture bent of the first half of the film and the mythology of the target, this sequence would be the topper for an exposé on the disgusting tendencies of the American military and the ferocious lengths it goes in order to exact perceived revenge.

Yet it’s hard to imagine the viewer seeing “Zero Dark Thirty” in this way, when after the announcement of bin Laden’s death there was riotous partying in the streets. We made bin Laden out to be this incomprehensible monster in the years leading up to his death, and classified so much of what really went on during the raid (for example, it’s unlikely we would even know about the helicopters now if one of them hadn’t crashed outside the compound), that this dramatization will serve as the definitive account of his death for the vast majority of people. And what we get is a bittersweet and vacillating view of the situation, one which obscures its stance behind multiple avenues of complexity while still managing to sell the idea that sanctioned torture is the way we finally got the bastard. Maya breaks down in tears in the movie’s final shot, cold calculation giving way to conscience and agony over the choices she’s made, but aside from those 7 dead and a brief assassination attempt in Pakistan, there hasn’t been much to test her personally. Instead, the people really hurting are the ones still locked up in Guantanamo Bay, as part of the detainee program the characters fervently wish was still a reality (one character bemoans the fact that a detainee is now able to get “lawyered up” if he so chooses). The real victims are the rising casualties of our wars of occupation in the Middle East, perpetuated by unfeeling robots roaming the air and committing war crimes on petrified civilians. It would be nice if we had more honest critics who could point out how those people have been ignored in the cinema. But no matter! We got bin Laden. Justice is served. Hoo-ah.