Essential Killing: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running for My Life

While reviewing Duncan Jones’s Source Code, I was reminded that I ought to review Essential Killing, not because they are alike in any fundamental way, but because of the very different approaches they take to the concept of a lone man under a mortal time pressure. While Source Code puts its hero through a frenzied series of tasks, forcing him to uncover, avert, develop and create his own plot, Essential Killing sees Vincent Gallo in a perpetual flight towards the next glimmer of hope, with little hint of a narrative to guide him or give him purpose. The former grants the power of narrative authority to its protagonist, while the latter follows its lead actor with a blank stare, waiting for him to run out of fuel.

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Titanic (1943)

Anybody with even the most glancing acquaintance with 20th-century history will know that Germany was “a bit busy” in 1943. In January of that year, the entire German workforce had been mobilised for “total war”, meaning that all males aged 16-65, and all women of 17-50 were registered for participation in the war effort. It was also the year when the Warsaw and Krakow ghettos were liquidated, continuing the ongoing project to exterminate European Jews, which was also rounding up victims from Austria and Northern Italy by the end of the year. Hundreds of thousands of people are experimented upon and put to death in concentration camps, while Germany battles the Soviet Union from the East, British naval fleets in the Atlantic, and an array of foes in North Africa. It might therefore be a surprise to find that they had the time to produce a big-budget film about the sinking of the Titanic.

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Double Take Double Take

To coin a Gumpism, studies of Alfred Hitchcock are like a box of Jaffa Cakes: even though I’ve probably had enough, I always think that one more can’t possibly do any harm. How fortunate then, that Johan Grimonprez’s Double Take is a fresh and fascinating look at the big guy. The film plays upon motifs of doubling, repetition, and the cyclical broken-record rhetoric of Cold War paranoia, but itself seems at times like a doppelganger. Is it a coincidence that I feel like I’ve seen and heard most of this before?

Of course, I could have been just as entertained by watching a compilation of Hitch’s trailers and introductions for his TV show: these are always arch, often hilarious and ever-so-slightly threatening snippets of self-promotion, authoring a detached and knowing view of his work for the benefit of his spectators. Hitchcock loved to play upon his public role as master of ceremonies, posing as the only participant unaffected by his tales of obsession, terror and perversion. You can see it in his advertisements for Psycho, where he acts a as a nonchalant tour guide for the locations where the film’s murders take place:

Double Take intersperses archive footage of the Space Race, TV debates between Kruschev and Nixon, Nixon and Kennedy, Reagan and Gorbachev, Reagan and anyone who would listen, and Hitchcock himself, along with a bunch of Hitchcock lookalikes. On the soundtrack are sinister quotations from Bernard Herrmann‘s Hitchcock scores, the Supremes, and a reading of Jorges Luis Borges’ essay 25th August 1983, with the dates changed and Borges’ name swapped for Hitchcock’s. In this short fictional anecdote, Borges recounts the tale of a meeting with his double, who is on the brink of death. Given Borges’ recurrent interest in mirrors and simulacra, he seems like the perfect gatekeeper for a  series of allusive musings on the ways an author might exist independently of the persona he creates and unleashes for public consumption.

I wasn’t familiar with the “kitchen debate” between Kruschev and Nixon in 1959. At the American National Exhibition in Moscow, the two leaders met in a specially built house that was designed to show the kinds of home all Americans could afford, with domestic appliances and mod cons that demonstrated their facility with labour-saving equipment, presumably in stark contrast with the drudgery of bread-and-water existence in that land of commies. Nixon’s attempt to explain the idea of colour TV to his opposite number is a wonderful bit of patronising idiocy, but the staging a TV debate in a fake house compounds the problem of a system of facade and surface sheen.

I think I’ve had my fill of collage documentaries cross-cutting between footage of militarised horrors and perky advertising: pointing out the contradictions of a culture built simultaneously on apocalyptic dread and aspirations for trivial crap. It’s all very Adam Curtis in its juxtapositions of mushroom clouds and coffee commercials, lending an air of menace to archive footage that urges new contemplation of the deceptive purposes for which it was originally forged (though I would suggest Barbara Kruger as an uncited influence on this kind of sloganeered montagery).

The end titles produce a breakneck montage of bellicose and paranoid speechifying. Ronald Reagan’s ramble about aliens is laid over shots from Independence Day of shadows cast over Washington by offscreen invading spacecraft (doubling the earlier shots from Earth vs the Flying Saucers (1956)), and Donald Rumsfeld’s “Known Unknowns” (c)rap, surely the orthodox citation for a reductio ad absurdum of this sort of thing, has the last word.We are told that Hitchcock was invited to the White House in a memo dated the day before Kennedy was assassinated, clinching the links between Hitchcock’s knowing deployment of scare tactics and their po-faced political analogues. Hitchcock has been our guide through a densely packed nest of impersonations, mirrorings, twins and duplicates. But his fictions effortlessly transcend the ham-fisted attempts of government and advertisers to ensnare an audience and keep it in a perpetual back-and-forth between fear and covetousness.

I liked Double Take a lot, even if I had to generously attribute its familiarity to a deliberate commitment to doubling. It piles up its own connected inferences, such as the repeated use of the Empire State Building as a mutable symbol of technological primacy, a magnet for threatened disaster, or a transmitter of symbolic importance (and less figurative signals). Hitchcock himself is a monumental master of ceremonies, an artist who seemed to absent himself from the business of commenting on the historical moment, preferring to probe less contingent, more universal questions of human identity. He always disingenuously implied that he was only interested in provocative entertainments, but his observers have repeatedly extracted social commentaries and prescient, oracular wisdom from his body of work. There’s always a thrill to be gleaned from these polemical documentaries that suggest the interconnectedness of things; they comfort us with an impression of clarity amidst the infinite chaos of history. That it also exudes a whiff of paranoia and sensationalism doesn’t prevent it alighting on some truths about how enemies circle each other, ignoring the similarities in their ideological anatomies, wishing to see as opposites the people who end up closer to their mirror images. This sort of film ought to be the spur to, not the settlement of, historical narratives.

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The Hurt Locker

[Above image from Lineweights blog.]

The hype for Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker built up slowly, but right now you can’t ignore that it’s the film of the moment. The media has loved the story that the biggest challenger to Avatar at upcoming awards ceremonies was directed by James Cameron’s ex-wife, especially since The Hurt Locker comes on like a guerrilla upstart version of Cameron’s tale of a new boy to the military theatre trying to manage his emotional engagement with the indigenous peoples at the sharp end of his army’s operations. But I don’t want to force the comparisons between the two movies, for while Avatar keeps its feelings about war at a distance, alienated by layers of CGI, blue skin, predictable narrative and right-on eco-friendly politics, The Hurt Locker wants to touch the dust and dirt that cakes every building, vehicle and explosive device in today’s Iraq. It’s an admirable attempt to climb inside the sensorium of a soldier under the hottest, highest pressure in a war zone that has to keep pretending its a bustling city, keeping the action grounded, nasty and  persistently gripping. The camera stays close, as now seems de rigeur for this sort of thing, and the city becomes a conglomeration of glimpses, where any bystander could become a bomber or sniper; the soundtrack plays along – distant foes are eerily silent and inscrutable.

It’s just a shame that The Hurt Locker is good, but not that good. Whatever the visuals are doing to make it all feel authentic and asphyxiatingly tense, the plot contrivances work in the opposite direction. The film consists almost entirely of a series of missions, with little downtime or character moments in between. This is surely a deliberate decision to tell us about the protagonists through how they behave and interact while at work, but by structuring the whole thing out of a series of get-out-of-that set-pieces, it risks turning into a kind of Saw-style vision of men (because it is all men here) at war. I don’t have any experiences of war from which to draw my own comparisons, but I suspect that fighting a war is as much about the boredom and paranoia of the in-between moments as it is about the high-wire excitement of carefully-orchestrated puzzle bombs and insurgent attacks. Bigelow has always been interested in masculinity, and the masks that men put on to keep up charades of composure, strength and cool. The Loveless did a great job of queering the biker-gang movie, while Point Break knowingly pushed the testerone to self-parodic heights of dudeness. The Hurt Locker continues that project, with Bigelow’s troupe of bomb-disposal specialists manning up with acts of reckless daring and chest thumping, with ever-present hints that there is a troubled past or suppressed compassion pulsating just beneath the surface.

Jeremy Renner’s bomb expert is, let’s face it, a self-absorbed arsehole at the start of this film, and he ends the same way, with only fleeting glimmers of feeling for other humans along the way. He tunes out his family, and shows little empathy for the colleagues suffering around him. He mistakes fear for cowardice. So far so compelling, but I’m a bit fed up of stories about “the best of the best”; he’s a maverick, with all the attendant cliches, but hey, he gets the job done. He’s crazy but he’s brilliant. He’s endangering the lives of everyone around him, but he gets results. I’ve had enough of that. Tell me a story about ordinary people who have doubts, fears and butter-fingers. This characterisation leads to what I think is the film’s most perturbing thesis – that war is addictive. Is it really? It’s nothing new for a war film to focus on the physiological, psychological effects of combat on the people who have to conduct it, showing home-life struggling to match the sheer intense immediacy of being in life-or-death situations as a daily matter of course. It doesn’t even bother me that the film doesn’t engage with the causes and contexts of the war: there are plenty of other fora that are getting their teeth into those debates. Is addiction really the best analogy for men who build up a repetitive compulsion desire for the deadly sudoku that bombers have left around the city for them? I appreciate the idea that war might so overwhelm its fighters that they might end up normalising its lethal challenges, but I find it hard to believe that the biggest psychological problem facing soldiers is the danger that they might develop an unnatural attraction to their job.

Perhaps I’m being too hard on a worthy film. Perhaps, instead of being an examination of the mental interior of military men, it is another of Bigelow’s genre deconstructions, taking down the very figure of the maverick hero, showing him not to be just an efficient operator (though he certainly is that), but an empathy-bypassed shell of a man. The protective outfit he wears to march off into an uncertain sunset at the end gives him the look of an armoured cyborg, machinically stomping the track towards the next bomb, the latest fix. Such an interpretation would go against the rhetoric of authenticity that the film’s advocates have been touting, but it would confirm Bigelow as one of Hollywood’s more interesting disruptors of genre road-maps.

[As I was writing this, The Hurt Locker was picking up six BAFTAs. Not my number one choice, but at least it wasn’t Avatar.]

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Elephant (Alan Clarke, 1988)


39 minutes. 18 killings. 3 lines of dialogue. Alan Clarke’s Elephant is shark-simple in its relentless depiction of sectarian assassinations in Northern Ireland. It’s Bresson with guns, as a monotonous procession of shootings takes place with rhythmic repetition. A few shots establish a location into which a man will walk. He seeks out another man and shoots him. Then leaves. He doesn’t flee the scene: the drama of the murders produces no changes of pace or fluctuations of facial expression. We linger on a sullen corpse for a few seconds, then the process repeats again with a different shooter and a different victim. Occasionally the man we see turns out to be the victim, not the assassin. Occasionally, there is a second victim at a single scene. On one occasion there is a brief, mundane exchange of words. But for the most part, the formula stays the same throughout the film. Little attempt is made to exploit the format for a wide variety of murder methods – guns do the trick efficiently enough, thankyou.

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The killings are covered predominantly with wide-angle lenses on a Steadicam. This gives the shooters a purposeful, inexorable force, and as superior field of vision, as they carry out their task. Gus Van Sant used a similar technique for his massacre-based Elephant, which takes its title from Clarke’s film, but there it expressed ineluctible lines of fate that would converge devastatingly at the conclusion. Clarke’s tracking shots are heat-seekers, zeroing in on a target with no meandering, accident or deflection. And there is no connection between them, no sense of a conspiracy being rooted out, or a ring being smashed, just a string of squalid slayings. You want to scour people’s faces for signs of remorse, conflict, fear or other emotional nuances, but these attempts will always be frustrated, either because figures have their backs to the camera, or because their faces are sternly illegible. This is as easy as getting out of a car. And then getting back in again. The victims are benign and ordinary in their shirts and woolly jumpers. Almost all die immediately, barely having chance to register more than a dumb recognition that there’s some guy at the door. They slump or fall like the overpacked shopping bags you put down when you get home.

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Dennis Lim’s DVD review from the Village Voice puts it quite nicely, and uses most of the adjectives I wrote down in my notebook while watching:

Almost wordless and purposefully numbing, the film alternates between queasy motion (someone walks, walks, walks, and the Steadicam follows) and sickening stillness (someone is shot, and the camera likewise stops dead in its tracks). Clarke’s masterpiece, Elephant is detached and diagrammatic to the point of abstraction—it pares a cycle of senseless violence down to cruel, anonymous geometry.

Aside from the obvious shock value of seeing a set of killings that never coalesce into a narrative, there’s also a palpable sense of being kicked hard in the genres. Ouch. Isn’t TV drama, especially when its broadcast by the BBC, supposed to be a public forum for talking about political problems, current affairs and historical events? Isn’t it a way of making the news seem a bit more manageable, to situate it within a pleasingly contained, story-shaped vessel? Where is the context, the background, the psychological, character-developed, method-acted, micro-for-the-macro-allegorised, self-importantly-hyphenated drama of it all? That title comes from Bernard McLaverty’s description of “the Troubles” (itself an evasive, palliative descriptor) as “the elephant in the living room”, the enormous issue that people get used to and stop acknowledging. Well, elephant looks like the offcuts of a sanitised news archive, the deleted scenes of a war made to look like it wasn’t a war. It sounds like a trite concept, to show the human cost of conflict by excising everything else, but as a confrontational viewing experience it is a peerless pachyderm let loose in the lounge, refusing to play by genre rules: its perfect home, then, was on TV, becoming a cyclical installation piece in the corner of your front room.


Irony Man

I could start by fabricating the excuse that I was queueing for the Jia Zhangke screening and it was sold out, but whatever lie I come up with, I ended up foregoing more edifying entertainment in order to watch Iron Man. I’d been softened up by some warm reviews, and the assurance that its politics couldn’t have been more right-on if Hans Blix himself had been transformed into a cyborgic weapons inspector and spent two hours of screentime failing to inspect any weapons.

How surprised was I to find out that Iron Man is not the liberal avenger and “ally of the United Nations” that he was purported to be in a Guardian Guide cover story? A bit surprised. This is the latest in a long line of films that deals obliquely with America’s post-9/11 situation, tentatively probing areas of moral ambiguity, but rarely with a whole-hearted commitment. Certainly, it seems to be about an arms dealer who makes a moral choice to withdraw from his position of complicity in the networks of retributive, territorial destruction that his trade fertilises, but it is actually less a fantasy about how a moral interventionism might work and more a vision of how the Bush administration seems to think it already acts.

The film dresses up tortuously complex geo-politics in a fantasy of precision-engineered bodies, a convenient replacement of diplomacy with kicks and punches. To most of us, a Middle Eastern warzone is a distant, scorching, no-go area of torn limbs, twisted wreckage and unreasonable locals. Iron Man can be there at a moment’s notice, picking off bad guys (with no stray “friendly fire”), thumping some sense into those toothless desert types. He can get in and out unscathed and withdraw to his default position of non-involvement, the ultimate in convert interventionism. Surely this is meant to be cathartic, a vision of weaponised body armour that does its job as surely and precisely as the algorithms used to make the CGI happen. Digital effects make it all seem effortless – there’s little in the way of tangible physicality, so there’s an over-compensation in the thudding sound effects and rock-solid violence, and since all the effects are plotted so carefully, there’s little in the way of chaos to make it feel like real, rough-and-tumble combat with lives and limbs at stake. If nothing else, this kind of eye-defying, lightning fast action can only show up the elegance of the superheroic mayhem in Ang Lee’s much maligned Hulk. In Lee’s film, the customary “get me the president” sequence that announces the monster as a national threat finds the Leader of the Free World on a fishing trip, barely interested in news of the green giant that is currently trashing the fixtures and fittings of the military industrial complex. There’s a grander political statement in that one moment than in all of Iron Man‘s hand-wringing.

As a character, Iron Man is not as interesting as Robocop, whose metal prostheses were permanently forced upon him, bringing on an existential crisis that makes Tony Stark’s yearning for a cheeseburger seem like a state of luxury. (Neither character is as afflicted as the protagonist of Colossus of New York, which deserves more recognition than it gets, if only for having a mournful solo piano score at a time when the theremin was the 50s sf instrument of choice.) After Spider-Man, Hulk, Daredevil and Batman, it has become customary to see superheroes grappling with the internal crises created by their public status and physical difference, so it’s a big surprise to find Robert Downey Jr’s character embracing the diplomatic impunity and celebrity that goes along with his alter ego. It’s just a bit of a boring surprise.

P.S. The pun in the title of this post no longer matches the way my argument turned out, but I liked the sound of it, so rather than teasing out some sense of irony from my reading of the film, I thought I’d just leave it there anyway. Who’s going to notice?

P.P.S. I should also note that in Iron Man Gwyneth Paltrow ‘tackles’ the most thankless decorative role offered to an Oscar winner since Orson Welles advertised fish fingers. But I have nothing substantive to say about that fact. Unless a sigh of resignation counts as comment.

Gwyneth Paltrow Iron Man Premiere
Extra: Since I published this post, AP at the Movies‘ review of Iron Man has drawn my attention to an intelligent and far more evenhanded discussion of the film than I could manage here, and it sounds like Dana Stevens has put a positive spin on exactly the kind of thing that energised my little rant about the film:

[The] middle section, in which the newly energized Tony tinkers with his emerging superpowers like a kid in shop class, is the movie’s finest and funnest hour. But when he starts to actually use those powers, zooming to random corners of Afghanistan to save cowering villagers from evil warlords, the movie’s sharp intelligence gives way to a dopey wish-fulfillment fantasy. This is what we’d like our wars to be: a clearly defined moral crusade against a bald, glowering meanie who proclaims his Genghis Khan-like ambition to “dominate all of Asia.” (With an eye on potential box-office buzz kill, the movie cannily stays away from the mere mention of the Taliban, the war in Iraq, or domestic terrorism.) Tony’s invulnerable, omnipotent, impossibly expensive armor is an almost touching overcompensation for the moment of extreme vulnerability in which our country finds itself.”

So, is Iron Man a soothing piece of geo-political wish-fulfilment, or a deluding bit of geo-political evasion? The choice is something akin to yours.