Martha Bayles: January 2006 Archives
There are two films called The Battle of Algiers. One is a cult film of the late 1960s, shot on newsreel stock and depicting the 1950s struggle of the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) against the French colonial occupation. Despite its skilled use of non-actors and its gritty neorealist feel, this movie contains "not a single foot" of documentary material (as director Gillo Pontecorvo often pointed out). Nonetheless, it was embraced as a training film of sorts by radicals from Berkeley to Belfast.
The other Battle of Algiers is a hot contemporary property, reportedly screened at the Pentagon in September 2003 and now available in a 3-disc set replete with retrospective documentaries and interviews with interested parties from Pontecorvo to Richard Clarke. This film's depiction of Arab radicals assassinating police and planting bombs in public places could not be more timely.
The two films are the same, of course. Only the world is different.
Or is it? With cold objectivity, The Battle of Algiers shows how the French authorities undertook to "decapitate the tapeworm" of the FLN, when that organization was assassinating policemen and planting bombs in public places. Because each FLN cell had only three members, the French found it necessary to torture hundreds of prisoners before cornering and killing the last two.
The film ends with a postscript: "For no particular reason that anyone could explain," there was an uncontrollable popular uprising two years later, which led to Algerian independence in 1962.
If you detect a note of tragic irony here, then perhaps you'll detect the same note in Clarke's comment that "it surprised the hell out of me" when Al-Qaeda seemed to grow two new heads for every one cut off. After 35 years, shouldn't counterterrorism experts be able to tell the difference between a tapeworm and a hydra?
How are movies and TV pushing this hot button topic? See my piece in the Weekly Standard.
I believe it was Lord Acton who said the strong man leads with the dagger, followed by the weak man with the sponge. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences reverses this order by giving Oscars to makeup artists but not to stunt men and women.
This is unfair but understandable, given the size of most film star egos. Makeup artists work closely with actors, chatting and flattering while using those cute little sponges to paint great white patches on their faces. (I once had a makeup lesson with a Hollywood professional, and it's amazing how much time they spend whiting out your features then re-drawing them for the camera.)
Stunt performers, by contrast, rarely work with actors. According to a piece by Mark Yost in today's Wall Street Journal, most actors do not know any stunt people, and do not want them to get awards. As I say, this is all too transparent. Why call attention to the fact that while Tough Guy Hooper is chasing the bad guys off the cliff, you are in your luxury trailer getting a massage?
Why do people watch TV shows like Showtime's "Masters of Horror"? Why don't they just curl up with a good book, like Justine by the Marquis de Sade? Much as I enjoy being scared out of my wits (though preferably not before bedtime when alone in the house), I do not like depictions of savage cruelty. The proper attitude, I know, it to treat this stuff as a campy joke, saying, "It's so over the top, it's funny." But it's not.
Anyway, given the entertainment industry's current contest to see who can induce the most vomiting among viewers, I was amazed to read in the New York Times that Showtime actually cancelled a film, Imprint, by the "deliberately and spectacularly transgressive" Japanese director Takashi Miike. Why, in this post-censorship age, would a feisty cable channel suppress such a hot property? Not for any good reason, I fear. Take a look at Kehr's plot summary:
In mid-19th-century Japan, an American journalist ... goes in search of the prostitute he has fallen in love with but was forced to abandon. The American's quest leads him to a mysterious island zoned exclusively for dimly lighted brothels, where one procurer, a syphilitic midget, introduces him to a relatively sympathetic prostitute ... Hideously deformed, the right side of her face pulled into a permanent rictus, the nameless woman tells the American the terrible story of what happened to his lover, throwing in at no extra charge the story of her own hideous childhood as the daughter of impoverished outcasts. As the woman's story continues, her revelations, scrupulously visualized, become more and more outlandish, and her descriptions of the violence done to the missing prostitute, who was suspected of stealing a ring from the brothel's madam, become more cruelly imaginative and difficult to stomach. But the most shocking imagery is yet to come, as the nameless woman describes her collaboration in her mother's work as an abortionist.
In other words, it's OK to drool over the agony of grown men and women, and a way-cool director like Miike can even toss in a child or two. But fetuses, forget. There are too many reactionaries in high places who get uptight about that sort of thing.
Still, the good people at Showtime have some moral qualms. Asked why he didn't order more cuts in the film, series executive Mike Garris replied, "It is what it is. It really was, let's try and not hack this up." How nice to know that, unlike human beings, horror films are too precious to mutilate.
In case you are one of the lowly mortals who must work this week instead of clomp around Park City in your all-weather film-watching boots, here is the Sundance website. A few minutes' scrolling and clicking will turn up a worthy tidbit or two, but for me the overwhelming impression is of a lot of silly people who think art consists of having your picture taken. And I'm not talking about the tourists.
A couple of years ago I had the privilege of being guided through a Berlin record shop by the eminent jazz musician Sigi Busch. With a kindly didactic air, he urged me to buy a 3-CD box called Comedian Harmonists: Mein kleiner grüner Kaktus. At the time my ignorance of all things German was sufficiently great that I did not realize I had acquired a gem. (It didn't help the box had no liner notes.)
Aber jetzt, Sigi, sehe ich den Licht! My language skills may still be in the dark, but about the Comedian Harmonists I have seen the light. Founded in 1928 by a down-and-out baritone named Harry Frommermann, this all-male close-harmony sextet blossomed in the 30s, then slowly withered under the stifling cultural policies of the Third Reich. Three of the six were Jewish, and much of their material was by Jewish songwriters, so even though their immense popularity protected them for a while, they eventually split up, some to bitter exile and others to the dead end of official Nazi "folk music."
For a sprightly, touching telling of this tale, see The Harmonists (1997), a fine small film directed by Joseph Vilsmaier, best known the US for his grim but riveting Stalingrad (1993) (definitely not the Hollywood war treatment). If you share my (now jettisoned) prejudice that most German films are excessively marinated in angst, The Harmonists will cure you. It's not best music flick I've seen, and there are quite a few formulaic moments. But what's fascinating is how this German production avoids the truly tired formulas of Anglo-American films about the same period. In particular, the ever-so-Ayran bass, Robert Biberti (Ben Becker), is beautifully drawn, without an iota of the usual caricature.
If Americans had made this movie, the focus would have been on the group's ethnic diversity: three Jews (one from Poland), one Bulgarian, and two Germans coming together in perfect harmony, only to be destroyed by evil of racism. True enough, but wisely The Harmonists focuses less on the obvious political lesson than on the innocent, antic spirit of these young fellows as they cavort their way to the edge of the abyss. Let me put it this way: If you loved Life is Beautiful, then you'll probably like The Harmonists, and not only because the actor playing Harry (Ulrich Nöthen) looks like Roberto Begnini.
For more on the Comedian Harmonists, check out this website.
Fear not, this thread won't last forever. But lately I've been troubled by the ubiquity of graphic torture scenes in mainstream movies, not to mention TV series - and even more bothered by the seeming inability of critics to address the moral dimension of what has clearly become an audience-pleasing shtick.
HBO is currently showing Man on Fire (2004), an action flick by Tony Scott, brother of Ridley, starring Denzel Washington as Creasy, a burnt-out Special Forces vet hired by a wealthy family in Mexico City to protect their little daughter Pita (Dakota Fanning) against mercenary kidnappers. The role seems tailored for Washington, because it exploits both ends of his spectrum: cold and bitter before befriending Pita, warm and sweet during their friendship, then cold and bitter again after the kidnappers grab her.
The torture occurs throughout the film's second half, when, believing Pita to be dead, Creasy takes bloody revenge on a colorful cross section of Mexico City's residents. About the various agonies we're invited to enjoy, let me just say that it is impressive what a resourceful inquisitor can do in a parked car using only duct tape, a sharp knife, and a dashboard cigarette lighter.
To be fair, some reviews of Man on Fire made the quasi-moral point that these scenes would be more thrilling if Creasy were trying to save Pita, not just wreak vengeance. But this implies that torture is, or should be, a routine part of police investigation. Indeed, the only honest cop, a visiting Italian Interpol officer (Giancarlo Giannini), seems content to let Creasy do his thing, because after all, "He can go places we can't."
Beyond this, the critics directed some outrage at the film's violation of the P.C. Code of Ethnic Representation, Chapter 27, Subsection 12, which reads: ""Films set in Latin American cities shall not have a preponderance of positive Anglo and negative Latino characters." Point taken. But while we're being thin-skinned, perhaps we should be a bit touchier about Hollywood's easy acceptance of a world where the rule of law has lost all meaning.
In the end, Creasy finds a way to redeem himself that gives the closing scenes unusual moral as well as emotional depth. But here the reviews were especially dispiriting. For instance, David Ng of the Village Voice concluded that this portrait of a killer trying to save his soul made the film "a right-wing fever dream, or perhaps just another day at the office for our country's leaders." When baroque evil is accepted as art, and genuine goodness dismissed as propaganda, then criticism has come to a sorry pass, indeed.
One of the strongest arguments against torture was made recently by Vladimir Bukovsky, who spent twelve years in the Soviet gulag.Writing in the Washington Post, he noted that “Torture is the professional disease of any investigative machinery ... Investigation is a subtle process, requiring patience and fine analytical ability, as well as a skill in cultivating one’s sources. When torture is condoned, the rare talented people leave the service, ... and the service itself degenerates into a playground for sadists.”
If you need further evidence of this point without leaving the comfy precincts of entertainment, consider Hostel, the latest from Eli Roth, a writer-director who makes his mentor Quentin Tarantino look like Euripedes. Marketed as a campy horror flick, Hostel is something much uglier: an open invitation to share the pleasures of Bukovsky’s playground. (“There is a place where all your darkest, sickest fantasies are possible,” rasps the trailer.) When distributed overseas, this vomit will do a fine job of souring America’s feeble efforts at public diplomacy.