Saturday, November 24, 2007

Redacted and the Iraq War Film

Brian De Palma is one of those filmmakers that has been accredited alongside some of the greats of the 1970s, often being put in the same category as Scorsese, Coppola, Altman, Polanski, Mike Nichols, and the like. Yet De Palma has no grand opus, no film from the period that defines him as a great filmmaking personality that has succeeded across time and emanated through culture—he has no equivalent to Taxi Driver, The Godfather, or Chinatown.

De Palma is most famous for the campiest of campy gangster pics, Scarface; and his 1970s catalogue (with the exception of Carrie) is better known for the references made to them in Tarantino flicks than the original films themselves (ie. the split-screen sequence in Kill Bill Vol. 1). As far as his recent filmography, the bad (Femme Fatale) has considerably outweighed the good (Mission: Impossible). And if the incredibly long tracking shots that open both Snake Eyes and Mission to Mars are any indication, De Palma’s technical ingenuity far exceeds his storytelling ability. One should proceed with caution before putting him alongside the masters of the 1970s.

His latest, Redacted, has been one of a recent trend of under- performing films that deal with the Iraq war. Like Rendition and the upcoming Stop-Loss, its title comes from military/foreign relations terminology. “Redacted” refers specifically to the censoring of controversial material for the American media, namely pictures and other information regarding Iraqi civilians harmed or killed by US soldiers. The film itself is a narrative, documentary-style reenactment of the rape and murder of a fifteen year-old Iraqi girl by US soldiers.

Redacted definitely presents a perspective on the war rarely seen by the mainstream media, and the film’s criticism of the war and its troops is unapologetically scathing. The message is disturbingly clear: we cannot, with a clear conscience, simply deem the innocent lives lost in an unjust war as “casualties” and hide behind the statistics therein; the American government must take responsibility for atrocities that happen in a country they try to occupy.

But the film’s attempts at “realism” fall resoundingly short. The entire narrative is mediated through home videos, security cameras, newscasts on various national networks, and YouTube videos (and its middle eastern equivalent)—and, in the most classic attempt at realism, all the roles are played by no-name actors. While this effort makes sense in making a film about a war that is saturated by all types of media, the characters and performances are so obviously scripted and stiff as to automatically eliminate any such realism. De Palma does not let us get to know the psychology of any of these characters, and instead he gives us cardboard cut-outs of bad soldiers, worse soldiers, and morally ambiguous soldiers (another example of De Palma’s favor of technical ingenuity over storytelling ability). Redacted then makes one final, full-on move into melodrama with one soldier’s pathetic, hardly believable lament over witnessing the rape. Then De Palma subjects us to possibly the most powerful and hotly debated moment of the film: pictures of real-life Iraqi “casualties” with their eyes censored by black lines (“redacted”).

At the film’s center is Pvt. Angel “Sally” Salazar, who records his experience in Iraq continuously, hoping that whatever he ends up with will get him into USC film school (poor Sally doesn’t realize that USC doesn’t accept previously made films as part of their application). Sally tells one soldier that he’s recording everything to tell the truth, that a video camera is a device for telling such truth, while another soldier responds, “All that thing does is lie.” De Palma himself openly argues the latter perspective, as he is quoted to have said, “The camera lies all the time; lies 24 times a second” (probably as a reversal of Godard’s iconic quote, “Film is truth at 24 frames a second”). And this message is a timely one: the constant media saturation doesn’t reveal any truth about Iraq, and only confuses any existing version of the “truth”—we can never "truly" know Iraq.

Sally is executed (beheaded) by supposed insurgents because of the rape—but Sally didn’t rape the girl, he only filmed it. This “killing the messenger” could be De Palma’s “execution” by the mainstream media for making such a film, for merely “observing the incident with his camera”. Judging by Bill O’Reilly’s call to boycott Redacted (which he, of course, hasn’t actually seen), De Palma’s symbolic martyr may not be too presumptuous.

While it's difficult to truly believe American soldiers are as immaculate in their moral structure as they are made out to be by both “support the troops, finish the job” Republicans and “support the troops, bring them home” Democrats, the soldiers themselves are indeed victims in this ridiculous war. Many are largely marginalized, lower-class citizens who have had little choice but to join the military while a certain US president relaxes on his ranch four months a year. While atrocities committed by US military should certainly be brought to media attention, De Palma’s portrayal of soldiers as racist, morally bankrupt, two-dimensional automatons feels severely misguided. In a time of such corrupt politics, isn’t it more appropriate to criticize the war from the top, down rather than from the bottom, up? Also, if De Palma’s goal were to make a film about the censoring of information, wouldn’t it be more appropriate to tell the story through the eyes of a journalist or government official, rather than make a fake documentary that poses itself as a piece of investigative journalism?

I was excited earlier this fall to see a slew of Iraq-themed films, for I (and, no doubt, the filmmakers) believe such films could make a positive impact on the war, America’s foreign policy, or even inspire protest and resistance by the American people. But such films, including this one, have proved to be immensely disappointing. As many have somewhat naïvely coined the Iraq war as the "new Vietnam" (but this is not near as naïve as Rumsfeld equating it with WWII’s fight against fascism), filmmakers and studios may have hoped movies would criticize Iraq as they did so well against Vietnam decades ago. Thus, it is not surprising that notoriously nonconformist filmmakers who gained their fame during the Vietnam era are now making films about Iraq, like Robert Redford (Lions for Lambs) and De Palma.

While its narrative bears a strong resemblance to De Palma’s Vietnam film, Casualties of War, Redacted is part and parcel of the Iraq war. As Globe and Mail’s Rick Groen stated in his review, “No other war could have produced a movie like this.” Iraq is not Vietnam, and likewise, Iraq movies are not Vietnam movies, no matter how much we’d like for them to be.

What people forget is that movies about Vietnam weren’t made until after the war. Probably the first Hollywood movie that dealt explicitly with the war was Hal Ashby’s Coming Home in 1978, with Jon Voight in an Oscar-winning performance as a paraplegic veteran. After that was Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978), Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), and an onslaught of Vietnam films in the 1980s: Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986) and Born on the Fourth of July (1989), Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987), John Irvin’s Hamburger Hill (1987), De Palma’s Casualties of War (1989), and a curious pattern of conservative Reagan-era Vietnam films: the Rambo series.

These films had the privilege of hindsight. More importantly, many of them had themes that stretched far beyond the war itself, catapulting them into continuous reverence as an inseparable part of the history of American film. Apocalypse Now, in particular, because it was based on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (written decades before the war) and adapted to Vietnam, retains themes of the book regarding the troubling nature of colonization, and this transforms Apocalypse Now into something far more complicated than just a “war film”.

The films that liberal, nonconformist filmmakers made during the Vietnam War were far more universal than today’s films about Iraq. Hollywood had no interest in making films about the war itself, so filmmakers used allegory and symbolism to object to the war and the growing American conservatism at large.

Take Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), for example. On the surface, it’s a standard western about an eccentric named John McCabe (Warren Beatty) who develops a modest brothel in a small northwestern town. But, as the narrative develops, the film takes on the larger themes of American big business’ attempts to eradicate the more “authentic” small business. The film uses a traditional genre to explore contemporary issues. But because the film works so well on its own terms, and its themes are so timeless, it isn’t stuck in 1971. It still speaks to audiences more than thirty years later. Even Altman’s previous “war” film, MASH (1970) isn’t “about” the Vietnam war (Fox forced a prologue that said it was about the Korean war), yet MASH is still indisputably of its era, and has aged well because of the universality of its antiestablishment character types.

The Graduate. Bonnie and Clyde. Midnight Cowboy. Harold and Maude. The Godfather. The Conversation. The Last Detail. Taxi Driver. None of these films explicitly address the controversies of the late sixties and early seventies, but they do implicitly deal with such themes, and their politics are certainly indicative of the era they were made. Their lack of explicit address prevents them from being stuck in time. People still, amazingly enough, watch these movies.

As evidenced by the lack of response by both critics and audiences, the current string of films about the Iraq war are too preachy and too concerned with the most recent headlines. Their messages only extend to what their characters explicitly say about the conflict, spoon-feeding their politics to us (as screenwriting continues to lack subtlety in the era of Paul Haggis).

Hollywood needs to take a lesson from the era they’re trying to emulate. They need to seek the depth and allegory of movies from the sixties and seventies. Filmmakers today need to learn that they can deliver their message without showing a character ranting on YouTube. If Redacted is any indication, what these films desperately need is “characters,” not stand-ins and talking heads.

These films of the Iraq War have no universal themes. They are only indicative of the specific day and time they were made and the most current political climate. In a few years years, Rendition, Lions for Lambs and Redacted will be irrelevant, and even more invisible than they are now, no matter how important they try to be today.

Come on, guys. You can do better.

The New Western (?)

Many things define a Western. The time period, the costumes, the gunfights, the photogenic landscapes; but perhaps the central tenet of the Western is the theme of civilizing (“Americanizing”) the frontier West, molding it into a society of proper law and order. Three films from this fall approach this genre—which has been largely ignored in recent years—in different ways. The Western may not be dead after all.

3:10 TO YUMA

The most traditional Western in a long time, 3:10 to Yuma keeps intact all the genre's conventions. It feels as if it were lifted directly from the fifties with simply a more violent tone and more rapid editing than what could have existed back in those days, obviously in part because it is a remake of a 1950s Western. The widescreen vistas, the eccentric villain, the gunfights—it’s all here. But what is most surprising about the film is the very tradition of its traditional style. The film is astoundingly unaware of its rarity in an era when there is hardly a Western at all. 3:10 to Yuma exercises all the genre conventions with a natural ease of storytelling, as if Westerns like this were just as common today as they were fifty years ago.

Most Westerns made in recent years are overwhelmingly tongue-in-cheek, always trying a little too hard to give the genre a new look and contemporary feel (Wild Wild West is one of the more extreme examples of this). Even movies like Tombstone and Unforgiven seemed to always be shouting at the audience, “Look! Look! I’m a Western!” But 3:10 to Yuma has such a convincing atmosphere, complete with compelling dialogue and straightforward performances by Russell Crowe’s villainous Ben Wade and Christian Bale’s tragically heroic Dan Evans, that allows the audience to be so subsumed into the story as to not realize that they are watching a type of genre film that hasn’t found success in its classic, traditional form since the early 1960s.

The theme of civilizing the West is as classical as ever here: in order for law and order to be established and civilization to evolve, miscreants like Wade must be abolished from the landscape. This scenario can be found in dozens of other Westerns, yet the film thankfully has no Tarantinoesque wink-wink tendencies referencing the classics, allowing the audience to enjoy it on its own terms. The film arguably contradicts the common notion (from studios, audiences and filmmakers) that Westerns cannot exist in their classic form in our era. The Western, 3:10 to Yuma argues, is far from dead.


The Assassination of Jesse James can be argued as an anti-Western. While the film has the time period, costumes, and photography right, everything from the minimalist score to the lengthy title to the quiet, meditative pace to the omniscient narration that sounds like it came from a MasterCard commercial mold this epic into something far different. The film is a thorough deconstruction of the most mythic of Western myths, the James gang. Jesse James has been portrayed many, many times in film, but never quite like this. The reimagined James is a man who is very aware that his myth and reputation far exceed the flesh and blood of the man himself—and by questioning the myth of Jesse James, the myth of the Western itself is disrupted.

Jesse James is portrayed as a fractured depressive, torn by every innocent man he has killed and robbed. He is far from the 19th century American Robin Hood he is most often thought to be. We see James through the eyes of Robert Ford, a naïve youngster who believes the myth he hears about in stories is the same as the man himself. Ford actually believes in the myth of the West, and he suffers for his dire misconception. The lengthy title explicitly states what the end of their relationship will be, so the film doesn’t rely on a suspenseful narrative trajectory, allowing the audience to become involved with the quiet relationship of James and Ford instead of any normal storyline. And, as the title suggests, Ford hardly has the redeemable qualities of the traditional Western hero.

James’ assassination is the result of a childish rivalry. Unlike the justice brought to Ben Wade, the ridding of James from society is not part of the civilizing process. Ford is a pawn of the government, and is therefore a victim of such a process, suggesting corruption and hypocrisy in American justice. The notion of classical hero and villain are subverted with the ways James and Ford are portrayed. Evidenced by the way the American people react to the assassination, James’ death doesn’t bring any order to society, instead only furthering disorder, suggesting that America was never civilized under such simplistic moral values, and Americans instead prefer the myth of the man who stole and killed for fame rather than the man who supposedly brought justice.


Many will argue that the latest from the Coen brothers is not at all a Western, and in many ways they are right: the film is wrong in terms of the time period, the costuming, the weaponry, and the film doesn’t contain any form of a classic Western narrative. But the landscape is definitely there, as Roger Deakins’ camera manages to capture the Western horizon beautifully. The cowboy hats, West Texas setting, and violence also vaguely remind one of a Western.

Yet No Country for Old Men attacks the notion of the civilizing process in a way that only a Western set in modern day could. While the forward-moving part of its narrative follows a unique cat-and-mouse chase between Josh Brolin’s Llewelyn and Javier Bardem’s Chigurh, Tommy Lee Jones’ almost completely inactive Sheriff Bell has a lucid, contemplative, existential presence throughout the film that hardly does anything to move the narrative forward, but brings the film’s themes to the forefront. Bell laments over a world that he sees to be getting worse and worse, and he exercises his angst through the case of a drug run gone wrong. And as Llewlyn’s situation gets more hopeless, Bell becomes more complacent.

What Bell is upset over could be read as the de-civilization of the West, that all the law and order and clear morality that once existed is quickly falling into chaos and anarchy. Bell lays out at the opening’s voice-over narration that the world is getting progressively worse, and he discusses the decline of morality with each passing generation with another aging sheriff towards the film's end. Yet Bell has a conversation later with a wheelchair-bound old man who has an alternative, less nostalgic philosophy: the world has always been unjust. Either the West is being de-civilized, or it never was in the first place. That the film drops off with no real closure suggests something of a validity in both these notions.

There is no traditional Western hero in either Llewelyn or Bell, but there is an easily identifiable villain of No Country for Old Men. Chigurh claims to have principles, but not in the admirable way that even the vilest of classic Western villains do (ie. Ben Wade). There is no notion of honor or bravery in the new West, just a Darwinian natural selection that gives no mercy to the weak or kind. Cigurh’s principles rely instead on a twisted definition of fate that allows him to kill virtually any person he wants for no reason—he doesn’t even spare women. In contrast to the classical Western villain who is ultimately brought to justice, Chigurh continues to freely roam the landscape. Chigurh’s freedom is the sign of signs that the West is in a state of inevitable de-civilization, delving into a world where justice, like the myth of the West, is dead.


Tuesday, October 23, 2007

A Response to Criticism of The Darjeeling Limited

(Warning: Spoilers Ahead)

Mick LaSalle, Rex Reed, Alissa Simon, Kyle Smith, Jan Stuart and Jack Mathews: what do all these people have in common?

Wes Anderson’s critics have often found themselves distanced from his characters’ arrogant, self-important personalities and the director’s overwhelmingly idiosyncratic style. His latest, The Darjeeling Limited, is no exception to such criticisms. And while I feel no responsibility to defend any filmmaker simply because their films coincide with my personal tastes, I feel most critics are lumping Darjeeling Limited too readily into the stock criticism of Anderson’s previous work without examining the film on its own merit.

Many of Wes’ critics feel that they aren’t “in” on the joke of his films, that Wes panders solely towards his reliable twenties hipster fanbase instead of molding and furthering his craft. They find his characters impenetrable and one-note, whose uniform selfishness and self-importance may be beginning to resemble the image-conscious director himself. When examining Wes’ past work, this argument gains ground. After all, aren’t Max Fischer, Royal Tenenbaum and Steve Zissou (and maybe even Bottle Rocket’s Dignan) essentially the same character?

Some argue that the similarity of each of Wes’ films—in their style, characterization and narrative—gives him an authorial touch, making Wes an “auteur”. Maybe. But having a signature style doesn’t necessarily make one a good filmmaker. (In a previous article, I argued that Michael Bay is an auteur.)

But, in Darjeeling, we don’t have one narcissistic protagonist searching vainly to find superficial satisfaction in life…we have three: Francis Whitman (Owen Wilson), Peter Whitman (Adrien Brody) and Jack Whitman (Jason Schwartzman) (yes, they’re brothers). For some, this combination just means the same-old-thing multiplied, but by pitting these exact character types against each other, Wes is finally on to something he’s never explored before.

These wealthy brothers have been taken out of their privileged environment in the big cities (NYC) and fancy hotels (Chevalier) of the Western world, and pitted them in the unknown, unfamiliar East: India. And it is this premise that allows the Wes Anderson archetype to change and grow. It’s as if Max Fischer abandoned Rushmore, Royal Tenenbaum left New York, or Steve Zissou devoted himself to dry land (…sorry, no Dignan analogy here). Their superficiality and selfish desires are immediately apparent to the people of the foreign land—even if the Whitmans are too strung out on narcotics to notice.

Many American college students have had the coveted “study abroad” experience, or at least the summer backpacking trip to Europe before grad school. The Whitman brothers’ journey is reminiscent of such a rite-of-passage. They are looking for an “experience” abroad, namely a “spiritual experience” that will allow them to transcend…well, something; they don’t know quite what. Yet they hardly ever “experience” India—they see India, but they see it mediated through the window of their train while they drink, eat and use too many prescription drugs (after all, what’s an abroad experience for if not getting f*cked up?).

The Whitman brothers explore temples during the trains’ two-hour stops, but they obviously have no knowledge of the region’s religious practices or the temples’ significance. Francis simply orders his brothers to “light some candles and pray to that deity thing over there.” When they sit down to pray, they are quickly subsumed in trivial materialistic matters, as Francis and Peter argue over a belt borrowed without permission. Later in the film, as the characters kneel and pray during a temple service with other Indians, they ask each other, “Is anything happening, yet?” They were clearly misled in thinking India would cater to their needs and answer all their Western wishes. The brothers’ private spiritual mockery involving a feather, and all the ridiculous sounds and motions involved, make fully clear the banality, futility and meaninglessness of their earnestly misdirected spiritual journey.

This is the exact type of arrogant, uneducated perception of foreign countries Americans are so often accused of having. Though the brothers (mainly Francis) seem to be searching for a valuable experience and an education in the culture of foreign lands, they always resort to immediate pleasures and superficial vices, as indicated by the heavy narcotic use. But this point becomes clearest when Jack seduces the train’s stewardess; Jack literally experiences the East every way he can. During their sex act, Jack asks the stewardess what her name is, and Francis simply refers to her as “Sweet Lime”, a drink she serves. Her name is of no concern; she is of no other purpose than to be another artificial component of his abroad experience—she is part of his vacation.

One feminist website has argued this scenario as indicative of the racism and sexism in Wes’ movies. But this argument would infer that we the audience (and Wes) view the Whitman brothers as heroes, that we support their decisions and look up to them as moral and ethical conduits for ourselves—that we see through their eyes. While this is the case in experiencing most American films, it surely doesn’t apply to this one. The distancing style Wes is so criticized for allows us to watch these characters objectively; in other words, we may sympathize with them, but we don’t empathize with them. We don’t feel the repercussions of their bad decisions, but we are allowed to witness them, and thus witness the characters’ inevitable and necessary growth from a moral distance.

Max Fisher, Royal Tenenbaum, and Steve Zissou are all assholes, and it’s hard for us to feel like they deserve what they’re seeking. Yet in the dance scene in Rushmore, the wedding and funeral scenes in Tenenbaums, and the jaguar shark climax in Life Aquatic, the supporting characters suddenly gather around, forgive, and respect each protagonist. And the audience does not always feel the respect and admoration these characters feel (the “placing of hands” in the jaguar shark scene was especially criticized).

However, with Darjeeling, Wes has somehow struck a perfect balance. The style of this film is not quite as overwhelming as in his others, so it distances us just enough so that we are willing to follow these characters, but not be frustrated by their amoral and selfish personalities.

This is what makes the dramatic shift in tone so affecting and effective (unlike in Zissou). With the dropping of their luggage (and the luggage is a frequent, if not redundant, metaphor), the priorities of these characters have suddenly shifted. Saving the children in the river is the first time (we see) the Whitmans act for anybody other than themselves. And rather than resorting to an easy display of Hollywood heroism, the action has its repercussions with the death of one of the children (that it was Peter’s child who died is an excellent way to delve into his character without delving into his character).

Finally, the funeral is a “spiritual experience” and ritual they actually understand. The brothers have unfortunately found the “experience” they’re looking for, and it was not until they were kicked off the train (their Western/privileged belligerence and ignorance catching up with them), not until they can no longer experience the country through a train window, that they can find it. The Whitmans are at last able to confront their reason for escape—the death of their father—in a startling, yet brilliant flashback. Most filmmakers would typically resort to the familiar funeral scene, but Wes opts to show the brothers on the way to the funeral in New York, as they make an emergency stop at an auto shop to pick up a European car. Once again, the brothers’ true emotions are expressed superficially—the mourning of their father is exercised through the fruitless “fixing” of the car.

The brothers have other personal baggage as well that they left outside India, yet they still refuse to acknowledge these troubles outright, only expressing them obliquely through their typical behavior. When the brothers get to the airport, the funeral has had an effect on them, but, just like everything else, they don’t acknowledge it. They resort back to their superficial behavior (Francis orders them to relax with a drink and report back to a small, obscure shrine to give thanks for their trip). Yet, at the last minute, they decide to stay in India and get on another train. Knowing their respective duties elsewhere (Peter is about to be a father), this is not a responsible action. And while the change in their character is not drastic in the convenient (ie. unbelievable) way Hollywood would call for, it is a significant change nonetheless, as these characters have (inadvertently) grown and matured (and spoiled, tortured souls who grow a little bit are far better than heroes in my book).

They literally leave their baggage behind.

The Darjeeling Limited is Wes Anderson’s most mature work to date, as he has finally found the perfect balance between his unique style and subtle characterization. The style, for the first time, does not burden the substance.

Maybe the critics are right. Maybe Wes' films only speak to the twenties hipster crowd (an audience he has supposedly nurtured, according to Christopher Kelly's recent Texas Monthly article [below]). If that's the case, then I think hipsters have a pretty good taste in movies.

...except for Napoleon Dynamite. That was horrible.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Screen It? I'd Rather Not...

Before Eastern Promises started rolling its beginning credits, I was exposed to the ordinary dose of trailers, which all had the typical green MPAA disclaimer explaining their approval of said trailer along with the film’s rating and a brief description why. But one of the trailers took me, and probably several other audience members, by surprise. The disclaimer described the following about the film advertised: Rated PG-13 “for strong thematic material including the rape of a child, violence, and brief strong language.”

The trailer was for Marc Forster’s new film, The Kite Runner, coming out November 2nd. Now, I haven’t seen the film, nor have I read the book it was based on, but I’m just going to go out on a limb here and guess that the “rape of a child” described is probably a major plot point in the film.

There is nothing in the trailer that alludes to this part of the film, so I’m also going to guess that it’s a plot point that the filmmakers, producers and/or advertisers don’t want audiences to know about until they see The Kite Runner.

I find it extremely problematic, if not downright infuriating, that the MPAA is so concerned with our aversion to mature thematic material that they would reveal such a potentially essential plot point. What exactly were they afraid of? Were they concerned that, if we weren’t aware of the “rape of a child” beforehand, we would find it disturbing or offensive? But isn’t that, most likely, how the filmmakers intend for us to react to it in the context of the film?

The MPAA, and the Americans they represent, are absolutely mortified with the thought of audiences not knowing every detail of a film that could be offensive. But the increasing caution that the MPAA employs (mostly from parents’ often unfounded concerns) have started to take a major toll on the actual experience of watching a movie, especially to those of us who don’t have children.

Studios complain about spoilers of their films all over the internet, script leaks, pirating, and the like (the recent debacle about an extra’s revelation of explicit details from the new Indiana Jones movie is indicative of this), but what about all the spoilers made in the name of protecting child viewers? (I would include adult viewers that act like children in that category as well.)

And not all of it has come from the MPAA. There’s a website,, whose homepage says the following:

“In today's world of economic uncertainty, you need Screen It even more than ever before. You certainly don't want to waste your hard-earned dollars on movies or DVDs that might contain material you'd find objectionable for yourself and/or your kids.”

ScreenIt, for a small monthly fee of $24.95, will give you every single potentially objectionable detail to pretty much any film in major release, including (I’m not kidding) the exact number of times each type of curse word is used, and in what context. Did you know that Jarhead has the “f” word 278 times, 38 with the prefix “mother”? Do you care? Can you believe it's somebody's job out there to count curse words in movies? The site also explains, in great detail, any instance or innuendo of sex or violence in a film, ignoring the potential exposure of otherwise irrelevant story details like the death of a major character. Can you imagine going to a movie like The Departed already knowing which characters are going to die?

If parents rely on sources like ScreenIt too much, they eventually get into a trivial mess of what’s appropriate and what’s not. For instance, is 30 “f” words in a film any more harmful to your twelve-year old than 278 “f” words (38 with the prefix “mother”)?

While I definitely have my qualms with the MPAA, they aren’t all to blame for this proliferation of story information in the name of protecting children. Parents' high demand for this type of information has certainly been a factor in the MPAA’s decisions. And I do, to a point, understand. If I were the father of a young child, I would like to have some idea as to whether or not my son or daughter and I would be having a “special conversation” after a PG-13 movie. But I would also prefer not to know every single story detail going in. Movies are supposed to be fun, and how much fun can they be if you know exactly what to expect?

Go see a movie sometime without knowing the rating, or anything at all rather. Whether or not you like it, you certainly won’t leave saying, “That’s exactly what I thought it would be.” And some films, believe it or not, are supposed to have an element of surprise. And some films are supposed to disturb, shock and, yes, even offend. Don’t be afraid of surprise.

The MPAA disclaimers are at their worst when it comes to the “hard R-rated” films. Recent hard R’s include Hostel Part II (“Rated R for sadistic scenes of torture and bloody violence, terror, nudity, sexual content, language and some drug content”), Saw III (“Rated R for strong grisly violence and gore, sequences of terror and torture, nudity and language”), Rob Zombie’s Halloween (“Rated R for strong brutal bloody violence and terror throughout, sexual content, graphic nudity and language”) and Grindhouse (“Rated R for strong graphic bloody violence and gore, pervasive language, some sexuality, nudity and drug use”).

My favorite description of a film’s rating was for Twister: “Rated PG-13 for intense depiction of very bad weather.” I never knew the MPAA had an agenda against bad weather.

The irony is that the MPAA has no “official guidelines” with which to rate films, yet they qualify each rating with similar descriptions. These descriptions try to give the audience some idea of what to expect, but the terms become more and more meaningless with repetition. And when it comes to the aforementioned “extreme” films, whose content should be obvious to everyone by this point, the rhetoric is at its most ludicrous. Have you ever heard a person say, “Oh, I’m fine with ‘strong brutal bloody violence and terror throughout,’ but I surely won’t stand for ‘graphic nudity’”? And what real difference is there between “language” and “pervasive language,” or “sexuality” and “aberrant sexuality”?

The MPAA separates all objectionable material into four basic categories: sexuality/nudity, violence, language, and drug use. Their rating disclaimers have become so prominent that they’ve even used as part of a film’s advertising (“gratuitous nudity in American Pie 6!”). What happens then as frequent moviegoers become more attuned to these disclaimers, an unintended mental checklist enters their head (or at least mine) that can severely interfere with the experience of watching a movie. What I mean is this: I regularly find myself unintentionally noting the moments in question which constituted the described rating; like, “Now here’s the drug use,” or, “Here’s the terror/gore I was promised.” Even the film I saw after the trailer I first mentioned at the top of the blog, Eastern Promises, would have been that much more affecting had I not known about the gore, nudity or sexual content going in.

This classification and separation of offensive elements is what has lead to accusations of the MPAA being harsher on sexual content then violent content, as evidenced in the documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated. While I support the MPAA being pressured to own up to their decisions, I think they’re merely reflecting the status quo determined by parents, lobbyists and movie studios. This is, of course, entirely unfair to the rest of the filmgoing community. And it’s not even a smart economic decision, considering that teens and twentysomethings, not children, are the most frequent attendees of movie theaters in America.

So, having said that, I would close this off by politely asking the MPAA to ease off a little bit and not let their priorities interfere with revealing important plot points of films like The Kite Runner, but I think it’s more appropriate to ask parents to ease off, not spoil movies for the rest of us, and not think it’s the end of the world if your son or daughter hears a bad word without you knowing exactly when it was going to happen beforehand.

After all, everyday life isn’t rated. There’s no way for us to predict if we might see or hear something that we disagree with, but that’s no reason for us to live life with our eyes closed and our ears covered.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Pondering Lynch's Digital Empire

For better or for worse, David Lynch has turned his back on film. After experiencing the creative freedom that only digital filmmaking can allow while making his three-hour, self-distributed behemoth Inland Empire, Lynch vowed never to touch film again. And there’s nothing that you, or anybody else, can do to convince him otherwise.

As a result, the new Lynch aesthetic captures a freewheeling, no-holds-barred style emblematic of the filmmaking process itself. Inland Empire is a 179-minute epic with a collection of interwoven, seemingly unrelated images and ideas strung together by the “story” of Hollywood actress Nikki Grace (Laura Dern). Grace attempts to act in a film, which her personal life eventually starts to resemble and even overlaps, and Inland Empire then develops into a surreal, uniquely Lynchian journey that cannot be accurately described in any short form.

Whether you like it or not, Inland Empire is truly an experience like no other.

While my description may bring to mind similar films from Lynch’s canon, especially the Hollywood-set Mulholland Drive, Inland Empire’s structure moves with such an unlimited freedom that it’s almost as if Lynch’s previous films were censored from his true intention by analog film. With Inland Empire, and Lynch’s newfound style, we have a Lynch totally without restraint or apology. Except it never seemed like he was restrained in the first place.

David Lynch is not for the casual observer. He is an acquired taste whose confounding, often inaccessible films force active participation on behalf of the viewer. The consumer of Lynch’s work is often forced to derive his or her own meaning from the material. And Lynch himself is no help: he always refuses to speak about any details of his films or record any commentaries on his DVDs, as he openly prefers—even challenges—the viewer to derive their own personal meaning from the film. I attended a Q&A at my university in which Lynch promoted his form of transcendental meditation. When an audience member asked him if he would describe what Mulholland Drive is “about,” Lynch directly responded, “No.” When another audience member asked if the “house in Lost Highway was inside or outside reality,” Lynch dryly stated, “Sort of,” and said nothing more.

He’s a curious character, but you have to admire his determination to let his films truly belong to the audience, and not succumb to the popular temptation of telling the inherent meaning behind every decision he made behind the camera on DVD commentaries.

But what makes Lynch’s analog films so great is that beyond the confounding structure and imagery, there seems to be a delicate and carefully chosen meaning behind everything we see and hear. While I may adopt my own personal interpretations to some of his films, I take comfort in knowing that Lynch himself makes careful decisions while filming and has a specific idea of what his films mean, even though he chooses not to disclose this. As a result, Eraserhead, Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive are works of art whose interpretations are vast and infinitely debatable.

Lynch openly states that when he first started making what would become Inland Empire, he didn’t think that it would be a feature-length film, as he was only experimenting with digital technology and later found associations between several of his projects that he would later combine into a feature. With a process like this, it’s easy to see how quickly this can make a very long movie—especially in Lynch’s style, independent of any typical narrative cohesion. Lynch even incorporates one of his previous filmic shorts, Rabbits, into Inland Empire.

This free-association filmmaking style feels drastically different from Lynch’s previous films. The problem is, if Lynch had no set goal for Inland Empire as a cohesive feature, then he probably has no specific personal idea of what the film means. What type of meaning are we supposed to derive from a project that is basically a montage of several of Lynch’s unrelated works? If the film has no inherent meaning in the mind of the filmmaker, it can’t be experienced like the seemingly deliberate Mulholland Drive or Eraserhead. Even the cast has openly stated that they don’t understand the film. Watching Inland Empire feels like the experience of making it: trying to find a film from segments of totally separate projects (ie. Rabbits).

Analog film forces the filmmaker to make better-prepared decisions because of the complexity of the medium, and the “creative freedom” digital video allows keeps Lynch from making the deliberate, informed and inspired decisions that he probably made with his masterpieces created from traditional film.

What we have now is an experimental Lynch who makes decisions on instinct instead of deliberation.

Lynch is still in an excited stage where he’s toying with the medium, and has yet to find his true voice within it. Lynch has to grasp and learn this medium until it molds itself in a way that suits his filmmaking style, and then he can make films with a new, forward-moving aesthetic that also complements his previous work. DV is a totally different aesthetic than film, like switching from oil to acrylic paint, and it must be treated in such a way that acknowledges its own opportunities and weaknesses. Lynch is elated with the freedom digital filmmaking allows, but doesn’t quite have a grasp on its unique possibilities in the way that other filmmakers who truly crafted the technology have (I’ll avoid naming any examples, because it feels ridiculous to compare Lynch to any other specific filmmaker). All great art involves restraint of some sort, even if the medium used provides little option for it.

But on the other hand, filmmaking today is treated in a way that pretends every decision made on set was immaculate and completely intentional. Behind the scenes documentaries and commentaries go on and on praising every major member of the cast and crew, and explain to a sickening degree the intentionality of every minor detail seen on screen. But anybody who has ever been on a film set is aware of the circumstance, collaboration and even accidental nature that leads to a film’s final product (whether made on DV or film). Some of the most inspired parts of a final product can be purely unintentional or serendipitous. Nobody can predict the weather, behavior of the cast and crew, or last minute decisions that affect filmmaking. Just like in writing (or any other art form, rather), there is a plethora of possibilities that affects how you intend something to turn out in your head, and how it actually turns out. There is always some distance between the pen and the brain.

We need more artists like Lynch, those who realize that “inherent meaning” in any art form only extends so far, that art is truly in the eye of the beholder, and that all art is only as good as the interpretation of the person who receives it. Perhaps with Inland Empire, we are even free from the notion that the intent of the artist needs to exist at all, as Lynch allows the art form to take on a life all its own, taking place of the artist in determining the final product. This is truly a democratic way of experiencing film, just as digital technology is a democratic way of making it.

I’m just not sure if I’ve warmed up to it quite yet.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Today's Celebrity: Living La Dolce Vita

Lindsay Lohan dominated the headlines last week when she was arrested for cocaine possession and driving under the influence after chasing her former personal assistant’s mother around Santa Monica. This happened less than a month after Lohan, barely twenty-one, was released from rehab.

This is certainly not the first of erratic displays from Lohan. Last year, while filming Georgia Rule, producer James G. Robinson threatened to sue her for constantly showing up over an hour late to set, often hung over. Robinson wrote to Lohan:

"You and your representatives have told us that your various late arrivals and absences from the set have been the result of illness; today we were told it was 'heat exhaustion'. We are well aware that your ongoing all night heavy partying is the real reason for your so-called 'exhaustion'."

Also dominating the “news” this week was Britney Spears’ crazed, belligerent behavior at a photo shoot for OK! Magazine that was supposed go with an article declaring her comeback after years of similar (and highly publicized) behavior since her marriage, divorce and pregnancies.

In other news, Nicole Richie was sentenced to four days in jail for driving under the influence after taking her “Mercedez Benz the wrong way down California State Route 134 highway in Burbank. After failing an on-field sobriety test, Richie admitted to having smoked marijuana and taking a vicodin painkiller. (imdb)”. Richie is rumored to currently be pregnant with the child of Good Charlotte’s lead singer, Joel Madden.

All this happened mere weeks after Paris Hilton was released from jail.

And this stuff gets more media attention than the Iraq war.

For years, young girls have admired this quartet of young women who have really done nothing with their clout and fortune but be famous and act famous. Spears hasn’t released any new music since 2005. Lohan hasn’t been in a successful film since Mean Girls in 2004, which wasn’t even that enormous of a hit in terms of box office gross. Hilton and Richie don’t really have jobs—they aren’t singers or actresses, though they’ve tried and failed; they only exist to give OK! Magazine and the like something to write about. (And no, being on a reality TV show doesn’t count as a “job”.) Lohan and Spears are no better. They aren’t artists, they don’t have any work ethic (ie. you’re not an actress if you show up an hour late on set), and they don’t make any real contribution to society.

These four overwhelming media figures play without work. They live a life of privilege without justification. They have no gifts, talents or words to share with the rest of us, no practical purpose in the natural order of the world. They are, quite literally, useless human beings. And yet we lavish them with attention.

If I had a daughter who admired somebody like Paris Hilton, I would shield her from every media outlet I possibly could. That America’s young have come to admire people who are famous for neglecting work, family or any moral responsibility whatsoever in favor of endless nights of partying is frightening. That girls barely in their double digits actually consider a hotel heiress to be a role model—one who is arguably most famous because of her sex video—should be enough to give alarm to us all. Or, at least, one would hope.

With this quartet’s recent string of stints with the law, drugs and outright insanity, I hope, I hope, I hope this is the beginning of the end of this type of media infatuation. I hope Americans who once admired these figures will see how these celebrities' lifestyles have caught up with them, that a life free of responsibility certainly has its consequences.

Then the paparazzo can turn their cameras where they rightfully belong: Brangelina and Tom Cruise.

I saw La Dolce Vita (1960) last week for the first time in years. The film admires a movie star life without consequence or commitment, but then slowly reveals how this lifestyle makes it impossible to make any real connection with a human being. Fellini allows us to admire the beauty of "la dolce vita", but at the same time realize its hollowness. The infamous scene at the Trevi fountain is perfectly indicative of this. Celebrity journalist Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni) admires voluptuous movie star Sylvia (Anita Ekberg) as she gracefully meanders in the fountain. But, as soon as Marcello joins her and tries to kiss her, the entire moment sobers: the fountain stops running, the sun comes out, and no connection has been made.

La Dolce Vita is credited for giving the English language the word “paparazzi,” as the journalists who stalk celebrities in the film are referred to as “paparazzo (little birds)”. Fellini makes the audience experience the characters of La Dolce Vita as if we too were paparazzi. We have little knowledge of the aspirations, wants, or needs of these characters. There is no psychological element here, no third dimension. We are simply intrusive observers of the lives of the rich and famous.

It is unclear, for the most part, what types of films the actress Sylvia makes, or why a figure like Maddalena (Anouk Aimee) gets so much media attention. It doesn’t matter what these people are famous for, it only matters that they are celebrities. Their fame is their career.

Such is the status of today’s dominant media figures. It doesn’t matter what Lohan, Spears, Hilton and Richie have done to become famous, for they have ingrained themselves in our national consciousness and vocabulary to such a degree that they don’t need to make films, release albums or appear on television to continue to be famous. Their fame is literally their career.

(There’s one scene where Marcello and Maddalena drive a prostitute around town and, when she enters the car with these two, it becomes evident that even women of the night have a better work ethic than privileged celebrities...)

Fellini predicted how a then-recent cultural phenomenon would grow exponentially. Some saw Fellini’s film as satirizing the celebrity/media relationship when it first became an international sensation almost fifty years ago, but today’s cult(ure) of fame has reached such ridiculous degree that it’s beyond satire. Back in the day, an actor or musician would have had to continue releasing work to continue being in the media spotlight—not today. Our society not only worships mediocre music (Spears) or unprofessional acting (Lohan), but they worship singers that don’t sing and actors that don’t act. When Paris Hilton announced her “retirement” last year, the big question on everyone’s mind was, “retirement from WHAT?”

Princess Diana was killed almost exactly ten years ago. Di was a celebrity beyond celebrity, a figure that actually exceeded the media attention Americans bestow on their celebrities. But unlike today’s headliners, Di—a kindergarten teacher-turned-princess with a humanitarian heart—actually made an effort to do some good in the world. Her unfortunate death is the only celebrity death that immediately comes to mind that was actually caused by paparazzi.

Paparazzi have a frighteningly influential role in our culture. As evidenced by the case of Princess Diana, they aren’t just intrusive observers, but have direct consequence on their subjects. The endless attention they have given to Lohan, Spears, Hilton and Richie only encourages the quartet's irresponsible behavior. Not that these 21-26-year olds aren’t accountable for themselves, of course. Their own accountability is the one thing they’ve all failed to fully realize.

I just really, really want it all to stop.


Monday, July 16, 2007

There's Something About Michael

I started to appreciate Michael Moore years before I had even learned what the words “liberal” and “conservative” meant. In the late 90s, Moore had a TV show that aired on Bravo called “The Awful Truth”, which was, in essence, a highbrow “Jackass” with the intent of socio-political satire. The show, which I saw on Bravo, basically had Moore pulling outrageous, often hilarious, stunts to either illustrate seemingly obvious political problems or simply to force people into awkward situations of clashing culture. Some of the more memorable segments include: Moore launching a “Sodomobile” across the nation to educate citizens on the fight for gay rights, eventually running into gay-bashing “preacher” Fred Phelps; Moore taking Rage Against the Machine to perform outside Republican and Democratic primaries; and, my personal favorite, Moore gathering a dozen or so nicotine addicts who have been reduced to using voice boxes in order to speak and, right before Christmas, taking them “caroling” outside the Marlboro factory.

These stunts were ludicrous, brave, intentionally shocking and controversial, but never without a sense of humor. In the last five years or so, as Moore has gained enormous success, even infamy, for his feature documentary work, his sense of humor has certainly taken a blow as well.

The name Michael Moore extended to red and blue states alike not because of his work itself, but because of his headline-making speech upon his acceptance of the Best Documentary Feature Academy Award in 2003 for Bowling for Columbine. Not unlike the incendiary reaction to Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ in 1988, most of the criticism of Moore from the far right stemmed from masses who had never even seen the film they were protesting. Since Moore’s speech—and since his smash-hit, $120 million-grossing and Cannes’ Palme d’Or-winning documentary Fahrenheit 9/11, which itself seemed to be a response to the criticism of his speech—he has, like it or not, been an outspoken, relevant media figure, and will probably continue to be.

In fact, the growing success of theatrical documentaries must be at least partially attributed to Moore’s work. Since Bowling and Fahrenheit, documentaries have no longer been just for PBS-ers and struggling intellectuals, but have made for profitable filmmaking, with subjects of interest as far ranging as penguins, global warming and fast food.

I find Moore’s work puzzling. Not his politics or the subjects he chooses, but the way he constructs his films.

Moore’s latest, Sicko, should be a subject that most Americans, left or right, can take an interest in. His thesis is refreshingly simple: while capitalism makes our country work the way a democracy should, American health care would operate with better-vested interest for the people if the profit incentive were removed. Unlike the arguments of many critics of socialized medicine, Moore’s stance hardly makes him, or anybody who agrees, a Communist or Socialist. It makes sense that medical institutions and health insurance providers would operate in better interest of the people if they were employed by the state (as Moore points out, America’s public schools and law enforcement work just fine this way). If we’re the richest country in the world, why can’t we put effort into becoming No. 1 in terms of health care? And, in today’s environment of skyrocketing corporate greed and backstabbery, the response to the idea of socialized medicine reverberates as a sensical, not radical, “why not?”

Moore’s thesis is brief and compact, so his examples throughout that support it quickly become redundant, eventually losing their initial impact. Sicko starts off with example after example of horror stories average Americans have had with insurance and pharmaceutical companies, then Moore examines other developed countries that have socialized medicine: Canada, France, and Great Britain. He talks to a doctor in London who makes a great living despite being employed by the government, for he gets paid in terms of how many patients he cures and how many lives he saves. Moore then gathers several Americans who have had injustice done to them by their healthcare providers (or simply can’t afford healthcare) and takes them to Cuba, where they are given the attention their home country couldn’t provide. Throughout, Moore sticks to the same formula: talk to normal people, and play the dumb guy by asking them simple, obvious leading questions, the answers of which largely speak for themselves (such as when he asks a normal Canadian, who obviously receives the government’s health care, if he has ever been a Communist or Socialist).

While the film and argument are certainly worthwhile, and will hopefully continue a national discourse on the problems with our healthcare, I found myself wishing it was made by a different documentary filmmaker, for Moore’s signature style is the only thing that weakens his stance.

While no documentary can be purely objective, the best documentaries are those where the filmmaker simply lets their subjects speak for themselves without lead or direction, the documentarian simply being a witness and not an active participant. If the style be cinema verite (as it happens) like The War Room (1993) or in the style of retrospective interviews and archive footage, like last year’s VH1-esque The US vs. John Lennon, the subject is best-served if we the audience are focusing on that subject, and not the filmmaker.

But Michael Moore is, in fact, the subject of each of Michael Moore’s films, with health care (or 9/11, or gun control, or GM CEO Roger Smith) coming in at a close second. Moore has a dense presence both in front of and behind the camera; when he’s not in the same frame of the people he’s interviewing, he’s narrating. His editing techniques are especially worth notice, and so is the manner in which he uses bombastic music to incite immediate emotional responses. His interviews and archival materials are often peppered with brief footage from old films or obscure television clips to add some humor to the piece (such as when he incorporates a clip of some Eastern European medical comedy show when he states that Slovenia is right above the US in terms of serving medical need). And his musical cues, ranging from tired Rolling Stones numbers to orchestral scores from other movies (Thomas Newman, Hans Zimmer), are anything but subtle. At one point, he even uses a Star Wars intro parody to show a list of conditions that would keep you from qualifying for medical care, complete with John Williams music. It’s sensational documentary filmmaking at its pop-cultural, postmodern best. With this constant visual and oral blast to the senses, Moore’s documentaries can be pretty damn entertaining, something easily consumable for our decreasing attention spans and far removed from any pre-Michael Moore documentary you’d see on PBS (yawn!).

Unfortunately, this skilled style makes the documentary far less substantive. His filmmaking techniques—sensation-driven and not content-driven—and simplistic interviews (usually devoid of conversations with experts or scholars) hurt the value of the information he’s presenting, and cause his films to lose most of their power upon multiple viewings. It's the documentary equivalent of style over substance. Michael Moore is basically the Guy Ritchie of documentary filmmaking...(okay, that's not entirely accurate, but it's fun to say).

While the facts Moore brings to the table in his films seem to be technically accurate, the information he chooses to omit becomes more and more apparent. Had Moore chosen to show the downsides of universal healthcare in Canada, England, France and Cuba, followed with an argument as to how the positives outweigh the negatives, then Sicko would be that much more powerful and influential in promoting socialized medicine. (Anybody who has taken College Writing 101 knows this.)

Like visiting Charlton Heston in Bowling for Columbine, like asking Congressmen to sign up their children to fight in Iraq in Fahrenheit 9/11, and like the entire premise of “The Awful Truth,” Moore does an over-the-top stunt in Sicko to make his point. Arguing that political prisoners in Guantanamo Bay get excellent health care (for free, nonetheless), Moore takes some of the victims of unjust American health care to the “American soil” on Cuba to ask for medical assistance. The point is made long before the ridiculous gesture is completed. In Moore’s two previous films, he performed these stunts only at the potential embarrassment of himself (and I thought they were pretty clever), but watching Moore yelling towards Guantanamo Bay prison on a boat with some very sick people did not seem in the least bit funny. Moore knew that they were going to get sent away (just like he knew the Congressmen would ignore him, and that Heston would walk out on him) because it’s his very intent to use these stunts to incite something abrupt that would drive his point home. Why did he waste his time? Why didn’t he just get these people to free medical care in Cuba (which he does right after) first? It’s one of the instances in the film in which it becomes perfectly clear that this movie is about Moore, and not the sick people on the boat. It makes me look at that clip from “The Awful Truth” differently. Is Moore just pulling an outrageous stunt to make his point at the expense of embarrassing the people with voice boxes, or is he actually making a positive impact?

Dr. Gupta of CNN recently went head-to-head with Moore regarding the specific details of Sicko. Moore seems to go through a process like this after each film he releases and, as with each film Moore has been previously criticized for, Gupta didn’t dispute the facts themselves, but the way they were presented as well as the ones he chose to omit.

And in the anti-Michael Moore documentary Manufacturing Dissent (2007), the filmmakers show how Moore’s examination of unlocked doors in Canada in Bowling for Columbine (to show the Canadians’ sense of safety) was inaccurate: only about 40% of the doors he encountered were unlocked, when all of the doors shown in the final cut were unlocked. Moore critics often run into a trivial mess like this; debating how many doors are locked or unlocked in Canada at any given time doesn’t get anybody anywhere. Moore pulls these stunts to make a point, so of course he’s only going to include footage that supports his point. One wouldn’t need a documentary to tell us that, most likely, not every door Moore came up to that day was unlocked, and showing the raw footage of Moore knocking on doors all day certainly wouldn’t make for an entertaining documentary, at least not in the Michael Moore style. To reverse an old phrase, it’s not in the details.

Michael Moore, not to mention most of the media today, certainly has a very odd definition of “truth”. His television show was called “The Awful Truth” and his website that supports the facts of Sicko is called “The Truth.” When reading Gupta and Moore go back and forth about different facts from different sources, one quickly becomes aware of the fruitlessness of discovering “truth” in the confused, misinformed, often fear-driven and increasingly prevalent media of today (in both news and documentaries). No wonder Steven Colbert’s term “truthiness” was quickly coined as a legitimate word in our culture. And debating the details of Moore’s films still seems to be missing the point entirely. Why is everybody so concerned with overturning facts in such an obviously subjective documentary? What good would it have done Michael Moore to intentionally make a movie full of lies, and what do critics prove by countering everything he says? (I would pose the same question regarding Al Gore and the criticism of An Inconvenient Truth as well.)

One of the best political documentaries in recent years is Robert Greenwald’s Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism (2004), about the hardly fair or balanced partisan news reporting at the Fox News Network. Because Outfoxed is criticizing a sensationalist style of news reporting, the film itself is very straightforward in its style, with simple interview techniques, non-manipulative archive footage (ie. no old movies or obscure TV clips), obvious iMovie-style cuts when an edit has been made, and pretty much no music. While the film is in no way amateur, the filmmaking style is simplistic as to not receive any of the same criticism in media technique that they are criticizing Fox News for. They’re trying not to fall in a trap that would undermine their own argument. As a result, however, the film is not entertaining. In the world of the political documentary, entertainment value and substantive argument are, quite unfortunately, mutually exclusive terms.

But there has been an even more powerful style of documentary filmmaking recently. Two films from last year, Jesus Camp and Deliver Us From Evil, criticize the subjects they are presenting not through asking leading questions, fancy editing, or fact omission, but by simply letting their subjects speak for themselves. They leave the opinion up to the audience. And through their professional and seemingly objective style, they drive their point home much more powerfully than any of Moore’s films.

Yet no documentary can be purely objective, and docs that seem purely objective, but in fact may not be at all accurate, can be dangerous (ie. propaganda). While Jesus Camp and Deliver Us From Evil are two of my favorite docs in recent years, and I have outspokenly praised their attempts at objectivity, any subject presented as objectively as these has the capacity to be powerfully manipulative.

That being said, maybe what Michael Moore is doing with his docs is actually good for Americans. Maybe because his technique and style are so obvious, and the details of his content are so criticized as a result, that it unintentionally enables viewers to be just as critical and able to decide for themselves where they fall in respect to Moore’s argument instead of merely being overwhelmed by the sensation of its technique. Maybe he’s creating a critical discourse not just of himself, but the issue at hand, that would otherwise not be so relevant without such a controversial and prevalent figure.

In 1920s Soviet Russia, filmmakers of the country manufactured “propaganda,” but not propaganda in the traditional sense. With films such as Sergei Eisenstein’s October (1928) or Dziga Vertov’s The Man With the Movie Camera (1929), the Soviets used obvious editing and montage techniques (in expense of narrative cohesion) in order to express an idea, but, along the way, intentionally used this to educate audiences on how films express ideas through editing (and even sensational emotional techniques) so that they can view “propaganda” critically and objectively. Realizing the revolutionary and counter-revolutionary potential of this “cinematic education”, the Soviet government quickly censored this practice in the nation’s film schools.

However, had this practice persisted, perhaps the Soviets, and citizens of other nations around the world, would be more educated when viewing media not be “duped” by the subjective media techniques used commonly today.

I’m not saying Michael Moore is the next Eisenstein, and I’m certainly not saying he’s intelligent enough to do this intentionally, but as his filmmaking style continues to keep audiences in critical discourse, maybe we can take this knowledge and criticism to other media outlets, like the news, and use our education to keep ourselves from being duped anymore.

Maybe then we can decide for ourselves what “truth” really is.


(For further reading on Moore's odd obsession with our neighbors to the north, see his only narrative feature (and John Candy's last screen appearance) Canadian Bacon (1995), a surprisingly clever comedy about a cold war between the US and Canada. At one point, two American characters realize that every door in Canada is unlocked. Funny how Moore's narrative fiction eventually became documentary fact...)

(Because I love this nation, I love my right to criticize it.)