Film reviews

The view of a hawk

The Fog of War dir. Errol Morris, takes as its subject former US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, a man described as an IBM machine on legs, and a coldly rational hawk held responsible by many for pushing Lyndon Johnson into the Vietnam War. Errol Morris certainly offers a more complex perspective on the man. McNamara’s reflections on the processes by which the US drew itself into a war he now clearly regards as a mistake, have a startlingly direct message for the current course of US foreign policy. At one point McNamara says apropos of Vietnam, ‘If we can’t persuade nations with comparable values of the merit of our cause, we’d better re-examine our reasoning’.

The more fundamental problem that both McNamara and the film confront is ultimately to do with how one can know the truth. What means do we have at our disposal to understand and interpret the world around us, and how can we know if they are adequate guides to action? This is a defining problem for all documentary film, expressed in the tension between the idea that the cinema can in some simple or direct sense ‘document’ reality or even the truth, and its status as film, that is, as an aesthetic and creative work of mediation. It is also a defining problem for McNamara. His speciality was the statistical analysis of data, the extraction of a clear numerical picture out of the messy blur of lived experience, representing the world through numbers. His analysis of the failure rates of bombing missions over Japan in the Second World War led to fire-bombing raids that killed over a million Japanese; an act he concedes would have been prosecuted as a war crime had the Allies lost the war. His obvious distress during this discussion invites the interpretation that he now feels that a statistical picture of reality is not an adequate basis for action (or as he puts it ‘rationality alone won’t save us’).

What is remarkable about this film is the way that Morris is able to manifest these tensions (‘objective’ documentation versus ‘subjective’ aestheticism, ‘rational’ statistical analysis versus human cost) in a single image: the view from a bomber as it flies over the burning ruins of Tokyo dropping not bombs, but numbers, statistics. This is not a ‘documentary’ image, but it captures what is essential about documentary: not reality, but rather how the choices we make about how we grasp and represent reality constitute questions not only of ethics, but also of power. More importantly, it also demands we ask ourselves if the picture of reality illustrated by our political leaders is an adequate basis for their actions on our behalf. WMD anyone?

Allan James Thomas

Borrowed memories

The Passion of the Christ
dir. Mel Gibson.

The phenomenon preceded the film. As my aunt and I walked into Adelaide’s Norwood multiplex we were handed glossy brochures. Director’s notes? No, a Bible Society Making The Bible Heard production, lavishly illustrated with stills from The Passion. A trio of demographically representative young enthusiasts preluded the screening with the declaration that this film—a ‘true’ story—would change our lives.

Mel Gibson’s interpretation of the Passion is sincere—that much is clear from interviews. If it is not profound—and it certainly is not—then we have not been deceived by Gibson himself. The international publicity accorded the film—from favourable reviews in The Tablet to recommendations by prelates—has, however, blurred the boundaries between cinema art and religious conviction. Discussion, argument, controversy—all that’s healthy. Endorsement is something else.

The film itself? It is simplistic, overwhelmingly violent, and a throwback to a Christian culture that projected evil in graphic human form—devils and wall-eyed, wizened infants. Gibson borrows the full range (including a shaven-eyebrowed Goth Satan), just as he takes his lighting from Caravaggio and his image of Christ in extremis from Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece. Gruesome, thorn flecked, pocked and torn. But Grünewald painted out of his own Zeitgeist. Gibson is anachronistic—as if his 21st–century cinematic—or spiritual—imagination were not equal to the task.

When the film is not mind-numbingly violent (the scourging seems as long as the chariot race in Ben Hur) it can be moving. The spoken and unspoken communication between mother and son (Maia Morgenstern as Mary, James Caviezel as Jesus) is potent.

Is the film anti-Semitic? Well, it portrays the Sanhedrin as unalloyed in their determination to destroy Jesus (why?—we don’t learn), and while they inveigh against him, Satan (Rosalinda Celentano) glides between their ranks. You decide.

Morag Fraser
 
Station master

The Station Agent
dir. Tom McCarthy.

When in the second week of release a film earns double what it made in the first, cinemas know they have a ‘sleeper’ on their hands. The Station Agent is one such film.

This is a story about friendship which moves at a gentle pace but never loses your interest. Factually the plot is simple, yet the character interplay is complex and challenging.

Fin (Peter Dinklage, recently seen in Elf) is a train enthusiast who works in Hoboken, in the back room of a model railway shop. The owner dies and leaves Fin a rural property in New Jersey upon which there is an abandoned train depot, an old railway car and a section of railway track, all of which have stood idle for years.

Fin is a dwarf, tired of stares and tired of being pointed at. He is a man of extraordinary presence who has suffered for being different. The depot has no water or electricity, but it offers peace. It is an opportunity to be left alone.

That aloneness lasts for one night, then to his dismay Fin wakes up to find a hotdog and coffee van parked close by. The van is run by Joe (Bobby Cannavale), a human puppy who gambols around the reticent Fin. Fin doesn’t know whether to pat him or tell him to sit. He is as loquacious as Fin is taciturn.

And then there is Olivia (played by that splendid actress, Patricia Clarkson), a wealthy middle-aged artist who has taken refuge in a cocoon of grief after the death of her son. She first meets Fin when she nearly runs him over.

Three remarkable performances engulf the screen, and result in a wonderfully satisfying film.

This is a first film for writer and director Tom McCarthy, who has previously been a film and television actor.

Some of the best moments have no dialogue at all. In one scene the odd trio take a walk along a disused railway line. For Fin, the distance between sleepers is just about right. For Joe and Olivia, the sleepers are too close together. No, nothing else happens! Just three friends walking along a railway line, but it is an enchanting scene.

There are several scenes which involve abrasive personal confrontation, which I felt were irrelevant, but presumably were introduced for fear of the film becoming cloying. McCarthy need not have worried, because this film is devoid of self-pity or false sentimentality. Indeed, contrary to Hollywood tradition, none of the relationships go quite where we anticipate, at least not while we’re watching!

At its end, what crises lie ahead are anyone’s guess, but why fret when you’ve just been privileged to spend 90 minutes in the company of these characters?

Don’t miss The Station Agent.

Gordon Lewis

Unremitting

Irreversible
dir. Gaspar Noe.

Form over function. Or should I say cinematic trickery over real cultural and emotional investigation. Irreversible, a film told backwards (opening with the end credits and weaving its way back from brutality to tranquility), traces the events of a young woman’s brutal rape and her boyfriend’s revenge.

Opening with swirling camera movements and an inscrutable conversation between two down and out men, this film takes you from the violent sexuality of a hard core gay night club to the light hearted sexual play of a young couple in love.

The impenetrable meanderings of the overly anxious camera operator felt contrived, the airy-fairy pop philosophy of the tag line (time destroys everything) was pretentious, the ‘clever’ structure was laboured and artful, and the violence exposed nothing except shock and horror.

Irreversible was such a sadly wasted exercise in brutality from a doubtlessly talented team—fine actors and talented craftspeople flirting precociously with a subject that warrants graver cultural treatment.
I don’t doubt the intentions of this project were noble, but its execution was devoid of real gravitas. Played in a more conventional narrative style this film would, I suspect, have gone relatively unnoticed. Although its shock value would have remained, its threadbare content might have been easier to pick.

Siobhan Jackson

 

 

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