Monthly archives of “March 2007


A Note to My Readership

Hi Heather,

In case you care: lately I’ve had the idea of transposing selected entries from my old pen-and-paper culture-consumption journals to the blog. Something about having the entire history of my paltry mental life in digital format excites me. Not sure why. So. Blog entries that end with a date were originally written down in a notebook on that date, and have since been typed into the blog.

I guess those who can’t knit, type.


The Road to Guantanamo, Michael Winterbottom (2006)

It’s cliche to say so, but no less true for that: Everyone in America and Britain should see this movie. Through documentary interviews and dramatic re-creations it tells the story of the Tipton Three, and their horrific experiences, straight out of Kafka, in the custody of American forces. American and British intelligence forces, after the invasion of Afghanistan, were — justifiably — crazed with desire to glean useful, life-saving intelligence from any prisoners that even looked like they might know something. But that desire has clearly overwhelmed reason, as detainees like the Tipton Three have been accused, tortured, and interrogated for months upon months, even after it had become quite clear that there was no intelligence to be gleaned, because these guys were just stupid kids who’d wound up in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I am not a pacifist or a bleeding heart. Given the opportunity to pull out Ratko Mladić‘s fingernails with a pair of pliers, I would be sorely tempted. What brings tears to my eyes watching this film is the profound insanity of Western interrogators who have no idea what they’re looking for and no idea who they’re talking to, and so become so frustrated by their own incapacity to make any sense out of the world that they lash out and torture people just in case they might be guilty of something. I pity the prisoners at Guantamamo. I pity their captors, too, who by now — it has been five years — must either know that there’s nothing further to be gained by the continued detention without charges of these men, or have gone insane.

People love to bash Winterbottom for his manipulative way of blurring the lines between documentary, commentary, and fictionalization. I’m unmoved by these arguments. His films in this vein (In This World is another brilliant one) use local lies to tell global truths, as all great examples of representational art do. Plus it just seems incredibly pissy to me to complain about a director who’s interested in putting before our eyes the kinds of stories that no one else ever brings to the cineplex. Go string up the fat, stupid, lazy bastard who made Gigli instead.

The best source I know for clear and unbiased information on the detainment camps at Guantanamo Bay is here.

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The Departed, Martin Scorsese (2006)

Thirty years later, Scorsese has made one of the best films of 1970’s American cinema, perhaps the best. There’s so much to say here it could fill a book, and probably will. Just a few amateur observations from a dilettante, then.

– Interesting that in order to achieve the perfect amalgam of his longtime themes and preoccupations, it was necessary for Scorsese to go to Boston. Did the alienation effect of being on unfamiliar territory help him tune the film’s formulae with greater accuracy because he didn’t have to worry about micromanaging the block-by-block details of Little Italy? (I know he’s gone to Vegas for mafia pictures before, but as far as the mob is concerned, isn’t Vegas just the sixth borough?)

– The breakthrough moment in the film for me — the clip they’ll show in film history classes — is when the two rats, Damon and DiCaprio, are stalking each other through Chinatown. As in, of course, Chinatown. Who even knew Boston had one? But it had to have one, because Scorsese had to give Nicholson a chance to be the all-knowing evil genius Noah Cross instead of the chump “Mr. Gitts.” Too bad Scorsese chickens out and lets good triumph. Perhaps it takes a decadent European like Polanski to really see these things through properly.

– The final and transcendent genius of this movie is that like Polanski’s film, The Departed manages to be both an exemplar of a genre (in this case, the mob picture, in Polanski’s the private dick picture) and a commentary on that genre. (Eastwood’s western/metawestern Unforgiven is another good example.) The people who seem to be on the side of virtue are either corrupt or ineffectual, and the people who seem to be on the side of depravity are hugely seductive and, in fact, on the side of depravity; but beyond that, the intricate but wholly plausible plot demonstrates that there is, in fact, no difference between those who seem to be here and those who seem to be there. I’m putting this badly. The point is that as the characters begin to cross and double-cross not only each other but themselves, the distinction between good guys and bad guys vanishes. Everyone is not only deluded but self-deluded, and pretty much clueless as to why he’s doing what he’s doing.

– Alec Baldwin is an effing comic genius. Matt Damon is second to the firing squad after his pal Ben Affleck. I want so very much to hate Leonardo DeCaprio and don’t understand why I can’t.

– There is one female character with more than two lines in this entire picture, and she’s an idiot. This probably shouldn’t surprise me, but it does. The movie’s set in the present day. Would it have killed Scorsese to have there be a female cop? They do exist, you know.

– Cell phones are the oil slick in the Cuyahoga of narrativity, and I personally can’t wait for the purging fire. I didn’t count how many plot points in The Departed pivot on cell phones, but I do know it’s way too effing many.

– It’s a great achievement, an apotheosis, and I’m glad they finally gave Scorsese his golden dildo. But you know, I gotta say that I’d rather watch Mean Streets again. There’s something so cooked about this picture. Not a single hair out of place. The irony’s not lost on me: Scorsese, in the full flower of his mastery, is now making perfect, seamless pictures about the imperfections and seaminess of human nature. I wish he’d let a bit of madness back in.


The Crimson Rivers, Mathieu Kassovitz (2000)

Kassovitz has a very odd CV as a director. The first of his I saw was the utterly brilliant La Haine, but who could have imagined that movie, a sort of French (and unfunny) answer to Do the Right Thing, would be followed by this chilly, cerebral, atmospheric policier (much less the wildly gothic Gothika)? At any rate, this is very enjoyable. Follows all the rules the French learned from Hollywood’s procedurals, but is also irreducibly French: the plot turns on race purity, the fetish of genius, and women driven to murderous hysteria by passion. The ending is ridiculous. Something about twins, of all things, which allows for the female lead to be literally halved into a good, passive, woman and a hysterical bitch. Guess which one gets her guts blown out?



No Man’s Land, Danis Tanovic (2001)

Simplistic but effective parable set in Bosnia 1993 about civil war, and the role of the media in shaping reality. The first half is about these “enemies”–who knew the same girls in high school–being trapped in a trench together and coming to a kind of peace. The second, longer half is about how the rapacious media and smug U.N. try to elucidate and solve problems but only exacerbate them. Cf. Fernando Arrabal‘s Picnic on the Battlefield (1961).



L.I.E., Michael Cuesta (2001)

“The Movie about the Nice Pedophile,” said the headlines in reference to this scandale du jour. Next it’ll be “Edgy Film Suggests Cannibalism Just Another Lifestyle.”

The film almost manages to escape its premise. The characters of the kid and the pedophile are well-drawn, subtle, and three-dimensional–I’m genuinely interested in both of them. Past the 3/4 mark, though, the movie decides to start tying all the plot strands into neat bows, and then, worse, ends with a maddeningly overdetermined gunshot through the pedophile’s chest. Aesthetically boring, morally one-dimensional, totally chickenshit. As if the director asked John Ashcroft how best to end his film.



Z, Costa-Gavras (1969)

An ersatz documentary about the assassination of Grigoris Lambrakis in Greece, which led to the establishment of the military junta which ruled Greece from 1967-1974. It’s not so much that it’s an amazing movie, it’s that such a thing ever got made at all, and that it won two Academy Awards in 1970, including Best Foreign Film. These days people think the Academy’s being edgy for giving Al Gore’s global warming documentary an Academy Award; in 1970, this film was banned in Greece and Costa-Gavras probably would have been jailed had he darkened Greece’s doorstep (the film was shot in Algeria, and comparisons between it and The Battle of Algiers are inevitable for that reason among obvious others). This is a completely politically committed and topical work of art, with no apologies, pandering, or punches pulled. As a bonus, it’s fairly interesting to watch, although some of the pseudo-documentary camera tricks–such as the jumpy, stuttering cuts–have aged badly, and seem not gritty, as intended, but comic.



Men in War, Anthony Mann (1952)

Korean War film from my favorite director of all time. A late and somewhat decadent Mann film, strange and good, but neither as strange nor as good as I’d remembered from my first viewing some years ago. Dark, relentless, and existential as Huis Clos. Even the wise and benevolent c.o. gives up and accepts his inevitable death as meaningless, and the absurdist touch of the speechless, catatonic colonel strapped to his jeep as if to his fate is effective and affecting. What’s best about the movie is its long silences, which suggest that the boredom and waiting of war may well be as terrifying as the attacks and battles.



Hollywoodland, Allen Coulter (2006)

A nice afternoon at the movies, set in the era when people were interested in spending nice afternoons at the movies. It’s a good thing that Adrien Brody and Ben Affleck occupy non-coincidental storylines; Brody’s a brilliant (if prickly and inconsistent) actor, and Affleck is so wooden he barely exists. On the other hand, I guess you could argue that this role is the one Affleck was destined to play, since the talentless-but-famous quality upon which he’s built a career corresponds precisely to the sad life of George Reeves. Brody works hard to reprise the role of the sensitive/brainless/tough/vulnerable L.A. private dick getting himself in over his head that J.J. Gittes epitomizes, but it winds up feeling imitative. Again, though, hard to fault that either, since the movie’s so much about Hollywood repeating itself: the same stories of fame, fortune, scandal, corruption, beauty, ugliness, failure year after year, only with different faces. I think what I actually like most about the movie is its very sense of weariness; it’s not reveling in its referentiality, the way Chinatown does; instead it accepts its uselessness and plods on to its predictable hint-at-redemption finish, allowing itself only an occasional wink or roll of the eyes to let us know that it knows full well that it doesn’t have anything much new to tell us. And that’s OK. Sometimes all the fussy, overweening reaches for the new wear me out, too.