Monthly archives of “August 2008


Rendition, Gavin Hood (2007)

The torture scenes here are pretty upsetting, as are these critics bitching about how didactic the movie is. Um, yeah, it’s didactic. The CIA kidnaps people on the basis of circumstantial evidence and flies them to secret prisons abroad and tortures them and/or directs that they be tortured by other governments. That’s kind of worth being didactic about, don’t you think? The movie is dramatic and well-made, the actors are very fine, and there’s even a little bit of fancy footwork with the narrative structure (events that appear contemporaneous are sometimes not). Yes, I suppose you can say that every character, with the possible exception of Jake Gyllenhaal’s, is either good or bad; there’s not a lot of nuance in that regard. When it comes to this topic, though, I think a touch of decisiveness and clear judgment is a welcome corrective to the usual bloviating about how certain situations may require certain exceptions to certain rules. Torture is never acceptable. Suspension of habeas is never acceptable. Anyone who calls those two statements didactic (or partisan, liberal, simplistic, angry, or provocative) has failed to understand the fundamental spirit of the Constitution.

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The Ground Truth, Patricia Foulkrod (2006)

Foulkrod’s hugely irritating penchant for melodramatic music and editing threatens to ruin this documentary about the psychological and physical toll combat takes on soldiers, but the intelligence, passion, and honesty of the veterans, family members, and caregivers she interviews burn through the claptrap of the mise en scene. Minor and scattered but nevertheless illuminating.


Torture Team: Rumsfeld’s Memo and the Betrayal of American Values, Philippe Sands (2008)

This is a very important and a very strange book. Sands, a professor of international law at University College London, takes up the unenviable task of tracing the legal and bureaucratic paths traveled by the Bush administration as it moved to redefine and recharacterize international law so as to attempt to justify such illegal practices as suspension of habeas corpus, extraordinary rendition, and torture. It’s a whodunnit, but instead of daggers and moonlight, the drama here is conducted via memoranda, faxes, and voicemails. This is an important work because Sands somehow gets interviews with many of the most important players, and because he is very good at systematically and thoroughly connecting the dots of the administration’s legal maneuvers. It’s a weird book for two reasons. First because it actually manages not to be boring, and second, Sands has this crazy proclivity for including gouts of what journalists call “color.” He’ll just have finished some long methodical analysis of the organizational chart of the Department of Defense’s legal staff, and then he’ll be like, “General Soandso is a tall man with a candid handshake and an open-collared shirt,” or some crazy ass thing like that. The sum impression is that Sands is an extraordinarily good legal analyst who harbors a secret desire to be Rick Bragg. Thankfully, he here mainly sticks to the former and only allows the latter to burble occasionally to the surface.

The message here, in short, is that unqualified and inexperienced legal personnel were pressured from above to make decisions they knew were wrong. Which should certainly remind us of the National Guard troops at Abu Ghraib. You know who should get together and compare notes? Sabrina Harman and Diane Beaver. Two women put in impossible positions against their will, and then punished for being there. This is not to say either of them should be excused for their crimes any more than the guards at Auschwitz should have been. But Harman and Beaver’s superiors–Donald Rumsfeld, Richard Cheney, and George W. Bush–face no Nuremberg. No, I am not equating Guantanamo with Auschwitz. I am simply making an analogy.

If you’ve heard anything about this book you’ve probably already heard this, but just in case, this is the book where senior military personnel admit (or boast — it’s hard to tell) that the staff at Guantanamo literally got ideas for interrogation techniques by watching Jack Bauer on 24. What can you say to that. I try not to be cynical. What can you say to that?

The most useful insight I took away from this book is one which I guess I already knew, but which was brought home to me very strongly here. Nearly all of the missteps the United States has made in its reaction to 9/11 have been caused by its inability or unwillingness to decide whether 9/11 was a crime or an act of war. In the aftermath of a crime, you invoke order. You seek to gather evidence, apprehend suspects, build cases, have trials, issue sentences. In the aftermath of an act of war, you invoke chaos. You seek to retaliate, overpower, vanquish, occupy, pacify, and dictate terms. You can’t follow both these paths simultaneously; they are fundamentally incompatible. But that’s exactly what we’ve done, and that’s why there is no way out of Guantanamo for the prisoners there, whether they’re guilty or not, or enemies or not.


Tortoise, A Lazarus Taxon (2006)

My dorkmeister alter-ego DJ Big Baby just bought himself Tortoise‘s box set of rarities, A Lazarus Taxon. Even geekier: it’s out of print, so I bought it on eBay. My suspicion is that the kind of people who like Tortoise are the kind of people who would have liked Emerson Lake and Palmer had they been born twenty years earlier. This suspicion (I don’t know why I’m calling it a suspicion, when it’s so clearly a fact) has kept me in the closet about my Tortoise love for a long time. No longer. They’re just too much fun. Part jazz, part rock, part electronica . . . It’s eggheady, yes, and white as Pat Boone, but its atmospheres are undeniably unique and intriguing. So pooh. I’m a goon and so what.

Note that the songs in these videos aren’t from A Lazarus Taxon; couldn’t find any on YouTube.


Kontroll, Nimród Antal (2003)

Budapest is cool, subways are kind of cool, so I guess the Budapest subway is sort of double cool, but a movie set entirely in the Budapest subway and trying really hard to be cool . . . It’s so much cool it ceases to be cool. Interesting to see this so soon after 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. Different country, different story, I know, I know, unfair and reductive to compare them, but both films do possess this feeling of straining after effect, trying a little too hard to be jaded, everyone in ratty black leather jackets slumped in ratty black furniture smoking ratty black cigarettes under flickering fluorescent lights. I’m regretting the comparison already; Mungiu’s film, for all its faults, is so much more politically engaged and mature than this, which is essentially a comedy and a mess. And yet.


Tropic Thunder, Ben Stiller (2008)

A disappointment but not without its merits. Being the kind of geek who gets really excited about hall-of-mirrors scenarios like Hearts of Darkness, a movie about a movie that went off the rails depicting a historical event that went off the rails and based on a novel about a different historical event that went off the rails, Stiller’s premise can’t help but pique my interest. And there are some features here which bring similar if lesser pleasures, like the symmetry of two scenes, one early and one late, identically scripted and acted, but the former a representation of a representation of a tragedy and the latter a representation of one. But on the whole Stiller can’t decide if he wants to be Pirandello or the Farrelly brothers, and so dissatisfies on both levels. Still, you have to go see this movie to see Tom Cruise, whose vicious turn as the grubbiest studio Shylock in history made me want to roll on the floor laughing, write an angry letter to the editor, and take a long nap, all at the same time. Postmodernity is wearing me out. Or should I say “postmodernity.” Nap, I think.


Occupation: Dreamland, Ian Olds and Garrett Scott (2005)

It will be a long time before some as-yet-unborn Ken Burns has the proper perspective to deliver a comprehensive film history of the war in Iraq. Given the sheer volume of extant footage and imagery from the media and the thousands of cameras in soldiers’ pockets, it may never even happen at all. In the interim, interestingly, what we do have are dozens of little documentaries like this popping up on cable TV and at film festivals like so many mushrooms. Typically directed, shot, edited, produced, financed, and marketed by two guys with a digital camera and a sense of mission, docs like this one follow around a unit of real soldiers and interview them with the same reverence major TV networks reserves for wonks. This is among the best of the genre I’ve seen. The soldiers — an 82nd Airborne unit in Fallujah in 2004 — are given their say, and the filmmakers’ politics, while hardly invisible, are clearly and consciously subordinated to what the troops have to say. A few moments of real poetry, as when a well-meaning soldier chats with a very nervous Iraqi, trying to teach him the word “jacket” and to learn the Arabic for same, but the Iraqi misunderstands, and tells the soldier the Arabic word for “leather,” which is what the jacket is made of. Somewhere there’s a soldier trying to buy a jacket and getting handed leather, and an Iraqi man vice-versa.



Highlights of recently consumed cultural products include

Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag (2004). Nothing particularly surprising here, but the utter sanity of the essay is a real tonic. Honest and deeply moral exploration of contemporary culture’s relationship to images of pain, war, torture, and so forth. The most compelling moment, to me, is the one where Sontag demolishes the conventional wisdom that our steady diet of such images must inevitably inure us to them. She won’t let us off the hook that easily. If we’re going to look, she demands that we also see.

As Is, William M. Hoffman (1985). Excellent play; anyone who calls it sentimental is too cool for their own good.

Standard Operating Procedure, Philip Gourevitch (2008). Quiet, sane, systematic account of the experiences of the notorious Abu Ghraib soldiers. Gourevitch is painstakingly objective, except for a few sections where he indulges in some Sontag-like theorizing about the nature of the documentary image, and a few others where he can’t help but call attention to some of the scandal’s more vertigo-inducing conundrums. Among the most pointed: Sabrina Harman went to prison for photographing the corpse of Mandel al-Jamadi, but the CIA interrogator Mark Swanner, in whose custody al-Jamadi died, has never been accused of a crime.

Death and the Maiden, Ariel Dorfman (1991). Inspiring walk along the high wire of literature above the abyss of propaganda.

The Theater and Its Double, Antonin Artaud (1938). Yum.

Baghdad ER, Jon Alpert and Matthew O’Neill (2006).

Alive Day Memories: Home from Iraq, Jon Alpert and Ellen Goosenberg Kent (2007). Some very moving stories from veterans about deadly days they lived through. Having Tony Soprano interview and offer encouragement is a little schmaltzy, though.

Complete Plays, Sarah Kane (2001). Terrifying and brilliant playwright. I don’t know why I’d never heard of her. It’s somehow sad when your Amazon recommendations get to know you this well.

Mad Men, Matthew Weiner (2008). This show is so sad. I love it.

Planet of the Apes, Franklin J. Schaffner (1968). Boring.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Cristian Mungiu (2007). Sorry, hate to be a spoilsport, but this is a really turgid, sloppily directed, and indifferently acted movie, and I can’t help but think that all the international acclaim for it is actually somehow condescending and patronizing, like, “Oh, isn’t that sweet, a Romanian who thinks he can make a movie.” The film’s bleakness has some power, and it’s certainly a fine documentation of the insane Ceausescu regime, but it’s not great cinema.

About 6000 hours of the 2008 Summer Olympics. I heart Guo Jingjing.


Lust, Caution, Ang Lee (2007)

In Japanese-occupied China, a group of idealistic Chinese students plot the assassination of a high-level Chinese collaborator. The strategy is to have one of their number–the beautiful one, naturally–seduce him. Fairly predictably, she falls in love with him, as in Verhoeven’s Black Book. Somewhat less predictably, and unlike Black Book, the evil target does not turn out to have a heart of gold. He really is a bastard, but she loves him anyway, or is at least captivated by him, because he’s a really, really intense guy who makes lighting a cigarette look like ballet one second, and the next is detailing the torture methods he uses at the office, and ripping off the young student’s dress to rape her.

Lee wants us, I think, to get some kind of message along the lines of, “animal desire is more powerful than human reason” or “the personal trumps the political,” or something like that. But there’s so much that discomfits me here. It’s not that I object to the proposition that evil can be seductive. That’s clear. But the representation of evil as seductive feels wrong. In real life, we might pity a victim who falls in love with her victimizer, but we certainly wouldn’t celebrate the situation as a triumph of the human spirit, unless we were feeling pretty damned kinky. In the movie, though, we are encouraged, it seems, to root for the couple’s l’amour fou.

The fact that the movie is set in China redoubles my anxiety. So many received notions are on display here. China: inscrutable, devious, idealistic, enslaved to tradition, bottomlessly cruel. The tones are so familiar they barely register. And visually, too, so many overly familiar tropes; why is it that so many of the Chinese movies I see promoted in the States are set in the feudal past or the atmospheric early twentieth century? Imagine if the only American movies you ever saw were westerns or gangster pictures. Don’t they make any comedies over there? Why aren’t we seeing them?

Sumptuous looking movie, a few intriguing ideas for the boudoir, but I can’t get past the gratuitous melodrama and the “ancient Chinese secret” atmosphere.

“Sentimentality, notoriously, is entirely compatible with a taste for brutality and worse.” — Susan Sontag, “Regarding the Pain of Others”