Monthly archives of “August 2009

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Ketchup

Waltz with Bashir, Ari Folman (2008). Former IDF soldier sets about unrepressing his repressed memories of the Sabra and Shatila massacres. Waking Life plus Johnny Got His Gun, in Lebanon. Interesting to look at. I don’t get why making it a cartoon is a good idea.

Miller’s Crossing, Joel Coen (1990). I didn’t like this bitter little movie the first time or the second.

Fear Up Harsh: An Army Interrogator’s Dark Journey through Iraq, Tony Lagouranis (2007). Useful. Complicated. Many of the ways in which this book is interesting are likely not ones of which the author himself is aware. Lagouranis believes he’s written the story of his coming to consciousness and conscience during his time as an interrogator in Iraq. The book is that, but it’s also — I don’t want to overstate this, because I suspect Lagouranis is an ethical and well-intentioned person, but it’s true nonetheless — an example of the very self-exculpatory style which Lagouranis deplores in his commanding officers. More accurate and more precise to say: Lagouranis’s oscillations between “there’s no excuse for what I’ve done” and “here’s my excuse for what I’ve done” are themselves an important part of the story of the systemic failures of the Bush administration’s strategy and tactics in the GWAT.

The Last Days of Haute Cuisine, Patric Kuh (2001). Poorly written but fascinating account of the rises and falls of the French ethos, California cuisine, and corporatism in the American restaurant business.

Life of Galileo, Bertolt Brecht (1947), directed by Joseph Losey for the American Film Theatre, (1974). Brilliant production starring the great Topol of Fiddler on the Roof fame. Really enjoyable and provocative.

I haven’t yet seen In the Loop, or The Thick of It, upon which In the Loop is based, but I’m having a hard time either of them will surpass Harold Pinter’s Party Time. I just watched a 1992 production of the play as filmed by Pinter himself. (The DVD is from 2004, and was produced by “Films for the Humanities & Sciences.) What an absolutely brilliant piece of writing. The lurches and swerves from naked aggression to high society chitchat to lyric flights of symbolic imagination to stammered disconnections of sign and signifier literally make me gasp. Just a short play — 35 minutes — but I’d set it next to any of Pinter’s best, or anyone else’s.

Septem8er Tapes, Christian Johnston (2004). Weird, irresponsible, self-satisfied, atrociously written mockumentary “about” a filmmaker who goes to Afghanistan in the fall of 2001 to “get to the bottom” of the GWAT. Deeply strange. I not only don’t get the point of it, I don’t even get what the filmmakers might imagine the point might be.

The Situation, Philip Haas (2006). Well intentioned ham-fisted Americans-are-bad message movie about an improbably beautiful and beatific female journalist in Iraq.

I could, but won’t, and probably shouldn’t, write a book about representations of the GWAT in film.

Humana Festival 2008: The Complete Plays. Why am I always so surprised that so much contemporary drama is so trite and boring? After all, so much contemporary everything else is trite and boring, why shouldn’t that be true of drama, too? One good play here: Becky Shaw, by Gina Gionfriddo. A queer claustrophobic family drama. Title character is an outsider who comes into the family’s orbit to simultaneously air the dirty laundry and soil a bunch more. Not really my cup of tea — too much psychology, too much talking — but very good at being what it is.

Lars and the Real Girl, Craig Gillespie (2007). Surprisingly sweet and affecting movie about a town that teaches a guy how to love. That sounds horrible, but it’s true! I don’t know how it doesn’t lapse into sentimentality or broad comedy, but it doesn’t.

The Forever War, Dexter Filkins (2008). Dispatches it is not, but the comparison will be made and not for no reason. Filkins was the Times‘ guy in Afghanistan and then in Iraq, and these are the stories that aren’t right for a newspaper but need to be told nonetheless, the ironic ones, personal ones, the ones that unfold over years and the ones that are contained in a single instant. You don’t read this one for policy analysis, political history, or any of that big picture stuff; this is about people trying to stay alive in war zones.

Thief
, Michael Mann (1981).
Manhunter, Michael Mann (1986).
I’ve always enjoyed Mann’s glacial style — that’s a reference to both time and attitude — but it sure doesn’t hold up well over time. The interminable Tangerine Dream riffs in Thief and the interminable brooding of William Petersen in Manhunter don’t feel slick and cool, they feel like you just ate a quart of quaaludes. Also, James Caan’s entire torso is covered with hair and Mann makes sure you know it, often. Also, Caan blows up The Green Mill, which is inexcusable.

Elizabeth, Shekhar Kapur (1998). Stylish pseudo-historical romp, great cast.

Network, Sidney Lumet (1976). The M*A*S*H of television. Did anyone make any movies in the 70’s that weren’t completely depressing in both form and content?

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The Walker, Paul Schrader (2007)

Paul Schrader grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in a milieu of strict Calvinism. Ditto my parents, and, to a lesser extent, yours truly. My father knew Schrader in college, and I’m told I met the man, but I was still in my crib at the time. Schrader long ago shook the dust from his feet and left West Michigan, but it’s never really left him; his films, including this one, have always displayed a queasy fascination with depravity and a deep skepticism that morality or integrity stand a chance in this bad ol’ world. “Someday a real rain will come and wash all the scum off the streets.” Schrader wrote that. He didn’t believe it.

There’s some fine acting here, by a superlative cast, but much like all those church services back in Michigan, the movie’s too long and dour. Probably of interest only to native sons and daughters like me, who like to keep up with our own.

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Taxi to the Dark Side, Alex Gibney (2007)

This man, Dilawar, a taxi driver, was beaten to death by American soldiers at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan on December 10, 2002. He was shackled while he was beaten. He weighed 122 pounds when he died. He has never been accused of any crime — not that that matters; it is illegal, as far as I know, to beat anyone to death, no matter what they’ve done or haven’t.

This documentary starts with Dilawar’s graphic, dramatic, outrageous story, but then, having seized your attention, turns, as it should, to the political and legal context which made stories like Dilawar’s inevitable. The military and intelligence personnel who have tortured prisoners since 2001 have committed heinous acts, and I believe they should be held accountable. However, none of these crimes would have committed absent the tacit and overt encouragement of administration officials and their attorneys. Many people who should be in prison for crimes committed in the course of military actions since 2001 haven’t been called to account. If I had to make a list of these people, the soldiers who beat Dilawar to death would be low on the list. At the top: George W. Bush, Richard Cheney, David Addington, John Yoo, Jay S. Bybee, Donald Rumsfeld, William J. Haynes II, Steven G. Bradbury . . . That would be a good start.

There are some moments in this movie that I don’t like, where Gibney, understandably overwhelmed by some of the more Orwellian ironies he’s reporting on, indulges in some Michael-Mooreish sarcasm. But on the whole, it’s a remarkably comprehensive and effective document. If you want to understand the Bush administration’s breathtaking, monomaniacal rush to subvert basic longstanding legal principles such as habeas corpus and the prohibition of torture, I’d suggest starting with this movie and Jane Mayer’s The Dark Side.

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Rancho Notorious, Fritz Lang (1952)

Earlier this summer I mentioned on this blog that I’d long ago resigned myself to never seeing this movie, since it seemed to be out of print. A sympathetic friend — one of the approximately six people who I think read this blog on occasion — saw this comment, and, through some sort of probably larcenous interweb wizardry, made a little dream come true. My thanks, friend. I’m glad not to have had to go to my grave without seeing this curiosity of the Lang oeuvre, which has loomed so large in my imagination for so long.

“I wish you’d go away and come back ten years ago,” says Altar Keane (Marlene Dietrich) to Vern Haskell (Arthur Kennedy). Sounds like a cry of doomed love from a standard oater melodrama, but, as usual, Lang’s up to a lot more in this movie than immediately meets the eye. We have here, again, as so often in Lang (and Hitchcock, and Mann), the good man driven to madness by evil. But Lang’s sense of good and evil is so much more decadent than either of these others. Good and evil aren’t moral successes or failings in Lang; they’re accidents of fate. Lang wanted to call this picture “Chuck-a-Luck,” which of course didn’t pass muster, because it’s ridiculous. It’s the right title, though: Chuck-a-luck is the name of a game of chance which sets the plot in motion, and chance is the determinant for all that follows. The main bad guy of the movie, Frenchy Fairmont (Mel Ferrer, who is terrific here, though I kept fantasizing Dan Duryea in the role) isn’t a bad guy at all. He happened into a situation where he was forced to shoot, was seen to be good at shooting, and so was forced by circumstance to become a shooter. In most westerns, identity — whether good or evil — is self-determined. Indeed, the climax of the typical western is the moment when the protagonist finally realizes he is the master of his destiny. In Lang, your identity is thrust upon you by chance, and catharsis comes when you capitulate to this fact. “I wish you’d go away and come back ten years ago.” It’s the weary, winking kiss/kiss-off of someone who’s learned to amor her fati, yet still recalls, vaguely, old times when it seemed she, not chance, got to choose who she’d be.

I’m embarrassed to say I’m a little verklemmt and need to leave it there. But one of these days I should think more about the gender economics of this movie — Dietrich is basically a pimp whose girls’ tricks consist of robbing banks. Many wild horses are broken, etc. No cross dressing, but close; Vern does tear a piece of jewelry from the Altar in a little hissy fit.

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How to Break a Terrorist, Matthew Alexander (2008)

I’ve spent the last few years compulsively researching illegal American interrogation practices between September 12, 2001 and June 12, 2008. (The latter date, I believe, represented the beginning of something of a new era, though certainly not the end of all malfeasance.) This has been a dispiriting project, to say the least. And so reading Alexander’s book was an extremely bizarre experience. The author, who writes under a pseudonym and with the help of a co-writer, was a military interrogator in Iraq in 2006. He portrays his experience as one in which almost all his colleagues had come, in the wake of Abu Ghraib, to completely repudiate “enhanced interrogation” techniques as unthinkably immoral and tactically counterproductive. A couple old dinosaurs who believe in control-and-dominate theories of interrogation remain in his unit, but they come across here as marginalized and cartoonish. According to Alexander, everyone in his unit knows, or soon comes to know, that cultural sensitivity, respect, and building rapport are the keys to intelligence gathering.

This view, of course, is true. However, I have a very hard time believing that this view was anywhere near conventional wisdom in 2006, the year President George W. Bush signed the Military Commissions Act, which, among other things, sought to decriminalize violations of the Geneva Conventions committed by military interrogators. (This was the law that the Supreme Court overturned in 2008.)

I suspect Alexander is a decent guy who did try to interrogate Iraqi prisoners by legal and dignified means. But his book, which creates the false impression that the second the Abu Ghraib photos came out, military interrogators everywhere were instantly transformed from abusive Rambos to shrewd Sherlock Holmeses, is dangerously misleading. No prisoner in this book is shown to have experienced any form of physical coercion at all. No prolonged solitary confinement, stress positions, sleep deprivation, physical contact, subjection to noise, subjection to temperature extremes, deprivation of food or drink. Not even a hint. This is extremely hard to believe, especially since Alexander claims he was part of the team assigned to interrogate the high-level prisoners who eventually led American forces to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

I further suspect that there is some illuminating information in this book, but it’s impossible to tell what it might be, since it is submerged in a creaky artificial melodramatic tone, and a general pall of unbelievability.