Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Movie Review: John Hillcoat's The Proposition: The Frontier

Perhaps because of the simplicity of the life depicted, movies about conflicts in modern frontier societies—what may generally be called "westerns"—have been hospitable to the simplest narrative structures, chivalric romance and melodrama. The problem is that the contrast of the rustic setting and the high artificiality of literary romance and theatrical melodrama creates a kitsch effect. For decades no category of American movies was more popular, or more predictable.

At the same time, the material reaches towards more suggestive handling. The warriors' feats of horse- and gunmanship, for instance, have a legendary aura that suggest heroic sagas, though ones being sung in the age of history-writing and photography. And to the extent that the story of the frontier is the story of a people spreading into new territory and bringing their way of life with them, westerns have a sense of epic as well. But this potential richness has only set fastidious moviegoers up for repeated disappointments.

Even among the most accomplished westerns, John Hillcoat's The Proposition, from a script by Australian rocker Nick Cave, is still something special, having both the direct muscularity of a ballad and the attentiveness to social detail of a novel. As much as any western I can think of, it believably recreates the rough, struggling society of an outpost cowtown—materially, emotionally, and morally.

In the barely settled Australia of the 1880s, the Burns brothers, three roughshod, boggy Irish bushrangers, have been terrorizing outlying homesteaders. Charlie (Guy Pearce) and Mike (Richard Wilson) have broken off from the eldest, the primordially brutal Arthur (Danny Huston) and his confederates, who have recently murdered a settler and raped and murdered his pregnant wife. The movie begins in media res as Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone), head of the local garrison, captures Charlie and Mike in a chaotic gunfight. Stanley then makes the proposition of the title: Mike will be hanged on Christmas day within the week unless Charlie tracks Arthur down in his mountain hideout and kills him. If Charlie does so, both he and Mike will be pardoned.

At first the proposition may strike you as barbaric. (Not to mention a miscalculation to the extent that primitive Irishmen are as little likely as any humans to kill their own brothers, especially as part of a bargain with an officer of the English crown; and in fact Charlie ends up riding back to town with Arthur to release Mike.) Seen another way, however, the proposition is a relatively modern and efficient approach to the problem. It's an executory plea deal, in essence—albeit an unorthodox and improper one, since Mike, sitting in jail, has no control over whether "his" end of the bargain will be kept. But it shrewdly puts Charlie at risk rather than Stanley's own men tracking the psychotic Arthur into the inhospitable wastes of the outback. Charlie, after all, knows his brother's ways better than the soldiers do, and if he's killed it will be at the hands of someone with whom he's collaborated in crime.

As modern as Stanley's approach may seem, however, it appears considerably less sensible when we see how the rest of the town responds to it. His own men, a hard-drinking, crusty lot, think it's a sign of Stanley's weakness. They gossip about him, and his comely young wife, and word of the deal leaks to the townspeople, who are disgusted that men they believe to have butchered several of their own may escape punishment. And when Eden Fletcher (David Wenham), Stanley's superior officer, gets wind of it, he insists that Mike be publicly flogged, though it must inevitably appear to Charlie that Stanley welshed on the deal and will thus put Stanley and his wife at risk of what Arthur did to the other couple.

Like George Stevens's Shane (1953), The Proposition dramatizes the violence paradoxically necessary to civilize the frontier. Shane, however, is told with deliberate artifice as a black hat/white hat allegory, and there's never any examination of what "civilization" entails. The characters are arrayed with Jack Palance, the cattle baron's evil gunslinger, at the dark end of the spectrum and at the light end both Van Heflin, the decent farmer incapable of adequate martial self-defense, and Alan Ladd, the avenging, unreal, white knight. (Not to mention improbable, considering Ladd's dissipated-playboy face. The casting of Ladd as Shane is comparable to casting Tony Bennett as Lohengrin.) Shane attempts to make a storybook virtue of the average western's moral schematism, and I believe some people enjoy it for that very reason: they see "classical" where I see stilted.

In The Proposition, by contrast, Arthur squats at the dark end (and Huston, playing the part with both comic brashness and a sense of hauntedness, makes him a moody, Celtic goblin), but there's no one at the opposite end. Rather, the characters are arrayed on a curve so that Fletcher, the highest representative of law, is uncomfortably close to Arthur, and the greatest interest is in the middle, where we find Stanley and his wife, emerging from the barbarism of their surroundings and their own urgings. As Cave has conceived the story, the frontier is internal as well as external.

The proposition is the premise of the movie, its hook, but not its focus, and if, like me, you see the picture because you'll see anything with Guy Pearce in it, you may be somewhat disappointed. It's not a Guy Pearce movie, but that isn't a bad thing here. Unusually for a western, the most intriguing character is a woman, Captain Stanley's wife Martha (Emily Watson), who, with her delicate tea service and imported Christmas ornaments, her upright posture under her parasol, suggests the attempt to impose civil order on unruly nature (i.e., a setting where the characters "probably shouldn't be," according to Cave).

Stanley is the kind of enforcement officer who believes he's taming the frontier so it will be safe for women and children, but that women should not even know what forces threaten them. Martha, however, very much wants to know what happened to her friend at the hands of the Burns gang, especially when the butcher's wife tells her to ask her husband why the townspeople are looking at her askance. Finally Martha positions herself to overhear the truth her husband has refused to impart to her. When a mob gathers outside the prison to demand Mike's flogging, Martha lends her voice to the call for corporal "justice." Stanley has to step aside and let Mike be brought out for his 100 lashes; by the 39th bloody stroke Martha has fainted, and shortly afterwards the townspeople, nauseated by the sight they've demanded, disperse.

With Stanley you see a rough-hewn but basically decent man reaching for a new solution to the eternal problem of antisocial maleness. (Note that he's decent in his terms, not ours. His attitude toward the aboriginal population has not been made palatable to us in an anachronistic way; he is believably the kind of man he would have been given the time and place.) In his dealings with the Burns brothers, you see competing forms of aggressive masculinity, those that threaten and those that defend civilization.

Meanwhile Martha, the woman who has always been sheltered as a necessary component of being considered "decent," is exposed, as if for the first time in human history, to the facts of how men maintain the social order that protects women from outrages like that suffered by her friend. But ignorance has not made Martha more sensitive. She doesn't inherently, allegorically represent civilization, as the sheriff's woman often does in westerns, trying to hold him back from doing what a man has to do (i.e., kill the bad guys) and that the audience is slavering for. Martha goes to the jail, like everyone else, to call for Mike to be whipped. But it's as if she went there crying for vengeance and returned home with the stirrings of a moral philosopher.

There's more narrative pull than that might suggest, however. Martha's anxious curiosity about her friend's fate has a fairy tale quality, something like the story of Bluebeard's wife. We know Martha will move even closer to this fate than words or imagination before the end of the movie, and with her huge, luminous eyes in her piquant pug's face, Watson makes Martha seem the victim of a dark enchantment (which is how some women feel about sexual violence, the Angela Carter of The Bloody Chamber, for instance) without making her seem like anything but a young frontier matron. There's a beautiful, rapt moment in which Martha, sitting in the tub and seen from behind, tells the Captain of a dream she had of the murdered child. Watson's hands are as expressive here as her eyes are throughout.

At the same time, Martha's developing attentiveness to the situation echoes ours, and she gives the story its grounding in the qualities of the novel. (The advance of modern society seems also to entail a transition from ballad, heroic saga, and epic to descriptive naturalism. The one major failing in this regard is Stanley's unpreparedness for Arthur's final attack.) Stanley's job thus isn't set solely in the polarized moral context of melodrama. It's seen politically as well by showing that the proposition fails, in the first instance, because Stanley commands insufficient respect among his men, and then because he has inadequate support from his superior officer.

This view is rounded out by the social context—how word of the proposition affects Martha with the townsfolk and how it infects the Stanleys' personal relationship. Martha starts out wide-eyed, i.e., "innocent" (though not incapable of inflicting harm, as the etymology suggests), and what she undergoes opens them wider, though in a different sense. It also serves as a bonding experience with her husband, as if, by the end, she can finally understand what he's been up against and where he's been coming from.

The Proposition also has a sweated-in novelistic sense of place. Shot during a sweltering Queensland summer, the overdressed, underwashed Victorian colonials are swarmed by flies. In the interview above, Cave said of the shoot, "Nobody could even open their mouth without a fly crawling into it," and Hillcoat added, "[W]e were sharing the secrets of how to cope with swallowing flies…. I kept saying 'flies are our friends,' trying to encourage them to be part of the story. Which they ended up being."

The movie does not, however, have the visionary quality of the most staggering westerns, Fred Schepisi's The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978) from Australia and Geoff Murphy's Utu (1983) from New Zealand, for instance, in which the romance of the outlaw is inflected with an epic-tragic sense that history is being irreparably blotted in the meeting of the pioneer and aboriginal cultures. Sam Peckinpah in the U.S. wasn't able to condense an historical outlook in a turbulent anecdote in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) to equal these movies (Pat Garrett's complex ambitions die along with the helpless, pathetic Mexican at the hands of the evil cattle baron's men), but in The Wild Bunch (1969) he certainly rode the romance of western masculinity to the end of the line.

There is, however, some sense of the tragic side of Australia's history in The Proposition when, for instance, Fletcher upbraids Stanley for having killed a black during a recent raid. He's upset because Stanley killed only the one and now the survivors will seek revenge; it would have been better to kill them all. And when Stanley, preparing for the attack by the Burns brothers, sends his native gardener away, the man stops at the gate and removes his European shoes before walking out into the wasteland. It's a lovely, poetic gesture delivered on the ambiguous borderline between the two cultures.

But these moments aren't central to the narrative. On the other hand, tragic exaltation verges on the hysterical, on the willfully florid and perverse, and The Proposition is none of these. Cave and Hillcoat see history as a process, the product of sallies that can't be perfectly judged beforehand. A decent attempt is not negligible because it miscarries. The emphasis is as much on Stanley's effort as he conceived of it, as on the baleful results.

The Proposition is perhaps most like Peckinpah's Ride the High Country (1962), which so methodically dispels the melodramatic view of frontiersmen on a collision course. Similarly, The Proposition depicts male brutality, both within and without the confines of the law, in a beautifully measured way that doesn't kill the intensity of the narrative—wild contrasts, ironic similarities, and all.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Movie Review: Elaine May's The Heartbreak Kid: Chasing

Lenny Cantrow (Charles Grodin), the protagonist of The Heartbreak Kid, is a small-time, store-to-store salesman of sporting equipment in New York City. But he makes his rounds in a zippy little two-seater and at night he poses in the mirror holding a pipe, practicing the "suave" mojo he presents to young women in bars. In short progression we see Lenny pick up Lila Kolodny (Jeannie Berlin), date her, and try to make her on his couch. Horizontal but fending him off with her elbows, Lila makes it clear that although, as Lenny urges, "nobody" "waits" for marriage anymore, she's waiting.

So Lenny marries her, with the best will in the world, and the couple take off for a honeymoon in Florida in Lenny's sporty roadster. In a sequence that could serve as a cautionary video in favor of pre-marital sex, Lenny and Lila get to know each other as they drive south. We've seen their small-scale, lower-middle-class, Eastern-European Jewish wedding, and it seems to express everything Lila could possibly want. She likes to look down the road 40 or 50 years, when they'll be just like their parents and grandparents, and affectionately tells Lenny he'd better get used to her—as she talks baby-talk, eats candy in bed, annoyingly paws his chest, orders double egg salad for lunch and chews with the crumbs on her lips and chin, and on and on. The daisies are pushing up over the marriage before the Cantrows reach Miami Beach.

The screenwriter Neil Simon (freely building on Bruce Jay Friedman's 1966 Esquire magazine story "A Change of Plan," reprinted in the enjoyable 1989 Penguin paperback No, But I Saw the Movie) and director Elaine May (also Berlin's mother) develop this set-up with classic revue-humor rhythms. Lila's repetition of "40 or 50 years," for instance, got escalating laughter from the audience I saw it with at the AFI Theatre in Silver Spring. (Berlin's delivery and timing are spectacular—idiosyncratic without disrupting the set rhythms of the material.) And the pairing of Grodin and Berlin as a straight man and a woozy grotesque is great shtick (in the Burns-and-Allen vein) that still allows the actors to develop characters. Lenny and Lila aren't entirely reducible to what creates the friction between them. They want different things and getting married is the only way available to them to find that out. The "waiting for marriage" discussion is the key—culturally, Lenny and Lila are only inches away from each other and yet by 1972 a crevasse has opened in those few inches.

At the same time, the movie is Lenny's story, and we see Lila from his point of view. The high concept—man meets the girl of his dreams on his honeymoon—grows in part out of male sexual psychology: the intensity of pursuit and the letdown after possession, the feeling of being trapped because the person you ended up with isn't everything you want. As Lila points out to an increasingly grouchy Lenny, marriage is all new to her, too, but she takes their marriage seriously, as a fact even more than a commitment, whereas Lenny is plainly over it, though even he doesn't know it yet, all of which focuses the drama on him.

Perhaps because of women's greater emotional susceptibility and sexual vulnerability, movies about women who don't really know whom they're marrying tend to be dark romances—innocent flirtations with the devil, as in Suspicion (1941), Gaslight (1940 and 1944), Undercurrent (1945), The Stranger (1946), Conspirator (1949), and The Stepfather (1987). By contrast, The Heartbreak Kid, though directed by a woman, is told from the man's point-of-view and played for comedy. We identify with Lenny but not in the way we do with the beset heroines of these thrillers. You don't have to actively want for Lenny what he wants for himself to enjoy the picture.

What Lenny ends up wanting is Kelly Corcoran (Cybill Shepherd), a teasingly flirtatious Minnesota college girl who's staying with her parents at the same hotel as Lenny and Lila. Lenny's first view of Kelly as he's lying on the Florida beach is probably the best shot in any Elaine May movie—we look up at her from Lenny's perspective, where she's standing with her head so near the sun that she literally dazzles the eye. And what she says to Lenny, that he's taken her spot on the sand, or later that he's taken her stool in the hotel bar, tongue-ties him as well. (You can imagine that a Jewish boy like Lenny, with more reach than grasp in terms of worldliness, might actually think a girl like Kelly could own the beach.) It takes a while for Lenny to catch on that she's taken the lead in a game he can play.

At first Lila is annoyingly, but conveniently, out of commission from sunburn. Once she recovers, Lenny has to tell some whopping lies in order to keep dates with Kelly, and this part of the movie has some of the frenetic energy of farce but also the bad dreaminess of being caught in a glue-trap. In the most memorable scene, Lenny, having taken Lila to dinner to break the news to her, talks himself from one clichéd phrase to another, none of which conveys his meaning, until he finally hits on one that contains the words "it's over."

The movie then switches gears after Lenny divorces Lila and tracks Kelly to her campus. He's no longer dodging a woman but chasing one, and the movie now takes on the structure of romantic comedy, i.e., winning the girl over her father's objections. But only the structure. When Lenny finds Kelly, she's not only surprised to see him but committed to one of the college guys she's walking with. Kelly's father (Eddie Albert) made it plain in Florida that he didn't like Lenny and in Minnesota he makes it explicit that he loathes him and is willing to pay him to go away. Lenny tells Mr. Corcoran that he's the most determined young man he's ever met, but we can't help feeling that knowing what you want and having the determination to get it are different from having a reason for wanting what you want.

All of which is to say that Lenny is one of the most purely ambiguous ironic protagonists in American movies. Simon makes Lenny more blocked than he is in Friedman's story (in which Lenny confronts every impediment head-on), but he doesn't make him loveable. And it may be a certain female sensitivity that enables May to remain skeptical about her protagonist. (That's her "daughter" he's dumping.) In any event, Simon and May's detachment is beautifully assured. Lenny is the protagonist because you're eager to know what he's going to do, even though you don't wish you were in his shoes.

Of course, Kelly's a beauty, and Shepherd has a wonderful comic style—she provokes reactions and then sits back and watches with ambiguous amusement—but even Kelly realizes that Lenny has read too much into their passing, holiday "relationship." And yet he's so overread it, so energetically, that he becomes fascinating to her. (Simon's script doesn't emphasize why the Jewish man's walking-talking dream would be the WASPiest girl he could find. Nor does the script go into why the Jewish Lila would be such a nightmare of ordinariness to Lenny. But then neither does Simon supply pat answers or arbitrary reconciliations, for once. In other words, Simon isn't Philip Roth, but his work here is unusually sophisticated for him. It's his driest work by far.)

The Heartbreak Kid is thus not a romantic comedy in which the couple seem made for each other; that's part of the detachment by which we recognize it as irony. This puts it well ahead of The Graduate (1967), directed by Mike Nichols, who was May's former comedy partner. The problem with the The Graduate as compared to The Heartbreak Kid is that it goes back and forth in how it views its protagonist Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman), the recent college graduate who returns home to the materialistic wasteland of his parents' L.A. and doesn't know what to do with himself. At times Benjamin is a nullity, bubbling on the bottom of the pool in his new scuba gear, for instance, and at times he's a slapstick cluck, helpless in the hands of his parents' predatory married friend Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft). But then in his pursuit of Elaine (Katherine Ross), Mrs. Robinson's daughter, Benjamin becomes a romantic hero, and yet there's no particular reason why we should want Benjamin and Elaine to be together or why Elaine would represent redemption from nullity for him.

In The Graduate it is very much a problem that Hoffman and Ross don't make a classic pair (as Hoffman and Bancroft do, though of a different kind). But then at the end when Benjamin disrupts Elaine's wedding, the romance and irony are both present, with Benjamin swinging the cross at the seething wedding guests and barricading the door with it, but the two genres don't work together coherently. (The movie altogether dodges the implications of casting the Jewish Hoffman in a role conceived as a tall, blond, Anglo-Saxon.) And in the last shot, of Benjamin on a public bus next to Elaine in her wedding dress and veil with both of them facing forward and not laughing over their escapade (as Cary Grant and Irene Dunne would have) or even apparently happy to be together, Nichols reverts to the modish ironic detachment that he had shucked to get us rooting for the romance. Nichols takes an ad hoc approach to comic irony and the movie seems to have been enshrined by American audiences because each moment in isolation "works," no matter that they tend to cancel each other out. (Read Michael Sragow's 10 January 2001 Salon DVD review for a fuller treatment of The Graduate as both art and phenomenon.)

The Heartbreak Kid is all of a piece and probably less popular for that very reason. Lenny is a nothing man from beginning to end, and you have to be capable of remaining detached from yourself—the part of you that wants a fantasy hero to identify with—to stay with his story. Lenny is a coherent character, but that character is a young man in search of himself. All he has is the process, i.e., his determination, and we're dubious it will lead to the satisfaction he expects. (In the story, when Lenny tells his mother he's going to Minnesota, she says, "I can tell you the end of this story, too, if you want to sit and listen.") This is where Charles Grodin's mask-like face fits Lenny so perfectly. When he's with Lila you know exactly why his expression doesn't match the excuses and reassurances he's making to explain his behavior to her. His work is much subtler in Minnesota, however, when Lenny's expressions don't match what he believes to be true.

And the ending is daringly inconclusive. (So is the ending of the story though in a totally different register—as Lenny makes a pass at his new mother-in-law.) In the last few sequences we follow the motif of a general political comment Lenny makes to Kelly's parents at dinner to impress them. Mrs. Corcoran (Audra Lindley) appreciatively, and naïvely, says she saw a similar idea that morning in the editorial section, which Lenny claims not to have read. Later, at Lenny and Kelly's wedding reception, we see Lenny recycling the idea to impress older friends of Mr. Corcoran's. Finally, we see him repeating it to a 10-year-old and his little sister.

We can see that Lenny the salesman has sold himself something without knowing what it is, what need it meets. And we can see this without devaluing Kelly (who has a more sexually imaginative way of "waiting" for marriage than Lila), any more than we think of Lila as allegorically awful (she's very wrong for Lenny, but affecting in her own right). The irony in The Heartbreak Kid can be brutal and yet without failing in generosity. Which is perhaps why it's so pleasurable to identify with a piece of work like Lenny. His condition is an extreme, stylized version of a general fact, that we learn more from experience, i.e., mistakes, than from precept or example. Sometimes it seems that nobody ever has any idea what it is he's chasing after, and so the chase never ends—a relay race you run forever, handing off one baton after another to yourself. It's a good day when you can laugh about it, which is what The Heartbreak Kid lets you do.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Movie Review: Paul Greengrass's United 93: Guts

United 93

United 93 recreates the flight of the fourth plane on September 11, 2001, the one on which the passengers got word by cell phone of the attacks on the World Trade Center, figured out the hijackers were on a suicide mission, and attempted to retake control of the plane. The movie was clearly made to dramatize our fascination with the fate of the unsuspecting people on the plane, those resourceful anybodies whose actions, in this version, saved the U.S. Capitol—What would we have done in their place? Would we have had their nerve?

The English writer-director Paul Greengrass allows for this projection, but doesn't hype it. He divides the story into three movements: the air traffic controllers figuring out that something is up, though they don't know what; the jihadists' attack; and the passengers' and crew's counterattack. We always feel we're present because Greengrass and his cinematographer Barry Ackroyd shoot everything with handheld cameras, but at the same time this makes every situation feel roughly equivalent. The camerawork functions like an even coat of opaque paint.

The terrorists aren't fully characterized, but neither is anyone else. (The pilots and stewardesses are played by actual pilots and stewardesses, and among the actors playing passengers I recognized a few names but no faces.) Even the famous line with which the passengers launched their offensive—"Let's roll!"—isn't isolated and framed in the usual movieish way. Our immersion in the situation is total, which also means our perspective is less limited but also less intense than it would have been if we had actually been on board.

Of course we know from the start who the terrorists are and what they're up to, and so they affect us in a more conventionally suspenseful way. (When they delay making their move on the plane you may find yourself idiotically hoping that they won't.) Even when the terrorists and passengers appear in the same shot, waiting for the flight to be called, for instance, the terrorists seem to be in a different, more focused movie, while the passengers chat on their cell phones or peck at their laptops.

The scenes set among the air traffic controllers are altogether more interesting. The controllers are tool-edge sharp, picking up and deciphering the slightest hints over their headsets, and they're effective to the extent possible against a sneak attack. (The only snafu is the military response, but in the case of flight 93 what could the air force have accomplished that the passengers and crew didn't—downing the plane on uninhabited ground.) But it's a relief that Greengrass avoids turning the controllers' alertness into romance by focusing on heroes battling against the forces of evil and incomprehension. It's nice for a change that a major event is not being processed into the same old crud that our moviemakers have always passed off as historical filmmaking.

I do wish, however, that Greengrass had shaped the story more. The movie has structure only on the outside, not on the inside, which surely is a definition of "hollow." In this partial transcript of an April 2006 interview with Rush Limbaugh, Greengrass suggests an idea: "that group of ordinary men and women actually were the first amongst us to enter the post-9/11 world." But we don't know what these men and women were like before the hijacking so we don't see how they change. He also justifies making the movie so soon after the events by saying, "It's time we went together back to this experience, because we may find that we agree about more than we think at the moment." He's referring to the political divisions that have become so pronounced since September 11th and hoping we can become as "united" in our response as the people on flight 93 (not that we know what differences, if any, they overcame in the desperation of events). But again, nothing in the movie dramatizes this aspiration.

Without an organizing dramatic idea, the episodic back-and-forth between plane and tower helplessly makes United 93 resemble a much more conventional disaster movie, a restrained, less campily characterful version of Airport (1970), one charged with political emotion. For American audiences, however, that political emotion inevitably comes with the subject; it's not an attainment of the movie's. And though the three groups of characters are viewed somewhat differently, they're filmed in a unified style that gets a bit monotonous. Those soap opera dummies in Airport at least add a little variety, even to derision. United 93's version of the doomed flight finally isn't very different from the gray, panic-stricken version that runs in my head.

By comparison, the subject matter of Greengrass's hellaciously swift international spy thriller The Bourne Supremacy (2004) is entirely forgettable. Its generic paranoia about government intelligence ops doesn't relate to life as we know it in any way. Nonetheless, Greengrass presents it as urgent, which is laughabale, but at the same time the crappy plot enforces on him variations in handling and rhythm that he would do well to carry over into his more respectable work. (He also gained from working with skillful high-profile actors, particularly Joan Allen and Julia Stiles.)

Though far more discreetly handled, United 93 gives off the same feeling as a World War II picture involving civilians, Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat (1944), for instance, in which the non-combatant survivors of a torpedoed ship share a lifeboat with the captain of the U-boat that sank them. At the climax, the democratic civilians finally realize the Nazi is up to no good and do away with him with their bare hands. Lifeboat is cruder than United 93, in no small part because the situation has been faked to provide some low-down high-comic material for Tallulah Bankhead, which turns its ideological demonstration into something resembling entertainment. But the demonstration also makes Lifeboat more sententious, and by that same stroke less visceral, than United 93.

Sidebar: Lifeboat affords the best opportunity on film to see the Bankhead legend, apart from bits and pieces in such pictures as Faithless (1932), which does provide her with a classic exit line. Having been thrown out of a house party by the social climbing Mrs. Blainey, Bankhead's Carol, a fallen heiress, is stopped by the woman's husband, who tells her that his wife isn't "sore" at her, she's just afraid of the "high-class competition." Carol laughs dismissively at this—she can't entirely share the joke because he couldn't possibly know how far she's fallen—and, waving the handbag he's fattened with $1,000, says with self-consciously trampy gallantry as she departs, "Oh! Reassure her, Mr. Blainey, reassure her!"

Greengrass is a refined political artist, but United 93 goes pretty much entirely for gut reactions. He doesn't exploit them; he doesn't need to. I became aware of this when the passengers are planning their counterattack and one of them proposes to break the arm of the terrorist who appears to be holding the detonator of a bomb strapped around his waist. The passenger doesn't say it with relish, and Greengrass doesn't emphasize it particularly, but my response was, Yeah, break his fucking arm!

These throbbings of vengeance strike me as inevitable, even for civilized people. There's a point at which the only possible response to fascistic force is a greater counterforce, and such a counterforce requires an emotional thrust that can't be very fine-grained. I'm okay with the coarse emotion generated here, but I don't need a movie, or any ritual, to generate it for me. Greengrass's superior technical skill doesn't add much to the subject matter, as opposed to the experience in the theater, and it's not always that superior. In the one strand of allegory, for instance, a lone European passenger wants to appease the terrorists; when the Americans are about to act he tries to single himself out from them. This is reminiscent of the passenger in Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes (1938) who hops off the stopped train waving a white flag; the fascists do to him what fascists do to appeasers. I believe the point is valid, in both cases, but nonetheless so crude in the performance as to appear silly.

Bloody Sunday

Greengrass's breakthrough feature Bloody Sunday (2002) uses a similar constant-present-tense technique to recreate another historic convergence of forces, on 30 January 1972 when British troops fired on unarmed Catholic civil-rights protestors in Derry, Northern Ireland, killing 13 and setting off the bloodiest year of the "Troubles."

Greengrass and his cinematographer Ivan Strasburg shoot as if it were all happening before us, and the confusion of the leaders of the march, including Ivan Cooper, MP (James Nesbitt) and Bernadette Devlin (Mary Moulds), after the troops have replaced rubber bullets with lead and started picking people off is vividly realized. Because the cinematography lacks the usual finish and polish, you may feel an almost unmediated horror, as if the theater had dissolved and you were there, unprotected, in the street.

Perhaps because Bloody Sunday is so rooted in place, it feels even more teeming than United 93, in which all the relationships are transient. Greengrass shows us five elements: Cooper, a grassroots politician, and his organization working to keep the IRA and the unorganized, disgruntled youths from disrupting the peaceful protest; the British military leader who wants a muscular show of force that will function both as payback for past attacks on British soldiers and as a deterrent against future attacks; a local policeman who works with a sympathetic British officer to keep a check on this show of force; edgy, angry British soldiers who are spoiling for blood and who pressure a more restrained comrade to go along with them; and a young Catholic lad with a Protestant girlfriend who joins his rock-throwing mates and draws fire.

All the same, there's more of a point to Bloody Sunday than to United 93, which aims simply to depict for us our own fearful imaginings. And the point is pretty much unifaceted: at a press conference after the massacre, a shaken Cooper tells the British authorities that they have destroyed the non-violent movement and done more effective recruiting for the IRA than the IRA could ever have done on its own. Greengrass goes on to make clear that the British military planned the attack as a demonstration, planted nail bombs on a corpse, and consistently lied about their actions to Lord Widgery's Tribunal, which investigated the incident and published its Report in 1972. But though Greengrass is angry, he's not seething. His live-action visual technique and editing have a paradoxical sense of containment: "anything" could happen, provided it fits the plan.

It should also be said that the points Greengrass makes in Bloody Sunday are not controversial and so his treatment doesn't need to be polemical. (Compare, for instance, David McKittrick and David McVea's chapter "The End of Stormont, 1972-73," from Making Sense of the Troubles (2000): "What happened on that day was to drive even more men and youths into paramilitary groups.") Even though there may be reason to despair of the situation in Northern Ireland, as this 21 August 2005 New Republic article by Ron DePasquale suggests, that's a different question from what happened in Derry three decades ago. (A second commission of inquiry was established in 1998, though it seems not to have published its findings yet.) By temperament Greengrass seeks to form consensus not to rouse the rabble; I don't believe he intended to make an incendiary point, as Gillo Pontecorvo did with The Battle of Algiers (1966), and as he might have done had he made Bloody Sunday 30 years earlier. (Or even 20 years earlier, at the time of the 1981 Hunger Strike in which Bobby Sands and nine other male prisoners died.)

Greengrass's thesis and approach may not be polemical or controversial but they are melodramatic, because he doesn't examine the Irish hooliganism (or the IRA terrorism, which since the 1960s killed about 1,800 people, including 650 civilians) as he does the British military bellicosity. This is so, even though Ivan Cooper is the movie's hero because he espouses the non-violent methods of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., and Greengrass, who made a British TV movie about the 15 August 1998 "Real" IRA bombing in Omagh, has never expressed anything but dismay over political violence.

From an impartial overview, however, the Northern Irish boys throwing brickbats and rocks at the British soldiers must bear some of the responsibility for the outcome that Cooper, because of the unjustified and unprincipled use of lethal force by the British, places squarely on the British. And the British are the only ones who lie about the events. In United 93 Greengrass doesn't suggest that the Islamofascist terrorists have a "side" in the conflict; he comes close to suggesting as much with respect to the IRA (though not nearly as much as Steven Spielberg does with the Palestinian terrorists in the mindless Munich). But having a valid grievance does not justify all responses, even if it explains them.

In addition, Greengrass's handling is melodramatic because we're privy to all the relevant information beforehand. Part of "being there" is not hearing or seeing everything squarely, but Greengrass keeps us informed of everything we need to know—even if only with glimpses of action and snatches of conversation—to be able to agree with him, but no more.

Yet oddly Greengrass doesn't focus his melodrama emotionally. In this interview with IndieLondon, Greengrass says that his early background was with the Granada Television news program World in Action and that seems to be his grounding in filmmaking. But I've seen greater characterization in documentaries; in Bloody Sunday (as in United 93) everyone remains equally removed from us, so that although we recognize conceptually that bad acts have occurred they don't have the kind of wallop you'd expect from a movie.

Bloody Sunday demonstrates an historical thesis formulated in retrospect, which fits oddly with Greengrass's continuous-present technique. It would thus be a mistake not to separate Greengrass's naturalistic technique from his content. The technique is supposed to be immediate, as if the crew weren't there. My boyfriend and I experienced a moment of confusion that I thought was telling: in one long shot he pointed out that people had come out to watch from the balconies of an apartment building in the background. I thought he meant that they were extras directed to watch the "violence"; he actually meant they were locals who lived in the building and who had come out to watch the filming. Greengrass works in such a way that this ambiguity helps him, if anything. If you can't distinguish his players from "real" people, then he's succeeded. But for all that, Bloody Sunday is blandly tendentious in a way United 93 is not.

I believe Greengrass is thoroughly acquainted with the facts in Bloody Sunday but I still felt starved if not for information then for an analytical model. On the other hand, this puts Bloody Sunday in the league of Costa-Gavras's Z (1969), another streamlined jolt of then-recent political history. Z has a more varied style than Bloody Sunday, but there's nothing casual about it. Its view of history is locked and loaded and aimed point blank at your face. By contrast, Bloody Sunday includes one brief sequence of impressive offhand mastery, in which Ivan Cooper and his girlfriend try to carry on a tense personal discussion at headquarters while constantly getting interrupted by other people and phone calls. (And remember, Costa-Gavras had no qualms about making one of his villains a psychotic homo.)

Greengrass finds his groove in the middle of turbulence, but he needs to hop out before his groove becomes a rut. His work in Bloody Sunday and United 93 is impressive but finally too flashy and pointed, and yet unstructured, to have the tragic dimension they sorely need. In the scenes dealing with the air traffic controllers in United 93 you become aware of how large the skies are when the terrorists turn off the airplanes' transponders and the big birds disappear from the radar. (It takes the controllers a while to realize that the missing American Airlines flight 11 must have gone into the smoking hole in the World Trade Center's north tower.) In United 93 the action takes place in the skies, but that's all the action going on in them. There's certainly no mystery on the other side of them. The events are no more freed from the flow of historic time for contemplation, or sorrow, or consolation than in an action movie. There's just shock, relived, like a nightmare duped onto a replayable cartridge.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

The KC saw John Grisham at a strip mall in Charlottesville, Virginia on Friday.

That is all.