One of the best films of recent years that the-editorial-’nobody’ has seen is MUGABE AND THE WHITE AFRICAN, and I learned some sad news from ex-colleague Sonny Bunch yesterday. The man at the center of that film, Zimbabwean farmer Mike Campbell, already an old man when the MUGABE documentary was made, has died from events contained in the film. According to the family Campbell died from the long-run health effects that a vigilante beating by Mugabe’s thugs will have on a man in his mid-70s. (These are news obits and they necessarily contain spoilers for the film.)
Sonny thought MUGABE was the best film he saw at SilverDocs that year and he placed it in his Top 10 overall for the year. I don’t think quite THAT highly of it, but I graded it an 8 and wrote the following about it.
MUGABE AND THE WHITE AFRICAN (Lucy Bailey, 2009, Britain) — 8 — Follows a family of white farmers in Zimbabwe resisting expropriation of their land by dictator Robert Mugabe, partly by standing up to government-backed gang-invasions, but mostly by filing a case in a regional Southern African court, accusing Zimbabwe of racial discrimination. Sometimes looks like ass without extenuating circumstances (you gotta do what you gotta do to get footage in Zimbabwe, but there’s no reason for the Namibian airport to look like it was shot on a Securiticam). Plus this sort of legal crusade for justice story will never sit too well intellectually with Victor the Hard-Eyed Realist. Those caveats aside, otherwise brilliant. It’s a very simple formula — find a great story, put the right people at center of it, let them tell it, and get the footage yourself to show it. Even more than DEVIL, you find yourself in disbelief that this footage exists — a confrontation with a government minister’s son, who comes to take over the farm, calling it his and starting a live on-camera argument over history, whether whites have any place in Zimbabwe and everybody’s bona fides is as tense as unstaged realism gets (Skandie plug should this film find the distribution it deserves). Also, film doesn’t shrink from farmers religiosity, regularly showing them praying, reading the Bible and seeing God’s Providence.
The film, now available on DVD and via Netflix streaming, was generally well-reviewed (97% fresh at Rotten Tomatoes) but one of the few criticisms made, though it often WAS made, was basically that it was about white people’s POV rather than blacks and about how this white farming family was being oppressed without any “context of colonialism” or similar. In a generally favorable review, Roger Ebert unbelievably concluded with the grotesque claim that “Apart from skin color, the difference between Mike Campbell and Robert Mugabe is that Campbell wants to run a farm.” (I can think of at least a few more and more-salient ones myself.) When Lucy Bailey showed the film at Silver Docs a couple of years ago, she was asked a similar question about not mentioning colonial injustices and she said, close as I can recall, that “this is not a story about colonialism. This is a story about a post-colonial injustice that has its own integrity.” I had to restrain myself from applauding.
In general, “context” is whatever you want it to be to excuse a wrong, while the wrong that you don’t want to excuse simply “is” (see also, the Middle East; even colonialism itself). Indeed, if we want to talk about context, why shouldn’t MUGABE AND THE WHITE AFRICAN detail the role liberal-activist Americans and Europeans played in bringing Mugabe to power and celebrating it? For example, one favorite song on my iTunes is Stevie Wonder’s “Master Blaster,” from late 1980 just after Mugabe’s election in which Wonder sings, as joyously as only he can, that “Peace has come to Zimbabwe / Third World’s right on the one / Now’s the time for celebration / Cause we’ve only just begun.” Just as much as colonialism, that’s a true fact that has “relevance” to today (more so for Europeans and Americans than Africans admittedly) since Stevie Wonder appears on the way to sainthood. The answer to this graf’s first question, of course, is “It shouldn’t because that is not the story MUGABE AND THE WHITE AFRICAN is telling.” Neither is colonialism.
There really is only one possible choice in this election, and one matter puts it beyond reasonable dispute. At the end of the day, after the Born Alive Infants act, partial-birth abortion, “spreading the wealth,” Rev. Wright, Bill Ayres, the New Party, the “get in their face” thuggery, Tony Rezko, meeting Ahmedinejad and Chavez, surrender in Iraq, and all the rest, one thing overrides everything …
AN AMERICAN CAROL (David Zucker, USA, 2008) — 5
AN AMERICAN CAROL is basically conservative pornography — it is enjoyable, effective in making us (laugh) hard, but primarily does so by appealing to our lowest natures. And in the end has left us with not much more than the slightly guilt-tinged feelings associated with having gratified ourselves but done so in the cheapest, easiest, most-narcissistic way possible.
Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t mind my sneak at Playboy and the semi-voluntary bodily reactions happened. But I also know there’s more to satire, to moviemaking, to sex, to conservative movie-thought, to love and to comedy than the AMERICAN CAROL centerfold. In fact, shortly afterward, I watched a DVD of the incendiary-titled but more-serious MICHAEL MOORE HATES AMERICA, recently picked up at a Borders bargain bin, and thought it was easily a better film because in part it’s about that very point — the ease of the admittedly-gratifying cheap shot.
Directed by “9/11 Conservative” David Zucker of Naked Gun and Airplane fame, AN AMERICAN CAROL, though vastly inferior to those films, is still often very funny from the simple pleasure of seeing the piss taken out of ideas and people that jolly well ought to have the piss taken out of them. Sometimes Zucker makes funny things that just aren’t funny, and is able to do so precisely because they aren’t funny. (Cue reactions: “Huh?”) Read more »
FIREPROOF (Alex Kendrick, USA, 2008) — 4
I couldn’t even bring myself to see the Kendrick brothers’ previous film FACING THE GIANTS,¹ which I was reliably told had the football-coach main character get on his knees and accept Jesus Christ as his Savior in a field. After which, his football team becomes champions and he gets a new red truck, which is not only risible but pernicious — religion as a means to worldly success.² Methodism and Buddhism, e.g., are incomplete or mistaken; but the Prosperity Gospel Heresy is wicked.
FIREPROOF avoids the Prosperity Gospel Heresy because it centers on a dying marriage, which saved by a mid-movie religious conversion. Unlike high-school football, marriage is a Godly institution, the success of which matters and has something to do with one’s religious/moral qualities. FIREPROOF has its heart in the right place, has entertaining parts, and is clearly better than (my received notion of) FACING THE GIANTS. It isn’t an awful movie, and it doesn’t deserve the F-grades or the sort of toxic hatred that you can see in the comment fields (or anywhere else secular liberals are gathered).³ I also acknowledge it had the value of being in the small Georgia city, Albany, where I lived for two years, which gives you a certain level of interest in spotting locations and details (e.g., I am 90 percent sure I know what restaurant that lead art is from). Still, it is more earnest, pat and “messagey” than Cynical Gen-X Catholic Moi likes. Maybe it would look better if it had been shown on the Hallmark or Lifetime channels as a movie-of-the-week. And its fundamental dramatic weakness suggests something about contemporary Christian works of art that lies in the very theology of Protestantism. (I swear … the one Amy Grant song I have just popped up on iTunes.)
“When that happens, it will change everything. … You’ll have to measure time by ‘Before Obama’ and ‘After Obama,’” Lee said during the panel.
“Everything’s going to be affected by this seismic change in the universe,” he said.
I’ll say this for the terms “B.O.” and “A.O.” … they refer to a real person and thus easily kick the asses of “b.c.e.” and “c.e.”
HANCOCK (Peter Berg, USA, 2008) — 8
For about an hour, HANCOCK is one of the best summer popcorn films I’ve ever seen¹ — it’s basically GULLIVER’S TRAVELS, the tale of a giant among small men, only reconceived as a modern superhero movie with a heaping helping of pomo sarcasm. It’s also one of the few movies with an identifiable political subtext (it’s hardly “sub”-text in fact) that is unapologetically pro-war. Or more precisely, unapologetically anti-the-(purported)-reasons-many-claim-to-be-anti-war. The details in this movie — the eagle on bumbling, nasty superhero Will Smith’s cap; complaints about collateral damage; civil lawsuits; carping TV reporters and talking heads ranting about “lawless”; encounter groups and the phrase “conflict resolution”; the Woodstock concert poster in Jason Bateman and Charlize Theron’s bedroom; a bully who (a) is French, and (b) is played by Daeg Faerch, who played the boy Michael Myers in the recent HALLOWEEN remake; a Greenpeace boat — there are just too many signifiers here for it to be a coincidence, or one or two eager-beaver conservatives overinterpreting a detail. And it’s surely relevant that Peter Berg directed last year’s THE KINGDOM, which gave the usual liberal-critic suspects the usual fact-free vapors.
Just read what Kyle Smith had to say … he really did say it all and I have nothing to add on the point except my word that I did catch much of it myself. And the title of his post refers to exactly what came to my mind in this discussion here: TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE²:
Let’s just say there is a speech at the end of TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE … that is … well … MASSIVE WARNING ABOUT … weeeeellllll … keep in mind that it’s by the SOUTH PARK guys, and read the first direct quote. If you can read through the vulgarity (and know the movie’s plot), it’s one of the greatest defenses of Foreign-Policy Hawkishness in movie history. (I am quite serious.)
I was tickled with joy and laughing my butt off for the first hour as Hancock blunders around and is taken in by a liberal-yuppie suburban couple concerned with improving Hancock’s image and making him a more sensitive hero, a la John Kerry, who remembers to say please and thank you, and agrees to submit to international law a prison term. Predictably, Hancock has to be called in in a crisis (and ask permission to lift up a wounded policewoman from fear of traversing sexual harrassment rules). But that scene was obviously the climax of the HANCOCK I’d been expecting, but I looked at my watch and the movie was less than an hour old. “It can’t be over yet … where is this gonna go.” And in a few minutes, I found out and my mouth was literally agape — first in “ohmigawd, where can THIS be leading??? I believe this will be awesomest thing ever if they can pull it off” mode (I was thinking it could go in the direction of a certain TV show — SPOILERS!!! if you click). But then my mouth was agape in “ohmigawd, is THAT where it’s led. I can’t believe they pissed away some much awesomeness” mode.
I will tread vaguely — suffice to say that the last half-hour is just a routine “origins” story that isn’t particularly germane to this mode of representing a superhero; it doesn’t continue, deepen or even (explicitly) take back the satire of the first hour; it goes for warm and fuzzy pathos in a movie that should have a cold, pitch-black heart; and the feeble stab at “explanation” for how Hancock gets his powers are literally insulting in its desultory lameness (“some say gods, some angels, some superheroes”). It just feels tacked on, and curiously Kyle Smith barely mentions it in his formal review of HANCOCK. It’s been reported that the end was being reworked at the very last minute, and boy does it show.
¹ Yes, I don’t see them all or even many because I am a snob, etc.
² Unsurprisingly, TEAM AMERICA occasioned maybe the worst review Roger Ebert ever wrote, admitting that he couldn’t figure out what has been perfectly obvious even to non-critics to the right of Hubert Humphrey.
Dith Pran’s life and tale of survival under Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge government became a movie. That movie THE KILLING FIELDS became a worldwide success, its very name coming to symbolize that vile China-backed Romantic-Communist regime, and Dith Pran used his celebrity to educate the world about that regime and become a constant burr in its saddle (he was quoted in the AP’s Pol Pot obituary, for example).¹ Dith Pran died yesterday.
THE KILLING FIELDS was one of the few serious movies made in the West from the late-60s until the end of the Cold War that can unabashedly be called anti-Communist. It’s primary subject was a Communist genocide and it’s the only “Vietnam War” film I can think of (it’s certainly by far the most significant) that is about the hell that US withdrawal created despite the assurances of peace-loving liberals at the time that US leaving the field in the
Iraq Vietnam War would bring end the bloodshed. Oh, there’s a couple of asides in the film where characters say, close as I can recall, “after what the US did to them, I don’t think the Khmer Rouge will be very forgiving” or “the US underestimated the fury that tons of bombs can create” — lamely trying to suggest that the US created the Khmer Rouge.²
But the events that Dith underwent, and the magnitude of the Khmer Rouge genocide, are simply too overwhelming to withstand such spin. Nobody who’s seen the movie will ever forget — I will be vague to keep the surprise — a scene of Dith falling into an irrigation ditch. Apparently, according to this Dith obituary from AP (that I edited down from 35 inches to 15 to fit a hole), it was Dith who invented the term “killing fields.”
It was Mr. Dith who coined the term “killing fields” for the horrifying clusters of corpses and skeletal remains of victims he encountered on his desperate journey to freedom.
“That was the phrase he used from the very first day, during our wondrous reunion in the refugee camp,” Mr. Schanberg said later.
David Mamet, one of my favorite writer-directors, had a column in the Chicago Tribune where he bluntly states some ugly truths about the Middle East, including the irrationality of the focus on Mel Gibson, ugly though what he said was.
Many Jews are upset with Mel Gibson because they believe in something called “the public relations war.”
But Mamet says there is no such thing, because Israel and the Arabs pursue self-evidently morally different causes (“Israel wants peace, the Arabs want Israel gone”) without it making a dent on “world public opinion.” So, he concludes, we are dealing with an irrational animus toward Israel fostering such chimeric notions as “cycle of violence” and “disparity of force.”¹
He also says that attempts to “address root causes” are inherently anti-Semitic when dealing with what is simply an irrational hatred (and anyone who maintains that the Arabs are not irrational anti-Semitic haters, marinated to the bone, is deluded).
That the Western press consistently characterizes the Israeli actions as immoral is anti-Semitism. … The Jews are not the victims of bad PR. They are the victims of anti-Semitism. Europe has always been devoted to the destruction of the Jews. At times it is acute; it is always chronic. …
To ask “must there not be a cause for this anti-Semitism?” is an outrage, similar to asking the rape victim “how short a skirt were you wearing?” The question cannot be posited without, at least, the implication of the victim “having, somehow, at least in part, ‘brought it on yourself’.”
The column piqued my interest in what is easily the most significant gap in my “Mamet-seen” list — the film of HOMICIDE, where Jewish identity is obviously more central than in any of Mamet’s other work. In fact, I’m tempted to say, HOMICIDE is the only film where it’s a centrally and explicitly textual matter — certainly I don’t recall it anywhere else and I’m enough of a Mamet fanboy to have liked the films of OLEANNA and AMERICAN BUFFALO.
¹ Hezbollah and other Islamists know what they are doing in playing The Victim Card to Western media. The contemporary West has so thoroughly turned away from the (distorted, BTW) notion that “might makes right” that we’ve de facto embraced the ludicrous proposition that therefore “might makes wrong” or “weakness makes right” (the “oppressed” are somehow more authentic and honest, doncha know). So Israel must be being a bully because it has overwhelming military superiority.