Rightwing Film Geek

Another post about “Another Year, Another Rwanda Movie”

I haven’t seen SHAKE HANDS WITH THE DEVIL and probably will not, unless the buzz is much better than it has been (50 percent at Rotten Tomatoes as I write). But Peter Chattaway brought up an interesting point about the lead he’d planned to write for his review:

“Another year, another Rwanda movie.”
I actually considered beginning my own review of Shake Hands with the Devil that way, but I decided against it, out of a sense that it might seem too disrespectful to those who endured the awful real-life events depicted in this film. I see, however, that Scott Foundas begins his review for Variety that way. Ah well.

I really don’t think appearing disrespectful to anyone should ever be a consideration with a movie and for reasons worth unpacking.

The only people to whom a smart-aleck line like that would be being disrespectful are the makers of the movie, but they don’t get any immunity-by-osmosis from their subject matter. SHAKE HANDS WITH THE DEVIL is a movie; it’s not an act of murder or mass murder or genocide, and we as viewers can only react to it as a movie. HANDS might be good, bad or indifferent but you don’t get points in my book (nor should you in anyone’s) for the gravity of your surface subject matter. In fact, giving a film points, even if only implicitly by saying you shouldn’t mock it if it’s bad, is actually what trivializes historical events. It incentivizes the commodification of human suffering by turning it into, and judging it by the standards of, fictionalized discourse … (OK, let’s try that again) … it turns historical events into one mass of raw material for movies — with the bloodier being the better.

I admit I’m approaching this from the perspective of someone who doesn’t generally care for statement or “message” movies; I care more about cinematic and dramatic style than subject matter per se (though there’d better be subject matter). But to state the obvious, HANDS is the most spectacularly brilliant movie ever, it’s not gonna bring back to life a single Tutsi victim. If it’s the most craptacular ever, no Tutsis will die. It is a movie, not ontologically different from HOT FUZZ.

In fact, I’d argue the opposite — that to treat a movie with greater deference in the same way you would a murder or a mass murder or a genocide trivializes the latter. The more one believes that making a good movie about important subject matter is “ennobling,” then the more one must also believe that making a bad movie about that same subject has to be “degrading.” Which again a “no mockery” or “must show reverence” rule would undermine. With greater risk has to come … well, greater risk. As it turns out, Peter liked the movie moderately. But if SHAKE HANDS WITH THE DEVIL were a weak, rote movie, as Foundas thought, why isn’t *that* disrespectful toward the Rwandan genocide, trying to piggy-back on the subject matter, and thus doubly worthy of a “comme ci, comme ca” dis? A sliding-scale of reverence towards films based on their surface subject matter is not only bad criticism but also encourages bad movie-making. To show greater deference to a rote or indifferent movie about the Rwandan genocide than to a rote or indifferent movie about zombies only encourages craftsmen and/or hacks to try subjects beyond their ken (the APA calls this “the Stanley Kramer Syndrome”). We already have too many directors who might make good commercial comedies or thrillers or horror movies trying to Make A Statement. (Or gussy up action films with topicality; think BLOOD DIAMOND here.) I’m reminded of Joel McCrea in SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS, convinced that he only contributes by making O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU. And giving Big Subject Matter some sort of kid-glove treatment is, however mildly, incentivizing such bad ideas. And the movies mostly turn out to be bad anyway. To see how wrong even the greatest of film-makers can go when he tries to make “statement movies,” take a peek some day at Ernst Lubitsch’s BROKEN LULLABY (aka THE MAN I KILLED). Or don’t … trust me.

Much more to my taste is this priceless Mike D’Angelo diss on Polanski’s THE PIANIST, as

… populated by characters who seem to have wandered in from a contemporary Shoah seminar. “There are only 60,000 of us left,” one starving ghetto Jew explains, as his compatriots visibly resist the urge to pull out a ballpoint and start taking notes. “Originally we numbered 500,000.” Like, what, did the Nazis have a big McDonald’s-style sign on every street corner: “Over 439,000 annihilated”?

I had a similar moment as a budding critic for my college paper when reviewing some slasher movie (I forget which one; one of the HALLOWEEN sequels, I think) in which a character holds up a condom into the picture frame during the “let’s have sex so we can be stabbed to death together” scene. This was at the start of late-80s Condomania, and I had written something like: “Heaven forfend that a movie with dozens of motiveless, bloody murders might be perceived as teaching kids a bad lesson about unsafe sex. All that blood splashing around — someone might come down HIV-positive and die.”¹ My journalism professor called the passage “totally tasteless … AIDS is not a joking subject.” I said, “I’m joking about a ridiculous movie scene.” She wasn’t impressed and cut it out, and I’ve resented it ever since.
¹ The Safe-Sex-Messages in movie of that era convinced me that entertainment-industry figures (or film critics) who say, when the subject is sex or violence or vulgarity or nihilism in the movies (or other entertainment media for that matter) that “movies don’t influence behavior” are either lying or spectacularly stupid.

October 2, 2007 - Posted by | Uncategorized | ,

1 Comment »

  1. That’s a great line about McDonald’s and The Pianist.

    Just to clarify, I was not according any extra respect to Shake Hands with the Devil, per se, by deciding against saying “Another year, another Rwanda movie.” I simply didn’t want to start my review by giving the impression that we don’t need any more movies about Rwanda, or that the genocide’s 15 minutes of fame should be over by now, or whatever. The genocide is a story that needs to be told, ideally more than once and from various points of view.

    I do, however, find myself wondering how long it will take for movies to be made in Rwanda that are about something other than the genocide. If I were Rwandan, I think I would want there to be other internationally-recognized stories told about me and my country, too.

    Comment by petertchattaway | October 2, 2007 | Reply

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