THE ACT OF KILLING (Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, Anonymous; Denmark/Indonesia, 9)
“It’s funny how the colors of the real world only seem really real when you viddy them on the screen.”
— Alex, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE
Is it possible for a man to cauterize his soul? That’s one of the themes of the greatest movie ever made and here is that rare political film that dares to try to match it. ACT OF KILLING looks into the abyss of organized brutality and yet looks up without having blinked. It’s so bold and truthful and unsparing that, yes, I would compare it to A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, and to THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS and, though it works in a different way, to Machiavelli’s THE PRINCE. Jean-Luc Godard famously said that the film that needed to made about the concentration camps was about the guards, not the prisoners. Here is that film.
It follows several members of an Indonesian militia group who were involved in anti-Communist pogroms that killed hundreds of thousands following a mid-1960s gradual coup that effectively replaced Sukarno as dictator. Though it’s in the documentary genre of “muckraking about past atrocities,” there are two huge differences here from such standard-issue films – first, there are no interviews with the prisoners or even IIRC any found or archival footage of the atrocities; and second, the guards are proud of their actions and have hired Oppenheimer and his crew to make a movie about them. Some of the men do change over the course of the film but only very slowly, and (in the most memorable case) by unintentionally almost quoting Alex. What even makes those moments feel earned – rather than the inevitable course of the film’s inevitable didactic humanistic lesson – is the contrast with the unregenerate militia members and the political environment of present-day Indonesia, which is (to put it kindly) not exactly post-war West Germany or post-apartheid South Africa.
I could have done without the cheap juxtaposition of McDonalds and shopping mall images with stats about the massacres or the Michael Moore touch of having people critique democracy while playing golf. I also don’t entirely trust a film about 60s Indonesia in which the word “Sukarno” is, to the best of my recollection, never mentioned. But the number of “I can’t believe I just saw what I saw” moments is simply through the roof and it doesn’t stop with the premise as I’ve outlined. So as to avoid spoilers, let’s just say there were moments – like a walk through a Chinese merchant market – when I wasn’t sure I was actually watching re-enactments. And then at least one – a visit to a village – when I was sure I wasn’t.
It isn’t all about the abyss; there is also comedy here – a lot of it, in a very black vein. The men sit around on the set, in obvious blood makeup/prosthetics, reminiscing about the IRL scenes they’re about to re-enact and debating the best methods of execution and what they learned themselves from the movies (Also, can we now cool it with the “depictions of violence don’t inspire acts of violence” talking point?) Looking at Oppenheimer’s footage (which sometimes resembles cheesy Bollywood musicals, over-the-top gangster footage), they love one surrealistic scene where a killed Communist thanks them for sending him to heaven. It’s not that this all functions as comic relief a la Shakespeare’s clowns or that it gains from juxtaposition with the more serious material (it doesn’t especially do either, actually), but it specifically grows out of the more serious subject – the militia members’ pride.
There is a scene called “Special Dialog” that I will take to my grave. It looks like the Indonesian equivalent of “Entertainment Tonight” or similarly fluffy show and while it’s memorably appalling that militia members are on it in uniform, what really make the scene is the interviewer, who talks about wiping out the communists in the same chirpy manner as one might discuss coming up with a great new martini recipe. What we’re seeing is not “banality of evil” a la Hannah Arendt, “dehumanization” or similar cant, but something far more chilling and eternally relevant – that anything (and I do mean anything) can be done with a good conscience. All a man needs is to believe something is right. These men were Suharto’s Willing Executioners, but unlike Hitler’s, they had the good fortune not to be conquered by foreigners while the blood was still wet on their hands.
The same “take-it-to-my-grave” quality also applies to an interview with one henchmen (whose name I didn’t catch) who, while driving, pours an ocean of scorn on war-crimes tribunals and the Geneva Convention. He’s gives the standard Realist critique of international law, which is rare enough in this kind of film, before sealing the deal. He says of the 1960s atrocities that “re-opening the matter would be a provocation to fight. And if the world wants perpetual war, we’ll be ready.” He’s not saying anything not made implicitly from the other end by the pardoning-immunity powers of post-apartheid South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission: Sometimes justice must be suspended for the sake of peace. And pointing to the ugliest of political truths: what gets loosely called “victor’s justice” is in fact, in every political instanciation, “justice.”
AT ANY PRICE (Ramin Bahrani, USA, 6)
If you only showed me the first half-hour of this film and stopped, I wouldn’t have been inclined to watch the rest of it … at any price … sorry, Scott #hackstamp. In one scene (I have it written on my notes “you just lost me, Ramin”) an Iowa farmer reads aloud a postcard from his son about climbing South America’s tallest mountain, and he stumbles over the pronunciation of “Mount Aconcagua.” Yuk yuk yuk. Isn’t the people in Hickville so stooooopid and uncultured. Nor had that practiced mistake been the film’s first such moment. (Ironically, later that day I heard a friend’s equally-phonetic name mangled by one of America’s most eminent leftist film critics, who regularly goes on “Red States is Backward” rants.)
But as is my custom, I stuck around and I’m glad I did, as AT ANY PRICE becomes something more as it accretes detail and develops the threads of what seemed for a while like a scattershot script. Though it’s an original script, AT ANY PRICE becomes unashamedly novelistic (if you take that as a criticism, stay away) with twists and turns that make into it a kind of “farm noir.” Test film for this film – did you like IN THE BEDROOM? Or MYSTIC RIVER – one element in particular from that film came from nowhere here, yet felt as utterly right as it did in the Eastwood.
Dennis Quaid plays a jerk of a seed salesman who’s family is falling apart. Quaid dominates the film and I thought for a long time that he was overacting. But he’s playing an overactor (if that makes sense). He’s cheating on his wife, the globetrotting son for whom he had hopes is unseen, and the other son (a surprisingly strong Zac Efron) has a ridiculous dream of being a NASCAR driver and wants no part of the farm. But everything is … great. The moment I turned around on this film was Efron’s big-race debut, which did not go the way I knew it was going to. A bit later, I finally wrote “OK, Ramin, you win” (I’ve only seen one previous Bahrani and though I liked GOODBYE SOLO quite a bit, it’s not at all like this). And that was at a scene where Quaid’s father gives a speech about how “times were so much simpler then.” AT ANY PRICE is a rare film that is about both realizing your dreams and being content with not realizing your dreams, in the same person. About nostalgia and false nostalgia, within the same environment.
EVERYDAY (Michael Winterbottom, Britain, 1)
I told taffybud Dan Owen on Twitter that, given the same cast and crew, either he or I could make a film every bit as good as EVERYDAY. That was not an exaggeration or a joke line. If THE TRIP had nothing to recommend it beyond Steve Coogan and Rob Bryden’s repartee, here is an equally episodic, intermittent film that doesn’t have Coogan and Bryden. I seriously can’t recall ever seeing a film that, once the premise had been set up, had quite literally nothing to offer and that the director gave so little indication of answering the most basic question – what is this film about? (I mean strictly among films by directors with major reputations). Winterbottom has always been hit-or-miss but he has made several very good films – TRISTAM SHANDY, THE TRIP, THE CLAIM, and my retrospective memory of 24 HOUR PARTY PEOPLE. But I would love to see the shooting script (if, in fact, there was one) for EVERYDAY, which feels like a case study in how you cannot make drama up as you go along.
EVERYDAY covers five years in the life of Ian Ferguson, who is serving a long jail term with a wife and four children (ages 3 to 8, I’d guess) on the outside. The gimmick here is that Winterbottom shot the film intermittently over five years, so we actually see the actors age, most obviously the children (all real-life siblings). It’s something you can’t fake and it would make the film interesting … if there were any drama. Whatsoever. There are scenes of the kids in school, scenes of the wife at work, scenes of prison visits (“you’re the man of the house,” Ian tells a boy of about 6), scenes of him in jail, scenes of the lengthy trips to the prison. And none of it develops or grows. There is no artistry, imagination or shaping. It’s all chopped up into a minute or so not-even vignettes – with an ugly-ass hand-held video style to boot. There is a post-release bedroom confession by the wife that she’d had an affair with a man we see at the dinner table two or three times and come on to her once and get rejected. And the fight itself lasts maybe a minute. Flimsy setup. Little payoff. Rinse and repeat throughout. There is more prison drama in 5 minutes of OZ. More comedy in 5 minutes of PORRIDGE.
I wouldn’t especially care if the film wound up having nothing to say but “going to prison sucks, for both you and your family.” (I was attracted to this film as being about a working-class British family with the man in jail. I have four extended-family blood relatives who’ve gone to prison – and I don’t mean held overnight in the drunk tank or after a brawl or the like, but felons duly sentenced to hard time.) But if that’s all there is, you need better moment-to-moment texture than this. Hitchcock famously said “drama is life with all the dull bits cut out”; Winterbottom seems to think, on the basis of this film, that “life is drama with only the dull bits kept in.” EVERYDAY is nothing but everyday moments with only the time-lapse photo quality of seeing the kids age. Oh … to think what the Dardennes or Mike Leigh could have done with this premise.
FOXFIRE: CONFESSIONS OF A GIRL GANG (Laurent Cantet, Canada/France, 3)
I had a similar reaction to this film as to AT ANY PRICE, only it starts out even worse and obviously doesn’t rebound nearly as well. The first hour or so of FOXFIRE is one of the most unbearable, unrelenting litanies of misandrist shit I’ve ever seen (I actually considered walking out, but the memory of the Bahrani was fresh. Plus, if college feminists couldn’t chase this “potential rapist” from watching a Take Back the Night rally, no mere film is gonna do the same.). As the subtitle suggests, FOXFIRE is about an all-female gang of juvenile delinquents, set in the late 50s, but Cantet is complicit himself in every manner of deck stacking. Not only does the narrator, who is not otherwise shown to be naïve or out-of-touch like in BADLANDS e.g., carefully relativize and legalese-ize the gang’s actions (“we committed what could have been called crimes”) but every single male victim is, in one way or another, made hateful right before he is victimized – the math teacher is mean in class, the uncle tries to take liberties, the make is cheating on his wife, the businessman is an anti-feminist reactionary, etc. Reverse the sexes in all the crimes and try to imagine the reaction this film would get, with all its legitimate robberies and careful planting of details showing the bitch was asking for it. This first hour at least of FOXFIRE is hate speech against men. No doubt about it. #fact
FOXFIRE recovers some as the group changes from a gang to a kind of commune (though it still finances itself through crimes against men, with the decks still carefully, if less one-sidedly, stacked). In that context, it becomes a bit of an anti-utopian disillusionment narrative against the death of a collarless Catholic priest who waxed nostalgic about the great revolution of 1917 — adolescent adolescence devolving into the realities of adulthood and the breakdown of teen solidarity. But like many such disillusionment stories, the film rambles on for way too long. Still, I liked the fact that the girls vote against integrating their group (somewhat offset the deck-stacking to contemporary audiences), not so crazy about the fact the group’s de facto leader Legs is the one who berates the others about the snub (offsets the offset). Within the confines of video, the dingy period environment is well-captured. The actresses make a seamless ensemble, though a little *too* seamless. Apart from physical types, really only two characters develop into individuals – the narrator Maddy (Katie Coseni) and the charismatic Legs (Raven Adamson). But their two fates … let’s just say – with respect to the latter, that it’s more deck-stacking misandry; with respect to the former, that the man who made TIME OUT does the same thing with the last scene here. To. Much. Lesser. Effect.
THE CLOUD-CAPPED STAR (Ritwik Ghatak, India, 1960, 8)
This was my first Ritwik Ghatak film, and, at least on the basis of CLOUD-CAPPED STAR, he seems to form a bridge between the overtly populist Bollywood cinema of Raj Kapoor and his fellow Punjabis and the art cinema of fellow Bengali Satyajit Ray (the last being the only one of the three to find, relatively speaking, any audience at all in the West). On the one hand, CLOUD-CAPPED STAR has as much music as any Bollywood film, and is about as broadly acted – for good and ill. But the music numbers are either source music or just put on the soundtrack as expressionist sound, both more and less realistic than the “here’s an onscreen number” conventions dominant in Bollywood (and Hollywood).
But while CLOUD-CAPPED STAR, a secular martyrdom story about a responsible elder sister who sacrifices everything on behalf of her ungrateful family, has the same serious concerns and dark subject matter as Ray, Ghatak has much more taste for melodrama and comedy, and could have fit in at the Warners lot in the 1930s. Indeed, the famous last line had been almost the exact title of a Susan Hayward weepie. Ray wasn’t the subtlest director, but Ghatak makes him look like Dreyer. I laughed out loud at the punchline in the scene of a marital quarrel, in which Ghatak has a window from across the courtyard in the back of the frame. A woman always seems to be standing by that window just as things heat up; and the composition and the foreground characters notice her at the same moment. There are multiple layers of irony, none of them subtle – one clueless sibling says “some people suffer for their principles,” but referring to himself while Nita is in the image foreground.
As an image maker, Ghatak is more of a mannerist than any Warners director could ever be. One of the very first images calls attention to itself as deliberately and emphatically composed along multiple planes (shown here, image taken from Omar … http://omarsfilmblog.blogspot.ca/2009/11/meghe-dhaka-tara-cloud-capped-star-dir.html) – a gigantic closeup of Nita in sharp focus, with a longer shot of her brother Shankar sitting on the left and a dimly-seen train in the far background: the dramatic center, the personal antagonist and the social backdrop, all in order. And for a film filled with deep-focus shots, one of the most effective is one of the few where Ghatak uses a narrow focal depth and leaves much of the image out of focus – the conversation between Nita and her mother about how far apart they are. (Put that way, it sounds too obvious for its own good, but the contrast with makes it feel absolutely right.)
Ghatak’s soundtrack is a work of expressionist wonder, again placing himself between Bollywood and Ray. It’s not just the famous whip cracks, which start as Nita descends a staircase after seeing some bad news about a marriage proposal, but also a recurring sound effect that resembles as sci-fi “aliens are here.” It comes from nowhere and has no rational explanation except a correlative of Nita’s mental breakdown. There is also a recurring sound effect of cooking, which Jonathan Rosenbaum said in his intro was a “natural” sound effect. I suppose it is, but Ghatak uses it at one point with the sound cranked up to a Spinal Tap 12 while the image smash-cuts into the mother’s face as her family plans gang aft aglay. In the last 30 minutes, there’s barely a natural sound played at a natural volume in the film.
While the other performers vary wildly in register between Bollywoodish archetypal clowns and torn intellectuals – my mind over the past couple of days has run particularly hot and cold on Bijon Bhattachara as the all-seeing and wise but impotent and he knows it father – Supriya Choudhury’s performance as central character Nita is brilliant in a very odd and eccentric way. Early on, I was thinking “she’s too beatific, her face as placid and plastic as an Indian Doris Day.” Three words, Victor – Bait. And. Switch. Unfortunately, I think Ghatak piles on too many denouements in the last 20 minutes or so, and, ironically, his gifts as an image- and sound-maker made me think several times “OK, he’s found the last shot … up and out.”
One thing that genuinely puzzled me; and I have Indian readers. I’ve read more than once that CLOUD-CAPPED STAR is about the partition of Bengal, into a province of India and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). How? I couldn’t even say for certain when the film takes place, and I’m morally certain there’s no textual reference for where exactly the film is happening. There are references to trips to or events in Calcutta, Delhi and Bombay, but other than the absence of Britons (maybe) excluding the first of these options, there is nothing that requires the film take place in 1940, 1948 or 1955. Nor is religion an explicitly textual subject at any level, though I inferred from the names that the family is Hindu, or at least not-Muslim. But since the family itself doesn’t divide or have members marry outside the religion (like in Deepa Mehta’s EARTH) or anything comparable … help!!