February 1, 2013
Coming from a director whose filmography and talent suggest she is both switched on and aware, it’s hard to believe Kathryn Bigelow would claim, “the film doesn’t have an agenda, and it doesn’t judge.” (Kathryn Bigelow, The New York Times, December 17 2012) Her hope, one assumes, is to hide her gentle conservatism deep within the spectacle of quality filmmaking craft. But Bigelow wears her patriotism on her sleeve and in so doing can’t help but reveal her brand of just morality. Whilst this is absolutely her prerogative the trouble with it is the casualties are viewers and ethics. Manipulated by carefully constructed and well executed craft, viewers are implicated in post-9/11 moral hysteria. Whilst technically Zero Dark Thirty is a “good” film, it is not free of judgement and worse still, attempts to hide its agenda behind an unethical brand of gentle conservatism.
That most people feel uneasy watching Zero Dark Thirty goes some way towards confirming Bigelow’s claim that she is presenting events as they (for the most part) occurred. It could be argued too that her presentation is successful in its ability to make the viewer feel uncomfortable, potentially questioning their responses to the methods used to locate bin Laden. But even if this were true, it assumes hunting down another human with the intent to kill is an acceptable final outcome.
Jessica Chastain plays Maya, the highly intelligent, headstrong CIA operative determined to track down Osama bin Laden. Despite her strong will and hard-line, she flinches a little during an early torture scene in the film to signal her as the character for audience alignment. Later, after initial hostility towards both male and female colleagues to prove her work ethic above her humanity, Maya begins to soften and to allow working friendships to develop. This negates accusation against her character as being void of all humanity. The conflicting character developments then attempt to create power and empathy simultaneously but prove too much for Chastain who often comes across as soft where she ought to be sympathetic.
Framed now as a woman with great power, intelligent with a dash of empathy, Maya appeals to the viewer as moral compass. But she has no ethics, her decisions and behaviours are based on personal moral feelings, “A lot of my friends have died trying to do this – I believe I was spared so I could finish the job.”, and as such compromise the integrity of the viewers who are implicit in her political/personal/moral position.
In Washington, the many suited men advise their probable certainty of Maya’s intel being accurate, refusing to commit to their position, explaining, “We don’t deal in certainty, we deal in probability.” Maya assures the men and in so doing the audience that she is absolutely sure, “One hundred percent.” Bigelow justifies the invasion that follows. Sure, what follows is some of the best technically orchestrated filmmaking I’ve seen onscreen in years and as narrative thriller plays out with incredible tension, but preying on people’s sympathy for Western innocents killed during US and UK terrorist attacks, is a low card to draw to allow moral hysteria into the narrative where ethics ought to be present. Never once does the film allow an ethical position and never are the audience privileged to see the face of the Other.
Recently, the critical backlash against her earlier comments have forced Bigelow into honesty as her comments here reveal:
“On a practical and political level, it does seem illogical to me to make a case against torture by ignoring or denying the role it played in U.S. counter-terrorism policy and practices.
Bin Laden wasn’t defeated by superheroes zooming down from the sky; he was defeated by ordinary Americans who fought bravely even as they sometimes crossed moral lines, who labored greatly and intently, who gave all of themselves in both victory and defeat, in life and in death, for the defense of this nation.”
– Extract, Kathryn Bigelow, Los Angeles Times online, January 15 2013. Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.
Zero Dark Thirty is released in Australian cinemas Thursday January 31 2013.
January 24, 2013
In Inglorious Basterds (2009) Tarantino burns celluloid and explodes cinema. In Django Unchained (2012) he explodes himself. Along with the medium, so too burns on-screen history and the physical, tactile imprint of the past. And now, a return to ‘the death of the author’.
Whilst it might be beyond accepted and indeed popular to call Tarantino an auteur, Django marks a new distinctly new direction for the writer/director. To re-examine his oeuvre is to discover a fascinating trajectory from voice to image. Rather than expressing a world-view through his work, Tarantino presents, re-invents and interpolates. From homage, to self-reflexivity, postmodernist practice, pastiche and back again, Tarantino presents images and ideas from the past, present and future together; blending aesthetics and history until it becomes a pulsating palimpsest on screen.
Or at least that is how his films feel as though they are communicating. But if viewed as myriad instead of tapestry, Tarantino ceases to be cinema’s contemporary enfant terrible, presenting instead of connecting, and perhaps someone to be seem as a type of cinematic decouper.
Tarantino details who, where and when for the audience as if context were an object to be decorated. These details are written in words rather than read through images. That cinema’s abilities to ellipse time and space has long been a central distinction between it and other art forms matters little to Tarantino. For him, these details become the permanent, unmovable object around which to create. Everything else within the picture is decoration; fluid and itself subject to semiotic ellipse.
We begin; “1858, 2 years before the Civil War, Somewhere in Texas”. Context firmly and as literally as digital can, painted onto the screen. The only thing we can be certain of in this establishing sequence is where and when we are. What happens next is decorative addition; through history, myth, legend, collective memory (and here too through the construction of popular mediums such as film, where Tarantino gives his audience a game of film reference bingo), and of course aesthetics.
In fact, it is largely in the aesthetic that Tarantino’s departure from pastiche and movement towards a more decorative mode of filmmaking can be located. Where some of his earlier films including Jackie Brown (1997) and Inglourious Basterds, but most specifically here, Death Proof (2007), went to great technical lengths to ensure they worked within historically specific aesthetic forms (rendering the form a choice rather than a given and in doing so rescued themselves from postmodernism), Django not only ignores historically specific aesthetic form but goes out of its way to show how it is not important for the film. For the most part Django‘s aesthetic is contemporary; mixing a range of styles to create a non-specific “look”, one that can simultaneously encompass the deep South and the far West. There are too flashback images to the ‘past’ (within the narrative), given a grainier quality and colour washed with a yellow hue. The tint (or taint) of the past is intensified and heightened with intent to highlight artifice and to negate any quality of aesthetic historical authenticity. Moving away from pastiche, Tarantino demonstrates a very deliberate fluidity in style, but also in story, and one that might for some achieve a disharmony between visual spectacle and the narrative imaginary.
No doubt there are moments of historical truth in Django, but mine is not to discover what is and is not subject to that o’erbearing harbinger. My questions is, if Tarantino presents himself as absent from this linear, causal narrative film, and if everything except context is added decoration, whose story is Django?
Story too changes and moves with fluidity throughout the film, passed from character to director to viewer and back again until all ethical viewing becomes sutured into the story in really a most fascinating and arresting way.
The deep South, ‘afore the Civil War, a foreigner, and a freed slave become our object, decorated by Tarantino with great effort and gusto, gorgeous and gaudy at once. The “story” then belongs to us all. Beyond pastiche, we are presented with a burden and a beauty, shared.
Django Unchained (2012) is released in Australian cinemas Thursday January 24, 2013.
Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.
August 8, 2012
Killer Joe Cooper suffers psychopathy. He is a manipulative, egocentric, unempathetic, guiltless symbol for the patriarch and the Name of the Law – penal, and later, familial. His character commands control and receives submission from both on-screen characters and viewers alike. Therein is the problematic in “enjoying” Killer Joe.
There are five central characters; after Joe there is Ansel, the endearing but incompetent patriarch before Joe enters and assumes the throne in their domestic domain, and Chris, Ansel’s rogue, harebrained son who comes up with central plot device of killing his own mother to collect on the life insurance. Whilst Ansel and Chris are depicted as unintelligent, foolish and are often the subject of some particularly base jokes, they are kept just barely on the right side of audience alignment by the film’s further and more persecuting jokes aimed at the female characters. Of whom there is Adele – the absent mother mostly referred to as a bitch and only shown once where we see her dead – or at least near-dead – body during the patriarch’s removal of her impotent reign. Then there is Sharla, the deceitful, scheming, unfaithful woman who represents whore. Joining these two already glowing representations of women is Dottie, the virginal, naive, slightly affected and potentially mentally challenged daughter and ultimately little more than the retainer following a contract transaction between aforementioned patriarchal figures Joe, Ansel and Chris. After the film removes the impotent, it condemns the whore and finally rapes and damages its virgin. Dottie is almost the film’s innocent charmer until the final scene where she too forgoes any previous sense of morality, ethics, empathy, compassion – heck, humanity, and callously kills the only people she supposedly loves and cares for. The final sting being that all the concern for the weak and seemingly innocent version of the feminine was still a waste of male time and energy as she, like all women, was only to turn on the males in the end.
But what’s most concerning about Killer Joe is the guise that it is a “Black Comedy”. The entire Smith family are depicted as pathetic and parasitic to society. Although the focus is never on Joe as an officer of the law, we are always aware that he represents the penal code, societal structure and of course the Name of the Law. Here, with a family that are willing and eager to turn upon themselves, leaving one another out to dry, Joe is the only character with whom the audience are even close to aligned. Are we to take then that psychopathy is preferable to those who are depicted here as the economic dregs of society?
Certainly it is possible to take controversial, uncomfortable subject matter and satirise it in a way that is bleak and comedic; depictions of depravity that leave the viewer with feelings of uncomfortable self reflection on their ability to find such material amusing or films that expose their protagonists as weak, unstable – Happiness is a great example of such an achievement; but Killer Joe does none of these things. It may well be true that Matthew McConaughey’s performance is brilliant and even that the character of Joe captures onscreen the displays of psychopathy to perfection, but enabling that character control over the audience and their responses is a curious and pivotal choice for the film’s ultimate success. The result, unfortunately, is a room full of laughter – not at the suggestion of a misogynist act – but at the humiliation of the act carried out.
There are further issues in the film and certainly this is a gloss in terms of examples but what’s problematic about Killer Joe isn’t that its lead character suffers psychopathy, nor that it employs humour in a tale of such subject matter, but that it uses the psychopathy as a tool for seduction through which it repeatedly revels in the successful delivering of dangerous ideology.
January 13, 2011
Concerned with capturing something rather than commenting too heavily upon the politics and effects of French colonisation in Africa, Claire Denis returns with White Material (2009), another remarkable film that both reveals her exemplary craft and the complexities of psychogeographical conflict. Very much in tune with her previous work (Beau Travail, 1999 and 35 Rhums, 2008 to name but two), White Material is set in an unnamed African country where French occupation is being withdrawn in the face of worsening internal conflict between authorities and rebel soldiers. Taking one white woman’s fight for her plantation as its focal point, White Material shows a multitude of devastation free from accusation and moralising. Far more philosophical in its presentation of colonial consequences, the film presents a series of ethical questions that permeate beyond the confines of the screen world.
As “Survival Guides” are dropped from helicopters with less physical but equal psychological impact upon the people and the landscape, Maria (brilliantly and effortlessly performed by Isabelle Huppert) maintains her resolve and insists that her family stay and fight to harvest their crops. The political situation is beautifully and perfectly mirrored by the volatile landscape, elucidating the idea that the white colonial inhabitants will “grow mediocre coffee that we’d [Indigenous Africans] never drink” and that “It was already too late when you [white French colonialists] built it.”
The titled “white material” is explained twice in the film and, for a land metaphorically castrated the “material” in question, it is understandably displaced (in a distinctly Freudian way) onto an object: a lighter in this instance, described as “just white material”. The second explanation comes via a radio broadcast that re-directs this earlier displacement back onto the people whose culture and objects have impressed, negatively, upon the land, “As for the white material, the party’s over. No more cocktails on shaded verandas while we sweat water and blood.” The contrast here between natural elements such as “water and blood” and constructed materials such as the lighter and then the cocktails and shaded verandas successfully communicates the way in which Indigenous culture is at odds with forced occupation and the seizing of natural resources, namely the now irrevocably altered landscape.
Furthermore, the film brilliantly weaves in an incredible exploration of melancholia (again in a Freudian understanding of the term), whereby the response to the loss of something one never really had ownership of and that hasn’t actually died, but has nonetheless been lost, produces psychosis. This psychosis is explored through the character Manuel (Maria’s son), a boy born in Africa but of French identity; his masculinity and his identity symbolically stripped.
The subtle and respectful ways in which Denis explores such explosive and complicated issues is admirable; her stylistic and narrative choices always carefully crafted with aplomb. A tonally masterful film, White Material‘s communicable affect is at once devastating and poignant. Posing a series of ethical questions yet never so arrogant as to answer them, this is an astounding piece of work that deserves both attention and acclaim.
Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.
December 7, 2010
Thanks to the wonderfully good people at Madman Entertainment I’ve got a pre-Christmas giveaway for readers of Liminal Vision. As regular visitors to this site will know, my interest in film is centred mainly around its ability to communicate theoretical, philosophical, psychoanalytical and/or ethical contemplations through visual content. And in a film about splicing together human and animal DNA, I’d say there’s more than just a little ethical questioning taking place, not to mention the one or two decidedly Freudian going-ons, and, of course, I do also happen to have something of a soft spot for wonderfully entertaining B-grade horror-schlock when it’s done just right. SO, to celebrate the December 15 DVD & Blu-ray release of Vincenzo Natali’s Splice (2009) I’ll be giving four lucky readers a Christmas gift of gloriously gory proportions!
“Two young, top of their game, and very much in love scientists, Clive (Adrien Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polley), ignore the forbidding from their superiors and the “moral implications” of it all, and go ahead and splice together human and animal DNA. But motivated by more than just the science of the thing, the resultant spawn, Dren (Delphine Chaneac) becomes more like a deformed daughter to them than the subject of a scientific experiment, culminating in a whole lot more than they bargained for during her “coming of age” style awakening…. At its best a form of flattery for the likes of Peter Jackson and David Cronenberg in its comic gross-out moments … Splice (2009) is a successfully commercial, fun horror-schlock flick.”
To win one of 2 DVDs and 2 Blu-rays of this film please send an email naming your favourite David Cronenberg film to firstname.lastname@example.org with your full name and postal address and the word ‘Splice’ in the subject header – don’t forget to please also indicate whether you would prefer DVD or Blu-ray. Winners will be picked at random, at the author of this blog’s discretion and all decisions are final.
DVD Special features include; “The Making of Splice”, “The Director’s Playground” and an interview with acclaimed director Vincenzo Natali.
Splice will be available 15 December 2010 (on DVD $29.95RRP and Blu-ray $39.95RRP) through Madman Entertainment.
Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.
November 29, 2010
Apparently there is a panther roaming free in rural Victoria. It seems anomalous. But isn’t anomaly what the contemporary state of our country is built upon?
Writer/director Patrick Hughes’ first feature film Red Hill (2010) is all about the problematic existence of an introduced species in an Indigenous landscape. There have been reports of “phantom panthers” in Victoria, NSW and WA ever since the end of WWII when an unknown number of black panthers supposedly escaped into our enormous land mass. The panthers are supposedly further responsible for the disappearance and deaths of numerous domestic animals and livestock. In Red Hill the “phantom panther” operates in parallel to the white Europeans (now considered “Australians”) who have also been “introduced” to the land. Like the panther, they too are responsible for the disappearance and deaths of numerous Indigenous people and, also like the panther, have been held relatively unaccountable for their violent and destructive actions.
Primarily and thematically, Red Hill is a revenge thriller where a single physical embodiment of our country’s severely wronged Indigenous people comes back, very much like the Freudian “return of the repressed”. For Freud the repressed can never truly be destroyed and will always re-emerge, something we see clearly from one character’s inability to live with himself as the persistent memories of past events haunt his conscience/unconscious. Moreover, when the repressed returns for Freud it is distorted, almost unrecognisable, and our single physical embodiment of this returned repression, Jimmy Conway (Tommy Lewis), is physically disfigured (something that also operates as a literal historical scarring.) Considering Jimmy thusly provides at least a somewhat more preferable understanding as to why protagonist Shane Cooper (Ryan Kwanten) is entirely exempt from the rampage of revenge that ensues. Jimmy (as a symptom of the repressed) only takes his revenge on the men personally responsible for the rape and murder of his pregnant wife and his subsequent incarceration as it is their collective unconscious that recall him and his suffering in the first instance.
Whilst I don’t think anyone would argue that the white men gunned down in this film aren’t absolutely deserving of their ill fates, there might be some viewers who find the depiction of Jimmy to verge a little on the dangerous side insofar as he is less humanised than Cooper who, despite being an example of yet more useless white people rapidly breeding, appears to be the “hero” of the story. Cooper is characterised as the moral centre of the film and as such the audience is aligned with him as a primary point of identification. A police officer who has moved from the fast pace of city life to a small, quiet country town, he is both slightly inept as an officer – he misplaces his own firearm and is late on his first day of work; and more compassionate than his country folk – he shows ethical resistance to actually pulling the trigger on his gun when faced with a “criminal” hoping that perhaps other, more passive measures can be taken.
However, in characterising Jimmy as less humanist than Cooper I would suggest the film is further illustrating the continued prejudice and adversity our Indigenous people face in what is left of their own country. At the film’s end Jimmy is still held accountable for his actions by white man’s law. The incredible injustice of this inevitability really resonates as we come to realise that the only person for whom there will ever be a future in this country is the white man. Whilst this is not a particularly hopeful ending it is, dare I say, somewhat accurate.
Finally, a shot of the panther looking out onto the vast landscape it finds itself king of reminds us with bitterness that once a species is introduced it is almost impossible to eradicate and certainly its effect on the landscape is absolutely irreversible.
An engaging drama and an important commentary on the horrific history this country will always be haunted by, Red Hill is an impressive film for a first time filmmaker from whom I hope we will see a great deal more.
November 17, 2010
Not exactly your standard historical epic, Alejandro Amenabar’s Agora (2009) is about as ambitious as it is messy in its exploration of grand thematics; ethics, science, religion. Examining the interplay between the three philosophical minefields, Agora offers a higher quality of questioning than many of its peers in recent years (Alexander, Troy, 2004) and yet never really comes to any fantastic conclusions either. At best it argues that the philosophy of science is a far worthier pursuit than the philosophy of any “modern” religion and shows how in blindly favouring the latter humans have made for themselves a world full of inequality based on a strangely unshakable blind faith rather than a clear and sound ethical reasoning.
Our protagonist is Hypatia (Rachel Weisz), daughter of Theon (Michael Lonsdale) and a woman who has no interest at all in taking up romantic relations with any potential suitor. Instead, Hypatia is interested only in the natural philosophy of the universe and teaching its endless wonders to the prefects of Alexandria. Refusing the advances of one most forward student, Orestes (Oscar Isaac), and later her own slave boy Davus (Max Minghella) as he turns against her in a violent uprising against Roman paganism, Hypatia quietly toils away in her quest to answer the true mathematical workings of the solar system.
Heavy on the cyclical motif and with religious uprising operating much like a solar or lunar eclipse, Agora explores Hypatia’s (for the time) radical ideas and arguments with pleasing reflection upon contextual political events. The positing of religious groups against one another weaves in a little contemporary conflict in its characterisation of the “bad” Christians who just so happen to look as though they are of Arabic descent. Further to this, and just in case you weren’t sure who to side with, the groups are conveniently draped in colour-coded robes; Pagans in cream, taupe and beige; Christians in grey and black, Jews in a mixture of colours that sit somewhere in between the two, and often err on the blue side of the colour spectrum. Not quite the black / white binary opposites one might expect from an historical epic, there is certainly a fair shade of grey to show that religion and the philosophy of science aren’t necessarily entirely distinct: both start with sacred literature and (in theory) persist with the pursuit of knowledge. The fundamental difference of course being that where natural philosophy is open to anyone (even Davus is allowed to speculate on its theoretical validity) religion is not (specifically here for women).
Hypatia, whose vast works have been lost to history, was persecuted because of her gender in the greatest display of relational power against an individual who has been quite literally and figuratively stripped of her own. The difference, so perfectly demonstrated right at the beginning of the film, is that Hypatia is only ever concerned with ethical encounters; guided by scientific truth rather than theoretical faith. After Theon whips her slave boy Davus for admitting to being “of the Christian faith”, Hypatia, despite her pagan ways, tends to his wounds much like Mary, sister of Lazarus did Jesus in the bible.
The film’s execution of such broad thematic concerns is relatively simplistic and though it feels somewhat clumsily edited at times (there is a terribly distracting intermittent zoom in and out of planet Earth that is strangely jarring amidst an otherwise seamless visual narrative), the performances, attention to detail and mise-en-scene are all exemplary. Perhaps it is the disjointed focus that affords the film with so undefinable an atmosphere and subsequently lets down what would otherwise be a very engaging work. These points notwithstanding, Agora is an enjoyable enough example of historical mythology and its failing to answer so many of the questions it raises is actually a strength rather than a weakness.
Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.
November 16, 2010
It’s not all too often that a film will bring a tear to my eye. Call me a cold-hearted cognitivist (I’ve been called worse) but it is rare that I find cinematic subject matter so emotionally affective as to move me to tears. But one thing that time and again proves for me a faultless trigger is the sincere endeavour of a documentary filmmaker to communicate a heinous crime against humanity, especially when that crime is one that we ourselves inflict upon other human beings and/or our planet.
Josh Fox’s new documentary film Gasland (2010) is one such film whereby the very seed of hope and a genuine effort to incite positive activism hold the power to shake an otherwise often too apathetic core. We all have an ethical responsibility to each other and to our environment. That seems to be a simple enough statement and one that we might all take as a given. But apparently “we” humans are more interested in industry and commerce than health and environment and the result is water that catches on fire and individuals who die slow, painful and unvoiced deaths. Thankfully, filmmaker Josh Fox still holds an optimistic view for our ability to find real, workable solutions, his opening voice-over announcing, “I’m not a pessimist. I’ve always had a great deal of faith in people.” And it is from this admirable perspective that Fox begins his investigative documentary project on the processes, lies and effects of the act of “fracking”.
Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is the process of pumping water and a veritable cocktail of chemicals (known as frack fluid) into the ground to cause a sort of mini explosion that cause the land to crack and fracture, releasing the earth’s natural gases which is, according to some people in positions of authority, a real “sustainable” energy source . But, as we all know, and as one of the aforementioned authoritative folk tells Fox in his film, “There is no such thing as a perfect source of energy.” A clever statement because 1) it’s indisputable and 2) it’s so definitive in and of itself that it almost denies the counter argument which is that just because there is no “perfect” source, doesn’t mean there aren’t some sources which would be preferable to others, or indeed other solutions that might involve humans cutting down on energy use rather than using with wild abandon and hoping the pursuit of something to replace it will just work out somehow.
With so many incredibly negative side effects, it’s difficult to decide what exactly about “fracking” is most troubling; that long-term exposure to the gases and contaminated water can lead to irreversible brain damage; that the people working on extracting the gases don’t know the truth about close-quarter effects; that the corporations involved refuse to divulge the full list of “chemicals” used in the process; that the process leaves behind “produced” water which further contaminates the earth; that the government are involved in ignoring their own clean air and clean water acts and are thus implicated in an almighty cover up; that even if it wasn’t dangerous the civilians who complained about their contaminated water were refused even an investigation; or that no one other than a filmmaker seems to care enough to try to stop it from happening. Is the only solution then to stop focusing on the problems already caused and start thinking about finding a solution that might stop it from continuing/happening elsewhere?
Fox’s film is highly contemplative and has fantastic and admirable intent but ultimately; against global corporations including Shell, Exonn, Mobil, BP, Halliburton (all of whom quite clearly and understandably declined to interview for the film) and governments; what chance does the common man have? There is certainly an element of hope that he/she has some and there are various websites set up for subsequent community action (including ones relating to fracking in Australia too)*. But the one thing that Fox fails to acknowledge in his film is that the whole orchestration of these events comes down to that one dirty word we just can’t escape: capitalism. In a system that controls and effects everything (truly everything) it will never be the case that we get the “best” or even the “less bad” of the supposedly available energy sources. Fox’s film finishes on imagery of wind turbines but with so many positions in authority voting against them for purely aesthetic objections (as is the case in the UK) it’s absolutely clear that the deciding motivators aren’t necessarily the same for farmers as they are councillors.
Moving, infuriating, incredulous: Gasland is a film of much merit. Unfortunately it will likely preach (as so many of these films do) to the already converted or, worse still, long time apathetic anti-activists who cogitate and leave it at that. Further to this, the quality of filmmaking, due largely to and absolutely forgivable for its one-man low-budget constrictions, is really rather poor. But these points notwithstanding I’d still hope everyone go out and see the film, because the cause and the fight are important.
With the extraction of an energy source contaminating arguably the most important resource on our planet (water) perhaps the most significant question Fox asks is at the very end of his film, “How much water could you replace?” If we’re lucky, those proverbial “powers that be” will find a way to convert the very tears of humanity into an energy source – because that’s probably the most “sustainable” source we’ve got.
Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.
November 10, 2010
As the western world continues the struggle to make sense of the “War On Iraq” and their own extended occupation of a country that never seems to come any closer to being “free”, their civilians get to see an endless spate of films which attempt to understand some of the complex issues surrounding the events. Focusing on how the All-American families whose young boys and girls have gone abroad to fight for their country receive and deal with their losses seems to be the newest angle from which we are asked to consider the “conflict”.
Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) is a young soldier who is but three months away from the end of his military service. Recovering from injury and post-traumatic stress syndrome (though he notably denies suffering this) he is forced to serve out his time as a messenger for their Casualty Notification Service (a very official way of saying that he tells people their loved ones are dead.) His job, and thus the film’s central message, is simple and clear: the military is about protocol not emotion, following orders not empathizing, and carrying out difficult and trying tasks for the supposed greater good, not for individual or personal reasons. And whilst both SS Will Montgomery and his superior Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) have served long enough to have learnt this lesson already, there is something about the experience of mediating between the military and the civilians they purportedly fight for that makes this lesson all the more piercing.
Upon assignment to the Casualty Notification Team, Montgomery is told two things; 1) it’s a “special assignment” and 2) “This mission is not simply important, it is sacred.” From here he is further taught by his slightly misguided but well-meaning recovering alcoholic mentor and partner Stone the subtle differences in both phraseology and terminology that must be used; “killed” or “died” are acceptable, but “deceased”, “body”, “expired”, “lost” and “passed away” for example, are not. Furthermore, and most significantly, they must always name the soldier. The ethics at play here would be best described as respectful as they intend to honour the soldier who has died, but never is the communication to extend beyond this most elementary of ethics and certainly it is forbidden to ever enter into moral obligation.
The soldiers who have died have done so because they were “doing their job”, just as, unpleasant though it may be, Montgomery and Stone are doing theirs, back on US soil. The parallel is indicative of the difficulties and adversities that soldiers encounter once they’ve enrolled; everything they do is the result of an order that has been carefully prescribed, the inference that they are in no way subject to “free will”. But Montgomery proves himself to be less than a model soldier; he doesn’t just “do his job”, he “feels”. Breaking all the rules, he becomes personally involved with a widowed woman and her son, physically hugs and makes personal apologies to family members who are distraught and angry with him for delivering the news, and even extends his humanity to his superior – Stone. Protegé to mentor, Montgomery teaches him the value of human life through the retelling of his own war experience, its simplistic lesson that there is still hope: “The sun came up and I didn’t feel like dying anymore.”
Set against an often stark mise-en-scene and carefully lit to show both Stone and Montgomery as heroes hurt in plight, The Messenger wants its audience to know that the “war effort” hasn’t been entirely in vain and that the individuals who are fighting, though numbers and workers on the one hand, are also just ordinary people on the other. The majority of the families they visit are from lower socio-economic backgrounds and belong to disparate races and religions. From this the audience may glean that many who enlist do so for personal reasons despite the fact that the military as an organisation remains disinterested in individuals’ motivations, and indeed we are told; “Sometimes the army has to be concerned with something bigger than the truth.”
But what exactly is bigger than the truth? I suppose that would be the promise they give which turns out to be a lie: signing up for service is not about each individual, it is not about freedom any more than it is about survival, it is about service and, one way or another, service is finite. It is no mistake that this film is released in Australia on Remembrance Day and that it hopes to remind people what individuals give in the name of a greater good.
Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.
October 7, 2010
Why do so many young men and women risk their lives to continue the “war effort” and “reconstruction effort” in Iraq? And just how much do the people who sent them there care whether they live or die? These seem to be the questions being asked by writer Chris Sparling and director Rodrigo Cortés in claustrophobic thriller, Buried (2010).
Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds) is a thirty-four-year-old all-American guy. Working “just a job” as a truck driver for an American company based in Iraq, Paul, like so many others, is only there “for money”; no political agenda in sight. But irregardless of the motivations of the individual, the government, and their companies and corporations, are there for political reasons and as such the soldiers and workers who go to Iraq are often implicated in life-threatening conflict.
The film opens with a black screen and the faint sound of wheezing; a man desperate for air. The tension is palpable as the breathing slowly intensifies until a Zippo lighter is finally lit. Surveying his surroundings in as close to “real-time” as a film that uses multiple camera angles and editing (necessarily creating temporal ellipses, albeit fractional) can, Conroy discovers he is trapped inside an old-style, simplistic wooden coffin, gagged and bound, presumably buried somewhere underground. Following a small anxiety attack Conroy passes out and the screen returns to black. Awoken by a vibrating cell phone, Conroy comes to realise that all hope is not lost and there might just be a way out after all… Calling his loved ones, his employer, US emergency services and the FBI, Conroy is as resourceful as he can be – even if his own hysteria does him a great disservice when he far from calmly tries to communicate to countless unwitting others the true gravity of his situation. Slowly recalling the events which preceded his current surroundings, Conroy deduces he has been kidnapped by insurgents or terrorists, who, unfortunately for him, want “money” in exchange for his life.
Portraying the US government and a whole host of corporations as a large faceless (they are only ever voices heard via Paul’s cell) matrix of bureaucratic red tape who share in common little to no concern for one individual’s mere humanity amidst the air-conditioned confines of their own “just jobs” – which they too presumably do solely for the constantly mentioned motivator of “money”. So ludicrous is their emphasis on logistics and protocol that they continue to ask the type of questions someone who is buried alive (time-sensitive) shouldn’t really be expected to answer; best of all when they respond – notably always free from emotion or empathy – with company lines such as “Sir, I understand your frustration”.
The key to the film comes when Paul first begins to accept the likely inevitably that he is going to die in this wooden box, somewhere in Iraq, alone. Talking to someone from a “Hostage Working Group” Paul confesses, “I just wanna do right by my family. I didn’t know it was going to be like this out here.” to which the response comes “None of us did.” Despite the inference of the slogan “War on Terror”, it seems the reality of the situation was absolutely unanticipated by so many naive young men and women who shipped out – soldiers and workers – only by the time they’ve understood it is of course too late. Conroy is left with nothing but the will to live which is stretched to its very limits by the constant demands of his kidnapper and the lack of support from the people to whom he turned for help.
On the other side of it, the kidnapper (presumably Iraqi insurgent) is also faceless and motivated by “money”. The only difference is that in place of Westernised bureaucracy, he (standing in for “they”), is deliberately cruel and even when Conroy takes instruction and acts against his own (and his government’s) will, he is still punished. The most interesting provocation Cortés highlights here is the Western world’s understanding of the word “terrorist”, as our faceless, nameless (it is worth mentioning that he is the only nameless character in the film) insurgent asks, “Because you are terrified, I am a terrorist?” It is even alluded to that anyone put in the situation of the Iraqi people; hungry – starving, poor and desperate, would probably do the same. Conroy denies this and claims he would never kill anOther even in such a situation but the ethical questioning, despite his answer, remains.
Incredibly well shot, carefully lit and superbly acted, Buried is communicably claustrophobic and palpably tense. The run-time is possibly a little longer than is needed to successfully explicate the film’s central moral project and there are occasional “dramatic events” that the film could even do without as they disrupt the otherwise well-sustained and bleak tone of it all. But these points notwithstanding the film is decent enough and will no doubt play on your mind for some time after the house lights come up and you hurry out for air.
Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.